Wednesday, March 30, 2016
UNC raised almost $26 million to renovate Boshamer Stadium, a wonderful playground
for its baseball program constructed on a spectacular piece of real estate in Chapel Hill,
North Carolina. For any baseball player dreaming of playing for the Tar Heels, it was love
at first sight--and that was before the school broke ground in 2008 to make it even better.
It was that special.
When it reopened in 2009, the Boshamer Stadium got a stunning facelift that would make
any plastic surgeon in Hollywood envious. A 35-year-old stadium looked brand spanking
new with all the amenities and bells and whistles. The field (Bryson) got a new name thanks
to a large donation by a former first baseman.
The courtyard in front of the stadium is "Steinbrenner Court", thanks to a $1 million gift
by the Steinbrenners. Yes, those Steinbrenners, as in the New York Yankees, who played
in the old Boshamer Stadium in the late 70's.
There are family names on a number of other rooms and features, depending on how much
they gave to the program for the renovation project. I chipped in $500 to get my name on
a list with many of my good friends and former teammates that is etched on a piece of slab
out in front of the stadium.
However, there is one name that is missing who contributed far more than me and even
the Steinbrenners who wrote that check for a cool $1 million:
Garnes never played a game at UNC but he was as valuable to the program as B.J. Surhoff,
Walt Weiss, Scott Bankhead, and Matt Harvey. Garnes spent 20 years as the equipment
manager for the baseball program and helped make the Tar Heel experience really special.
After every game and every practice, Garnes made sure the uniforms were fresh and
clean. He was the person who handed you the nearly pristine Tar Heel uniform to wear
for game day, making you realize it truly was a privilege to put it on and represent
the great University of North Carolina.
Garnes was the steady ship in waters that would often be rough and challenging. He never
got too high nor too low. He treated every player the same, whether he was a superstar like
B.J. Surhoff or the last guy at the end of the bench. Former Tar Heel Jeff Bradley said,
"You could trust your life with him. What was said in The Cage stayed in The Cage.
And he saw and heard a lot."
Garnes was cooler than the other side of the pillow long before former Tar Heel and the
late Stuart Scott made the saying a household phrase. He served our country in Viet Nam
and helped make our home away from home, Boshamer Stadium, an incredible place.
Garnes was usually the first person we saw entering the clubhouse and the last one upon
leaving late at night. He burned the midnight oil washing more than 35 uniforms and
accessory bags every single day for almost 10 months.
It's not hyperbole when I say that nobody, not even the coaches, spent more time in
the old Boshamer Stadium than Grafton Garnes. He was part of the fabric, concrete,
and steel of that stadium.
Unfortunately, there is nothing to signify Garnes' place or contribution in the new stadium.
There isn't a picture, plaque, or award dedicated in his honor. Every Tar Heel who knew
Garnes has a special place in their hearts and minds for the guy we called, "G-Man" or
simply "G." But there is nothing of Garnes in the place they call the "Bosh."
Garnes died several years ago, but he will never be forgotten by any of us. But it's time
UNC baseball does something to let everyone know how special and important Garnes
was to the program and the old and new stadium.
It's time to make a plaque in his honor.
When I went back to UNC last fall to tour the stadium, I sincerely felt Garnes' presence.
I almost expected him to come around a corner with his stylish hat, sunglasses, and
tooth pick hanging out from his mouth. I was ready to say, "What's up, G?"
But Grafton was gone, off to the Southern part of Heaven in the sky. However, there
should be something in the dream stadium to make sure Grafton Garnes will always
be remembered and given the credit that is due.
Wednesday, March 23, 2016
By the time I settled in to watch HBO's Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel Tuesday night,
I was emotionally prepared for the story I tuned in to see. Craig Sager, the longtime
and quite colorful sports reporter for TNT, was losing his battle with leukemia. Earlier
that day, various media outlets, in advance of that night's show, stated Sager was told
by doctors he had just "3-6 months to live."
Sager, 64, is an icon in Atlanta, the place he's called home for several decades, but as
we've long known, cancer doesn't discriminate. Black, white, rich, poor, famous, or just a
regular person, the devastating disease goes on the attack and rarely loses.
