My ‘Mother Superior’

Eighty-nine years ago today, on July 7, 1928, the woman who brought me into this world, Marie Socci, was born.  Eight days ago, she was laid to rest next my father, Tony, in a cemetery overlooking Owasco Lake in Auburn, N.Y.  

My parents were first generation Americans who never let go of lessons learned from their experiences during The Great Depression and World War II.  They worked tirelessly, spent frugally and lived honestly, mostly devoting themselves to everyone but themselves.

No one benefited more than me, the youngest of their three boys.  To my mother, as I was reminded whenever she introduced me — no matter my age — I was her “baby.”  To me, for most of my life, she was my best friend.

Following is the eulogy I gave at her funeral on June 29, hoping to both celebrate her legacy and endow it with our family’s youngest generation.  

image1
On June 29 my mother Marie was laid to rest next my father Tony, reuniting after 17 years apart.

Mom’s Eulogy (6/29/17)

On behalf of my entire family, I’d like to thank each of you for coming today and express our gratitude to everyone — including many unable to join us —  who reached out since Sunday to offer sympathy and support, as well as fond remembrances of my mother.

I’d also like to recognize and express my own enduring gratitude to members of my family: John…Carl…Tina…and Jen for the enormous commitment you made to Mom in recent years — especially the last few months. My Uncle Dom…who gave his sister something special to look forward to with your regular visits…even when sipping Sambuca by her side was no longer an option. And my cousin Phyllis…who was my mother’s best friend and most devout caregiver.

*****

In the seventeen years since the death of my father, I’ve often had reason to speak to him, silently in my head. Sometimes with a roll of my eyes and an exasperated sigh while feebly trying to finish a home project — like the other day, for instance, when I struggled to hang blinds in our bedroom.

And more than occasionally, with a proud smile and nod, when my son’s creativity as a builder remind me of his late Grandpa Socci’s uncompromising craftsmanship.

Now I find myself doing the same to Mom.

And I know it’s bound to happen much more in the future.

In fact, I’m looking forward to it.

Because one of the things I missed most lately were the conversations Mom and I enjoyed for most of my life — right up to, and beyond the moment I made a new best friend in whom I could confide, my wife Monique.

****

As long as I can remember, as anyone who worked alongside Mom at the old Bank of Auburn can attest, I constantly rang her phone…dialing whenever I sensed there was something she absolutely had to know. Like when I was in grade school and just had to call her with the exciting news that our cable TV lineup had added some new 24-hour sports channel.

*****

Over time, our frequent talks focused on more life-changing matters, proving more impactful and instructive to the people we were both striving to be.

Speaking of Mom’s time at the bank, for example, I learned how unpleasant it could be as a middle-aged woman dealing with insults from rude customers…and conversely, how much of a joy it was to pridefully go to work for men and women that she deeply respected and admired, and to be surrounded by beloved colleagues who lovingly gave her a nickname to laugh about, as their ‘Mother Superior.’

*****

Certainly, mom could talk — a lot!

No doubt, at this very moment, she’s giving some of her best friends in heaven an earful, exactly as she used to do from the phone on her kitchen wall.

But she also listened — intently — and acted on what she was told.

When I asked of her as a young boy to quit smoking, she did.

If I told her as a young man of mistakes I made or disappointments I experienced, she simply advised me to “Live and learn.”

From adolescence to adulthood, I heard and took to heart so much of what Mom shared from her early life, growing up in one of the first Italian-American families to settle on Lake Ave, in the house her father, a man of prudence and patience who she always encouraged me to emulate, built mostly by himself, brick by brick; with a grandmother who spoke no English, often relying on Mom to inform her of any news of the day; a mother who was full of life, until her life was taken suddenly, years too soon; and a younger brother and their cousins, who seemed inseparable until some of them enlisted to do their part, as part of our Greatest Generation.

*****

Some of the earliest memories of my life included Mom and me sitting together, watching Mets baseball, while I openly dreamt of the day I’d play in the majors. Mom made sure I lived that dream — well, sort of — by designing, sewing and even crocheting my very own uniforms to resemble some of baseball’s biggest stars. Thanks to her, at least I looked the part.

When my focus shifted from the games on the field to broadcast booths above them, there was no magic Mom could weave to make those dreams reality.

What she did instead was always lend an ear and — when needed most — words of encouragement and advice.

