Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Long Road Back

Sometimes your memory of a sporting event can be sparked by circumstances that surround the event itself.

The ESPN 30 For 30 documentary "June 17th, 1994" detailed the many significant sports moments that occurred that day. Whether it was the celebration of the New York Rangers' Stanley Cup championship, the opening of the World Cup soccer tournament in Chicago, Ken Griffey, Jr's pursuit of the MLB single-season home run record, Game 5 of the NBA Finals, or the slow-speed chase of fugitive and Pro Football Hall-of-Famer O.J. Simpson...there was something for any-and-every sports fan.

What the documentary didn't include was a basketball game inside a small high school gymnasium in Belmar, New my favorite player started his comeback from a nearly-fatal car accident.

My own "June 17th, 1994" story takes place at a high school gym in Belmar, NJ

As a University of North Carolina fan, it may seem odd to say that my favorite basketball player was a Duke Blue Devil. Bobby Hurley's game, however, transcended the rivalry for me. His leadership, ball-handling, passing skills, defense and ability to hit clutch shots comprised a style that I tried to emulate on the court during my teenage years.

Bobby Hurley enjoyed a very successful college career at Duke

After graduating from Duke in 1993, the NCAA's all-time assist leader was drafted 7th overall by the Sacramento Kings. At 22-years-old, Hurley was fulfilling his career goals and dreams...yet a fateful night in December 1993 threatened to take it all away.

Hurley was drafted 7th overall by the Sacramento Kings in 1993

Hurley was driving home from a Kings game against the Los Angeles Clippers, when his pickup truck was sideswiped about a mile away from Sacramento's ARCO Arena. Hurley -- who was not wearing a seat belt at the time -- was ejected from his vehicle and ended up in a roadside ditch, nearly 100 feet from where the accident occurred. He nearly died that night.

Hurley's rookie season lasted only 19 games before that near-fatal car accident

On June 17th, 1994, Hurley was beginning his road back to the NBA...playing for the Allenhurst Barbers in the Jersey Shore Basketball League. It featured a combination of college prospects and professional players, looking to keep their skills sharp during the summer months.

Belmar is better known for beaches than basketball during the summer

The McCann Activities and Athletics Center on the campus of St. Rose High School in Belmar could seat roughly 600 people...a far cry from the college and NBA arenas that Hurley had grown accustomed to. Still, it marked a significant milestone in Hurley's basketball journey.

That night, the Allenhurst Barbers faced Larson Ford, a team that featured former Providence College standout and Milwaukee Bucks point guard Eric Murdock. It would provide a good barometer of Hurley's progress to this point...and just how far he still had to go.

Eric Murdock was a standout player on the JSBL's Larson Ford team

Before a crowd of about 400, Bobby Hurley started his comeback. Wearing a maroon Barbers uniform, Hurley wore #11...the same jersey number he donned during his days at Duke. Playing with brother Danny Hurley and Detroit Pistons center Danny O'Sullivan, Bobby went 4-for-14 from the floor...with 7 assists and 5 rebounds.

Every time Hurley touched the ball, those in attendance began to cheer. With every made basket and pretty assist...the crowd would clap, yell and stomp their feet. When Hurley turned the ball over, people would groan...not because of the play itself, but because they so desperately wanted him to succeed.

Photo from a JSBL game at St. Rose High School

My friend Joe, his parents and I watched the game together...clapping, cheering and stomping along with every one of Hurley's successful plays. While the Barbers lost to the light-blue clad Larson Ford team that night, the most important outcome (to us) was that Bobby Hurley emerged from it step closer to an NBA return. In that sense, it was a major victory.

After the game, the four of us went to a local pizza place...where we watched a combination of the O.J. Simpson chase, and the NBA Finals game between the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets. In a world before smartphones and savvy Internet technology, we were completely oblivious to the day's events until we saw it for ourselves.

The O.J. Simpson chase captured our attention after the game

Bobby Hurley would make it back to the NBA...and played four more seasons before retiring from the Vancouver Grizzlies in 1998. While it was a career that left many fans wanting more, Hurley's comeback from a horrific accident demonstrated his character and love for the game of basketball.

Hurley made it back to the NBA, playing through the 1997-98 season

June 17th, 1994 has many different meanings to different people. It was a date that touched baseball, hockey, soccer, football and basketball fans alike. Even those who weren't into sports were captivated by the drama surrounding O.J. Simpson.

For me, the date serves as an entrance portal to my memory bank. While so many significant sporting moments and events were happening on that Friday...there are still many other stories that are still out there.

