Thursday, April 16, 2009


The emotion within Karen Byrne built up like a tsunami.

The New Britain High girls basketball coach knew she would be overwhelmed as she bade her official farewell to the seniors who had shaped her first two seasons, at the banquet for the school's two successful hoop teams Wednesday night. She fought it off with considerable determination but her seawall cracked.

Byrne, like so many high school coaches, puts forth incredible amounts of time and effort to prepare for and execute her season. Reporters, fans and teachers get to see the sexy part -- the games. They aren't around for the practices and the dynamics that are a part of every group striving to meet its goal, a part of every family situation.

One of the seniors -- Sinead Colom -- was unable to attend. Symone Roberts, surely the most decorated basketball player in NBHS history and perhaps the school's most recognized athlete since Tebucky Jones, joined her four-year teammates Sarah Sideranko and Monika Malec.

None of the three outwardly displayed the kind of emotion that overtook their coach, but these are high school seniors. They certainly are above average in intelligence, I grant you, but given the peer pressure associated with their age group and the blessed naivete of youth, they simply smiled.

Roberts, the state's Gatorade player of the year with a list of accomplishments far too lenghty to commit to memory, is headed for Providence College, where her blazing speed and desire to win may just help but that school's program on the Big East map.

Sideranko drained every milliliter of energy from her heart and soul for every second she was on the floor, but at 5-foot-nothing, basketball in college was not a likely scenario. But a person cannot be governed by physical restrictions. Sideranko, named the top academic female student-athlete at NBHS, rode her talents on the golf course for a scholarship to the University of Hartford.

And Malec, a versatile and determined young lady, showed wisdom beyond her years when she accepted her role on a team with the offensive explosiveness of a Symone Roberts and accentuated the team's strengths by giving readily of herself.

As Byrne said, New Britain High may never see the likes of this senior class again.

* * * *

It's been a rather busy time for me.

For a guy who rarely travels out of state, I jetted to Fort Myers, Fla., to cover the Rock Cats in spring training from March 29 to April 3. On April 4, the family zipped up to suburban Boston for a nephew's bar mitzvah. On April 8, I was retracing some of those tire tracks in driving up to Manchester, N.H., for the Rock Cats' season-opening four-game series against the New Hampshire Fisher Cats.

When I received an email from NB boys hoop coach Stan Glowiak two days prior to the banquet, I didn't think I could squeeze it in. When Karen Byrne phoned with her kind words about our work at The Herald, I had to go, and I'm so glad I did.

Byrne's seniors won two state championships, appeared in a third and coped with adversity this year when they had to forfeit five victories and fell victim to a smoking-hot Mercy team in the second round of the CIACs last month.

I'd be remiss not to mention Glowiak's boys. They're dream of a state title was dashed by Stamford in a double-overtime quarterfinal, but judging them on how far they got would be terribly misguided.

These are great kids, kids that Glowiak truly enjoyed coaching this year. As he put it, he didn't have to be a social worker and a surrogate parent this season. He just had to coach, and he truly enjoyed it.

The program regaled the efforts of seniors Raheem McKinley, Quashon Moore, Robert McKinnon, Darien Willis and Robert Bryant, whose season was all but wiped away by a knee injury. McKinnon, it should be noted, lay in a hospital bed during the proceedings with what Glowiak said could be a punctured lung. The assemblage quieted with concern over the Hurricanes' sixth man who came off the bench firing high-arcing three-pointers that often made a big difference.

I wasn't their outstanding records on the court that made this night special as it was the knowledge that these kids absorbed some of life's most vital lessons as part of their commitment to the team. As Glowiak noted, these kids will go to college. Some of them will return to the scene of their memorable hoop experience and give back to another group of youngsters seeking their route to a successful future through the haze of personal issues and peer pressure.

Glowiak referred to Michael Peterson, a NBHS grad who went on to the University of Rhode Island and now serves as the dean of discipline and an assistant coach. Peterson is the consummate role model and his commitment is a huge blessing to all he touches.

Now I ask you, isn't that what high school sports are all about?

Sunday, April 12, 2009


Upon arriving home from Manchester, N.H., for the Rock Cats' season-opening series, I leafed through copies of The Herald to catch up on what my colleagues were up to in my absence.

I came upon the All-Herald section for 2008-09 scholastic winter sports and in my opinion, it was an absolute masterpiece. I helped a little, writing some of the biographies for some of the finest youngsters I've ever met, but the brunt of the work fell into the hands of sports editor Matt Straub, assistant SE Ryan Pipke and Andrew Lovell. I commend them for a brilliant piece of work.

