Tuesday, October 30, 2007


National Football League Sunday

A Great American Tradition

The Metro Link eases out of the St. Louis Airport to wind its way to the city core. Gradually, the train is filled on Sunday morning with football fans heading to the Edward Jones Dome to keep the faith with their beloved Rams. Keeping the faith has become a dicey option this year, as the Rams entered the game on Sunday with a very fat zero in their win column. Torry Holt
Joe Jurevicius

Visitors from the Cleveland area also boarded the train. They were dressed in orange and brown, as expected, and they had their game faces on as they seated themselves near us on the train.

Dr. Dave Kehl is a veterinarian who deals with large animals. “Pigs and cows,” he told me. But on Sundays in the fall, he trades in his white frock coat for the colours faithful to his beloved Browns. He lives in the area near Cleveland, and catches two or three games a year with a crew of his buddies, and his son. They were grateful just to be in St. Louis, as they had let his son drive part of the way to the Gateway to the West. They believe the son has NASCAR aspirations.

Kehl laid it all out for me before the game. “Kellen Winslow is currently at about 80% following micro surgery last spring. But even at 80%, he is better than most other tight ends in the NFL. We need to have Jerome Harrison run effectively, and I would like to see a good game from Steve Jackson.”

They were joined at the game by twenty or thirty thousand other escapees from the “Dog Pound” in the crowd in St. Louis. Browns’ fans can whoop it up with the best of them. They arrive with their dog faces, masks, and attitude.

The Ram fans, on the other hand, entered the stadium in a rather sombre mood. The team was winless after seven games this year. Expectations were lukewarm, as the crew from Cleveland has not exactly challenged the Patriots nor the Colts this year.
Following a stirring rendition of the National Anthem, as only a first class petty officer from the American Navy can give, they released an American eagle which circled the Dome with four or five swoops and finally landed on its handler’s arm at centre field. Bands, cheerleaders, plenty of hoopla to follow three or four hours of tailgating outside the Dome. “Are you ready for some football?” asked the announcer. One would expect so.

The Rams erupted for 14 points to start the game. There was a glimmer of hope in the eyes of the stalwart fans, although they fully realized that the team has faded in the second half in recent contests. The Browns fought back, drew even, and we had a contest on our hands.

In the dying seconds of the game, Rams’ quarterback Mark Bulger threw an errant pass into the arms of a defender. The Browns ran out the clock. Game over. Lights out. Yet another shadow on the beleaguered Rams.

After the game, there was a loud shouting from the Browns’ dressing room. The group of reporters in the area surmised that game balls were being presented to the most outstanding players.

The Browns have a group of “Dot Com” writers at the game who cover the team throughout the season. Following their analysis of the game, they also reward “game balls”. QB Derek Anderson, and receivers Braylon Edwards and Joe Jurevicius each got game balls.

The team impressed more in the air than on the ground, and all recipients of the honours were receivers or the thrower. Derek Anderson continues to impress the doubters in Cleveland. He completed 18 passes out of 25 attempts. He moved well, and his passes were crisp-three for touchdowns. Braylon Edwards snared two balls for major scores, and won the battle for footballs all afternoon. Kellen Winslow also had a TD, and dominated when it was required.

Rams’ prime receivers Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce both had fine numbers by the end of the contest, just not enough for the Browns.

We didn’t see Dr. Kehl nor his fellow Browns’ fans on our way back from the Dome. We lined up for the Metro Link. There were two lines. I asked the cop on the beat for the correct line to the airport. He said: “The line over there goes to East St. Louis. That is for the po’ folk. You want this line here. It’s for you. It doesn’t cross the river.” Lesson learned.

St. Louis is in itself a fabulous city. The Arch stretches across the waterfront-the gateway to the West. There is also a hockey team in St. Louis. We saw them beat the Washington Capitals the night before the football game. Quite handily. The same Capitals who stormed into Toronto and spanked the Leafs 7-1 on Monday night!

Above all, however, St. Louis is a baseball town. The Cardinals rule, for the most part, in Buschville. Which all adds up to a fine place to hang one’s hat-as a sports fan.

James Hurst-sportslices.blogspot.com
October 30, 2007

Tuesday, October 23, 2007


November-A Baseball Month

For most of us, there will be a World Series. It will not be the most popular World Series in history. Granted, the Boston Red Sox snuck by the Cleveland Indians; therefore, many fans along the Eastern Seaboard will be tuning in to the games. The Rockies from Colorado surprised most of the baseball nation with their run to the title.

