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Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Little did I know, I was in a meeting with a future President

It was the winter of 1984, in the middle of the awards season, where there is one chipped beef or roasted chicken dinner after another.

I just happened to be attending one of those awesome dinners at the then-Sheraton Hasbrouck Heights (believe it is now a Hilton). I don't remember who the dinner was for or the occasion of the dinner, but a host of sports celebrities were slated to be at this dinner. A friend secured a ticket for me.

Let's see, a free dinner with open bar and a sports theme to boot _ and celebrities all around. It seemed like a win-win for me. At that point, I was just in the infant stages of my career, working for the Morristown Daily Record the first time around.

I was just going to go, have a few, eat like I always did and maybe mingle a little.

In a corner of the room stood Passaic High School's superstar running back Craig "Ironhead" Heyward, who was a Parade All-American at Passaic, who spent the prior three years terrorizing northern New Jersey opponents who could not find a way to stop the human wrecking ball. Heyward became a local legend, leading the Indians to two straight state championships. He was 5-foot-11 and 275 pounds, so he was huge, bigger than most linemen.

"Ironhead" was given the nickname as a kid because when he was 12, someone tried to break a pool cue over Heyward's head, but he didn't flinch and the cue didn't break. Legend also had it that the nickname was because he also had a size 8 3/4 head and it was impossible to find a helmet to fit him. Not only was he a man among boys physically, but he was also extremely quick and deft on his feet, so he remained a tailback throughout high school with his 5-foot-9, 175-pound older brother Nate as the fullback.

It made Heyward one of the most highly recruited backs in the nation and the University of Pittsburgh won the recruiting war to secure the services of "Ironhead."

Heyward, who died tragically of a brain tumor during Memorial Day weekend of 2006 at the age of 39, was one of the celebrities being honored at this dinner at the Sheraton.

I had written two stories about Heyward already, which was a rarity for stories appearing in a Morris County newspaper about a Passaic County high school kid. I was able to spend a November afternoon with Ironhead, Nate and their high school coach, the lovable Ray McCrann, who unfortunately also passed away last summer.

So Heyward was familiar with me at the time of this dinner. I had greeted Ironhead that night, then stepped aside as another of the honorees made his way into the ballroom.

Donald Trump was the rogue owner of the New Jersey Generals of the old USFL and gained notoriety by being the owner who signed two straight Heisman Trophy winners in Herschel Walker and Doug Flutie. Trump was determined to make the Generals significant enough that they would eventually become a franchise in the NFL. He was poised to make a big splash with his franchise at all cost. Trump had a team that played in the Meadowlands in the spring and had superstars in Walker and Flutie.

Trump made his way through the room when he was introduced to Heyward. I stood about two feet away from the meeting when I was stunned with what took place.

I clearly heard Trump utter these words to Ironhead.

"I've heard a lot about you and I want you to join the Generals," Trump said. "I want you to sign now."

Trump then offered Heyward more than $1 million to sign with the Generals for four years. Ironhead had yet to graduate from Passaic High, but Trump was set to throw a lot of money his way. No high school player had ever made the leap from high school to pro football. Sure, there were a ton of basketball legends and of course, baseball players get drafted out of high school all the time. But football?

Football players need the years to fine tune physically and naturally mature. But most football players weren't built or made like Ironhead. If any high school kid could make the leap, it would be him.

I clearly heard the interaction between the two. Trump told the kid to "have your agent call me and we'll set everything up."

To with, Ironhead said to McCrann, "Do I have an agent?"

I immediately sprinted to a pay phone and called my sports editor and guru Rob Tanenbaum with what I heard. He then told me to get Heyward to talk about it and I had a story. So Heyward admitted that Trump offered him a contract. Bingo! We had a story.

I personally didn't want to step on the toes of Abbott Koloff, the great writer and reporter for the Bergen Record who helped to break the Bridgegate scandal for the Bergen Record, who covered the Generals for the Morristown Daily Record at the time. Koloff did a phenomenal job as a sportswriter, especially covering football and had his finger on the pulse of the Generals. Tanenbaum said that he would take care of Abbott and that I should work on the story about Heyward getting offered a pro contract.

That's what I did, working closely with Tanenbaum about the story of Trump actually offering a high school football player a contract.

A few days after the story appeared on the front page of the Daily Record, I got a phone call at home. On the other end of the phone was someone professing to be "John Baron of the New Jersey Generals."

The man saying he was Baron said that Mr. Trump wanted to meet with me and talk about the story, that Mr. Trump wanted to give his side of the story.

I've now learned that the man who said he was Baron is now believed to be Trump himself.

Baron (ironically the name of Trump's youngest son) said that Trump wanted me to meet him at Trump Tower at 9:30 a.m. on a Monday morning.

"And you better not be late, because Mr. Trump doesn't like people who are late," the voice said.

It was a stretch for me to get to midtown Manhattan on time, because I'm the one who is going to be late for my own funeral. I'm late for everything. But I figured I'd agree to the meeting with Trump.