For a staff with four people which has to come up with local sports news daily, it is very challenging to publish special sections that take so many man-hours to craft. The guys obviously worked long, hard and meticulously on this endeavor. It made me very proud to know I played a part in it, but most of the credit should go to the others. Some of our student-athletes will utilize this honor to help propel themselves into the colleges and/or jobs of their choice. That's what it's all about.

The All-Herald section always reaffirms in my heart the vital nature of covering local sports, although we try to do our best every day to bring you a clear snapshot of what happens in our eight towns. Aside from high schools, we are one of only 30 cities in America to have a Double-A professional baseball team. We also have a terrific Division I college and a women's soccer team (SoccerPlus CT Reds) in one of the nation's top amateur leagues (Women's Premier Soccer League). And what great high schools we have! We couldn't do what we do without such clear interaction from our local athletic directors and coaches.

Another thing I noticed is the dramatic improvement of our local news coverage since we became a pillar in the new company, Central Connecticut Communication. Page after page reflects our coverage in the eight towns instead of the excess window dressing that gradually crept over the paper from the time I started here in 1995 until the new regime came in.

My recent trips to Fort Myers, Fla., and New Hampshire, enabled me to view numerous other papers in the same circulation category as The Herald, and our paper surpasses them in my opinion. I could not have said that honestly a year ago when I was previously in Fort Myers.

I hope the general populace recognizes what has become so very clear to me. While I haven't had the chance to see CCC's other daily, The Bristol Press, I'm sure it, too, has captured the essence of what fires sports and politics in that great city.

This may look like a shameless example of self-promotion, but I assure you that it is not my nature to engage in that sort of thing. It comes from the heart. I wouldn't put my pesonal integrity on the line to gain brownie points. It shouldn't place me among the boy-who-cried-wolf crowd because I have never done anything like this before.

We HAVE improved exponentially, and we are still improving! I hope that more of you will invite us into your homes from Rocky Hill to Terryville and Burlington to Berlin because there should be a spot for us on your favorite coffee table. You need to know what's happening around town and if you give us a chance, we're gonna tell you.

Saturday, April 11, 2009


From the tropical delight of Southwest Florida to a Northern New England city emerging from a rough winter ...

This is my third trip to Manchester, N.H., and I'm enjoying the ride. Now that I know my way around a little, it's easier to while away what spare time I've had doing something other than staring at the walls of a hotel room.

Here are some tidbits about the ballpark, horribly named Stadium, but surely one of the finest minor league parks in the nation. Stadium may stretch the limits of the stadium sponsorship concept but the newest ballpark in the Eastern League is a gem.

The stadium sits majestically on the east bank of the Merrimack River, affording fans walking on the third-base concourse superb river views to the north and south.

The newest addition to the stadium is a sports bar and grill that allows fans to eat high-quality food and watch the game from behind the left-field wall. The grill features reasonably priced all-you-can-eat specials every night.

Flanking the restaurant just beyond the wall in left-center sits the Hilton Garden Inn, an attractive six-story hotel with a patio that allows patrons to view the game.

Beyond the hotel, the terrain rises toward the downtown skyline dominated by the Verizon Wireless Arena, which houses the Manchester Monarchs of the AHL, the Manchester Wolves of arenafootball2, basketball games and concerts.

Sixteen skyboxes encircle the stadium from the second deck, separated by an expansive press box.

The playing field has legitimate dimensions in left field, 326 feet down the line and 380 to straightaway left, where it jogs towards a 400-foot distance in dead center field.

Thirty feet into right center, the wall jogs in severely, giving the outfield a Fenway Park look. Consequently, the distance to right field is considerably shorter – 353 feet straightaway and just 306 down the line.

An appropriately named street runs behind the right field wall – Line Drive – parallel to railroad tracks.

A visit to Manchester would be a nice getaway for New Britain-area fans. If you come, visit the Mall of New Hampshire and have lunch downtown at Red Arrow Diner, a classic old-fashioned eatery with the traditional booths and stools reminiscent of the 1950s.

Have dinner at the ballpark. Centerplate, which also manages the food concession at New Britain Stadium, does a tremendous job. Trust me, you won't have to choose between a ballpark frank and second-rate pizza. We're talking sausage and peppers, steak tips, seafood platters and "chowda."

Doesn't if figure. I start to blog and my true passions rise to the surface -- nostalgia and food. The first thing I did this morning was watch "Bonanza" and eat at the Comfort Inn's nifty little breakfast nook, which by the way is complimentary.

Heading home tonight. I'll be cruising down the Mass Pike, listening to the Grateful Dead or '50s Music and thinking about stopping in Manchester, CT, to pick up a Pepe's pizza. Hey, it ain't gonna change. I'm too old and set in my ways for that.

Friday, April 10, 2009


Please excuse me for the lack of activity here, as I've submitted most all of my pieces to The Herald for print publication.

