Tuesday, December 12, 2017

San Jose Sharks alumni bring goodwill to fire victims

The scene inside the arena in Santa Rosa was a fantasy come true.
It was part Charles Dickens’ novel, part Charlie Brown’s Christmas, and part Charlton Heston comes riding to the rescue.
There were San Jose Sharks’ legends, sitting on a bench next to a Christmas tree taller than Zdeno Chara, playing a benefit pick-up hockey game against an ordinary group of extraordinary policemen and firefighters on a small indoor rink with garland hanging from the rafters and a few hundred fans sitting in the stands with wide eyes and big smiles as if Christmas morning had arrived and their stockings and hearts had been filled.
You half expected Tiny Tim Ratchit to skate out and take a shift with Owen Nolan, Mike Ricci, or Dan Boyle.
For the ex-Sharks, the giddy spectacle in the arena at least temporary erased the grim sight they had witnessed only a few blocks away a few hours earlier. En route to the rink, their bus took a detour through the Coffey Park neighborhood that had been wiped out by the North Bay wildfire in October, leaving more than 8,000 people homeless. It reminded the Sharks alums of their true mission of coming to Santa Rosa.
“I have been here before to see the destruction, but I wanted the other players to see it,” said Doug Murray, former Sharks defenseman who is now president of the newly-formed Sharks Alumni Foundation.
“It really hits home. Everybody knows what happened, but you really don’t know until you see it.”
What the Sharks Alumni Foundation saw in the end was an opportunity to go on a power play and help a community still reeling. The game was born out of a phone call from Sharks broadcaster and former player Jamie Baker to Redwood Empire Ice Arena general manager Kevin McCool offering assistance following the devastating fires. It coincided with the forming of the Sharks Alumni Foundation in November that led to a Bay Area Fire Relief Game and a bus trip to Santa Rosa on Dec. 8 that resulted in a Christmas miracle of sorts.
The event raised more than $40,000 for Mark West Youth Club Little League, Speedway Children’s Charities in Sonoma, Santa Rosa Firefighters Association -Toys for Kids Program, and Mill Valley Association of Volunteer Firefighters – Bikes for Firestorm 2017 Victims. However, the game at the center of it hopefully did more in the long term. It raised the collective spirits of first responders and their families and the local youth sports community. According to Dawnielle Chaney, general manager of the Sharks Alumni Foundation, 110 of the 435 Mark West Youth Club Little Leaguers in the Santa Rosa lost their homes in the North Bay wildfires.
“We’re not here for fundraising. This is a goodwill game,” Murray said. “The bigger thing is creating a fun event and having people come here and have a few laughs.”
In that case, the Sharks Alumni Foundation scored big time.  A few minutes into their game against the Guns N Hoses Hockey Club, the pros were dominating the skilled, albeit amateur, skaters comprised of law enforcement and fire fighting personnel. So much so that Sharks goalie Evgeni Nabokov pretended to nap. Nabby literally laid down in the goal mouth, resting one hand against his chin as his teammates possessed the puck on the other end of the ice.
All this was done in the name of fun and games.
Soon after, however, Nabby was called on to make a save against a Guns N Hoses player trying to execute a penalty shot. He was distracted when three Sharks players on the bench hurled their sticks in his path.
Players on both sides smiled. Good-natured kidding was welcomed after months of misfortune.
The Sharks’ contingent – led by former player and current general manager Doug Wilson – actually invited three local players to suit up with the alumni team. One of them was Robert Nappi, a Rancho Adobe Fire District firefighter who, on the horrific night of Oct. 8, was on the frontlines courageously helping people evacuate their homes. The next day he returned to his own home in Coffey Park to discover it had been burned to the ground.
Two months later, Nappi, like many others around him, were still in a need of a boost. The Sharks gave him an assist, two in fact. Nappi scored the third goal of the benefit pick-up game on assists from Ricci and Nabokov.
Ironically, Nappi’s jersey number on this special night was No. 9, playing in an arena where only one player has had his hockey jersey retired – also No. 9. No, not Gordie Howe. That number and honor belongs to the Charles Schulz, who created the comic strip Peanuts and owned the Redwood Empire Ice Arena – a.k.a. Snoopy’s Home Ice – that hosts annually the Senior World Hockey Tournament.
It was fitting that Schulz’s widow, Jean, was on hand for the ceremonial puck drop on this remarkable evening. Their hillside home in Santa Rosa was also destroyed by the wildfires.
You get the big picture. The North Bay wildfires impacted thousands of people, not just a few hundred inside the Snoopy’s Home Ice and the emotional toll is far reaching and still extends into this holiday season. The TV cameras may go away once the fires are extinguished, but the images of the catastrophic event that occurred in a matter of minutes overnight on Oct. 8 is forever ingrained in the minds of the people truly impacted.
What the San Jose Sharks Alumni Foundation did was deliver good deed like Santa Claus. The former players were reindeer and Doug Murray was their St. Nick and when they packed up their gear and departed the Redwood Empire Ice Arena on Dec. 8 they behind a trail of smiles and laughs with the gift of selfies and spirited play on the ice.
For those first responders who participated in the hockey game and the people in attendance who saw it, at least for one night it put the merry back in Merry Christmas.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