That’s what Mom lived for, trying to help her kids — and later grandkids, and great grandkids — get what they wanted — and what she believed they deserved.  

All of us would agree, I think, that Mom would’ve gladly sacrificed anything to see that happen.

In her own youth, as I once read in a school yearbook, she aspired to be a nurse. But expectations in her time, and in her home, were different.

So Mom married, gave birth to three sons and eventually ventured out into the workplace — first at Firth Carpets and later at the bank.

Life wasn’t easy — working, cooking and caring for her kids and a husband who, as a product of the Depression, labored day and night, leaving too little time for tenderness.

Thankfully, as his temperament softened with age — and grandchildren — my parents grew closer and more affectionate. It’s something Mom and I talked about — a lot — long after my father passed away.

Now, if only I can act more consistently to embody the lessons that I observed and absorbed from her point of view — on what it takes be a true provider as a parent.

There was no better example than Mother Superior.

*****

Nor, in my biased opinion, was there a better cook. At our house near Boston, Mom’s recipe for sauce is considered a family heirloom.

And yet, she gave us greater gifts to be handed down, to sustain our spirit and nourish our soul.

Such as kindness…empathy…integrity…resilience.

image2
When a family friend gave me a Tom Seaver replica uniform, my mother kindly and creatively added to my mid-1970s All-Star collection; allowing me to live the big-league dream.  

For years and especially this week, others have echoed one another with words of the ways Mom touched them with her genuine sweetness and wide-reaching generosity. Whether she was serving us at the dinner table, unashamedly spoiling her grandkids, as well as four-legged family members — her dogs Cody and Emily, or giving time and money to places and people she kept in her heart…like the infirm elderly at Mercy Rehab, where she volunteered as treasurer…and children of St. Jude’s, who we ask you to remember today in her honor.

Mom cared about others and understood true importance in life — even as she added to her extensive collections of clothes…bags bearing the label of Vera Bradley…and the Christmas Carolers who visited her living room every December.

In retrospect, I realize, however, that her real interest was less about material things than the people who sold them. If we wandered into a Skaneateles boutique, she’d introduce me to the store owner and shop keeper, before trading stories about their respective families. Later, when we’d catch up from long distance, Mom would offer the latest updates on their lives.

She also thought of those who had far fewer possessions, like the young boy she sponsored from the Dominican Republic. As I picture him, remembering the photo Mom proudly displayed in her home, I recall with pride how he was part of her expanding world view — which continued to evolve well into her seventies.

Make no mistake, Marie held strong opinions, but she was extremely modest.

And as I gleaned from our heart-to-heart chats — in which no issue was too sensitive, no topic taboo — she grew increasingly open-minded, and accepting of others.

****

Hers was a big heart, with plenty of soft spots.

But it was strong enough to keep beating even after it was repeatedly broken, as a widowed wife and grieving grandmother.

When Mom lost my Dad — her ‘Socky’ — she stayed active and independent, relying only on herself to get around town in her little Honda.

She rediscovered a love of good music playing from her Wave radio, and replaced Dad’s gallon jugs of Carlo Rossi with wines meant to be served in stemware.

Eventually, of course, time and hardship took their toll.

Marie slowed…her body weakened…her memory faded.

And Sunday afternoon, two weeks shy of her eighty-ninth birthday, she was reunited with Socky and the younger angels in our lives, Katie and Chris.

Surely she was eager to get together again.

*****

My mother was always comfortable hanging out with her grandkids…Especially — and I’m sorry guys — the young girls of our family.

Though born of a bygone era, Grandma Socci was a woman well ahead of her time.

As she’d often remark to me, when I suggested that a certain subject might make her squeamish, “I’m no prude, you know!”

*****

I know Grandma Socci was particularly proud when Katie earned her nursing degree, and is again today, now that Jen has done the same — as a working mother no less.

******

I hope my own kids and I can converse exactly as my mother and I connected through the years. As I’ll continue trying to convey — now and in the future — I want them and their cousins to follow Grandma Socci’s example:

Keeping their minds and hearts open…and their intentions honest and noble.

And if I may, after all our countless conversations, I’m confident in speaking on behalf of their late Grandmother…saying something I trust she’d like them to take away from the full life she led for nearly nine decades.