The Rockies won 21 of their last 22 games to get to the finals. They will be the Cinderella team in this final, and all New York fans will be cheering for them. Mets fans because the Rockies are a National League team, and Yankees fans because they could never bring themselves to cheering for the Red Sox. Not now, not ever.

Yankees fans have more than enough to think about at this time as they may be saying good bye to their beloved manager, Joe Torre.

In a series of conversations, meetings, discussions, and lies, the management team said that they had offered Joe a certain number of dollars to return to the team. Joe indicated that the terms were not acceptable.

It almost brings to mind the number of times that George Steinbrenner, the Yankees owner, hired and fired Billy Martin. It became such a joke that beer companies hired the pair of them to do commercials.

The Steinbrenner family is still involved in the operation of the Yankees. It appears that they wanted to show Joe Torre that they were in charge, and that no one individual is larger than the team. We are not talking about chump change here. Joe Torre made seven million dollars (American!) last year, as the manager. No runs, no hits, maybe a few errors, no strikeouts, no complete games. Just watching the game from the bench, hoping and praying that he could manipulate his players into positions to win games.

He surrounded himself with some of the finest retired Yankee players-young, bright, talented leaders from the recent past. Coaches are critical to a manager’s success. Don Mattingly as a batter and Ron Guidry as a pitcher dominated the game as players. They sat on the bench this season with the Yankee skipper. But for Torre, it wasn’t enough to get them past the Indians in the American League playoffs. And it wasn’t enough for the Steinbrenners.

All Canadian eyes should be on the Rockies’ starter in the first game-Jeff Francis. Born in Vancouver, British Columbia in 1981, the Colorado ace will take the mound for his first World Series game on Wednesday. The lanky Canuck stands at 6’ 5”, and tips the scales at 205 pounds, soaking wet. He is a crafty hurler, and rarely gets more than half a dozen strikeouts in a game.

He also is not expected to go the distance. He had one complete game this year, a shutout. But he is among the National League leaders in winning percentage at 17-9. His ERA stands at 4.22 which seems a bit high for a premier pitcher; however, he toils at home at Coors Field.

The air is a little thin in Denver, and the ball is known to fly out of Coors. So most pitching statistics are taken with a grain of salt.

For the most part, the Rockies are a mystery to the casual baseball fan. They are expecting big things from Yorvit Torrealba, Manuel Corpas, Garrett Atkins, Kaz Matsui, Todd Helton, and Matt Holiday. There is power and speed in their lineup. They will rely on their impressive defence as well.

The Red Sox have no surprises for baseball fans. Manny will be Manny, Big Papi will watch a few monstrous home runs fly into the Colorado night. Wakefield will try to hypnotize Rockies’ batters with his knucler, and “Dice K” will offer some interesting stuff from the Red Sox mound.

The outcome is anybody’s guess. Too many variables. Plenty of talent on both benches.

Pitching, pitching, pitching. That’s what wins World Series Games. If Francis starts well, wins the first game, and comes back to win again, the Rockies might be doling out World Series rings in April at Coors Field.

Belleville’s Brad Richardson also plays in Denver, but for the hockey Avalanche. With a little luck, he will score a couple of tickets for the baseball finals. Jeff Francis has a hockey connection. His nick name is “Boomer”, given to him by his parents with a nod to “Boom Boom” Geoffrion, legendary Montreal Canadien Hall of Famer.

If the Series goes seven games, the last game will be played in Boston on the first of November. Sounds a little ridiculous for baseball. A long way from the dog days of summer. But it is all about the money, to some extent anyway. Just ask the Steinbrenners and Mister Torre.

Never mind that nonsense. Get the popcorn out of the microwave. Crack open a cold one. Watch the game.

James Hurst
October 23, 2007

Tuesday, October 16, 2007


Tools of the Trade-Baseball

There are tools for almost every occupation. Carpenters, bricklayers, dentists, medical personnel-they all have objects necessary and specific to get the job done.

Athletes also have items to enhance their games which are different from all other sports and endeavours. Football and hockey players do not enter the field of play nor the ice surface without preparing themselves with plenty of equipment.

The game of baseball has been played in back yards for almost two hundred years. In its natural state, it involves a ball and a bat, perhaps a few gloves for the fielders. At the professional level, in the Major Leagues, there are many “tools of the trade” that the players bring to the game. Most of these tools enhance the performance of the players. Some are questionable. Others are illegal.

