Wednesday, October 10, 2012

PLAINVILLE'S PASSION FOR THE PAST


The down-to-earth nature of Plainville’s sports heritage is shaped to some extent by the town’s geographical distinction – a village bookended by much larger municipalities.
When Byron J. Treado III and his group of selected sportsmen crafted a means of preserving the legacy through the Plainville Sports Hall of Fame, he touched a chord that for 14 years has emotionally moved men and women whose colorful athletic exploits once buzzed through the community.
The 13th induction dinner held Saturday night that filled Nuchie’s Restaurant in Forestville served as stirring testament to how Plainville’s sports heroes scattered across the nation can revel in reuniting in celebration of bygone triumphs.
Perhaps the greatest of those triumphs came on November 27, 1971, when a Plainville High football team that hadn’t beaten Southington in 23 years broke through with a giant-killing moment, an 18-14 victory in the Blue Knights’ lair.
The conquering hero was quarterback Jeff Palmer, son of the late, long-time Plainville coach/educator/administrator Charlie Palmer and a member of the Hall of Fame’s Class of 2006. Emotions overtook Jeff as he revisited the camaraderie of a great moment frozen in time with former teammates and townsfolk who reveled in his accomplishment.
Joining Palmer in this year’s class were former major league baseball player Earl Snyder, his PHS teammate Brian Biskupiak, two-sport star Jeff Sengle, swimming and track star Mary Boiczyk Westkott and lifetime athletic contributor Rich Buchanan. The state championship baseball squads of 1983 and 1984 piloted by 2003 Hall-of-Famer Ron Jones were inducted as teams.
Palmer and Snyder tugged on the crowd’s heart strings when their speeches came to a stop in mid-sentence because they were overcome by sentiment. Biskupiak entertained with the kind of deadpan humor that would have made George Burns snicker.
Buchanan shared a poignant personal moment from nine years ago when he strived to prepare himself mentally for undergoing colon cancer surgery, dipping into the lessons he absorbed from Charlie Palmer and legendary basketball coach Pat Riera. Their lessons, Buchanan noted, were reinforced by the famous speech by Jim Valvano, stricken with terminal cancer yet pleading, “Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.”
Boiczyk Westkott took a similar approach, extolling the virtues of her late swim coach George Choiniere and the role he played in shaping her life.
“He was not a technician of the sport. He was not a conditioner of athletes. He made us want to be fast, he made us want to be successful, he made us want to be a team.”
Sengle, who went on to a career with the United States Secret Service that included protecting former President Bill Clinton, mixed a little humor with his memories when he said, “I can promise you that my speech will have nothing to do with the economy.”
Jones, as spokesman for his two teams, dwelled on the “us against the world” mentality that served as the centerpiece of his dynamic motivational skills.
Treado, who stepped down as chairman of the dinner two years ago in favor of Keith J. D’Amato, stitched it all together as toastmaster, keeping the honorees and dinner guests alike on the edge of their seats with colorful perspective and scintillating surprises.
For those who missed it, or wish to revisit a memorable evening, Nutmeg TV (Comcast channel 95, AT&T channel 99) filmed the proceedings for 7 p.m. airings on October 17, 21 and 27.
PHS athletic director John Zadnik kicked off the evening with the presentation of the Byron Treado Founders Award to recent graduates Tom Dinda and Chris Kuzia, both of whom were unable to attend because they were away at school.
Zadnik capably cut through the din of a crowd still settling in when he said, “I’d like to ask you for a moment of silence, please … for the Boston Red Sox.” The Yankee fans chuckled and the Sox fans hissed, but there was no doubt that Zadnik got their attention.
Jones, a lightning rod for criticism during his coaching tenure due to his fiery nature, explained how his antics were all part of the plan as he led up to the induction of the 1984 team. The season came to a head with the Devils playing Berlin for the championship before a huge crowd at Beehive Field.
“[The Berlin people] were all over me from the first pitch and I was loving it,” said Jones, his blistering rhetoric still very much a part of him nearly 30 years later.
“I wasn’t playing. That crowd could yell anything they wanted at me. They weren’t going to rattle me and my players that night would be able to do what they did best – above the pressure of any crowd and that was to play the Plainville way – hard, clean and aggressive, blue collar. …
“What a night! I won an Oscar and our program had secured back-to-back championships.”
Snyder played briefly for the Cleveland Indians and Red Sox after a brilliant career at the University of Hartford and an excellent minor league stint in the Mets system. But it was his time winning championships at PHS, with close friends and fellow Hall of Famers Biskupiak and Brian Edge by his side, that he said he cherishes the most.
Treado built up toward Sengle’s induction with a personal letter of congratulations that he secretly procured from Clinton himself.
Biskupiak kept the gathering in stitches with his Letterman-like list of secrets of success. His third rule to live by was, “Don’t wait until your junior year in high school to get braces. ... Do yourself a favor. You don’t want a metal-filled prom picture to surface on Facebook.”

