FROM THE BLEACHERS

Filled with my love of sports – basketball, football, baseball, hockey, tennis, golf… Anything with a ball and a score and the chance for a buzzer-beater

The best seat at Fenway

2003_Walshes@fenwayAs published in The Providence Sunday Journal, June 16, 2019.

Most of the books my father gave me sit on shelves, their stories as layered as my memories of him. If I’m lucky, I open to a flyleaf inscribed with Dad’s familiar hand and hear his voice again.

“Neat books need swell readers. So saith Dad. Love.” That note appears on the opening page of a John O’Hara novel given for Christmas in 1988. The unsteady strokes of a simpler message written five years later inside a spy thriller – “Happy birthday, John” – reveal my father’s failing health at the time.

One book he gave me was “Fathers Playing Catch with Sons” by Donald Hall. There’s no inscription from Dad in that one; I surmise he was fine with letting Hall’s words speak for themselves. And for good reason. In a series of elegant essays, the former poet laureate of the United States examines how sports and games connect people and bridge generations.

Many of Hall’s lines resonate with me, including this one: “Baseball is continuous, like nothing else among American things, an endless game of repeated summers, joining the long generations of all the fathers and all the sons.” A recurring childhood memory of mine is listening to the Red Sox on the radio with Dad as we drove home from the beach to Providence.

Another moment in the book that I return to is “Baseball is fathers and sons. Football is brothers beating each other up in the backyard.”

I can attest to that statement. First, the beating up part.

Our backyard was half dirt, half cement patio; my brothers and I played tackle football on all of it. These contests often degenerated into something we called “muckle the guy with the ball,” which was more rugby scrum than football. When darkness came, we took our game inside, hammering each other in the basement until the commissioner – Mom – intervened from the top of the stairs:

“Enough!”

In springtime, our backyard gridiron morphed into a baseball diamond. Thanks to Wiffle ball, we were able to “swing for the fences” without breaking nearby windows; the darting plastic orbs rapped off panes but didn’t break them. While my father was more academic than athletic, on Saturdays he would usually come outside to toss some pitches and take a few swings. Fast forward 25 years and I found myself instinctively doing the same with my young sons in the backyard at our house.

If playing baseball with Dad was fun, going to a Red Sox game with him was even better. We made the pilgrimage for the first time on the final day of the 1968 season. Unlike the monochromatic ballpark I saw on our black-and-white TV, Fenway that afternoon was a rush of color – green grass, red Citgo logo, endless blue sky, brilliant yellow foul poles.

The memory of that day was still vivid in my mind when I brought my sons to Fenway in 2003 for a Sox-Mariners game. Without looking at a seating chart, I had purchased tickets that I thought would give us a good view of Ichiro Suzuki, Seattle’s superstar right fielder. The boys, then 12 and 10, were big Ichiro fans.

We got to the park early and headed to our seats. Up and up we climbed into Fenway’s cavernous right field grandstand. I checked our tickets: Section 1, Row 18, Seats 1, 2, and 3. Up and up we continued, into the cool shade under the roof, until we finally reached our destination – the last row and very last three seats in the grandstand!

Past a green support column, we could see home plate – barely. Our view of Ichiro’s back wouldn’t be much better. I felt like Bob Uecker, the former major-leaguer-turned-beer-pitchman who, in his classic commercials for Miller Lite, always landed in the nosebleed section.

Still, with my two boys beside me, wide-eyed and laughing, I knew I had the best seat in the house.

Fenway game was a grand slam

Big_PapiAs published in The Providence Journal, August 19, 2018. Photo: John Walsh

With Mookie Betts, Chris Sale, and J.D. Martinez playing for the Red Sox these days, highlight-reel moments abound, all of which got me thinking about my top Fenway Park memories.

My first pilgrimage to the baseball shrine, for a Yankees game with my father on the last day of the 1968 season, was memorable for what didn’t happen. The Pinstripes’ Mickey Mantle, my boyhood hero, never stepped up to the plate. Unbeknownst to anyone, Mantle had played the final game of his career the day before. In five months, he would retire.

