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Sunday, August 3, 2014

That fuss ... *I* created all that

For this blog, I really didn't know how to begin. How do you encapsulate something you've loved doing for 30 years because it was something you had to do and had to do properly?

Suddenly, my inspiration came walking onto a Lavallette beach on a Sunday afternoon in late July. It was part of a 30th high school reunion weekend and many people I had seen that weekend I hadn't seen in well over 20 years.

This included a guy named Joe Birardi, who was holding down a couple of jobs and just short of his 48th birthday, was about to become a first-time dad. In the case of Joe, though, I could turn the clock back 32 years ago to mid-July 1982. My dad was asked to help out with Senior League All-Star duty at Toms River Little League and so I came along with him. The District 18 Senior League All-Star final that day featured Toms River East, the crosstown rival with a few players on the team going to the same high school (East) as myself, against Brick National.

East's starting pitcher that day was none other than Joe Berardi and, for the better part of that afternoon, he held Brick National's lineup in check. At the end of the game, he was on the mound to record the final out of the afternoon and then do a celebratory dance as East won the district title, 5-2. I was happy for Joe since I knew him for a few years and he was a really good guy.

I got to read about the game in my local paper, the Ocean County Observer, and though there wasn't a whole lot on the game, it was there more as a recap of what happened. No writer from the paper was there, but whoever called in gave enough detail to the paper.

That was my father who was in charge of doing so via the District 18 staff. It was his job and others to make sure every game found its way into the paper. It was great promotion for the league and district. He did it. Others at our league did it. Heck, I even did it a few times.

But not other leagues did it. The request as per the annual District 18 All-Star handbook was not adhered to. So a lot of young boys and some young girls missed out on the coverage they so deserved for winning a championship as important in Ocean County as the districts.

I was looking forward to seeing how far Joe and his Toms River East teammates would go in Section 3 play against Monmouth and Middlesex county competition. They were to play about four days after winning the district tournament.

But if you had gotten a copy of the Observer the day after the game was played, you'd have had a rough time finding it. As a matter of fact, you would have frustrated yourself thoroughly. Oh, and don't bother trying to find out in the Asbury Park Press. Their coverage of Little League All-Star baseball at any level was as worthless as a three-dollar bill.

Same thing with Toms River East's Little League All-Star team that also won the District 18 title, ending Toms River's run of four straight district championship in '82 under manager Jerry DiPoto, the father of future Major League Baseball player and current Los Angeles Angels general manager Jerry DiPoto. If you were looking to see how they did in the first round of the Section 3 tournament, you'd have been reading the paper a long, long time.

Nada. Nothing. Zero. Zilch. Let's just assume East's run in both the Senior League and Little League all-star tournaments came to an abrupt end in the time period when it was single elimination and no team had second chances. The managers or coaches weren't calling in the games, and more appalling, the Observer, the local source for area coverage in all sports, just simply ignored it. The only way I'd know that Lakewood Little League won the Junior League (13-year-old) district championship was because their manager and coaches were pro-active and wanted the coverage in the local paper. That team went on to the state championship before losing, making it the third Junior League All-Star team from District 18 in the last four years to reach the state semifinals after the Toms River teams of 1981 and 1979.

And speaking of the 1979 team -- that team has a special place in my life. I was 12 years old and my dad was the assistant coach of that team with a number of my friends playing on the team that a guy named Bruce Shepherd was manager. That team went all the way to the state championship game, and on August 14, 1979 at Liberty Oaks (now Tighe) Park in Freehold, Toms River edged West Milford, 2-1, to capture the championship.

You would think after such a memory-making state championship victory that someone from the media -- anyone!! -- would have been there to interview the players, Shepherd, heck, even my dad.

Nope. That team won a state championship in relative silence. Seriously. It was our Toms River contingent coming home, then doing a lap around the Ocean County Mall sometime after 10 p.m., going to the town hall meeting to be recognized for just winning a state title, then driving over to the old Baiamonte's Pizza King (now Boston's) on Hooper Avenue and Fischer Boulevard in which this team of ravenous eaters scoffed down enough pizza to ring the final price up at about $120. That was a lot of pizza they, their families and fans chowed down that night.

