Sunday, April 27, 2008

GOLD KEY DINNER WARMS THE HEART

The Gold Key Dinner always strikes a melodic chord and reinforces why I spend so much time helping administer the state's premier sports banquet.

Folks like high school basketball aficionados Frank and Sheila Beneski of Suffield, youth basketball volunteer Robert Burns of Hamden, lifetime Waterford sportsman Francis X. Sweeney and Hartford summer basketball league founder Peter Higgins give back to their communities through the goodness that permeates their hearts.

They relish their opportunity to speak their minds before family, friends and more than 300 state sports lovers at the magnificent Aqua Turf Club in Southington. Their contributions weave the fabric that enhance the lives of young athletes. They ask nothing in return, and we at the Connecticut Sports Writers' Alliance cherish the chance to honor them.

Putnam High hoop coach Tony Falzarano, GHO godfather Ted May and retired Brien McMahon (Norwalk) coach and administrator Ralph King were eloquent as they received the state's highest sports honor, a Gold Key.

Former Hartford Courant scribe Woody Anderson drew laughs as he waxed poetic about a career that led to his earning the Art McGinley Sports Writer of the Year Award. The crowd was fixed on every word uttered by Central Connecticut State University men's soccer coach Shaun Green as he related what it was like to survive a deadly heart attack. Green received the Bob Casey Courage Award.

Superb professional boxer Chad Dawson of New Haven and record-breaking Southern Connecticut State University swimmer Kristen Frost accepted athlete of the year recognition.

All proceeds from the event help the CSWA perpetuate the sports writers' craft by subsidizing college-bound high school students who will hopefully become the next generation of chroniclers.

As the organization's treasurer, I'm pleased to report that the Gold Key Dinner and the Bohdan M. Kolinsky Memorial Golf Tournament continue to be ultrasuccessful fund raisers. The honorees, the CSWA membership and all the good folks who attended help make our state a much better place to live.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

CATS ROTATION STRUGGLES AT BACK END

Mediocre is the best adjective to describe the New Britain Rock Cats' pitching situation to date.

It's too early to pass out report cards since the season is in its infancy, but when I was in school and we were in academic trouble, the teachers would give us interim notices that would have to be taken home to our parents, signed and returned.

So with 15 percent of the season in the books, here are some interim notices.

While the top of the rotation -- Anthony Swarzak, Ryan Mullins and Yohan Pino -- has been sensational, the back end is in dire straits. Interim notices go out to right-handers Jay Rainville and Oswaldo Sosa.

Rainville, at 1-2 with a 9.53 ERA, obviously has not shown that he can get Double-A hitters out. The Eastern League is battering him at a .392 clip with 29 hits in 17 innings.

Rainville, a Rhode Island native, missed the entire 2006 season due to a nerve problem in his pitching shoulder. He has not regained the velocity he had when he was posting big numbers in low Class A. Rainville, a supplemental first-round choice by the Twins in 2004, is still only 22-years-old, so a return to high-A Fort Myers may be in order.

Sosa, the only Rock Cat on Minnesota's 40-man big league roster, has been unable to command his fastball. He's falling behind in counts and paying the price with an 0-2 record and 7.04 ERA.

Even more eye-popping is 13 walks in 15 1/3 innings. When you issue that many free passes and the league is hitting .333 against you, questions are sure to follow. Sosa was outstanding at Fort Myers last year and his late-season work in New Britain showed some promise, but he'll have to start showing some command to avoid a return trip to the Florida State League.

Sosa, 22, is a product of the Twins' Venezuela Baseball Academy.

As always, there are candidates at Fort Myers putting up the kind of numbers that warrant consideration for promotion.

Right-hander Jeff Manship, 23, has been remarkably consistent in his two-plus pro seasons. He dominated low-A last year (7-1, 1.51 ERA, 9 walks, 77 strikeouts, 77 1/3 innings) and
competed well at Fort Myers (8-5, 3.15 ERA in 13 games).

The Notre Dame product could have well been among Rock Cats starters on the opening day roster but was sent back to Fort Myers where he is 3-0 wth a 3.38 in his five starts.

It's only a matter of time before Manship and right-hander Deolis Guerra get their Double-A indoctrinations. Guerra, perhaps the plum in the Johan Santana trade with the Mets, is 2-0 with a 1.29 ERA with the Miracle.

Guerra, however, won't turn 20 until next April and rushing him along may not be the best choice.

Both the Rock Cats and Miracle have gotten outstanding bullpen work. In New Britain, Ben Julianel (4 saves, 2.84) has been an effective closer. Lefty Jay Sawatski had some tough outings but appears to be settling down (2 hits, 7 strikeouts in last 5 innings).

Righty Zach Ward, primarily a starter last year, was lights-out until suffering a slight lapse of control Saturday. Righty Armando Gabino (8 games, 1.50 ERA) has also been exceptional as has lefty Kyle Aselton (6 games, 1.64 ERA, .179 BA against him).

And right now manager Bobby Cuellar has the added advantage of having former big-league closer Danny Graves around. That's not likely to be the case for very long.

Some of the numbers coming out of the Fort Myers bullpen are equally gaudy.

Former St. John's star Rob Delaney, 23, has an 0.77 ERA, five saves, two walks and 13 strikeouts in 11 2/3 innings.

Anthony Slama, 24, is also a college guy from the University of San Diego. In seven games (11 1/3 innings), he has yielded just four hits, saved three games and has a 0.00 ERA.

