Friday, January 28, 2011

Moose Juice

On our epic pilgrimage to Evansville IN in 1971 for the NCAA Division II hoop Elite 8 tournament, after learning what it meant to have the bridge freeze before the highway (see my post of April 2009), we did get to see some great basketball. In the first round, Assumption College and Southwest Louisiana State, despite both being ranked either No.1 or No.2 depending upon which national poll you read, played against each other. Of course, the tournament was held on the home court of the University of Evansville (they competed in Division II in those days) and as hosts of the tourney, Evansville, apparently, had some say in the pairings. In the second round, they got to play the winner of the AC / SWL bloodbath.

The AC / SWL game was a superb run and gun battle, with the Ragin’ Cajuns winning the slugfest 110-99 (if my memory serves me well). The next night, the Evansville Aces easily defeated the weary and spent Cajuns. Luck of the draw or canny scheduling?

But this is about the party after the Hounds’ defeat by the Cajuns!

The party was held in the hotel where some of the teams and many of the fans were staying (that hotel was converted later to some sort of residency – Ken Szymanski would know about this from his days as a city planner in Evansville). People and players were everywhere; bathtubs were full of beer and wine coolers. Cheerleaders were pouring beer down players’ throats (other teams’ players, of course). Someone had brought a mechanical hockey game and guys were sitting on the floor playing the game.

As I wandered about the hotel, it became apparent that I had run out of my beverage of choice that evening (scotch). I met some of the good folks from Old Dominion University (VA) who offered me some of the “punch” that they were drinking. I had a taste. Pretty sweet-tasting stuff without much kick, I thought to myself. “Have some more of the Moose Juice, y’all,” they said, “but be careful – it sneaks up on you!” “What’s in it,” I asked. “Fruit cocktail and grain alcohol,” they replied. Within the hour I was virtually blind.

At some point approaching midnight, it was decided that we had to head back to our motel. Jim could drive, but he did not know the way. Lou could not drive and also did not know the way, but he could (barely) read the signs. I could not drive and could not see, but I knew the way. So, Lou navigated, read the signs and I barked orders. Jim followed my directions and drove while John moaned “we’re all gonna die!”

We made it back to the motel. We did not die. But later that early morning as we attempted to sober up, we listened to Radio Havana (heard very clearly on the AM dial) break news of a wholesale retreat of US and South Vietnamese forces in the face of a furious Viet Cong and North Vietnamese attack. CBS, NBC, ABC and the Pentagon all spoke of a strategic withdrawal. History later informed us that Radio Havana was correct.

Yeah, we drank too much and maybe Jim was a little too “tired” to be driving, but it was 1971 and, damn it, we were in Evansville! Ken, did they really convert that hotel to a residence after that party?

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Remembering Steve Morris

It was Fall Semester 1970 at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts. I had been thrown out of a Philosophy class because I was neither a major, minor, senior or junior. As I was departing that classroom, I encountered Professor Jim Barbato, from whom I had taken an environmental science class the previous semester. He had seats remaining in his current Oceanography class, so I quickly signed up and joined the first meeting of a class that would change my life in so many ways.

While I was familiar with Prof. Barbato, I do not remember knowing anyone else in the class that first day. Somehow I ended up sitting and becoming friends with Lou Boyatzi and Steve Morris. That led to friendships with several other folks, including Brendan Bierch, Ed (Chick) Chalmers, and a host of others.

A little over 40 years later, I am saddened to learn of Steve’s recent death in an email message from Brendan. I had not seen Steve in several years, but had remained somewhat connected via email and the Assumption College website. Most recently, I had emailed him complaining that the Phillies had stolen my birthday present by signing Cliff Lee. His reply: “Heh, heh!” I could hear his voice.

So many “Steve” stories. Most people addressed him as “Merc,” and the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, in its recent article on Steve’s death, remarked that the late Assumption College basketball coach Joe O’Brien nicknamed Steve “Merc” during a gym class. True, but the whole story of the naming reveals much about Steve and his character. I remember that day well.

