Thursday, November 23, 2017

The Stretch

Note: This piece was originally published by STYLE Weekly on Oct. 4, 1999. 


With the turning of the leaves, The Fan District of Richmond, Va., will again be transformed into a living impressionistic cityscape. As they always do, the season’s wistful breezes will facilitate reflection.

All of which leads to the fact that yet another baseball season has come and gone. After 6,783 games, the last game ever has been played at Detroit’s fabled Tiger Stadium. The Giants and the Astros will be playing in new parks next season, as well. The World Series, first played in 1903, will soon be upon us. Although baseball’s claim as the National Pastime may no longer hold up, the colorful lore generated by the magic of events at baseball parks probably outweighs that of all the other sports, put together.

In the mid-1950s I began going to the Richmond V's (for Virginians) games at Parker Field with my grandfather. Probably saw my first game when I was about seven. Naturally, I eagerly drank in all I could of the atmosphere, especially the stories told about legendary players and discussions on the strategy of the game.

As I got older I began going to games with my friends, most of whom played baseball. We usually took our baseball gloves with us to the game. We’d go early so we could watch the V’s warm up. As often as possible we talked with the players. If one of them remembered your name it was a source of pride. When we cheered the heroics we witnessed and rose for the seventh inning stretch and stayed until the last out, regardless of the score, it was tantamount to exercising religious rites.

A few seasons before they tore Parker Field down (it was dismantled in 1984 and in its place stands The Diamond), I experienced one last thrill at the old ballpark. This was when my daughter, Katey, was about seven years old.

The home team by then — as it is now — was the Braves. Katey, her mother and I were sitting in box seats as guests of neighbors who had gotten comps from a radio station. It was probably Katey’s first trip to Parker Field.

The spectacle itself was interesting to her for a while. As it was a night game, the bright lights were dazzling. The roar of the crowd was exhilarating. Being old enough to go along on such an outing, instead of staying at home with a baby sitter, was a boost to her morale. Nonetheless, by the middle of the game Katey (pictured above at about the age of this story) was getting tired of sitting still and bored with baseball.

During the sixth inning it fell to me to entertain, or at least restrain her, so the others could enjoy the game. I tried telling her more about the object of baseball, hoping that would help her pay some attention to the game.

That didn’t work for very long. She was soon climbing across seats again and this time she knocked a man’s beer into his lap. As the visiting team began their turn at bat, in the top of the seventh, I got an idea and asked Katey if she wanted to see some magic. Of course she did.

Then I got her to promise to be good if I showed her a magic trick. She agreed to the terms. Making sure she alone could hear me, I pulled her in close and whispered my instructions.

The gist of it was that she and I, using our combined powers of concentration, were going to make everyone in the ballpark stand up at the same time. Katey was thrilled at the mere prospect of such a feat. I told her to face the ongoing game, close her eyes, and begin thinking about making the crowd stand up.

After the visiting team made their third out, I cupped my hand to her ear and reminded her to think, “stand up, stand up …”

As baseball fans know, when the home team comes to bat in the bottom of the seventh inning everyone stands up, ostensibly to stretch their legs. It’s a longtime tradition called “the seventh inning stretch.” There’s a mention of the practice in a report about a Cincinnati Red Stockings (baseball’s first professional team) game that took place in 1869.

Tradition aside — when Katey turned around, opened her big blue eyes and saw thousands of people standing up — it was pure magic in her book.

No one in the group gave me away when she explained what we had just done. As I remember it, she stayed true to her word and was well-behaved the rest of the game. It was a few years later that Katey confronted me, having learned how the trick worked. We still laugh about it.

Some sports fans today complain that baseball games are too slow and meandering. While I admit baseball has its lulls, nonetheless there are textures and layers of information present at baseball parks that are just too subtle and ephemeral for the lens of a TV camera to capture. To appreciate them you have to be there. You have to bother to notice.

Sometimes there’s even a hint of magic in the air.

-- Words and photo by F.T. Rea
– 30 –

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Rea's Rams Report: No. 2

Kyle Guy drives past Malik Crowfield
Good storytellers know "discovery" is a device that can magnify the power of a message embedded in the plot. That's why they sometimes allow their readers/viewers to discover keys to unlocking the mystery. Of course, a little subtle foreshadowing can help goose the process of discovering. In real life, we also know plenty of people seem to have more faith in what they've figured out, for themselves, than they do in whatever they've been told.