My next Fenway trek, with Dad and my brother Rob on September 2, 1971, was more satisfying. I had jilted the Mick-less Yankees in favor of Boston’s nine by then and cheered when Red Sox pitcher Sonny Siebert blasted two home runs in a contest against the Orioles. Not only did the right-hander drive in all the Sox runs; he also tossed a three-hit shutout.

Thirty years later to the day, on September 2, 2001, I was at Fenway again, this time with my college roommate, his two sons, and 33,730 other disbelieving spectators. Yankees ace Mike Mussina was one strike away from a perfect game – 27 batters up, 27 batters down. It would be only the 17th time in nearly a century that a major leaguer had attained pitching nirvana.

In the bleachers, the thought of being an eyewitness to such a rare sports feat had temporarily quelled the usual non-stop, beer-fueled jousting between Sox and Yankee fans. It seemed everyone, Fenway Faithful included, wanted to see Mussina throw one more strike.

Enter Carl Everett. With flashbulbs popping on a one-and-two count, Mussina fired a fastball high and outside – and the Sox pinch hitter stroked a clean single to left field. Leave it to the irascible Everett to deny Mussina, and the rest of us, a moment of baseball transcendence. The Yankee hurler retired the next batter, Trot Nixon, for a bittersweet win.

My most memorable trip to Fenway is one that I can’t entirely recall. My wife and I took our sons to see the Sox play the Blue Jays on July 3, 2005. In the grandstand above the first base line, in section 13, I sat next to a twentysomething woman decked out head to toe in David Ortiz gear. I heard someone call her Whitney; she clearly was a rabid fan.

In the bottom of the first, as Big Papi strode to the plate with two runners on, Whitney sprang to her feet, pleading for a hit. Ortiz obliged with a run-scoring single, and Fenway exploded. I rose to join the pandemonium just as the already-standing Whitney jerked her arm back with a triumphant fist pump. Her elbow clocked me square in the left temple, jolting me back into my seat.

Things get fuzzy after that. I remember that Whitney – which I have since realized rhymes with “hit me” – seemed unaware of her role as Muhammad Ali to my Sonny Liston. And then I forgot about the blow to my noggin – until I went to wash my hair in the shower the next morning. Ouch!

My doctor sent me for a CAT scan, which revealed a brain bruise. I was told the bruise would “resolve,” but that a second scan was needed to ensure the contusion was shrinking.

The following day, a radiologist greeted me with an impish smile.

“You were the talk of our staff meeting,” he said, leading me to the x-ray room.

“Really?” I said, my voice betraying concern.

“You’re the guy who got leveled by a girl, right?” he said. His cackle told me he wasn’t too worried about my condition; and my brain bruise did, indeed, resolve.

The box score from that Sox-Jays game highlights David Ortiz’s first-inning single, but it’s Whitney’s grand slam up in section 13 that I remember most.

 

Funny words are par for the course

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As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, May 20, 2018.

I was watching golf on television when my daughter, age 8 or 9 at the time, asked me what “par” meant.

I understood her bafflement. As a family, we had only played at courses with windmills and waterfalls; shooting par wasn’t our concern at Mulligan’s Island or Adventureland.

So, on this day, I told Julie the term denotes the number of strokes a good golfer is expected to use to sink his or her ball on any given hole. And, being a word nerd, I wondered where par came from. A quick search at the then-new etymonline.com revealed that it’s Latin for “equal,” which makes sense. When you par a hole, you equal the expected score.

Par isn’t the only peculiar term you’ll hear on PGA broadcasts. In the early 20th century, “bird” was slang for anything excellent. Hence, holing your ball at one stroke below par became known as a birdie. Keeping with the avian theme, an eagle means you beat par by two strokes, and shooting three under par on a hole is known as an albatross. The rare seabird is an apt symbol for a rare score.

Tennis serves up its share of quirky words. “Love” is the one that stands out, but it has nothing to do with romance. Rather, it means zero, as in “Rafael Nadal is up 40-love.” A popular, but unproven, etymological theory is that love is an Anglicization of the French word “l’oeuf,” which means egg, owing to an egg’s resemblance to a zero.

