The Difference Between Fashion and Style

In a team sport that showcases individual expression, it’s style born of substance that truly endures.

By Bob Socci

If these are truly my son’s formative years, there are a few things I hope he’s erased from memory. Starting with the second time he ever ventured near a ball field.

I only excused the first because I’m quite confident that he never bothered to take note of that experience. It occurred around the end of his ninth month, when Dad decided to steer his stroller toward the diamond of a nearby prep school.

Teething at the time, the “G-Man” was less enamored with the game unfolding before us than with the idea of sinking his gums into a fence post. We lasted a half inning of mostly swings and misses, thankfully saving his synapses from being overloaded by pings of aluminum.

About a month later on another guys’ day out, we were at a neighborhood park, where my youngster was happily swinging away on the playground. Soon enough, sounds from an adjacent field caught our attention.

Regrettably, like many contemporaries, Pablo Sandoval's sunglasses rest atop his visor, upside down.

Pop. Pop. Pop. It was the unmistakable drumbeat of balls meeting gloves. Kids were playing catch. A game was about to get underway.

“G” and I headed in that direction; I pushing his stroller uphill toward the outfield fence. We would have made it for the first pitch, but we couldn’t beat nap time. So, parked in some shade beyond the right-field corner, the “Little Man” got some shuteye.

I can only hope that what he saw upon awakening that day struck him as a bad dream, to be erased from memory as quickly as possible.

It wasn’t so much the sight of the Dodgers playing eight-on-nine against the Phillies that sounded an alarm. Shorthanded for whatever reason, they still managed to cover the outfield with just two players — one positioned in left-center and the other in right-center.

If fact, I tried to use it as a teaching moment. I explained how my childhood friends and I used to solve similar dilemmas in pick-up games. We simply closed off right or left field, depending on the batter. Any opposite-field hit was an automatic out. And if we were short of infielders, pitcher’s mound was designated “as good as first base” on force plays.

Other than rain, I said to my son, we never had a reason not to play ball. If there were three of us, we played “hot box” or, as some prefer to call it, “pickle.” If there were two, we had a catch. And if it was me alone, I played “wall ball.” Uninspired, he just munched away on a Baby Mum-Mum rice cake.

I also laughed over the irony of the Dodgers of all teams playing a man down, considering the state of their major-league namesakes. Obviously, I joked, they couldn’t afford to pay a third outfielder. Unimpressed, my boy held out his hand, hoping for another Mum-Mum to chew on.

That’s about when, suddenly, I had to grind my own teeth; taken aback by the appearance of one of the Phillies. Resting atop the bill of his red cap and shading the white “P” on this beautifully sunny late afternoon was a pair of wrap-around sunglasses.

Ex-infielder Tito Fuentes was one of his era's most flamboyant showboats.

Right here, right now, one of my all-time biggest pet peeves from pro ball was infiltrating the youth level. And threatening to corrupt my first born’s idea of how the game should be played.

Still fearing the implications, weeks later I was tempted to wake him late on a Sunday night, when I heard commentator Bobby Valentine calling out the otherwise lovable Pablo Sandoval of the San Francisco Giants. Sunglasses resting on his visor? Upside down, no less? What purpose can they possibly serve?

My point, exactly! And one I’ve repeatedly stressed; often after watching a fielder struggle to see a pop-up with his naked eyes because his tinted lenses were instead shielding the club logo.

It strikes me solely as a fashion statement — and a silly one at that. Far more practical and, I believe, infinitely cooler looking on a fielder are old-fashioned flip-downs.

Seriously, think about it as you picture a runner on third with less than two outs. A ball is lifted to the outfield, medium-deep. The outfielder instinctively flicks at his lenses. Eyes now shaded, he lines up behind the ball, so that momentum is moving forward when he makes the catch and unleashes his throw.

It’s that immediate reaction, the actual flipping down, that says — no, shouts! — “I got it!” all the way. So substantive, yet so stylish.

Performance, not panache, made Rickey Henderson a Hall of Famer.

Now, before going any further, in fairness to the junior Phillie, I must confess to indiscretions of my own youth. I was a kid who devoted hours trying to imitate ex-Giant and Padre Tito Fuentes, who had this remarkable knack of bouncing the handle of his bat off home plate and catching it as the bat recoiled toward his body.

Of similar effect in later years, I took my base on balls a la Lee Mazzilli, then a matinee idol with the Mets. Starting up the first-base line, just like Maz, I would toss the bat aside with one hand while chopping down on it with the other hand. Doing so sent the bat spiraling into foul territory, spinning like the tail rotor of a helicopter.

Occasionally, I was smart enough to emulate someone who simply cut the mustard. For my debut in organized ball as an 8-year old, mine was a mirror-image stance of future Hall of Famer Joe Morgan; my right elbow flapping like a chicken wing, as I waited on the pitch.

But unfortunately, I mostly patterned myself after hot dogs — usually, to the point of a fashion faux-pas. At age 11, I demanded that Mom stitch elastic to my stirrups so that I could stretch them from shoe tops to knee caps. By my teens, I was wearing the same Saranac triangle on my batting gloves and wristbands as the major leaguers I saw every night on TV.

I once even excused myself from English class when a sporting goods rep visited our high school: I just had to — had to — have cleats that matched our uniforms. Much to my present-day chagrin, I skipped a discussion on Thornton Wilder’s Our Town that afternoon for a pair of ill-fitting, maroon Mizunos. They were, after all, just like the ones worn by Pete Rose.

Before refining my tastes, I wanted to wear colorful Mizuno spikes just like Pete Rose.

Every kid is impressionable; no one more than I was.

Eventually, I hung up those spikes — which, as it turns out, weren’t exactly the same as Rose’s hitting shoes — and found “work” in the game I was no longer good enough to play. With time, I developed a different understanding of what really makes a ballplayer look good.

It is, in essence, that difference between individual fashion and style. One is fleeting; the other enduring.

Take the act of — and reaction to — hitting a home run. Today you’ll find hitters who find it fashionable to flip their bats and/or Cadillac around the bases. You won’t find many, particularly opposing pitchers, who consider such antics tactful, much less artful.

Back in the eighties, Jeffrey Leonard was known as The Hackman and known for his self-described “one flap down.” After going deep, he slowly made his way on the bases, hanging one arm motionless at his side.

His contemporary Mel Hall had his own distinctive way of celebrating the long ball and insulting the opposition. He did it by stuffing his back pockets with extra batting gloves, so that their dangling fingers waved “bye-bye” on his home run trots.

Leonard and Hall totaled 27 seasons in the majors. Yet, by making such crass actions trademarks of their time, they made themselves laughable figures for years to come.

In sharp contrast, though his legacy needed no enriching, an all-time great like Mickey Mantle is celebrated for the way he humbly ambled on the base paths after all 536 of his lifetime homers. In eulogizing The Mick, broadcaster Bob Costas described how he and others of his generation imitated their boyhood baseball hero.

They ran like Mantle, Costas remarked with reverence, “head down, elbows up.” Mantle’s bat meeting ball was resounding enough. There was no need for a fashion statement.

"Head down, elbows up," Mickey Mantle humbly ambled around the bases after his 536 homers.

Oh sure, there are plenty in baseball history who packaged performance with panache. No one did it quite like Rickey Henderson. But for all his swagger, Henderson was unique because he could practically guarantee the opposition a 1-0 deficit from the jump. As the all-time leader in steals and runs scored, he also holds the record for most home runs to lead off a game.

True, Henderson set trends, like with the way he chose to snatch fly balls rather than catch them. Yet, what makes him incomparable still is how he routinely turned walks into triples or punished opponents like no other for those first-inning, get-me-over fastballs.

We shouldn’t confuse Henderson’s on-field fashion with his style of play. One occasionally led to a flub; the other got him to the Hall of Fame.

What Henderson exemplified individually, the team he grew up watching in Oakland, the Swingin’ A’s of the early seventies, did collectively. Owner Charlie Finley wanted his cast of renegades to re-define baseball fashion. And they made quite an impression with their white spikes, bright yellow uniforms and long hair and mustaches.

But they achieved lasting greatness by winning three straight World Series. The A’s were most memorable because of Catfish Hunter starting and Rollie Fingers closing; Joe Rudi climbing the wall and Reggie Jackson clearing the wall; Bert Campaneris on the run and Gene Tenace in the clutch; and Sal Bando captaining them all.

While they looked a certain part, what truly made them stand apart, is that for three seasons in a row, they played the part of the game’s very best.

By all appearances, baseball allows for individuality more than any other team sport. Nonetheless, I’ve covered some organizations who limit expression in the minors by legislating uniformity. Until this year, for instance, the Baltimore Orioles mandated that all minor leaguers blouse their pants just above the calves.

For the Triple-A Norfolk Tides, in addition to fully exposing their black stockings, the policy added intrigue whenever a teammate was promoted to Baltimore: Would he keep his cuffs knee high? Or exercise his big-league right to let his pants go low?

In 1996, when I was calling games for Class A Delmarva, the parent Montreal Expos banned Shorebirds players from wearing those aforementioned sunglasses. Coincidence or not, that club was loaded with future major leaguers, including two of the team’s catchers (Michael Barrett and Brian Schneider) and its fourth outfielder (Jose Macias).

How they played, not how they looked, made the Swingin' A's of the seventies a dynasty.

Who really knows if there was any positive effect on Montreal’s player-development cause? Perhaps, absent those sporty wrap-arounds, the Shorebirds kept fundamentals foremost in their sights. One thing’s for sure, there was never temptation to store their shades on the bills of their ball caps.

Ultimately, it’s hard to persuade a talented pro, let alone a teenage kid, that something like wearing sunglasses anywhere other than the bridge of his nose might be more a hindrance than help.

