Circumstances beyond my control -- and some within my control, but I chose other priorities -- have prevented me from doing new posts about the current Yankees and other current issues for the last 2 days. And, at the moment, duty to Dear Old Alma Mater requires that I take a step back. I'm not going to tell you that it was a simpler time. It wasn't. But it was, for a few days, a really good time.
Where were you, and what were you doing, on June 11, 1986, 25 years ago today? It was a Wednesday, and if you’re a New York baseball fan, the Yankees lost 9-3 to the Tigers in Detroit (Frank Tanana beat Ron Guidry), and the Mets beat the Phillies 5-3 at Shea (Ron Darling outpitching a suddenly old Steve Carlton) on their way to a World Championship season.
But I didn’t see either game. I was at the baseball field of the Memorial Stadium complex in New Brunswick, New Jersey, watching the final of the first Greater Middlesex Conference Tournament, the successor to the Middlesex County Tournament. Dear Old Alma Mater was playing.
East Brunswick High School played Madison Central – the Old Bridge-based school now known as Old Bridge H.S. Here’s the starting lineup for Da Bears, coached by Lou Kosa, better known as the school’s girls’ soccer coach, builder of the best such program in the State, and who recently passed away:
Batting 1st, the right fielder, a lefthanded sophomore, Number 1, Craig Semchyshyn. Normally, underclassmen did not make the starting lineup, but he stepped in due to an injury to a senior. He turned out to be an ideal leadoff man, his speed allowing him to beat out some infield hits (including some good bunts), steal bases, and get to some tough plays in the outfield. He starred for the team for the next 2 years, although when the Class of ’86 and then the Class of ’87 players graduated, the team around him was not what it had been in 1984 (County final), ’85 (nearly won Conference title) and ’86.
Batting 2nd, the third baseman, a righthanded senior, Number 30, Keith Motusesky. Also the leader of the E.B. basketball team that won the GMC Red Division and Central Jersey Group IV (largest enrollment classification) title the preceding winter. He could also play catcher.
Batting 3rd, the shortstop, a righthanded senior, Number 6, Ken Wainczak. Probably our best all-around player, “Check” (a shortening of his name, not his ethnicity, as I think he was Polish like me rather than Czech) was in the mold already formed by Robin Yount, Alan Trammell and the young Cal Ripken Jr., of shortstops no longer being spindly, good-field-no-hit types, rather becoming big guys with power, presaging the era of Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Nomar Garciaparra.
Batting 4th, the first baseman, a lefthanded senior, Number 11, Mike Cioffi. I don’t think E.B. has ever had a player who could hit the ball farther. Earlier in the season, in an otherwise unpleasant loss to Woodbridge, he hit one that I paced off at 492 feet. In retrospect, having read books about long-distance home runs, I probably measured wrong – or, perhaps, the measurements on the outfield fences at the former EBHS baseball field (since totally redone with FieldTurf and dugouts that wouldn’t be condemned by the health inspector) were wrong. But in another game that season, at Perth Amboy, then forced to play their home games at their football stadium, resulting in a mirror image of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum when the Dodgers played there (right field was much too close, rather than left field), he hit a ball over the houses on Myrtle Street across from the stadium. That had to be at least 450 feet. (Too bad we lost that game, too, but better times were coming and he would be a big part of it.)
Batting 5th, the second baseman, a righthanded junior, Number 5, Don Marchiselli. March also played a bit of third base, and when he got a hold of a pitch, the opposing third baseman learned why the position is called the hot corner.
Batting 6th, the left fielder, a righthanded junior, Number 7, Andy Wang. Although E.B. already had a large South Asian population at that time (much more interested in cricket than baseball, although they did play soccer and field hockey and run track), we didn’t have a lot of East Asians then. A few of them were on the track team, but Andy was good with both the bat and the glove.
Batting 7th, the center fielder, a lefthanded senior, Number 10, John Breen. Normally the right fielder, he moved over due to another player’s injury. Three brothers, three good baseball players, three different schools: His older brother Bill had pitched no-hitters for the East Brunswick campus of Middlesex County Vo-Tech H.S., and younger brother Sean starred for St. Joseph’s of Metuchen.
