Why don’t the Rays draw? Despite an AL championship in 2008, a division title in 2010, an exhilarating wild card win in 2011 and a playoff appearance in 2013, the Tampa Bay nine never seem to be playing to a full house, or often even a half-full house.
Even in the last game of the season in 2011, arguably the biggest regular season game in franchise history and with the Yankees in town bringing their own fans, only 27,000 people passed through the gates.
The Rays have been playing exciting baseball in recent years, and doing so with a fraction of the payroll (and ticket prices) of the Yankees and Red Sox. Yet they almost never sell out the Trop, and are consistently among the worst in team attendance. It’s a sad indictment of the market, unfortunately, because there’s nothing lacking in the dedication of existing Rays fans. Their TV numbers are as good as most teams.
I’ve read a few things about why the Rays don’t draw well and have my own opinions on it. I think it’s a combination of several factors.
First is the venue. Tropicana Field is not the most baseball-friendly place to see a ballgame. It’s indoors, concrete, has artificial turf and generally has a sterile feel to it. The Trop is the last non-retractable roof dome in baseball, and it’s one of only two with plastic turf (Rogers Centre in Toronto is the other, and even Rogers may have grass soon). Florida is the Sunshine State…who wants to go where there is no sunshine, for a ballgame of all things?
Second is the location of the ballpark. The Trop is in St. Petersburg, a fairly good distance through heavy traffic from Tampa, where a good portion of the population center of the market is.
Tampa residents do not particularly like the drive to the ballpark from what I’ve read, which can take a long time during rush hour…which, in theory, is when everyone would be going.
Third is the market in general. Many Florida residents are transplants, and as such are fans of the Yankees, Red Sox, Phillies or another northeast team. The Rays are a relatively new team, and up until 2008 they were perennial cellar-dwellers in the American League East.
While the turnaround has been very impressive, a few competitive years don’t exactly make the Rays a storied franchise, and a local fan base still dedicated to other teams won’t grow so quickly.
Finally, not many people point this out, but no baseball venue in North America has so few options for getting to the ballpark.
The Trop is easily accessed by car, but there are few trains or buses to speak of that will take riders to the game on a nightly basis. There are some novelty options like the Brew Bus and Rally Bus, but nothing resembling the Red Line in Chicago or the Broad Street Line in Philly.
On top of that, many locals will tell you that the drive from Tampa and its suburbs to the Trop is brutal on weeknights.
The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority does currently have bus routes that stop at or near Tropicana Field; it is in the heart of downtown St. Petersburg so that isn’t difficult to do. The problem is that none of the bus routes can be used for night games; most buses have their last run from the area at around 10:30 or so, which might be doable but would certainly preclude seeing extra innings.
So the Rays have all of this going against them, and the last three reasons may have been why baseball was reluctant to encourage the Tampa Bay area government to build a stadium to lure a team back in 1990. They built the then-Suncoast Dome anyway, and were cruelly used as leverage for the Giants and White Sox before baseball awarded them the Devil Rays in 1998.
So what can the Rays do? Perhaps the Rays could provide such a shuttle of their own for a reasonable fee, which would be much easier to market. (They do from from the nearby pier to add some parking options, but that’s it.)
If the Pinellas County government is in a good mood, they might even create a separate lane for the Rays bus on game nights. It could stop at several locations within the city and suburbs, and be available in case people need to leave early.
Or they could work with the PSTA on providing such a shuttle; they already have routes in place with a long reach in the area.
Then there is the venue. The Rays are rumored to be pushing for a new ballpark; but you never actually hear anything concrete from Rays management. They signed a lease when arriving in Tampa Bay, so presumably they’re at Tropicana Field until 2027. But we all know contracts don’t mean squat when there’s millions to be made for team owners and municipalities.
Could the Rays afford to turn Tropicana Field into a retractable roof dome? I can’t say how hard that would be, but I imagine it could be done. A dome is great in Florida summer heat or the nasty thunderstorms, but no one wants to go inside to watch a ballgame on a beautiful 80-degree April day.
Guaranteed Rate Field in Chicago, Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Angel Stadium in Anaheim and Fenway Park in Boston have all undergone significant changes, generally costing less than what a new ballpark would cost. I expect taking the roof off of the Trop would be much harder, but replacing it with a retractable roof and replacing the turf with grass would go a long way to making the Trop a much more appealing venue.
That, however, is a very long shot. The team may convince St. Petersburg to let them out of their lease, and get a new ballpark built in Tampa, but thus far that is a no go with St. Petersburg folks, and probably rightly so.
Regarding the market and the transplants, the Rays may not need more than a few more years of quality baseball to turn the tables in their favor. After all, if you can see a team capable of beating the Yankees and Red Sox for as little as $9 for a game and park for free, fans have incentive to take their children to the game.
It stands to reason that younger people especially may grow fond of this team over time, especially before they start to travel and see superior ballparks. The Rays’ ticket affordability should help with that…as more parents bring their kids to the game because they can, the Rays may be gradually building a future fan base.
Some cities just don’t do well as a baseball market. Atlanta does well enough, but you would think for all of the team’s success that they would draw better than they do. Miami hasn’t proven it wants a team yet, even with a shiny new retractable-roof ballpark.
There are a few answers to the question of “why don’t the Rays draw”. But I don’t yet accept that the Rays won’t ever fill their ballpark to capacity every night someday. If this team keeps playing competitive baseball and finds a way to bring the far-flung fans in, they may yet turn around their attendance problem.
I’d be cool with that. I like the team’s colors.
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Like most baseball fans, I didn’t know the full story of what happened to the Montreal Expos. When I read a bit about it, it turned out to be very different than what I thought.
In May of 2004 I took a long weekend and made a trip to Montreal, to see a game at Olympic Stadium before the Expos moved to Washington to become the Nationals.
I had a very enjoyable time in Montreal. First there was the very pleasant ride on I-87 through parts of New York state that people don’t know about, and the even more enjoyable ride home on 9N. And Montreal is a neat city—there is Mount Royal and its terrific view of the skyline, the smoked beef sandwich from Schwartz’s, the fine public transit system, and the incredible Notre Dame Basilica cathedral, a church so stunningly beautiful that I did not bother trying to do it justice with photos.
So being in a city that I held in fairly high regard, it was sad to see how interest in baseball was barely moving the needle. The game I attended was against the Cardinals, and it drew a crowd of about 5,000—probably 2,000 of which were Cards fans. The Expos won an exciting contest with the help of star shortstop Jose Vidro, and I remember hearing a radio show afterward with the host expressing hope against hope that the city could keep its baseball team.
The Expos’ departure from Montreal is often summarily dismissed as being the result of the city being obsessed with its hockey team and just not caring about baseball. I thought this myself before taking an interest in the subject recently, and not only was I completely wrong, I’m firmly of the opinion that the second largest city in Canada deserves a baseball team.
Baseball in Montreal drew some nice crowds once—the Expos even outdrew the Yankees for a couple of seasons in the 1980s. The team was competitive in those years, almost reaching the World Series in 1981 and falling a game or two short of winning the NL East in a couple of other campaigns. The Expos finished second in 1980 and in 1993 to Phillies teams that happened to be loaded.
In 1994, however, the Expos front office had assembled the best team that Montreal had seen yet. This team featured Larry Walker, Marquis Grissom, Moises Alou and Ken Hill, and they had some pretty good arms on the mound, too: names like John Wetteland, Jeff Fassero, and a guy by the name of Pedro Martinez. By August, the Expos were leading the National League East with a 74-40 record. And we all know what happened then.
The strike of 1994, that killed the rest of the season and the World Series, instilled great anger in baseball fans everywhere, and it showed in the attendance in 1995. But it was particularly hard on Expos fans, who had possibly been rooting for the best team that had ever been fielded in their city. (Larry Walker believes unequivocally to this day that the Expos would have won the World Series.)
The Expos were drawing 34,000 a game at the time, not spectacular for a contending team, but certainly better than any attendance average figure the Rays have ever managed. And this in Stade Olympique, one of the most unappealing venues in baseball.
The strike was the first of several blows that would eventually drive the Expos out of town.
After a season that had given more hope to Expos fans than any season ever had only to deprive them of an ending, Expos’ owner Claude Brochu ordered GM Kevin Malone to slash the payroll, and the Expos started their next season without Walker, Hill, Wetteland and Grissom.
Depleted and discouraged, the Expos finished last in 1995. Soon afterwards, Alou, Fassero and Martinez would also be gone.
If you’ve ever been a fan of a team that has a fire sale after a winning season, you know what it does to attendance. Fans really, really hate that. For a team to lose two-thirds of its gate is not unusual. Imagine the effect on fans when the best team that the town had ever seen has been gutted. To add insult to injury, the fire sale happened in 1995…after the Blue Jays had won back-to-back titles, establishing them as Canada’s premier MLB team. It is something like the Red Sox having broken their long-standing curse a year after the Cubs fell just short of breaking theirs.
The Expos never recovered. Jeffrey Loria, arguably the most unpopular baseball team owner in history (and that’s saying something), purchased the team in 1999 and instantly became reviled with fans by not renewing the team’s television and English-speaking radio contracts. From what I’ve read, the terms of the deal Loria wanted were such that their broadcast stations walked away from the table without even bothering to negotiate.
As a result, if you were an English-speaking Expos fan, your options to find out what happened in last night’s game were to go to the ballpark or read about it on the Internet or the paper. This isn’t something fans today are willing to tolerate, and nor should they.
Following this, Loria had the nerve to try to secure funding from the city for a new ballpark. Labatt Park had some interesting innovations…it wasn’t designed by HOK, so there were some new ideas…and for a while the team looked like it could get its wish. But eventually the premier of the province of Quebec, Lucien Bouchard, decided that he couldn’t in good conscience spend taxpayer money to build a new stadium in a city where hospitals were closing.
In retrospect, if Montreal baseball had been revived, the tax revenues the team brought in could have saved some hospitals, but the Expos couldn’t justify that with the attendance at the time.
The death of the ballpark deal probably convinced Expos fans that baseball in Montreal was now on life support.
Animosity towards the ownership—which eventually became Major League Baseball, so that Loria could buy a team in a city that would gladly spend taxpayer money for a ballpark for him—reached the point that by 2004 they were showing up in record low numbers, and 3,000-5,000 per game was common.
After being insulted and taken for granted on so many levels, Montrealers may have been wishing the Expos and Major League Baseball good riddance by then, but one could hardly blame them.
They had endured greed destroying their most promising season, along with ownership that was willing to sell off the team’s biggest stars and not allow fans to watch games on television or listen on the radio, and refuse to even try to negotiate with a city on new ballpark financing, which might have been possible had Loria been willing.
The blame for the Expos’ departure belongs not on Montreal fans as a group or Montreal as a sports market. Not in the slightest. A combination of factors that would have destroyed fan support in any city conspired to victimize a market that, until August of 1994, had been building a strong baseball tradition.
The strike of 1994 angered a lot of baseball fans, but ultimately the biggest victims were the fans in Montreal. It set the wheels in motion for the sad, drawn out ending, the only upside of which has been the return of baseball to Washington, D.C.
Perhaps baseball will have an opportunity to return to the great city of Montreal; I hope so. As I hope I’ve illustrated here, to say the market won’t support baseball isn’t true.
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My article celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Miracle On Ice was originally published in the Winter 2020 issue of BostonMan Magazine. Click here to see a PDF of the article, or click here to see the article on BostonMan’s website. I’m very proud of this one, hope you enjoy it.
Ten Minutes to Play, Forty Years to Remember
February 22 marks the 40th Anniversary of the Miracle On Ice, still today regarded among the greatest, if not the greatest moment in sports history. BostonMan caught up with three key players from Team USA…Boston University alumni Jim Craig, Jack O’Callahan, and Mike Eruzione…to talk about the achievement and its aftermath.
The puck rose off Mike Eruzione’s stick and soared past Vladimir Myshkin’s outstretched pad. An arena full of 8,500 fans, along with a newly inspired nation, erupted.