It was not a group of rocket scientists gathered in Houston who came up with the idea that a catcher might need some protection. More than a hundred years ago, and likely derived from cricket, players who stood behind the batter wore protection. Cages for their faces to cut down on broken noses, chest protectors, shin guards, athletic cups-a host of gear to cut down on visits to the training table. That equipment has evolved over the years.

A few years ago, catchers began to wear masks borrowed from hockey goalies. These masks also had protection for the back of the head. Occasionally, a batter might swing the bat in such a manner that clunks the catcher on the back of the head. The mask also had a piece of plastic hanging from the chin to protect the player’s throat. Made good sense.

Catcher’s gloves were called mits. They were also called deckers, but that term has now fallen into disfavour. Their gloves were considerably larger, really huge if they happened to be catching a knuckle ball pitcher. One never knows where those pitches will end up!

Fielders wear a variety of gloves, depending on their position. First basemen need to scoop balls from errant throws. They need to stretch to catch line drives or high throws. Their gloves are long and narrow. Once upon a time, many years ago, they were called “trappers”.

Most infielders gloves are the smallest gloves worn by any player. Infielders need to get the ball into their throwing hands in a flash when they pick up ground balls. They might be in the process of turning a double play, or simply getting the ball to first base to beat a speedy runner.

Out fielders’ gloves are the largest on the playing field. Some are like huge jai alai baskets. Players are able to scale outfield walls and reach into the seats to record outs. Outfielders also work at diving for batted balls sailing away from them, depending on the wind and the type of contact with the bat.

Old Tiger Stadium had a fence that could be scaled to bring back home runs. Several years ago, I watched Griffey Junior as a Mariner reach over the fence to break a Tiger’s heart. I asked his manager, Lou Piniella, after the game if he had ever seen a better catch. “That was one of his best,” he said. “I think he was about eight rows deep when he snagged that.” Perhaps a slight exaggeration; nonetheless, he is tall to begin with, and carries an enormous glove.

On a recent trip to old Yankee Stadium, I had occasion to see the tools of a batter’s trade in a corner of the dugout just before the anthems were sung for the Jays and the Pinstripers. There were steel “donuts” to slide onto bats to make them heavier, There were steel bars that enormous players like Frank Thomas use to limber up. There were rags covered in pine tar to help the players hold the bats.

George Brett used to cake his bats with pine tar. Rules were in place to limit the use of the sticky material. On one occasion, Brett homered against the Yankees. The Yankees protested because of the amount of tree gum on the bat. The umpire agreed and took away the homer. Most of us have seen the demonstrative Brett’s run from the dugout after the call. A special baseball moment. That call, incidentally, was reversed.

Old baseball coaches and managers have perfected the use of the fungo bat, an art that has always intrigued me. The fungo bat is much longer and narrower than a normal bat. It is used to hit balls high, and almost straight up. It gives infielders a change to get a better feel for different ball parks-the lights, the backdrop, the angles and nuances of a different ball park.

The fungo bat weighs between 17 and 22 ounces, whereas game bats are 30 ounces or more. There is a display at Cooperstown at which you are welcome to hold the actual bats of former Major League players. The bats of players like Ruth, Gehrig, Mays, Aaron are on a chained display. A little magic in your hands. (Check the word “Fungo” on the net----fascinating research!).

Certain pitchers also had their own implements to help their game. As he entered the twilight of his career, Gaylord Perry looked for ways to stay in the game. He found that he could alter the flight of the ball, ever so slightly, with a few subtle alterations on the mound. A little brush with a hidden piece of sandpaper, a nick on the ball from a razor-sharp belt buckle. A bit of Vaseline under the brim of a cap. Anything to get the edge, to make a curve dance a little more, a sinker to “fall off the table”.

When all is said and done, the batter’s responsibility is to hit that “little white pea” somewhere in the field where there “ain’t no fielders” to reach base safely. If that can be done thirty per cent of the time, you will remain a major league baseball player.

You can wear your batter’s gloves, you can snap on your guard to protect your front foot and your shin. Hopefully, some day you will play baseball in October. I read recently the season may stretch into November!

Trainers are now required to pack parkas and toques!

James Hurst
October 16, 2007

Tuesday, October 09, 2007


Shawn Matthias-Climbing the Ladder

From the time that the Belleville Bulls first laced up their skates over twenty-five years ago, we have watched many of them develop into wonderful hockey players, but more importantly, into fine, well-rounded citizens.

