Friday, October 31, 2008

HOW GRANDPA WOULD HAVE SEEN IT

There he was, sitting there, my blue couch discernible through his apparition. It was my grandpa, Julius Lipshez, my father's father.

Julie, as his nephews and cousins called him, came to the U.S. in about 1900 at 13 from the Ukraine. He died in the early 1970s while arguing vehemently with SNET about a telephone bill. Yes, there are many who knew us both that say I'm a chip off the old block.

Grandpa, who attended the 1926 World Series game when a hung over Grover Cleveland Alexander closed the Series for the Cardinals against his beloved Yanks, came back to ask me some questions about sports. Perhaps the internet has finally made its way to heaven. Lord knows it's been to hell and back countless times.

Which provides an interesting segue for the reason of his visit. Julie didn't say anything. He just handed me a sheet of paper with the following comments and questions, folded his arms and waited for answers.

1) It costs how much to see a baseball game these days? Why I could never have taken your Dad to the Polo Grounds when he was a boy with me working as a laborer in the textile industry. And if I hadn't taken him, would you have ever developed your love for sports? Would you be writing sports right now? It's a good thing your Grandma was understanding as it was.

2) The Red Sox won 2 World Series in 3 years? What the heck is that all about? Who's cheating down there? Well at least they never won again in my lifetime. Heck, your dad was a year old when they had last won in 1918. Boy, I'd like to thank them for Babe Ruth though. He was fun to watch when I'd take the train to NYC.

3) I was looking at the NHL standings. Now you know our family was never much into mathematics but can you please tell me how the teams collectively have more wins than losses? Every time somebody wins, somebody has to lose, right? Grandson, when did that change? Has this politically correct bourgeois I keep hearing about really taken root in sports?

4) What on earth is going on in colleges these days? I was a heck of an athlete in my day. I told you the stories how I wrestled, and I don't mean that Gorgeous George crap on the television. Legitimate wrestling. Now they're dishing out scholarships to guys who can't even read just because they can play basketball or football and attract big crowds? If I had that opportunity, you wouldn't be struggling to make ends meet right now. I'll tell you that. That great-grandson of mine living under your roof would be getting a college education instead of having to struggle like his great-grandpa.

I remember when some Yale kids boldly challenged some Harvard kids in a few sports like football and baseball. It was all in great fun. I remember going over there to see it from time to time. Yale was a great sports college. Would still be, I reckon, if corruption and greed hadn't consumed the sports world. Where's Grantland Rice when you need him, son. four Horsemen of Notre Dame. Aah, those were the days. I could still smell the wet grass on a fall afternoon at Yale Bowl ... and what's this about you not even playing on grass anymore? What's that plastic stuff all about?

5) When are you fellas going to come up with a better way to report sports than that ESPN? Who do they think they are with their irreverent junk? If they want to be comedians, have them see Milton Berle. How about giving us the scores and who hit the home runs without their idiotic commentary.

6) One last thing, grandson, and it's not about sports, it's about newspapers. I've been looking at all the papers down there and see that this African-American Obama is running for president. That's fine, but I can't seem to find any articles on who he's running against.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

A SATURDAY FOR THE SPIRIT

The day brimmed with a spirit that suggested a zest for life. The French call it "joie de vivre" and that sums it up succinctly.

Vin Lavorgna, my buddy since the blissful days of childhood in Hamden, followed his heart. His love of the outdoors directed him toward forestry, which led him to West Virginia University, where he earned his degree and met his wife Janet. He runs Brooksvale Park on the Hamden-Cheshire line, a pastoral snapshot of diverse natural beauty.

On Saturday, the Lavorgnas and an able crew of part-timers and volunteers staged Brooksvale's annual Fall Festival. Children enjoyed nature-related activities and presentations. Adults enjoyed live, family-style music, food and a healthy dose of camraderie.

The foods, friends and music of my youth put my wife Lisa and I in the right spirit for what was to follow. The Brooksvale crew cleaned up the remnants of a long, enjoyable day of reveries and convened at the barn where the post-festival party began.