To my nieces and my daughter, in whom I see my mom’s — and her mom’s — most endearing qualities:  Always remember that as a woman, your place is wherever you decide it should be.

And to all her grandkids, including my nephew and my son: Whether you write them in a yearbook or not, make your goals…and make them happen.

Nothing, I know, would make your Grandma Socci — our Mother Superior — happier.

Remembering Jimmy Piersall


By Bob Socci

Since his death on Saturday night, remembrances of Jimmy Piersall’s colorful life have reexamined his nervous breakdown as a Red Sox rookie in 1952 and renewed appreciation for the way he played the outfield upon return.

Some rely on word of mouth, while others employ analytics to describe and demonstrate how Piersall’s guile and glove kept him in the big leagues for 17 seasons, despite volatilities that included a fluctuating batting average.

But for me, word of Piersall’s passing didn’t conjure up the image of a fleet center fielder running down fly balls at Fenway Park.  My first thought was of a clumsy slugger taking oversized cuts along the Mississippi River.

His name was (is) Alex Cabrera.  And if you saw him in any of his 31 major league appearances, all with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2000, you’d know exactly how Cabrera looked playing for Peoria six years earlier.

Cabrera was then the property of the Chicago Cubs and a Class A prospect whose every trip to the plate epitomized cliches like ‘feast or famine’ and ‘all or nothing.’  Pitchers threw him something straight at their own peril.  By breaking one off, however, they added to their own amusement.

In his brief stint with the D-Backs, Cabrera homered every 16 at-bats but fanned in nearly a fourth of his other trips to the plate.  For every prodigious hit there were a fistful of ugly swings.  And misses.

So it was in the summer of 1994, when Piersall was roving between Cubs’ affiliates as an outfield instructor and moonlighting on radio.

From 1977-81, Piersall had partnered, both famously and infamously, on White Sox telecasts with the legendary Harry Caray.  But outspokenness and too-frequently-unfiltered opinions eventually forced Piersall out of the booth.  The title of his 1985 book said it best.  The Truth Hurts.  Often, the pain was self-inflicted.

Not that Jimmy stopped calling it as only he could see it.  Even while coaching, he appeared regularly on Chicago sports-talk radio.  When Piersall’s travels took him to the Midwest League, he pulled up a chair in the booth of the Peoria Chiefs.

The Chiefs were property of the late, great Pete Vonachen, who was every bit the outsized personality as his close pals Caray and Piersall.  Pete introduced Jimmy to the twenty-something calling games for his club — me! — and offered a standing invitation to sit in on broadcasts.

So Piersall spent pregame hours on the field with the Chiefs.  One of them, Dan Madsen, later made a name for himself in scouting by signing Dustin Pedroia for the Red Sox.  Another, Bo Porter, became manager of the Houston Astros.

Following warm-ups, Piersall put down his fungo bat, showered, changed and took a seat next to mine.  No different than when working with Harry on Chicago’s Southside, Jimmy aired whatever crossed his mind.

One early-May afternoon, Piersall was sitting in Davenport, Iowa, where the Chiefs were playing the Quad City River Bandits and Alex Cabrera was in full, free-swinging form.

As one of the few Chiefs with facial hair, Cabrera’s dark mustache lent years to his listed age of 22.  And at 6-2 and 217 pounds, he seemed even larger.

Cabrera’s swing must have been what poet Ernest Lawrence Thayer imagined for the Mighty Casey.  When he cut it loose, usually air (was the only thing) shattered by the force of (his) blow.

Every now and then, like in the game at Quad City, Cabrera flailed away to somehow contort his body into both a jackknife and corkscrew.

Having done that to corner himself into a two-strike count, Cabrera was fed another curve ball.  In his haste to devour it, he uncorked his massive right-handed cut.  Cabrera’s backside jutted toward the third-base dugout, while his head snapped hard over his left shoulder and his eyes rolled toward the sky.

With his weight pulled forward, Cabrera’s hands lunged high over the top of the off-speed pitch descending to the dirt.  The Mighty Alex had struck out.  Again.

So the author of The Truth Hurts lashed out.  Again.

“Will you look at where his ass ends up on that swing!” Piersall exclaimed, before muttering something not nearly as memorable as the three-letter synonym for someone’s posterior.

Remember, this was 23 years ago, when the a-word — believe it or not — was seldom heard on the radio.  Especially on small stations broadcasting to the Heart of Illinois.

