May 16, 2009
Saturday, East Norriton, Penn., 5:15 pm - The bus is pulling out of the parking lot and we're heading home to Storrs. We'll spend a night in our own beds before boarding a flight for Florida tomorrow afternoon after finishing in 6th place in the BIG EAST and qualifying for the BIG EAST Tournament in Clearwater. As the wheels spin below us, we are just a left turn away from the hometown of Coach Auriemma and Tommy Lasorda -- Norristown. An hour ago, we defeated Villanova in the neighboring township of Plymouth Meeting, and in so doing, won our seventh of nine conference series this season.
Yesterday, I took my morning run at about 6:40 through a bit of downtown Norristown. Like the aforementioned two famous winners it produced, Norristown has a proud grit to its neighborhoods. Residents were sweeping stoops with a sense of purpose, rolling through stop signs in a rush to get to where they were going, walking to the SEPTA bus stop with lunch boxes in hand and shoulders back ready to face a commute and whatever obstacles a workday Friday had to throw at them. They reminded me of our team.
Our team's version of the Cliff Clavin character on the television show, Cheers is Coach Podeszwa. Coach Dez knows a lot about a lot, and like Cliff, he shares what he knows willingly and without preoccupying himself with his listener's interest level or lack thereof (we love you, Dez). This morning he told me that the word "grinder" used to describe a sandwich on a long piece of Italian bread originated at a bakery on Shaw Street in New London. Of course, being a proud son of Quaker Hill, Dez believes just about all good things are somehow connected to Southeastern Connecticut. He said the name was a tribute to the guys who grinded parts at Electric Boat in Groton. They needed quick, filling, and cheap meals on all-too-short lunch breaks, and so the sandwiches they ordered at the bakery became known as grinders. Travel outside of Southern New England, and those kinds of sandwiches are heroes, submarines, hoagies, wedges, torpedoes, and po'boys.
A quick web search for the word grinder confirms the sandwich variety (though there is no citation for Shaw's). It also provides connotations for a down-on-his-luck street performer with an organ and monkey, a hockey player known for his checking ability, molar teeth, and a hand-held power tool. I didn't see any pictures of our seniors, David Erickson, Dale Brannon, John Folino, Dennis Accomando, and Matt McDonald, but they all fit the bill.
David Erickson, or more aptly, "Rock" as he is known, is the ultimate grinder. Rock admittedly had a tough time getting out of bed in his first semester freshman year, and despite an attacking style on the mound, he had less than an aggressive nature when it came to his grades. After a wake up call (literally and figuratively - a bed-shaking alarm designed for use by the hearing impaired, and a stern lecture or two), and a winter intersession in which he roomed with former Husky star pitcher, Tim Norton, Rock figured it all out. He became a very good student and matured quickly and impressively. He emerged as a very hard worker that ran his poles at 100% and attacked more than just the strike zone. When he had his Tommy John surgery, he never showed any self-pity. He went about his rehab like a man on a mission. When he excelled in the Cape Cod League last summer, and earned a chance to sign a professional contract, he felt more of a pull to return to Storrs and lead his teammates to a championship as their captain, and graduate. He'll leave as our all-time leader in appearances, and the Huskies have won more games while he's been in uniform than any other human being in the 114-year history of the program. Not only is he a grinder, Rock's a winner, and I hope his unselfishness is rewarded. He got another chance to win his championship and move on to what he's earned more than just about anyone I've coached - a career in professional baseball.
Dale Brannon is a grinder too. He took the road less traveled in trekking north to Storrs from sunny St. Petersburg, Florida. I'm so glad he did. He's the saltiest of the salty veterans on our club. In four years, I've never seen Dale not appear to be in total control. His teammates accuse him of being "big league". And, he has that kind of professional and mature approach to all he does. Whether it is making a backhand play with a yawn, watering the infield, or putting his socks on, Dale is a pro. I knew he was different, when in our first batting practice in Storrs in his freshman year, he stopped on his way out of the cage before a "two-strike" round in which we emphasize shortening the swing and just putting the ball in play. He asked a question I hadn't received up until that point, and haven't been asked since. "Coach, nobody on, and two outs, you still want us to just put it in play?" I thought for a second, and said, "Great question. No, with your speed, I need a double." Dale nodded knowingly. He's been a starter, a back-up, a bullpen catcher, a pitcher, an outfielder, infielder, and always a team player with a dry sense of humor and a real love for the game. He's had it tougher than most of our guys, being so far from home at times, but he's stronger than he was when he got to us, and I'm so proud to call him one of ours. He will undoubtedly put his degree and knowledge of grounds maintenance to work, and I really hope he stays in baseball. One of his first experiences in a dugout came as a freckle-faced bat boy for Tony LaRussa's Cardinals in spring training. We benefitted greatly from his seasoning he received not only in the game, but also from his home, and I'm really going to miss him in our dugout.
