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Sunday, July 29, 2012

My first District 18 state title as a reporter

Three District 18 Little League All-Star seasons had come and gone without a state title for any of our teams. My first year, Brick American's Little League All-Stars had lost in the sectional final. Then my second summer, Lakewood's Little League All-Stars lost in the state tournament one-and-done semifinal. And my third year, I got to cover the state Little League All-Star Tournament at Lakewood ... but, of course, none of our area teams played in the event.

The greatness in baseball in Ocean County, New Jersey was there. But it had not come to fruition. Eight years had passed since the Toms River 13-year-old All-Star team had won the state title against West Milford, 2-1, at Liberty Oaks Park in Freehold Township, a team managed by a guy named Bruce Shepherd and assisted by my dad. So I have very fond memories of that Summer of '79. They, unfortunately, ended on that night in Freehold Township since at that time, the state tournament did not venture beyond that point.

The year before that, a Toms River Little League team of Senior League All-Stars beat Parsippany-Troy in back-to-back games down in Cherry Hill to win the state tournament, then captured the county's imagination by winning the Mid-Atlantic title before falling in the East Regional Tournament.

And, to most of us, there was no team quite like the 1975 Lakewood Little League All-Stars led by Dion Lowe and co-managed by Butch Belitrand and Richard Work that went to Williamsport, Pa., and won the World Series by beating a Tampa-based team in which Doc Gooden was a 10-year-old alternate. But in that year, international teams did not compete for the title.

Still, eight years is a long time in a baseball-rich county to go without winning a state title. I knew the time was going to come. But I never expected the team that would ultimately challenge for it would be a group of Toms River 13s in 1987. Now, this team was a nice team -- they had a nice balance of hitting and pitching, led by Billy Ushock, Jeff Devlin, Kent Speedy, Scott Keller, Todd McGovern and Vinny Minasi, the son of the team's manager, Vin Minasi.

As I said, nice team, but they didn't exactly strike fear into anyone. They played the game fundamentally sound and made very few mistakes. They were not going to wipe you off the face of the map by any means and if you put that All-Star team up against the '79 13-year-old All-Star team of Chris Lauria, Tim Camburn, Frankie D'Ambro, John Sarrecchia, Greg Scharnagl and Kevin Uher, it may not even be close. On size alone, the '79 team would have intimidated the '87 team.

Somehow, though, this group of All-Stars found a way to win. They methodically went through the District 18 tournament and then with relative ease in what seemed like a weak field, won the Section 3 title. In the South Jersey final on July 28 in Sicklerville (and by the way, you don't ever really get to Sicklerville, which is really out in the middle of nowhere), they throttled a team from Vineland, 10-3, and were playing for a state title.

And somehow luckily, the game was to be played on Toms River's own home field off of Mapletree Road, a complex I practically grew up on, playing there for six years, then coaching with my dad on our Royals team for the next five years at that point. The story, from what I can remember, as told to me by Vin Minasi himself, was that when it came time to host events beyond the district, Minasi, who was president of TRLL at the time, was in a meeting with his assistant coach and confidant John Towell. When it came time for the head of New Jersey's Little League to ask if anyone wanted to host the 13-year-old (now Junior League) final, Towell told Minasi they should "go for it," and "up went my hand."

Talk about luck! Now Toms River was playing for the state title on its field on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, August 1, 1987 against a team with a reputation for good baseball -- the Roberto Clemente League of Newark, the North Jersey representative. It was a 1 p.m. start for the final, so I made sure I got to the field around 12:25 p.m. and parked as far away from the main Senior League field complex as I could without a ball threatening a windshield or back window. John Puglisi, also a manager in the Toms River Senior League, was the public address announcer at TRLL for All-Star play that summer and it was him some of the time I had to deal with to get results on games on either the Senior League or Little League fields. So either he was tired of hearing my voice over the phone or I probably think he was tired of hearing my voice over the phone.

He had set up two microphones on this day. The first was up in the well-protected and cool press box overlooking the field. The second one was an old 1950s/1960s model microphone placed on the grass just in front of home plate that he would use before the game only to introduce the two squads, a very professional-looking production. Once the lineups and umpires were announced, John turned it over to 70-something Tom "The Candy Man" Kelleher, a longtime fixture in the 1980s and 1990s at many an athletic event in Ocean County, mostly for his handing out of candy treats at the games, to sing our national anthem, which of course he always seemed to knock out of the park.