Thursday, October 4, 2012

PRAYING FOR PAT


Life's peaks and gulleys were never so vivid to me than over the last 48 hours.
Pat Neshek is a sidearming right-handed relief pitcher for the Oakland A’s who spent parts of three seasons with the New Britain Rock Cats.  He ranks among the most genuine people I’ve ever encountered in the 30 years I was around professional baseball.
Neshek was riding the crest of elation. 
After five big league seasons with the Minnesota Twins and San Diego Padres, he overcame the trauma of Tommy John (ligament replacement) surgery on his pitching arm and the ensuing rehabilitation.  He retraced his minor league steps and played an active role in his team’s improbable surge to the American League West title as an exceptional right-handed specialist, as his 1.37 ERA over a 24-game period would heartily attest.
On the personal side, he and his wife Stephanee were about to experience the birth of their first child.  Neshek’s love of baseball, not only as a player but as a fan, surfaced brightly in his naming the baby boy Gehrig.  Gehrig John Neshek was born Tuesday, the same day the A’s were beating the Texas Rangers to set up Wednesday’s one-game battle for the division championship.
“Thinking of the long nights in AAA, my TJ surgery & the days when I thought it was over makes this the sweetest playoff ‘birth’ of my career!” he tweeted.
Neshek, who was writing blogs and using computers to spread baseball’s gospel before it was fashionable, posted a photo of him holding Gehrig for his many Facebook friends to see.  I could feel the warmth pulsing throughout my torso, feeling the joie de vivre that radiated from his smile.
Before Pat and Steph could enjoy their view from the top of the world, the unthinkable happened.  Gehrig died on Wednesday without having experienced life for a full day.
I woke up Thursday morning to the following Facebook entry: “Please pray for my family. Tonight my wife & I lost our first & only son 23 hours after he was born with no explanation.”
Life is a perplexing phenomenon.  Everybody experiences problems, and when those problems are worked out, we’re worrying about new ones.
I thought about some of the ones I encountered in recent years, one is of a personal nature that only my family and dearest friends are aware.  In addition, there have been substantial professional setbacks that have tested my mettle and my faith.
I bitch about the economy and the corrupt and/or inept politicians who can’t turn it around.  My voice reaches a higher crescendo when I talk about the eroding effects of greed on the human race, and on my industry in particular.  I scream in the solitude of my Avalanche when some brain-dead idiot passes me on the right at 90 miles per hour.
Such petty injustices invade our minds on a daily basis.  Often we are stunned by a death in the family or stung by a severe injury to a loved one, but please take a moment to contemplate the torturous slide from the height of pure human joy to the depths of utter despair that Pat and his family have had to endure.
Am I a spiritual enough man that I can ask you all to pray for the Nesheks?  I hope so.  Prayer never hurts.
But as I do from time to time when tragedy intercedes, I feel so helpless to reach out and provide something to help them feel better in the hour that’s hurled them beyond their greatest nightmare.
I cried for joy when the Oakland A’s, a team I’ve rooted for since its days in Kansas City.  This morning, I cried out of desolation for a friend who touched my life with his kindness.  I wish there was something more I could do.