I got to Trump Tower around 9 a.m. (I left Jersey City like at 6:30 a.m.) and sat in the lobby for a half hour, just amazed with all the glitz and brass and glass and lighting. At 9:25 a.m., a security guard said Mr. Trump would then see me.

I went into this gigantic room alone. There was a desk at one end of the room and pictures all around, but the furniture was clear across the other side of the room, which had more collective space than my own home. Just the one room.

Trump walks in and says, "Don't get up." I never moved. I don't think I was moving. He then offered me a drink. I said I was fine. He said, "Here, have some scotch."

He poured a lot of scotch into a giant brandy snifter glass. "You better drink this, because I don't drink," he said. I then said, "Mr. Trump, it's 9:30 in the morning!" And he said. "You're a sportswriter. Don't sportswriters drink all day long? Drink it. You'll feel better."

Like an idiot, I sipped the scotch at 9:30 in the morning. It didn't sit well with the Cap'n Crunch I ate a few hours earlier.

Trump then proceeded to tell me that he read my story, "although I don't usually read the papers, but I read your story. It was interesting."

Trump then said to me that he actually offered Heyward a "future" contract, meaning one that he could sign when he was done with college. It wasn't a contract to be signed in high school. It was a future contract, but that the Generals would be glad to have a homegrown talent like Heyward on the team to play in the shadows of where he grew up.

I swear I heard nothing of "future" contract. Nor did Ironhead. He was led to believe that Trump wanted him to sign right there, right out of the halls of Passaic High. We will never know now, because Ironhead is unfortunately gone and we all know where Trump is now.

The meeting with Trump lasted about 20 minutes. He allowed me to quote him about different topics about the Generals, about the USFL, about the Meadowlands and about Ironhead Heyward. I had enough certainly for another story.

That was 34 years ago. I never could have dreamed that I could now say that I met that morning with the 45th President of the United States. How many people can say that the President of the United States offered them Johnny Walker Black for breakfast?

It happened. I kid you not.

Personally, I still can't believe Donald Trump is our President. I'm still in a state of shock over it _ and it has nothing to do with that fateful meeting in Trump Tower.

But among the incredible tales that I've encountered and endured over my career, this one ranks right up there.
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After watching Duke unravel down the stretch last night, I truly believe that Coach K came to the realization that this team was not going to be good (or good enough in Duke standards) and he had the surgery now to avoid being there to watch his team disintegrate. Just my thoughts. And one thing is for sure: Jeff Capel now has no prayer of being the head coach of the Blue Devils whenever Coach K retires...

I am now the biggest fan of the Atlanta Falcons. Go Matty Ice and Julio Jones and coach Dan Quinn, the Morristown native and brother of my friend John, the legendary New Jersey high school coach. But let's face facts. I'd root for the Putin All-Stars in the Rooskie Bowl if they were playing the New England Cheatalots. That team can't fail enough for my liking...

Here's to John Dunne and the Peacocks of St. Peter's University, who have put themselves right in the hunt of the regular season MAAC title with their sixth win in the last seven games, a huge win over Rider last night. Dunne has done a phenomenal job with this group, considering the adversity that the Peacocks have faced recently. Ridiculously, the MAAC schedule had them play five games over the last 10 days. These are college kids. How can they study, practice and play? Anyway, Dunne is doing perhaps his best coaching job of his 11 years as the head coach at Harvard on the Boulevard....

I promise more blogs this year than last.....I give you my word.

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You can read more of my work at www.hudsonreporter.com, www.theobserver.com, www.dailyrecord.com or just Google my name and an assortment of articles will appear...















Saturday, October 15, 2016

Farewell to my friend, Tim Camp

Yesterday I delivered the eulogy for my friend, Tim Camp, who was the Sports Information Director at NJIT and before that, replaced me as the SID at St. Peter's College.

Some people weren't able to attend the funeral Mass yesterday and asked if I would post my eulogy here.

So here it is.

The phone rang in my then Jersey City home on a hot July afternoon. I was a few months removed from my duties as the sports information director at St. Peter’s College. On the other end of the phone was a deep, quiet voice.

“I don’t know if I have the right number,” the voice said. “But I’m looking for Jim Hague.”

“You got him,” I said.

Boy, did he ever.

“Jim, how are you doing, this is Tim Camp and I don’t know if you know me…”

I interrupted him.

“I know who you are,” I said. “You have my job. You’re probably sitting in my office, in my chair right now.”

Tim had just accepted the dubious distinction to become the new SID at St. Peter’s, filling a position that was once held by the immortal Fred Cranwell (who sends his fondest regards from North Carolina, where he now lives) to Larry Babich to J.B. Wilson (who became the president of St. Peter’s College), to Rich Ensor (who became the commissioner of the MAAC), to John Paquette (who became the assistant commissioner of the Big East) to Billy Waldy to a schlub like me.

So needless to say, Tim had some huge shoes to fill, especially replacing a guy like me. Never mind the others.