OK, four games into the season, Coach Mike Rhoades' 2017-18 VCU Rams team has had the opportunity to discover, firsthand, something important to most D-I teams striving to achieve their goals. Having lost two consecutive games, both against teams that will likely be in the postseason conversation in March – UVA's 'Hoos and Marquette's Golden Eagles – and the Rams should have seen that summer league defense usually won't beat such teams.

No doubt, this is something Coach Rhoades has already mentioned more than a few times in team practices. So, do his players – 10 of which have only played four games in black and gold – need to lose more games to see the truth clearly?

As Col. Nathan R. Jessep (Jack Nicholson) suggested memorably, in "A Few Good Men" (1992), maybe these young and talented Rams can't handle the truth ... yet. We'll soon see. VCU has two more games in Hawaii to start proving to themselves they are getting better.
  • Can these Rams change to playing a withering full-court defense, time and again, without fouling too much? 
  • Around the backboard, before poising to out-jump everybody, can they remember to first box out? 
  • Can they deflect more passes and dive for more loose balls on the floor? Can they be more aggressive on defense, take more chances?
In a nutshell, when can Rhodes' Rams start becoming a team capable of playing intense defense, as a unit, for a game's 40 minutes? That, rather than being five guys running around the floor in the same uniforms?

Next tilt: Maui Invitational: Tues., Nov. 21, at 4 p.m: VCU (2-2) vs. California (2-2) on ESPN2. 

Update: The Rams raced to 26-point lead at the half. Then coasted to the win: VCU 83, Cal 69.

-- Photo from VCU

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Rea's Rams Report: No. 1

Justin Tillman with the smooth jumper
over Noah Horchler

Monday night at the Siegel Center VCU's senior power forward, Justin Tillman, schooled the visiting University of North Florida Ospreys on what a bona fide Atlantic 10 preseason poll first team pick looks like, up close. Tillman scored 27 points (on 13-for-17 shooting from the field). He also grabbed eight boards and blocked a couple of shots.

Still, the Rams had to score the last seven points of the game to win it by 10 points: VCU 95, NF 85.

That victory moved the Rams to a 2-0 record. VCU's undefeated status will be severely tested on Friday, when the University of Virginia Cavaliers visit the Rams' West Broad Street home court (4 p.m.; CBSSN). The game will be VCU's 102nd consecutive sell-out. The Cavs, with their stingy Pack Line defense, are also sitting at 2-0.

It's worth noting that Virginia has held its two opponents this season to 48 and 49 points. VCU, with its explosive offense, has scored 94 and 95 points. Something's got to give. However, with Virginia's reputation for running a painfully deliberate offense the pace of the game could well be a key factor for the winner. The Rams will surely want to play faster than the Cavs.

Still, fast or slow, VCU has to outscore Virginia. That likely means the Rams will have to limit the points scored by three players, in particular: 6-foot-5-inch senior guard Devon Hall; 6-foot-2-inch sophomore guard Kyle Guy; 7-foot-1-inch freshman forward Jay Huff.

Two games into the 2017-18 season two pleasant surprises about new VCU players are: Sophomore transfer Issac Vann, a small forward, was billed as a potent addition to the Rams offense. While he's shown flashes that back that up, Vann been one of the better defensive players. Freshman power forward Sean Mobley has shown good court sense as well as a pair of good hands. Look for them to get more playing time.

The overall athleticism of Coach Mike Rhoades' young squad is impressive, but that's been more in evidence when the Rams have the ball. On Friday VCU's defense will probably be tested more than it has been this season. 

-- Photo from VCU

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Yo! Thanks for the Memories

The Big Guys at the BIOGRAPH 45 party (Feb. 11, 2017).
My involvement with the Bijou Film Center was bookended by gala events celebrating the 40th and 45th birthdays of Richmond's semi-legendary repertory cinema, the Biograph Theatre (1972-87). At both gatherings those on hand shared in the Biograph's long-admired "have a good time" spirit.