Bobby Hurley will forever be connected with June 17th, 1994 in my mind

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Lady Can Run

This past weekend in sports included the 142nd running of the Belmont Stakes -- and once again, the event featured no girl power.

Horse racing is usually reserved for the boys -- at least on the track

Only 22 fillies have run in the Belmont Stakes, and just three of those entrants have won the event (most recently, Rags to Riches in 2007). In fact, only 11 fillies have won Triple Crown races in the history of thoroughbred horse racing.

When a filly steps into the winner's circle at either the Kentucky Derby, Preakness or Belmont Stakes, it generates a buzz throughout the sport. Casual horse racing fans are drawn in by the novelty of a female triumph in a male-dominated sport, and women in particular seem to feel an added sense of pride.


It was a blistering day at the Jersey Shore on July 24th, 2010. With temperatures approaching 100 degrees, many spent their day on a beach, boat or boardwalk. Horse racing fans, however, paid a visit to Oceanport's Monmouth one of the world's most famous fillies was slated to compete.

A hot July day at Monmouth Park

Rachel Alexandra, the 2009 Horse of the Year and winner of the 2009 Preakness Stakes, was entered in the $400,000 Lady's Secret Stakes. For the 12,859 in attendance, the race itself wasn't important. It was simply a chance to witness a thoroughbred rock that captivated the hearts and minds of those who watched her race against -- and beat -- the big boys of the sport.

Rachel Alexandra (#5) was heavily favored for the Lady's Secret Stakes

An overwhelming 1-9 morning line favorite, Rachel Alexandra was expected to cruise to victory on the same track where she won the Haskell Invitational during the previous year. Gamblers who were seeking a payday did not even bother to look in her direction...while those who picked her to win essentially wanted a souvenir betting ticket, above anything else.

The champion filly makes her appearance in the paddock area

Roughly one hour before the featured 11th race, Rachel Alexandra and her team of helpers strolled into the paddock area. A large crowd was already beginning to gather, looking to catch an up-close glimpse of the muscular, chestnut-brown bay filly.

Seemingly accustomed to all the attention, Rachel Alexandra stood patiently in the #5 stall as she was fitted for her saddle. On the other side of the fence, many fans snapped pictures and complimented the horse's elegance. Some even wore hats and t-shirts bearing her name.

Rachel Alexandra seemed unfazed by the attention

Once trainer Steve Asmussen had the saddle and padding securely in place, Rachel Alexandra stepped out of her stall to parade around the English Walking Ring. It was about 15 minutes before post time, and the crowd in the paddock area continued to swell.

Parading around the paddock area

Jockey Calvin Borel, who rode Rachel Alexandra to her Preakness triumph, met his horse at the Walking Ring. As a two-time Kentucky Derby winner at that point, Borel had assembled a reputation of being one of the world's best at the mount.

Jockey Calvin Borel takes the reins

As the seven horses competing in the Lady's Secret Stakes meandered around the paddock area, the "Call to the Post" was played by the Monmouth Park bugler. From there, the horses marched -- in numerical order -- along the pathway from the Walking Ring to the track.

Despite the large crowd, Rachel Alexandra remained calm, sauntering confidently toward the track. Borel, wearing a mustard-colored helmet and mustard-and-brown shirt, displayed a similar expression. He stared forward at the track, remaining intently focused on the upcoming race.

Heading to the track for the Lady's Secret Stakes

After reaching the track, the horses broke rank and began jogging on the dirt course, to loosen up for their chance at glory. Given the hot day, the jockeys kept the horses' expenditure of energy to a minimum...and after only a couple of moments, the seven horses began striding toward the starting gate.

Warming up on the track, prior to the race

One-by-one, the fillies and mares filed into the gate. Stage Trick, Queen Martha, Ask the Moon, and Hark started the process. Rachel Alexandra was next, accompanied by cheers from those in attendance. Fabulous Babe and Yes She's a Lady rounded out the field.

The starting gate awaits its participants (Photo courtesy of

It was now time for the 1 1/8th mile Lady's Secret Stakes...and the crowd began to cheer before the gates would burst open. You can feel the nervousness in the stands; the anticipation of what may happen next. Some look on through binoculars, while other take pictures. Many in the audience hold their betting slips, wondering if they'll walk home a winner.

Rachel Alexandra steps out to an early lead as the horses break from the gate. The crowd cheers as the participants gallop by on the dry and fast track, heading into the first turn.

At the quarter-mile mark, Rachel Alexandra started to fall back in the field...content with following the pace and making her move late. Queen Martha, rated by handicappers as the 2nd-best horse in the field at 8-1, grabbed the lead.

