A time for both words and actions

By Bob Socci


The two brothers look out from the boxes on the computer screen; Devin at a family home in New Jersey and Jason at his house near Foxborough. 

We are a minute or two away from spending the better part of the next hour with an internet audience of Patriots season ticket members.  There is time to congratulate the McCourty twins on their Muhammed Ali Sports Humanitarian Award nomination.  Though not nearly enough to recite all of their tireless work on behalf of others to earn such recognition.  

Raising money and awareness to combat disease.  Showing up regularly to an inclusive sports program for children with special needs.  Paying for computers to keep underprivileged kids connected to schools amid a pandemic.  Lobbying to increase educational resources in underfunded areas.  And as part of the Players Coalition, speaking out for criminal justice reform. 

They are about to engage virtually in a mostly light-hearted back-and-forth on this Thursday afternoon.   But before we begin, I am struck by a troubling reality: so much — too much — of what Ali sought to affect a lifetime ago remains unchanged.  

More than simply being considered for an award in honor of the champ, Devin and Jason are waging much of the same fight in the struggle for social justice.

So is Lt. Col. Robert Green, USMC (ret), who fought for our country during multiple tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq.  

Beforehand, he was a defensive back at the Naval Academy, graduating in the Class of 1997.  Afterward, he returned to Annapolis as an assistant coach.  

Green, who goes by R.B., is a man of courage and character.  You know so because he, himself, never has to say so.  What you see and hear from him often are an easy smile and infectious laugh.  

But now, in the nation Green has defended as an African-American son of Atlanta, this is no time for laughter.  He takes to social media and sends a five-Tweet thread from his heart into this follower’s soul.  

Green’s words are powerful.  I read and re-read them, scrolling up and down my Saturday timeline.  I will return to them on Sunday.  And again on Monday.

But first it is Friday.   

I am running on the Neponset River Greenway and a small rainbow-colored ball is rolling toward me.  Close behind it, a tiny girl toddles alongside her mother.  She points to me, just as I stop and pause the podcast playing from my iPhone.

“Ball,” she says.  

I smile a smile she can’t see behind the mask I’m wearing.  Yet, her mother still senses it and returns the smile.  I reach down and gently nudge the ball back to the little girl before restarting my run.  

No more than a couple of steps forward, I’m pulled back by the peripheral reappearance of the ball.  She has rolled it again in my direction.  Only I didn’t realize it in time, so now the rainbow-colored ball has gone past me.  

Again I stop.  And once more there is a momentary connection between mother and me.  This time with laughter.  Mom kindly signals that she will get the ball and waves me on.  We wish each other well and go our separate ways.

For the rest of my run, the podcast plays.  But I’m not really listening.  My thoughts are on that little girl. 

They still are today.  

I picture her and my own daughter at the same stage.  Both adorable; alike in many ways.  But different as black and white; as they will be seen and judged in this life where looks really do matter.    

Until the someday those of us who know how wrong that is make things right.

The McCourtys and Green are doing their part.  Devin and Jason have turned their NFL profiles into platforms to correct inequities inherent from classrooms to courtrooms.  Green is molding young leaders who will — as he did — defend a nation founded on the premise that we are each endowed with certain unalienable rights; while striving to see that such promise is finally fulfilled.

It’s not special treatment they seek.  It’s equal treatment.

Regarding my part, I know more needs to be said and done.  

But what more should I say?  What more can I do?  While I will never know what it’s like to be a person of color, I have always known that I can never speak for people of color.  

I decide to start by borrowing the words of another white man making his living in the football world.  He is Colts head coach Frank Reich. 

“Racism is vile, deplorable, detestable.  There’s no form of it that is acceptable and in no way can it be justified,” he says, adding to an official team statement.  “Our black community has bore the brunt of this injustice for far too long.”

I will continue my search for answers, so long as we all have reason to ask why there is no justice for all.   

Now I must leave for a local vigil, where I will stand in silence for three minutes and pray for our country.  That her wounds will be healed.

And that little boys and girls everywhere can chase — and actually catch — rainbows in an America as it was originally advertised.  

Where all men and women aren’t just created equal; they’re treated that way.

Dante Scarnecchia walked away on his own terms

The following was originally posted to “Socci’s Notebook” on http://www.985thesportshub.com.  During his 3 1/2 decades with the Patriots, Dante Scarnecchia proved to be more than one of “the very best assistant coaches ever.”  He showed that one could coach a physically demanding position in a violent game with an uncompromising toughness, all while remaining unfailingly humble and kind.   
 

 

By Bob Socci

Shortly after returning from his first retirement to resume a three-decades-long career coaching in New England, Dante Scarnecchia sat in the television studio beneath the East stands of Gillette Stadium.

Hardly one to ever seek any special attention, much less before a camera lens, Scarnecchia agreed to discuss why he stepped aside two years earlier and what led him to rejoin Bill Belichick’s staff full-time in the spring of 2016.

What’s resonated ever since, however, is something he said about the period in-between, when Scarnecchia did his once-and-again boss a solid by scouting offensive line prospects for the NFL Draft.  Sharing his philosophy from that experience, Dante kept it as uncomplicated as the plain, gray t-shirt he was wearing.