As it was for those two happy occasions, again it was a pleasure working with James Parrish on The Bijou's four special screenings at the Byrd Theatre with after-parties at the New York Deli. Likewise, the two live music events at Hardywood, the second of which included the culmination of The Bijou's initial membership drive. It was an effort that brought in over 400 members, we billed the celebration as our "Leap of Faith" party.

The Leap of Faith party at Hardywood (Apr. 16, 2016).
Riding the momentum of those six successful shows expectations waxed. However, it wasn't long before some loose ends began to unravel. Consequently, with good intentions aplenty, some costly bad decisions were made that led to what I saw as a blurring of what had been our oft-stated mission.

After two months of shows on weekends at 304 E. Broad St., it was already apparent to me the crowds that had turned out to Bijou Presents happenings at The Byrd and Hardywood were not about to follow us to that location – not soon enough, anyway.

As my enthusiasm for operating that downtown screening room waned, for various reasons, my co-founder's role in the scheme of things faded from The Bijou picture like an iris wipe. Nonetheless, I'm glad I got to present what was a programming encore, of a sort, for me.

To help folks cope with their inauguration day blues, a gem of a film festival was assembled. Four art house workhorses were presented as a pair of double features. The “Facing Fascism:Time Capsules” mini-fest ran over two weekends (Jan. 19-29, 2017). Susan Greenbaum kicked it off with a heartwarming live performance of "This Land Is Your Land" for a handful of attendees. I introduced each of the politically-savvy classics with a little spiel to provide context. Later on, listening to a college student explain to me why "Z" (1969) still seems relevant today was an unexpected reward I appreciated. 

A couple of weeks after the Biograph 45 party's nostalgia flashback (on Feb. 11, 2017), my affiliation with the Bijou experiment expired. The operation of the screening room went on until the volunteer-run Bijou pulled the plug on Broad Street (Sept. 30, 2017).

For those who mean to adapt and carry on with the quest it's back to the drawing board. For me, looking back, it was a lot of fun participating in the design and promotion of those Bijou special events mentioned above.

Dreaming up and executing the "Hamburgers" campaign to promote “Entertainment” (2015) was a highlight for me. Having Chuck Wrenn in on it, the stunt took on a caper feeling that carried me back to my salad days. It was delightful seeing all the old friends that presenting those shows at The Byrd and Hardywood flushed out. Making some new friends along the way was a bonus treat.
One of a series of 'Hamburgers' (2.67' by 4') 
 created in the basement at Anchor 
Studios by a team of artists.
Once again, it appears I have retired from show biz. Thus, this is a good time for me to say thank you to all of The Bijou's volunteers, members and supporters of all stripes. Thanks for helping to create some new fond memories. And, I hope those who have done The Bijou favors, one way or another, feel the same way.

For the upcoming holiday season and the new year, naturally, I wish the Bijou Film Center and its friends good fortune.

– Terry

-- Photos: Big Guys and Hamburger by me. Hardywood by Katey Knox. 

Thursday, November 09, 2017

From Benedictine to West Point

From Benedictine to West Point
by F.T. Rea (Sept. 2004 issue of FiftyPlus)

Fresh out of Virginia Military Institute, Bobby Ross took on his first mission as a football coach in 1959. Benedictine High School’s dynamic athletic director, Warren Rutledge, hired the 22-year-old Ross coming off of a stellar athletic career at Benedictine and VMI. Now, forty-five years later, it seems the last mission of Ross’ distinguished coaching career -- which includes a college national championship and a trip to the Super Bowl -- will be to restore a measure of dignity to the pigskin program at the United States Military Academy.

Ross’ predecessor at West Point, Todd Berry, posted a 5-42 record before he was mercifully relieved of command in the midst of last season, a campaign in which Army eventually lost all thirteen of its scheduled games

Ross, at 67, obviously has his work cut out for him.

Some say this mission can’t be accomplished in the money-driven, brave new world of so-called amateur sports. How can he attract today’s top athletes to such an academically challenging institution, with a five-year military commitment in a time of war to follow? Others suggest that Ross, himself, is simply out-of-date.

