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Sunday, July 31, 2011

The unique 1,200-mile 'doubleheader' of 1996

When you're young, you can take on any task. Really, you could.

No matter the degree of difficulty, things seem easier in your 20s. Well, that's how I was feeling back in the 1990s. I could take on two assignments in one day.

Heck, I almost took on three one day, but I say almost because Lenny Dykstra was acting like a complete jerk (I'll use the nice term for it) when I went to an autograph signing session at Asbury Park's Convention Hall on November 1, 1986. I had two high school football games in Monmouth County to cover afterward and those went on as planned.

Well, on Saturday, August 3, 1996, I got to handle double duty in a far different manner that involved over 1,200 miles. Let me start this story from the top:

In the summer of 1996, I was getting very disillusioned about my time at the Ocean County Observer. I felt after 12 years of being there, my talents were being undervalued, not by my immediate bosses, but by the people above them. I don't think I was being paid well enough by the company and 15 years later, I can still say to this day the pay was deplorable.

So in the summer of '96, I started searching for a way out through Editor & Publisher. And with the acquistion of a computer at my folks' place, I spent many a late night in the family room poring over advertisements from other papers, just to see what the world was like outside of Toms River, N.J. I think I sent in about 10-12 resumes starting in June '96.

One day in late July '96, I get a phone call. It's from a guy named Dennis, who was the sports editor at a paper in Port Charlotte, Fla., a town I really had never heard of. He was impressed by what he saw on my resume and my clips and he asked me if I wanted to come down for the interview.

Well, of course, I was more than happy to do so. The problem, though, was I was in the middle of District 18 Little League season and had to figure out a time to do this. Now being the assistant sports editor then, my days off were Thursdays and Fridays. So the way it was planned, I could pick any airport to fly out of -- Newark, Atlantic City or Philadelphia -- and travel to Southwest Florida Regional Airport in Fort Myers.

In late July 1996, the Toms River East American Junior League All-Star team -- one year removed from going to the Little League World Series -- was on the verge of winning the state championship in Vineland, N.J., and going to the East Regional Tournament, which was to be held in New City, N.Y., just over the New York-New Jersey border.

The first championship game was to be held on a Wednesday. If East American had lost the first game that late afternoon, it'd have to turn around and play a second state championship game that evening. So to be on the safe side, I had booked the plane out of Philadelphia, which was closest to Vineland and did fly to Fort Myers (since no planes flew there from Atlantic City). This was just in case I'd have to take a hotel in the Vineland area that night.

Lo and behold, East American took care of business in one fell swoop and I got to write the game story that night on the Radio Shack Tandy and sent it back into the office via couplers at about 9 p.m. I decided to head home instead of stay overnight and sleep in my own bed.

Come the morning of Thursday, August 1, I headed out to Philadelphia International Airport at 7:30 a.m. and got there by 9:30 for what would be a 10:45 a.m. flight. Made the flight and ultimately got to Fort Myers in mid-afternoon.

Now I had been to Florida two times in my life, but NEVER had it been in the middle of summer. So getting off the plane and getting my bag and then taking out the rental car, I had no idea what I was about to come across.

I literally stepped outside the airport entrance to where the rental cars were located and I swear to you I thought someone had brought a sauna to me personally. Never had I been hit by such a wave of heat and humidity like I did that moment. It was about 96 degrees and the humidity felt like about 110 percent. This Jersey boy was not ... let me repeat, not prepared for this climate change.

Jumping into the car at the airport, I had very little direction to get there, other than find I-75 and head north to the exit for Port Charlotte. Then it was a turn here, a turn there, and voila, I would be at the newspaper before I knew it.

When I got there, all the town had was palm trees and heat. And not much else. I went inside the newspaper office and met Dennis for the first time. We had our initial interview and then he showed me around the paper a bit. I had to take a drug test, which was a first for me. I admitted I had been to a bar in Vineland two nights before and I might still have some sort of alcohol in my urine.

"No problem," he said. "If they tested me every day, I'd be detected for that, too."

Swell! Now I had a kindred soul who liked beer more than I did! No one ever alerted me that I failed the drug test, so all was good as far as I was concerned.

I was to start anew the next day. When I got to the paper, all I had to do was a copy editing test, a writing test and understand the computers they were working on. It was going to be a staff of myself, my future boss and two other writers who were both in and showing me around a bit. One of the stories I had to rewrite was a Texas Rangers spring training piece since the Rangers were the fixture every March there at the time.

Dennis had time to show me around Port Charlotte and immediately told me it was as small a town as you can get, run mostly by senior citizens. That may have explained some of the older people driving along US-41 and subsequent roads in golf carts.

When we got in afterward, Dennis had to sit me down and tell me the bad news. No, I didn't fail any of the tests. He was actually encouraged by what he saw. But he had to explain the salary situation.

"It would only pay about $19,000 a year," he said.

My heart sunk. This was my first experience into the cheap-ass pay of the Sunshine State. The cost of living might be cheaper, but that was a step backward from what I was doing at the Observer. I couldn't take the job and Dennis knew he'd get that answer once he told me the pay scale.