As the game started, someone was coming up the stairs to where John, myself, assistant district administrator Mike Hreniuk and district administrator Ed Scharnagl (Greg's dad) were sitting. She was Mary Danielson, a writer for the Asbury Park Press who I was meeting for the first time. So after we had done our introductions, I gave her both lineup cards, all the while thinking this was the end of the road on this day. Roberto Clemente had some sluggers on the team and they, too, had a reputation for good baseball where it was located.

Clemente won the toss and took home team. That meant Toms River would have to do something against a confident pitcher in Julio Castaing first. He got the first out with McGovern, but the younger Minasi hit a grounder that shortstop Hector De la Rosa could not field for an error. Speedy then singled. That brought up cleanup hitter Ushock.

On Castaing's second pitch, a fastball up and in, Ushock connected. It was a bomb -- a bomb that I had not quite seen come off the bat of any batter in the tournament other than Ushock, who was about the only longball threat the team had. Suddenly, it was 3-0.

Manager Minasi and a number of players pointed to that home run as the catalyst of a special day. And Ushock got the ball from Minasi as the starter on this day. The problem, though, was Ushock was as wild as the day was long. Though Ushock had compiled a 3-0 record in tournament action in '87, he had walked 35 batters and struck out 28 in four games. These are certainly not sterling numbers you hang stars on.

And right on cue, Ushock ran into some difficulty in the first two innings, but Clemente could not score. Then in the third, the first real threat came. De la Rosa singled home Jose Torres, who had walked, to cut the lead to 3-1. Two more walks loaded the bases with one out. I started holding my breath -- here's where it all blows up on Billy, I thought.

I can still see Adrian Torres' sinking liner going to right field and the ball hurrying to the ground as right fielder Devlin raced in for it. Somehow, someway, Devlin beat the ball to the Earth's surface -- he stuck his glove out, diving to the ground to swallow the ball up in it. Then he had the presence of mind to look toward shortstop Keller and throw a strike to double up Nestor Serrano, who was going on the pitch assured of himself he was going to stand up at home plate with the tying run.

Suddenly, I realized this Toms River team was really living a charmed life. Devlin admitted later he was going to give up on the ball at first, but something in him kept saying to keep coming after it. At that point, the Clemente boys were wondering why he didn't play it on a hop.

All that did, though, was give Ushock a reprieve for the moment. In the bottom of the fifth and still clinging on to a 3-1 lead, Ushock was already at 100 pitches when the wheels continued to fall off his wagon. Francisco Ortiz reached on an error by third baseman Pat Clark and Serrano walked to put runners on first and second. It was Ushock's eighth walk of the game -- eight! And just as I started wondering how much more faith Minasi was going to have in his main guy, he popped out of the dugout to take the ball from him.

Now Devlin was coming in from right field as the two switched positions. Devlin didn't quite have the kind of power behind his pitches that Ushock had, but he was far more accurate. And right now, he had a big task in hand. I'm thinking if this may have not been the best move to put the kid in with the tying runs on base and no one out.

De la Rosa was up first and he did his duty of bunting the runners up a base, putting them both in scoring position with one out. This was the pressure cooker -- could Devlin wriggle out of this jam for if he did, I believed the title was going to be Toms River's.

Adrian Torres hit a flyball to short left field that Speedy caught. Speedy came up firing, but Ortiz held firm at third base. It was just not hit far enough for him and his manager, an affable man named John Rodriguez, to take the chance. So with two runners on base, it came down to a confrontation with cleanup hitter Steve Fernandez. Devlin got ahead of Fernandez at 0-2. Then on a 2-2 pitch, he pulled the trigger and got Fernandez swinging on his curveball to end the rally.

Now with two more innings left, I believed this team really had a date with "Destiny." Destiny was all dressed up in her favorite gown, waiting to properly congratulate the new state champion 13-year-old All-Star team from the Garden State. But before Destiny's arrival was official, another run would have been nice.

