Friday, December 31, 2010

LIGHT A CANDLE FOR GREG WARREN

Two men came to me with a dream.

It seemed reasonable enough, and attainable at that. Scott Zenke and Greg Warren wanted to shed light on Farmington High football. They wanted to give the kids a chance to play on Friday nights.

The usual naysayers that such dreams encounter in every town floated to the surface like an oil spill. I was particularly dumbfounded by the lady who bought a home adjacent to Farmington High School and had the audacity to tell the Common Council that the last thing she wanted was kids walking past her house at night.

I wrote some stories and editorials. Warren and Zenke cleared all the hurdles, even that ominously large one labeled public opinion. How hard they worked and how determined they were so that the Farmington High campus could be brought to life on Friday nights in autumn.

How saddened I was to hear this week between Christmas and New Year’s that death takes no holiday. Greg Warren – strong, tall, determined and civic-minded, a loving father, a dedicated husband – will now brighten heaven’s glow.

The town will be forever in his debt because he refused to yield to shortsighted neighbors who wished to remain in darkness. Funny how nearly a decade later, I hear no outcry how their delicate lives have been irreparably interrupted. Their silence is a deafening tribute to Greg Warren.

Warren looked on proudly as his daughter Katie became one of the finest softball pitchers in Farmington High history. His son Tim quarterbacked the best FHS football team in recent memory that qualified for the Class L state final in 1999. Greg wanted to make sure future Farmington fathers would have the chance to see their kids' steps toward adulthood nurtured by the improvements that he brought about.

When their dream became reality in 2002, Warren and Zenke gave me a panorama of the football field bathed in the luster of permanent lights. The marching band is playing. The cheerleaders are lined in a row on the track facing the modest grandstands and press box. The football team is huddled beneath the south goal post. I recalled the splendid feeling in my heart as I looked at the field, its north end zone framed by the inspiration of a New England autumn, the muffled echoes that only veteran public address announcer Dennis Person can muster, the incredible spirit of a town gathered to honor its treasured youth. Thanks to Greg Warren, many others will be able to enjoy the same sensation.

The band continues to play. The cheerleaders continue to cheer. The football players continue to relish the opportunity to play ball on Friday nights under the lights. Greg Warren’s ardent spirit will forever hover over the ground that he helped hallow so that Farmington’s children could have the very best.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

FOUR TO RECEIVE GOLD KEYS

Connecticut Sports Writers' Alliance Press Release

FOUR TO RECEIVE CONNECTICUT SPORTS WRITERS' ALLIANCE GOLD KEYS

Recipients to be honored at 70th annual Gold Key Dinner in April
For more information, contact Zac Boyer, President, Connecticut Sports Writers' Alliance, at zboyer@courant.com or 860-983-6313.

The Connecticut Sports Writers’ Alliance is pleased to announce that four state athletic figures will receive the Gold Key in 2011.

UConn-Avery Point baseball coach Roger Bidwell, Simsbury boys golf and boys soccer coach Ed Lynch, Notre Dame-Fairfield boys hockey coach Marty Roos and retired boys soccer coach Bill Wallach will be honored at the 70th annual Gold Key Dinner in April.

Bidwell led UConn-Avery Point to a 41-10 record last season and the finals of the NJCAA Division II World Series. In 29 seasons, Bidwell is 828-327-7, has been a perennial NJCAA playoff contender and sent 21 players to play professional baseball, including Toronto shortstop John McDonald and outfielder Rajai Davis.

He has won numerous Connecticut Small College Conference, NJCAA New England and Northeast District Coach of the Year awards.

Lynch earned his 1,000th high school victory as a coach at Simsbury in October. He is 727-53-10 in 29 seasons coaching the Simsbury boys golf team, the most wins for any high school golf coach in America, and 280-102-46 in 23 seasons coaching soccer.
Along the way, Lynch has won eight Division I golf titles and three Class LL championships in soccer.

“Every little thing I get is because of the teams and the players that I’ve had,” Lynch said. “I haven’t put one ball into the back of the net or made one putt. It’s all about the kids.”

Lynch also served as a high school and college basketball referee for 32 years before retiring in 2005 to become assigning commissioner for the central board of referees. He currently assigns basketball referees for 85 schools from the high school to the elementary level. Over 100 of his players have gone on to play in colleges such as UConn, Minnesota, Arkansas, Tennessee, Clemson and Maryland, but Lynch said earning the Gold Key is just as special.

“I was elated when I heard the news,” Lynch said. “It is the equivalent of getting to be with the elite and I don’t myself anywhere near the elite…It is the ultimate honor.”

The state record holder in wins with 528, Roos recently began his 39th season as a high school hockey coach. He began coaching at Fairfield Prep in 1972 and moved to Notre Dame-Fairfield in 1991, entering this season with an overall record of 528-283-18. He has won six state titles and has nine tournament final appearances.

A native of Switzerland, Roos is a part owner of both the Milford Ice Pavilion and Northford Ice Pavilion. He has also been involved in youth hockey programs at both facilities and was recently inducted into the Connecticut State High School Coaches Hall of Fame.

Wallach coached boys soccer at Guilford from 1975-78 and 1981-90, finishing with a record of 220-13-9 – a .944 winning percentage – and seven state and 12 Shoreline Conference titles. He coached at Quinnipiac in 1979 and New Haven in 1980, and also coached the girls soccer teams at North Branford (1991-93), Sacred Heart-Hamden (1994-96) and Guilford (1997-99).

An all-New England goalkeeper at Dean Junior College and an all-American at Springfield College, Wallach also coached girls basketball, wrestling, boys track and field and gymnastics at Guilford. He also initiated the CIAC-sponsored Unified Sports program, which partners athletes with students who have intellectual or physical disabilities.

“It is one of the most significant highlights of my career,” Wallach said. “Working with the challenged has been my motivation.”

Since 1940, the Alliance has recognized individuals from Connecticut who have achieved excellence on the youth, high school, college and professional levels. Past recipients of the Gold Key include Connie Mack (1940), Willie Pep (1961), Walt Dropo (1975), George H.W. Bush (1991), Gordie Howe (1992), Geno Auriemma (2001) and Jim Calhoun (2003). A complete list of former honorees can be found here.

The Gold Key Dinner begins at 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, April 17, 2011 at the Aqua Turf Club in Southington. Tickets are $75 and can be purchased by contacting president Zac Boyer at zboyer@courant.com or by mailing a check to Connecticut Sports Writers' Alliance, P.O. Box 70, Unionville, CT 06085. For more information on the history of the dinner, visit the Alliance web site at ctsportswriters.org. Additional honorees will be announced in the coming weeks.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

THE COCHRANS

Received a call from Jack Cochran today.  He wanted to know how I thought the postseason polls would work out -- Xavier or Masuk.  Boy, that's a tough one. 

Both teams were 13-0 after winning their respective classes (Xavier -- LL; Masuk -- L).  Xavier had a close call against Hillhouse, which was good enough to win Class M, and didn't blow teams out like Masuk did. 

But Xavier plays in the SCC, which was more than likely the toughest league in the state (FCIAC is pretty darned good, too).  Masuk plays in the South-West Conference, which may well be third best, with apologies to all my friends in the CCC.

I was impressed that Jack cares enough about what we sports writers think.  It's up to us because Xavier and Masuk will not be able to settle the score on the field.  Jack's son Casey, whom I got to know years ago when his dad was coaching at New Britain, is Masuk's record-breaking quarterback.  He will wind up as one of the very best in state history.

Now everybody in Connecticut knows about the controversy that has trailed Jack through his stormy but ultra-successful coaching tenure at Bloomfield, New Britain and New London.  And I know that most people deem me as a "Cochran lover."  Truth is, everybody has a good and evil sides but most folks tend to overlook Jack's good side beyond his ridiculously unbelievable record.

Turns out Jack is as good a dad as he was a football coach, maybe better.  I haven't seen Casey in years but the recent piece in the Hartford Courant indicated that they have a very special relationship.

At this point, I don't know how the polls will turn out.  I do hope for the Cochrans' sake that it turns out in their favor, and I hope even more that Jack gets another chance to coach somewhere.  Covering nearly every one of Jack's games at New Britain was about as much fun as anything I've ever covered, and challenging, too.  I'm really glad he called Sunday because as far as I'm concerned, he's a special guy.  I wish him and Casey all the best.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

CSWA HS FOOTBALL POLL

CT SPORTS WRITERS' ALLIANCE H.S. FOOTBALL POLL
Week #11 (Regular Season Final)
Released November 29, 2010
Rank Team (1st Place Votes)    Rec    Pts    Prev.
T1. Masuk (12)                        10-0    348     1
T1. Xavier (12)                         10-0    348     2
3. Berlin                                    10-0    301     4
4. New Canaan                           9-1    278    T6
5. Norwich Free Academy        10-0    250    T6
6. Daniel Hand                            9-1    203    T8
7. Staples                                    9-1    190    T8
8. Darien                                   10-1    177      3
9. Trumbull                                  9-2    151    NR
10. Glastonbury                           9-1    138    NR

Also Receiving Votes: Naugatuck 9-1 127; Montville 9-1 101; Ansonia 9-1 78; West Haven 8-2 54; Valley Regional/Old Lyme 10-0 50; New London 8-2 27; North Haven 9-1 17; St. Joseph 7-3 14; Notre Dame-West Haven 7-3 7; Conard 8-2 6; Windsor 8-2 6; Bristol Eastern 9-1 4; Hall 8-2 3; Brookfield 8-2 1; Middletown 7-3 1.

Voters: Marc Allard (Norwich Bulletin), Bob Barton (CT H.S. Football Record Book), Bill Bloxsom (Hersam Acorn), Jim Bransfield (Middletown Press), Kyle Brennan (Waterbury Republican), Ray Curren (Elm City Newspapers), George DeMaio (WELI Radio), Gerry deSimas (Collinsville Publishing Co.), Bill Donovan (WXLM 980 AM), Mark Fijalkowski (CT Sports Network), Dave Greenleaf (CCC website), Mike Guerrera (Southington Citizen), John Holt (WFSB Channel 3), Larry Kelley (Patch.com), Bob Lazzari (Valley Times), Greg Lederer (Cheshire Herald), Ken Lipshez (Valley Publishing Co.), Sean Patrick Bowley (Connecticut Post), Dave Phillips (Shoreline Times), Mike Pucci (New Haven Register), Paul Rosano (Meriden Record-Journal), Dave Ruden (Stamford Advocate), Mike Suppe (Hersam Acorn Newspapers), Tom Yantz (Hartford Courant)

Monday, November 29, 2010

MORRELL RESIGNS

While it is no longer my assignment to cover New Britain sports, I wanted to pass along that beleaguered Hurricanes football coach Paul Morrell has resigned.

