#BuckFiftyADay Since March, 2014

#BuckFiftyADay Since March, 2014

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

She Could Barely Move Her Arms And She Handed Me A Tissue

To the Amazing Tina Lane

By Scott Illiano
West Essex High School Teacher and Varsity Baseball Coach
Written for the Wessex Wire.

The message was delivered during a teacher’s workshop on Martin Luther King Day. If I wanted to say goodbye to Tina now was the time. Tina, is of course, Ms. Tina Lane, a former English teacher and Journalism expert who spent close to thirty years at West Essex. As I drove down the Parkway, I knew that doing so could be one of the more difficult things that I have ever had to do. What do you say to one of your closest friends and one of the most influential people to have ever touched your life while knowing it may be the last time that you ever speak? What would you say?

It was hard to fathom what I was about to encounter. As my hands shook against the steering wheel. I thought back to 1995. As a substitute teacher, I stood up for the morning announcements. We were then asked to observe a moment of silence. I falsely assumed that someone had died. Instead, the moment of silence was arranged by the Wessex Wire staff under the supervision of Ms. Lane because the Superintendent had censored the school’s paper by preventing them from publishing an investigative report related to a controversy between the Superintendent and the Vice Principal. Previously, I had only known Ms. Lane through a series of pleasantries exchanged in the staff room beginning in June of 1994, but I was compelled to learn more about her cause. Thus, I sought her out with the intention of doing so. What I got in return was the beginning of a life’s education and an irreplaceable friendship.

It was during our subsequent discussion about the moment of silence that I received one of hundreds of lessons that she would teach me over time. I asked her if she was afraid of any potential consequences for protesting the Superintendent‘s decision. She explained that there are “defining moments” in one’s life when one must stand up for what one believes in especially when involving the best interests of students. Those moments require great courage and ultimately define both who you are and what you stand for. She then advised me to be aware of my own defining moments.

Over the next 14 years there would be a number of times that Tina would again demonstrate not only the courage of her convictions, but also her amazing art of rhetoric. I used to say that she could go into a jury room with eleven other people against her and twelve people would come out seeing it her way. Her supreme understanding of words and their power provided her with the ability to sway an entire room. In fact, she had done just that both in staff meetings and on hiring committees that she served on at West Essex. I credit Tina for teaching me to be more attentive to the power of words and their meanings. She was very strong willed and unafraid to tell you how things were. I always admired that she would tell me what I needed to hear, even if it wasn’t what I may have wanted to hear at the time. That’s what true friends do. If she thought it was necessary she would put me in my place, but never in a mean way. In one instance, Tina had visited a beach house that some friends and I had rented. I was giving her a hard time for taking too long to put on her makeup as I was in a hurry to get home. She stepped out of the bathroom, glared at me and said, “I’m a girl. This is what girls do!” I said, Okay, humbly walked over to the couch, and sat quietly until she finished.

Love Personified

I arrive at the hospital and check in at the counter to obtain a visitor’s pass. On my way to the elevator, I coincidentally meet up with two of Tina’s closest friends, a woman named Mim whom Tina had met as a college student at Fairleigh Dickinson University, and former West Essex Director of Guidance, Dr. Jackie Moore. For those of you who never had the privilege of meeting or working with Jackie while she was at West Essex, she recently stepped up in heroic fashion and put forth what I consider to be a Herculean effort by organizing a fundraiser to help care for Tina in her last months. As a result, she has now established the Tina Lane Memorial Scholarship and will be presenting the award to a West Essex student on an annual basis.

The three of us ride the elevator together. As we enter Tina’s room, several family members have already arrived. Tina is momentarily startled. She did not expect to see me and her face drops. “Scotty!” is what she always called me. “I’ve lost more weight!”

She is just days from her 58th birthday, but although Tina is a little more than twenty years my elder, she always looked to be roughly about my age. I used to joke that she had some secret “Fountain of Youth.” I had always thought she looked a lot like Catherine Zeta Jones or maybe a little like Ashley Judd. Perhaps a cross between the two would be the best description.

A full chicken dinner sits untouched on the tray in front of her. “Scotty, I can’t eat. I look like a concentration camp refugee,” she cracks. I tell her she is exaggerating and looks as beautiful as ever. She asks her brother to hand her a paper cup so she can attempt to eat a few ice chips. Tina explains that she might doze off a little and, if she does, we should continue talking because she can still hear us and is enjoying the conversation.

A few of Tina‘s guests step out, but plan to return again in the evening. Her brother Elio, Mim, and I remain. I sit beside her and hold her hand. Although she herself cannot eat, she asks me if I am hungry and offers me some food. She is so concerned that it’s been several hours since I have eaten. I attempt to explain that I can’t eat either, but nothing comes out of my mouth. In an instant, I begin to unravel, and break down like a two year old. Tears pour down my cheeks uncontrollably. Although she has little strength and can barely move her arms, she somehow reaches over and hands me a tissue. But, then again, why wouldn’t she? She had already spent a lifetime serving others and her life was not yet over.