In the sixth, the TR kids obliged. Graig Fantuzzi, the son of Ocean County College baseball coach and former Toms River South mentor Al Fantuzzi (yes, there was a coach at Toms River South before the great Ken Frank took over) reached base on the third error of the game by De la Rosa. A wild pitch by Castaing moved Fantuzzi up to second. One out later, Vinny Minasi blooped a single just between the second baseman and right fielder to score Fantuzzi.

Now it was strictly up to Devlin to take care of business. He faced seven batters in the sixth and seventh innings, a far cry from Ushock's struggles. And with two outs in the bottom of the seventh, he had De la Rosa -- the only Clemente player on the afternoon to claim a hit -- left to finish out the improbable state title. De la Rosa hit a lazy flyball to center field where McGovern, who played for my father and I during the regular season, was ready to swallow it up. The ball found McGovern's mitt. He closed it up and the bedlam erupted.

And for the first time in eight years, Ocean County had a state champion Little League team of some kind.

The highlight afterward is always when the team is awarded that flag that states it just won a state championship. Those kids could not wait to parade that flag around their home field for their fans. And Minasi and assistant coach Terry Flanagan were greeted after the game by Shepherd and my father in a show of solidarity of one group of state-winning coaches congratulating a new group of state-winning coaches.

Toms River had done a terrific job of putting on a show for the state title this sunny Saturday afternoon. But I knew the league would. And the fact Toms River won the title on its own field, heck, that made it even more satisfying.

Mary had made her way down to the field before I did. I had sorta prepped her on this team and had given her the affa davit with the scores of the previous games on it to give her an idea of what they had done up through this game. I got downstairs and watched smiling as the TR players surrounded her as she asked questions of some of the players, almost ecstatic that a woman covered the final and those 13-year-olds entering puberty had been rewarded in some way with this.

Then they had to deal with me ... yeah, big comedown from Mary, I know. Mary actually worked for The Press for a few years before moving on.

"They have talent," said McGovern, my player during the regular season who never met a notepad that he didn't like just to show you how talkative at 13 he was. "But they (Clemente) are second-best to us this year."

Vin Minasi was elated and relieved. He was elated this part of the tournament was over and that he and Flanagan joined the teams of Belitrand-Work, Charlie Mulligan and Warren Hilla and Shepherd and my father as state champion head honchos. He was relieved that this day had ended and he had a day or two to recharge batteries before heading down to Dover, Del. for the next portion of the ride in the Mid-Atlantic Tournament.

"We have had such supportive fans throughout," he said. "We have had our 'lucky sodas,' 'lucky pins,' and 'lucky pencils.' We have had parties for the kids. You take every chance you have when you're in a tournament. It's something you can look back on years later."

And he was right. It's been 25 years since that championship -- 25 years?! I still remember it like yesterday. Those players are now 38 years old and I'm sure doing well in life. Sadly, Vin Minasi passed away in 2000, but I can still hear and picture his joy that day, and I can still feel his relief of it being over one week later when his team lost in back-to-back games in the double-elimination Mid-Atlantic Tournament after winning the opener, 2-0, against the Maryland representative behind the pitching of Devlin.

In some ways, I was glad the tournament was over, too, on August 8 in Dover. It was far from the best of times. When you're three months away from turning 21 and you have nowhere to go at night after the games are done because you are in unfamiliar territory and you're too young to go to a bar, it's not very pleasing at all. And I had had enough with the bitchy group of "supportive fans" who whined and complained about any part of my story that criticized their little darlings, factually and rightfully so. I was literally about one more hour away on that hot Saturday afternoon in Dover from telling those parents -- even being 20 years old at the time -- to "go f**k off" and if they had a problem, they could take it up with my boss who at that time had my back.

It still wasn't going to take away from that first August Saturday in 1987 when it felt as if on that sunny afternoon in Toms River the sun, the moon and the Earth all aligned at once to allow this group of young men to win my first state title as a reporter.

Flawed? Yes. I'm pretty sure Destiny didn't care, though, that they were ugly around the edges.

State championship teams, after all, aren't always beautiful. But if they cook and clean and do all the little things, they're simply gorgeous like that.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Your run-of-the-mill Sunday comeback

By the third year I was covering Little League All-Star baseball at the Observer in 1986, I had already witnessed one Little League All-Star team come close to winning a section title in Brick American and another (Lakewood) win the sectional title and advance to the state Final Four.

