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Saturday, June 30, 2012

A major blow to the "Livestrong" cause

Lance Armstrong was officially hit with charges by the United States Anti-Doping Agency, claiming that there was sufficient evidence proving the seven-time Tour de France champion was involved with blood doping and using performance-enhancing drugs during the majority of his cycling career.

If Armstrong is found guilty to be a cheater, then he will be stripped of his seven titles and will be clumped with the rest of the cheaters, like Floyd Landis, who have been disgraced for being proven cheaters.

The latest relevation about Armstrong states that there is proof of Armstrong possessing, using and even trafficking banned substances like EPO, which is a blood booster, as well as illegal blood stransfusions and steroids. The charges go all the way back to 1998.

Apparently, there are as many as 10 of Armstrong's former colleagues and racing teammates that will testify against him in this case.

Now, this news is not shocking whatsoever to me. There were strong rumors long ago that Armstrong was involved with blood doping _ the system where they take out your tired blood, circulate it with healthy, stronger blood, then put it back into your body to help strength and endurance. The rumors about Armstrong and blood doping go back to when he was trying to qualify for the 1994 Olympics in Atlanta.

I happened to work at the old Goodwill Games at the cycling event at Wagner College in 1998 and all the competitive cyclists there were insistent upon the fact that Armstrong was indeed doping. A year later, Armstrong wins his first Tour de France and becomes a national hero, largely in part because of his courageous battle recovering from testicular cancer.

Soon after, Armstrong's doing the circuit. He's on Oprah. He's the Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year. He's the AP Athlete of the Year. He's seen on national television on practically every venue. He's a celebrity of the truest sense, even with that cloud of controversy hanging over him.

It's almost as if everyone overlooked the speculation about Armstrong because of his personal health issues, one that led to the formation of the Lance Armstrong Foundation and the Livestrong cause. It's an organization that millions of cancer survivors and their families wholeheartely support and raise money to endorse. You see the millions of yellow wristbands all across the country, engraved with the Livestrong message.

Other than the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer organization, has there been another fund-raising organization that drew more attention to cancer victims and survivors and their families than Livestrong? Probably not. The entire world has embraced Livestrong.

Armstrong has been the face of that organization. He's the main spokesperson, the shining light to the entire cause.

What in the world does news like this do to those who have adored Armstrong for so long? Does it diminish his work with Livestrong? What about those who he gave so much hope to?

Armstrong has always insisted from the outset that he was not guilty of all of the accusations and rumors. He's faced the charges in the past and vehemently denied them, even when people like fellow cyclists like Greg LeMond and the disgraced Landis said that Armstrong was as guilty as sin.

Now, these latest charges are the most damning, especially the ones that state that Armstrong was the drug supplier for the other cyclists. He's being charged as a drug dealer, just as common as the crack pusher you might find on an inner-city street corner.

There have been other cheaters in sports that have survived the public scrutiny. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens have dodged jail time, even though it looks like they were certainly involved with illegal steroid use. Most people have almost totally forgotten that Alex Rodriguez and Andy Pettitte admitted to using illegal steroids.

But none of those baseball players had such a tremendous following outside of sports. None represented an entire cause, one with millions of people supporting and hundreds of millions in donations.

These latest charges don't take away from what the Lance Armstrong Livestrong cause has done for cancer victims and survivors. But it certainly throws a gigantic wet rag over the cause from here on out.

How can you be totally sympathetic and supportive of a man who broke the laws, who is now accused of being a drug dealer and who cheated to reach the heights that he achieved?

In all honesty, it's a huge blow to Livestrong. No matter what takes place and how many times he denies it from now on, Lance Armstrong is disgraced. Even before what the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency decides by its final hearing July 9 _ the deadline for whether Armstrong will appeal the charges _ he's guilty in the eyes of public opinion.

And what does that do to the millions who have adored him and admired him for so long? Bonds and Clemens were hated individuals before their day in court. Armstrong is revered by millions. Just take a look at the wrists of Americans all over. If they're wearing yellow rubber bands, it's a sign of support for Armstrong and other cancer victims and survivors.

I remember a cancer survivor telling me back in 1998 that there was no way Armstrong could have recovered as quickly as he did from the near-fatal battle he had with cancer to return to such a high competitive level if there wasn't something else going on. That man told me that either he wasn't as sick as he led on to be or he was receiving artificial assistance.

Well, now, maybe it was a case of both. We'll never know. We know now Armstrong can't be trusted.

One thing is for sure: Livestrong has to become distant of Armstrong in a hurry if it wants to continue to do the extraordinary work it has done to give cancer patients hope for survival.