Fine: Coach Ross is at ease operating as the underdog. Yes, and looking beyond the “0-13” and the “67,” Ross and West Point seem to be a perfect fit in many ways. Perhaps most importantly, right now they need one another.

The search committee that lured Ross out of retirement knew that its situation called for more than just a smart, tough-minded football coach. It cried out for a man who understood the Academy’s military-based system, who could hit the ground running. Having worn the cadet uniforms of both Benedictine and VMI, and coached at The Citadel, Ross certainly knows his way around a cadet corps.

Thus, with a natural grasp of the importance of tradition at West Point, Ross is accentuating the positive. “Coaching at a place like this,” he said, “is college football in its purest form. No compromises are made here.”

Ross’ most recent stint as a head coach was in the National Football League with the Detroit Lions. Two-thirds of the way through the 2000 season, his fourth in Detroit, Ross announced he was stepping down, due to mounting health concerns. Cynics assumed he was burned out. Truth be told, his decision was precipitated by the reappearance of painful blood clots in his right leg (his father had suffered from similar problems, and eventually lost both of his legs).

Why did a man who shouldn’t have anything to prove come out of a comfortable retirement? With a clarity that might well flow from being accustomed to fielding the same questions repeatedly, Ross answered politely: “I felt like I had a lot of energy. Then the competitive instincts were returning.”

When Ross speaks of football, his voice reveals little about his state of mind. It’s his business, after all, and he sounds much like the thoughtful professional. On the other hand, when he talks about Chiocca’s, a restaurant in Richmond’s Benedictine neighborhood -- “The best roast beef sandwich I've ever had!” -- or afternoon walks through the same neighborhood, where his wife grew up, or when he reminisces about old ballfields such as Hotchkiss, near where he grew up, and the diamond in Byrd Park where Benedictine used to play its home games, his warmth for his hometown is unrestrained

“I love Richmond,” said Ross, with his unchanged Richmond accent. “It's my home, and always will be.”

Ross and his wife, Alice, have five children and fifteen grandchildren. His son Kevin, who graduated from the Naval Academy in 1988, is now on his father’s staff, serving as Army’s offensive coordinator.

Asked about Bobby Ross, Benedictine's current athletic director, Barry Gibrall, pointed out that Ross has often helped the school, sometimes under a veil of anonymity. While he was serving on the school’s Board of Trustees, for instance, Ross noticed the Cadets football uniforms weren’t all precisely the same shade of green. Ross fixed it, but typically, he wanted no credit.

"The new renovations, state-of-the-art locker room and weight room, are a direct result of Coach Ross’ generosity,” Gibrall added. “He tears up when he remembers where he came from. He’s a Highland Park guy who has gone far. He doesn’t forget it.”

In recognition of this strong bond, last May Benedictine named its Goochland County football field Robert J. “Bobby” Ross Stadium. Gibrall said that Ross was surprised and characteristically humble about the announcement, saying he didn’t deserve it.

Gibrall, who played his football at Benedictine in the early-sixties, chuckled. “No one deserves it more! His name was the only one that came up.”

“He’s the greatest human being I've known in my life,” said Johnny Siewers, who played on the Benedictine basketball team with Ross for two seasons. “He never did anything wrong.”

Siewers, who keeps regular office hours at his family’s business, Siewers Lumber, recalled what an outstanding athlete his friend was in high school. Ross was named to All-City teams in football (as quarterback), basketball (as point guard) and baseball (as shortstop), according to Siewers. “He was quiet, had a lot of natural ability, desire, and heart, but he was injury-prone because he played too hard.”

Ross remains close with Siewers and several other men with whom he played sports as a boy. A group of them meets every July Fourth at Siewers’ place on the York River. And, when Ross coached the San Diego Chargers in Super Bowl XXIX, he invited six of his old Richmond pals, along with their wives, to the game.

In 1959 Ross married his high school sweetheart and graduated from VMI with a bachelor of arts degree. Following that one-season stint at Benedictine the same year, he left Richmond to serve his active-duty obligation as an officer in the U.S. Army’s Third Armored Cavalry Regiment. As it was during the Berlin Wall crisis, the six-month active-duty-option that might have been available was not, so coaching football had to wait.