John Folino grinds and grinds and grinds. He first came to my attention when one of my former teammates, Paul Funk mentioned that his Dennis-Yarmouth high school team got beat by the Quincy H.S. ace. I followed up, because if a dirty-uniform guy like the Funkster thought a guy looked like a potential Husky, I needed to go see him. I did and was impressed. I still have his evaluation in my Blackberry, and have shown it to John. "Folino - baby face-angular-size 50 shoulders - skinny 6'3" - FB 81-83 mph, but more in there - deuce is above avg. - first one on field - quiet hustle - good move - great composure (DiMag)." I might have been a little over-excited in dropping a DiMaggio reference, but I'm glad we recruited John. After two difficult years in which he struggled to find his inner "moxie", he found it big-time in the summer of 2007, and became our ace of the staff as a junior. Now that fastball reaches the 90's, and his confidence is undeniable. He also passed up a pro contract last year to graduate and help lead our team. When he had some elbow pain at Notre Dame a couple of weeks ago, we took him out and braced for the worst. After all, sometimes bad things happen to good people, but he's going to be fine, and the MRI's have gone out to all the scouts that have followed his amazing development. Five year-old Hank had show and tell for the letter, "J" on Wednesday. Every Wednesday, the kindergartner has to stand in front of his class and give three clues for the class to guess what his "share" is. Naturally, he delights in stumping his classmates and teacher. Despite Brooke's suggestion that he take a Christmas statuette of the baby Jesus in to potentially kiss-up to the Catholic school teacher, Hank was insistent that he was going to bring a picture of John Folino from the media guide. First DiMaggio, now you're edging out the Messiah! You've made quite an impression, John.
Dennis Accomando knows how to grind as well. "Acc" came to UConn after a stellar freshman season at Western Connecticut State University. He wanted to pitch at the highest level possible, coupled with the challenge of studying in Storrs. He knew the wall in Storrs would be a higher one to climb than the one he left in Danbury, but after a few fits and starts he scaled it masterfully. He's emerged as a reliable match-up reliever for lefties, and his 91 mile-per-hour fastball and knee-buckling curve will not only help us in the postseason, but will also hopefully get the attention of a big league team. He also made the Dean's List this semester, and is going places with his personable nature and communication skills. Acc grinds in the late innings, but he's made an even bigger and better contribution off the mound. He found a niche as a stalwart community volunteer and has led his teammates to get involved and realize they have a wonderful opportunity to positively impact lives with their status as UConn student-athletes. His start-up of our team-wide relationship with the Mansfield Big Friends program is one that has the strongest foundation thanks to Dennis's passion and leadership. As one of the loudest voices on the bench, in the bus, and on the plane, Acc has been and will continue to be heard from as a guy that understands what it takes to compete, lead, and win. I'm going to miss handing him the ball and watching him pound his chest after a 1-2-3 inning, but the legacy he leaves will be long-lasting. Thanks, Acc.
Matt McDonald can grind with the best of them. Being a baseball player from Nova Scotia, he's had no choice. Matty caught the attention of the Detroit Tigers during his two-year dominant stint at Ulster Community College in New York and was drafted. After finishing his seasons there, we learned that he was looking for a place to finish his college degree, and followed up. I drove to Quebec City for the Canada Cup in July of 2007 to see what I could see. In addition to ordering too many pommes frites (it was the extent of my French), and making a few recruiting calls from high above the St. Lawrence River, I watched a guy on the hill that had a funky over-the-top Jai-Alai arm slot, an old-fashioned 12 to 6 curve, and a great knack for escaping jams. We invited him to campus with his dad, and though I don't believe he said more than 100 words on the entire visit, we knew he'd make a great Husky. He had intensity and a real hunger to get better. He's done just that. Despite enduring two freak injuries to a groin and an ankle last year, Matt was a reliable starter after joining our team midway through last year, and came back this season in great shape for a last hurrah. His fastball in the 90's, a great changeup, that curve, a no-nonsense competitiveness, and his ability to overcome adversity have all combined to give Matt an opportunity to play professionally as well, and as his dad has told me, regardless of that, he will more importantly, have a great degree from a great school. I couldn't agree more. I'm grateful for the McDonalds' trust and for the chance to coach Matt.
We'll take our traveling road show back to where the season began. Back in February, we opened against Michigan State in Clearwater, just a few miles from Bright House Networks Field. We've come a long way since losing two of three that weekend, and I'm looking forward to seeing how we compete this week. On Tuesday, we'll face off against the third-seeded West Virginia Mountaineers. They swept us in our opening BIG EAST weekend in Storrs, and despite that, our guys were excited to see them in our bracket. A couple of months ago, we might be running for the hills considering we'll be facing one of the conference's best pitchers, and one of the top offenses in country in a few days. However, that was before we knew how to grind. Moments after that sweep, our seniors led an optional team lift in the field house, and they all continued to work. They were doing their Norristown impression - sweeping stoops, trudging to the bus stop, going back to work, and doing what they knew how to do - grinding. They've led the way as we've earned our way to the tournament, and I'd love nothing more than spending a few more weeks with them.
The five seniors could all be heroes this weekend, but before anyone of them or anyone else on our team will raise a trophy, they'll be grinders first. We can't do it any other way, and we wouldn't want it any other way. After all, thanks to David, John, Dale, Dennis, and Matt, it's who we are. Let's play ball.