Baseball is in a league of its own when it comes to lingo. The uncovered seats out beyond the outfield are called bleachers because, in the late 1800s, these seats were simple board benches that got bleached by the sun. Spectators there hope to catch a ball when a batter “goes yard” and hits a home run.

If a left-hander is on the mound, we might refer to him as a “southpaw.” I like the etymological explanation that says the word was coined because baseball diamonds typically oriented home plate to the west. That meant a pitcher’s left hand (or paw) would be to the south when facing a batter. However, the term is found in earlier references to boxing, where the ring’s orientation has no relation to the sun (and a pugilist’s haymaker may leave his foe seeing stars).

Former Red Sox southpaw Bill Lee sometimes threw an Eephus pitch, which is a low-speed, high-arching junk toss designed to catch hitters off guard. The irreverent hurler’s version of the pitch, dubbed a “Leephus,” didn’t fool Tony Perez in Game 7 of the 1975 World Series. The Cincinnati slugger smashed a dinger over the Green Monster, and the Reds went on to win the game and the championship. For years afterward, Lee quipped that the ball “is still rising.”

When benches clear for a baseball brawl, it may be called a “donnybrook,” a word that derives from a so-named suburb of Dublin, Ireland. In the 19th century, an annual fair in the town was known for such rowdiness; it was said that those gathered would sooner fight than eat. Bill Lee found himself in the middle of a donnybrook with the Yankees in 1976 and paid the price: torn ligaments in his pitching arm.

Umpires had tried, futilely, to intercede in the Sox-Yankees rhubarb (a synonym of donnybrook, with “barbarism” in its linguistic DNA). The word “umpire” is related to the Old French “nompere,” which means without peer or equal. The men in blue are certainly not the equals of the players; they always have the last say.

But try telling that to the fans (likely short for “fanatics”) in the bleachers. When they disagree with an umpire, they generally have another word for him: “bum” or “idiot,” if not something a lot more colorful.

On a sunny day at Fenway, that’s just par for the course.

 

March Madness recalls local legends

IMG_0096As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, March 19, 2017.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association Men’s Division 1 Basketball Championship, better known as March Madness, kicked off last Tuesday, with 52 games scheduled through the weekend. Is your bracket busted yet?

“March Madness” entered the American sports lexicon in 1939, but in reference to the state high school basketball championship in Illinois, not the national collegiate tourney. The name only became associated with the NCAA in the 1980s, thanks to sportscaster Brent Musburger, who was familiar with it from his work in Chicago before joining CBS.

The 68-team tournament has given us other memorable terms, including Bracketology, which refers to the science of predicting the field and each round’s winners. In theory, every squad has a chance to run the table at the Big Dance, and I’m always rooting for a Cinderella or two to emerge.

According to the American Gaming Association, more than 40 million people filled out March Madness brackets this year. Beyond office-pool wagers, however, it’s easy to understand why college basketball’s annual extravaganza is so riveting.

While the NBA Finals have given us just 19 Game 7s in 70 years, the NCAA men’s tournament offers the drama of 67 such games – do or die for both teams – in three weeks. Having local quintets in the mix – the University of Rhode Island and Providence College both earned berths this year – makes the nationwide event even more compelling.

Brown University was the first Rhode Island school to receive an NCAA bid, in the tournament’s inaugural year. Brown was one of eight entrants, losing to Villanova 42-30 in the opening round.

The Bears returned to the tourney 47 years later, in 1986, and faced powerhouse Syracuse in its own Carrier Dome. Legend has it – or perhaps it was just my father’s whimsical musing as an alumnus – that Brown’s coach, Mike Cingiser, advised his players to grab the ball and run out of the Dome should they happen to score first. To their credit, the Ivy Leaguers were actually up by one midway through the first half before losing in a blowout.

URI has been to the tournament nine times, making a terrific run in 1998 that included knocking off top-seeded Kansas. The Rams came tantalizingly close to reaching the Final Four that year, but a late-game meltdown against Stanford resulted in a heartbreaking 79-77 loss in the quarterfinals.