For the first time, in this game and against this team, the U.S.A. was ahead. With exactly 10:00 on the clock.
Ten minutes. Against a team capable of six goals in that kind of hockey eternity.
The players wearing red, for maybe the first time in their lives, were rattled. They missed shots. They missed passes. They missed opportunities.
But this was still the Soviet Union team, arguably the greatest hockey team ever assembled. This team didn’t often go half a period without putting a puck in the net. The score, and the momentum, could change on a dime.
And they had ten whole minutes to correct this aberration, this trailing of a nation that wasn’t known for producing world class hockey players.
Forward Rob McClanahan, in his diary later published in Goal magazine, would call it the longest ten minutes of his life.
“We’re like, oh my God, that’s a long time against these guys,” defenseman Jack O’Callahan remembers.
Ten minutes from immortality. Survive these ten minutes, and you will someday be symbolically credited with taking down an Empire, armed only with a hockey stick.
Hold off the Reds for ten minutes, and forty years from now, the eyes of strangers from sea to shining sea will still tear up in emotion when they meet you.
Unlike everyone else on Planet Earth, Herb Brooks was not shocked.
He built this team for this moment. He expected them to be here. From behind the bench, he brought a wave of calm to a heart-stopping situation, repeating three simple words:
Play. Your. Game.
Do what got you here. This is no fluke. You’re ahead in this game for a reason.
Indeed, as O’Callahan, goaltender Jim Craig, and team captain Mike Eruzione can tell you, they spent months preparing…mentally, emotionally and physically…to play ten third period minutes of inspired, fearless hockey against the greatest team in the world.
“Most teams,” Craig reflects, “once they got ahead of the Russians, did a prevent defense type thing. And the Russians crushed it all the time. But we didn’t. My strategy at that time was, don’t tie the puck up, don’t give them a chance to regroup, keep it going.”
Eruzione agrees. “In the last ten minutes, the Soviets had I think, seven or six shots on goal and three of them were from outside the blue line. As Robbie said, it was a long ten minutes, but boy, we played really well in those ten minutes.
“We had great team speed, great conditioning, our conditioning was off the charts. And you get solid goaltending like we had from Jimmy, and now you’re in every game that you can play.”
“We won every third period,” Craig correctly recalls.
This was no aberration. These boys really were exceptional hockey players, who paid their dues through months of backbreaking training, under a single-minded coach.
“The bar was so high, you had to do everything you could just to stay close to the bar,” O’Callahan remembers, “and every time you get close to the bar, Herbie would raise the damn thing.”
Not everything in Disney’s outstanding Miracle film is completely accurate, although the players will tell you it’s generally on point.
One deviation from reality is its much more sympathetic portrait of a coach who was about as sentimental as a kick in the groin. O’Callahan remembers a teammate (Phil Verchota, he believes) saying, “Boy, they really softened Herb up for the movie.”
“Yeah, he was a lot friendlier in the movie,” Eruzione agrees. “Herb didn’t care if you liked him, and there were a lot of times we didn’t like him. But it was important that we respected him, and there never was once a time when we didn’t respect him. Here’s the option, you deal with it or you quit.”
Like his teammates, Eruzione lived in perpetual fear of being kicked off the Olympic team. It was, they agree, one of Brooks’s favorite motivational tools.
O’Callahan says that “even Mark Johnson, who was our best player, leading scorer…Mark would probably tell you that even he wasn’t sure. Herb was like, if you don’t want to work hard at this and you don’t think you need it, fine. I got 200 other guys that want your spot on this team.”
Craig says the movie conversation where Brooks informs him that he’ll be replaced with Steve Janaszak didn’t happen, but it could have.
“It made sense, because if that was a way to motivate someone, Herb would do it.”
Through intense psychology and conditioning, Brooks assembled a team of players that would…and could…step up their game in response to fear. It was essential, especially if they were up a goal against the Soviets with ten minutes to play.
“You always hear the stories that Herb wasn’t looking for the best guys, he was looking for the right guys,” Craig says. “Every one of the players that were on our team had a makeup of what I call a winning underdog.”
Yes, an irate Herb Brooks did make his team skate following a tie with Norway, unlit arena and all. The actual event didn’t mercifully end with Mike Eruzione shouting, with every last ounce of his remaining energy, “I play for the United States of America!”
Eruzione sometimes tells people that it did, because he doesn’t like to disappoint them. But in reality, the drill lasted close to 90 minutes, and as Eruzione jokes, “it wouldn’t have taken me an hour and a half to figure that out.”
He does remember that Brooks successfully made the point.
“We did waves of five guys at a time, and we did them for about 15 minutes; he blew the whistle and we stretched, and then he blew the whistle and we did them again. Mark Johnson smashed a stick against the glass, throughout the skate a lot of guys were doing that. And Herb said, ‘If I hear another g***damn stick break against the glass, you’ll skate till you die!’
“We did a few more, he brought us in the locker room and he said, ‘If you play this way again tomorrow, you’re going to skate again.’ We beat Norway the next night 8-0.”
O’Callahan had several discussions with Miracle director Gavin O’Connor about the script. He recalls that O’Connor learned about skating in darkness almost in passing from O’Callahan.
“None of that was in the movie,” O’Callahan says. “It wasn’t in the script, so I told him about it. He goes, ‘How the f*** is that not in the script?’ He’s like, that’s gotta be in the movie. I said yeah, it was a pretty big watershed moment for our team.
“I have a picture of Herbie standing there holding a whip from 1980. All that stuff then ends up in the movie.”
“Herbie never settled, and it was non-negotiable,” O’Callahan says of their hard-boiled but visionary coach. He gives Brooks credit for revolutionizing North American hockey.
“He was like, I am going to do this differently because I think this is the only way we can win. And he was the only one who thought that at the beginning. Everyone in the world was like, not a chance, this guy’s nuts.”
Brooks, who we sadly lost in a car accident in 2003, is said to have cried following the Soviet game. But he quickly shook it off. There would be no ‘Whatever happens, I’m proud of you’ speech before Finland.
Just the opposite. He informed his team that they would take a loss to their “f***ing graves.”
Magazines have space limitations, but the contest against Finland shouldn’t be overlooked. The Finns weren’t pushovers, and led 2-1 after two periods.
But on strengthened legs from a long post-game skate weeks earlier, the U.S. scored three goals in the third and took the gold.
Ten years later, Roger Waters of Pink Floyd would perform The Wall at the remains of the Berlin Wall. On Christmas Day 1991, the Soviet flag was lowered from the Kremlin for the last time. Today the Soviet Empire is an increasingly distant memory. The 1980 U.S. hockey team is not. In the four decades since, O’Callahan, Eruzione and Craig still experience gratitude for ‘beating those Commie b***ards’.
Jack O’Callahan was an American history major at Boston U., and he spent a great deal of time explaining the giant disconnect in America in 1980, especially between generations, to O’Connor for the film. Much of that appears in the movie’s opening scenes.
He now lives in Jacksonville and is a senior managing director at Ziegler Capital Management, a firm based in Chicago where he played six seasons as a Blackhawk.
He hasn’t, he says, had a single negative conversation in 40 years.
“I would say the most prevalent messaging for me…predominantly the discussion is about family. It was all about, ‘I remember watching that, I didn’t think my dad knew how to cry and I remember seeing him bawling his eyes out. You know, he was a 45 year old Korean war vet, crying his eyes out over a fricking hockey game.’”
Mike Eruzione works for Boston University and still lives in Winthrop. He and his wife founded Winthrop Charities, supporting local families and causes. His coming book, The Making of A Miracle, was written for one reason, he says. It’s so his grandchildren know that he did more in his life than play hockey for two weeks in Lake Placid.
But Rizzo understands that he’ll forever be known for those two weeks.
“For 40 years, I come across people all the time and there’s a smile on their face. Or sometimes I’ve had people come up to me and start crying, because the moment meant that much to them. I must have sent out 15 or 20 pictures today to kids, you know, ‘I wasn’t born in 1980 but I saw the movie, my grandfather and my aunt and uncle told me about it, can you send me an autographed picture?’
“I live in Boston and I root for the Patriots; a lot of people don’t like the Patriots. But when it’s the Olympic games, it’s a nation that feels a part of it.”
Jim Craig has also written a new book, titled We Win: Lessons On Life, Business and Building Your Miracle Team. His group, Gold Medal Strategies, assists businesses in motivational training. The book, he says, explains that Lake Placid wasn’t a miracle and why.
Craig treasures having become friends with Bobby Orr after idolizing him as a kid. Today, he tells the story of being idolized by a young Dave Grohl, leader of one of music’s biggest acts.
“As our team was going to light the cauldron at Salt Lake City, he was there as a performer. He called me up and we got a chance to talk. He was really, really excited. So here’s this guy from the Foo Fighters, as we’re talking to him, he goes to me, ‘Jimmy, I’m going to sing a song. I’m going to dedicate this song to you.’
“And it’s ‘My Hero’. So that song became obviously my favorite.”
Jim Craig doesn’t think the gold medal is the best thing that’s ever happened to him. That sounds astonishing, but given his explanation, it isn’t surprising at all.
“I always tell people, don’t ever let your memories be bigger than your dreams. It’s like, Michael says nothing could have topped that. To me, that would be really boring if nothing could have topped that.
“This year we had our granddaughter Shae, first time my wife and I would be grandparents. That’s the next greatest thing. My daughter got married in the year before that. My son got married and had me as his best man at the wedding, which my father was for me.
“There are so many next best things that I don’t want to look back at something 40 years ago and call it the best thing that happened to me, because it isn’t. It was one of the best things, but it certainly isn’t the best thing.”
As a grateful nation continues to treasure the memories 40 years later, millions of Americans can share our goaltender’s outlook.
The Miracle On Ice wasn’t the best thing that happened to America.
But it certainly was one of the best things.
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Another Miracle On Ice
If you love the story of an determined underdog hockey team beating overwhelming odds, and winning a gold medal in the last moments of a match to thunderous chants of “U.S.A!”, have a look at a YouTube video called “2002 Paralympic Sled Hockey Video 18”.
It’s the final shootout between the U.S. and Norway for the Paralympic gold, that ends with Manny Guerra winning it for the U.S. with an outstanding save. The hair-raising moments just in this short video build up an excitement that automatically conjures up memories of Lake Placid.
You would think the athletic world wouldn’t underestimate hockey players wearing USA jerseys, especially when playing on their home ice. But in 2002, the USA Men’s Sled Hockey Team were ranked sixth in a pool of five teams for the Salt Lake City Paralympics. The fifth ranked team? “TBD”.
Former Bruins star Rick “Nifty” Middleton, the coach of the team, told Boston Sports Desk that “We were only there because we were the host team.”
But as sports fans in this town well know, Middleton is no stranger to excellence in hockey. 448 goals and 540 assists are totals that get your number hanging from the rafters at TD Garden.
Middleton understood commitment, and he saw it in this team. Getting out of bed at 5:00 AM to greet the players for a 6:00 ice time practice, he saw a silhouette of wheelchairs in the morning sun, beating him there. Just two weeks after the September 11 attacks, none of them were unwilling to fly to Buffalo and start training to represent the United States.
Before an almost empty arena, the team managed to survive and triumph in their first game against Japan. The next game, to a packed house, brought back memories of Czechoslovakia…the U.S. dominated Canada, the number one seed, by a score of 5-1.
A hard fought 2-1 victory against second-seeded Norway…who had won the gold in Nagano in 1998…followed, and the U.S. team then trounced Sweden and Estonia to once again take on Norway for the gold medal.
Before a crowd of over 8,300 fired up Americans chanting “U.S.A!”…a sight that was no doubt familiar to any American over 30 who was present…the U.S. and Norway fought to a 3-3 tie and through a scoreless 10-minute overtime period. With the audience probably having bitten off their remaining nails, the game went to a shootout.
In the shootout, the U.S. fell behind 2-1 before Chris Manns beat Norway goaltender Johannsen high on the stick side, tying the shootout. Then Kip St. Germaine sent another into the top shelf to give the U.S. the lead.