But I got to see the secret side room of the building. It was not quite the size of an airplane hangar, but it was big enough to put a basketball court there.

Yes, an actual basketball court. Me and the two writers got to shoot hoops for about 15 minutes and then we came back inside. I told Dennis if there was anything he needed help in while I was there, I'd help out and he took me up on it, actually editing a couple of stories before I left that night (after watching Michael Johnson set the world record in the 200-meter dash at the Olympics in Atlanta).

The flight back to Philadelphia would be a two-hour trip. I was supposed to leave from Fort Myers at about 1:15 p.m. and arrive back in Philly by 3:30. That would give me ample time to get on major highways and dash through New Jersey to get into New York state and to New City for a 7 p.m. start for East American's game.

That is, as long as everything was perfectly set.

This is my life -- nothing goes as planned.

The flight was delayed for about 20 minutes. Worse, I'm sitting on an airplane around shrieking children. It's bad enough I can't stand kids to the point I don't want to be on the same damned airplane as them when they get out of control. It's another when the plane's on the Tarmac and we can't move and there is no sound of the airplane jets that can drown out the little bastards.

I never had patience to be a parent and I realized there and then I knew I had made the right decision in my life. Period!

Ultimately, the plane took off and to the pilot's credit, he got us into Philly by 3:30. But we had to sit on the Tarmac again! This time, it was because we couldn't get to the dropoff point with two other planes in line to take off. So by the time we finally docked, and I was able to get out of the airport and find my car and leave Philly, it was 4:30 p.m.

I was literally up against it. Got over the Whitman Bridge without much problem and was able to get to Exit 3 on the New Jersey Turnpike for what would seemingly be a long trip up. By 6:30 p.m. I was in northern New Jersey when I decided on taking a radical approach to New York state.

I was going to take the exit for Palisades Parkway, head north and, boom, I'd be in New City. At least that was my thought. Little did I know that the Palisades was practically next to the George Washington Bridge, so it seemed like a forever trip to get to the Palisades. I made one false turn and found myself driving on Route 4 doubling back to the Garden State Parkway!

So much for easy. By the time I figured out where I was, the GSP was within sight. I wound up taking that route into New York state and ultimately found my way to New City via the directions that were my link to getting there since I had never been there before.

By the time I arrived at the complex where the tournament was held, it was the bottom of the third inning and it was a quarter to 8. Thankfully, the scorekeeper for the tournament had kept very explicit notes on the game that I was able to grab from him.

To make this long story short, East American won the game in the bottom of the seventh inning when Jason Campanalonga -- the only kid on the All-Star team who was not a member of the Little League All-Star team the year before -- crushed a game-winning solo home run for the 4-3 victory.

Got the interviews I needed and left the complex by about 9:45 p.m. Found my hotel -- the Suisse Chalet right alongside the New York Thruway in Monsey -- about 20 minutes later, checked in, and banged out a story by 11 p.m., which I sent off to my boss.

Ultimately, East American, co-managed by Greg Huyler and John Karkovice, went on to win the East Regional title and on to the Junior League World Series in Taylor, Mich., where they ended up two-and-out in the event, an event I got to cover by traveling 11 1/2 hours one way and then 11 1/2 hours back in the middle of August 1996.

However, if things had gone differently -- and the pay were greater -- I would have been in Florida for that World Series.

And that doubleheader of sorts on that first Saturday in August 1996 -- plane ride in the early afternoon and long trip across New Jersey to a ballgame that night -- would have been my last hurrah at the Observer.

Really! That would have been the last memory of something I covered, when I did a unique doubleheader that engulfed over 1,200 miles.

Don't ever try this in the business.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

A hot All-Star field hockey team on an equally hot day

The idea of an All-Star field hockey event was long overdue at the New Jersey Shore. At least that was my opinion.

I had seen so many great field hockey players come and go in Ocean County for the 10 years I covered the sport. Kim Bush. Mary Bendel. Cristy Iorio. Jen Dutton. Lynn Gesser. Melissa Schreiner. Dana Jurczyk. Sue Schoppe. Linda Kurtyka. Charisse Hopkins. Kim Yankowski. And the best field hockey player I ever covered in 14 seasons at the Ocean County Observer, Christie Pearce.

Yes, THAT Christie Pearce, now Christie Rampone of the U.S. women's soccer team.

But they all shared the same thing in common -- they were great Ocean County players who never got to play against Monmouth County's best players in an All-Star game.

It took the passing of a Monmouth County coach to bring an All-Star Game in the sport to fruition, though.

In the fall 1994, popular and longtime Monmouth Regional High School mentor Sue Grant had lost her battle with cancer, a blow to those who knew her and what positive energy she brought to the sport. And so it was decided later on that school year that a Shore area field hockey battle between Monmouth County and Ocean County would be played in her honor with the proceeds going to a scholarship fund in her name.

Though Monmouth County had the name schools with the fantastic reputations like Shore Regional, Wall Township, Manasquan and Red Bank Regional, Ocean County had the star players. And in the 1994 season, Ocean County had a star-studded group of players.

