The following is Times/Review Newsgroup’s complete list of the 20 Greatest Athletes in area history:
[nggallery id=158 template=galleryview]
The following is Times/Review Newsgroup’s complete list of the 20 Greatest Athletes in area history:
[nggallery id=158 template=galleryview]
The inscription on Ed Danowski’s headstone at St. Isidore Cemetery in Riverhead is a simple one. Like so many of the grave sites at the Reeves Avenue resting place, it says very little about the man buried below. In fact, it merely reads Danowski, Edward F., 1911-1997.
It’s hard to imagine Danowski wanting it any other way.
“Heck no,” said longtime Riverhead resident Butch Densieski. “He didn’t think it was any great feat what he had done.”
But say for a second Danowski had been a less modest man. Say he had been the type of person who would want everyone to know all that he had accomplished. Then what might the headstone say?
Here lies Edward F. Danowski, a farmer’s son from Aquebogue. Born in 1911, he won two NFL championships as a halfback for the New York Giants. He would retire young to serve his country in the second World War, before later becoming head football coach at his alma mater, Fordham. He would live the last 62 years of his life as the loving husband of wife Josephine and the father of two boys, before passing away in 1997. He was the greatest athlete this area has ever known.
“Big Ed” was one of 15 Danowski children who grew up on the family farm in Aquebogue, where his Polish immigrant father, Anton, grew cauliflower and potatoes.
While much of his Riverhead High School athletic days has been erased in history, Danowski was an all-county star in football, basketball and baseball growing up.
The former Suffolk County News of Sayville once described Danowski as “one of the crack players on the Riverhead High School eleven for several years.”
He was a good enough performer in his high school years to have the opportunity to play three sports for Fordham University upon his graduation in 1930.
In the fall, he was a member of the Rams football team, while for three seasons in the winter he played basketball, and he was even on the track team for one spring season, according to his youngest son, John.
But Danowski, who played the halfback position in football — which in those days meant he served as the primary passer in the single-wing offense — wasn’t exactly handed the keys to the Fordham offense straight out of high school.
He played on the freshman team in 1930 and only finally got his first shot on the varsity level the following year. But it wouldn’t be at halfback, where captain John Janis already brought several years of experience.
Instead, Fordham Coach Frank Cavanaugh inserted the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Danowski into the lineup at fullback that October for a tilt against Boston College. The Rams cruised to a 20-0 victory at Fenway Park that afternoon, and The New York Times counted Danowski among the stars of the game in its recap the next morning.
“The second year player displayed such excellent ability in the backfield on Monday, getting off a 70-yard punt and making two lengthy end runs, that Coach Cavanaugh is hopeful of developing him into a triple-threat player.”
Danowski would continue playing the rest of his sophomore season at fullback, where he started most of the team’s games. The Rams would finish the campaign at 6-1-2 with their lone loss coming in a 14-13 heartbreaker against Bucknell in the season finale.
The junior from Riverhead wasted little time establishing himself as the star of the team when Fordham returned to the field in 1932. Finally starting at halfback, he led the Rams to a 69-0 victory in the season opener against the University of Baltimore, scoring 16 of those points himself with two touchdowns and four extra points. Just five minutes into the game, he scored his first touchdown of the season.
Danowski went on to contribute one more rushing touchdown and six more extra points that season, helping to lead Coach Cavanaugh’s squad to a 6-2 record in 1932, as the Rams averaged defeating their opponents by a score of 24-3.
More than 40,000 spectators packed into Yankee Stadium that November to watch Danowski throw a 27-yard touchdown pass that handed the Rams a 7-0 victory over NYU in the city’s famed “Bronx Bowl.”
At the conclusion of the season, Fordham’s 21 returning lettermen met to discuss the team’s plans for the 1933 season. At the meeting, each one of the players voted Danowski captain for his senior season.
“Danowski’s election marks the first time in recent years that a New York State resident has been honored with the football captaincy at Fordham,” The New York Times reported.
The following April, Danowski was presented with Fordham football’s most valuable player award at the university’s athletic dinner.
During the offseason, Fordham hired a new coach. Jim Crowley is perhaps best known as one of the “four horsemen of Notre Dame,” a quartet of backs who lost only two games in three years playing together for the legendary football program in the early to mid-1920s.