Tim was as honest as they came on the phone. Mind you, a lot of other people might have hung up the phone and said. “Wrong number.” I didn’t exactly leave St. Peter’s on good terms. It could have been a disastrous call on his part.

“Well, I don’t know anyone here,” Tim said. “I’m new to Jersey City. I don’t know much about St. Peter’s and its history and the ongoing of this office. I don’t know anything about this computer here. Can you help me?”

With that one phone call and that one question, a friendship was forged.

For some reason, I agreed to help him. I didn’t know him from Adam or even the hole in the wall. We had a mutual friend in St. Peter’s assistant coach Kevin Moran, who told me that Tim was a good guy, but that was it.

I told Tim that I would help him on one condition. He couldn’t let anyone at the school know I was helping him, especially our mutual boss, athletic director Bill Stein.

I used to make Tim laugh with the impression I do of Stein all the time.

So Tim agreed to my terms. I then met with him on four consecutive Saturday mornings. We worked on the computer and poured over mailing lists. I told him what media people to reach out to and which ones to befriend. We went over the antiquated St. Peter’s filing system. I told him what was where and when.

Those days spent together were filled with laughter, filled with deep conversations. We became very close friends.

And we were exactly that for the last 26 years. I don’t know if I went more than a couple of days without talking to the guy that the great NJIT assistant SID Stephanie Pillari dubbed as “my BFF.” In fact, around Stephanie, Tim was referred to as BFF.

But Tim and I spent countless hours together, either in person or on the phone. We went to at least 100 Met games together over the last 26 years. I used to have partial season tickets from 1985 through 2011. Tim was my date for a lot of those games over the years. He would park his car in front of my house in Kearny and the two of us were off to Shea and later CitiField together.

For the last 12 years, he sat right next to me for most NJIT men’s and women’s basketball games, sharing the highs and the lows of the program, as I serve as the PA announcer, a position he gave me. We would always look out for each other in terms of getting work. I got him a handful of side jobs and he got his fair share for me.

He was as loyal as any friend could want. He was kind, considerate, caring. I seriously would do anything for him and in some cases, I did. Who else would take the time to buy new underwear for him _ on two occasions, no less _ when he was stuck in the hospital longer than he anticipated? Who else would take him to his numerous doctor appointments when he couldn’t drive, one of which was during the hottest days of July when I sat in my car without air conditioning?

But that’s because he was my BFF. I did the things I did for Tim because I know he would do it for me. He told me that he doubted it, but I know he would have.

In 2013, when I was hospitalized at Kessler Institute for six weeks, Tim came to visit three times, more than my own sister. Last October, I was in Clara Maass Hospital in Belleville with a blood infection. On Sunday night around 11 p.m., the door of my room opened in the dark. It was Tim.

“What are you doing here at this hour?” I asked.

“I had to come see my BFF,” he laughed.

In 2008, the New York Metropolitan Writers Association gave out its Good Guy Award, with its awards dinner taking place at the Meadowlands Race Track’s Pegasus room. Tim had no idea he was getting the award, but on the night of the dinner, NJIT was set to play Rider in baseball.

So instead of going to the Met Writers dinner, a prestigious dinner that the Haggerty Award is presented, Tim was going to cover the NJIT baseball game.

I then told him that he had to go to the dinner. He said he didn’t want to. I said, “You have to go.” And I tried to drum up some excuse that he had to go. I even volunteered to work the baseball game, to keep score, do the PA announcing and write the roundup for the website.

“Why is it so important that I go to this dinner?” he asked.

He later found out. And incredibly, NJIT was in the middle of a losing streak at the time. Tim eventually goes to the dinner and is shocked when he received the prestigious honor. And I covered the baseball game, a game that the Highlanders won, snapping a 21-game losing streak. Tim missed the win that snapped the losing streak.

Tim had to endure an even longer losing streak in basketball, as the Highlanders lost an NCAA record 51 straight games in men’s basketball. And he was there for every single one of those losses.

That’s an awful lot of losing that Tim had to handle through his career at NJIT. A lot of losing.

But his professionalism never dipped. Nor did his commitment to his student/athletes. He understood that the local media was only interested because the Highlanders kept losing.

That’s why it was so fitting that the NJIT men finally got to enjoy winning the last two years, going to the semifinals of the CIT Tournament each time.

Tim was not only an excellent SID at three different schools, but he was a good sportswriter with an impeccable sense of detail and perfection. He would not settle for anything less than perfection.

He was also extremely dedicated, always wanting the best for his athletes.

On a personal side, Tim loved to laugh. That’s why I always tried to make him laugh. His laughter was beyond contagious. He had a hearty laugh that sounded like no other. It was a joy to make him laugh.

It’s hard for me to put my head around this loss. I’ve suffered a lot of losses in my life _ my two parents, my brother, close aunts and uncles, friends.

This was a tough one to fathom, especially since we at NJIT just lost assistant athletic director Joe Caiola less than two years ago. Now we have to say goodbye to Tim. It wasn’t easy to get over Joe’s passing. This will be harder because it’s Tim.

