Everything in Order for Start of Navy’s Preseason Training Camp

Originally posted on www.navysports.com on July 25, 2012.

By Bob Socci

Every square foot of Ken Niumatalolo’s office doesn’t just imply, but proudly proclaims that Navy’s head football coach is no ordinary neatnik.  It’s pristine enough to make Martha Stewart blush and Felix Unger honk with envy.

Considering his uncluttered surroundings, it makes perfect sense that Niumatalolo completed preparations for preseason practices, which begin in exactly one week, months ago.  His plans for the Midshipmen are as well organized as the space he occupies on the third deck of Ricketts Hall.

The Midshipmen open the 2012 season vs. Notre Dame in Dublin, Ireland at 9:00 a.m. EDT on Saturday, Sept. 1.

“We’ve had camp planned for a while,” Niumatalolo said Tuesday by phone from his room with a view of Annapolis harbor.  “Buddy (Green), Ivin (Jasper) and I sat down in May.”

Conferring with Navy’s defensive and offensive coordinators, Niumatalolo started mapping out the summer after the end of spring practice.

“We tried to go back to the basics in the spring,” he says.  “I was pleased with the spring.  I thought a lot of guys developed.”

The Mids finished the preceding fall at 5-7, experiencing the program’s first losing season in nine years.  Five of the seven defeats were decided by a total of 11 points.  Mindful of those near misses, Navy’s staff worked on each player’s development from the head down.

“The big thing is our mentality,” Niumatalolo said last March.  “We have to have an attention to detail, the little things, starting with the toughness factor.  So we don’t crack under pressure, we have to make sure mental toughness is embedded.”

One way of doing that was to demand more physically.  And one example of doing that was the decision to move up the Mids’ so-called Fourth Quarters.  In previous years, two weeks of grueling conditioning drills straddled spring break, allowing an opportunity to work off any ill-effects of time away from the Academy.  But last spring the Mids trained for two continuous weeks, took their break and reported for spring camp.  What kind of shape they were in upon return to Annapolis indicated just how dedicated they were to the coming season.

Posing a test of willpower, Niumatalolo was pleased with the results.  Today he finds it even more encouraging to see that their level of commitment was unwavering over the summer.

“Mike (Brass) was very pleased with how hard the guys worked,” Niumatalolo says, referencing Navy’s Associate Athletic Director for Sports Performance.  “To this point, I truly believe they’ve paid the price.”

Though not without some extra help.  During the offseason Brass’s staff expanded by two.  Josh Schuler and Bryan Fitzpatrick joined veterans Cliff Dooman and Kirk Woolfolk as assistant football strength and conditioning coaches.  There were also upgrades made in the Ricketts Hall trainer’s room.

Niumatalolo also credits team captains Bo Snelson and Brye French.

“Bo and Brye have done a great job leading us in the summer,” he says.

But as well as the spring and summer have gone, there are clearly concerns regarding the fall.  Foremost among them in Niumatalolo’s mind are what takes place along the line; as well as seven yards behind it.

Up front on defense the Mids must fill an enormous vacancy at left end.  Jabaree Tuani graduated as a four-year starter ranked among the Academy’s top three in career tackles for loss (2nd) and sacks (tied for 3rd).  Also gone to graduation is nose guard Jared Marks, who started 10 of 12 games in 2011.  In addition, Jamel Dobbs and Joshua Jones, who made a combined eight starts at right end last season, are no longer in the program.

The 10 players listed on the D-line depth chart entering training camp have totaled seven career starts.  Wes Henderson (LE) has three, while Alex Doolittle (NG) and Josh Dowling-Fitzpatrick (RE) have two apiece.

“A lot of guys haven’t played,” Niumatalolo says of a group who will play their first game together against Notre Dame in Dublin, Ireland.  “They’re guys we’re excited about, but it’s going to be a pretty tough environment (in which) to break in.”

On the other side of scrimmage, graduates Brady DeMell, John Dowd and Ryan Basford left the Academy last spring with 75 career starts between them.  Like those on defense, though, there’s a lot to like about the linemen competing to take their place.

The frontrunner to succeed DeMell at center is 6-foot-3, 280-pound sophomore Bradyn Heap, whom Niumatalolo sums up as “athletic and strong.”  Another sophomore, 6-0, 318-pounder Jake Zuzek, is currently atop the depth chart at Dowd’s old (right) guard spot.  Senior Andrew Barker, who logged six starts at left tackle a year ago, figures to take over for Basford on the right side.  As for the left half, tackle Graham Vickers and guard Josh Cabral are expected to pick up where they lined up at the end of 2011.

