Larry Csonka – Zonk
For the debut issue of MiamiMan Magazine in April of 2022, the editors let me cover Super Bowl MVP Larry Csonka, the legendary fullback and key piece of the back-to-back Super Bowl Champion Dolphins. Zonk was very nice to me and had some great stories to share. You can see the PDF of the magazine article here, or see the article on MiamiMan’s website.
He was a legendary fullback and one of the most important players on a Miami Dolphins team that stood on top of the football world two years in a row. To this day, the Perfect 1972 team still stands alone.
To this day, Miami is the only NFL city whose team has gone a full season with a zero in the loss or tie columns.
Somewhere, probably in the clouds today, is an Akron area juvenile court judge and junior high principal we should thank for pointing a tough young kid in the right direction…back onto the football field, and on track to carry the ball for that perfect squad.
“I watched my older brother play,” Larry Csonka remembers. “and I went to a high school football game on a Friday night. There was probably three or four thousand people there, which was an immense crowd, I’d never seen anything like that growing up, a country kid on a farm. To play under the lights, I thought that was big time!
“I was sent down to the bench by my father, he sent a dollar down to my brother because he made a great catch. I got to go down by the bench and hand him the dollar, and I just marveled at the sidelines, I was just in awe of the whole thing. I couldn’t wait to get old enough to play.”
That is, until he was actually getting hit. “I went out for football in seventh grade, didn’t know anything about it, got knocked down a lot, and quit.”
Shortly after quitting, the kid from Stow, Ohio got into a bit of trouble, and was put before a forward-thinking judge who possibly saw his potential as a superstar fullback.
“The juvenile court judge told me that I needed to report to my principal every day. He would be responsible for me. Mr. Saltis made me write reports on football”, Csonka says with a laugh. “I started to understand the game and got back into it, otherwise I might not have ever played again.”
Every superstar player in sports history probably has a story of when their path to stardom came close to being derailed. Larry Csonka knows full well how important all of the ingredients are not just to an individual’s success, but to a team’s success.
We’ll come back to that.
In case you’re too young to remember Larry Csonka, or you need a refresher on what your parents told you, here’s a bit about why he was adored by the football loving faithful here.
In just eight seasons as a Dolphin, he rushed for 6,737 yards and 53 touchdowns…both still team records to this day. He averaged over five yards a carry in 1971 and 1972, and in 1979, as a power running back at the age of 32, he rushed for 837 yards and 12 touchdowns.
He also was, obviously, a key player on the unbeatable 1972 team, gaining 1,117 yards and averaging 5.2 yards a carry. The following season he was a Super Bowl MVP, rushing for 145 yards and two touchdowns against the Vikings. Read that again…Zonk ran for 145 yards against a defense good enough to be in the Super Bowl.
A player known for his legendary toughness, and sometimes carrying several defenders with him into the end zone, is quick to credit another man for his drive on the field…another legend in Miami, otherwise known as the winningest coach in football history.
“The competitiveness of it grew on me a little later, and then meeting a guy named Don Shula in the pros rejuvenated that feeling I had when I was a boy. After going through junior high, high school, college and being on some winning teams, I was motivated by that, but I still hadn’t become possessed by it. When you play for Shula, you either become possessed or you play for another team.
Csonka tells a story about Shula’s motivational skills that isn’t surprising.
“I got hit one time and was laying on the sidelines, and he ran up to me and said, ‘You can’t be hurt!’ It made me so mad I forgot I was hurt, I jumped up to grab him, and he took off!” Csonka remembers with a laugh. “He said, ‘I knew if I made you mad enough you’d forget you were hurt!’”
“He had a real chip on his shoulder about being unprepared, he wanted to anticipate everything that could be anticipated. In other words, total concentration, total commitment to the win.
“Now, that sounds easy, and all of us want to do it, and that sounds fine to go to a Boy Scout meeting and stand out and get your honorary badge, that’s great. But when you do it 17 or 18 times in a row, it’s hard to keep that up. And he would mandate that, he would demand that, and he would raise hell if he thought you were screwing around in practice and not paying attention.
“Two and a half hours, a couple of times a day – that’s five hours a day, and you’re talking about six weeks of intense concentration in training camp. It’s pretty hard to keep that up, on that plane, but with him behind you, we were motivated to stay on that plane.”
Zonk remembers that Don Shula pushed for absolutely every edge on a football field…including having a team train in the July Miami heat to prepare for hot days. After an embarrassing Super Bowl loss to the Cowboys, the coach made the team use the loss as motivation.
It worked out literally perfectly.
“Getting that far in ’71, and then getting your ass handed to you in the Super Bowl was embarrassing. But Shula said to us after that game, ‘I want you to remember this moment, because we’re gonna use this as a basis to make even more sacrifices next year.’