Like I said before, I don’t think I’ve gone three days without talking to Tim. I’ve now gone a whole week and it hasn’t been a good week. Ironically, the Mets’ season came to an end the same day that Tim passed away. I had no one to commiserate with.

A basketball season will begin soon at NJIT and there will be this emptiness knowing my BFF isn’t beside me. I hope we can keep the chair open for him.

When Tim was diagnosed with this latest battle of cancer, I told him he would beat it, much like he beat Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma 20 years ago or open heart surgery six years ago. You just expected him to get better.

So I did my best to send him to Memorial Sloan Kettering and when they didn’t give him the news he wanted to hear, he went to Beth Israel in Newark to have the surgery.

“Hague,” he said. “I just want five more years. That’s all. I’m just not ready to die. I don’t want to die.”

So he had the radical surgery to remove the tumor from his esophagus and went to the rehab place in Jersey City where he was clearly the youngest patient and went back to Mom and Martha to convalesce and get better so he could come back to us in December.

He didn’t get five years. He didn’t even get five months. He gave some of you 59 years and others a little shorter. Well, he gave me 26 years from that fateful phone call in July, 1990. And I’m the better man because of it.

Rest in peace, my BFF. You will certainly be missed. And I can say on behalf of everyone here today, thank you for being my friend. God bless you

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Mets 2016: No magic this time around

You know that old adage that you have to go for everything when you have the chance, because you never know when you might get that opportunity again.

Well, it's so true for the 2016 New York Mets, who appear dead in the water these days. Sure, the second wild card remains within reach, as the Mets trail the St. Louis Cardinals by only 2 1/2 games for that berth. And the eternal optimist will say that once the Mets get into the playoffs, they have enough pitching to make some noise there.

But here's a sharp dose of reality here. The Mets just don't have enough horses to keep up with the Dodgers, Marlins and Cards, oh my.

Last night's horrible and inexcusable loss to the dreaded Yankees is proof that they just can't keep up the pace. Despite what the Mets' crack medical staff and administration tell us, ace lefty Steven Matz is hurting badly from that bone spur in his elbow and shouldn't be pitching with it. They should shut Matz down, let his barking elbow rest for a bit, then have the surgery to take it out.

Matz is 24 years old. I know he's been brilliant since he came up last year and I know he excites everyone with the way he pitches. But Matz started the season with a 7-1 record and his lone loss was that bizarre hiccup against the Marlins in his first start of the year. It means he's gone 1-7 in the 12 starts since. He has an ERA of 4.54 during those 12 games. Something's not right. Oh, it's a bone spur in his elbow. The crack medical staff admits it might hurt a little.

Why are we screwing around with him? They should shut him down for the season and allow him to have the surgery to repair the bone spur. That would make sense, right? He's clearly not the same dominating pitcher he was earlier in the season or last year. Just stop the misery and allow Matz to have the surgery. Every time they parade Matz out there, there's the fear he might hurt something else because he's overcompensating for the injured elbow.

Please, please, I beg Mets GM Sandy Alderson to use some common sense here. We have a precious gem in Steven Matz. He's young and we control his destiny for a few more years. So let's correct him and have him ready for 2017. Besides, we got Jonathon Niese back again. That's someone who could replace Matz in the rotation. Sure, we all know what Niese is and we know he's not Steven Matz or any close resemblance of Matz, but he could fill the bill.

Now, the other injured Met. For the past two weeks, the Mets have paraded Yoenis Cespedes out there with his injured quad. They've hoped that with a little rest, Cespedes could return to action and give the Mets a hope of recapturing the magic of 2015.

But as anyone can see, Cespedes cannot muster any power from his mighty legs. He's up there swinging with his arms. He's clearly hurt _ and the Mets' organization noticed that last night when they finally put last year's savior Cespedes on the disabled list, replaced by the happy-go-lucky Barry Pepper doppleganger dead ringer Brandon Nimmo.

Yes, I know that replacing Cespedes with Nimmo is like replacing Gary Garter with Barry Lyons. Simply put, it just doesn't work.

So it looks as if we've seen the last of Cespedes for the season. Lumbering clod Lucas Duda was also ruled out for the season, but was that a big loss? However, when you realize that David Wright and Duda and Matt Harvey and Asdrubal Cabrera and Jason Ruggiero (who dat?) are all already on the DL, you add it all together and realize it's just not going to happen this year. The magic is not back.

All we can hope is that Cespedes decides once again that he loves playing in New York and will take the $23 million that sits on the table in his Mets contract and doesn't opt out seeking another chance at free agency. He's entitled to it. His contract calls for the opportunity to opt out if he so chooses.

It will mean another off season of sitting on pins and needles, waiting and hoping for Cespedes' decision.

But for now, it looks like this season is a lost one. We've lost too many key pieces to continue the fight.

