BY, JOHN TORSIELLO
My lifelong love affair with sports started in a small, cozy living room in my parents’ and grandparents’ home on a quiet back street in Torrington long ago.
Some of my first memories were watching the Army-Navy football game on a black and white television along with my father. I must have been seven or eight at the time, maybe younger. Another vivid memory is raptly watching the 1957 National Football League championship game, still considered one of the greatest games ever played, between the New York Giants and the Baltimore Colts. My parents were upset because I liked Johnny Unitas (cool name) and said that I should be rooting for the local team not the Colts. The Colts won.
My dad was a key figure in the former John Cavallari Post for American World war veterans that was located on Migeon Avenue in T-Town, across from a duckpin alley where I also spent much of my youthful days. Dad and his buddies brought in a big time Giants football player each off-season to talk and meet and great. It was so cool and only fueled my love of the game, and sports in general. I met stars like Del Shofner (his hands were three times the size of mine), riding in the back of a car with Jim Katcavage (he seemed sooo big) who was being ferried to the now defunct Cavalry Post building, and later Y.A. Tittle. I learned to indeed love the “local” team.
While the Cavalarri Post building and the bowling alley are gone, victims of “progress” and a changing society, the memories remain vibrant. I think about how much today’s kids are missing out not being able to meet their heroes up close and personal. Back when I was a kid, athletes were US, not multi-millionaires living in their mansions and flying around in private jets far above their fans.
My love for sports continued to grow as I did. Baseball; Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle, basketball; Elgin Baylor and Bob Pettit; golf, Arnold Palmer and then Jack Nicklaus, even hockey…I never played but enjoyed following the then six-team league. My parents gladly fed my passion for sports, as did my grandfather, who loved baseball, boxing and fishing. We never missed the Friday Night Fights sponsored by Gillette, my grandfather enjoying a few Pabst Blue Ribbons. Me and granddad spent many a summer’s evening fishing for catfish in a small pond on a farm in Winchester; he knew the owner of the farm and we fished for a quarter apiece. I fell asleep in the backseat of his 1953 Buick on the ride home, listening to a ball game on a radio crackling with static.
Not having video games, thankfully, me and my friends whiled away the hours playing any kind of sport we could, indoors and out. We only came in when the dinner bell rang across our neighborhood in Harwinton, where we moved to when I was 10. Baseball card collecting was a huge pastime (yep, I kept mine) during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, as was a wonderful baseball board game called Strat-O-Matic, which is still around. We also had electric football and basketball games with the players moving along the field by vibration. Any kids reading this must be stunned. But, hey, it was what we had and it was fun.
I always enjoyed reading the sports pages in the New York and local papers, keeping track of my heroes, pouring over stats for hours. And oh, that first Major League baseball game my dad took me to at Yankee Stadium! I can still recall the amazing green color of the grass and the enormity of it all as a kid. We had great seats above home plate and watched as Mantle and Roger Maris homered and Yogi Berra put two in the seats in a Yankee rout of the then Kansas City Athletics. I was hooked, line and sinker, pun intended.
As I mentioned, I was a Strat-O-Matic nut and played the game for hours upon end in my pre-teens and a bit beyond. And there my sports writing was born. I would peck away at a little typewriter and make up small newspapers that reported results of the games, replete with standings and player stats. No one read them except myself and perhaps my dad and mom once in awhile. But it didn’t matter, I was a writer and publisher. Little did I know that this would become my chosen career path some years later.
I played Little League baseball and some sports in high school. After high school and college, where I performed somewhat ingloriously in the classroom, I launched a career as a stringer for the Torrington Register, later going on to the Winsted Citizen for a few years. I knew writing was what I wanted to do, it was fun and entertaining and now I could make money at it, although not very much. At the Citizen, I met Bob McCarthy, the highly respected and affable Sports Editor of the paper who got me into writing sports, which I enjoyed for a couple of years there. Bob was always encouraging and supportive.
I moved back to the Torrington Register where I worked for John Ocain, who was a longtime sports editor at the paper. I doubled as photographer and sports writer, one of my primary tasks to give Oliver Wolcott Technical High School some ink that it had not yet received, as well as other surrounding schools, such as Litchfield, Wamogo and Lewis Mills. It was a fun time and I met some great people, such as Tech coach Archie Tracy and John Benyei, one of the best players to ever come out of Wolcott Tech. John said something that still resonates with me, telling me that if it wasn’t for my reporting on his exploits he probably wouldn’t have gotten a scholarship to play at Central Connecticut State University where he continued his solid basketball career.
