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Monday, October 17, 2011

Another tough loss to swallow in a year of sadness

The last time I spoke with my friend Tony Ferrainolo, the all-time winningest coach in the history of New Jersey high school baseball, was in mid-August.

I received word that Ferrainolo had taken a turn for the worse in his battle with lymphoma and that he wasn't doing well. So I reached out to call Ferrainolo on his cell to see how he was handling everything.

"I'm doing alright, Jimmy," he said. "Why don't you come up and we'll have lunch. Call whenever you can. You're a true friend."

In reality, I wasn't that good of a friend, because Tony passed away this morning after battling cancer for a little over a year. He was 66 years old.

Tony Ferrainolo was your quintessential West New York athletic legend. He was a football and baseball star during his playing days at Memorial High School. He went from Memorial to Villanova University and played both sports there.

After a fine career in college, Ferrainolo knew where he belonged and returned to his native West New York to become a teacher, a coach, an administrator.

He became the Memorial baseball coach at a very young age and then became the head football coach as well. While Ferrainolo enjoyed some success as a football coach, it couldn't scratch the surface of what he did as a baseball coach, leading the Tigers to umpteen HCIAA titles, winning several state sectional titles and capturing the overall NJSIAA Group IV title in 1988. In the process, the Tigers won the mythical national championship that year, a feat that will never be duplicated in Hudson County baseball.

It was a glorious season, one that I had the fortune to watch and cover many times that year. I was there when the Tigers defeated Elizabeth in the Group IV semifinals and was given permission by Ferrainolo to travel on the bus with the team to Princeton to watch a guy named Ralph Perdomo hit a three-run homer into the sunset at Princeton to clinch the state and national title.

It was also the beginning of a good friendship that I enjoyed with Ferrainolo over the years, a friendship that lasted more than 25 years. It wasn't just reporter-to-coach. It was friend-to-friend. We talked about everything over the last two decades.

He also opened up to me about being diagnosed with lymphoma, like he was a little over a year ago. He told me that he was going to beat it, that it wasn't that serious.

Apparently, that wasn't the case.

I wanted to write a good tribute here tonight. I wanted to give him his proper due. After all, he's the all-time leader in New Jersey high school baseball coaching victories.

The man he passed this season was also a friend, a great coach from Morristown named Harry Shatel. Harry passed away in early May. Now Ferrainolo is gone. I have said goodbye to too many close friends this year, people I truly loved.

It's almost like I'm burned out from writing about friends who have died.

I feel awful that I didn't get the chance to spend time with Tony like he wanted. We never had that lunch. Life got too busy for me to take the time to spend time with a friend who was dying.

Shame on me.

I will write a better tribute to Tony in the morning. I'm too sad right now to even concentrate on giving him his proper due.

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