There would be no tournament beyond the state though. So happens that Junior League all-star tournament baseball would go beyond state level in 1980 -- the year after Toms River's run to the state championship. Just their rotten luck.

And how much press do you think the guys from TRLL got in the six games it won to capture the championship? A total of 35 paragraphs. That's right -- 35! And 22 of the 35 paragraphs were stories of the state semifinal win over Blackwood and the state final over West Milford.

Simply embarrassing, especially since that was 35 more paragraphs than the Press did and the freakin' final was held in its backyard in Freehold Township.

In 1983, Brick National won the district Little League All-Star title, while Holbrook was a winner in the Junior League and Lakewood the champion of the Senior League tournaments. But you would never have known that since there was absolutely no coverage of those finals in the Observer.

By the time 1984 came around, I had graduated high school and was looking for something to do job-wise during the summer. I thought I was going to be interning at the Observer after I had completed two years of journalism at TRHSE. I thought I was going to be a news writer covering night meetings or writing features before I would go on to Ocean County College where my major was journalism.

Then I dropped the now-famous words on night editor Kerry Brennan that changed everything in my life.

"I have a background with sports."

Even I didn't realize the method to my own madness, but when I described to Tom, the assistant sports editor, that I had a background in Little League baseball because of all the time I had been around it and the working knowledge I had about it, I had a foot in the door at the paper every summer I was there.

It turns out no one wanted to cover the sport. My guess was that they really didn't want to deal with the irate and far-from-understanding parents with the meat-cleaver attitude toward not caring about their little darlings. That was a bit much to those guys, who only wrote features on them when forced upon them.

Trust me when you read this -- I was glad to take it off their hands.

By the second full week of July 1984, my first full week at the Observer, there was more Little League baseball coverage in the paper than there had been the previous year combined. By the end of that summer, I had covered Toms River's Senior League All-Star district championship team, Brick National's wild victory over Toms River East (one in which winning pitcher Sean Foley threw 173 pitches in the complete-game, 11-10 victory) in the Junior League championship and watched Brick American, led by 23-year-old manager Rich Caldes, win the Little League All-Star district title by going through the losers bracket to beat Jackson twice. That Brick American team was unique with so many different personalities dotting its roster. They got to the Section 3 championship game before losing in what was a single-elimination tournament at the time.

But as I got upstairs at Sayreville Little League and looked out at a packed Brick American side of the field, I was simply stunned. Later on, Duke Anderson, Brick American's loveable president and my favorite Garden State Parkway toll collector, thanked me for all the coverage I gave his team from the district tournament through the three sectional games I covered, including the championship.

Then he said something very profound that didn't resonate with this 17-year-old at the time.

"Everyone's been reading your stories in the paper. People who wouldn't come out to see our kids play came up here because of your stories."

As is my nature with most everything I've come across in life, I kind of passed it off as if I didn't truly believe what he was saying. Little League fans will come out and support area kids no matter where they were from.

And then it hit me -- 30 years later.

It was Monday, July 28, 2014, while I was on vacation for the aforementioned 30th reunion. On my last full day up in Ocean County, I drove over to Berkeley Little League to watch my old league, now Toms River National (there's an American at the much-bigger league compared to when I played and coached there), face Ocean City-Upper Township for the state Little League All-Star championship.

So much happened there that day. Former Central Regional High School great and ex-Major Leaguer Al Leiter threw out the first pitch. The game was covered by not one, not two, not three, but four separate media outlets, either newspaper or broadcast. And the place was packed with fans from both sides.

It was a great game. Toms River National held on for the 7-6 win, the second state title in the last five years. It was a joyous occasion and I snapped plenty of pictures to remember the championship by.

And as I was watching the festivities, the smiles, the hugs and the state championship flag being run around the field after the game, long after running into one of Berkeley's many members helping with the tournament, Jim Rand, who was a part of that special 1984 Brick American Little League All-Star team, before the championship, it finally hit me.

I caused all this. I did all this, though no one on or around that field realized it. This game had my hand prints all over it and I had not spent a second covering this Toms River National team.