“To me the bottom line is, ‘Is this a guy you’d really like to be around, a guy you’d really like to coach?’” Scarnecchia explained midway through the conversation, which is still available at Patriots.com. “I think one of the great things you can offer to someone who asks for your opinion of a player’s ability is, ‘I really like this guy. I really like this player and I like what he brings to the table and I’d like to see him on the team.’ Or not.

“I think that’s the way you have to approach it. And I think that pretty much nails it down.”

As simple as that from the straightforward Scarnecchia, who paired a proverbial hammer with his coach’s whistle and always seemed to strike the nail on the head. On practice fields. In meeting rooms. During interactions with others.

On Tuesday we learned that Scarnecchia can now put those tools of his trade away. He is retiring little more than two weeks before his 72nd birthday and following 36 seasons in the NFL.

All but two of those were devoted to the Patriots, under five head coaches and on five Super Bowl-winning staffs.  And for most of them, the diminutive Scarnecchia stood tallest among giants, as one of the game’s best offensive line coaches.

Here at home, the team’s press release announcing Scarnecchia’s retirement included statements by Belichick and owner Robert Kraft. Belichick regarded him “among the very best assistant coaches ever,” while Kraft recognized “his contributions to our team and to the game of football [as] unprecedented over the last four decades.” Meanwhile, numerous Patriots paid their own tributes across social media.

Outside of New England, Scarnecchia earned equal measures of respect. I know so, because I’ve heard so.

Seven years ago before becoming part of the Pats’ radio broadcasts, I reached out to one of the wisest football men I’ve ever met, former Packers general manager Ron Wolf. I’d known him from my previous stint at the Naval Academy and valued his advice.

“Get to know the offensive line coach there,” suggested Wolf, who, like Scarnecchia, speaks in no uncertain terms. “He’s as good as there is.”

And several weeks ago on The Gridiron and Beyond, I asked Paul Alexander, who mentored NFL offensive lines for a quarter-century, about his coaching contemporary.

Alexander alluded to the Patriots’ history of often drafting linemen in mid-to-later rounds and relative frugality regarding free agents. All while retaining worth as a perennial playoff team.

“They value that position as something that can be coached, something that can be developed,” Alexander noted. “You can’t do that unless you have an outstanding offensive line coach. And they do. They know that [Dante] can take what’s given to him and make it work. To me, of all the great things you can say about him, that’s the greatest.”

Scarnecchia did it with the ex-college wrestler, who developed into a rock-solid guard and two-time champion. With the left tackle whose punch exceeded his reach, whose arms were seen short for the position yet fit perfectly into the sleeves of a Patriots Hall of Fame jacket. And with the most recent Super Bowl winner, whose center went undrafted, whose right guard was schooled in the triple-option, and whose left tackle was essentially written off by his previous team.

Provided one was smart, tough and athletic; determined to work hard; and willing to be coached hard; Dante could make it work.

A student of military history whose foray into college coaching coincided with his time as a Marine Corps reservist in the early 1970s, he commanded attention and respect on the field. And demanded excellence.

In his biography, My Life On The Line, ex-Patriots lineman Ryan O’Callaghan told of his rookie indoctrination in 2006. Right out of Cal, he had to overcome a huge learning curve to contest for a starting job in place of injured Nick Kaczur.

“Scar was the offensive line coach for the Patriots when I got there,” O’Callaghan explained. “He’d helped keep Tom Brady upright through their Super Bowl runs, and he’d have the gig for a hundred years if he could keep that going.”

Scarnecchia got O’Callaghan going fast enough and far enough to start the season opener vs. Buffalo. On game day, the teacher summoned the pupil for a one-on-one meeting. It included film review and a parting word to the wise.

“‘If you get No. 12 hurt,’ he said to me in the moments before the game,” O’Callaghan remembered, “‘It’s your ass.’”

But as much as Scarnecchia unyieldingly demanded from his players, he gave what he got.

They were conditioned to play fast at the game’s highest level. Yet nobody was in better shape than their coach. Watching training camps through the years, it was common to see Scarnecchia out front of the offense when running penalty laps; charging from his 60’s into his 70’s.

It was no different with other aspects of their professional and personal being. Scarnecchia expected total commitment from them. In return, they received the same from him.

It’s something O’Callaghan conveys as well in the book he co-authored with Cyd Zeigler, detailing his struggles associated with leading a closeted life as a gay man in the NFL.

“He genuinely cared about his players. He was interested in us as people, in our personal lives, and in what made us tick,” O’Callaghan writes. “He had a house on Narragansett on the coast of Rhode Island, and he’d invite linemen there just to spend time with him and his wife and build a deeper relationship.

“I actually felt a sense of loss by not being able to share who I really was with Scar. Looking back at it now, I probably could have.”

If there’s anywhere anyone should feel free to be their true selves, it’s around someone like him — his own man.

Truth is, as I wrote on Twitter Tuesday night, there can’t be a better example in football of someone who combines toughness with kindness.

In an age of blathering bluster, Dante Scarnecchia coached one of the most physically intense positions in a violent sport without an ounce of false bravado. He’s always carried himself humbly, treating others — including those of us outside the team’s inner circle — with dignity and respect.

Surely, he’ll be missed after bringing so much to the table.

The kind of guy we’ve all been lucky to have around — a renaissance man; a gentleman; a husband, father and grandfather — can now dedicate more of himself to other interests and more important loves than football.