Sager's saga became national news because society has dubbed him a celebrity because
he's on television reporting on a basketball game. As often as he's been on television
over the years, Sager is really no more special or important than the millions who
are in the same position he is, battling the terrible disease.
Last Friday, I was assigned to cover a story on a former teacher who was heading to
Mexico for 'alternative' treatments for her cancer, a rare form of sarcoma. She and her
doctors had exhausted every option and treatment and were in search of a miracle.
This 45-year-old woman who stood nearly 6-feet tall, had endured 29 chemotherapy
treatments and nine surgeries. Her estranged husband called the trip to Mexico, "the final shot"
which really put everything in perspective.
A one-time contestant in the New Jersey beauty pageant, she was still quite stunning on
the outside, but on the inside, tumors were ravaging her body. She tried to put on a
happy face with her mega-watt smile, but it was clear she was very much in pain.
The family, including her 12-year-old son, Rex, who alerted our television station of
the fundraiser at her house, was trying to raise the final amount needed to help her
cover three months of treatment. There was an elaborate spread and well-known
comedian Rob Magnoti, a lifelong friend of the woman, was invited to add some levity
to a most difficult situation.
Asking questions about one's mortality and shrinking life-span, isn't the favorite part of
a reporter's job, but they are questions that have to be asked. Others in the business say
they get used to it. I never have. It's life. It's death. The TV thing is not that important.
The woman had tears in her eyes as she embraced her 12-year-old son while on-camera.
She cried knowing that unless she gets a miracle in Mexico, the time with her son is
running out quickly, like sand through an hour glass.
That is tough, like a sledgehammer hitting you in the gut.
That former beauty queen is tough. So is Craig Sager. And so are the millions of
cancer victims who've had to battle the disease and do it away from the cameras. Outside
of their family, they don't get the sympathy of a Sager or the former beauty queen. They
don't get the attention or called "courageous" to thousands or even million of viewers.
They are courageous. They are special. They all drew a bad card in life, but they
stare down chemotherapy treatments, lose their hair, weight, and in cases, their self-esteem.
They battle, they fight, they rebound, and hope their cancer goes into remission. Sager's
cancer went into remission twice. After it came back again, doctors didn't offer very
much hope, shrinking Sager's time on earth to about six months.
Preparing for death just doesn't seem right, especially when there are young kids who
have to face a future without a mother or father. It's daunting all the way around. Sager
wanted to see all his kids grow up and get married. So did the former school teacher.
Both know it's not going to happen.
Millions of people share a common bond with Sager and the former beauty queen in
that their cause of death will be the same. But even though they aren't celebrities on
television, they are just as courageous and just as special. They fight the good fight,
hoping against hope every single minute of every single days.
They are warriors. They are special. Every single one of them.
Monday, March 14, 2016
March 15, 1988.
30 years ago, I experienced one of the most incredible days of my life. It was like a
wedding or the birth of a child for most people, where everything is so vivid, so easy to recall,
and filled with moments that stay with you forever.
I was in my first full week of spring training with the Boston Red Sox organization in
Winter Haven, Florida. I was that kid in the candy store, the one with the huge smile on my
face and not a care in the world. I was playing baseball while wearing a Red Sox uniform and
loving every second of it. Heaven, I thought, couldn't be much better than this.
But things on this sun-splashed morning in a baseball facility lined with palm trees, were
about to get even more special and somewhat surreal. It was something that has stayed
with me until this day and an incredible experience that nobody can ever take away from me.
I just finished up catching what seemed like a hundred pitchers beneath the Florida sun.
Perspiration met the lotion lathered on to protect my face, but ended up causing a burning
when it dripped into my eyes.
In the early days of spring training, there are 10 pitchers to every catcher and you spend
most of your time squatting and blocking 88-mile an hour sliders in the dirt. I had made
the position switch to catcher during my junior year at UNC, and long regretted not donning
the tools of ignorance sooner. I loved everything about the position, which is the most
physically and mentally demanding one in the game.