I haven't spoken to Paul but I feel it is in the best interests of all that he do this and I'm very happy for him.  The horrible message boards posted anonymously after my articles on the games and related circumstances are totally unfair and unnecessary.  I condemn the Herald for condoning the reports and permitting them to stay online.  When it comes to local sports coverage and the assessment of a high school coach, these attacks are beneth the dignity of decent people, let along publications that ostensibly cover the city.  If a critic attaches a name to such barbaric assaults on a man who is simply doing his best to help our youth, so be it.  At least the man can defend himself in a way he sees fit without making it public theater.

Coach Morrell will be visible on a sideline in the area as the able assistant he is geared to be.  Perhaps someday, he will try his hand at head coaching again. 

While my name will no longer appear on Herald pages, I invite my treasured readers who have enjoyed my work for so many years to check out both the Valley Press (Farmington Valley towns) and the West Hartford Press.  I promise there will be no bashing of innocent community-minded people like Paul Morrell there, not by me or anybody else who won't sign his name.

Monday, November 22, 2010

FOUR ROCK CATS ON TWINS' ROSTER

The New Britain Rock Cats didn’t manufacture many wins in 2010 but that hasn’t kept the Minnesota Twins’ developmental machine from hitting its production schedule.

Four players from the team that posted a 44-98 record – the worst in Minor League Baseball – were promoted to the Twins’ 40-man major league roster Friday: outfielders Joe Benson and Rene Tosoni, right-handed pitcher David Bromberg and first baseman/outfielder Chris Parmelee.

Benson, 22, played in 102 games for the Rock Cats, batted .251 with 20 doubles, seven triples, a team-best 23 home runs, 49 RBI, and 12 stolen bases. He also displayed excellent defensive skills and an above-average throwing arm. Earlier this month the Twins named him their 2010 Minor League Player of the Year.

Bromberg, 23, made 17 starts for the Rock Cats before his mid-July promotion to Triple-A Rochester. He is now pitching in the Arizona Fall League.

Parmelee, 22, appeared in 111 games for New Britain. Baseball America recently rated him as one of the top pure hitters in Minor League Baseball and hitting .339 in the Arizona Fall League further reinforced that evaluation.

Tosoni, 24, played in portions of both the 2009 and 2010 seasons in New Britain. A torn labrum in his right shoulder necessitated season-ending surgery in June.

Of the 40 players on Minnesota’s roster, 32 are former Rock Cats.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

GOODBYE HERALD, HELLO VALLEY AND WEST HARTFORD

As most of you probably know by now, I have left the New Britain Herald for the much greener pastures of the weekly newspapers that serve the Farmington Valley and West Hartford.

Aside from the pastures being greener for the obvious reason, I was very impressed that the Valley Press is expanding into West Hartford after enjoying success in Farmington, Burlington, Avon, Canton, Simsbury and Granby. Meanwhile, the Herald evacuated Farmington, Wethersfield and Rocky Hill.

I will miss the Herald, seeing that I gave the New Britain readers 15 years of my professional career, a substantial chunk to be sure. I truly saw myself riding into the sunset of my career with the Herald but I was never so gratified when I discovered that the Valley Press really wanted me.  Everybody knows how great it feels to be wanted.

I join a talented, dedicated crew of people who express their desire to serve the readers of the region through the excellence of their work. 

I cannot wait to delve into a position where I can shape the sports section to my very own contours, an opportunity I was never afforded in New Britain.  I am an extreme proponent of local sports.  I have no desire to expound on major league or major college sports and won't bore you with my opinions on them.  They hold little value since I am not in the press boxes and sidelines of Boston, New York or Storrs.  Readers who wish to stay abreast of the Red Sox, Giants and Huskies can find well-written, detailed observations in daily publications around the state and nation as well as on the internet and television.

My expertise lies in my 20 years of high school coverage and an association with the the Eastern League and minor league baseball for nearly 30 years.  Since over 350,000 of you attend Rock Cats games annually, you will be given periodic inside views of what happens at New Britain Stadium both on and off the field.

My scholastic sports associations range from one end of the state to the other.  My efforts were rewarded last year when I was inducted into the Connecticut High School Coaches Association Hall of Fame and I wear the ring I received with great pride.  They will be rewarded again at the prestigious Gold Key Dinner on April 17, 2011, when I will be presented with the Art McGinley Award for meritorious service to the Connecticut Sports Writers' Alliance.  Now, my efforts have been recognized and rewarded and I move forward with a renewed enthusiasm to inform and entertain with the ability that God so generously gave me.

I hope to hear from my old friends. I look forward to establishing relationships with many new ones.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

SMALL-TOWN SPIRIT IN PLAINVILLE

I am not from Plainville. I didn’t graduate from Plainville High School and never lived there.

I can plead for a special exemption however, because I love the hot dogs at Saint’s, rave about the homemade pasta at Pagliacci’s, appreciate the reasonably priced and diverse cuisine at Aqua Terra, cherish the Buffalo wings and colonial atmosphere at J. Timothy’s and often partake in the exquisitely prepared fish at Confetti.

I’ve also reported extensively on town sports since 1991, so between the hundreds of excellent meals and passionate appreciation for the town’s athletic protagonists, I plead for honorary status because Plainville is indeed a large part of what I’ve become.

I really don’t have to plead. The good people of Plainville have seen fit to include me on the guest list for the gala Plainville Sports Hall of Fame dinner, the most recent of which took place at Nuchie’s Restaurant in Forestville Saturday evening Oct. 16.

The overwhelming theme at the PSHOF soiree backs up what I’ve written extensively about during the contemporary sports era dominated by an internet that needs regulation as bad as the wild, wild West needed law, ESPN-initiated coverage that puts the messenger and the arrogant above the event and the humble and a growing ignorance of what high school sports is all about.

Several times during the induction ceremony, honorees and their presenters stressed how vital were the time and dedication afforded them by PHS coaches, teachers and administrators as they were transitioning from child to adult.

As I noted, my active involvement with town sports affairs began in 1991 so I was not privy to the golden age of Plainville sports. I never got to cover a baseball team coached by the great Ron Jones. I didn’t get to see any of the basketball teams coached by the legendary Pat Riera. I only got to know Jim Lynch as a principal, and Greg Ziogas, with the exception of his interim guidance of the boys basketball team in 2003-04, as an administrator.

But as life whips by like New England trees going from lush green to a palate of brilliant color to stark naked, the PSHOF inductees are now awesome 30-something people with children of their own whom I covered while selfless coaches, teachers and administrators shaped the adults they would become.

Inductee Victor Paradis (PHS Class of 1977) ostensibly turned Nuchie’s lectern into a preacher’s pulpit with his heartfelt tributes to family, friends, teammates and coaches. The portion that really touched me was when he thanked Jones, Ziogas and Lynch for applying a firm hand and discipline that provided him with guidelines that he lives by.

Dr. Michael Lantiere, the recipient of the John E. Toffolon Distinguished Service Award, told a story about the incident that was most responsible for embarking on a lifetime dedicated to supporting youth and community through baseball.

Lantiere, living in Southington, asked Jones to come to the batting cage to help his son learn to hit. Jones spent hours teaching him the physical and mental aspects of hitting, even though he was the coach of rival Plainville.

When Lantiere asked Jones if he could give him some cash for his time and effort, Jones told him to pay him back by doing the same for young people who had similar needs. Lantiere served as a volunteer coach at Southington High for 22 years and as a volunteer umpire for Little League Baseball for even longer.

I remember covering inductee Sara Doncet’s brilliant swimming career during my early days in the business as a correspondent for the Bristol Press. Judging from her mother’s tear-laden presentation speech and her off-the-cuff chat, she merged the love of her family, her thirst for the camaraderie that team sports nurture and the guidance of her late coach George Choiniere.

Doncet’s high school career coincided with that of catching great Brian Edge. Edge played for his PSHOF presenter Bob Freimuth, and noted that Freimuth’s belief in him through the offensive struggles early in his sophomore season will live in his heart forever.

He also revealed more about Jones’ legacy. By the time Edge was playing high school ball, Jones had moved on to a coaching position at Eastern Connecticut State University but still came back to help Edge become the kind of hitter that propelled him to a college career at the University of Hartford and a chance to play professionally.

“Ron Jones was five years removed from coaching at PHS when I arrived as a freshman,” said Edge, a teacher at PHS, his classroom adjacent to the PSHOF display that will soon include his plaque. “He was making the 45-minute drive to Eastern during my high school career and he still spent countless hours with me on catching drills, throwing batting practice and talking about hitting.”

Jones, Lantiere and Freimuth have spent their lives coaching baseball with the primary goal of preparing a base line for their protégés to live by. Edge will carry that torch to the next generation, hoping to keep it lit through a time when the old guard must look at the word “team” multiple times to make sure it isn’t spelled with an “i.”

Of much less significance to the general populace but of great meaning to me was the number of times the speakers mentioned reading about former Plainville High greats in the newspaper, in headlines, their achievements documented for posterity.

I couldn’t help but think of how circulation numbers have dwindled and the newspaper industry has withered under the weight of the internet and a general lack of interest from the younger generations. The once-plentiful articles written about high school sports have been reduced to a trickle. What are Edge and Doncet going to refer to when it’s their turn to introduce future Hall-of-Famers?

Friday, October 8, 2010

PLEASE, NO MORE RENTSCHLER

After three years of trudging to Rentschler Field to cover the Southington-New Britain football game, I have a message for those involved with staging the game there. Please stop!


The attendance was on the lighter side of deplorable.

Southington brought a decent contingent but the number of kids in the Golden Hurricane Marching Band was equal to those from the general population who made the trip. Have you ever seen what 1,500 or so people look like in a stadium that accommodates 40,000?

To the people who didn’t attend, good choice.

It took me over an hour to get from Farmington to Rentschler. The traffic, always heavier on Friday evening, was bumper-to-bumper from West Hartford on. I’m so glad I got XM Radio so I could crank up the Grateful Dead Channel and divert my attention from drivers senselessly changing lanes to slow travel to a crawl.

I am very grateful to Jack Freeman and the Rentschler people for making the press box available. With our early deadline at the Herald, I would have been unable to get a story in without the wireless system there and the comfortable surroundings.