Someday, should my own son choose to play baseball, I might have to try to convince him of the same. Hopefully, he’ll be receptive. From what I hear, parents and their kids don’t always see eye to eye.

If he chooses to play something like the trumpet instead, my analogies might be different but my point will be consistent. However flashy your outfit is, it’s how well you hit your notes that defines how good you sound. True style, on the ball field or anywhere else, is born of substance.

That’s why I sure hope he was paying attention more recently, when we returned to that neighborhood park for a dip in the pool.

We cooled off on a hot afternoon and headed for the car. I was holding my now 1-year old in my arms, when I heard what sounded like a ball shooting off a bat. I turned in that direction, off in the distance to my left.

Two kids were in the middle of the diamond, accompanied only by bucket of baseballs. One was pitching batting practice to the other.

Best I could tell from afar, neither was sporting shades.

Bob has called Norfolk Tides games since 2006, in addition to his roles as the radio voice of Navy football and a freelance television broadcaster. To view and listen to samples of his work, please visit http://www.bobsocci.com.

Lasting Achievement, History Worth Celebrating

Former Navy All-American Chet Moeller is formally enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame

By Bob Socci

Originally posted on http://www.navysports.com on July 19, 2011.

Two weeks after Yogi Berra appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, yet another college football team added a twist to the baseball legend’s most famous line.

It ain’t over til’ its over? Well, even then, it may not be over.

Last Thursday, summer vacating continued when Georgia Tech became the latest to lose what it presumably had won. The Yellow Jackets forfeited their 2009 ACC Championship, after being sentenced to four years of probation by the NCAA Committee on Infractions.

A unanimous All-American in 1975, former Navy safety Chet Moeller was formally enshrined Saturday into the College Football Hall of Fame.

Already in early June, USC was stripped of its 2004 B.C.S. title in the fallout from rules infractions centering around ex-Trojan star Reggie Bush. And earlier this month, Ohio State preemptively vacated all 12 victories from last season, surrendering its Big Ten crown in hopes of softening any future sanctions.

Meanwhile, both Auburn and Oregon, who met in last January’s B.C.S. finale in Arizona’s Valley of the Sun, enter the upcoming autumn under thick clouds of suspicion.

The Tigers reportedly remain under NCAA investigation for their recruitment of Cam Newton, who conceivably could someday join Bush as, truly, former Heisman Trophy winners. As for the Ducks, they’re entangled in scandal as well, resulting from reports of payments to recruiting services.

Considering the ever-altering state of the sport, it wouldn’t be shocking if someday Auburn’s triumph over Oregon is stricken from the record; exactly as similar achievements were symbolically erased for Tech, SC and OSU.

At any rate, the uncertainty to much of college football’s recent history borders on absurdity. It’s enough to leave one searching for some permanence to the game’s past; hoping to celebrate that which can’t be corrupted or compromised.

This past weekend, it could be found in South Bend, Ind., where the newest members were enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame.

Among them is Sam “Bam” Cunningham.

Of the 341 times he rushed the football as a USC fullback, none were more important than the first dozen carries of Cunningham’s varsity career. They led to more than 130 yards and two touchdowns and helped the 6-foot-3 sophomore cast a shadow across the next four decades.

Cunningham is African-American. And when he and his Trojan teammates arrived at Legion Field in Birmingham on Sept. 12, 1970, they were the first fully-integrated opponent to visit Alabama. They left only after rolling over the lilly-white Crimson Tide, 42-21.

Contrary to some exaggerated accounts, the events of that evening didn’t convert ‘Bama’s legendary head coach Paul “Bear” Bryant from segregationist to integrationist. He was a realist.

Bryant understood that the Tide couldn’t regain national glory until ending discrimination against black players. In fact, he had already recruited African-American Wilbur Jackson, a receiver on Alabama’s freshman team.

But it’s widely believed that Bryant scheduled USC to stir the sea change that could turn the Tide. As soon as ‘Bama fans opened their eyes to the talent of the diverse Trojans, he correctly surmised, they just might open their minds too.

One look at Cunningham was all the convincing they’d need.

Cunningham helped spur irreversible social change; Hall of Fame classmate Pat Tillman served to inspire with an irrepressible spirit.

As an Arizona State senior, he was Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year, Sun Bowl MVP and second-team All-America. All of which is secondary to what Tillman did upon graduating.

Every American — if he or she isn’t already — should be made familiar with how Tillman lived and how he died. He was indefatigable as an athlete and uncommonly introspective as an individual, constantly taking inventory of the ideals by which he governed his life.

Tillman graduated Summa Cum Laude in 3 1/2 years, earned an NCAA Post-Graduate Scholarship and entered the 1998 NFL Draft. Considered an undersized linebacker by pro standards, he remained unwanted until 225 others were chosen.

At last, the Arizona Cardinals, who shared Sun Devil Stadium with ASU, wagered a 7th-and-final-round pick on Tillman, betting that he could adapt to playing safety. By his third season, Tillman hadn’t simply established himself in the Cardinals’ secondary; he’d driven himself to become a bonafide NFL star.

But following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Tillman made still another position switch. Giving up safety, most literally, he decided to forgo the comfort a multimillion-dollar contract can provide for the spartan life of an infantry grunt.

In July 2002, Tillman joined his brother, Kevin, by enlisting in the Army and training to become a Ranger. Less than two years later, on April 22, 2004, he was killed in Afghanistan.

Iconic and heroic, the posthumously-inducted Tillman is the most famous of the 20 Hall of Famers formally enshrined over the weekend. Others renown within their ranks include 1991 Heisman winner Desmond Howard, as well as retired Alabama coach Gene Stallings and his contemporary from Wisconsin Barry Alvarez.

Sharing the stage with them was someone somewhat overshadowed, though no less respected or deserving of induction. As anyone who ever saw him play, either in the moment or decades later on tape, could attest, Chet Moeller belonged in South Bend. Especially this year, with this class.

Bred in Ohio, he eventually adopted Alabama as his home state, settling where Cunningham left such a lasting social impact. And like Tillman, he was a relentless defender and a distinguished scholar who resolved to serve his country.

A self-admitted straight-laced kid from the Dayton area, Moeller was drawn to Annapolis by what he often describes as the “clean” environment of the Naval Academy. But while he avoided hard living, Moeller couldn’t resist hard hitting.

Host Charles Davis credited Moeller with reinventing his position.

From 1973-75, he made 275 tackles, including a school-record 25 for loss as a junior. The following fall, Moeller was voted the East Coast Athletic Conference Player of the Year and became just the sixth Midshipman to be unanimously elected All-America. There was even a national-TV appearance with Bob Hope.

He was instrumental in Navy’s 7-6 victory at Penn State in 1974, when the Mids ended the Nittany Lions’ 13-game winning streak, and in a 17-0 triumph at Pittsburgh in ’75, a year before the Panthers were declared national champs.

Moeller was also Academic All-American and, as Battalion Commander, earned the Naval Academy Athletic Association Sword for excellence. He graduated in 1976 and was commissioned as a Marine Corps officer.

Last fall, Moeller was honored in Annapolis, commencing a near year-long celebration that culminated late Saturday when, fittingly, former Naval Academy athletic director Jack Lengyel presided over the H.O.F. ring ceremony.

The evening also featured a question-and-answer session, as Moeller and Hall classmates were briefly interviewed by hosts Charles Davis and Jon Gruden, the ex-NFL head coach and current ESPN analyst.

As means of introducing Moeller, Gruden shared a childhood memory. The son of Notre Dame’s running backs coach at the time, Gruden recalled watching Sunday morning replays of the Fighting Irish with broadcasting legend Lindsey Nelson.

“We move ahead to further action,” Gruden chuckled, mimicking Nelson’s narration of those condensed classics, before segueing into play-by-play from a rebroadcast of Navy-Notre Dame. “Tackle by Moeller…tackle by Moeller…”

Quickly, the audience laughed along with Gruden; clearly getting the picture that, all joking aside, Moeller making a tackle got redundant. Against the Irish, or anyone else.

Davis credited Moeller for reinventing his position and referred to a film produced by former Navy assistant Len Fontes. It demonstrates how a safety should support against the run, and its star is the Midshipman in No. 48.

Thanks to YouTube and Google, Moeller can still be seen closing on ball carriers in all the glory of Fontes’s grainy black-and-white masterpiece.

“I grew up wanting to play college football,” Moeller told the audience. “I was not very big, I wasn’t very tall, I wasn’t very fast. But I believed I could play.”

He also spoke of meeting Academy challenges, beginning with that first early rising at 6 a.m. and the 18-credit course load of his initial college semester.

“It taught me what I could do,” Moeller said. “The Naval Academy instilled that discipline in me and gave me the desire to do my best every time I was on the field or in the classroom.”

Soft-spoken and humble, Moeller chose to discuss the shutout of Pitt in collective terms more than as the individual who had an interception and fumble recovery despite playing with a broken thumb.

“Our defense, we were such a close-knit group,” Moeller explained, crediting Fontes and another assistant, Rick Lantz, for scheming to slow down the Panthers’ Tony Dorsett. “They forced everything outside to me and I was fortunate enough to make those tackles.”

Dorsett mustered only 36 yards through three quarters and, though he finished with 122 yards rushing overall, lost a pair of fumbles. Three weeks later he gained 303 yards and scored three touchdowns vs. Notre Dame.

Before letting Moeller go, Davis left the audience with one more anecdote. He cited the reaction of another former safety Chris Lepore upon learning in 2009 that he was selected for the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium all-time team.

“That means you get to meet Roger Staubach,” Lepore’s wife excitedly said.

“No,” Lepore corrected her, “that means I get to meet Chet Moeller!”

Surely, Lepore had seen that old coach’s film of Moeller who knows how many times; perhaps enough to commit it to memory.