Of all Rhode Island teams, Providence College has danced the most, with 19 tournament appearances and two thrilling advances to the Final Four. In 1987, a young Rick Pitino all but willed a group of overachievers, led by Billy Donovan, to the national semifinals, where they faced Syracuse – the same team that had obliterated Brown the previous year. The Friars’ three-point shooting, instrumental to their success all season long, finally betrayed them, and they lost to the Orange by 14. Meanwhile, Pitino and Donovan had been launched into basketball greatness.

Fourteen years earlier, in 1973, Providence made its first trip to the Final Four, squaring off against Memphis State in St. Louis. After Ernie DiGregorio whipped a did-you-see-that, 30-foot behind-the-back pass to Kevin Stacom for a lay-up on the game’s second play, PC seemed destined for the finals. Then Marvin Barnes, the team’s star center, twisted his right knee and March Madness turned into March Sadness for Friar fans. A 49-40 halftime lead evaporated as Memphis State exploited Barnes’s injury to win going away, 98-85.

Every March, I hear myself wistfully telling anyone who will listen – my kids, their friends, total strangers – that PC would have played undefeated UCLA for the national title in 1973 had Marvin not gone down. It’s as sure a marker of spring as chirping birds and blooming crocuses.

This year, the tournament’s famous nickname will become a misnomer by the last three games, with the semifinals and championship straddling the first weekend in April. Coincidentally, on the same day the NCAA men’s tourney wraps up in Phoenix, a different kind of madness will get underway in Boston.

Go Red Sox!

Dreams from my own la la land

jw_lsa_bball001-rw1The author drives to the basket in a game between La Salle and Central at Rhode Island Junior College, now the Community College of Rhode Island, in February 1978. Providence Journal file photo. Column published in the Providence Journal, January 15, 2017.

Lying on my side at 6:30 a.m., I look out my bedroom window at a tangle of tree branches against the gray dawn sky before surrendering to the bliss of an REM slumber – and, it turns out, a few special moments at the TD Garden.

In my dream, I am playing basketball for the Boston Celtics. Fifty-six years old, 5 feet 8 inches, and on my game, I deliver a no-look pass to Al Horford for a slam dunk, drop a three-point bomb with Steph Curry in my face, and streak on a breakaway after picking Kevin Durant’s pocket.

But then, as often happens in my dreams, everything goes slo-mo. My legs turn to rubber, and I feel like I am hefting an orange wrecking ball to the hoop. My layup caroms off the side of the rim, as does my put-back attempt. I try again – and, bizarrely, the ball morphs into an unopened bag of Light ‘n Fluffy egg noodles that drops softly through the net just as the horn sounds. The crowd goes berserk. I pump my fist – in my dream and, apparently, in my bed because suddenly I am awake.

“You O.K.?” my wife, Deb, asks, lying next to me. I notice the morning sky has brightened.

“Never been better,” I say, laughing.

My dreams are rarely so triumphant. More often, I am like Danny in the movie “The Shining,” running away from an ax-wielding madman. Or I am roaming the hallways at La Salle Academy, trying to locate – without success – the classroom for an exam I must pass to get my high school diploma.

The word “dream” possesses an interesting duality. On one hand, it describes the images and emotions passing through our minds as we sleep – from the ordinary to the outlandish. On the other, it references our goals and aspirations when we are awake.

“Dream” derives from the Old English verb “dremen,” which meant “rejoice; play music.” That makes sense when you consider how often the topic has been mined in popular song – from Arlen and Mercer’s “This Time The Dream’s On Me” to Wilco’s “(Was I) In Your Dreams?” A 60s pop band from Britain went one step further, calling themselves Freddie and the Dreamers.

In the charming movie musical “La La Land,” Emma Stone’s character, Mia, sings about her inspiration for becoming an actress – a beloved aunt who once leapt without looking into a freezing Seine River: “She captured a feeling, sky without ceiling, sunset inside a frame … Here’s to the ones who dream, foolish as they may seem.”

Dreams usually leave us questioning what prompted them. Freud famously said they were the fulfillment of a wish. Ebenezer Scrooge, in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” had a more physiologic explanation for the ghostly visit of his former business partner, Jacob Marley: “You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato.”

