From Boston Garden to MacDonald Field: June 2011

As the Bruins battle for the Stanley Cup, here’s a cool color piece I did for the Gazette about the Bs’ LAST capture of the Cup — their first in 39 years — and an amazing youth baseball championship the following night. The kids in the story are now young men, and Bruins goalie Tim Thomas had yet to snub Barack Obama…      

TWO NIGHTS, TWO TITLES  From bringing the Stanley Cup back to Boston, to epic ball game in Florence


Daily Hampshire Gazette  June 18, 2011

BOSTON;NORTHAMPTON    The high-five is alive and well. There was no fist-bumping, fanny-slapping or fancy handshaking on downtown Boston streets Wednesday night as happy, screaming throngs of Bruins fans danced from curb to cobblestone following the team’s capture of the Stanley Cup. Your hands, now swollen, slapped fives with thousands of others as a roaring ocean of black and gold poured out of downtown establishments from Coogan’s to Hennessey’s to Sullivan’s.

You spent the game packed into The Purple Shamrock, named for the rogue mayor of all Boston rogues, James Michael Curley, at a table with your son Pat, who’s become more of a Bostonian than you ever were, along with his old crony and hockey teammate Ian Palmer, who grew up in Leeds, and Rachel Pelkey, who grew up in West Springfield, and pals Lauren Robinson and Alyssa Costa, every one of us bedecked in hometown colors.

The only one at the table, and by the looks of it, in the bar itself, old enough to remember the last Bruins’ Cup in 1972, was you. Pat could have been at a perks-laden company sales dinner at Fenway Park, which included use of the batting cages, “But,” he said with dramatic intonation, “I’m here.”

Right from the start there was the hum of patriotic fervor. After all, the opponents, the Vancouver Canucks, are from a foreign country. Hundreds of us, remarkably in key, crooned loudly along to the “Star Spangled Banner,” but the second the Canucks’ singer started in with “Oh, Canada,” the house turned him off and blasted Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A” in its place. Went over big. Nothing like playing to the crowd.

You have never been one to watch sports in crowded saloons, but you might start taking it up. The energy in the Shamrock was no less electrifying than being inside the Garden itself, with life and death on the very line. The crowd chanted “Tim-ee Thom-as” with each puck our much-beloved goalie stopped.

And you have never felt a noise so deafening as the one that rose after Brad Marchand’s second-period goal that put the Brews up 2-0. And you have never been hugged like you were by your 24-year-old son, a memory your ribs, and your heart, will hold forever.

By the third period, the floor – sloshing with a half-inch of beer – looked like the Boston Molasses Disaster of 1919. And as the seconds ticked achingly down you were in love with everybody in the room, everybody in Boston, the sight of the normally scowling Zdeno Chara raising the Cup over his head like a grinning 12-year-old making everyone young.

And out into Boston streets you rejoiced, your hair and clothing soaked with suds, high-fiving with dudes, who, on any other night, might have smashed a bottle over your skull. En masse, like Gandhi’s march to the sea, we made a rousing, howling pilgrimage to the Boston, er, I mean, TD North Garden a few blocks away, and the roaring and chants of USA! USA! continued for hours. “I know you cried for Fat Dad (my father) in 2004 with the Sox,” my son hoarsely told me over the din. “This is way more than the Pats or Celts – this is right up there with 2004.”

Sleep? Don’t be silly.

Another contest

And so, one giddy night in a big giant city made bigger, to the following one in a tiny village bathed in a slowly setting sun that warmed the painted base paths of Florence’s MacDonald Field, the stage set for the Northampton Little League Championship.

The combatants? Local 263 and the rags-to-riches Sheriffs’ outfit that earlier lost six straight, but gelled in time to knock off the heavily favored Lions 10-4 the other night, led by the hitting of Justin Fromata and the hurling of Albie Murri, both 12.

Little did you suspect that you’d be treated to a classic nearly as memorable as the one from the night before.

Several of these kids played for Stan “Gorilla Monsoon” Swiercz, who died of a heart attack shortly after last season ended. Sheriffs’ third baseman Sal Viola, in fact, lowered Swiercz’ ashes during his funeral. There’s a nice bench behind the screen dedicated to the longtime coach. Like a slew of games this year, the dedication was rained out and had to be postponed. “The weather this season had a personality all its own,” said Sheriffs’ coach Pete Jordan.

Liam Flynn, the Sheriffs’ starting pitcher, a side-arming lefty, began to warm up with his catcher, Luke Lashway. Flynn has taken to wearing an orange and black scarf to games, which, in the superstitious world of baseball players, has developed into a good- luck charm.

“He brought that into the playoffs on a 90-degree day,” said Jordan. “We won.”

What’s he throw? “I got a fastball and a curve,” shrugged Flynn, “but the curve doesn’t really break.”