After catching a litany of pitchers for close to two hours, the camp coordinator told us to
get some swings in the cages, which were located smack-dab in-between the major and
minor league clubhouses. While catching, a fastball in the dirt ricocheted into my wrist,
forcing me to take a detour to the trainer's room to get a bag of ice to reduce the pain
and swelling of it.
There was a large gathering in the trainer's room as the pitchers, who had thrown earlier,
were icing down their arms. Catching and blocking baseball's in 85 degree heat for
almost two hours is like running a half-marathon, so I wasn't in any hurry to go hit.
The ice pack the trainer had given me combined with the 20 minute wait to receive it,
seemed to rejuvenate me before I had to make the trek over to the cages.
Once I got there, a few minor-league players were just milling around trying to decide if
they wanted to take a few more swings or head to the golf course to take a few more there.
Most of them traded in their lumber for their clubs and went to the showers to clean up
before making their tee times.
I stepped into the cages and took some swings off a coach who was positioned about 45 feet
away, the shorter distance forcing hitters to react quicker and develop more bat speed.
As I was taking my swings, I noticed a large figure walking down the alley between the
cages, out of the corner of my eye. This powerful-looking figure was coming from the
major league camp where he had been offering instruction to players like Wade Boggs,
Jim Rice, and Dewey Evans.
I kept swinging as he kept walking toward the cage where I was. An adrenaline rush
washed over my entire body, as I had a good idea who was coming my way. I became
more focused on the pitches that were traveling my way, the echo of rawhide meeting
lumber reverberated throughout the aluminum-covered cages.
The footsteps of this large figure got louder and louder as I went through my hitting drills.
My heart started racing faster and faster as I was swinging harder and harder, drilling balls
into the nets of the cage. All of sudden, those footsteps stopped and the cages became as
quiet as a church long after Mass had ended.
This imposing figure, which stood about 6'4" had stopped to watch me hit. There were only
three people in this area of the cage now: the coach throwing me batting practice, myself, and
one of the greatest hitters in the history of the game.
He shouted out to me with this booming voice, "Now, open those hips, swing up, and drive
through the ball".
His voice was so unique and oh, so very strong. It sounded a lot like that of John Wayne.
But I knew damn well who it belonged to. After my follow through, I turned around to see
Ted Williams staring back at me.
I locked eyes with the greatest hitter who ever lived.
It was a moment that was so surreal, yet so powerful. I had seen Williams on tape and
in books, but I had never seen him in person, and here he was, about to talk to me about
hitting. The one thing he did better than anyone in the world.
Just me and him.
Me and Teddy Ballgame.
Having Ted Williams talk to you about hitting is like a musician getting tips on how to play
the guitar from Elvis Presley. This was unbelievable. I'm not star struck and never got
intoxicated by celebrity. Three months earlier, I was standing in a batter's box with Kevin
Costner filming a scene for "Bull Durham." I didn't consider that a big deal.
This was a big deal.
It was like Moses telling me about the Ten Commandments. This was Ted Williams, a true American hero, talking to me about hitting. I said to myself, "Oh my @*#$ God". Is this really happening?"
I stared at Williams as he was telling me about swinging with a slight uppercut, which I had
read and memorized from his book, "The Science of Hitting." Incredibly enough, I didn't
see him as a baseball icon. I saw him as a living legend. One of the biggest in the world.
Williams was telling me about finishing high with my hands, but I wasn't really listening.
Thoughts of him going through, not one, but two tours of duty in the military during his baseball career, rushed through my head.
That would be like Mike Trout taking a break from baseball right now to fight for his country.
Williams was a fighter pilot in World War II and the Korean War. He had the opportunity to
take a position that kept him out of battle, but Williams pretty much said, "screw that". He
flew 39 combat missions in the Korean Ward. 39! The great General Douglas MacArthur was
a big fan of Williams and for his 40th birthday. MacArthur sent the Splendid Splinter a painting
of himself with a note that said,:
"To Ted Williams — not only America's greatest baseball player, but a great American who
served his country. Your friend, Douglas MacArthur. General U.S. Army.