The half inning ended, we broke for commercials and Jimmy removed his headset.   I needed mine on to stay in touch with the studio back in Peoria.  That day the young producer — probably no older than his late teens — was all but flipping out, fearful that we’d just run afoul of the FCC.  Which made two of us.

Jimmy couldn’t hear both sides of the conversation, but he did infer what was being said by the other party from my reactions and replies.  After 60 seconds or so, Piersall put his headset back in place and the bottom half-inning began.  Before I could re-set with the score, Jimmy interrupted.

“What’s wrong with the guy in studio?” Piersall asked, smiling slyly, as the first pitch went by.

“Hasn’t he ever read the Bible?” he continued, as the next pitch reached the catcher.

“Doesn’t he know about the story of the ass?” Jimmy quipped, quoting the King James and citing from the Book of Numbers while describing the so-called game of numbers.

It was his way of saying, “Relax kid.”

About a month later, Piersall re-joined the Chiefs in South Bend, Ind. for a series against the Silver Hawks.  I remember it well, because of the white Bronco.

It was June 17, 1994, and as Piersall hit fly balls to outfielders during batting practice, the radio station blaring out of the P.A. speakers broke into music with breaking news bulletins.  Wanted man O.J. Simpson was riding in Al Cowlings’ car, being chased by the California Highway Patrol on the Santa Ana Freeway (5).

In that ‘where were you when?’ moment, I was in foul territory, a few steps from Jimmy Piersall.

Later that year the Chiefs changed their affiliation from the Cubs to Cardinals.  Before they did, Jimmy gave me one more memory to hang on to.  He was talking to someone in the press box before a game and motioned in my direction.

“This kid’s going to be in the big leagues someday,” Piersall declared.

Maybe Jimmy was just trying to help me believe I could talk my way out of ‘A ball.’  But if it that’s how he honestly felt, that aforementioned book title was a bit of a misnomer.  Either way, the kind words meant a lot.  They still do.

Jimmy helped me learn about the game and kept me entertained.  He made me laugh and occasionally caused me to cringe.

Of course, I never would have experienced all of that if a young Piersall’s personal fear hadn’t met the same fate as so many Alex Cabrera at-bats — by striking out.

Saying Goodbye To A Friend And Mentor

By Bob Socci

Without fail, the same question arose almost every time we’d renew acquaintances around the batting cage.  My broadcasting counterparts, especially those who’d been in the International League the longest, just couldn’t help themselves.

Understandably.  For years they’d heard from my predecessors about Dave Rosenfield, a man who loved few things nearly as much as family and friends.  One was baseball.  Another was broadcasting.

And when it came to the art of blending the two, particularly for his beloved Tidewater-turned-Norfolk Tides, Rosenfield’s passion bordered on obsession.  Anytime the announcer he’d entrusted to call Tides games said something that needed correcting, Rosey picked up the phone.

Often in the middle of an inning.  Always with a few words of, ahem, constructive criticism.  Uttered, universally, in no uncertain terms.

rosie

“So, how often do you hear from Rosey?” others inquired, anxiously waiting for me to further inflate what by then was league legend into the myth of Dave’s reputed wrath.

I’d listen with a smile, before offering only a shrug and a polite shake of my head.  Sorry to disappoint you, I’d think to myself.  Then I would chuckle and tell the truth.  The phone never rang in Rochester, Syracuse or wherever else the Tides were playing on the road.

Not that my work was perfect.  Far from it.  Very far, in fact.  By then, I think, Rosey had simply mellowed a bit to become a kinder and gentler mentor to someone he hoped would follow past proteges from Hampton Roads to the big leagues.

Rosey had run the Tides since 1963, some 41 years before being crowned King of Baseball in 2004.  He’d rightfully taken pride in the numerous ex-Tides he helped nurture to the majors as ballplayers and managers, as well as a few who heeded his words to talk their way there.  None better than Marty Brennaman, who as the Voice of the Cincinnati Reds received the Hall of Fame’s Ford C. Frick Award.

I was fortunate enough to catch Rosey’s ear in the early 2000s.  Initially, he recommended me to the Albuquerque Isotopes, a club being operated by Tides owner Ken Young.  For three seasons, I trekked from my Mid-Atlantic home in Maryland to the Southwest in late March and returned by early September.

