#BuckFiftyADay Since March, 2014

#BuckFiftyADay Since March, 2014

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Fine Line

I love my job.

Not always, mind you, but on nights like last night I realize how lucky I am to do what I do. And how, in 20 years in the sportswriting business I've been able to meet some really cool people.

Back in the fall of 2005, I got to write a story about the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament, aka Q-School (also aka Hell Week). I got close to a number of players, including Boo Weekley and Will MacKenzie. But the guy I have followed most closely since that story is a gentle giant named Ryan Hietala. And, here at the Masters, I ran into Ryan and some of his buddies. It was great to see him.

Ryan is a 35-year old Nationwide Tour veteran who earned his PGA Tour card back in 2005 at Q-School. He didn't make enough cuts (or money) on Tour in '05 to keep his card, so it was back to the Nationwide where's been grinding it out for the last couple of years.

Ryan is here at Augusta as a fan this week and will head to Athens, Ga., on Monday for the Nationwide Tour's Athens Regional Foundation Classic, which will be followed by the South Georgia Classic in Valdosta. People who know way more about golf than I do have told me Ryan's got what it takes to be a Tour player. They told me the same thing about Boo Weekley (who played so horribly at 2005 Q-School that I basically wrote him off).

And I can't help but think of how it must feel for Ryan to sit at Augusta (it's his first time here, it's my seventh) and watch players he's rubbed shoulders with compete for the Green Jacket. In fact, at Q-School, I watched Ryan completely outplay Steve Stricker, who happens to be sitting in fourth-place on the Masters leaderboard heading into the final round. "One round at a time," Ryan said to me last night, when I told him he was ready for a Boo Weekley-type breakout.

It's a fine line, for sure...one I hope Ryan can cross in 2009.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Moving Day

It's Day 3 of the Masters aka "Moving Day" and it's Day 6 for me on the road, aka "Twice as Long as I Like to be on the Road." It's been an interesting week that started with a 12-hour delay in Newark, then brought me through Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill for the Tar Heels' fifth NCAA Hoops championship and then about 250 miles South to Augusta for the Masters. Time to give you some of the highs and lows.

I Miss My Family

Not to get melodramatic here, but I am not a big fan of the long road trip. Yeah, I know it's the Masters and every dude worth his salt would give up a limb just to be here, but it's a long time to be away from Linda, Tyler and Beau (and Remy). I am grateful, however, that I am a feature writer for ESPN The Magazine and not a beat writer for a newspaper. Those guys grind it hard.

Hard to believe it's nearly 14 years ago I made the decision that I could not be a baseball beat writer and a husband and father. During the 1995 American League Championship Series between the Yankees and Mariners I learned that Linda was pregnant with Tyler. I learned over the phone while in Seattle and was not home to celebrate for another three weeks. Not being around for that moment was all I needed to know. I was not going to spend my life on the road.

Still, it was five years ago that I stood here in Augusta, covering the Masters while Tyler played his very first Little League game. None of the dads could believe it, but I was despondent. To this day, 100s of youth sports games later, there is no way I'd choose the Masters over one of Tyler or Beau's games. Amazingly, this week, I haven't missed any. But I will be here on Sunday as the family heads off to church, hunts for eggs and sits down for Easter Supper. I miss you guys.

Wayne the Giant

Now, to the fun stuff. I wandered into Hooters Augusta the other night, because old friend Timmy Cutting asked me if I could check out the John Daly Merchandise truck (never found it) for him. Of course, looking for the Daly truck made me hungry and thirsty, so I sat down for a drink and a bite. And I found myself sitting next to a giant. Seriously.

He introduced himself as "Wayne" and he was, seriously, 6-foot-9 and 400-plus pounds. He had a gray beard that touched his chest and the squeakiest voice I've ever heard. Wayne told me he had lived in Augusta his whole life and that he used to come to Hooters "every night" but was now down to "three nights a week" because "Momma said I got to start taking care of myself." At which point, Wayne pointed to his ginormous belly.

I swear to you this is true.

Wayne (and I) sat up at the bar, near all the fryers as the Hooters Crew (many imported, I was told, from other Hooters in Georgia and South Carolina, for Masters week) prepared wings and burgers and other delicacies. Wayne drank diet Coke (actually sent one back, declaring it was not diet (a weight-loss program has to start somewhere) and passed out candy bars to the waitresses whenever they wandered by, which was often. Every couple of minutes, a Crystal, Amber or Cheri would wander by and ask, sweetly and Southernly, "Wayne, can I have a Butterfinger?"

