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Sunday, August 7, 2011

A shiny diamond of a state title in a summer of crap

By the summer of 1999, I was coming to the end of the line at the Ocean County Observer.

With Gannett taking over the paper the year before and running the Asbury Park Press as well, leaving THEM to make the decisions for what we do on a daily basis, it had left me unhappy, disillusioned and just not caring anymore about being at my beloved Jersey Shore, even with some great people I had worked with for years still at the paper.

I had taken over as sports editor in late January 1999, and anyone would have thought that after almost 15 years at the paper, this was the grand prize.

It was far from that. We were moving from the second floor to the fourth floor of the building, we were moving onto a new computer system (Asbury Park Press-friendly as I would call it) that was so complicated that NASA officials would have had a hard time deciphering its complexities and the new 10:50 p.m. deadline was just sucking balls. There. I said it.

In the spring 1999, I had a mission -- I was trying to leave the only place I had ever known professionally because I wasn't going down with the ship and that I ultimately knew the company had a goal in mind to kill the Observer off in the end. Our office morale was at the all-time lowest level I had ever seen in my 15 years.

And to make things worse, the company decided around May-June 1999 that we would only be covering a "core area" of towns in the county. Bye-bye Point Pleasant. See ya later, Southern Ocean County. Au revoir, Jackson Township.

I can still see the meeting in which the "Sunday editor" (fancy term for a guy in charge of the Sunday paper) came to our building to explain the new system to us. He asked all the departments heads if they were OK with it. I think most of them were unhappy, but what the heck, having to be agreeable was part of the plan.

Then he came to me as sports editor.

"You understand what we're doing?" he asked. I decided that since I was already difficult to deal with, let's take it to the next level.

"OK, so let me see if I have this straight," I started. "Jackson Memorial just won the South Jersey Group IV softball title and are going to have a fairly good team next year. So if they happen to win South Jersey IV again, who gets to cover them?"

"We would send a writer to cover the team," he answered back.

"No, I am not agreeable to this plan," I adamantly said.

What I was really saying to this man was that we are an Ocean County paper, plain and simple. Our readers expected us to write that story on Jackson Memorial, whether it was softball, baseball, football, etc. These morons could not understand the entire concept. I knew exactly where they were going with this in June 1999 -- to start sending us down the river and toward the waterfall in the hopes to liquidate us and make us nothing more than a freakin' reader.

Well I caught hell for it from my managing editor, who was slowly getting his nerves worn down by my continued rebelliousness toward an establishment who had no clue whatsoever on how we did things here and for goodness sake, we were a county below them!

If I had a dollar for every time in the 15 years I was at the Observer I heard one of my county coaches say how much the Press only cared about Monmouth County and didn't care about Ocean County, I could've bought prime real estate and lived happily ever after.

Except that was the problem. There was NOT going to be a "happily ever after." I needed to get out of there or I would have landed in jail for a third-degree homicide. Someone was going to die an unhappy death and I didn't care about them -- just that I needed an escape.

What was making things worse was the nice older man they put into the position of assistant sports editor after I took over as the boss was just not picking up things. He was a good writer, but he was not great with our computer system and I wasn't very happy about this. I can still hear the conversations my weekend guy Nick would have with me about how he had to do most of the section and he wasn't being paid to do it.

So in July 1999, my managing editor and I had to make the painful decision to let this man go. A week later, we had a guy in from a northern paper who was perfect for the assistant's job. I was ready to tell him to come down. Turns out this bastard decided to use our paper as leverage toward getting more money from his current employer and they caved in.

I understand business is business, but he better not show his face within 20 feet of me. Yes, 12 years later, I'm still pissed off.

And I knew with that, it was over. I was officially not going to have a summer vacation without an assistant and two co-workers who couldn't lay out a paper even if they had all day to do the job. With news editors and layout people trying to do their work, too, I was stuck.

On a Sunday afternoon, I get a phone call from Steve Sosinski, a former Observer managing editor who was now editor at a paper called the Key West Citizen. He wanted to fly me down to the Southernmost City, show me around and maybe offer the job as sports editor there.

On Friday, July 30, 1999, I flew there, Steve took me around the town, then I got back into his office and we had a closed door meeting in which, for the next 30 minutes, he laid out his offer and plans for me if I accepted. I needed to think about it. By the next morning, I had called Steve to let him know I was taking the job.

Yes, I needed to see what life was like beyond Ocean County. And if you're going to do it ... do it huuuuuuuuuuuge!

When I arrived back at Newark International on Saturday, July 31, I had a renewed feeling about life. And then I got into work and the computer system was once again failing me on layout stuff I was doing.

Our "tech" guy, who God bless him was a trooper throughout, was called on.

"What's the matter with it?" he asked.

"Your system is a piece of shit!" I practically yelled in the newsroom. He got down to fix the problem, probably like the 32nd time he had to fix something for me in the four months we were force-fed this system.

I felt bad about handling it that way. But I knew I had two weeks left and all bets were off on how nice I was going to be to people who hadn't worked with me for more than a year, who were literally thrown upon us.

I can now say I really didn't care, which is sad since I had put everything into that paper for 15 years and the end result was for myself and our department to be treated like crap. Change is good -- but not when it's imposed the way it was.