We also lost a key piece in Anthony Conforto. Oh, you say he's not gone? Well, he's most certainly went into hiding, because his decline is too rapid for anyone to decipher. A year ago, young Conforto arrived and gave everyone the hopes that we had an All-Star outfielder for the next decade or more. He had the sweet swing of Mattingly with similar opposite field power. He had the charm and demeanor of a matinee idol. He hit .270 with nine homers and 36 RBI as a rookie last year. Of his 56 hits, 27 went for extra bases.

He started off 2016 where he left off, hitting .365 with four homers, 11 doubles and 18 RBI in April. From there, it's been a complete free fall like none ever seen for someone so young (just 23 years old).

Conforto is totally lost, with apparently no hope of returning. He swings three feet over breaking balls. Don't dare think he can hit a left-hander. He hit .169 in May. If that wasn't bad enough, he hit .119 in June. He has hit just two homers, just five doubles and just six RBI since May 1. Say what???

How in the world does that happen? Is he Joe Hardy? Did he sell his soul to the Devil, like Hardy did in the musical Damn Yankees, then asked for it back? It's just too unreal for words. He's Mike Vail.

Most Met fans are too young to remember Mike Vail, but he was the phenom that took the world by storm in 1975 as a 23-year-old rookie. He batted .302 with three homers and 17 RBI in 38 games. He tied the National League rookie record for consecutive games with a hit with 23 straight. He made Mets management believe they had the right fielder of the future, so they traded All-Star and beloved icon Rusty Staub to the Detroit Tigers for the couch potato's best friend, portly pitcher Mickey Lolich.

True to Mets' folklore, Vail hit .217 with no homers in an injury-plagued 1976 season, then did nothing much the next season (.262, 8 HR, 35 RBI in 1977) and was placed on waivers, claimed by Cleveland.

Meanwhile, Staub was an All-Star with the Tigers, batting .299 with 15 HR and 96 RBI in 1976 and hitting .278 with 22 HR and 101 RBI in 1977.

Is Conforto headed in the same direction as Vail? Who knows? But right now, he's more lost than Marshall, Will and Holly were on the "Land of the Lost." His two strikeout at-bats last night against Luis Severino were scary. And this came on the heels of a game where Conforto had two doubles and looked like he just might be breaking out of it. Yeah, right.

I seriously don't know what to make of Conforto. I know I don't have any confidence whatsoever that he will somehow snap out of it. He went down to Class AAA Las Vegas and has come back doing the same horrific things he did in May and June.

Now, the team's biggest problem. Yeah, Terry Collins might have won the National League pennant last year, but he's totally lost his marbles this year, rearing that ugly head that showed he was a poor manager in the years prior to last year.

Every game, there are at least two or three decisions that make me scratch my head and wonder, "What in the world is Collins thinking?" Maybe that should be a new game show. "WHAT IS TERRY COLLINS THINKING?" Contestants cane sit there, try to guess what he's thinking about a series of topics and decisions, then win valuable prizes as they guess.

Because as a baseball manager, the man is more lost than Conforto is at the plate.

Two days ago, Collins makes the declaration that he's happy with the back end of his bullpen, that "7-8-9, I have Robles, Reed and Familia, 7-8-9."

In that same game after the pre-game press conference, proclaiming 7-8-9, he brings in human string bean Jerry Blevins to pitch the eighth inning instead of Addison Reed to start the eighth inning, winning 5-3. Now, Blevins has been good, don't get me wrong. But Reed has been unbelievable and untouchable and should have been out there to start the eighth.

Instead, Blevins gives up a walk and a hit and the wheels come off. The Yankees tie it and win in 10.

That's just one of at least 1,237 questionable decisions Collins has made this year. Makes you think that the Mets won last year despite their manager. I have nothing against Terry, the man. He's a wonderful human being. But he's as useful as that solid rock hard cookie you get with fried calamari at top rate Italian restaurants.

Hey, I know there's time left in this season. The Mets can turn it around. With their pitching, anything can happen. And besides, we have Jonathon Niese back. So cheer up.

I just don't think it's going to happen, that's all. It's a lost cause. Nice try, but it's not going to happen. No magic this time.

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You can read more of my work at www.hudsonreporter.com, www.theobserver.com, www.dailyrecord.com, www.northjersey.com or any other news gathering service you may think of. Enjoy this glorious August day.




Sunday, June 19, 2016

Recalling Field of Dreams on Fathers' Day



This column was first printed in the pages of the now-defunct Hudson Dispatch on June 29, 1989. It ended up winning several different awards from the New Jersey Press Association, the North Jersey Press Club and the Garden State Society of Journalists. It was also reprinted in Reader’s Digest later that year (although I never got credit, the paper did).

For several years, the clipping sat in an old Avon box in my basement. We had a major flood two years ago that ruined a lot of my old clippings, including several of the old Dispatch articles. But somehow, this one survived. It’s very weather beaten and faded, but it survived.

I’m posting it today, because after all, it’s Fathers’ Day.

I ventured to the movie theater the other day. No, not to see “Batman” or even “Ghostbusters II.” I’m not a trendy type of guy. In fact, I’m a little behind the times. I saw “Field of Dreams.”