Wayne was a nice fellow and was very happy for the owner of the restaurant because the joint was hopping. He told me a few times how much money they'd made on the night, though I wasn't really paying attention. He also invited me to attend the bikini contest with him (I declined) and told me, "I'll see ya tomorrah." That was Tuesday night and I have not been back. But there's always tonight. And I'm guessing Wayne will be there.

Teeing Off

This ain't really writing, but I'm going to throw out some things here rapid-fire...It's going to be sort of a laundry-list of things that are getting on my nerves here at the Masters...I have bought some Masters merch through the years, a few different hats, shirts and windshirts for the boys, chairs, coffee mugs and, last time I was hear, a belt (which I'm wearing today). But for some reason, I get irked when some guy feels it's necessary to wear all his Masters gear at the same time, logo'd up from his hat, through his shirt and shorts, through his watch and belt, down to his socks. Why I find this offensive, I'm not sure...When did it become fashionable to put your college major on your college sweatshirt. I saw a guy with a shirt emblazoned "Virgina Tech Industrial Engineering" and have seen many others this week touting law schools, pharmacy programs, business schools and the like. Annoying...If I'm not having a beer, I do not want to be near anyone else who's having beers. As funny as the guy who's got a comment for every shot coming into 11 green and off of 12 tee, and as much as he's killing his boys, I hate him with every ounce of hate inside my body. Shut up....Any dude out here who's dying his hair, Note to that guy: I can see you're dying your hair. You look stupid. Especially you, Red....Overly polite Southern people wear me out after a while. There's no way you're that nice. Go away...The press center Men's Room on Day Six of the Masters is rank. When you consider what a bunch of sportswriters have been eating and drinking all week, while putting in 15-hour days, sorry, I just dry-heaved...Note to guy in golf shoes and TaylorMade hat. You do not have to wear your Oakley sunglasses on the back of your hat. Sergio Garcia does that because he's paid to display the TaylorMade logo. You are not. There is absolutely no funcionality in wearing your sunglasses that way, OK?...Who dressed Phil this week? The tight pants, white belts, and tight shirts are for skinny European guys, not Philly Mick...Just because the players are close to you when you're in the gallery does not mean they want you to talk to them...And they do not need to be told, "bad break" or "the wind is kicking up" or even that you are "pulling for" them. Seriously...Finally, the tradition of the green jacket is great, but I think only person wearing a green jacket is the Masters champion on Sunday. I mean, the only person who should EVER be wearing a green jacket, at any point, at any tine, in the WORLD, is the Masters champion on Sunday.

Friday, April 10, 2009

In Memory Of: Connor O'Gorman

Today, I'd love for you to read the words of my brother Scott, who learned last Sunday that one of his former Princeton players, Connor O'Gorman, had been tragically killed...struck by a car as he crossed a Manhattan street.

Thursday, when I watched all the news reports of Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart's tragic passing, I quietly thought about Connor and how he touched the life of my brother and so many of his Princeton teammates.

All week I've been contemplating writing a tribute based on the words Scott spoke to me on Tuesday over the phone. But lo and behold, today as I googled the name Connor O'Gorman for the 100th time this week, I saw that Scott had written a tribute of his own on the Princeton sports website. This weekend, Connor's teammates past and present will return to Clarke Field to honor their friend.

"Impact Player"

By Scott Bradley
Head Baseball Coach
Princeton University

In July of 1997 I was hired to be the head baseball coach here at Princeton University. And as I anxiously awaited the start of my first season, I often looked at the names of the returning players as well as the members of the incoming class, wondering who the impact players were going to be. I reviewed the statistics from the previous years and tried to figure out which player would provide the leadership we needed to have a successful program. Little did I know at the time but the pleasant young man who walked into my office with his Dad, asking to tryout for the team would become exactly the player we needed.

About a week before Orientation began for the Class of 2001, Connor O’Gorman knocked on my door and asked for an opportunity to walk on to the baseball team. He seemed like a good kid and his baseball resume was different than most of the other players. He learned to play baseball growing up in the Atlanta area but his high school years were spent in Singapore where he attended the Singapore American School. Still, there was something special about this young man and I agreed to let him work out with the team when our fall practices began. I was certain that I would let him practice for a few days and then he would figure out that he was not good enough to play with all of our recruited players.

