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On Miracles in Football and Baseball (updated with report on 50th anniversary of Columbia's 1968 championship cagers)

Thanks to an excellent game story on the Super Bowl by New York Times sportswriter Ben Shpigel, I read this morning that victorious Eagles coach Doug Pederson put up a sign this season in the Philadelphia clubhouse:
“An individual can make a difference. A team can make a miracle.”

It was no miracle that the Eagles ruined the Patriots’ attempt at a repeat Super Bowl title. It was some great offensive football led by backup quarterback Nick Foles that did the trick. A huge sack and fumble then cemented the victory late in the fourth quarter. (I wonder if horses born in Philly today will be named Foles' Foals!)

As a U. of Wisconsin graduate, I was pleased that former Badger running back Corey Clement - from south Jersey so playing near home - was a key part of the offense. Glad also that James White, another back developed well at Wisconsin, did his part to almost bring the Patriots back to the winner’s circle.

Early Super Bowl Sunday I was involved with a real miracle by sitting in on a baseball clinic in Newburgh, New York sponsored by Chicago White Sox scout John Tumminia’s Baseball Miracles project. Newburgh is just 65 miles north of NYC with rolling Catskills foothills serving as a lovely backdrop to this Hudson River town.

Talk about giving back! Brooklyn native Tumminia has lived in Newburgh since the end of his playing days as a St. Francis College-Bklyn and minor league outfielder.
His project has sponsored baseball and softball clinics all over the world.

“We strive to reach out especially to the youth who have never the played the game,” the mission statement explains. “At no cost, we provide instruction, gloves, bats, hats, shirts, and memories.”

Baseball Miracles traveled to Argentina late last year and previously put on clinics in Honduras, Kenya, South Africa, and Ireland. Domestically, they have brought the joy of baseball to the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, to underprivileged areas in Kentucky and New Orleans.

An impressive array of baseball scouts and coaches from big league organizations was on hand Super Bowl Sunday morning. Among them was White Sox scout/assistant Bronx Monroe H.S.coach Jose Bautista Jr. whose father pitched in the big leagues and is no relation to the free agent slugger Jose Bautista.

There was a chorus of boos from the youngsters when they thought Jose Jr. was related to the swaggering former Blue Jay slugger. Our Jose is also an assistant coach for the Bronx Monroe H.S. powerhouse team.

Others serving as clinicians yesterday included Alex Agostino of the Phillies, Kyle Bamberger of the Orioles, John Ceprini of the Reds, Ray Fagnant of the Red Sox, Cesar Presbott and Kelly Rodman of the Yankees, and Dennis Sheehan of the Diamondbacks.

I hadn’t seen Fagnant since a high school all-star game at Yankee Stadium several summers ago. In a great show of collegiality Red Sox and Yankee organizations cooperate on bringing national players to a mid-summer clinic that ends with a game at Yankee Stadium.

I attended this game years ago when Arizona high schooler Cody Bellinger, now reigning NL Rookie-of-the-Year, homered into the right field Stadium stands.
Fagnant told me that no one had done that until last year when six were hit, including three by a northern Ohio slugger Northcott now attending Vanderbilt who should be a high draft pick by his junior year.

Before the clinic began, Toronto Blue Jays executive Ben Cherington gave an introductory talk. He reminded the youngsters of three basic facts:

1. Have fun while learning. Afer all, the first three letters in fundamental are fun.
2. Learn how to practice. He recommended going to You Tube and putting in “Derek Jeter Practicing” and “Steph Curry Practicing”.
3. Learn how to be a good teammate even if you have a bad day.

And then the clinic of over two hours began. I’ve been to the long-running winter BeTheBest clinic in Atlantic City and this Baseball Miracle Clinic was run with the same efficiency and elan as the older one for the big boys and college players.

A couple of nine-year-olds really impressed me with their quick bats on wiffle balls soft-tossed by coaches. They also showed good speed around the bases.

One was wearing an Aaron Judge #99 jersey but he said he wasn’t a fan of any team. He just loved to play. Something I love to see!

A huge tip of the cap goes to 91-year-old Newburgh native and philanthroplst Bill Kaplan. A few years ago he funded the conversion of the old Newburgh Armory Unity Center that had been used mainly for storage of antiquated military equipment.

It is now an impressive modern facility. Much of the clinic took place on a field turf playing service that is set up for soccer but can also be used for baseball. There is an adjoining gymnasium, and a dining room.