By 1933, he was an established coach, who had most recently guided the Michigan State University program. But when Cavanaugh resigned that winter following six seasons at Fordham, “Sleepy Jim” was wooed to the Bronx.
“As football players,” Danowski told The New York Times after the team met to discuss the hiring, “we all were acquainted with the ‘four horsemen of Notre Dame,’ and naturally had the deepest admiration for Jim Crowley, who was one of them. Now we have the opportunity to play under his coaching and I am sure that every man on the Fordham squad will be working to establish our own edition of that great quartet.”
Crowley would bring with him the Knute Rockne system, and as the halfback and forward passer of the offense, Danowski had a chance to shine.
He didn’t disappoint.
By the second week of the season, after victories that saw the Rams outscore their opponents by a total of 109-0, the now speedier Danowski had already scored four touchdowns, besting his junior year totals.
By the time the season was over, Danowski — who also played defensive back, punted and served as the team’s placekicker — had led Fordham to a 6-2 season. He finished the year with nine touchdowns. His play on the field that season was good enough to earn him honorable mention all-American honors from the Associated Press.
After the Rams’ season ended in a loss to Oregon that November, The New York Times singled out Danowski as the squad’s unquestioned star. “The game brought to a close the undergraduate career of Danowski. While it is obviously unjust to single any one man from a squad in modern football, the fact remains that Danowski leaves behind him a vivid record of courage, leadership and gridiron ability.”
Finished with college the following summer, Danowski received an interesting phone call. It was New York Giants owner Tim Mara, who had bought the newly formed franchise for just $500 nine years earlier.
He wanted Danowski to come play for him in the NFL and he was going to pay him $200 per game.
With a couple months between graduation and the start of his new career in professional football, Danowski headed home in the summer of 1934 and spent time with his family in Aquebogue.
He decided to join brothers Pete and Charlie on a summer league baseball team that traveled around Suffolk County, playing games in Patchogue and across the North and South forks. Ed played shortstop for the team, which went by the name of the Riverhead All-Stars.
On June 10, the All-Stars were playing a game against the Quogue Fire Department. Umping the game was Howard Jones of East Quogue, and Danowski didn’t like the home cooking he was serving for the Quogue squad.
After one particular called third strike, Danowski let him have it. As he walked off the field, he flicked his bat, which reportedly struck Jones. A fight broke out and Ed’s brothers jumped in.
All three Danowskis were arrested. But a little more than a week later, the umpire declined to press charges and the brothers were cleared of any wrongdoing, according to the County Review.
John Danowski said his father never mentioned the brawl to him. John did, however, stumble on an old newspaper article about the incident one day after his father had passed away. He shared it with his cousin Peter, an attorney from Riverhead. The two had a laugh about their old men fighting side by side in a rumble.
“I guess blood’s thicker than water,” John joked in a recent telephone interview.
The Danowski brothers continued to play summer baseball together, even after Ed began his NFL career.
Like Danowski, Jim Underwood was a Riverhead High running back who would go on to play college ball at Fordham. In his 1950 senior program, which he still has at his Riverhead home, a blurb was written about Danowski, then the school’s head football coach.
The couple paragraphs make reference to Danowski’s time with the Rams and how it wasn’t until later in his career there that he blossomed as a key cog in the offense.
The short bio goes on to say how Danowski experienced similar growing pains in his rookie season with the Giants.
“But Harry Newman suffered an injury and Danowski got his chance,” Underwood read from the program. “Once he got in there, he played very well. Giants coach Steve Owen found only one glaring fault, Danowski’s reluctance to call his own number enough.”
That’s not to say Danowski didn’t play his rookie year. In fact, he even scored a touchdown in his NFL debut.
After the regular season ended, he was among the 23 Giants awarded a full share from playoff proceeds, with 60 percent of the total ticket haul going to the winning players in the NFL championship game showdown against the Chicago Bears.
That 1934 championship game, of which Danowski was among the stars, is one of the most famous games ever played.
During the regular season, Chicago had edged New York in a 10-9 victory at the Polo Grounds.
Just four weeks later, the Bears were back in the Big Apple for the title game, which was to again be played at the former upper Manhattan stadium.