My annual spring training trip to Fort Myers, Fla., is best related you in the combined form of travelogue and some personal embellishment, but mostly something Minnesota Twins fans, New Britain Rock Cats fans and baseball fans in general can enjoy.

First from a personal standpoint, I had the wonderful opportunity to stay with my longest and one of my dearest friends -- Andy Vaspasiano -- who lives with his lovely wife Karen and youngest son A.J. between the Twins' complex and Naples. Getting to stay with a friend, in whose home I feel like I'm at my own, is such an incredible advantage. It is truly one of the pleasures of my life to reconnect with a friend who's been a friend since we were 3.

I also have so many friends at the Twins complex.

Atop the list is Jim Rantz, the Twins' minor league director. Jim personifies one of the grandest and most fleeting human resources -- loyalty. He is incredibly loyal to the team, truly concerned with the welfare of his minor league partners and for 13 years has been as responsive as a person can be when it comes to my needs as a sports journalist and person.

But the list goes on -- Kate Townley, Jim's assistant, is so ccommodating; Brad Steil, director of baseball operations; Joel Lepel, minor league field coordinator; Dustin Morse, manager of baseball communications; Bill Springman, minor league hitting coordinator; Eric Rasmussen, Rock Cats pitching coach in 1998 and now in his new post as minor league pitching coordinator; Paul Molitor, Hall of Famer now serving as minor league baserunning/infield coordinator.

Twins GM Bill Smith is a longtime friend whom I saw briefly. Can you imagine anybody more busy than Smith as the Twins whittle down big league camp to 25? And Terry Ryan, former GM and one of the game's great scouts, was friendly as always, but also very busy.

I got to touch base with former Rock Cats managers Stan Cliburn, Riccardo Ingram and Bobby Cuellar, all of whom will be guiding the fortunes of the Twins' Triple-A team in Rochester.

I've left out many, but needless to say, dear friends and colleagues (La Velle Neal and J0e Christensen of the Minneapolis Star Tribune; Kelly Thieser of warmed my heart nearly as much as 84 degrees and sunny. Kudos are also in order to Buddy and Lynne Robinson, Rock Cats and Twins fans to the core, who helped channel some of the dynamic photos from spring training that Herald readers saw.

The team that came north to don Rock Cats garb was never actually together during my five-day stay in Fort Myers. Whether that was problematic to the development of the team is up for debate, but always at the heart of any such discussion needs to be that the Rock Cats serve at the behest of the Twins for the purpose of developing big league talent. Thus, some Rock Cats were still in big league camp, many were playing in the Triple-A work group and one -- left-hander Jose Lugo -- was en route from Seattle camp when the Mariners opted to return him under the rules of the Rule 5 draft.

My assessment of the team is this: great offensive balance in a predominantly left-handed-hitting lineup with plenty of pop; solid up the middle with exceptional catching prospect Wilson Ramos, shortstop Steve Tolleson, second baseman Brian Dinkelman and center fielder Brandon Roberts when he gets healthy (lower back), tremendous bullpen led by Rob Delaney and Anthony Slama; decent speed, again depending on Roberts' recovery; starting rotation, perhaps the key component for any team, is very much in question; plus talent in high Class A, an insurance policy when Rock Cats players are promoted.

Here's the travelogue portion.

I went to the Gulf Coast Town Center, an outdoor mall that would best be described as its own little community. It's dotted with tropical foliage, cobblestone walkways, pastel accoutrements, superb restaurants with Paris street-style open-air cafes and retail stores to suit man, woman and child. The only thing I've seen that is remotely comparable in Connecticut is Evergreen Walk in South Windsor, but even that is like comparing a fast-food burger to the Aqua Turf's prime rib.

I met Stan there for our eighth annual Southwest Florida Sushi-Fest. Blu Sushi is our spot of choice, and we recommend it highly. Couldn't get Andy to eat sushi though. I never had any problem convincing him to eat a Pepe's pizza in New Haven or a split hot dog at Jimmie's on the West Haven shoreline.

Andy's wife works at another one of these unbelievable outdoor malls. It's called Coconut Point, located in Estero. It's truly a self-contained community with a stunningly beautiful theater where A.J. works, restaurants for every taste and even condos above the stores. You have to see both of these places to believe them.

I'll end with an apology to Red Sox fans. I may be the only New England baseball guy to have a spring fling in Fort Myers without paying the least bit of attention to the Sox. Andy, in fact, has a Hall of Fame Yankee room in his house and is going to opening day at the new stadium. He might have tossed me out if I said anything good about the Sox. I didn't go to Red Sox camp. I even had credentials for a spring game in which they visited the Twins but didn't go to their clubhouse. I prefer to be with the Twins.