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Thursday, September 26, 2013

What's in a name after all?

My first year of doing columns at the Ocean County Observer was 1993. And I do admit, I had a lot of fun coming up with ideas for those columns.

But I was about to come across my first creatively naive column. And it almost didn't happen.

This story starts on a Sunday afternoon, January 3, 1993. I actually had taken a couple of young ladies who I had covered in high school and had graduated the year before -- Toms River South's Danielle Nicosia and Toms River North's Carolyn Lemke -- out to Red Lobster. I had made a vow to them that if my 1992 rotisserie baseball team -- Lemke's Nicosians -- had finished in the Top 5 in my 12-team league, I'd take them out for dinner.

It was a far funner time, especially when you're 25 years old going on 26.

Well lo and behold, my team finished fifth and that meant I got some kind of a reward monetarily. It was $60. And after getting that check, I had asked the two young ladies if they were up to eating at Red Lobster on the first Sunday of the new year. They both said they were and it was a very casual and enjoyable dinner, especially when both knew each other growing up in Toms River and both competing in field hockey and soccer, Carolyn at North, Danielle at South.

During the conversation, the topic crossed into baseball. I don't how or why, but that's what happened. And Carolyn mentioned that she wanted to meet her namesake -- Atlanta Braves second baseman Mark Lemke. Now if you remember back in the early 1990s, Lemke was the reluctant and surprise hero of the 1991 World Series and was ready to take home the Series Most Valuable Player honors against the Minnesota Twins until Kirby Puckett (Game 6) and ultimate MVP Jack Morris (Game 7) stole the trophy away from the Braves.

But he was a fascination and not only was he a fascination to Carolyn, but also to her younger twin sisters Alyson and Janis, who were both ran track at North in the spring with Alyson running cross country and Janis playing field hockey in the fall. The wheels began to grind in my head at that point.

This plan could just take off.

And the idea started to go in motion after I had taken both Carolyn and Danielle back to their homes. I had taken a look at the Braves' 1993 schedule, which had been posted somewhere in print -- this was loooong before the age of the Internet. The Philadelphia Phillies and Braves were going to play quite a few times during the year, but probably the best time for all this to go down would not be until the weekend of September 25-26.

I put everything off until May. I made a phone call to the Atlanta Braves public relations department and got its head of the department, Jim Schultz. I had told him the story of the three sisters in Toms River with the Lemke last name who would love to meet his team's second baseman with the same last name. He would see what he would do about it.

Well, I heard nothing. So the spring turned into the summer and I figured I'd give it one more try to get Schultz. I contacted the public relations department and made a formal request for the sisters to meet Lemke at Veterans Stadium again. The person on the other end of the phone asked me to put the formal request down in writing and send it via fax machine. So I did. I even faxed a copy of the feature story that I had done on the sisters at Christmas 1991, a story my boss lamented about for days -- not because of the content of the story, but that he put a picture of their faces on the front sports page of where the fold of the newspaper was located!

You just had to hear him to believe me.

So weeks went by and nothing. And when the Braves swooped into Philly to play the Phillies at the Vet, it was during a very tense time for them. The Braves had to practically win every single day and night for they had the hard-charging San Francisco Giants right beside them in the National League West standings and both teams were headed for over 100 victories with only the winner going to the postseason and the second-place team staying home.

This weekend was the next-to-last weekend of the baseball season. So with everything going on -- and the Phillies on the verge of winning their first National League East title in 10 years -- I just figured things were too hectic and too busy for my three young ladies to meet the man that shared their last name.

Then at about 2 p.m. on Saturday, September 25, the phone rang at my house. My mom answered the phone. She asked me to pick it up. After I did, I yelled for her to hang up because I had it.


"Hello, is this Mark Blumenthal?

"Yes. Who would this be?"

"My name is Glen Serra and I'm with the public relations department of the Atlanta Braves."

Suddenly, my ears perked up. I had practically put this whole "meeting" thing out of my mind. And then I sheepishly asked him what he was calling me about.

"I got your fax from Jim Schultz and he passed it on to me. I spoke with Mark earlier today and he said he would like to meet the three sisters."

