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Catching Up With UConn Baseball

April 3, 2009

Finding Our Way To The Hall 8:30 p.m., April 2, 2009, southbound, aboard a Peter Pan motor coach: Our driver, Horace is doing a heck of a job getting us through Westchester County on the way to the land of off ramps and jug handles. A jug handle is one of many things unique to New Jersey. Instead of regular four-way intersections, rotaries, or roundabouts, the traffic planners there seemingly fell in love with the jug handle.

In short, it is a way to make a left by going right first. For baseball folks, the easiest way to describe it is hitting a routine ground ball through the shortstop's legs. The batter is heading straight for first base, the ball gets through, and in order to make an aggressive left turn after first, he's got to slow down slightly and bow out to the right. It's the same with jug handles. Horace will be tested. He needs to keep his head up. South Orange, and a series with Seton Hall is the destination.

As we wind our way to the George Washington Bridge, and into the Garden State, I have a little time to reminisce about the old-fashioned Big East and a few UConn/Seton Hall games from the "glory days". One of the first Big East games I ever saw was at Bristol, Connecticut's Muzzy Field in '87 or '88.

My father's former shortstop, Jeff Riggs started at third base for the Pirates against Dad's former college team in the Big East tournament there. In a clash between Fairfield County natives that would play out over the next decade in the Major Leagues, Norwalk's Mo Vaughn hit perhaps the longest homerun I've ever seen off of our own Charlie Nagy of Fairfield (it disappeared into the darkness as it cleared the pines in right), and the Pirates got the best of the Huskies that night. Charlie and Mo Vaughn weren't the only future big leaguers in that game.

Craig Biggio, and John Valentin were also on the field wearing various garish shades of blue horizontal stripes on their jerseys (picture J.R. Richard in a Houston Astros uniform) that night in Bristol. As a high school senior, having already committed to play for the UConn Huskies in May of 1990, and having just beaten St. Thomas Aquinas minutes before, I listened on the radio in the East Catholic High School parking lot in Manchester, as UConn lefty reliever, Craig Gaudio picked a runner off first to end another BIG EAST tournament game at Muzzy, and give my future program its first-ever Big East championship. Four years later, I'd find myself beside my co-captain Dennis Dwyer, hoisting a second BIG EAST Championship trophy over our heads after having beaten the Hall 4-2 at Muzzy again. T



he head coach of Seton Hall that day was the legendary Mike Sheppard. Coach Sheppard would complete a stellar career just shy of 1,000 wins, and hand the storied program over to his son, former Hall infielder, Rob. Rob is the coach of a resurgent Pirates club, and I'm sure he has plenty of his own favorite memories of the Huskies (most of which I would assume contrarily end with a "w" in the column closest to SHU in the ledger).

Before Morgantown, South Bend, Piscataway, Louisville, Cincinnati, and Tampa were circuit stops in the Big East, the conference really was a "bus league". We'd fly to Pittsburgh in the early 90's, but most Friday and Sunday spring nights were spent on the bus to and from Chestnut Hill, D.C., Villanova, Providence, Queens, and South Orange. It was more "quaint" so to speak. Georgetown might have had a couple kids from outside the Northeast, but most of the other programs were littered with graduates from Catholic high schools that were within a Mo Vaughn homer of I-95. Come to think of it, "quaint" is the wrong word.

The conference was downright parochial. Late 80's and early 90's players on those rosters were from Bishop Hendricken, Catholic Memorial, Notre Dame of West Haven, Don Bosco Prep, Xaverian Prep, Bishop Eustace, Dematha Catholic, Malvern Prep, and every Saint "Something-or-other" H.S. one could imagine. UConn and Pitt would always play on Easter weekend, because our schools didn't have a rule against playing on Good Friday or Easter Sunday, whereas, all the other conference members would have to wait until after 3 on Friday to play, or split the series between Thursday and Saturday. While Providence no longer has a program, and the Eagles flew off to the ACC years ago, there are only six baseball teams left from the original Big East Conference.

The original six comprise just half the league. It's a much different group, and despite four future big leaguers appearing in that game back in the 80's, I'm sure most would agree it is a more diverse, more talented, and deeper league than it was back in the so-called glory days. It is humbling to know that the twenty-six guys sitting behind me enjoying the movie, Green Street Hooligans right now weren't yet embryos when I saw Mo and Charlie do battle.

Some of them weren't even on the planet when Craig picked off the runner back in '90, and Coach Podeszwa showered Coach Baylock with a Gatorade bath as a reserve freshman infielder on that squad. None of them were old enough to remember seeing Chris Bisson's homerun in '94 ice our comeback victory and give us our second Big East crown. I'm sure our three Californians, two Canadians, and one Floridian on the roster wouldn't believe that our most exotic import on the '94 team was all-time Husky walks leader, Sean Irey. Seany hailed all the way from Boyertown, Pennsylvania! That's okay.

Rob Sheppard, his assistant coach and former SHU pitching great, Phil Cundari, Coach Podeszwa, and I remember, though. We all recall hard-fought knock `em down, drag `em out battles that ended with a mutual respect for the competition and for the opponent. With Villanova and our own Huskies in the Final Four, ESPN commentators can't seem to stop talking about the BIG EAST's glory days back in 1985, when three conference teams made it to the last weekend. While it is fun to reminisce along with Digger and Bilas, I doubt Coach Calhoun's going to spend much time spinning yarns to Hasheem and A.J. about Harold Pressley, Chris Mullin, and Patrick Ewing. Likewise, while excruciatingly difficult to resist the temptation of rehashing our own glory days (especially while in the home of Springsteen), Coach Dez and I will keep the focus on executing more baseball plays than our opponent this weekend.

Against the conference's top pitching staff, doing that ought to be enough to handle. As we've lost one Big East series, and bounced back with a nice series win over South Florida last weekend, we've got to go through the Hall once again if we want to continue to make progress and march toward a championship. That's the way it should be.

On Wednesday, we'll be headed back over the GWB for three with Rutgers. We're going to be making a lot of lefts by going right during the course of the next nine days. I just hope our hitters make more left turns on the way home than the Pirates and Scarlet Knights. I suppose it might help to remember the way.