I continued to take swings in the cage with Williams shouting out instructions to me. I said to
myself, "This is unreal. Nobody is going to believe this." After a few more swings, Williams
entered the cage, took the bat from my hands, and talked to me about the science of hitting.
I looked around to see nothing but a row of empty cages. If was just Ted Williams, the coach
throwing batting practice, and me. I said to myself, "Wow. Here I am with the last man to hit over .400 in a season. Please, don't anybody wake me up."
Williams told me to keep working on my swing. He said I should think about hitting "even
when you sleep. To be a great hitter," he commanded, "you have to hit all the time.
Morning, noon, and night."
I didn't say anything, but just nodded.
Williams said he had to go but I didn't want this moment to end, so I said matter-of-factly,
"I'll walk out with you." I may have sounded cool, but deep down inside I was humbled just
being in the presence of an American hero. I feared Williams looking down on me and saying,
"Don't push it, son."
As we left the dark cages, the world seemed so much brighter, the sun proudly bursting
as spring time approached. I was walking on sunshine, just having one the greatest experiences
of my life.
Talking about hitting with Ted Williams.
There were a lot of fans who had lined the fence outside of the batting cages. Once they saw
Ted Williams appear, their eyes lit-up like bulbs on a Christmas trees. Mile-wide grins
broke out in the presence of a legend, pens were at the ready, hoping to get the autograph
of a baseball God.
One of those fans was my grandfather, who had made the journey from Sarasota to see me
suit up in a Red Sox uniform in spring training. He was a former ballplayer himself, a strong-
armed pitcher in the minor-league system of the New York Yankees.
This was a big thrill for him. I asked Williams if he could say hello to my grandfather and
the Splendid Splinter obliged. With my heart-pumping through my Red Sox jersey, I thanked Williams for the time, and told my grandfather I'd meet him after I had showered up.
It was a moment I wanted to bottle up and stash in a security vault someplace very far,
far away. I didn't want anyone to ever touch or disturb the moment. It belonged to my
grandfather, Ted Williams, and myself.
Years later, in 2004 , just before he died, my grandfather sent me a letter via mail. I opened
it and out came a picture of me from my college days at UNC. On the back of the picture,
in the neat lettering of my grandfather, were the words and numbers: 3-15-88 Winter Haven,
FL. Training camp. And under it was the autograph of Ted Williams.
I did not know my grandfather had gotten Williams' autograph on the picture that day. He
just told me what a thrill it was for him to meet him. I've kept the picture and autograph in
my wallet ever since that day 12 years ago.
It's a reminder of the special moment that both my grandfather and I shared with Ted Williams
that day in mid-March.
The late Andy Warhol famously said that everybody gets their 15 minutes of fame. I may
have received that for belting a home run in the movie, "Bull Durham", but the 15 minutes
of time I had with the most famous hitter who ever lived, is pretty hard to top.
It definitely was special.
Tuesday, March 8, 2016
When I logged on to Facebook today and saw the name, "Mickey Pina" next to the birthday
icon on the homepage, a flood of memories rushed through my mind quicker than it takes
ice cream to freeze the brain when you consume it too fast.
I haven't seen Mickey Pina in 28 years, but for six straight months in 1988 I saw him every
single day as teammates on the Lynchburg Red Sox, the Class A affiliate of the Boston Red
I'd like to say Pina was the type of guy you'd meet once and you'd remember forever, but he
just wasn't back then. He was often quiet and never one to be the life of a party because he
never said very much and didn't touch alcohol.
However, after watching him put together the season he did in 1988, Mickey Pina became a
guy I'll never forget. Ever.
Pina was a shade under 5'10" with the shredded physique of a bodybuilder. I called him the
"Toy Cannon", after former MLB star Jimmy Wynn who gained fame as a diminutive
centerfielder who wielded prodigious power for the Los Angeles Dodgers and Houston Astros.