Wish him the best. He’s earned it.

Anticipating the unknown

As the 2019 season wound down and speculation about Tom Brady’s future ramped up, I spent a lot of time wondering how a team broadcaster should appropriately address the uncertainty surrounding one of the game’s greatest stars.

By Bob Socci

There’s an unwritten rule that sometimes goes unheeded when the doors to the Patriots locker room are opened to media interlopers like me.  When a reporter appears engaged in a one-on-one interview, it’s incumbent on others to stand clear and wait their turn.

Time, however, is short — 45 minutes a session in season — and available players can be few.  Particularly after a loss or on the eve of a holiday.

What’s there to say that either hasn’t been said or, frankly, can be said?  Who can blame the family guys for skipping Q-and-A’s for an early exit after practice on, say, Dec. 24?

So, left standing with camera, mic or recorder and in need of sound bites, many may be left with little choice but to turn a private conversation into a group discussion.  Before you know it, scribe and subject are at the center of a crowd.

I’ve been there; an inquirer encircled.  And done that; myself a space invader.  More than I can recall or care to admit.

Then there are rare times when even a respectful distance isn’t enough to avoid overhearing a reporter and player trade questions for answers.  Though their words may go unrepeated, it still feels like a breach of etiquette.  If nothing else, a colleague has unwittingly lost the exclusive he or she was seeking.

Tom after his run into “Brady’s Corner” before the AFC Wild Card playoff vs. Tennessee.

Personally, one such instance occurred in the final days of 2019.  Locker room space was limited by a midweek swell of media.  And while my back was turned to an exchange between a veteran on the beat and a young Patriots starter, I was still within earshot of what was being said just a few steps away.

The player explained how the weekly stressful mix of expectations, his own excitement and the physical risk inherent in the NFL made sleeping difficult.

His words piqued my curiosity.  What struck a chord were the words of the reporter, totally identifying with restless nights before game days.

Laying awake late into Saturdays thinking about Sundays was something they shared.

That’s when I tuned them out, stood there and thought to myself.

“And here I thought I was the only one!”

In my case, it was really one question I kept awakening to over the course of a couple of weeks; on the eve of the regular season finale and in the overnight hours preceding the Wild Card playoff.

Seven years earlier, I’d been hired to call games for the Patriots and entrusted with responsibilities that included chronicling milestones for one of the greatest players in NFL history.

Remember, that was when there were three Lombardi Trophies showcased inside Gillette Stadium.  Outside New England, conventional thought put Peyton’s place on par with TB12 and considered Joe Cool and his four titles to still be the bar setter.

But then, to cap my second season behind the mic Tom Brady led the Pats from 10 down against the Legion of Boom, enabling Malcolm Butler to burst onto the national scene and clinch Super Bowl XLIX.  Brady had tied Montana with a fourth championship.

Two years later, Brady and the Patriots completed an even more improbable comeback, reaching overtime after trailing Atlanta, 28-3.  James White’s game-ending touchdown in Super Bowl LI resulted in No. 5.

Five-hundred yards the following February weren’t enough to make it six, which had to wait another year.  Repeatedly converting on 3rd-and-10 at Kansas City propelled the Pats to Super Bowl LIII, where a perfect pass to Rob Gronkowski set up Sony Michel for the game’s one and only touchdown.

Six titles.  Unprecedented.

To go along with all the individual milestones, including in my play-by-play experience the 400th and 500th regular-season touchdown passes of a career winding toward the end of its 20th season at the close of 2019.

And doing so, as we’ve all heard and read almost ad nauseam, with the 42-year-old quarterback — by now beyond reasonable doubt the all-time best — playing the final days of his expiring contract.

So I wondered the same question as everyone else.

“Will this be Tom Brady’s last game as a Patriot?”

And I wrestled with a follow-up uniquely my own.

“How, as the so-called voice of the team, do I handle that possibility?”

Coming up with an appropriate response to the second was made especially difficult because nobody — not even Tom — knew the answer to the first.  We still don’t.  All we really know today is that retirement seems less likely than a return to New England.

Now it should be noted that I’ve learned to rest easier during the last seven seasons, suppressing the excitement and nervousness preceding each big game better the next time than the last time.  Sleep came more quickly before Super Bowl LIII, for example, then XLIX.  Of course, Benadryl and a cup of herbal tea — yes, Bigelow for me — have had something to do with it.

Also, as my career has evolved and I’ve expressed in numerous conversations, experience has made me less reliant on scripted remarks and mostly disinterested in signature calls.

Thirteen years later, I still regret the words I’d conceived the night before Navy ended its seemingly interminable quest to finally beat Notre Dame again.  For whatever reasons in November 2007, I had an inkling the Midshipmen stood a great chance of defeating the Fighting Irish; something that hadn’t been done since 1963.

Stirring in the night inside my Michigan City, Ind. hotel room, I wrote and re-wrote words in my mind like “futility” and “frustration,” adding alliteration to what I imagined a fitting punctuation to a possible outcome.  I may have even, at one point in the wee small hours, reached for the Holiday Inn pen and pad on the night stand to jot it all down.

The following afternoon, the Mids led in the third overtime.  They needed only a stop on a two-point conversion try to prevail.  There was a dubious pass interference call on an incompletion.  Neither the game nor the series skid were quite over.  Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis opted to keep the next play on the ground.