Batting 8th, the catcher, a righthanded senior, Number 20, Rich Helmold. The son and namesake of the head coach of the town’s team in the Middlesex County league of American Legion baseball, Rich was a Crash Davis type, a catcher you did NOT cross up, who would remind you, “Don’t think, Meat, just throw.” And he could hit, too. There was no weak spot in this lineup.
Batting 9th, the designated hitter, a lefthanded senior, Number 3, Rich Loninger. This was the injury I mentioned earlier: Los was a good fit as a center fielder and as a leadoff man, but he got hurt shortly before the tournament began. The final was his first appearance in the tournament.
Pitching, a righthanded starter, Number 41, Steve Hochman. A serious Met fan, he wore 41 in honor of Tom Seaver, and even copied Tom Terrific’s pitching motion, overhand with his right knee brushing the ground with a permanent dirt-stain.
One time, in American Legion Ball, an opposing pitcher took the mound wearing 41, and was awful. Steve said, “He’s making Seaver look like an asshole.” His coach wisely benched the scrub, and brought in a pitcher wearing Number 36, and he wasn’t much better. This was before David Cone reached the majors with the Mets, let alone came to the Yankees and wore 36, so I said, “He’s making Robin Roberts look bad.” Hochman gave me this dirty look. I hope it meant he was suggesting that Roberts wasn’t as good as Seaver; considering he got into the University of Michigan, a pretty good school, I’m sure he knew who Roberts was. Steve’s brother Brad, a year behind him, was also on the baseball team and a star on the soccer team. Another brother, Brandon, was a key cog on the next E.B. team to win a County baseball title, in 1991.
If Connie Mack was right, and “Pitching is 75 percent of baseball,” then Steve’s Spring 1986 performance can be Exhibit A for the prosecution. He was the reason we went from entering the tournament 11-12 – having been eliminated from the State Tournament in the first round the day before the County Tournament began – and the 12th seed to reaching the final. Hoch struck out 14 batters against heavily favored Carteret in the first round. On the bench, we were wondering what the school record was. Wayne Beck, a sophomore on the ’86 team, told us he thought it was 17, set by his father, also named Wayne Beck, back in 1966, when the school won its first Central Jersey Group IV title in the sport. As far as I know, he was correct, but I don’t know if that record has since been broken. We won the game, 6-4.
Three days later, in the quarterfinal, against GMC Gold Division (small-school) Champion Harold G. Hoffman High School (which has since reverted to its original name of South Amboy H.S.), Hoch fanned 11 batters in just 5 innings, with Jim Craig (a junior righthander, no relation to the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey goalie of the same name) finishing the game. (New Jersey high school baseball games are 7 innings, barring a tie.) We won, 15-1. Don’t be fooled by the score, or by the fact that Hoffman was a small school (barely 300 students): They did win their Division and were then perennial contenders for the Central Jersey Group I title.
Next up was the semifinal against South Plainfield, Champions of the GMC White Division, soon to win the Central Jersey Group II title, and ranked Number 1 in the entire State by the Star-Ledger. Were we intimidated? If we were, it wasn’t for long: We kicked the stuffing out of them, 16-4, crushing the horsehide in support of Cioffi, who threw some serious smoke. (Well, serious by the standards of New Jersey high school ball.)
South Plainfield was led by Phil Aiello, like Cioffi a lefthanded first baseman and pitcher, and we clobbered him. One of the spectators that day, waiting for his own semifinal against Old Bridge, was yet another lefty first baseman-pitcher, Chuck Frobosilo of Sayreville, a school which had just clinched its 3rd straight Conference title (Middlesex County Athletic Conference 1984 & ’85, GMC Red Division ’86). This game was such a laugher, literally so, that we were joking with him that this game pretty much clinched the Home News’ Middlesex County Player of the Year award for him (and he did get it).