I subscribe to Freud’s theory to explain my Celtics dream. As a 12-year-old, I spent hours in my basement mimicking Pete Maravich’s dribbling wizardry. I fantasized about making it to the NBA, despite my woeful shooting mechanics and less-than-promising genetics – Mom was 5 feet 1 inch and Dad was 5 feet 7 inches.

“You can’t bounce balls all your life,” my mother said one day when I came upstairs. Sure enough, six years later, after two or three tryouts for the team at Brown, the buzzer sounded on my basketball dreams.

Recently, sleep brought me more REM absurdities: I’m on a cruise – actually, the Block Island Ferry – and Bruce Springsteen is performing on the top deck. But I’m stuck in steerage, like Jack Dawson in “Titanic.” I finally sneak my way upstairs and catch a glimpse of the Boss and the E Street Band before being whisked away by a bouncer. I trip, and now I’m falling overboard in slo-mo …

I awake with a start beneath a sea of covers, and the spirits in the night are gone.

Rooting for the Green Bay Heat?

Forward Gordon Hayward of the oddly named Utah Jazz during a game on Nov. 5 in Denver. AP PHOTO

Forward Gordon Hayward of the oddly named Utah Jazz
during a game on Nov. 5 in Denver. AP PHOTO

As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, November 15, 2015.

When the Los Angeles Lakers play their next game at the Staples Center, a fan sitting courtside might wonder: Where are these lakes, anyway?

In Minnesota, it turns out.

Before the Lakers moved to L.A., they were the Minneapolis Lakers. That makes sense. Minnesota is the “Land of 10,000 Lakes.” When the franchise migrated to California in 1960, it left the lakes behind — but not the name. So for more than 50 years, in a place known for its lack of rainfall, people have flocked to see a team identified with bodies of water almost 2,000 miles away.

Here in New England, our team names present no such disconnect. The Patriots and Revolution reflect our colonial past, and the Celtics honor the region’s large Irish-American population.

The original owner of Boston’s professional hockey team, Charles Adams, wanted a name that conveyed speed, agility and cunning. “Bruins” delivered the hat trick. The name also lent itself to brown and yellow uniforms, which just happened to be the colors of the owner’s grocery chain. When Adams’ team skated, it was subliminal advertising on ice.

“Red Sox” became an official name in 1907, as the club adopted red as its color and featured a red stocking on the front of the players’ jerseys. In 1933, when George Preston Marshall moved his fledgling professional football team, the Boston Braves, to Fenway Park, he changed the team’s name to “Redskins” to align with the Red Sox. Four years later, the Boston Redskins became the Washington Redskins. So, interestingly, the colors and name of the Red Sox played an early and unwitting role in the controversy that surrounds the Redskins’ name and logo today.

The Los Angeles Lakers aren’t alone in maintaining a name at odds with a club’s locale.

The Baltimore Colts were named in recognition of that city’s rich history in horse racing. Indianapolis, where the Colts relocated in 1984, is famous for racing too, but the focus is on a different type of horsepower — the kind that propels Indy cars at speeds up to 225 miles per hour.

British Columbia is home to a large grizzly bear population, so naming a National Basketball Association team the Vancouver Grizzlies made sense. Keeping the name after the franchise moved to Memphis? Not so much.

New Orleans’ original NBA franchise produced one of my favorite team names: the Jazz. The non-plural noun stood out and conveyed the improvisational beauty that basketball can produce. But when the team moved 1,700 miles northwest, it committed a technical foul for name weirdness: Utah Jazz?

Next thing you know, the Heat will move to Green Bay and remain the Heat.

Relocation doesn’t always create naming mismatches. The San Diego Rockets became the Houston Rockets, and the new combination was a perfect fit. Houston is home to major aerospace companies and the Johnson Space Center.

Here in Rhode Island, the names for most of our college teams are traditional enough: Brown Bears, Providence Friars, Rhode Island Rams. That’s not the case at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

In contrast to the fierce mascots at many universities — Go Tigers! Go Hawks! — UCSC teams are represented by the lowly Banana Slug, a 6- to 8-inch bright-yellow mollusk that slides around the forest floor in the Santa Cruz Mountains. At one point, a chancellor tried to change the name to something more conventional — the Sea Lions. But in a student vote, the Banana Slug prevailed.

