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No shortage of memories in 2010

December 26, 2010

Rocco Baldelli took time from his rehab to sit in the stands for Cumberland National's appearance in the New England Little League championships in August

Sometimes things move pretty quickly around here – almost too quickly to catch up and fully appreciate what has transpired.
One day we’re ushering in the winter sports season while the high school Super Bowls have yet to be contested. The non-stop nature extends to all seasons and sports, and we here at Blackstone Valley Sports have no choice but to hop aboard the next train or run the risk of being left behind.
The fact that there is little lag time between seasons anymore isn’t lost on the players, coaches and scribes. Busy times always seem to be en vogue, indeed, and I know I speak for the rest of my colleagues in that we wouldn’t have it any other way. We certainly enjoy what we do, a service hopefully not lost on the readership we so humbly serve.
Sometimes, though, you would like the opportunity to catch your breath to fully understand the totality what just transpired before delving into the next series of challenges. With the passage of another calendar year just a few days away, now appears as good a time as any to look back on what a busy 2010 it was.
What follows is a series of reflections designed to close the books on one 12-month interval and sound the gong for a new one that will undoubtedly try and write its own unique storyline. Memo to 2011: you’ve got some serious living up to do to match or approach the benchmark 2010 set.
The No. 1 creed of every reporter is to remain objective. You are not the story, the subject you’re penning about is. That’s all well and good, but maybe to the surprise of everyone, we’re human just like you. We have feelings, and every now and again we take on an assignment that has the potential of tugging at our hearts.
Two such episodes occurred under my watch in 2010. The first was in February, when 2009 Tolman High graduate Kyle J. Coutu was killed while proudly defending this country’s freedom in Afghanistan. Pfc. Coutu died on a Thursday, and over the weekend a series of somber events took place to recognize the contributions the three-season athlete made.
The one that raised the hairs on the back of my neck took place at Lynch Arena. There the Tolman hockey program held miniature flags during the national anthem while two players gripped each end of an
American flag that directly faced the home team’s bench. Coutu’s football number was retired on Thanksgiving Eve, but to me, witnessing this proud display of patriotism in person helped me realize this: I’m standing here because of the brave service someone like Kyle Coutu provided.
The second episode unfolded the October day we learned that Ben Mondor passed away. Two stories were assigned to me, one a reaction piece from former and current PawSox players, while the other was called an obit piece that would anchor the coverage on the front page of the news section.
My reactionary piece was done and sent by the time the PawSox staged a 5 p.m. press conference at McCoy Stadium. Sitting at a table were Mike Tamburro and Lou Schwechheimer, two longtime team executives who in many ways were molded in the image of Mondor. You could tell Tamburro was hurting as the team president had trouble conveying what Mondor meant not just to the PawSox, but to the community the product served.
“I think his legacy drives all of us,” said Tamburro before his voice trailed off. Tears soon appeared and a few moments were needed before he could continue his train of thought. “He’s driven us for 34 years, and it’s not going to end now. This operation will continue to grow and flourish because of Ben and his memory.”
It was those unabashed words by Tamburro that helped put into focus what Mondor meant for my childhood. Going to McCoy Stadium was a summertime ritual that ranked up there with heading to the beach. Professional baseball in this state flourished because of the magic he weaved, and though Mondor is gone, the memories he helped foster won’t be emptied out of the memory bank anytime soon.
It’s May and I’m at the “fake” Garden for the Bruins-Flyers playoff series. I’m there to do a story about Woonsocket lad Brian Boucher, who had risen from the ashes to become Philadelphia’s starting goaltender. His decision to leave Mount St. Charles with two years of eligibility remaining to play junior hockey in Canada was one Mounties associate head coach Dave Belisle called, “an incredible opportunity because it’s an incredible breeding ground.”
A turnaround slap shot by Boston’s Milan Lucic eluded Boucher and broke a third-period tie with 2:57 left, giving the Bruins a 3-2 win and a 2-0 series lead (No need to relive how the series turned out). Of course now I’m wondering how willing Boucher will be to talk about his hometown roots. Getting bombarded about how Lucic’s game-winner eluded him is one thing. Reflecting about days of skating around Adelard Arena is another matter probably best reserved away from the heat of competition.