For the next two weeks Connor lived at Clarke Field. He was always there. When I drove past the batting cages on the way to my office he was hitting off the batting tee. When I went to get some lunch, he was there. And when I left at the end of the day he was still there. I jokingly asked him, "Are you actually enrolled at Princeton?" because it seemed as though he did not have any academic responsibilities or worries. He smiled and looked me directly in the eye and said, “Coach, I handle myself very well in the classroom and you do not have to worry about my grades. But baseball is what I live for.” Not long after that, I told him that, more than likely, he'd never play a meaningful inning while at Princeton, but if he promised to work hard and keep his positive attitude he could have a uniform for as long as he wanted. He once again looked me directly in the eye and responded, “That is all I needed to hear.”

For the next four years Connor O’Gorman was our impact player. He made everyone on the team a better player because of the work ethic and passion he brought to the field every day. He was the best friend and teammate anyone could ever possibly have and he impacted all of our lives.

We won Ivy League Championships in 2000 and 2001 and although Conner did not have many opportunities to play, he put his stamp on the personality of the team. He was well-known for making passionate speeches about the importance of Princeton baseball and what it meant to be part of the baseball family. For several years after graduation Connor would return to campus in the fall so that he could give his speech to the freshman players, so that they also understood.

We played Harvard in a doubleheader this past Sunday and Connor was to meet up with his best friend and Princeton teammate Andrew Hanson in Boston so that they could watch us play. He did not make it to Cambridge. Connor was tragically killed early Sunday morning when he was hit by a car, while walking back to his Manhattan apartment. In between games of the doubleheader, I spotted Andrew along the fence behind our dugout and I immediately walked towards him to say hello. As soon as Andrew looked up I could tell that something was wrong.

While it is hard to imagine that someone who appeared in only 16 games during a four -year career could be considered an impact player, after reading the numerous e-mails I have received in the past two days from former players, some who played with Connor and others who had not, there is no doubt that the title is accurate.

Connor may not have impacted the game between the lines but he impacted all of our lives in so many ways. His passion for the game of baseball was contagious and his devotion and loyalty to the program as well as his friends and teammates was undeniable.

He cared more about wearing a Princeton baseball uniform than any player or coach we have ever had -- or will ever have -- in the program.

Our team won the 2001 Ivy League Championship with a dramatic come-from-behind, extra inning win against Dartmouth. We had one last regular season game at home before the NCAA Tournament began and in the hours before the final contest virtually every one of the team's usual starters came to me and asked that Connor take their spot in the lineup. If my memory serves me correctly, Connor went 2 for 4 that day with a couple of RBI’s and as he told me after the game, “ I finally did something to help the team.”

Little did he know.

Rest in peace, Connor.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

My Athletic Career...Golf

I once shot 74. That's right, 41-33 at Wild Wing in Myrtle Beach. That was in November of 1999.

Of course, my friend Steve likes to remind me that we were playing the "magenta" tees. I don't care. My 74 was sent from above, I believe, because it was on a college-buddy golf trip that was supposed to be the 10th Anniversary of our first golf trip. But somewhere in the planning stage of that fabulous 10th Anniversary Trip our group became fractured.

There was a faction of fellas who decided we needed to go "big" and that meant Atlantis in the Bahamas. Now, I was not born yesterday and know that Atlantis in the Bahamas is not a "golf trip" destination. It's a casino. So, I revolted. And me and the guys on a more modest budget decided on Myrtle Beach, site of the first ever golf trip. And that was that.

Now, in nine years of golf trips, I'd always gone through the same ritual. A lot of practice, some new equipment, a new shirt or two, maybe new shoes. I always wanted to play my best.

And without fail, I'd play horribly. Of course, by the Back Nine of Day One, I did not care how I was playing. I was with my buddies and it was going to be 72 hours of fun, regardless of scores.

But in 1999, I had no time for any pre-trip preparation. No practice. No new driver. No new nothing. I basically threw my stuff in a suitcase, packed up the sticks, flew to Myrtle Beach, bolted over to Wild Wing and spiked a ball in the ground. And I shot 74. Afterward, I went to the bar and told my buddies, I was going to celebrate the greatest round of golf I'd ever play in my life. Understand, I'd never broken 80 before, so to shoot 74 was a pretty big deal.

For a second, I thought of trying to call the gang in the Bahamas to boast. But I thought better of it. I'm sure they'll have fun. But none of them are going to be able to say they shot 74. Ha!

