Wednesday, December 30, 2009

POWERLESS

The week from Christmas through New Year’s Day traditionally has been vacation time for my wife Lisa and me.

We truly wanted to get away this year – a quiet few days at a New England bed and breakfast is our cup of holiday brew – but the economy dictated that we stay at home. We did some things around the house, bought ourselves an HD plasma TV and enjoyed each other’s company.
Then came Tuesday, with its high winds and Arctic chill.

We had a horrific incident in the neighborhood when the wind blew down a massive pine tree within sight of our house. The power lines were ripped down. The toaster oven with my leftover pizza slices (boy does Pagliacci’s of Plainville make good ones) suddenly went cold. The power went out.

We were told by the CL&P recording that normalcy would be returned in two hours. That hardly seemed likely and sure enough, it wasn’t. We were in for a long haul for the second time in three years.

The fact that modern conveniences were unavailable was nothing compared to no water and thus no plumbing to accommodate certain functions that human beings can't ignore for very long. After all, nobody has outhouses anymore. Nonetheless, we tried to rough it.

We had plenty of firewood and that’s always fun and romantic to sit in front of a blazing fire on a cold night. I puffed on my pipe and sipped some alcoholic concoctions to while away the hours, keeping in mind what our forefathers did 250 years ago. No SmartPhones back then, Virginia. Folks amused themselves with simple pleasures, glad to be warm and elated to be sharing quality time with their loved ones.

The power went off at 12:50 p.m. The sun set and wind-chill numbers became unfit for the warm-blooded. We had plans to meet another couple for dinner at Sadler’s Ordinary, a quaint spot in Marlborough. We got out of the house early, had a cup of coffee at Barnes and noble, then hit Route 2 for the ride to Sadler’s. We hoped all along that the power would be back by the time we got home, but nothing doing.

As we pulled into our neighborhood, we found the road to be closed. What lay before us looked like footage from London in 1942 after a German air attack. A utility pole had been snapped in two, leaving the transformer broken in pieces on the ground. Wires hung low. The intrepid CL&P linemen braved the numbing cold to put things back in order but we could see it would take awhile.

We circled around into Burlington and returned home. Thankfully, son Jason and his girl Brittany kept the home fires burning.

We talked, I read my stirring Humphrey Bogart biography by candlelight and the fire raged. Finally, a few minutes before 2 a.m., the lights went on. By Wednesday morning 10 a.m., we had telephone service, internet and cable TV restored. Our time of living like the Pilgrims came to a close after 12 hours.

I went around the house to make sure everything was in order and noticed the toaster oven was on. I had eaten the pizza cold (still pretty tasty) but we didn't think of turning the oven off when the power went out. If the power had been restored when we were in Marlborough, we may have come home to a smoldering pile of embers. As it turns out, we were fortunate that events transpired in the manner they did.

I’ve gotten very philosophical over the years. That, combined with my deep respect for what our forefathers had to endure, set me to reflecting on how thankful we should be for the luxuries we have.

Denied of watching more meaningless bowl games or some obscure college basketball, I picked up a book with cold fingers and read through squinting eyes. So what! We weathered the storm. We could have spent the night at my in-laws home or even at a local inn but that could have resulted in disaster, one of the worst of our lives.

Somebody was listening to our prayers, and a couple hours without TV, telephones and internet access didn't do us any harm. In fact, it did us some good.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

A HALL-OF-FAME WEEKEND

I wasn’t sure where my trip to sports writers’ heaven would take me but I knew where it would begin and end.

It began on the tarmac of Bradley International where my oldest and among my dearest friends stepped off his plane from Fort Myers, Fla., at about 11 a.m. Andy Vaspasiano (we call him Vas for the same reason they call me Lip) was coming home to celebrate my induction into the Connecticut High School Coaches Association Hall Of Fame.

Vas and I go back to when I was 3. I had just moved from Westville in New Haven to our new post-war ranch in Hamden on Belden Road. We’re literally friends for life.

The dinner festivities were to begin at 6. He would need some time to relax and we would need an hour before the gala to prepare.

When I asked him on the phone Wednesday night what else he’d like to accomplish in his four-day visit, I knew what he was going to say. Pepe’s. Vas, you’re in luck. Old Frank, the pizzamaker supreme, left some pretty savvy descendants in charge (including my former Helen Street Scholl buddy Francis Roselli). Pepe’s has a restaurant in Manchester now.

“Is it as good as Wooster Street?” said Vas, with his typically mysteriously and skeptical tone. Oh boy, I’d better answer this one right. Who knows more about pizza than the guy whose mom was born in Italy, a guy who went to St. John the Baptist School on the Hamden-New Haven border that literally was attached to the Venice Restaurant. Vas had to sit through classes smelling the world’s best pizza every school day.

We pulled into the parking lot and I looked down. A shiny quarter looked back at me. Now I knew my four-day dream was going to feature divine intervention.

If you haven’t had a Pepe’s pepperoni pizza yet, for God’s sake go out and get one right now. Vas says he isn’t leaving Connecticut without eating another one. He let me have my pepperoni. He got sausage and mushrooms before he boarded his return flight Sunday evening.

Our bellies bulging with pizza and hearts with nostalgia, I stopped in East Hartford to show him UConn’s new football palace, Rentschler Field. While there, we visited the CHSCA’s display of plaques.

We perused the plaques slowly. Vas saw many familiar faces from back in the day. Contemplating how absorbed he was and thinking about what was in store later that night, I became totally inspired about my induction. I would soon be joining these esteemed purveyors of state sports. Me! I still can’t believe it, but that stop at The Rent had much greater implications than I considered when we pulled off I-84. It was definitely the thing to do.

THE DINNER

Every moment at the induction dinner was heavenly. Every time I glanced in another direction, I saw another dear friend.

First and foremost, there was “The Family” – not my wife, son and sister, all of whom were with me and I love dearly, but “The Family.” There was me Vas, (former O’Brien Tech-Ansonia coach and administrator) Ray DeAngelis, John Coassin and “The Godfather,” Ron Sambrook.
We were inseparable back in the day. We were back together for the first time in 25 or so years.
There was another “Godfather” in the crowd.

Legendary Southington High baseball coach John Fontana is a driving force behind the CHSCA. When the Godfather says, “Keep your speech to 5 minutes,” well that’s exactly what you do. My first take of my speech lasted 4:45, so I added a sentence but couldn’t possibly thank all the people who I wanted to acknowledge.

I’ll do my best to do that here.

My colleagues at The Herald were there in number – sports guys Matt Straub and Ryan Pipke, executive editor Jim Smith and publisher/owner Michael Schroeder.

The coaches. Where do I begin? It all starts with New Britain High, which elicits the kind of camaraderie between coaches that I’ve never seen anywhere else.

Former football coach, now athletic director and CHSCA president Len Corto works long and hard for his school and the organization. He’s tireless, compassionate and wouldn’t he have loved to been at Pepe’s with us.

Ken Kezer, former NBHS baseball coach, was my presenter. After I made my speech, he handed me the commemorative diamond ring that all nine honorees received. Can you imagine? A diamond ring!

Basketball coach Stan Glowiak, a nicer man would be hard to find. Volleyball coach Michelle Abraham, stunning and tanned to perfection as always.

Track coach Darwin Shaw hands me a bag and says, “You ever have sweet potato pie? I never had the pleasure but I will now. As if Coach Shaw isn’t doing enough, he’s marketing his amazing version of the popular Southern confection. If you want one after your Pepe’s Pizza, I’ll put you in touch with him. (Why does it always get back to food? Not-so-small wonder.)

It touched me deeply that my Rock Cats family came in force. My dear friend Jeff Dooley, busy as he is with his full-time job and Hartford Hawks radio gig, was there. Cats owner Bill Dowling, perhaps the sincerest man on the planet, came despite suffering from the effects of the flu.
My press box buddies Larry Michaels and Ed Smith, Rock Cats photographer Buddy Robinson with his camera clicking away, Buddy’s wife Lynn. How wonderful it was to see them all.

Hamden friend Kirk Shultz came along with his parents. His father, “Big Dutch,” said he’d make it despite having to tote that oxygen tank around. His mother is my second mother. Since my mom died in 1990, she and my dear mother-in-law Fayna Birnbaum provided that irreplaceable maternal love.

I can’t mention Fayna without her husband and my father-in-law Dave. He isn’t the type to gush with emotion but his eyes told the story when he came up after the dinner and saw the ring.

Former NBHS coach Paul Majeski came up to me with a stern look on his face and said, “I want you to know that I usually don’t come to these things but for you, I came. You really deserve this award. You’ve done so much for the kids of New Britain.”

If Jerry Garcia was still alive, I’d have him lay down a guitar track for music that sweet.
And here’s the second and third stanza.

New Canaan football coach Lou Marinelli ranks as one of the state’s finest. He barely has enough fingers to contain the state championship rings and before he’s done, he may have to start using his toes.

New Canaan is way down there in Fairfield County and I’ve never had the pleasure of covering one of his teams but nonetheless, here’s what he said to me.

“I’m honored to be sharing the same stage with you tonight.”

He’s honored to be sharing the stage with me!? Here’s another, “Are you kidding me?”
After I made my speech, I was walking behind the esteemed people at the head table. Another Fairfield County legend – former Trumbull High coach and administrator Jerry McDougall – stopped me.

“That was a great speech you made,” he said as he grasped my hand. “It was from the heart.”
For those of you who couldn’t be there and would like to see the speech, here it goes:

First, I would like to congratulate the other eight honorees and thank all those who have come here tonight to support them.

I am overwhelmed by the outpouring of love, friendship and respect that my friends and family have bestowed on me by attending this glorious dinner in such number. I never thought so many of them could be gathered in one place in my honor, at least while I’m still alive.

What makes this award so incredibly important to me is where it comes from, the high school coaches. Coaches provide guidance for our student-athletes so they can learn the value of team dynamics, working together with their peers toward a common goal. They’re role models of the highest order.

Most of you have either coached or played so you know first-hand about the sacrifices coaching requires. The time spent with their families and in the pursuit of leisure activities are curtailed to help kids. When you consider how impressionable our kids are and how little these coaches are paid, their efforts are as noble as they are vital to our future.