And once again, it was up to a goaltender.
Manny Guerra, like Jim Craig before him, was equal to the task, stopping two tough breakaways to give the U.S. the gold in Salt Lake City.
Today Middleton, along with assistant coach Tom Moulton, are working with filmmakers Yaron Kaplan and Arthur Bonner to make a movie called “Tough Sledding” about the improbable victory on ice that came 22 years after the 1980 U.S. hockey team stunned the world.
Nifty, today the president of the Boston Bruins Alumni Association, has said that nothing he accomplished in ice hockey…and he’s accomplished quite a bit in ice hockey…gave him a greater thrill than seeing the U.S. Paralympic team take the gold.
You can find out more about this equally miraculous upset, and the accompanying film in the works, at www.toughsleddingthemovie.com.
SSG Michael Mantenuto, 1981-2017
Michael Mantenuto, the talented young actor who portrayed Jack O’Callahan in Miracle, did much more for his country than play a hockey hero in a movie. He became a national hero himself, enlisting in the U.S. Army and serving abroad in Operation Inherent Resolve, dedicated to defeating ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
Mantenuto was an even better soldier than he was an actor. He was a highly decorated Green Beret and Special Forces Communications Staff Sergeant, returning home with quite a few medals of his own for his service.
Tragically, on April 24, 2017, Mantenuto was found dead of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound. He left behind a wife and two children.
O’Callahan is, of course, aware of the story.
“Four or five tours in the military, who knows what he went through over there. It’s just a horrible thing right now,” he sympathizes. “22 military veterans are killing themselves every day in the United States. It’s awful. And Michael’s one of them, and maybe I can help tell the story from the athletic side and transition into the military side.
O’Callahan recently made an appearance in Boston, with Navy Seal Jason Redman, to speak for the Concussion Legacy Foundation. The Foundation supports athletes and veterans who have suffered brain injuries. You can visit their website at https://concussionfoundation.org/.
“We just can’t keep ignoring this,” he says. “Michael was the victim of this. I feel terrible for him.”
Here in New England, several outstanding foundations are dedicated to helping our returning heroes reclaim their lives. Please consider supporting them.
Skate For The 22 was founded by Army and Air Force veteran Bobby Colliton, who himself has lost four friends to suicide. They offer skating and hockey lessons, at no charge to veterans, along with an opportunity to be part of a team environment again.
The New England Center and Home For Veterans is dedicated to helping veterans who are at risk of homelessness achieve economic self-sufficiency and live independently. Their programs include vocational training, residential and meal services, and transition into housing.
The Home Base program, operated by the Red Sox Foundation and Massachusetts General Hospital, is dedicated to supporting and treating veterans suffering from the “invisible wounds of war”…including PTSD, anxiety, depression, substance abuse and other struggles.
Skate For The 22’s Facebook page: www.facebook.com/skateforthe22
New England Center and Home For Veterans: https://www.nechv.org
Home Base: https://www.homebase.org
Jim Craig, Mike Eruzione, and Jack O’Callahan are all Boston U. alumni. With teammate Dave Silk, they are sometimes referred to as the “B.U. Four” on the U.S. team.
All three were born and raised in the Boston area, the same place where mobs took on British soldiers, threw chests of tea into a harbor, and began an underdog revolution of their own.
O’Callahan grew up in Charlestown, just steps from the Bunker Hill Monument. He tells an amusing story of a mini-squabble with a reporter following the gold medal victory.
“After we beat Finland, Mark Pavelich and I got drug tested. Pav and I sitting in there with two Finnish guys, while the whole team goes across the street to this big press conference. They’re feeding us Kirin beers, these Japanese beers. So Pav and I pounded like three of these beers down.
“By the time we get back to the locker room, it’s empty cause the team’s across the street. So we took off our skates, we put on our sneakers and we run across the street. We have a blast, and this Boston writer says, I have a question for O’Callahan.
“I’ve already got like three, four beers in me, right? He’s like, how’s it feel to be the first person from Charlestown Massachusetts to win a gold medal? And so I said, you know what? The Americans won at Bunker Hill, and the Americans won at Lake Placid.
“So some other writer goes, ‘Back to O’Callahan, by the way, the Americans lost at Bunker Hill.’
“I was like, hey man, there’s a fricking monument outside my house. If it was a loss, they don’t build the monuments. Figure it out!”
“It became this bumper sticker in my town: ‘We won at Bunker Hill and we won at Lake Placid.’
“Charlestown is right on the water. There’s an old Navy Yard and the USS Constitution is moored there, the Freedom Trail goes right by my house. So I was pretty wrapped around the whole aspect of USA, patriotism and military and all that stuff.”
As far as being an inspiration of American patriotism himself, he says, “I’m proud of that, you know, because I love this country.”
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Eight years after Kevin Harvick’s emotional first win taking over for the departed Dale Earnhardt, I wrote this piece for the Frontstretch. It was one of the greatest moments in the sport’s history, and it still remains today one of the best races I ever watched as a fan.
“I just hope Dale’s okay.”
Three weeks earlier, Darrell Waltrip’s words in Fox’s first broadcast of the Daytona 500 had become unintentionally immortalized, spoken in concern after the Goodwrench #3 Chevrolet came to rest peacefully on the infield grass, in a vision that would be burned in the minds of NASCAR fans forever.
To say that Dale Earnhardt’s untimely death struck the motorsports world like a sledgehammer blow to the head would be an understatement. NASCAR Nation was badly shaken in the wake of the Intimidator’s passing.
Despite Dale’s departure from this earth in a way that one could have seen happening—the proverbial “he died doing what he loved”—it still put us all into a state of incredulous shock. It seemed so wrong. Earnhardt was happier than he had ever been, looking forward to another season of racing. He was supposed to retire comfortably, run his new team until reaching a ripe old age, and see his son follow in his footsteps. It wasn’t supposed to be over so suddenly before his fiftieth birthday.
When the NASCAR circus arrived at Atlanta Motor Speedway, participants and fans were still recoiling from the impact. The last three weeks had been tumultuous.
Sterling Marlin, whose unintentional tap had sent the #3 into its fatal spin, was receiving death threats from crazed Earnhardt fans until Dale Jr. stepped to the microphone to absolve him. Fans everywhere were demanding to know how it happened, questioning the quality of the seat belts in the car, which would eventually depress seatbelt manufacturer Bill Simpson enough to give up the business. There would be an ugly and public battle between Dale’s widow Teresa and some despicably behaving members of the press over autopsy photos.
Most of all, Earnhardt fans were of course inconsolable at the loss of their hero, and everyone suspected NASCAR would never be the same.
A young, promising Busch series driver from Bakersfield, California named Kevin Harvick was thrust into the national spotlight in the blink of an eye. The famous Goodwrench #3 became the Goodwrench #29, the car color was changed from black to white, and for a time the crew members had worn plain white uniforms. A devastated Richard Childress made it as easy as possible for Harvick under indisputably trying circumstances, removing as much of Dale’s legacy as he could partly so that the young rookie felt less need to live up to one of the all-time greatest in the sport.
As all the tracks would that year, Atlanta paid its own tribute to Earnhardt. The #3 trailer was made available for fans to sign. Seven thousand black balloons were released into the air, a thousand for each of his seven championships. A section of the grandstands was named after him.
As the balloons floated into the sky, 43 drivers began to race, knowing that Dale would have called them a bunch of candy asses if they didn’t.
For most of the first half of the Cracker Barrel 500, the race looked to be Jeff Gordon’s to lose. The #24 Monte Carlo led 118 laps after taking the lead from Harvick on lap 18. But then lose it he nearly did, when an uncharacteristic mental mistake left the #24 out of fuel and a lap down. Fortunately for Gordon, his teammate Jerry Nadeau took over the lead—and allowed the #24 back on the lead lap. Gordon would eventually make his way back into contention again.
Nadeau was having an equally impressive day, leading for much of the race after Gordon’s miscue, until losing the lead to Dale Jarrett with 60 laps to go. Nadeau and Jarrett then swapped the lead until Sterling Marlin’s blown engine reset the field with 25 remaining.
Most replays of Atlanta 2001 show only the last lap, stopping the video the moment the #29 Chevy’s nose touches the finish line. What is forgotten is that the finish was ten-plus sensational laps of racing following the final restart. Before Kevin Harvick and Jeff Gordon battled to nearly the first ever tie in an auto race, they had to duke it out with Jarrett, Nadeau, and Dale Earnhardt Jr., in a spectacular five-car showdown that inexplicably, incredibly, did not result in a wreck.
Nadeau led, followed closely by Jarrett, Harvick, Earnhardt Jr. and Gordon. Jarrett tried unsuccessfully to chase down Nadeau. Harvick latched onto Jarrett’s bumper. Half a lap later Harvick was on the inside lane of Jarrett, running next to Jarrett’s #88. After crossing the finish line side by side, Harvick fell back behind, unable to complete the pass.
Jarrett went low inside of Nadeau. Simultaneously, Junior moved to the outside of Harvick. Jarrett pulled even with Nadeau, the two cars touching at the finish line. Then Harvick dove to the bottom to go three-wide. Junior tried unsuccessfully to get around Jarrett on the outside. Harvick missed a mark and fell back in the turn. Gordon went high to join the fray and make it five cars all within one camera lens at 190 MPH. Moments later, Harvick, Nadeau, and Jarrett were crossing the finish line three-wide again, with Gordon and Junior in hot pursuit.
Harvick completed the pass around Jarrett. Four laps to go. Jarrett fell back and Gordon went to his outside. Then somehow, impossibly, all five cars got back in line, their spotters earning every penny of their salary and then some.
Gordon went high trying to pass Nadeau and couldn’t quite do it. Then in return for Nadeau’s earlier generosity, Gordon attempted to push him past Harvick. But Nadeau no longer had the tires to compete…and a moment later, neither did Dale Earnhardt Jr., who went to pit road with a cut tire and could now only watch. He would have to wait until the series returned to Daytona for his moment.
Jarrett was still in the picture, but was now a couple of car lengths behind and could only hope the competitors ahead of him made a mistake. Crossing the finish line to make it three laps to go, Gordon got underneath of Nadeau and passed him.
After five warriors had left it all on the track in a heart-stopping display, now just two were left standing, in a suddenly familiar sight: DuPont vs. Goodwrench.
With two laps to go, Gordon quickly started closing the gap on Harvick. And the only question now was, with the car running behind clearly faster, would three miles be enough?
In my younger concert-going days, I made a choice that I still today regret more than most in my life. Stevie Ray Vaughan was playing in Philadelphia alongside one of my musical heroes, Jeff Beck. It still baffles me to this day why I did this, but with economics allowing me to attend only one show at the time, I chose to see Jethro Tull instead.
I not only missed Jeff Beck with his best ever supporting band, I missed what would be Stevie Ray’s last performance in Philly. Whenever I hear the stomping, ass-kicking Beck-Vaughan rendition of “Goin’ Down” from that tour, I cringe at the thought that I passed on experiencing it live to see Jethro Dull. I would never make that mistake again, but the one that got away forever will always gnaw at me.
Before Harvick and Gordon come screaming down the frontstretch to the finish line, I would like to take a moment to dedicate this column to anyone who could have made it to Atlanta Motor Speedway that day and didn’t…because they didn’t want to spend the money, or deal with the traffic, or maybe even because they thought they would miss the #3 Chevy too much. If you are still kicking yourself in the head to this day over missing it, you’ll always have my sympathy. Like me, you couldn’t have known.
The white flag dropped with Gordon two car lengths behind. Throughout the final lap, Gordon awaited his opportunity to pounce. In turn three, the moment of truth arrived. Gordon went to the bottom. Harvick clung to the top. Coming out of turn four, the #24 wiggled just a hair avoiding a slower car, before pulling side by side with the #29 for the drag race. Both drivers slammed the pedal to the floor. The #29 Chevy crossed the finish line. Six-thousandths of a second later, the #24 crossed it. The tiny wiggle became the difference between the race winner and the first loser. In a race 31,680,000 inches in length, Kevin Harvick won by just six.