True greatness, even when witnessed through a scratchy lens, can’t be forgotten. It doesn’t get erased. It will never be vacated.

Bob has enjoyed a 15-year association with the Naval Academy. In addition to his current role as radio voice of Navy football, he calls Norfolk Tides baseball and is a freelance television broadcaster. To view and listen to samples of his work, please visit http://www.bobsocci.com.

Root, Root, Root…For The Home Team

By Bob Socci

During a recent reunion with a lifelong friend, conversation – as it inevitably does whenever we get together – turned to baseball.

Between us, we’ve invested more than 30 years of our professional lives in the game. Mine mostly in broadcasting; his primarily in scouting.

Granted, we occupy different seats in the ballpark and employ our powers of observation for different purposes. One of us notes for the record if a pitcher throws a ball or strike. The other evaluates if that pitcher does it with the stuff of a major leaguer.

Even so, our eyes are fixed on the same spot. And though what we’re looking for may differ, our jobs require the same thing. Essentially, we’re both people watchers.

We’re also storytellers. We better be.

An announcer has to hold a listener’s attention when a game becomes relatively inactive. The scout must stay sane through all those nights on the road chasing prospects and finding mainly suspects.

In Brooklyn, the famous Hilda Chester announced her presence with her ever-present cowbell.

So a broadcaster relays anecdotes and a scout spins yarns. Sit them at the same table and serve each a drink – meaning they’re off-air and off the record – and the stories flow long after the glasses run dry.

In our case, there’s little point to talking baseball if there are no punch lines. Oh sure, we’ll find room for healthy debate and take time to discuss the baseball business. But overall, we’d much rather recount the unforgettable characters of the game that we’ve both come across.

Without exaggeration, there are enough to keep us laughing the rest of our lifetimes. Most are in uniform; many populate the stands. On this particular night, we focused on the latter, recalling some of the most fanatical stadium fixtures we’ve seen and heard in our recent travels.

It must be said, emphatically, that both of us totally appreciate and are indebted to the fans. We’re paid to do what we do because of what they do: from buying tickets to tuning in their team.

Chilly April weeknights, or humid August afternoons, it doesn’t matter. They take their seats, proudly wearing their allegiances on caps, jerseys and jackets. Whatever the outcome, they’re back the next day. They form both the backbone of the game and give it a heart in communities across the country.

They always have.

Baseball fandom has produced some of the most memorable figures in the sport’s history. Nowhere, it seems, were the colorful more bountiful than in Brooklyn, before the Dodgers went West and Ebbets Field crumbled beneath a wrecking ball.

Their beloved ‘Boys of Summer’ featured Pee Wee, Duke and Campy; Jackie, Preacher and Skoonj. They included the likes of Letty Allen, who legendarily never missed a home game for a half century, and Hilda Chester, who devotedly rang her brass cowbell from the bleachers as if signaling a religious rite.

A handful formed the Sym-Phony Band, the famous Ebbets Field troupe. Some, like Henry Fleischman, created a single-handed cacophony. In The Last Good Season, author Michael Shapiro wrote of Fleischman, a father of three:

“He beat a steady tattoo on the drainpipe that blocked his view of home. He used a rolled up newspaper, as was traditional for the people who believed that by beating this drainpipe for the entire game they could summon the spirits who would make the Dodgers win.”

Years later, a long-haired, shaggy-bearded cabdriver was lifting spirits – reportedly the ‘King of Beers’ – and leading cheers in uptown Baltimore. Wearing cut-off jean shorts, a t-shirt and straw cowboy hat, “Wild Bill” Hagy first roared from Section 34 of Memorial Stadium. In time, he was rallying the faithful from atop the home dugout and contorting his body to spell out O-R-I-O-L-E-S.

Today, who-knows-how-many other originals like Hilda and Wild Bill root, root, root for their home team; wherever it happens to play. In my own hometown of Auburn, N.Y., several years ago the local NY-Penn League club, the Doubledays, gave away bobblehead dolls.

Not of a player, but of a fan. The D-Days honored “Dancing Bill” Jayne, a local known for high-stepping routines to songs like Thank God I’m a Country Boy.

Free spirited "Wild Bill" Hagy became a Baltimore legend, roaring from Section 34 of Memorial Stadium.

In fact, it wasn’t too far from Dancing Bill’s stage where my friend and I sat, swapping stories about this fan or the other. He had recently scouted the Minnesota Twins Triple-A affiliate while covering a series at one of my favorite ballparks, Rochester’s Frontier Field.

It’s where Fred Costello tickles the organ, just as he did at old Silver Stadium as long ago as 1977, yet also where you can buy a cup of Starbucks to go with your crepes. Yes, crepes. And where, as told by my buddy, one voice was heard above all others about four times a game, four or five days in a row.

“Taco…taco…taco!” someone yelled. “TACO…TACO…TACO!!!”

Supposedly, the chant continued, over and over and over again, coinciding each night with every at-bat by a specific player on the visiting team. That batter was designated before the game as the K-Man. If he struck out, then ‘lucky’ fans won tacos from a national chain.

Hearing it told, there was great intensity in the fan’s voice and unwavering concentration on his face. He was totally enraptured with the possibility of one man’s failure filling the cravings of others. Another’s empty plate appearance might put a taco on his plate.

I smiled as the scene in Rochester was being re-created, while thinking of my own experiences overlooking Frontier Field when the introduction of the K-Man elicited similarly passionate pleas. In those moments, defined by tacos and tortillas, The Flower City once again becomes The Flour City.

Similarly in neighboring Syracuse, tacos are in fare play. Meanwhile, for International League foe Toledo, ice cream instead hangs in the balance when the K-Man comes up.

Admittedly, the promotion mostly amuses me. But there’s also a rub. And by that, I don’t mean what seasons the meat. Confessing that I’ve observed this phenomenon only from the visiting booth, and thus might be extra sensitive, I’m bothered by one thing: it entices fans to root against rather than for someone.

So, if I could consult with clubs around the minor-league map, I’d ask: How about turning it around and promoting more positively? Instead of wishing for an opponent to be a goat, why not implore a home teamer to be a hero? As an organized pursuit sold to sponsor, wouldn’t that be a nobler endeavor?

Borrowing from another sport, there are basketball teams who also give tacos away. They do it when the home team scores so many points, usually a hundred. Not when the visitor fails to reach fifty.

That doesn’t, in any as-long-as-it’s-not-obscene way, mean that paying customers aren’t entitled to express disfavor for the opposition. If Philadelphians, for example, feel they know enough to boo J.D. Drew after all these years, power to those people. Or if A-Rod remains persona non grata in Boston, far be it from anyone else to stop the Fenway faithful from telling him like it is.

At Wrigley, it’s perfectly understandable for Cubs fans to return the ball to the playing field after a visitor’s deep fly clears the ivy. And it’s understood that the Phillie Phanatic’s tongue is firmly in his beak when he’s putting the whammy on an opposing pitcher.

All I’m asking for is a small change; switching from the top to the bottom half-inning and officially trying to facilitate the ‘pro’ as opposed to the ‘anti.’ Let’s root, root, root for the home team. If for no other reason, it might create good karma.

I’m quite certain that’s exactly what took place last month in yet another sport.

The Vancouver Canucks advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals with the NHL’s best regular-season record and seeking their first-ever title. Leading their quest was a volatile goalie and two sets of twins – one pair known as the Sedins and the other as the Green Men.

In Vancouver, the Green Men taunt a Los Angeles King. Do we really need to see anything like this in other sporting venues?

Henrik and Daniel are generally high-scoring forwards from Sweden. Force and Sully are two Vancouverites concealed inside fully-body, neon-green suits. For much of the year, until the league judged that enough was enough, they were given free reign inside Rogers Arena to taunt opposing players confined in the penalty box.

Meanwhile, the Boston Bruins got to the Finals only after out-grinding and out-gritting Montreal and Tampa Bay in two seven-game series. As one of the NHL’s Original Six, they summoned legends like Rene Rancourt (their 30-year anthem man) and banner-carrying Bobby Orr (enough said) to pump up the TD Garden. Even when the B’s fans gave the Canucks’ a hard time, you could argue they were providing a service; like reminding the troubled netminder of his last name, “Luongo, Luongo!”

In Game 6 the Garden shook from the thunderous spontaneity of 17,565. In Game 7 the Green Men sat inside Rogers, silenced in their spandex. Boston avoided a 40-year championship drought. For Vancouver, it’s now 40 years and counting.

If that’s a stretch, it’s only as far as cotton, not polyester. But if what goes around comes around – whether it’s a taco, an ice cream or a championship trophy – then teams should turn it around.

Become actively pro and they just might uncover the next lovable Wild Bill. Stick with the con and they soon could be opening their gates to hecklers clad in Lycra.

That’s something none of us cares to relive.

On deck: Understanding the Difference Between Fashion and Style

Bob has called Norfolk Tides games since 2006, in addition to his roles as the radio voice of Navy football and a freelance television broadcaster. To view and listen to samples of his work, please visit http://www.bobsocci.com.

There Should Be No Screaming in Baseball…

By Bob Socci

Maybe it was more than mere coincidence the night Yankee Stadium’s speakers were silenced.

Last month, as New York tried to rally during an eventual 5-4 loss to Boston, the climactic innings were played without audio advertising pitches, music to rev up the fans and formal announcement of each batter. According to the New York Daily News, the public address system automatically shut down after one of the ballpark’s water pumps registered a low-pressure reading.

The fact that it was Friday the 13th of May must have struck some as eerily cosmic – an untimely ballpark malfunction representing more than a stroke of bad luck.

But for others, including some players, the unusual shutdown was a blessing. For them, hearing fans left to their own devices – namely passion for the home team and awareness of the game situation, knowing when to clap and what to chant – was music to the ears.