Meanwhile, the other position Niumatalolo worries most about, placekicker, is totally devoid of any varsity experience.  Which, given last season’s experience, makes it his most pressing concern.  The Mids missed nine kicks, including five field-goal and four extra-point tries.   One of each, including an overtime PAT attempt, contributed to their most excruciating loss, against Air Force.

Junior Stephen Picchini tops the depth chart du jour, though he’ll likely find himself in a camp-long kick-off to determine a starter by September.  In last spring’s Blue-Gold game, Picchini missed field-goal attempts of 41 and 44 yards.  Still, as an Academy legacy — his father, Ted (’83), played sprint football — his leg was strong enough at Moorpark (Calif.) High School to drill a 48-yarder vs. Simi Valley in 2008.

At the moment, six others share his position on Navy’s roster.  Soon enough each will take his first swing of the leg at winning the job.

Sorting through personnel, at those and other positions, won’t be nearly as orderly for Niumatalolo as plotting August practice plans.  Never is, no matter how neatly you draw them up.

Regarding that head-start on late-summer itineraries, Niumatalolo may have had an ulterior motive.  Albeit an understandable — and enviable — one.

“It allowed me to go home,” he said Tuesday, soon after returning from a two-week family vacation in his native Hawaii.

Back from paradise, it’s time to face reality.  Navy’s head coach is set — has been for months, actually — to start that process.

Music to Her Ears: Baseball’s Anthem Becomes a Favorite Lullaby

By Bob Socci

Just as the pilot promised, American Airlines Flight 928, inbound from Guatemala City, began its initial descent toward Miami.  At the slightest tilting of the plane’s nose, our baby girl, who almost always inflates her already chubby cheeks with a near-constant smile, turned her expression upside down.

Jack Norworth wrote Take Me Out to the Ballgame in about 15 minutes, while riding the New York subway in 1908.

Instantly, every other passenger within earshot — meaning from the cockpit door to the rear galley — was made aware of her displeasure.  As a six-month old she may have a lot of growing to do, but her tiny lungs are mighty strong.  She shrieks with a piercing pitch that’s practically glass-shattering; like when Ella Fitzgerald used to obliterate stemware simply by hitting her high notes in a decades-old TV commercial.

For years I flew to the sounds of someone else’s infant wailing, always feeling for the poor parent desperately trying to quiet a son or daughter.  So helplessly; it so often seemed.  Now here I was — actually alongside my wife and our 2-year-old boy — in that exact same spot: sitting in coach, on a seat made hotter with every howl.

Unable to pacify her with a binky, I tried every which of way of holding her.  Always to no avail.  With pressure mounting in the sky above South Florida, I turned to a last resort.  I started singing.

I never quite recall the lyrics to traditional lullabies.  Besides, humming their tunes never seems to work for me anyway.  The baby remains far from reposeful; I wind up much more panicked.  But there is a little ditty I’ve known by heart virtually my whole life.  And on countless occasions, sung to both of our kids the last couple of years, it’s proven remarkably tranquilizing.

Still, I can only imagine what everyone else must have been thinking — other than cringing at the sound of this off-key tenor — when I first opened my mouth to intone:  Take me out to the ballgame…

For most of the century-plus since Jack Norworth conceived them in 1908, those six words have cued untold millions to stand and stretch.  But in our house, as well as on long car and now plane rides, the international anthem of baseball is a fail-safe way to sooth a screaming child into slumber.

The origins of the most famous of Norworth’s nearly 2,500 compositions are legendary.  A vaudeville songwriter, he was riding the subway into Manhattan when his train passed a sign reading:  Baseball Today — Polo Grounds.  Norworth needed just 15 minutes, a pen and some scrap paper to come up with the lyrics he would eventually fit to the music of Albert Von Tilzer.  Though his words would echo throughout grandstands across the country, Norworth didn’t attend his first ballgame until 32 years later.

I doubt it will take nearly as long for either of our two children to visit a ballpark.  Already in their young lives — too often for their tastes, I’m sure — dad has subjected them to games on television and radio.  And, of course, given them a bit of the stadium experience.  By day or night.  In our nursery upstairs and living room downstairs.  From the driver’s seat of a CR-V and Row 16 of a Boeing 737.

Inevitably, with an arresting effect.

Our son was still in the clubhouse when he first heard the garbled sounds of my singing voice.  As an eagerly expectant parent, father-to-be would regularly talk to the child hidden inside his mother’s womb.  More than occasionally, dad also launched into song.  Contrary to conventional advice, the playlist often varied from the classics.