To his credit Boucher was fine, as we chatted while making his way to the team bus. I probably could have asked him a thousand questions, but the two minutes I had forced me to narrow things down considerably. The quotes Boucher gave helped color the story with his take, a good sign that dismisses the notion that there’s never a good time to talk to a professional athlete — not even after surrendering a goal in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
McCoy Stadium became known as Fenway South thanks to a high number of Red Sox rehabbers who made pit stops during 2010. The presence of Josh Beckett, Dustin Pedroia, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jason Varitek and others gave locals a chance to see their favorite players at a fraction of what they would have to pay on Yawkey Way.
The one short-lived PawSox who stood out was Mike Lowell. The 2007 World Series MVP arrived at McCoy in late July feeling healthy, but perhaps not professionally happy. Can’t blame the guy for feeling not wanted after Boston had been rumored to trade or possibly release him.
What undoubtedly helped ease Lowell’s pain was the warm embrace he received from the McCoy Faithful. In fact, it might have been the loudest reception of all the rehabbers who passed by Pawtucket on their back to Boston. A crowd of 10,142 showered Lowell with applause each time his was up and gave him a standing ovation after he was lifted for a pinch runner in the 10th inning.
You can never say that PawSox fans aren’t appreciative, not after the treatment they gave Lowell.
A foul tip that came on a 3-2 offering, with the bases loaded and two outs. That’s how close Cumberland National was to advancing out of the New England Regionals and to the Little League World Series. The foul tip was squeezed by the catcher for Connecticut’s Fairfield American, the squad which held on for a 1-0 win.
You would that think such a heartbreaking ending would lead to the players feeling down in the dumps, yet the sight of the Cumberland National team sporting smiles not long after the game was over captured the true spirit of that August week they spent in Bristol, Conn.
“They’re crying right now, but they’ll be talking about this for the rest of their lives,” said CNLL assistant coach Dan “Rocky” Baldelli, the father of you-know-who. “They’ll have smiles on their faces; that’s all that matters because it’s all about the kids.”
Speaking of you-know-who, Rocco Baldelli took time from his comeback bid to sit in the stands and watch his dad and younger brother Dante pursue Little League immortality. All of the Cumberland National players listed Rocco as their favorite ballplayer when the lineups were introduced to the TV audience, something he admits meant a great deal to him personally.
“It’s very touching and is one of those things in life and makes you feel good to hear something like that,” said Baldelli. “I’m sure they each have their other favorite players. My little brother is a huge Albert Pujols fan, but for them to actually say that, it makes me smile.”
There are a few images from the boys’ basketball season that jump out. One is seeing St. Raphael head coach Tom “Saar” Sorrentine pump his fists a la Pete Carroll after upending perennial power Bishop Hendricken for the first time in ages in February. “Probably since when (son T.J. Sorrentine) was playing,” he admitted afterwards.
The vibrant atmosphere at the James W. Donaldson Memorial Gymnasium the February night Shea and Tolman duked it out for first place was certainly a refreshing sight. Too many games around these parts are played with gyms barely half full. You couldn’t say that on that particular night on Exchange Street, as Tolman athletic director John Scanlon had to turn people away. Wish that kind of jam-packed scene would appear more than once a year.
Finally, the poise under pressure Central Falls’ Antonio Mena showed during the Division III title game will always be remembered by this scribe. Mena was fouled with no time on the clock, needing to hit both free throws to send what was a pulsating contest with Johnston into overtime.
Mena made the first free throw with no trouble, prompting a timeout by Johnston. As the Warriors huddled around head coach Brian Crookes, Mena was down to his knees, turning the scorer’s table at URI’s Ryan Center into his own sacristy. His hands tightly clenched, Mena calmly made his way to the free throw line, receiving last minute advice from teammate and good friend Rob Alers.
“I was looking for a little help,” admitted Mena.
The second freebie touched nothing but net as C.F. would go on to a 76-73 win. For a city plagued by negative headlines throughout 2010, Mena along with the rest of the Warriors helped everyone forget all the tumult for one glorious afternoon.
“I wasn’t going to end my high school career without a win,” said Alers.
We could probably ramble on, but space dictates we wrap things up. Don’t feel slighted if something wasn’t highlighted. Chances are our sports department gave it proper attention when the time was appropriate, and we shall continue to do so when the situation presents itself in 2011.

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