Janet has such joie de vivre that she could probably breathe life into a corpse. She sings in a band called Blue Trail, which plays a conglomerate of music inspired by folk, bluegrass and some classic rock that can be traced to the Grateful Dead.

Dale Long (no relation to the late ex-Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman who once hit 8 homers in 8 games) writes songs, strums his electric folk guitar and sings. Carl Legere plays lead guitar and sings. Janet sings and plays some guitar and fiddle. Dale's wife Cindy sings some lead and does wonderful harmonies.

Blue Trail (www.bluetrail.com) played a set during the day at the festival but that joie de vivre (enhanced by a few adult cocktails) enabled them to overcome any fatigue and they began strumming away in the barn. Their kids played blissfully. Their happy-go-lucky dog Jazz strolled in and out collecting pets and whatever morsels people may have dropped.

Dave DiMartino of North Haven, one of Vin's part-timers who doubles as a high school football and basketball official, brought his unique brand of joie de vivre. He cleaned up, he joined in the singing (a lyrical linesman?) and never stopped smiling.

Outside the barn, a campfire raged, warming the hearts and souls of folks who told some jokes and did some singing of their own.

Why do I bring it up? Everybody has parties, but it had such special meaning for me. I ran into so many people from my hometown who I hadn't seen in half a lifetime, something not everybody is fortunate enough to do.

The day started well, too. I was invited to the New Britain Sports Hall of Fame breakfast at Angelico's Restaurant to engage in a different kind of joie de vivre.

Dennis Beatty, the New Britain policeman and backbone of the renowned PAL Raiders Youth Football program, joined us. How many kids do you figure he's whisked off the streets and sent in the right direction through football? Enough to fill the grandstands at New Britain Stadium perhaps?

Bill Huber, the force behind the organization (www.NewBritainSportsHallofFame.com) since the passing of the legendary Don Clerkin, has captured the secret of staying young. Beatty and Huber are indeed inspirations in their respective endeavors.

My only regret was that I missed John Campanello's Wethersfield football team beating Windsor, which would have fanned the flames of my spirit in yet another way, but this was an autumn Saturday to remember. It reinforced something I already knew very well -- I have some great friends.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

I'M WITH YOU, COACH CAP

The dark side of the internet has cast its nefarious shadow on The Herald, its readers and one of the finest high school football coaches I've known in my 17 years of sports reporting.

For those who aren't familiar with the issue, it begins with the tragic and rare downfall of one of our local athletes.

Ryan Molloy was a terrific football player for Berlin High and head coach John Capodice. He was arrested for possession of cocaine and drunken driving early Sunday morning.

The Herald offers readers an opportunity to respond to articles online and a coward delivered some idiotic remarks posing as Coach Capodice. Naturally, subsequent readers assumed that it was indeed the coach who filed the crude email and let some more terrible remarks fly about the coach's character.

Capodice and his undefeated Redcoats were in the midst of their final practice before Friday's huge Nutmeg League game against Rocky Hill when all this came down. When he returned home and caught wind of it, he sent me a series of emails that indicated just how upset he is. He sent an email to The Herald's website to describe his feelings for Molloy and what he's about to endure.

This opens up several issues. Generally, this whole internet thing scares me more and more every day. The cyberworld, as wonderful as it is for research and communication, is cheapened by a lawless frontier that allows the scum of the world to fester in their anonymous glory. That is a deep and disturbing issue that I can only hope someday will be resolved. A few rotten apples spoil what should be a tremendous asset for us all.

Then there's the coach, who spends so much of his time way beyond what he's compensated to help boys become men. In nearly every case, he succeeds, which gives him a hell of a winning percentage. Even those who may have a problem with his coaching or teaching style or something he's done or the importance placed in sports by our society, it can't be denied that he's a pillar of the community. How unfortunate that he should have to undergo this scrutiny and abuse.

Finally, there's Ryan Molloy.

Good kids do bad things for any number of reasons. I have known Ryan in passing and written about him extensively. What he's done tends to make him out to be a villain but I hope we can give him the benefit of the doubt until we determine what turned him to alcohol and drugs.

