I interviewed two-time Super Bowl champion and ex-Patriots defensive end Jarvis Green for the Winter 2021 issue of BostonMan. You can read the magazine edition here, or click here to read it on BostonMan’s website. Enjoy.
After eight seasons with the Patriots and two Super Bowl rings, defensive end Jarvis Green is growing a business selling his superb canned shrimp pate in the New England region he loves. In the age of Covid-19, he’s managed to do pretty well meeting the needs for PPE too. BostonMan caught up with Green to talk about his football career, his successes in business, and being a part of the Patriots family.
Jarvis Green didn’t exactly part ways with Bill Belichick and the Patriots on the best of terms.
The two-time Super Bowl champion defensive end, who’d finished the 2009 season with 36 tackles and a sack, was offered a four-year extension from the Patriots. He turned it down.
The move is on his small list of regrets.
“I should have took it,” he reflects. “My sports agent, he got into it with Belichick. It was more or less, you know, you should fire your agent. I can’t get into details, but a lot of s*** happened between Belichick and Denver.”
You might not think it was the worst move on his part at the time. He was, after all, offered more money to go to Denver than many of us will make in our lifetimes. Denver isn’t an awful place to live in or to be a pro athlete. And he knew Broncos coach Josh McDaniels, the Pats’ former (and now current) offensive coordinator.
But Green, who is prone to using colorful language in an entertaining way, describes his short stint in Denver as a “s***show”.
It started out promising. After having stem cell work done on his deteriorating knee, he was having the training camp of his life.
“When I went in the off season, I was number one. When we used to practice these one-on-ones, I was the one who’d get the best guy on the Denver team. I get him lined up, I kill him! I remember calling Pepper Johnson, saying this is my best off season ever. I’m killing these guys. They can’t even keep up with me.
“I go in to training camp, I’m the sixth string D-line man. I’m like, what the hell just happened? But they knew. They saw my knee kind of tripping in film. They saw that I had something going on with my knee.”
Still, he was rightly displeased at a demotion without warning or explanation. “I got released the day before cut day. When I left, I didn’t say bye to anyone.”
After similar fruitless visits with the Browns and Texans…Green describes his three weeks in Texas as a vacation…he “limped out of the office” in Houston and retired.
Jarvis Green frequently gets asked who the leaders were in the locker room of those great Patriots teams. His answer makes clear what made Belichick’s Pats one of the great dynasties in professional sports: everyone.
“Everybody was leaders, man. I’ve been to Denver, I’ve been to Houston, everybody’s waiting for one guy to show up. In New England, we had everybody pushing, trying to get in front to say, who’s going to say this, or who’s going to do this, who’s going to make the play first.
“I remember when Junior Seau came in. It was so funny because he was a guy that wanted to be on top of the soap box and give out his three, four minutes, you know? I remember I could see the guys, we just kind of grin and give him his throne.
“That’s the type of tradition we had.”
Oceans 97’s Amazon entry for hickory smoked shrimp pate describes it as being keto-friendly, made with only natural ingredients, and a versatile product that can be eaten straight out of the can, or on vegetables or crackers.
There’s no mention of the dedication of Oceans 97’s founder, or a picture of his New England-famous face. You have to visit the website for that.
Being on a two-time championship squad may have pushed him to set a higher standard for himself. Maybe that’s how he stayed on that squad. But Jarvis Green is dedicated like that, and he proved it again in life after football.
He decided to go into the shrimping business as a favor to a friend. After buying a boat that he christened “Jenny”, he sang with the choir in church every weekend until a hurricane wiped out every boat but his.
Okay, that last paragraph is bunk, except for the bit about going into the shrimp business for a friend. Green is well aware of the parallels to Forrest Gump. Don’t call him Bubba. Like Forrest, Green knew nothing about the shrimp business.
Given his status as a Super Bowl champion, he could have simply lent his face, name, and uniform number to Oceans 97, the company he started.
But knowing that having his visage on a website wouldn’t improve the product’s taste, he dove deep and learned the business. The hard way. Green is a proud native of South Louisiana who knows the importance of quality food and its role in good times. He wanted his shrimp product to be the best it could be, because “people are going to create s*** all the time. It’s hard to sell s***.”
The two time champion multi-millionaire endured a six month internship in the world of shrimping. He even took on a broom and a mop in the factory. (Imagine handing a 6-foot-3, 285-pound defensive lineman a broom. Someone there has some brass ones.)
“We had a factory of like 90 people. I remember, I’m the tallest person looking across the factory. We’ve got about 50 people, peeling shrimp, eight hours, ten hours at a time. I was on that line, peeling and de-veining shrimp with my hand, and understanding that it’s a certain process, the way you procure the shrimp, you peel it, you rinse it, you freeze it, you package it. And it makes a difference, you know?
“That’s the biggest thing about having the right quality shrimp. It’s the supply chain.”
Oceans 97’s supply chain, Green confidently asserts, is “super tight”. He had landed multiple deals with local markets, and had several larger deals in place when a blasted virus changed the world. Green’s story is one of the lesser told stories about the impact of Covid…the devastating damage to businesses from lockdowns.
“I had got just approved with our Hong Kong market. Hong Kong Island, with a company called Food Wise and another 2,000-plus distributors of stores. I had that and I had another, and I’m working on some other more independent retailers in the South.
“I had that kind of set up and Covid hit. Can’t do demos anymore, Hong Kong canceled, corrections canceled, a few of the independent guys canceled because it’s a new product, right? They said we’re going to buy what we typically buy, buying a new product’s going to be kind of hard. You can’t do demos.”
Many established entrepreneurs could probably tell you a similar story. Not very many could say how they turned it all into a net gain.
After a few of his ongoing deals fell through, including with a corrections facility in Louisiana where Green lives, he found himself in the “what now” state that so many entrepreneurs faced in 2020. That’s when the corrections facility he was working with asked him if he could supply hand sanitizer.
“Covid hit, locked down New Orleans, limit this, limit that, limit limit limit. I remember I wasn’t looking for this, but then my corrections guy was like, ‘Hey Jarvis, could you help me get some sanitizer, figure out how to get some sanitizer for the inmates?’
“I have no idea. I don’t know the first thing about sanitizer. I started doing research, calling some people. A friend of mine had another friend, he knew someone who had some spirits company in the mountain, west, whatever area. I helped my guy with some stuff in the corrections.
“I started looking into some stuff, and I won a bid with the state of Louisiana for sanitizer. I won some masks bids with Louisiana, and then I won a huge proposal deal with the Tennessee National Guard.
“I won the bids, made a ton of money. I made more money in those two months than I made with my shrimp business in the last five years. You can put that on paper. It’s just been crazy and I’m still doing that now.”
They may be wholly unrelated businesses, but Green credits his education in the shrimping business “big time” for his success in the world of PPE distribution.
“The biggest thing is about being patient and to find the deals, because every deal’s not for you. I’ve lost some great friends, because everybody’s playing octopus and has got ten different deals that they thought were real and weren’t real at all.
“I got my counsel involved, and I separated from all the different deals. I stopped dealing with all of these agents and buyers. We started working with the factories in China directly. The biggest thing right now is price gouging. The things we’re selling, we’re not price gouging, and we’re selling a competitive product through great sources.
“This is what I tell people. When I got into the shrimp business, it taught me how to understand international trade, international business. Dealing with different companies, dealing with banks, understanding LCs and different jargon, just to get business done abroad.”
Throughout his football career, Jarvis Green dealt with severely debilitating back pain. Even to this day, he says, he is strongly encouraged to have back surgery.
“My spine doctor, they call me twice a year. In 2014, they wanted to rush and give me surgery. They wanted to give me fusion, L3, L5 fusion, six points, all this bulls***.
“I didn’t want to do it, because my Dad had 17 back surgeries. He shakes like a leaf. He’s a veteran, he has a wheelchair. He has all kinds of s***, he broke his back with a job back in ‘79.
“My dad always said, I don’t care what you have to do. Don’t ever let anybody touch your back. Deal with the pain, it’s going to be much better than going through surgery because you’ll never be the same person again.”
Green deals with the pain, through highs and lows on the football field, in business, and in his personal life. Today, of all his considerable accomplishments, he is proudest that he’s still the same guy.
He unexpectedly learned that the local football team, with whom he went to the top of the mountain twice, felt the same way about him.
After some years of hard feelings, Green is currently an ambassador with the Patriots again, making appearances and occasionally going on trips with the club.
Mending the broken fences following his contentious departure, it turned out, wasn’t as difficult as he thought.
“It took three years for that to happen,” he says. “The Patriots were playing the Saints. Home game for the Patriots, right? I went to the game, I had the throwback jersey on, #97. I’m just a fan, I bought my ticket. I just went to the game, enjoyed myself and went home.
“So I’m thinking this just the way it is when you retire, they don’t give a s*** about anybody. That was my mentality, right?
“I’m in the stands, and they caught my picture on the Jumbotron when I was eating popcorn. Before that, I heard people behind me saying, why’s this guy got a Jarvis Green jersey on? They didn’t know who I was. After that, people come to me asking for autographs.
“I got a call from Pepper Johnson, or a text. He said, ‘Hey, what are you doing? You at the stadium?’ And then somebody said, hey, they want you to come down into the operations the next day.
“This is three years apart from the beef, you know, the Belichick situation, me and my sports agent, going to Denver, getting cut, all this s***. And I’m like nervous as hell. Won two Super Bowls with this team, now nervous as hell. I remember walking in and right when I walked in, I think I saw Tom first.
“I was there for like two and a half hours, just going through, saying hey to everybody. I remember talking to Josh in the cafeteria, just me and him at the table. Just saying, it’s business, things happen, back was against the wall, do what he had to do and pretty much a shake and a hug.
“It was very emotional, seeing all those guys. You know, eight years is a long time in the football world to be under one team, one organization. I appreciate Coach Belichick, to let me come in there.
“That’s kind of how everything got back. You know, they say, hey, you’re okay.”
In the interview for BostonMan, Green speaks slowest and pauses the most when speaking of his former coach’s words to him that day.
“Now this was the biggest part. After I was leaving, I’m walking out, drowning some of my tears. Belichick walks out, he says, ‘Hey Jarvis, remember, you’re always gonna be family here. You were a part of all of this.’
“He said, ‘Never be a stranger. You’re family.’”
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The Helmet Catch Play
You probably remember the Pats’ undefeated season of 2007. You may remember Jarvis Green on that invincible squad. You might have to read his Wikipedia entry, though, to know that he was one of several Patriots who had Eli Manning in his grasp on the “Helmet Catch” play in Super Bowl XLII. Green nearly tore off Manning’s jersey, but the Giant QB got away and fired a Hail Mary pass to David Tyree. You know the rest.
It was hardly the ground ball dribbling through Buckner’s legs, or the 7-20 September collapse of 2011. The New England sports fan faithful have dealt with far worse as season ending falters go. Even Manning called it “the luckiest play in NFL history”, joking that it went exactly how they scripted it in practices.
Green doesn’t think about it much these days. But it did cost him sleep for a couple of weeks. Because leading up to that play, he’d played a hell of a game.
“It could have probably changed my life. I’m like, it was like third and seven, I should have been the guy saying ‘I’m going to Disney World!’ You know, because I remember that game, I had a sack and maybe seven tackles or five tackles. That would have ended the game, that would have been icing on the cake.
“I think for the guys who really played, it’s not something that we really talked about at the time, it’s more friends because the family don’t bring it up. It’s more the friends, you know, everybody wants to get a one-up on you.
“So it’s always comedy time, you know, for everyone except me.”
Canned Shrimp Pate – From A Man Who Knows Shrimp
BostonMan is hoping that Jarvis Green can make it to a future Legacy Club gathering, because his Oceans 97 shrimp pate will be a great addition to the already excellent finger foods usually available at our events.
But for now, you can find it in 150 specialty retailers, strategic restaurant partners and on Amazon.
Green’s canned shrimp pate is available in five varieties: Hickory Smoked, Creamy Lemon, Shrimp Rillettes, New Orleans BBQ, and Jalapeno Chili. On the Oceans 97 website, there’s a brief description of each flavor…for Creamy Lemon, it explains the presence of vinegar:
“It is the Gem that interacts with shrimp protein, water and milk. It also alters the texture and consistency making the Creamy Lemon Paté unique from the other flavors. Vinegar is a tenderizer.”
Spoken like a football great who knows his food. And he does. Green also offers several recipes on the website that make the best use of the shrimp pate, including a corn bread recipe that includes a can of the New Orleans BBQ edition. Just the pictures of the corn bread may make you start planning your next dinner gathering.
The website is www.ocean97.com.
Bringing The Chefs To You
Food delivery has become enormously popular. Restaurant chains have focused on apps to help customers continue to enjoy their eats, through pickup or delivery.
There’s just one problem, as Jarvis Green points out.
“Everybody knows the menu of Burger King, McDonald’s, Chipotle, Domino’s Pizza. That gets old.”
Great point. It might be nice to be able to find chefs in the area, and enjoy a decent meal for a change.
Green and his partner, Eddie Rhodman Jr. of Rhodman Enterprises, are part of a team producing a new app that does just that. With Chef2U, you can find a local chef to make an amazing meal for you, delivered to your home.
“If you’re tired of eating Big Macs and Little Caesars, you could go in and see the chefs in your area. It’s like an eight to ten mile radius. Then if you want like Mediterranean food, that’s going to pop up, but it will be the chef’s face. It won’t be the name of the local restaurant, but his face.”
It also offers chefs a much-needed chance to supplement their incomes.
“The app has food trucks, bartenders, baristas, chefs, catering, meal prep, and instant meals. It’s very detailed. There’s so many opportunities to get private chefs back into and create diversity in this industry.”
Green expects Chef2U to outlast the pandemic.
“This is built to stay, because again, we will not be competing with traditional fast food chains. We’re going to be giving all those chefs, entrepreneurs, restaurateurs, a chance to make money on the side.”
Rhodman adds that Chef2U gives aspiring chefs “the opportunity to create their own brand, their own customer base, because they haven’t been given the opportunity. It will give them the freedom to expand their brand and have the unique luxury to deliver their personal chef experience directly to a customer’s home.”
Jarvis Green and Eddie Rhodman expect Chef2U to be available in April. If you have favorite Beantown chefs, make a note to get the app. It’ll make for a great date night or family night.
Aaron Cox, Millville area baseball star and best friend of MLB superstar Mike Trout, was drafted by the Angels in 2015. JerseyMan sent me to interview Cox for the Spring 2015 issue, and talk a little bit about his baseball superstar buddy too, for the Spring issue. You can view the PDF of the article here.