OK, so the rest of the western world has already plunked down the cash to see “Field of Dreams.” We’re in the midst of a blockbuster movie season. “Field of Dreams” is old news to movie freaks. After all, it was only released nine weeks ago.

But “Field of Dreams” is about baseball _ sort of. And besides, “Batman” is not about Don Mattingly. I am a sportswriter _ at last check. And I’m a movie fan. Just a tardy movie fan, that’s all. I had to go see it. Who cares if I’m late?

I heard so many things about the movie. It was supposed to be the best thing ever to happen to baseball movies _ which wouldn’t be a hard feat, considering that most baseball flicks flounder.

I went with an open mind, waiting to be disappointed. I left feeling wonderful, feeling alive, feeling good. “Field of Dreams” touched me more than any other movie. It was clearly the best picture I’ve ever witnessed.

And my strong feelings about “Field of Dreams” had nothing to do with baseball. It had to do with life. Or, for that matter, afterlife.

For those who have not had the chance to see “Field of Dreams” _ like all seven of you _ you can stop reading here. Take my word for it, the movie is excellent. It’s the best thing you’ll see all year.

Now, for you other fortunate folk.

Let’s face it. “Field of Dreams” has its flaws. I mean, Shoeless Joe Jackson batted left-handed in real life and threw right. In this movie, the exact opposite. He batted right and threw left.

Brings up a good question. Do your extremities become mirror images after death? Only Elvis can answer that one. Remind me to ask him the next time the King is spotted at a 7-11 in Michigan. Elvis probably shoots at TVs with his left these days.

Gil Hodges is mentioned to be on the “Field of Dreams.” But there were no Brooklyn Dodgers uniforms to be found.

Still, this movie was absolute perfection to me, because it was able to touch me in a way that some people can relate to _ but hopefully not many.

Because of one movie, I got in touch with the huge vacancy that has been dominating my life for the last 18 years _ namely the absence of my father.

I was 10 when cancer snuffed Jack Hague away from me. He was sick, dead and gone within one month’s time in 1971. He was my everything. He was my inspiration, my motivation, my life. He was my Little League manager, my friend. He taught me so much about life in 10 short years _ and then he was gone.

It left me with a brother who was 60 miles away with his own family, a sister who was maturing rapidly _ and a loving mother, who had to be both parents from that point on. It was not easy.

Especially because of my obsession with sports _ something I shared with my Dad. We would watch ball games together, talk baseball constantly, play catch in my backyard.

With no father, those times came to an abrupt halt. I longed for the days of playing catch in the yard. They were long gone.

“Stop throwing like a girl, James,” I could hear him saying. “Step and throw.”

There were so many times in 1972, the first year after my father’s death, that I would stand in the yard, hoping he would come back. I just kept standing there, smacking the ball into my empty glove.

Little League was no longer fun without my Dad. It was a struggle to play for some other manager.

That summer, my mother bought me a “Pitch-Back,” the net that snapped the ball back to you after you tossed it. However, the damn thing never offered advice. It never told me what I was doing wrong. It just stood there.

And the “Pitch-Back” could never tell me what I was doing wrong in life. Of course, my mother did _ and worked hard at it. But living with two women and no man’s view of life certainly was no breeze for a moody kid who found his only release through sports.

As time went on, I tended to forget about my Dad. Not entirely, but enough that he wasn’t a major part of my life anymore. I lost his set of values, his standards. I forgot what Jack Hague stood for. I wanted to be independent, my own person. I couldn’t fill the shoes of a memory.

Sure, sports remained my one constant _ and still is today. Without it, I would be lost. But most of all the other values I thought I had disappeared.

People think I’ve lived a good life, an exciting life. But it’s been fairly shallow. I never realized that until recently _ and never more so until I saw “Field of Dreams.”

It was a total awakening for me. I knew how important my father was _ and still is. Sure, my father was gone, but I should never let him stop being my parent. I should have left his values live on in my life instead of being pigheaded and stubborn and wanting to be something and someone else.

“Field of Dreams” touched me so much that I wanted to build a field in my backyard, albeit a small patch of brown grass nestled in Jersey City. And all the greats of yesteryear who are now departed could come back. 

They wouldn’t even need an invitation.

Gil Hodges would wear a Met uniform and run the show. Thurman Munson would be behind the plate. Satchel Paige on the mound, Lou Gehrig at first _ and Jackie Robinson stealing bases all night.

And the players would leave a little spot where right field would be, just enough for a grey-haired man with a three-finger glove could throw some high hard ones to his son.

“Field of Dreams” did what it was supposed to do _ make us all dream. It made me dream _ of the days when my father taught me about baseball and life.

I almost took those days for granted. I look back now and cherish. I never realized how much I truly missed my father.

So this is somewhat of an open call to all our readers. Stop, take time out and realize how important your father is.

Sure, there may be some differences and there may be some strife, but the day may come when your father is suddenly not there _ and that vacant feeling of his loss almost gets a stranglehold of you.