They gather in the early summer as draft picks, as potential super stars. They return in the fall to try to gain a foothold into the organization. They may end up “riding the pine”, watching from the sidelines as the veterans tear around the sheets of ice in the Ontario Hockey League. As they bide their time, they learn the ropes. Or at least that is the intention. If they fail to glean the nuances of Major Junior Hockey, they may find themselves back in their home towns wondering what went wrong.

As is the case with all rookies, Shawn Matthias watched from the bench in his first year in the OHL in 2004-2005. He got into 37 games, often for only a shift or two. He managed to garner 15 minutes in the penalty box, and had one goal and one assist. There must have been some very frustrating nights for the rangy forward, times of self doubt and personal questioning. But he was being watched by the scouts from the rafters of the Yardmen Arena, and all of the other hockey barns in the league.

Rick Meagher, a local Belleville product who has been eying Junior Hockey as a scout for many years, told me at that time to keep an eye on Matthias in the years to come. There were areas for improvement, as there are for all sixteen year old kids. Incidentally, Meagher once told me that he was able to skate well the very first time he put on the blades, at the age of three. He was well known for his skating ability during his stellar NHL career.

The following year, Matthias received more ice time and took advantage of the opportunity. He notched 13 goals and added 21 helpers. The team awarded him two trophies at the end of the season: Most Improved Player, and Most Sportsmanlike Player.

He was a member of Team Canada at the 2006 World Under 18 Championships, and participated in the 2006 ADT Canada-Russia Challenge. Following the season, he was eligible for the NHL Draft. He was selected by the Detroit Red Wings in the Second Round.

He returned to the Bulls and cranked it up yet another notch. In 64 games, he netted 38 goals and added 35 assists. More importantly, from the time that he arrived in Belleville, the team has improved each year, from 68 to 72 to 83 points last year. Expectations are high for this year.

The Mississauga native may have pictured himself in Red Wing colours for years to
come, but such is not the case. As he described the situation to me recently, he thought his hockey future was pretty well determined. There is a program called “Trade Centre” on the TSN network that outlines all of the trades made at the NHL deadline.

Matthias discovered at that time that he had been traded by the Red Wings to the Florida Panthers, in a deal that sent Todd Bertuzzi to the Red Wings. Apparently the Wings wanted to add instant beef to their lineup. After their failure in the playoffs last spring, they allowed Bertuzzi to sign as a free agent with Anaheim.

“It was a shock to me. It was not something I expected,” Matthias told me after the Bulls’ overtime win against Saginaw last Saturday night. “At the same time, it has added pressure. I plan to use it as a source of motivation.”

At the Panthers camp which Matthias attended recently, he learned a few things about the game at the NHL level. “I now know something about the training necessary to play at that level. Although it is just a game, it is a business as well. I know that I have to be my very best every night.”

Matthias was really impressed with Panthers’ captain Olle Jokinen. “I know why he wears the ‘C’. He plays the game at such a high level. I was really impressed with the way he handled the puck. He is the leader on the team.”

Shawn got a chance to play at the NHL level, in an exhibition game. “You just don’t realize how powerful those guys are until you play against them. I got pushed around a little bit. But I will use that as motivation to develop so I can play at that level.”

Another Panther that helped Matthias in Florida was Steven Weiss. An OHL product, Weiss knows the ropes in cracking a lineup at the NHL level. Matthias was grateful for the help he got from Weiss. “We talked about the fact that I had basically been traded for Bertuzzi. They are big shoes to fill. I knew I had to prove myself when I went there. I think they realized that I can play.”

Panthers’ brass sent along a few words of advice as he headed north to the Bulls. “They told me to work on my game. They especially wanted me to work on the give-and-go play. They want me to get stronger, to try to dominate in the OHL.”

Matthias is in a select group of Belleville Bulls who have been selected in various drafts by NHL teams: Matt Beleskey and Eric Tangradi-Anaheim Ducks, P. K. Subban-Montreal Canadiens, Bryan Cameron-Los Angeles Kings, and Michael Neal-Dallas Stars.

They have all returned to the Bulls. I am certain they have all received the same message: there are spots in the lineup for you. Earn your place. You will appreciate it.

It is the dream of so many kids who lace up their blades, all around the world.

Shawn Matthias will continue to follow that dream, with plenty of hard work, and determination.

He won first star honours on Thanksgiving Day in the Bulls’ 5-1 victory over the Kingston Frontenacs. That is what the Panthers expect from him. That is what he expects from himself, as he climbs the ladder to the NHL.

James Hurst
October 9, 2007

Monday, October 01, 2007


Ed Lucas-A Baseball Fan Forever

Deep in the bowels of old Yankee Stadium, far from the cheers and groans and applause of the Yankee faithful, there is a room for media and friends to enjoy a snack before game time.