I'm no psychologist and surely not a social worker, but I care about the kids I've covered and I'm not turning my back on Ryan. I truly wish there was something I could do to help him. I have faith that he can learn a lesson from this mess and become a productive human being as he grows into adulthood.

I just can't figure out contemporary society. We have a list of all these riduculous politically incorrect things that used to be okay but can't be whispered anymore without somebody getting bent out of control, yet we haven't come close to having the common sense to keep from hurting each other for no good reason.

I hope we have the resources to find the lowlife who misrepresented Coach Capodice and punish that person to the full extent of what the law allows. If the person was too slick or simply can't be found or can't be prosecuted, I hope the person's conscience inflicts a lifetime's worth of guilt.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

EVENT SETS PLAINVILLE APART

Byron J. Treado III had a vision.

The “Forever Plainville” sportsman/banker anticipated a yearly evening of fellowship, revelry, nostalgia and fine dining where the people of his sports-loving community could honor those who left a legacy on the fields, in the gymnasiums and the pool at the high school.

Treado’s brainchild – the Plainville Sports Hall of Fame Induction Dinner – celebrated its 10th anniversary in grand style Saturday night with a packed house at Nuchie’s Restaurant in Forestville a stirring testament to its popularity.

The Class of 2008 befits the milestone.

James Tufts (’59) played on the state championship basketball team in 1958-59 and continued to nourish the community as a teacher and coach. Kevin Beaudin (’81) was an All-State baseball player under coach Ron Jones and went on to play for Jones at Eastern Connecticut State University.

Peter Van Zandt (’85) and his sister Amy Van Zandt (’89) set multiple swimming records that remain posted on the wall at the pool. Gregory Henry (’76) starred for the Blue Devils in football, basketball and track before heading to Dartmouth.

Lou Mandeville Jr. (’85) spent 18 years as baseball coach Bob Freimuth’s assistant and 10 seasons assisting his wife Lisa, who retired as girls basketball coach after last season. Matt Buckler (’70) received the John E. Toffolon Memorial Distinguished Service Award for his commitment to PHS sports through a prominent career in local media.

Many towns and cities have Halls of Fame. New Britain’s has to rank as one of the best anywhere. Wethersfield and Rocky Hill started theirs in recent years. To the best of my knowledge, the other local towns have yet to turn the key to their own rich heritage because they need somebody to take them by the hand.

Inevitably, some will take the efforts put forth by community-minded folks like Treado for granted. The domains of local sports and history will wed only in certain hearts and Plainville has benefited greatly from Treado’s devotion and meticulous administration.

Peter Van Zandt captured the essence of Treado’s passion in one sentence when he said about the honor bestowed upon him, “The more I read about it, the more I understood what it all meant.”

Peter discovered the importance of strengthening the bonds that link the generations of a community; that they can revive the spirit and enhance the lives of the folks who have lived there. Such factors have great motivation for Treado as he goes through the painstaking preparation for the event year in and year out.

For example, when the honorees arrived Saturday, Treado took their photos, had them processed promptly and returned to the hall, slipped them into custom-made plaques for presentation after dinner. Since the actual plaques go on display in a wing near Ivan Wood Gymnasium, these photo-plaques allow the honorees to go home with a palpable memory of the evening.

Then there’s the dinner itself. Treado could barely savor his baked stuffed shrimp because of the brush fires that kept popping up. Ten people who hadn’t made plans to attend walked through the door during cocktail hour and Treado somehow had to expand the capacity of a room that was already pretty full.

Of course he got it done.

But Treado would be uneasy for any attention placed on him. One last item on Plainville’s Great Organizer is that next year will be his last as chairman of the committee. He seems relatively sure that others will pick up the ball and run with it.

First on the docket for enshrinement was Mandeville. He requested the first slot so his yawning boy Tyler could watch Dad receive the honor before heading off to slumber.