Sadly, Aaron Cox passed away in 2018 at the age of 24. I was devastated to hear that. He was a really nice kid and a great interview. R.I.P. Aaron.
Baseball’s best player is from a small town in South Jersey, and his high school buddy has just been drafted by the Angels. The two friends are still just Jersey kids.
On a baseball field, Aaron Cox has shown an uncanny ability to focus on the task at hand.
Even if that task is, say, pitching a no-hitter on his school’s Opening Day.
How focused was the Gannon University ace in shutting down opposing bats? He didn’t even know he was firing blanks until his team swarmed him after the victory.
“My teammates ran out of the dugout like we won the World Series,” Cox says. “And I was like, this is the first game of the season, what’s going on here? ‘You just threw a no-hitter!’
“I don’t know if it would have jinxed me if I started thinking about it or not. But it worked out.”
That story must be embellished, you think. Most of us would be aware if we were pitching a no-no in a backyard wiffle ball game.
Well, the Millville High alumnus had an additional distraction. He had to help his cause on offense. Cox was one of those multi-tool players that could hit, too.
“It was a tight game. I didn’t come into the dugout and think about what I had to do next on the mound. I was just as much in the game on the offensive side, so I think that was the biggest thing that kept me from realizing it.”
He has that mentality that coaches long for in a player. “I just wanted to get the win,” he shrugs.
Cox has a future in baseball. The young power arm has shown enough promise to be selected by the Anaheim Angels in the 19th round of this year’s draft.
It’s a fairly deep pick to assume that he’ll be on the mound at Angel Stadium anytime soon, but he’s already gone to work improving his chances. He’s ditched the hitting and expanded his pitch repertoire. According to his scouting report, his fastball touches 96, his slider has a big break, and he’s developing a change-up. If he can learn to throw all three for strikes at any time, he could turn out pretty nasty. The Inside The Halos blog mused that he could be a “quiet steal”.
A three-time All-Conference selection in high school. Ace of his high school and college staffs. The single season strikeout leader at his university—breaking his own record. A no-hitter to his credit. Now in the Angels farm system.
Not bad for a small town South Jersey kid. In fact, Cox was the best ballplayer to graduate from Millville High in, well, about three years.
You’ve probably heard of Millville. Especially if you’re a baseball fan. The town produced a ballplayer that now plays outfield for those Angels, a player whose nickname is “The Millville Meteor”.
You could say he’s pretty good. A .304 lifetime batting average. Led the league in RBIs in one season and in stolen bases in another. He’s been an All-Star in every season that he’s played. He’s also undefeated in winning Silver Slugger Awards. He was the American League MVP in 2014 and hasn’t yet finished lower than second in MVP voting…a guy named Cabrera had to win a Triple Crown to overtake him in 2012. At just 24 years old, he’s already clouted 139 home runs. He’s no slouch with a glove, either…YouTube has a few pages of videos of his negating pitcher mistakes with awe-inspiring catches.
You’ve heard of that WAR statistic? “Wins Above Replacement”? That all-encompassing number that no one understands but is supposed to define a player’s ultimate worth? Without a deep explanation (we have space limitations, but you probably know the depth to which statisticians go in baseball), FanGraphs states that he’s been worth more in Wins Above Replacement by age 23 than any other player in the history of the game.
Oh, and online voters on Topps’ website just named his baseball card to be #1 in the 2016 series. Collectors know. The stats are, after all, right there on the back of the cards.
So yeah, maybe he’s better than pretty good. He’s really, really good. Ludicrous good. Schizoid good. The phrase “best baseball player on Earth” is used to describe him fairly often, and it doesn’t lend itself to much argument.
Here’s how big a superstar Mike Trout is.
In the early weeks of spring training, there isn’t much to write about other than overly optimistic quotes from players and managers about the coming season. So blogs and websites looking for traffic need attention-grabbing headlines.
Maybe something like “Should the Angels trade Mike Trout”?
Yes, they said it. And believe it or not, there is a case to be made, however absurd the notion may seem. The Angels, you see, don’t have much of a farm system. ESPN writer Keith Law not only ranks it dead last among 30 teams, he says it’s the worst he’s ever seen. The team badly needs a future, so writers publicly ponder the sacrifices they’ll need to make. Or at least speculate a scenario that generates a must-click headline.
In response to the sudden wormhole in the baseball space-time continuum caused by the notion of a Trout deal, Grant Brisbee from SB Nation wrote a column with this headline: “The Angels Will Never, Ever, Ever, Ever, Ever Trade Mike Trout”. Yes, four “evers”. Here’s the quote from that article that best explains why: “It’s like selling a Honus Wagner card on the playground. Even if the 7-year-olds empty out their toy chests and video game collections, you’re still not going to be happy with the return.”
One can imagine going back in time to 1918 and reading a newspaper story with the headline “Should the Red Sox trade Babe Ruth?” Or even going back to 1991 and reading, “Should the Orioles trade Cal Ripken?” GMs who value their ability to avoid being hung in effigy know better.
“We like our chances” = zero traffic. “Trade Mike Trout” = web firestorm. Mission accomplished.
How does a mega-superstar from a town of 28,000 adjust to skyrocketing fame and wealth beyond recognition? By all accounts of those who know him, you wouldn’t even know the difference. The word “humble” is thrown around so reflexively that it’s almost his unofficial first name.
It’s remarkably difficult to find a Millville resident who doesn’t know Mike Trout personally. At the counter at Jim’s Lunch, the iconic 93-year-old Main Street diner, waitresses and customers all still refer to him as simply Mike, or even Mikey. As if he were a regular at the diner, which he still is, rather than the greatest baseball player in the known universe.
It’s the same at Millville High, where coaches and athletic directors talk about his senior year and the scouts regularly visiting town. The longtime baseball coach, Roy Hallenbeck, clearly has experience with journalists. He shows Trout’s locker, inspirational signs in the locker room, and the glass enclosure that displays his jersey and other gear. He has a picture of the scoreboard sign on the baseball field…now “Mike Trout Field” after Trout contributed to a renovation…stored on his phone ready to be texted. Like everyone else, Coach has nothing but praise for the local star.
It’s almost as if the townsfolk gather together to get their story straight about Millville’s most famous son for whenever reporters visit. But you know it’s real. Best case in point: the 2014 AL MVP is worth over $100 million now, and he’s still dating his high school sweetheart…who happens to be Aaron Cox’s sister.
Mike and Aaron are close, and the younger prodigy doesn’t dispute any of the hometown accolades for his mentor and friend.
“As long as I’ve known him, since he was a freshman in high school, he’s never taken anything for granted. Whenever I have a question I go to him, and we’ll sit down and talk. Whenever I need him, he’s there. In the off season he likes to be with friends and be a kid again. If you ever hung around him, he is a kid, trust me.”
Hallenbeck laughs at the humility attribute so frequently ascribed to Trout. The coach was quoted in an MLB.com article referring to Trout as a “killer”. He means it as a very flattering joke.
“To be clear about that, he really is a humble kid. He truly does appreciate everything he has. Just don’t compete against him, because it isn’t going to work out well for you…if you’re playing golf with him, or if you’re playing pickup basketball, or if you go bowling with him, he is going to beat you.
“I still have visions of him leading off of second base, just absolutely terrorizing pitchers. Not that he was doing anything demonstrative, just that he was so good, and so aggressive, and so competitive, everyone just knew he was gonna go and that they couldn’t stop him.”
Cox shares a story about the killer. “Out of the blue one day, we said, let’s go bowling. That was a month ago, and I think we went 25 times in the past month. I was better than him at first, and he didn’t like me beating him. We just kept going back, and now the guy at the bowling alley doesn’t make us pay because we come there so much. He has lanes reserved for us.
“It’s fun, because he’ll stick with something until he’s better than you at it. And I won’t let that happen!”
The trademark humility may come from being raised in a small town…or in a state with no shortage of people who will gladly bring you back to earth. The killer mentality probably comes from a father who scratched for every hit as a ballplayer himself.
Jeff Trout’s baseball career ended where the overwhelming majority of them do…in the minor leagues, where players are either shown to be insufficiently skilled or made so by increasing bodily wear and tear. Drafted by the Twins in 1983, Jeff played four years in the minors as a second baseman, hitting .321 in his last season in Orlando before finally growing weary of waiting for a promotion from the Twins. With a torn plantar fascia and worsening knees, Trout gave up baseball to raise a family.
The elder Trout doesn’t hold a grudge. He’s admitted to his defensive inadequacies in interviews, and at 5’9”, his size was probably a handicap too. He succeeded as a hitter, to a point, through guile and scrappy dedication.
Cox testifies to how Jeff instilled a work ethic in young Mike. “His dad would make him hit every night, do push-ups, do everything, eat the right things. He may have gotten by on just talent, because he was blessed with a lot of talent. But he wouldn’t be where he is today, how good he is right now, if he didn’t have the work ethic that he has.”
Jeff also learned Mike about dwelling on failure, as he once did. He told Ben Lindbergh at Grantland that “I really, really overthought the game at times…some of the things I struggled with I tried to give to Mike and teach him that’s not the way it should be done. He can shake a bad game off.”
No one can better teach a youngster how difficult baseball is, or how to appreciate God-given talent, than a player whose dream died in AA. Thanks partly to his father, Mike Trout is baseball savvy enough to stay grounded and determined.
Because as even Babe Ruth learned, sooner or later the game will humble everyone.
As Dave Lagamba, the athletic director at Millville High, shows this observer around the school grounds, he briefly chats with a groundskeeper about fixes needed to get Mike Trout Field ready for the coming season.
It’s a sudden reminder of what should be obvious…that Millville isn’t Mike Trout Central, or even Mike Trout Sideshow. Not even baseball’s biggest star can fix the town’s struggling economic conditions. Like in any other town, people go to work and raise their families and live their lives. As proud of the All-Star as Millville is, he and the locals still treat each other the same.
Of course he’s the same humble guy. Why wouldn’t a kid from a South Jersey small town be? All the money and fame one could ask for doesn’t change who someone’s parents are, the town they grew up in, their favorite food or who their high school influences were.
On a major league baseball field, there’s no denying that there’s something special and unique about the Millville Meteor. He plays baseball like a very small number of humans can. But back home, Mikey will likely always remain a guy who spends his spare time hunting and golfing with his buddies, challenging them to yet another round at the local lanes.
It’s not hard at all to imagine Mike Trout being enshrined in Cooperstown someday.
Or celebrating his induction with a burger at Jim’s.
College and minor league teams have been known to retire the numbers of major league greats, but Millville High decided on a better way to honor their greatest player…by using his #1 jersey as a motivator. Trout was asked what they wanted to do with the jersey, and according to Roy Hallenbeck, he gave his stock answer: “Coach, whatever you think is best.”
The #1 jersey is now awarded to the player best seen as the team leader…not necessarily the best player, but the player coaches want other players to look up to…someone who works hard, hustles, and stays grounded. The first player to wear the jersey after Trout’s departure? Aaron Cox, by winning the championship final against Lenape High.
Hallenbeck tells the story. “My assistant coach, Kenny Williams, said to Aaron, you win this game and we will give you the #1. Aaron was like, don’t you think you should check with Coach? Kenny said, don’t worry about it, I’ll take care of it.”
It was no easy ride. Cox gave up a three run shot in the first but then blanked Lenape the rest of the way. “That Lenape team that we beat was just loaded,” Hallenbeck says. “They jumped on us early, and Aaron settled in the rest of the way. One of the most exciting games I’ve ever been a part of. That could have gotten away from Aaron. And it didn’t.
“We talk to our guys about leaving a legacy here, be that guy that we’re gonna refer to years after you’re gone. And we refer to that a lot. He absolutely earned the jersey that day, without a doubt.”
The “Millville Meteor”?
If you’re wondering how the nickname “The Millville Meteor” got attached to Mike Trout enough to be listed on his Wikipedia page, it’s probably because you’re not old enough to remember Mickey Mantle’s playing days. Don’t feel bad; most of us aren’t. This author’s father never even made the connection, and Mantle was his hero.
Mantle was and still is far more popularly known as “The Mick”, but he was also sometimes called the “Commerce Comet”, for his hometown of Commerce, Oklahoma. The nickname was probably a nod to his running speed…something fans don’t always notice right away when a player can jack a ball 500 feet. In his autobiography, Mantle quoted Ted Williams as saying “If I could run like that son of a bitch, I’d hit .400 every year.”
Like Mike Trout, Mantle set the baseball world on fire early in his career with both his crushing bat and blazing speed on the basepaths, and like Trout, Mantle was from a small town whose notoriety quickly became about a baseball star.
So the “Millville Meteor” nickname, see, is a tribute to The Commerce Comet…another speedy power-hitting outfielder who was considered among the best of his generation.
Jim’s Lunch – Millville’s Other Great Institution
If you’re doing the Mike Trout Millville Tour, be sure to stop at Jim’s Lunch, the Main Street diner that has been serving locals for nearly a century. It’s still today a favorite of the Trout family, and the waitresses and customers know them well.
There’s some memorabilia, but the restaurant is thriving on the special sauce that is constantly being slathered on burgers, not the connection to the MVP. As one customer puts it, “They come here for Trout, they stay for the sauce.” It’s somewhere between chili and gravy, but not too close to either. The owners refuse to sell it in jars, lest anyone figure out the secret recipe.
Jim’s is perfect for Millville…an inexpensive, venerable, character-filled diner in the heart of an economically struggling town. Trout still frequents Jim’s in the offseason, and he’s been known to down six burgers in one sitting. (The burgers aren’t mammoth, but six still seems like a lot.) Burgers are even served on wax paper…as authentic as diner food gets.
Jim’s is no slouch in food quality, especially in a state where diners are barely distinguishable from one another. Not only is the secret sauce addicting, the home fries and Nana Rochelle’s caramel apple pie both perform well above expectations. Patrons will tell you that you can’t go wrong with anything.
Rochelle Maul, the owner, tells the story of Mike Trout’s first appearance at Jim’s…as an infant. Debbie Trout proudly showed her new son to the waitresses, calling him ‘our little Angel’. “True story,” Rochelle says with a smile, “and here he is playing for the Angels.”
When asked if she’s relieved that Debbie didn’t call Mike “our little Yankee”, Rochelle laughs and nods.
Unfortunately, you can’t stop at Jim’s on the way to Wildwood in the summer…it’s a longtime tradition that the owners take summers off. But an offseason trip is still worth it.
Precision Pistol shooters are phenomenal at focus…it’s quite a feat to be able to consistently nail an eight-inch wide target from 50 yards. JerseyMan sent me to cover the annual State Outdoor Pistol Championship for the December 2015 issue. I learned some amazing stuff. You can view the PDF of the magazine article here.