She had sacrificed numerous lucrative job opportunities with the likes of Matt Lauer and John McLaughlin. She had turned away news networks and other media outlets because she preferred a lifestyle that would enable her to raise her young daughter Kirsten. Tina always placed her large and beautiful family first and made sure to go out of her way for all of them. In fact, she had sacrificed a good part of her own social life after her mother had become too ill to take care of herself. At that time, Tina moved her mother in with her and gave her the round-the-clock care that she needed until her passing in the fall of 2007. She had given up Saturday mornings to teach dance to 3-5 year olds all of whom adored her as she did them in return. She cared for animals too, especially her three cats. If the situation called for it, she would adopt a kitten off the streets.

Teacher, Mentor, Friend

Tina would routinely spend endless hours teaching, mentoring, and nurturing others. There were nights I would lock up the coaches office and pull out of the parking lot around 9:30 p.m. For a moment, I would trick myself into thinking that I was the last staff member on campus, only to see Tina’s car still parked in her spot. On more than one occasion, Tina and her staff of the Wessex Wire would work on their paper well past midnight and then return to school the next day for a 7:30 a.m. homeroom. Tina was an excellent teacher in many different areas, including English, creative writing, and theatre arts. Of all her gifts however, perhaps her greatest was her ability and knowledge as a teacher of journalism.

Tina had incredibly high standards for the journalists on her Wessex Wire staff. I discovered this first hand after I had written an op ed piece for her paper in the Winter of 1996. Ironically, the Wire students would aspire to obtain “The Big F,“ which served as a a nickname for a final copy that was ready for publication in The Wessex Wire . Getting “The Big F” was far from easy. It was an arduous process often requiring eight or more drafts. After submitting their work to Ms. Lane, she would take out a pencil as opposed to a red pen presumably to soften each blow. She would often switch the order of paragraphs and make markings all over each page. As a result I nicknamed her “The Slasher.“ The end result was often a masterpiece. If you could come out on the other side and obtain “The Big F” great rewards awaited you. Her students would feel accomplished because they had worked toward, and inevitably earned a published piece worthy of “award winning” quality. In the process, her students would simultaneously grow, develop, and, ultimately, become much better writers with a true understanding of the overall writing process. Above all they would outwork everybody in sight and earn everything that they got.

The results of her expectations and the process were staggering. The Wessex Wire became a perennial award winning paper winning close to 30 awards on the local, state, and national level. I implore all current and future Wessex Wire journalists and advisors to consider the history, tradition, and legacy of the paper under Ms. Lane and look to continue that standard of excellence in the future. Following a woman whom I consider to have been the Michael Jordan of high school newspapers will not be easy, but Tina would be the first to say that awards are not the most important thing. The student effort and level of commitment are what count most.

As a result of her tutelage, some of Ms. Lane’s former writers would go on to occupy such prominent positions as speechwriter for Bill Clinton., a lead writer and executive producer for the David Letterman Show, senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, a television news reporter, and a vice president of an international company. Others have gone on to become screenwriters and news writers, and have applied their knowledge and writing ability in a variety of other professional fields. A common thread among them is that they would all credit Ms. Lane’s teaching and influence for their success, and they would do so publicly.

After Tina’s departure from West Essex, we often resorted to something that we had become accustomed to over the years, namely talking on the phone. It seemed as if every time I put groceries away or folded laundry, I called her. Whenever she dusted or cleaned her bathroom, she called me. Even during those casual moments, she never deviated from her elegant nature. For example, she’d always say, “Ok, I need you to know that I’m going to flush the toilet now, but I’m not going to the bathroom. I’m just cleaning.” I would tell her that we’re friends so she shouldn’t bother to explain that to me. Then, as a joke, I would flush my toilet and say nothing. Regardless of where and when we spoke she was always so bright, extremely funny, and full of wisdom. She could “bottom line” things better than anybody I knew as she always seemed to have every situation already figured out. She would give me personal advice, professional advice, and, essentially, counsel me in all of life’s matters. Over time I realized that no matter what she advised, it always boiled down to one’s character and integrity. She placed an enormous emphasis on the notion of being true to yourself, just as she believed deeply that if one possessed courage then that would also cover all other important values.

Always the Best

As I held her hand, my sobbing and tears continued. “Scotty, I love you. You’re my best friend.” She glances over at Mim. “My best male friend that is!” Mim is not offended. “I’m going to be fine. We’re going to have more times together. You can come see me anytime.” I knew that wasn’t true. I knew that she was lying on her death bed or close to it, and she was selflessly trying to console me. Although her condition was terminal, she was putting my feelings first. Her selflessness was immeasurable.