It was me who had spent countless hours covering Little League baseball, whether it was Senior League, Junior League or Little League ball, who set the bar so high that almost everyone knew our District 18 teams, from Toms River to Toms River East, from Brick American to Brick National, from Barnegat to Berkeley to Beachwood-Pine Beach, from Manchester to Holbrook to Point Pleasant Beach.

That was me. That was what 15 years of covering Little League-based baseball did. I put up with a lot of apathy over those 15 years from leagues who weren't willing to call in games on their field and that I had to shame into doing so and the parents who were, well, Little League parents. But after years of trying to perfect this art form, not only did we become the center of Little League coverage in Ocean County, but we were there for almost every single important district championship game, every sectional matchup, every state tournament, and in my case, every East Regional and World Series game I could cover.

I covered eight state championship teams, two on the Senior League All-Star level (Toms River East American in 1997 and 1998), two on the Junior League All-Star level (East American in 1996 and my first-ever state championship team, Toms River, in 1987) and four Little League All-Star teams (Brick National in 1990 and the three Toms River East American teams in 1995, '98 and '99).

By the time I left the Observer in 1999, the two most prolific Little League writers in New Jersey were Jim Davis at The Trentonian and myself.

You are taught to be modest in this business. Writing stories is your job. You get your story done, then move on to the next one. If it makes an impact in the community, then you did your job.

But allow me the one thing I'm proud of coverage-wise for the 30 years I've been doing covering sports, especially on the local level. I made it my goal to let kids between the ages of 11 to 15 have the spotlight every summer and unabashedly, too.

All those nice things parents, Little League people and district workers used to say I took for granted all those years. It was just my job.

It was more than doing my job when I saw that sea of humanity at that Berkeley Little League field on that Monday night. It has been 15 years since I left Ocean County to pursue other ventures in this business, but my impact of how Little League ball was covered still permeates the county landscape.

It's a bit over the top now, but you know what? I was always hoping I'd see that day. Seriously.

Just a few days earlier, Toms River East's Junior League All-Star team was playing not too far from where Toms River National's Little League All-Stars were playing at Berkeley Little League. They were playing in the state tournament, eventually losing to the champion, Parsippany-Troy. There was newspaper coverage of their games.

I suddenly wished that was the coverage of the 1979 Toms River Junior League All-Star team's coverage that got little mention in the Observer and absolutely no coverage in the Asbury Park Press. Where the hell was that coverage 35 years ago?

Again, my impact of seeing so many district championship games and three teams that ultimately made it to the World Series, the 1996 East American Junior Leaguers in Taylor, Mich., and those same East American kids the year before as Little Leaguers in 1995 in Williamsport, Pa., as well as the group of East American kids who won the whole ball of wax in 1998 behind Todd Frazier, Scott Fisher and Casey Gaynor.

I was there when all those teams began their runs to World Series appearances with my district tournament coverage in the Observer. Again, that was my job I enjoyed immensely.

Recently, I read a column by Press writer-columnist Josh Newman about Little League baseball in Toms River and how it took off in 1995. Technically, he was right in that TR has been on a roll since that Toms River East American team that went to Williamsport that year. But he simply did not do his homework. Toms River baseball has been more than fine long before that '95 team's run. In 1993, another Toms River Little League All-Star team reached the state tournament final in Rutherford under manager Al Kononowitz and was one win away from winning the state title that the teams of 2010 and '14 won. It wasn't meant to be as state power Nottingham won two straight to swipe it away.

I know ... I was there.

Trust me when I say this: Little League baseball has been a fixture in Toms River, N.J. long before 1995, Josh. You did a lousy job when it came to research. Toms River had won state titles in 1978 (Senior League), 1979 (Junior League) and 1987 (Junior League again). But I know that's not the Little League All-Star level, so why bother?

Turns out I can still cover Ocean County better than the guys doing it now.

I can look back 30 years later after I started and realize all this Little League hoopla was indirectly due to me. I really don't have to be modest about it. I did all that. I know a lot of people I came across in my life are grateful I put the time and effort in those 15 years I was covering Little League.

Sorry, Joe Birardi. Wished I was covering Little League back in 1982. You, too, my 1979 Toms River Junior League All-Star playing friends. Things would've been so much different.

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