On Friday, May 13, the public address system malfunctioned at Yankee Stadium, where longtime fans still hear the echoes of the late Bob Sheppard.

“I thought it was pretty cool, actually, for the last three innings,” Red Sox first baseman Adrian Gonzalez told reporters.

“(The fans) made up for that (muted audio),” added Yankees outfielder Curtis Granderson. “It was absolutely amazing.”

Upon experiencing that organic Bronx beat – of the fans, by the fans – the Boston Globe’s Nick Cafardo wondered why ballparks can’t regularly take time out for quiet time. Cafardo proposed a two-inning moratorium on electronic stimuli at the stadium.

Realistically, no one’s going to the pull the plug on what team marketers and, frankly, many paying customers value as in-game entertainment. Not even for just an inning or two. Bells and whistles, as well as a myriad of other sound effects and musical clips, are now part of the fan experience.

Nonetheless, what Cafardo wrote calls to mind a conclusion I reached long ago, while frequenting dozens of ballparks across the country – from minors to majors. It’s based, essentially, on the wholly unoriginal idea of less being more.

What I’d like to see – hear, actually – in those places where ballgames are treated somewhat like tractor pulls or monster trucks is a little less volume.

It’s not so much the tunes that get to me. Let the music play, I say. More often, it’s the sound and fury from the pipes of the rare stadium voice who mistakes our leisurely night at the ballpark for his Rockin’ New Year’s Eve.

Society could use more civil tones. And so could baseball.

That’s why, if ever designated czar of the game – after first ending the habitual fidgeting with batting gloves that grips today’s hitters (please see previous post Baseball Addition by Subtraction) – I would decree:

2. There Should Be No Screaming in Baseball…

…unless, that is, you’re arguing with an umpire. And since I’ve yet to see a public address announcer or stadium emcee charge onto the field doing his best Bobby Cox or Lou Piniella impersonation, it’s time in some parks to dial it down a bit.

On any given outing to a ballgame, you can be treated to a beautiful arrangement. It’s the voices of vendors heard above the murmur of a grandstand; dugout chatter and bleacher banter; and the hubbub of a crowd taking cues from clutch hits and rally-ending strikeouts.

But in some places, particularly at the game’s grassroots, the minor leagues, electronic intrusion creates an assault on the senses. They’re where you’re liable to hear special effects, like the sound of shattering glass, on every foul ball out of play and/or an over-amplified and amped-up announcer shouting for the sake of shouting.

Years ago, The (insert sponsor) Pizza Scream was a widespread promotion. The premise was simple enough. During a designated between-innings break, fans were invited to scream for a free pie. Whoever was judged to make the most noise received an in-seat delivery. At least in that case, it was the fans doing all the screaming.

There are times, however, when the in-game, on-field host – filling a role created fairly recently – gets a bit carried away. For instance, at one International League stadium, the M.C. is a talented guy with plenty of timbre. He just happens to go overboard from the bed of a four-wheeler that circles the warning track and launches t-shirts into the crowd.

“Make some noise!” he repeatedly seems to be yelling from the top of his lungs. In moderation, his message would be clear. Over-modulation makes it just plain loud.

One of the great appeals of going to a ballgame is the idea of relaxing in your seat, washing down a dog slathered in mustard with a cold beverage and enjoying good conversation. You shouldn’t have to shout to be heard by the person in the next seat, as if bellied-up to the bar of a loud nightclub.

I’m totally into the idea of pumping up a crowd, trying to energize fans during a rally or entertain them when there’s a lull in the action. And, absolutely, a hometown hitter walking up to a clutch at-bat should be identified with a little extra oomph on each ensuing syllable of his name.

For that matter, creative use of music and videos definitely enlivens in-game presentation. There aren’t many ideas in sports marketing more ingenious than the Rally Monkey. I mean, except for Giants fans, who didn’t love seeing the Angels answer the monkey’s call to come back and win the 2002 World Series? The Rally Monkey was (is) so cool, one can almost forgive the Halos for perpetrating Thunder Sticks on the public that same postseason.

The one and only Rally Monkey.

It’s understood that one can’t possibly expect other venues to sound like Fenway Park when Sherm Feller welcomed “ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls” or old Yankee Stadium when Bob Sheppard enunciated every syllable of Alvaro Espinoza with impeccable elocution.

And, granted, in most places announcers strike a perfect balance between Rex Barney (the late pitcher-turned-P.A.-man in Baltimore whose elongated “Thank Yooouuu!” punctuated announcements) and Michael Buffer (you know, the “Let’s get ready to rumble!!” ring announcer).

It’s not that I’m strictly advocating what some consider stodgy and stale over what’s hip and hop. And unless I really do get to reign over the game someday, all I can hope for is that those proud to be loud take the words of a longtime baseball man to heart.

For 35 years, Bob Brown was public relations director for the Baltimore Orioles. Later, in the mid-90s, he went on to a consult for a group of Maryland-based minor league clubs, including the Delmarva Shorebirds.

Once, speaking on the subject of what really draws fans to the ballpark, Brown offered a gentle reminder.

“The next time the club goes on the road,” he suggested, “open the gates, invite people to buy tickets to hear music and announcements, and see who shows up.”

The Durham Bulls Athletic Park (photo courtesy of durhambulls.com)

Click here to hear how at some ballparks, the announcer screams for fans to scream for t-shirts!

Click here to compare how at other stadiums, including the home of the hugely successful Durham Bulls, only the fans do the yelling!

On deck: Root, Root, Root for the Home Team…

Bob calls Norfolk Tides games, in addition to his roles as the radio voice of Navy football and a freelance television broadcaster. To view and listen to samples of his work, please visit www.bobsocci.com.

Baseball Addition by Subtraction

By Bob Socci

Thirty-five years ago, in what was widely viewed as an act of defiance, baseball’s commissioner created quite a stir by sitting through a World Series game sans an overcoat.

The Big Red Machine was beating the Yankees on a frigid Sunday evening at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Stadium, for the second of four wins during its sweep of ‘76, and the late Bowie Kuhn was on the hot seat.

For the first time ever, Major League Baseball was staging a World Series weekend game at night, thus avoiding direct competition with the NFL for afternoon viewers. Critics were convinced that Kuhn sold out to television.

Mike Hargrove earned the nickname "The Human Rain Delay" with the deliberate mannerisms he displayed during his 6,693 major league plate appearances (photo courtesy of espn.com).

Ostensibly, the commissioner deemed it in the best interests of baseball to eschew an extra layer, as is if to boldly suggest to viewers nationwide that a 40-degree chill in mid-October was perfectly suited – topcoat or not – for a ballgame.

Of course, today such controversy might seem silly. We all realize that a main mission of every major sport, college or pro, is to maximize ratings and thereby please the networks and their sponsors. If anything, we in the East simply hope – often in vain – that World Series games end while it’s still p.m.; not the following a.m.

Furthermore, nowadays it’s customary for the Late Fall Classic to stretch into November and be played by men wearing ear muffs attached to their caps. There’s no sense pretending when being practical might keep them warm.

And as Kuhn’s eventual successor, Bud Selig, recently indicated at his annual meeting with Associated Press Sports Editors, baseball’s postseason is about to last longer and extend later.

There’s been talk of playoff expansion for years. USA Today was writing about the possibility as early as the fall of 2003. In April, MLB proposed a rule change to increase the field from eight to ten teams, as soon as 2012.

“I would say we’re moving to expanding the playoffs, but there’s a myriad of details to work out,” Selig told the AP editors in late April. “Ten is a fair number.”

In exchange for this inevitable expansion, and with the integrity of the game at heart, I am seeking a tradeoff of sorts. I’m pleading for contraction; hoping baseball will soon eliminate some of the things that are truly troubling about the way it’s being played in the 21st Century.

As easy it might be to come up with 10 or more, I’ll settle for just a handful. In this case, five is a fair number.

But rather than publishing the items on my wish list all at once, so that Commissioner Selig can pay each due consideration, I’m divulging them one post at a time.

So, mislabel me a purist or traditionalist if you so choose, but here’s the first edict I’d love to see – in the best interests of baseball:

1. A Ban on Velcro

There are a lot of theories, some prompted by actual studies, for speeding up baseball’s pace of play and shortening its average time of game. Naturally, though unscientifically, I’ve come up with a suggestion of my own.

I arrived at it, after a somewhat exhaustive review of thousands of plate appearances, from hundreds of games, in recent years. For time’s sake, the moment has arrived to outlaw Velcro straps on batting gloves.

As much as anyone, I value the rhythms of the game and appreciate the timeless appeal of its timeless nature. I would never quibble with the great Roger Angell, who wrote: “Since baseball time is measured only in outs, all you have to do is succeed utterly; keep hitting, keep the rally alive, and you have defeated time. You remain forever young.”

What’s gotten old, or – to borrow a frequent expression inside the sport – what’s gotten tired is the routine that interrupts the game’s flow before every pitch. Hitter steps out of box; hitter rests the bat handle against his legs or tucks the barrel under his arm; hitter undoes the strap of each batting glove; hitter refastens the strap of each batting glove; hitter returns to box.

Right-handed or lefty; slugger or Punch-and-Judy; it doesn’t matter. Every at-bat, between balls and strikes, such fidgeting has gone from idiosyncrasy to idiocy.

It’s reached the point where Frank Deford recently made the point, during an NPR commentary: “The worst thing that ever happened to baseball was batting gloves — because unlike all the other gloves in the world, which people just put on and forget about, baseball batters seem to be born with a compulsion to monkey around with their batting gloves. Batting gloves, to baseball players, are like texting to teenagers.”

Granted, such finicky behavior spawned one of the sport’s best nicknames – Mike Hargrove really was ‘The Human Rain Delay.’ But, as fascinating as every Nomar Garciaparra at-bat proved to be – from the tug on his gloves to the tap of his toes – too many of today’s batters remind me of my 11-month old every time he reaches for the Velcro straps on his sneakers. Maybe they, like him, just love hearing the ripple of Velcro off and Velcro on.