I make another attempt to speak but again no words come out. Finally, I get a hold of myself. I tell her how much I love her, how much she has meant to me, how much she has taught me, and the profound impact that she has had on my life. I explain how much it hurts me to see somebody that I love suffering. To Tina there were no problems. There were only challenges. She squeezes my hand tighter and further demonstrates her own courage, “This is a challenge! It’s just a test of my faith and a lesson for me to take each day one at a time.” She then explains that she expects to be up dancing again.

I immediately reflect back to her 50th birthday party and watching all her friends and family stare at her on the dance floor. I then recalled a particular evening in which we had gone to a nightclub in Manhattan. As the music blared, about ten guys surrounded her while dancing because she was clearly the best dancer on the floor. At that point, every girl in the vicinity, some half her age or less, just stopped and stared awestruck at what they were seeing. There was very little that Tina couldn’t do. Whether she was teaching, acting, dancing, or writing she did everything her best. More often than not, she was the best at everything she did.

Before I leave the room I hug her tight. I kiss her cheek and then her hand. I look at her eyes. “I love you Tina. I‘ll see you soon,” is all I can spit out given my emotions. In the elevator I am filled with grief. I contemplate how amazingly faithful and spiritual Tina is. I pray. Then I hear her voice recite a phrase that she had used over and over. “Whatever is in keeping with God’s best interests.” I realize that no matter her fate, the lessons that I have learned from her will live with me forever. I also realize that fittingly she has just taught me another lesson because this is a test of my faith too, and I must also take it one day at a time.

As the elevator opens I randomly consider a variety of memories that we had shared together. Then I contemplate the countless number of lives that Tina has positively impacted. She is a great woman I say to myself, because knowing her has made me a better man. In fact, she left everyone and everything that she ever touched better than she found it: family, friends, boyfriends, students, colleagues, West Essex High School, The Wessex Wire, and Fairlawn High School. She was love personified. She treated everyone no matter what their status or position in society like they were royalty. She even made lasting impressions on people regardless of how much time she had spent with them.

As I walk toward the exit of the hospital I open my phone and read a text message sent by my friend Verick’s wife Victoria. Although Victoria had only met Tina on a handful of occasions, that was all she needed. The text read; “In my life.. In the thousands of people that have brushed my life, there are few that have ever possessed the brilliant beauty and light that she illuminates.. So bright in fact, that you have to stand back to even see her face.”

Monday, March 30, 2009

My Athletic Career...Basketball

Since the other day I filled everyone in on how great my two brothers Rob and Scott were athletically, it's time you heard a little bit about me and my many exploits in the athletic arena.

This will be the beginning of a series...all about Jeff Bradley, Athlete.

Today, I focus on basketball.

Caldwell Presbyterian (approx. 1970-77)...

With my blue satin short shorts and "CP" tank top, I began my basketball career playing for "Caldwell Pres." in what I believe was officially known as "Church Basketball." I was a second-grader when it all began, learning the system...the 2-3 zone defense...the "get the ball to the kid who can reach the hoop" offense under Mr. Walker (please help me if I've screwed that name up). By the time I was a fifth-grader, I was a starter, working the back court with my next door neighbor Doug Gaffney, and controlling the tile floor of the CP gym/auditorium. Championships? Uh, can't remember. But our rivalry with St. Al's was, in a word, huge. Church hoop ran through eighth grade and I have great memories of cutting down the nets in our final season, champions of the church league. However, it was with a fair amount of guilt that we accepted our trophies, knowing that our "big man" Sean O'Neill was actually Catholic. The investigation ultimately brought us down and, in case you haven't noticed, you never see Caldwell Pres. games on TV anymore. Stiff sanctions.

The Essex Fells Runnin' Rebels (1978)

The name says it all. Five slow, short white boys from the mean streets of Essex Fells, who named themselves after Jerry "Tark the Shark" Tarkanian's UNLV teams. Yes, we won it all, trouncing Chuck Muzzy, Bruno Valenti and North Caldwell in the eighth grade championship game. At this point, I was playing to my strengths (get the ball to Gaffney) and minimizing my weaknesses (everything else).

West Essex Knights (1977-1980)

I "earned" a spot on the junior high team as a seventh grader and actually got a shot to run the point for a while before the coach, Mike Bruchac, suddenly realized I could absolutely not dribble with my left hand. Making a keen coaching decision, because a 5-1, all-righthanded point guard was probably not best for the team, Bruchac decided to basically red shirt me and let me develop as a Two Guard. As an eighth grader, I ably filled thatTwo Guard spot. However, I believe in our limited schedule we may not have won a single game. I'm not sure about that, but I believe that to be close to accurate.

Anyway, my work on the junior high team prepared me for freshman ball, also under Bruchac. I remember like it was yesterday our big game with Caldwell. My brother Scott had just graduated from West Essex (quarterback in football, 20-point a game scorer in basketball, All-State catcher in baseball) and, well, most everybody in Caldwell knew "Bradley" had a little brother coming up to HS at West Essex. So, in Caldwell's gym, I took the floor to the sound of 50 or 60 Caldwell students chanting "Bradley sucks! Bradley sucks!" Little did they know, Bradley did suck. I dribbled the ball off my foot a couple of times, threw away about 20 passes and ended up with a nice seat next to Bruchac, who was clearly thinking, "This kid was adopted." We lost that game...as suburban a game as you'd ever find in NJ...by about 50 points.