On the morning of the Dec. 9 game, amidst 9-degree temperatures, Giants team treasurer John Mara visited the field to assess the conditions. What he found was a frozen field that looked more like an ice rink.
He phoned Coach Owen and team captain Ray Flaherty to alert them to the unusual field conditions.
Flaherty had a suggestion. One time while he was playing for Gonzaga University, his team had gained an advantage by wearing sneakers on an icy field instead of cleats, which wouldn’t give the players proper traction.
Today, the 1934 NFL Championship Game is affectionately referred to as “The Sneaker Game.”
The Giants, who borrowed basketball sneakers from the Manhattan College hoops team for the big game, were down by 10-3 when they took to the field in the second half with the peculiar foot apparel and stuck it to Chicago. They went on to win the game, 30-13.
After the contest, Bears Hall of Famer Bronko Nagurski said the sneakers made a big difference in the outcome.
Danowski, who also played defensive back in the game, scored one rushing touchdown and threw for another in the second-half comeback.
After the final tally from ticket proceeds was calculated, the 23 Giants fortunate enough to receive a full share were given their checks.
Danowski was paid $604 for helping to win the NFL title.
In the offseason, Danowski married Josepine Sobocinski in a small ceremony attended by only a few friends and family members at St. Isidore R.C. Church in Riverhead.
Josephine grew up in Jamesport, right down the street from the Danowski farm, and she also attended Riverhead High School.
Being a newlywed didn’t slow Danowski down any as he embarked on an impressive sophomore campaign with the Giants. He finished the 1935 season having completed 57 of 135 attempts for a total of 795 yards. His 50.5 completion percentage set a new NFL record for passing efficiency.
It was a different era back then, to say the least. Still a few years before Bears Coach Clark Shaughnessy and quarterback Sid Luckman would advance the game with the modernization of the T-offense, Danowski was a star halfback passer in the single-wing.
He would spend each of his first few seasons as a starter among the top passers in the NFL.
By the time Danowski renewed his contract for the 1938 season, he held three NFL passing records. And that season he broke two of his own marks by completing 54 percent of his passes, which also improved his NFL-best .498 career completion percentage.
The 1938 season saw Danowski win his second NFL championship with a 23-17 win over the Green Bay Packers. He threw a pair of touchdown passes in the game, including the game-winner to Hank Soar. Danowski also recorded an interception in the game while playing defensive back.
John Danowski said his father would acknowledge later in life that it would be difficult to compare the game as it is played today to what it was in the era when he played, but he took pride in knowing the strategy of the game remains largely the same.
“It was always about ball control,” John Danowski said. “Some elements of the game have always been consistent.”
The 1938 season was the last big one of Danowski’s career. He missed part of the 1939 campaign after being called home to Aquebogue to be at his ailing mother’s bedside, and later in the season he suffered a leg injury.
For the first time in his career as a starter, Danowski finished outside of the top 10 in passing, and he announced his retirement soon after the season.
Strangely, that didn’t mean an end to Danowski’s football career. He later played halfback on the Jersey City Giants semi-pro team in 1940 before making his return to the New York Giants in 1941 as a player-coach. He played only six games that season as injuries cut his season short.
Playing without Danowski, the G-Men lost their final regular-season game, 21-7, to the Brooklyn Dodgers. But the Big Apple showdown didn’t receive front-page treatment in the following day’s edition of The New York Times.
Another major event a half a world away dominated the headlines that day after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, sending the United States to war.
Any chance of a Danowski comeback for the 1942 NFL season ended in June, when he enlisted in the Navy. He joined 21 other Giants in heading to war that year. He served until 1945, spending much of his enlistment in Hawaii and Guam.
Danowski finished his NFL career having tossed 38 touchdown passes, while rushing for four more.
He later said that if NFL rosters were deeper in those days, he could have returned to the NFL after the war to serve as a punter.
To this day, a 76-yard punt Danowski struck against the Detroit Lions in the 1935 championship game remains the longest punt ever kicked in NFL playoffs.
During the war, Fordham University eliminated its football program and didn’t bring it back until 1946.
Danowski, who had earned a graduate teaching degree from Columbia University while playing for the Giants, coached football and taught physical education in upstate Haverstraw, N.Y., after returning from the war in 1945.
When he heard his alma mater was looking for a head coach to start the football program back up, Danowski threw his hat in the ring. Two months later, he was hired on a three-year, $15,000 contract.