What followed was an eruption of emotion, a moment of gravity seldom equaled in sports history.
Harvick smoked the tires in a perfectly executed burnout and then circled the speedway in an Alan Kulwicki Polish victory lap—saluting another fallen NASCAR hero—all the while holding three fingers out the window. Fox replayed an overjoyed Goodwrench pit crew leaping into the air in slow motion at the outcome. His voice quaking the entire time, Richard Childress could barely manage to say that he asked his departed buddy for help when Harvick took the lead, and that his request was answered.
Flags and banners saluting #3 were everywhere. Mike Joy, a consummate broadcast professional, had difficulty keeping his voice from cracking. For maybe the first time in his life, Darrell Waltrip was speechless. Like at Daytona three years earlier, entire crews lined up and shook the hand of the driver of the Goodwrench Chevrolet.
The delirious crowd at Atlanta Motor Speedway shook the grandstands with enduring, thunderous acclamation—for Kevin Harvick, for the tremendous finish, for Jeff Gordon leaving no doubt of its authenticity, for Richard Childress Racing’s resurrection, and for Dale Earnhardt’s entire career and life.
Fittingly, three weeks after the inconceivable and seemingly insurmountable loss of Dale Earnhardt, an ailing NASCAR came to life again at one of his favorite tracks.
Not only had the Intimidator’s Chevy won three weeks after his passing, it had happened in as heart stopping a thriller as could be conceived, a classic that was as great as events get in motorsports. To say that the race was at least in the top five in NASCAR history would not be anything remotely resembling a stretch. (I have a book called “Thunder and Glory” that ranks it tenth all-time.)
You almost suspect Dale might have considered trading some of his declining years to be remembered so magnificently. Or that at least he would have taken the tradeoff of seeing his undeniable mark on full display before millions.
It was nearly impossible to witness the Atlanta finish and not be a believer in Unearthly Benevolence. It is still today just as difficult to doubt that, if nothing else, Ralph Dale Earnhardt Sr. was somewhere enjoying the hell out of the show—and probably thinking Wonderboy would never have gotten that close to winning if he had been driving the Goodwrench Chevrolet.
ESPN did a credible if unspectacular job with its TV movie “3: The Dale Earnhardt Story”. But one issue I take with the movie is its ending with the crash at Daytona. The real ending was at Atlanta Motor Speedway three weeks later—the Goodwrench Chevy vanquishing its mightiest rival by the smallest of margins, the Fox camera focusing on the black 3 painted in the Atlanta infield, and 125,000 emotional fans in a long, deafening roar at the thought that Dale must have been present for what they saw to have just happened.
The Dale Earnhardt Story does not end in tragedy at Daytona Beach. It ends in the rebirth of a great sport and the presence of Dale’s indomitable spirit guiding it back to health at Atlanta. The Cracker Barrel Old Country Store 500 in 2001 was the Intimidator waving goodbye and driving his racecar off into the sunset, his enormous contribution to stock car racing complete.
Life could go on. Racing could go on.
Dale was okay.
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I had never known that wheelchair basketball was as established as it was, with professional leagues and established teams, until JerseyMan asked me to cover it for their December 2014 issue. I had the pleasure of interviewing John DeAngelo, a player for the Magee Spokesmen of Philly, who filled me in on the rough and tumble nature of the sport. You can view the PDF from the article here.
Think wheelchair basketball is a small time, friendly competition? Think again.
At the Carousel House in Fairmount Park, the Magee Spokesmen are wheeling laps around the basketball court at the start of their weekly practice session.
After a few dozen circuits, they gather at one end. They begin start and stop drills, rolling out to the center of the court, stopping on a dime, executing hard 180-degree turns, and pushing back in the direction of the net.
Their coach, Eric Kreeb—who by day is a kitchen manager at Chickie’s and Pete’s—stands by and watches, smiling and shouting words of encouragement. Slide right, he shouts, turn and get on the line. The drills continue. Men push, turn, and then go from one end to the court to the other and then back…backwards. They pant, strain and sweat.
Back at the line, they’re huffing a bit now. “Turning left this time,” shouts Kreeb. His direction is met with some mild groans of protest. But the Spokesmen oblige, rolling out, turning left and rolling back. To some, it’s a competition. “Get your money!” one player shouts repeatedly. Forward and backward, turning wheelchairs left and right, drill after drill after drill. The practice is almost an hour old, and no one has yet touched a basketball.
Finally, they start shooting, taking turns at the foul line. As they shoot, two players practice defending one another, maneuvering a specially designed chair with an ability that clearly isn’t learned overnight.
The team splits into two groups and gather at either end of the court. A scrimmage game begins. Wheelchairs clang into each other as players jockey for a position. Fast breaks happen, as do lay-ups, fadeaway baskets and rebounds. Players even occasionally fall out of their wheelchairs, but such incidents only briefly delay the action, and they are back up quickly.
One can only imagine the toll a whole game of this—or six whole games of this—would take on someone who isn’t built up for the battle.
“We prepare for our games at practice,” says Kreeb. “We do several stamina building drills, diagram plays, go over defense, and discuss strategies of attack against our upcoming opponents. The conditioning is particularly important because we play in tournaments. Most tournaments you play five to six games in two days.”
This is no playful, recreational diversion. It’s a real, honest team practice. It is the grueling, repetitive effort that athletes put in that makes their feats on game day look effortless. The Magee Spokesmen are professional athletes. It’s obvious by the way they miraculously avoid collisions and effortlessly land passes into teammates’ hands.
The focus of wheelchair basketball isn’t the wheelchair. It’s the basketball.
The words “wheelchair basketball” to most people probably bring to mind images of a few guys sitting around shooting baskets in an ultra-friendly lightweight competition. The idea of it being an international sport, with leagues, divisions, and tournaments, would likely come as a surprise.
The sport began in veterans’ hospitals shortly after World War II, as paralyzed war heroes adjusted to their new life. As the sport grew and teams emerged across the country, the National Wheelchair Basketball Association was formed. Today the NWBA has over 200 teams in 22 conferences, many of them sponsored by local NBA teams.
Internationally, since the formation of the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation (IWBF), the sport has even more notoriety, particularly in places like France, Australia and Canada. Australia is the current IWBF men’s champion; Canada’s team took the women’s wheelchair basketball title this year.
John DeAngelo, a player for the Spokesmen, took the time to educate me a bit about the sport. Born with a congenital affliction, he has been playing wheelchair basketball since the age of 12.
“The first thing, leaving basketball aside, is just getting used to a wheelchair,” he says. “It sounds easy, but maneuvering a wheelchair is not as easy as you might think. Before you learn anything else about ice hockey, if you can’t skate, you can’t do anything. The players who really excel, it’s like the chair is almost an extension of their body.
“Then you start to throw in the sport part, dribbling a basketball and learning how to shoot and maneuver around people that are trying to defend you. The mechanics are the same way; you just take the legs out of it. The upper body mechanics are the same. There are rule differences in wheelchair basketball that change things a little bit, but you still have to dribble.
“The thing that you start to notice, and that’s what everyone has to learn in practice, is that instead of just a body banging around, you’ll hear a little more metal crashing into each other. That’s when you know someone’s comfortable with it, whereas there are guys that are very apprehensive about smashing into something.
“They’re the rookies!” DeAngelo says with a laugh.
The NWBA, NBA and NCAA are more similar than they are different.
The rules are the same as in the NBA; court dimensions and basket height are the same. There are some rule differences; traveling in wheelchair basketball consists of touching one’s wheels twice after dribbling the ball. There is no double dribble rule, as DeAngelo notes: “That allows you more maneuverability, so you’re not constantly dribbling, or else you really wouldn’t go. Some people can do that really well, but this allows you to maneuver faster and keep the pace going.”
Another difference is that with the nature of wheelchair basketball being such that teams can’t trade players or acquire free agents…players generally play for the team where they live…the best teams become the teams that retain the same players long enough to gel.
“In any team sport,” DeAngelo says, “the longer you keep a nucleus together, the better that team is going to wind up being. We’ve played against teams constantly who’ve grown; a lot of the players were not that good and all of a sudden they start to gel and get better. Year after year you see them grow and they become a powerhouse. North Carolina had always been a good team, and last year was finally their year where they just clicked.”
The NWBA has seven divisions, ranked by the level of competition. The Magee Spokesmen play in Division III, where DeAngelo says most teams are. Division II, he says, is an entirely different animal.
“You have teams out there who are competitive, you have teams with players that are just out there playing, and that’s great. They love to play, they know they’re not that good but they’ll travel to a couple of tournaments and just play. It’s not all about trying to win a championship to them.
“The more competitive you get, yeah, it gets dangerous,” he says.
Yes, DeAngelo has sustained some injuries in his career. In that regard as well, wheelchair basketball is no different from NBA basketball.
“I was playing this past weekend down in Virginia Beach, going for a rebound, another guy’s coming from the other team and wham! We just smashed into each other. I took the brunt of it, I’m not the biggest guy, and I just tumbled to the ground.
“It sounds bad, sometimes it’s bad, but it’s just part of the sport. You’ve got metal on metal, you get run over sometimes, fingers get jammed in wheels, things like that absolutely happen. I’ve had broken fingers, broken arm, several concussions, it’s pretty brutal.”
Today there are over 100,000 wheelchair basketball players worldwide. Most, like DeAngelo, play in organized leagues with tournaments and championships. Some play for national and international titles, which DeAngelo has also done. And the growth of the sport has created a competitive outlet for those at every level who see themselves not as disabled, but as athletes who do things differently.
DeAngelo has represented Team USA, but he’s also happy to have been part of a growing competitive sport.
“Putting on a USA jersey and playing overseas was probably the biggest thing. I did get a chance to play in two national championships for Temple. But for me, the thing I’m most proud about is that there are more programs now for younger kids, so when they’re starting out there’s something structured.
“I was 12 playing with 30-something year-old guys. I had to learn a lot of stuff really quick. Now there’s so much out there, and basketball was a stepping stone for a lot of other things. There are so many sports now for wheelchair athletes that it’s mind boggling.
“It’s a great thing to keep in shape. You slow down a bit like with anything, but the one good thing is that you can be a competitive player no matter what your age is, as long as your body can take it.”
And wheelchair basketball players will get run over, fall out of their chairs, get their fingers jammed in wheels and endure broken arms and concussions, and get back in the game for as long as their bodies can take it.
It’s what athletes do.
The Best of The Best – Wheelchair Basketball Hall of Fame
There is a Wheelchair Basketball Hall of Fame, founded in 1973. The NWBA website lists the members and the rules of eligibility—players must compete for a minimum of five years, be a part of an All-American team, and meet other requirements as determined by the voting committee. Non-competitors must give at least 12 years to the sport, as a coach, administrator or supporter.
Among the noteworthy members:
Tim Nugent – Inducted in the inaugural year of the Hall. Nugent was the coach of the first college wheelchair basketball team, the Illinois Gizz Kids, for 12 years. The team won the NWBA championship in 1953. But more importantly, Nugent founded the NWBA and served as its commissioner for 24 years. Today the NWBA has an endowment fund in Nugent’s name.
William Johnson – Also inducted in 1973, Johnson is listed as being the “Best to ever play the game” on the NWBA website. He played for a Long Beach Flying Wheels team that won five straight championships, and he also played for three U.S. Paralympic teams. Johnson later served as the commissioner for the Southern California conference of the NWBA.
Dan DeDeo – Inducted in 1976. DeDeo was one of the first ever certified officials of the NWBA; he officiated in the Eastern Conference (EWBC) for 14 years and later became the EWBC Officials Chairman and the Pacific Coast Commissioner.
Sharon Hedrick – Inducted in 1994, Hedrick was the first woman to be inducted into the NWBA Hall. Hedrick played for the University of Illinois team, winning six MVP awards and seven team championships. She later won medals playing for three U.S. Paralympics teams…the one year she sat out, the U.S. failed to bring a medal home.
