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Jerry Lindquist's sports memories: R-Braves ties to the 1964 Olympics

Jerry Lindquist's sports memories: R-Braves ties to the 1964 Olympics

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Drop a few memories, surrounded by some opinion, lots of substantive research, and a bit of wishful thinking into the mix of our daily lives, and voila! Just when you think you knew it all, along comes more wow, that’s news to me stuff that keeps this octogenarian in business — and hoping he hasn’t overstayed his welcome. There is so much more to scribble. This is Volume 28: “Why Did He Change My Swing?”

Attention Richmond Braves fans (assuming there are one or two still around): Did you know Shaun Fitzmaurice has lived here since retiring from baseball 47 years ago? An alumnus of Notre Dame — they’re everywhere (see another local with major league pedigree, Frank Carpin) — Fitzmaurice had his cup of java with the ‘66 New York Mets. An outfielder who could run fast and had some power, the native of Worcester, Mass., thought he had taken a fast track back to “The Show” in 1972. He began the International League season on an offensive tear, batting in the .350s, when Atlanta general manager Paul Richards came to town, “changed my swing … told me to pull the ball more,” Fitzmaurice recalled. He wound up with an average of .199 and decided to call it a career after hitting .239 the following year.

Richards was fired midway through the ‘72 season, too late to help Fitzmaurice. A former MLB catcher and manager as well as GM, Richards died in 1986 at age 77. So we’ll never know what clunked in that genius brain of his to have a line-drive hitter go for the fences. Hold on! You don’t think it was … na-a-a, couldn’t have been … surely old Paul wasn’t aware — much less care — that Fitzmaurice holds an unofficial Olympics’ record for slugging a first-pitch-of-the-game home run?

In 1964, at the Summer Games in Tokyo before a crowd of 50,000, he led off and didn’t mess around. One pitch, one swing, one ball long gone to left-center field. Tell us the truth Shaun, you predicted you would do it … and pointed, like Babe Ruth, where it was going, right? Sorry gang, makes for a good story but didn’t happen. “They always threw the first pitch over the plate,” Fitzmaurice, now 78, recalled last week. “I knew it would be pretty good.” Actually, he was leading off because he was fast, not because of his muscle. He once ran the 60-yard dash in 6.2 seconds when the world record was 6.0.

Talk about a very small world. Alan Closter, who closed out his career with the R-Braves in 1975 and has lived here since then before he and the wife recently made a Northern Neck getaway in Lively their permanent residence, also was a member of the ‘64 U.S. Olympic team. Baseball was considered a demonstration sport, so Closter, Fitzmaurice and friends weren’t bound by rules and regulations. In fact, there was no curfew for the baseball team, which made it the envy of everyone else in red, white and blue. What does Closter, a fun-loving left hander known to friend and foe alike as “The Duck,” remember about their stay in Tokyo? “I think we won seven, lost two and tied two … and I had a migraine headache the whole time we were there. Too much sake, I guess,” said Closter, 77. I guess?

In fact, Fitzmaurice’s HR led to a 6-2 victory over a team of Japanese amateur all-stars in the only game listed as part of the XVIII Olympiad (albeit an exhibition). There were other matchups in Japan, as well as during other stops, like Hawaii, on a trip both Closter — if it walks like a duck, it must be a duck — and Fitzmaurice remember (sort of) with great enthusiasm. “There was no pressure to win, really. Just go out and play,” Fitzmaurice said. “Once the game was over we were on our own … and could do as we pleased. We were representing ourselves rather than the U.S.”

The ‘64 team plans a reunion in March in Phoenix, Ariz. Oh, the stories they will tell. For some reason it was 20 years before baseball was welcomed back to the Summer Games. They had great time in Tokyo, maybe too great. Then again, the game has remained something of a stepchild to the more-storied Olympic sports. In 1992 it finally was recognized as official only to be voted out for 2012. The Games return to Tokyo — pandemic willing — in July, 2021 for the first time since 1964, and the host country has requested baseball be part of the show.