Just think, if such a ban has the effect both desired and expected, then baseball can begin to better police the use of other implements. Like shin guards and elbow pads.

Resourceful Yankees coach Mick Kelleher has his hands -- and belt -- full as caretaker of gloves and other equipment (photo courtesy of Reuters).

First-base coaches are constantly being weighed down by equipment handed over by almost every batter who reaches base. If enough guys get on, the coach has to form a relay with a bat boy just to get the gear back to the dugout. How can that coach possibly offer a fist bump after an RBI single, when his hands are full with the previous batter’s arm and leg guards?

Perhaps baseball needs legislature to impose hands-free coaching.

Should a batter choose to bat in body armor – thereby gaining an advantage over a pitcher in their battle to control the coveted inside corner – maybe he should be forced to keep wearing it on the bases. So what if it proves bothersome while running.

Heck, for years pitchers have donned cumbersome jackets on the basepaths. Those satins in the seventies had to be worth at least a lost step or two trying to go from first to third.

On a fabric-related topic, just last week I witnessed a first after a Baltimore Orioles farmhand reached second.

Josh Bell, in short sleeves, delivered an RBI double. But once in scoring position, he took time to remove a pair of long black sleeves from his back pockets and pull them up over his elbows.

I had heard of padded sliding shorts, but had never seen what were presumed to be sliding sleeves. Can you picture Pete Rose scraping the dirt on a head-first dive, only after first pausing to cover his hairy forearms with Lycra tubing? Eeshh.

But I digress, getting way ahead of myself. For now, and for the good of the game, let’s simply take it one strap at a time.

On deck: There Should Be No Screaming in Baseball…

Bob calls Norfolk Tides games, in addition to his roles as the radio voice of Navy football and a freelance television broadcaster. To view and listen to samples of his work, please visit www.bobsocci.com.

Pointed Toward A Special Place

By coming to Navy, Ed DeChellis is answering a calling, for both him and his late friend.

By Bob Socci

Originally posted on http://www.navysports.com on May 25, 2011.

Ed DeChellis had been back in Happy Valley for four seasons when sadness struck in the summer of 2007, leaving him to eulogize the man he still considers “my best friend in coaching.”

His confidant and colleague, Skip Prosser, was at Wake Forest, where he went out for a jog, returned to his office and collapsed in his chair. At age 56, he was dead of an apparent heart attack.

Days later, DeChellis addressed the hundreds, many of them his basketball peers, crammed into Holy Family Catholic Church in Clemmons, N.C.

After eight seasons as head basketball coach of his alma mater Penn State, Ed DeChellis was hired by the Naval Academy.
“The man I count on for direction is gone,” he told the mourners. “My compass in life has gone to another place.”

Four years later, the memory of if not the compass himself, seemed to be pointing DeChellis to another place. On Monday, just two months after leading his alma mater Penn State to the NCAA Tournament, and only two seasons removed from a NIT title, DeChellis was hired by the Naval Academy.

He arrived at his decision after touring Annapolis, accompanied by his wife, Kim, daughter, Lauren, and constant reminders of a dear friend.

DeChellis had grown especially close to Prosser when both were college assistants. Eventually, he took ownership of East Tennessee State’s program, before returning to PSU, while Prosser rose in the profession from Loyola (Md.) to Xavier to Wake Forest.

But one position Prosser never held was the one he always professed to want; the one that last weekend was made available to DeChellis.

“(Skip’s) dream job was the Naval Academy,” DeChellis said by phone on Tuesday, making one of the 50-to-60 return calls he owed to media and colleagues around the country. “Each year in the spring time, when jobs would circulate, he always talked about the Academy.”

Prosser romanticized about frequent visits to Annapolis during Navy’s halcyon days of the mid-to-late 1980s. A hard-nosed kid he coached in high school, Doug Wojcik, was the lead guard for the “Elite Eight” Midshipmen of 1986 and their captain a year later.

“He always talked about how special it was seeing Doug playing,” DeChellis remembers. “Years ago, I scouted a game at Halsey Fieldhouse. I understood what (Skip) was talking about.”

And when he recently came back to The Yard, walking with Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk, watching midshipmen march past and feeling a “great sense of pride,” DeChellis thought of Prosser.

The inexplicable enormity of it all, at this stage of his life and career, moved him to act.

“It was something that was very, very powerful,” DeChellis said during a press conference early Monday evening in University Park, Pa. “I can’t explain it, unless you’ve been there and done it. It was more like, without being too philosophical, it was like a calling, like this was something I needed to do and this was where I needed to be.”

Call it his civic duty. DeChellis does, if only “in some small way.”

“Believe me, I’m a very small part of it, but this is something I can give back” he said of his newly chosen role coaching soon-to-be officers.

Outside of Annapolis, such sentiments have evoked responses ranging from curiosity to incredulity, as demonstrated by lines of questioning during Monday’s presser and in Tuesday morning’s analysis.

Why, some wonder, would the 2009 Big Ten Coach of the Year depart a power conference so lucrative that it’s contemplating paying players? For the Patriot League, which until 2006-07 still fielded a member abstaining from athletic scholarships?

Was there discontent in Happy Valley, coaching in football’s 360-degree shadow? Did his contract status leave him feeling underappreciated, disrespected or insecure? Could it be all of the above?

It was, DeChellis stresses, none of the above.

“It’s not about going from the Big Ten to the Patriot League, it’s about working at the Naval Academy and having to work with young men who want to serve our country,” he said on Monday.

DeChellis paused several times to compose himself during the course of his 16 ½-minute media session. He was PSU Class of 1982, assisted three different head coaches for a total of 12 years and presided over the Nittany Lions for eight seasons. He and his wife raised three girls and became grandparents there. Saying goodbye is hard to do.

The following afternoon, DeChellis summed up his thought process.

“I wasn’t leaving Penn State,” he said, “I was going to Navy.”

To the person who knows DeChellis best, fully understanding his inner being and personal bearings, his decision in the end wasn’t much of a surprise.

“(To) my wife, driving home last week, I said, `What do you think?'” DeChellis recounted. “She just said, `This is who you are, this is what you stand for: morals, ethics, hard work, determination, all those words.'”

Saccharin as those words might seem to skeptics – especially considering some of the stuff we’ve heard from too many ethically-challenged coaches – DeChellis’s reputation appears beyond reproach.

And if accepting a reported pay cut to take a supposed step down on the coaching ladder seems unfathomable, you should understand that DeChellis sees life differently than most of us.

He was in his early 20s when his father, Richard, the family breadwinner, died from stomach cancer on Halloween of 1981. With poor health coverage and little life insurance, the DeChellises were forced to sell their family home.

The disease would revisit decades later. DeChellis’s mother Audrey succumbed to pancreatic and liver cancer at 6:08 a.m. on Christmas Day in 2007.

Between the losses of both parents, DeChellis awoke on a Friday morning seven years ago to blood in his urine. He suspected a kidney stone. The next day, a doctor delivered a grave diagnosis: DeChellis had a tumor in his bladder. It was malignant.

Today cancer is in remission, yet remains part of who DeChellis is. It shapes his perspective.

“No question,” he says. “I live six months at a time. My next doctor’s appointment is in June.

“You look at things differently. You learn that having lots of money, fanfare, TV (notoriety), whatever; it’s not going to help you.”

DeChellis called the late Skip Prosser "my compass in life."
In 2009, DeChellis was one of five Division I basketball coaches among more than 6,000 American Cancer Society representatives who converged on Capitol Hill to lobby lawmakers to do more to help families ravaged by the disease physically and financially.

He’s also helped Penn State raise hundreds of thousands through his work with Coaches vs. Cancer. Last year alone, according to a school press release, the Nittany Lions generated more than $200,000.

Considering what he confronted, and how he’s acted on his convictions, there’s no doubting DeChellis’s sincerity when he tells you that coming to the Academy is “about what I wanted to do with my life.”

And, he adds, making a difference in his players’ lives.

That includes helping the Mids reach the NCAA Tournament. Navy hasn’t been there since 1998.

Like his friend Don DeVoe, who led the Mids to three Patriot League titles in a five-year span, DeChellis comes to Annapolis after guiding two other schools to the NCAA tourney.

At East Tennessee State, he inherited a 20-loss program before averaging nearly 19 wins his final three seasons, including a Southern Conference crown in 2003. DeChellis then succeeded Jerry Dunn at Penn State, which had gone to the NCAA Tournament only eight times in its history.

Any Nittany Lion tradition in basketball, for the most part, is in the women’s game. The Penn State men’s program is truly a Big Ten outlier. While five conference foes have advanced to the Final Four since 2000, it hasn’t been that deep since 1954.

Nonetheless, under DeChellis, the Nittany Lions captured the NIT Championship with their 27th victory of 2008-09. Last March, they reached their first-ever Big Ten final and earned the school’s first NCAA tourney bid in a decade.

As you know – and as he’s already discovered – DeChellis faces unique challenges inherent at a service academy. He laughs about trying to reach a Navy player this week, only to learn of the Mid’s unavailability. His ship, literally, had sailed.

But DeChellis’s rolodex is filled with invaluable resources. He intends to call on DeVoe and Wojcik, now the head coach at Tulsa. He plans to reach out to Paul Evans, Pete Hermann and Emmett Davis, all of whom have strong coaching ties to the Academy.

“I want to see what their formula for success was,” DeChellis says. “History can repeat itself if you pay attention.”

In many ways – especially on defense and under the boards – he’ll try to duplicate what was done at Penn State. When successful, his Nittany Lions weren’t quite winning on style points. Sometimes they won without many points, period.