“He didn’t say what our objective was going to be. What he said was, we’re gonna treat every game like it’s the Super Bowl. That way we can’t ever relax. By the time we get to the Super Bowl, we’ll be able to make sure that we do it one more time.
“Those words rang true, that was a great prediction after a terrible loss.”
Indeed, as the football world remembers, the Miami Dolphins made winning quite the habit in 1972. The backfield of that team contributed to the obsession…the interchangeable squad of Csonka, Jim Kiick, and Mercury Morris made opposing defensive coordinators want to put 15 players on the field. It was an idea Shula had once he believed Morris could take the punishment.
“Coach Shula decided to talk with the offensive line coach to see if we had the offensive linemen that could get to the outside. And we did. Larry Little, a huge big man, who was super fast in the 40, so we could get somebody out there to block for Merc, and we could have that outside threat.”
“It gave us a three-dimensional backfield, and that made a difference. That was one of the contributing factors to going undefeated.”
The Dolphins’ backfield was so strong that even losing a Hall of Fame quarterback in the fifth game didn’t stop the victory train. But Csonka is quick to point out that absolutely everyone on the team made contributions to a season still unmatched in NFL history…starting with Kiick and Morris.
“In order to do that,” Csonka reflects about the interchangeable backfield, “you have to have the talent to do that, but you also have to have the personalities to do that. Jim Kiick and Mercury Morris were two unique personalities, but the great common thing between them was the mutual respect of each other, one realized the other had talent that he didn’t, and they both recognized that fact, and were all right with that.
He continues: “If any one ingredient doesn’t mix with the other ingredients, then you’re gonna have that kind of animosity that’ll grow to be a cancer and it’ll keep you from attaining a perfect season. There’s a reason there’s only one team that’s ever done that. We had the best blend of players and coaches.”
“When you look at it, you take any one player, if you take Bob Griese, starting quarterback, Earl Morrall, the substitute quarterback, all made contributions. Charlie Babb, special teams, rookie player, got in there, made a big play, blocked a punt. You take Charlie out of that game, we lose that game.
“As a rookie playing on special teams, only got on the field a few times, but he got on there just enough to make a difference in us going undefeated or losing one game.
“That’s how finite it gets.”
Zonk is, at least partially, so fondly remembered in South Florida for an unfortunate reason. He represents a successful era for a team that hasn’t won a playoff game in over two decades. Young Miami football fans aren’t even accustomed to frequent playoff runs these days, much less three straight Super Bowl appearances.
Read some of the blog posts on his website about the team in recent years, and it’s apparent that like the rest of the city, he becomes frustrated with the Dolphins’ shortcomings. He’s still supportive, but it’s clear that it’s no easier for him to watch sometimes than for the rest of us.
Csonka confesses to not being able to apply his understanding of the game in his playing days to the game of today. But he does think there’s one constant in winning football that the Dolphins need to embrace to get back on top again. When asked that question, he begins his answer with one word: unity.
“If you get a strong head coach that believes in a certain way to do it, and you can get a cast of players that believe in him, I don’t think that formula’s changed that much.
“Is it Don Shula reborn again? I don’t know, but I think it starts with that. I think it starts with a strong coaching staff and the dedication of the players, and finding 40 or 50 players that really, truly want to win, and they’ll make whatever sacrifices that are necessary in order to obtain that.”
That said, he does make occasional public appearance to talk about the glory days.
“We get a few fans, that might go back and remember, and some of the young folks that have heard things from their parents or grandparents, or perhaps even great grandparents,” he says with a laugh. “What I do is reminisce about the championships and how we got there, Coach Shula, the colorful, fun parts of the game that you still see on Sunday are fun to talk about. Sports humor is really what it’s about, it’s a good time, not any deep message or anything
The Perfect Season, justifiably, is still today a great source of gratification for the Hall of Fame fullback.
“More than personal pride, it’s fun to feel a team pride in being part of that. I’m sure there are other people that have made it to the top of Everest and stood there and felt that exhilaration of being on top of the mountain. But to be able to stand on top of the mountain, and know there’s an entire team standing there with you and you’re all part of that, is just another benefit.
“When the ’72 team gets together, those that are still standing and walking around, there’s a great camaraderie, and there’s a constant feeling when eyes meet, nothing has to be said.
“The fans that were there, again, that are still standing, when we see them, it’s a celebration that’s very unique. They can’t wait to tell us about it, we can’t wait to hear about it. It’s a celebration that goes on and it’s just as enthusiastic today as the day it happened.”
