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Rain poured the day before the Pee Wee League championship game in our small town of Hasbrouck Heights, NJ. The following day, parents, coaches and players were raking the mud soaked field in order to play ball for the title of best 9 year olds in town….this was a very big deal. The field was a make shift diamond set up in the south east corner of the town’s high school field. It was the bottom of the 6th and final inning, we were down 4-2 to the previous years champion and dreaded favorites…”The Pioneer Club” I played first base for the home team, representing “The Contemporary Club” wearing our blue t shirts with black lettering and caps. We had runners on 1st & 2nd with one out and it was my turn at bat. While I would love to tell you that I identified the rotation of the balls stitching leaving the pitchers hand as an off speed curve ball coming at me down and away. Identifying the spin, I dropped my wrists, swung out my hips just a little to inside out my swing in order to go the other way with a solid line drive into right field. As I said I would love to tell you this but at least there was some truth to it. I did hit a line drive down the right field line for the game winning home run and the title. Because we were playing in a corner field with no fence, the ball just kept traveling way past the right fielder on the ground and through some mud puddles. The fact of the matter is, I was really late with my swing and was lucky to just get a solid piece of it at the last second. But the most meaningful part was my dad in the crowd watching as I rounded third and headed for home with my coach and teammates swooping me up at home plate and carrying me around on their shoulders. It’s almost 50 years since this day and I can still see my father just beaming at his son’s heroics. Right up into my thirties, my father would still occasionally bring this day up recalling the smiles on my coaches and teammates faces. So here I was at 9 years old, just accomplishing what every boy playing sports dreams of….hitting the game winning shot for the championship. It didn’t occur to me until I became a man that everything would be anti-climactic after this.
None the less, whenever I was practicing and daydreaming, I would still envision hitting a game winning grand slam in the 7th game of the world series as the center fielder of the NY Yankees; or a last second jump shot ala Clyde Frazier for the Knicks or maybe even a Fran Tarkenton to Homer Jones pass for the Super Bowl. Ok, Tarkenton to Homer Jones in the Super Bowl was just to far fetched but hopefully you get the idea
Turns out the start in 69′ was a pretty special year in sports not only for me personally, but also for our local sports teams. Earlier in January, Joe Willie stunned the country with a massive upset over Johnny U’s Colts, later in October the Amazin Mets burst onto the scene with their first championship and the next year the garden was rockin to a very special run with Clyde, Willis, DeBusschure and Dollar Bill.
A few years later the zen master Phil Jackson joined the team before he knew zen. I still remember this huge freaky looking dude covering the opponents out of bounds pass with a wing span longer than most condor’s. On the other side of the garden were the Rangers. Although we had to wait till ’94 for Messier, Leetch & Richter to show up….the 70’s were still pretty special with Brad Park, Hadfield, Ratelle, Rod Gilbert and Eddie G in the net.
The following autumn after the Pee Wee League championship, I won first place in the Punt, Pass and Kick competition. By pure luck alone, I just happened to probably have my best kick ever that day, simply nailed it for almost 35 yards. As much as I tried afterward, I never could replicate the distance again. Two weeks later, I came in 10th place in Pennsylvania for the north east regionals. Even though I enjoy most sports, I always gravitated to the special dimensions of 90 feet from base to base and 60 ft 6in to the plate. My memories of October baseball is very special. Inevitably some of my classmates scored their parents hand held transistor radios for the weekday afternoon starts of the World Series. We would sneak them on very carefully in the back of our Corpus Christi classrooms about 1:30. As soon as the 3:00 bell hit, I would run home just in time to watch our black & white television display the afternoon shadows as they would begin to cover half way between the mound & home plate in the later innings. This became especially tough when facing Seaver, Gibson and Jim Palmer.
I was a pretty good athlete as a kid, not great by any stretch but tall, lanky, extremely fast and passionate. In the fall of the same year, I was playing basketball in the grammar school gym as part of a cub scout field trip. We were shooting baskets on one half of the court while the 5th-6th grade school team was on the other half. Our den mother noticed my shots were falling in a lot more than the others and decided to speak with the coaches at the other end about me. I had no idea what she was up to but within a few minutes the 2 coaches, Paul & Billy asked me to come down and scrimmage with the team. By the next day, I was the only 4th grader playing for the 5th & 6th graders. I wound up playing for Corpus Christi grammar school team for the next 5 years and winning 2 county championships.
I learned a great deal in those 5 years but as good as my coaches were, no one could break my bad habit of leading off my right foot for layups rather than my left. It finally took my high school freshman coach Mr Gill to finally get through to me. How did he do it?…He kept whipping the ball at me every-time I led with my right foot. I guess I finally got tired of to many welts on my body. Mind you, this was pre Bobby Knight 😉
When we were not playing organized ball as kids, we still continued to play wherever there was grass, dirt or a paved court. My childhood nickname came from the 2nd half of my last name: SAK. There was an empty lot next to my house growing up where many of us would routinely gather after school for a game of “Scrambled Eggs” Word would go around the class in the afternoon, “Scrambled Eggs in Sak’s lot after school”. The game was pure torture. We would start with someone throwing a football up in the air, someone else would catch it and run as fast as he could until someone or a whole group of us would tackle him. This person would than throw up the ball and off we would go all over again. I can’t think of why anyone would want to catch a ball knowing there was about a dozen kids lookin to deck you as hard as they could. Yet I continued to look for the ball and like most of us, time and time again I would get creamed. Boy it was fun
A few more years in came the excitement of going to the Friday night high school football games. We were one of the few towns that played under the lights. Now this was a very special time for us. Between September to Thanksgiving day, home field games were the social highlight of the fall season. About 25-30 of us would show up for each of these special occasions. The guys would come hoping for a chance to make out with our girl friends under the bleachers or in the little league dugouts one field over at half time. If you didn’t have a girl to hang with, it was off to Fat Mike’s just outside the field on the corner of Route 17. I am still willing to contend this was simply the best steak sandwich shack from our side of the Hudson river, bar none. As far as Texas weiners go?…. I am still a “Hanks Franks” kinda guy! ….just being truthful…..