Ex-Yankee Bernie Williams plays Take Me Out to the Ballgame as gracefully as he performed in pinstripes.

Surely, I figured, the little guy would someday be exposed to Mozart and Beethoven.  But what this father knows best is the music of his sporting life: from college fight songs, starting with Anchors Aweigh, to the unforgettable Meet The Mets.  And as you’d expect, Take Me Out to the Ballgame.  So those are the songs I serenaded him with.

Within weeks of his birth, whenever he fussed, my son heard me singing of peanuts and Cracker Jack.  Incredibly, it always seemed to put him at ease.  Even more effective were the times I lent my voice to a CD featuring ex-Yankee and classically-trained guitarist Bernie Williams strumming his own soothing rendition.  Included on his second CD release, Moving Forward, Williams’s version is introduced by the late Bob Shepherd, longtime Yankee Stadium announcer.

Your attention please, ladies and gentleman,” says Shepherd, with his customary impeccable elocution, “now batting for the Yankees, number 51, Bernie Williams.  Number 51.

Soon the sound of Shepherd alone was enough to silence the cries of our infant.  On his first long ride, strapped into a car seat from Boston to Central New York, our first-born grew restless by the fifth hour of a six-hour trek.  As crazy as it seems, the only way to stay sane was to repeatedly replay Track 12 of the Williams CD.

Again and again, my wife hit rewind.  Again and again, Bob Shepherd announced Williams at the plate.  Again and again, our crying baby was lulled into a state of content.  Again and again, the sound track of our drive shuffled from discord to sweet harmony.

We made sure Moving Forward went wherever we did, as essential to our diaper bag as wipes and Pampers themselves.  On visits to family and friends we often asked to use their stereos.  Baby fussed, the late Shepherd asked for our attention, Williams strummed his first notes, and all crying ceased.

Though invested in New York’s other team from an early age, I’ve always admired the on-and-off field grace of Williams.  I became an even bigger fan, following the release of his first CD, The Journey Within.  His cover of Dust In The Wind strikes a chord, as a perfect score for personal reflection.  Then I experienced Williams’s magic touch on Take Me Out to the Ballgame.  The way he caressed the strings of his guitar to calm a baby in distress, made him — unequivocally — my favorite player.

Examining this phenomenon, I sought to explain why an ode to the national pastime, especially when performed by Williams, so consistently comforted our first child.  It had to do, I concluded, with all my pre-birth serenading.  While pops was longing in song to be taken out to the crowd, junior was being taken back to his more secure and less confusing existence inside his mom.  As for Williams’s role, well, his string music just sounds a whole better than my singing voice.

But then the kid sister came along, kicking and turning.  Prior to delivery, she hadn’t heard much, if any of Norworth’s melody.  For her, I mostly resorted to a feeble impression of Van Morrison on Brown Eyed Girl.  That song of choice was based on a pretty safe assumption, given the appearances of both parents.  It was also truly forgettable.

Unlike Take Me Out to the Ballgame.

Our little lady was a bit colicky her first few months.  Mom and dad were often at a loss.  Until one day — and then the next, and the next after that — we introduced her to an oldie-but-goodie.  Just like big bro, she stopped her fits and snapped to attention well before being told to root, root, root for the home team.  Ever since, whenever our sweetheart won’t settle down, my wife and I turn to a familiar tune.  Sometimes we collaborate on a duet.

Last week, near the middle of an airplane cabin, I sung solo.  Trying not to notice glances from the strangers around us, I thought of baseball’s most famous stadium crooner.

Years before moving to the other end of town, the late broadcasting legend Harry Caray called White Sox games on Chicago’s South Side.  In 1976, Sox owner Bill Veeck — who rarely met a promotional idea he wasn’t willing to try — noticed Caray singing along with organist Nancy Faust.  Veeck approached Caray about putting a live stadium microphone in his radio booth, specifically for song time in the seventh-inning stretch.

Unlike a dad singing solo on an airplane, the late Harry Caray routinely led a chorus of thousands on both sides of Chicago.

Veeck reasoned that if fans heard Caray singing Take Me Out to the Ballgame, they’d find his poor singing voice anything but intimidating, and would happily join in.  Caray relocated to Wrigley Field in the early eighties, and conducted a singalong that continues today at every Cubs home game.  Fourteen years after Caray’s death, celebrities lead Wrigley’s crowds in a daily homage to the broadcasting icon.

Last Monday, far from the ivy-covered walls of Wrigley Field, nobody else felt compelled to join in.  I doubt, unlike Chicagoans so long ago with Caray, the crowd crammed into Fight 928 was intimidated by my voice.