Part of the reason we scored 31 runs in 2 games, and ended up scoring 51 in the 4 games of the tournament, was the field dimensions. Contrary to the format used from the 1990s onward, when GMC Tournament games are played at the home field of the higher-seeded school until the final, which is usually played at the immaculate field of East Brunswick Vo-Tech, in the 1980s the entire tournament was played at the Memorial Stadium complex in New Brunswick.
New Brunswick High School (established in 1875 as the first public high school in Middlesex County) had played its football games at the complex since 1940, with the press box of the (thankfully now-renovated) football stadium being strangely a few yards off midfield. When they moved off their old campus at Livingston Avenue & Comstock Street and opened their new school in 1967 (it’s now a middle school, with its replacement recently opened on Route 27), they built it on Livingston between 9th and 12th Streets, with Joyce Kilmer Avenue (the “Trees” poet, killed in combat in World War I, was born on that street when it was Codwise Avenue) behind it and the stadium on that street.
Behind the stadium was the old Pennsylvania Railroad tracks, by this point (as they still are) used by Amtrak and New Jersey Transit, and whenever an event is held there, it’s fun to watch the trains go by. The baseball field, on the 9th Street side of Joyce Kilmer Avenue, is limited by the tracks, and has a chain-link fence that is 300 feet all the way around, but is 20 feet high to discourage cheap home runs. It does not, however, discourage cheap doubles, and the Bears were smacking the ball all over the yard.
We dusted off South Plainfield to advance to the final, and Madison Central did the same by upsetting Sayreville. In 1986, Madison, the closest divisional opponent to EBHS in terms of distance (a few others, such as E.B. Tech, Spotswood and South River – once much larger and the school to which East Brunswick 9th-to-12th graders were sent up until 1958, and thus our original rivals – were closer, but had smaller enrollments so we could only play them in County Tournaments) was considered a rival, but not really our biggest rival. St. Joseph’s of Metuchen, a school which took so many E.B. athletes they were nicknamed “E.B. Catholic,” would have been our biggest, except they had no football team. (They will finally play their first varsity football schedule this fall.) They SAID they never recruited, absolutely insisting on this. As New Jersey native Jim Bouton would say, “Yeah, surrrre!” And, in this era, we had some legendary football games against J.P. Stevens H.S. of Edison, including games that decided the Conference and Central Jersey Group IV Championships. It would be a little longer, with some nasty defeats, including two terrible State Playoff football losses, before Madison, and its successor Old Bridge, became the unquestioned school that we hated the most.
Still, we already didn’t like them, and the feeling was very mutual. Even more than the Township of East Brunswick, the Township of Old Bridge had a reputation for ginkers. If you’re not a Middlesex County native and are not familiar with this term, you probably have your own term for this type: Ginkers were the 1970s & ‘80s successors to the greasers of the ‘50s, liking “hair metal” as opposed to greasers’ love of Elvis and the 1950s rock and roll pioneers. These were guys who needed to take three or four steps up in class and articulation before they could be celebrated in a Bruce Springsteen song. They were more like the kid in John Mellencamp’s song “Pink Houses,” with the greasy hair and the greasy smile, who knows that nothing better than what he’s got now will ever be his destination, unless he wises up.
There were a few ginker types on EBHS’ athletic teams, but not many. Cigarettes reduce lung power, and are not exactly a performance-enhancing drug. But the guys at the two high schools Old Bridge had at the time, Madison Central and Cedar Ridge, they took the cake. And probably robbed the bakery in the process. Nah, they didn’t rob anything. They were too lazy.
But it wouldn’t have mattered if the Madison hitters were all in tip-top condition: We crushed them. In the top of the first, Sem and Mot both reached base, and Wainczak stepped up. He cranked one down the left-field line. It cleared the high fence, and this was no cheap shot, it was an absolute no-doubt-abouter. I’ve often said this was “the longest home run ever hit,” because it went onto the tracks and landed on a passing Amtrak train that carried it all the way to Florida. Now, I don’t have any proof that this happened – Amtrak and NJT trains went past all night, but the homer didn’t hit any of them – but I looked for this ball, and it was nowhere to be found. The only thing I can think of is that it did leave the complex and land on the tracks. Wherever it went, everybody associated with E.B. was over the moon.