Shooting For Greatness
“It’s the ultimate badass sport with pistols.”
At the end of “Rocky III”, Apollo Creed challenges Rocky to a rubber match between the two of them…to settle the score of who is the best, once and for all. As Apollo explains to Rocky, it’s only to prove it to himself…“no TV, no newspapers, just you and me.”
Because in the end, that is all that matters to a true competitor, at any level. Self-respect.
Rich Kang, a surgeon from Maryland, has had his picture added to the New Jersey Pistol website, as the Winner of the 2015 State Outdoor Pistol Championship. His name is now engraved on the Madore Trophy.
And that’s pretty much the extent of his recognition for this exceptionally difficult achievement. The top result of a Google search for “Rich Kang” is the LinkedIn profile of a California product developer with the same name.
Precision Pistol excellence isn’t something one pursues for stardom, applause or financial gain. There wasn’t much in the way of an audience or media…other than a lanky, curious writer for a popular men’s magazine…present at the championship event. Shooter Frank Greco likens it to golf: it may not be the most exciting spectator sport, but among participants, there is an unwavering admiration for the best.
“It’s the ultimate badass sport with pistols. In the shooting world, badass is snipers,” he says. “In the pistol world it’s precision shooters.”
Greco is the Regional Vice President of New Jersey Rifle & Pistol Clubs, based in Highland Lakes. A portion of this event took place at the Central Jersey Rifle & Pistol Club in Jackson. Greco didn’t participate in the competition, but he was there to explain the mystique of it, right down to the effect of donut consumption on shooters. True.
“The sugar raises the blood pressure and affects the steady hand,” Greco says, while offering a donut to this observer. “Sugar and caffeine in excess can be Kryptonite to a shooter.”
It’s that demanding?
To say the least.
Picture how far 50 yards is. 150 feet. Half of a football field. Now fathom being able to steadily aim and fire a pistol from that distance and consistently hit a target eight inches wide.
That’s just for an eight-point shot. For a 10-pointer, that target is just three inches wide; for a bull’s eye…which is used as a tiebreaker if two shooters have the same score…it is just an inch and a half.
Can that even be done with normal human vision? Yes, and the shooters on the firing line this day are proving it. With multiple types of firearms and various types of shooting…moving targets, rapid fire, timed firing.
It’s a three-gun match, with .22, centerfire and .45 caliber pistols. With each type of pistol, a shooter takes 90 shots. Those 90 shots are broken down into four matches: Slow Fire is two strings of ten shots each over ten minutes; National Match Course is ten Slow Fire shots, followed by two strings of five shots each at 25 yards; Rapid Fire is two strings of five shots each over ten seconds; and the Timed Fire Match is four strings of five rounds each, with 20 seconds per string.
All day long, the barrage goes on. Casings litter the ground. Wisps of dust float from the dune behind the targets. The unmistakable odor of gunpowder fills the air. Wrists snap back in recoil with larger pistols. The noise is thunderous and deafening at times, but that’s the only aural distraction allowed. No talking or other sounds behind the line. During one match a ringing smartphone is immediately shut off; only in church could that be more embarrassing.
It’s grueling, this full day of shooting. Comfortable footwear is a must.
Between rounds a horn sounds and a red light begins flashing. When the light is flashing, guns must be down, and must remain untouched until the flashing stops.
Ed Glidden, the director of the match, calls out instructions to the shooters, obviously with safety as the top priority. Cease fire, magazines out, make the firing line safe. Empty chamber indicators installed. Check your gun; check your neighbor’s gun. And so on, dozens of times. Glidden’s role looks boring to someone witnessing the action. But needless to say, it’s an essential one.
Part of Glidden’s occupation is training shooters in gun safety, including teaching youngsters in the club’s highly touted junior program. “Individual training,” he says, “is keeping the gun pointed in a safe direction at ALL times and treating every gun as if it were loaded. Constant awareness of the range officers and other shooters, to prevent and/or correct the slightest infraction until safety becomes a habit. Any unsafe practice will result in expulsion from the match and the range.”
The Central Jersey Rifle & Pistol Club people have a reputation for their focus on safe handling of lethal weapons. They are frequently praised for it in online reviews. It is particularly impressive to see younger people on the firing line, some barely in their teens, completely comfortable handling firearms. Partly because of Glidden’s repetitious direction, safety is second nature in this competition.
Besides, with the concentration required at tournaments like this, competitors have more than enough to occupy their minds.
Watching the shooters it appears as though they are cool as ice, with the focus, the concentration, the steady hand. But as one of the better shooters on the line can tell you, it takes years to develop this composure. And even he still grimaces at the occasional subpar shot.
Lateif Dickerson is the master instructor at the New Jersey Firearms Academy. His resume of other titles is very impressive: Certified Pistol Instructor, Range Safety Officer, Combat Handgunner at the School of Defensive Firearms, the list is long. He’s been training civilians, police and military for 19 years in various weapons usage and self-defense.
Dickerson can tell you a bit about becoming adept enough for this competition. There are three stages, he says…know how, physical conditioning and mental conditioning.
Know how is mastering the fundamentals… like stance, breath control, and recoil management. Stance “should be as comfortable but as stable as possible. Think like a crane; your legs are the outriggers, your arm is the boom.” Breath control is “basically holding long enough so you aren’t moving.” Recoil management is the ability to “consistently recover to the same place when shooting.”
Then there’s the physical conditioning.
“A match can go from 9:00 AM – 4:00 PM, or longer. If you start fatiguing during a match your performance will fail. You must be able to hold the weight of your arm and gun up all day – and steady. Holding steady requires an isometric tension that needs to be developed also.”
But the mental preparation is by far the toughest part.
“The ONLY thing that should exist in your mind is that your sight is where it’s supposed to be as the trigger moves rearward…this is very hard. We all have a lot of noise and distractions, so conditioning your mind to focus is a process. That process is largely the challenge in shooting.”
Frank Greco emphatically agrees, sharing a story of his own self-defeat in the mental aspect of the game.
“When you’re in it, on the line, loading, in the zone, improving your score, it’s incredibly intense and extremely difficult mentally.
“One of my first times I experienced the ‘mental game’ was in the NY State Championship. The match director came over to me and asked me if I knew I was shooting better than most of the Experts and Masters. I said no, and got accidentally sidetracked, thinking I was going to win the match. The lost focus immediately showed; my shots were random and my scores went down.
“It’s vital to maintain a positive outlook and to speak to yourself in positive statements. It’s important to train your subconscious mind and create a positive self-image.”
He pulls out his smartphone and shows this observer a picture of a target, the high-value section of it riddled with bullet holes. Sometimes, he says, he needs to look at it during a match, to remind himself what he’s capable of.
It’s all undeniably worth the effort.
The true reward of Precision Pistol, as Greco relates from his own personal experience, is self-respect…the realization of one’s hidden abilities and the ability to meet the most difficult of challenges. Once a person can hit that one-and-a-half inch bull’s eye from half of a football field away, it’s hard to imagine how monthly bills could faze them.
“Great shooters have an almost Zen-like approach to shooting and how they approach their daily lives, jobs, etc. Since I started, my ability to focus has sharpened dramatically, and it’s positively benefited other areas of my life. The ability to focus on what matters, and disregard unimportant matters, literally frees your mind.
“The benefits are real, and to that extent, shooting has made me a better person.”
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Get Started With Precision Pistol Shooting
If you’d like to try Precision Pistol Shooting, there is a website dedicated to helping you get started, with several informative pieces from top shooters. The site is called “The Encyclopedia of Bullseye Pistol”.
Among the articles is a piece by site owner John Dreyer about essential equipment. There’s a lot to know when laying out the considerable funds for pistols…like whether they are mass-produced or hand built, or the differences between high performance and convertible pistols. Not to mention other necessary equipment, like eye and ear protection, scopes and cleaning supplies. Pistol shooting is not a cheap sport, so spend wisely.
Another piece by Dreyer quotes several Zen philosophies and describes the achievements in pistol shooting in how they relate to such quotes. One example: “A man who has attained mastery of an art reveals it in his every action.” Dreyer compares this to pistol shooting in the sense that once a shooter can sustain an “empty mind”, he can see “underlying principles in everyday life and life in all things”.
Another piece from top shooter Jake Shevlin reveals the “secret” to shooting high scores. It’s the same secret one learns about how to get to Carnegie Hall…practice, practice, practice. The shooter must sacrifice…sacrifice time, money, convenience, and priorities in life to excel at just one thing. Top marksmanship requires a level of commitment unmatched by few endeavors. That, says Shevlin, is the “secret”.
The Encyclopedia of Bullseye Pistol website also features a discussion group, e-mail updates, and links and maps to shooting clubs and ranges.
Multiple Champion Dave Lange on Dry-Firing
Dave Lange’s name appears a lot on the NJ Pistol website. He has won the overall state outdoor championship nine times since its inception in 2001; the only other shooter who has won it more than once is Ron Steinbrecher, who has captured the title just twice. Lange was also the NJ resident champion in 2015, though he lost the overall title to Rich Kang.
Lange is the author of a piece for Shooting Sports USA, linked to the NJ Pistol website, detailing the benefits of dry-firing…firing a weapon without ammunition. With dry-firing, a shooter can focus on weaknesses, like maintaining consistent grip. Lange states in the piece that he practices his dry-firing three times a day, 15 minutes each time.
With dry-firing, a shooter can run a mental program through his mind of executing a successful shot; Lange’s program involves picturing a red dot in the center of the bull’s eye and then picturing the bull’s eye with the bullet hole in the center.
Dry-firing can address any shooter’s specific problem, Lange says. The key is being willing to commit to it until a shooter’s scores improve. Given his success, he’s probably got a point.
The Best in the Nation
The NJ State Outdoor Pistol Championship, according to Frank Greco, is the 3rd largest of such events in the nation; the national event, known as the “World Series of the Shooting Sports”, takes place in Camp Perry, Ohio, 40 miles east of Toledo. Events have been held there since 1907.
The overall National Pistol champion for 2015 is Keith Sanderson from Colorado Springs. He scored an incredible 2,655 points out of a possible 2,700. Second was Brian Zins with a score of 2,641. Sanderson is an Olympic gold medalist; Zins was the 2007 NJ State Champion.
To put those scores into perspective, do the math: 2,655 divided by 270 shots equals an average shot score of 9.83…so Sanderson’s average shot was almost always in that three-inch range for ten points, with maybe one or two in a hundred falling outside of it for a nine-pointer.
The difference between Sanderson’s and Zins’ score was just 14 50-yard shots out of 270 that covered a five inch range instead of three.
One wonders if Zins thought about having a donut the week before the match.
The Phillie Phanatic is the greatest mascot in sports…largely because original Phanatic Dave Raymond simply put on the costume, went out and had fun. I had a chance interviewed Dave, who now creates team mascots as the owner of Raymond Entertainment Group, for the April 2015 issue of JerseyMan. You can view the PDF of the magazine article here.
The Power of Fun
Imagine being a business owner who is looking to improve your marketing. You want a smart, polished, exciting campaign to bring life into your adequate but unmemorable image. You want to target a younger audience that otherwise might not discover your product.
Needless to say, this problem requires professional expertise, so you call in a consultant.
A consultant who, for much of his adult life, made his living wearing a furry green costume, recklessly riding around in an ATV and thrusting his ample hips at sports officials.
Because if your company is a minor league baseball team, and the idea is to bring more kids to the ballpark, and you want to create a mascot on that basis, hiring the original Phillie Phanatic to handle the design is a no-brainer.
As the man behind arguably the most beloved mascot in sports, who today is the “Emperor of Fun” at Raymond Entertainment Group, Dave Raymond understands the marketing value of a fun diversion.
Even if he learned it by accident.
“The joke was that the Phillies got the kid that was stupid enough to say yes,” Raymond says with a laugh. “I was a student at the University of Delaware. I had my fraternity brothers telling me, ‘they’re gonna kill you, they’re gonna hang you in effigy and set you on fire, and that’s when the Phillies win! When they lose you’re really gonna get in trouble!’
“That first day, I went into Bill Giles’s office and said, ‘Mr. Giles, what do you want me to do?’ A smile came across his face and he said, ‘I want you to have fun.’ I was tearing out of his office thinking, ‘Wow, this is going to be easy,’ and he screamed, ‘G-rated fun!’
“The first night I fell over a railing by accident, and people laughed. So I was thinking, I have to fall down more. Slapstick humor was something I loved, I was a Three Stooges fan, I watched all the cartoons. It was Daffy Duck and Foghorn Leghorn and Three Stooges because that’s what they laughed about.”
Dancing with the grounds crew quickly caught on, too.
“The first night I did that, I tripped one of the guys by accident, the kid tripped and fell, and people laughed. That turned into me running around the bases and at each base I would knock one of the kids over, and then we would all gather behind home plate and dance. Fans were giving us standing ovations, because they’d never seen the grounds crew animated!”
In a rabid and brutally unsentimental sports town, it also didn’t hurt that the Phanatic could so effectively taunt the opposition. Tommy Lasorda, who could often be described as a cartoon character himself, once even wrote a blog post titled “I Hate The Phillie Phanatic”.
Raymond gets along with Lasorda and has read the post. Their feud was usually friendly, but it could escalate: “One night he just snapped, and he came out and tried to beat the ever-lovin’ you-know-what out of the Phanatic.”
The two smoothed it over, but Raymond retains his proud Philadelphian perspective towards the Dodgers icon. “He’s a wonderful ambassador for baseball; the only problem with him is that he’s a Dodgers fan from Philadelphia. Worst type of traitor we could ever have,” he laughs.
“I understood the psyche of the Philadelphia fan. I was one of them! I hated the Mets, I hated the Yankees, I hated the Celtics. And the Dallas Cowboys, to this day, I see Tony Romo in a commercial about pizza and I run and turn the TV off. I knew the fans would cheer when I stepped on a Mets hat or made fun of the Dodgers. I wanted to do that, because I hated the Dodgers, and I hated the Mets!
“It was that type of thing, and you put all those together and make a cartoon character out of it.”
Today Dave Raymond brings a lifetime of experience as a world-famous character to Raymond Entertainment Group, which designs and builds mascots for sports teams and even corporations.
REG focuses on marketing the Power of Fun. It’s not an easy trick to blend two seemingly opposite concepts like fun and business, but Raymond can speak from solid experience.