It was a little while later when I touched base with the Atlantis Boys. Turns out they didn't even play golf. Didn't even take their clubs out of the travel bags. I was right. It was not a golf trip.

Nope, they'd spent all their time in the casino and on the beach. And I was justly rewarded by higher powers for my dedication to tradition and to the great game of golf. Right?

Well, I guess you could say that. Turns out, the guys in the Bahamas had a nice run of luck on the craps table. I think someone told me the low man in the group brought home about 2-grand. And did I mention they got comped the rest of the trip? And were offered free return visits.

But I shot 74.

I came to the game late, taking golf as a Phys Ed. class at UNC in 1986. Then, when I moved to Boston, I did not play for three years. I did not pick up the game, for real, until the fall of 1989, when I moved back to Jersey and started playing with my dad. I've been hooked ever since and still try to play as much with my dad as I can.

But the thing that means more to me than anything in golf is not my 74, nor the fact that I'm now covering my seventh Masters, it's that my 12-year old son Tyler and 10-year old son have taken it up at a young age. That means with me, Ty, Beau and Dad, we've got a foursome.

Tyler, who is 12, has already beaten me. I'd say he plays to about an 18-20 handicap and has played in a number of U.S. Kids Golf tournaments. If he continues to find time to play in between soccer and baseball games and practices, there's no doubt in my mind that one day he will be a single-digit handicap player, and perhaps even a scratch player. It's all up to him. (That photo above is from Akron, Ohio, where last summer Tyler got to play the Firestone 9 while we attended the World Golf Championships at Firestone Golf Club.)

Beau, 10, is going to have a big year in golf. I just know it. At the end of last summer, I could tell he was not only starting to strike the ball better, he was also beginning to like the game.

As for me, when I'm playing with my boys and my dad, it's like I almost don't even care about my game. I've broken 80 a few more times, but I'm pretty sure that 74 will stand the test of time.

The Road Rules

So here I am, on a seven-day roadie that's already started out in weird fashion (more on that later).

Because I consider myself to be an "interesting person" (translated: bored out of my mind with nothing but a laptop and some time go kill) I am often compelled to share stories from what I like to call, "A Sportswriter's Life." Often glamorous, never lonely (ha!), here's a snippet.

I like to rent the ugliest car on National's Emerald Aisle. Why? Because when you have to park in big parking lots outside of stadiums, arenas and golf courses, it's pretty easy to forget if you rented the charcoal gray Pontiac Sunfire, the black Chevrolet Impala or the silver Saturn Ion. I go for things like the PT Cruiser (got a royal metallic blue one for spring training once) or, this week, a black Chevrolet HHR. The other reason I go ugly early is because...I amuse myself.

Lack of water pressure sets me off. I'd rather stay in the Super 8 than the Ritz-Carlton if the shower in the S8 has a powerful shower head and the RC has a dripper. I bring this up because here in Augusta, I'm staying in someone's condo (lovely) for the week, and the shower does not produce enough pressure to remove soap from my body, much less shampoo from my hair. Speaking of soap, my host provided me a bottle of "body wash" instead of a bar of soap. I will be making a trip to Walgreen's later.

Jeff, Party of One, Your Table is Ready. So, last night, I had to break one of my Road Rules. I always eat at the bar when dining solo. And then you come to an event like the Masters and the bars are all packed with people in official Masters merch, and...you gotta eat. So, I had to walk up to the hostess and put my name on the list. "How many, sir?" she asked. "Just me," I said, staring her right in the eye, daring her to even so much as roll her eyes. So, just me, my Blackberry, some bread and a glass of wine. That's such a good look.

The Masters. If you have never been to Augusta and you are a golf fan, I encourage you to try and get here at least once in your life. Come on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday, walk the grounds, buy a shirt or hat, eat a Pimento Cheese sandwich (I actually prefer the egg salad), take pictures and have pictures taken of yourself in all the usual spots, smell the fertilizer, then go home and watch the golf on television. Seriously, if you want to enjoy the Masters and see the shots that matter, it ain't happening out here, especially on Saturday or Sunday when the field has been cut.

Plus, it's hard not to get irritated by golf fans, dressed up to play, practicing their grip and putting stroke with their umbrella. Saying, "Nice swing" to Phil Mickelson after he's hit a shot. Or, better yet, "Good roll."