In 2008, ESPN named it one of the 10 best mascots in college basketball.

Go Banana Slugs!

 

Honoring a sacred tradition at McCoy

 

MCCOY_PREVIEW

As published in the Providence Journal, August 16, 2015.

The ritual takes place every August in a hulking cathedral known as McCoy Stadium: My daughter, Juliana, and I go to a Pawtucket Red Sox game to celebrate her birthday.

I don’t recall all the details from the first pilgrimage, in 1999 when Julie was turning 4; phones didn’t have cameras then. Still, there are plenty of vivid memories.

First and foremost, there is the one of Julie smiling and eating popcorn in her grandstand seat along the third base line, the tops of her ears tucked beneath an adult-size Red Sox cap. The near-sellout crowd starts doing the wave and, when the human tide swells over us for the second time, Julie throws her hands in the air and laughs. The popcorn rain that follows is well worth it.

Later, out on the concourse, she presents a pristine white baseball to Paws, the team’s 6-foot-6-inch polar bear mascot. In a display of hand-eye coordination that Nomar Garciaparra would appreciate, Paws produces a stylish autograph with a black Sharpie marker, before handing the ball back to one excited 4-year-old.

At the start of the sixth inning, Julie succumbs to an epic yawn — it’s well past her bedtime. Twenty minutes later, driving away from McCoy, I look in the rear view mirror: light from a passing car glides over my daughter’s cherubic, and sleeping, face.

Originally, I took Julie to McCoy because I love going to games and thought she might, too. Eventually, I did it because sitting with her in Section 13 or on the left-field berm brought out an ease in me that I rarely felt elsewhere. The games suspended thoughts of work and bills and everything on the to-do list. The games gave us each other.

Carving out such time for the youngest of our three children was my wife’s idea. “It doesn’t matter what you do,” Deb said, “as long as it’s just the two of you.” So every August, it’s just Julie and me — and seven or eight thousand other fans — soaking in the singularly Rhode Island experience that is a PawSox game.

At McCoy, Julie has endured my long-winded explanations of baseball arcana: the reasoning behind the infield fly rule, the timing on a suicide squeeze. When she was 6 or 7, after one of my dissertations had wafted away in the summer air, she redirected the conversation: “Can I get Dippin’ Dots?” I heard a chuckle from an old-timer sitting behind us, clad in a faded Yaz t-shirt. And then Julie and I were off to the concession stand — a cup of tiny frozen ice cream beads for her, a cold beer for me.

Sometimes, action on the field provided the highlights. The crowd buzzed as a rehabbing Dustin Pedroia stepped into the on-deck circle. Or a long, arcing throw from a PawSox outfielder miraculously found the catcher’s poised mitt — SMACK! — just as the charging runner slid into home — YER OUT! Did you see that, Julie? Woo-hoo!

As my daughter approached her teen years, I wondered if she would outgrow the charms of McCoy. One birthday, we went to Fenway to see the big-league Sox. When I proposed a return to Boston the following summer, Julie said she preferred Pawtucket. And when I asked if she wanted to bring a friend to help her celebrate, she echoed my wife’s words from years ago: “I like going just the two of us.”

That was my all-time PawSox highlight, and we weren’t even at the ballpark.

With the sale of the team, and the potential move to a new stadium in Providence (or elsewhere), it looks like Julie and I may make our final trip to McCoy next summer, when she turns 21. We have already laughed about how she will forgo Dippin’ Dots in favor of a cold beer.

We’ll raise our plastic cups — to her, to McCoy, and to our beloved tradition. And if we are lucky, the sky out west beyond the entrance tower will glow pink and lavender one last time.

The reassuring plink of spring

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As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, May 17, 2015.

I live within earshot of a Little League field, and the sound of an aluminum bat hitting a baseball – plink! – brings me back to the days when I was the one swinging the bat, in Providence. Here are the highlights:

I’m at my Little League manager’s front door, having missed the practice when he gave out uniforms. To my disappointment, the white flannel jersey he hands me unfolds to reveal a red number 13 – far from my lucky number. That’s what I get for missing practice.