Toms River East was represented by standout scorer Kat Arnold. Toms River North, which won the Shore Conference Tournament that fall, had sisters Connie and Tracy Sadowski. Pinelands Regional had Maureen Lawless. Southern Regional had Jodie Davis and Courtney Shearer. Jackson Memorial had Vicky Wagner. And Lacey had an amazing amount of players from its NJSIAA Group III title championship team, led by Jen Melnyk, a first-team All-State player, Megan Glancy and Pam Jacobson.

Coaching Ocean County's club was Madeline Dutton, Central Regional's coach since 1976. Helping her were Lacey's state-championship mentor, Mike Shern, and another longtime county coach, Barbara Hughes of Toms River South.

The Wednesday I came out to Central Regional for practice, you could see that even though these young ladies had never played with one another, they were jelling rather well. I can still see Davis threading a perfect pass to Arnold, who put the ball in behind Manchester goalie Amanda Curchin. And Melnyk was drilling her patented penalty corner shot from the top of the circle past Curchin and Lakewood goalie Karina Ballesteros.

But I also saw something that bothered me a bit. There was South's Shannon Keelan practicing with the team. Nothing wrong with playing with others, except Keelan still had a senior year ahead of her at South. I asked Dutton what she was doing out there. She said she would look into it.

Only a couple of hours after practice had been over, Keelan was no longer a member of the Ocean County squad. If Keelan had played in this game, she would have forfeited her right to play in any all-star games the next year ... and if I remember right, forfeited the right to play in South's regular season.

Hughes told me later that she completely forgot that Keelan was not a senior on the team. I was hoping she would have told me that she had no concept that only seniors could play in these games because I still found it hard to believe that she would not have known her top all-around player was coming back for her senior year that fall.

But Hughes thanked me for the oversight and I told her she was welcome.

Even without the talented Keelan, I still had a lot of hope that this team would be very, very good come game time.

The player I was excited to see play was Ballesteros. This young lady was one of the smartest student-athletes in the county, but between the two sports she played at Lakewood High School -- field hockey and softball -- she never saw the winning side. Seriously. In two years, Ballesteros' Piners never won a single game in either sport. So if there was a rooting interest in the game, that would've been the Piner goalie who got the nod to start the game.

Leading up to it, temperatures were rising each day. It had been in the low 90s. But by the Friday before the game, temperatures reached 102 degrees at the Shore.

We love summer at the Jersey Shore. We don't like it that hot, though. And as I heard the weather report for the next day -- hot with temperatures reaching over 100 degreres -- I started to get concerned for those involved in the game. I had never covered an event that warm before and my first phone call the morning of the game -- Saturday, July 15, 1995 -- was to Sue Gallo, the woman who had taken over as Monmouth Regional's coach the fall before.

As far as she knew, the game was still on at the Tinton Falls-based school at 6 p.m. And she knew the temperatures weren't going to be as hot as they were during the day.

During the day, temperatures had hit 105 degrees, tied for the hottest day I ever experienced in my 28-plus years on this planet. Sure, I remember 100-degree days before. I remember being at a Mayor's Trophy Senior League game at Toms River Little League the Saturday before I graduated high school in 1984, getting in the car going home from the game with my dad because it was just so freakin' hot and the lady on WOBM-FM starting her newscast with, "It is 105 degrees at 3 o'clock ... "

I suddenly had this flashback as I headed north on the Garden State Parkway at 4:30 p.m. for the 6 p.m. start.

Monmouth Regional High was a school I had never been at before in my 11 years in the business. Never had to cover a football game there or any sport for that matter, but I knew about where it was located since I recognized the playing fields along the Parkway past Exit 105. I found the school with surprising ease, but as I got out of my car and headed toward the field, I realized the temperature had not dropped much.

It was still a solid 101 degrees as I showed my press pass and headed toward the field hockey field at the school. Both teams were going through their workouts, the Ocean side still moving about with the relatively surprising ease as it did three days earlier. Monmouth's girls looked as if they were still trying to figure each other out and trying to get on the same page.

Still, it's the Monmouth County club with players from standout teams like Wall and Shore Regional and Red Bank Regional and a fantastic goalie in net in Meg DeJong of Monmouth Regional. This should have been a good, close match for the first-ever All-Shore all-star event, right?

The Ocean squad had other ideas.

Just 3:50 into the match, Davis led a break like she was still playing point guard for Southern's girls basketball team that came within a victory of a South Jersey Group IV championship the previous winter. She dodged and weaved past defenders, then found Arnold like they were teammates for four years instead of rivals. Arnold swept her shot into the goal behind Holmdel goalie Noreen Flanagan to make it 1-0.

During the match, Davis was playing the center point of the attack, rotating with Melnyk. And at 20:45, Melnyk and Arnold pulled off the same play with Arnold sweeping it in past DeJong to make it 2-0.

In the final moments of the first half, the dominant Ocean performance was given its exclamation point when Arnold served a beautiful pass to Connie Sadowski, whose one-touch shot beat DeJong to make it 3-0 at the break.