A tribute to my first Hall of Famer

I remember the first time I saw Jere White: the Myth, the Legend, the Zeus-like Superstar Athlete.
For years as kids we used to play neighborhood pick-up tackle football games on Eric Annis’ lawn off Morton Avenue in Dover-Foxcroft, Maine. It didn’t dawn on us that it was really creepy playing football right next to the embalming room of a funeral home. It only mattered that the lawn was the largest makeshift football field in town, and Eric already had the largest dog in town, a great dane that I swear must have been operated by remote control.
Jere was larger than life to me. I had heard about him for years but he lived on the Dover side of town, which seemed as far away as California or World Peace. And then one day he showed up unannounced at Eric Annis Field to play and I was in total awe. I remember being scared to tackle Jere because I had built him up in my mind over years of silly childhood imagination to be a demigod, quite capable of charging through me like a lightning bolt or leaping over me like Pegasus carrying pigskin. He was a chiseled statue in the making.
I never imagined at that time that Jere would one day become “Whitey,” my classmate, my teammate, and one of my best friends for life. He became my Ferris Buehler hero.
This weekend Whitey is being inducted into the Foxcroft Academy Athletic Hall of Fame. I am happy and proud of him for this. Although I regrettably am unable to be there for his honor, I am honored to have played football and basketball and baseball alongside him, not to mention being his buddy and co-pilot in the rusted, beat-up blue car we called “The Bomb” that he used to drive to school. It had a corroded hole on the passenger side floor that I figured I could use to power the car in Fred Flintstone fashion in the event we ran out of gas. I was Whitey’s Barney Rubble.
In baseball, Whitey was our catcher who was always in control. He was serious as a clutch-hitter, but I remember the fun he had behind the plate. How he would get into his crouch then spin his arms like a paddle wheel, a signal to me at second base that it was time to smile and play the game with joy.
In basketball, Whitey was what I always envisioned a point guard to be. He was a take-charge guy who could muscle-up and drive to the basket and score at will whenever he wanted to.
In football, Jere was our Joe Namath. He had Broadway Joe’s poster on his bedroom wall and when we as a team started wearing white cleats like Joe Willie our senior year it seemed like destiny. Those were the best years even though we didn’t have the best teams.
I remember the night we ran countless wind sprints all the way to the other side of the practice field in the dark to pick leaves as punishment after Whitey expressed our team’s frustration and lipped off at our legendary team trainer Lap Lary. It was the worst practice of our lives, but strangely it brought us closer together as a team and as naturists I suppose.
I was the starting safety and back-up quarterback behind Whitey. The highlight of my career was catching an arching perfectly-thrown 70-yard touchdown pass from Whitey in my first start at wide receiver on the very first play of the game in the final home game of our football careers – a 60-0 win over Greenville. I did my Elmo Wright high-kicking TD celebration in the end zone which I now regret. Shorthanded and low on morale, the game turned out to be Greenville’s final high school football game.
The next week, playing our first ever game under the lights in Bangor against John Bapst, our crack coaching staff decided to run the identical play for the first play of the game again to stun John Bapst as we did Greenville. I ran my precise double-move route downfield and looked back for the ball. Whitey already was flat on his back as John Bapst defense wisely anticipated the play, blitzed and sacked him.
So much for smart coaching and the element of surprise.

Yet my most vivid memory of Whitey came in a home game earlier that season against stinkin’ Lincoln. We were tired and irritated and struggling on defense and Whitey, our co-captain, suddenly stepped in, faced us, raised his voice and delivered a quick fire-and-brimstone speech that instantly refreshed our spirits and raised our intensity. We loudly clapped our hands and broke the huddle united as rejuvenated and fired up as I ever remember being in my life.
That spoke volumes to the leadership capabilities that Whitey possessed. He didn’t say much – like Joe Montana – but when he did it was instant inspiration.
It’s also a vivid example of how much my teammates and I looked up to Whitey. Since that day on Eric Annis’ field, I have idolized Whitey and, to be honest, some 50 years later I still do. And I’m still scared to tackle him.
So, speaking for the FA Class of 1972, I would like to congratulate Jere on his honor. He is our classmate, our teammate, our friend, and now our Hall of Famer.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Is the A's Matt Olson the next Aaron Judge?