“I watched my kids become Phillies fans because of the Phanatic. They wanted to go to games because they had fun. And they learned how to watch baseball and appreciate baseball. My daughters fell in love with the players because they looked cute in baseball uniforms. And now they are not letting me leave when I want to beat the traffic. From a marketing standpoint, the Phanatic’s building baseball fans.”
So in dealing with clients, Raymond emphasizes how valuable—to their bottom line—their furry representative can be. The goofy character in a bird costume is a worthwhile business investment, and for it to pay off, it needs to be done right.
“The first thing we do is make sure they understand the difference between a kid in a costume and a character brand. A character brand is a living, breathing extension of your brand, and a kid in a costume is just that.
“We research who they are in terms of the organization’s history, and who their community is in terms of the history. We help sketch out a back story that becomes the story of the character.
“They look at designs and they play Mr. Potato Head, they tell us what they like or more importantly what they don’t like, and then we go back and continue to draw until we get a design, we assign the copyright to that design, and then build multiple costumes for them. We help prime performers and train them.
“Also, what are you doing with the character brand? How are you rolling it out? How are you trying to get sponsorships? By the time we roll out the character, they should already know when they’re going to make all their money back, and when they’ll start making a profit.
“If they don’t do due diligence, frankly, I don’t want them as a customer. If they don’t want the best, they’re not gonna value the best.
“There are people saying I need a kid to get in my suit; right away I know that’s probably a client I don’t want. This is a character costume, it’s not a suit. It’s not a kid, it’s a trained performer. If you don’t want that, we’re not the ones for you. It’s a good thing not to waste time trying to make people buy from me. You’re not going to be able to service everybody.”
That’s not to say that REG doesn’t have a long list of satisfied clients; happy customers include the Cincinnati Reds, whose mascot “Gapper” is an REG creation, the Toledo Mud Hens, the Delmarva Shorebirds and the Phillies affiliate Lakewood Blue Claws, among many others. Raymond estimates that REG has created over a hundred characters, including at least ten for corporations.
“What separates us is that no one has the track record of success that we’ve had for not only designing and building, but also helping clients make money, drive revenue and brand, find performers and train them.”
It’s a seemingly natural progression for Raymond: from being an eager young intern who spent sixteen years bringing an inimitable brand of fun to a community, to now supporting a family by showing others how they can do it too.
“I’ve been to a lot of business training seminars, and they always ask what your ‘why’ is. My ‘why’ is, I want my marriage to be great, I want my kids to have good parents, and I want them to grow up and get married and have a great family. Every time I get a check for something, I’m going this is great, now I can pay my salary, and I can invest in what’s important to me, which is my kids and my relationship with my wife.
“Also, I’ve been delivering this presentation, which is the life lesson that the Phanatic has taught me, how powerful fun is to building a family and raising kids or whatever you’re doing. Using fun as a distracting tool is so powerful.
“That’s truly what I love doing more than anything else, getting in front of people and telling these stories and hopefully giving them something that helps them. I’m focused on going into Philadelphia, in the corporate community, and preaching the Power of Fun.”
If anyone knows how to appeal to sports types in the City of Brotherly Love, it’s Dave Raymond. After all, he’s lived it.
“One of the things I miss the most about not working as the Phanatic is the connection to the Philadelphia fan base. Once Phillies fans love you, they love you forever, and it’s almost impossible to do anything to get to the point where they don’t love you.
“That was the beauty of being the Phanatic.”
“This Costume Stinks!”
One service that Raymond Entertainment Group offers is costume cleaning…a surprisingly neglected aspect of mascot performance for many teams. The cleaning includes a “State of The Fur” analysis. A performer in a smelly costume is not a pleasant one, as Dave notes.
“The Phanatic opportunity for me, it truly was the best job you could ever imagine. But there were things about it that I hated. I hated that costume getting beer spilled on it, for example. I’m very anal retentive, I can’t stand things out of place, and it just drove me crazy. So I was meticulous about how I cleaned that costume.
“The first year, the people in New York that built it said they couldn’t wash it. You couldn’t even imagine what it smelled like. I finally just threw the thing in my bathtub with Woolite. I thought, I don’t care if I ruin it, it can’t smell like this anymore. When I got done cleaning it, it smelled great, and I wrote a note to the people in New York saying hey, this is how you clean it, and they were like, wow!”
Dave actually will frequently take on the cleaning tasks at REG. “This is what small business is about. I’m cleaning a lot of costumes myself. It’s just something that doesn’t require any great skill; you just spend a little time doing it. I have people that help and clean and restore the costumes. But I jump in there and do it a lot. It’s one of those healthy distractions for my mind.”
The “State of The Fur” analysis is for advice on cleaning and storage. “We try to give them feedback on what we all think they’re doing based on what is wrong with the costume. We want to have our eyes on it, because then our costumes last longer. Then people will say hey, when you get a costume from Raymond Entertainment it lasts for ten years.
“We prefer that rather than make money on rebuilding costumes, although we do that. It’s better that they know that their costume lasts three times longer than the competition.”
Mascot Boot Camp
Although Raymond Entertainment Group trains performers as part of their character creation package, Dave Raymond also hosts “Mascot Boot Camp”, where performers spend a weekend learning all about the business of being a character in a costume and non-verbal communication. It’s for everyone from new mascots learning the trade to longtime performers looking to rehabilitate their skills.
“It’s a great reality experience. If you want to experience what it’s like to be a mascot, come and experience mascot boot camp,” Dave says. “We’ve never marketed it for that, but it’s a lot of fun and they learn to move and communicate non-verbally, they learn how to take care of their costume, and learn how to take care of themselves physically.
“It’s a deep dive into mascot performance, there’s a real method to it now, where once it was Bill Giles telling me to go have fun.”
There’s another important rule of mascot performance: keep it safe.
“Lighting yourself on fire and jumping off a building and crashing into the ground might be something that people will talk about from now until the end of time, but you’re gonna kill yourself. And you’re gonna ruin the costume.”
REG’s “Angel Investor” – Sir Charles
Every business needs capital to get off the ground, and when Dave Raymond sought an investor for his idea to design and build characters, he found what he calls an “angel investor” who is well familiar with Philadelphia sports…Charles Barkley.
“When he would come to the Phillies games,” Raymond says of Sir Charles, “he would have fun with the Phanatic and we did a couple of routines here and there, where he was smacking the Phanatic around. It was fun. Charles invited me to hang out with him and some of his friends in Birmingham when I was doing minor league baseball in Birmingham one weekend.
“I just called him up, and he said my financial guy likes it, I’ll be happy to do it. His financial guy said listen, people haven’t paid Charles back over the years. I said, well, I’m dedicated to paying him back. I haven’t paid him every cent back, but he keeps telling me don’t worry, it’s no big deal. Charles just wanted to help. In the description of an angel investor, Charles Barkley’s picture should be in whatever dictionary or manual that is talking about angel this or that.
“Nobody knows that sort of thing. Charles has done that hundreds of times, he’s just a generous guy, one of the best people on the planet. I’ll be working until I close the business down to make sure he gets every penny back.”
Dave Raymond did some consulting for the 76ers in the rollout of their new mascot, a blue dog named Franklin. The humorous back story of Franklin on the 76ers website shows Franklin’s “ancestors” throughout Philadelphia history, including a missing bite out of Wilt Chamberlain’s “100” sign following Wilt’s 100-point game.
Raymond believes Franklin will be a success, despite the recent “controversy” surrounding the character—that Darnell Smith, who wears the Franklin costume, was a Knicks fan.
“One of the things he said to me was, I really need to be a Philadelphia fan, you gotta help me with who the Philadelphia fans are. He worked for MSG, and he was a mascot for the Liberty, the WNBA team. He’s done a lot of work with their performance team, the dunk team, all of that for the Knicks.
“Darnell is an awesome human being and an unbelievably gifted performer. I went to the first game that he was at just a couple of weeks ago and brought my kids, and he was kind enough to come up and interact with us. All the fans in our section were screaming for him. It was for kids by kids, which is what Tim McDermott said he wanted to do.
“What’s nice about it is that he recognized that getting in touch with the psyche of the Philadelphia fan was important. That just shows what a good performer he is. He’s an asset to the 76ers organization, I’m glad they got him.”
In the early 2000s, NASCAR was soaring. It may be difficult for younger people to imagine it, but the sport was once poised to overtake the NFL in popularity. Yes, that’s actually true; read it again if you need to. So what cause the decline of NASCAR to the point where the sport is desperately trying to remain relevant?
I covered NASCAR for six seasons for two excellent racing websites, That’s Racin’ (the Charlotte Observer’s racing site) and the Frontstretch. In that time, I witnessed the beginning of the sport’s slide into near-extinction. I’m also someone who became a disenchanted former fan myself.
Having followed the sport in the time frame when it began, I can offer what I believe are the real reasons for the decline of NASCAR. I can also dispute other reasons for it that I see being offered today. This is all just ultimately my opinion, but it’s a carefully considered one.
I’ll start with a few things that I don’t believe caused the decline of NASCAR, then I’ll share what I think really did.
The Decline of NASCAR, Non-Reason #1: The Cars Are Too Spec
I’ll submit that this is a reason a few fans I know stopped watching the sport. In NASCAR’s pre-1990s heyday, when it was still very much a regional sport, manufacturer identity was a big thing. People rooted for car brands as well as drivers, and car companies believed in the whole “win on Sunday, sell on Monday” mantra.
However, by the time NASCAR was peaking in the early 2000s, there already wasn’t much manufacturer identity left. The cars already were mostly spec at that point, and the sport was doing just fine…booming even. The decline of NASCAR from dominance started circa 2005, and there wasn’t any big change to car specs in that time period.
All that said, the unveiling of the “Car of Tomorrow” in 2007 certainly didn’t help. It was boxy, ugly, and top heavy…and its shape was part of the reason for the Indianapolis debacle of 2008. In that race, caution flags were flown almost every ten laps for tire wear, as Jimmie Johnson limped to a victory. The fan backlash was loud and intense. If any single event hastened the decline of NASCAR, it was Indy 2008.
But in a relatively short time, NASCAR corrected the car and the multiple issues with its design, and while the cars don’t differ by manufacturer like they once did, at least we’re not seeing disastrously awful races just because of the car’s construction. In fact, the current car lends itself to some pretty good racing.
Lack of manufacturer identity may have been a reason some hardcore fans left the sport in the early 1990s, but that doesn’t seem to me to be a valid reason for the sport’s popularity plunge since 2005.
The Decline of NASCAR, Non-Reason #2: It’s Gotten Too Safe
I’m not sure why people would think this, although I’d actually had some heated debates with Tom Bowles at the Frontstretch about it. Bowlesy thinks there needs to be an element of risk for racing to be exciting; I don’t tune in to races to see a car potentially fly into a catch fence and injure spectators.
NASCAR did (and still does) market the possibility of spectacular wrecks. I’ll never forget seeing Elliott Sadler’s terrifying end-over-end crash at Talladega in 2003 – and seeing it again in every single ad for Talladega races for the next 3-4 years. Maybe there is a segment of fans who tune in for death-defying calamities, but that has always been a part of the sport and still is.
I can’t imagine any fan of Dale Earnhardt Sr.…and there were a lot of them…not wanting to see the sport take every measure it could to keep drivers safe after Daytona 2001. This isn’t to say that the initial Car of Tomorrow wasn’t a disaster…it was…but at the time, fans were plenty vocal about safety after the loss of the sport’s biggest icon.
For any fan that needs racing to be dangerous, there are still four restrictor plate races on the schedule. But plate racing still sucks…not only do plates produce multi-car crashes every event, they pervert the standings because of it.
I’m not buying the “it’s too safe” bit as a cause for the decline of NASCAR. Racing is still pretty danged dangerous. Just because no one has been killed at the Cup level since Earnhardt’s death doesn’t make it less so.
The Decline of NASCAR, Possible Reason #1: Jimmie Johnson’s Winning
Jimmie Johnson was a hallmark of ruthless efficiency in his prime, winning seven titles and five in a row. With his brilliant head wrench Chad Knaus on the pit box, the #48 team for years remorselessly laid the field to waste when playoff time started.
Jimmie won a lot. Which meant that other drivers didn’t win a lot. If that contributed to NASCAR’s decline, however, that is on NASCAR.
NASCAR possessed one of the greatest dynasties in the history of sports during Jimmie’s reign. Yet instead of focusing their marketing on Johnson’s unequaled supremacy, NASCAR chose to put all of their marketing eggs into the Danica Patrick basket, believing a swimsuit model who could drive a racecar would save the sport.
Danica turned out to be a huge bust…as many people who followed the sport closely, including yours truly, predicted she would be. (It wasn’t a tough call to make, if you actually looked at her results instead of her body.)
Dynasties like Johnson’s aren’t bad for a sport…unless the sport doesn’t know how to market them. The Yankees were always good for baseball. Tiger Woods was great for golf. The Patriots’ domination was great for the NFL. People love a winner, they love to hate a winner, and they love to see a dynasty get taken down. The #48 team should have been a gold mine.
So no, Johnson’s domination wasn’t directly a factor in the decline of NASCAR – but their failure to market it most definitely was.
The Decline of NASCAR, Possible Reason #2: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Losing
By virtue of his father’s untimely passing, Dale Earnhardt Jr. instantly found himself with a larger fan base than any three drivers in NASCAR. As the son of one of the greatest racecar drivers in history, Junior also had an impossible standard to live up to.
But for whatever reason, Junior not only didn’t measure up to his father’s formidable reputation, he rarely even established himself as a contender. Much like Kyle Petty, he ultimately became more known for his good-guy personality and his lineage than for his achievements on the racetrack. As Junior’s fortunes continued to trend downward even while driving for the strongest team in the sport, his fan base became turned off. And he had a very large fan base.
It could be argued that Junior was the sport’s last link to its tobacco-chewing, Southern past; once Jeff Gordon tore up the sport, drivers started to appear from every corner of the country. But the sport’s most dedicated fans were (and are) still in the Southeast, and Southerners are loyal to the core to their heritage.
It’s possible that the most popular driver not performing well hurt the sport, given the sport’s fan demographic. However, like Johnson’s dominance, I doubt that this would have been as much of a problem were it not for other factors that were far more damaging.
So here are three actual reasons for the decline of NASCAR. Still with me? OK, here we go.
The Decline of NASCAR, Actual Reason #1: The Chase
One of Brian France’s very first acts as CEO of NASCAR sealed his doom as a respectable heir to a business, and nothing he did for the rest of his tenure would change that perception.
I don’t often see NASCAR’s ill-conceived playoff idea as a reason people cite for the decline of NASCAR in articles I read these days, but I promise you, that was not the case when I covered the sport. NASCAR’s initial playoff brainchild was hugely unpopular, and every griping fan in comment sections of blogs everywhere had the artificial points reset near the top of their list of complaints.