I never heard that notion put more eloquently than in this very room when Geno Auriemma received a Gold Key from our CT Sports Writers’ Alliance. He dedicated his Gold Key to the high school coaches. Without them, he said, the success he’s achieved would be impossible. I consider that pretty staunch testimony.

Sports writing is not an individual application. It takes a lot of teamwork, and I’m excited to have some of my colleagues who have made this honor possible here tonight. After a story gets written, somebody has to be on the other end to format it, put it on a page and write a catchy headline, and I would like to thank those who have performed that and other functions over the years at The New Britain Herald and The Bristol Press.

I’d like to thank our publisher Michael Schroeder, who has saved both of those newspapers from the brink of oblivion so they can continue to be true partners in the communities they serve. Jim Smith, executive editor, sports editor Matt Straub and assistant Ryan Pipke. It’s all about teamwork, and that’s a great team.

Neither would this award be remotely possible without something compelling to write about. For that, I thank all the wonderful student-athletes, who have been so accommodating over the years.

When you come across former high school athletes, years removed from their days of glory, and they pull out a shredded piece of newsprint, well how can you not be touched by that. So many have gone on to become leaders in business, politics or education. I’d like to think that I had a little something to do with that.

I look out over the people here on my behalf and I see a table full of Rock Cats. They are more than friends; they are extended family. Thanks so much for being here and for what you’ve contributed to my life.

Special thanks to the people who are primarily responsible for putting me up here tonight. The New Britain High coaches are truly a special breed, and I know I wouldn’t be standing here if it weren’t for Ken Kezer and Lenny Corto. Heartfelt thanks to John Fontana and Larry McHugh and the tremendous work they’ve done as coaches and administrators. Getting to know and work with these four gentlemen has surely enriched my life.

And where would I be without the support of my family. My wife Lisa and son Jason have been in my corner 100 percent of the time so I could keep plugging away with my labor of love that totally transcends what most would consider just a job.

Thank you, everybody, for being a part of one of the most special moments in my life.

People said it was good. That isn’t for me to say, but I crammed in most of what I wanted to say while satisfying Fontana’s Five-Minute Frontier. People say I talk too much. Geez, and they say that to my face!

I understand my Herald colleagues were timing the speech with most betting it would go into overtime. Sorry, boys, but I wasn’t going to get on Godfather Fontana’s bad side. Mr. Straub said he had to hand it to me. Thanks, Matt. Coming from you, that’s high praise.

COOPERSTOWN

On Friday, Vas, Ronnie “Samlione” Sambrook and I hopped in my Chevy Avalanche and drove to Cooperstown, N.Y., and the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

The long ride (3 ½ hours) was anything but tedious. With my two best buddies sharing stories of our glorious past and a day of baseball reminiscing, the day went by like the snap of your fingers.
Vas was into the first boutique he saw and had a Whitey Ford display scoped out. Old Vas is a lefty himself, and that combined with the interlocking NY makes Ford one of his favorites. Whitey now joins the Vas Pinstripe Hall of Fame, which occupies its own Cooperstown-like room in Bonita Springs, Fla.

Vas refused to believe Dooley when he said Joe Mauer was winning the MVP. Oh, no, it had to be Jeter. Sorry, Vas. You got the world title but former Rock Cat Joe got the MVP hardware. I told you Dooley knows these things.

Vas wasn’t finished shopping. He was piling up stuff in the Hall of Fame store, too, including a photo of opening day at the new Yankee Stadium. Ronnie and I don’t share Vas’ Yankee passion. We can’t stand ’em.

Ronnie is a longtime Orioles fan, and he’ll tell you he hasn’t smiled since Ripken was playing. He got in front of the Orioles display case at Cooperstown and you’d think he was in church.

COUPE DE GRAS AT CONFETTI

The Family – Vas, Ronnie, John Coassin, Ray DeAngelis and I – got together again for a gala dinner Saturday night at Confetti (Farmington Avenue, Route 10, Plainville), the restaurant owned by a fellow Hamdenite and Belden Road girl, Joanie Spinato-Lemniotis.

My wife Lisa and son Jason accompanied me. John’s wife Linda and Ray’s wife Liz accompanied them. Also on hand were dear friends David and Amy Dippolino, who thankfully honored me with their presence at the Hall of Fame Dinner, too.

What a great time!

Afterwards, we posed for “Family” photographs. Combined with those taken at the Hall of Fame Dinner, they are priceless and will forever populate the walls of my cozy home office.

Joanie, her husband Peter (who was Lisa’s paper boy in New Britain long before he became a talented chef, especially with fresh fish) and her brother/bartender John were gracious hosts. John Spinato and David Dippolino were best buddies growing up on Belden Road. Some of these friendships should give you an idea what it was like in Hamden’s Pine Rock region in the 1960s. There are so many more friendships that are too many to mention, and some of them continue to live on.

AND FINALLY …

The time went by too quickly. I wish every minute could have been an hour and every hour a day. Friendship, camaraderie, sincerity and love were all around. I couldn’t have imagined that something so wonderful could ever come together.

Sincerest thanks to everybody who was a part of it, and to those without whom it would have been just another Thanksgiving. Coach Kezer, Coach Fontana, Coach McHugh and Coach Corto – I’m not sure if you will ever fully realize how grateful I am.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

THE NEW HAVEN ELMS

The name resonated with me but I couldn't immediately figure out why.

Former NBA player and coach Al Cervi died Sunday at 92. His playing career happened well before I was born. His coaching career in the NBA took place in my early days of grade school.

Finally I realized that Cervi had coached an Eastern Professional Basketball League team based in New Haven called the Elms that flashed across the bow of my youth at a time when becoming a sports fan was a poignant part of my life and growth.

I remember one wonderful Saturday when I started the day working as an usher in Portal 14 at Yale Bowl and came home just in time for a neighbor to take me to the old New Haven Arena for an Elms game. The Elms were the state's very first EBL franchise.

The EBL would later become the Continental Basketball Association, which younger fans may recall had a franchise in Hartford that played in the Armory called the Connecticut Pride.

When the Elms started out, they had a pretty good team. Former Hillhouse High coach Sam Bender was their coach. Among their players were Woody Sauldsberry and Bruce Spraggins. I had never seen such outstanding players and such big men up close before. Saulsberry was picked up by the Celtics after just a few games and the Elms received veteran guard Sihugo Green in return.

Frank Keitt and Cleo Hill were dynamic guards. Former Hillhouse star Mike Branch gave the team some local flavor. So did 6-foot-8 Wayne Lawrence, who was from the New London area as I recall. Walter Byrd could leap out of the gym and Wilbert Frazier was a decent center.

Cervi later replaced Bender and inherited a team that couldn't compete having sold off its players to other teams, like the Hartford Capitals. Former two-sport star Gene Conley (Celtic forward and Red Sox pitcher) replaced Cervi the next season but the team was horrible. Attendance fell off as the novelty of having pro basketball in New Haven diminished.

Much to my delight, the team was purchased by the Bic Pen Co. of Milford and moved to Hamden. The Bics played in the Hamden High Gym. A few of my friends and I went to all the games, sat high in the bleachers, made signs and plenty of noise. The late and great New Haven Register sports writer George Wadley actually wrote a story about us.

I plied the recesses of my mind for memories and it dawned on me how deeply those days
affected me and what I was to become. The experience fired up my enthusiasm for minor league sports. In the days before the Whalers, UConn's athletic explosion and the super-saturation of sports on TV, minor league was as good as it got for fans who couldn't pick up and go to Boston or New York.

Cervi was a very small part of it but I'll never forget him. Rest in peace, Al.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

THE POLITICAL GAME

As a sports writer who has refined my craft by occasionally venturing out of my league, I had the recent opportunity to do an Election Night story in Southington. Delving into news not only tightens my writing style and sharpens my acumen as a reporter, but it enables me to rub elbows with folks I've met before through 18 years with the New Britain Herald and Bristol Press, in addition to some new ones.

I was assigned to cover a rather mundane school board race in which nine candidates out of the 12 nominated are elected. I positioned myself at Democratic headquarters at Machiavelli's Restaurant on Center Street and watched the returns come in as Pat Saucier, father of former All-Herald athlete Erin, entered them.

The room had been filled with the revelry that great food and camaraderie that political parties can muster, but it soon went silent. The first numbers posted gave veteran observers an immediate sense that this night would belong to the GOP.

Caught up in the Democratic defeat was school board candidate Robert Galati. I have known Bob through covering his sons, excellent athletes at Southington High, and his frequent attendance at New Britain High athletic events as a proud and supportive former teacher there.

As I prepared for my coverage Tuesday, I read The Herald’s superb Q & A forum that our news department ran for the candidates and voters. I scanned Galati's credentials and what he said. I would like to share some of that with you.

Galati is a retired math teacher, although he still teaches at Tunxis Community College. He has a BS degree in mathematics and a Masters in guidance from CCSU. When he was asked to compose his thoughts about the budget crisis tightening its grip on local issues, he expressed the following:

“Lean budgets usually mean a reduction of co-curricular programs, once called extra-curricular programs. Co-curricular programs are vital to providing all students varied opportunities to expand their experiences and knowledge in a non-academic setting. In addition, co-curricular activities allow students the chance to work with life issues. Students who participate in these types of activities have opportunities to build self-esteem, develop leadership skills, and appreciate the dynamics of being a team member.”

Elegantly put, I’d say.

If you read between the lines, he’s referring to varsity sports among the many other outstanding programs offered by our schools, most in desperate need of funding. We all feel the specter of pay-for-play lurking in the shadows, a program that is doomed to failure for among other reasons, parents paying to play expect their athletic little darlings to play. The dilemma is thus placed on the coaches, who spend an inordinate amount of time trying to craft success at very little compensation.

Well, Bob and his wife sat on the floor at Machiavelli’s as the streaming rays of light from Saucier’s projector splashed the results on the wall. Galati's mouth was agape as he watched numbers from the last of Southington’s 12 districts produce final totals.

All six Republicans were elected. Galati was fourth among the Democrats, one vote behind the third and last elected candidate. After absentee ballots were counted, he trailed by three.

Galati, a soft-spoken man, is not a lifelong politician. I’m sure he learned something about the process, and that he’ll spend plenty of time contemplating how he could have coaxed a few more votes. I’m not from Southington but if I were, I’d want a man like him protecting the interests of our youth during very trying financial times.