One of the things I had to give up on a regular basis that summer as the new boss was covering Little League. By 1999, my reputation was very good with handling the sport. I had done it for 15 years and had seen it all, including the successful Toms River East American Little League All-Star team winning the whole thing in 1998.

Now, another group of Toms River East American Little Leaguers under the tutelage of Mike Gaynor was making a run toward another state championship. And like the year before, it was not going to be easy at all.

Nick, who I could never thank enough for the yeoman work he did that summer in covering Little League in person, was sent out to Cherry Hill American for the first state championship game between East American and Section 1 champion Pequannock on Thursday, August 5. Pequannock won that game.

It forced a second championship game and the winner was moving on to Bristol, Conn., to represent the state in the East Regional. Since the game was on a Friday and we had no Saturday paper at the time, it allowed me to finally break free from the chains that bound me to a desk six days a week.

It also allowed me to forget about every single freakin' problem that I had to deal with at the paper for a night. So across Route 70 I went to Cherry Hill. The field was located somewhere behind a Mexican restaurant, and amazingly, I found it.

As I sat at a press table taking in the sights and sounds of a Little League All-Star state final, the sixth state tournament I ever covered, I realized slowly with each passing moment this would be the last event I would cover at the paper. If East American won, Nick was going to Bristol for the week and I was leaving the Observer the Sunday after.

Bittersweet, yes. Regrets, no.

East American jumped on starter Mike Moran for two first-inning runs as Eric Campesi walked, Casey Gaynor singled him to third and Mike Casale singled him in. After a Steve Bernath single loaded the bases, Dave Cappello launched a sacrifice fly to bring in Gaynor, who like Campesi, was a veteran returning from the '98 triumph.

Gaynor was East's starting pitcher in the '98 World Series final against Kashima, Japan, but he had been used and could not pitch in this game. Mike Gaynor relied on Campesi to get the job done this evening. And through two innings, he had struck out five Pequannock hitters, though allowing two singles.

In the third, Pequannock got even with East American. Back-to-back RBI infield singles by Steve Terpstra and D.J. Sackmann tied things up. Rotten luck to say the least for the Boys of Windsor Avenue.

Moran allowed one base runner in the fourth and fifth innings and Campesi got out of trouble in the fifth with a pair of strikeouts after Pequannock put runners on first and second with one out.

It looked as if the game might be heading to extra innings. I didn't care -- let them play all night since I had no other games to cover for the rest of my Observer existence. Keep going.

But with one out and nighttime falling on the field and the lights turned on, Jeff Burgdorff, an unheralded player on this team, singled to right field. Cappello fought tooth and nail against Moran in his at-bat, fouling off four straight 0-2 pitches before striking out, but on the strikeout pitch, the ball scooted by catcher Ryan Rowland, allowing pinch-runner R.J. Jones to move to second.

Zach DelVento beat out an infield single to put runners on first and third with two outs, leaving it up to No. 8 hitter Chris Fontinelli to get the job done. Fontinelli didn't waste time. He took Moran's first offering and put it into no man's land in right field. The ball bounced between second baseman Steve Darrofalski, first baseman Ryan Slootmaker and right fielder Mark Hagemann for a base hit to score Jones with the go-ahead run.

This was going to be real -- a third state championship for East American in five years! It was only three outs away.

Campesi didn't keep the celebration on hold. He got a comebacker to start the bottom of the sixth, then struck out his 10th and 11th hitters to finish it off.

East American was going back to Bristol. And those young men made the last event I covered at the Observer memorable.

Mike Gaynor gave me all the time in the world afterward. Though we had some differences over the years, he still respected me and vice versa. Then he said something I will never forget.

"You always treated us fairly," he said. "We're going to miss you. Good luck down in the Keys."

We had our final handshake and that was it. As I left, I remember Vinny Casale, Mike's dad who was also the athletic director at Central Regional High School, telling me something similar and that he'd miss me.

For a bittersweet moment, it felt good heading back to Toms River for the very last time. I made all the arrangements so Nick would not be uncomfortable at the hotel he was staying at -- which was the same hotel I stayed for three trips to cover the East Regional Tournament in Bristol in 1990, '95 and '98.

And in a sense, I was glad to hand over the reins of this run to Nick. He deserved the opportunity.

That still didn't mean I didn't want to be there. Unfortunately, I had made an agreement with the devil and paid for it in many, many ways. Ultimately, East American won the East Regional title -- shortly after I left the Observer -- and headed to Williamsport for another Little League World Series, which it eventually lost in somewhat controversial fashion in the American final to Phenix City, Ala., and a hotshot 12-year-old named Colby Rasmus.

I know Nick enjoyed the experience. I'm grateful to him for doing it and doing it without complaint.

Complaint was all I had left for the final week at the Observer. On Sunday, August 15, it was over. I packed up my things into a box, left my key in my managing editor's office and 15 years of service at the paper was over.

A month after I had left, the complaints started coming in from Southern Regional, Lacey and Jackson Memorial parents and fans about no coverage in the Observer and the bigwigs who made that stupid decision to let go of those schools for the "core" area ultimately reversed it.

I was rid of those clueless people. However my premonition about the paper was correct ultimately. In January 2008, the Observer stopped printing as a daily paper.

I couldn't shed tears, though. The hatred of how I and the sports department -- everyone at the paper at the time -- were treated my last year loomed largely. Still does to this day.

At least, though, I had one positive memory of a state championship victory that I could go with me to the Keys.

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