It’s not so much that the points reset NASCAR introduced in 2004 was a monumentally stupid idea. It was, but even that wasn’t the point. It was the insistent implementation of it over loud objections of fans. NASCAR polled fans about the idea on their website following the 2003 season, and fans overwhelmingly rejected it. They shut down the polls and went ahead with it anyway.
If you want to attribute the decline of NASCAR to arrogant leadership, look no further than that single act. It was blatant condescension towards what was arguably the most loyal fanbase in sports. Why poll the fans if you’re just going to ignore them?
That and it really was a stupid idea.
In case you weren’t there or don’t remember, in 2004 NASCAR welcomed their new series sponsor, Nextel (now Sprint), with a new “playoff” system called the “Chase”. After 26 of 36 races, the top ten drivers would have their points reset, putting them all on a level playing field again for the last ten races.
Yes, NASCAR actually believed an artificial points reset after two thirds of the season was the move that was going to catapult them past the NFL.
Making matters worse, within four years, the driver with the second largest fan base finished with the most points in a season twice, only to lose the title to a points reset.
It’s not often noticed, but it was definitely noticed by Jeff Gordon fans: had NASCAR not implemented the Chase, the driver of the iconic #24 could have been the one standing aside Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty today with seven titles, instead of his protégé Jimmie Johnson. Gordon scored the most points overall of any driver in 2004, 2007, and 2014. Nothing against Jimmie Johnson for winning titles with the rules as written, but he only managed that feat twice.
Gordon wasn’t the only driver who turned in a spectacular season-long performance only to have it nullified. In 2008 Kyle Busch smoked the field for the first 26 races, winning eight of them and setting the NASCAR world on fire with his brash and unapologetic racing style. After two DNFs in the first two Chase events resulting from simple bad luck, just like that his title hopes were gone. I was critical of the Chase in plenty of columns, but I felt like I really got the point across with this one about it.
It’s largely forgotten now, because the sport’s current elimination format playoff system at least had some thought put into it. It rewards winning, which rewards fighting for wins, which creates rivalries.
But the initial “Chase”, an artificial and contrived points reset, was despised by fans. It was a radical change to a sport that didn’t need radical changes. You could say it was NASCAR’s New Coke, except Coca-Cola was smart enough to change the formula back in response to furious customer backlash.
If they hadn’t, you’d probably be reading articles today about the decline of Coca-Cola too.
The Decline of NASCAR, Actual Reason #2: The Broadcasts
I don’t need to tell anyone who was a fan in the 2000s this, but NASCAR’s broadcasts at the time may have been the worst in the history of sports. Fox Sports’s coverage was particularly abominable, with a seemingly endless parade of commercial interruptions mixed with the Ford Cutaway Car, the Home Depot Pit Crew Member, the Viagra Boner Of The Race, whatever, all during green flag racing.
Mike Joy is an outstanding announcer, and it was never a big deal for a fan to mute Darrell Waltrip’s exponentially annoying “boogity boogity boogity!” at the green flag. But it was a never ending source of irritation to see five laps of racing followed by a several minute commercial break, which was then followed by another minute of a wide angle shot of the venue and “This race is being brought to you by <several companies who also paid an obscene amount of money to NASCAR>.”
There were often times…and I’m not exaggerating this…when a viewer would see maybe five laps of racing, a two-minute break, and then just two more laps of racing before another break. Anyone who was watching then could tell you that wasn’t unusual at all.
This was a problem that actually needed to be addressed and wasn’t. NASCAR blew off fan demand for picture-in-picture commercial breaks…something they’ve since embraced…while Fox Sports’s indifference to fans went completely unchecked. It was another case of costly arrogance; as much as fans loved NASCAR, they didn’t love it enough to put up with an endlessly saturated marketing campaign featuring occasional snippets of racing each week.
One shining example was a 2010 Dover race…a “playoff” race, no less…where ESPN broke away with 11 laps to go in a very much undecided event for an ad break. Dover is a 1-mile track, and 11 laps does not take long. I remember watching it and literally wondering if I was going to see the finish of the race. I wasn’t the only one who noticed…as this blog post’s comments demonstrated.
NASCAR made an absurd amount of money with their television contracts in the 2000s, but that ultimately cost them a sizable chunk of the audience when networks were forced to make it worth their while. The broadcasts really were over-saturated with ads enough to drive fans away.
And I said all that without even bringing up that profoundly irritating cartoon gopher.
The Decline of NASCAR, Actual Reason #3: The Venues
Speaking of disrespecting your fan base, how about needlessly putting an end to a beloved 54-year tradition? That’s exactly what NASCAR did when they took the Labor Day race out of Darlington and sent it to Auto Club Speedway in California. It took quite a few years of longtime fans bitching about that, but NASCAR did finally move the Labor Day Southern 500 back to Darlington.
The move of the Labor Day race to California was part of an ongoing trend. In response to its rapidly growing popularity nationwide, NASCAR moved away from the Southeast fans who brought the sport to the dance, and began holding races in places like Vegas, Chicago and Los Angeles.
But that in itself wasn’t necessarily the crime. You couldn’t entirely blame NASCAR for no longer holding events in places like North Wilkesboro or Rockingham or even Darlington, which lost a race on the schedule for several years. The markets simply couldn’t support them anymore.
The problem was the tracks that replaced them…nearly all of them were characterless, cookie-cutter speedways where aero package ruled the day. In 1994, there were six events held at intermediate tracks of 1.5-2 miles in length. Just ten years later, there were 13 such events…nearly half the schedule.
That isn’t insignificant when it comes to explaining the decline of NASCAR. When you think of the venues that have showcased the most memorable events in the sport’s history, Daytona, Darlington, and Bristol often come to mind. Atlanta has had some classics, but that was partly by virtue of the venue hosting the championship race, such as Alan Kulwicki’s unforgettable title win in 1992.
NASCAR moved away from tracks where drivers push and shove and fight both other racecars and the track, and moved to aero-dependent speedways where engineers in the garage determined winners. As a result, teams with more resources…such as Hendrick Motorsports and Roush Racing…won big for years.
But more importantly, the racing isn’t anywhere near as exciting at the cookie cutters, as I so eloquently explained here. I also suggested a solution…that NASCAR emulate how baseball exploded in popularity after the opening of Camden Yards. Even more so than in baseball, the on-screen product is affected with the layout of a track. It makes a world of difference watching on TV.
You also don’t often see post-race fisticuffs after races at Kansas or Vegas like you might at Martinsville or Bristol. Those moments generate interest…and rivalries, which every sport needs.
Fortunately, NASCAR is finally addressing this…
How NASCAR Can Rise Again
I have reasons to believe that NASCAR can return to previous levels of popularity…maybe not on the verge of overtaking the NFL again, but at least back to a point where they have enough of a dedicated fanbase to be a solid performer in ratings and ticket sales.
Since this is a non-ideological blog, I won’t get into the things that the NFL, NBA and MLB have recently done to drive away a significant portion of their fanbases. We all know what I’m talking about. I expect that will be a boon to NASCAR’s future.
As I’ve said, the sport is finally addressing its venue problem. The 2021 campaign includes six road course races, a dirt race at Bristol (!), and a race at the concrete venue of Nashville for the first time. Labor Day is in Darlington where it belongs, and Darlington is hosting two events again. And the season will conclude at Phoenix again, a more exciting venue than Miami where the finale had been for years. There are still 11 races on “intermediate” tracks, but it’s finally moving in the right direction.
These are bold changes, but this variety of tracks will test drivers and teams at every level. No longer will teams win titles by dominating speedways; driver skill will be more of a factor, as it should be.
In addition, the current playoff format, while far from perfect, isn’t nearly as unpalatable as the Chase was. It rewards winning and risk taking, where the Chase rewarded points racing and avoiding risk. Yes, a team can still dominate all season and lose a championship to a flat tire, but at least it’s not just an artificial points reset. With the current playoff point structure, drivers are also somewhat rewarded for strong season-long performances as well…while the Chase completely disregarded excellence during the season.
The broadcasts have also improved. There are still plenty of obscene profit breaks, but it’s far less aggravating when you can still see the action and leader board on part of the screen. NASCAR was plenty defiant resisting this idea at their peak…but these days, they’re not in a position to ignore displeased fans.
The sport no longer has Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Jimmie Johnson, so there’s an opportunity for new fan favorites to emerge, formed by on-track performance rather than sentiment. Veterans like Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick are future Hall of Fame drivers with fairly large followings, and a strong crop of young drivers are making names for themselves.
NASCAR’s 2020 champion is also its most popular driver…for the first time since 1988. Chase Elliott, like his 1988 champion father Bill, is from Dawsonville, Georgia…the Southeast…and he has the lineage factor as the son of a well-liked champion. Nepotism isn’t dead in NASCAR. Elliott is a great driver and a likable kid, and he doesn’t take any crap…he doesn’t shy away from wrecking a driver like Denny Hamlin if the situation called for it. (It did.) He is likely to build a fan base fast.
The decline of NASCAR was a combination of ill-considered decisions: the implementation of a contrived playoff, poorly thought out broadcasting contracts, and departing from unique and venerable venues for dull, unexciting ones. It didn’t help that a hugely popular driver underperformed, but that shouldn’t have caused this much of a free fall.
After years of seeing its once enormous audience dwindle to almost nothing, NASCAR is finally righting the ship. Ousting Brian France, who created the Chase and presided over the sport’s decline, was no small part of that. But they’ve also improved the schedule, the broadcasts, and the method of determining a champion. It took time, maybe too much time, but NASCAR is finally addressing the three biggest reasons for the decline of the sport.
And while 2020 has been anything but usual especially in the sports world, NASCAR was the one sport that didn’t suffer a significant ratings drop. For the first time in over a decade and a half, they seem to be headed in the right direction.
So if I’m right, in a few years NASCAR may become America’s summer sport again.
And maybe this time, they will have learned from their mistakes.
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I first met Baseball Joe Vogel on June 12, 2016, while meeting up with friend and fellow baseball road tripper Dan Davies and his group of traveling friends, who invited me to join them in Pittsburgh. He’s become a good friend and I always meet with him when I’m in Pittsburgh.
It was a picture-perfect day at stunning PNC Park, as the Pirates prepared to battle the Cardinals in a late afternoon matchup.
On this day, though, baseball isn’t the only thing on the mind of the Bucs faithful.
Sidney Crosby and the Penguins are in San Jose this evening, set to seal the deal on a fourth Stanley Cup for the city. Which they would, a few hours after the ballgame ends. Penguins jerseys, tees and caps can be seen in large numbers for a baseball crowd.
At one point during the game, a young fan brings out a mock, almost-life-size aluminum foil Stanley Cup and parades it proudly around a section in the right field corner. It gets a round of sustained applause from the excited fans sitting in the area.
But despite being a Pittsburgh native from birth, Joe Vogel is having none of this.
Without warning, as if duty calls him, he springs from his chair in the right field cove and disappears into the concourse. Seconds later he can be seen roaming the section where the Cup-carrying fan was. To the great amusement of his buddies in the cove, Vogel spends several minutes determinedly searching for the fan, who by this point is long gone.
The laughter in Vogel’s section grows louder as his determined search continues well beyond the amount of time one would think the situation warranted. Because after several innings of sitting with this character, they know exactly why he is seeking out the proud hockey fan.
It was to shame him. To frown on him. To educate the young lad on priorities.
Because as Baseball Joe Vogel will always let you know, only baseball matters. Every other sport is a waste of time.
Baseball Joe is deaf and mute from three debilitating strokes. He communicates through gestures and hand signals, with a small keyboard, or on a folded piece of paper with the alphabet on it.
He lives in an apartment in downtown Pittsburgh, a short walk across the Clemente Bridge from PNC Park. Baseball, Pirates baseball, is his life. It has been since he was a young boy. He proclaims himself the “biggest baseball fan anywhere”, and thus far in my near half century of existence I haven’t met a bigger one…which, if you knew my father, is saying something.
The Pirates know him well. He occasionally plays catch with manager Clint Hurdle and even advises him at times via e-mail. Courtesy of a team that loves his dedication, he has season tickets and attends every game in the covered handicapped section in right field, underneath the right field bleachers. He can’t be in the sun for too long. He may be the only fan in PNC Park who doesn’t care about the picturesque city backdrop.
Sitting with him, it’s almost impossible to pay attention to the game, especially as opposing hitters tee off on Pirates pitching as the Cards would that night. Baseball Joe is every bit as entertaining as the action on the field…constantly having conversations with bystanders in his own way, patiently communicating with his keyboard or well-worn piece of paper when people have difficulty understanding his gestures.
He carries a baseball that he frequently tosses to passing ushers, who nonchalantly toss it back to him, knowing the routine. Throughout the game, other team employees stop to greet him. He constantly collects souvenirs and seems to have a never-ending supply of the large soda cups, one of which he shares with me.
Throughout the evening loud laughter is heard in the section at both his knowledge of baseball and his chastising of fellow fans for their comparatively insufficient reverence for the game.
At one point, he asks me if I like any other sports. Forgetting his disdain for the hockey fan, I tell him I like NASCAR too, and he shakes his head. He pretends to be driving a car, and then frowns at me and does the shame symbol with his fingers. He then holds up a baseball and makes a circular motion with his finger. By this point it’s understood. Baseball, year-round.
All night long, it never stops. With his keypad, he fires baseball trivia questions at his buddies…like “Name two players in the Hall of Fame that have the same first and middle names.” A wiseacre in the group replies, with great bombast as if he’s sure of the answer, “Ken Griffey Senior and Ken Griffey Junior!”
As the rest of the group laughs, Joe smiles, turns to me and informs me: Henry Louis Aaron and Henry Louis Gehrig, or Joseph Paul DiMaggio and Joseph Paul Torre.
Later Dan, who took Joe along with his group to several ballparks and the Hall of Fame, told me the story of his wiping up the floor with an interactive trivia game at the Hall. If there was a baseball edition of “Jeopardy”, Baseball Joe would be Ken Jennings.
Baseball Joe holds the distinction of being the first fan to ask for my autograph, at least as an author of baseball books.
At the Pirates game, he asked me to send him the PNC Park E-Guide…and to autograph it for him. He also gave me firm instructions…make sure I sign my full name, middle name included, and do it neatly, which I am not accustomed to doing with my usual chicken scratch of a signature. He’s a stickler, this one, especially when it comes to matters baseball.