Zonk also has a sense of gratitude towards one other group of people: The Super Bowl XLII-winning New York Giants.
“I’m indebted to my teammate at Syracuse, Tom Coughlin, the head coach of the Giants, and Eli Manning. I am still their biggest fan!”
MiamiMan loves success stories and views behind the scenes, especially when it comes to legendary sports achievements…and the Perfect Season certainly qualifies.
Larry Csonka’s coming book, Head On, shares tales behind his and the Dolphins success in that era. It includes flashbacks of his nearly quitting football, his occasionally rocky relationship with Don Shula, and his palling around with the likes of Burt Reynolds, Lee Majors, Elvis Presley and others during and after the Dolphins’ high-flying run.
But Csonka also shares some wild stories beyond the bright lights of the football field…such as his confronting thieves with a sawed-off shotgun, being adrift in gale force winds in the Bering Sea, and taking sniper fire in the midst of a USO tour.
As Csonka was quoted in Life magazine back in 1972, “No matter what your style, you have to take a beating.” Indeed, from the sound of it, the book describes a life of an athlete who took the hits on and off the field, and keeps moving forward.
Head On is slated for release on October 4, 2022. You can pre-order it on the Amazon and Barnes & Noble websites, and from the publisher, BenBella Books.
The Last Frontier
Visit Larry Csonka’s website and you’ll see a selection of videos of him and Audrey Bradshaw, his lovely longtime partner, catching fish in the midst of beautiful Alaskan backgrounds.
Many of the videos are from his surprise hit show, “North To Alaska”, which enjoyed a successful run until its retirement in 2013. ”North To Alaska” was everything an outdoor life show should be…a former star athlete enjoying retirement by becoming just like one of the rest of us again. He and Audrey catch fish together, visit beautiful lodges in remote areas of a remote state, and share the greatness of outdoor life in the last frontier. It all makes for enjoyable, leisurely, and educational television.
What makes “North To Alaska” special enough to have enjoyed a 16-year run is that Zonk, a man who made a considerable mark on a football field, is there as a hunting and fishing enthusiast, not a former star athlete. It’s because he has just as much enthusiasm for Alaskan life as he did for football.
“Through my entire career, starting in high school or junior high, I aspired to get to Alaska by hook or crook. I got sidetracked into the NFL, and some ten years after the NFL, I finally got a chance. Starting with ESPN and our sponsors NAPA and STIHL, we put together an outdoor adventure, fishing, hunting series. Audrey and I moved north and bought a place in Anchorage and then Wasilla. We were residents of Alaska for some 20 years, and still go back for a month and a half each year.
“I think from the time I was probably 11 years old, I just wanted to go to Alaska because I figured that was the last place you could experience things like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett did.
“What a great way to do it, getting paid to do it. By the time the series ended, it was doing quite well. By the time it was in its 16th year, we had been a lot of places that most people don’t get to see in the state of Alaska.”
The popularity of a retired football star, even a Hall of Famer and Super Bowl MVP, isn’t enough to carry a low-quality show for a decade and a half. The appeal of “North To Alaska” may be that Zonk shows us all that it doesn’t take piles of money or fame to enjoy the good life. He’s the ultimate everyman with a genuine love for the outdoors, and it works.
A Bird On The Cover
Larry Csonka made the cover of Sports Illustrated a few times in his career, but easily the best known cover shot features him and backfield teammate Jim Kiick…in a pose that featured Csonka giving a not-so-subtle middle finger. What makes the photo so priceless is the snickering look on Zonk’s face. You can easily find a copy of it on eBay if you’re interested.
Intentional? Not on Csonka’s part, at least as far as the photo actually making the cover. He’s not sure about the Sports Illustrated folks, though.
“We shot probably 200 photos that day of all the different kinds of poses. We had a couple of photos we just wanted for us to be funny, so we did that, and somehow that photo got in with the others and somehow inadvertently got put on the cover. I received very nasty letters from irate nuns for about five years after that!
“I sometimes wonder if that wasn’t done on purpose, but it wasn’t meant to be on the cover, it was meant for our own personal thing. So after that, I didn’t do that anymore. I certainly apologized, but at the same time, it was supposed to be private and it didn’t turn out that way.”
“But I’ll tell you what, a lot of people kept that issue!”
Going Out On Top
Csonka broke away from the NFL to play in the ill-fated World Football League with the Memphis Southmen, and then played a couple of seasons with the Giants before returning to play with the Dolphins in 1979. He was hired by the Dolphins to be a blocking back for Delvin Williams, but when Delvin performed below expectations, they gave Zonk the ball…and he carried it for 837 yards and 12 touchdowns, a performance that won Zonk the Comeback Player of The Year award.