As it developed, I called it how I saw it.

Tight end motions right to left.  (Quarterback Evan) Sharpley pulls away, hands it to Travis Thomas.

Runs it right side.  He’ll be stopped!  And so will a 43-game losing streak for Navy against Notre Dame! 

I should have left it at that, and shut up.  Already I was struggling to be heard.

But no.  With nary a beat to collect my breath, I rambled on.

After four decades plus of futility and frustration, of lopsided losses and narrow defeats for the Midshipmen, all are forgotten…

(Blah, blah, blah…how do I transition back to impromptu now that I recited the written remarks?  And who is still listening at this point, when I can barely hear myself?)

Years later, those words lost in that moment sounded in my memory whenever I was asked about my Super Bowl preparation.

“No,” I replied when others wanted to know if I knew what I’d say in the event of a Patriots win.  “The best calls are born from the emotion of the moment.”

Okay, a bit cheesy.  Still, I think, pretty good words to broadcast by.

Of course, in my case, it was impossible to foretell Malcom Butler’s interception or White’s overtime score culminating the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history.  That said, I do wish I’d stopped talking sooner on Butler’s pick.  I still cringe at my sing-singing “with 20 seconds to go…” which I bellowed while being bear-hugged by our jubilant producer, Marc Cappello.

Sometimes ideas and phrases reemerge — hopefully, at the right time — after being stored in the subconscious.  Like last February, when I ended up saluting the Patriots dynasty while paying tribute to the great Gil Santos.

During my stay in Atlanta, I’d seen recaps of the Patriots’ past Super Bowl victories and heard many of Gil’s iconic calls.  Among them his exclamation at the end of Super Bowl XXXIX: “Yes, it’s a dynasty!”  On game day my walk to Mercedes-Benz Stadium brought me past a fence lined with large photos of the previous 52 Super Bowl championship rings.  The three earned by the Pats of the early 2000s prompted me to stop and snap a photo.

Later, when a missed field goal try in a two-score game set up a Brady kneel-down in the final seconds, I needed something to say.  Glancing at my notes and with the Patriots about to capture a third title in five years, I heard Gil’s voice again.  Then I used my own.

In the early 2000s they won three of four.  Now they have won three of the last five.  Yes, it’s still a dynasty!

Commemorating previous rings earned along the way to Super Bowl LIII.

Feedback I’ve since received has been mostly positive.  Probably, in part at least, because I was clear and concise.  Largely, no doubt, because of the connection my words created to the dawn of the dynasty and its late Hall of Fame voice.

But how to handle this case of a common denominator linking all six championships possibly playing for the final time as a Patriot; it was the thought that kept me up at night.

Flashbacks of unforgettable throws witnessed in my seven seasons replayed in my mind’s eye.  Kenbrell Thompkins against the Saints.  Brandon LaFell versus the Ravens.  Third-and-10, from the nine, down eight in Super Bowl LI.  Sixteen yards to Chris Hogan.  The subsequent throw to Danny Amendola for 14 on the second play of overtime.  All those 3rd-and-10’s at Kansas City.  And one last time to Gronk; over two Rams and in front of a third, for 29 yards in LIII.

Stats and milestones started streaming through my mind until I thankfully put thoughts of those to bed.  I’d need a month of broadcasts to cover them all.  Besides, what else was there to cite beyond the mention of the six championships?

An essay of sorts started to formulate as well.   I considered Brady’s regional reach, growing from the kid in a backward ball cap celebrating in New Orleans into the dad holding his daughter in one arm and raising the Lombardi Trophy with the other in Atlanta.

Certainly the situation had to be addressed, but without overstatement and independent of the daily talk-show narratives.  Neither time nor priorities providing play-by-play allow it.  Once it kicks off the game writes the story you’re supposed to tell.

Ultimately, I settled on a simple strategy for Week 17.  I would broach the topic with Scott Zolak during our open and move on.  I figured that we’d revisit Brady’s future late in the game, which would likely by then be under the Pats’ control.

We went on the air, I turned to Zo and we began by discussing the playoff ramifications of the day’s outcome.  A win would result in a bye the following week.  A loss, hard as it was to imagine, would mean a Wild Card date the next Saturday or Sunday.

Only then was it time to touch on Tom.

Today is his 285th career regular-season game as a Patriot (and) his 141st regular-season home game here at Gillette Stadium.

We also know, given the state of his contract and his age and the uncertainty regarding 2020, this could be his last.

So much for my best-laid plan.  As fate and Fitzmagic would have it, we never really had time to delve deeper into the subject.

The game remained undecided until very last play.  Ryan Fitzpatrick’s go-ahead touchdown pass left Brady just 24 seconds with which to attempt a 60th four-quarter comeback.  But when his last completion to Julian Edelman unraveled into a succession of laterals and a case of ‘fumblitis’ netting just one yard, time had expired.

The lede — let alone the intended walk-off — was buried by the shocking outcome.  Brady talk, as we would say it, had to wait.

Then I acted against my own advice.  Not only did I pen a broadcast open on paper — something I’ve done infrequently in recent years in an effort to keep things conversational — I made a few notes with the end of game in mind.

I never got to the latter.