Joe loved the E-Guide and raved about it to me in an e-mail…a badge of honor…but he also had a few suggestions: elaborate more on seating, include some photos in the whitespace, and maybe talk more about food and such. He is the first fan ever to complain to me that there isn’t enough information in a Ballpark E-Guide.
He has been repeatedly asking me to send him guides for Wrigley and for Busch in St. Louis, should I ever write that one. I will. I’m always happy to have an audience.
A few days after the Pittsburgh experience, I met up with Baseball Joe and the group again, this time in Citizens Bank Park in my hometown of Philly. I found them a free parking spot and sat with them in the upper level for the evening. Throughout the evening, Joe kept me entertained, once again more often than the action on the field.
I tell him I am an Orioles fan, and he holds up fingers…first seven and then one. I immediately get it. 1971 World Series. Pirates over the Birds in seven. I was three.
Then he makes a “7” and a “9” with his fingers. 1979. The Pirates, led by Pops Stargell and rallying around the passing of manager Chuck Tanner’s mother, come back from 3-1 to once again beat the O’s in seven games. My response is to hang my head and to pretend to rub tears from my eyes, illustrating the heartbreak of the 11-year-old Orioles fan that year. “I still NEVER dance to ‘We Are Family’”, I inform him.
He nods, understanding. He does the eye rub himself when he brings up the Pirates’ long stretch of down years.
He asks me who my favorite player is, and when I say Cal Ripken Jr., he quickly replies on his keyboard with a stat for me: “Lowest batting average of any player with 3,000 hits”. Sigh.
When I show Joe a picture of my daughter posing with baseball-themed stuffed animals that I’ve brought home for her from my travels, he briefly types on his keyboard and shows me. “You so blessed,” it reads. “Me haves no family.”
I instantly feel both sad for him and guilty about the occasional dissatisfaction I feel with my own life. He’s right. I am so blessed. I not only have two beautiful and healthy kids, I still have time for the only sport that matters.
Long after the crowd has filed out of Citizens Bank Park that night, Baseball Joe manages to make a few ushers uncomfortable with his refusal to leave the seating bowl before collecting as many souvenir cups as he can. You can see clear agitation growing in the ushers’ eyes as they anticipate a confrontation. Joe seems oblivious to the approaching ballpark police, but he exits the seating bowl at what seems the exact moment before the ushers turn snooty. He’s a pro at this.
Back at the hotel where the traveling fans are staying, Baseball Joe and I pose for a picture, and he surprises me with a huge bear hug. Apparently I’ve made a good impression. I’m grateful that he’s not upset with me for showing him family photos.
Joe and I e-mail each other frequently. In his e-mails to me the subject line is almost always “Baseball 24 7 366”—making sure he’s covered in leap years. His e-mails are usually brief but always thoughtful…wishing my family a great holiday season, asking me to send along more E-Guides when I can, and sharing his thoughts on the Pirates’ fortunes. Shortly after the Pirates failed to make the playoffs in 2016, he sent me an e-mail with the words “Pirates eliminated – me cry” in it. For 33 years and counting, this Orioles fan has known the feeling.
I’m always grateful to hear from him. Because whenever I reflect on it, he’s right. Other sports are a waste of time.
And Baseball Joe knows as well as anyone that our time is too valuable to waste.
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When a magazine suggests you write a piece about blind baseball players, you have to take on the assignment just to see how in the wide world of sports such a thing is possible. But indeed it is, and I covered the Boston Renegades for the Summer 2019 issue of BostonMan. You can read the article on their website here, or see the magazine article PDF here.
The Association of Blind Citizens Boston Renegades are a powerhouse in Beep Baseball, a form of baseball played by legally blind people.
On the website for the Association of Blind Citizens Boston Renegades, the local Beep Baseball team, you can find a short video trailer for their documentary.
In the video, mere seconds after one player tells his heart-wrenching story of being literally struck blind, coach Rob Weissman is seen reprimanding his team. “You guys are going to pay for this bad practice,” he informs them. In another scene he lectures to a player, “Life isn’t fair. I worked my ass off when I played ball. I got cut every friggin’ time.”
Imagine telling a blind person that their desire is questionable. Talk about tough love.
But that’s exactly the point. At the end of the video, that same coach is seen firing up his players before the game, reminding them what success on the field is about. It’s about respect.
Rob Weissman cares enough to take a team of blind baseball players at the bottom of their league and mold them into dominant yearly contenders. In the last three seasons, they’ve compiled a 40-8 record and played in a national title game.
As coach says of the endeavor, it’s about more than winning games. It’s creating a culture of working together to achieve goals.
When asked about the video, Weissman chuckles knowingly, as if he’s fielded the question a few thousand times. He gets that it’s dramatization and that a viewer’s reaction is exactly the goal of the trailer, but he’s nowhere near that hard-nosed coach that comes across in a small few captured moments. “It’s a teaser,” he asserts for the record. “If I was that tough, no one would be with this team.”
As he explains, there was a desire to change the team culture at the time, and someone needed to take the bull by the horns and lead the way.
“They made a decision that they wanted to be competitive, but a lot of them had never been part of a competitive team. So a lot of learning needed to happen. It wasn’t going to be ‘let’s go get pounded by the top teams in the league, and everyone’s going to love us, because they’re going to beat the crap out of us and we’re going to pay for the beers afterwards, which is what it was early in the history of the team.
“I said, look, I’ll be able to get this team up and running and I’ll be able to bring in great volunteers, but we have to change the culture.”
It’s worked. Weissman and his staff…he is quick to credit team owner John Oliveira, coach and pitcher Peter Connolly, pitcher Ron Cochran and coach Bryan Grillo among others…have created a winning atmosphere in Boston beepball. All with home grown talent.
“I think that we are the only team in the history of the league to go from being the doormat of the league to making a title game, only using players from our roster,” Weissman notes. “A lot of other teams will bring in people from other cities. We’ve never done that. Every one of our players has grown up in our system. We’re really proud of that.”
Sometimes working your ass off is worth it.
Baseball for the blind. The words invoke instant confusion. Of the senses most needed to play baseball, vision easily tops the list.
Before you ponder how it’s possible for a someone to play baseball without seeing, consider this: there is a nationwide league. The National Beep Baseball Association features teams not just in Boston, but also in Chicago, Vegas, even Anchorage. There are 35 NBBA teams in all, and yes, there is a World Series.
Beep Baseball works like this: all players except the pitcher and catcher are completely blindfolded, to play on the same vision level despite their degree of blindness. The ball is softball-sized and is built with a beeping device in it, so defensive players can field it by following the sound when the coach calls out the fielding formation.
Batters are given four strikes, and the pitcher plays for the offensive team. The pitcher calls out to the batter when the pitch is thrown, and attempts to put the ball in the batter’s swing zone. If the batter makes contact and manages to hit the ball at least 40 feet, the defensive team moves to field the beeping ball. A ball hit further than 180 feet is considered a home run.
There’s no baserunning in the traditional sense. After contact, the batter runs towards one of two pylons that serve as bases, whichever one is buzzing. If a batter reaches the pylon before the ball is fielded cleanly, a run is scored. If the ball is fielded cleanly before the batter makes the bag, the batter is out. Games last six innings, or more if needed.
It’s easy to argue that a professional ballplayer hitting .350 is one of the most impressive achievements in sports. But even with a pitcher grooving the ball in a batter’s swing zone, it’s pretty impressive to see a blindfolded batter put a ball in play. If someone claimed that the Force was strong in better hitters, it wouldn’t be difficult to believe.
Peter Connolly, a pitcher and coach for the Renegades, explains the mechanics, and how hitters learn and improve their skills.
“It’s a combination of knowing your swing, being consistent, just honing in on your consistency. Maybe getting a little more power, maybe being able to go the other way in certain situations.
“If you can pop the ball up in the air for four seconds, you have a really good chance of getting to the bag. That’s another thing that you can hone onto, base running and getting faster. If you watch the good teams in the World Series, they have such speed that if they hit the ball and you don’t field it perfectly, it’s too late.”
Weissman agrees that just as with any sport, the skills can be learned. “We’ve all learned a lot over time about how to coach the sport better. And we’re constantly working on hitting mechanics.
“Joe Yee hit like 400 points higher than his career batting average last year. Some of that was him learning how to improve his individual skills, and being coachable enough to learn about how to move his hands, to be more aware of his bat path, to learn how to transfer his weight.”
Yee, incidentally, is Connolly’s cousin, and it’s an impressive pitcher-hitter battery.
“I think he was batting like .600 or something off of me last year,” Connolly says.
Despite that Rob Weissman disavows his appearance as a tough coach, he does point out that players on his team want to be treated like athletes, not disabled people.
He amusingly remembers the story of Steve Houston, a former college ballplayer who lost his sight to diabetes, growing visibly annoyed and chewing out a pitcher for “babying” him when he learned the pitcher was throwing underhand to him. It’s impossible not to admire the mental fortitude of a player who believes he can handle a high hard one while blindfolded.
That said, Weissman knows there are limits in some cases. The Renegades don’t cut players, and anyone who is willing to make the financial and time commitment can play.
“One of our players, Melissa Hoyt, has Mitochondrial disease. It makes it very hard for her to breathe at times. We have another player named Rob, doctors told him he’d never play competitive sports. He’s a diabetic, so they’ve got other issues. We can’t put them out and play them 18 innings in a day. I know that they’re not gonna make it through warmups without having to take a break.
“But they’re great teammates. They’re very supportive and everyone’s very supportive of them. One of the most memorable moments that we had last year was when Melissa, who’s been with the team for a very long time, scored her first run. Every single coach and player on the team was just fired up about that.
“One of the things that’s so cool and unique about this team is just how everyone supports each other. And that we get wins in various ways.”
Back in 2003, Rob Weissman, John Oliveira and company had a vision. To give blind citizens in the Boston area a chance to come together and achieve something special, through baseball of all things.
“When we took the field in the championship game,” Rob reflects, “for me, I think that was one of the proudest moments. It was like the Red Sox winning in 2004. And we wouldn’t have gotten here without the help of every single coach and player, past and present.”
Does Rob Weissman see a World Series victory in the Renegades’ future?
“I’d love to sit with you and say, our goal is to win a championship. But I think our goal every year is to be the best that we can be.”
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The Book of Beep Baseball
David Wanczyk, an English professor at Ohio University, was enthralled enough by the idea of beep baseball that he wrote a book about it, Beep: Inside the Unseen World of Baseball for the Blind.
In it Wanczyk chronicles the history of the sport, and documents the adventures of beep baseball teams, including the Renegades and Weissman’s fanatical dedication to coaching and winning.
Here’s a passage from Wanczyk in the book about Weissman:
“Like any manager, he’s concerned about injuries, field conditions, the umpires, the draw. And like some, he’s battling precompetition butterflies, otherwise known as chronic indigestion. Weissman doesn’t really eat, and when he does, he eats Pop-Tarts, two or three a day, like a college-student gamer somehow gluing together his wild thoughts with hard frosting. But Lisa Klinkenborg, the Renegades’ resident trainer/nutritionist, has forgotten to buy his Pop-Tarts on her grocery run, unf***ingbelievable, and he’s not sure where his next meal is coming from. He’s really not sure anymore.”
Wanczyk tells BostonMan this about Weissman: “He certainly stresses about the game, let’s say that. He’ll probably tell you more. And if you have trouble getting him to tell you, you can mention that my book says something about this and that I make the connection between his efforts and his health. If he wants to dispute that connection, he’ll probably do it in a colorful way!”
But Weissman isn’t the only dedicated one, as Wanczyk and his book point out. Beep Baseball features all of the intense struggle of competition within limits.
“The action on the field is fast-paced, and you’re watching dare-devil sorts of diving and colliding. But once the inning is over and the players make their way back to the bench, they will often move pretty slowly, listening for the voices of their coaches, or even finger-snaps to help them get to the bench.
Wanczyk makes the interesting point that “beep ball is about pushing limits, but those limits are part of the game. If a player runs as hard as he wants to, he overruns the ball. Blind people can do a lot, but they still have to do it deliberately, and coincidentally, that patient speed is the best way to succeed in beep ball.
“In Boston, we’ve always liked baseball underdogs. The Renegades are an underdog, and they’re always rallying.”
Support The Renegades
The Association of Blind Citizens in Boston currently operates the Renegades, and being a non-profit, they are always looking for volunteers, players, and donations. Rob Weissman says they have some creative ways to fund and operate the team, but they can always use help.
“Some of our volunteers, they work for big name companies. Like myself, I work for IBM, one of our volunteers, Aaron Proctor works for JetBlue. JetBlue and IBM are also very big proponents of volunteerism, so they’ll support us and donate money to the team or in JetBlue’s case, they’ll donate plane tickets to the team.
“The Challenged Athletes Foundation is an amazing organization; they allow players to apply for grants and they have been extremely generous and supportive. About seven or eight of our players were able to get almost $750 each out of the challenge that so that gets them halfway there on their fundraising.
“Regionally we travel with between 20 and 30 people. That’s a lot of people to put into hotel rooms. If you’re willing to donate to a cause, our budget’s $20-25,000 a year and any little amount helps.”
In addition, Coach adds the most important thing the Renegades need…volunteers and players.
“We’re always looking for great volunteers, if people have baseball skills, or time or any skills that they could offer. We’re always looking for people. This team would not survive without volunteers.
“At the same time, if you know somebody who’s visually impaired, we’re the only team sport that exists in Massachusetts. Have them get in touch with us and come try it out. It’s amazing, so many of the guys get so much out of it other than just playing sports. This goes well beyond baseball.”
If you’d like to make a donation, volunteer, or get the Renegades in touch with a blind person interested in playing ball, you can visit the website at www.blindcitizens.org/renegades.
The Boston Renegades’ website includes their top ten moments of the 2018 season. At the top of the list is their visit to the Baseball Hall of Fame, to see the exhibit of Christian Thaxton’s bat. There is a video of Thaxton, the top hitter in the history of the league, being shown the exhibit.
A year later, Weissman’s voice still cracks a bit telling the story.
“Baseball was in his blood. He played high school ball, he ended up getting onto a junior college baseball team and then finding out that he couldn’t see the inside fastball anymore, and that was the pitch he crushed.”
Thaxton went to see an eye doctor and was informed he was going blind.
“He dusted himself off quickly. He made a decision that he was going to come to Boston to learn skills to be a blind person, to go into the Carroll Center for the Blind in Newton.”
At the Carroll Center, he heard about the Boston Renegades, and it turned out he could still hit a baseball pretty well. Enough to make him want to stay in Boston.
