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Sunday, August 26, 2012

A memorable culmination to a first summer of employment

My first summer of employment in 1984 was nothing but covering baseball for the Ocean County Observer.

Little League All-Star baseball, Senior League All-Star baseball, Junior League All-Star baseball, and when that ended, it was Ed Carleton League baseball and ultimately Jersey Shore Baseball League action and finally, the state's tournament of champions that brought together teams from around the state to play in late summer to ultimately crown a champion.

I was 17 and suffering withdrawals from the end of the District 18 season. When my boss handed me Ed Carleton League ball, I jumped right on that ... and didn't mind one minute.

And if anyone wanted to come for the ride with me in my mother's Ford LTD II, they were more than welcome to tag along. When I covered the Section 3 All-Star Tournament championship that Brick American lost to Spring Lake-Sea Girt, my sister tagged along -- not that she loved baseball, but the trip was to Sayreville Little League, and not that far from Sayreville's field was a White Castle, and believe me, long before Toms River got one in 1988, a White Castle was a burger joint's version of Fort Knox. Hey, those little burgers were gold as far as she and I were concerned.

Then there was the Ed Carleton League championship involving the Toms River South entry against Eatontown. Jim Renner, who played baseball for my father and I on our Toms River Senior League team for three years and was about to enter Toms River High School East as a freshman in a few weeks, wanted to come along with me for the ride to Liberty Oaks Park on that Friday night. It was the first time that I had gone to the Freehold Township-based park since my father's Junior League All-Star team at Toms River that he coached with Bruce Shepherd as manager beat West Milford in the state final, 2-1, just over five years to the day.

The summer of '84 proved to be a liberating summer for myself. I was a professional even though I probably should not have been trying professional writing for a professional newspaper without a single day of college journalism courses. But that was the beauty of doing correspondent work for the small-town paper -- you get to cut your teeth there and if anyone working there has anything of worth to give you as advice, you take it from them.

Once Ed Carleton Baseball ended, the next task was to cover Jersey Shore Baseball League stuff. The man with the most I could learn from was a guy named Art Rooney. Art was a man in his early 40s, like my parents, who was the perfect coach to play for -- a stern disciplinarian for a summer-league team where you can have some fun but still concentrate on furthering a college baseball career, maybe even more than that. In one of the games I covered -- and I can't remember if it was that summer or the next couple of summers -- this man went up to the plate at 40-something to hit for someone and gave it three mighty swings against a fastball-throwing 20-something. He struck out, but man did he make it worth watching.

The team had won the Jersey Shore League title (by forfeit, no less) and was that league's representative in this statewide Tournament of Champions. In the double-elimination event, the Merchants (Point Pleasant's nickname) took out Woodbridge Recreational, 12-5, in the first game, and their reward was another game on the next day against an outfit called Rutgers Service Center. And, unfortunately, the game was not being played in Point Pleasant.

Road trip!

Except this time, no one wanted to tag along with me on this Sunday afternoon, August 26, 1984. I was left to my own devices and very vague directions to some park near Rutgers University. I was fairly confident in traveling Ocean and Monmouth counties, but I wasn't so assured leaving either county and heading elsewhere. And to be quite honest, I was a little scared.

The only things I had with me other than a scorebook and pencil were directions to the park and field I was going to and a Middlesex County map that was in pages and not like the messy, fold-up versions of maps. If I needed to get from one part of Middlesex County to another, I had to flip from map number 3 to map number 14 in this booklet. So paying attention was kind of important.

I headed up Route 9 until just crossing into Middlesex County and then it was a turnoff onto Route 18 heading north. And the opening part of the Route 18 ride is pretty open. There's lot of trees and lots of nothing. No traffic lights. And here I was trying to sneak a peak at my so-called "maps" figuring out where I had to go once I got closer to New Brunswick. And somewhere along the way, I wound up going from the far left lane to the far right lane without ever noticing what I was doing. It was a good thing I was alone at that moment to at least 28 years later tell you about it!

Once I got into the heavy portion of East Brunswick, then New Brunswick, finding roads became a challenge, but I slowly figured out the road I needed to find -- it was Easton Avenue. From there, it was a couple of turns and somehow, luckily, I found the park and the field where the game was being played.

As I remember walking from the park's parking lot to the playing field, there was this look of amazement on Art Rooney's face as if I had found my way out of the most elaborate labrynth ever assembled. And all I can say as I approached him was, "Made it. May I see your lineup, Mr. Rooney?" for which he handed me his lineup for the day and a "Glad you can make it" in his charming northern New Jersey accent. I grabbed a copy of the Rutgers team's lineup just as the game started since they were in the field first and copied that quickly.

Unlike any other kind of baseball I covered all summer, the upper levels were nine-inning affairs. As I made my way back from copying down Rutgers' lineup, I sat down in the stands behind and next to Point Pleasant's bench. Immediately, I recognize this beautiful-looking lady sitting there, probably not much older than I was. So with curious, 17-year-old hormones wanting to find out who she was, I parked myself down behind her and made small chit-chat through the first inning. I come to find out her boyfriend is the third baseman of the team, Carlo Colombino. I'm thinking, "What a lucky bastard!" She was wearing fancy sunglasses and had that curly '80s hair going. How could you not miss that?