But we had only three reporters there along with Southington’s intrepid stat man Steve Daniels and young spotter extraordinaire Eric Swallow Jr., son of the Blue Knights’ athletic director.

In New Britain, we have the benefit of the finest high school football/soccer venue in Connecticut, Veterans Memorial Stadium in Willow Brook Park. The 10,000 seats there are many more than enough. The press box is accommodating with wireless and plenty of room.

In fact, Veterans should be the venue for the state championship games. The turf is well-maintained and the stadium is the most centrally located venue in the state.

Don’t get me wrong. The Rent is a stunning facility, a great place to watch college football. I’d love to have the chance to cover a UConn game there someday but for high school games, it is overkill.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

CASE SIROIS: WHATEVER WILL BE

The story of former St. Paul/Goodwin Tech football player Nathan Sirois that appeared in the New Britain Herald Wednesday has as luminous a silver lining as any I’ve ever written.

On the surface, it’s sad, something of an indictment of a system that allows a young athlete to slip between the cracks, denied of a chance to play.

Sirois, a junior at Goodwin Tech, wants to play so badly. The CIAC, which makes the rules, absolutely cannot make any exceptions no matter how politically correct they may be.

Sirois certainly isn’t the only Goodwin Tech student who would like to play football. Eight others still at Goodwin are in the same boat having played at St. Paul when the co-op was in effect. They could have transferred to St. Paul or a public school if football was that much of a priority.

Goodwin starting a program is a thought. Cheney Tech-Manchester split from East Catholic and began its own program under the auspices of Berlin’s Bill Baccaro, now back at East Catholic. Abbott Tech-Danbury has a team as does Wolcott Tech-Torrington. So do Wilcox Tech-Meriden and Platt Tech-Milford. Bullard-Havens Tech of Bridgeport has had one for years.

Apparently Goodwin does not have the support within the school to get one going and it is a major undertaking that needs support across the board.
Several vocational/technical schools remain in cooperative partnerships. Ellis Tech-Danielson is in a tri-op with Putnam and Tourtellotte-Thompson. Norwich Tech is partnered with St. Bernard and Windham Tech with Coventry. O’Brien Tech-Ansonia is in with Derby.

Goodwin is unfortunate that it is surrounded by big towns and cities. None of the area public schools are small enough that they require a co-op to stay in the gridiron business. Alas, there’s nothing left to do but feel sorry for Sirois, but don’t feel too sorry.

The Plainville boy is on the road to a career in manufacturing technology. He is smart and very determined. There isn’t a bitter bone in his body.

Sirois is the perfect example of the scholastic athletic system doing exactly what those who established and nurtured it for the last 100 or so years had hoped it would do. Team sports offer dynamics that enable players to form a cohesive group under the guidance of caring adults. They discover how success comes to those who work together with determination and efficiency toward a common goal.

Congratulations are in order all the way around.

Goodwin Tech wasn’t founded to win state championships. Sirois is a fine example of why the state had the vision to establish a forum for alternative education. Everybody can’t go to college to become doctors, lawyers and stockbrokers. We need young men like Sirois and everybody at Goodwin who had a hand in his development should be mighty proud.

The CIAC may loom as the villain in this production but think again. Rules were established and its committees are living by them as well they must.

St. Paul coach Jude Kelly has done everything possible to nurture Sirois and then some. The woman in the St. Paul booster club – unfortunately I did not ask her name – deserves credit for calling Sirois’ plight to my attention.

Include Goodwin athletic director Roger Pulito, who has been doing great things for kids for years. And Pulito told me how hard his colleague at St. Paul – David Dennehy – worked on Sirois’ behalf.

Sure I wish something could be done to foster the miracle of Sirois lacing up some shoulder pads and getting the chance to play again. He had so much courage to discuss his feelings with me so I could relate them to you. But the young man will learn from the experience and be fine in the long run.

If you’ll allow, I’d like to use this as a segue to what I continue to see at New Britain.

I’m not likely to give much attention to any of the cowards who file their critical anonymous diatribes after our stories on the website but the continued assault on New Britain football coach Paul Morrell is beyond absurd.

Nothing short of a state championship will put an end to it, but we simply cannot judge Morrell or any other coach on postseason accomplishments. Everybody in the city enjoyed what Jack Cochran brought to the NBHS trophy case. Cochran, in spite of his well-chronicled down side, probably possesses the finest football mind of anyone to draw X’s and O’s in state history.

Morrell isn’t the only coach in America who hasn’t won football games at a .935 clip. But he has won far more than he’s lost (even Notre Dame wouldn’t fire a guy who is 36-17) and he’s won even more of the battles that don’t get into the sports pages. He’s done a lot of great things for a lot of kids. Doesn’t that count for something?
Let the man coach.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

CCC HURTING IN HARTFORD

The sun shone brightly through a welcome autumn breeze on Tuesday, lighting the path for what we hope will be an outstanding fall season for our high school student-athletes and their teams.

It sure didn’t start out that way and it was due to something completely out of their control.

The New Britain High soccer teams were denied the chance to begin their season as planned when a Weaver administrator contacted athletic director Len Corto and told him the squads from the Hartford school were not going to show.

The first reaction on Corto’s part was anger. He knew how hard his soccer coaches Margaret Coates (girls) and Matt Denecour (boys) had worked for this moment and it was taken from them without a viable explanation.

The first reaction on my part was anger, too. The deterioration of sports programs in two of the three Hartford public schools has been a smoldering issue for a long time. Did it have to go this far without Hartford administrators reacting to the red flag that’s been flapping in the autumn breeze for at least a decade?

I sought an explanation from Central Connecticut Conference commissioner John Tarnuzzer before firing off written salvos about what has festered in my heart and mind since I moved to the region in 1990.

I asked if Weaver would be penalized for its neglect.

Tarnuzzer said that Hartford had just hired a scholastic sports administrator for Weaver, a young man named Wakime Hauser, and he wasn’t quite prepared for the negligence he encountered. Hauser could not be blamed for Weaver failing to show up yet he had to deliver the message to Corto.

The Weaver athletes, it turns out, were not attentive enough about getting their physicals and turning in the related paperwork. Hauser probably didn’t want to be liable in the event of misfortune and did what he had to do. Keep in mind that Weaver soccer player Dwight Turton, diagnosed with a rare disease, died in the summer of 2007 when he played against doctor’s orders.
Corto later realized that Hauser was beyond reproach.

What Tarnuzzer has to judge relates to upholding the conference’s integrity through sanctions as extreme as dismissing Weaver while considering that the CCC has to take a permissive stance because student-athletes should not be penalized for adults’ oversights and indiscretions.

The problems are systemic. I believe their roots are intertwined with the Sheff vs. O’Neill settlement that resulted in the establishment of the magnet schools that now dot the Hartford landscape. While I have no doubt that the addition of magnet schools was beneficial to education in general, nobody was charged with enacting the needs of the athletic programs.
I don’t want to go into a discourse on how vital athletics are in the education of our youth but they are important enough that somebody with integrity and vision should have been placed in charge to assure that the proud athletic heritage of Weaver and Public carry forward.

I have heard about the problems from people in both schools. They have been discussed in friendly conversation for much of my tenure as a scholastic reporter but nobody would go on record with the issues at hand or their potential solutions. Why would they? They could lose their jobs.

So the situation festers until some innocent, hard-working New Britain soccer players have their much-awaited opening game snatched from them.

Others around the CCC have been affected, too.

With Public’s departure from boys soccer turning the CCC East into a seven-team division, the remainder of the schools – Bloomfield, E.O. Smith, Fermi, RHAM, Rockville, Rocky Hill and Tolland – are left searching the state for two games. With the mega-conferences all restricting outside games, where were athletic directors and coaches going to find fill-ins, even as early as last spring?

That brings us to conference integrity once again.

Tarnuzzer is a capable administrator with a good heart. He will bring in veteran athletic directors and administrators from the CCC’s member schools to counsel Hauser and the Hartford Public administrators. Thankfully, Bulkeley is in good shape due in large part to its energetic administrator Diane Callis.

But at some point, Tarnuzzer will have to set policy that will disqualify member schools for such negligence. If he doesn’t, some undermanned football teams may decide they can’t compete with a powerhouse and opt to stay home, knowing that there will be no penalty.

The Hartford situation has advanced to the critical stage and it must be dealt with – whether tolerantly, punitively or a little of both – because the integrity of a 32-school conference is at stake.

The schools involved must first be willing and able to help themselves. Then we can count on the steady hand of John Tarnuzzer and the munificence of league administrators to bring Hartford’s athletic departments back gradually to the level where they can nurture the city’s kids and not inflict harm on others.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

IT'S TIME FOR "THE COACH"

Bright red autumn highlights showing up among the withering remnants of summer green on New England boughs mean it’s almost kickoff time.

It’s a time to be cherished.

The oppressive humidity is whisked away by cooling breezes. The kids having gone back to school has its advantages. You can sit out on the deck and hear birds chirping and the distant sound of dogs barking instead of the booming bass of what today’s generation considers music.

One disadvantage is getting caught behind school buses in construction zones, but I always leave early when I’m headed to games anyway.

The sound of the New Britain High Marching Band practicing “Bingo” cascades over Willow Brook Park as I count the innings remaining in the most forgettable Rock Cats season in anybody’s lifetime.

As I crossed another day off the calendar Friday afternoon, the telephone rang. I looked at the Caller ID and smiled when I saw “George DeMaio.” The name isn’t as familiar to sports fans north of Wallingford and Cheshire, but those in Greater New Haven and along the Shoreline know him as, “The Coach.”

The Coach has no equal in the Hartford region. He is 110 percent dedicated to high school football in a way that transcends what most of us comprehend.

Listeners in the New Haven area can tune into WELI-960 AM to hear him from 5:30 to 8 a.m. Saturday mornings, but DeMaio’s legacy is his high school football broadcasts.

The Coach and his entourage – and I’m happy to be considered at least on its periphery – bring you reports from across the state as he broadcasts from those tiny press boxes behind the high schools of southern Connecticut.

The broadcasts were on ESPN 1300 AM for the last two seasons but listeners on the northern fringe – New Britain, Berlin and Southington – can get back on the Coach’s team now that he can once again be heard on the more powerful frequency. If only one of the Hartford area stations could do the same.