PS: My son Tyler is picking Geoff Ogilvy.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Not a Travel Nightmare Story...No!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I know, I know...no one wants to hear my travel nightmare story...not when I'm on my way to the Masters...but I'm stuck inside of EWR with nothing but time on my hands.

Alarm rang at 4 a.m.

Left house with coffee in hand at 4:20.

Gassed up the Subaru.

Flew to Newark, in the airport an hour and 45 minutes before my scheduled departure at 6:50 a.m. A line I cannot fathom awaits me at the US Airways Ticketing/Baggage Area. Fast-forward...I barely make it to the gate in time for my flight.

I buy coffee and a muffin for the flight, because U.S. Air (like most airlines these days) gives you nothing for free ($15 for a bag to be checked)...sit down. Immediately hear, "This is a full flight." I'm on the window, not the middle, which is usually a good thing. 'Cept I now see the fellow who's going to be sitting on the end is carrying a seat belt extender with him. Dude's pushing four bills. I swear. He sits down and immediately falls asleep and, like all obese people, starts snoring like a mountain lion. Drool, the whole bit.

And now the flight's "delayed" and, 45 minutes go by, and I've had too much coffee and I gotta pee and the fat dude's basically so "out" that there's no waking him up. I'll just hold it.

Another half-hour passes, we're still on the runway..."We've got a medical situation onboard, so we've got to go back to the gate." Fat dude is still sawing logs. I really gotta pee.

Another 30 minutes pass, we're at the gate, fat dude hasn't budged..."This flight has been terminated...your bags will be at Carousel 10 and US Airways Attendants will be at the gate to assist you with your travel plans."

We have to bang Fatso on the arm about 15 times before we can startle him. I get out, run to the men's room, get my bag and now, the line at the US Airways ticketing/baggage counter is twice as long as it was, oh, four hours ago...

I won't make it to Augusta today...

But I'll have another story to tell tomorrow.

Couldn't get to Columbia, SC...which is where you fly when going to Augusta, so the closest I could get to Norther Georgia today was Raleigh-Durham, which puts me kinda close to Chapel Hill, where I could find a familiar (if 23 years ago remains familiar) watering hole for the big game tonight. So, hopefully, all's well that ends well.

Go Heels.

(PS: As of 3 p.m., I'm still in Newark Airport and now considering buying a Hugo Boss suit, a pair of Ray Bans, a new cell phone, MP3 player and a vintage 70s NASA orange space suit).

Thursday, April 2, 2009

My Athletic Career...Baseball

This chapter in my life has made me laugh...and cry. In recent years, it's been more laughs. But there was a long period of my life where tears ruled.

I love baseball. Always have, always will.

Probably more than anything in my life, I wanted to be a good baseball player. I thought I was headed on that path for a couple of reasons. Number one, in eighth grade, I was pretty good...and I'll leave it at that. Number two, I wanted it so bad, and I was going to work twice as hard as I needed to work in order to be good.

If I lived in today's youth sports landscape, I'd have probably dropped all other sports for baseball by seventh grade (that would've been sad, glad I didn't have the option). I contrast that with my son, Tyler, who simply (thank God) cannot tell me whether he likes baseball more than soccer or soccer more than baseball (or anything more than golf when he has a good round).

I was never far from my baseball glove (Rawlings XPG3, Heart of the Hide). When I'd go to (EF Reference) "the courts" to play basketball, I'd bring my glove and a rubber-coated baseball to throw against the shed. On warm fall Saturday afternoons, I'd beg my dad to throw me batting practice, even though I'd have just completed a soccer practice or game. When I got to high school, I'd stow my glove in the bottom of my gym bag during basketball season and (against Coach Garvey's wishes), grab Tom Paranzine or Kenny Turnbull to throw with me, because I wanted my arm to be ready come March 1, the magical day when we were allowed to start baseball practice...usually in the gym or on the parking lot. My sophomore year, when JV basketball games were scheduled for 6:00 (before the Varsity games at 7:30), I'd get home from school and go to Verona "Nautilus" to get in a lift. My buddy Turnbull, a basketball guy first, was never happy to hear me say, "I'll trade a missed jumpshot now for an extrabase hit later," but that was my thinking.

I wanted to be good.