It makes me wonder how many voters actually read the issues. The Herald made them available both in the paper and on the website. However, races like this become popularity contests, and I’m as guilty for voting for folks in Farmington I know rather than those I do not.

In the case of Farmington, I did not see as comprehensive a package on candidates as I did in the Herald. The Herald no longer actively covers that town. But in Southington, people could have found the platforms if they were so inclined.

This isn’t to say that the people elected to the Southington board are any less competent. I had the pleasure of interviewing school board chairman Brian Goralski, who accumulated the most votes in the race. Goralski is dynamic, knowledgeable, and a passionate family man who no doubt will continue guiding this board to great things. I have no doubt that the other members also have good intentions.

Perhaps it all works out in the end, but from a personal standpoint, I’ve gotten to know a few more terrific people and I think I’ve become a better sports writer.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

WIN OR LOSE, ENJOY THE RIDE

A tear slipped from the corner of my right eye and trickled down my cheek.

The Twins are going to the playoffs. Right away, the eastern seaboard reverberated with the notion that they'll never beat the Yankees, but that isn't important right now.

What is important is that no fewer than 17 former New Britain Rock Cats were in that dugout when the Twins completed the improbable accomplishment of winning the division despite trailing by three games with four to play.

This gives you an idea of what kind of ballplayers we've seen go through New Britain Stadium over the years. They come out of Double-A, often unheralded like a Matt Tolbert or a Nick Blackburn, but they have that certain something that enables then to compete with the All-Star contingents that only gobs of cash can put together.

For the last 10 years, I've been with the Twins in spring training, watching what they do from low Class A to the major leagues to make baseball pundits sing the praises of how fundamentally sound they are. "They play baseball the Twins way," is what I hear from the scouts and opposing managers who visit us in New Britain.

And let me say this about the Detroit Tigers. I worked for the Tigers organization from 1986-88 and have nothing but good feelings for the organization. Their pitching coach, Rick Knapp, was the Twins' minor league pitching coordinator for years and we became good friends. They played their hearts out, battling adversity all year, and anybody who suggests they're chokers can only be classified as ignorant casual fans.

Now, let's get back to the Yankees. Everybody's talking about sweeps and easy passage into the ALCS, but let's look at it this way.

If two people go computer shopping, one with $500 and one with $10,000, who's going to get the better equipment?

If one army has senior officers who have been through many campaigns and the other is a ragtag collection of guys who the week before were plowing their fields, who's going to win the war?

Hence, if one team can sort through baseball's most developed talent and get whoever they want while the other is bringing up players who started the season in the Eastern League, who should win?

So the Yankees are going to win? Probably, but aren't they supposed to? On the other hand, they have to play the games, and you know what? The British did not win the Revolutionary War.

Whether the Twins win or lose, they're playing with house money. And for my boys who have passed through New Britain, enjoy the ride.

Monday, October 5, 2009

PLAINVILLE: ON ANOTHER PLANE

Events like the Plainville Hall of Fame Induction Dinner are like beautiful tropical islands amid tempestuous seas.

People in atendance begin to realize how therapeutical it is to get together, break bread and recall old times. Not just fun, not just a delicious dinner. Downright therapeutical.

Where else can one of Plainville's most esteemed educational leaders spin a yarn about how a former junior varsity basketball coach held his pregame meeting while sitting in a toilet stall and smoking a cigarette? Nowadays, such an act would be blasphemy, a reason for dismissal, the subject of parental diatribes. On Saturday night, it elicited howls of delight from a packed house at Nuchie's in Forestville.

Yes, I'm thrilled to say that those attending the dinner are best advised to check their political correctness at the door. Of course, if you ask me, it should be chucked in the nearby Pequabuck River or tied to the adjacent railroad tracks in the hope for a train to roll by real soon.

To witness the toll PC takes, one just needed to stroll the room where the Great Organizer Byron J. Treado III put together an Italian cocktail hour, and hear the stories told by coaches who have been, or are being, worn down by rules that some folks heed but would never abide by if roles were reversed.

It's so funny how putting the microphone in some hands brings about such different presentations and deep-seated personality quirks. One inductee kind of rambled a bit during his speech. You could hear the din rising among the seat-squirming celebrants, slowly but steadily, as the person went through his copious notes, including a biographical study of his presenter.

Those who came after him, ever aware of the crowd's reaction, kept it short and sweet. Hey, I'm all for late-night revelry but it was nigh to 11 p.m. when the party broke up.

But all in all, you come to ascertain that Plainville is fortunate. I've said it before, not every town has such an elaborate program to honor the past. Not every town has an individual like Byron Treado equipped to make the personal sacrifices necessary to stage such an event, even while his professional life goes through a valley or two.

I look at Plainville as a throwback. It reminds me of my hometown Hamden the way it was when I was growing up, the way it never could be again. I look at my adopted hometown of Farmington and realize that people like Byron Treado don't pop up in every neighborhood. Some people have visions that evaporate after a night's sleep like dew on a summer's morn.

Treado is a man of action and Plainville wouldn't have the same connotation without him. He stepped down Saturday after 10 years, but I agree with him that those following him will keep it going. There are enough good people in all our towns to take the leadership but scant view who will steadfastly hold onto their dreams and fight through adversity to make them reality.

Friday, October 2, 2009

STOP THE WORLD & LET ME OFF

Whoa, whoa. The world's going too fast, spinning toward a vortex of extinction, making all those biblical tales like the Tower of Babel and Noah's Ark assume 21st cenury significance.

Namecalling. Suggestive sex talk. Pornography. Drugs. Swindles. Exploitation of children. Terrible TV shows and malodorous movies that alter weak minds. Rampant arrogance. Twitter. Facebook. I, me, mine. Bloggers. Fakes. Frauds. Charlatans. Taking advantage of the elderly.

Make my penis bigger and my belly smaller where the only thing that changes size is some poultroon's pocketbook and my wallet. I think it was Maria Muldaur who sang, "It ain't the meat it;'s the motion, that makes your momma want to rock." Danged if you weren't right, Maria.

Blindly send me your social security number and bank account information and get your share of a Nigerian fortune. Hey, why don't they give the largess to those emaciated Nigerian kids you always see on TV, except 35 percent of any donation would probably goes to the CEO's overstuffed salary. Hey, the Nigerians can cancel each other out and both of them can stop pestering me.

"Now I don't know but I've been told, it's hard to run with the weight of gold."

The internet is such a tremendous advancement and is used for so many great reasons. The greatest reasons, like WebMD and other sites that offer to improve the human condition. But the human being is so terribly flawed it gets used for all these wrong reasons.

"We're goin' to hell in a bucket, baby, but at least we're enjoyin' the ride."

Liberals hate conservatives so much they say George Bush blew up the towers. Conservatives hate liberals so much that they want our very own president to fail. Hey, whether you voted for him or not, he represents liberty and freedom, and where the frig would you be without that. If George Washington and Abe Lincoln could return to the living, they'd wish they were dead again in 5 minutes.

Road rage. The interminable hustle of big cities. I-phones, so all the insanity that corners you in your office can follow you around.

So what's the elixir for all this madness? Slow down. No, I mean slowwwww dowwwwwn.

Leave the NFL for one Sunday and take a nice ride out in the country. Find a good spot to marvel in Mother Nature's annual autumn splendor.

"Let it be known, there is a fountain, that was not made by the hands of men."

Take a bite out of a macoun apple right off the tree, revel in its snap and let the juice roll down your chin.

"Listen to the river sing sweet songs to rock my soul."

Tell someboy you love them ... and really mean it. Feel your heart warming if they tell you that they love you, too. Watch Ken Burns' magnificent National Parks documentary and allow his blend of sights and sounds get you to thinking about what's really important.

Get a therapeutic massage. Go to the gym and work out. Take a hike near a mountain stream. Drink some ice cold spring water. Do something nice for somebody. Help a child understand the difference between right and wrong.

I don't care what the rest of the world does. I'm going to mellow out by doing a lot of these things and more. Maybe I'll live longer, but why I'd want to the way things are going, I'm not sure that's such a great idea either.

"Comes a time when the blind man takes your hand says: Don't you see? Got to make it somehow on the dreams you still believe. Don't give it up, you've got an empty cup only love can fill."

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

TUNE IN TO CTSN

I had the extreme pleasure Wednesday night of appearing on the weekly high school football show, GameTime, hosted by John Holt and Joe Zone of WFSB Channel 3. The segment, which included two of the state’s great coaches in John Capodice (Berlin) and Lou Marinelli (New Canaan), will run multiple times on CTSN (Connecticut Sports Network). On Comcast, it is Channel 744. I think you have to have Comcast’s digital package.

I was honored to be asked to appear on the show, which along with their weekly coverage will be a huge boost for high school sports. The set is amazing. John and Joe are superb TV journalists with a great handle on what’s going on around the state. All HS fans should keep an eye on their show.

From a sports writer’s standpoint, they have already had Mark Jaffee of the Waterbury Republican and Sean Patrick Bowley of the Connecticut Post on. Two more dedicated scholastic writers you will not find. They have their fingers on the pulse of what’s shaking in their respective areas.

I hope the increased coverage of high school football will get more folks coming out to games. I know it will result in more hard-working athletes getting the publicity they deserve as they compete for college scholarships.

I can assure you the scholastic writers at The New Britain Herald will be providing more comprehensive coverage of our teams this fall than ever before. Three weekly polls are circulating around the state. You can check out the new Connecticut Sports Writers’ Alliance poll at http://www.ctsportswriters.org/, which offers the opinions of up to 40 writers and broadcasters from every corner of the state.

Have some fun with high school football, but please remember. These athletes for the most part are 16- and 17-years-old. We all have to keep that in perspective at a time when blogs and talk shows are leaving no stones unturned in professional and major college circles. We cannot put these youngsters under the same microscope

Sunday, September 20, 2009

H.S. SPORTS NECESSITATE COMMON SENSE

The changing of the seasons from summer to fall is always a major transition for me as a chronicler of local sports news.

My point of focus goes from the New Britain Rock Cats, a group of outstanding young baseball players extremely close to the top of their profession, to local scholastic sports, played by our sons, daughters, neighbors and friends.

The Rock Cats, while young, are indeed professional. Some fans may not realize that they received paychecks for their performance from the Minnesota Twins, not an astounding amount of money like their big-league elders get, but a paycheck nonetheless capable of sustaining them through the six months of the season.