So The Coach was calling me to ask if I would go on WELI with him Saturday morning. That means 7 a.m., folks, which is a flat-out culture shock to a guy watching A’s-Angels wrap it up at 1:15. But for The Coach, the least I can do is wake up in the middle of the … er, morning?

I get the call at 7 a.m. sharp and I was awake, awake and studying up on my 2009 CIAC championship results and my Connecticut Sports Writers’ Alliance final poll.

As I waited on hold, the Coach was going over Friday’s sports results. He topped his presentation by telling his listenership where all the high school scrimmages were, when they were starting and who would be getting together to crash helmets on the final weekend before the curtain rises.

Now that’s coverage.

And if you’ve heard Coach’s voice, that’s passion. If you haven’t, I like to say Coach DeMaio is to Connecticut high school football what Dick Vitale is to college basketball. You may love Vitale or you may bristle every time you hear his voice but one thing cannot be denied – the man is passionate about his pastime.

We talked for about 15 minutes about a variety of football-related topics, none having anything to do with UConn or the Patriots. We talked about the new playoff format that stretches the season to Dec. 11. We talked about the incident in Middletown where two young coaches thankfully were exonerated from criminal charges after a youngster swooned in the summer heat from dehydration.

That’s The coach, right on subject.

When I think of the Coach, I think back to Thanksgiving morning 2001. The soon-to-be state champion Hurricanes traveled to Glastonbury for a game vital to their playoff hopes. The late, great Bo Kolinsky was covering for the Hartford Courant and after the game, we retired to his car to justify and standardize our statistics.

Bo turned promptly to WELI, fine-tuning the station with the fingers of a concert violinist. The strains of the Coach and company pierced through the static. He kept a count of how many of the scores he had from that busy morning. Keep in mind, there wasn’t any texting going on then. There were no smart phones conveying internet messages as events happened.

As another of The Coach’s correspondents phoned in, he bubbled over with excitement about breaking the record for the most scores ever. He had the playoff scenario virtually all mapped out before he left the air for some hard-earned turkey and stuffing. Bo and I smiled. “He’s one of us, isn’t he?” we agreed.

So why is what The Coach does important? That’s easy. Like Bo and the late Hal Levy did with similar conviction, the Coach, a grandfather of three, knows what it means to our society to honor kids who excel.

He knows that following professional and college sports is a worthwhile infatuation but the significance cuts much deeper when we’re supporting the neighbor’s kid. We’re fanning their youthful flames of determination, helping set a foundation so they can ascend tomorrow’s mantle of leadership.

If you have any doubts, just take a look in City Hall where former NBHS baseball player Tim Stewart makes big decision. You might also want to check in on Berlin Mayor Adam Salina, the Stanford grad who knocked on the NFL’s door before coming back to bolster his community.

So with fall season here and lots of great kids striving for that sweet smell of success, do your part and cheer them on. We at the Herald and Bristol Press, with help from dedicated coaches keeping us informed, will do our part. You don’t have to fret about The Coach doing his.

Monday, September 6, 2010

ROCK CATS JEFF SMITH IS SYNONYMOUS WITH CLASS

Long-time followers of Rock Cats baseball do not have to be reminded how classy manager Jeff Smith is.


Smitty played with the team for parts of six years, endearing himself to the community through visits to hospitals, schools, libraries and nursing homes.

Smith, who has been summoned to Minnesota to serve as an extra coach for the remainder of the season, was welcomed back warmly when the Twins promoted him to manager of the Double-A club.

What happened to Smith and the Rock Cats this season was unfortunate. The team, young to start with, was dealt some crippling injuries and the Twins’ minor league system was unable to sustain the hits. They avoided the indignity of a 100-loss season but he endured the worst season since Eastern League baseball returned to the Hardware City in 1983.

Smith, in tune with his warm demeanor, issued the following letter to the core of Rock Cats fans, who still came out in record number to enjoy the affordable family entertainment that the team engenders so well:

I would like to thank personally the fans of the New Britain Rock Cats for their support all season. Even though we went through some tough times on the field, our fans were always there to stand behind us, and cheer us on each and every night.


Part of a baseball player’s development is to play in front of big crowds and you guys have provided this. The Rock Cat fan base is like a tight-knit family and our players appreciate it.


Our players were all over the community again this year and we would have it no other way. The fans are what make the Rock Cats organization and stand above the rest. Thanks again for all of the support, and follow these young men as they journey to the Minnesota Twins.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

NO PLACE ELSE I'D RATHER BE

I hit some medical bumps in the road in late August, nothing too serious but painful enough that I stayed around the house for a spell.


With constant discomfort comes that fog that shrouds the brain but the heart picks up the slack. Like hearts do, mine became a little more vulnerable, a little more tolerant of the aspects of life that usually have me spewing diatribes.

It rained most of the time I was cooped up and the combination of conditions cast me into a far more introspective state than I’m used to when I have writing, reporting, lawn-mowing and garden-watering on my mind.

The first thing I focused on was my 14-year run at New Britain Stadium covering the Rock Cats. I go there 71 times a year and I’m prone to take it for granted.

It’s easy to trash a team that may well lose 100 games but the bottom line is, better to cover a bad baseball team than a good anything else. While the overall product is grossly unacceptable, the individuals who have gone out there and made it happen are classy kids who have kept their heads held high throughout the debacle. Every one of them that I’ve approached to talk about what’s happened has kept a sharp perspective and an exemplary attitude about what it all means. Part of the deal is that the rest of the Eastern League was a lot better this season.

But having a corner of the New Britain Stadium press box as my spring and summer office is special in itself. A lot of it is due to the people, folks I’ve written about here from time to time. I sit with scoreboard operator Larry Michaels, official scorer Ed Smith and for most of this season Rock Cats intern Dan Karpuc from West Hartford and the College of the Holy Cross.

On my left I’ve had lovable Rock Cats voice Jeff Dooley by my side for 13 years. For the last two, I’ve gotten to know Joe D’Ambrosio, whose booming voice is a constant companion for the millions of UConn basketball and football fans.

Behind me is the domain of the technological experts, Luke Pawlak and Mike “Manny” Papazian, who bring the entertainment factor at the stadium to a major league level. There’s announcer Don Steele, long time Cats employee, friend and engineer Mike Torres and a bevy of amazing young people that Dooley brings in to participate in the broadcasts. There’s Bob Dowling, the team’s energetic and ever-smiling media relations man, the epitome of a Kennedy Democrat (which I never hold against him) and dedicated to every team and athlete who comes out of the Commonwealth.

Add in the visits from president Bill Dowling and general manager John Willi, vice president Evan Levy and assistant general manager Ricky Ferrell, hard workers like Kim Pizighelli, Jonathan Lissitchuk, Amy Helbling, Evan Paradis and Andres Levy. Heather Cavaliere takes the photos and writes the stories for the website, and feeds Dooley and D’Ambrosio the best baked goods in the state. I guess she figures that my figure cannot endure those delicacies.

They’re more than just friends, they’re closer to family.

Because of the people, because of the baseball, because it’s wonderful to watch nearly 6,000 people a game enjoying baseball. Because of the deep green of the grass, the brick-red warning track dirt and billboards with more colors than a rainbow. Because of the fine young men who play the game, the overwhelming compassion of the Minnesota Twins representatives. Because Dowling, Coleman Levy, Willi, Evan Levy et al have proven without a shadow of a doubt that minor league sports can make it in Connecticut.

There’s no place else I’d rather be.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

KEEP BRINGIN' IT, VINNY

One broadcasting buffoon bellows his biased bilge like he’s experiencing his first sexual encounter, simply because a home run breaks a windshield in a parking lot beyond the left field wall. Another roars with insincere exclamations flying in every direction when two Yankees go “back-to-back, belly-to-belly.”

The most irritating guy of them all utters with slang-ridden disdain, “He gone!” when an opposing player strikes out and unabashedly calls the White Sox “the good guys.” When the opposing team does something electric, all you hear is a mumble.

So this is the subjective slant that baseball broadcasting now peddles, and as I wade through this bog of unprofessional pretenders [as little as possible], I hear news that the great Vin Scully, 82, is coming back in 2011.

The timing was great for me. I like to follow the Cincinnati Reds and they were visiting Vinny’s L.A. Dodgers over the weekend. Given the blessing of the Comcast “Extra Inning” package, I took advantage of a rare treat.

No one has more reason than Scully to root, root, root for the home team. The absolute best broadcaster in the history of the game has been at the Dodgers’ microphone since 1950, two years before this 58-year-old writer was born.

But Scully doesn’t resort to hometown blather. In fact, this Reds fan didn’t take exception to one thing he said during two of the three games I saw. In the other, I was sorry to get the Reds announcers, who aren’t the worst on the planet, but can’t hold Scully’s scorecard.

I’m sure somebody in the business could explain it to me. Perhaps it’s just another example of my trying to hold on to nostalgic elements of my younger years. But the shameless sound of announcers heaping praise on the “good guys” and dumping on the “bad guys” makes me shiver with distaste.

You may enjoy the whining Joe on Red Sox radio guy pouting when Lyle Overbay rakes two three-run homers off his ace lefthander. Maybe it sets your heart all atwitter when the Evil Empire’s lout quakes, “THEEEEEEE Yankee win!” like it’s some kind of religious awakening.

I found a new one that chortles like a hometown ham -- Josh Lewin of the Texas Rangers. Lewin spouted the following bourgeois tonight, “I’m surprised that Twins manager Ron Gardenhire hasn’t won a manager of the year award and he won’t this year because our guy Ron Washington has it wrapped up.”

How’s that for some one-sided crap. What about Gardenhire? What about Joe Maddon? What about Terry Francona with all the injuries he’s had to endure? When an opposing player makes a great play, Lewin arrogantly announces that their shortstop has made the same play so many times. Pass the barf bag, dear, and will somebody in Texas please pull the plug.

Every baseball fan should allow Vin Scully’s melodious voice to fill the living room once in a while. His offerings sometimes come out sounding like poetry.

Here are my least favorite broadcasters, some of which you’ve already guessed, with excessive hometown bias as my primary criteria. I give you The Insincere Seven:
1. Ken “Hawk” Harrelson, Chicago White Sox
2. Joe Castiglione, Boston Red Sox
3. Rex Hudler, Los Angeles Angels
4. Suzyn Waldman, New York Yankees
5. John Sterling, New York Yankees
6. Josh Lewin, Texas Rangers
7. Mark Grace, Arizona Diamondbacks

Here are the guys I like best:
1. Vin Scully, Los Angeles Dodgers
2. Jon Miller, San Francisco Giants
3. Dave O’Brien, Boston Red Sox
4. Dick Bremer, Minnesota Twins
5. Don Orsillo, Boston Red Sox
6. Marty Brennaman, Cincinnati Reds
7. Gary Cohen, New York Mets

Thursday, August 19, 2010

A FACEBOOK BIRTHDAY

As my aging body slowly stirred to life this morning, I was totally overwhelmed by the outpouring of birthday wishes on Facebook. Thank you, all of you, from the bottom of my heart for taking a moment out of your days to wish me well.