Tim Howard first came into our consciousness at the turn of the century. (No, no … this century.) Bruce Arena brought the United States Men’s National soccer team to the District of Columbia for a couple of days of work in preparation for World Cup 2002. Brad Friedel and Kasey Keller were the squad’s goalkeepers of record but we were told to remember the name Howard. He was the team’s future.

Sure enough, Howard wound up making a record 121 USMNT appearances, including the 2006 World Cup, in which he made a tournament-record 15 saves in a 2-1 overtime loss to mighty Belgium. From North Brunswick, N. J., Howard is arguably the best keeper ever from this country. He was named the English Premier League’s top goalie in 2002-03 with FA Cup-champion Manchester United and later spent nine seasons with EPL Everton, appearing in 412 games. What makes everything Howard has accomplished even more amazing is that he was diagnosed, as a pre-teenager, with Tourette Syndrome, a neurological disorder.

All of which leads to Howard’s current gig. Replacing the bright, opinionated Kyle Martino on NBCSN’s EPL coverage could have been difficult for just about anyone — except Howard. In fact, after a month or so, he’s been so good, now the question is: Kyle who? Howard has been a natural fit with host Rebecca Lowe while alternating in-studio with commentators Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe. Howard made an instant impression after Manchester United’s Anthony Martial was sent off with a red card after reacting to a “blow” by Tottenham’s Erik Lamela. The latter grabbed his face and fell to the ground, pretending to be injured badly, another example of faking it that continues to plague futbol at the highest level.

Howard would have none of it. “[Lamela] is the bad boy here … a little bit of a slap [to the face] that wouldn’t hurt a mosquito — and he goes down,” Howard said. “Eric Lamela has something to answer for.” In other words, he better keep his head up the next time the teams meet.

By the way … this summer Martino announced on social media he was leaving NBCSN “for new challenges.” He didn’t say what they were. The former University of Virginia All-American had been with the network since it got U.S. rights to the premiership eight seasons ago and reportedly had two years to go on a six-year extension of his contract. NBC Sports has been cost-cutting, but Howard-for-Martino presumably was a salary wash. Martino did take some time off in 2017-18 to run for president of U.S. Soccer — and finished tied for second on the final ballot.

Towards more picturesque speech … comes “fixture congestion” from London’s Lowe. Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp was talking about having to play too many games (fixtures) in a short time. And Lowe referred to it as …

From the It Never Fails To Happen Department of Irony Once again good intentions, in this case fighting to retain sports facing the axe at William & Mary, backfired and bit the good intendees on the you-know-where. Making a strong case for keeping four women’s and three men’s programs wound up 4-0, in favor of women’s gymnastics, track, swimming and volleyball. It was Title IX to the rescue, but not for the men, whose case for retention was apparently lost when a threatened lawsuit showed the school clearly was in violation of federal law. Now the administration is scrambling to make good and keep from going 0-3 to the law firm of Bailey Gasser’s Arthur Bryant, who also smacked the W&M administration under similar circumstances in 1991 when he was executive director of Public Justice, a national public interest law firm.

Bottom line: No matter how much money is raised attempting to keep men’s track, gymnastics and swimming from drowning, or how many threats to withhold donations to the school are received, or donors saying they’ll never donate anything for athletics ever again, results seemingly are predictable. Short of revising the entire student body (which currently has about 16% more women than men) to more males and fewer females — which ain’t going to happen — the men could take an even bigger hit because of IX.

David Hildebrand disagrees. The former swimmer (Class of 2003), whose guest editorial in The Times-Dispatch Sept. 14 on the subject drew considerable interest, said he remains optimistic men’s gymnastics, track and swimming scheduled for extinction will survive. Hildebrand cites a part of Title IX that could help as long as no one representing a women’s sport objects. Yes, the federal law is THAT convoluted. However, a more reasonable alternative, without cutting men’s sports, is adding as many as 37 scholarships for women. That, of course, means more donations like the $1.2 million given anonymously last week.