Many in the crowd by halftime were in utter shock. Even the Ocean squad had to take a step back and admire what it had done to the Monmouth club and to the all-everything goalie DeJong. A 3-0 lead was far from expected.

Dutton was now freely substituting for the final 30 minutes of the game, which had been cut to 15-minute quarters for the day due to the heat. With 11:53 left, Ocean pressured again and DeJong was called for trapping the ball underneath her. That constituted a penalty stroke and Dutton looked on the field to who would take the penalty stroke.

She handed the task off to Davis, who admitted after the game she had not made a penalty stroke since her junior year. But calm, cool, collected and likeable Jodie Davis did not fail. She beat DeJong to her right side to make it 4-0.

All that was left was the shutout, but it didn't take long for that party to be ruined. Wall's Kelly Simon fed beautifully to Middletown South's Keri Stein, who beat backup Curchin with the Monmouth side's only goal with 10:12 left in the game.

Ocean won the game, 4-1, and even more amazingly, no one on either side suffered from heat stroke in the oppressive temperatures.

And the money they raised helped for a nice-sized scholarship that day.

More importantly, those who played on the Ocean side went out a winner. That included Ballesteros, who took the win probably like she had taken every loss ... with the same demeanor. But at least with a smile on her face this time.

"It felt great. There's no other way to describe it," she said to me after the match. "I'm glad I can leave high school saying I won my final game."

In all fairness, Ballesteros never had a team quite like the one in front of her, pumping in goal after goal. What the Ocean side did was send a message that day about whose players were better in the sport.

I didn't think anything could be hotter than the conditions the teams played in on that July day in '95.

I was very wrong.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Being at Baseball's Mid-Summer Classic

When a professional sports All-Star Game comes to a city near you, you get excited.

Especially when it's Major League Baseball's All-Star Game, the best of all the professional sports All-Star Games. Baseball's Mid-Summer Classic is hands down better than the exhibition streetball game put on by the NBA, the oft-changed competition stylings of the NHL midseason classic and the joke that is the "come-if-you-want" NFL Pro Bowl.

And while the attitudes of baseball's All-Star Game have changed over the years, the fact that the game features the best of the best and has tradition dating back to the first game in 1933 makes it a dynamic showcase.

In 1996, the game was in Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium, the first time the game had been held in Philly since the glorious Bicentennial year of '76. I had known since the game had been announced a few years earlier that I wanted to be there as working media for the game. And at the Observer, I filled out the necessary MLB paperwork to go to the game. And it was in the last week of May 1996 that I got my letter back telling me that I had a press pass for the two-day event.

Yes! Escape from the daily grind on the Observer second floor. Though I was going to shun two days of District 18 Little League baseball results, where would I have rather been for two days in early July 1996 -- Philly's Veterans Stadium hob-nobbing with baseball's best or taking scores over the phone from people who were trying their best to relay highlights of a game off a scorebook they didn't necessarily keep?

Yeah, the All-Star Game. I'll deal with the problems of District 18 when I get back into the office on Wednesday.

And so it was, Monday morning, July 8, 1996, I left Toms River at about 7:30 to get to Veterans Stadium for what was going to be a very, very long day. I arrived at about 9:30 and parked in an alternate lot not far from walking distance of the Vet and where I'd have to go past the old Spectrum, which was about to have a new neighbor opening up in the First Union Center (that's what it was first called when it opened).

My job was simple -- well, to me it was simple. I was there to write three stories. One was a feature story of my choice, something of interest and of note. The second was to be a simple notebook on the festivities of the day, including the less-than-it-is-now-hyped-to-the-nauseating Home Run Derby.

The third story was a feature on Florida Marlins left-hander Al Leiter, who was an MLB All-Star for the first time ever. Leiter was from Ocean County, born and raised there. To those who didn't know who Al Leiter was before he became a standout pitcher for numerous baseball teams, Leiter was a star hurler for Central Regional High School in Bayville, and in his senior year in 1984, staked his reputation by striking out 32 Wall Crimson Knight hitters during a 14-inning game, an eventual 1-1 tie, then pitching Central to the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association Group III championship.

The New York Yankees liked him enough to take him in baseball's amateur draft that year and he toiled in the minor leagues for a number of years, while in the offseason, he was working for Sears in the Ocean County Mall (I can still hear some of the people claiming to have worked with him when I shopped at Sears in the late '80s).

As for my personal experiences with Al Leiter, there were, well, two. In 1987, I had a chance to interview him at Winkelmann's Restaurant in Lakewood as part of a retirement dinner for his high school baseball coach, Al Kunzman. I found myself midway through the interview having HIM ask ME questions. The other time I saw him, he was up in the football press box on Thanksgiving Saturday 1994 with his brother Kurt hanging out with longtime Central teacher, coach and all-around good guy Robin McAllister as McAllister was doing the PA for Central's football victory over Lacey that day.

That was it. That was what I was going into this Monday morning with recolletion-wise.