Like in the 2011 Big Ten quarterfinals, where the score was: Penn State 36, Wisconsin 33. And no, the shot clock didn’t malfunction.

Of course, that’s an extreme example. Nonetheless, DeChellis will soon be coaching where prevailing by grit and grind isn’t just accepted; it’s expected. This is, after all, where the football team has won twice in three years without ever completing a pass.

It’s also where the Mids of the mid-90s made winning ugly at times an art form. Most of DeVoe’s tenure, defense and rebounding were paramount. Offense often was a by-product of the two.

And though the dynamics of the now-scholarship Patriot League are different than many of those seasons, Navy was good enough to place second just four years ago. The Mids have been talented enough to feature the conference’s top scorer three of the past four seasons.

But with a style predicated on three pointers – sometimes for better, sometimes not – they still found the league’s quarterfinals inescapable. Navy hasn’t won a postseason game since 2001.

If the likes of Tom Izzo and Bo Ryan and Wojcik believe DeChellis has what it takes to change that – and they most certainly do – well, to coin an expression familiar around Annapolis, expect to win.

“I’m proud that we proved we could win at Penn State,” DeChellis says. “I’m ready to do something different.”

Albeit by means tried and true, in both Navy and Penn State blue.

“You have to be a tight-knit group and have a togetherness to you, with no missing pieces on the floor,” he says of his coaching philosophy. “You have to defend, and you better take care of the basketball to give yourself a chance to do well.

“Togetherness, toughness, defense; those three things have to be staples in our program.”

Especially togetherness and toughness; those are cornerstones of the Academy. DeChellis is ready to start building around them.

“It’s a different lifestyle; a different way of life,” he knows. “But it’s basketball; it’s competing…We will be as competitive as heck and I think we are going to put a great program together. But it’s not about those other things with me anymore. It’s just not.”

It’s about something an old friend understood long ago.

“Penn State is a special place for me and my family,” DeChellis says, “but I found another special place in the United States Naval Academy.”

Bob has enjoyed a 15-year association with the Naval Academy. In addition to his current role as radio voice of Navy football, he calls Norfolk Tides baseball and is a freelance television broadcaster. To view and listen to samples of his work, please visit www.bobsocci.com.

A Doctor On The Call

By Bob Socci

Perhaps it was the veteran goaltender, his helmet dislodged after being barreled over by a teammate tumbling into the crease and his eyebrow bloodied by the puck careening off his head into the net.

Or the teenager, lagging in experience and unable to keep up with others in a patented playoff tradition, yet accelerating between and beyond defenders, leaving them behind in his first postseason series.

Blonde-bearded Tim Thomas was once the 217th player selected in the NHL Entry Draft and a journeyman of North American minor leagues and Scandinavian hockey. Now, at 37, he is a late-blooming star. The hopes of the so-called Hub of Hockey rest on his shoulders and skates.

Just last summer, Tyler Seguin was chosen 2nd overall among the world’s most-talented amateurs. His boyish face appears on screen to feature only smudges of hair attached to his 19-year-old chin. Born only two years before his teammate Thomas was drafted, he is emerging as New England’s next fan favorite.

On this night, as the Boston Bruins evened the Eastern Conference Finals with Tampa Bay, either one could have been the face of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Meanwhile, the voice of hockey’s second season – arguably the most arduous championship pursuit in pro sports – belongs indisputably to Mike ‘Doc’ Emrick.

Master of his craft for more than three decades, Emrick is in his 22nd consecutive spring calling the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He’ll soon work his 12th Finals with a distinct style that makes him both a Thomas and Seguin of play-by-play storytellers.

His is the perspective of the veteran who’s virtually seen and told it all; and the enthusiasm of a fresh-faced teenager celebrating after he finds the back of the net.

Whether a fan of the sport or someone who appreciates broadcasting at its best, everything is in order when Emrick describes an odd-man rush.

In January 2009, the New Jersey Devils staged Mike 'Doc' Emrick Night at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. (www.devils.nhl.com).
Even during the tensest circumstances and most exciting situations – when there’s no time to sort through one’s vocabulary – he chooses his words exquisitely.

Passes are made “haphazardly,” pucks are “floated on” and shots are “flexed” aside. A goalie is “besieged,” while a skater losing an edge is left “powerless to prevent an off-sides.” Emrick goes where no one in this business east of Vin Scully can.

And as with his poetic baseball counterpart, he stretches the language to ensure accuracy. It’s substantive style not schtick, down to the very last detail. Thomas, for example, didn’t simply smother a shot in Game 3 on Thursday, he “trapped (the puck) on the spoked-B” of his sweater.

Considering Emrick’s background – more Thomas-like than Seguinesque – such devotion to precision shouldn’t be surprising.

When The NHL Network aired the series Voices several years ago, the episode devoted to Emrick was as much a half-hour how-to for younger broadcasters as a profile of the lead announcer for the New Jersey Devils, Versus and NBC.

Emrick grew up in Indiana, where he was introduced to the pro club in Fort Wayne and educated by Bob Chase, who well into his 80s and approaching six decades as the radio voice of the Komets continues calling their games.

Eventually, he joined Chase at the nearby Coliseum; though in Emrick’s case, his was an audience of one. Occupying an otherwise empty section of the stands, he spoke into a reel-to-reel recorder, unleashing the creativity that remains a trademark.

Emrick jokes about the time he pitted the faculty of Miami University, where he went to grad school, against fellow students. In his imagination, professors played for the Komets, peers for Toledo.

“It was just a way to try to practice,” he says, smiling, in the Voices documentary.

After tapes of those make-believe broadcasts failed to net any real over-the-air time, Emrick taught speech at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pa. While there, he volunteered to cover the Pittsburgh Penguins for the local paper, paying his dues as an unpaid correspondent.

Emrick went back to school, at Bowling Green, to earn his doctorate – hence the nickname – and, in return for teaching a couple of classes, handled the second period of Falcons’ hockey games. In 1973, the Port Huron Flags hired him at the rate of $160 a week.

Rather than forget such humble beginnings, Emrick pays tribute to them. His preparation is as deep and broad as his roots in the game. Every telecast is a history lesson from the former educator.

“I do love to prepare,” he says in Voices, “It’s fun for me.”

And fun for us. That’s because there’s a purpose for everything Emrick shares. He’s not randomly disseminating information. He’s telling the stories of rivalries, traditions, players and – always foremost, far and away – the game we’re watching.

But as much as Emrick knows, he’s anything but a know-it-all. He is both talker and listener and, as well as anyone in his business, prods his partners to explain themselves. Instead of proffering his own opinions, Emrick is constantly questioning, almost as if he’s an absolute novice.

For instance, during the Bruins’ 2-0 victory on Thursday, Ed Olczyk suggested using Seguin during an early 4-on-4 situation. Said an inquiring Emrick, “What would he bring to that?”

Emrick centers his broadcasting team, setting up Olczyk and Joe Micheletti as analysts. He assists, they score with their points. You don’t have to listen long to hear their chemistry.

He seems absent of ego, quick to self-deprecate on his own broadcasts and often available for others on theirs.

Pete Michaud has been broadcasting hockey in Norfolk, Va. for 19 years, the last 12 with the Admirals of the AHL. As host of Admirals Hour each Tuesday, he recently invited Emrick to call in. Being the considerate pro that he is, Michaud tried to give plenty of advanced notice.

But as they talked on a Monday, Emrick was tied up the following week, as well as the week after that. “How about tomorrow?” he asked Michaud. A day later, Emrick was regaling Hampton Roads with minor league anecdotes about Michaud’s co-host and coach of the Admirals Jon Cooper.

Emrick is big time, but not too big for the Fort Waynes, Port Hurons and Norfolks of the hockey world. And certainly never too big to say he’s sorry.

There was a split-second on Thursday when he confused David Krejci with Rich Peverley, a 46 for a 49. Immediately, Emrick uttered the four words so many of us struggle with: I beg your pardon. Better to ask forgiveness, and get it right.

Most of all, hearing him simply makes you happy. Like Scully, Emrick articulates with an easy-listening lilt, even while calling a high-octane sport.

Six years ago, Dave Sheinin of the Washington Post, brilliantly profiled the legendary Scully, declaring him ‘The Voice of Heaven.’ Sheinin also quoted Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig.

“I don’t know how to say it, really…but hearing Vin’s voice,” Selig concluded, “just makes me feel better.”

Later that summer, as the Triple-A Norfolk Tides rode through the darkness of another night on the road, their coaches – all three of them ex-major leaguers – sat near the front of a sleeper bus equipped with satellite TV. They were wide awake, held captive by The Voice of Heaven, coming to them from the City of the Angels.

At one point, a fellow passenger, the team’s radio announcer, repeated Selig’s line. Several innings later, pitching coach Randy Niemann did the same.

“You’re right,” Niemann agreed with a grin. “He does make you feel better.”

No different, really, than the middle of this month, in a living room just south of Boston. A Bruins victory was great. Emrick made it better.

Thomas’s late stand in Game 2, supported by Seguin’s four-point performance, enabled the B’s to barely survive a third-period surge by the Lightning. They held on, 6-5.

Watching the teams leave the ice, Emrick wondered tongue-in-cheek whether any of the Bruins would enter the dressing room and proclaim, “Boys, we had them the whole way.”

Joking aside, it was Emrick who had us, the whole way.

Bob calls Norfolk Tides games, in addition to his roles as the radio voice of Navy football and a freelance television broadcaster. To view and listen to samples of his work, please visit www.bobsocci.com.

Baseball in This American Life

By Bob Socci

Like so many Saturdays in May, far too many to possibly recount, this one included plenty of conversation about the game I’ve loved as long as memory can recall.

Only, unlike all those others, I wasn’t doing the talking.