I’ve kept John’s words in my mind throughout my writing career, knowing that telling a person’s story, whether it be in the sports, business or the world of arts and entertainment, is probably one of the most important events in that person’s life, especially at a local level. Everyone has a story to tell and it our obligation as journalists to tell those stories accurately and with emotion.
After a stint at the Litchfield Enquirer, I moved on to the newly-founded Litchfield County Times as Sports Editor. Those were good days. The paper was cutting edge and considered the best weekly in the country. We had wonderful writers, photographers and graphics people that put us on the map beyond Litchfield County. While there, I began developing a freelance writing career, beginning with the golf world and moving on to other sports and areas. After 13 years in the office, I went freelance full-time about 25 years ago, a decision that, luckily, worked out well. I’ve been and remain a golf writer and editor for a number of regional and national publications, as well maintaining a connection to other areas of interest, from business to architecture.
Being involved in the golf industry has allowed me to play some wonderful courses and visit amazing resorts, such as Pine Valley in New Jersey, The Country Club in Massachusetts, and The Ocean Course at Kiawah in South Carolina. I’ve also met and interviewed some of the top players in the game; Tom Watson, Nicklaus, Nick Price, Jan Stephenson, Matt Kuchar, Bubba Watson, John Daly and Arnold Palmer. One of my favorite moments was walking down a fairway at Gillette Ridge Golf Club in Bloomfield on Arnold Palmer Day and chatting one-on-one with The King, who was gracious and attentive as always. I’ve interviewed prominent architects, such as Rees Jones, Robert Trent Jones, Jr., Geoffrey Cornish, and Mark Mungeam, sharing a few beers with a couple of them.
Writing for other publications has allowed me to interview and get to know people like Jim Calhoun, Geno Auriemma, Ray Allen, Rob Dibble, Kevin Ollie, Rico Brogna, Mats Wilander and Ivan Lendl. I even had a chance to play 18 holes with Lendl at Torrington Country Club and found him to be anything like his perceived persona as a dry, humorless man. Okay, enough name dropping.
I passed my love of sports on to my daughter, Jennifer, and we enjoyed many an evening together playing Wiffle ball, miniature golf, tennis, and Little League baseball. I was fortunate to have coached her in several sports. We have given that love of sports to my daughter’s boys, Cayden and Rylan. Ironically, my wife, Norene, a Torrington gal, isn’t a big sports fan. But we do share a passion for UConn women’s basketball, and she loved watching Tiger Woods in his glory days. And she’s been supportive of all those late nights covering and writing about high school games and trips to far off golf destinations.
Even though I’ve been able to jump into the national media, I’ve always maintained my connection and fondness for local high school sports. I covered a multitude of games for the Waterbury Republican for some 18 years and got to know coaches and players, who were always gracious and fun to be around. There’s nothing like a big game between two high school rivals. Indeed, one of the loudest gyms I’ve ever been in was at Shepaug for a Litchfield-Shepaug boys basketball game. I couldn’t hear myself talk and the energy was electric.
Sitting at a Shepaug baseball game on a warm spring afternoon at Ted Alex Field is a pure delight. I’d rather be there covering a game than sitting in the stands at Yankee Stadium, although the crowd numbers around 200 rather than 50,000; people in their folding chairs, kids running to the ice cream truck, the players giving it their all for nothing more than pride and praise. It’s about as pure as sports gets. And those Thanksgiving Day football games were a blast to cover. Let’s hope they return this fall.
While coverage of local sports has dwindled among most newspapers, many of which have gone the way of the Dodo bird, we’re fortunate to have Tim Gaffney and people like Rick Wilson and Pat Tiscia continue the tradition of reporting the exploits of young athletes and their coaches, who, as I said, do it for the love of the game. The Litchfield County Sports Magazine and website have been blessings in this regard; giving kids and others the attention they so richly deserve. It’s been a pleasure to work with people like Tim, Rick, and Pat, as well as other sports writers over the years.
As the late and legendary New York Times columnist, Red Smith, once famously said when asked why he became a sports writer, “Well, I knew I would never be rich but being a sports writer has allowed me to do a good imitation of it.” Great line and very true. My buddies told me long ago that they never wanted to hear me say I had a tough day at work. LOL.
Listen up parents, just as my parents and grandparents did, encourage your kids to play sports, or even just get involved in them as a fan. And if they spend hours in their rooms playing some sort of sports video game (maybe even Stratomatic) and then talking about it with their friends, let ‘em. You never know when another sports writer might pop up like I did from that little bedroom in Harwinton, with an old typewriter by my side.