More likely, I think, they sat there like daddy’s little girl; in stunned silence.

May the Latest Ending Mark Another Beginning for Jamie Moyer

By Bob Socci

Late Thursday a lefthander who’s fanned more than 3,000 batters in a near three-decade-long professional career took a third strike in his 50th summer.  Jamie Moyer was released by the Toronto Blue Jays, just as he’d been in preceding weeks by both the Colorado Rockies and Baltimore Orioles.

Following a spring in which the 49 1/2-year-old marvel returned from reconstructive elbow surgery to become the oldest winning pitcher in major league history, Moyer again confronts baseball mortality.  Ever since the early 1990s, when three different organizations let him go in a 17-month span, Moyer has routinely turned such supposed dead ends into mere detours.

Persevering with eight major league clubs, he’s totaled 269 victories.  Twenty-one of them came at the age of 40 for the 2003 Seattle Mariners.  Five years later, as the National League’s oldest player, he was a 16-game winner for a world champion; despite pitching primarily at Citizen’s Bank Park, hitter-friendly home of his Philadelphia Phillies.

With the Rockies, whose own Coors Field is unforgiving in the thin air of altitude, Moyer started this latest comeback campaign reasonably well.  Through April his ERA was 3.14.  But by the end of May, it rose to 5.70.  As the victim of more home runs (522) allowed than any other big-league predecessor, Moyer gave up 11 in his 53-plus innings with the Rockies.

Cut loose with a 2-5 record, Moyer quickly signed with the Orioles, who assigned him to Triple-A Norfolk.  Three starts into his audition with the Tides, he was 1-1 with a 1.69 ERA.  With no opportunity awaiting in Baltimore, Moyer opted out of another minor league start.  At his request, the O’s made Moyer a free agent for the seventh time.  That’s when the Jays picked him up for a brief audition with their Las Vegas affiliate.  He went 1-1 with an 8.18 ERA.

At word of Toronto’s decision, popular opinion in the blogosphere and Twitterverse asserted it was time for Moyer to finally call it quits.

Watching Moyer bid to make the Orioles, with whom he pitched from 1993-95, there was little reason to doubt his time with the Tides would mark yet another beginning.  In his first outing, on an early-June Saturday in Buffalo, he had hitters spinning themselves into the ground, swinging at servings of soft tosses.  The lone blemish on a five-inning line, featuring 52 strikes among 84 pitches at Moyer’s customary 70-80 miles per hour, was a ground-ball single.

To Norfolk manager Ron Johnson, an initial first-hand look at the lefty resembled the numerous other times he’d seen Moyer on television.

“Everybody’s timing was disrupted…you saw the front-foot swings…the big foul balls way foul…guys (getting) locked up on fastballs up, breaking balls down…a lot of swings at balls in the dirt,” Johnson glowed.  “I mean it was vintage Jamie Moyer.

“His stuff moves, it darts and it dips.  Then you throw in the deception of his delivery.  He kind of jumps at the hitters…It’s very hard to sit here and talk about it.  He is who he is.  He’s been in the major leagues a long time and he’s had success.  He is Jamie Moyer, and his stuff is Moyeresque.”

Maybe not in relation to the All-Star of ’03, a 20-game winner for the second time in three seasons.  But certainly the stuff wasn’t all that different from the source of 42 wins as a mid-40s Phillie from 2007-09.  J.C. Romero saw Moyer then, and saw him again, while trying to stage his own comeback with Norfolk.

“When he was in his twenties somebody told him he couldn’t pitch at (a high) level,” said Romero, whose first of two victories as a reliever in the 2008 World Series completed a Game 3 start by Moyer.  “Now he’s 49 and still pitching at this level.  He’s admirable.

“To have that type of command and have that type of attacking mode the way he has through the years, you’ve got to be fearless out there.”

Contradicting conventional thought overly influenced by the readings of radar guns, Moyer has long pitched on personal conviction.  Where others doubted, he believed.  With a faith made stronger by both work ethic and attention to detail.

“I can honestly say that I probably haven’t had conviction with every pitch I’ve ever thrown in my career,  but I think a lot of it comes from mechanics,” Moyer explained.  “If you’re comfortable with your mechanics, that allows you to be more comfortable with your conviction in making your pitches.

“You always strive for perfection, knowing that perfection probably won’t happen.  But you try to create the most and the best consistency that you can create.”

Introduced to pro ball as a 21-year old in 1984, Moyer evolved into a craftsman, modeling his approach in the mold of respected teammates.  Early on he observed the pitching diligence of Rick Sutcliffe and Scott Sanderson, while noting the everyday professionalism of Andre Dawson.  Infielder Vance Law showed Moyer the value of keeping a written history of at-bats, copiously categorizing every confrontation of pitcher and batter.  Later influences as teammates included Nolan Ryan and Cal Ripken Jr.