As we started to grow up a bit n the 70’s, George bought the NY Yankees from CBS and hence the birth of the Bronx zoo began. I was a big time Munson fan or as we affectionately called him: “Squatty Body” #15 was our leader in the 70’s, forget Reggie and his straws. The thing about Thurm was he always looked pissed off, like he just wanted to punch someone in the face.
One of the many great things about this time was the deep rooted passion of the Yankee-Red Sawx rivalry. Not only did the fans not like each other, the player themselves seemed to join in as well. Munson vs Fisk, Sweet Lou vs Fisk or Nettles separating the “Spaceman” Bill Lee’s shoulder. These were certainly fun times. By the mid-70’s, the Yankees were playoff bound again. Pin stripe pride was back and we could not get enough of it. During this time, I entered Paramus Catholic High school only to find more like minded Yankee fanatics. We would go to about 10 home games each summer, always putting a circle around Friday nights in August & September for the pennant stretch against the Sawx or the Orioles.
Than a funny thing happened after high school. I did what any self respecting NY sports fan would do……I went to college in Boston, majoring in jazz composition and arranging at Berklee College of Music in the back bay section of the city on Mass Ave. Much to my delight?….Fenway Park was only 10 minutes away from my dorm. Although I continued to despise the Sawx, I did have many unique opportunities watching batters rack up wicked’ shotz that would ricoche so harhhhd off the green monstah in left, you could hear it as clean as a bell in the pubs on Yawkey Way. As luck would have it, I fell in love with this great city and their sports fans. The Red Sox, Celtics and Bruins were my nemesis and I was living in the heart of the enemy’s den….and I would not have it any other way. But the coup de grace for me was being one of the lone Yankee fans with a ticket to the 1 game playoff in what is affectionately referred to in Bean town as the Bucky F&%@’n Dent game. Much to my delight, the entire city was like a morgue for over a week. Some Bostonians still refer to this day as the worst since Jack Kennedy was shot. Boy these Red Sox fans can sure act strangely at times!
Several months later I was hanging out in the Commons with a few of my buddies and our guitars. Our motive was pure and simple….play music in the hopes of picking up girls. As we were sitting on a park bench, we were quite surprised to see a presidential candidate heading our way. None other than Ronald Regan. He was campaigning and not drawing much attention so he came to speak with us. I remember all of us making fun of the actor before he came within earshot because like many, we thought there is no way this old Hollywood actor could be taken seriously. Being a typical obnoxious Yankee fan, I began to razz him somewhat tongue in cheek about the beating we just put on his LA Dodgers during the past 2 world series. He offered a good natured smile and than began to tell us about his very close friend Gene Autrie, owner of the California Angels. Although Ronnie loved the Dodgers, his favorite team was his buddy’s Angels. We wound up speaking with him on various subjects for about the next 20 minutes. After he left, we all looked at each other, somewhat stunned with all of us agreeing we liked this man a lot. He really took us by surprise and eventually we wound up voting for him. Sometimes you just never know who you might run into 😉
After 2 years of college, I came back home to New Jersey. Eventually I settled down, got married and raised 2 wonderful sons, Mark & Daniel. Somewhat like their dad, they both loved and played sports in grammar school and high school. During the summers, I would take them on vacation to see their grandfather on Cape Cod in South Yarmouth. It’s off this special piece of New England paradise where they learned about good chowdah, great fishin’ and baseball. Like myself, they have now seen games in the old and the new Mecca of baseball off River Ave in Da’ Bronx and the very special Fenway Pahhhkk in Boston.
Let me close with one of my finer moments, where I got to enjoy childhood once again through the eyes of my sons. My little brother Scott was able to get my 2 sons and myself bleacher seats for game 6 of the 96′ world series in Yankee stadium. If you do not know what happened that night?….shame on you! Needless to say, the Yanks won their first title in 18 years. Once Girardi hit his triple, the stadium literally shook so hard you thought this may be an earthquake.
The look of pure joy on my kids faces throughout the game was priceless. A few months after this I attended a parents teachers conference. One of Dan’s teachers pulled me aside to share with me what Dan had wrote in a school assignment that year. He was asked to write down what his best moment was from this past year and he shared it was our night at Yankee stadium with his dad for game 6. I am telling you as a father…..it does not get better than this
Right now I am thinking about taking a ride soon to Cooperstown with my sons and grandsons for the inevitable induction ceremonies of ‘Mo & Jeter”…. this is guaranteed to be some exceptionally FUN and extremely loud celebrations! We will all be getting ready for Metallica playing “The Sandman” as Mo’ takes the podium!
In the end and to this day….I am grateful for being raised in New Jersey with great friends and classmates, my years of playing sports for the pure fun of it and the many life lessons I learned during the course of my time as a kid with a ball in my hand.
Thankfully, I still believe there is a bit of a little boy left in me…..I hope this never leaves….
As always….just my opinion…..