The wheels were grinding again. And I asked him how we were going to do this.

"Well, there's an allotment for tickets. How many tickets do you need?"

"Well, there's the three sisters, their mom, I'm sure, their brother (Brian) and myself. That would be six."

"That will work. Come to the stadium before 1 p.m. and go to 'will call.'"

After I thanked him and Mark for all they did, I suddenly had a column/story to write again. And my first phone call was to the sisters' mom, Barbara Donnelly, a sweet lady who I had known for a number of years, especially her working at the trophy shop on Charles Street near Route 37 that our paper and sports department did business with.

I was concerned, though, because all this was going down in less than 24 hours. People have plans and you hate to break them up. But once I told her that Mark Lemke wanted to meet her daughters, any plans that had been made were thrown to the wayside. She didn't think she would have a problem making the calls to all three of them and she was available to go with her son to the Vet as well.

After putting in a full Saturday's worth of work -- by this point, my boss had not wanted me to cover high school football anymore and just strictly concentrate on helping with layout and picking up the other sports that were going on that day -- I was prepared for a big Sunday.

That morning, however, was dreary, humid and drizzly, the kind of weather that makes you want to just turn over and go back to sleep. It was 9 a.m. Mom had gotten up and made me breakfast before anybody else got up. A bacon-and-eggs meal with coffee followed with me heading out the door by 9:45. It would take me 15 minutes to get to the Donnelly/Lemke household. With the rain still coming down in between a mist and a drizzle, I got out of my '77 Dodge Aspen, walked to the door, knocked on it and found mom, Brian, Alyson and Janis about ready to go. Carolyn, who was now a sophomore at Trenton State College (The College of New Jersey now), had told her mom she would meet all of us at the Vet.

Somehow, we'd all find each other in front of Veterans Stadium even in the era before cell phones.

Now I knew Carolyn was excited about meeting her namesake, but I wasn't as sure with the two younger sisters. I found out the feeling was mutual.

"We tell people not to speak bad about the Braves. Our cousin plays for them," Alyson told me. "Since my sophomore year (1991-92), I've been telling people he is our cousin. And people believe it."

Janis admitted that she had never seen a baseball game before, but she said she thought it would be exciting -- even though the last-minute plans forced her to miss a surprise birthday party she was to put together on this day.

But everything had to go as planned for it work. If there was one part of the whole detail that got screwed up, we'd never be able to get into Veterans Stadium and meet him. So all the pressure was on me to deliver and me to lean upon Serra to hold his end up.

I told the four of them they were following me to Veterans Stadium. We took Route 571 to Route 70 and went west until we got to I-295. We took that south to the exit for the Walt Whitman Bridge. Once over the bridge, the stadium and adjacent parking lots were not too far away. These were lots that you didn't have to pay for, but you had a little bit of a walk. That wasn't a problem as the rain finally stopped on what was still a cloudy day.

Once we got to the grounds outside of the stadium, Carolyn had found the five of us and we all went to "will call," which was right there in front of us. I had told the lady behind the window about the tickets via Mark Lemke and Glen Serra and she had all of us on the list. Unfortunately, the tickets didn't have us all sitting together -- three tickets were together over by the third-base line a few rows up from the Braves dugout and three more tickets were to sit out in center field. So the three sisters took the tickets by the Braves dugout and Mrs. D., Brian and myself got to sit out in the seats in center field where everyone kinda, sorta looks very small.

I know the three of us had a good time sitting together the entire time, even though I didn't know Brian quite as well as I knew the sisters. But for almost three hours, we sat and watched as the Braves continued their winning ways with a 7-2 victory over the Phillies as 17-game winner Steve Avery beat 15-game winner Curt Schilling. As for Lemke, who was in the starting lineup, he was 0-for-4, but had an RBI and finished out the game with a diving stop to his left, then throwing out Jim Eisenreich for the final out of the game.

It was the Braves' 100th win of the season and the last meeting of the year between the two teams before fate would have both teams meet again in the National League Championship Series.