Stuck at Triple-A, while also working in the worlds of college football and basketball, I was given the opportunity to join the Tides in 2006.  After four seasons and a move to New England, my role with the club was reduced to that of a fill-in.  A homestand here.  A road trip there.

Yet, Rosey always remained fully vested in trying to make my big-league dreams reality.  Even when I wasn’t so sure, he never stopped believing.  Even after I went from an everyday baseball announcer to occasional pinch-hitter living elsewhere, Rosey didn’t lose touch.

Every so often, the phone would ring and I’d find Rosey on the other end of the line.  He was calling not with one of his infamous harangues, but simply to catch up; to talk a little sports and a bit more about me and my family.

Then in the spring of 2013, soon after I got back into baseball with the Pawtucket Red Sox, CBS Boston announced my hiring as the next voice of the New England Patriots.  I’d finally reached the big leagues, albeit in a different sport.  Sure enough, among the first to reach out was a man who helped me get there.

By then Rosey had dealt with some serious health issues and loosened his grip on the day-to-day doings of the Tides.  Still, he stayed involved with the team through 2016 and his 61st summer in minor league baseball.

Late Tuesday night, my phone buzzed again.  This time, alerting me to a text from a mutual friend delivering awful news.  Rosey had died from complications related to a heart attack.  He was 87.

For much of Wednesday night, into Thursday morning, I called to mind memories of the life he lived.  Grateful for the influence he’ll continue to have in the life I lead.

Countless times, I sat in the home radio booth, turned to my left and saw Rosey overlooking Harbor Park from his press box seat.  Seemingly oblivious to the beautiful view of the Elizabeth River in the background, Rosie intensely scanned from one foul pole to the other.

If he saw that the out-of-town scoreboard needed updating, he let it be known by bellowing into his walkie-talkie.  When wayward bystanders wandered into the media’s domain from adjacent suites, they were quickly halted in their tracks by the big man with the booming voice.  And if the official scorer ruled an error on what Rosey judged a hit — or vice versa — there was bound to be a spirited debate.

At the same time, I thought a lot about another of Rosey’s favorite things: a good story that ended with a hearty laugh.  Few in my life could spin a yarn like Dave.  Fewer still told as many.  And none with a sharper wit.

Thankfully, though somewhat to the dismay of my IL brethren, Rosey softened his speech when he spoke to me.  Even upon offering a word of advice.

Once such occasion occurred after I’d fallen into some bad habits, trying to stretch my vocabulary and going a tad too far.

A care-free Tides slugger who would never be confused with, let’s say, Charlie Hustle, struck out looking.

“He thought the pitch was outside,” I said of this batter, who by then had become all too familiar and complacent with the long walk back to the dugout.  “But much to his chagrin, the umpire called it a strike.”

Dave pulled me aside in the press box, cited that line and quietly cautioned me not to talk down to the audience in hopes of sounding (Vin) Scully-esque.  Word choice was important.  And by the way, you better damn well know the meaning of the words you choose.

“Let me tell you something,” Rosey said, voice rising and face reddening — but only a bit.  “That lollygagger ain’t got no chagrin.”

In retrospect, chagrin was inappropriate then.  Just as it is today.  Borrowing from Merriam-Webster, I’m not distressed this morning because of humiliation or failure.

I’m simply sad.  Especially for Rosey’s widowed wife Charmaine and their families, including friends who still work at 150 Park Avenue in Norfolk.  Yes, front office staff was like family to Rosey.  Granted, he could be like a curmudgeonly uncle or happy grandpa.

But I’m also proud and appreciative to have learned under someone whose body of success was infinitely larger than the remarkably rotund figure that only added to his legend.

Something tells me Rosey’s already sitting inside Heaven’s Gate — the same way he’d pull up a chair in his field manager’s office before or after game — and sharing a good story with a big-bellied laugh.

Rest in peace, Rosey.  And thanks for everything.

A Reason To Smile…

The following was written Thursday, April 18 for my Socci On The Sox blog.  As I work to add fresh content to this site, I invite you to read more of my writing for the Pawtucket Red Sox at www.pawsox.com.

IMG_0986

PAWTUCKET, R.I. — I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to a ballgame.  But I know, and will never forget, the one day in my  lifetime that I drove to the ballpark sensing no reason whatsoever to smile.  It was today, despite the bright sunshine that welcomed me at the end of my commute from the outskirts of Boston to Pawtucket.