Our freshman team had its moments and, I must say, a Christmas does not go by in the Bradley house where the Passaic Valley game isn't brought up (because I bring it up). In the PV game, I had my defining moment as a hoopster, scoring 19 points in the first half of a Christmas Tournament game with both of my college-aged brothers in attendance. Seriously, lit it up. Outside. Inside. Slashing to the hoop. It was amazing. "I was just, ya know, feeling it," I say every Christmas. "I was in the zone."

Nineteen points in one half just might be a Bradley record...not sure (Scott had 38 against Clifford Scott in a JV tournament once and if there'd been a three-point line, it would've been well over 50). Yes, nineteen points in one half. My finally tally for the game? Of course, you know the answer...19. And we lost by one.

I hung with it through JV basketball (see photo), and remember we broke out of the gates with a couple of wins over traditional Essex County hoop powers West Orange Mountain and Cedar Grove, before hitting a little 16-20-game "speed bump." We did not win another game the rest of the season, but we did hear the greatest post-game speech ever from our leader Tony Ortiz. Following yet another loss, Tony O came into the lockerroom to a group of dejected players and wrote on the chalkboard one single word. "Beans."

"Gentleman," our coach said. "We're a JV team. Anyone know what our record means?"

And all the players said at once..."Beans?"

And Tony O said, "Exactly."

That, ladies and gentleman, is my basketball career...next up, Soccer.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Thanks for the Good, Old Days

Today, I'll let some old friends do my writing. Thanks to everyone for checking in.


To this day my Mom will still mention that Jerry Bradley once casually mentioned that I had "good hand-eye coordination."

He said it in 1976, but it is cast in stone to this day-

I think the games of "500" were the best "training" I ever had- and the most fun.
"The Field" was a living entity- 90% free play (does it exist anymore?). I would hop on my bike and shout over my shoulder as I left the driveway- "I'm going to the field" enough said- no worries from my mother- "be home by dark" was all she would say.
I envied the Bradley's and Doug Gaffney and Tom Brooks and the Wenrich's for their close proximity. Jeff Bradley-Doug Gaffney leading EF Police to the league championship in 1978 (I hung out in RF and got walked a lot) with Mr. Bradley coaching was my baseball highlight-
Thank you Jerry Bradley- we were lucky kids. -- Carter Lee Beard (Jeff's note: "Lee" was a standout hockey player and golfer at West Essex. His sister Kendra went on to play golf on scholarship at Wake Forest).

Great Tribute -- well deserved.

It brought back a flood of memories. I remember the old Tee Shirts. I can still remember the burned rubber smell that stayed with them for the entire season. The hats too -- they were plain but they were ours. I loved those uniforms. I also remember trying out for the intermediate league. The wait for the names to be posted was one of the longest times in my life -- worse than the nervous anxiety of waiting for your wife to give birth. I did make it -- I was on the EF Police -- I think the uniforms were grey and green. My first game I tried to steal home -- your dad is probably still scratching his head wondering how a lumbering load like me thought he could steal home. The reality is -- I had no idea what the hell I was doing. But boy I was glad I was doing it. I do take exception with the fact that you omitted the EF Bengal football team. We were always champs. The members of that team went on to be an integral part of the '81 West Essex State Champion (No. 1 ranked) team and I was on the '82 Caldwell State Champion (No. 6 in NJ) team. We were the bee's knees.

As I am writing, I am recalling that Regina Degnan gave me a black and white adirondack bat -- the "reggie jackson" model -- for my fifth grade birthday. My parents gave me a mitt -- I think it was a spalding "Doug Hayden" model. I didn't sleep that night because I knew the next day I would be at the field waiting for a pick up game. On that note, the pick up games at lunch time during school were the best. I would run home through the glen, up the forest way hill, grab a pb sandwich -- no time to add the j -- and my mitt and bat and run down to the field to wait for the rest of the boys to return. We would play and sweat and smell for the rest of the day. It was the best.

Through it all, I rember your dad standing on the hill behind the field closest to the school. He would wear a blue windbreaker, fold his arms across his chest and cup his chin in his right hand, as he watched us play. If we were lucky, Scott would come by and offer tips. Then he would go to the monkey bars, grip them and levitate himself horizontally. The fathers would gasp in awe and we, the kids, didn't know how the hell he did it.

Great memories. -- Thomas G. Russamano (Jeff's note: Tommy "Wright," wondered if I'd remember him. How could I forget such a nice guy, not to mention his cute twin sister Tracy?)