Danny Vais, 23, is 4-0 with a 1.26 ERA in eight appearances with FSL hitters batting .104 against him.

At this writing, the Rock Cats are 10-11, so it's too early to pull the plug on Rainville or Sosa, but with some quality arms knocking on the door to Double-A, they'll have to put some positive innings together soon or they'll be headed back to Class A come June.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

REMINISCING: NB SPORTS HALL OF FAME

As my father turned the corner into his golden years, I noticed more and more how much he enjoyed recounting the exploits of his life.

How he loved cruising through New Haven's city streets and reliving his memories, or taking out a map of France and Germany to trace his route during World War II. With every year he aged, the more he liked to reminisce.

Now that I'm within a Texas League single of 60, I feel the same forces descending on me. The bottom line is, that's what you do when you get older, and there's not a damned thing wrong with it.

That point came home to roost Thursday night when I was an invited guest at the annual New Britain Sports Hall of Fame Dinner. Now that I've been chronicling New Britain sporting events for 14 years, more and more faces are becoming familiar to me. I've become more familiar with the grand history of New Britain High football and Central Connecticut State University men's basketball.

I can't imagine that there is another community in Connecticut more steeped in sports grandeur than the Hardware City.

The NB Sports Hall of Fame Committee makes all the right choices. The first choice that allowed me to settle comfortably into my seat for a relaxing, informative evening was that Bart Fisher served as toastmaster.

Fisher was the sports editor at The Herald for nearly 30 years and still writes captivating columns on sports and general history like nobody else could. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2001. Everybody knows and respects Bart Fisher. Nobody else could possibly run such an affair.

The 2008 inductees were the center of attention as they should be, but the side show was listening to the patriarchs of New Britain's sports heritage spin their tales, just like Dad used to do about life in New Haven. I wish I could have cloned myself about seven times and dropped in on more of the conversations.

Former New Britain High athletic director Bill Huber defies the passage of time with his youthful exuberance and looks to match. Peter Roby, now the athletic director at Northeastern University, acknowledged Fisher's salute.

There was the legendary Steve Dalkowski, whose fastball shattered everything in its path and sent young hitters looking for other springtime pursuits. Esteemed CCSU hoop coach Howie Dickenman always has a commanding presence when he enters a room. Revered UConn patriarch John Toner. The list goes on and on.

And how about some of the names already enshrined?

Tom Thibodeau couldn't make it. As assistant coach of a Celtics team destined for a deep run in the NBA playoffs, he was just a little busy. The NFL is well-represented by Tommy Myers, Willie Hall and Tebucky Jones. Thomas J. Lynch is in the baseball Hall of Fame after serving as an umpire and president of the National League a century ago.

Local legends still making headlines abound, like NBHS boys hoop coach Stan Glowiak; Berlin girls mentor Sheila King; former St. Thomas Aquinas luminary Bill Cardarelli; Dennis Beatty, the Godfather of PAL and the nationally reknowned Raiders; Joe Lombardo, who put Goodwin Tech on the sports map.

And it humbles me to see the sports writers on the docket. In addition to Fisher, I saw the names of Gerry Crean and John Wentworth, gentlemen of the fourth estate whom I unfortunately never got to meet except through microfilm.

The scene was magnificent. How rewarding in our world haunted by bad news and suffering that so many people can get together and smile. Dad, now I know how you felt.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

ROCK CATS: A TREASURED RESOURCE

The coming of spring brings me from the high school beat to the realm of the Rock Cats.The New Britain Rock Cats and the Eastern League are very special to me.

I began working in the EL as an administrator when I joined the West Haven A's in 1981. I went on to become assistant general manager, then general manager of the franchise in Glens Falls, N.Y., from 1984-88.I was brokenhearted when the Glens Falls franchise was transferred to London, Ontario, after the 1988 season. My efforts to return to the administrative side of professional baseball were marred by setbacks in my personal life.

By 1992, I was writing for The Bristol Press and covering the New Britain Red Sox at Beehive periodically. I moved to The Herald in 1995, began covering the Rock Cats in 1996 and have covered virtually every home game from 1997 on. I truly relish my long-time association with the EL and Double-A baseball as I do my coverage of high school sports every fall and winter.

The progress the Rock Cats have made under the guidance of Bill Dowling has been nothing short of remarkable. Bill's astute leadership, steady hand and charitable contributions have ensconced him as one of New Britain's leading businessmen and one of the state's primary sportsmen.Dowling has worked hand-in-hand with NB Mayor Tim Stewart to maintain New Britain Stadium, or The Emerald of the Eastern League as some of us like to call it, and keep it among the foremost minor league stadiums in the league and beyond.

One of my deepest hopes is that the city will soon find a way to increase The Emerald's capacity. The Rock Cats filled the existing 6,146 seats to 87 percent capacity last year and would surely challenge the top drawing clubs in the league if more seats were added.The addition of more seats would increase the demand for more parking. As I see it, the best way to accomplish this is to build a parking garage on the site, perhaps one that sits between New Britain Stadium and Veterans Stadium.

Bringing in more fans would bolster New Britain's economy. The addition of Famous Dave's Restaurant and the adjoining LaQuinta Hotel are major steps forward in getting visitors to Willow Brook Park to turn left and head into the city after ballgames. More must be done, and I'm confident that Stewart and the NB Chamber of Commerce headed by Bill Millerick will help move that along.The Rock Cats and the EL are important to me and important to our city.

I hope you come out and enjoy the games and hope you enjoy our extended coverage as the 2008 season takes shape.