I walked into McCoy Stadium, toting my rolling briefcase, as well as the emotions all of us feel the day after Patriots’ Day 2013 — deep sadness and regret, raw anger and resolve, even pride and gratitude in and for the good who still outnumber the cowardly evil in our world.  The news reports and press conferences I’d been listening to all morning continued rewinding in my head.

They were still playing, as if on a loop, when I dropped my bag off at the press box, and headed toward the front office downstairs.  To get there, I walked through the stands, high above the left-field line.  About the time I passed the third-base bag, I glanced left and saw two youngsters on a small plot of grass near the main entrance to the parking lot.

One of the kids was throwing.  The other receiving.  Waiting for the PawSox to play, they were having a catch.

I stopped, pulled my phone from a pocket and snapped a photo.  Watching them made me think of my own childhood, and the simple, sheer pleasure of tossing a ball back and forth.

And of innocence, before it is lost, or taken away.

It was enough to make me smile.

Meanwhile, Here’s What’s Happening Elsewhere…

IMG_0679

As you’ve (hopefully) noticed, I’ve been away from this blog for a while, wrapping up Patriot League basketball for CBS Sports Network and embarking on my new radio role with baseball’s Pawtucket Red Sox.  Socci_Blog_300x250_av7db9erAnd as part of the latter, I’ve been writing for the team’s website www.pawsox.com and my new blog, “Socci On The Sox.”  Before long, however, I look forward to sharing more observations about my sports world at large here.  Meantime, I’ll soon be copying past posts for the PawSox to this space, while generating fresh content for their site.  As always, thanks so much for reading.

Building A Program, Brick By Brick

Zach_Spiker_Mens_Basketball_coach_at_Army_1

By Bob Socci

Practice began and ended the same way for Zach Spiker and the Army Black Knights.  The young coach huddled his team around him at midcourt, and reminded them of their goal for the following afternoon.

“Six bricks,” he said.  “We need six bricks.”

To the uninitiated, the sound of such a notion seems more than a bit strange.  Here was the coach of a basketball team that since the start of conference play has led its league in scoring, primarily because of its proficient three-point shooting, asking for — demanding, really — more bricks.

But at West Point, since the youthful Spiker became the Cadets’ head coach a week and a half before the start of practice in the fall of 2009, a brick connotes a much different meaning than anywhere else basketball is played.  Inside your local ‘Y’ or outdoors on nearby asphalt, the word is a universal descriptor for an ugly-looking shot.

A jumper from the wing so errant it, unintentionally, bangs off the backboard?  A brick.  A free throw that lands on the back iron with a loud thud, before rolling off right or left?  Uh-huh, a brick.  It never looks good, and usually sounds worse.

In Spiker’s way of thinking and speaking, the brick is raw material used to lay the foundation of a successful program.  It has nothing to do with offense, and everything to do with defense.

photo-1
The Army ‘Brickometer’ entering last Saturday’s regular-season finale at Lehigh.

To Army under Spiker, a brick means three straight stops.  Hold the opposition scoreless on back-to-back-to-back possessions, and you’ve earned a brick.

The Black Knights led the Patriot League by averaging 71.2 points and 8.4 three-pointers per game, while shooting 39.5 percent outside the arc, in conference games this season.  But until a final score is reached, the real measure of their effort — applying full-court pressure on the ball with a deep rotation of well-conditioned Cadets — is the brick.

All year long there’s been a correlation.  Six bricks amount to victory.  Back in October, the overall objective for the coming campaign was 160.

By Spiker’s official count, the Cadets had 154 of them through their first 28 games, entering last Saturday’s regular-season finale at Lehigh.  Thus, to achieve both single-game and year-long goals, they needed six more bricks to add to all the others, labeled and stacked inside their locker room back at West Point.

Concretely or metaphorically, Spiker and his staff appear to be building something special.  He was hired off the Cornell staff, as an assistant to then-Big Red coach Steve Donahue, following the bizarre exit of his predecessor.  Weeks after signing a contract extension, Jim Crews was fired.  Little was said at the time — and less since, though Crews has gone on to succeed the late Rick Majeris at Saint Louis — about the reasons behind it.