Rachel Alexandra sits in 2nd place on the backstretch

Queen Martha would continue to lead the other horses on the backstretch. Rachel Alexandra settled into 2nd place, positioned just to the side of Queen Martha's hind legs. In the stands, the crowd of 12,859 collectively began to wonder, "Does Rachel Alexandra have it today?"

Heading into the final turn, Rachel Alexandra and Borel decided to make their move. As Borel cracked the whip, his filly lunged forward with a burst of speed. As they reached the homestretch, Rachel Alexandra was a head in front of Queen Martha! Those who wanted to see her win started screaming with delight.

Rachel Alexandra zooms into the lead

As the horses raced down the stretch, Rachel Alexandra had extended her lead to three lengths. Sprinting with all her might, the champion filly was determined to not relinquish it. The crowd's ovation grew with each step, culminating with a loud "Yeahhhhh!!!" as Rachel Alexandra crossed the finish line. On this day, a legend lived up to her billing as a winner.

Rachel Alexandra and Borel finished the 1 1/8th-mile course in 1:49.78, three lengths ahead of Queen Martha...and several lengths in front of the 3rd place finisher, Ask the Moon. Those who bet on Rachel Alexandra to win received $2.20 on a $2 bet.

A celebratory Calvin Borel

Immediately after the race, Rachel Alexandra received a cooling sponge bath on the track. The scorching summer heat can take a toll on thoroughbreds, but all of the fillies and mares emerged from it without trouble.

The winner gets cooled down after the race

Following an appearance in the winner's circle, Borel appeared at the trackside broadcast location of TVG, which was at Monmouth Park to cover Rachel Alexandra's race. During the interview, Borel spoke glowingly of his horse...talking about the stretegy he had for the race, and how she made it a success.

Borel sits down with TVG after the race


Rachel Alexandra's place in horse racing history is etched in stone -- one of 11 fillies to win a Triple Crown event, and the 2009 Horse of the Year. The bay filly would be retired in September 2010, almost two months after racing at Monmouth Park. As it turns out, the Lady's Secret Stakes was her final victory.

When there is such a large target on your back, it is not easy to live up to the hype...just ask the 2010-11 Miami Heat. Rachel Alexandra came through on that hot July day at the Jersey Shore, giving those who were in attendance a story to tell for a lifetime. They saw her race -- and win.

Rachel Alexandra wins for what would be the last time

Monday, June 6, 2011

Parking Lot Pilgrimage

It is pavement with a past.

Shea Stadium was located just steps from where Citi Field is now

Whenever I attend a New York Mets' game at Citi Field, my first steps upon arrival are not toward the ballpark itself...but rather the adjacent parking lot. Like a magnet, I am instinctively drawn there. It is partly a routine; partly a nod to history.

The Flushing Meadows section of Queens has been home to the Mets since 1964

It is a couple hundred steps from the Mets-Willets Point subway platform to the former site of Shea Stadium. During that roughly four-minute journey, it serves as a trip back in time. Close your eyes, and the ghost of a massive, circular, blue concrete structure will appear.

Imagination can bring old ballparks back to life

What follows is a combination of imagination and reflection.

My walk toward the "playing field" unintentionally follows the path that many a reliever used when coming into a game from the Mets' bullpen. One can only wonder what was going through their mind, jogging across the grass and infield dirt to become the center of attention on the pitcher's mound.

When I reach home plate, I think about all of the great hitters who stood in the Shea Stadium batter's boxes...not just from the Mets, but visiting teams as well. A brass marker with the words "Site of Shea Stadium Home Plate - 1964-2008" is in the exact same spot as when the ballpark was in service.

Shea's home plate area is preserved in the Citi Field parking lot

Looking out at what used to be the field, my mind's eye can still see the ballpark's distinctive features. I can picture the large scoreboard in right-center field, offering a plethora of information from the game at hand, in addition to out-of-town games. I can see the picnic area bleachers and Diamond Vision scoreboard in left and left-center field. I can imagine the royal blue outfield fence, complete with the 410-feet marking in center field...and the batter's eye background that was considered one of the worst in Major League Baseball.

Looking out at the "field" from behind home plate

From there, I walk 60-feet-and-six-inches to my comfort zone, the pitcher's mound. It was long a dream to stand in front of nearly 56,000 blue-and-orange clad fans, pitching the Mets to glory. Now, instead of being surrounded by a field level, loge, mezzanine and upper deck filled with spectators...I am surrounded by asphalt, lines for parking spaces and the occasional car or SUV. Despite the dose of reality, there is still that rush of adrenaline as I stand on the marker for the pitcher's rubber, looking toward home plate.