Many memories

Sitting on The Hill and at the water fountain!! And, of course, watching my brother and all his friends play baseball. I think that is when my dad taught me how to keep score and track each player's "at bat". Went to a Mets game last year with Dad...and we both kept score!! -- Molly Cutting Werner (Jeff's Note: Molly's dad was a GREAT Farm League coach in EF for many years. In fact, I was slated to play for his Mets before I was optioned to the "expansion" Pirates when I was in second grade).

I remember every inch of that field and all the times we played there.

I remember getting stuck in the smaller diamond's mud after a rainstorm and I had to crawl out...i think my sneaker is still buried in there, Mr Weissenborn called me "muddy randy" ever since. If I recall correctly, Scott was the only one that could hit your Dad's pitches over the hills.

When they made the rule we couldnt play hardball at lunch without equipment I used to put on all the catchers gear and helmets and ride my bike to school so we could play.
-- Randy McAdam (Jeff's Note: Randy was also a standout hockey player for West Essex).

EF baseball, great memories.

I think Scott is still the only person to hit the ball over the school roof. -- Jim Sullivan (Jeff's Note: Jimmy is the greatest running back in West Essex High School history. He led WE to the NJ Group IV championship in 1980 and the Star-Ledger trophy as the No. 1 team in the state. Jimmy went to Maryland on a football scholarship, where he was teammates with Boomer Esiason. His father, "Bo" Sullivan is a legend in Essex Fells, who singlehandedly ran the town's football program).

Wow...brings back great memories...

My favorite memories were shagging fly balls when your dad would pitch to you guys....we were so lucky then...sun up to sun down at the ball field all by ourselves. I wish my boys could experience the same thing. -- Andy Brusman (Jeff's Note: Andy was just a "kid" when I was in high school, so he's gotta fill me in...I was off in college when he was in his "prime.")

I can remember like it was yesterday

Your dad pitching to me in "try-outs" and me pitching to him as he warmed me up the first time I ever pitched in a game! Your dad's encouraging words meant the world to a 10-year-old! Many thanks to Mr Baseball (and your mom ;) for all of those years! .When I broke my leg on "the field" playing soccer (when i was 12), your dad was the first guy there. What does that say? -- Andy Addis (Jeff's Note: Andy went on to play soccer at Lafayette College before crossing paths with me in Chapel Hill, where he got his MBA).

I didn't know Larry Fell was such a slugger!

I wish my kids could have experienced something like this. Your parents are great people and everyone from the area has such great respect for them. I wish you could send your dad down here to Texas to work with my boys! -- Chris Tripucka (Jeff's Note: A 1,000-point scorer at West Essex and the toughest, 6-2 rebounder I've ever seen, Chris went to Boston College, where he was a receiver for Doug Flutie).

Boy do I remember those days fondly...

Especially as I witness the incredibly high intensity in which my boys sports programs are run, they are both in elite soccer programs and practice every day for 2 hours...then they travel on the weekends, what a different world we (we? well,who, actually?) have carved out for our young atheletes. The days of our dads joining us at the field after work now seem so nostalgic. The girls teams as well were run by the parents, my mom led the "Essex Fells Sluggers" (complete with hand-painted tee shirts) to an undefeated season in 1972...I can still remember my dad trying to explain the infield fly rule...Those of us growing up in EF spent at least 10 years going to "the field" we were indeed lucky -- Robben McAdam (also close by at 9 Essex Road...can totally remember grabbing the bats out of your garage!) (Jeff's note: Fine looking West Essex cheerleader, Robben was...and I'm sure still is!)

Jerry was the league.

We were all Jerry's kids. He was the commissioner. the head ump, the coach, the best thing that happened to Essex Fells baseball. Every kid had an equal shot and we were all trying to be as good as his biological kids. Scotty was my measuring stick to compete against. Did I have to have the best one in the family to compete with? Yes I would haven't had it any other way. Yes, Scotty could hit it off the roof with the easiest swing you ever saw. I also witnessed Scotty's 1st Home run in Yankee Stadium. The minute it left the bat, me and the boys sitting behind the dugout were out of our seats. I was with Larry and John Fell and Tim Cutting. Never was I more proud of being a Fells boy, and here I was watching Scotty trot around the bases in the house that Ruth built. The only problem was, he was now in a Seattle Mariner uniform. The untouchable Yankee prospect had been traded to the West Coast team the previous season. The kid from the Fells a kid I played with at the field was in the Majors.

Thank you, Jerry for all the great times and letting us play in your league on your field. -- Steve Fusco (Jeff's Note: All I can do is apologize to Stevie for the winless Pirates...he was our only good player, and it wasn't fair that he got stuck with a bunch of second-graders! Stevie could play!)

What a beautiful tribute you wrote to your father on The Field.

Maybe, in that building, next to the field, you grew as "Studies Pass Into Character" into the fine writer you are today.

As one of the coaches in those days I especially enjoyed reading your reminisences. It was truly a meeting place, a home of many wins and losses, and the beginning of athletics for so many young children. Jerry and Mary both gave timelessly and frequently their time and talent to
the youth of Essex Fells.

