Thursday, April 17, 2008
It's certainly been a rough five days since we beat #22 St. John's on Friday in Queens. John Folino pitched a gem and we got the weekend off to a great start with a 2-1 win over the Red Storm. We felt on top of the world. We played well and had beaten the league leader in their ballpark. We hung in and battled on Saturday but came up short in a 10-5 loss and Sunday was a heartbreaker. Freshman Mike Hashem made his first career start and he threw great. We made a mistake and St. John's made us pay for it. Hence, a combined 2-hitter became a 1-0 loss.
The next day, on Monday the 14th, we blew a chance to beat Northeastern. It was a game that we weren't ready for and it showed. From the head coach on down, we were feeling a little sorry for ourselves and gave up four in the first. The Huskies from Boston pounced and we couldn't recover. They beat the Huskies from Storrs soundly, as we looked completely exhausted from our weekend at St. John's. Maybe we thought victory was certain for us. Northeastern's record wasn't as good as ours and we hadn't lost to them since 1996. Baseball has a funny (or not so funny) way of reminding those who play it and coach it, that nothing's for certain. If you just throw the gloves out on the field expecting to win, you're more than likely going to lose. The game can be cruel in its fairness - it makes you earn it.
April 15th is cruel too. In the U.S., it's a deadline - a reminder that we pay a price for the blessings that come with saluting the stars and stripes. It provides certainty - no wiggle room, it is black and white. Death and taxes - they really are all that's certain.
We managed an ugly win over Hartford at home on tax day with a walk-off single in the ninth from freshman Mike Nemeth and it looked like we might be on track heading to Providence on Wednesday to play Brown and former Husky star, Marek Drabinski. Despite putting up 16 hits and 10 runs, we left the bases loaded after loading them with no outs in the first, struck out 12 times and gave up nine in the sixth to the Bears. Now, we're on the bus on Route 6, and I feel like Coach Calhoun's gum must have felt during the games against Providence this year.
What a difference five days makes in the game of baseball - from on top of the world in Queens on Friday to the depths of uncertainty in less than a week. Today, we find ourselves at .500 overall and tied for ninth in the BIG EAST with a 6-9 conference mark. We have lots of uncertainty, question marks and another series with a very good Seton Hall team beginning on Friday.
In the span of those same five days, the other certainty in life, the one even crueler than taxes, came to a good man. Randy Smith, sports editor of the Journal Inquirer died at the age of 61 on Monday.
As a twelve year-old, my first job was carrying newspapers for the Journal Inquirer. I had 56 papers (now its 56 games in every regular season) every weekday afternoon and every Saturday morning to deliver in my neighborhood in Vernon. For about three years, I would trudge Range Hill Drive, Country Lane and Regan Road with one yellow bag over my left shoulder and one over my right. It was on those hour-plus walks through the yards of my neighbors that I first discovered good writing. I had been exposed to it, sure. My mom was an English teacher and my fourth grade teacher read Shel Silverstein aloud to my class every afternoon. My boyhood bookshelves were filled with Dr. Seuss and Roald Dahl, but the guy that first made me appreciate the written word was Randy Smith.
My big toes still swell in the cold because of all the curbs and front stoops I banged into as a young paperboy while devouring his witty and wise columns over the course of my route. I heard many a horn and profanity-laced epithet from drivers yelling out their windows at me to, "Pay attention! You're going to get run over," as I'd be walking Elmer Fudd-style with my head buried in the JI, flipping the pages of the paper looking for Randy Smith's "Do You Wanna Bet?" columns. Those were my favorites. He'd pen dozens of non-related lines in which he'd muse about whatever were the hot issues of the day in the world of sport.
Years later, as an assistant baseball coach at UConn, I had the good fortune of appearing at a banquet in my hometown. I'm embarrassed to admit that I can't recall the youth baseball group I was asked to address, but I couldn't possibly forget with whom I shared the dais that evening at St. Bernard's in Rockville. After the spaghetti supper, Randy Smith spoke eloquently with no notes and I remember his poignant closing line to the baseball-playing kids, impressing upon them the importance of doing your best at all things all the time. He said, "You're going to hit a lot of pop-ups and ground balls, boys - in baseball games and in life, and my best advice is to run `em out, boys. Run every single last one out.
A few years after that, I got goose bumps as I read the JI and found that I was the subject of one of his "Do You Wanna Bet" lines. In June or early July of 2003, in his needling and ultra-honest way, he suggested in print that our newly-hired athletic director make my hiring as head coach his top priority as soon as he arrived on the job in Storrs. I had met Mr. Smith that one time in Rockville, but he must have liked what he saw in me. I'll never forget reading those lines on my behalf. The fact that he risked offending the brand new boss of UConn Athletics, for the benefit of a former newspaper carrier and current 31-year old assistant baseball coach, said an awful lot about the man.
I'm sure he made some enemies. Most effective, honest people have some enemies, but what is equally certain is that he also had the respect and admiration of so many. I wasn't fortunate enough to call him a friend, but I'm really going to miss seeing him stride press row in Hartford and know that something good and something real was going to come out of his keyboard and into the paper the next day.
So, as folks make sure the postmark on those IRS-bound envelopes reads, 4-15-08, and a good man is buried in Manchester this week, the Huskies need to do some soul searching, look one another in the eye and be real. As we gird for the last month of the regular season, we should take some comfort in the fact that all that is certain is death and taxes. The deadline of our own at the end of the season is quickly approaching and we still don't have a definitive starting rotation, or a consistent offense, or a reliable defense. So what? Our taxes are paid, we're all still alive and our goals are within our grasp.
We've battled from behind before and we actually control our destiny. A year ago, we were in worse shape in the BIG EAST and with our overall record, and we wound up a double away from a championship. While the gray area that seems to envelop our season at present will soon pass and the black and white of our won-loss record will be there for eternity, we have a deeper obligation than wins, and that is to control all we can control. Right now, we're hitting a lot of pop-ups and ground balls. In short, we've gotta run `em out. Run every single last one out. If we do that, we'll at the very least honor one hell of a writer, meet our deadline, and have the satisfaction that whatever the won-loss record is at the end, we'll have earned it. Of this, I'm certain.
- Jim Penders