“When he set the record for the highest batting average in the history of the league, Cooperstown came calling and said, we’d like to put his bat in the Hall of Fame. And last year, being with Christian and seeing him see his bat in a display case in the Hall of Fame, after everything that he’s been through, was amazing.”
And well deserved.
“Christian isn’t the type of athlete who’s all about himself,” Weissman adds. “He has taught so many of his teammates proper mechanics to swing. He takes such great joy out of seeing his teammates succeed. That’s who he is as a person.
“To give him the opportunity to see his bat in Cooperstown was unbelievably heartwarming.”
(all photos for this piece are courtesy of Rob Weissman, Lisa Andrews, David Wanczyk, and John Lykowski Jr.)
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Why don’t the Rays draw? Despite an AL championship in 2008, a division title in 2010, an exhilarating wild card win in 2011 and a playoff appearance in 2013, the Tampa Bay nine never seem to be playing to a full house, or often even a half-full house.
Even in the last game of the season in 2011, arguably the biggest regular season game in franchise history and with the Yankees in town bringing their own fans, only 27,000 people passed through the gates.
The Rays have been playing exciting baseball in recent years, and doing so with a fraction of the payroll (and ticket prices) of the Yankees and Red Sox. Yet they almost never sell out the Trop, and are consistently among the worst in team attendance. It’s a sad indictment of the market, unfortunately, because there’s nothing lacking in the dedication of existing Rays fans. Their TV numbers are as good as most teams.
I’ve read a few things about why the Rays don’t draw well and have my own opinions on it. I think it’s a combination of several factors.
First is the venue. Tropicana Field is not the most baseball-friendly place to see a ballgame. It’s indoors, concrete, has artificial turf and generally has a sterile feel to it. The Trop is the last non-retractable roof dome in baseball, and it’s one of only two with plastic turf (Rogers Centre in Toronto is the other, and even Rogers may have grass soon). Florida is the Sunshine State…who wants to go where there is no sunshine, for a ballgame of all things?
Second is the location of the ballpark. The Trop is in St. Petersburg, a fairly good distance through heavy traffic from Tampa, where a good portion of the population center of the market is.
Tampa residents do not particularly like the drive to the ballpark from what I’ve read, which can take a long time during rush hour…which, in theory, is when everyone would be going.
Third is the market in general. Many Florida residents are transplants, and as such are fans of the Yankees, Red Sox, Phillies or another northeast team. The Rays are a relatively new team, and up until 2008 they were perennial cellar-dwellers in the American League East.
While the turnaround has been very impressive, a few competitive years don’t exactly make the Rays a storied franchise, and a local fan base still dedicated to other teams won’t grow so quickly.
Finally, not many people point this out, but no baseball venue in North America has so few options for getting to the ballpark.
The Trop is easily accessed by car, but there are few trains or buses to speak of that will take riders to the game on a nightly basis. There are some novelty options like the Brew Bus and Rally Bus, but nothing resembling the Red Line in Chicago or the Broad Street Line in Philly.
On top of that, many locals will tell you that the drive from Tampa and its suburbs to the Trop is brutal on weeknights.
The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority does currently have bus routes that stop at or near Tropicana Field; it is in the heart of downtown St. Petersburg so that isn’t difficult to do. The problem is that none of the bus routes can be used for night games; most buses have their last run from the area at around 10:30 or so, which might be doable but would certainly preclude seeing extra innings.
So the Rays have all of this going against them, and the last three reasons may have been why baseball was reluctant to encourage the Tampa Bay area government to build a stadium to lure a team back in 1990. They built the then-Suncoast Dome anyway, and were cruelly used as leverage for the Giants and White Sox before baseball awarded them the Devil Rays in 1998.
So what can the Rays do? Perhaps the Rays could provide such a shuttle of their own for a reasonable fee, which would be much easier to market. (They do from from the nearby pier to add some parking options, but that’s it.)
If the Pinellas County government is in a good mood, they might even create a separate lane for the Rays bus on game nights. It could stop at several locations within the city and suburbs, and be available in case people need to leave early.
Or they could work with the PSTA on providing such a shuttle; they already have routes in place with a long reach in the area.
Then there is the venue. The Rays are rumored to be pushing for a new ballpark; but you never actually hear anything concrete from Rays management. They signed a lease when arriving in Tampa Bay, so presumably they’re at Tropicana Field until 2027. But we all know contracts don’t mean squat when there’s millions to be made for team owners and municipalities.
Could the Rays afford to turn Tropicana Field into a retractable roof dome? I can’t say how hard that would be, but I imagine it could be done. A dome is great in Florida summer heat or the nasty thunderstorms, but no one wants to go inside to watch a ballgame on a beautiful 80-degree April day.
Guaranteed Rate Field in Chicago, Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Angel Stadium in Anaheim and Fenway Park in Boston have all undergone significant changes, generally costing less than what a new ballpark would cost. I expect taking the roof off of the Trop would be much harder, but replacing it with a retractable roof and replacing the turf with grass would go a long way to making the Trop a much more appealing venue.
That, however, is a very long shot. The team may convince St. Petersburg to let them out of their lease, and get a new ballpark built in Tampa, but thus far that is a no go with St. Petersburg folks, and probably rightly so.
Regarding the market and the transplants, the Rays may not need more than a few more years of quality baseball to turn the tables in their favor. After all, if you can see a team capable of beating the Yankees and Red Sox for as little as $9 for a game and park for free, fans have incentive to take their children to the game.
It stands to reason that younger people especially may grow fond of this team over time, especially before they start to travel and see superior ballparks. The Rays’ ticket affordability should help with that…as more parents bring their kids to the game because they can, the Rays may be gradually building a future fan base.
Some cities just don’t do well as a baseball market. Atlanta does well enough, but you would think for all of the team’s success that they would draw better than they do. Miami hasn’t proven it wants a team yet, even with a shiny new retractable-roof ballpark.
There are a few answers to the question of “why don’t the Rays draw”. But I don’t yet accept that the Rays won’t ever fill their ballpark to capacity every night someday. If this team keeps playing competitive baseball and finds a way to bring the far-flung fans in, they may yet turn around their attendance problem.
I’d be cool with that. I like the team’s colors.
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Like most baseball fans, I didn’t know the full story of what happened to the Montreal Expos. When I read a bit about it, it turned out to be very different than what I thought.
In May of 2004 I took a long weekend and made a trip to Montreal, to see a game at Olympic Stadium before the Expos moved to Washington to become the Nationals.
I had a very enjoyable time in Montreal. First there was the very pleasant ride on I-87 through parts of New York state that people don’t know about, and the even more enjoyable ride home on 9N. And Montreal is a neat city—there is Mount Royal and its terrific view of the skyline, the smoked beef sandwich from Schwartz’s, the fine public transit system, and the incredible Notre Dame Basilica cathedral, a church so stunningly beautiful that I did not bother trying to do it justice with photos.
So being in a city that I held in fairly high regard, it was sad to see how interest in baseball was barely moving the needle. The game I attended was against the Cardinals, and it drew a crowd of about 5,000—probably 2,000 of which were Cards fans. The Expos won an exciting contest with the help of star shortstop Jose Vidro, and I remember hearing a radio show afterward with the host expressing hope against hope that the city could keep its baseball team.
The Expos’ departure from Montreal is often summarily dismissed as being the result of the city being obsessed with its hockey team and just not caring about baseball. I thought this myself before taking an interest in the subject recently, and not only was I completely wrong, I’m firmly of the opinion that the second largest city in Canada deserves a baseball team.
Baseball in Montreal drew some nice crowds once—the Expos even outdrew the Yankees for a couple of seasons in the 1980s. The team was competitive in those years, almost reaching the World Series in 1981 and falling a game or two short of winning the NL East in a couple of other campaigns. The Expos finished second in 1980 and in 1993 to Phillies teams that happened to be loaded.
In 1994, however, the Expos front office had assembled the best team that Montreal had seen yet. This team featured Larry Walker, Marquis Grissom, Moises Alou and Ken Hill, and they had some pretty good arms on the mound, too: names like John Wetteland, Jeff Fassero, and a guy by the name of Pedro Martinez. By August, the Expos were leading the National League East with a 74-40 record. And we all know what happened then.
The strike of 1994, that killed the rest of the season and the World Series, instilled great anger in baseball fans everywhere, and it showed in the attendance in 1995. But it was particularly hard on Expos fans, who had possibly been rooting for the best team that had ever been fielded in their city. (Larry Walker believes unequivocally to this day that the Expos would have won the World Series.)
The Expos were drawing 34,000 a game at the time, not spectacular for a contending team, but certainly better than any attendance average figure the Rays have ever managed. And this in Stade Olympique, one of the most unappealing venues in baseball.
The strike was the first of several blows that would eventually drive the Expos out of town.
After a season that had given more hope to Expos fans than any season ever had only to deprive them of an ending, Expos’ owner Claude Brochu ordered GM Kevin Malone to slash the payroll, and the Expos started their next season without Walker, Hill, Wetteland and Grissom.
Depleted and discouraged, the Expos finished last in 1995. Soon afterwards, Alou, Fassero and Martinez would also be gone.
If you’ve ever been a fan of a team that has a fire sale after a winning season, you know what it does to attendance. Fans really, really hate that. For a team to lose two-thirds of its gate is not unusual. Imagine the effect on fans when the best team that the town had ever seen has been gutted. To add insult to injury, the fire sale happened in 1995…after the Blue Jays had won back-to-back titles, establishing them as Canada’s premier MLB team. It is something like the Red Sox having broken their long-standing curse a year after the Cubs fell just short of breaking theirs.
The Expos never recovered. Jeffrey Loria, arguably the most unpopular baseball team owner in history (and that’s saying something), purchased the team in 1999 and instantly became reviled with fans by not renewing the team’s television and English-speaking radio contracts. From what I’ve read, the terms of the deal Loria wanted were such that their broadcast stations walked away from the table without even bothering to negotiate.
As a result, if you were an English-speaking Expos fan, your options to find out what happened in last night’s game were to go to the ballpark or read about it on the Internet or the paper. This isn’t something fans today are willing to tolerate, and nor should they.
Following this, Loria had the nerve to try to secure funding from the city for a new ballpark. Labatt Park had some interesting innovations…it wasn’t designed by HOK, so there were some new ideas…and for a while the team looked like it could get its wish. But eventually the premier of the province of Quebec, Lucien Bouchard, decided that he couldn’t in good conscience spend taxpayer money to build a new stadium in a city where hospitals were closing.
In retrospect, if Montreal baseball had been revived, the tax revenues the team brought in could have saved some hospitals, but the Expos couldn’t justify that with the attendance at the time.
The death of the ballpark deal probably convinced Expos fans that baseball in Montreal was now on life support.
Animosity towards the ownership—which eventually became Major League Baseball, so that Loria could buy a team in a city that would gladly spend taxpayer money for a ballpark for him—reached the point that by 2004 they were showing up in record low numbers, and 3,000-5,000 per game was common.
After being insulted and taken for granted on so many levels, Montrealers may have been wishing the Expos and Major League Baseball good riddance by then, but one could hardly blame them.
They had endured greed destroying their most promising season, along with ownership that was willing to sell off the team’s biggest stars and not allow fans to watch games on television or listen on the radio, and refuse to even try to negotiate with a city on new ballpark financing, which might have been possible had Loria been willing.
The blame for the Expos’ departure belongs not on Montreal fans as a group or Montreal as a sports market. Not in the slightest. A combination of factors that would have destroyed fan support in any city conspired to victimize a market that, until August of 1994, had been building a strong baseball tradition.
The strike of 1994 angered a lot of baseball fans, but ultimately the biggest victims were the fans in Montreal. It set the wheels in motion for the sad, drawn out ending, the only upside of which has been the return of baseball to Washington, D.C.
Perhaps baseball will have an opportunity to return to the great city of Montreal; I hope so. As I hope I’ve illustrated here, to say the market won’t support baseball isn’t true.
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My article celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Miracle On Ice was originally published in the Winter 2020 issue of BostonMan Magazine. Click here to see a PDF of the article, or click here to see the article on BostonMan’s website. I’m very proud of this one, hope you enjoy it.
Ten Minutes to Play, Forty Years to Remember
February 22 marks the 40th Anniversary of the Miracle On Ice, still today regarded among the greatest, if not the greatest moment in sports history. BostonMan caught up with three key players from Team USA…Boston University alumni Jim Craig, Jack O’Callahan, and Mike Eruzione…to talk about the achievement and its aftermath.
The puck rose off Mike Eruzione’s stick and soared past Vladimir Myshkin’s outstretched pad. An arena full of 8,500 fans, along with a newly inspired nation, erupted.
For the first time, in this game and against this team, the U.S.A. was ahead. With exactly 10:00 on the clock.
Ten minutes. Against a team capable of six goals in that kind of hockey eternity.
The players wearing red, for maybe the first time in their lives, were rattled. They missed shots. They missed passes. They missed opportunities.
But this was still the Soviet Union team, arguably the greatest hockey team ever assembled. This team didn’t often go half a period without putting a puck in the net. The score, and the momentum, could change on a dime.
And they had ten whole minutes to correct this aberration, this trailing of a nation that wasn’t known for producing world class hockey players.
Forward Rob McClanahan, in his diary later published in Goal magazine, would call it the longest ten minutes of his life.
“We’re like, oh my God, that’s a long time against these guys,” defenseman Jack O’Callahan remembers.
Ten minutes from immortality. Survive these ten minutes, and you will someday be symbolically credited with taking down an Empire, armed only with a hockey stick.
Hold off the Reds for ten minutes, and forty years from now, the eyes of strangers from sea to shining sea will still tear up in emotion when they meet you.
Unlike everyone else on Planet Earth, Herb Brooks was not shocked.
He built this team for this moment. He expected them to be here. From behind the bench, he brought a wave of calm to a heart-stopping situation, repeating three simple words:
Play. Your. Game.
Do what got you here. This is no fluke. You’re ahead in this game for a reason.
Indeed, as O’Callahan, goaltender Jim Craig, and team captain Mike Eruzione can tell you, they spent months preparing…mentally, emotionally and physically…to play ten third period minutes of inspired, fearless hockey against the greatest team in the world.
“Most teams,” Craig reflects, “once they got ahead of the Russians, did a prevent defense type thing. And the Russians crushed it all the time. But we didn’t. My strategy at that time was, don’t tie the puck up, don’t give them a chance to regroup, keep it going.”
Eruzione agrees. “In the last ten minutes, the Soviets had I think, seven or six shots on goal and three of them were from outside the blue line. As Robbie said, it was a long ten minutes, but boy, we played really well in those ten minutes.