I put the uniform on at home and stand in front of my mother’s full-length mirror. The short sleeves reach my elbows, the ample waistband of the pants is scrunched under my belt, and the crotch falls to an inch above my knees. I could be running away to pedal a unicycle for Ringling Brothers. Superstition and supersizing notwithstanding, I am thrilled. I have my first official, head-to-toe sports uniform. Play ball!

Later that season, I’m standing in the on-deck circle at Nelson Street playground and notice my girlfriend watching from behind my team’s bench. She has brown eyes, short brown hair, and a self-assurance that sets her apart from the other girls in fifth grade. I shoot her a knowing look, which she acknowledges with a smile.

Earlier that day, we had walked home together down Jastram Street and ended up in her garage. The air smelled of gasoline and newly mown grass until she pulled me close. Her breath was bubblegum sweet, her lips soft. It was my first kiss, and almost certainly not hers. I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.

With her looking on, I step up to the plate. The pitch sails in and, for once, the ball looks as big as a honeydew melon. I drive it between center and right, and slide into second with a double. It’s my first extra-base hit … My girlfriend’s cheering … All on the heels of our moment in her garage. Standing at second and surveying the scene, I’m positive life will never be better.

Two years later, my CYO team gathers in right field at Davis Park to go over signals before a game. “Pay attention!” our manager barks. He motions us closer and lowers his voice: “When I say ‘Father Murray is here,’ I want you to bunt.”

Father Murray is a kindly, diminutive priest from our parish. He wears horn-rimmed glasses and speaks softly from the pulpit. Kids love him because he keeps his sermons short and his theology simple.

Walking back to our dugout, my friend Johnny is incredulous: “Father Murray is here?” he says, eyebrows arched. “What kind of sign is that?”

Sometime in the early innings, our team has a man on first with no outs. “Father Murray is here!” our manager shouts. Kevin, our batter, looks at him as if he’s speaking Swahili. The pitch comes in and Kevin swings away. Strike one!

Our manager repeats the signal: “Father – Murray – is – here!” But Kevin is too busy adjusting his batting helmet. A mom behind our bench says, “Father Murray is here?” Another adds, “Where is he? I need to talk to him about my niece’s baptism.” The pitcher winds up and throws. Again, Kevin swings away. Strike two!

Our manager stands apart from us, just inside the dugout’s chain-link fence, as rigid as a foul pole. Parents, the umpire, and players on the other team are all searching for Father Murray.

“Oh, right!” Kevin says at the plate, sheepishly. “Father Murray!” But his revelation comes too late. With two strikes, he has to hit away. He whiffs on the next pitch and slinks back to the bench, avoiding our manager’s gaze.

“Where the hell is Father Murray?” a dad asks no one in particular.

“Told you that signal was lame,” Johnny says to me.

These memories and so many others come back in a rush whenever I hear the plink, as I do on most evenings this time of year. The batter connects and so do I – to a world that is forever springtime new and bubblegum fragrant.

Play ball!

How the Super Bowl became “super”

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And to think it was originally called the AFL-NFL Championship Game. Rolls right off the tongue, doesn’t it?

That was back in 1967, when the Green Bay Packers and Kansas City Chiefs faced off in what we now refer to as Super Bowl I. The Packers won, 35-10. The halftime show featured two college marching bands. And there were only 61,946 spectators in the stands, hardly a sell-out in the Los Angeles Coliseum.

It was the Chiefs’ owner, Lamar Hunt, who first used the term “Super Bowl.” He coined the name in 1966 during merger meetings between the AFL and NFL, inspired by his children’s favorite toy at the time, the Super Ball. In a letter to NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, Hunt wrote, “I have kiddingly called it the ‘Super Bowl,’ which obviously can be improved upon.” It wasn’t, and today Super Bowl Sunday is part of the American vernacular. The game attracts more than 110 million TV viewers worldwide.

Hunt got it right with “super,” the Latin adverb and preposition that means “above, over, on the top of.” Probably seemed a bit grandiose for that first game in 1967, only to be further inflated – sorry – two years later with the inclusion of Roman numerals in the name. But in Super Bowl IIIJoe Willie Namath made good on his brash prediction that his Jets would beat the highly favored Colts, sprinkling pixie dust on the event and launching it toward its place today as an unofficial national holiday.