Wheelchair basketball players generally don’t use their own wheelchairs; they play in specialized wheelchairs designed for sports. The sports chairs are made of titanium, don’t fold, and have their wheels angled for more camber and easier mobility.
DeAngelo describes the differences. “Typically, the standard chair, a lot of them are made with titanium, so they’re lightweight, durable. Back in the day when we were first playing there were these old-fashioned spokes that you’d see on a bicycle.
“The biggest difference in the chairs is that less is more. Some people would ride them around in the streets, but you wouldn’t necessarily see that. For my wheelchair, I have these bicycle tires on there for everyday use. For the basketball court they are very thin ones and they would get torn up on the streets.”
They have safety features as well, like the additional small wheels in the rear. “When I first was coming up the biggest thing was that your chair would flip backwards. Someone would hit you in the back of the tire with their foot pedals and your chair would flip right over.
“Now the chairs are made with what we call a fifth wheel or sometimes six wheels on the back of the frame, it’s kind of like training wheels. You still might flip backwards, but it’s not going to be as quick or as pronounced as it would have been.”
The Thrill of Wheelchair Basketball Victory
Wheelchair basketball has grown quickly in the war torn country of Afghanistan, where a great many civilians have lost limbs to mines and ordnance that are literally everywhere. Recently the International Committee of the Red Cross and U.S. basketball player and trainer Jess Markt began organizing sports programs to help amputees.
The response has been overwhelming…there are hundreds of men and women playing wheelchair basketball now in an organized league.
In June of 2012, after just two years of the program, the ICRC held its first national tournament. It featured teams from four Afghan cities: Mazar-I Sharif, Kabul, Herat, and Maimana. Thanks to the “man of the match”, then eighteen-year-old Shapoor Sorkhabi, the Maimana team triumphed over Herat in the final, 14-4.
After playing for only four years, Afghanistan now has a national team that competed for the first time internationally in May. The ICRC website features profiles of some of the players that competed in Italy, talking about the difference wheelchair basketball has made in their lives.
Says Sorkhabi, “My mother tried to discourage my love of basketball, saying I should put my studies first. But I persisted and started playing four years ago at the physical rehabilitation centre in Maimana.
“I played in a wheelchair basketball tournament and was made ‘man of the match’. After that my mother became proud of me. I was proud of myself, too.”
The Boston Renegades women’s football team are the current champions of the Women’s Football Alliance. I spoke with several of the team’s players for a piece about them for the Fall 2020 issue of BostonMan. You can read the article on BostonMan’s website, or check out the PDF of the magazine article here.
A Family of Renegades
ESPN and ABC have recently aired “Born To Play”, a documentary covering the Boston Renegades, the 2018 and 2019 Women’s Football Alliance Division I Champions. Like most sports teams around here, they do our city’s fans proud.
Viridiana Lieberman took a chance on her dream documentary having a letdown ending.
It almost didn’t work out.
Fortunately, the team she chose to cover lived up to its city’s recent formidable sports reputation.
Lieberman’s 90-minute feature “Born To Play” tells the story of the Boston Renegades, the women’s tackle football team, and their 2018 season. The ride is rough early on, with the logistical problems of a struggling sports league…including games getting called for lightning, opponents not showing up, and half-full grandstands.
It grows bleaker as the season progresses. The Renegades fall to the Pittsburgh Passion and their arch rival DC Divas, and will have to go on the road against both teams in the playoffs.
Spoiler alert: it works out fairly well. If you’re a football fan, if you’re a Boston sports fan, watch “Born To Play”.
The ending is great, you’ll love it.
Wait, what? Women’s tackle football?
Yes, Lieberman heard that a lot too. She couldn’t, she says, count on one hand the number of people who had heard of it in conversations she had. But yes, there is a league, the Women’s Football Alliance, with close to 70 teams that play throughout the country.
She faced plenty of pressure to focus on the surprise factor of women playing football, but she refused to budge on presenting the Renegades simply as professional athletes. “Born To Play” isn’t a women’s interest film. It’s a football film.
“It was about giving them the cinematic treatment that their male counterparts have gotten for so many decades,” Lieberman says. “Of course women can play football. It’s just a matter of, you didn’t know they were playing in this established league, that the rosters were this deep, that they had an entire coaching staff.
“I had a fantasy that I was going to write my own ‘A League of Their Own’, that I could turn into a film. Then I got into documentary, and well, it exists. So that was what set me on my track to find the team to follow.
“Undeniably the Boston Renegades.”
“My goal is to create awareness, and hopefully help them get the resources they need to grow their sport, but also get some butts in the seats and start cheering them on, because they deserve it.”
The Renegade players that were kind enough to speak with BostonMan never spent a second equating themselves with the Patriots, even though they’re all far better football players than most males will ever be.
Quarterback Allison Cahill, for example, possesses a pinpoint cannon of an arm. She has a career 60.7% completion percentage and a 115.96 QB rating. Chante Bonds, a multiple position player, played well enough on both sides of the ball to be the 2018 league MVP. Cornerback Briannah Gallo is a three-time All-Star and a member of every Boston championship team, including when they were the Boston Militia.
Cahill, who emerges in the film as a quiet leader, downplays their considerable abilities.
“I do believe we have a place,” she says. “We’re not contending that we’re as good as NFL players by any stretch of the imagination. People don’t do that with high school teams. They don’t go to an Everett High game and expect to see the Patriots.”
Bonds is similarly humble for a league superstar. “Spectators are looking to watch women’s basketball, expecting to see what the NBA does. If you settle in and you’re watching, these women play at a high level, then you’re going to understand the game on a different level and you’re going to enjoy it.”
Indeed, you can see some exciting football in the WFA. “Born To Play” showcases a particularly epic Renegades battle with the Chicago Force, a game that benefited from a better than usual broadcast.
Bonds carries the Renegades on her shoulders throughout the game, making key plays on defense before going on offense for the last play of regulation…and catching a 40-plus yard touchdown pass. The touchdown and two-point conversion ties the game, which the Renegades then win in OT. The game even features Divine Intervention, with heavy rain and winds suddenly vanishing as the touchdown pass is thrown.
The Renegades are arguably the most dominant team in WFA history. Since the league began in 2009, the Renegades have won four Division I titles, including two as the Boston Militia. They’re also the current champions, having won the last two campaigns.
With players not being paid, that success results from excellence for the sake of it. The Renegades’ achievements are dependent the entire organization understanding that.
Michelle McDonough, the team’s Director of Business Development, speaks about the dedication to putting a quality product on the field. “Practicing the way you’re supposed to practice, coaching the way you’re supposed to be coached, an overall commitment to the sport.
“This is more than a hobby, for every person involved in our organization, at every level. When they decide they first want to join, they either convert to have the same interest and commitment that Al and Chante and Bri have shown over the years, or they move on.”
Cahill agrees. “We take a lot of pride in passing along the tradition of women’s football in Boston, and what that level of commitment means.”
She credits upper management too.
“We are really dependent on high quality coaching, and even attracting high quality coaches comes from a competent and well-run management team.
“Our general manager, Ben Brown, does an amazing job of recruiting and bringing in new hungry athletes. And from there, it’s the job of everyone else to indoctrinate them.”
Strong word, indoctrinate. Are there hazing ceremonies?
“We can’t tell you that, come on,” Cahill says with a chuckle.
Of late, this town has a way of breeding champions too. Bonds believes it truly is a regional thing.
“I was having a conversation about being raised or raising a child on the East Coast vs. the West Coast. The conversation was basically around grit and toughness and perseverance. I’m a little biased, but I feel like East Coasters have all of that. Just being in this weather for eight out of twelve months of the year and surviving that is one piece of great perseverance.”
About Boston, Cahill adds, “I think about work ethic, I think about education. I think that those are two things that have set us apart. Just how hard we study, how hard we prepare, the lengths we go to for our physical preparation. I like to think those are woven into who we are and where we’re from.”
Gallo agrees it’s part of the New England psyche. “When you look at Boston sports teams, it’s not always about that one standout athlete. We have Chante and Allison, who are probably two of the best female football players in the league in their positions, and they’re the most humble athletes.
“New England is very fast paced,” she continues. “People have a certain type of attitude. It’s a different character, a different animal here. I think that that truly makes all of us collectively better because you can relate to one another.
“We just truly are a family.”
As “Born To Play” shows, not even the reigning WFA champions are playing in front of packed houses. The team continues to survive on the single-minded devotion of women who work day jobs to pay league fees, and then put their bodies on the line during the game.
Allison Cahill, Chante Bonds, and Briannah Gallo aren’t likely to sign six-figure contracts to play football in their lifetimes. But impact isn’t measured in dollars. Gallo shares a story of what the Renegades have meant to one young athlete.
“I work in the sports retail business. I was at work one day and I was helping a family. There was a little girl that was playing football for the first time. The mother had a list of everything they wanted the players to have, and I helped them. I never said who I was. After I got her everything, the mother asked me how I knew so much.
“I was in Plymouth, nowhere close to Boston. I said I play women’s tackle football for the Boston Renegades.
“The little girl’s face lit up. She got so excited. She started jumping up and down because she followed our team, her dream was to play football. As she walked away, she was tapping her mom saying, ‘I can’t believe I met one of them!’”
Bonds has similarly learned that the people who matter most, the adults of our future, are watching.
“When the documentary aired, I had a watch party at a family member’s house. Seeing my nieces, one who’s thirteen and the other who’s seven, glued to the TV screen watching me and our team made me really, really proud.
“Just being a part of something that was so special, that is so special, and showing my nieces. It’s like, you can do this.
“Whatever it is that might seem nontraditional? It’s possible with the right people around you.”
Did this post make your day a little bit?
I hope so. If it did, I would really appreciate your support.
Thanks very much…come back soon!
Supporting The Renegades
Partially due to simple lack of awareness…something Viridiana Lieberman was hoping to address in her film…the Renegades don’t often play to filled grandstands. They survive on T-shirt sales, concessions at games, league entry fees, whatever they earn at the gate, and donations. Traveling for most WFA teams is particularly difficult and expensive, and sometimes teams can’t pull it off, as the film shows.
Michelle McDonough is aware that the WFA has a tough mountain to climb. But the situation is improving.
“The documentary touched a lot on the competition and the leagues and how difficult and challenging it can be for teams that don’t have depth to run a full season. To know that you’re going to come in and play against Boston, and potentially have a tough time competing.
“Injuries get the best of you. Money gets the best of you. There are many reasons not to fulfill your obligation that are at no fault to a love of football or the game.
“But I think that as a whole, things have been getting better. As we look at our division and our schedule, teams that don’t have enough people are few and far between, and teams are becoming better funded, and have stronger commitment to their own physical well-being and ability to keep players on the field.”
On the Renegades’ website, you can become a team sponsor, order a 2018-2019 National Champions T-shirt, or make a donation to help the team cover expenses. And of course, learn more about the team and its history.
Finally, when football starts again, get out and see some tough girl athletes play some football. The Renegades play their home games in April and May, at Harry Della Russo Stadium in Revere.
Born To Film
Viridiana Lieberman has made a few documentary films, including “Fattitude”, a film that examines the discrimination and impact of fat shaming. Her name appears quite a few times in the credits of “Born To Play”, including for direction, editing and production.
Although she doesn’t have a true favorite moment of the film, she shared one passage that she’s particularly fond of with BostonMan.
“I did always imagine being able to give a treatment of a scene where a woman was telling the legend of a play. That it would feel so from the history books, the way that I watched on NFL Films my whole life.
“When Chante tells that story of the Chicago Force, my soul explodes, I just feel like it feels as exciting and epic. I had multiple players tell me that story, oh, there was this one game against Chicago. I thought, this is that story that they tell their grandkids.
“To be able to edit that section and bring it to life with the footage, there’s something about blending the present in history and giving it a cinematic treatment. That moment that felt like I was cementing it in history.”