Hochman was dealing. We built up a 7-0 lead, and it looked like we would win easily. Well, it wasn’t that easy: In the 4th inning, Madison rallied, made it 7-3 and loaded the bases with 2 out. A shot went to dead center, and it looked like it would clatter off the high fence for a double, scoring at least 2 and making this a game again. But Breen (playing out of his usual position, mind you) made a leaping grab, and the rally was stymied.
That was it: They couldn’t touch Hoch, as if Seaver (who, by this point, was wrapping up his brilliant career as a mopup man with the Red Sox) himself were on the mound, and we tacked on a few more runs for the 14-3 final score.
This was E.B.’s 25th season of varsity baseball. (Which means the not-so-good one that just wrapped up was the 50th season.) We had never won the County Title under the old format, and only reached 1 final, losing to Edison 2 years earlier. This would be our first title, if we could finish it off. At 10:02 PM on June 11, 1986, Steve Hochman did just that: His arm must’ve felt like Swiss cheese at this point, but he fired an aspirin past Rob Jessup, who started the game as the opposing pitcher but had long since been moved off the mound, a swing and a miss, strike three.
The mighty mighty Bears were County Champions. Well, Greater Middlesex Conference Champions, but since the only County school not in the GMC was Piscataway (which joined 2 years later), and they didn’t reach the sectional final or win their league, it’s safe to say E.B. was County Champions.
As one of the student managers on that team, it was, at the time, the happiest moment in my life. For the first time ever, my three great loves all came together: East Brunswick, baseball, and winning.
To this day, East Brunswick High School has never won a Middlesex County or Greater Middlesex Conference baseball championship without me being there for the final. The later wins came in 1991, at East Brunswick Vo-Tech, beating South Plainfield; 1997, also at E.B. Tech, beating Woodbridge’s John F. Kennedy H.S., just one day after beating Edison at Hamilton’s Mercer County Park for the Central Jersey Group IV title; and 2005, beating St. Joe’s at what’s now called TD Bank Ballpark in Bridgewater (which isn’t even in Middlesex County), home of the Somerset Patriots.
I’ve also seen them lose finals to Edison at E.B. Tech in 1998 and Piscataway at the Pats’ park in 2003 – a day after an 8-0 E.B. lead was wiped out because it was only the 4th inning when it was rained out! Rats! Anyway, with me, they’re 4-2 in finals; without me, they’re 0-1.
Sadly, Old Bridge won this year’s GMCT. Each separate Old Bridge school, Cedar Ridge (1987) and Madison Central (1989) won it once before reconsolidation in 1994. St. Joe’s has also won it 4 times, the last in 2009. Only Edison has won the MCT/GMCT more, 8 times, the last in 2001. South Brunswick has won it twice (last in 2010). Bishop Ahr of Edison, Carteret, Piscataway, Spotswood and Woodbridge have each won it once.
Woodbridge won this year’s girls’ equivalent, the GMC softball tournament, which E.B. has won in 2004 (beating Middlesex) and 2009 (over Old Bridge). Hmmmm, twice E.B. has won the County softball title, and then the football team won the Central Jersey Group IV title the following fall. Could this happen again? I think testing this theory is something we should seriously consider.
It’s been 25 years since East Brunswick won that first title. It capped a schoolyear in which the football team made the Playoffs, both soccer teams won County titles, both basketball teams won GMC Red Division titles and the boys won (so far) their only Central Jersey title, the wrestling team won the Division title, wrestler Darren Schulman went undefeated and won an individual title at the State Championships, and there were track titles as well. It was at the middle of a calendar year that included the second half of my junior year and the first half of my senior year, and featured those basketball, wrestling, baseball and track accomplishments, and in the fall included a division title in football, a sweep of the division and county titles by the soccer teams, and the girls’ soccer team winning its first State Group IV Championship.
The calendar year also included the Mets’ march to the World Series, with bumps in the road in October before finishing it off; the Chicago Bears winning their “Super Bowl Shuffle” title, the Boston Celtics going 40-1 at home en route to their last NBA Title of the Bird-McHale-Parrish era, the Montreal Canadiens winning the Stanley Cup, the 100th birthday celebrations of the Statue of Liberty, the accident that destroyed the space shuttle Challenger and the Iran-Contra scandal.