And in '86, a first took place -- Toms River Little League became the first league within the mainly Ocean County District 18 to win all three All-Star titles, taking the Senior League, the 13-year-old (Junior League) and Little League crowns. It was a great time. And within the first weekend of August, Lakewood Little League was hosting the state Little League All-Star tournament.

Let's just say that I was going to be kept busy for the better part of the summer.

It had been a week since the Toms River Seniors had won their district championship for the second straight year, and for as good as this team was, I wasn't really sure they could get very far through Section 3 all the way to the final. They had pulled off one come-from-behind win in the sectional tournament against Old Bridge, and now TRLL had to go to Old Bridge on Sunday, July 20, 1986, to face off with a very good Marlboro team which had won District 19.

Marlboro teams, year in and year out, dominated on the Junior and Senior League levels in their district. And I honestly didn't think for the life of me they were going to lose to a rag-tag group of kids from Toms River, which probably had gotten as far as they were going to get. I knew this group of Senior Leaguers at Toms River from my work as an assistant coach to my dad's team. I knew the group that had been voted on to play All-Stars may have been good enough to win the district, but not very far beyond that.

So to win one game in the Section 3 tournament was icing. And as I made my way up Route 9 to Route 516 and west for about a mile to the Old Bridge Little League complex, I figured I was watching the end of the road. I had never been to the Old Bridge complex before, but it was very unique. The main building for concessions, meetings and equipment holding had an upstairs to it and a porch that you can watch whatever game was going on from overhead and behind the backstop. Very few complexes were like this one and I always looked forward to going to Old Bridge for seasons to come in sectional tournaments.

The manager of the Toms River team was a guy named Earl Pomeroy. I had known Earl for years since I was teammates on my dad's team with his oldest son Tom. Earl managed the Yankees and his youngest son, Chachi, was on the team. Meanwhile, the assistant coach was Bob Richards, who I knew for a few years as manager of the Giants team. Richards was the mouthpiece of the two because he was the more vocal, while Pomeroy was the laid-back guy, taking it all in.

This Toms River team, as I mentioned, was a mix of rag-tag players who were good, but not great. Still the team did have a couple of standouts on it. One was left-handed hitting first baseman-outfielder Brian Pietrewicz. The other was hard-throwing, hard-hitting left-hander Jim Lewentowicz.

For this game, it was Lewentowicz who was to start against Marlboro. He was Toms River's best pitcher, but there was one slight problem here -- he had a sore arm. Richards admitted he had a sore arm, but yet, he knew how far to push Lewentowicz -- who played for him on his regular-season Giants team and who once (I'm not kidding either about this) threw 207 pitches in a playoff game.

You read that right -- 207 pitches!! How do I know this? It was in 1985 against our team and guess who was in the dugout to count the pitches? It certainly would have gone beyond 207 had the last batter of the game in the 9-8 loss not swung at ball four at his eyeballs with the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning.

Pitch count? What pitch count?!

So Richards admits to me later that earlier in the day, he had his guy throw 40 warmup pitches ... with a sore arm. And being the gamer that Lewentowicz was, he told his manager he's ready to pitch. Worse, he was going on two day's rest. I never understimated the young man's durability, but I always considered the smarts it took to send him out there to pitch, when it was apparent, he didn't have his good stuff.

Toms River helped its pitcher with two runs in the top of the second, one of those coming on a home run by Mike Hildick. All seemed OK at that point, but I knew this Marlboro team was good still. And in the bottom of the second, I can see Lewentowicz's personal gas tank start creeping to "E."

Marlboro struck for five runs, highlighted by a two-run, opposite-field shot of about 350 feet by Tony Russomano. I started shaking my head as if to say, "Jimmy just doesn't give up opposite-field bombs like that."

Well after giving up five runs on seven hits in 1 2/3 innings, his coaches had seen enough. The problem was who could come in and keep things in check against this team that was thriving on hitting anything near the strike zone. That's when I started seeing Eddie Goldberg come in.