Once his U.S. Army duty was done in 1962, Ross wrote every school system in Virginia asking for a job coaching high school football. He landed on his feet in Colonial Heights. And in 1965, his first assistant’s job at the collegiate level took him back to VMI. Ross’ other stops as an assistant coach at the college level were at The College of William & Mary, Rice University (in Houston, Texas), and the University of Maryland.

Ross’ first college head coaching job was at The Citadel, where he stayed for five seasons (1973-77). While he didn’t post a winning record (24-31-0) there, Ross took advantage of his first opportunity to be the boss by hiring an amazingly bright group of young assistants. Included on that list are no less than five current head coaches of note: Frank Beamer (Virginia Tech), Sylvester Crooms (Mississippi State), Ralph Friedgen (Maryland), Jimmye Laycock (William & Mary) and Cal McCombs (VMI).

“I had him [Ross] as a position-coach as a player,” said Laycock, referring to when he played football at William & Mary in the late-sixties. About his tenure as an assistant coach under Ross, Laycock added, “He gave me a tremendous break and a tremendous foundation, as far as how to be a coach. Bobby Ross is a great person to talk with, and emulate. I never hesitate to call him.”

Beamer recalled a particular day at The Citadel: “During one meeting, I remember going over how we were going to play a pass coverage. I was talking about it in general terms. Coach Ross said, ‘Let’s stop and when you come back this afternoon let’s be very specific. Exactly how many yards off hash are you going to be?’ From that time on, I learned you take care of all the details in coaching, and he does that very well.”

Ross left The Citadel in 1978 to spend four years as an assistant coach with the Kansas City Chiefs, then returned to college football to become head coach at Maryland. Ross subsequently led the Terrapins to three consecutive Atlantic Coast Conference championships (1983-85). In 1986 he took charge of Georgia Tech’s program. Four years later the Yellow Jackets were co-national champions.

Moving back to the NFL in 1992, Ross retooled the perennial also-ran San Diego Chargers, leading them to Super Bowl XXIX, the only NFL championship appearance in franchise history. In 1997 he left San Diego, rather than cave in to management’s wishes and fire four of his assistant coaches.

Ross injected, “I didn’t feel it was justified. It was in my contract to have say-so over hiring and firing. I've only fired one coach in my life.”

Three years of retirement in Lexington, Virginia, however, had Ross thinking about getting back into the game. Then his name surfaced as a possible candidate for the head coaching job at Duke. As treatment had his health problem under control his wife encouraged him to consider a comeback. When the West Point possibility opened up, her enthusiasm for that opportunity weighed on his decision.

On December, 9, 2003, USMA officials announced that Bobby Ross had accepted an offer to become Army’s 34th head football coach. He inked a pact that purportedly pays him over $600,000 per year, almost three times what former coach Berry is said to have earned. Interestingly, the money was put together by the Association of Graduates, an alumni group, which means that Ross is officially an independent contractor being paid by private donations.

To this new mission Ross takes with him a well-honed gift for leadership that apparently has always been there. Even in grade school, it’s said, he was the leader of the pack, a sentiment echoed by Johnny Siewers: “His success in coaching, everywhere he’s been, is based on his being able to take the best players and make leaders out of them.”

“Bobby Ross is a successful coach because he is very detailed,” said Beamer, “he’s very knowledgeable, and he cares a lot about his players and coaches.”

Laughing off a question about goals for Army this season, Ross deadpanned, “Our program lost by 20.76 points per game [last year], we’ve got to get so we lose better.” Then he added, “We’ve got to get some wins.”

“I'm so glad he’s back,” said Laycock. “He’s straightforward; we need people like him in coaching.”

Wearing a favorite shirt, one that pays tribute to the late Warren Rutledge’s 949 basketball wins at Benedictine, the ever-loyal Ross said with sincerity, “Warren was a great man to work for, and with.”

Ross had seventy-five freshmen turn out in perfect weather for the first official football practice on August 9 at Howze Field. Army may have been humiliated in its last game (Navy 34, Army 6), but a new enthusiasm for football appears to be taking root along the banks of the Hudson River - which can’t come as much of a surprise to his colleagues, Laycock and Beamer, or any of Ross’ old teammates at Benedictine.

-- 30 --