As it turns out, I have to work today, but all of you know, covering the Rock Cats beat isn't work. First off, it's baseball, and I cherish my relationships with the young men who play the games.

It's also being with dear friends like: keeper of the scoreboard Larry Michaels, the kindly yet indefatigable official scorer/former New Britain High wrestling coach Ed Smith; the always smiling and equally accommodating Dowling brothers Bill and Bob; "JD squared," those masters of the microphone Jeff Dooley and Joe D'Ambrosio; Luke Pawlak and Mike "Manny" Papazian, the extremely gifted guys running the technical operation; old friend and dedicated New Britain sportsman Mike Torres.

There are so many others who frequent New Britain Stadium for virtually every home game that are like family to me that listing everybody would only leave me open to forgetting somebody very important. Thank you, one and all.

But my life has had so many chapters and I have met so many unbelievable people along the way.

There's Belden Road, the cradle of my life, where such a stunning number of incredible people grew up together in middle-class splendor. Warm and wonderful Joy Bershtein, one of my dearest friends Dave Dippolino, his old BR next-door neighbor Johnny Spinato (you may know Johnny if you've had an adult beverage at Confetti, Route 10, Plainville).

There's Glens Falls, N.Y., the foothills of the Adirondacks, where baseball carried me for five wonderful years (1984-88), and where my only son Jason was born.

I've never been too terrific about communicating with my extended family -- I've heard the words "black sheep" muttered just within earshot many times in my teens and 20s -- but I have a special place in my heart for the Katzmans -- Bruce, Terry and Karen -- whom I unfortunately rarely get to see.

There are the people who once worked side-by-side with me but have moved on, like passionate family man Bobby Mayer and accomplished broadcaster Bill Schweitzer. How wonderful and typical that they took the time for a greeting.

And there are the youngsters who share the burden of putting out quality sports news every day at the Herald -- Executive Editor Brad Carroll; editor Matt Straub; Andrew Lovell.

Although I haven't heard from them yet, I want to acknowledge my two dearest buddies. Andy Vas -- Belden Road buddies for 55 years and still going strong. The miles can't keep us apart, you old fart. Ron Sambrook, the Godfather, Obbey Brother. Ain't nuthin better than a Grateful Dead concert and Obbey Ride to Cooperstown, or both at the same time.

Family comes first but I've saved the last for best. Lisa, the best wife a guy can have. Can you begin to imagine what she puts up with every day? And she got me the best birthday presents of all, autographed Gunsmoke photos.

Each and every one of you, and surely many more, have played a role in shaping my life. The one regret that life musters is that I can't have a Pepe's pizza, a platter of Jimmie's fried clams, a Glenwood hot dog, watch some great old movies or tip an adult beverage or two with y'all.

Thanks for the birthday wishes and please know that I love you all.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

LIFE'S SIMPLE PLEASURES

Anybody who knows me will tell you that I march to the beat of a different drummer.

Who else do you know that comes home from a hard evening’s work and watches a steady stream of Have Gun – Will Travel and Gunsmoke reruns when the baseball games are over? If you know of anybody, let me know. I can use some good company.

I’m crazy, right? I should be watching the shows that everybody else watches so I can stay in tune with contemporary society. Sorry, you’ve got the wrong guy.

So when Lisa and I look into a vacation, we’re not likely to show up in the usual places. We don’t have a second home in Old Saybrook or Rhode Island and we’re not prone to sit idly on the beach for hour after hour anyway. We aren’t about to book any cruises so we can play shuffleboard and sail the ocean on a ship bigger than New Britain. You won’t find us in London, Paris or Amsterdam any time soon.

In June, we went to Antietam (western Maryland), Frederick, Md., Gettysburg and the Pennsylvania Dutch County. The impetus behind that trip was Civil War history.

Last week, we used our second vacation period to tour New Hampshire. As you would guess, we didn’t go to Hampton Beach. We didn’t even take in a ballgame in Manchester, Portland or Lowell, Mass., although my sports-loving wife would have surely been okay with that.

Lisa likes moose. She had never seen one up close and personal, so we packed up the Avalanche, motored up I-91 almost as far as you can go (St. Johnsbury, VT), and cut across the skinny northern part of New Hampshire on back roads. We came through the back door of the majestic Presidential Range, slipping through nice New England towns like Lancaster and Gorham.

In Gorham, we went on a moose tour. That’s right, a moose tour. The town sponsors tours in air-conditioned vans that seat a dozen or so people. The driver, who I’m so pleased to tell you is a fellow Grateful Dead freak, took us up along the Androscoggin River.

We packed in the van at about 6:30 p.m. We scoured the Androscoggin shores, the bogs, the thickets and the evergreen forests. No moose. Lisa’s optimism – they advertise a 94-to-97 percent success rate – was on the wane.

Dusk turned to dark and the driver took out his array of spotlights, one affixed to each side of the van’s hood and another more powerful hand-held variety. Finally, he flashed the hand-held light down a forested path and Lisa got to see her moose. One moose, and a small one at that.

It didn’t help to run into some folks from Presque Isle, Maine, during the vacation who said they see moose from their back porch almost daily. That didn’t please Lisa at all. She frowned and said, “No more moose.” No more moose socks, no more moose oven mitts, no more moose postcards.

We stayed in Jackson, N.H., just north of the bustling little burg of North Conway. The accommodations at the Inn at Ellis Falls were astounding. Jackson Falls are stunning as they cascade down the mountainside. We went on a train ride out of North Conway and heard some great historical stuff from the young conductors.

After two days in the mountains, we headed for the shore, which is a diversity that makes the Granite State so special. We stayed at a B&B (Three Chimneys Inn) in Durham, home to the University of New Hampshire, and went into Portsmouth for some shoreline frolic.

Portsmouth is the consummate New England port city, not so big and imposing like Boston but with plenty of amenities. Heck, we parked the car in a garage for 5 hours and it cost us $3. Try doing that in Beantown.

We took a boat tour of the Isles of Shoals, located about six miles out in the Atlantic, and were treated to an array of wildlife (no moose, but harbor seals aplenty), some sparkling white wine and a stirring history of the islands, part of which are in Maine and part in New Hampshire.

On the way home, we stocked up at the tax-free New Hampshire State Liquor Store (Live Free or Die) and made sure our gas tank was full to the brim so we could once again avoid paying the double tax on gasoline in Connecticut. Hey, a week later and I’m still running on that tank. I look for reasons to go out of state just so I don’t have to pay Connecticut prices, but I digress.

For years people have been compelled to show their home movies or still shots from their vacations. We’re not into the home movies but we have lots of still shots (no moose). Maybe Lisa will upload them. But I wouldn’t want to bore you any more with our run-of-the-mill existence. To many of you, I’m sure no moose is good moose.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

MORNEAU, JUST MAYBE?

If I was playing the typical blogger game, I would report this a different way, like I knew something that others didn't. I would use deductive reasoning, take a shot in the dark, roll the dice and say that the Minnesota Twins' slugging first baseman Justin Morneau is lined up to do some rehabbing in New Britain.

Here are the facts:

1) Morneau remains on the disabled list as he tries to shake off the effects of a concussion sustained July 7 against Toronto when he took John McDonald's knee to his head trying to break up a double play.

2) Recovery from a concussion is tricky business. Reports are that he's had some good days and some difficult ones. The Twins are being very cautious -- they're doing quite well with Michael Cuddyer playing a solid first and Danny Valencia supplying punch at third. A healthy Morneau down the stretch would give the Twins an offensive array that rivals the Yankees.

3) One projection had the 2006 MVP returning to live action in the neighborhood of Sept. 1. Predicting the future is nothing but guesswork but it's something to work with.

4) Morneau would need at least a few games to re-adapt himself to the speed of the game, which means a rehab stint is a certaintly.

5) Why not New Britain, if his rehab time coincides with a string of Rock Cats home games? For any rehab, the preference is that the trainer has access to the home clubhouse and all its medical amenities.

So there you have it. I have used my deductive reasoning to project a possible scenario where the suffering New Britain fan gets tossed a bone for tremendous loyalty shown during one of the most decrepit seasons in Eastern League history.

Wouldn't it be nice to see one of the sweetest, most powerful left-handed swings in the history of the game back at the scene of the majestic wallops Morneau sent screaming toward the willow grove back in 2002?

With top pitching prospect Kyle Gibson now in Triple-A and Ben Revere on the disabled list with a fractured orbital bone under his right eye, there aren't many reasons to attend the remaining games. That is, unless you want to watch the Cats scratch and claw to avoid becoming the first EL team in over 50 years to drop 100 games.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

A HAVEN FOR COWARDS

File this in your "fact" column:

Those who type hurtful and erroneous words and make them public through an internet forum without properly identifying themselves represent the most cowardly faction that has ever roamed the earth.

I pray that seekers of wisdom and truth rely solely on legitimate reporting and candid discussion rather than falling prey to the lies and deceit floated by so-called bloggers as a response to something that was written with which they did not agree.

Shouldering responsibility is part of the foundation that enables a person to rise beyond childhood and become a capable adult. If you have something to say that's worth saying, say it loud, say it clear, say it with conviction. Make sure you have some facts to back your opinion and relish the opportunity for a debate. Don't whisper when nobody's watching and hide under the nearest rock.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

TRADING DEADLINE FURTHERS MLB TRAVESTY

I’ve been standing on this here soap box for as long as I’ve been sharing my private thoughts with the readers of central Connecticut and the far reaches of cyberspace, and I’m not about to get off now.

I don’t care what Commissioner Bud Selig says, Major League Baseball is broken.

Oh, it’s not broken as far as the ballgame itself is concerned. The players are more talented than ever. It’s the violation of the general meaning behind the idea of fair competition as a baseline for the evolution of sports in our society.

MLB is set up just perfectly for the fat cats in the big cities to feed off the oblivious fans in America’s smaller cities.

Selig stands behind the lectern with that stern look about him, casting off expressions like the boy who got caught raiding the cookie jar when the question is asked.