I had seen Eddie Goldberg pitch for Pomeroy's Yankees team during the season. Let's put it this way -- he was no Jim Lewentowicz. And I knew Eddie and his younger brother Todd because I also knew their dad, Ted, quite well. Ted Goldberg was a teacher at Hooper Avenue Elementary School when I was a student there and I knew him from his working at Ocean County College while I was a student. As a matter of fact, a year and a half before, I had done a feature story on Ted Goldberg for my college newspaper when he went to a New York Mets fantasy camp. I can still hear him in my head telling me once about meeting the real Mets, "Yeah, I was in the bullpen, smoking cigarettes with Gooden and Hernandez."

It was definitely a different time period, those '80s.

But now, it was up to Whoopi -- as his teammates and coaches knew him by -- to put out the fire. Now, I knew the bullpen was kind of short and part of the reason why I didn't think this team was going to go very far after winning district. And trust me, Marlboro wasn't fooled by the slow stuff that "Whoopi" was throwing. But its hitters started getting anxious and popped the ball up all over the place or hit groundballs right at fielders.

And Toms River got two of the runs back in the third inning. Starter Mike Barna got into trouble and loaded the bases. Hildick drew a walk to force in a run, and scrappy Vinny Rappaciulo delivered an RBI single. Barna escaped further damage and Marlboro held a 5-4 lead.

Marlboro kept putting runners on base against Goldberg, but couldn't push home runs as easily as it did against Lewentowicz. But in the fourth, it got what it thought would be an insurance tally when Joe Pignatelli doubled and scored on a Mark Carlin single.

However, a 6-4 deficit was only adding fuel to Toms River's fire. Suddenly, I realized this big, bad Marlboro team wasn't so big and wasn't so bad. Toms River kept answering whatever Marlboro kept doing. In the sixth inning, I knew this was not going to be just any ordinary run-of-the-mill ball game when Rob Richards, Richards' son, came up to start the sixth. He got a hold of Barna's first pitch and laced an opposite-field shot to right field. I figured it was over the right fielder's head for at least a double.

Suddenly I look up and that ball just kept carrying. When it finally landed, it was on the grass in an abandoned area behind the right-field fence. It took some time to pick my jaw up from off the floor, but Toms River had cut the lead to 6-5 on a home run from an unlikely source.

Now I believed this team had it in it to win the game. With two outs later in the inning, Pietrewicz stole second base. Ken Lanzel then took to the opposite field for a base hit to right to bring in Pietrewicz and tie this up at 6-all.

And all the while, Goldberg was avoiding lasers coming at him from the other side. By the end of the game, Marlboro would have left 13 runners on base -- 11 against Goldberg.

With the game still tied at 6-6, Toms River came up in the seventh inning. Barna was still in there and gave up a walk to Joe Rose to start the inning. Steve Maddalena came in to pinch-run for him and Goldberg advanced him up a base with a beautiful sacrifice bunt. Rappaciulo walked and Richards poked a single to right field to load the bases for Chachi Pomeroy.

At this point, I'm thinking, "I'll believe any scenario now."

And just like this team, the outcome was unbelievable in Pomeroy's at-bat. He hit a grounder at shortstop Steven Ford. Ford had a perfect throw to catcher Pignatelli, who only needed to catch the ball for the forceout. Pignatelli got Ford's throw a little low as Maddalena slid into the plate at the same time.

Wouldn't you know it, the ball squirted free behind Pignatelli. I remember saying with a bunch of Old Bridge Little League officials around me, "I can't believe this." 

Marlboro held firm after that, but down 7-6, it had the confidence and swagger to hit Goldberg. Getting a run, though, was another story.

Ford singled, his third hit of the game, to lead off. That brought up Barna, who stood to be the losing pitcher in this one. Barna hit a low line drive out to right field. The ball kept sinking as Rob Richards kept coming in to try and make a play. If the ball isn't caught, I can see it bouncing behind Richards and going to the wall and Barna being off to the races to win the game on an inside-the-park home run. After everything Toms River had gutted out on this Sunday afternoon, was this the way it was going to end perhaps? In a game that was marked by the word "crazy," it wouldn't have been a shocker.

But before the ball could hit the ground, Richards made a shoe-string catch. Once the umpire ruled it a catch, Ford was dead meat at first base as Richards threw a strike to Pietrewicz to finish out the double play. And when Goldberg struck out Pignatelli for his only strikeout of the game, the craziness came to an end in the form of a Toms River win.