But Fordham, which had played games in front of as many as 80,000 fans during Danowski’s time as a player, was not looking for a return to big-time football. The Jesuit university’s new president, Rev. Robert Gannon, was not interested in devoting significant resources toward re-establishing the Rams as a college football power.
That didn’t stop the school from scheduling tough opponents, though. Over the next several years, the team played games against strong programs like LSU, West Virginia, Penn State, Rutgers and Army.
It was a dreadful first season back for Danowski and the Rams, who finished the year 0-7, scoring just 43 points along the way.
In 1947, Fordham increased its budget for football to bring in a hotshot new coach from New Jersey to lead the freshman squad.
Vince Lombardi had been a freshman on the Fordham team during Danowski’s all-American senior year. The offensive lineman would later make up one part of the school’s famed “Seven Blocks of Granite” blocking tandem.
Riverhead’s own Jim Underwood played on Lombardi’s freshman team that season, as a member of a unique class that featured many veterans of war who returned to Fordham for an education.
While Danowski picked up his first head coaching win in 1947, a 12-0 victory over a Merchant Marine Academy team that was shut out five times that season, the Rams went winless in their seven other games.
Lombardi, who had installed the T-offense with the freshman squad and endured a great deal of success as a result, was promoted to varsity assistant for the 1948 season to run the offense for Danowski.
There was no love lost between Danowski and Lombardi, a pair of prideful gridiron lifers who didn’t exactly see eye to eye. It was no secret that Lombardi had his eye on the Fordham job and all that stood in his way was the one year left on Danowski’s contract.
The Rams won three games in 1948, including a surprising 26-0 victory over rival NYU, a victory that saved Danowski’s job.
While it was widely reported during the season that Lombardi might replace him at season’s end, Danowski stayed on to coach the Rams, and Lombardi would instead move to West Point, where he became the head coach of Army football.
In his book “When Pride Still Mattered,” Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Maraniss pulls no punches in his description of Danowski, whom he refers to as “Potato Ed,” a moniker at least one New York Times columnist grew fond of in the coach’s time at Fordham.
“Lombardi did most of the coaching,” Maraniss wrote. “… Potato Ed, as one player described it, stood in the corner and chewed tobacco.”
But that’s not how Underwood remembers it. The 1950 Fordham graduate said that while Lombardi was a great coach and a leader of the offense, it was always Danowski’s team.
“Danowski was the head coach,” Underwood said. “He called the shots.”
“He was very knowledgeable, but not too flamboyant along the sidelines,” Underwood said of Danowski, who brought him to the school at the recommendation of a mutual friend from Riverhead.
Underwood’s senior season in 1950 was Danowski’s finest as a Rams head coach. The squad went 8-1, losing by only a point to Yale for the team’s lone defeat.
“He was a good coach,” Underwood recalled. “He didn’t just tell us what we did right, but he’d tell us what we did wrong when we were wrong.”
Danowski continued at Fordham through the 1954 season, when he tendered his resignation. He compiled a 29-44-3 record in nine seasons with the Rams.
Almost immediately after Danowski stepped down, Lombardi sent Fordham his résumé. But he never assumed his dream job at his alma mater after the school dropped its football program before the 1955 season.
Lombardi instead went on to become the greatest coach in NFL history. His Green Bay Packers teams of the 1960s won five NFL championships and the first two Super Bowls. Today, the trophy given to the winning Super Bowl team is called the Lombardi Trophy.
Danowski and Lombardi would never count each other as friends.
When the Suffolk Sports Hall of Fame was created in 1990, Ed Danowski was not a member of the museum’s inaugural class. This did not sit well with Butch Densieski of Northampton, who along with fellow Riverhead firefighter Charles Niewadomski circulated ballots around Riverhead to make sure Danowski wasn’t forgotten the following year.
“Butch called me right after the first inductions and started asking why Big Ed wasn’t in and asking what he could do to get him in,” Suffolk Sports Hall of Fame secretary Guy Dellecave told Newsday in 1991. “Butch never let up. I think he coordinated and hand carried ballots from almost everybody in the Town of Riverhead and Patchogue into us on Danowski’s behalf.”
Danowski would be elected later that year.