Enjoy the game – go Pats!

My thrill of victory and agony of defeat

BBall_photo

As published in the Providence Journal, January 18, 2015.

In January 1973, a month shy of my 13th birthday, I won the Providence Recreation Department’s free throw shooting contest. At Zuccolo Rec Center on Federal Hill, I made 13 of my 15 attempts.

I was thrilled — and astonished.

From youth basketball through high school, I was a pass-first, shoot-second point guard. When I did get to the foul line, my accuracy hovered at 50 percent. The 87 percent I shot at Zuccolo to win the contest was an aberration.

Had a high-tech gizmo called 94Fifty Smart Basketball been around back then, my free throw shooting might have been less like Wilt Chamberlain’s notoriously ugly attempts.

Introduced in 2013, the 94Fifty promises skill improvement via digital diagnostics. As you practice dribbling and shooting, sensors inside the ball send data to your smartphone, where an app translates the information into immediate feedback: “Bend those legs.” “Point your elbow.” “Flick your wrist.”

(For teenage players, I would add, “Get a summer job.” The 94Fifty retails for $179.)

The makers of the 94Fifty say it’s “like having the best coaches in the world with you every day of the year.” That may be true, but the smart basketball is a far cry, literally, from the coaches who barked from the sidelines when I played. For that, you’d need Old School 94Fifty, which I imagine might sound like this:

After I dribble the ball off my foot: “Ringling Brothers is coming to town — why don’t you join?”

After I travel — run without dribbling — on a layup attempt: “Take a bus next time!”

After I throw an errant behind-the-back pass on a two-on-one fast break: “Quit hotdogging, mustard king!”

After I go 3-for-10 from the foul line during practice: “Are you a mason, son? You’re throwing bricks up there!”

Political correctness wasn’t a priority for my old-school coaches; winning was. That’s why I loved playing for them — I wanted to win too.

My coaches would have welcomed the 94Fifty’s smart technology for the improved shooting and dribbling technique that it promotes. But they didn’t always equate smarts, or even thinking, with success on the court. They knew better.

Basketball rewards quickness and improvisation. Split-second actions and reactions, rooted in practice scrimmages and pickup games, deliver advantage. Deliberation usually spells doom.

I recall one coach’s plea during a frantic timeout in a close game: “Don’t start thinking on me now!” We got his point: trust your instincts and just go play. There’s a reason the word “unconscious” describes a shooter who can’t miss.

In “The City Game,” Pete Axthelm characterizes basketball as jazz to baseball’s chamber music and football’s symphony: “Basketball flows past like a river, like a song.”

Until a foul is committed — then the river freezes, the song stops.

During free throws, basketball shares baseball’s focus on the individual. Success or failure is a solitary act, and a player’s thoughts can become the greatest foe. A hush comes over the gym as I bounce, bounce, bounce the ball and look to the rim …

Of all the coaching chestnuts I heard growing up, one is imprinted in my memory like the Voit logo on a ball: “Free throws win games.” To which I make the following amendment: “Or not.”

I know firsthand.

As a senior at La Salle Academy, I was awarded two free throws with 10 seconds or so remaining in an epic overtime game against archrival Bishop Hendricken. The score was tied as I stepped to the line and tried to quiet my mind. La Salle’s tiny old gym was electric.

My first shot felt awful, yet the ball dropped through the net. The basketball gods were with me — but only for that moment. My second attempt clanged off the rim and bounced out of bounds.

With our team up by one, the game came down to a frenzied scramble at the other end of the court. The ball sailed into the hands of Hendricken’s point guard — a pass-first player like me. But there was no time to pass — or think, for that matter.

His shot from the top of the key was all reaction and — as the scoreboard horn blared and red lights flashed — all net. The Hendricken fans exploded. What a buzzer beater!

If only I had hit my second free throw — we would have played another overtime, at least.

I can hear the 94Fifty Smart Basketball correcting my form on the missed foul shot: “Increase the arc.”

Old School 94Fifty would have been less clinical, more empathetic: “Tough time to throw up a brick, kid.”

 

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