OAKLAND – On Star Wars Night, the Oakland A’s may finally have a new Jedi.
May the Force continue to be with you, Matt Olson.
Matt Olson? Never heard of him? He is Baseball’s Best Kept Secret right now. While the Baseball Universe has revolved about the Cleveland Indians’ insane record winning streak , the Dodgers’ ridiculous losing streak, and assorted playoff races that naturally have come into focus this time of year, the 23-year-old A’s first baseman, a first-round pick in 2012, has emerged has the game’s newest, greatest, super human-like slugging superstar.
The next Aaron Judge, if you will.
Aaron Judge you know. He plays for the Evil Empire and ESPN, MLB, and Fox made him a media megastar practically overnight leading up to the All-Star Game in July and crowned him King of Swing when he won the Home Run Hitting Contest. He got big enough in New York to qualify as a float in this year’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Then along comes Matt Olson, Mr. Anonymous. Everything he has done has been the equal if not exceeded anything Judge has done. They both struggled mightily when called up to the big leagues last year but have redeemed themselves like Hans Solo in their major league sequel this season.
But what Olson has accomplished in comparison to Judge should prompt baseball fans to all rise. The amazing A’s player this month homered in five consecutive games and 16 of his last 24. Judge has never had a power stretch to match that.
Through his first 68 games in the big leagues, Olson has hit 24 home runs. Since 1913 – 1913! – only one player in the major leagues, Jose Abreu of the White Sox, has hit more in that short amount of time.
Moreover, Olson has homered every 7.75 at bats. For players with a minimum of 200 at bats, only Barry Bonds (6.52 in 2001) and Mark McGwire (7.27 in 1998 and 7.38 in 2000) averaged a home run in fewer at-bats.
Furthermore, if you include the 23 home runs he hit in Triple A Nashville before being called up permanently this season after the A’s traded All-Star Yonder Alonso, Olson and Giancarlo Stanton are the only players in the last 30 years to hit 20 or more homer in the minors and majors in the same season.
A’s manager Bob Melvin last week admitted he had ran out of adjectives and superlatives for Olson’s extraordinary run. His 14 home runs in September are also the most by a rookie in MLB history and the most ever by an A’s player and that includes Hall of Famer Jimmy Foxx.
And yet Judge gets all the attention, even when he strikes out, which he did for 37 consecutive games, an MLB record. Well, check out Twitter. Olson has roughly 5,000 followers on Twitter. Judge has 167,000.
Why is the world so enamored with Judge but it doesn’t give a tweet about Olson? Olson is a better fielder who puts the ball in play and over the fence far more than Judge.
Then why, why, why?
Location. Location. Location.
New York is the Media Capitol of the Solar System. Judge is there in pinstripes and the interlocking NY. Olson is in Oakland, which is losing professional sports franchises faster than the White House is losing the NFL and NBA.
The Yankees are in the playoffs no matter how many times Judge Ks. The A’s were out of the playoff race by Labor Day and have been in sole possession of last place in the AL West since May 30.
And this is September when attention in the world of sports shifts to football and Draft Kings. As fantastic as Olson has been, it pales to fantasy football.
In a nutshell, Olson and the A’s timing really sucks. This has been the best month in years for the A’s – Olson’s emergence, the announcement of a new downtown ballpark being built in Oakland, the team has won season-high six straight games and has hit more runs than anyone in September. Yet even the Giants across the Bay are getting more recognition for the fact they are fighting to avoid a 100-loss season.
Olson can’t win for trying. Before a Star Wars Night crowd of more than 38,000 feeling good about Olson’s awesome feats, another A’s win, and post-game fireworks, the media flash point turned toward another A’s rookie, Bruce Maxwell, who became the latest pro athlete, albeit the first in Major League Baseball, to kneel in protest during the National Anthem.
This now has gone from just a BlackLives Matter topic to just complete inequality of any man or woman that wants to stand for Their rights! Maxwell tweeted Saturday afternoon before the game.
Nice of Maxwell to make a stand by taking a knee. The A’s back-up catcher, the son of an Army officer, had his hand over his heart when he did. He did something heroic on an evening when A’s fans and baseball were searching the galaxy far far away for a new hero.
I thought it was Matt Olson. My timing really sucks.