Thursday, July 31, 2008

JOHN RUSSELL DESERVES BETTER

Baseball continues to evolve into a mockery of what it once was with all these last-minute deals that sap the strength from small-market teams and add beef to the big boys.

Selfish Red Sox and Yankees fans can gloat and disagree all they want but there surely isn’t one of them willing to look at life through the eyes of Pittsburgh Pirates manager John Russell.

Russell, as some may know, was manager of the Rock Cats from 1998-2000. When you interview someone night-in and night-out for three seasons, you can’t help but grow close to them. I came to respect Russell as a human being aside from his stellar playing career as a fine catcher and subsequent climb up the ladder toward a big league managerial career.

Russ paid his dues in minor league outposts like Elizabethton, Tenn., Fort Myers, Fla., New Britain, Edmonton, Scranton-Wilkes Barre, Pa., and Ottawa. He served as a third-base coach in Pittsburgh before the Bucs gave him the keys prior to this season.

I saw Russ in Fort Myers this spring as the Pirates prepared to play a Grapefruit League game against the Twins. We talked about the once-proud Pirates of Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell fame reduced to small-market pawns to MLB’s top-heavy titans. The Bucs are working on their 16th consecutive losing season.

Russ was so upbeat. My heart soared with the possibility that the soft-spoken, no-nonsense backstop who caught Nolan Ryan’s sixth no-hitter on June 11, 1990, would indeed lead the Pirates off turbulent seas into the calm waters of National League Central contention.

“We can’t worry about what’s happened in the past,” he said. “We came in with the idea from ownership on down on changing the culture and getting back to that tradition that’s associated with Pittsburgh.”

He was optimistic.

“Lower market teams that don’t have big payrolls have been competitive,” he said. “We feel like we’ve got good players. We’re concentrating on scouting and development and building a strong organization.”

He may have well been on his way until the Yankees had needs and the Pirates looked into their wallets instead of the hearts of their fans. Good-bye, Xavier Nady. Good-bye Damaso Marte. Hello, three pitchers who have a chance to be mediocre and a temperamental teenager who may grow up and be okay.

Now it’s good-bye to Jason Bay, whom many Boston fans didn’t know existed until late Thursday afternoon but was the name on the backs of so many folks’ jerseys in humble, blue-collar Steel City.

The Red Sox get Bay. The Dodgers get Manny. Pittsburgh comes away with two teams’ litter in exchange for its favorite son.

So what of Russell? The rookie manager gets judged on his record, which obviously isn’t going to be as good as it would have been. Maybe the Pirates will judge him accordingly. Maybe they won’t and they’ll move on to the next sitting duck.

The Pirates, like the A’s and others that get used solely for parts like scrap cars at the junkyard, claim they’re looking toward the future. But when the future becomes the present, they’ll still be looking ahead.

When will the fans get smart and stay away?

Monday, July 28, 2008

REDS: STRANGERS IN THEIR OWN TOWN

Two television cameras rolled throughout the afternoon on the sidelines of Veterans Memorial Stadium.

The gathering of fans was representative, although any crowd looks small given the backdrop of the Vet’s 10,000 seats.

This was the Eastern Conference championship match for a right of passage to the 2008 Women’s Premier Soccer League National Championship Aug. 2 and 3 in Sacramento, Calif.
A major event for New Britain? Okay, so the WPSL doesn’t exactly stir the cockles of local sports-loving hearts. We in Central Connecticut, although we stand firmly behind our daughters playing soccer and revel in the thought of their getting some interest from colleges someday, cannot get excited about the crème de la crème of American women’s soccer playing a meaningful game.

Perhaps you didn’t know about it. The major Connecticut media paid it no heed so you wouldn’t have heard about it on the radio or TV.

Although some of these women – numerous from the fertile soccer programs in state hotbeds like Farmington, Glastonbury and Guilford – will go on to play in Women’s Professional Soccer next spring, few get a kick from that.