Regarding the former, I spoke to more than the Brady topic.  After all, he had plenty of company in the class of would-be free agents.

The Patriots find themselves where frankly none of us thought they’d be, hosting the Tennessee Titans on Wild Card Weekend.  

And confronting the conventional thought that collectively they’re playing to both extend this season and sustain their dynasty amid uncertainty about the future, individually, of men who’ve long made up the heart, soul and face of this franchise, on and off the field.

From Devin McCourty to Matthew Slater to the 42-year-old quarterback taking the field tonight for his 41st career playoff game.

After Zo shared his perspective, we were drawn in a different direction.  The earlier AFC Wild Card contest was in overtime, giving us extra time to fill.  We welcomed in host Marc Bertrand and recounted Houston-Buffalo almost as much as we previewed New England-Tennessee.

Talk of Tom was tabled.

When our game eventually kicked off, two primary story lines developed around the Pats’ main vulnerabilities that revealed themselves throughout the season’s second half.  An otherwise very good defense that struggled to stop talented runners like Nick Chubb and Joe Mixon couldn’t contain Derrick Henry.  And an offense that too often floundered in the red zone again proved inefficient.

The turning point occurred late in the first half.  New England’s 1st-and-goal at the Titans’ 1-yard line led to a field goal for a 13-7 lead.  Tennessee then traveled 75 yards — all on Henry’s legs, by way of five runs and a 22-yard screen reception — in less than two minutes en route to a 14-13 edge.

It remained that way well into the final minute of the fourth quarter.  The quarterback stood in his end zone, with the ball 99 yards from the opposite goal line.

We don’t know if these are the final 15 seconds in the Patriots career of Tom Brady…

Nor do we know if the pass that followed, a deflected interception returned by Logan Ryan for a touchdown, will be Brady’s last throw as a Patriot.  After teammates were unable to turn the ensuing kick into the Cal-Stanford band play — minus the trombone player — he never returned to the field.

With time to say goodbye — to our audience, if not the quarterback — Zo and I had to exit the booth fairly quickly for postgame press conferences.  And give way to the postgame show.  There were a few words specifically about Brady.  But none that I’d prepared; either on paper or in my mind.

From the outset of this opportunity to call games involving an all-time great, I’ve tried not to take it for granted.  At the same time, I’ve failed to fully appreciate it.  Mainly because I grew up picturing Hall of Famers in black-and-white highlights running across the outfield of the Polo Grounds or captured in grainy film filling the air with their steamy breath on the frozen turf of Lambeau Field.

But now men I’ve watched in living color as a grown-up are taking up residence in Cooperstown and destined for Canton.

Some of whom I’ve had the privilege of trying to describe on radio.  None better at his craft than the quarterback.

To date, I still haven’t come up with a satisfactory answer to my questions.  Hopefully I’ll get another year or two to work on a fitting on-air farewell, with Tom’s last game as a Patriot yet to come.

It’s entirely possible he ends up elsewhere.  If that’s the case, I’ll be grateful for the games I got to call.  Even as I think about words I left unspoken.

Either way, we won’t know it for awhile.  

In the meantime, I don’t intend to lose any sleep over it.

 

This Week’s Podcast: Devin McCourty

On this week’s 98.5 The Sports Hub podcast, The Gridiron and Beyond, you’ll hear from Patriots safety Devin McCourty.

I spoke to McCourty last Tuesday, a few hours after Rob Gronkowski’s public introspection on a New York City stage explaining his decision to retire from football.  With the joy Gronkowski usually got from the game he loves was sapped by the emotional and physical price paid to play it, he stepped aside.

Not unlike Andrew Luck, who a few days earlier shockingly did the same; wading through a late-Saturday night shower of boos to reach a podium in Indianapolis and open up about his self-described cycle of injury, pain and rehab.

Amid an already heightened awareness of mental health issues around the sport, their words add important context to the conversation.

As the pads come off, whether for good (like Gronk and Luck) or simply between game days, the public is getting to see players as people whose jersey numbers shouldn’t be confused for their identities.  And whose worth won’t be determined by their fantasy-football value.

McCourty Twins

Often mythologized as — borrowing McCourty’s analogy — “gladiators,” he and his NFL peers are sons, siblings, fathers and husbands.  They are community members and citizens who, in many cases, are concerned enough to increasingly put themselves out front in support of deeply personal and widely public causes.

Few in New England have worn those many hats as well as McCourty, who enters his tenth season as an eight-time captain, four-time Pro Bowler and three-time Super Bowl champion.

Also, as the father of two, McCourty is a past recipient of the Patriots’ Ron Burton Community Service Award and nominee for the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award.

Since 2013, he and his twin brother and teammate Jason have partnered with the Embrace Kids Foundation to “Tackle Sickle Cell,” fighting a disease that’s profoundly impacted their family.

More recently, McCourty’s become a leading member of the NFL Players Coalition; devoting time and voice to issues relating to criminal justice and educational reform from Queens, N.Y. to Boston’s Beacon Hill.

In this episode of The Gridiron and Beyond, Devin offers:

  • A contemporary’s perspective on Luck’s retirement and Gronk’s sentiments, and why it’s important for peers to understand that the game doesn’t “complete” them.
  • An explanation of his evolving roles outside the sport — including his inspiration — and how he balances them while performing his demanding on-field job.
  • The obvious way he and Jason can actually surpass the success they shared in their first season together as Patriots and Super Bowl champs.
  • And the only way their entire defense can meet super-sized expectations for the coming campaign.