Peaceful serenity at the Shea pitcher's mound

In another nod to Shea's history, the 1st base marker includes an engraving of a neon sign that adorned the building's exterior for roughly 20 years. The image depicts the smooth swing of Keith Hernandez, arguably the greatest 1st baseman in Mets' history.

Like all of the other base markers, this one features one of Shea's neon ballplayers

Mere steps away from this marker was where I first set foot on the field at Shea Stadium -- the actual field. I was 10-years-old, in complete awe as I attended an on-field clinic for the Junior Mets Club. It was the thrill of a lifetime...a Little Leaguer standing where Major Leaguers stood and played ball for a living. For that notable event, there is only a commemorative plaque in my mind.

Standing at 2nd base, my mind drifts to the many games I attended at Shea. I remember my very 1st game -- August 16th, 1986 -- a Mets' 3-1 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in 11 innings. The electrifying Dwight Gooden was on the mound for the Mets. Lee Mazzilli hit the 1st home run I ever saw in-person. My favorite player at the time, Gary Carter, made a rare start at 1st base -- and broke his thumb. Between the Mets' defeat and the injury to my favorite player, I felt like a jinx.

Standing at 2nd base brought me back to 1986

Moving over to 3rd base, I think about my 65th and final game at the ballpark. It was the next-to-last game of Shea Stadium's existence -- a 2-0 victory over the Florida Marlins on September 27th, 2008. In that game, Johan Santana pitched a complete game, 3-hit shutout on three-days' rest to keep the Mets' slim playoff hopes alive. I can take pride in saying that my last game at Shea was a win -- the final triumph in the stadium's history.

The walk to 3rd base brought forth memories of my final game at Shea

It is the same routine for every game I attend -- start at home, walk to the pitcher's mound, then go to 1st, 2nd and 3rd base before making the short trip back to the Mets' current ballpark, Citi Field. It takes no more than 10 minutes...yet I will occasionally cycle through 22 years of my life during that time.

I am not the only one who makes this parking lot pilgrimage. A steady stream of Mets' fans make their way to the old Shea Stadium site prior to the ballgame. Some run the basepaths, some pose for pictures, and others look around while conjuring up their own memories of the ballpark.

A Mets' fan gives his young son a ballpark history lesson


After the trip down memory lane, there was an actual baseball game to watch. On this particular day -- May 29th, 2011, just over a week ago -- the Mets hosted the Philadelphia Phillies.

A beautiful day at Citi Field for the Mets-Phillies matchup

The Mets were a decided underdog entering this contest. The Phillies came into the game with a 33-19 record, good for 1st place in the National League East. The Mets countered with a record of 23-28, as they tried to avoid falling into last place in the division.

The Mets entered the game in 4th place in the NL East; the Phillies were in 1st

Despite the uneven records, the Mets pounced on Philadelphia early-and-often, unleashing a rare offensive attack that led to 8 runs and 10 hits in the first two innings. It was certainly a surprise as I looked on from my familiar spot in Section 514.

Over 30,000 watched as the Mets jumped out to an 8-0 lead

Shortstop Jose Reyes was a catalyst, going 4-for-5 with two triples, one run scored and an RBI. Every time the Mets' leadoff man reached base, the crowd of 30,791 -- most clad in blue-and-orange -- buzzed with excitement.

Jose Reyes dives into 3rd base during one of his two triples on the day

Mets' catcher Josh Thole -- who had been struggling at the plate -- played a big offensive role in this game as well, going 3-for-4 with a double and 3 RBI's. He raised his season batting average to .230.

Josh Thole strokes an RBI single to center field

On the mound, Jonathon Niese kept the Phillies' bats in-check. The left-hander went 6 1/3 innings, allowing 1 unearned run on 5 hits.

Jonathon Niese had a solid start for the Mets

While Philadelphia would rally against the Mets' bullpen in the 8th and 9th innings, the deficit was too great to overcome. When 1st baseman John Mayberry, Jr. struck out to end the game, the Mets popped out of their familiar 1st base dugout to celebrate a 9-5 victory.

This kid appeared to be satisfied with the Mets' performance

The final score served as yet another personal reminder of Shea Stadium, on this day of reminiscence. The first time I ever witnessed a Mets win was on September 20th, 1st-ever night game. The final score on that evening was 9-5. The opponent? The Philadelphia Phillies.

It's amazing -- or should I say, Amazin' -- how things can occasionally come full circle.

The final score at Citi Field reminded me of one of my first games at Shea