After a brilliant career at Eckerd College in Florida where he became legendary for tape-
measure home runs, every team in baseball passed on Pina, an outfielder who grew up in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, which was a Jim Rice driver and three-wood away from Fenway
The Red Sox took a flier on the hometown kid, signing him as an undrafted free-agent. Pina
was elated to get the chance to play for his favorite team, but if the eyes are indeed the
window to the soul, it didn't take much to see the raging inferno burning inside of Pina,
the result of being passed over in the 1987 draft by every team in baseball.
Pina belted 12 home runs in rookie ball, earning a promotion to the Sox team in the
Carolina League in 1988. The circuit was loaded with future MLB stars like Albert Belle,
Bernie Williams, Gerald "Ice" Williams, Moises Alou, Wes Chamberlain, and Kevin
Maas, all who had been high draft picks or bonus babies.
Pina had not been drafted. He probably received a signing bonus of no more than $1,000.
That's it, that's all.
Whatever fueled Pina, he used it to outshine the aforementioned stars and make a very
big statement. And boy, did he ever. Mickey Pina, the undrafted free-agent, belted 21
home runs and drove in 108 runs to earn Carolina MVP honors.
As someone who was his teammate that year, I can tell you the voting wasn't even close.
No player was more valuable to his team than Mickey Pina. The home runs he hit were
majestic ones, ripping through the hot and humid nights in the South like missiles launched
from aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf.
During our stretch run to the playoffs, it seemed like every hit Pina got, was a big one.
They either tied the game or put us in the lead. It was a sight to behold. The kid that
was overlooked in the draft made sure everyone in the league was paying attention to him.
Pina was driven and possessed a laser-like focus which I had never seen before.
It sometimes bordered on the absurd and on rare occasions, morphed into the comical.
During one game, Pina was on-deck with two outs when the batter before him made
the last out. As the teams were exchanging sides, Pina went into the batters box, oblivious
to what was going on around him. He was going through his routine before facing
As I ran to my position behind home plate, I could barely contain myself before
saying, "Hey, Mick. That's three outs."
When I read an article about Pina several years later about his focus and work ethic,
I can't say I was all that surprised by the words of Ed Nottle, his then-manager
"Mickey Pina worked too hard," Nottle said. "What a great kid. He'd take 50 minutes
extra hitting, he'd take so much stuff, it was unbelievable."
That was the Mickey Pina I remember from 1988. He was addicted to baseball. Thought
about it morning, noon, and night. Baseball was his life. Making it to Boston with the
Red Sox was his dream.
While the Sox were his favorite team, I recall Mike Schmidt being his favorite player.
Schmidt was a power-hitting third baseman for the Phillies at the time, who went on
to earn a place in the Hall of Fame. I liked to kid around with Pina and his obsession
Before one game, I was watching "This Week in Baseball" and I said to a few teammates
"Watch this." I then yelled to Pina in the locker room, "Hey, Mick, Mike Schmidt is
going to be talking about hitting on "This Week in Baseball". Within seconds, Pina came
storming in to the TV room like a bull on wheels.
He didn't see any of us. Didn't even know we were in the room. Pina was in a trance and
breathing hard, waiting anxiously to see the clip of Mike Schmidt.
After several minutes, Pina knew he'd been had. He shouted something underneath his
breath before walking back to his locker to get dressed for the game.
Pina quickly rose to AAA in Pawtucket where he was teammates with Scott Cooper,
Tim Naerhing, Mo Vaughn, and Phil Plantier, all of whom made it to the major leagues.
When I see this picture of the five of them, I say to myself, "Mickey should've been
there with those guys. Nobody worked harder. Nobody cared more about the game, and
certainly none of them loved the Red Sox as much as Mickey did.
Pina came up just a bit short in his quest to make it to Boston with the Red Sox. I'm
sure being so close to fulfilling his dream took him a while to get over. It would be
that way for anyone who invested nearly his whole life to get there.
You have a lot to be proud of Mickey Pina. You were a great teammate, friend, and
ballplayer. The season you put together in 1988 was nothing short of amazing. You
were the MVP and everybody in the league knew you were "The Man", that year.
Happy 50th birthday, Mickey Pina. I will never forget you, brother.