I don’t, as a rule, offer scornful criticism of Rock Cats players during the season. I save that if I see a lack of hustle or something that doesn’t provide the ticket-buying public an honest game’s effort. Truthfully, I haven’t seen that much if at all from the young Twins, who generally have two or three years of playing the organization’s style of fundamentals-oriented baseball.

But when it comes to high school football, there is never a reason to deride a student-athlete either in print or in person. We tend to take the mentality instilled by our rooting interests in the professional and college games and apply it to our local inclinations, which is cruel to do to a youngster who may be playing the game for the first time.

My preference would be to see people keep their partiality in their hearts, in their immediate circle or the walls of their own home while giving players from the other team the credit they deserve for working hard.

If you go to a high school game, by all means, root for the home team, but if you find yourself thinking of antagonistic chants aimed toward the other team, please think twice. This isn’t the Yankees-Red Sox, Jets-Patriots or UConn-Syracuse.

We’ve got to have a little compassion for youngsters who play the game and try their best, remembering why it is that high schools engage in interscholastic sports. They provide group dynamics with adult supervision in an entertaining, work- and goal-oriented atmosphere so our youth learn about working together toward a common goal.

Let’s not place other major sports values on these kids either. The gambling element, for example, that has permeated professional and college sports sickens me enough on that level. To engage in picking favorites and underdogs among high school teams is distasteful at best to me.

In over 20 years of sports writing, I have found that today’s high school athlete is tomorrow’s leader. If we don’t set a good example for them in their formative years, it will come back to haunt us when they begin to make decisions that will affect the latter stages our lives.

I will try to set that example in my articles. Mistakes may be made in big games that need to be attributable, but that is a valuable lesson in life. I will never go out of my way to put undue pressure or inflict the values of America’s major sports on our children. If I ever do, please kick my butt.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

FUNERAL FOR A FRIEND

A heaviness of heart lay in the background at Dodd Stadium in Norwich Wednesday night.

The Connecticut Defenders, conquerors of the New Britain Rock Cats in the recent Northern Division Championship Series, were playing their final Double-A game. They will soon be the Richmond (Va.) Something-Or-Others.

As people are prone to do, the fans who attended 4,008 strong wore smiles. They chose to celebrate the life of the Norwich Navigators/Connecticut Defenders franchise rather than weep over its demise.

There was Little Miss Norwich -- I believe Jennifer is her name -- with her UConn cheerleading outfit, pompoms, perpetual smile and gyrating dance steps. There were numerous faces I deemed familiar from the 30 or so times I've gone there who were a little less conspicuous.

There was Ed Wyatt, the perennial ballpark voice of the franchise, whose version of "Happy Birthday" has been known to melt public address equipment. And Mike DiMauro of the New London Day, surely among the finest sports columnists in Connecticut if not THE finest. Joe Perez of the Norwich Bulletin, covering his beloved beat for the final time, and didn't he go at it with his heart and soul.

But alas, the nice crowds that attended games toward the end offered too little, too late. The southeastern Connecticut baseball fans were like a man on his deathbed, lamenting the sins of his life and trying to make up for them with what time remains.

Perhaps Norwich will be blessed with Connecticut's first short-season Class A club from the New York-Penn League. The league's name may be an antiquated misnomer as there are teams in Lowell, Mass., Pittsfield, Mass., and Burlington, Vt., but nostalgia supersedes geographical correctness.

The baseball isn't as good as the Eastern League. Of that there can be no question, but it is far better than the independent leagues that proliferate in the northeast (although generally not for long). And Dodd Stadium is far too picturesque, well-kept and professional baseball appropriate to be left for the weeds, moles, birds and the ravages of neglect.

I will attend short-season A games in Norwich when I can. I like the ballpark. I like stopping at Harry's Hamburger Stand in Colchester and the various native fruit and veggie locations in East Hampton. I like skirting the Hartford traffic by ambling down Rtes. 16 and 66, even if I do get stuck behind a tractor now and then.

I never thought moving the Albany-Colonie Yankees to Norwich was a particularly intelligent maneuver. For the life of me, I can't understand constructing a stadium in an industrial park, on top of a mountain, far from the cars passing on Rtes. 2 and 395. I can't comprehend why they trashed the Norwich Navigators to hatch the Connecticut Defenders.

Yet with all those eccentricities, I love the place and I'll miss the rivalry with the Rock Cats. To Mike, Joe, Ed, GM Charlie Dowd, radio voice Brian Irizarry, the rest of the people who made a go of it, and maybe even Jennifer the Cheerleader, I'll miss you. Come visit us in New Britain, will ya?

Saturday, August 29, 2009

GET A LIFE !

I know I’m getting old and I know I’m old-fashioned to start with but the continued rise of sports blogging and blabbing is making me ill.

The blabbing part – radio and television commentators spouting their worthless opinions and in radio’s case soliciting even more worthless opinions from listeners with no lives – has been around for a while.

That doesn’t make it any more palatable to sports fans who just want the facts, but you won’t see my car radio tuned to ESPN Radio (1410 locally), The Fan (WFAN-660 New York) or on any of the blabbermouth stations on the Sirius/XM dial. If you’re riding in my Avalanche, you’ll either listen to the Grateful Dead channel, listen to a ballgame, engage in decent conversation or get out and walk.

If you are riding with me, I’ll listen to your views because I only transport people I like. I’ll listen, debate and quite possibly even agree with you, but I don’t think it should become a syndicated show.

Blogging is even worse.

I’ll grant an exception and a sincere apology to anyone who blogs about sports or subjects which he or she has access to the inner sanctum.

For example, there is a writer named Mike Ashmore who blogs extensively in Trenton, N.J., covering the Eastern League’s Thunder. He attends the games, he talks to manager Tony Franklin, he talks to the players and he monitors the Yankees’ minor league system. He has credibility.

But to read the proliferation of trash written by people who seem to think their words have some meaning is laughable and tragic at the same time.

Frustrated fans, some with a modicum of journalistic ability and some who don’t know the different between “their”, “there” and “they’re,” on even more pitifully, “bear”, “bare” and “beer”, are spouting blather about issues they know nothing about. All they know is what’s being spewed by other blabbers or bloggers who know less than they do and accept it as fact.

For instance, pseudo-experts who have no inside access to NFL camps are blabbing about who’s going to be starting quarterback here and who sucks over there. This team has no chance, and this one is going to win the Super Bowl. They don’t know any more than the little old lady in the nursing home who makes her weekly picks based on what colors she likes or where the point of her pencil falls when she peruses America’s Latest Line.

Then there’s the blabber with blinders and a short memory who wants David Ortiz banished to Mars when he’s hitting .190 in April, only to anoint him as a surefire Hall of Famer when he hits a game-winning home run in August.

The Yankees lose on Monday, they suck. They win on Tuesday, fit them for World Series rings. They lose on Wednesday and Brian Cashman is an idiot.

What is it about the new generation of sports fan who just shoots from the hip and inevitably winds up sticking their foot in their mouth to keep it from foaming over with more propaganda? Inevitably, such rabble-rousers make good on a prediction or two, remind the world how smart they are and deflect attention to the hundreds of times they’ve been dead wrong.

It’s kind of like the gambler who goes to the casino, wins and boasts about it. What they neglect to tell you is the previous 10 times they went and lost their paychecks.

Hey, maybe I’m old-fashioned, and I’m not going to argue with anybody who wants to call me stupid or, pushing his intellect to its limit, chooses to make fun of my name like some have done answering this blog.

It isn’t worth my time to trade insults with somebody who couldn’t qualify as the missing link, but I will impart the following advice: if you want to learn about what’s occurring in the sport of your choice, find somebody with credibility and not some fool with a PC, internet access and opinions born in the catacombs of an empty mind.

Friday, August 21, 2009

LOCAL ANGLE ON STRASBURG

Gotta share this story with you.

Two summers ago, I was working out at my neighborhood gym, Valley Fitness Center in Unionville. It was pointed out to me that two members of the Torrington Twisters baseball team were working out regularly there.

The Twisters were members of the New England Collegiate Baseball League, a wooden-bat summer league for college players to keep playing after their college season ended. The NECBL is equivalent to the more famous Cape Cod League, which generally gets the best college players in the country.

One of these Torrington Twisters was a tall, well-built pitcher. We talked for a while. He was staying with a host family in Avon while on the East Coast. He was playing his college ball at the University of San Diego, where he had just completed a solid freshman season. I talked with him several times over the course of the 8 weeks or so that the NECBL is active.

Well, like all devoted baseball fans, I was following the June draft and how the big league clubs were pursuing their first-round picks. Naturally, at the top of the list was the Washington Nationals' pursuit of pitcher Stephen Strasburg, whose agent Scott Boras was seeking unprecedented dollars.

When Strasburg signed for $15 million last week, I got a good look at his photo. I'm sure I don't have to tell you the rest.

Strasburg left the Twisters, had an exceptional sophomore year and exploded to the top of the draft class as a junior. He is labeled by some to be the most accomplished player to ever come out of the amateur ranks.

Here's hoping that destiny deals Strasburg a great hand. I can tell you first-hand that he is a very nice, hard-working kid who is very deserving of the fame and fortune that he has attained.

Monday, August 17, 2009

REMEMBERING BRENT SCHOENING

All too often, the harshness of reality seeps into what Rock Cats owner Bill Dowling so aptly and eloquently calls "the toy department of life."

I received an e-mail from city employee Craig Bowman last night that former Rock Cats pitcher Brent Schoening, 31, passed away Sunday after a long battle with leukemia.

Schoening never made it to the big leagues. He came to New Britain during that wonderful 2001 season when the Cats, led by Michael Cuddyer, Dustan Mohr, Michael Restovich, Juan Rincon and Brad Thomas, went 87-55. The events of Sept. 11 prevented them from meeting the Reading Phillies in the Eastern League championship so they settled for co-champion status.

After nearly twirling a no-hitter and eventually losing in his first start at Erie, Schoening went 2-6 with a 4.73 ERA in 12 games for that club. In 2002, he pitched in 21 games and went 3-1 with a 5.17.

He became one of the few players to be a part of two Rock Cats Northern Division pennant-winning clubs in 2003, leading the team in wins (12-6), pitching to a 3.98 ERA in 26 starts.

