Every now and then, this job I do allows me to enjoy what I go out and cover.
Most of the time, it's understandably business as usual. It has to be. We rarely ever put ourselves within the storyline. And it's just as well. We aren't that important in the whole scheme of things.
One of those rare instances where I could allow my hair to be let down -- and I had a lot of it at that point, I may add -- was on Saturday, July 6, 1991. Earlier that week, I was asked by a man named Carl Lind if I could come do the public address system and announce names and play music in between innings for the fourth annual War At The Shore.
Saturday nights are usually tough nights because there's a lot going on, but I was OK on this particular Saturday night because the two District 18 Little League Tournament of Champion final games that would normally be held on the first Saturday of July had been moved to the Fourth of July this particular year and the only Little League All-Star games being played were all afternoon games that I knew I could swoop up and throw into a story before I left to go to the game.
And it was also hard to turn Mr. Lind down. If you watch The Simpsons and recognize Ned Flanders, Homer's next-door neighbor, then you had Carl Lind. The man was not only super nice as a person, he was also super positive as a human being. And he loved high school softball. Over the years, if there was an important game going on in Ocean County, chances are he was going to be there.
He helped to start the "War At The Shore" in 1988 with the softball game featuring the best in Monmouth and Ocean County going against one another.
That is, the best sheriff department officers. While they would have their annual battle, there was nothing as a credible opening act. For this particular year, though, Lind had been able to craft friendships among the players at the Shore and then bring together coaches to lead the teams for this particular game, which was being held at a field I had driven past dozens of times before but had never actually covered an event on in my life -- the Lavallette Boro Field, which stuck out like a sore thumb in the middle of Route 35. It's a cavernous field, so it would take a monster shot to hit a ball over the fence there. Near impossible, actually.
The game was also important for Lind in another way: It was to raise money for the New Jersey Organization of Cystic Fibrosis. That was a big deal. Though you would never know it because of his positive nature that he shared with all of us and with his own children, Lind was suffering from the disease. And he was living life to the fullest knowing tomorrow could be his last day.
For this game on this particular night, Lind brought together one of the greatest groups of softball players ever to grace the Lavallette Boro field. There was well over a dozen young ladies who answered the call to play the game and they were all standouts in their own right. Brick High School, which won the Ocean County Tournament for the first and only time, was represented by third baseman Kim Coco, first baseman Lori Liegl and star pitcher Viki Kara, who was taking her talents to Brookdale Community College to pitch. Lacey High was represented by standout shortstop and All-County player Kelly Hanaway. Lakewood had a pair of dynamite players representing it in shortstop Addie Dix and Jen Cranley.
And most of the rest of the Ocean County talent came from the Toms River high schools. South was represented by 65-game winner and sensational left-hander Jodi Solana and first baseman Tonya Coppola. North was bringing a number of people to this game, including the battery of catcher Kim Niedzwicki and pitcher Heather Richards. And East, which suffered through the throes of a horrendous 5-19 season, had its representative in catcher Kelly Arnold. Though the Raiders weren't very good in their one and only season under interim head coach Joe Arminio, who was taking the reins while head coach Debbie Schwartz was on maternity leave after the birth of her first child, Alex, born that March, Arnold had a monster season, so much so that she earned first-team All-State honors even though the rest of the team wasn't so good.
I'm still not liked by some Asbury Park Press personnel because I upstaged their softball writer's All-Shore first-team selection for catcher that year, Wall's Kristin Durber, who just happened to be there at this game with the rest of the high school players and got the nod as the starting catcher for Kara while Arnold started the game at shortstop.
The head coach of the high school team was John Natoli, who had finished up a two-year stint as Point Pleasant Boro High School's mentor. Before Natoli came in, the program was a laughingstock, losing every game it played in the 1986 season. They languished after that, but when he came in for the 1990 season, he helped to turn things around as Boro won 18 games, captured the Class C division title and he was named the Observer's Coach of the Year for his work. The team won 14 games this particular spring, but the season did not end so well for a much different reason.
Natoli was notified he was being riffed by the Point Pleasant Board of Education in late May. There was no money and the school board wasn't letting its tenured people go. So Natoli, who was only 28 at the time, was being told that he was being sent away. And though his Panthers and the parents spoke up at a Boro meeting in defending him, they couldn't stop the board and thus a man who had actually been a positive influence to the youngsters he was in charge of was being dismissed.
I never said they were brain surgeons at Point Pleasant Boro. So as the head coach on this particular night, he was performing one last Ocean County duty.
Meanwhile, Ocean County College softball coach and all-around super guy Dick Strada was named the coach of the college team of players who performed at either his OCC team, rival Brookdale (Monmouth County's junior college) or Georgian Court College. Like most any other thing he coached, whether it was OCC softball or ice hockey (when they had a team) or Toms River East ice hockey, he took it in laissez-faire, "it's just a game" stride.