As I get to where the press credentials are handled, I see someone very familiar -- it's Bob Considine of the Asbury Park Press, who had worked with me at the Observer for a year. We picked up on things like we never lost time. Turns out he was at the All-Star Game to do a story since he had already done a feature on Leiter a few days earlier.

"Will the Little League people mind you being here?" he sheepishly asked me as I smiled.

"I hope not," I sarcastically answered back. "I'll be called on the carpet by them."

I found my seating spot for the All-Star Game in the press box, which was definitely not what I was used to for any Phillies game. They had put us further down the right-field line, so high up that I could only see birds flying around.

But it gave me a chance to think what feature story would I like to do for this day. And as I looked on the roster, it hit me -- there were 20 first-time All-Stars in this game.

For 1996, that was a lot. Boom! Had a feature story to ride with. So I spent a good amount of my morning and early afternoon hanging out with the National League All-Stars. A good amount of first-timers were within walking distance of me. I focused on the local first-timers, so I talked first with Phillies closer Ricky Bottalico. Then I ran into Mets center fielder Lance Johnson, who couldn't have been plucked from the sky, even if you tried, for being a starter for the game, and the more down-to-earth Mets catcher Todd Hundley.

They were gentlemanly, but I needed something much more outgoing than gentlemanly. Then I looked at the other All-Stars. Over by the couch, first-timers Chipper Jones and Pedro Martinez messing around, Martinez looking and acting like a kid in a candy store representing the Montreal Expos. And Eric Young was there. E.Y. -- the now mayor of "Souvenir City," a place he invented when doing highlights for ESPN's "Baseball Tonight" after he retired -- was reppin' the Colorado Rockies and, like Martinez, was more than just happy to be there.

We ended up talking for a good 10 minutes. He was going to fill me up with quotes on being a first-time All-Star and talk about the night when Leiter threw his no-hitter against the Rockies and he was the last out of the game on a strikeout.

"Man, he was throwing harder as that game went on," Young recounted. "I think the last pitch he threw to me was about 99 (mph)."

Young is a native of New Brunswick and played at Rutgers University. My managing editor at the Observer, Chuck Tribblehorn, was a big baseball guy and a big Rutgers guy since he graduated from there. So he was into whatever EY did.

"Tell your boss I said 'Hi,' and thank him for his support," EY told me to tell Chuck at the end of the interview after I told him about my boss. I told Chuck a couple of days later. I don't think he believed he'd get that response.

What I also was doing was trying to get the veteran players' takes of their first time as All-Stars and mostly, what they went through at that time. Talked with Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz. All nice guys. Just not what I was looking for. I found what I was looking for from a retired player after I left the clubhouse. More on that later.

Finally, Al Leiter walks in and one of the first things he does is jostle and play-punch with Pedro Martinez.

"I'm happy for you that you made the All-Star team," Leiter playfully punches Martinez in the arm.

"No. I'm happy for YOU making the All-Star team," Martinez answered, punching Leiter in the arm back.

Believe it or not, even though we had talked twice in the previous nine years, Al Leiter remembered who I was. And for about 5-10 minutes, he spent the time just talking about his career, the no-hitter that night in Florida against the Rockies and making the All-Star Game in a city his family used to go to regularly on weekends for games.

He liked to be a part of this game, but he also knew that might not happen, depending on what Braves manager and NL skipper Bobby Cox had in mind.

"Basically, the fans come to the game just to see the pretty uniforms and colors all blend together," he said.

What Leiter said was right. It's not about one team winning over another necessarily. It's about seeing the superstars of the day competing in the All-Star Game and how well they play the game with one another when they don't have them as teammates during the season.

As I exited the NL clubhouse, I had still not gotten the definitive answer from a veteran on what it's like to be an All-Star. Everyone I talked to hemmed and hawed and were gentlemanly, but none of them gave me the response I think I wanted to hear.

Outside the NL clubhouse, I saw honorary captain Gary Carter. Now I grew up a Mets fan loving Gary Carter. He was the embodiment of how you play the game -- hard, no stops, no excuses. And I always knew him to be colorful and charming. So I figured I pose the question to him and his memory of being a first-time All-Star.

He went back to that game in 1975 representing the Expos at Milwaukee's County Stadium.

"Pete Rose was firing us up, giving us a speech, letting us know it was our duty to beat the American League," he said. "That was the reason why we were there -- to beat those guys. I understood right away what the All-Star Game was about."

Carter would play in 11 All-Star Games, earning MVP honors in 1981 when the game was in Cleveland and in 1984 with the game played in San Francisco.

To this day, I think about Gary Carter's answer and his openness about what the All-Star Game meant to him and that it should mean the same thing to the guys playing the game now the way it did for him over 30 years ago. And I think of the same outgoing nature he has while fighting for his life in south Florida.

I took a stroll down to the American League clubhouse. Where the NL clubhouse was filled with guys who were laughing, joking around and enjoying each other's company, the AL clubhouse was the complete opposite. There were guys in there who were just surly, unfriendly and fortunate enough to have the time of day for you.