Every Saturday the Armory Unity Center hosts Enrichment Programs for academics and sports. For more information, call 845-245-4035 or e-mail info@newburgharmory.org

In early August, Baseball Miracles plans a clinic at Yankee Stadium. For more information on this and other Baseball Miracles projects, e-mail: baseballmiracles.org

Before I close, I want to add a word on a celebration the night before the Super Bowl of my undergraduate alma mater Columbia's 1968 Ivy League championship basketball team. They won their only Ivy League title (so far), were nationally ranked finishing 23-5 and playing deep into the NCAA tournament.

All-time great Columbia forward Jim McMillian passed away last year but his widow attended as did two McMillian children. Both played basketball for Wake Forest in the late 1990s, daughter Eron attending the Winston-Salem school at the time of Tim Duncan.

Jim McMillian went on to a solid pro career, He was a starting forward on the great LA Laker team in the early 1970s that won 33 games in the regular season and the NBA title.

Another star on the '68 champs Heyward Dotson attended the Saturday event, but the other bulwark on the '68 team, seven-foot center from Brooklyn Dave Newmark, couldn't make the trip from his home in the SF Bay area.

To make the evening even more celebratory, Columbia completed a weekend sweep by holding off Dartmouth in the second half en route to a 77-74 victory. On Friday night the Lions handed Harvard its first league loss with a stirring come-from-behind 85-78 victory.

In a league where there is now a post-season tournament of the top four teams, Columbia is now 3-3 with four more weekends ahead. The Ivy League is the only league that plays on Fri. and Sat., a grueling test of stamina and talent.

Penn is undefeated, Harvard has only the Columbia loss, Princeton has two losses, but it is wide open for the last spot among Brown, Columbia, Cornell, and Yale. Tough luck winless Dartmouth will not be easy pickings for any of the contenders. All hail a very competitive underrated league.

That’s all for now. Always remember: Take it easy but take it!
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Super Bowl and Hoops Notes While Waiting for Pitchers and Catchers to Report

It was a thrilling Super Bowl. Only the most rabid and irrational New England Patriot-hater could not tip a cap to the brilliance of Tom Brady.

I was rooting for Atlanta but as a fan of the Wisconsin Badgers I was thrilled to see former Wisconsin running back James White have a great game and score the winning touchdown in overtime.

However, I do think the rule should be changed that both teams have a chance to score in overtime. I know it was with great reluctance a few years ago that NFL honchos made a change that if the first team with the ball doesn't score a touchdown, the opponent does get a chance.

But tell me any sport where the climactic game of the season is influenced so powerfully by a coin flip. Another reason why baseball and basketball are superior sports. And not as violent and injury-laden.

Speaking of basketball, I saw something at the start of the Columbia-Brown game on Saturday night that I never saw before. The five starters for Brown were listed on the scoreboard with numbers 1-2-3-4-5.

Hadn't seen such symmetry on a scoreboard since a baseball game in Minnesota over 20 years ago when the Indians were a dominant team and scored 1 run in the 1st, 2 in the 2nd, 3 in the 3rd, 4 in the 4th and 5 in the 5th (innings).

Columbia held on to beat Brown 83-78 and stay in the hunt for one of the four playoff spots in the first-ever Ivy League post-season tournament coming up second weekend in March. Brown's number 3, by the way, is senior Steven Spieth, brother of champion golfer Jordan Spieth.

Steven has been a solid contributor for the Brown Bears. But on Saturday, Columbia's smooth-shooting and defensively-improving senior forward Luke Petrasek and company were too much.

And a tip of my alumnus cap to seven-foot senior center Conor Voss. Coming off the bench he has become a reliable defender and an effective pivot in the offense.

AND NOW SOME CLOSING THOUGHTS ON BASEBALL:
By Valentine's Day all major league teams will have opened camps. It's a little early this year because the World Baseball Classic will take many players away from their teams for more than two weeks.

Many managers like Baltimore's Buck Showalter and Cleveland's Terry Francona have not been subtle about their opposition to the lost time for their minions. But the WBC is probably here to stay as an effort "to grow the game" internationally.

One last baseball note - I think the cumulative stats of Jeff Bagwell and Tim Raines make their Hall of Fame election acceptable. I still believe that the H of F should be for the great and not just the very good.

I also question whether catcher Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez merited election during his first year of eligibility.

I don't have a ballot but I needed to see pictures of how different Pudge looked during the age of undetected PED use and after. I remember seeing him running sprints before a Tigers-Yankees playoff game a few years ago. He was so fast and slim. I doubt if he looked that way a few years earlier but I have not seen the pictures.

Well,that's all for now. It is still a wonderful time of year with increasing daylight and spring training and spring itself on the horizon. So always: Take it easy but take it!
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