I'll carry memories of Brent Schoening, a classy, accomodating young man, in my heart forever.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

IF IT'S BROKE, PLEASE FIX IT

The developments are disturbing.

A reader contacted me after attending Friday night's record-breaking attendance game at New Britain Stadium with the following report. He was directed to park at the high school and when he returned to his car after the game, the parking lot lights had been turned off. He said people were groping around in the dark in search of their cars.

I don't need anybody to tell me about the New Britain Stadium elevator.

One of the Rock Cats' employees who works full time for Otis Elevator shook his head as the conveyance shook, rattled and rumbled from the concourse to the second floor. The elevator is used by the people who have tickets for the luxury suites. It is also vital to the concessions employees who have to tote heavy items up the suites and to the party platforms to the left and right of the suites.

Isn't anybody going to fix it? Are we going to wait for something ugly to happen? I'll take the stairs more often, thank you. I can use the exercise, but what of the people who have to transport 20 cases of hot dogs or the employees who have to carry all the garbage out of there?

Then there is the condition of the playing surface. It was a brand, new field two short seasons ago but you would never know it. Areas to the left and right of home plate are worn to the dirt. Areas behind and in front of the pitcher's mound are also wearing badly.

It's an embarassment. I have been to numerous stadiums this summer including Brooklyn, Norwich, Pawtucket and Manchester, N.H., and they all are in much better shape than New Britain. Don't think that the Twins haven't noticed.

One wonders why these things go unchecked. Doesn't anybody in the city realize how valuable the franchise is to its economic well-being? Doesn't anybody have the proper vision to spruce things up so we can be proud of what we have, and more importantly make sure that the franchise remains in New Britain for many years to come?

Saturday, August 15, 2009

CATS, COPS, TWEETS AND JOE D

The Rock Cats' homestand is magical. First a walkoff 1-0 extra-inning win against Erie. Now beating the Akron Aeros with their gaudy record twice in two nights before over 16,000 people at the Emerald. Wow!

To show you how much the Eastern League has changed in my lifetime, the Cats surpassed the entire season's attendance for the Thetford Mines (Canada) club where the Pirates had their affiliate back in 1975 in just two nights. Let's examine why.

Teams have dressed up the product with lots of entertainment, something I didn't care for as an EL administrator (1981-88), but nonetheless a very attractive addition to the ballgames. For instance, the Rock Cats regaled fans on Saturday with a pregame polka band followed by Dancing Christopher doing a Michael Jackson tribute.

Then there's the economic factor. Who can afford going to New York or Boston more than once or twice a season? They'll avoid lots of hassles and spend lots less cash in New Britain. Plus, the Cats are playing terrific baseball under manager Tom Nieto, pitching coach Stu Cliburn and hitting coach Floyd Rayford. ...

Last night after game, I ran into the DUI checkpoint on Rte. 177 in Plainville for the second time. The policeman pokes his head in and asks if I'd been drinking. I rarely drink, and when I do, it's usually moderately and at home. I cruised through after waiting in line for less than 10 minutes.

I thought about the inconvenience but you know what? I think it's great what they're doing. Who knows how many lives they may be saving by pulling drunks off the road. I know that people under the influence are likely to think twice when they go through Plainville. I like it. ...

I've been "tweeting" lately and quite honestly, I don't see much value in it. Heck, they only give you 144 characters to speak your mind. My friends and readers know that isn't nearly enough for an opinionated yakker like me. ...

I'm working on a story about popular Connecticut broadcast journalist Joe D'Ambrosio.

Joe D has been doing the games with Jeff Dooley all season and he's discovered how enthralling Eastern League baseball can be. He's having a great time and does a great job, supporting Dooley's play-by-play with vignettes that he unearths with his meticulous preparation.

I've learned a lot listening to him and talking sports with him all season. I particularly enjoy the interview I do with him before every Sunday home game. I think it's a good "listen" because we're both opinionated and don't always agree. How could we? He's a Yankee fan.

But that doesn't mean I'm a Red Sox fan. No, no, no. I like rooting for the underdogs, teams that can't go out and grab an Alex Gonzalez from Cincinnati and a Victor Martinez from Cleveland with their unlimited bank account. Buying players to fill holes late in the season doesn't impress me. Teams that throw around that kind of money should win. Shame on 'em if they don't.

Come out and see the Cats!

Monday, August 10, 2009

CATS CAN DO

The Rock Cats regroup at New Britain Stadium Tuesday with a real chance to make the Eastern League playoffs for the first time in six years.

The Cats, after a 3-3 road trip to Erie and Akron, are tied for third place with the Trenton Thunder, a half-game behind the Portland Sea Dogs. With eight games remaining against Trenton and 17 of the last 27 games at home, New Britain has control of its own destiny in search of second place and a ticket to the playoffs.

The last time New Britain qualified for the postseason, a rather talented young man named Joe Mauer was the catcher. Manager Stan Cliburn had a knack for getting the most out of his clubs down the stretch.

The Cats faced the New Haven Ravens in the Northern Division playoffs and pushed it to a fifth and final game with big-league rehabber Eric Milton on the mound. Milton pitched a great game but lost a duel with husky right-hander Chris Baker. The crowning blow was a moon shot over the Yale Field scoreboard in straightaway center field by journeyman Anthony Saunders.

It's an exciting time. The games are apt to be crisply played with the possibility of a championship ring at stake.

The Rock Cats have the offensive strength. Second baseman Brian Dinkelman has established himself as one of the best hitters in the circuit. Center fielder Brandon Roberts is setting the table in the leadoff spot. Third baseman Luke Hughes is coming off a productive road trip.

Erik Lis can carry a team if he can get on one of his rolls. Versatile Juan Portes is on the DL at the moment but shouldn't be out long. The return of highly prized catcher Wilson Ramos would really bolster the lineup but he remains in Fort Myers with a hamstring issue. Chances are that he won't return so Danny Lehmann and Jeff Christy will share the duties behind the plate.

In Anthony Slama, manager Tom Nieto has the EL's leading closer. Alex Burnett was a capable set-up man before he went on the disabled list during the road trip, making room for the return of veteran Rhode Island righty Jay Rainville.

For starters, southpaw Ryan Mullins has been the Cats' most reliable of late. Matt Fox turned in an exceptional outing in Akron after nearly two months without a win. Deolis Guerra, a key component in the trade that sent Johan Santana to the Mets, has been inconsistent. Cole DeVries is terrific on the road but can't seem to get untracked at home. Mike McCardell returns to the rotation after a shoulder problem put him on the DL for a short spell.

Second place is there for the taking. The New Britain fans have come out in droves this year and deserve a chance for some extra baseball. Any maybe, just maybe, the Cats' inability to handle the first-place Connecticut Defenders will reverse in the Northern Division playoffs.

Friday, July 24, 2009

INFINITY: THE HILLS ARE ALIVE

Sometimes I just have to put sports on the back burner and soak up some culture or history.

With trips to Gettysburg and Colonial Williamsburg in the books and a visit to Boston for a trek on Freedom Trail and a Whale Watch pending, my wife Lisa and I turned our attention toward music. And let me tell you that there is not a better venue anywhere than Infinity Hall in Norfolk.

Norfolk, long a center of culture as home to the Yale Summer School of Music, is located on Route 44 in the Northwest Hills west of Windsor and just east of Canaan.

Infinity Hall features an acoustically perfect setting in a stunning Victorian building that once served as a community center. Adjoining the cozy theater is the new Infinity Bistro with an eclectic menu as interpreted by executive chef Dan Fortin, who has cooked at such respected restaurants as Apricots in Farmington and Trumbull Kitchen in Hartford.

We didn’t eat at the Bistro. We certainly will after seeing it and viewing the menu, but back to the music.

There isn’t a bad seat in the house. Most of the seats are in an orchestra section in front of the stage. A limited number of higher priced seats that feature waitress service for drinks and meals from the Bistro are located in the mezzanine that hangs over the floor.

The stage is living-room snug. Given the acoustics, the surroundings must be quite inspiring to the musicians. Speakers are suspended from the ceiling on either side of the stage.

Our introduction to Infinity Hall came last winter when we saw Atlanta Rhythm Section, a hard-driving Southern rock band whose volume sent some patrons home early. Our second visit on Friday was to watch Aztec Two-Step perform the music of Simon and Garfunkel.

Aztec Two-Step – Rex Fowler and Neal Shulman – have been performing their mellifluous blend of folk and rock since 1971. They were joined on stage by New York City radio personality and Simon and Garfunkel biographer Pete Fornatale, whose personable manner and knowledge of his subject add a unique and welcome element to the show.

Rex and Neal methodically, passionately and brilliantly conducted a musical history tour of S & G’s incredible career, touching on all their greatest hits including “Sound of Silence,” “Mrs. Robinson,” “The Boxer” and “Scarborough Fair.”

The intimate gathering, obviously well-versed in the music of both S & G and Aztec Two-Step, sang along with such verve that it visibly inspired the musicians.

The familiar sound of thunder could be heard over the music toward the end of the second set. As Rex sang the final verses of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” the building experience a power failure. Incredibly, the crowd joined Rex in singing the final verse. The power returned. Rex looked out over the audience and exclaimed, “Awesome!”

I’m a veteran of hundreds of concerts in my time and I have never witnessed such synergy between the performers and the audience. Hearing the timeless treasures that S & G bestowed upon our generation meticulously performed by a duo that has rocked regional audiences for nearly 40 years had a tremendous emotional impact.

We will be returning to Infinity for Pure Prairie League in September and Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in October, but the venue books a wide variety of musical genres well beyond my folk rock/bluegrass tastes.

August brings Livingston Taylor, John Lee Hooker Jr., Roomful of Blues, Al Stewart and Suzy Bogguss. Herman’s Hermits, Tom Rush and Loudon Wainwright III are among the September acts. October features Johnny Winter, Ray Parker Jr. and Allman Brothers guitarist extraordinaire Dickey Betts.

Check the schedule yourself (http://www.infinityhall.com/) because there are many others, some famous and some more local, with tickets priced accordingly. If you go once, I assure you that you’ll be back.

Monday, July 13, 2009

MY VIEW ON A FEW ITEMS

I was greatly disturbed by the news that Tebucky Jones Jr. was arrested for his part in a school fight.

'Twas a time when two boys could mix it up a bit over a heated exchange over a girl or some nasty comments and it didn't make headline news. Now I don't know exactly what happened but I'll share waht I do know.