The television cameras and the most vocal of the fans were not from Hartford. Unfortunately for the local team – the SoccerPlus Connecticut Reds – most of the interested parties who convened at the Vet were there in support of the visitors, the New England Mutiny.

It was like a Mutiny home game. Maybe that’s why the underdogs came out like a house on fire and eventually upset the Reds, 1-0. Both head coaches without hearing what the other said in the game’s rain-soaked aftermath talked about heart. It was clear that the Mutiny had it and the Reds did not.

The Reds must have felt like strangers in their own land, like the Baltimore Orioles do when the Red Sox and Yanks come to Camden Yards; like the Rock Cats do when the Portland Sea Dogs (Sox) are visiting.

The Mutiny are based in the Springfield area. Their home games are played at a high school field in Agawam. The Springfield region is incredibly avid when it comes to soccer. Families can be seen in towns like Agawam and Ludlow walking down the streets toward their stadium with blankets and pompoms and little kids in tow.

In the Hartford area just a few miles south, you rarely see anything – even the high school football games that used to captivate entire communities – bringing townsfolk together. I’ve been told by more than one person familiar with the Mutiny and the Ludlow-based Western Mass. Pioneers that the population has a Portuguese flavor and that they savor their soccer in any package.

When Sunday’s match ended, the Mutiny’s passionate celebration was recorded by the Springfield TV cameras. The star of the game – Erin Clark of Somers – was interviewed. The players took the Eastern Conference championship cup, playfully placed one of the puppies that was leashed to their bench inside and lifted it jubilantly over their heads.

Passion. Passion for the game, passion for each other and passion for the team’s loyal band of followers.

Meanwhile, the heartbroken Reds moved rapidly toward the sanctuary and melancholy of their locker room.

Now I don’t mean to indict either the fans of central Connecticut or the regional media for not warming up to soccer. It’s just very evident that the “attitude” that Reds coach Lisa Cole referred to in reference to the Mutiny, and the team spirit that both Mutiny coach Tony Horta and owner Joe Ferrara convey, is well-received by fans and players alike.

Perhaps that is why the Mutiny are packing for Sacramento and the Reds, undefeated in 13 games before their loss on Sunday, are staying home.

HAL LEVY: SCHOLASTIC SPORTS LOSE A LEGEND

Some of you knew him well, others knew him in passing and some may just know his name, but every sports-loving soul in Connecticut became a bit less fortunate Thursday with the death of longtime Shore Line Times executive sports editor Hal Levy.

Levy’s work was epic, a model on which weekly sports sections should be based, and thousands of young athletes along Connecticut’s shoreline east of New Haven and bordering the I-91 corridor northbound to his native Middletown will have a vestige of his magnificent prose and unflagging dedication in their scrapbooks or folded up neatly in their wallets.

For those who didn't know, Levy was diagnosed with liver cancer in March. The disease progressed rapidly. Thankfully, he had a chance to say good-bye to many of his friends at a very special party in Cromwell June 26. Through the efforts of Larry McHugh and a committee organized by his Middlesex Chamber of Commerce, Levy was afforded the chance that not many of us get – a living wake.

As a member of that committee, I spread the word among Connecticut media about the party that helped Levy savor some of life’s final days and offset the expenses in as courageous a battle against cancer that I’ve ever witnessed.

This vignette will give you a glimpse into Hal’s personality. I banged out a brief press release about the party and sent it to every sports media person I know. I referred to Hal as being the executive sports editor of the Shoreline Times. What I neglected to do was to leave Hal’s email off the list.

Not more than 2 minutes after I hit the send button, I received the following terse reply: “It’s Shore Line Times.”

Levy’s dedication was especially essential to the Conn. Sports Writers’ Alliance, a sports journalists’ league that dates back to 1939 and will suffer greatly from his departure.

He understood the value of preserving our state’s sports history and honoring those who have contributed to its grandeur. He relished nominating people he deemed worthy of receiving the John Wentworth Good Sport Award. At the Gold Key Dinner, he’d bask in the radiance of his honorees’ bliss as they took their place behind the lectern for a few words.