“I came back to be a blocking back for Miami. I became the guy running the ball. I think on one occasion, I carried it 40 times in a game, and at 32 years old, whatever I was at the time, I don’t recall, I didn’t need to be carrying the ball 40 times a game.
“That’s very much a young man’s game, a power running game, and you have to have great offensive linemen, which I had in ’72 and ’73.
The end of Larry Csonka’s NFL career came shortly afterward, with Don Shula making the decision for him.
“I made the decision to hold out, unless I got paid a whole lot of money to run the ball, I was still pretty healthy. But instead, I held out and Shula got mad and fired me.”
He has no regrets. “I wasn’t mad that he fired me. I was at a point in my career where I was glad he said I was through. That gave me all the pushing I needed.
“At 33 years old, it’s time to retire, particularly for a power running back.”
Donovan McNabb – Forever A Leader
Donovan McNabb is one of the all-time great quarterbacks in NFL history, and will always be a local hero in Philadelphia. But today, he spends much of his time coaching athletes who are too young to remember his playing days. JerseyMan Magazine sent me to interview the Eagles QB for the Fall 2021 issue…you can view the magazine edition here.
Donovan McNabb – Forever A Leader
Despite the opportunity to gather quotes and jump into a fray of controversy, JerseyMan didn’t ask Donovan McNabb about the most talked about events during his career in Philly.
We doubt our readers are interested in rehashing the decade-plus old rantings of a talented but ultimately cancerous ex-teammate…a receiver who was suspended and subsequently released by the Eagles for his statements, and then signed on with their most hated rival. No thanks.
But just in case you were wondering, no, McNabb didn’t upchuck in the huddle in the Super Bowl. There isn’t even discernible evidence that that happened, in an event that benefited from the best that television broadcasting had to offer.
As Mike Tanier’s Bleacher Report piece about the alleged incident puts it, “This urban legend is all about a quarterback’s inability to lead his team back from a double-digit deficit against one of the greatest dynasties in NFL history with four minutes to play in the fourth quarter.”
And no, the last player to wear #5 for the Philadelphia Eagles doesn’t hold anything resembling a grudge against local fans for their reaction to the team’s choosing him over Ricky Somebody in the draft.
It’s fairly easy to argue that the Eagles made the right call on that one. We love our friend Jaws at JerseyMan, of course, and the Eagles’ fan faithful will forever be grateful to Nick Foles. But by nearly any measure, McNabb remains the best quarterback to wear an Eagles uniform.
Put it this way. If you were a parent of a young quarterback, you wouldn’t object to having him as a mentor.
McNabb spends time today coaching young quarterbacks…junior high, high school, and college players. He is one of several former quarterbacks involved with The QB Legacy, a non-profit dedicated to teaching aspiring quarterbacks the fundamentals…not just of the game of football, but of being a leader in life.
Ty Thompson, a University of Oregon freshman, is one young quarterback who McNabb has mentored. As FanSided reports, Thompson is already a strong candidate for the starting job, and is Oregon’s top-ranked quarterback commit of all time.
“I’ve had an opportunity to implant my wisdom,” McNabb told JerseyMan, “on the things that they want to accomplish. I try to prepare them from a fundamental standpoint of knowing the intricate parts of the game. And also provide a little bit of spark for these young men, to give them that confidence that they can play this position at a high level, if they put the right time and effort into their craft.
“So many times you see trainers doing what they see Patrick Mahomes do or what they see Aaron Rodgers do. And I think that’s a negative, because not everybody is on their skill level, not a lot of people can do what they’re doing at this particular point.”
Most of the young players McNabb coaches don’t remember his playing career. But their parents do.
“The last time I took a snap was nine, ten years ago, and that was in Minnesota toward the end of my career. A lot of these kids have never seen me play. It’s more the parents that know a lot about you.
“And I have no problem with that, because I’m not coming in there, Donovan McNabb, NFL quarterback, I’m coming in as Donovan McNabb, quarterback trainer, that’s going to help you be able to perform at a high level and prepare you from a mental and physical standpoint.
“I’ll show up at their games and write down some different things that we can do on our next couple sessions. I’ll be there when they need any assistance, maybe something happened at practice and they don’t understand why, how they can change it or things of that nature.
“If I have a kid that’s in middle school, I want him, by the time he graduates from eighth grade, to be mentally where the sophomores are in high school. We know your body’s going to develop at some point. But from a mental standpoint, can you be able to get out on the field and tell each and every player what they’re supposed to do, explain to the coach what you’re seeing from a defensive standpoint, what blitzes they’re doing, how to attack those blitzes.