I can remember the 1971 Essex Fells Reds fondly. In fact, still sitting on my desk here in Charleston, S.C. is an autographed baseball signed by that team which scraped through the season with a perfect 8-0 record. I can look at that ball today and remember Larry and John Fell, Carl and Billy Groves, Mike and Jimmy Sullivan, Nick and Mike Lieder, Claus and Mike Cassell, Tim Cutting, Bernie Degnan, Fred Osborne, Randy McAdam and bat boys Doug Gafney and Jeff Bradley. They were then and still are a fine group of young men.

It was so much fun to get home from work in N.Y.C., change into my red sweater and hustle to the field. What fun it was to coach and what great memories all those young men have provided over the years. Wouldn't it be great if it was still the case?

Jerry was always out there tossing B.P., encouraging the kids to try, and learning to win and lose. And, that garage door was always open for anyone who wanted to play ball. It was a time and a situation which will probably never be duplicated.

We send our regards to Mary and Jerry---they are in our thoughts. -- Bob and Ben Nita McAdam

Friday, March 27, 2009

Mr. Baseball

Talking to a fellow Little League dad the other day, I was asked "What kind of league did they have in your town?" He was wondering, in modern-day youth baseball-ese, if we played by Williamsport rules or something different, like Cal Ripken Baseball.

My response was, "That's a hard one to answer."

The truth is, I played in my dad's league. I guess you could call it the Jerry Bradley League, even though we called it the Essex Fells (N.J.) Farm League. If memory serves me correct, the league did not run, like Little League, through the age of 12. It ran through 11, or maybe it was just through fifth grade, or sixth grade. Really, the details about the rules are incredibly unclear. "We didn't have a rule book," my dad told me the other day, when I asked him. "Basically, the dads who had the time to get involved agreed to wing it and let common sense prevail."

That's not entirely true. I remember a few of the Jerry Bradley Rules for Farm League. For one, no pitcher was allowed to pitch more than three innings in a game. It was not as scientific as today's pitch count rules, which are age-specific, but my dad figured it was a pretty reliable way to save kids' arms. And that was something my dad felt deserved a "rule." I also remember that week night games were five innings, not six, to get kids home earlier on school nights.

It's funny looking back, because Essex Fells is an affluent town, but we did not have an official Little League field with fences and dugouts (much less a PA system, press box and electronic scoreboard). We had two diamonds that were situated on opposite ends of the what Fells residents now and forever will refer to as "The Field." When your team was batting, you sat on "The Hill." If you were thirsty, you went to "The Water Fountain." No, we didn't have a snack bar. For that matter, Essex Fells didn't even allow for the Good Humor man to sell ice cream. If you were lucky, you had a coach who'd take you to "Stop N Go" (in Caldwell, not EF) for a slurpee after the game. If you were super lucky, you'd travel West to Carvel for soft serve ice cream...then Carvel shut down and became a Toyota (or was it Datsun?) dealership.

We also did not have uniforms. We got T-shirts screen-printed courtesy of Mr. Beard and his Annin Flag Company and plain hats that my dad bought at East Orange Sporting Goods. We wore blue jeans (also known as dungarees) or even corduroys as our "game pants."

Yes, I'm being nostalgic.

We did not hold a draft, but I do remember my dad in the living room with a legal pad filled with the names of all the kids, written in his very-legible (unchanged to this day) cursive. I remember having a day of "open play" and then I remember my dad sitting down at the kitchen table and trying to divide all the boys into what he liked to call "even teams."

The truth is, the teams were hardly even. I always played on the worst Farm League teams because if my dad was going to be the guy dividing up the kids, the easiest way to avoid "stacking" accusations was to make his son's team the worst. I believe we only played 10 games or so, maybe less, but I remember one year, I was on the Reds and we won one game. That was coming off my year on the Pirates, an "expansion" team that won...zero.

I remember the Pirates mostly because my dad, now 76, says his one regret from his Farm League coaching days was when he intentionally walked slugger Larry Fell in our final game of the season, because, as he recalls, "I just wanted you guys to win one game." He then quickly says, "I can't believe I did that...and I wish I hadn't." As you already know, we did not win. To that end, my dad believes he got what he deserved.

Before anyone thinks my dad's not a "baseball guy," let it be known that he was signed to play in the Chicago Cubs organization out of high school, only to have the Korean War interfere, but went on to play baseball (and football) at Upsala College, where he's now in their Hall of Fame. He doesn't know any of his stats, but will say of his Viking squads, "We were a small college that could go head to head with any of the big schools in the Northeast...Rutgers, Princeton, Yale." I've checked his yearbooks and Upsala not only played the big boys, they kicked their butts. The legendary, longtime coach at Rutgers, Fred Hill, was also a part of those Upsala teams.