“We had great team speed, great conditioning, our conditioning was off the charts. And you get solid goaltending like we had from Jimmy, and now you’re in every game that you can play.”
“We won every third period,” Craig correctly recalls.
This was no aberration. These boys really were exceptional hockey players, who paid their dues through months of backbreaking training, under a single-minded coach.
“The bar was so high, you had to do everything you could just to stay close to the bar,” O’Callahan remembers, “and every time you get close to the bar, Herbie would raise the damn thing.”
Not everything in Disney’s outstanding Miracle film is completely accurate, although the players will tell you it’s generally on point.
One deviation from reality is its much more sympathetic portrait of a coach who was about as sentimental as a kick in the groin. O’Callahan remembers a teammate (Phil Verchota, he believes) saying, “Boy, they really softened Herb up for the movie.”
“Yeah, he was a lot friendlier in the movie,” Eruzione agrees. “Herb didn’t care if you liked him, and there were a lot of times we didn’t like him. But it was important that we respected him, and there never was once a time when we didn’t respect him. Here’s the option, you deal with it or you quit.”
Like his teammates, Eruzione lived in perpetual fear of being kicked off the Olympic team. It was, they agree, one of Brooks’s favorite motivational tools.
O’Callahan says that “even Mark Johnson, who was our best player, leading scorer…Mark would probably tell you that even he wasn’t sure. Herb was like, if you don’t want to work hard at this and you don’t think you need it, fine. I got 200 other guys that want your spot on this team.”
Craig says the movie conversation where Brooks informs him that he’ll be replaced with Steve Janaszak didn’t happen, but it could have.
“It made sense, because if that was a way to motivate someone, Herb would do it.”
Through intense psychology and conditioning, Brooks assembled a team of players that would…and could…step up their game in response to fear. It was essential, especially if they were up a goal against the Soviets with ten minutes to play.
“You always hear the stories that Herb wasn’t looking for the best guys, he was looking for the right guys,” Craig says. “Every one of the players that were on our team had a makeup of what I call a winning underdog.”
Yes, an irate Herb Brooks did make his team skate following a tie with Norway, unlit arena and all. The actual event didn’t mercifully end with Mike Eruzione shouting, with every last ounce of his remaining energy, “I play for the United States of America!”
Eruzione sometimes tells people that it did, because he doesn’t like to disappoint them. But in reality, the drill lasted close to 90 minutes, and as Eruzione jokes, “it wouldn’t have taken me an hour and a half to figure that out.”
He does remember that Brooks successfully made the point.
“We did waves of five guys at a time, and we did them for about 15 minutes; he blew the whistle and we stretched, and then he blew the whistle and we did them again. Mark Johnson smashed a stick against the glass, throughout the skate a lot of guys were doing that. And Herb said, ‘If I hear another g***damn stick break against the glass, you’ll skate till you die!’
“We did a few more, he brought us in the locker room and he said, ‘If you play this way again tomorrow, you’re going to skate again.’ We beat Norway the next night 8-0.”
O’Callahan had several discussions with Miracle director Gavin O’Connor about the script. He recalls that O’Connor learned about skating in darkness almost in passing from O’Callahan.
“None of that was in the movie,” O’Callahan says. “It wasn’t in the script, so I told him about it. He goes, ‘How the f*** is that not in the script?’ He’s like, that’s gotta be in the movie. I said yeah, it was a pretty big watershed moment for our team.
“I have a picture of Herbie standing there holding a whip from 1980. All that stuff then ends up in the movie.”
“Herbie never settled, and it was non-negotiable,” O’Callahan says of their hard-boiled but visionary coach. He gives Brooks credit for revolutionizing North American hockey.
“He was like, I am going to do this differently because I think this is the only way we can win. And he was the only one who thought that at the beginning. Everyone in the world was like, not a chance, this guy’s nuts.”
Brooks, who we sadly lost in a car accident in 2003, is said to have cried following the Soviet game. But he quickly shook it off. There would be no ‘Whatever happens, I’m proud of you’ speech before Finland.
Just the opposite. He informed his team that they would take a loss to their “f***ing graves.”
Magazines have space limitations, but the contest against Finland shouldn’t be overlooked. The Finns weren’t pushovers, and led 2-1 after two periods.
But on strengthened legs from a long post-game skate weeks earlier, the U.S. scored three goals in the third and took the gold.
Ten years later, Roger Waters of Pink Floyd would perform The Wall at the remains of the Berlin Wall. On Christmas Day 1991, the Soviet flag was lowered from the Kremlin for the last time. Today the Soviet Empire is an increasingly distant memory. The 1980 U.S. hockey team is not. In the four decades since, O’Callahan, Eruzione and Craig still experience gratitude for ‘beating those Commie b***ards’.
Jack O’Callahan was an American history major at Boston U., and he spent a great deal of time explaining the giant disconnect in America in 1980, especially between generations, to O’Connor for the film. Much of that appears in the movie’s opening scenes.
He now lives in Jacksonville and is a senior managing director at Ziegler Capital Management, a firm based in Chicago where he played six seasons as a Blackhawk.
He hasn’t, he says, had a single negative conversation in 40 years.
“I would say the most prevalent messaging for me…predominantly the discussion is about family. It was all about, ‘I remember watching that, I didn’t think my dad knew how to cry and I remember seeing him bawling his eyes out. You know, he was a 45 year old Korean war vet, crying his eyes out over a fricking hockey game.’”
Mike Eruzione works for Boston University and still lives in Winthrop. He and his wife founded Winthrop Charities, supporting local families and causes. His coming book, The Making of A Miracle, was written for one reason, he says. It’s so his grandchildren know that he did more in his life than play hockey for two weeks in Lake Placid.
But Rizzo understands that he’ll forever be known for those two weeks.
“For 40 years, I come across people all the time and there’s a smile on their face. Or sometimes I’ve had people come up to me and start crying, because the moment meant that much to them. I must have sent out 15 or 20 pictures today to kids, you know, ‘I wasn’t born in 1980 but I saw the movie, my grandfather and my aunt and uncle told me about it, can you send me an autographed picture?’
“I live in Boston and I root for the Patriots; a lot of people don’t like the Patriots. But when it’s the Olympic games, it’s a nation that feels a part of it.”
Jim Craig has also written a new book, titled We Win: Lessons On Life, Business and Building Your Miracle Team. His group, Gold Medal Strategies, assists businesses in motivational training. The book, he says, explains that Lake Placid wasn’t a miracle and why.
Craig treasures having become friends with Bobby Orr after idolizing him as a kid. Today, he tells the story of being idolized by a young Dave Grohl, leader of one of music’s biggest acts.
“As our team was going to light the cauldron at Salt Lake City, he was there as a performer. He called me up and we got a chance to talk. He was really, really excited. So here’s this guy from the Foo Fighters, as we’re talking to him, he goes to me, ‘Jimmy, I’m going to sing a song. I’m going to dedicate this song to you.’
“And it’s ‘My Hero’. So that song became obviously my favorite.”
Jim Craig doesn’t think the gold medal is the best thing that’s ever happened to him. That sounds astonishing, but given his explanation, it isn’t surprising at all.
“I always tell people, don’t ever let your memories be bigger than your dreams. It’s like, Michael says nothing could have topped that. To me, that would be really boring if nothing could have topped that.
“This year we had our granddaughter Shae, first time my wife and I would be grandparents. That’s the next greatest thing. My daughter got married in the year before that. My son got married and had me as his best man at the wedding, which my father was for me.
“There are so many next best things that I don’t want to look back at something 40 years ago and call it the best thing that happened to me, because it isn’t. It was one of the best things, but it certainly isn’t the best thing.”
As a grateful nation continues to treasure the memories 40 years later, millions of Americans can share our goaltender’s outlook.
The Miracle On Ice wasn’t the best thing that happened to America.
But it certainly was one of the best things.
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Another Miracle On Ice
If you love the story of an determined underdog hockey team beating overwhelming odds, and winning a gold medal in the last moments of a match to thunderous chants of “U.S.A!”, have a look at a YouTube video called “2002 Paralympic Sled Hockey Video 18”.
It’s the final shootout between the U.S. and Norway for the Paralympic gold, that ends with Manny Guerra winning it for the U.S. with an outstanding save. The hair-raising moments just in this short video build up an excitement that automatically conjures up memories of Lake Placid.
You would think the athletic world wouldn’t underestimate hockey players wearing USA jerseys, especially when playing on their home ice. But in 2002, the USA Men’s Sled Hockey Team were ranked sixth in a pool of five teams for the Salt Lake City Paralympics. The fifth ranked team? “TBD”.
Former Bruins star Rick “Nifty” Middleton, the coach of the team, told Boston Sports Desk that “We were only there because we were the host team.”
But as sports fans in this town well know, Middleton is no stranger to excellence in hockey. 448 goals and 540 assists are totals that get your number hanging from the rafters at TD Garden.
Middleton understood commitment, and he saw it in this team. Getting out of bed at 5:00 AM to greet the players for a 6:00 ice time practice, he saw a silhouette of wheelchairs in the morning sun, beating him there. Just two weeks after the September 11 attacks, none of them were unwilling to fly to Buffalo and start training to represent the United States.
Before an almost empty arena, the team managed to survive and triumph in their first game against Japan. The next game, to a packed house, brought back memories of Czechoslovakia…the U.S. dominated Canada, the number one seed, by a score of 5-1.
A hard fought 2-1 victory against second-seeded Norway…who had won the gold in Nagano in 1998…followed, and the U.S. team then trounced Sweden and Estonia to once again take on Norway for the gold medal.
Before a crowd of over 8,300 fired up Americans chanting “U.S.A!”…a sight that was no doubt familiar to any American over 30 who was present…the U.S. and Norway fought to a 3-3 tie and through a scoreless 10-minute overtime period. With the audience probably having bitten off their remaining nails, the game went to a shootout.
In the shootout, the U.S. fell behind 2-1 before Chris Manns beat Norway goaltender Johannsen high on the stick side, tying the shootout. Then Kip St. Germaine sent another into the top shelf to give the U.S. the lead.
And once again, it was up to a goaltender.
Manny Guerra, like Jim Craig before him, was equal to the task, stopping two tough breakaways to give the U.S. the gold in Salt Lake City.
Today Middleton, along with assistant coach Tom Moulton, are working with filmmakers Yaron Kaplan and Arthur Bonner to make a movie called “Tough Sledding” about the improbable victory on ice that came 22 years after the 1980 U.S. hockey team stunned the world.
Nifty, today the president of the Boston Bruins Alumni Association, has said that nothing he accomplished in ice hockey…and he’s accomplished quite a bit in ice hockey…gave him a greater thrill than seeing the U.S. Paralympic team take the gold.
You can find out more about this equally miraculous upset, and the accompanying film in the works, at www.toughsleddingthemovie.com.
SSG Michael Mantenuto, 1981-2017
Michael Mantenuto, the talented young actor who portrayed Jack O’Callahan in Miracle, did much more for his country than play a hockey hero in a movie. He became a national hero himself, enlisting in the U.S. Army and serving abroad in Operation Inherent Resolve, dedicated to defeating ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
Mantenuto was an even better soldier than he was an actor. He was a highly decorated Green Beret and Special Forces Communications Staff Sergeant, returning home with quite a few medals of his own for his service.
Tragically, on April 24, 2017, Mantenuto was found dead of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound. He left behind a wife and two children.
O’Callahan is, of course, aware of the story.
“Four or five tours in the military, who knows what he went through over there. It’s just a horrible thing right now,” he sympathizes. “22 military veterans are killing themselves every day in the United States. It’s awful. And Michael’s one of them, and maybe I can help tell the story from the athletic side and transition into the military side.
O’Callahan recently made an appearance in Boston, with Navy Seal Jason Redman, to speak for the Concussion Legacy Foundation. The Foundation supports athletes and veterans who have suffered brain injuries. You can visit their website at https://concussionfoundation.org/.
“We just can’t keep ignoring this,” he says. “Michael was the victim of this. I feel terrible for him.”
Here in New England, several outstanding foundations are dedicated to helping our returning heroes reclaim their lives. Please consider supporting them.
Skate For The 22 was founded by Army and Air Force veteran Bobby Colliton, who himself has lost four friends to suicide. They offer skating and hockey lessons, at no charge to veterans, along with an opportunity to be part of a team environment again.
The New England Center and Home For Veterans is dedicated to helping veterans who are at risk of homelessness achieve economic self-sufficiency and live independently. Their programs include vocational training, residential and meal services, and transition into housing.
The Home Base program, operated by the Red Sox Foundation and Massachusetts General Hospital, is dedicated to supporting and treating veterans suffering from the “invisible wounds of war”…including PTSD, anxiety, depression, substance abuse and other struggles.
Skate For The 22’s Facebook page: www.facebook.com/skateforthe22
New England Center and Home For Veterans: https://www.nechv.org
Home Base: https://www.homebase.org
Jim Craig, Mike Eruzione, and Jack O’Callahan are all Boston U. alumni. With teammate Dave Silk, they are sometimes referred to as the “B.U. Four” on the U.S. team.
All three were born and raised in the Boston area, the same place where mobs took on British soldiers, threw chests of tea into a harbor, and began an underdog revolution of their own.
O’Callahan grew up in Charlestown, just steps from the Bunker Hill Monument. He tells an amusing story of a mini-squabble with a reporter following the gold medal victory.
“After we beat Finland, Mark Pavelich and I got drug tested. Pav and I sitting in there with two Finnish guys, while the whole team goes across the street to this big press conference. They’re feeding us Kirin beers, these Japanese beers. So Pav and I pounded like three of these beers down.
“By the time we get back to the locker room, it’s empty cause the team’s across the street. So we took off our skates, we put on our sneakers and we run across the street. We have a blast, and this Boston writer says, I have a question for O’Callahan.
“I’ve already got like three, four beers in me, right? He’s like, how’s it feel to be the first person from Charlestown Massachusetts to win a gold medal? And so I said, you know what? The Americans won at Bunker Hill, and the Americans won at Lake Placid.
“So some other writer goes, ‘Back to O’Callahan, by the way, the Americans lost at Bunker Hill.’
“I was like, hey man, there’s a fricking monument outside my house. If it was a loss, they don’t build the monuments. Figure it out!”
“It became this bumper sticker in my town: ‘We won at Bunker Hill and we won at Lake Placid.’
“Charlestown is right on the water. There’s an old Navy Yard and the USS Constitution is moored there, the Freedom Trail goes right by my house. So I was pretty wrapped around the whole aspect of USA, patriotism and military and all that stuff.”
As far as being an inspiration of American patriotism himself, he says, “I’m proud of that, you know, because I love this country.”
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