Tebucky Jones Jr. is a great kid. He worked hard at his sports and his grades while at Farmington High as a freshman and the portion of his sophomore year he spent there. I heard that from several FHS people when he decided to transfer. They wanted what was best for him. He's always been respectful and mild-mannered, especially in the face of the contact he's absorbed on both the football field and basketball court.

Something about this is rotten. He was disciplined by the school when it happened in early May, which is a chance you take when you fight in school. Seems to me it should have ended there. Now, he's arrested two months later?

Is it possible that somebody figures they can tap into the money that Tebucky Sr. earned during his time in the NFL? I don't know this for a fact, but if it's true, it's very sad that Tebucky Jr. has to suffer for it. He's just a kid who got in a school fight. How many of us have done that?

From what I hear, the video that some other kid shot while the spat was going on shows Tebucky Jr. getting the other kid in a headlock. Boy it's a good thing I didn't get busted every time I got a kid in a headlock. I'd probably have been on death row at 15.

I'm sure this affair will not affect Tebucky's participation in sports next fall and/or winter, and by all means, it shouldn't. I hope and pray this doesn't scar him in any way. He doesn't deserve to be singled out. ...

Many Rock Cats regulars have concern about the condition of the field, particularly with the Bob Dylan concert coming up Wednesday. Some of the areas subject to high traffic where new sod had to be installed after the field was re-sod a few years back didn't take and it is now an eyesore.

The beauty of New Britain Stadium at its best is one of the reasons why people come. There is something soothing about a neatly groomed baseball field with the expansive sea of green grass offset by the red clay used for the infield and pitcher's mound.

The hope here is, with so many people packing the Emerald this season, that the concert doesn't add to the problems and that the powers-that-be see fit to dress it up for the rest of July, August and into early September. New Britain Stadium and Willow Brook Park are showcases for our city. We want to be proud of what the thousands of fans see. ...

The days are surely numbered for Eastern League baseball in Norwich. The Eastern League has promised the city of Richmond, Va., that one of the 12 EL franchises would be moved there for 2010. The Connecticut Defenders are the overwhelming choice, although there is still a small chance that the Erie Seawolves would make the move.

I wonder what will happen with Dodd Stadium if the EL departs. Will they bring a New York-Penn (short season Class A) team in there? Rumor has it the team playing in Burlington, Vt., will leave its quaint but antiquated home at the University of Vermont for greener pastures. After all, the school has dropped its baseball program so I'm sure there are no plans to modernize old Centennial Field.

Let's hope the NY-P League comes in rather than independent ball, which seems to be limping toward its demise in Bridgeport and just doesn't have the same pizzazz that the affiliated minor leagues have.

PLEASANT, NO MATTER WHAT THE SCORE

The sun was shining brightly Monday, a rarity in a year that threatens to come and go without a summer. The cumulus clouds, although trimmed with a little gray, puffed up from one horizon to the other.

My cell phone rings and it's Gorman Heimueller, one of my best friends who I hadn't spoken with an awhile. I met Gorman in 1981 when he pitched for the West Haven A's in the Eastern League. He had the proverbial "cup of coffee" with the Oakland A's in 1983.

We re-connected when he became pitching coach for the New Britain Rock Cats in 1995, a position he held through 1997. He was with the Reading Phillies when they were in New Britain, preparing to take on the Rock Cats in the 2001 EL championship series. The date was September 11. Need I say more?

Well, Gorm is the minor league pitching coordinator for the Philadelphia Phillies now and has enjoyed his time there. He and his terrific family had a great time dancing the night away in the City of Brotherly Love late last fall when the Phils disposed of Tampa Bay in the World Series.

Anyway, it was great to hear from an old friend. We talked about the high times we've had, we talked about the sad times, we philosophized about what we've learned concerning the human condition and where we're headed.

By now, I was in the parking lot at New Britain Stadium for the 12:05 p.m. game. Any tie I talk to one of my best friends, I become energized, because there's little in life more valuable to me than the dear friends with whom I share it. You tend to realize how fortunate you are to be able to enjoy the sport you love best in a tremendous atmosphere and just 15 minutes from home.

Win or lose, Rock Cats baseball continues to be one of my guiding lights after 12-plus years covering the team.

The game itself, however, tested my optimism as much as any game can. The Binghamton Mets, cellar-dwellers in the Eastern League's Northern Division, chose this idyllic moment to erupt for six runs in the first innings and five in the second. The final seven innings had little redeeming qualities for anyone except players trying to improve their statistics.

But in spite of viewing lopsided baseball, the sun gleamed and the camaraderie couldn't be better. It got even better than usual when longtime Connecticut scribe and esteemed Chester bon vivant Peter Zanardi came up to spin a few tales. You had Joe D'Ambrosio and Jeff Dooley describing the action (or lack of it) over the air waves. Scott Gray was in the house.

It was a wonderful day, or as wonderful as they get when the hometowners are losing 14-0.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

WHALERS HYPOCRISY

Talk about charlatans, how about the group that calls itself the Hartford Whalers Booster Club.

First of all, they say they’re trying to bring the NHL back to Hartford. Didn’t the NHL commish Gary Bettman make it abundantly clear that such a prospect was about as probable as ice forming on the Connecticut River in August?

Given the condition of the Hartford Civic (nee XL) Center, the NHL certainly wouldn’t occupy such an obsolete facility, so a Whalers rebirth would require a new building. Why would anybody put funds into something like that when the Hartford Wolf Pack can’t even attract a quorum in the deadest downtown since Dry Gulch, Nevada?

But the real audacity comes when you consider that the Whalers Booster Club, I’m told, shuns the Wolf Pack because they’re not in the NHL. In essence, they’re minor league. And where do they come to peddle their empty dreams? New Britain Stadium, where the dreaded idea of minor league sports attracted over 8,000 people on Saturday night.

They actually parked in the Rock Cats’ radio booth and said the state needs the Whalers to return to “put Connecticut on the map.” I guess what’s happened in Storrs since Tate George made “The Shot” doesn’t qualify with their mapmakers? The Whalers can come back and win five Stanley Cup titles and won’t have the impact of what Jim Calhoun and Geno Auriemma have brought here.

I think most intelligent sports fans recognize that Hartford is not Boston and it is not New York City. Connecticut’s proximity to those metropolitan areas may elicit some envy, but the Whalers Booster Club and their like perhaps will someday understand that the state is simply not a major league venue. We have our Huskies, and we have a perfectly wonderful and well-received minor league baseball situation with the Rock Cats.

From a professional sports standpoint, Connecticut is minor league, and thousands of Rock Cats fans attest that most are damned proud of it.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A VACATION INSPIRES

Vacations are meant to pull folks away from the subject matter that dominates their professional lives, so when my wife Lisa and I set out for our getaway, I put sports on the back-burner and immersed myself into the fascinating domain of Ameican history.

First we went to Gettysburg, Pa., where voices of the pivotal Civil War battle July 1-3, 1863 can still be heard if you pay close attention. We stood among the graves where Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. We contemplated his words and marveled in their profound meaning.

We stayed at an inn adjacent to Gen. Robert E. Lee's headquarters. We thought about the agonizing decisions he was forced to make. When tensions rose before the war, he had to decide whether to fight for the preservation of the union that he grew to love during his time at West Point, or for the tenets of his native state, Virginia.

We absorbed the strategy he configured as he led the Army of Northern Virginia through Maryland and into Gettysburg. A Southern victory surely would have altered the course of the war, and how close he got.

We dined in an old building -- the Farnsworth House -- which still bears the scars of bullets that ricocheted off brick. From where one stray bullet killed Jennie Wade, the only civilian to be slain in the battle, while she baked bread for Union soliders.

I stood on the "Angle," the very point where Confederate General George Pickett led his ill-fated charge at the Federal's center on the battle's third day, Lee's last gasp. We ascended Little Round Top, where General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and his 20th Maine regiment used raw courage to beat back a Confederate attack when their ammunition had run out.

"... from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave their last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain ..."

Lincoln's words still ring clear 200 years after his birth. Every American should have the chance to absorb his spirit at the spot they were issued.

From there, it was on to Colonial Williamsburg, where the history of the days leading up to the American Revolution come alive before your very eyes. We took part in a debate in which Virginians of the 1780s wrestled with the choice of seeking independence or standing by England's King George III.

We witnessed a 1706 witch trial where the prosecuting attorney delivered such a strong case that we were wondering just how the accused woman could be anything but a witch.

An agitated re-enactor comes running down the street to inform the Williamsburg populace that a British regiment over 1,000 strong is on the edge of town. A short time later, we are given a forceful address by famous turncoat Benedict Arnold on why we should place our loyalty behind our king instead of a rag-tag group of rebels with no chance to succeed.

We made a side to nearby Jamestown, the site of the first English settlement on North American soil in 1607, where archaeologists have unearthed thousands of revealing artifacts that display the hardships encountered by the brave people who left the relative comforts of England to settle a new world.

But perhaps the most compelling aspect of our journey was another side trip to Yorktown, where the troops of British general Lord Cornwallis laid down their arms at the feet of George Washington in the battle that signalled the end of the American Revolution.

The redoubts (small, heavily armed forts) over-run by the French and American troops remain in tact on a pristine field just outside of town. A self-guided auto tour of the battlefield reveals the essence of strategy employed by Washington's colonials and their French comrades in tightening the vice on Cornwallis, whose plan to escape across the river was thwarted.

The very field where Cornwallis' men, overcome with despair, tossed their weapons in a pile with the victorious American and French lined up on either side, remains untouched. But Cornwallis wasn't there that day. He lie in a Yorktown rooming house, reportedly too ill to attend the proceedings.

Standing alone, next to Surrender Field, left me with a feeling of inspiration, pride and eternal appreciation of what the men who fought there accomplished.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

MiLB: A DIFFERENT KIND OF 'SHOW'

The more I delve into the nature of minor league baseball, the more I realize how different it is than its big-league counterpart. In fact, it's amazing how different it is than most any other sports entity.

Most of us close to the minors are well aware that player development is of premier importance, moreso than winning. It should go without saying. Why else would MLB clubs infuse millions of dollars into their minor league teams? Establishing a reseve of young talent has never been so crucial as it is today with injuries, particular to pitchers, so prevalent.