“That right there gives you the upper hand when it comes to a lot of these kids who are just athletic, because now there’s a trust value that coaches are starting to build with you, because they know you’re well prepared and understand the games.”
And yes, you have to handle shots from critics. As we all remember, McNabb knows that better than anyone.
“It’s not just younger kids,” he continues, “it’s adults too, who have issues with criticism. With social media now, people don’t like something that you post, or people comment negative to you, it affects them, instead of just moving on and using that as motivation.”
So is he tempted to tell young QBs not to play in Philly if they can’t take the heat?
“It’s not so much that, Philadelphia is kind of well known for that. But again, you’ve got to stand strong and you’ve got to be able to take it, move on.
“Smile, that’s what I did!” McNabb says with a laugh.
As a lot of JerseyMan articles about retired athletes have shown, success on the field doesn’t necessarily translate to success in other walks of life, but it definitely helps. Part of the goal of The QB Legacy program is preparing young athletes for life outside of or after football.
“The most important thing for me,” McNabb explains, “is trying to get these young men to understand that being the quarterback of a Division I program or being a quarterback of an NFL organization, that you are the CEO. You are in a boardroom in front of millions or thousands of people. Can we put you in front of a room, and you explain to me what each and every person is supposed to do in this office?”
“We’re building leaders, we’re building mentors, we’re building role models. We’re building CEOs. We’re building guys to understand that it’s much more than just playing the quarterback position. You have ten people on the field with you that are relying on you to make the right decisions, to lead them to a Super Bowl.
“And so you have to do your job. You have to be able to prepare yourself to go out and be at the highest level of your craft.”
Whether it’s young quarterbacks, or softball or girls basketball players, whom he also coaches, McNabb today is preparing the adults of tomorrow for the game of life.
As with many of the good guys in sports, it’s the preferred way of enjoying retirement.
This scribe choked on his chance to meet Donovan McNabb.
We don’t have much in common as far as athletic achievement or income level, but we’ve both been known to frequent Gaetano’s in Willingboro. And yes, we’ve been there at the same time. My hang-up about approaching celebrities during meals overrode taking advantage of a rare opportunity to chat with an NFL superstar.
McNabb lives in Arizona now, mostly just because the weather is better. It was where he started training in the second year of his career, and he liked the area enough to stay.
“It’s a great vacation place,” he says. “My family was from Chicago, friends in Philadelphia, New Jersey, when they come out here, drop the winter coats and Timberland boots, put on some shorts and a tee shirt and just relax.”
But he’s got nothing against the city where he made his considerable mark. Donovan still visits and loves Philadelphia and South Jersey…and mentions Gaetano’s as one of his favorite eateries in the area.
“I’ve still got friends there, I love the area. I’m talking over 15 years, pretty much, since I’ve been in Philly, but I go back and it’s like I still live out there. The people that know me are the people that watched me play, still remember you, have conversations with you.”
He’s happy for both the Eagles and Andy Reid for their Super Bowl triumphs. Regarding his former coach, McNabb believes that the Super Bowl win “implants him when it comes to one of the greatest coaches. For the things that he’s been able to accomplish over the years with us, and then turning the Chiefs organization around. Andy definitely is a sure shot Hall of Famer, and winning that Super Bowl is definitely going to help.”
They fell just short as a pair themselves. But McNabb hopes people remember the good times, with Andy at the helm and with #5 as the field general.
“I would love to have won a Super Bowl,” he reflects, “but that doesn’t define who I am as a player or who I am as a person.”
Maybe someday Ty Thompson, or another McNabb pupil, will get that done for him.
The Case For McNabb In The Hall
Wait, what? Donovan McNabb, the greatest all-time quarterback on a team that had Roman Gabriel, Ron Jaworski, and Randall Cunningham, isn’t in the NFL Hall of Fame?
Nope, he’s not. Critics say something to the effect of his not having won a Super Bowl, despite coming within three points of doing so against the NFL’s greatest dynasty, or not being a leader in statistics during his prime years, with no mention of the subpar receivers he had to throw to at the time.
So at best, McNabb’s entry into Canton is being denied by his crime of having less than championship level teammates.
He doesn’t go there, though.
“There’s no need for me to make a case. I think numbers and film alone define that. Some people look at numbers, some people look at accolades, some people look at Super Bowl championships, some people look at appearances. And so you can’t please everybody. So for me to try to state my case, no, it’s nothing to it.”
“Look at Walter Payton, people always said that Walter had to win a Super Bowl. Walter Payton was the best running back to play the game at that particular time. He also was one of the best players to ever play the game, not just running backs.”
“So, when it comes to a lot of these players, it’s sad that we want to sit and talk about, well, how many Super Bowl championships have they won, or how many times they’ve been All-Pro? How about, why don’t you ask the defenders they played against, ask them how hard it was, the game plan against them. It says a lot.”