I know what that feeling is like. I knew it 18 years ago _ and I rediscovered that huge gap 11 days ago. Yes, Fathers’ Day, the day I saw “Field of Dreams.” I had totally forgotten it was Fathers’ Day. It was so totally ironic I saw the movie on that day.

I’ll never forget Fathers’ Day again. That’s why I love the movies so much _ and why “Field of Dreams” is the best movie I’ve ever seen. I found my Dad. I’m grateful for Hollywood for that.

That’s why I’m asking all of you to find your fathers, too. While he’s still around.

That was 27 years ago. Since then, my father's all-time favorite, Ted Williams, would have joined the crew and we would have had to make room for him in right field. It's 45 years ago this year that I lost Dad. I'm now older than he was when he passed. But he's still there, prominent in my mind, my heart and my soul and I still strive every single day to be the man he was. Here's to all Dads today on Fathers' Day. Enjoy your day.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Remembering "The Faa" five years later

Here's the column I wrote five years ago, right after the passing of my dear friend, Ed "The Faa" Ford. It's amazing he's gone five years already:




It was October of 2009 when I received word that Ed Ford, better known simply throughout Hudson County athletic circles _ and beyond _ as “The Faa” was not doing well. His host of health problems, most importantly congestive heart failure and diabetes, were catching up to him. He was in critical condition in the Jersey City Medical Center and his chances for recovery did not look good.
Doctors put Faa in an induced coma to prevent him from pulling out the tubes that were keeping him alive. I was convinced on a Friday afternoon in October that I was going to the Medical Center to bid farewell to my long-time friend.
That was around 3:30 p.m. or so.
About three hours later that night, I received three phone calls from respected sportswriters and colleagues, all asking me if the Faa had passed on. Apparently, a Rutgers University basketball coach posted on Twitter that the Faa was gone. “RIP, Ed ‘The Faa’ Ford,” was all the Twitter comment read. I thought it was a little strange that word that the Faa had passed could have leaked out that fast, especially after I was just there.
One particular sports columnist, Steve Politi of the Newark Star-Ledger, was actually writing the Faa’s obituary, when I told him to hold off for a second until we could confirm it.
So I called Jersey City police detective Mike McNally, a long-time friend of the Faa, if he had heard anything. McNally, preparing to go to a wedding, actually drove up to the Medical Center to check on his buddy. He called me back to tell me that it wasn’t true, that Faa was still with us.
On the following Tuesday, I went up to see how the Faa was doing. Sure enough, he was sitting up without any tubes, talking like he always did.
In this case, like Mark Twain once wrote, “the rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated.”
When Faa saw me, he uttered these words, “I always knew I’d write your [bleeping] obituary before you wrote mine.”
Unfortunately, that’s not the case, because Tuesday afternoon, I got a text message from the wonderful woman who helped to care for the Faa in his time of need and in the middle of his major health crises over the last two years, Anne Marie Costello, who simply wrote, “Faa’s gone.”
Edward “The Faa” Ford, who had an absolutely remarkable life in sports and business, who called thousands of people his friend and was able to touch so many for so long with his undying generosity and care, was now indeed dead. He was a few days shy of his 66th birthday.
It’s almost too incredible for words to think all that Faa did without a true formal education. He didn’t own a high school diploma. He was a grade school dropout.
But he was able to carve out a life that most people simply dream about. He was first a respected baseball coach, leading St. Mary of Jersey City to its lone NJSIAA state championship in 1973. He was a respected basketball referee, officiating many of the top high school and college games in the area, including a handful of HCIAA championship games. He was a business owner, owning a part of three different Jersey City taverns, including Dohoney’s on West Side Avenue, a place he owned for over 25 years.
For 30 years, he was a sports columnist for two papers, first the Hudson Dispatch and later the Jersey Journal, helping both sports sections flourish. Readers all over Hudson County flocked to newsstands to see what outrageous thing would next appear in his “Faa’s Corner” in either paper. He was clearly the most popular sports columnist in this area for three decades _ and did so never collecting a dime and having no ability whatsoever to type.
He was a full-time major league baseball scout, working for the California Angels, the Chicago White Sox, Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers, helping so many local aspiring baseball players get a chance to play pro baseball.
And he was later the assistant director of recreation in Jersey City, helping to form a youth baseball program that has helped develop hundreds of youngsters in the sport he loved the most. It was working with the youngsters that made the Faa the happiest. He truly felt that was his biggest calling.
It’s truly the most amazing career for anyone I’ve ever known without a formal education. What makes it even more astounding is that he never truly understood how incredible his life was. He was just being the Faa. That’s what he did the best.
He was so beloved that words can never describe it. I got the call that he had passed away Tuesday afternoon and as I drove to the Caven Point Athletic Complex where he died _ albeit fittingly _ I received eight cell phone calls on my way there. He wasn’t gone an hour, yet there were eight people calling me, one from North Carolina, another from Easton, Pa.