MLB teams will reinforce the idea that winning is important, and of course it is. Winning is an attitude that can develop among a core of minor league players and translate into big-league success.

The Twins are a great example. In 1998, the Rock Cats featured 1B Doug Mientkiewicz, SS Cristian Guzman, OF Jacque Jones, OF Torii Hunter, C A.J. Pierzynski and LHP J.C. Romero as they crushed their way to the Northern Division pennant. Within the next two seasons, they were the core of a young Twins club that was playoff-bound.

In 2001, the Rock Cats roared the Eastern League pennant with 3B Michael Cuddyer, 1B Justin Morneau, OF Michael Restovich, OF Dustan Mohr, RHP Juan Rincon and OF Lew Ford, many of whom figured prominently in the next wave to Minnesota.

But winning is simply a desirable byproduct of development, and fans need to appreciate minor league games for what they are. It's fine if fans want to immerse themselves in pennant races, batting championships and powerful statistics but the real value to the fan is appreciating the sterling defensive plays, late-inning rallies and powerful pitching performances because they're all there for the watching.

When the Rock Cats lost set-up man Rob Delaney to Triple-A Rochester, the first reaction is to dwell on what the team lost. Delaney's contribution to the Cats over the first 10 weeks of the season was monumental. But when the disappointment of losing him diminishes, we have to be happy for the player, happy for the Cats coaching staff for inspiring Delaney and happy that the Twins' system is producing.

In the big leagues, there is little to be happy about other than winning.

Vince Lombardi ("Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing.") may not have liked the concept, but minor league baseball provides the excitement of watching young players develop.

In New Britain, we marvel in the fact that Kyle Lohse, now a multi-millionaire with the St. Lous Cardinals, was once 3-18 with a 6.04 ERA with the Rock Cats in 2000. How about Ron Mahay, a light-hitting outfielder with the New Britain Red Sox in the early 1990s, still in the big leagues as a left-handed relief pitcher?

We can also marvel about having the chance to see how a young Joe Mauer blended remarkable talent with that intangible "feel" for the game into super-stardom. And how left-handed hitting Jason Kubel took the EL by storm for a mere month, showing the Twins that his ability was at a higher level.

On the other side of the coin, we have seen highly touted first-round bonus babies hit the wall and splatter into the domain of working stiffs like most of us tend to be. Remember pitcher Adam Johnson? How about the sad cases of LHP Ryan Mills and OF B.J. Garbe, great young guys who for one reason or another didn't have what it takes.

There's nothing I'd rather see then an EL pennant flying majestically over New Britain Stadium, but you know what? There's nothing wrong with just enjoying the baseball as the games go rolling by.

Friday, June 5, 2009

LIP LASHES OUT

I don't often do this but the emotions are bubbling to the surface and if I don't let it out with a primal scream, I'm afraid I'll implode. And none of you want that, at least until you read what lies ahead.


 

HEADLINE – David Ortiz suffers through slump


 

LIP'S QUIP – Go ahead, fair-weather Bosox boosters. Hammer away. What have you done for me lately? Make a mistake and get outta here. Those two world championships were a long time ago and Papi's hitting .187. As an acquaintance of David when he played for the New Britain Rock Cats in 1996 and visited when the Minnesota Twins played an exhibition game in our fair city, I can tell you that he's is wonderfully human, not some clutch-hitting machine who exists for the pleasure of the most narrow-minded sports fans in the country.

And you call yourself blue-staters, compassionate liberals who can't wait to support the next candidate who eschews bleeding-heart causes, but you dump on the guy who carried your beloved team to two championships. I don't care if Ortiz hits .087. You should kiss the ground he walks on for what he did for your 86 years of suffering. For the way you've all treated him, I wish your seasons without fulfillment were at 93 and counting.


 

HEADLINE – Phoenix Mercury allow sponsors on jerseys


 

LIP'S QUIP – I've heard all the rationalization for propping up the WNBA. It supports Title XI legislation. Hey, it's common in European soccer and NASCAR. Any more excuses for the public not buying into women's professional basketball in many of the cities it's in?

Let me preface any further comments with this: I love watching the women play hoop. You won't find a stauncher supporter than me when it comes to reporting on scholastic girls sports or most any amateur endeavor involving women. I am not a sexist, and I can give you the names of 1,000 females who would bristle at the suggestion. And I hope and pray that Tony DiCicco's women's soccer league can make the grade. But when it comes to success at the professional level, you're in a different universe. People have to be willing to dig into their pockets and pay the price of admission.

This has never been a problem at Mohegan Sun. The union of the highly successful casino complex and the WNBA was well-conceived and a blessing for a region that relishes women's basketball. I'm sorry to say that the same love for the sport does not exist across the width and breadth of our nation. The demise of the Houston franchise is a solemn warning. Face it, if it wasn't for the long arms of the NBA serving as a safety net, the WNBA would be fighting for its life.

So I wish the Mercury good luck in their sponsorship decision, and I'll always love Diana no matter what she wears on her jersey, but when seawater starts leaking into the galley, it's not long before the ship starts listing.


 

HEADLINE – Pirates trade All-Star OF Nate McLouth to Braves


 

LIP'S QUIP – Speaking of sinking ships, here is another reason for the proud fans of Pittsburgh to hibernate between the Penguins' final power play of the season and the beginning of NFL training camp. How can fans and sponsors in the Steel City possibly lay out their hard-earned dollars to support a team that hasn't had a winning season since I was wearing bell-bottoms and continue to deal away their future? I saw McLouth come through the Pirates' system and he's an exciting, productive, young player who could serve as a key piece for a pennant-winning club. Haven't they as much as told their fans that they will not be able to compete in the climate that currently exists in baseball.

The once-proud Buccos aren't alone on the small-market express to Downtown Disintegration. How can the Oakland A's in all good conscience market that brutal ballclub with all its pitching peddled to large markets to their loyal (but scant) subjects? Tim Hudson. Dan Haren. Rich Harden. Barry Zito. Joe Blanton. Huston Street. Jason Isringhausen. Some have been more productive than others but the ongoing fire sale on the Oakland hill must disturb somebody other than me.

Baseball is headed for an apocalypse, perhaps not in my lifetime, but how long will small-market teams continue to commit hara-kiri (no, not the late Cubbies announcer) and lure their fans and supporters to a spiral staircase with no top floor? And remember, Red Sox and Yankee fans who care only about their own teams, you have to have somebody to play other than each other, the Angels, Dodgers and Phillies.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

ROCK CATS MAKING A RUN

Tempus fugit -- Time flies -- Long time between blogs.

Most of my time is spent following the very resilient New Britain Rock Cats, who at this writing have moved to within a game of the lead in the Eastern League's Northern Division.

The Rock Cats have used a potent lineup to crash their way toward the top. Rob Delaney, who today was deservingly promoted to Triple-A Rochester, and Anthony Slama have consistently turned in exceptional work out of the bullpen.

We knew the starters weren't going to light up the velocity meters but they have persevered.

Cole DeVries went undrafted after his career at the University of Minnesota but has made his way methodically through the Minnesota Twins system. As I watch him pitch and talk with him afterward, I quickly comprehend that DeVries is an intelligent young man who absorbs his lessons extremely well. He doesn't blow hitters away, and while his record hovers around .500, he always keeps the Cats in a game. Most managers will tell you that's all they can expect.

Matt Fox emerged as the top starter in May. Fox, a right-hander, was a first-round sandwich pick for the Twins in 2004 but major shoulder surgery cost him a season and some of his velocity.

The surgically reconstructed shoulder is fine but leaves him wondering if he will ever get back the velocity he once had. My first reaction was, probably not, but who knows? In the meantime, Fox battles. Over his last four starts, he's 4-0 with an 0.74 ERA. He's become the stopper.

Jay Rainville and Ryan Mullins have both struggled with their command. Since neither is overpowering, their margin for error is small. They succeed when they keep their pitches down in the strike zone and attack the hitters.

Jeff Manship, projected as the number one starter, has shown glimpses lately of the pitcher he was at high-A Fort Myers last year. The walks have diminished and the ERA has dropped a whole run over his last two outings.

On the offensive side, there is no question that Danny Valencia is going to be a very fine major league third baseman. He fields his position well and profiles well offensively with power that makes the ball jump off his bat. He's been hindered by nagging injuries that keep him out for a few games. Every time he comes back, he punishes pitchers. He is among the best players in the EL and will likely move to Triple-A before long.

Catching prospect Wilson Ramos missed three weeks when he broke the tip of his middle finger on his left hand. We're all looking forward to seeing Ramos play for an extended period of time over the next few months so we can get a better idea just how good he is and how good he can be.

Brandon Roberts is an effective leadoff hitter and a decent center fielder. His talents are very important to the offense because he's one of the few Rock Cats who can slap base hits around and use his wheels to set the table for the sluggers and change the course of close ballgames with his wheels.

Rene Tosoni and Whit Robbins have made tremendous strides in adjusting to EL ball. They both hit with power and Robbins is truly establishing himself as a big-league prospect by spraying base hits in between booming homers. Both have played well defensively, too.

In Yancarlos Ortiz, the Rock Cats have a shortstop with plus range and a strong arm. He'll occasionally mess up a routine play but gives the Cats strength up the middle and a solid double-play tandem with second baseman Brian Dinkelman.

All in all, the team has competed well and is well worth the price of admission at New Britain Stadium, but I probably don't have to tell you that. With all the folks who are streaming through the gates at the Emerald, you must have been among them by now. If not, whaddya waitin' for.

Friday, May 15, 2009

HERE'S ONE PROBLEM, FOR STARTERS

How can such terrible things happen to such wonderful people?

If I was having a dinner party, I couldn't think of five finer people to have come by than the Rock Cats starting rotation. Jeff Manship, Matt Fox, Ryan Mullins, Jay Rainville and Cole DeVries have all been very accommodating, pleasant young men who respond candidly when they pitch well and accept responsibility when they don't.

Unfortunately, with the very notable exception of DeVries, they haven't, and it's taking a hideous toll on the Rock Cats during the present homestand.

Without counting Thursday night's suspended game in which the Rock Cats trailed 8-1 in the Portland fourth, the team ERA over the previous five games was 7.16. The only victory during that stretch was a 12-11 win.

Talent is not the issue. Manship was of All-Star quality at the high-A level in Fort Myers and there is no reason why it shouldn't translate here and beyond. He's 2-3 with a 6.31 ERA.