So do McNabb’s numbers…37,276 passing yards, 3,459 rushing yards, and 234 touchdowns. Six Pro Bowl appearances, five NFC East championships, five NFC Championship game appearances, and nine postseason wins. If you find any QB with similar numbers, they’re probably enshrined in Canton.
From 2000-2004, McNabb led the NFL in QB wins. During his career, he ranked fourth in wins behind guys named Brady, Favre, and Manning.
There’s always arguments with every Hall of Fame induction about who got slighted. Donovan McNabb shouldn’t be the subject of one.
Professional Cornhole – Beyond The Parking Lot
JerseyMan asked me to cover a local cornhole event they arranged, and to work in a piece about the phenomenal growth of professional cornhole in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hope you enjoy it. You can also view the PDF of the article here.
Beyond The Parking Lot – Professional Cornhole
You can write for JerseyMan and attend Legacy Club events for ten years, and almost never see Ken Dunek animated enough to shout loudly and pump his fist.
Then again, you don’t see many people gain a lead against John Kitchin in a cornhole match, however short-lived that lead may be until Kitchin finds his bearings and starts effortlessly nailing throws. It’s understandable for even a reserved person to be thrilled at the achievement.
This anomaly was at the Infinity Club Cornhole Tournament, held this May at the PCS facility in Moorestown. The event raised nearly $4,000 for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, and for survivor T.J. Smink’s bid for the Society’s Man or Woman of The Year.
Of course, many esteemed Legacy Club members were present. It’s an ideal opportunity to avenge a recent defeat on the golf course. No one tanks, of course, but a loss isn’t so bad…it’s an opportunity to grab a drink and catch up with fellow members.
One would think that, in a crowd of Eagles fans, who have to have considerable tailgating experience, there would be some players standing out in the crowd. But other than Smink’s team, who prevailed in the match, most of them were unexceptional shooters. Even by frequent tailgater standards.
The tournament was for fun and to help less fortunate people. PCS’s parking lot is obviously no billion dollar, luxury box-filled venue.
But professional cornhole has grown well beyond the parking lot.
Present at the gathering were Kitchin, a national cornhole pro who resides in West Deptford, and Joe Harsh, the American Cornhole League’s (ACL) Northeast Conference Director.
Yes, there is a nationwide professional cornhole league. As seen on TV.
Before 2020, the ACL had already landed some national television deals, and events could be seen on various sports networks. Then they got a boost…professional cornhole became one of the rare entities that benefited from an outbreak. With no baseball, football, basketball, hockey, etc., there was a fairly ginormous hole in sports broadcasting to fill.
So cornhole moved into seriously choice TV slots. Harsh notes that “We had eight to ten broadcasts on Saturdays, prime time with our Pro Division, and traveled all over the country.
“We’re really fortunate,” he adds. “Everything went well for us. And the exposure and the growth, it’s been really, really beneficial to the league.
“I’ve known John for a couple years now, and the fact that someone would ask John for an autograph, it’s the coolest thing.”
Kitchin has been known to drive to Cincinnati for the day to throw bags. At least, that became a thing for him when someone noticed he was a pretty good shot at tailgates.
“I played in the parking lot of Eagles and Phillies games, and a guy came to me and said, ‘Hey, we have a league for this.’ I kind of laughed at him. Here I am seven years later, and if I could play more I would.”
Indeed, Kitchin started playing in a league, and did well enough to compete in local tournaments. Then he became a pro. Then an ACL Pro.
He’s added some impressive achievements to his league bio…#1 Northeast Conference player in 2018, ACL Man of The Year in 2019, and a 2nd place finish in the 2020 USA Cornhole Club Championships – broadcast on NBC Sports – to name just a few. He’s so good that Bush’s Baked Beans and LG have put their logos on his jersey.
You can see why even Ken Dunek would celebrate well beyond his typical demeanor scoring a lead against him. Which, to Kitchin and Harsh, is part of the appeal…anyone can play, even against the pros.
“I play in leagues around here all the time,” Kitchin says. “I play pretty well, but there’s a lot of people who, when they play against me, they use that as a measuring stick. I don’t beat everybody, so I think that makes them even more interested…‘That guy’s been on TV!’”
“That’s the coolest part,” Harsh adds. “You can see him on TV on the weekend, and then Monday or Tuesday night you could literally play against him.”
Jeff McCarragher is a freelance sports broadcaster. His LinkedIn profile describes his most recent position as a “Play-by-Play Announcer for College Football & Basketball…and yes, Cornhole too.” His resume covering other sports is impressive, but by most any measure, McCarragher is the Voice of American Cornhole.