Looking back, I'm sure it was because I was Scott Bradley's younger brother that so many opportunities came my way. I can't BS anyone there, so any of my old mates who were throwing out those accusations in the late-70s, early-80s, you were probably right. The first opportunity I got was a roster spot on the legendary (multiple NJ state champion) Caldwell Legion team when I was a freshman. I'm sure there were better players out there than "Little Bradley," but I got a roster spot (and so did fellow freshman John McHugh, which softened the blow). It's not like I got a lot of playing time for Post 185, but I was on the team and used a lot as a pinch-runner (for Bob Pezzuti) and a little as a mop-up pitcher. Perhaps Coach Venezia's thinking was it would be better for team chemistry to have two happy freshmen than a couple of disgruntled seniors, I don't know. Johnny Mac and I were happy to be on the squad, that I do know.

The truth of the matter is, I was not even a great player on my high school freshman team. I was just another guy. The only difference was my love of the game. I was, seriously, over-the-top. It is not hard to understand why I was so gung-ho. At that time, Scott was down at UNC, tearing up the Tar Heels record book. In the summers, he was playing in the Cape Cod League. My attitude was, I see what's out there if I put in the hours...in the gym, in the cage, taking groundballs, etc.

By my sophomore year I was the starting shortstop at West Essex, and having a pretty good year. One day, Carolina coach Mike Roberts happened to be in New Jersey on a recruiting trip and came to see me play against Barringer HS at Newark Schools Stadium. While years later, Coach Roberts remembers, and will still laugh at Barringer's 300-plus-pound catcher (his teammates called him Capicola, which any good Jersey boy knows is pronounced "Gabagool") and his ill-fitting chest protector. Me? I remember having a big game. Made all the plays. Hit a triple.

It was that day that Coach Roberts told me that he thought I could play for Carolina, and that if I continued to work hard ("200 groundballs a day"), there'd be a spot for me in Chapel Hill in a couple of years. On the spot, I gave up basketball (not that anyone cared) and determined that the summer would be "all baseball." Soccer would be there in the fall, but summer was for baseball. I had to up the ante on my lifting. I had to work harder to get faster and stronger.

My junior year, after a winter of hard-lifting and running sprints up the hill next to the West Essex Junior High School, I took the field ready for a big season. What happened was a disaster.

Seriously, I've tried to erase most of the details from my brain, but I was truly horrendous. I recall missing three straight (boom, boom, boom) groundballs in one game. I recall fumbling an easy one-hopper in an extra-inning game, which cost my buddy, our pitcher Jimmy DiOrio the game. Mercifully, our coach Mr. Schnauffer yanked me from shortstop. I was a mess. Here I was, thinking about going to North Carolina to play ball, and I'm now a high school right fielder.

That summer (1981), I went back to the Legion team for my third season to realize that I was not going to be a starter there. The team was loaded up good. Even had some college freshmen who met the age requirements. What the hell was I going to do now? I wanted to play all summer long, and now I was nothing but a scrub on a team I'd made as a freshman. There were many nights I'd lie awake, just crying.

Why was I so bad at something I loved so much?

Thankfully, there was my dad, who went out and started a Babe Ruth team for me and some of my friends. And I remember a day when Caldwell Legion was playing and I actually had to tell Coach V I was leaving mid-game for Babe Ruth. Obviously, Coach was so unhappy that I was leaving in the middle of a Legion game (he'd given me a spot as a freshman!), but with tears in my eyes, I said to him, "Coach, I'm sorry, but I stink, and I've got to play in some games or I'll never get any better."

I figured I'd never wear a Caldwell Legion uniform again. But, my dad was behind me and Coach V was understanding. Clearly, he could see my pain. I don't think I missed any more Legion games, but I didn't play much for a long stretch. Slowly but surely I started to play better (albeit at the lower Babe Ruth level) and because our Babe Ruth roster was so small, I started to pitch a bit. I've probably never had more fun than I had on that Babe Ruth team. We'd all just gotten our drivers' licenses, which made the road trips, way up into Morris County, full of laughs.

As the summer wore on, some strange things happened. The Legion team went on a tear, winning a bunch of games (18?) in a row. And one night, Coach V felt it was OK to insert me back into a game. I came up to pinch hit and did something I only did once in my life (post 8th grade). I went deep. Hit one out onto the basketball court at the Kiwanis Oval.