Click on the link below to listen via www.985thesportshub.com:

The Gridiron and Beyond: Devin McCourty (Ep. 34)

 

 

 

        

 

Autism Awareness

By Bob Socci

Invariably, the question would come up.  Whatever the wording, its meaning was the same.

“Is he going to follow in Dad’s footsteps,” friends and family wondered, “and be a broadcaster?”

Being a first-time father gifted a newborn son — especially given what I do — I understood that it was only natural for them to ask.  At the same time, my reply became second nature.

“Let’s hope not,” I’d say, smiling.  “I’d like him to take after his mom.”

So went the Q-and-A for about 18 months.  That’s when our son — by then a big brother to a baby sister — stopped talking.  

Our pediatrician, recognizing other developmental delays, suggested an evaluation at Boston Children’s Hospital.  Our boy, my wife and I were told, might be autistic.

Immediately, I was in denial, researching autism symptoms and keeping an accounting of all the boxes our son didn’t check.  I was also — to use another “A” word — angry.  Mostly with myself, fearing that my repeated wish was coming true.  Indeed, my child would never do what I do with the spoken word.  His voice had been taken away.

Sure enough, the team at Children’s confirmed what our good doctor suspected.  Our boy, about to turn 2, was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.

The signs by then — such as lack of eye contact and extra sensitivity to bright lights, loud sounds and even the subtlest of smells — were clear.  Much like my wife’s thinking.

If he doesn’t go to Harvard, she half-joked, he’ll go to MIT. 

Little did we know.  

Six years of early intervention, floor-time therapy and ceaseless support from remarkably and selflessly dedicated educators in a very supportive school district later, our son is a flourishing third-grader.  He reads voraciously; writes his own stories regularly; takes piano and guitar lessons; and though by no means an athlete (this apple didn’t fall far), has recently started tae kwon do.  

He’s also a little engineer.  And today, it’s much more challenging to get him to stop talking than start.  Especially about his favorite subject: LEGOs.  Days begin and end with them; from boxed sets to — increasingly — his own creations utilizing gears, axels, springs, levers and a limitless imagination fed by a photographic memory.  He has an uncanny ability to re-create what he browses in stores, catalogs and videos.  

Teachers who use LEGO Technic and robotics as part of their STEM curriculum consider him their class guru.  One even asked him to be her assistant instructing younger kids in an after-school program.  Nothing has done more to boost his self-esteem.  Or help establish a true connection to other kids. 

But unfortunately, outside of that comfort zone built with LEGO blocks, our son struggles to socialize.  Seeing and hearing in his own way, unable to recognize certain important cues and nuances, challenge his relationships with peers.  Which become further complicated by episodes of overstimulation, obsessive-compulsiveness and perseveration.    

Making friends isn’t easy for most of us.  It’s especially difficult for him.  And that’s the hardest part for me.  Still, aside from trials every other parent confronts, it’s really the only hard part of being my son’s dad.

There’s a saying, ‘When you’ve met one person on the autism spectrum, you’ve met one person on the autism spectrum.’  

I wouldn’t want our one any other way.  He’s unfailingly polite; unwilling to bend let alone break rules; and far funnier than his old man.  What I once denied foolishly, I now embrace proudly.  Even if he, like most boys his age, hates to be hugged.

Our son is classified as ‘high-functioning’ autistic, a term I frankly detest because of what it implies about others on the spectrum.  You could be in his company and have no idea he’s a kid in need of an official diagnosis.

Until last night, he had no idea either.  

Before then, the right time and right way to tell him and his sister about his autism had never occurred to us.  But as we sat around the dinner table, on the eve of World Autism Awareness Day, the subject arose.  

Their school — our school — was encouraging all of its students to wear blue this morning.  Naturally, the kids had their own questions for Mom and Dad.  All of which, essentially, boiled down to this: what is autism?  

Listening to our explanations, our son followed-up.  

“Do I have autism?”

“Yes,” we replied, gently yet straight-forwardly.

Pushing himself away from he dinner table, he yelled out his own denial, ran into our living room and dropped onto our couch.  Through tears, he told us that he didn’t want to face the kids at school the next day.  Or the day after that.

But within a few moments, he calmed down and wanted to know more.  We did our best educate and, equally, encourage.  

I described a teenaged friend with autism who can surely follow in my footsteps — and go much farther — as a writer and broadcaster.  My wife explained how our differences can make us better; noting in his case an extraordinary ability to make the amazing LEGO designs he alone imagines come to life.  Reassured, he returned to the table, finished his dinner and homework, and headed upstairs for bedtime. 

Today I woke up earlier than usual.  As my son slept, I readied for a new round of questions and steeled myself for a potential struggle.  I might have to convince him that it was okay to return to his classmates.

But after he got out of bed, other than asking for help to find blue pants to go with his blue shirt, nothing was said about last night.  Not even the ‘A’ word.

An hour later, I drove the kids to their wonderfully kind and inclusive school and dropped them off curbside.  We told each other we love each other.  They got out and, side-by-side, walked inside.