I can see this concentrated look on her face when her boyfriend stepped up with a runner on first in the top of the first inning. He hit a rocket shot -- in most enclosed ballparks, this ball would have gone over a fence and Point Pleasant would have had a 2-0 lead. But this was an open field that the teams were playing on in a park. So center fielder Mike McDede started going back ... and going back ... and going back with his back to the play. Somehow, he caught wind of where the ball was and made an over-the-shoulder grab.

But here's the best part: As he was catching the ball, he was no more than 10 feet away from an implanted bench on an adjacent and unused baseball field. McDede literally jumped over the bench, then had the presence of mind to throw the ball back to the second baseman, who threw a two-hop strike to the first baseman to double off Norm Johannessen, who was probably the second-most shocked person on the field that McDede had caught the ball.

I took a look at the beautiful lady sitting in front of me. Her mouth was agape. Absolutely speechless. To this day, it is still the greatest baseball catch I have ever seen and that was 28 years ago. It has literally stood the test of time.

At this point, this story was writing itself out, but Rutgers' team was not making it fun to write at all. After Jim Ritchings singled home Keith Ender to make it 1-0 in favor of Point Pleasant, Rutgers got three runs in the bottom of the second inning as Jim Fleming made up for an error in the previous half-inning with a two-run single. For good measure, they got three more runs off starter and former Point Pleasant Beach High standout Bob MacDonald in the third inning as MacDonald couldn't locate the plate, walking home one run and bringing another in on a wild pitch. A sacrifice fly by Don Tyus made it 6-1.

And Rooney made sure MacDonald's day was done. He took him out and replaced him with former Brick Memorial High School standout John Sheehan in the fourth. And Sheehan was the rock that the Merchants needed, going six innings, allowing no runs on one hit, walking one and striking out two. But Point Pleasant neeed runs to dig out of this hole. And they had three innings left to do it in.

In the seventh, Ritchings singled and one out later, Curt Pirl tripled to the left-center gap on that huge field to cut the lead to four runs. Sheehan grounded out, but that got Pirl in to make it 6-3. Then Bill Reynolds, a former two-sport standout at Brick High School in baseball and football, started a new rally with a triple to left field. Johannessen walked and Colombino singled in Reynolds. Ender brought in Johannessen and suddenly, the lead was a run.

Now I was thinking this ride could continue. But the Merchants needed another rally in either the eighth or ninth innings. The eighth was out of the question as the Merchants went down quickly. So it came to the ninth.

Leadoff hitter Reynolds started it by reaching on an infield hit. Shortstop Fleming made another error on a Johannessen grounder and Colombino got Reynolds to third with a flyball out that was far more routine than the one he hit in the first inning. It brought up Ender, who had three hits going into the at-bat. He got his pitch from reliever Mike Sokolowski and delivered a single to tie it at 6-6. That brought it up to Bob Benkert. He delivered a single to knock in Johannessen to make it 7-6.

A five-run deficit with nine outs to go was now gone. And the Merchants added two more runs in that frame to take a 9-6 lead. That was good enough for Sheehan to close things out and get the victory.

And there was much joy on the Point Pleasant side from the smattering of fans that were there -- some parents, a few friends, Carlo Colombino's girlfriend.

Point Pleasant moved on to play another weekend. But there was one request that was made by Rooney after this game.

"Keith Ender needs to be somewhere long before we get back," he said. "Are you heading back now? (I nodded by head affirmatively.) Can you take him back with you?"

It didn't cross my mind twice. I said, "Sure! I'll do it!" And as I left, Keith grabbed his gear and he and I piled into my mom's LTD II and we headed back on Route 18 heading south. He had me continue on Route 18 until it spilled onto the Garden State Parkway going south. From that point, he directed me to where he needed to go and so I dropped him off in Point Pleasant and he thanked me for the ride. I jumped back on the Parkway to head back to Toms River to write my story.

One weekend later, Point Pleasant's season came to an end as the Merchants lost to the host Irvington A's, 7-6, in 10 innings in come-from-behind fashion on this little field where if you hit a foul ball just perfectly to the third-base side, the ball could be hugging any one of the four lanes on the Parkway (talk about leaving your comfort zone). It dropped the Panthers to the losers bracket, and the next day, September 2, the Merchants lost on their home field to the Wayne A's, 14-10, in 10 innings, strapped for relief pitching and having to go with poor Jim Ryerson all 10 innings. Point Pleasant out-hit Wayne, 23-16 -- 23-16!!! -- and yet, the season ended for Point Pleasant with a 37-7 record.

A couple of weeks earlier, I had been asked by my boss if I wanted to stay around and cover high school sports that 1984-85 season. It was as if the happiest day of my life had taken place by just being asked. I accepted it and didn't look back from there.

I look back on that summer of '84 fondly, though maybe not as fondly as Bryan Adams looked back at the summer of '69. It was a very good time to start a career and to go cover events in areas I'd never been before. I got to meet new faces and make new friends like my dear friend Mr. Rooney, who I cherish to this day. I think I dealt with Art every summer I worked at the Observer until I moved on in 1999. And I thank him for his introduction to the "bigger leagues."

I don't know whatever happened to that woman that Carlo Colombino was dating. But I still tend to put her in 1984 beauty perspective. I can still see her in my mind. I can still see that Willie Mays-style catch that Mike McDede made on Colombino, bench-jumping and all. I can see myself switching lanes on Route 18 without knowing I did.

What a first summer to be employed.

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