I guess it’s because for the last 35 years, I was fortunate to call the Faa my friend.
Someone asked how I would best describe my relationship with Ed Ford. I honestly couldn’t answer it.
Because our relationship covered the full gamut of emotions. It went from cantankerous, confrontational, adversarial and angry to loving, caring and considerate. It was first coach-to-player, then sportswriter-to-sportswriter, first as colleagues, then as rivals. It was boss-to-employee (yes, I bartended at Dohoney’s for a stretch when I was out of work), but it was always, first and foremost, friend-to-friend.
He was a father-figure and a brother-figure all rolled into one. I knew that if I ever needed anything, he was right there for me, even if I did appear on his “tombstone” more often than anyone other than Bob Hurley and Mike Hogan.
Faa had a “tombstone” that he kept with people he considered dead to him. I appeared on that tombstone about 50 or so times over the last 25 years. But I somehow always managed to have my name erased, only to have it put back on for some ungodly reason.
One thing was certain: We were attached at the hip for the last quarter century. People always associated the two of us together. No matter where I was, what event I was covering, everyone would come up to me and ask, “How’s the Faa?” I got asked that question about 30 times at the recent Final Four in Houston.
I guess because the Faa and I were cut from the same cloth. We were two Jersey City guys who were not afraid to speak their minds and offer their opinions.
So since Tuesday, I’ve received countless phone calls, e-mails, text messages, all offering their memories of the Faa.
“The English language can’t come up with one word to describe him the right way,” said Bob Hurley, a friend of the Faa for the last 45 years. Faa even served as the best man when Bob and Chris Hurley were married 41 years ago.
“There was a lot more friendship than there were bad times,” said Hurley, who was not on the best of terms with Faa when he passed. “There was never a middle of the road with him. But if you needed something, he was there. Even if he had nothing, he was there. His friendship can’t be measured by the confusing times. We had a lot of really good times, loyal times. The impact he had on people was amazing. He had such a wide circle of friends. There is no replacement. They don’t make them like him anymore. I feel bad for the kids of Jersey City, because there’s no one to help them anymore.”
“He bought me my first spikes and my first new glove,” said Willie Banks, who took the Faa’s guidance and made a triumphant return to the major leagues. “It really feels like I lost a parent. I feel the same way I did when I lost my Mom. It hurts that much. I remember all the times he took me to the baseball field at 5, maybe 6 a.m. to work with me, asking me if I wanted to be good or great. He created my work ethic and I work with kids today because of him. He truly was the cornerstone of my career.”
“He was absolutely a rare breed,” said Rashon Burno, the former St. Anthony basketball player who is now an assistant coach at Towson University. “He was always my voice of reason, telling me what’s wrong and what’s right. He seriously cared about your well being and that’s very rare. He was a huge asset to me.”
“The Faa was a classic,” said Mike O’Koren, who the Faa helped to go to the University of North Carolina before a career playing and coaching in the NBA. “He was such a positive influence on all of us. He was a great guy and always there for me. He really would give you the shirt off his back. We all lost an institution.”
“He wore so many hats,” said Ken Markowski, one of the Faa’s first baseball players at St. Anthony who had a Hall of Fame basketball career at St. Peter’s. “He was a confidant, a father figure, a brother figure. He did so much for me. He was the best and it’s incredible what he meant to me and everyone.”
“How do you describe what he was?” said North Bergen legendary football coach Vince Ascolese. “In terms of all my relationships, I could always count on Eddie Ford being on my side all the time. He had so much charisma. He’s going to be missed.”
“There couldn’t be a nicer person I’ve ever known,” said Joe Borowski, who the Faa signed to his first pro baseball contract with the White Sox before Borowski went on to have a long career in the big leagues. “He would do anything to help you and never ask for anything in return. No matter where I went, I would bring up his name and everyone had a Faa story, either funny or serious. I don’t know if there was anyone involved in Hudson County sports who wasn’t affected by him.”
“I always thought Eddie was very smart,” said University of Connecticut assistant basketball coach George Blaney, who as the head coach at Hudson Catholic, gave Faa his first coaching job as freshman coach. “He had a great knack of evaluating people and understanding talent. He understood what it took to win and I admired that. He had a great ability in talent evaluation and I think that’s what made him a great scout. There was also a childish way about him and he reveled in the bizarre and funny things. What strikes me most about Eddie is that when you met him, you remembered him. Everyone has an Eddie Ford story.”
Personally, I have thousands. There was never a question of his loyalty to me as a friend, even through all the tough times and countless arguments. He was my friend and he’s gone. We’ll gather together to bid farewell to the Faa this weekend. But he’ll never truly be totally gone.
The fitting thing would be somewhere down the road to rename the Caven Point Athletic Complex, truly his home for the last 15 years, as the Ed “Faa” Ford Memorial Complex. Here’s to hoping that someone picks up that torch and remembers his legacy that way.

In postscript, I'm glad someone read my column, because sure enough, a year later, the complex was indeed named after "The Faa". I don't know if I had anything to do with it, but I sure hope so.