Why, Mr. Selig, is the system set up so pennant contenders can gut the less fortunate so those poor bottom-feeders can save a few dollars at the expense of the fan?

Then the fan takes a double screwing when those dear tickets that he’s been holding since March for an ostensibly competitive Astros-Giants game becomes a travesty. The Astros, minus Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman, come in with their headliners replaced by minor leaguers.

Does the fan get a rebate for not getting what he bargained for? Hardly.

Mr. Selig delights the short-sighted metropolitan hucksters when he speaks of parity. Parity? Then how come it’s been nearly 20 years since the playoffs transpired without the Yankees or Red Sox involved?

It’s not just about winning a World Series. It’s about competing over the grueling 162-game schedule and coming out of it in contention as September rolls around. Where does that take you parity argument, Mr. Commissioner?

The Commissioner’s argument is a ruse to intelligent baseball fans everywhere. He’s smart enough to know that but everything revolves around money and Selig isn’t about to utter a word that may cause his cash cow to deliver sour milk.

Ratings are highest when the Yankees and Red Sox are in the postseason. Fans in New York and New England have come to regard winning as a birthright. If you disagree, please tell me when the last time either has been in the second division. When has either faced the ugliness of a last-place season? When has either last had a season with more defeats than victories?

Here are some answers that would make Selig dance faster than if he were dodging bullets.
The Red Sox have been in the playoffs in six of the last seven years. The last time they had a losing record was 1997. The last time they finished at the bottom of the division was 1992.

The Yankees have been postseason participants for 14 of the last 15 years. Their last season of total discontent was 1992 and they haven’t had that basement feeling since 1990.

No wonder Yankee fans walk the streets as if their bodily discharges smell like the air at the New York Botanical Gardens. The system protects the Yankees against losing when they can dip into their endless cash supply on July 30 and fortify their Hall of Fame-bound cast with former All-Stars from other teams.

It’s never going to stop. I’m not gullible enough to think that Selig and his band of robber barons would have the fortitude to fight for the oppressed.

Think of why sports became popular.

Baseball was nothing more than a child’s game, played fairly I might add, before the Industrial Revolution created a society that suddenly had more leisure time.

Manhattan bank employee Alexander Cartwright and his cronies, given that their working days ended in mid-afternoon, had energy to expel and many hours of daylight to expel it. They went over to Hoboken, N.J., drank the adult beverages of their choice, and tightened a child’s game into a competitive drama that others enjoyed watching.

Others enjoyed watching. I’ll bet they’d pay to satisfy that urge. The rest is history, and that’s where man’s two greatest emotions took hold – greed and greed.

There were those who tried to tilt the playing field in the 19th century but common sense equated to balance. The game wasn’t firmly entrenched enough that the unbalanced history we witness today wouldn’t have turned spectators off forever.

But as the years passed and baseball became a link between generations and touted as the revered National Pastime, something purely American, professional baseball became an attraction for the masses.

Not any more. The prices at Yankee and Red Sox games are surely not for the masses but serve the elite. A few hundred bucks for a baseball ticket may not deter Corporate America or politicians but it sure isn’t in the budget for most of us. Everyman’s game has become the stomping grounds of the upper class.

Interesting how the NBA’s New York Knicks, no matter how much salesmanship Mayor Michael Bloomberg employed on the soiled pages of Gotham’s tabloids, couldn’t sway Lebron James into saving their decrepit team. No Chris Bosh nor Dwyane Wade either.

Sorry, Knicks, unless you make some wise personnel decisions (are you really bringing Isiah Thomas back?), you’re destined to be whipping boys in the Eastern Division for a spell, probably into Spike Lee’s old age.

When the New York Football Giants make bad decisions, they lose. They can’t get to a Thanksgiving trading deadline, pick the bones of the less fortunate and leave the carcass of the Detroit Lions for the buzzards. I guess it’s because the NFL doesn’t have to stoop to such nonsense in order to captivate the sports-loving public.

So what do the NFL and NBS do that MLB does not? To Selig and those who revel in lopsided races, it’s a bad word so I’ll whisper it.

Salary Cap.

What, the union won’t allow it? Well baseball won’t be the first thing that unions ruined.

So feed on this. No matter how the Yankees fare, it doesn’t impress me. If I gave you $50,000 for Christmas shopping and I had $1,000, who would get the better presents? In other words, the crown is there for the taking for this team of All-Stars, and if they don’t win it going away, they deserve the criticism that New Yorkers enjoy dishing out when things don’t go their way.

I’ll reserve my credit for a Padres club enlightened with young pitching that seems destined to hold on to the NL West, the vastly improved Reds, the surprising Braves and a Twins club powered by former Rock Cats. I’ll even doff my cap to the Red Sox, who have battled tremendous adversity to stay on the edge of the AL East race.

May one of them reap the gold while Yankee fans can join their Mets counterparts as they look under every rock in Central Park for someone to blame.

One thing’s for sure, they shouldn’t blame Selig. He’s reduced the field quite efficiently for them.

Monday, July 26, 2010

IS IT ANY WONDER?

Is it any wonder why the New Britain Rock Cats have difficulty competing in the Eastern League?

The Twins promote the player who contributed to the two rare victories Saturday and Sunday -- outfielder Brandon Roberts -- and that's fine. Roberts should be in Triple-A, and would have been if he hadn't been injured coming out of spring training.

They also lose catcher Danny Lehmann.

What do they get in return? A 22-year-old catcher -- Tobias Streich -- who's hitting a lusty .124, not at the high Class A level but at low-A Beloit in the Midwest League. Can you spell "o-v-e-r-m-a-t-c-h-e-d?"

And take a look at the lineup they're facing in the Yankees' Double-A club, division leader Trenton.

There's Justin Christian, 30, a long-time Triple-A vet who's played 24 games in the majors. And catcher Rene Rivera, 27, who has logged time with the Seattle Mariners.

It's like the men against the boys, but that's the way the Twins do things. They'd prefer to send up some kid who may as well step up to the plate waving a toothpick instead of a bat.

With the Rock Cats threatening to become one of the five worst teams in 87 years of EL history, I am reminded of the dismal 2000 club that was stocked with Midwest League kids as it lost its final 17 games. Now that was worthwhile putting your money out for, wasn't it fans?

Is it any surprise why none of those Midwest League kids in 2000 ever made it back as high as Double-A for any length of time?

Is it 2000 all over again? Stay tuned.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

ELUSIVE WINS SWEET FOR CATS

The Rock Cats clubhouse has had the aura of a funeral parlor most of the season.

The individual players go about their jobs admirably in light of the team’s record, particularly at home, but collectively they’re hushed after defeats.

The boom box that pulses with urban and Latino songs is silent, strangely obscured by the sounds of low-level chatter, running showers, equipment falling to the floor and the whir of washing machines.

It’s understandable, and appropriate. The Twins would no doubt want their players of the future to contemplate why each loss happens and what they can do to best represent the organization and themselves as the dog days of summer begin to howl.

The scene is anything but quiet when the result is good.

On Thursday night, left-handed pitcher Tyler Robertson threw his best game of the season. Throwing his curveball and slider for strikes, his fastball had some added sizzle and he made the young Portland Sea Dog hitters uncomfortable.

Saturday’s game featured a dramatic ending with an inspirational backdrop supplied by the bat, the tenacity and the beaming personality of catcher Jair Fernandez.

Fernandez, injured in a collision with Reading catcher Kevin Nelson at home plate July 8, appeared headed for the disabled list.

He wasn’t able to brace himself properly for impact and his right knee hyperextended. It had all the look of season-ending ligament damage, but here he was, eight days later, pressed into action as a late-inning replacement. He ripped into a fastball from Portland pitcher Bryson Cox and sent it majestically over the wall in left field for a 6-4 Rock Cats victory, just their 12th win at home in 48 starts.

Like Robertson the night before, the excitement of winning blended with a huge degree of personal satisfaction set off an emotional rush for Fernandez, a 6-foot-1, 170-pound 23-year-old from Cartagena, Colombia.

Robertson, a low-key 22-year-old lefthander out of Simi Valley, Calif., had a tendency to keep the exhilaration bottled up inside but it leaked out. His delivery during the interview did as much to his words as his mound delivery did for his ERA.

With Fernandez, the excitement was more palpable, perhaps because his achievement happened so suddenly and ended the game the instant it left his bat. Fernandez broadcast a smile that brought sunshine to a clubhouse that has been all too overcast all season.

You can’t help but feel good that these youngsters have had a moment in the sun, and where it carries them in their careers is anybody’s guess. What you immediately discern is that when wins come in sparse number, the ones that do come your way bring on that much more pleasure.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

REHAB THERAPY

Rumors abounded dating back a week that New Britain Stadium might be the scene of a rehabilitation start for Red Sox starter Josh Beckett on Friday.

Beckett, folks hypothesized, could make a start for the Portland Sea Dogs. It was a reasonable assumption. MLB clubs prefer their pitchers to rehab at the home of their nearby minor league affiliates, but Portland, Triple-A Pawtucket and even short-season Class A Lowell will all be on the road come Friday. Pitching for Portland at New Britain or Pawtucket at Syracuse or Lowell in Batavia, N.Y., left the Red Sox some choices.

As the week went on, it became reasonable to assume that righthander Clay Buchholz could also be making a rehab start on Friday. New Britain's chances of seeing a big leaguer at work were improving.

But a report on the NESN website late Wednesday morning said the Red Sox have decided to pitch Buchholz on Friday and Beckett on Saturday, both for Pawtucket in Syracuse. It appears that New Britain fans will have to be satisfied with future big leaguers instead of present ones. Rock Cats officials expect a sellout on Friday anyway.

Friday, July 2, 2010

IN PURSUIT OF PIE-FECTION

We're sitting around on a perfect Friday afternoon on the eve of Independence Day weekend and thinking about getting a pizza.

This is always a difficult decision in the Lipshez household. It's a decision that forces us to weigh quality versus distance. Here's how it goes.

There's some decent pizza in the immediate area. We'll do one at Joey Garlic in Farmington on Route 6 once in awhile, or maybe Naples near Farmington center on Route 4. They'll do in a pinch but you must remember I'm a New Haven boy.

New Haven boys take their apizza seriously. No typo there. If the 'a' is out front you're reasonably sure it's an Italian-style pie. As a Jewish boy growing up among many Italians, you learn that the word is pronounced "ah-beetz."