Whatever they were, Spiker’s reality was obvious.  He inherited a veteran team in a program that hadn’t enjoyed a winning season since 1984-85 and had never reached .500 in Patriot League play, dating to 1990-91.  Though the Black Knights were 6-8 in conference each of Crews’s final two years, Spiker needed to create a pipeline of young talent that could withstand the rigors of service academy life and compete successfully at Division I.

Just as Navy had done under former Army assistant Don DeVoe in the 1990s, when the Midshipmen won three Patriot League titles, Spiker started recruiting to two rosters: the one at West Point and another at the academy’s prep school.  The latter would be essential for long-terms success.  It’s where players could form on-and-off-court bonds, become exposed to strict military and academic standards and improve their skills in a basketball system similar to the one Spiker was implementing on the Hudson.

Three years later, that effort is finally paying off.  In the form of bricks — productively, not pejoratively — and victories.

When Spiker addressed his team last Friday on the eve of its nationally-televised appearance at Lehigh, the Cadets were riding a school-record five-game Patriot League winning streak.  They were assured of Army’s first non-losing finish in 28 seasons.  And they already clinched the academy’s first winning league record since 1987, when Kevin Houston led the country in scoring and West Point belonged to the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.

Spiker complemented the outstanding senior Ella Ellis, a first-team All-Patriot League choice last year, by starting four freshmen.  Five others saw game action.  Three of those nine plebes, as they’re known on the academy post, earned conference Rookie of the Week honors.

None more than five-time winner Kyle Wilson, Army’s highest-scoring freshman since 1992-93.  On Monday, he was announced as the Patriot League’s Rookie of the Year.  Classmate Kyle Toth joined Wilson on the All-Rookie team.  That same day, Ellis repeated as a first teamer and Spiker was recognized as conference Coach of the Year.

The Cadets came up short of six bricks on Saturday, falling by six points, 81-75.  Nonetheless, at 15-14 overall and 8-6 in the Patriot League, their pieces are in place to keep building on what Spiker started.

A80G9492
Senior Ella Ellis has led the Army basketball team to its first non-losing season since 1984-85.

“When we returned from our (late-December) trip to Texas, I told our guys that I believe we’re on the verge of something good here,” Spiker said last week.  “When we were 1-3 in the Patriot League, I told them that every goal we’ve set can still be achieved.”

Some, Spiker admits, would seem “a little lofty” to outsiders.  One has remained unrealized throughout the academy’s history.

Five schools who’ve played Division I basketball since 1947-48 have never appeared in the NCAA Tournament.  They include St. Francis (N.Y.), Northwestern, William & Mary and The Citadel.  And, of course, West Point, despite a history highlighted by the likes of Bob Knight and Mike Krzyzewski.  Knight left as Army coach to lead Indiana to three national titles.  His former point guard, Kryzewski coached the Cadets to the 1978 NIT, before guiding Duke to four NCAA championships.

The idea of this year’s Black Knights finally playing well into March is more than a little lofty.  But thankfully for the rest of us, everything at service academies is a little loftier than everywhere else.

Starting Wednesday, when it hosts American in the quarterfinals of the Patriot League Tournament, fourth-seed Army is three wins from the unprecedented.  Or, to see it as Spiker does, at least 18 bricks away.

Two weeks ago in Washington, his Cadets beat the Eagles, 72-58.  By doing so, they snapped a 14-game losing skid at AU’s Bender Arena.

They did it with a season-high eight bricks.

Bob is the radio voice of Navy football and called play-by-play for the Midshipmen in basketball for 12 years.  He and partner Chris Spatola (West Point ’02) will call a Patriot League semifinal Saturday at 4:30 p.m. Eastern on the CBS Sports Network.

An Official Makes The Right Call

12329136-standard

By Bob Socci

Shortly before stepping into the center circle for the opening tip-off, Jeff Clark nodded, smiled and extended his right hand.  Wearing his black-and-white stripes, with a whistle hanging from his neck, Clark was dressed and accessorized for work.

So was I, standing at mid-court, in my navy blue, network-issued blazer.  Any minute now, I was going to turn to a camera, raise a microphone affixed with a “CBS Sports Network” flag, and welcome a national cable audience into the intimate Kirby Sports Center in Easton, Pa.

Pleasantries taking precedence, I first reacted to Clark’s cue, and stuck out my own right hand.