Andy Pettitte was a first-time All-Star pitcher for the Yankees, in the middle of a big season. And while a guy like Eric Young or Al Leiter was excited about being a first-timer in this game, Pettitte's answers were short and all nice, but just gave you the impression that he "was here for some reason." Come to find out that was what Andy Pettitte was like all the time. Not the most outwardly excited fella on the planet.

None of the reporters wanted to be around Cleveland's Albert Belle, easily the surliest player in the league.

But in the middle of all this was the one shining beacon of pleasure in that AL clubhouse ... Baltimore shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. Again, I can take this to my grave that no one I ever came across in my entire career was nicer or more a gentleman as Cal Ripken Jr. He was very open about his first All-Star Game appearance in 1983 in the old Comiskey Park in Chicago. He told me about the awe he felt about meeting guys he played against and he grew up watching play. And he was also walking into a clubhouse with players who were dying to end the NL's dominance of them in the game.

Ripken had a walk as a reserve to starter Robin Yount in the AL's 13-3 bashing that ended the NL's 11-game winning streak.

At the end of our interview, I relayed a story from 1993 at Yankee Stadium when he was doing an interview on the field that pertained to closing in on Lou Gehrig's consecutive games played streak and most fans were leaning over the railing trying to get his attention and his autograph when one fan yelled out "Ripken, you bum! You'll never walk in Gehrig's shoes!" and Ripken winced hearing that.

He remembered that moment to my surprise. Then he told me a story of his own.

"We were in Fenway a year later," he said. "And I'm playing short and I'm hearing someone from the stands yelling, 'I am the ghost of Lou Gehrig coming here to haunt you!' And this was going on for a few innings. Finally around the sixth inning, this guy starts doing his whole 'I am the ghost of Lou Gehrig' thing and I finally caught a glimpse of him. He gave me a look as if to say, 'OK, you got me.'"

Rarely in this business do you get to trade stories, so I treasure that one this amazing man told me.

I had pretty much gotten what I wanted for my two feature stories, so I headed back upstairs to start writing these stories on the old handy-dandy Radio Shack Tandys we used. The notebook was going to be last. In the middle of writing these stories in the mid-afternoon, I was peaking out at the Home Run Derby. Yes, there was a time when the Home Run Derby was held in mid-afternoon.

For the record, it came down to Barry Bonds against Mark McGwire and Bonds beat him in the final. How ironic those two men would become the all-time home run champions for a season within the next five years, McGwire breaking Roger Maris' record and Bonds beating McGwire's mark.

By late afternoon, all my features had been written and I was out of the ballpark by 6:30 p.m. and home by 8.

The next morning was a bit of the same as Monday. Except, this day was going to be longer. I got to the park about 10:30 this time and pretty much mulled around the entire day looking for a feature to write about.

Oh, and there was the ballgame that night, too.

I had taken a couple of copies of the sports section with me. One of the most striking things about it was Leiter's picture as a Florida Marlin was sort of blurry. At this particular time, we were having problems reproducing our color, so pictures looked like they were in 3-D. As Al Leiter looked at the copy of the paper, the first thing that came out of his mouth was, "Nice printing."

"I know, I know," I said back, explaining the difficulties we had with our color photos on paper then. "I don't print the stuff."

Late that afternoon, I was back in the AL clubhouse taking my chance to find some fodder for a notebook and I got the same surliness that I felt the day before. There just weren't many friendly faces in that locker room other than Cal Ripken, plain and simple.

And as I headed back upstairs, I can hear AL manager Mike Hargrove of the Cleveland Indians -- not exactly Mr. Warmth by any means -- say loud and clear while walking in front of me, "Damn media."

From that, I knew who was winning this game. The AL team was just wound up too tight like a drum and the NL squad was loosy-goosy.

At 5 p.m., word had gotten back upstairs to the press box that after the AL All-Star team picture, White Sox reliever Roberto Hernandez had slipped moving from his spot and he hit Ripken square in the nose, breaking it.

Just what I needed in the relaxing few hours before this game -- a broken nose by the man whose streak of 2,200-plus games was still going strong. At almost 6 p.m., another press conference was being called, this time having to do with Ripken's status for the game.

He addressed the media, telling us he was fine and that he would play, explaining what happened right after the picture had been taken. Hernandez, a big dude at 6-foot-5, slipped and was losing his footing and in the process, bopped the 6-4 Ripken in the nose.

"I can breathe properly," he let the media know. "I'm going to be all right."

"Are there any questions for Mr. Ripken," the PR guy for the game asked us. Those questions were asked and Ripken answered those well. Then someone asked him about the game. Between that and questions he had to answer about the similarities between himself and another first-time player in the game -- 20-year-old Seattle Mariners shortstop Alex Rodriguez -- he had enough with asking questions about the game.

"No more on the game," Ripken kindly replied, then joked, "This is the 'nose' press conference." The reporters chuckled. And that was the end of questions.

Game time finally. It was after 8 p.m. and both teams made their pre-game appearances on the baselines and suddenly moments later, there was a first pitch.

For the record, the National League won, 6-0, as Smoltz got the win and Mike Piazza of the Los Angeles Dodgers won the MVP honors. And little did we know that it would be another 14 years before the NL would win again.