When you're talking pie in New Haven, you're talking Wooster Street -- Little Italy -- and with all due respect for Sally's, Pepe's is the king. The original Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napolitano is celebrating its 85th year making their signature tomato pie in a coal-fired brick oven that reaches temperatures that no regular oven can match. The result is a crust that is ultra thin and gives special meaning to the word crispy.

The place is legendary. People traveling between New York and Boston on I-95 will often stop and get in the long line that snakes out the door and along Wooster Street. I've stood in that line for 45 minutes in the rain waiting for a pepperoni pie.

I went through grade school with a happy-g0-lucky guy named Francis Roselli and his cousin Nancy Pepe. They're Frank Pepe's grandchildren. The only times I've seen Francis since those carefree days were at the restaurant on Wooster Street. To the best of my knowledge, he's still helping run things. I tried emailing him through the website, pepespizzeria.com, but I've never heard from him.

Anyway, the Pepe's people decided to spread their dough a few years ago. They opened a place in Fairfield County, and then in Manchester across the street from the Buckland Hills mall. That's where we usually go.

The atmosphere isn't like New Haven but the apizza is amazing. And there are some great photos on the wall. Ronnie Reagan making his way through the crowd for his pie. Bill Clinton trying to wrap his lips around a steaming slice. You don't see guys like that having pizza in New Britain or Farmington, do ya?

So we're thinking, do we go to Manchester and battle the holiday weekend traffic for the best, or do we go down to Southington for the reasonable facsimile that Randy's Wooster Street Pizza puts out.

"It's up to you," sez Lisa.

"We're going to Manchester," sez I.

Well I don't know all the reasons why but there was no rush-hour traffic. We made in to Buckland Hills in about 20 minutes, not a whole lot longer than it would have taken to cruise to Queen Street in Southington.

Mozzarella and sausage throughout, 'shrooms on half and peppers on the other half. Baby, it doesn't get any better than that, except damn I missed my pepperoni. They make their own, you know, more spicy and flavorful than any other pepperoni on the planet. I could have done bacon, too.

Well, there's always tomorrow.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

ANTIETAM, YUENGLING AND A DUTCH TREAT

Just got back from a vacation to Antietam and Strasburg.

Do you know how many people have said, "What the heck is Antietam, and did you really visit with the Washington Nationals' rookie pitching sensation?"

In regard to the first part of the inquiry, I feel ashamed for someone who has to ask that. To the second part, I don't believe that Stephen Strasburg has anything to do with Strasburg, Pa., a striking little burgh in the Pennsylvania Dutch Country dotted with houses out of Hansel and Gretel and a famous railroad museum.

The Antietam part is a serious matter to me. Antietam is the name of the creek that flows through the softly rolling hills of Sharpsburg, Md. On Sept. 17, 1862, the bloodiest battle involving Americans was fought there, a crucial clash in the outcome of the Civil War.

Over 23,000 men were either killed or wounded at Antietam. The tales of how the skirmishes unfolded are testament to their bottomless courage and the utter uselessness of war. Imagine walking stealthily through a cornfield, stalks reaching six feet tall, with your rifle ready, your eyes as big as silver dollars and fixed with the realization that your life could end abruptly at any moment.

When the troops reached the end of the field, enemy soldiers were primed and waiting just a few feet away, kneeling and aiming. Thousands fell in minutes.

The battle raged for most of the day. Confederate General Robert E. Lee used the Hagerstown Road behind his long grey line to move troops rapidly to where they were needed. Union General George B. McClellan tried desperately to cross the three bridges that spanned Antietam Creek so he could outflank Lee's men.

The result was that Lee's Army of Northern Virginia was denied its master strategy of taking the war directly to Pennsylvania and the north. Lee would try again a year later at Gettysburg and fail.

Why should you care? Why do I care? I do not want these men who gave their lives to be forgotten. I can only think of the young athletes that I cover -- the high school seniors and the minor league baseball players -- forced to fight wars instead of being able to engage in more figurative battles that don't generally spill blood.

I visited the graves at Antietam last week and in Gettyburg last year and I connected with those who fought so that I could cover baseball games for a living. I focused on Lincoln's stirring Gettyburg Address and Lee's foiled war strategy. Remembering is the least I can do.

I went to the Pennsylvania Dutch Country for a variety of reasons. I'm captivated by the simplicity of the Amish lifestyle and just as overwhelmed how brilliantly they have mastered the tenets of tourism. The Amish won't drive mechanized vehicles but they will ride in them. But believe me, they'll sell you just about anything you can imagine.

We bought homemade root beer and took a guided tour on one of their little horse-drawn buggies. We frequented the shops in their attractively named villages of Intercourse, Bird-in-Hand and Blue Ball and watched others put out top dollar for quilts, pottery and other bric-a-brac.

The other reason we went to Pennsylvania is so I could bring home some Yuengling. I'm no beer connoisseur but I know what I like, and nothing tastes quite like a cold Yuengling Original Lager on a hot day. I think I said the same thing about Coors when it was only available west of the Mississippi. Maybe I can't resist that lure when something is taboo.

And then there's baseball. Take a vacation from baseball writing and what do I do? Search for a ballgame, and I found one at Lancaster's Clipper Magazine Stadium. The independent Barnstormers of the Atlantic League were hosting the Bridgeport Bluefish. Wily Mo Pena, that slugger Boston traded to Cincy for Bronson Arroyo, hit a homer to win it for Bridgeport.

Now it's back home to the Rock Cats and the same old story -- the grandstands are packed but the Cats have been sent out onto New Britain's cold, cruel diamond without the claws necessary to compete with the Portlands and Trentons.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

BAD LUCK OR NONE AT ALL

If bad luck were base hits, the New Britain Rock Cats would be scratching at the penthouse door instead of living in a basement that has been all but sealed for 2010.

The team's most highly touted prospect -- center fielder Ben Revere -- has certainly lived up to advanced billing. He's a born .300 hitter, can steal bases with the best of them and tracks fly balls down as well as any we've seen south of Torii Hunter. But Revere has dealt with so many nagging injuries that trainer Chad Jackson's dossier on him could serve as a script for ER.

When Revere flipped his ankle after stepping on a bat last month, it looked like he would be logging DL time but he persevered. On the recent road trip, he sustained an eye injury when he took a knee to the head. Two punches set him up and the third one knocked him out. He tried to give the Rock Cats a first-inning lead Tuesday with a head-first slide into the dish and was spiked. The wound had to be closed with stitches so he'll miss time.

Erik Lis fouled a ball off his ankle in Altoona. It wasn't your average "foul the ball off the foot, limp around for a moment or two then get back in the game" kind of thing. Lis, resilient and persistent like Revere, tried to continue but had to leave the game.

So, you have a team buried in the basement that has its sure all-star leadoff man out and its plus-.300 cleanup hitter ailing. Anything else? Sure.

Third baseman Yangervis Solarte didn't have any gold-plated prospect tags hanging off him when he arrived from Class A but this switch-hitting Venezuelan is a gamer. He's played outstanding defense at third, even though manager Jeff Smith said he's equally projected to play second, and has come up with some timely hits.

Naturally, Solarte strained his hamstring, which we all know can keep a player out or at less than 100 percent for months.

TO THE LORDS OF BASEBALL: Please, oh esteemed holy ones, can't you see Smith has played the role of Job long enough? The man has paid his dues. He's suffered a career's worth of setbacks in less than half a season.

How about allowing he and his battered Cats to keep some of their dignity by letting them remain healthy for the second half and give the great fans of central Connecticut the competitive baseball they so richly deserve.

How about allowing Carlos Gutierrez or Kyle Gibson to pitch a no-hitter? Or maybe one of the Cats' wayward relievers can suddenly find some late movement or an extra yard on his fastball.

We've got to give our gallant radio announcer Jeff Dooley something to be happy about. He's a good lad, even if he didn't know that Barney Fife's boss was Andy Griffith and why his partner Joe D'Ambrosio would have two blackbirds with rhyming names (Heckle and Jeckle) as his desktop decoration. Can we at least get him a winning homestand with a walk-off win or two and and some hits with runners in scoring position? How about an eensy-weensy save?

At least you Lords have ascertained that president/CEO Bill Dowling and his GM John Willi are terrific guys. You haven't caused any natural disasters like floods or typhoons to prevent fans from entering the stadium and they're coming in at a stirring 5,330 per opening. They have indeed withstood the unnatural disaster of the city-run parking situation at the yard. Those fans just keep on coming, Rock Cats record be damned.

So as the diamond scriptures tell us, the Rock Cats are destined to have just two kinds of luck in 2010. Bad luck and none at all. Hang in there guys. We love ya anyway.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

THIS AND THAT

A little of this and a little of that ...

The media is awash with talk of this vuvuzela, the plastic horn that World Cup enthusiasts are tooting in great number. It seems that soccer fans are finding them a distraction when watching games on television.

When I was working in the Eastern League back in the 1980s, they were a popular item amongst the younger set but we didn't have some elegant Spanish term for them. We called them horns, and there were those back then who hated them, too. Side note to New Britain Rock Cats GM John Willi and his promotional staff: Please don't go there. I'm sure Cats broadcasters Jeff Dooley and Joe D'Ambrosio are with me on this one. ...

Rock Cats are back home tonight for a quick 3-gamer with the Strasburg-less Harrisburg Senators. The locals presently hold a slight lead over the Baltimore Orioles for the unenviable distinction of being the worst team in professional baseball. At least the Cats don't have to face the constant challenge of playing the Yanks, Sox and Rays, but they've had enough headaches with the Curve, the Flying Squirrels and the Sea Dogs. ...

Kudos to the local high school teams and athletes that have represented this spring. I see the Farmington High girls golf team and Southington boys volleyball team have won state titles and New Britain track star Rob White continues to excel on a state and regional level. My absence on the high school beat come springtime always poses a dilemma for me since I can't be with the kids, but I'm watching and embracing what all of you have accomplished. Great job of coverage by my colleagues, too. ...

Best wishes to the CIAC's Michael Savage as he sets sail into his retirement. High school sports have taken giant steps forward under Mr. Savage. Best of luck to his successor Karissa Niehoff. Ms. Niehoff, currently the principal at Lewis Mills High School in Burlington, will do a great job, I'm sure. ...

In a related matter, I can tell you that the Connecticut Sports Writers' Alliance, an organization I've helped steer for 15 years, is working closely with the CIAC to make conditions more favorable for the media. That in turn allows reporters to publicize the great accomplishments of our student-athletes.