Most of adulthood – accepting that I’ve actually grown up – spring and summer weekends typically were spent at ballparks around the country. One minor league baseball season to the next, that was life dedicated to the dream of becoming a major league announcer.

From 2003-09, it annually included the 140-plus games of a Triple-A schedule, sandwiched between the college basketball and football campaigns. Every spring, I stuffed my car with clothes and books, and headed out.

Those first three years, I drove three days from Annapolis to Albuquerque to call the start-up Isotopes. The next three, my commute was shortened to three-plus hours, as voice of the Norfolk (Va.) Tides. Around Labor Day, I retraced my tracks just in time for opening kickoff.

Harbor Park in Norfolk, Va. is home of the Baltimore Orioles Triple-A affiliate.

But by April of ’09, I was re-routed, after my wife and I moved to New England. Boston, for us, was the best place to raise a family. Unfortunately, home games – all four of them – occurred only when the Tides visited Pawtucket.

Then, last summer our first child, a boy, was born and my baseball schedule was cut in half. Although games were still almost always away, calling sports year-round, it was great to again experience true home stands. This spring, as our son closes in on his 11th month, my role with the Tides is essentially that of a pinch-hitter.

So, on Saturday, May 7, after returning from Indianapolis and Louisville, I wasn’t needed on air. My weekend free, what did I do? Naturally – though certainly not without the blessing of my wonderful wife – I left the house for a few hours of talking baseball. In this instance, for a change, I was the listener.

The Great Fenway Park Writers Series, a public service of the Red Sox, was holding its next event, an appearance by Texas attorney and published baseball historian Talmage Boston at a coffee-and-croissant reception inside the Hotel Commonwealth.

Ironically, if not for a football writer, I never would have known about it. Months earlier, Sports Illustrated’s Peter King noted the Writers Series in his Monday Morning QB column for SI.com. King’s comment was published between the items reaffirming his “Coffeenerdness” and “Beernerdness.”

Interest piqued, a quick search led me to www.fenwayparkwriters.org, where I learned of Boston’s upcoming visit to The Hub. Since the Series’ calendar coincided with an opening on mine, I reserved my seat.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect upon arrival in Kenmore Square. Part of me hoped Peter would be there too, so I could introduce myself, invite him to the Army-Navy Game – one coffee snob to another, thanking him for his lead about the Writers Series – and recommend Osiris Pale Ale the next time he’s in Indy to cover the Colts.

Alas, if King was there, I didn’t see him. Not that I recognized anyone in the audience, aside from the author. And not that it made an ounce of difference. The only thing that really mattered was easily apparent in everyone around me: why we were all there.

We all shared a passion for baseball. Why else would we devote a beautiful Saturday morning, much less pay to hear a lawyer state his case?

I signed in, received a copy of Boston’s latest book, Baseball and The Baby Boomer, poured a cup of coffee (Peter would have liked it, I think) and took an open seat. The first person I met was Jeff, a very friendly hotel employee enjoying a door man’s holiday. He was a veteran of the Writers Series and assured me that I was in the right place, among the right people – baseball fans all.

Before long, another amiable gentleman, Bob, joined us. Old enough to have seen his first major league game in person at the Polo Grounds, he was sporting a San Francisco Giants cap. It was his homage to Willie Mays, who the day before celebrated his 80th birthday. Say Hey!

Others filled the room, and soon enough the Writers Series chairman George Mitrovich addressed the gathering. Mitrovich presides over similar forums in Denver and San Diego. His bio on the group’s website states that he has a “profound belief in the dialogue of democracy – a dialogue that most assuredly includes the realm of sports.”

Especially the game that Mitrovich reasserts remains our National Pastime. As longtime Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell wrote, “Conversation is the lifeblood of baseball.”

Now, my friends in places like Baltimore or New York might find a bunch of mainly Red Sox fans waxing poetic about baseball, around the corner from Fenway Park, to be absolutely unlistenable. My own travels taught me long ago that devoted fans populate great baseball towns – and in some cases, regions – far from Red Sox Nation.

In college, I interned with the Reds when Pete Rose was a ‘future hall of famer’ and Cincinnati was capital of Reds Land. Years later, off-days for my Peoria Chiefs allowed for sunning in the bleachers at Wrigleyville or joining the Cardinal red sea of fans in St. Louis. I also strolled along Eutaw Street, beside the Warehouse at Camden Yards, when the Orioles were perched atop the AL East.

What’s more, extended time in Triple-A can test your romantic devotion to the game. You’re always bound to encounter somebody displeased about something: mainly that he’s not in the big leagues.

But as Mitrovich concluded his introduction of Boston, prefacing a speech about “Baseball and American Life,” as far as I was concerned, we were in the center of the thinking fan’s universe. Boston opened by quoting the French-born scholar Jacques Barzun, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.”

Talmage Boston's latest book, published in 2009 by bright sky press.

For the better part of the next hour or so, Boston filled the room full of mostly middle-aged men and women with anecdotes to back up his premise that, “Baseball is a hard game played by hard men, who throw hard and hit hard.” Naturally, as with the best yarns about baseball, they spun off a few laughs.

Boston also demonstrated how this hard game can touch a soft spot. He told the story of former Pennsylvania governor and U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh. Suffering great personal loss in 1960, Thornburgh credited the miraculous World Series triumph of his beloved Pittsburgh Pirates for lifting him out of the doldrums. For Thornburgh, baseball was a healing agent.

Hearing Boston, I couldn’t help but think about September 2001, and how baseball helped to ease one’s psyche. I’ll never forget the exact moment I began to sense the so-called return to normalcy after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

For a week, I had tensely watched and listened to news reports almost non-stop. But when I turned on the car radio on the evening of Sept. 17, pulling out of a grocery store parking lot in Annapolis, I heard Gary Cohen and Ed Coleman calling the New York Mets vs. the Pirates. Baseball was back. Finally, I could exhale. As the brilliant documentary, Nine Innings From Ground Zero, later illustrated, I wasn’t alone.

Boston also shared some of his fondest memories of his all-time favorites, like Stan Musial, Carl Yastrzemski and Nolan Ryan. With mention of each name, I thought of my own boyhood idols. What was personal for him evoked what was personal for me.

And that, as much as anything, is why I believe the hard game has such a firm hold on this American life. Each of us has experienced, or at least longed for, moments like Kevin Costner having a catch with his dad in Field of Dreams. Memories of the game take us back to the sandlots and diamonds of our youth, if not an Iowa cornfield.

Sometimes, when you find yourself inside the game, you need step back and take stock of those memories. I did. Someday, I look forward to sharing them with my son.

When Boston’s speech ended and the Writers Series adjourned, I walked out onto Commonwealth Avenue, which was teeming with fans on their way to Fenway. In two hours, the Sox would host the Twins.

They streamed one way and I went the opposite. I couldn’t help but feel we were all going in the same direction – to the ballpark.

Bob continues to call Norfolk Tides games, in addition to his roles as the radio voice of Navy football and a freelance television broadcaster. To view and listen to samples of his work, please visit www.bobsocci.com.

‘A Total Team Effort’

Ex-linebacker and former Navy SEAL Clint Bruce reacts to death of Osama bin Laden

By Bob Socci

Originally posted on http://www.navysports.com on May 4, 2011.

This was one of those rare where-were-you-when moments in life, marked as much by the vivid imagery of our space in its time as by its time and date.

Most likely, for most of us, there hadn’t been anything like it since the darkest hours of a sunny Tuesday in New York City nearly a decade ago. The memory of that morning, when nearly 3,000 innocent victims were murdered in lower Manhattan, at the Pentagon and in a Pennsylvania field, remains both surreal and unshakable.

So will, undoubtedly and indelibly, the recollection of our exact whereabouts late on Sunday night or the first thing Monday. Whenever it was that we first learned that Osama bin Laden, the man behind those attacks on 9/11, had been killed by U.S. Special Forces at a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Clint Bruce happened to be fulfilling a dad’s duty, proudly watching his daughter dance.

“I was at my daughter’s ballet recital,” Bruce, once and always a Navy SEAL, said by phone late Monday afternoon. “There are two places I would want to be, either there with the guys or watching my daughter’s ballet recital. I managed to be at one of the two places.”

Those “guys” Bruce refers to are the commandos who helped the world’s most wanted terrorist, codename Geronimo, meet the fate Americans have long sought for him, as an enemy killed in action.

“We’ve all circled around each other the last 24 hours,” Bruce says of the comrades he once served alongside. “Some of us regret that we weren’t there. You almost feel like you missed the bus for the state championship game, that we weren’t there for the guys.”

Bruce may feel that way. But one can’t help but imagine that he was there, at least in spirit, unequivocally inseparable from all the other remarkably dedicated and skilled professionals who ever trained to become our most elite warriors.

Those SEALs who carried out the Abbottabad helicopter assault in anonymity embody an ethos attesting that the “trident is a symbol of honor and heritage.” Such heritage is made up by men like Bruce.

Fifteen years ago, he was defensive captain of a Navy football team that halted a string of 13 consecutive losing seasons and beat Cal in the Aloha Bowl. His position coach, Tommy Raye, once likened the passion with which Bruce played linebacker with that of Dick Butkus and Ray Nitschke.

Bruce was a bundle of emotion and fury, uncontained by his No. 51 jersey. His toughness transcended the field. And upon graduating from the Naval Academy in 1997, he service selected the SEALs.

Where or when he deployed isn’t for us to know. What’s important is an understanding that Bruce did his part, just like anyone else who ever engaged in the War on Terror. Ultimately, in their own way, they all helped bring bin Laden down.

“Pre-op was nine years in the making,” says Bruce, his point substantiated by every report of how years of military and intelligence efforts, during two presidential administrations, led to a 40-minute raid. “There are thousands of things that happened in Afghanistan and Iraq that pointed in this direction…it’s a total moral victory for the military intelligence community.