The year’s top films were Top Gun, Crocodile Dundee, Platoon, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (as I said on Thursday, it premiered the same day as this GMCT Final), and the sci-fi sequels Star Trek IV and Aliens.
It was the year the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame elected its first members, the Amnesty International Conspiracy of Hope Tour was held, Motley Crue’s Tommy Lee married Heather Locklear (each eventually married someone similar, Pamela Anderson and Richie Sambora, respectively), Eddie Money teamed up with Ronnie Spector on “Take Me Home Tonight,” the Bangles released Different Light (featuring Prince’s song “Manic Monday” and their first Number 1 hit, “Walk Like an Egyptian”), Metallica released Master of Puppets, Bruce Hornsby & the Range released The Way It Is, Run-DMC released Raising Hell (which kickstarted Aerosmith’s comeback with a duet/cover of “Walk This Way”), Paul Simon released Graceland, and the Beastie Boys released Licensed to Ill, including “Fight For Your Right to Party” – which, the following spring at my senior variety show, became the parody “Fight For Your Right to Park.”
Geraldo Rivera looked in Al Capone’s vaults, and found the same thing that an X-ray of his head found: Nothing worth discussing. Fox became the 4th major TV network. Perfect Strangers, L.A. Law, Matlock, Designing Women, ALF and The Oprah Winfrey Show premiered; Remington Steele was canceled.
Notable books of the year were Red Storm Rising by Tom Clancy, The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy, It by Stephen King, The Bourne Supremacy by Robert Ludlum, and How to be a Complete Bastard by Adrian Edmondson. All have since been made into films, with the exception of the last, not to be confused with How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, which has.
Haiti was liberated from the Duvalier family, and the Philippines from the Marcoses. Halley’s Comet turned out to be no big deal; Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God,” helping Argentina to beat England en route to winning the World Cup, was a very big deal.
We had personal computers, but not laptops, iPads or the Internet. We had portable telephones, but they were still big and bulky, not yet smaller than the communicators on the original Star Trek series. There were no flat-screen, let alone high-definition, TVs. Electric cars were dinky little things, smaller than today's "smart cars" (a.k.a. halfcars), but then, nobody had yet produced one of those ridiculous bastard children of the limousine and the sport-utility vehicle. There were people with big hair full of AquaNet, but very few pierced body parts other than ears, and nobody had their pants drooping to reveal their underwear.
Barack Obama was at Harvard Law School. George W. Bush quit drinking. Sarah Palin was trying to finish college. Mitt Romney was running an investment firm. Rudy Giuliani was a U.S. Attorney busting organized crime -- some of it on the streets of Ozone Park, some of it on Wall Street. Donald Trump was beginning to become rather famous.
Bill Fox was leaving the Mayoralty of East Brunswick after 11 years, and was succeeded by Jack Sinagra. Current Mayor David Stahl was a relatively new arrival to the Township. Tom Kean was Governor of New Jersey, and current Governor Chris Christie was a student at the University of Delaware and had just gotten married to future investment banker Mary Pat Foster. Mario Cuomo was about to be elected to a 2nd term as Governor of New York, and his son Andrew, the current Governor, quit his law firm to run a charity he had started full-time. Salomon Brothers was renamed Bloomberg LP by its chairman, future New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg. Ed Koch was the City's Mayor at that point.
James Cagney, Simone de Beauvoir, and Ted Knight died. So did music’s Rudy Vallee, Kate Smith and Benny Goodman. So did Wallis Simpson, a.k.a. the Duchess of Windsor, and Frances Scott Fitzgerald, only child of F. Scott and Zelda. So, for those of us interested in sports, did Hank Greenberg, Jacques Plante, and, stunningly for those of us who were young, Len Bias. Robert Pattinson and Megan Fox and the twins Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen were born.
1986. The year East Brunswick was the baseball champion of Middlesex County. A year I can never forget – and the night of June 11 will live forever.