He landed the gig by simply being in the right place at the right time. Literally.
A South Carolina resident, he worked college football and basketball throughout the Carolinas. Tupelo Raycom, the company that brought him announcing work, had an office there. And they knew ESPN needed a cornhole announcer.
“When COVID hit, being a freelance play-by-play broadcaster was like being a waiter or server at a restaurant,” he remembers. “We were shut down immediately because all the sports just went away. When they got the contract on ESPN, they called me and said, ‘Hey, are you willing to travel if we put together cornhole through the summer?’
“I had done a little bit for them in the past, I’d done the national college cornhole championships that previous New Year’s. I said, absolutely, I’m comfortable traveling. And so away we went, ESPN signed a deal with the American Cornhole League.”
McCarragher’s enthusiasm for covering professional cornhole of all things is palpable. The players may not have toiled through college or minor leagues, but they definitely have well-developed skills.
“It’s a very simple sport, right? You just slide it up the board and put it in the hole. But just like any other sport, when you get to a very high level, you start to learn how technical it is. I had to learn a whole new vernacular, whether it’s replacement bags or grab bags, the way a player collects the bag.
“I relate it to being a really good major league pitcher. He’s got his fastball, his slider, his cutter, his change-up. The ones who play at the top level, they’ve got a little cut shot, they’ve got an airmail shot. They can make the bag curve one way or another, they can angle it and get the bag to kind of roll. Instead of different pitches, they have different technical shots that they can throw. It’s really pretty amazing.”
There’s considerable tension in big matches, too.
“It gets to be like golf,” he continues. “You’ve got a two-stroke lead, or maybe a one stroke lead, going into the 72nd hole on Sunday. I don’t care who you are. That final tee shot on the 18th? It has to be good. There’s so much pressure. Again, I get it, it’s cornhole. We’re not talking about the Masters. But it’s still competitive, the desire to win for these players.”
McCarragher is confident that the growth of professional cornhole will continue, even with the return of other spectator sports.
“Did COVID help give it added exposure? Absolutely. But I will tell you, they have been working behind the scenes with these little ESPN contracts now for several years. They were on ESPN a few times in 2018-2019. We had college national championships on New Year’s Eve going into 2020. The ratings were slowly going up and up. So this was already on the rise.
“Just by the sheer TV contracts that are coming in and new sponsors, I for sure would say that the ACL is still growing.”
“I think the success they had during COVID is going to allow them to continue. Will the viewership be the same? Perhaps not, but I think in this country there’s a niche for these types. Like, would you watch baseball, which is hours long, or you’re clicking through and, ‘Oh, cornhole, this is something I do in my backyard. My buddies and me bust our chops all the time, let me watch this. I think that’s what’s opened it up for those types of things.”
Joe Harsh has already experienced professional cornhole’s impact beyond TV.
“For me it’s not even the size of the events and the cool venues we’ve visited. It’s some of the charity work we’ve done, like for veterans groups. We did an interview with a guy, roadside bomb in Afghanistan. Long story short, he’s a double amputee, and he’s thanking me for everything I do, and it just absolutely blows my mind.
“I would do anything for someone like that because they’ve given so much, and they’re thanking us for what we do and the release that we give them. That’s my favorite thing to take away from all of this.”
Needless to say, McCarragher is eager to keep telling the story.
“I would love that guys would call and have me do a national college football championship. As young broadcasters coming up, we all hope to get that call. But even that being said, I still really would always hope I can continue doing cornhole.
“I will do this for as long as they’ll let me, because I love it.”
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T.J. Smink, who won the Infinity Club Cornhole Event with his partner Kyle Reider, had personal reasons for both winning and co-arranging of the event: he is a cancer survivor himself.
Smink is a Senior Account Executive for Premium Seating with the Philadelphia Union. But in 2020, the shutdown of sports was the least of his worries. In December of 2019, he was diagnosed with stage four Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
He decided to control two things that he could control: his hair and his attitude. He shaved off the hair he felt he was going to lose from treatments…but ultimately didn’t. And he kept upbeat, all the time.
“I made sure to keep a positive attitude, to look on the bright side of life. Having that mindset, being able to say I’m going to beat this s***, that was way more than half the battle.”
Legacy Club member Devin DiNofa, at the time campaigning to be the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Man or Woman of The Year, reached out to Smink.
“He’s an awesome dude,” Smink says. “He asked if I would be on his team to help raise money for others. Even then, he wanted to work with LLS to raise funds for me directly, LLS said we can’t go towards one specific person.
“Even then, I went back and told him, I’m killing this s***. We’re good, I appreciate it, but I would prefer it goes to someone who actually needs the funding.”