At the end of the game, Cox was emptying his bullpen with pitchers. For the last out of the game, he sent Leiter in to pitch to Seattle catcher Dann Wilson. Wilson popped out to complete the shutout.

The story was written as the game went on and I was able to send my story through a back-room phone set up for media members to send stories through the Tandy machine couplers. Boom! The story was finished by 11:35 p.m. I still needed to get downstairs and talk to players from the winning team for a future notebook or column.

Leiter was excited to get to finish it out. Again, a joy to be in the NL clubhouse. Braves closer Mark Wohlers, who was relieved by Leiter in that last-out scenario, did not take offense to his own manager taking him out of the game. Wohlers was a class act all the way through and was just excited to have been in this game. After all, how many Braves closers can say they closed out a Braves World Series championship? Only him the year before.

And when the post-game craziness had ended, I had a chance to speak to Bobby Cox for a few minutes. He could not have been any friendlier. I asked him if it were planned that Leiter, the Jersey Shore boy, was pitching last to close out the game.

"No, not really," Cox said. "Honestly, I didn't even know he was from here." Then with a wink and a smile, Cox continued, "If I had known, I probably would have started him."

For two days away from the office, I got to live out being a professional sports sportswriter for a major event that all of this country watched. By the next day, I was back in the office, catching up on whatever Little League games didn't get in the paper the previous two days.

And I didn't care. In the end, I got to say I did a Major League Baseball All-Star Game as a reporter.

It was well worth the wait.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Why All-Star baseball is better than TOC ball anyday

Little League All-Star games are seemingly long if not played well. Tournament of Champions games? Don't ask.

Just don't.

TOC teams are not All-Star teams. And unless you have an amazing team that ran roughshod through the league competition to win the season title, pack a lunch and maybe a dinner appetizer. Those games don't go quickly at all.

And that was the case on Saturday, July 6, 1985 when our New Jersey Little League district, District 18, hosted the Senior League and Little League championship games just hours apart from each other.

The first title game was a scheduled 1 p.m. Senior League battle at Toms River East Little League's complex on Windsor Avenue. It was the Toms River Orioles against the Brick National Cubs. Now being a coach with my father on our own Senior League team at Toms River Little League, I knew how good the Orioles of manager Paul Cavallaro were.

As a matter of fact, if you weren't sure how good the Orioles were, Cavallaro, a neighbor of ours, would let you know.

At the top of the lineup was his son, Paul, the table-setter. He would get moved along on the basepaths by hitters such as Mike Hildick, Brian Pietrewicz, Pete Petrizzo, Marc Pappalardo and Aaron Ford. And if they had enough runs, that was good for pitchers like Pietrewicz, Petrizzo and Pappalardo, a fiery 15-year-old right-hander who brought brashness and attitude to the hill.

Brick National's Cubs had no idea what it was about to get involved in. In three games in the TOC, the Orioles had outscored their three opponents, 39-2. Even as National's manager was sending Sean Foley, the son of then-Brick High baseball coach Pat Foley, to the mound, it was highly unlikely the Cubs were getting off that field unscathed.

And so the first inning began: Cavallaro singled and stole second. An error moved Cavallaro to third. Another error on a Pappalardo grounder brought in Cavallaro. It got worse in the second as Hildick singled home a run. In the third, Pietrewicz laced an RBI double and Rob Gallo had an RBI single.

But Brick National bounced back against Pappalardo. RBI singles by Mike McCormack and Sean McPhee made it a 4-2 game. Now we actually had a ball game going into the fourth.

Naaaaaaaaaaah! That's because the Orioles decided to end matters with nine runs off Foley. Pappalardo and Rodney Ruby had RBI triples. Pappalardo would add a two-run single and Ruby a two-run double in the same frame.

At 13-2, the competitive portion of this game was over. The Cubs, though, decided that torture was a better element of death. They weren't going down without a fight. They weren't going to give the impression that they were there just to show off their keen-looking uniforms.

Actually, it turned into a hit-a-thon. By the end of the game, the Orioles had own their championship in far-from-beautiful fashion, 19-10, as the two teams combined for 34 hits, Toms River claiming 21 hits.

But what made it worse was the game dragged on for over three freakin' hours! No, I wasn't relieved it was over ... I was pissed. Welcome to the ugly side of Little League baseball, and I'm not talking about the overbearing parents.

I grabbed my neighbor after his team won and said, "Look, this just dragged on. I got to get going," in which he took offense as he gave me a look like I had no idea of what I was talking about.

Pappalardo went the entire way to claim the TOC title for the Orioles. He walked six and struck out 12 -- but he also gave up an unimpressive 10 runs on 13 hits, eight of which came off the bats of Foley and McCormack.

"Marc was tired," Cavallaro explained. "He didn't have a sore arm, he was just tired from pitching."

Yeah, I still scratch my head on that one. A tired pitcher gets yanked regardless of him hurting or not. Not many pitchers I know of would last with 10 runs and 12 hits given up. Good thing the offense was cranked to 11 and scored 19 runs that day.