My dad apparently just didn't see the need to push things too hard when we were 8, 9, 10, 11 years old. In fact, he didn't push too hard when we were 12 and 13, either. But, what he did do with the older kids was try to get them (at least those who wanted) ready for high school baseball. When work was done on the diamonds at "The Field," my dad asked if they could make one of the infields a little bigger. He moved the bases 10 feet farther down the line from Farm League distance (60 feet) and the pitcher's rubber back five feet (from 45 feet).

He called this "Intermediate Baseball" and he instituted things like leading, stealing and pitching from the stretch. Nowadays, it's called "50-70"...and it's a staple in American youth baseball. No, my dad didn't "market" it or copyright it, and for all he knew there were many other towns in America where kids were doing the same thing. For my dad, it was just common baseball sense.

In the Intermediate League, Essex Fells teams (the Firemen and Police) played against teams from neighboring North Caldwell. We actually got gray, wool-blend baseball pants at this point, to go with our T-shirts and hats. And, finally, my teams were able to compete and win games, mainly because of all the time my dad had spent pitching and hitting fungoes to me and my friends, the same guys who'd endured so many Farm League defeats.

Of course, it helped that I grew up across the street from The Field. When my dad would get home from work, he'd grab our bag of balls and go out and pitch to any kids who wanted swings. He also told other dads, if they wanted to use the balls, bats, helmets, just open up the garage and take what you need. I will always remember the sound of our garage door opening and closing, and knowing that meant someone wanted to play ball. And it was time to get my glove.

On Saturday mornings, all the Farm League kids would wear their T-shirts and hats from sun up 'til sun down...yeah, even those kids on the lowly Pirates. When the real games would end, games of unsupervised "lob ball" would begin. In lob ball, the pitcher's job was simply to lob the ball over the plate for the batter to crush. Believe it or not, many of us learned more about baseball playing in those lob ball games than in the "real" games. No coaches to fix our swings or tell us "two hands!" after we'd dropped a ball. No walks. Heck, no umpires.

You might guess what happened to most baseball players who came up in the Essex Fells "system." Yeah, not many amounted to much on the baseball field. The best athletes in town were typically tennis players and golfers at expensive private schools. We had some good soccer players, probably because soccer was such a suburban sport at the time. And we had some good ice hockey players because EF families could afford ice time at South Mountain Arena. (Old friend Tommy Russamano points out that Bo Sullivan's Essex Fells Falcons - and later - Bengals football teams produced good talent...Rusty Boyle even played for Penn State).

Yet somehow, there were my brothers, Rob and Scott, with no 200-foot fences to conquer, no trophies to earn, no All-Star spots to vie for, no Districts, Sectionals, no Williamsport, no Cal Ripken...just the Jerry Bradley League...And somehow, Rob earned four varsity letters on some of the best baseball teams West Essex High School ever put on the field, starting at shortstop as a freshman. And Scott...well, there's his baseball card over there (right).

What kind of league did they have in my town?

I'll let you all decide.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Man in the Mirror

It's that time of year again.

Little League time.

Now I'm way too introspective to begin with, but nothing gets me looking harder in the mirror than when I coach Little League baseball. I have all-too-vivid memories of being a nervous baseball player (a kid with a lot of "want to" but not much ability) and try so hard to let my kids play in a pressure-free environment.

I am far from perfect, and that bugs me.

I coach both of my sons, and it can be hard to remain calm and positive, as much as I try... I had one particularly embarrassing moment with my oldest son, Tyler, a few years ago. I was hitting him groundballs before a game and I hit two right through his legs. Before I hit the third, I said, "Come on Tyler, get low, keep your glove down." I scored a hat trick, as a third groundball squirmed under his glove. "OK, Tyler," I said. "Anything but through your legs on this one, OK?" Well, of course, groundball No. 4 went right through the wickets. And I lost it. Seriously, I have no idea why (what's the big deal?), but I blew my stack.

How embarrassing, really, when I think about it. And I'm ashamed that it happened, and I've apologized to Tyler about 50 times for it. He has always shrugged when I do.

I should know so much better. Baseball is different than other sports. You don't need to be "psyched" to play baseball, the way you need to be "psyched" to play football, or even basketball or soccer, where "want to" is so critical to success. Think about it, to make a tackle in football...to play tenacious defense in hoops...to get stuck-in during a soccer duel..."want to" is half the battle. Not so in baseball. In fact, sometimes it's the exact opposite.

My older son works his butt off to be a good baseball player. Hits 'til his hands bleed. Will take groundballs in 100-degree heat for hours. He really has desire. My younger son, not so much. Now, I'm not going to say which one's the better player, but I will tell you that one seems to play better in practice and one seems to play better in games. You can figure it out, I'm sure.