With Lieberman’s love for sports, “Born To Play” was, she says, her Super Bowl. That said, she wouldn’t mind doing more films chronicling female athletes, something she has certainly proven herself qualified to do.
“I am most proud that I was able to get a mainstream distribution on a story that did not create special treatment because they’re women. So I feel like now that it’s out in the world and the response has been so amazing and people get it. I will make more films in my life, but I also know that this felt like my life’s work because I’m such a big football fan.
“If I become typecast as a director making films about female athletes, I will be happy.”
You can learn more about Lieberman’s work at her Squarespace site.
Viridiana Lieberman photo courtesy of Viridiana Lieberman. All other photos courtesy of the Boston Renegades.
When I covered NASCAR for the Frontstretch in the late 2000s, there were quite a few motorsports writers that had nothing good to say about the racing at Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, PA. I came to the speedway’s defense in this incisive and thoughtful column, which first appeared here on the Frontstretch website. Pocono is still today one of my favorite NASCAR venues.
Where’s The Love For Pocono Raceway?
In the world of motorsports commentary, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of affection for Pocono Raceway. The complaints are numerous. Boring, single-file racing and not enough passing. No gear shifting. Too big of a track. 500 miles is too long. Can’t see what’s going on near the tunnel turn from the seats. Too long to get out of the parking lot. Waaah, waaah, waaah. Even the Wikipedia entry on the track bitches about it, citing “several drivers” (while naming only Denny Hamlin) and their antipathy for the place.
Our own Danny Peters, who is a first class motorsports writer in every other sense of the word, ranked Pocono just above Fontana in his evaluation of tracks on the NASCAR schedule.
The racing press has such a low opinion of Long Pond that when Bruton Smith purchased Kentucky Speedway and promised a Cup date there, it was immediately news that he might buy Pocono and move one of its Cup dates. Why suggest Pocono for a loss of a Cup date? Why not Dover, or Indianapolis? Why not an ISC track, like the favorite asphalted whipping boy for 95% of race fans – Fontana?
For all the moaning about Speedway Motorsports Inc. and International Speedway Corp. owning almost all of the tracks on the circuit, does Pocono Raceway get any points at all for being independently owned? When one thinks about the antitrust lawsuit that was brought by Kentucky Speedway against NASCAR some time ago, and how some who were tired of races being removed from classic tracks identified with Kentucky’s position, why would like thinkers be so eager to lose a date at Pocono to yet another SMI or ISC “D” speedway (“D” as in the shape of the track, not a letter grade for the general quality of racing at such venues, although it could apply), which Kentucky Speedway officially is now?
There wasn’t any discussion at all between Smith and Pocono Raceway owner Joseph Mattioli about a possible sale. Smith never gave any hint of desire to buy it. But Mattioli’s wife actually had to tell the press that Pocono was never nor ever will be available for sale. The possible move of a Cup date from Pocono to Kentucky wasn’t even a story… it was just a by-product of some reporters’ unquenchable desire for Pocono Raceway to lose a race.
So in contrast to the echo chamber denigrating Pocono Raceway, the Official Columnist of NASCAR speaks out here, in his ubiquitous Happy Hour forum, for the greatness of a speedway that gets an undeserved bad rap. I don’t care what anyone else thinks… Pocono rocks for a bunch of reasons.
Let’s start with the obvious. Pocono Raceway is a refreshing departure from those “D” tracks, the 1.5-2 mile speedways that now dominate way too much of the current NASCAR circuit. “Intermediates,” they are usually called. Among race fans, “cookie-cutters” is a more common euphemism.
Chicagoland, Texas, Michigan, etc., there’s no need to list them all, are the motorsports equivalent of the soulless, concrete doughnut, artificial turf, multipurpose baseball stadiums of the 1970s. Maybe someday racing will have its own Camden Yards to inspire a revival of taxpayer-subsidized old-style racetrack building, but for now we have few and shrinking alternatives. In a NASCAR schedule that features far too little variation among venues, Pocono stands out like a sore thumb, in a good way.
It isn’t even close to any other speedway. Look at decent tracks like Phoenix or Richmond even; yes, they’re different from the cookie-cutters and have some character, but they’re still D-shaped; they’re just smaller. It really doesn’t make for much difference to those in attendance.
Pocono, on the other hand, has three completely distinct turns instead of four equal ones. Each straightaway being a different length in the track’s scalene layout means that all of the turns are at different angles. How is the coolness of that missed? Pythagoras would have loved racing a chariot in this joint. For those of you who are weary of the constant lament from the unenlightened that “they just go around in circles”, at least Pocono offers a response to that. A circle, or even an oval, it is not.
The three turns themselves pay tribute to three classic tracks: turn 1 is modeled after the late Trenton Speedway, the tunnel turn (so named because of its location above the entry tunnel) is inspired by Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and turn 3 is similar to the Milwaukee Mile (another track that should have a Cup date).
Not only do the three turns give Pocono a nod to history, the different angles and banking of them gives crew chiefs fits. Before every Pocono race, teams can all be heard talking about “compromise” in their setups. You can be good in turn 1 and the tunnel turn, but you’ll pay for it in turn 3; and vice versa. Teams all attempt to be adequate on each turn because no one will be great on all of them. And the tunnel turn, with its sharp cornering and low banking, is often described as the most difficult in NASCAR for drivers.
It’s not just the turns that make Pocono Raceway so special and challenging. The track also features the circuit’s longest straightaway at 3,740 feet, almost three-quarters of a mile in length. The extra-long frontstretch makes for great drag races, especially on restarts, with cars racing three- and four-wide for that extra anxiety going into turn 1. But drivers had better break that side-by-side habit going into turn 2 or they aren’t going to finish the race.
Because of Pocono’s layout, teams need the whole package: horsepower, downforce, chassis setup, and a danged good wheelman driving the car. If they’re off on one corner, they’ll be in the back of the pack before very long. If the driver can’t negotiate the tunnel turn, they’ll be loading the car into the hauler before the race is over. Not enough horsepower for the drag race on the frontstretch and the team might as well stay home. And they had better not neglect to bring a super strong engine and a super durable set of brakes for 500 miles of this pounding. Many an engine has heartbreakingly expired at Pocono just 5-10 laps short of the checkered flag.
That’s my kind of grind. 500 miles on a 2.5-mile track without restrictor plates. Only at Pocono.
Occasionally, you’ll see just one driver’s team… it’s been Hamlin or Kurt Busch in recent years… totally nail the setup and dust the entire field. Pocono seems to be more conducive to such dominance, perhaps because of the difficulty of the setup. Having missed the Loudon race where Jeff Burton led every single lap, I have yet to see that feat accomplished, but I’m betting it will happen at Pocono before anywhere else. Some people will say one driver dominating is boring. I think it’s about as boring as a ballgame where one team doesn’t get any hits.
There aren’t many tracks on the circuit where drivers can safely go 55 mph in the pits. Crew members probably prefer Pocono to Bristol or Martinsville. That should count for something. It’s not that fans want to see Martinsville leave the circuit…ever…but that is sometimes cited as a reason to axe the famed paper clip from the schedule. Most newer speedways feature safer, wider pit roads. Pocono already has one.
Pocono Raceway is wide open, unsaturated with extra seats with low-quality views everywhere as so many tracks are these days. On television, most of the camera views contain greenery in the background rather that greed-inspired grandstands. That and its location in a truly rural area of Pennsylvania makes Pocono a throwback to a traditional era of NASCAR.
Since all of the seats at Pocono are on the frontstretch, fans are treated to the gradually rising volume of the engines as the cars work towards turn 3, before they scream down the frontstretch in an earsplitting roar. That, in this writer’s opinion, actually makes the distance of the tunnel turn from the grandstand a feature, not an impediment, of the fan experience. From quiet to deafening. It’s an oddity. Oddities are good.
There isn’t any shortage of spectacular wrecks either, if you’re into the more morbid side of racing. Remember Jeff Gordon’s brake failure and subsequent full-speed pounding into the wall in 2006? Or Steve Park’s scary flip in 2002?
So the complaints about Pocono are unreasonable. Not enough passing, you say? Daytona can have 30 passes in a lap. Two freight trains don’t make for better racing. The cars are too far from view going into the tunnel turn? If limited view for spectators is an issue, what the h is Indianapolis still doing on the schedule? No shifting gears? Gear shifting is for road courses. 500 miles is too long for a race? Don’t be such a candy ass, as The Intimidator would say. It’s racing for crying out loud. Too big of a track? Talladega is the same length and receives no such derision; and unlike ’Dega, Pocono doesn’t restrict horsepower, the practice of which remains the perfect antithesis of racing. Too long of a wait to get out of the parking lot? Where isn’t that a problem? At least at Pocono, loyal fans aren’t charged a double sawbuck to park in a field.
It’s baffling how many NASCAR fans and even writers, who call themselves traditionalists with no love for the France or Smith empires, never seem to lay off bashing one of the few unique, rural, throwback, independently owned racetracks left on the schedule.
Count the Official Columnist of NASCAR proudly in what appears to be the minority opinion: Pocono Raceway deserves every one of its 1,000 miles of racing.
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While writing for the Frontstretch years ago, I came up with a bunch of ideas for a new track that would revolutionize NASCAR racing. This piece originally appeared here, and they’ve given me permission to reprint it, since the ideas truly are innovative and should be implemented! Enjoy.
Solving NASCAR’s Racetrack Problem, Part 2 –
Happy Hour Motor Speedway – A New Short Track
In last week’s Happy Hour, I discussed baseball’s ballpark boom and how the place responsible for it all, Oriole Park at Camden Yards, changed the formula for modern ballparks—from antiseptic concrete bowls to eye-catching and distinctive structures with natural grass. I suggested that NASCAR could learn from this, with most of the NASCAR schedule littered with tracks that are all too similar to one another.
My idea was that the architects of the next speedway could try the same tactic, and use elements of several classic speedways in its design, while at the same time incorporating the modern amenities that the newer tracks brag about. And the next time NASCAR moves to a new track, it has a place to go to with better racing and a memorable fan experience. And new tracks in the future have a standard.
With that in mind, here is what defines Happy Hour Motor Speedway I. Feel free to chew me out if something doesn’t work, or add any ideas of your own.
It is eight-tenths of a mile (just slightly longer than Richmond). I have no beef with the biggest of big tracks—I’m in the minority in finding Pocono’s pure size endearing—but let’s face it, all of us love to see drivers fighting for the tiniest of tiny bits of real estate, and to see drivers almost half a lap down when the race starts. Bristol and Martinsville, more than most tracks, separate the men from the boys in this sport. My track will be a little bigger but not by much. There will be carnage, but I’m leaving the crown of most carnage to Bristol where it duly belongs. And like Richmond, it will be plenty wide enough for three-wide racing.
I’m not one of the fans that need to see tempers in full bloom every week, and I’m not one who tunes in for wrecks either. But for my first track, I’m going with short, because this is where many of the drivers find their roots. It’s not that drivers don’t need a good racecar for less than a mile, but they do have to be up on the wheel throughout. No lapses in concentration allowed. My track is going to be challenging to race on, but drivers will love it.
My second track will be huge. It’s going to be the longest in NASCAR. But the current car NASCAR has steadfastly insisted we use runs far better at short tracks at the moment, so we’re starting off with flying fighter jets in a gymnasium.
There is high and progressive banking all around the track (like Dover). Martinsville is great partly for its almost nonexistent banking. A driver scrambling to slow to 30 MPH into a turn is great. But we want to see guys going fast. At HHMS they’re going to barrel into corners going at least 110. I’m estimating somewhere between 20-25 degrees of banking in the turns.
The banking is going to be different on the opposite ends—higher in one and two than in three and four or vice versa. It might not be as high as Dover’s nine degrees on the straightaways, but there will be some, maybe six degrees, because that improves the fans’ view too. More on all that in a minute.