Next thing you know, our second baseman got injured and I got some more playing time. Then, a little later on, I was asked, "Can you give us an inning" on the mound, and I actually threw the ball well (it ended up being a freakish summer in so many ways because, for a month out of my entire life, I had a really good curveball...it later disappeared). Our team continued firing on all cylinders and, incredibly, I was contributing. I was a utilityman. I'd play second some days, third others. I actually became a relief pitcher who got the call on a number of occasions. We rolled through the County Tournament and started advancing through the States. In the quarter finals, we came up against our Essex County rivals from Irvington and we were out of arms. So, doing little more than throwing it over the plate, I threw a complete game. We were to play in the semi finals of the double-elimination tourney that night against Paterson, the team that had given us our only defeat earlier in the tourney. We blew them out. We were in the state finals.

I was not in the starting lineup for the state finals against powerful and undefeated Brooklawn. But as the lineups were being announced, Coach V came up to me and said, "We're in trouble. We've got a bunch of sore arms. Can you throw?" I had thrown nine the day before and only had three innings left under Legion's 12-innings/72 hour rule. But I said, "Of course, I can throw. It's the state championship. Let's go."

I got shellacked. And we were done.

The Legion run got me fired up more than ever for my senior season of high school baseball. I accepted that I'd been beaten out for shortstop by John Salvato (our best position player and hitter) and would play wherever the coach wanted. That turned out, mostly, to be in the outfield. I also pitched (not well...the curveball disappeared) and our team was pretty bad. Meantime, Coach Roberts told me I could still come to Carolina and walk-on (to this day, I have nothing but praise for Coach for keeping his word...even though I was not close to being a Division I player). Coach said, "Keep working hard...get stronger...don't stop working." And I did not.

Senior Legion season was bizarre. We were really good, but too many guys knew it. We breezed through the regular season with a great record and went to the states, where we accordingly got drummed out in the early rounds. There would be no repeat run to the finals.

The day after we lost and were eliminated, I got in my dad's packed car and drove South to Chapel Hill. Again, I'm sure because I was Scott Bradley's brother, I was allowed to practice with the varsity all fall of my freshman year and played on the JV team in the spring. Every day I was taking groundballs next to future major league Gold Glove shortstop Walt Weiss, and in my mind telling myself, "Keep working hard, you never know, maybe you'll be a late bloomer." I played half the innings (like everybody else) on the Carolina JV team, playing doubleheaders against junior college programs, with Game 1 typically starting around 8 p.m. I can still remember my friends, all beered up, heckling me from the balcony of Ehringhaus dorm. "What are you doing down there, when you could be here!" they'd shout, and cackle. They'd bring speakers out on to the balcony and blast Van Halen during our games. A couple of years earlier, I'd have been offended, but now reality was starting to set in. I was never going to be good.

I went home that summer after freshman year and played for the Belleville Braves in the Essex County League. I would cut grass all day, come home, grab a sandwich and my uniform and drive somewhere along the Parkway to play against fellow college-aged guys who couldn't give it up. It was actually a fun team. A bunch of Belleville Italian-American guys who accepted me, (and even took me and my Lacoste shirts out to a few Newark discos from time to time).

I went back to Carolina to give it one last try, but halfway through the fall, I'd had enough. I asked Coach Roberts if I could hang around the field, throw batting practice and hit fungoes and he said, "Sure." I felt it was a fair compromise, and Coach ended up letting me make a lot of the trips with the team (including big roadies to Florida, Maine, Arizona State and Mississippi State). I actually dressed out in uniform (mine said "Tar Heels" on the back, not "Bradley") and made many, many life-long friendships with a lot of guys who could really play.

I'd still get sad from time to time. How come I wasn't any good? Isn't hard work supposed to pay off? But I never stopped loving the game..and eventually, I was able to laugh it off.

And, as you know, I love telling stories, so I'll close with my favorite Jeff Bradley baseball story, one my UNC boys have heard a million times, but still ask to hear again. There was this old man named Gene, who went to every Caldwell Legion baseball game, year in and year out. Gene was hard of hearing and wore a massive hearing aid. When he spoke, the whole world could hear.

So, on the day we were eliminated from the states my senior year, Gene came up to me with his big toothy smile and he patted me on the back. "I remember you when you were a FRESHMAN!" Gene shouted, heads turning everywhere. "I remember telling people, that Jeff Bradley, when he gets a little bigger, he's going to be ONE HELLUVA BALLPLAYER!"

And then Gene patted me on the back again, and caught his breath.


How can you not laugh at that?

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

My Athletic Career...Soccer

I started playing soccer in second, maybe it was third grade, but in fourth grade, I was somehow sucked-in by the sport of football. Maybe it was the barking of Coach Bo Sullivan, which I could hear loud and clear through my bedroom window. Maybe it was the cheerleaders and their "Be Aggressive, B-E Aggressive" cheer. Ah, who am I kidding.