Sometimes, in baseball, hard work can hold you back, make you press, squeeze the bat, etc. I should know. No one has ever worked so hard to be mediocre in baseball as I did. I was the guy who did everything a player is supposed to do in terms of preparation -- a million swings, a zillion groundballs -- but when the lights came on, anxiety held me back. A sports psychologist named Harvey Dorfman once told me a "tale" (I was interviewing him for a magazine piece) about a kid who wanted to be in the school play. He was given his one line, which was "Hark, the cannons!" He was to say the line after hearing the cannon blast. He rehearsed the line day and night, practicing in the mirror. "Hark, the cannons!" He changed his inflection. "Hark! The cannons!" He was going to work unti it was just right. On the night of the show, just as it was time for his line, the cannon went "Boom!" and the boy said, "Holy S! What was that?"

That was me.

So anyway, I make this pledge every Little League season, and I'll share it (and hopefully fulfill it).

*There is no better teacher than the game itself. Let the game teach the kids. Let them make mistakes and learn from mistakes without beating them over the head over mistakes. Get it?

*Don't be a fixer during games. When a kid swings at a pitch over his head, he knows what he's done and doesn't need you yelling, "Johnny, that pitch was over your head!" Ditto, "Get your glove down!" after a ball has gone through a player's leg does not help. Teach in practice.

*Remain calm. Baseball is a game that requires WAY MORE confidence and relaxation than intensity. That's why it's so hard. If it was all about "want to" there'd be a lot more good players.

*Continue to encourage your kids to work hard, not so they'll be good baseball players, but just because any kind of hard work is good...and will help your kids feel better when they succeed.

*Remember, always, "The most important play in baseball is...the next play."

Here's to a great season.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Has it Been a Month?

Funny thing is, I really like blogging, even if I know no one's reading...

But it's been more than a month since I last posted anything, and so much has happened. There are just so many topics that I want to throw against the wall. What better time than Noon, on Day One of March Madness, to let a few things fly...

1. Jeff-Bradley.com is now kid friendly. Caught my 10-year old son Beau reading the site a few days back. Now, it's been relatively clean, but he was a little too intrigued by the drunken photo of Matt Leinart that I've decided to keep it really clean from now on. At least until he's 11.

2. I've withdrawn from the Boston Marathon. After about seven weeks of good, hard training and a long-run of 18 miles, patella tendinitis got the best of me. I tried icing it, stretching it, resting it, but a month later, it still hurts a lot. As much as I want to run on April 20, it's not wise to go that distance just to say you did it. What really bums me out is that I actually enjoy the training -- the four-month process -- as much as Race Day. Oh well, 45...

3. Recession Proof? I was intrigued by an ad I heard on the radio the other day for Barbasol Shaving Cream. Now, I used Barbasol for many, many years, mainly because it cost 99 cents and -- this is huge -- you could literally use it until there was nothing left in the can. The commercial made it sound like a great product, but didn't hit upon those essentials. Of course, I was pretty well floored that I was hearing a radio ad for...Barbasol.

4. I hope you'll all read my forthcoming story on Manny Ramirez in ESPN The Magazine. Been a while since I've had a cover story, and I think this one's pretty good...especially for seamheads.

5. On Day One of March Madness I always long for the days before the shot clock. Back in the day, a 10-point lead in the first half actually got you hooked on a game. Now? A 10-point lead doesn't mean squat until the game's down to the final 4-5 minutes. If there's been a shot clock when I went to college -- Carolina from '83-'86), I'd have witnessed a national championship. Instead, I got to watch Jordon and Co. lose to Dan Dakich and Indiana.

6. I liked The Wrestler, but think it was a tad overrated.

7. I've officially got Chuck Knoblauch Disease. Well, at least I've got it when it comes to throwing batting practice to Little League players. A couple of years ago I hit a kid -- hit him pretty good -- and now I have trouble letting go of the baseball from more than 30 feet away. I really want to overcome this, but have a feeling it's not going to be so easy. Advice?

8. An artist named Grant Lee Phillips has a fantastic album of 80s covers out...it's called Nineteeneightees and includes songs like So. Central Rain, Love My Way, Under the Milky Way Tonight, The Killing Moon and Boys Don't Cry. I highly recommend it.

9. The World Baseball Classic is an event that I like, but I cannot help but think it could be so much better if it was played during a time when no one had to worry about pitch counts, etc. The unpredictable nature of baseball lends itself so well to a great international event. There's got to be a way the MLB owners can come up with a way that they make so much money off the event that they're willing to let their players -- pitchers especially -- play straight baseball. That said, how can you not love the emotion that the players display during these games?

10. I cannot believe my son Tyler is entering his final season of Little League baseball. Of course, right now it's killing him (and me) that he's unable to practice because he and his buddy crashed their bikes a couple of weeks ago and Tyler ended up with a fractured arm. Is it me, or are doctors a litltle too cast-happy these days? I don't remember so many kids walking around back in the 70s with casts. When I tried to convince the doc that Tyler could simply "wrap" his arm (I really wanted him to be able to wear a baseball glove), he gave me that look that said, "I'm dealing with one of those dads."