The racing surface is concrete (like Dover and Bristol). This isn’t because I like Carl Edwards. Or even because I think racing is better on concrete—truthfully I can’t really tell, although concrete is harder on tires and cars run faster on it. It’s just to be different, to require a different type of setup, and to make crew chiefs do some thinking.
And it looks neat. Pieces of black tires that were insufficient to the task of staying intact will be in full view in the off-white background, strewn about the racetrack until it rains.
There are no seats on the backstretch (like Pocono and others). The seats at HHMS will be from the middle of turns three and four and the middle of turns one and two, for several reasons.
First, not having the track completely surrounded by seats is easier on fans’ eardrums. I have enjoyed races at Pocono without the benefit of earplugs. There is no way that’s happening at Martinsville.
Second, the seating should be arranged so that everyone in attendance can see pit road, like at Pocono. Often that is where some of the best action takes place—seeing a leader suddenly have to come in, seeing phenomenal pit crews accomplish in 15 seconds what takes Firestone a day, seeing cars race at 35 MPH to be the first out. No one who pays for a ticket should miss that.
Third, I like the idea of not having subpar seats anywhere at my speedway.
And lastly it’s good for aesthetic reasons too…I like looking at wide open expanse. No racetrack, no outdoor sports venue for that matter, should isolate itself from its surroundings. One should know where one is not by looking at the sign on the scoreboard but by looking at the meadow or RV park or lake or railroad beyond the site of the track. The view should be interesting, sure, just trees wouldn’t be great, but that’s all part of picking a great location. That’s next.
It is located near a body of water and a railroad, which influences its design (like Darlington). Asymmetry…where on earth has that concept gone in racing? Hasn’t anyone noticed what makes Darlington so special? Irregularity based on location is one of the features that define the new ballparks. It’s hard to believe that so few of the tracks in NASCAR have any asymmetrical quirks. I guess Phoenix, Pocono, and the road courses count, but there isn’t much else.
Not only would there be no seats on the backstretch, there would be a local ordinance reason for it, even if it is fudged a bit (as some new ballparks are—San Diego is an example). This will result in the frontstretch and backstretch being different lengths to go with the aforementioned different banking and angles in the turns. How much will the turns differ? If crew chiefs aren’t cursing the day I entered this world when they come here, I won’t be happy with it. HHMS will separate the men from the boys on the pit box too.
Since ballparks located in downtown areas of cities place more emphasis on public transportation, maybe something like that could work for races. NASCAR has far worse traffic problems at its events than most other sports. Being near a passenger railroad in a rural area could result in one or more stops on the rail to be solely for the racetrack…maybe one or two at the track itself, one at the RV park, and a couple in nearby towns where shuttles could take groups of people to the track after breakfast in a local restaurant. Fans could park and ride at several nearby locations.
Traffic is absolutely murder at most tracks on race day. HHMS will take every step to ease it. Easier said than done, I know, but we have some smart people around here.
The view from the stands should be of a local railroad as opposed to a highway. People see highways every day without thinking twice. A railroad stirs up images of hardworking men building a medium of transportation, of businesses transporting loads of raw materials—how America used to be before (ironically) the automobile. It’s nostalgic. Remember, Smith-designed speedways are about paying tribute to the sport’s place in the nation’s history.
There are no low seats, or the low seats get sold very cheaply. At nearly every track, there is too much stuff in the infield to be able to see what is going on in the backstretch from a low seat. Maybe things in the infield could be arranged so that people can see everything, but I would rather people weren’t close enough to risk hearing damage if they can’t see the whole track.
Dover’s high banking makes it possible to see most of the track from wherever one is sitting, so that is one solution, but I also think the lowest ten rows or so could be eliminated without too much pain. I’ll have plenty of higher seats, kind of like in the one odd-looking high section at Richmond. There will be fewer seats as a result of this. That’s fine. I’d rather have fewer seats and butts in all of them. A walkway and a row of concession and souvenir stands could be placed underneath the grandstand, facing pit road. It might take some soundproofing, but people also wouldn’t miss much getting a hot dog.
It is located in a rural area, with no casinos and no Oscars (like Talladega or Martinsville). The focal point of location chosen would be the racetrack. Not an industry, not another sport, the racetrack. If it works for Green Bay it can work for NASCAR. It probably should be located somewhere near a big market, but that market should be a good sports market, like Philadelphia, St. Louis or Detroit as opposed to Atlanta or Los Angeles. (No disrespect intended to fans there.)
At first my thoughts on this were that we should put a racetrack back in the south, seeing as they’ve lost so many in recent years and that is still where the base of NASCAR fans is. Perhaps somewhere in Mississippi…and networks and/or the track’s PA could play ZZ Top’s “My Head’s In Mississippi” before each race. It’d be a good counterpoint to hearing “Sweet Home Alabama” before Dega races. I’d mix the concrete for the whole track myself to see ZZ play it live there.
Sorry to have gotten off course a bit. If we’re going back to the roots with this speedway, it could be somewhere in the Southeast. We can find a way to assure Brian France that doing so isn’t an endorsement of slavery.
But on further reflection (it’s great to have a job that encourages “reflection”), I’ve decided it would be fine to go anywhere where race fans are proven to be. If that’s in California then so be it, but we now know that the Los Angeles area isn’t the place. They won’t even support football for crying out loud.
I’m not the biggest fan of Loudon, but there’s no question that the place sells tickets. Maybe the New England market could support another race on the schedule. Any locality that carries a consistently sold out Nationwide race, like Nashville or Gateway, could be considered.
It’ll take some research. But in true retro style, we’ll go where fans already are, not where NASCAR would like them to be.
There are no lights! (like Pocono, Kansas, Dover and Wrigley Field once). I exclamation pointed this for a reason. This season’s Daytona 500 convinced me more than ever that races should be held on Sunday afternoon. Not Saturday, not in the late afternoon/evening. Sunday Afternoon.
The green flag will drop at 1PM and we’ll race for 500 laps, and it’s going to take a lot of rain to deprive patrons of any of them. Networks won’t like it. Tough. Fans in attendance at HHMS will get home or back to their hotel at a decent hour.
There are seats with armrests, not benches (like Lowe’s). I will say this about Lowe’s: one doesn’t have to stop drinking beer or soda to keep their bladder from exploding, because getting up and finding one’s seat again is nowhere near as difficult than at a place with benches and rubbing cheeks. (Cheeks rubbin’ is NOT cheeks racin’.)
There is free parking and coolers are allowed. Damn straight.
There will be nods at the front gate to some of NASCAR’s greatest moments and heroes. Let’s just try a few off the top of my head: a statue of Dale Earnhardt in his famous arms-in-the-air pose after finally winning the Daytona 500. A mural of Busch and Craven at the finish line in Darlington. Replicas of Cale’s 11 and Jimmie’s 48 cars, with a sign in the middle saying “Three straight.” The prominently displayed #3 flag Jeff Gordon flew out the window at Phoenix, commemorating his tying of Dale Earnhardt’s win total. It will be eye-catching on the outside too.
There is often a wait at the front gate to let people in. Happy Hour Motor Speedway would entertain fans by featuring large screens at the front gate, showing ongoing video broadcasts from some of the greatest finishes: the 1976, 1979 and 2007 500s, Harvick and Gordon at Atlanta, Earnhardt slicing through the field at Dega, and many, many others. People waiting will get pumped thinking about what they are about to witness. They’ll get so into it they won’t mind the line. Maybe we could strike a deal with the NASCAR Images people. They do an amazing job.
And a huge picture of Brian France with a circle and a line through it. (OK, that last won’t help my quest to get a Cup race at my speedway, but I can dream.)
There would be an award for winning a race (like Martinsville’s grandfather clock or Nashville’s Gibson Les Paul). This is a relatively inexpensive gimmick that can help to make a speedway noteworthy. Most places offer a trophy. HHMS will offer something else, like a Jeff Dunham talking Peanut doll. As hard as those things are to get, drivers will be fighting that much harder for the win. Maybe Jeff himself can present the award.
There is a notable food item at the concession stands (like Martinsville’s hot dog). Is there a sports venue anywhere that serves decent nachos with real cheese instead of that Velveeta processed crap? HHMS will sell the best nachos on the circuit—served with real shredded cheddar and Monterey jack (and make sure it’s real Monterey, Jack!) cheese and kick-ass guacamole. Or soft pretzels from the Mart Pretzel Bakery in Cinnaminson (which are almost worth paying New Jersey property taxes to be near).
Whatever works. Maybe we’ll have a contest with locals bringing their finest recipes for finger foods, and the winner will have the food item named after them at HHMS. Sports fans love to munch when they’re watching. HHMS will offer a grub item that people will mention when they talk about a trip to the speedway.
And last but sure as heck not least…
It would have a great nickname. Like The Cuss Oval, or Concrete Hell. Something at least as cool as the Lady In Black, Thunder Valley or The Monster Mile. Not something lame like the Beast of the Southeast.
There you have it…the key elements of a new, classic-yet-modern short track speedway for NASCAR racing. Some time soon, I’ll present my design for a superspeedway where a restrictor plate will not be necessary.
I’m not saying any of this would be easy to do, of course. You’d meet a lot of resistance if you suggested fewer seats instead of more. And NASCAR and the networks in their finite wisdom might not like the idea of giving a race to a track without lights. As I said a week ago, a lot of folks running the show don’t think like fans.
But wouldn’t all of this be better than another symmetrical 1.5-miler?
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One of NASCAR’s bigger problems in recent years is the preponderance of 1.5-mile speedways that produced boring, aero-oriented racing. In this article, which originally appeared on Frontstretch’s website but is still relevant today, I explain how baseball’s ballpark boom greatly improved the sport and why.
To save you the trouble of reading my profile, I was a terminal Baltimore Orioles fan before I was a NASCAR fan. My dedication to the Birds came not from living in the Baltimore area my whole life but from growing up in a family of Orioles fans. The Smiths lived in Towson, Maryland, just minutes away from the old Memorial Stadium, when I was far too young to understand the importance of relief pitching. When I was four we moved to South Jersey, bringing our love for that tough-looking but smiling bird swinging the bat with us.
Growing up as an Orioles fan in the Philadelphia area gave me a different perspective than most regarding the venues where baseball is played. I was able to compare. Dad took me to Phillies games at Veterans Stadium, which was still great—it was live baseball after all, and I’m an American—but that didn’t measure up to when he’d gather a group of us for a trip to Baltimore. Going to Memorial Stadium for an occasional Orioles game is my favorite memory of childhood.
Memorial was a far better setting for baseball than the Vet. In Baltimore they played on grass and you could see a suburban community beyond center field. It was prettier on the outside too—a large brick facade embossed with a dedication to fallen World War II soldiers, as opposed to the dreary concrete bowl with no similar dedication in Philadelphia (although Veterans Stadium was named in honor of our military heroes as well).
One of the things that purists (a nice, non-derogatory term for “old farts” like me) despised in the evolution of baseball during the 1970s was the emergence of the “multipurpose” stadium—soulless gray monstrosities built near a city’s airport and designed to hold both baseball and football events, and most egregiously featuring playing surfaces of plastic carpet instead of natural grass.
Among the worst features of the concrete doughnuts was their uniformity—Pirates third baseman Richie Hebner once commented that he could stand at the plate in Philadelphia and not know whether he was in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, St. Louis or Philly. I could add that if he didn’t notice big roofs, he could have been in Houston or Montreal too.
In those days baseball was in the process of modernizing in an economically friendly way—much like NASCAR is today—and the sport had forgotten that a big part of the charm of baseball was in its homes, places like Sportsman’s Park or Connie Mack Stadium…distinctive, asymmetrical, natural grass downtown ballparks that often both contributed to and reflected the character of a city.
Fortunately, people with unflagging determination, loud voices and passion about this very issue got involved in the designing of Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
When the majestic new Baltimore ballpark opened in 1992, it made such a huge splash that for years, teams and cities talked about wanting a new “Camden Yards-type facility” for professional baseball. Oriole Park completely obliterated the ongoing wisdom about what a modern baseball field should be. When fans attended a baseball game at the Yard, they remembered—or if they were too young to remember, they discovered—what was good and right about being present for a ballgame. As an Orioles fan, it even made it difficult for me to lament the loss of Memorial Stadium, although I still do.