It marked the only time in the game that Marlboro didn't leave a runner on base to end an inning. And all Goldberg did in his 5 1/3 innings of relief to get the win was allow one run on 10 hits.

Goldberg didn't have to be Lewentowicz, but he was bigger in the fact he saved a bullpen lacking in depth. He simply bobbed and weaved his way through all the punches Marlboro threw in picking up 17 hits in the game.

Seventeen hits and no victory. That doesn't happen much.

That sigh of relief you heard in lower Middlesex County was Bob Richards' after the game. They won a game which, in hindsight, they had no business winning. And they went another step further than they had been thought to go.

The ride ended two nights later on their Toms River complex field in the Section 3 final against District 11 champion North Wall, 10-3, which bombed three home runs in that game and felt more comfortable on Toms River's field than the hosts did.

But being there was surprising enough for the rag-tag Toms River team. It had gone further than anyone -- including myself -- expected it to go.

Part of what made 1986 a fun year to cover Little League ball in Ocean County.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

All this and McCartney, too

Mid-May 1990. The scholastic sports season was winding down. It was usually about this time every year I checked out the schedule for upcoming concerts. I admit I was more of a concert junkie in my mid-20s. If it was anywhere in the New York-New Jersey-Philadelphia area and I had an interest in it, I wanted to go.
And two concerts caught my eye. The first was Heart. I always loved Heart and they were playing at my beloved Garden State (now PNC Bank) Arts Center on Monday, July 16, 1990.

The other ... well, it was "must-see" stuff. There it was -- two days earlier at Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium. I'd seen a number of Phillies games there. Never a concert. Now I was about to purchase tickets for one. And it wasn't just any ol' act who toured every summer. This one was pretty big.

It was Paul McCartney ... ex-Beatle Paul McCartney. The leader of Wings Paul McCartney. The greatest songwriter and part of the greatest songwriting duo in the history of music Paul McCartney.

And on the road for the first time touring since his "Wings Over The World" tour in 1976 Paul McCartney.

I was definitely absolutely unequivocally no-freakin'-way missing Macca as he made his triumphant return to the States. The legal troubles with the other Beatles were now behind him. And for the first time in a long time, he was going to do more Beatles songs in his show that featured three people I knew of in his band -- obviously, his wife Linda, but also bassist Hamish Stuart (who was in Average White Band of "Pick Up The Pieces" and "Cut The Cake" fame) and guitarist Robbie MacIntosh (who played alongside Chrissie Hynde in the Pretenders).

Yeah, I was going to be there anyway possible! I still remember getting off the phone with the Ticketron people. I had paid $90 a seat -- 90 freakin' dollars per seat!! But I didn't care -- I had two tickets and I knew someone who lived in the same house with me who would've died to have gone to this show with me.

The concert was two months away and I gave the people at work a heads-up that I was going no matter what. I had two concerts in a three-day period, so guess who wasn't working those days?

Somehow, though, a few weeks later, I find out that the annual Ray Catena Offshore Grand Prix is being held on that second Saturday of July -- July 14. Greaaaaaaaaat! Thankfully from dealing with other powerboat events, either in the ocean or Barnegat Bay, they start early enough in which you can watch the race, get the necessary interviews you need, grab or jot down the results and get the heck out of there. So being the soldier that I was, I figured this shouldn't be too bad.

Apparently, I was about to suffer from Friday the 13th hangover. At about 7 a.m. on July 14, I awake to the mirkiest, ugliest, grey sky imaginable. So much for a beautiful day. Now I'm worried that the race might be canceled. And believe me -- I wouldn't have been sad at all.

But it was long before the Internet. No way to check out if the event had been canceled. And the one number I had for the Brielle Yacht Club, which was hosting the event, wasn't having anyone picking up. Thankfully, it wasn't raining.

I started on my way to Brielle and started seeing raindrops lightly hit the windshield. I was waiting for the downpour, but it never came, so I was fairly safe. Once inside the yacht club, I got my packet for the day's event. All seemed OK despite the dark clouds.

Then it is announced to the media who are there that the race is going to be delayed. Not because of the rain ... because of the 6-to-8 foot chops in the water. If you know anything about the ocean, you can have one of the most uncomfortable experiences of your life in swells that deep and high. So the 11 a.m. start of the race was going to have to be delayed for an hour ... maybe more.