“I’m optimistic in the sense that there really isn’t anything stopping [W&M] from reinstating them except maybe their own pride. Keeping the teams doesn’t increase expenses very much,” Hildebrand said. “The issue is, all women’s sports at William & Mary currently receive half a million dollars less in funding when compared only to football and men’s basketball. It’s a dramatic discrepancy.”

So now the question is, can William & Mary afford to to build up its football and basketball programs, which was the underlying reason for attempting to dump the original seven in the first place? Apparently there is some, but not nearly enough, interest in joining the Ivy League-like Patriot League. Finally, who will replace the never-popular Samantha Huge as athletic director? If e-mails received here mean anything, there is considerable sentiment for an alumnus. We’re told the overwhelming internal choice is Peel Hawthorne (W&M Class of ‘80), much-decorated Tribe field hockey coach for 26 years before becoming an administrator at the school seven years ago. She’s currently listed on the athletic department roster as “Senior Advisor to Athletics, Special Projects.”

There is reason to believe, however, that interim AD Jeremy Martin is the odds-on favorite. He got his undergraduate degree from Houghton College, a Division III (no athletic scholarships) Christian liberal arts school with 1,014 students in western upstate New York. The athletic department lists 18 sports, including 10 for women. No football.

Having been stuck with sole ownership of the money-burning Richmond Renegades when his partners left town for points west, Tony Markel recommended something that made too much sense for his fellow franchise owners to understand. Markel knows how to make money. He doesn’t like losing it, either. And, neophyte he may have been in the hockey business, Markel immediately recognized a stark truth: the playoffs are guaranteed red ink. Few teams have drawn well, regardless of how well they did during the regular season.

Prior to the 2002-03 season, “I proposed each team put up $20,000 for a playoff pool … that would help make it worthwhile for teams to play for the championship,” Markel recalled recently. “No one else voted in favor of it. I knew then it was time to get out.” At season’s end Markel ended the Renegades’ ECHL membership after 13 years.

Back in the good, old days of long, long ago, when I was writing a radio-TV column, it seemed like the entire mass media industry was dependent on the Nielsen Media Research ratings. Hardly a week went by that there wasn’t some mention of them. Anybody see this week’s numbers? Started in the late 1920s to measure consumer buying interest, the company expanded to radio in the 1930s and finally television in 1950. At first, it was a fun gimmick that created conversation, but it became much more than that. The better a show did in the Nielsens the more it could charge for commercials. Of course, the more important the ratings became the more scrutiny was turned on — and against — them. Were the numbers really as accurate as Nielsen insisted they were? Occasionally a trailing network would threaten to find a more friendly provider.

This summer logic said ratings for just about all sports, once they returned, would go to the moon. Penned up by the pandemic, the natives would be so restless they would watch anything. Bring it on! Next time logic speaks, don’t listen. For reasons that will be debated for a while, the numbers are down, way down, from a season ago. The National Hockey League playoffs were off 38% overall, but a crash-and-burn 61% for the Dallas-Tampa Bay Stanley Cup Final.

Major League Baseball’s postseason was down 39 percent going into the World Series, which automatically lost one viewer after a buildup calling for more “bat-flipping and trash-talking.” Others obviously agreed. The Dodgers/Rays played to an all-time lack of interest, averaging fewer than 10 million viewers or 32% worse than the previous low.

Meanwhile, the National Football League has been hovering in the minus 13-14% range, not bad considering the major markets impacted by the downright pitiful NFC East. NASCAR has remained steady at minus 1%.

The NBA perhaps attracted the most attention overall with the players’ ongoing, highly-visible messages for social justice, and LeBron James being the all-things face of the league. The NBA also uncharacteristically went head-to-head some with the NFL, a guaranteed winner in a two-car race, and MLB, which didn’t help. Result: Playoffs were down 37%, and the six-game finals between James’ L.A. Lakers and Miami Heat did minus 49%. The last game was seen in 5.5 million households, compared to the 2019 windup — Toronto/Golden State — seen in 18.9 (minus 71%). Commissioner Adam Silver was quoted as saying next season they would leave the social messaging “off the floor.” Good luck with that!

Until next time ...

Jerry Lindquist can be reached

by email at mbl749@comcast.net.

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