“I saw you working Georgetown-Syracuse yesterday,” I told him, approvingly.  “Wow, that was quite an atmosphere.”

Sixteen hours earlier, and several hours to the north, Clark was one of three officials who took the floor with the Hoyas and Orange in front of 35,012 — the largest on-campus crowd in college basketball history — at the Carrier Dome.  In, presumably, Georgetown’s final visit to Syracuse, due to the unraveling of the Big East as we knew it, the Hoyas triumphed, 57-46.

True to the history of one of the most star-studded and compelling rivalries in the game’s modern history, Otto Porter scored 33 points to help end the Orange’s 38-game home winning streak.  Thirty-three years ago, G-town closed the ‘Cuse’s prior hoops residence, Manley Field House, by halting a string of 57 straight home victories.

Clark’s smile, like his eyes, widened.  He circled his finger, pointing to the wooden bleachers overlooking both sidelines and one of the baselines.  They were filling fast in the final minutes of last Sunday morning, as longtime adversaries Lehigh and Lafayette went through warm-ups.

“So is this,” Clark replied, enthusiastically.

So what if there are 31,000 fewer fans than where he worked the day before.  In its own way, this environment is equally exciting.  In every way, this game is equally important.  That’s what Clark seemed to be saying, without actually saying it.

He was right, of course.

Georgetown’s last visit to Syracuse drew a record crowd of 35,012.

The game we were both about to call — with Clark’s version, unlike mine, impacting the event — wasn’t one of the last episodes of a long-running series.  It wouldn’t affect national rankings.  And no attendance records were being shattered.

Yet it included every element of what made Georgetown-Syracuse, well, Georgetown-Syracuse.  Longtime adversaries.  Great players.  Emotion and excitement that can’t be contrived; but only cultivated through competition.

There also just so happened to be a common ingredient off the court.  At each venue — one a cavernous stadium, the other an intimate gymnasium — humans masqueraded as fruit.  In Syracuse, Otto the Orange bobbed around behind the backboard.  In Easton, kids literally went as bananas in the student section.

Meeting for the 216th time, in a series summed up along a short stretch of Pennsylvania highway as ‘The Rivalry,’ Lehigh and Lafayette staged a performance worthy of their predecessors.  The Mountain Hawks led at the half, living mostly on the inside.  The Leopards rallied, relying in large part on their outside shooting.

In their final regular-season appearances opposite an arch rival, Lehigh’s Holden Greiner scored a career-high 27 points and Lafayette’s Tony Johnson matched a personal best with 29 points.  Greiner made 10-of-14 shots, while Johnson converted 10-of-12, including all five three-point tries.

Less than 11 minutes left, the Hawks led by 10.  Another 9 1/2 minutes later, the Leopards held a 10-point lead.  The final was 79-71, giving Lafayette a sweep of the season series and a hold on second place in the Patriot League standings.

Lafayette's Tony Johnson scored 29 in his final regular season encounter with arch rival Lehigh.
Lafayette’s Tony Johnson scored 29 in his final regular season encounter with Lehigh.

There’s a strong possibility of a rematch in the upcoming conference tournament.  Just as there was three years ago, when Lehigh beat its cross-Valley foe to earn its way into the NCAA Tournament.  If such circumstances realign, whether in the Patriot League semi’s or championship game, we’ll be treated to great theatre again.

Exactly as fans enjoy in the small gyms that house annuals like Calvin and Hope, and the mammoth arenas that stage made-for-TV spectaculars like Georgetown-Syracuse.  The Patriot League has Lehigh-Lafayette, as well as Army-Navy, which occupies a place made unique by both the history and meaning behind it.

The last few years, a third matchup within the conference has become worthy of marquee billing: Lehigh vs. Bucknell.  They first met in 1902, and have since accounted for the last three league championships.  They too could be headed for a tournament collision, like last March, when the Hawks won a thriller for the conference title.

Whether or not 2012 repeats itself in 2013, the next couple of weeks will lead us to a special place.  Whomever is at play.  Wherever they meet.  And whoever is there to see it.

That’s the nature of these great games, this wonderful time of year.

Rivalries may all be relative.  But the beauty in each is absolute.

 On Saturday, March 2, Bob and broadcast partner Chris Spatola return to the Lehigh Valley to call the Patriot League regular-season finale between Lehigh and Army.  Coverage begins at noon, on the CBS Sports Network.