Talk about cuttin' it close -- if the race starts at noon, it's going to take a good 2 1/2 hours to contest this thing, then we have to be brought back to the shore, get off the boat, wait for the official results to come to us, then get interviews, get back home to write the story on the handy-dandy Tandy machine I was using on the day, send the story, get in a car, head west to Philadelphia and be at the Vet before McCartney and band break into their opening song.

So we waited about 90 minutes, then finally, the man in charge of this event announces that the waves have died down a bit and we can go onto the boat. I had waited in the interim by eating a couple of doughnuts and having some coffee. I didn't have anything else before leaving, so this was it.

Well, it was just after 9:45 when we got onto the boat for what we thought was still a noon start. I waited patiently to climb aboard since the main deck was above. For some reason after handshakes with the crew of the ship, I had totally zoned out on the fact that the humidity that was in the air was making things damp. I made the mistake of starting up the stairs and assuming things were dry.

Nope. I moved upward two or three steps and my sneaker didn't quite grasp the plastic stair correctly. So what goes up, must come down.

Fell completely on my back. I can still feel the jolt through my body as I describe it. After I was asked if I was OK, my resilient 23-year-old body rose. I knew now to be a little more careful. This time I grasped the railings with both hands and made it safely to the next deck. Once there, I started to relax, looking at the notes I was given for this event. But it was apparent from being on that boat for just about 20 minutes after it finally stopped at its "headquarter" spot in the middle of the race course that this was not going to be the best ride in the world. The waves were as they said they would be -- 6 to 8 feet high with it feeling more like the latter number.

I had done enough ships in my life, covered enough races that the waters were a little rough. So I knew my comfort level. Unfortunately, this was far from comfort. And everything from my throat to my stomach was being affected by it. Didn't take more than about 10 minutes. I scoped out the bathroom on the ship and walked fast to it. Everything I had this morning was back in the toilet bowl.

Why the f*ck did I agree to cover this event!? I should've just told my boss to go screw off and taken the day off so I didn't feel like the hours before the greatest concert I was about to witness was a Chinese fire drill.

Pretty sure at this particular point that I didn't want to see another note. On one of those long, wooden benches, I decided to lie down. Sleep had become the only option left since we were now told the race was going to start closer to 1 p.m. It was the only way I knew to keep my mind off the boat thrashing up and down in the water. I'm not sure if anyone else felt as miserably uncomfortable as I did, but I knew this much -- for the next 2 1/2 hours, I was left alone.

When I next opened my eyes next, I could hear the sound of boats roaring through the water. It was just after 1 p.m. and the race was officially on. The waves had subsided a bit, but it was still pretty darned rough out there. The sun had finally come out. There was racing at last!

The only concern was if the waves were still too rough they may have to stop the race. But race officials were confident that all was going to be fine for the race. If they said so. I'm not so sure the drivers on some of those bigger, expensive boats out there would have agreed with that one. And the owners and drivers on the smaller boats definitely didn't share the same opinion.

But they raced nonetheless. And for the 2 1/2 hours they chased trophies, money and seasonal points in their classifications in long-winded laps.

By 3:30 p.m., it was over at long last. Once the boats were gone from the course, some injured and some in fine shape, we were heading back to Shore. But by now, it was just after 4 p.m. This was the time that, normally, the awards would be handed out on the deck of the yacht club. I got off the boat glad the six hours on that ship were finally, at long last, over.

I had to run through getting the results of the seven divisions, knowing who won some of the key ones. One of the big races that was supposed to take place was in the Sportsman Class B. But the battle between the Northeast leader, Rare Breed, owned by a nice man named Bill Gifford, from Little Egg Harbor, and the Southeast leader, Creative Native of Panama City, Fla., never quite happened. Creative Native broke down and Rare Breed never finished. The eventual winner was a boat called Wild Thing, based, ironically, in my next stomping grounds in my career, Key West. Another boat in that division, Shockwave, owned by the affable Rich Troppoli of Toms River, also had trouble in those rough waters and broke down, too.