Fox and Rainville have eerily similar track records.

Both were first-round sandwich picks in the 2004 draft, Fox chosen 35th overall and Rainville 39th. Both suffered shoulder injuries that wiped out full seasons.

Rainville, 23, a powerfully built 6-foot-2-inch, 234-pound right-hander from Rhode Island, had a nerve injury and missed the entire 2006 season after posting a 3.29 ERA and striking out 110 in 142 1/3 innings at Fort Myers the season before. Counting the suspended game where he was lit up for six earned runs in 2 2/3 innings, his ERA is at 6.14. He yielded seven earned runs in 3 2/3 in his previous outing -- the 12-11 game -- when he had a 10-2 lead with which to work.

Fox, 26, a Baseball America first-team All-American at the University of Central Florida in 2003, missed all of 2005 rehabbing from shoulder surgery. Command (16 walks in 33 1/3 innings) has abandoned him. He's 1-2 with a 4.32, and has a respectable ratio of hits (32) to innings pitched.

Mullins' Double-A inauguration in 2007 has some stirring moments. The 6-foot-6-inch southpaw out of Vanderbilt displayed a deception that had hitters off-balance. But the Eastern League caught up to him last year, hitting .287 against him over 30 games (24 starts). He's currently 0-5 with a 5.79 ERA and the league is hitting .339 against him.

DeVries has been sensational at 2-2 with a 2.23 ERA. He's gone through his last three starts (18 innings) without surrendering an earned run.

There's nothing I'd like better than to see the other four pitch their way back to prospect status, and they should all consider the case of former Rock Cat turned Cardinals multi-millionaire Kyle Lohse (3-18 with a 6.04 ERA with New Britain in 2000), but the turnaround absolutely needs to begin now. Although it hasn't been a particularly cold spring, June is on the horizon and the warmer weather is setting in.

The starters cannot continue to fall short of six or seven innings of quality work. The bullpen has been stretched beyond its limits. Something has to change with the pitching and the leaky defense or a team with outstanding offensive abilities will be hopelessly buried in no time.

Friday, May 8, 2009

IMPORTANT HOMESTAND LOOMS FOR CATS

The Rock Cats have rallied back into the midst of the Northern Division race, but it's largely been on the strength of their offense.

The defense has been adequate. They have made their share of sensational defensive plays but have made some costly errors.

When Wilson Ramos is behind the plate and Brandon Roberts is in center field, they are strong up the middle. Yancarlos Ortiz has some flash at shortstop and Steve Tolleson is steady. Brian Dinkelman is an All-Star quality second baseman. That gives them passing grades up the middle.

In the corners, Matt Moses has developed into a good left fielder. Rene Tosoni has been exceptional in right, displaying a powerful arm. Juan Portes has shown to be a steady defender both in the outfield and filling in for the injured Danny Valencia at third base. Toby Gardenhire is a valuable utility player. He even filled in admirably at catcher when manager Tom Nieto had a need.

What concerns me is the pitching.

The rotation features four right-handers -- Jeff Manship, Cole DeVries, Matt Fox and Jay Rainville -- with similar attributes. None are overpowering. They have to spot their fastballs and have command of their breaking balls to be successful. Therefore, the opposing teams get similar looks day in and day out, which allows the hitters to get in a rhythm against them.

Manship had two starts where he looked like the stopper he was projected to be. DeVries has exceeded all expectations thus far with most of his outings solid. Fox and Rainville have not pitched with the kind of consistency needed to get deep enough into games.

Left-hander Ryan Mullins has been unable to get untracked this far.

The bullpen is among the league's best with Rob Delaney setting up closer Anthony Slama. Frank Mata and Yohan Pino have been effective at times but you never seem to know what you're going to get when they're called on. Zach Ward has had some major struggles of late after pitching so well for most of 2008.

The Twins generally make some adjustments between Double-A and high-A every year in mid-June so we're still about a month away from wholesale change. The high-A Fort Myers Miracle have a number of pitchers throwing well, particularly starter Carlos Gutierrez and reliever Steven Hirschfeld. With minor league director Jim Rantz due for a visit soon, we should get the lowdown on what the future holds.

The potential is there for the best season since 2003, but if the rotation can't put together a string of quality starts, the bullpen could begin to suffer from overwork and escaping the lower reaches of the division will be difficult.

With at least one victory in the current three-game road trip to Portland in the bag, the upcoming homestand should give us a good idea where the team is headed. We'll get our first look at the Connecticut Defenders and another look at Portland, which doesn't seem to have the high quality talent its had in recent years.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

FOR THE LOVE OF SPARKY

Spring is a time when New England surges back to life after a bleak winter, but in my family it has also become a time of sorrow.

My wife and I experienced deep grief on April 27 when the time had come to put Sparky, out beloved dog of 15 years, out of her misery.

Sparky was a purebred keeshond. She looked remarkably like the dog depicted in UConn's familiar Husky logo. And smart? I have never known a smarter dog. She slept with us, ate with us, helped us bring up our children and provided comic relief.

She would watch the television screen intently for animals and unleash her shrill bark whenever a dog, or horse (she knew them as "big doggies") or most nototiously, a cat, would come onto the screen. Our little sentinel would climb the stairs that lead from our living room to the second-floor bedrooms to the fifth step, where she could see out three of the windows to see who or what was coming or going.

Indeed, our home was Sparky's realm. Squirrels, cats and other dogs were not invited.

Sparky was obviously getting old. Keeshonds, know as Dutch barge dogs because they would help unload boats using their small but sturdy frames, generally live to be 12 but Sparky persevered. She persevered through Cushing's disease, which ravaged her skin among other things. She recovered quickly from surgeries on her patella and the removal of a growth from her back side.

Our vet, Dr. Tanya Batterson, called Sparky a "trouper." All Sparky wanted to do was please us and be with us and to that end she staved off disease and discomfort, discouraged strangers from entering our midst and lived to a ripe old age.

But that didn't make it any easier to say good-bye. Yes, the muscle in Sparky's back legs had atrophied to the point where she struggled to get to her feet. She had stopped climbing the stairs long ago. Yet she was nobly fighting off the sure signs of old age.

On April 27, something went terribly wrong. Lisa came back from their daily walk crying uncontrollably. Sparky simply could not walk. She could no longer squat to do her business. She began vomiting up a thick yellow substance. She held her head crooked.

Our "trouper" had suffered an ischemic stroke as a direct result of the Cushing's disease.

We brought her to an emergency clinic in Avon, where the youngsters working there and the veterinarian were gentle, understanding and kind. They gave us some options, but in all fairness to our dear companion, Sparky's time had come.

The doctor put a catheter into her forearm. She laid on the table panting heavily, seeming without knowledge of what was going on around her. He injected a pink gel into her and within 20 seconds, her loving heart stopped beating. I watched the life drift out of her. A cold, distant look came into her eyes. She no longer responded to my touch.

All dogs go to heaven, I kept repeating to myself. We walked out of the room and into the parking lot. A guttural noise emanated from deep within as I leaned against my truck and tried to come to grips with what had just happened. I hadn't heard that sound roll up from my stomach since my mother was suffering with cancer and on her death bed exactly 19 years earlier. I was not the same person after my mom died. I am not the same person I was on April 26, 2009.

Just over a week has passed since our gut-wrenching loss and reminders of Sparky's incredible life abound.

The soft spring breeze tinkles the mobile that hangs in the porch and it sounds like that familiar jingle her dog tags made. The house groans when the stormy winds blow and it seems like she'll come around the corner with her beautiful, soft head bobbing back and forth. Everything keeshond still decorates our living quarters. The fifth step is empty.

Unanswerable questions, forever the bane of humankind, continue to fog my mind: Does Sparky's spirit still live? Does she know how much we loved her? Does she know how much we miss her?

Lisa and I look ahead, trying to survive our terrible loss. We hope there is another dog -- almost certainly another keeshond -- in our future, but right now, there is no replacement for Sparky.

She was a treasure beyond what any human could possibly provide.

Monday, May 4, 2009

ROCK CATS ARE ROLLING

The Rock Cats are taking shape on the field. Off the field, they're spitting in the face of the recession.

After a slow start, the Cats bats are exploding with hits the way I envisioned when I was at spring training. The starting pitching is holding its own right now and the bullpen, although it burped against Trenton, has basically been phenomenal.

I urge local fans to get a glimpse of two very promising players who will be wearing big-league duds someday. Third baseman Danny Valencia and catcher Wilson Ramos can play this game. The sound and velocity of the ball leaving their bats conveys a message that they are special talents. Given the changing nature of Double-A baseball, they may not be here all that long so make your plans.

If you don't, rest assured that somebody else will. The attendance at The Emerald has been nothing short of sensational with the Cats leading the Eastern League in per-game average by 800 over the second-place Portland Sea Dogs.

Don't read too much into that as far as New Britain ending up on top. The stadium simply cannot hold the kinds of crowds that places like Portland and Reading bring in when the weather warms up but this is the best early spring the Cats have ever had. The sales people are doing a magnificent job and people are responding through walk-up sales at the ticket windows.

There is not a better entertainment bargain anywhere so it should be of no surprise, especially when fans try to buy their annual allotment of tickets in Fenway or The Bronx. The Sox and Yanks will probably start offering mortgages on their ticket deals.

In Boston, $30 won't even get you a parking space. In New Britain, it gets four family members into a Wednesday game and each gets a hot dog, soft drink and box of popcorn. Okay, we're not watching major leaguers here, but the savvy local fan has seen Jacoby Ellsbury, Clay Buchholz, Jon Lester, Jonathan Papelbon, Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis over the last six or seven seasons.

In New York, $7 won't even get you in a game of three-card monte but in New Britain, you can get seats so close to first base that you'll be ducking on high throws from shortstop. And we have seen the likes of Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes, Brett Gardner and Ramiro Pena.

I would like to encourage anybody who considers a Rock Cats visit to think ahead. First, tickets for key series can get to the premium stage, particularly fireworks Friday nights and games against the Red Sox and Yankees minor league stars. Also, come out early. The Rock Cats offer all kinds of pregame festivity, batting practice is fun to watch and you avoid the inevitable parking lot jam-ups that leave cars creeping down South Main Street and stuck on the Route 9 spur from the south that feeds right into Willow Brook Park.