Lisa, enshrined herself in 2006, presented Lou with the award after Jones read a robust four-page greeting from Freimuth, also a 2006 inductee who was out of town for the event.
Said Lisa, her voice cracking with the same emotion that we will always remember as she slapped those patent leathers on the gym floor to get her players’ attention: “Whether it was I or Freem receiving the accolades, Lou never said a word. Lou is my Hall of Famer.”

Buckler, a longtime sports writer at the Manchester Journal Inquirer and the public address voice at several state auto racing venues, brought the house down with self-deprecating humor that had the assemblage roaring with laughter.

“Who was the best athlete in the history of this school? Was it John Gacek or Steve Vargo? Was it Earle Jackson or Bill Lasher? Was it Tim Graney or Niko Koutouvides? The arguments go on and on,” Buckler began.

“But there is no argument who the worst athlete in the history of the school is. Right here.”
He went on to poke fun at himself as the tackling dummy holder in football, foul ball chaser in baseball and charged with making sure his brother got to practice on time in basketball.

“The records I hold,” he continued. “Least amount of chin-ups done in four years. Zero. It’s a record that will never be broken. … In gym class we had to run the mile. I hold the record with a 4:17 – four days and 17 hours. I was gone so long they thought I dropped out of high school.”

Buckler then received citations from the State Legislature and Governor M. Jody Rell, courtesy of Plainville State Representative Betty Boukus. Buckler, primarily an entertainment page editor at the J-I but still active covering local sports, was genuinely touched.

But it all goes back to Treado. From nostalgic tears shed to wonderful memories relived and the guffaws during Buckler’s performance, none would have filled the room at Nuchie’s and so many hearts had it not been for his effort.

Every town should have such a person who gives of himself so its sports legacy can flourish for future generations to cherish. It helps make Plainville anything but plain.

Friday, October 3, 2008

CCC STILL DELIBERATING ON CHANGES

The CCC deliberated on Thursday but did not make any official decisions on whether or not to add Rocky Hill and Tolland or how to cut up the soon-to-be 32-school league into divisions.

The decisions are likely to be made at the next meeting in mid-October.

One of the divisions reportedly placed on the table would include the following: Farmington; New Britain; Southington; Newington; Conard; Hall; Northwest Catholic; Simsbury. Another would probably link the two Bristol schools, the two Meriden schools, Plainville, Berlin, Rocky Hill and perhaps Weaver.

One rumor suggests that Windsor and Bloomfield would just as soon be grouped together and with schools east of the Connecticut River. That sounds logical seeing that those schools would use I-291 to cross the river rather than having to muddle through Hartford trafic on I-84.

Another thought was that Middletown could also be grouped with schools to the east since it readily can use the Arregony Bridge to Portland.

The committee will almost surely create one set of divisions for football and another for the other sports in which all 32 schools participate. Sports in which participation isn't total, like field hockey, ice hockey, swimming and gymnastics, will adjust accordingly.

Another rumor floating around is that Avon expressed some late interest but including a 33rd team does not appear to be an option. With the situation in Hartford so tenuous and changeable, perhaps Avon would be put on a waiting list until something happens.

Judging by the way the Sheff v. O'Neill lawsuit has ravaged sports in the city, anything can happen. Sports and Medical Sciences Academy will open a brand new building just south of Dillon Stadium as early as next year. Who knows what change that will bring.

The feeling here is that the committee is on the right track. There is no possible way of pleasing everybody. Commissioner John Tarnuzzer, the league's athletic directors and its policy board (principals) should be given plenty of credit for acting decisively so as not to adversely affect the student-athletes. This is an extremely difficult set of circumstances that will make for some exciting developments in high school sports in this region.

With the exploding cost of attending professional and major college sports and the state of the economy, sports fans can do a lot worse than considering some of the local contests to satisfy their cravings for competition. The schedule is filled with exciting clashes in each and every sport.

In some cases the games are free; in others there is a nominal fee which goes toward the programs, which are in need of financial support. Think about where a dollar spent at a high school games goes as opposed to those spent at the heavy-handed professional and major college games. Do yourself a favor and support your local high school teams.