It was 4:30 now and I needed at least an interview from one winner, two if I got lucky. Thankfully, I was steered toward the crew of the Hydra-Bandit, winner of a highly competitive Sportsman C class. They had a local (from Brick) on board in throttleman Greg Young. Totally great guy. He then introduced me to the owner of the boat, an older guy from Staten Island named Vince Guarino. Guarino had this boat and another boat in another division that he was the driver of, Sportsman B winner Alliance, in this race.

By this point, I was looking for bodies to interview and was running out of time. Guarino was a very nice man, but my introduction to him was him depositing his nearly finished cigarette to the deck of the club, stomping on it, and him shaking my hand, which I did, but had to go to the bathroom soon after to wash it. I still somewhat shake at remembering that moment. But Guarino was a confident man and he answered whatever questions I had for him with grace and class. He also gave credit to a shop called Kurt's Marine in Mantoloking. Man, did Kurt Burger, the force behind Kurt's Marine, get an endless amount of love from boat owners in the various races I covered. It was a practical lovefest every summer that I did the powerboat races.

However, the biggest winner of the day was a guy named Reggie Fountain of Washington, N.C., aboard his boat called Fountain. It won the Superboat competition and the overall title in what I called a "thrilling race."

But by now, it was 4:50. I couldn't locate Reggie Fountain. I tried. But time was running out. I was bound and determined to get to the concert before the opening song, and not five songs in.

So I left. It was about a 30-minute trip back from Brielle to Toms River on a sunny summer Saturday at the Jersey Shore. That's all you have to know about making my way through traffic on Route 70 and Hooper Avenue in my attempt to get home, sit down at the dinner table and write a story with all the notes I had gathered and eat dinner at the same time. No, I wasn't planning on getting home about 90 minutes later than I planned, but I pretty much rifled my way through typing that story on that Tandy laptop, while my sister waited patiently for me to finish. It was just before 7 p.m. and I had sent the story through the phone couplers and into the Observer's computer system.

The one thing I told my boss that I didn't do was talk to the overall winner. I came to find out a few days later he was angry that I had not done that. But I was doing him a favor. I could have taken the entire day off and then he would have been screwed. He should be happy I got him what I got considering the horrendous conditions I dealt with that morning, which I ignored telling him.

Now that the story was finished and sent and dinner was eaten, it was off west to Philadelphia. It was just after 7 and I was making up for lost time. The only stops I made were for traffic lights ... and I was determined to beat every last one of them. Getting across the Walt Whitman Bridge wasn't as bad as it seemed. And I found a spot to park about four or five blocks from the Vet in an outer parking lot near an industrial area. That 1977 Dodge Aspen was so reliable to me for the 7 1/2 years I drove it.

It was about 8:20 p.m. yet there was no music being played at the moment. Talk about luck. Our seats were pretty awesome, probably 200 feet from the stage on the third-base side of the field facing the stage, set up in right-center field. The price I paid for the tickets was worth it. By 8:45 p.m, sis and I were settled in when the lights dimmed and the first notes of "Figure Of Eight," which was one of the songs from McCartney's most recent cassette/LP "Flowers In The Dirt," was coming over the speakers. That was followed immediately by the loud horns that introed into the powerful 1974 hit "Jet." For nearly the next three hours, we were just blown away. And yes, he did Beatles tunes, too, including a medley of songs John made famous. But the highlight was "Hey Jude." For as long as I live, 55,000 fans singing, "Naaaaaaah naaaah naah, na-na-na-naaaaaah ... na-na-na-naaaaaah. Heeeeey Jude!" will always go with me.

And when he and the band finished up with "Golden Slumber/Carry That Weight/The End," we were all witness to something amazing that night. I remember turning on to WMMR-FM after the show and they were replaying the set list in order, starting with "Figure Of Eight." Listened to it all the way back to Toms River ... or at least until the station began fading out of range. Oh how I looooove my Sirius-XM radio!

The sad thing was that two nights later, sis and I went to see Heart at the Arts Center and it was a great show, too, but it paled greatly in comparison to McCartney on July 14. And, ironically, the second time I saw McCartney in concert, it was wrapped up on a day I had a sporting event to cover as well -- but this was much different.

It was Super Bowl XXXIX in Jacksonville on February 6, 2005.

But the McCartney & Band show on this July night was the perfect ending to what was a very, very, very, very long day, considering the aggrevation I had to put up with at the beginning.

It was definitely "must-see" stuff.