“I broke into the game in the the Cubs organization and remember a lot of the things I was taught back then,” said Moyer, sitting before his locker in a quiet clubhouse in Buffalo, three days after his Tides debut.  “I feel like I was taught the right way to do things…how to act, how to respect the team across the field, how to respect your teammates, how to carry yourself as a professional.

“You learn to respect the good things that are happening, but knowing that you’re going to go through struggles…You see these guys that are very successful on the field, but you also see the way they respect the game, respect their teammates and approach their jobs.  When you see that done the right way, obviously it teaches you a lot of lessons.”

In the same way, of course, Moyer has long been imparting those very lessons in younger teammates, atop and away from the mound.  For much of that time, of far more importance, he’s also proven one of sport’s authentically great humanitarians; his off-the-field reach touching literally thousands of kids.  Across this country, and beyond its borders.  Even into the third world.

As parents of eight, including two daughters adopted from Guatemala, Jamie and wife Karen created The Moyer Foundation, which operates free youth camps for those impacted by both loss and addiction.

Camp Erin was started to help children and teens overcome their grief.  With 40 sites, including every major league city, it helps youngsters ages 6-to-17 who’ve experienced the loss of loved ones.  More recently, they founded Camp Mariposa to assist kids 9-to-12 who are living with an addict.  The Moyers hope to grow the camps, seeking to fund them long enough to eventually become self-sustainable.

In both outreach efforts, the more Jamie’s pitched, the longer he’s extended his career, the more good he and Karen have been able to do.

“It’s allowed us to stay on that platform of being an athlete and wife,” says Moyer, whose family ‘vacations’ often involve charity work in places like the Guatemala City Dump, where an entire impoverished subculture exists.  “Being on that platform we feel like we should take advantage of it and use it in a positive way, and show people that there’s many less fortunate people in our country and in our world.

“These people in a lot of cases, especially these kids, children in distress, they don’t really ask to be in these situations.  What we’re trying to do with both (camps) is teach kids how to learn and grow from the situations they’re in, that they didn’t ask to be in.  Give them skills, give them coping skills.”

Camp Erin provides counseling, Moyer explains, “to teach these kids to remember their loved ones in a positive way, but give them skills to move forward in their life and not fall between the cracks.”  The mission of Camp Mariposa is to break cycles.  Or, as Moyer says, “getting (kids) to understand that they don’t have to follow the footsteps of the people living under the same roof.”

It all amounts to why we should all be rooting for at least one more team to offer at least one more chance for Moyer.  Especially if it means one more dollar to help one more kid.

Of course, society will always need more good samaritans.  And baseball too will always need more good citizens who give back to a game that’s given them so much.

If we’ve seen the last of Moyer out of the wind-up or from the stretch, his playing career — right up to its final days — will be best remembered for moments like two recent scenes in a minor league setting.

On his first Tuesday as a Norfolk Tide, three days after facing Buffalo, the man with a quarter-century of experience in the big leagues held court with his newest of teammates.  Shortly after six o’clock, as storm clouds gathered in Western New York and a stadium announcer warned of an impending downpour, Jamie Moyer remained in the bullpen.  Toeing the rubber, he gestured as if to reinforce the points he was making.  Intently listening alongside were veteran coach Mike Griffin and Chris Tillman, a 24-year-old prospect still trying to pitch to his major league potential.

Though everyone else in uniform was headed for cover, they appeared impervious to the darkening sky and intensifying wind.  Only interference by the grounds crew, in need of covering the bullpen mounds, finally adjourned Moyer’s discourse.

About an hour later the heavy rain had come and gone, when the first figure, of thin frame and average height, re-emerged from the third-base dugout.

Ascending the steps, he tucked a water bottle into the right pocket of his black windbreaker, and began walking the warning track toward the left-field corner.  A third of the way there, he stopped to oblige a handful of autograph seekers.

If not for the lines marking his years — like the creases in his forehead or the crow’s feet of his eyes — he easily could have been mistaken for someone less than half his age.  His enthusiasm was that of a kid just up from the low minors, beating all the others out of the clubhouse.  They stayed inside, perhaps to play one last hand of a rain-delay card game, or one more song from an iPod.

Writing his name with a pen in his right hand, opposite the left hand that had delivered nearly 60,000 major league pitches, once more Jamie Moyer was showing a sign of respect for the game and its the fans — as the last to leave and first to arrive.