Densieski was related to Danowski through a pair of marriages — his own wife was a Danowski, and his aunt had married one of Ed Danowski’s brothers. He said he was introduced to Ed by his uncle in the late 1970s, and the two struck up a friendship.
Danowski was incredibly modest about all of his accomplishments. In fact, Densieski said his friend hardly talked about his career in the NFL.
“I used to have a garden in my backyard,” Densieski recalled. “Ed would see that and want to talk all day about that. He never seemed to want to talk much about football.”
John Danowski, who was born shortly after his father left Fordham, said his old man continued to enjoy the game but didn’t dwell too much on stories of his past as a player.
“He was a quiet man,” he said of his father. “A very humble man.”
Danowski moved his family to East Meadow after he was done coaching at Fordham, and he served 23 years as a junior high school physical education teacher and coach.
“My father was a teacher at heart,” said John Danowski, who followed in his father’s coaching footsteps and won an NCAA championship in 2010 as the head coach of Duke lacrosse. “He really enjoyed that aspect of his life.”
After retirement, Ed and Josephine moved to Patchogue where Danowski grew strawberries, lettuce, peas and lima beans on his two-acre property. It was an homage to his days growing up in Aquebogue.
He maintained a great respect for the Giants, who sent him three tickets to every game until his final days. When he died of complications from Alzheimer’s in February 1997, the Mara family sent a floral arrangement to F.J. McLaughlin Funeral Home in Riverhead, where a memorial service was held.
Speaking to the News-Review for Danowski’s obituary, former Riverhead Supervisor Jim Stark recalled two sides of Riverhead’s Giant.
“[When I met him as a kid] he was an awfully big man. He had a physical structure that was enormous,” Stark said. “But later, as the generation gap closed and I got to know him, I found that he was a very gentle man, a good family man who never lost sight of his Riverhead roots.”
John Danowski said his father felt a fierce loyalty to his North Fork upbringing.
“Even when we were in East Meadow and we were coming out to Riverhead to visit family for the weekend, dad would say we were going home,” the son recalled. “I would say, ‘Dad, this is home.’ But he’d say back to me, ‘Riverhead is home, son. Riverhead will always be home.’ ”
The 20 Greatest Athletes list is complete, but as with any ranking, it can be continually evolving as more athletes come up through each local school. For all but two athletes on the list — No. 3 Julia Smit and No. 6 Amanda Clark — their competitive athletic careers have reached the final chapter.
For several athletes in the area, their early success in high school has just been the beginning. What the future holds, that’s still to be determined.
So here’s a look at several athletes in the area who have the potential when their careers are wrapped up, to crack their way into the 20 Greatest.
Miguel Maysonet, Riverhead: A 2009 graduate, Maysonet was one of the most celebrated football players the school ever produced. His senior season on the gridiron in the fall of 2008 was legendary. He was the clear choice for the Hansen Award as the top player in Suffolk County. He amassed 2,328 yards in leading the Blue Waves to an undefeated Class II Long Island Championship. He finished his career with 5,971 yards, second most in county history. He scored 75 touchdowns.
He twice was named the Most Valuable Player of Division II.
His success was hardly limited to football. He finished his lacrosse career at Riverhead second all-time in career goals with 62, that despite missing a chunk of his junior year with an injury.
Maysonet began his college career playing football at Hofstra for one season before the program was cut. He had a strong season with the Pride, rushing for 385 yards and three touchdowns. He transferred to Stony Brook. As a sophomore last fall Maysonet had a superb season, rushing for a team-high 1,128 yards and 12 touchdowns. He also caught two touchdowns.
Thomas Luchsinger, Mount Sinai. For a school that doesn’t have an official swim team, Mount Sinai has turned out its fare share of elite swimmers. Second behind Julia Smit is Luchsinger, who currently swims for the University of North Carolina. A multiple state champion in high school, he broke a pair of state records as a senior. At the state championship in March 2009, he won both the 200-yard freestyle and 100 butterfly in state record time to earn All-America honors. Luchsinger had already set the state record in the 200 free at the county championship before breaking his own record.
In the summer of 2008 Luchsinger competed in the Olympic Trials for the Beijing Games. Swimming the 200 butterfly — Michael Phelps’ most dominant event — he finished 24th overall. Afterward he got an invitation to compete at the World Youth Games in Mexico as a member of the Junior National Team.