During our recent trip to the Big Apple, I found the place and scoured the room for some old baseball person to talk about Phil Rizzuto. There was a couple of guys at a table nearby, and I approached the one who was busy getting dessert for both of them. His name was Ron Mardenly, and he and his companion told me they were in their late sixties.

His companion’s name was Ed Lucas. This is Ed’s story. It is a baseball story, a human interest story, a story of courage and love. And Ed would ad it is a story of a very stubborn man.

Ed grew up in the Lafayette Gardens housing project in Jersey City. He attended PS 22. On October 3, 1951, he bounded into his living room to find his father nervously fingering rosary beads while watching his beloved Giants on their tiny black and white television. They were in a playoff game against the dreaded Dodgers, from nearby Brooklyn.

The Giants Bobby Thompson completed the comeback season for the Giants by hitting the “shot that was heard around the world”, as it is still known in baseball circles.

Lucas went out to celebrate by playing a little playground ball with his friends. Poorly sighted from birth, he decided to remove his glasses before pitching to one of his friends. A line drive caught him square on the forehead. “It hit me right between the eyes,” he told me. Both of his retinas were destroyed. Lucas was devastated.

To cheer him up, his mother wrote a letter to Leo “The Lip” Durocher. Durocher invited him to the Polo Grounds in 1952. He met Monte Irvin, Bobby Thompson, and Alvin Dark. It also kindled the baseball spirit in Lucas that he carries to this day.

Later that year, he went to an “American Shops” clothing store in Newark, New Jersey. It served Americans of all walks of life, but with an emphasis on budget clothing for veterans returning from the Korean War. At the store he met Phil Rizzuto. Rizzuto was employed there in the off season as a greeter. Yogi Berra from the Yankees, and Ralph Branca and Gene Hermanski from the Dodgers also met potential buyers at the door.

Lucas became steadfast friends with Rizzuto, a friendship that lasted 55 years.

Ed attended St. Joseph’s School for the Blind to complete his elementary school education. He went on to finish high school in the Bronx.

While in High School, he established a club called “The Diamond Dusters”. The purpose of the club was to promote baseball. Lucas was able to snag special guests to his meetings. “We had Hank Aaron, Jackie Robinson, Gil McDougall, and Phil Rizzuto to our meetings, to name a few. Rizzuto was the one who really encouraged me to stay with baseball”.

He later graduated from Seton Hall University with a degree in communications.

He sold life insurance, married and had two sons, and worked 25 years as the information director for Meadowview Hospital in Secaucus, New Jersey.

In the meantime, he kept his hand in baseball. He worked as a stringer for several radio stations and magazines. He would listen to the play-by-play radio announcer, then use those descriptions to interview players after the games.

When his marriage failed, Lucas had a court appointment regarding custody of his sons, then four and two years old. “Rizzuto testified in court for me,” he continued. “And he also set me up with my new bride years later.”

“On March 10th, 2006, I married Allison Pheifle at home plate in Yankee Stadium.
I am the only person ever to be married in the Stadium.” Both of his boys were there, his best men. He also added, with a smile: “Mr. Steinbrenner picked up the tab!”

Lucas has been instrumental in raising funds for St. Joseph’s School for many years, along with Rizzuto’s help. With Celebrity Auctions and the annual golf tournament, they have raised almost two and one half million dollars for the school. A major building project this year took place at the school. Lucas works there, as he has since 1994.

Ed’s friend Ron commented upon Rizzuto’s nature with a few words of his own. “If Phil heard someone was ill, or in the hospital, he would go and visit them. I remember that in 1953, a friend of my father was ill in Jersey. Phil drove up in his new car- a real beauty. It was a pink and white ’53 Ford with a glass roof. After his visit, he quietly asked if he could take some of the delicious Italian food home to his wife Cora.”

During Rizzuto’s illness this past year, he was visited weekly by his best buddy, Yogi Berra. Rizzuto also left instructions that donations to the St. Joseph’s School were to be made in lieu of flowers, when he passed away.

Ed Lucas will miss Rizzuto as much as anyone. But he still has his beloved Yankees to cheer for, as they begin their World Series quest against the Indians in Cleveland on Thursday.

When I pressed him for his prediction, Ed lowered his head and replied, very quietly: “I think it’s the year for the Cubs”.

After all, we were in Yankee Stadium.

Read more about Ed Lucas at: http://www.edlucasonline.com/

James Hurst
October 1, 2007

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