In the middle of the game, I had called Serra on a pay phone at the Vet to a phone he was sitting at during the game. He had given me directions on where we should all meet afterward. After the six of us had come together again, we went in that direction. We were going to stand in the reception room where the elevators were right nearby and wait for Serra to come up to the room. There were two older men, probably both in their 70s, who were manning the elevators. They asked me what we were doing and I told them that a guy from the Braves' public relations department was to meet us there. So they were fine with it.

A few moments later, Serra, who I had not yet met in person, but had three phone conversations with, had arrived. He knew who we were by the picture of the three sisters. So after we all introduced ourselves to him, he took us to the elevator and down to the where the Braves clubhouse entrance was.

The five of them got on, and I was the last to board the elevator when the two older men started fussing, demanding I get off the elevator! I had to show them my press credential, which I wasn't wearing for this game, but had on me and they still were insistent that I don't board this elevator. If not for Serra saying something to them, I may never have seen the meeting. These two old coots were giving me a ration of crap and making life difficult.

The funny looks I got from all four females in that elevator pretty much said it all. "I can't believe I'm the one who put this all together and THEY were about to ruin it," I remember saying.

It was a short ride down the elevator to the clubhouse level below the stadium, but Serra took us to outside the clubhouse. Now I had been in the visiting clubhouse a number of times at the Vet when I got to cover the occasional Phillies game, but now it was just a matter of waiting for Braves players to file out. Serra stayed with us until he went into the clubhouse to tell Mark his "ladies" were waiting on him. And the six of us were patient, me holding my camera for the occasion where I'd get pictures. We knew he would come out eventually.

We started watching various Braves players leaving the clubhouse, some individually, some in groups. Avery and fellow pitchers and future Hall of Famers Tom Glavine and John Smoltz had walked out of the clubhouse. Catchers Damon Berryhill and Greg Olsen left. And other players had left. How much longer were we to wait?

"I was a little nervous," Alyson told me later on. "Especially the waiting. He's a slow dresser."

Indeed. But after nearly 20 minutes of waiting, our man of the hour came out of the clubhouse with teammate and center fielder Ron Gant. He was dressed in a dark mustard-colored jacket, no tie, wearing a pair of sunglasses and sporting his George Michael-like five o'clock shadow. He knew he had people waiting on him. He turned to the six of us and greeted the sisters and their mom. From there, it was small conversation and signing Brian's baseball cards, taking pictures with the family, and signing a picture for Carolyn. There was something she specifically wanted on that picture.

"I need you to write it like this -- 'To cousin Carolyn, Best Wishes, Mark Lemke, No. 20."

The truth is that it was the final day of a three-game series and the team was heading out as fast as possible to Philly International Airport and back to Atlanta to finish out the season with series against the Houston Astros and the expansion Colorado Rockies. They still had the Giants on their trail as the season was coming down to the final 100-yard sprint.

But before leaving alongside Serra, I had given Mark a picture of the three sisters that my photographer at the paper, Pete Picknally, had taken of the trio for that December 1991 story.

"I got this," he said. 

"Really?" surprisingly said Carolyn. "We weren't sure you had gotten it in the mail (when they sent it after their feature story came out after Christmas 1991)."

"Yeah," he answered back. "I sent it to my mom (in Rome, N.Y., where he grew up)."

A smile came across Carolyn's face. The quiet-spoken Lemke shook everyone's hands and was on his way with Serra and the rest of the team to the airport. And the six of us were soon on our way out of the Vet with a lifetime of memories in those few minutes.

I not only fulfilled a wish for a family of sisters, but my picture of the three sisters, their brother and Lemke (with Serra in the background, by the way) made its way into our paper in my column a few days later. It was a milestone moment in my career -- it was my first photography credit! I've had a few more since, but it was something I treasure to this day.

All three sisters are now in their late 30s and married with kids. I hope I was able to bring some kind of joy to them on this particular day 20 years ago. I hope they still remember.

I've now done columns for over 20 years and I still will tell you that this particular column about this particular Sunday, September 26, 1993, is still the funnest one I've ever written.

A promise I fulfilled almost nine months earlier was taken care of: Alyson, Janis and Carolyn Lemke got to meet their namesake.

Cousin Mark.