He told me how badly he wanted to emcee the annual event and the CSWA granted him that wish. By the end of April, the cancer was taking its toll but he battled through the event in typical Levy fashion and had the assembly in the palm of his hand from start to finish.
He fought hard for what he felt was right, no matter how unpopular it may have been with his CSWA colleagues. He never groused when the cards turned up against him.

I met Hal Levy in 1980 when my journalism advisor at Southern Connecticut State University strongly suggested that I accept an internship with his Guilford-based publication. He had a firm plan how to educate aspiring sports writers from entering bowling scores in these new-fangled technological wonders he called tubes to interviewing nationally esteemed former Yale football coach Carmen Cozza.

He tore me down for being too heavy-handed in editing what I viewed as biased ramblings of an in-house sycophant, and then built me up by handing me the assignment of covering a dissertation by the son of turn-of-the-century Baseball Hall-of-Famer “Big Ed” Walsh at the Wallingford Public Library during the 1980 World Series.

In regard to my hatchet job on his reporter’s copy, Hal explained to me that his paper would feature what the hometown folks wanted to read. He was stern enough to rankle your innards, yet astute enough to keep you from flipping up your middle finger, bellowing a few expletives and slamming the door in his face.

Now, within walking distance of that very Wallingford library, my mentor and treasured colleague will be sent to his eternal rest at the B.C. Bailey Funeral Home on 273 South Elm Street, Wednesday between 4 and 8 p.m.

At that time, I will bid Hal farewell on his everlasting journey in my own way, but a sizable chunk of his spirit and knowledge will live on in my heart. The residue of his wisdom will also live on in such outstanding writers as Mike DiMauro of The New London Day, Dom Amore of The Hartford Courant, Les Carpenter of The Washington Post, Paul Nichols of The Middletown Press and Ed Price of The Newark Star-Ledger.

A smaller trace will live on in the next generation of sports writers in whose hearts Hal’s devoted students stoked a passion for our craft.

Hal Levy ignited my ire like no other person I’ve ever met. Yet I could never stay angry with him because of the great respect and appreciation that he elicited. Such extreme polarization made him so exquisitely unique that I often sought out his advice above all others in any journalistic matters.

Scholastic athletes racing up and down the fields, tracks, pools and gymnasiums of Southern Connecticut have lost their greatest advocate. May the spirit that moved him reverse the course of every sports writer who has ever gone to a community sports event and mailed it in.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

WHERE'S ROBIN HOOD WHEN YOU NEED HIM

Boy am I glad I had a chance to follow Major League Baseball when it was truly great.

I remember the day when every team had an equal chance, when impressionable boys trying to comprehend the nuances of the game didn't have to have it explained to them why the best player on their favorite team have been traded away for minor leaguers in the midst of a pennant race with half the season still remaining.

Half the season!

CC Sabathia could have possibly led the Cleveland Indians back up the ladder but he's now a Milwaukee Brewer. Anybody familiar with the New York Giants' remarkable second-half surge to catch the seemingly uncatchable Brooklyn Dodgers in 1951 could attest that the possibility of an Indian uprising was (and maybe still is) within the realm of possibility.

The Oakland A's are only four games out in the American League West yet they succumbed to the allure of the Chicago Cubs for one of the game's top pitchers, Rich Harden. Darned good thing Billy Beane isn't in community relations where he'd have to explain to loyal Oakland ticket-buyers how he could throw away their season when truly in a tight pennant race.

So the fans of Cleveland and Oakland who plunked down their hard-earned bucks (unlike the cosmopolitan corporations that pay the freight in the major markets) have been led into a crumbling mine shaft.

More deals are pending. The cash-strapped will sell out to the fat cats with no regard for the fans. Too bad for the hard-working Oakland dad who bought the tickets and Harden shirts for his kids. Screw you, buddy, but we'll be back next winter to convince you to fork over another $250 to support a team that's going to sell out in July.

The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Perhaps Robin Hood should have carried a baseball bat instead of an archer's bow.