Usually, the college talent is better than the high school talent in these kind of all-star games. Not this one. The Ocean County talent alone was better than what was assembled on Strada's side.
So after putting together what I needed to get done that afternoon with the Little League All-Star games, I went home early. An hour later, I turned around with my boom box, collection of cassette singles at the time (yes, it was 1991 ... we did cassette singles!!) and a scorebook and headed over to Lavallette. The game wasn't until 7 p.m., but I always wanted to be there at least 90 minutes before the first pitch. On this day with little else to do, I got to the Lavallette Boro field by 5 p.m.
I sat around and had to wait 10 to 15 minutes before someone associated with the field could open the small building behind home plate for which I would plug my boombox in and get set up for the game. By the time that individual came by, some of the players from the high school team had already started filing in. It was very quiet even for a beautiful and busy Saturday summer day on the Shore. Once plugged in, I started playing all the big hits of that particular day in a countdown leading up to the first pitch. Can still remember the first song I played when I was plugged in and ready to go -- the hottest song in America at the time, Bryan Adams' "Everything I Do (I Do It For You)," which was three weeks away from becoming the No. 1 song in America. And then other songs followed, including Lisa Fischer's "How Can I Ease The Pain," R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion," Luther Vandross' "Power Of Love/Love Power" and EMF's believably loud "Unbelievable," leading up to the No. 1 song on this particular day and before I could play the song, announcing, "And here's the No. 1 song in America this week ... " I can hear Tonya Coppola saying, "Rush Rush," ... which it was by Paula Abdul.
The little things you remember. After that, I just turned to some random classic rock station in the area to play the music as the crowds began to file in for the opener. Most of the high school players were there as was Natoli and his assistant coach on the night, Joe Solana, Jodi's father and one of the true positive forces in the area in the sport, were getting the young ladies together. A number of the young ladies knew each other not just from playing against each other on the high school level, but also playing for the Jersey Waves team that Solana and Bob Richards, Heather's dad, coached.
The college side, though, was lacking in players. There may have been four players there by 6:30 p.m. Strada, who strolled onto the field about 10 minutes earlier, told me when I asked where the rest of the supporting crew was that he thought they'd be there shortly before the game started.
"They're going to need warmup, aren't they?"
"Naaah. They're pros. They'll handle it."
I think it was also his way of saying to me, "They could've been on this field three hours before the game and they'd still have a tough time against the high school team."
Yeah, these high school players were very, very good.
Mere minutes before the opening pitch, Strada's eighth and ninth players needed to start the game arrived. I think he got one more player after that for a reserve and that was it. The high school team was about 15 players strong and it was up to Natoli and Joe Solana to juggle players coming in and out of the nine-inning game.
Being the consummate pro that I was the last couple of years of doing the PA for the Ocean County softball tournament and also doing the PA for the Shore Conference Tournament field hockey championship that fall at Ocean Township High School when Wall beat Central Regional, I knew how this whole thing worked by now – announce the reserves and starting lineups of each team, introduce the head coaches and then the umpires for the game (who for behind the plate was the funny and enjoyable Steve Hill, Toms River North's head baseball coach), play the national anthem and let the recently graduated high school players go out on the field. The game started at about 7:15 p.m., but I didn't care. I don't think anyone did.
The place was packed, a lot of them there for this game, some who came for the nightcap between the two sheriff's office teams.
Kara, who went 22-4 in Brick's greatest season ever, was getting the ball first with Durber catching her. She came out onto the field to the same song I played during Brick's run to the OCT title, MC Hammer's "U Can't Touch This." And her stuff was untouchable. She set down all nine batters she faced, striking out four of them.
As for the game, it was never really close. The high school team held a 7-0 lead on the college all-stars by the seventh. They were hitting whoever Strada was putting out in the circle. And the team had a difficult time getting to Kara and her replacement on the mound, Richards, who was at that point heading to the University of Delaware to continue with softball. With her regular catcher at North behind the plate, Richards did not allow any of her nine batters to reach base and she struck out three.
With the game in hand by now, it was time to have a little fun behind the mike. The high school team was making some more changes that kept me on my toes as to who was moving where and who was coming into the game. Arnold, who would go 2-for-3 at the plate with a pair of RBI, was coming back in to get behind the plate and Dix, who was being patient so far, was finally coming in to play shortstop. Jodi Solana, who was Ocean County's winningest pitcher when she graduated in 1991, was the closing act in the circle. She was going to throw the final three innings to Arnold, who had not caught a pitcher that threw any harder than her all year. So it seemingly took forever to announce the switches and replacements as the top of the seventh began. Then I look out in right field and see Cranley out there. Cranley was coach Dave McKelvey's center fielder at Lakewood High, but I barely recognized her from a distance in a different position. Still, I knew she was there.