It was a Monday morning, a Monday that followed a Sunday wherein the flamboyant, speedy and talented flanker/running back/kick returner Mercury Morris of the Miami Dolphins had ignominiously fumbled at least two kickoff returns. In the open gym class, we were engaged in a touch football game in which Coach O’Brien served as the designated quarterback for both squads. Somehow, Steve managed to sneak into the open several times and Coach hit him square on the numbers on each occasion. Somehow, Steve managed to drop each of Coach’s perfect tosses. “Just like Mercury Morris,” chortled Coach O’Brien. Of course, Steve was slightly less fleet of foot than the professional Mercury Morris, but the name stuck. Steve became Merc. Sure, Coach O’Brien had teased Steve by calling him Merc, but Steve saw all of the irony and humor and adopted his new name. “Merc72” was on his auto registration plates and "Merc" in his email address.

In the process of getting to know each other, Steve quickly found out that I was not only a fan of the hated New York Yankees, but that I rooted for the Chicago Black Hawks as well. Bobby Hull was my favorite player. One morning, upon my arrival at Zip’s (then the day-hop or commuter’s hangout) Steve solemnly informed me that Hull had been traded to the Bruins for chump change and a case of stale Narragansett beer. “I just heard it on WBZ,” he informed me. All day long I moped around campus, finding it hard to believe. As I was cutting through the gym on my way to a class, Coach O’Brien paused to speak with me, saying “Sorry to hear about Hull going to the Bruins, Mike. You must be heartbroken.” Later that day, Assumption’s All-American basketball payer Jake Jones stopped me to say the same thing. Of course, it was all a great practical joke set up magnificently by Steve. Steve’s comment the following day when I sheepishly acknowledged his yanking of my chain and pulling of both my legs: “Heh, heh!”

Steve got me a small position as a statistician with the athletic department. Mostly, I kept track of steals, rebounds and the like during JV and varsity basketball teams. I got to travel with the team on many trips, including Washington DC to take on Catholic University and Georgetown University and most games throughout New England and New York. It was great fun and I owe it all to Steve. One of the most exciting tasks I performed was to help compile and then deliver the halftime and final stats to the radio and television broadcasters. During the heyday of Assumption basketball in the 70’s, that meant hobnobbing with Tom Heinsohn and Bob Cousy.

When I was in graduate school at Western Kentucky University, I made it a point to meet Steve and his good pal Fr. Ed Chalmers at the old NCAA Division II tournament in Evansville, IN. Steve got me press credentials for the games.

So many memories of Steve: sports trivia contests, meatball grinders at his uncle’s pizza shop in Shrewsbury, word games, bad jokes, cold-cut grinders and root beer at Zip’s, driving Bentley College’s basketball coach to Robert’s Arena in Evansville, insulting Bobby Goldsboro in Evansville at the Executive Inn, Queen burgers at some god-forsaken diner in Reynoldsburg, OH (“Ya gotta go to the restroom and see for yourself…”).

Yesterday, Wednesday January 26, I spoke about Steve with Fr. Ed – Ed was in Worcester at St. Stephen’s parish and I was in Larkspur CA visiting my father-in-law. Our conversation started sadly, but ended in laughter as we reminded each other of the joy that we shared over these 40 years (more for Ed) of friendship with Mercury Morris. Ed and I made plans to visit the next time I am in Worcester. I am sure that we will talk about Merc.

See Ya 2010!

2010 was not a good year. Too much unpleasantness, sadness and grief - never mind ill health and Wammo leaving the Asylum Street Spankers. And Carl Crawford signing with the Red Sox, Cliff Lee with the Phillies and the Bronx Bombers making do with the likes of Bartolo Colon, Rafael Soriano and Mark Prior. And I turned 60. Oy vey!