World Autism Day was just like any other day.  The way it should be. 

 

      

About last weekend, thanks so much!

By Bob Socci

So much for putting the phone down.   

Reaction to what I wrote about last weekend was personally overwhelming.  There were calls, text messages, Twitter replies and Facebook comments.  

Almost all were well-wishes, some were stories of similar if not worse experiences and a couple, unsurprisingly, were critiques of my a.m. reading.  For the record regarding the latter, I appreciate Karen and Kevin and their Herald colleagues too.  I just do it while at the office computer rather than having their words delivered to the front door.

Hard as I tried, I know I failed to answer all individually.  Therefore, I’m writing this to thank you collectively.  

I read a lot about me, but I really loved reading about you.  Regarding more than a few, I look forward to learning more in the future.  

The seriousness of any health scare — especially for family — isn’t lost on me.  But after my worst weekend since Navy was beaten by Army and the Patriots by a Miami miracle, I’m doing great.  I can joke about our brief scare at home.  To most, life’s struggles are never a laughing matter.

One needn’t go far nor look long to sharpen perspective.  Saturday morning I did it just by clicking on a link to a story by ESPN’s Mike Reiss about someone else who truly loves the Pats with all his heart.  

Then I decided to go for a jog, my first since Monday’s stress test at MGH.  Before leaving, I texted to tell my wife, who was running errands.

“Wish me well!” I typed.

Her response?

“Don’t slip.”  

With that, and a chuckle, I set out for the road.  One step at a time.  

My Weekend Stress Relief

I have much to be thankful for after a weekend scare and unexpected stay along the Charles River.

By Bob Socci

The simple pleasures in this life start most days with the morning paper and the first pour of fresh-brewed coffee.

Never have I enjoyed that initial sip more than Tuesday, after stepping into the brisk air to grab The Boston Globe from our sidewalk.  It was the first time I’d gone through the front door since being carried out by paramedics roughly 75 hours earlier.

That was sometime around 3 o’clock Saturday morning.  I had awakened while my wife was searching our medicine cabinet for Aleve.  Knowing that I keep some in my work backpack, I hurried downstairs to retrieve it.  As I quickly returned upstairs and handed her the bottle, I suddenly felt light-headed and nauseous.

In the middle of saying so, I collapsed.  The next thing I knew, she was leaning over me, holding a phone to her right ear.  Blood dripped from my left ear, which could hear the kids calling out from our bedroom.  By then, my complexion had greyed, a 9-1-1 call had been placed and my son and daughter had huddled together under a blanket.

They were as frightened as I was confused and — as much as anything — thirsty.  I wanted up, and I needed water.  My mouth and lips were dry as desert sand.  Just as I took a drink, medics appeared.  They buckled me up, and off we went.  I was jolted to my senses first by the cold air and repeatedly along the way on the bumpy ambulance ride from our home in Milton to Dorchester’s Carney Hospital.

Two weeks earlier an EKG as part of my annual physical exam at Massachusetts General Hospital revealed an “abnormality,” leading my doctor to schedule a follow-up echocardiogram later this month.  It hadn’t worried me too much, because to date I’d led a pretty active life symptom free.  

I worked out fairly regularly during football season and more routinely of late.  Usually by doing a lot of cardiovascular work.  Since that exam, for example, I went running six-to-seven miles at a time; churned out half-hour stints on the stair master, elliptical machines and Peloton bike; and even hit the cross-country skiing trails of Bretton Woods (N.H.) a few days in a row.

As someone who typically chooses steps-over-escalator and salmon-over-steak, I felt great most of Friday.  In late afternoon, I walked from the Hynes Convention Center to the Park Street subway stop.  A few hours later, I ate a healthy dinner and a couple of hours after that retired to an early bedtime.  

Then I woke to a weekend of tubes, tests and restless hours in a hospital bed.  Not long after arriving at Carney, being fed an IV, hooked up to a monitor and queried about the sequence of events; I was transferred and admitted to MGH.  

The view from my room overlooking the Charles late Morning morning.

Doctors were concerned my fainting could be related to my recent EKG.  My heart rate and blood pressure, already low to begin with, dropped considerably.  Priority one was ruling out a congenital heart issue known as Hypertrophic Obstructive Cardiomyopathy that results in arrhythmia and often causes even top-conditioned athletes to collapse.

Doctors scheduled a stress test followed by an echocardiogram.  Instead of undergoing the latter as an outpatient, as originally planned, I’d get it as an inpatient.  But I’d have to wait until Monday.

As you can imagine, the next day-and-a-half left me with a lot to think about, as I experienced a wide range of feelings.

Among them, guilt.  Particularly as I thought about my wife.  Herself a physician at MGH, she had just written her first book: Healthy Habits for Your Heart.  And here I was, my chest dotted by patches connected to wires (more on those in a bit), worrying about the irony of her husband potentially dealing with — you got it — an unhealthy heart.  And there she was, on-call for her practice from home, taking care of our 7- and 8-year olds and bracing for an imminent winter storm.

It figured.  We have a running joke in our house that I always seem to be away when the worst of winter reaches Boston’s South Shore.  It started in February 2015, when I avoided a blizzard while at Super Bowl XLIX in Arizona.  More recently, I dodged a snow-and-ice storm during the AFC Championship played in Kansas City.  Now this.  Luckily, I have awesome neighbors; a saint for a mother-in-law; and a beautiful, smart and tender-yet-tough wife who powered through the weekend after a hectic, stressful week of her own.