Today Smink, at DiNofa’s urging, is campaigning for the LLS Man or Woman of The Year himself. The Infinity Club Cornhole event was a part of that, to great success.
“Ash (Ashley Dunek) came up with the idea of working one of the Infinity Club events into a fundraiser. And we had a really big turnout. There were 32 teams and a lot of people that came just to hang out.
“Our team is going to get a research portfolio named after us. I’m excited to see where that research goes.”
And he and Kyle Reider topped it all with a cornhole tournament win.
“He’s a lot better than I am,” Smink says of his teammate, “but together, we normally win all of our friends’ get togethers and stuff.”
So You Want To Be A Professional Cornhole Player?
In a write-up about John Kitchin from Power Equipment Direct’s website, he is described as a professional cornhole player who “practices for roughly 32 hours per week, where he throws 2,000 to 3,000 bags.”
While that is probably technically true, Kitchin doesn’t exactly work in his garage, perfecting his follow through and stance and watching himself on video. He just plays a lot, which to him is the simple secret to improvement.
“When you figure in going to leagues and playing tournaments on the weekends, and then throwing it in my shop or something like that, the amount probably adds up. I play on the leagues on Tuesday nights and Wednesday nights, and Thursday nights usually where I try to get out too.
“If you want to become a better cornhole player,” Kitchin continues, “just get out and play, go find a local league. Even if it doubles as a night out, you know, go out and play. You’ve just got to get throws in, and if you can’t and you just throw in the backyard, go out and throw. You have to throw bags.
“So practice for a pro to me would be going out and playing in your own league and it’s all about getting throws in.”
Wait, no proper ways of holding the bag? No commentary on wrist movement? Nothing about how to warm up? Kitchin says that once you find a groove that works for you, the mental aspect is far more important. And that part can’t always be taught.
“I’m probably the worst pro to talk about this, because I’m a firm believer of under-thinking. People overthink. It’s whatever is most comfortable to you, you just have to tweak that. Throw eight bags, and I would want to see how you threw. And I would say, was that comfortable? If that’s comfortable for you, you can tweak it from there.”
That sounds simplistic, but he’s right. Cornhole players lose matches overthinking.
“I might throw 50 bags in a row in the hole, but what changes from the time that you just threw 50 bags in a row and then you line up next to me? What just changed? Nothing changed except for your mental, so you’re overthinking it. Now all of a sudden that same guy who’s just hit 50 bags in a row off to the side warming up, is now maybe two on two in. It’s the overthinking.”
“I try not to worry about all that.”
Why We Cheer – The Human Interest Stories
The ACL is fortunate to have Jeff McCarragher behind the microphone, because he does what the best broadcasters do…he tells backstories about the participants.
He shared a small few everyman stories of cornhole stars with JerseyMan.
“Steven Bernacet, he won the singles national that we just had in Wichita about a month ago. Outstanding cornhole pro, but in his senior year, he was a great high school football player, lineman. He was in a horrific car accident and broke his neck. He could have died.
“The doctors immediately told him he wouldn’t play contact sports ever again, obviously to a high school kid who’s played sports his whole life, it’s devastating to him and his family. Two years later, once he was able to rehab and get back to his new normal of life, he picked up cornhole, and has been playing cornhole ever since now.
“It’s been his outlet and his happiness and his source of competitiveness, to fill that desire and that need in his life. Cornhole has been literally life changing for him.
“One of the top female pros is a manager at a Taco Bell. You know, she plays cornhole on the side. Daymon Dennis, who’s the number one player in the world right now, worked at a cheese plant for 27 years.
“He used it to support his family and to keep food on the table. And now here he is, number one player in the world.”
“It’s like American Idol,” McCarragher says. “There’s a lot of people who can sing, but what captured the audience and the ratings for American Idol is all the backstories.”
Staying Green – ex-Patriots Champion Jarvis Green
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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Jarvis Green on 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.
Jerseyball – Millville’s Mike Trout and Aaron Cox
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.
Photo credit: IDSportsPhoto on Best Running / CC BY-SA
Photo credit: IDSportsPhoto on Best Running / CC BY-SA
Precision Pistol – Shooting For Greatness
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.
Precision Pistol 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 Power of Fun – Dave Raymond, The Original Phillie Phanatic
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.”
What Caused The Decline of NASCAR? A Former Reporter’s Thoughts
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 caused 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 figure.)
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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Keeping Up With Baseball Joe
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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Beepball Wizards – The Boston Renegades
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.”
If you’re interested in a copy of Beep: Inside the Unseen World of Baseball for the Blind, it’s available on Amazon or at www.davidwanczyk.com.
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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