Here's another sidelight to this whole mess: How can anyone take the Tour de France seriously anymore? With the rampant cheating and titles being stripped left and right, why bother? It's certainly not a mainstream sport anymore, not with so many cheaters.

Now, to a brighter sports story. There has not been a better sports story in New York _ or perhaps the nation _ this year than the incredible rise of Mets knuckleball master R.A. Dickey.

Dickey threw eight more scoreless innings last night against the Dodgers. He struck out 10. He allowed three singles. Ho, hum. He seems to do that every time out. He's now 12-1 on the season, the best pitching numbers in all of baseball.

But consider where he came from. Dickey was once a top-pitching prospect in the Texas Rangers chain, but then had all the nerves in his elbow removed. In fact, doctors said that it was amazing he was able to throw at all. He floundered around, went back and forth to the minors, then discovered he could throw the knuckleball.

So he worked hard on mastering it. He was able to hook on with the Mets, only on a non-guaranteed minor league deal in 2009, more than likely kept as a stop-gap pitcher to churn out innings in the minors.

Now, at age 37, he's headed to the All-Star Game and if they can find someone to catch the knuckleball, he might be the National League starter. He's earned that right.

Twenty years ago, Robert Redford starred in "The Natural," about Roy Hobbs capturing a baseball career decades after it originally started. Well, R.A. Dickey right now is the pitching version of "The Natural." He's having a dream season, one almost too unbelievable to even dream.

Considering everything Dickey has been through in his life _ even surviving sexual abuse as a child _ he deserves all the accolades and attention he is receiving as, yes, the very best pitcher in baseball. The numbers certainly don't lie.

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Sunday, June 17, 2012

Sharing an old column about Dad 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 re-typing it today and posting it, 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 mst 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.
NOTE: Forrest Gump now ranks up there with my favorites. It's now 41 years that Dad is gone. And he's still a major part of my life. I'm not even close to be the man he was, but he's still the motivation in my life as I approach the age he was when he left us. And now, since Dad's favorite Ted Williams is also gone, he would have definitely made sure that "Teddy Ballgame" was part of his "Field of Dreams." Happy Fathers' Day to all.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

No bigger goat horns in sports than Bernier

I was very interested this morning to read the words of some of my colleagues who believe that New Jersey Devils forward Steve Bernier should not receive attack and anger from Devils fans for receiving the five-minute major boarding call that put the Stanley Cup on a platter and handed it to Jonathan Quick and the Los Angeles Kings.

They're saying that Bernier is paying the price enough, that sitting in the Devils' dressing room after his ejection and hearing the horns inside the Staples Center blare three times as soon as he sat down was his lifelong penalty. That there should be sympathy for Bernier, because he works right around the NHL veteran's minimum of $525,000 and he has a pregnant wife to worry about.

And that Bernier's gaffe was nothing worse than what Bill Buckner did when he let the ball roll through his legs in the 1986 World Series or when Ralph Branca gave up the homer to Bobby Thomson for the 1951 "Shot Heard 'Round the World."

Sorry, but I'm not buying it. Bernier can never be forgiven for his idiotic and moronic penalty that eliminated any chance of the Devils being even competitive in Game 6.

You can be rest assured that Devils president and general manager Lou Lamoriello isn't going to buy it either. Lamoriello has been known to send players packing because they didn't live up to team policies about facial hair and dress code. Do you think he's going to forgive Bernier for this?
As the Kings were beginning to gain momentum in the first period and getting the most of the scoring chances, Bernier took it upon himself to make perhaps the stupidest play I've ever witnessed in a hockey game. Considering the circumstances and the magnitude of the game, it is definitely the worst mistake a professional player has made in any sport.

Bernier skated a good 80, maybe 100 feet to bear down on a defenseless Kings defenseman Rob Scuderi, who made a move to get rid of the puck. Bernier then exploded into a check that fired Scuderi face first into the boards, then followed the check to turn Scuderi into a pressed Panini sandwich. The check caused a cut above Scuderi's nose and mouth and we all know the NHL's recent policy about drawing blood.

The referee handed Bernier the much-deserved five-minute major, the Kings scored three times during those five minutes and Game 6 and the Stanley Cup Final was over, just like that.

It's incomprehensible what Bernier did. Comparing it to Buckner, who made a physical error, or Branca, who threw a pitch that Thomson may or may not have known was coming (depending upon whether or not the story that the Giants' bullpen catcher Sal Yvars was stealing signs is true), is just wrong. Those were errors while playing the game.

Bernier's complete brain freeze makes no sense whatsoever, considering the way the game was going. The Kings were getting the better of the play. Would the Devils have won anyway with the way they were playing early on? Probably not. But Bernier eliminated any and all chance on his own.