It was about 4:15 p.m. and I had to be at a 5 p.m. game ... at Barnegat Little League, the southernmost Little League complex in the district. Jumped into my '73 Chevy Chevelle and pushed it for everything it had down Garfield, then Route 37 and onto the Garden State Parkway.

Once off the Barnegat exit, I had to wind my way around until I got to the Barnegat field. One thing that always stood out about the old Barnegat Little League complex was the size of its fields.

Pop-ups were home runs. Literally. It was a simple 180 feet to dead center field. And this Lakewood Mets team had some boppers on it, including a hulking 12-year-old left-handed hitting and left-handed throwing monster named Ricky DeJesus. DeJesus got to play first base on this day.

The Mets were playing the Toms River Giants, who were being managed for the last time by the iconic Henry Ostermann. Ostermann had been in the league since 1970 and even after his son, Henry, had gone through the league, he stayed as co-manager of the team along with another staple of the league, Ed Scharnagl.

And it looked like things would come easy for the Giants. As I got to the field in the top of the first, Greg Patterson, the Mets' pitcher, was having a problem finding the plate. He walked the first six batters he faced -- the first six batters. When abouts do you take the pitcher out of the game if he hasn't got it?

Six walks and it's 3-0 and suddenly, he was gone. The Giants had a 4-0 lead in the first, but the Mets bounced back with a run on, of all things, another bases-loaded walk.

Toms River bounced back in the second inning, scoring four runs to make it 8-1. But in the bottom of the second, the Mets got a run off an error and with the bases loaded, up stepped manchild DeJesus. DeJesus got a hold of a pitch and drilled it to the opposite field. It easily cleared the fence 170 feet away for a grand slam.

Not it was 8-6 and we weren't one-third of the way into this game.

Oh no, not again. Somewhere about that time, I started questioning my career choice of writer. I love being at the ball park just like anyone else. But I'm not a fan of overstaying my welcome.

If I had a seat belt, I would've been buckling up for a bumpy ride.

The Giants scored a run to make it 9-6 in the third, and it stayed that way until the bottom of the fourth. Dave Gottschalk, the Giants' pitcher who relieved starter Jamie Allee, was having trouble with the strike zone walking the first three batters he faced.

Out went Gottschalk. In came Graig Fantuzzi, the 11-year-old son of Ocean County College baseball coach Al Fantuzzi. He promptly walked the first batter he faced in the inning to make it 9-7. He got the next two batters out, but guess who stepped up to the plate again?

Yup, Mr. Manchild.

Fantuzzi made the mistake of throwing a pitch in the same spot that Allee had thrown it two innings earlier. Mr. DeJesus said, "Thank you."

If the first one was questionable about how far it went, this one was a no-doubter. It easily cleared the fence in left-center field and bounced by parked cars into some woods across the way.

Lakewood had come all the way back to take an 11-9 lead, eight of those runs supplied on two swings by the same hitter.

Tony Cloninger, move over. You had multiple grand slam company in this 12-year-old.

Now Lakewood needed to protect that lead with two innings to go. In the fifth, though, the Giants rallied. Fantuzzi's sacrifice fly came after an Allee RBI single and it was 11-11. We were heading ultimately to extra innings.

We didn't have a winner in this game yet, but I had seen 51 runs scored in two games. I had enough. Please, no more long innings!

In the seventh, Allee delivered another big hit, a single to score Chris Peto, who had started the rally with a double. Allee would come home on a Fantuzzi single and Paul Mauro would knock in Fantuzzi with a hit.

But at 14-11, nothing seemed safe. Remember -- one swing, four runs in this bandbox of a field.

The Mets scratched out a run on Fantuzzi, but they would go no further.

And just like that, the team of Ostermann and Scharnagl went out a winner in their final games as co-manager, winning the District 18 Little League TOC in a 14-12 barnburner.

Though they had been long revered at TRLL, the championship in their final game would be the first TOC title for both men.

"This is a great going-away present," said the always affable Ostermann. "I was just happy to be here, but to win it for the first time is very special."

Scharnagl went on to be the head administrator for District 18 two years later and ran it for 11 years where he became my go-to guy on anything I had a question for on the tournaments. As for Ostermann, I may have seen him once or twice after that, but never again after that. I don't even know if he's even alive today.

The day/night was over by almost 8 p.m. and just moments before darkness ascended on the Barnegat field for the night. Back at work by 8:30 p.m., I had to describe 56 runs on the day and put quotes in the middle of all that description. Tough degree of difficulty for an 18-year-old.

But by 10 p.m., I was done with both stories and out the door by 11 p.m.

Now not all TOC games were quite like those two in the same day. And I don't wish anyone to ever cover back-to-back TOC games like those two. As a matter of fact, after that day, the good, the bad and the ugly wasn't just the name of a classic Clint Eastwood movie.

But it gave me a good idea as to why I enjoy Little League, Junior League and Senior League All-Star ball much more. It's just cleaner play.

Still, for as bad a day as that July 6, 1985 was, I had enough material to write as many inches as there were runs in the two games combined.

Which I didn't. Thank goodness.