“There’s a pride from your own personal history that our guys were the unit to get it done. But I’m extremely proud of the entire U.S. military and intelligence apparatus. Rest assured, everyone played a role. It was a total team effort.”

Offering context, Bruce reminds us that the SEALs formed “the pointed end of a spear.” The so-called “violence of action” with which they operated so precisely isn’t exclusive domain. It belongs not to one group alone, nor to a single branch of armed forces.

Even so, as layers of their amazing operation are unpeeled, we gain a greater appreciation for the unblinking eyes SEALs fix on finishing what’s started. And, in that regard, for their amazing adaptability when best laid plans go awry, such as when a helicopter malfunctions.

“SEAL teams put a remarkable value on intellect,” Bruce says. “Like surgeons, when something goes wrong, you start applying your knowledge. They have a tremendous capacity for innovation.”

Some once demonstrated that faculty in Annapolis; often, while competing for Academy athletic programs and clubs.

“A lot (of ex-Midshipmen) are doing an incredible job,” Bruce guarantees, speaking in an authoritative voice to a longtime observer of Navy athletics. “Not just a few of them…and not just from the major (sports). There are guys that you know well, who were athletes at the Naval Academy, who’ve done hundreds of times more than me. I didn’t do as much as most.

“There’s absolute pride and no surprise. They’re the same men who sweated and bled next to me as plebes.”

Several of Bruce’s teammates and classmates, continue to serve. Their identities are hidden, their locations undisclosed.

They follow the lead of Bert Calland (Class of ’74), who decades after his record-setting career as a wide receiver reportedly became the first American flag officer in Afghanistan post-9/11. As Vice Admiral, Calland commanded the SEALs, before his appointment as Deputy Director of the C.I.A.

And they humbly bear the legacy of former lacrosse player Brendan Looney (’04), who perished last September in a helicopter crash in southern Afghanistan. You wouldn’t be alone if thoughts at word of bin Laden’s death included Looney and all others who sacrificed their lives for the America they loved.

“I always think about guys we lost,” said Bruce. “Losses and mistakes are immortalized. You think about them all the time; whenever Navy plays a lacrosse game, whenever I’m drinking a beer with (my buddies), or whenever I’m with my kids, wishing they could meet those (heroes).”

With that somber note, Bruce also sounds a cautionary word.

“It’s the end of Chapter One, cutting the head off the snake,” he says of bin Laden’s demise. “(Sunday) was a reckoning, an accounting, but wasn’t the end. There’s all the morale and satisfaction that comes with that accounting.

“(But) strategically, you’re at your most vulnerable after a win, in proportion to how high you hold your head after victory. We need to be concerned.”

Bruce still stands vigilant. No longer active military, he manages intelligence and security for “admirals and generals of private industry” with the Trident Response Group.

He also remains extremely close to the coaches who once mentored him – “I was raised by those guys, (after) I lost my father” – and to the young men they now mold.

Bruce frequently reaches out to current Navy players, sometimes to counsel them on career choices. And when asked what it takes to be a SEAL, the self-professed “gas-pedal guy” never applies the break on the truth.

“The myth of who we are, and where we are, has been expanded,” Bruce said, well aware of the near mystique surrounding `his guys’ in the aftermath of Abbottabad. “But you either have it or you don’t. A commercial won’t get you through Hell Week.”

But to those who have it, to those who made it, this week more than ever, Americans are indebted.

“It’s amazing what can happen when you give bold men permission to be bold,” Bruce says. “Dare well, and you deliver well.”

‘The Stark Reality of What This Place is About’

By Bob Socci

Originally posted on http://www.navysports.com on Friday, September 24, 2010.

Last Friday morning, sipping a cup of Starbucks and sitting on a bench near the Delta counter at BWI Airport, I couldn’t help but observe a very private moment in a very public place.

A few steps to my left, a young woman, dressed in her camouflaged fatigues, was leaving loved ones, off to the next stop on her tour of duty.  As you can imagine, theirs was a tearful embrace as they said goodbye.

I was caught in this awkward time and space, waiting to board the chartered plane that would transport the Navy football team to Louisiana.  Gourmet coffee in hand, living a good life of fun and games, I thought about how little the country has asked of me these last nine years, and how much America has demanded from someone else’s son or daughter.

Every day service men and women are separated from their families, who, I only imagine, can never distance themselves from constant worry. Certain inalienable rights require our citizen soldiers to pay a steep price.  Sometimes, far too often, it’s a cost that can never be repaid.

Around Annapolis, of course, sacrifices in service are never forgotten.

A stroll along Stribling Walk, or a visit to Memorial Hall offer powerfully moving reminders of the heroism behind our history.  The same is true where patriots play, at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, a 34,000-seat tribute to the fallen.

Four more times this autumn, as on the anniversary of 9/11 a couple of weeks ago, thousands will gather there for a football game.  Before them – in bold type on the stadium facades, and in the lettering raised from the plaques of the North Memorial Plaza – will be a roll call of battles fought by the Navy and Marine Corps.

As much as the vast majority will seek to celebrate a victory on the field, they will celebrate the young men and women willing to sacrifice off it. March-on to sun down, until the final words of Blue and Gold, they will honor the call all midshipmen have chosen to answer.

In many ways, it’s no different elsewhere, even when the football Mids wear white.  Navy’s road schedule often amounts to a tour of gratitude, as fans in places like Columbus or South Bend pay their respect – at least, prior to kickoff and after the final whistle – and say “thanks” to today’s student-athletes who are tomorrow’s military leaders.

Last week at Louisiana Tech, for example, the street leading to Joe Aillet Stadium was lined with American flags.  So was each side of the stadium grandstand – east and west, one end to the other, the Stars N Stripes fluttering in the warm breeze.  A chief petty officer sang our national anthem, before a B-52 bomber flew over the field.

It was, I suspect, a bit different from some other Saturday when the Bulldogs might be hosting Nevada or Boise State.

There was similar treatment for those from Air Force by the 85,000 jamming Owen Field last weekend at the University of Oklahoma.  The Falcons emerged from their locker room to a standing ovation.  Hardly what the Oklahoma State Cowboys can expect the next time they pass through Norman.

The applause was born from an understanding – made all too clear in this decade of two wars – that college life is different for Navy midshipmen and Air Force cadets.  And our lives are different, too, because of people like them – be they officers or enlisted.

Next weekend, those two service academy teams will occupy the same turf, about 6,000 feet above sea level, for one of the three games that annually stand apart from every other in Division I.  In Colorado Springs, they will complete the first leg of the Commander-In-Chief’s series, which includes their counterparts from West Point.

As always, they will try to beat each other as fiercely as, if not more than any other rivals in college football.  Three hours or so after they start – however bitterly they go at one another – the Mids and Falcons will stand for their alma maters.

And anyone paying attention will realize what lies ahead for the respective seniors.  After clashing in pads for four years, they will soon graduate into a common cause, with all that it entails.

This year, they will compete just days after the jolting reminder that the level of their commitment can know no limits.

Brendan Looney was once a Navy football recruit out of DeMatha Catholic High School in the DC area.  The oldest of three Annapolis bound brothers from Silver Spring, Md., he picked up lacrosse as his sport of choice while at the Naval Academy Prep School.

He wound up playing it alongside those brothers, Steve and Billy, a sophomore and freshman, respectively, on the 2004 Midshipmen who came within a single goal of a national championship, falling to heavily-favored Syracuse, 14-13.  Upon graduation, Looney was first denied entry into the elite of the Navy’s elite, the SEALS, because he was color blind.

Looney seized a temporary assignment to assist a SEAL unit and, as Navy lacrosse coach Richie Meade told Bill Wagner of The Capital, wouldn’t let go of the opportunity.

“It was like a tryout and Brendan kicked their butts until he was asked to join,” Meade said.

On Tuesday, the worst fear for Meade – or any other academy coach – became reality.

A helicopter carrying servicemen above southern Afghanistan crashed.  Nine were killed, all of them Americans. Lt. Brendan Looney, 29, was among the fatalities.

While Looney’s death most directly and profoundly impacts his large and loving family, including all of his Navy lacrosse brothers, it is the Academy’s loss.  It’s America’s loss.

Because we associated with the Academy learn to view athletics through a broader scope, we already understand the relative importance of a single sporting event.  Or, if you prefer, the unimportance of same, compared to the overall mission of its graduates.

When tragedy strikes as it did this week, it’s natural to look at a game – even Navy at Air Force – and wonder how much it really matters.  It is, after all, a game.

“It just puts a lot of things into perspective,” head football coach Ken Niumatalolo said eight days before his Mids confront the Falcons.  “There are things that are way more important. It helps you remember who these young men are.  It’s the stark reality of what this place is all about.”

Niumatalolo never knew Brendan Looney, who was originally recruited by Charlie Weatherbie’s coaching staff.  But he’s known, and coached, hundreds of others just like him – kids who mature into men, dedicated to ideals that extend well beyond their own self interests.

This week, he and his players knelt in the privacy of their own domain for a moment of silence.

“He was an American,” Niumatalolo said.  “He was a Naval Academy graduate.  He was in that locker room.  We honored him in a quiet and respectful way, without fanfare.”

As for us fans, a fallen hero is a tragic – and unnecessary – reminder of why a game like Navy-Air Force remains just a game, but also that the people who play it are different than most.

The Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy is football’s most precious hardware. Not because of the victories that it represents, but rather the valor of those who vie for it in the first place.

“These games are different,” said Niumatalolo, his soft-spoken tone more somber than usual.  “When two academies go against one another, it definitely garners respect for these young men.”

Next Saturday, those young men will play a game, before placing their hands on hearts, to sing their alma maters.  They will be in very public view, leaving us with our own private thoughts.

May they include a son who died a hero this week, and everyone else willing to do the same.