So should Bernier be held responsible? Hell, yeah. There was no call for his actions. The play made no sense at all. Yes, he's the one who has to look in the mirror for his idiotic actions. I don't know how he got on the plane to come home with his soon-to-be former teammates.

People like coach Peter DeBoer and Martin Brodeur didn't publicly hold Bernier responsible for the loss. But would they? Would anyone publicly blame him for what he did?

But Bernier's play was so ridiculous that the Kings should actually consider having his name engraved in the Cup, because his play was more beneficial to the Kings than the contribution of some of their players. He definitely gave them the win in Game 6 and in that matter, gave them the Cup.

Live with that forever? He has to, because it could very well be the last game he ever plays in the NHL.

I'm a big fan of boxing and horse racing. Maybe I come from a different era, when both sports were considered among the sports of kings, but I've always liked both.

Last Saturday, both sports received yet another black eye. Boxing got slammed once again for the ridiculous decision rendered in the Manny Pacquiao-Timothy Bradley fight and horse racing raised another cloud of controversy when I'll Have Another was scratched from the Belmont Stakes.

First, let's address the boxing matter. Where are these judges coming from? What are their qualifications and backgrounds, because it's safe to say that both Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles would have seen that Pacquiao clearly won the fight.

How one-sided was it? So bad that right after the fight was over, Bradley went to promoter Bob Arum and apologized for not giving a better effort. He was overheard as saying that he didn't think he won. But here come the judges' cards and Bradley somehow wins by a split decision. It wasn't that close. I had it Pacquiao nine rounds to one. It was a blowout.

When you then hear that the decision came to set up a rematch, then that's just wrong for every single fool who plopped down $60 to watch the fight on pay-per-view. It's all about the moola and that's not how a legitimate sport should choose to operate.

Now, the I'll Have Another fiasco. Let's not lose sight that the horse's trainer, Doug O'Neill, has been a three-time proven cheater in the sport, pumping a bunch of different things into his horses to make them run faster from Alka Seltzer to carbon dioxide. His horse has a chance to make history and then all of a sudden, the horse has tendinitis and has to retire?

We will never know what really happened. Maybe O'Neill was worried that his cheating would come to light with this horse and that the horse's place in history would be tarnished forever, that winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness States were done by cheating as well.

Because horses don't retire from tendinitis. They take weeks off to heal and then come back when ready. There are some major stakes races ahead, like the Travers, like the Breeders' Cup. If the horse had a broken leg, that's understandable. But tendinitis?

The whole thing sure sounds and looks iffy, especially if O'Neill is now talking that perhaps his horse will indeed come back later this season. Sure, he'll be back, because his breeding stock is not as high as it would be if he was Horse of the Year. Let the controversy die down and perhaps I'll Have Another will come back. Who knows?

It certainly raises questions and controversy for a sport that doesn't need more. Boxing and horse racing needs to establish some national guidelines to follow to prevent the travesties that took place last weekend from happening again.

Warner Fusselle, my good friend and baseball buddy, died yesterday at the age of 68 from a heart attack. For many years, the good-hearted and gently natured Warner was the voice of the Brooklyn Cyclones. He was also the play-by-play voice of Seton Hall basketball, before getting replaced by Mets announcer Gary Cohen a few years ago.

But Warner came into prominence as being the voice of Phoenix Communications, a New Jersey-based organization that produced the popular "This Week in Baseball," before Fox took over production a few years ago.

Warner worked with the legendary Mel Allen on the show for years, then replaced Allen as the primary announcer after Allen passed away. Fusselle was also the narrator for several different highlight videos that Phoenix made for all of Major League Baseball.

A Southern gentleman of the truest sense, Fusselle loved baseball more than any other sport, but he gave his true professionalism in everything he did.

Incredibly, he was an avid follower of my writing long before I ever met him. I can remember the day going to Phoenix's home base in Moonachie to do a story about "This Week in Baseball," because a lot of the production staff lived in Hoboken. When I was introduced to Warner, he instantly knew who I was and rolled off about eight or nine articles I had written in the past. He was as excited to meet me as I was to meet him and we remained friends ever since.

I looked forward to seeing him at Seton Hall games. I was his halftime guest about 15 times over the years and it would always end up talking about baseball instead of the Pirates. He also came to visit me at Newark Bears games over the years.

I saw him last at CitiField last year, just walking outside the ballpark. We met with a huge hug and embrace. It was so good to see him. I didn't realize it would be the last time I would see him.

Warner was beloved by everyone who knew him. I don't know if there was a single person in the world who didn't totally adore him. We've lost so many good people in the media circles over the last few years that it's too many to count, but Warner was a big loss to everyone.

I can still hear him saying, "BOTTOM" when a Seton Hall player made a shot. He was a wonderful man and he will be sorely missed.

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