Jordan did not plan on using the Bruins’ triumph as motivation, preferring to keep things loose. “I hope they’re not rioting in the other neighborhoods,” he quipped, referring to teams the Sheriffs vanquished on their path to the Finals.

Time of omens

There’s a deceptive languidness to baseball. Most of one’s time is spent sitting, standing, scuffling or spitting, while your insides are eating their way out with every pitch or fling of a rosin bag.

Local head coach Duncan Laird and first-base coach Bob Fishman still talk about the bald eagle that soared over their first practice of the year on a 31-degree day in March. “It’s an omen,” said Fishman at the time. “Maybe this means we’ll win the championship,” Laird recalls uttering.

Local star Elijah Davis bet friends Jose Ortiz and Cole Johnson $20 he’d hit one out. “He ain’t got nuthin to back it up,” laughed Davis’ grandfather, Kenny Swartz, of Amherst.

But no one was hitting anything out on this night. Flynn and his Local counterpart, right-hander Jesse Carlino-Threlfall, were much too “on” for that. Down went batters swinging, one after the other. Sheriffs’ second baseman Jack Rockett robbed Carlino-Threlfall of a hit in the second, and it remained scoreless after two, after three, after four.

In the fifth, another rally-killing play by Rockett. Flynn’s pitch count reached its 85-pitch limit, and Sal Viola came on in relief, immediately snaring a liner off the bat of Julian Laird. Even with fresh arms on the mound, the pitching duel continued, as parents bit their nails and unheard piano chords swelled.

Longtime coach Jim Mias, who had coached most of these kids in Summerball or in B-Division, was careful to watch from behind home plate, exactly halfway between left and right field, so as not to show favoritism. As the zeroes mounted up, four of those players, Andrew Serio, Christian Hodgson, Luke Lashway and Perman Glenn reminded Mias of the B-Division Championship they all played in 2008, a 10-9 classic remembered as the greatest game any one of them had ever seen.

“This may surpass that,” said Mias.

Viola struck out the side in the fifth. In the sixth, Local’s Davis tried to score from third on a passed ball by hurdling gazelle-like over the sprawled catcher, but Lashway tagged him in the air before he came down. Extra innings.

Kids from eliminated teams along with younger siblings crowded around the water fountain by the batting cage like they’ve been doing in Florence since 1952. Some grouch in a Yankee shirt came over and said, “Sit down or get outta here!” which earned him a few boos.

“Jeez,” said Mias, “they’ve been hanging around that water cooler for centuries.”

Laird, pitching, made a great snag of a liner off Perman Glenn’s bat. The Sheriffs threatened with Fromata on the base paths in the seventh but the rally stalled.

Scoreless after seven.

Luke Lashway just missed hitting a home run to deep right and practically buried his helmet in the dirt in frustration. Scoreless after eight.

Spectator Troy Barayon, 10, whose cousin, Anthony Shaw, plays for the Sheriffs, pedaled up behind the dugout wearing a Bruins hat. “If you’d scored earlier, you’d have won by now,” said Barayon, reminding his cousin that the Bruins scored their first goal of the night in the first period.

In the ninth, yes the ninth, as the hour of eight came and went, history is finally made and cruelty, always an unspoken part of baseball, made its entry.

Callum Hall walked for Local, took third on a double by Gabe Lyons-Sosa, who nearly got thrown out on near-perfect peg by Fromata. And then a ground ball, on its certain way to Rockett’s glove, nicked a pebble and squirted under it, Hall crossing the plate. Rockett, the Pedroia of Little League, hangs his head as low as it’s ever been hung. Back in the dugout, Jordan put his arm on Rockett’s shoulder and said, “Don’t worry about it, you kept us in the game.”

In the bottom of the ninth, the Sheriffs rallied, getting Rockett to third, but Elijah Davis came in and got the last out on something wickedly slider-like into Andrew Serio’s catcher’s mitt and it’s bedlam on the mound.

The Sheriffs will be heading to Perman Glenn’s house for a team pool party next week. “Pool party on three,” said Pete Jordan, and it’s “one, two, three, POOL PARTY!” Little Leaguers don’t stay depressed too long.

Asked about scoring the winning run, Callum Hall started to reply, but pal Josh Dobrow suggested he say, “I felt like the Gods were smiling down.”

“I felt like …,” began Hall.

“I felt tremendous elation,” suggested friend Connor McLidon.

“I felt … actually, when I saw it get through – Omigod, I was so happy!” said Callum Hall.

Local’s catcher, the always smiling Andrew Serio, said catching the final pitch “felt like slow motion – it felt like the greatest feeling of my life.”

And he and his mates danced in the enveloping darkness and searched in the sky for that bald eagle.

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