After the dawn of Camden Yards, new and dazzling palaces of baseball began to spring up in cities across America—Cleveland, Arlington, Denver, Atlanta, Milwaukee, and so on until 2009 as two gorgeous new parks open in New York City. Nearly every ballpark in baseball now offers a charming experience unique to its location. Not only has the ballpark boom revitalized the sport, it has often boosted tourism and local economies in many of the cities where new ones were constructed. Baltimore and Cleveland are the best examples.
What made it all happen was what Camden Yards represented—it was an “old style” ballpark with “modern amenities”, like not having seats behind support pillars. Visually, Camden Yards brings to mind classic parks like Fenway Park or Wrigley Field. And it adds a few aesthetically striking features of its own, most notably the dominating B&O warehouse beyond right-center field. But Camden Yards also has better sightlines, more leg room, more concession stands and more rest rooms than Wrigley or Fenway.
Another feature of Camden Yards that would surprise fans was the amount of seats—just 48,000 as opposed to over 60,000 in the cookie-cutters, leaving very few poor seats in the house. No one expected a team to ever do this, but it turned out to be a great way to fill up a place most every night and to leave fans wanting more (a concept that NASCAR has great difficulty grasping)—and as any Green Bay Packers fan can tell you, the more difficult it is to see an event live, the more people will appreciate it and renew their season tickets.
Baseball turned to the multipurpose concrete doughnut stadiums in the name of economics. When the architects of Camden Yards sought to reverse the bottom-line oriented trend and rediscover the game’s heart, the subsequent economic return was enormous—far larger than the return from any dispassionate plan would have been. And the seemingly unstoppable and depressing trend towards characterless baseball venues was felled in one swoop. The rest of the cookie-cutters fell like dominoes in less than 15 years.
Camden Yards succeeded because it was conceived by people who thought like fans instead of accountants. Someone should hire them to be NASCAR advisors.
One of the bigger beefs longtime fans of NASCAR have today is the unimaginative size, shape, and location of too many of the current venues. Like the cookie-cutters that once dominated baseball, NASCAR’s schedule today is littered garden variety tracks with no standout features. Little distinguishes Kansas Speedway from Chicagoland, Homestead, Las Vegas or Texas, especially when watching on television. Some newer tracks are to be applauded for the things that do improve the fan experience (like seats instead of benches), but they are clearly built with the same intention as the concrete doughnuts in baseball were—to attract as many fans as possible and to expend no energy on design or quirky originality.
Does it work? Do fans at Bristol Motor Speedway care about the comfort level in their seat on race day? Hell no. They’d sit on damp concrete to witness a race at Bristol. No matter what Lowe’s Motor Speedway does to improve the fan experience, it will never achieve Bristol status.
Economics may simply have dictated that North Wilkesboro, Rockingham, or Darlington lose races. What has upset fans is that these classic, distinctive venues have been replaced by run of the mill and far less endearing speedways. To replace Darlington or North Wilkesboro with Texas or Fontana is to rip out a piece of a sport’s soul, just as replacing Forbes Field with Three Rivers Stadium was.
NASCAR still has a few classic venues that offer a unique fan experience and a unique racing challenge. Martinsville is one. Dover is another. Darlington will always be a favorite. These tracks should never be replaced unless they aren’t maintained or draw poorly from year to year. Yet all three are occasionally spoken of as being in NASCAR’s sights for removal of races.
Economics doesn’t care about hearts. But hearts don’t care about economics either, and it works both ways…if your economic decision loses fans, you lose their economic value. NASCAR has lost sight of that in a big way. Tracks are given races based on balance sheet numbers only. It still doesn’t seem to have dawned on anyone at NASCAR that removing the Labor Day race from Darlington is a large part of the bottom-line mentality that has driven away thousands of fans. The one economic concern that should override absolutely everything else is having and keeping customers.
The real economics lay within the heart of the fan base. There is no need or reason to sell one or the other short, no matter how contradicting that may sound. Baseball has proven it. If NASCAR can’t stay at Rockingham, they could at least find or build a speedway that isn’t cut from the same worn-out mold.
And should Bruton Smith or the France family take such an opportunity to build a Camden Yards for motorsports, they could also rise above the taxpayer theft that many sports teams have pulled on their cities and build speedways with their own money. Smith has threatened to completely fund an entirely new racetrack himself in the past. That might turn a few fed up taxpayers into NASCAR fans. He could do it. And he’s just the guy to do it.
So as we return to talking about NASCAR next week, before the circus returns to one its most fabled venues, The Official Columnist of NASCAR is going to provide a rough design for a new racetrack—an “old-style” track with “modern amenities”. Tune in next week to read about the features of Happy Hour Motor Speedway…and feel free to add any ideas of your own that I hadn’t thought of.
Jeff Holman is a member of the Holman family, a name you’ve heard if you’ve ever shopped for a car in South Jersey. But he’s made his mark coaching high school tennis, with over 2,000 victories to his credit. I interviewed him for the October 2013 issue of JerseyMan. You can view the PDF of this article here.
Expanding His Roots
Jeff Holman is a member of the Holman car sales family, but he’s made his own mark in high school tennis coaching.
Mention the name “Holman” to a South Jersey native and chances are a car dealership will come to mind. The name has been selling automobiles in the Garden State for nearly as long as automobiles have existed. Most readers of this publication have probably either bought a car from a Holman or know someone who has.
But over the last three and a half decades, Jeff Holman has achieved what could be called legendary status in a realm that has nothing to do with Cadillacs.
By the time you read this article, Holman, who coaches both girls and boys tennis at Haddonfield High School, will likely have passed an astonishing 2,000 victories—both teams are within striking distance of 1,000 wins each. The boys’ teams have won nine state group championships; the girls’ team has won 18 state group titles and three Tournament of Championship crowns—often against larger schools with bigger talent pools.
He’s gotten quite a bit of recognition himself; 20 Coach of the Year awards, and membership in five Halls of Fame, including Camden County Athletics and the New Jersey High School Hall of Fame, are a small sampling of the countless awards and honors he’s received.
As successful as the family is in car sales, Jeff has proven that the Holmans aren’t a one-trick pony.
As a young lad, Holman probably thought he would sell cars when he grew up. He once wrote a “future career” paper on being a car dealer, which given his background was probably an easy assignment. But he says no undue expectations were placed on him by his Jersey famous family.
“I have two siblings; my sister Mindy is now the CEO of Holman Enterprises, and my brother Steve is a cabinet maker in Dorset, Vermont. Mostly, my parents encouraged me to do what I wanted to do. I had good teachers that encouraged me to get into education.”
Holman was a decent player at Haddonfield High, known for not rushing the net and simply wearing opponents down. But he knew he wasn’t destined for stardom on the court either. He attended college at Princeton, where the talent was, to put it mildly, substantial.
“The #1 varsity player at Princeton (Bill Colson) was ranked ahead of Jimmy Connors. My roommate was a two time Nebraska state champion; he wasn’t even a consistent starter. I was realistic enough, a good high school player, but I never thought I could play professionally.”
After graduating from Princeton, Holman returned to Haddonfield as an English teacher, and served as an assistant coach on the girls’ basketball team. Haddonfield being a small school, there weren’t enough tennis courts for two teams, so the girls’ season was moved to the fall in 1976. Their coach, Ellie Kind, was also the field hockey coach, so Holman took over the tennis team when the two schedules merged.
Two years later, Ken Grabert, the boys’ coach, “decided that driving the bus to events paid more than coaching, which was correct”, and Holman took over the boys’ team. 35 years later, though he’s now a guidance counselor, he is still on the court with young people most afternoons, steadily adding to the impressive win totals and titles.
Leaders in any endeavor will often tell you that success depends on choosing the right personnel. In high school sports, this presents a significant obstacle. Coaches don’t have the option of recruiting the best players from a 500-mile radius. The kids in town are what they’ve got.
In this environment, Holman magnanimously gives some credit for his success to local tennis clubs as a place where parents teach the game to kids. But he also piled another challenge on top of recruitment limitations: a no-cut rule. Every student who signs up will have a chance to represent Haddonfield tennis. Jeff explains the reasoning:
“One of the best players I ever had was a girl named Phoebe Figland, she was part of the 1980 team that won the first ever Tournament of Champions. Back then we had four courts, I had to keep 16 girls, and Phoebe as a freshman was number 17 so I had to cut her. Luckily she wasn’t one of those kids that gets discouraged easily; she came back and earned a starting varsity position, and went on to become a Division I player at the University of Richmond.
“Maybe in Phoebe’s case it gave her more inspiration to become as good as she did. But I think other people might have quit. Since that time I’ve always looked for a way to keep everyone involved and not cut people.”
That means arranging more matches with more teams, which Holman does. “In our program we have 40-50 players, and schools we play against may have 10-15. So by having a lot of matches and a separate rotation system, even though our team is bigger, all of the players get to play in matches. If they are all involved and can have a fun experience and see improvement, they’ll want to keep on playing and getting better.”
If you’re looking to ferret out a nugget from him about how to successfully coach high school sports, that is mostly what Holman will tell you. Keep all the kids involved, having fun, and playing tough competition. Encouragement and positive reinforcement. Not much about fundamentals.
“The mechanics, a lot of that is learned in the offseason. It’s hard to change someone’s mechanics during the season. They might get worse before they get better. There are outstanding professionals in the area that our students have gone to, and these teachers have instilled some mechanical knowledge of the game.”
So instead of teaching backhands or “getting into the zone”, Holman’s focus is on arranging as many matches as he can with quality opponents, and separating practices into groups so that all of the players get time in with the coach.
He even drives the team bus. It’s a gesture that appears to be a show of humility or bonding, but it is actually rooted in practicality: “If the school doesn’t have to pay a driver, then tennis, which has no transportation costs, enables Haddonfield to play an ambitious schedule. We can go to North Jersey or I can schedule more matches in a week. In this era of budget constraints, not having to play a bus driver really frees up our program.”
Whatever it takes. “I think it’s important to convey that this team is very important to me and I’m going to work harder than anyone else. And that whatever I ask the players to do, I’m going to do the same thing or more in terms of commitment.”
Holman’s proudest achievement? After coaching 70-plus seasons, he has trouble picking a favorite memory. “I guess when you do something the first time it stands out. On the girls’ side I think back to a team in 1980, the first year New Jersey held the Tournament of Champions, when the state champions of all the different divisions have a playoff. The 1980 team won that initial tournament. The boys kept falling short in state tournaments; finally in 1983 that group of players was the first Haddonfield team that won a state title.
“Haddonfield has always been a very successful athletic school at everything, but there have only been a couple of teams that have won a Tournament of Champions. The girls’ tennis team has done it three times now. It’s a very rare achievement.”
Holman tempers any appearance of boasting. “It’s nice to win championships, and we’ve done our share of that, but above all we’re trying to instill a love of the sport, and in their later lives they are still playing, and that maybe part of the reason was the Haddonfield program.”
One of the winningest high school sports coaches in the country seems reluctant to suggest that what he does results in more than young people enjoying the game of tennis. But he’s undoubtedly played a role in the character building of many young people. To teach them that they will have a chance to get in the game, to play against the best, and to be able to challenge opponents with unfair advantages and still win, undoubtedly leaves a stamp of confidence on an adolescent mind where self-esteem can often be in short supply.
Especially for a kid that might not have otherwise made a team of 16.
Jeff Holman doesn’t have an apparent personality for car sales. He is a soft spoken, even-keeled fellow, highly regarded by all who know him, but there is still a cauldron of quiet determination in him. If it weren’t for Haddonfield’s reputation as a high school tennis powerhouse, you wouldn’t expect this quiet gentleman to bring a team from a small school that can whip your big school’s behind.
And for several generations of Haddonfield tennis playing alumni, the Holman name means something more than an established place to buy a nice automobile.