He’s competed multiple times at the ConocoPhillips National Championships against the top swimmers in America. Most recently in early August, he had his best performance yet.
In the 200 fly he reached the ‘A’ final and finished in fourth place in 1 minute, 57.01 seconds, shattering the UNC record. He will now get the chance to compete at the Pan America Games in October.
As a freshman at UNC Luchsinger swam to second place in the 200 fly at the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship. This past season he qualified for the NCAA Championship in three events, the 200 individual medley, 400 IM and 200 fly. He placed eighth in the 400 IM and ninth in the 200 fly.
Luchsinger will be going into his junior season at UNC this fall.
Jenna Burkert, Longwood. Technically, Burkert didn’t graduate from Longwood High School. That’s because she lives in Marquette, Mich., home of Northern Michigan University and the U.S. Olympic Education Center. A wrestler, Burkert, 18, trains with some of the top women in the country for a shot at reaching the Olympics. Burkert first journeyed to Michigan right before the start of her sophomore year of high school.
In May of 2010 Burkert won first place in Monterrey, Mexico at the Pan American Youth Olympic Games. She was the only American woman to win in freestyle wrestling and earned a spot at the Youth Olympics in Singapore three months later. She finished in fifth place, defeating Christiana Victor of Nigeria, 3-1, in her final match for fifth place.
Burkert’s family lives in Rocky Point and she originally attended high school there before transferring to Longwood so she could compete with the Lions’ wrestling team.
As a sophomore in high school Burkert won a national title at the Junior Nationals in Fargo, N.D.
Stephen Dutton, Rocky Point. He only spent his last two seasons at Rocky Point High School after transferring from Hauppauge. But his two years wrestling with the Eagles from 2009-10 were as good as it gets. He never lost a match as a junior and senior, winning consecutive state titles in dominating fashion. He finished his career with the most victories of any wrestler in Suffolk County history, breaking the record held by Jesse Jantzen, who came in at No. 4 on our list.
Dutton wrestles for Lehigh University where he immediately stepped in as a starter as a freshman for the 2010-11 season. He posted a record of 23-14 wrestling at 141 pounds. He was honored as the Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association’s Freshman of the Year. He had the highest finish of any EIWA freshman at the NCAA Championship. He finished one win short of earning All-America honors at the NCAA Championship.
Debi-Michelle Jantzen, SWR. Could the youngest of the family join her oldest brother one day? She’ll be entering her senior year at SWR this year where she’s one of the top field hockey players in the nation. A varsity player since seventh grade, Jantzen was an honorable mention All-County player in eighth grade. Last fall she was an All-American and first-team All-Long Island player whose 42 points were most of any player on Long Island.
In March 2010 she competed at the Youth Pan American Championship. The U.S. team earned a bronze medal. She also competed in Holland in April where the U.S. team went 6-2 in a tournament against some of the top competition around the world.
Most recently in July Jantzen earned a spot on the Under-19 Junior National team. With that comes an invitation to practice at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif. in early 2012, according to Newsday. The 2016 Olympics would align with the end of Jantzen’s fourth year in college, which could be the peak of her playing career.
Jantzen has helped lead Shoreham to four straight county championships.
A sparse crowd of 16,088 filtered into the big ballpark in Queens on a cool Friday night in early April of 1996. Having won two of their first three games against the St. Louis Cardinals, the New York Mets had already reached the zenith of their season going into the series opener against the Pittsburgh Pirates. The visitors wouldn’t fare much better over 162 games, meandering to 73 victories and a last-place finish.
Two years removed from the strike, optimism for both teams was in short supply. Neither team would average 20,000 fans per game and the Mets would fire manager Dallas Green late in the season. Todd Hundley’s steroid-fueled pursuit of the single-season home run record for a catcher, held by Roy Campanella, proved to be one of the few pleasant storylines for New York.
There wouldn’t be much for the home fans to cheer about on that particular night. In their best Keystone Kops impersonation, the bumbling Mets committed five errors, including a pair by third baseman Jeff Kent, whose migration from second was already proving to be a failed experiment. The Pirates went on to win 7-5.