Above all, I sensed — in equally-overwhelming parts — mortality, humility and gratitude.  

One hospital official inquired about a “health proxy.”  Another asked, essentially, if I wished to be resuscitated in the event of cardiac arrest.  It was incredibly sobering.     

Whether lying in wait on a gurney in an emergency room bay or on a 10th-floor bed, I saw and heard things reminding me of how I good I’ve had it all my life and, frankly, making me somewhat embarrassed by my blessings.

I listened as an elderly man was brought into the ER from an area rehab facility.  He was in great pain and, suffice to say based on what I couldn’t help but overhear, seemed to have been neglected for some time.  His symptoms were those of countless others in society.  If you’ve ever had to look into senior living options, as my family did for my mother a few years ago, you probably know what I mean.

I was then placed in a room with a very young man who’d been at MGH for an extended time, struggling against serious health matters of the heart and more.  In my short stay on the other side a curtain, I felt for him and grew to admire his devoted mother and the staff that ministered to him (more on them as well in a bit).  I’ll be thinking of them and the higher quality of life I hope he leads for decades to come.

Soon into my stay, doctors determined that I had fainted from a “vasovagal syncope,” usually a benign event not requiring any treatment.  Nonetheless, they still needed to explore the EKG abnormality.  

Meanwhile, I read a fair amount, followed the NFL Combine on my phone and subjected myself to Sunday’s Celtics loss to the Rockets.  With nowhere to go and really nowhere else to turn to on TV, I lay there in my open-back hospital johnny watching James Harden sink step-back threes a half mile away.

As uninspired as the C’s appeared, I was motivated to, yes, show a lot more heart at my stress test the following morning.  I laced up my running shoes and waited to hit the treadmill.  Strangely — or not, given what I do for a living — I pictured it as my own Combine of sorts.  Prospects were running and drilling in Indianapolis striving to impress coaches and GM’s enough to get to the NFL.  I was hoping to prove to doctors that my heart was healthy enough to let me go home.  

Finally, well after my appointed time, I was wheeled in a chair from the cardiology floor to the Corrigan Minehan Heart Center.  Before mounting the treadmill, though, I had to undergo my most painful part of the process.  My cardiac pads needed to be switched out.  

Again.

Placed across one’s chest and midsection, these really — really! — sticky pads are connected to wires leading to electronic monitors that track vital signs like the heart rate.  I’d been in two different ambulances, two different hospitals and now two departments of the same hospital.  Each of them used different monitors and, thus, different patches.

Perhaps you’ve heard my Patriots broadcast partner Scott Zolak enjoy more than a few laughs talking about my follicles on his 98.5 The Sports Hub midday radio show.  To put it simply, I’m a very hairy guy.  

In fact, my forrest is probably thickest precisely where those patches had to be placed.  Pulling them off left me looking (and nearly screaming) like Steve Correll in the chest-waxing scene in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.” 

Thankfully, my showing on the steeply-inclined treadmill went better than the “pre-game” prep.  I went as high, fast and long as they asked me to go, as I strongly as I could.  The subsequent echocardiogram showed a healthy heart pounding to its own beat.  I was approved for discharge, without restriction of activity and exercise.

A moment at rest before my feet hit the treadmill for my stress test Monday morning.

Not that I’m totally in the clear.  Sometime soon I’ll have an outpatient CT scan to examine my arteries.  High cholesterol and a history of heart disease — albeit at a much later stage of my father’s life — run in the family.  Plus, that abnormality remains unexplained for now.

I realized long ago that no one is infallible, not even doctors.  Still, I’m confident in mine — from my primary care physician to my cardiologist to my wife.  I also recognize that I’m a lucky one.  Insurance and location ensure our family access to some of the best medical care in the world.

Furthermore, I understand that my own experience is unique to me and admit a bias toward the hospital that lured my wife from Baltimore back to Boston and brought our children into this world.  That said, I’m truly grateful for the team of MGH doctors, nurses and assistants who looked after me.  

Same goes for my caregivers at Carney.  The bright young doc overseeing the ER, the aide who kept reminding me to “control (my) breath” and the nurse who knew my name and voice from the radio all made a big impression in a brief time.           

They and the technology they utilize only reaffirm my appreciation as well for the immeasurable importance of science.  Now more than ever.  I feel the same about diversity.  Hanging out on a hospital floor, I heard a handful of accents and saw that inside white lab coats and blue or green scrubs are people of every shade on the human spectrum.  

Just like a certain football team I watch at work each week in the fall, they are among our best and brightest at the jobs they do.  Only in their case, the daily stakes are much greater than in the games people play.

In more ways than the obvious, I’m better today than I was a few days ago for having encountered them.  I only wish we met under entirely different circumstances.  And I hope not to see them again anytime soon. 

I trust they’ll understand.

Monday night my son and daughter were back in our bed, falling asleep between mom and dad.  Crowded as it was, I fought to avoid falling off the edge.  

Yet, I couldn’t have slept better, knowing that dawn would bring the morning paper, a cup of joe in my favorite mug and the start of a brand new day.

       

   

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.