It was the helmet and shoulder pads. It was the orange jerseys. So, I switched over to football in fourth grade, becoming a part of the storied Essex Fells Bengals program only to realize in, oh, a day or two, I did not like tackling. And I did not like being tackled. Nor did I like blocking, being blocked ... or any contact of any kind.

So, in fifth grade, after a year of watching Mr. Addis and most of my friends kicking the ball around as I held tackling dummies and tried to block guys three times my size, I went back to soccer. And I played through high school.

I'm not afraid to brag here. In grades 5-8 (especially 7th and 8th grade), I was a terror. Of course, let's temper it by saying, I was a terror in a league that consisted of four ultra- suburban towns and, for the most part, a bunch of "nice boys." Now that's out of the way, yeah, I tore it up.

I was also a better-than-average player at the freshman and JV levels in high school. A starter who rarely left the field and a guy who scored a few goals. Of course, the really good players at West Essex were playing varsity as sophomores (and some -- Mike Bellino and Torben Agesen -- as freshman). Nevertheless, the WE freshman team went 20-1 (shout out to Bobby McDermott and Chris Kubek!), and the JV squad went A Lot of Wins-and-1. I remember this because I've lived at the Shore for 16 years now and one of my buddies played on the Toms River North team that handed the WE freshman (78) and JV (79) its only two defeats, both in the Kearny Tournament.

(A quick aside. I did get the call-up to the Varsity as a freshman. The V was playing the legendary Kearny Kardinals (yes, that's the way they spell it) under the lights on a Saturday and the Essex County Tournament game with Columbia was going to be held the next day, so Coach Albanesius said, "Bradley, stay here..." And he played me in a varsity game, under the lights, in Kearny. If you've ever seen the Movie "One on One" with Robbie Benson, when he tries to practice on speed. Well, that's my memory of the Kearny game. The game was whirling around me for about five minutes. Then Coach Albanesius got me off the field.)

When it came time to really play varsity soccer at the end of my sophomore year, a time I like to call, "when the rubber met the road" I was...eh. I played a fair amount, gave it a decent effort, I guess. It is 100 percent fair to say I failed to live up to any expectations my brother Rob may have created during his four-year varsity career (something like a zillion goals), which included the 1973 State Championship.

We had a number of good players at West Essex, many of whom went on to play college soccer. I played with Mike Agesen (Virginia) and his brother Torben (Penn State). I played with the Commandatore Brothers, Anthony (St. Peter's) and Marc (Rutgers). Mike Bellino played for UMass. My best buddy, Dave Addis, played at Dartmouth and our goalkeeper Mark Stanisci played for Bucknell. And another one of my pals, the late John Salamone had a fantastic career at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta. All the good players had become pretty focused on soccer, playing for Mr. Agesen's Essex United team. I was still a muti-sport kid who spent his summers playing baseball while the soccer guys traveled to Denmark and stuff.

Still, I rode some pretty good coat tails, playing it safe for the most part. Trying to give up the ball in as few touches as possible, and trying to get in the way of the other team when that was in order. I could never juggle a ball a million times like the Agesens, or dribble through a world of defenders like the Commandatores. I could never, ever strike a clean ball like Addis. I was nowhere near as tough as Johnny Salamone.

My best memory is probably from my junior year, my one and only goal that year, a long, lucky, left footed shot that skipped past the goalkeeper (Parsippany Hills) on a rainy day. I was too in shock to celebrate, but as I jogged back to the center circle, Anthony Commandatore planted a big wet kiss on my cheek.

Those Italians.

My soccer career ended in the fall of 1981 in a state tournament loss at Westfield High School. I'd pretty much started every game since the beginning of my junior year, but on the day of this state tournament replay (we'd tied Westfield the day before and the game was called in OT due to darkness), our coach Tom Taylor called me over before the game and said, "You're not going to start today." I said I understood because, truth be known, I'd been horrendous the day before. By the end of the game, I was choking back tears as my butt never left the bench and my team went on to lose on PKs.

And that was all she wrote. I hid my face in my jacket on the busride home, completely humiliated that I'd not seen a minute of action in my final high school game, and guilty as hell that I'd played so badly the day before that the coach lost two years worth of confidence in me. I was also sad because I thought we had a good enough team to win the state championship that year...and we were much better than Westfield.

But that was that...and all that was left was...