Wednesday, February 1, 2012

PSWA dinner reveals inspiring sports heroes

note: This is another column of mine that ran in the Gettysburg Times about my experience at the PSWA dinner.

My body suddenly froze as I locked eyes on a face that looked as familiar as when the body attached to it donned a Philadelphia Phillies uniform.

His jet-black hair was well kept - likely aided by some gelling agent - with its usual part down the left side. Ruben Amaro, Jr. looked directly through my gaze without expression, the perfect poker face for any general manager.

As Amaro hung a right into the socializing area outside Ballroom C, my eyes grew wider as he was followed by Phillies manager Charlie Manuel and right fielder Hunter Pence. At that moment, I didn't know which items to shove in their faces, a baseball and pen, or my digital recorder.

Neither seemed appropriate, however. These men were baseball royalty, but I was surprised how much they appeared like regular guys without any mental reminders.

I snapped myself out of the trance and gave Charlie Manuel a pat on the back and a simple greeting; as if he was a friend I had just bumped into at a party. To my relief, he briefly spun his head around and returned the greeting with a smile. Good old Uncle Cholly.

There is sometimes a fine line between reporter and fan, and I frequently danced on both sides of it during the 108th Philadelphia Sports Writers Association Dinner Monday night at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Cherry Hill, N.J. I gabbed with fellow sports writers while snagging a few John Hancocks from the head table.

The event was held to recognize Philadelphia-area athletes in all sports with achievement awards. Manuel received a special achievement honor for becoming the winningest manager in Phillies history this past season. Pence won the 2012 Good Guy Award for his immediate affinity with the team and fans when he was traded from the Houston Astros last July (further bolstered by his recent one-year, $10.4 million contract that avoided arbitration).

When Manuel began his acceptance speech, the only words I heard clearly through his West Virginia drawl was "nudist colony," which prompted the biggest laugh of the evening from the audience. His full opening line was, "I feel like a mosquito at a nudist colony," but he had to wait a good 15 seconds for the laughter to die down before he awkwardly delivered the punch line: "I don't know where to start."

Often the butt of a joke due to his 'not-so-good' diction, Manuel came across to the crowd the same way he did with me earlier, as a humble man who appreciated the job he was given as the Phillies' skipper.

As for Pence, the way he worked the crowd, you might have thought he actually grew up in Philadelphia (his speech revealed but a hint of Texas twang). His opening referred back to the acceptance speech given by Philadelphia University men's basketball coach Herb Magee, who playfully lamented that his granddaughters were more excited about getting their picture taken with the dashing Pence than seeing him receive the Living Legend Award.

In response, Pence quipped, "I just won the Good Guy Award so don't parade your granddaughters around me, please."

The Philly outfielder was also one of several honorees to mention the rousing speech given by Temple University head football coach Steve Addazio, whose rant of inspiration made every attendee in the ballroom feel like one of his players in the locker room on game day. When he was finished, no one questioned how the Owls won their first bowl game since 1979.

"Is my heart still pounding," Pence asked as he looked in Addazio's direction. "I don't know if you're still here or not, but I need you to speak to me before every game."

My recorder captured all of this humorous dialogue, but I shot an arrow through my professional credibility by yelling out Pence's name right before he approached the podium. Truth be told, he was the main reason I wanted to attend the dinner. From the moment he put on those red pinstripes, he has reminded us all of what a baseball player used to be before the stat crazes and steroids - pulling up those socks to his knees, choking up on the bat like the Mickey Morandini of old and slapping the lumber at the ball with odd precision.

My reporter sensibilities came back into focus when the PSWA honored the memories of boxer Joe Frazier and Penn State head football coach Joe Paterno.

As the chilling sounds of boxing's 10-bell salute filled the silence in the room, emotion overtook the bell's ringer, Frazier's daughter Jacqui Frazier-Lyde - a boxer in her own right, as well as a Municipal Court Judge. But like her father did so many times in his career, she finished what she started.

Paterno was honored with poignant words from former Penn State cornerback Adam Taliaferro, who played in just five games as a freshman before a spinal injury ended his career. After surgery, he was given only a three percent chance to walk again, but he defied the odds during an eight-month stay at the Magee Rehabilitation Hospital in Philadelphia. A frequent visitor kept his spirits high.

"Every week Coach Paterno came to visit me," he said. "It was a three-hour drive. He didn't have to do that. He was one of the most genuine, down-to-earth people I ever met. My career was over and he asked me every day what I wanted to do with my life. He got me internships and sent letters of recommendation. He wanted me to be successful after football."

A shining example of Paterno's Grand Experiment, Taliaferro is now a lawyer in Cherry Hill and was recently elected to the Gloucester County Board of Chosen Freeholders.

The Philly area was the site of another miracle recognized by the PSWA in its final award presentation. The association chose Anthony Robles as its 2012 Most Courageous Athlete. The Arizona State wrestler captured the NCAA Division I title at 125 pounds at the Wells Fargo Center last March, despite being born without a right leg.

"I never thought of it as a handicap," said Robles, who has become a motivational speaker since graduating and is working on a book about his life.

As Robles spoke, the real magic of this event washed over me. The association helped my realization by turning off all the lights except the one on the podium, making Pence, Manuel and Amaro disappear. Stories like Robles and Taliaferro are at the core of what it means to be a sports writer; teaching readers who are living in an increasingly cynical world about overcoming any obstacle to achieve success.

Though I returned to being a fan by the end of the dinner, Robles and Taliaferro were now the athletic giants who left me frozen in awe as they walked by.