The announcements sounded like this as the inning began with Solana throwing to her first batter: "Now pitching for the high school team, Jodi Solana. Coming back in to now catch is Kelly Arnold. Moving in to play shortstop is Addie Dix. And out there deep in right field, barely visible is Jen Cranley. Say hi to everyone, Jen!"
Such a sweet and fun-loving young lady that she was, Cranley heard me and waved to everyone from her position. Unlike her two other standout hurlers, though, Solana was having some difficulty with the college team lineup. She allowed a hit and that batter got the green light to try and steal from Strada ... even down a substantial amount of runs
As if Arnold knew it, she came up from her catcher's crouch and fired a strike to second base where Dix was waiting. She got the ball perfectly in position and slapped the tag on the runner for the easy out. All game long, I had busted on Arnold and announced her in the pre-game as "the first-team All-State catcher from Toms River East." I knew Kelly Arnold could take it because she knew how to dish it out, too. So as she made the throw, I can still remember the words I said as the out was applied.
"Ladies and gentlemen, that's proof to why she's a first-team All-State catcher."
At that point, she turned back at me with this somewhat angry look on her face with the "Stop it already!" impression on it. I felt bad for Kristin Durber that night. She was a nice catcher for Wall's Shore Conference Tournament championship team that year, but talent-wise, she couldn't compare to Kelly Arnold at all.
As a matter of fact, Arnold won the Most Valuable Player honors for the evening as the high school team walked off the field with a 9-2 victory. Arnold, who was heading to play for the Blues of Brookdale the next year (she eventually transferred to play for Strada at OCC and catch Richards, who came home as well after her freshman year), admitted part of her angry look was the fact that since her high school season ended, she had very little time behind the plate since. But she handled it well.
The win was bittersweet for Natoli, who left Point Boro with a .711 winning percentage in his two seasons in charge (32-13). But he was off to his next challenge. He was hired at Manalapan High School and became the school's next softball coach there.
The players on that high school team enjoyed their time together for one last hurrah, even if most of them were on the Ocean Waves. Richards called it "a dream" to have the players behind her play and that "all I did was go out there and pitched."
And Strada ... he handled the whole night in true Dick Strada fashion.
"It was a game played for fun," he said. "Instead of lamenting about the misses, there were several joyous moments."
Instead of leaving, I still had to pack up my stuff and put it back in to my 1977 Dodge Aspen. And for about a half hour after the nine-inning game was over, I was still there talking to players and parents who I came to know over the last few years and whose high school careers were now officially ending. It was really over for all the young ladies I got to know. And as I was ready to leave the complex, it was apparent I took the "better music" with me. Whoever took over the microphone after me was stuck with very few choices to play in between innings of the sheriff officers' game.
The Bill Medley-Jennifer Warnes Dirty Dancing song "(I've Had) The Time Of My Life" came over the speakers and Joe Solana, who I had finished talking to, suddenly broke from chat into a comical slow dance ... with himself, as if he had a partner there to dance with. We all started to crack up. Sadly, that would be the last time I saw Joe Solana. He tragically passed away over a year later just as his next daughter, Stacy, had entered South as a freshman. He was and still is very much missed in the softball community.
I still had to get back across the bridge and to the Observer building. It was nearly 10 p.m. Thankfully, there was no traffic that evening and the ride back was a smooth one. I got into the building and our assistant sports editor Dave, who was in charge that week, had this miffed look on his face and wondered where the heck I was.
"It was a fun night," I told him. "Sorry to be late, but I'll have the story for you very soon."
And I did. I had a lot of things to write, but kept in a compact and neat 15- to 16-inch story, which I gave him before 11 that night.
There was more than 350 people who attended the game that evening at the Lavallette Boro Field. And they raised quite a bit of money for cystic fibrosis. Lind never gave me an exact number, but he was always appreciative of those who came that night.
"What we're trying to do is take softball off the back burner and make it the focus. There is a lot of talent in Ocean County and it was evident here today," he said after the game.
It was. Carl Lind saw high school softball in Ocean County as something more than what it was at the time. It was a growing thing. He had hopes of making this college-versus-high school game an annual event, but he could not see that to fruition. This would be the only time they would have this particular game.
I would see Mr. Lind over the next eight years at various high school games, still positive toward the sport and in attitude in general. I wish the young ladies who walk onto an Ocean County softball diamond now had met Carl Lind. They, too, would have come away with the same positive spirit as he had.
Carl Lind sadly passed away in April 2003. He was just 43 years old and left behind a wife and three children. He lost his own battle to the disease he was fighting to eradicate and make those who suffered from it live in a better world. I, like most others who remember his contributions, miss the man very much.
His heart was in the right place. And he knew how he could raise money for his cause – by having an all-star softball game involving young ladies who either graduated high school recently or were playing college ball at that point battle it out.
Mission accomplished. And it was fun for everyone involved.
And I mean everyone.