CSWA president Robert Ehalt and the CIAC's Stephanie Ford have been at the forefront of this effort and it is bearing fruit. The transition to today's technology is both demanding and requires great communication between all parties concerned, and thanks to Ehalt, Ford and CIAC computer whiz Matt Fischer, we have turned the corner. ...

Saturday, June 5, 2010

COLLEGE BALL = DOUBLE-A? NO, SIR.

It was brought to my attention that one regional newspaper ran an editorial urging support for the NCAA Baseball Regionals being played this weekend at Dodd Stadium in Norwich.

I concur. Folks should go to Norwich and watch UConn, Central Connecticut State University, Oregon and Florida State do battle. In UConn, you have one of the Huskies' better teams and some great local talent. Central had a terrific year. Florida State and Oregon come from two of the best conferences in the country.

But please don't insult the intelligence of baseball fans by saying an NCAA Regional is equivalent to Double-A. I've found that it is generally accepted that top-level college ball can be compared to high Class A, maybe even a shade better when teams like Texas and Florida State are playing, but the Division I midstream is a far cry from Double-A ball.

If it were Double-A's equal, you wouldn't be seeing pitchers like the New Britain Rock Cats' Kirk Gibson, a former Missouri Tiger, starting out in high A. In Gibson's case, he was up to the task in high A so he was promoted here in mid-May. Gibson, however, ranked as one of the better pitchers in the nation.

So I'm all for going to Norwich for some great college ball but I promise you you're not going to see the same quality you'll see day in and day out at New Britain Stadium and around the Eastern League. The bigger issue is that colleges use those pinging aluminum bats, at least until some poor pitcher gets killed, and games with 35 runs scored aren't unusual.

Monday, May 31, 2010

EVERY DAY IS MEMORIAL DAY

The premise behind Memorial Day -- honoring those who have given their lives so that we can live in freedom -- should be far from a one-weekend commitment. Personally, a day does not go by without my thinking about the courage that our military personnel have and continue to display.

The nature of the holiday is to gather with family and friends for a welcome-to-summer barbecue. It's a terrific tradition, one that has been a favorite throughout my lifetime. I remember vividly meeting my Little League teammates to walk down a mile or two down the avenue with the whole town lining the route. Go ahead, attend those festive parades, enjoy that burger and relish your relationships.

But nobody should lose sight of what Memorial Day truly means.

In the last year, I have visited Gettysbury and shivered with the words of Abraham Lincoln's address ringing in my head as I stood in the very place where he spoke one of history's greatest pieces of rhetoric. Please read what he said, think of the sacrifices made by gallant young men on both sides of the battle line and try to absorb the meaning.

I also visited Yorktown, Va. How many of you remember its significance from your grade-school days? On a field in Yorktown, General George Washington accepted the surrender of the British to sanction the birth of the greatest nation Earth has even known.

Soon, I will be headed for Antietam in Maryland. It's many miles from any beach or ballpark. I don't expect to attend any carnivals or swill cocktails at a pub. I will stand at Burnside's Bridge and reflect on the 23,000 men who were killed or wounded there in the Civil War. I will walk those hallowed grounds and recall the description noting that you could walk for a mile without touching the ground because of all the dead bodies left behind.

I will go to Harper's Ferry, WV, where a man named John Brown and his five sons gave their lives in an ill-fated plan to eradicate slavery. When the Torrington native was hanged on Dec. 2, 1859, he said, "I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood." Was he a terrorist or freedom fighter?" Some questions history will never be able to answer.

Thus, I have two extra Memorial Days on my agenda. I will shed some tears. I will feel that familiar shiver tingle through my chest.

So many have died in so many wars fought to preserve our way of life. Baby boomers like me are fortunate that our parents' generation made the sacrifices that World War II demanded so that some goose-stepping control freaks and power-mad lunatics wouldn't be controlling our destiny. Similar sacrifices were made since by the brave souls who endured the bitter cold of Korean battlefields, the thick jungles rife with instruments of torture in Vietnam and the brutal conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Let's not forget them, please.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

DIRTY LAUNDRY ON COLLEGE CLOTHESLINES

I've never had the chance to cover UConn men's basketball. I've never met Jim Calhoun. I cannot say that I have any professional insight on what goes on inside a big-time college program. My perspective is nothing more than that of a casual observer who once treasured college sports a lot more than he does today.

College sports began with nothing but good intent. You know, my school's better than your school so let's have a game. Now, like so many other things that were once wonderful, it's all about money.

I believe it was that great TV philosopher Dr. Benjamin Franklin "Hawkeye" Pierce who said something to this effect: "The three basic human drives are greed, sex and greed." Division I college football and basketball rake in so much money and universities across the land have become so dependent on the windfall that greed courses through the very heart of the institution.

Big-time television contracts and huge revenue from tickets and advertising have created a recruiting scene dominated by shaky individuals under the auspices of AAU that rivals the underworld made relevant by crime and corruption. On the other side of the fence is an administering body so holier than thou that otherwise honest people can't help but become corrupt.

Which brings me to the issue at hand, the NCAA sanctions coming down the pike that have UConn fans holding their breath and the subsequent resignation of two assistant coaches. One of them -- Patrick Sellers -- was once a humble high school coach at St. Thomas Aquinas in New Britain.

I got to know Patrick in those days and found him to be a heck of a coach who loved his kids and a man who a sports writer could enjoy chatting with about the game. Patrick appears to me to be a scapegoat in this shady episode of flesh-peddling intrigue that hangs like a cloud of mustard gas over people who are inherently good.

I'm not smart enough to write a dissertation on how the NCAA could evolve into an organization that is fair to the so-called student athlete, tough on the criminals who have perpetrated an erstwhile benevolent organization like the AAU with the common sense necessary to alter the No Man's Land of major college basketball. All I know is that it must be done.

I do feel that college should be for those who wish to study and that the NBA's Developmental League is more geared for those who have no intention of seeking a college education and just seek to polish their resume for the pro game. The D-League should be to the NBA what minor league baseball in to MLB.

That's as far as I'm going to go here. Perhaps if they began there, people like Patrick Sellers wouldn't have to be hiding from the media now as my colleagues who cover the UConn beat do their best to find out exactly what went wrong and who's to blame. My only concern isn't whether UConn will be able to compete for national championships or not. I hope Pat Sellers lands on his feet.

Monday, May 24, 2010

THE PRESS BOX

Perched high above the stadium which adds to its celestial air, the press box is an esteemed place for budding sports journalists and a charismatic, taboo place of intrigue to the fans.

It stands above the crowd, well lit and teeming with activity. Those who attempt to gain access are turned back by warnings about authorized personnel only, making it all the more fascinating. If the time ever comes when they have legitimate business there, they scan the ballpark with an agape expression, marveling at the view.

Okay, have I made it sound too romantic? I can buy that, but as a youngster with journalistic intentions at a very young age, that’s how I always saw it. Visits to Yankee or Shea Stadium brought out the intrigue. It got me to thinking of Mel Allen, Red Smith, Red Barber, Ralph Kiner, Lindsey Nelson, Bob Shepard and others of their grand stature walking through as if they were just human beings like me.

Autumns in the late 1960s would find me at Yale Bowl, ushering raccoon coats to their seats in Portal 14, the upper reaches of which were next to that sprawling blue press box. I’d catch glimpses of the New Haven Register sports writers I read voluminously growing up, like Yale grad Bob Barton who has since become a dear friend and respected colleague. I can still recall how he waxed poetic through personal heartbreak when he reported how Harvard “beat” the Yales of Brian Dowling and Calvin Hill, 29-29, to end the Elis’ bid for an unbeaten season in 1969.

So please be gentle with that common pin as you brush past my balloon. I don’t want to lose the hero-worshipping phase of a blessed childhood.

The years passed and I am now one of the few who gets to sit atop the seats behind home plate at New Britain Stadium for Rock Cats games. I have been there for 14 years and I would venture to say that over that time, I have missed fewer than 10 games. Perhaps as few as five of a grand total that I would estimate to be quite close to 1,000.

Thoughts harken back to a framed piece of needlework that hung on the wall over the bed that I slept in at my grandparents’ house as a small boy. I didn’t fully understand the words but my predilection with words in general engraved these in the recesses of my mind.

“The ornament of a house is the friends who frequent it.”

I didn’t know until running them through Google that the thought belong to Ralph Waldo Emerson. He couldn’t have known during his 19th century lifespan what the press box could mean to an ideological boy destined to write but the words work so beautifully.

The friends who frequent the press box at the Emerald start with two old and dear buddies, great disciples of our beautiful national pastime. Scoreboard operator Larry Michaels and Rock Cats radio voice Jeff Dooley have shared summer working quarters with me for a long time.

I’ve known Larry since Beehive Field made its Eastern League bow in 1983. His children grew up there. Only a catastrophe, or milestone like a wedding or graduation, can force Larry's fingers off that scoreboard or his eyes off the home plate umpire.

Dooley’s been at the Cats’ microphone for 13 seasons, and trust me when I say the Good Lord tossed away the mold when he created the Lord of Lincoln (Rhode Island). The guy has a heart of gold and a dedication that must keep his wife Marne and sons Joe and Ryan awake nights. Hopefully you know the type, one of those guys who would stop his car in traffic to pet a stray cat.

He works so diligently to make his broadcasts sound professional that he actually lost his temper once or twice when a technician dropped the ball.

Some have come and gone, like ex-Cats media relations specialist Chris McKibben and Dools’ former partner Dan Lovallo. You hate to see good people go but circumstances dictated their departure. But Chris was replaced by ever-smiling, equally vigilant Bob Dowling and Dan’s shoes were filled by highly esteemed UConn voice Joe D’Ambrosio, both of whom bring a charm all their own to our family.

Former New Britain High teacher and wrestling coach Ed Smith came in a few years back as official scorer, and as it is with Dools, you’ll never meet a nicer man. He is however a Notre Dame fan, and enjoys the crowded city streets more than my beloved country lanes, but we’ll overlook those items.

Others include intrepid PA announcer Don Steele, the best I’ve ever known, and gallant behind-the-scenes men like technology expert Luke Pawlak, music man Mike Torres and camera whiz Mike “Manny” Papazian. There are the usual visitors like rockcats.com's Heather Cavaliere, who makes every effort never to violate anybody’s personal space and always brings delectable baked goods from her family’s bakery in Portland – for Dooley!

I was so right back in the days of Yale Bowl. The press box surveying the scene is just a little closer to heaven.