For as poorly as the home team played, a distinctly audible and odd roar would rise up from the crowd throughout the game at the most peculiar times. Such as the top of the third inning, when the No. 8 hitter for the Pirates, a 27-year-old rookie catcher, stepped to the plate to make his Major League debut.
Keith Osik always had a flair for the dramatic. It didn’t matter what sport, didn’t matter how meaningless the game. Put Osik on an athletic field and he promised to deliver a jaw-dropping move. He made playing sports look so frustratingly easy, like a tightrope walker breezing across a thin wire high above the ground.
Shoreham-Wading River baseball coach Sal Mignano saw Osik for one of the first times in middle school. In a softball game during gym class, Osik blasted a ball deep into the outfield. As he rounded third base, he broke into a trot of cartwheels and backflips all the way down the line.
“His two feet landed on home plate,” Mignano said.
His friends called him Ozzie.
The baseball program Mignano started at Shoreham was still in its early years, but he could already tell the young kid was soon to be one of the best athletes to ever come through the school.
Bob Strovink, Osik’s guardian during his high school years, once told the story of the time he was watching a Russian ballet on channel 13 with his wife, Sheila-Ann. Strovink called over to Osik and said, “Hey, Keith, take a look at this. This guy is one of the best athletes in the world.”
Osik offered a quick glance, unimpressed.
As he walked by the television, the dancer leaped into the air to perform a ballet move. Osik saw it, turned, leaped, and perfectly imitated it.
“I looked at my wife in amazement,” Strovink told the Sun in 2006.
In high school, Osik played three sports: soccer, basketball and baseball. He excelled in all three.
Jeff Reh, a standout soccer and lacrosse player for Rocky Point, was close friends with Osik during their youth.
“He was at our house a lot growing up and whether it was whiffle ball, hockey or whatever, you could tell he was a great athlete,” Reh said.
Along with Reh’s older brother Scott, another dominant soccer and lacrosse player, the three formed an unstoppable trio on the playgrounds in whatever sport they tried.
“We always had to be split up, basically,” Jeff Reh said.
The three spent one magical fall together in 1984 at Rocky Point, where they teamed up on the soccer field to lead the Eagles to their first and only state championship. Jeff Reh was the lethal forward who tallied 27 goals. Scott Reh controlled the midfield and assisted on most of his younger brother’s goals. As for Osik, he was the fullback, the defensive stalwart who kept the ball out of the Eagles’ end and up where the Reh brothers could orchestrate the offense.
“We took him under our wings,” said Scott Reh, who was a senior during the fall of ’84.
Osik spent only a half-year at Rocky Point High School at the beginning of 10th grade. He grew up in Wading River and attended schools in the Shoreham district before his brief stint at Rocky Point. He faced a difficult childhood, coming from a broken home that provided little stability. Around sixth grade, he played for the first time on a baseball team with Eric Strovink. Before then, they had always been in opposing Little Leagues. They became close friends right from the start. Osik would eat dinner at the Strovinks and soon after begin sleeping over.
“Then he just stayed here,” Bob Strovink later recalled.
Osik once described himself as a “wild stallion” as a kid. Living with the Strovink’s gave him the discipline he needed in life, which helped him grow as a baseball player.
When he made his debut on the Shoreham-Wading River baseball team in 1984, his brother Steve was a senior who was about to complete his second straight All-County season. Keith had spent so much time trailing alongside his brother over the years, Mignano knew him well by the time he came out for the team as a freshman.
Still, he figured Keith would start on the junior varsity. At that point the program had been established enough where there was a deep enough pool of juniors and seniors to field a competitive team.
One of the first days of practice in the spring of ’84, the team had two sessions, one for varsity and one for the JV. Mignano told the JV coach at the time, Ray Maccagli, to let him have Osik for the varsity practice, just to get a look at how good he could be.
It didn’t take long before Osik was batting leadoff on varsity and playing second base. His brother started at shortstop and when he would pitch, Keith slid over to short.
In his first season, Osik hit .441 and earned All-League honors.
The following season Eric Strovink, who was a year younger than Osik, joined the varsity as a freshman. They remained the only two players to make the varsity as freshmen for the Wildcats until 2009 when Nick Bottari made the squad as an eighth-grader.
They were different styles of hitters. Strovink was more of a long ball threat, while Osik was a line drive hitter who had the versatility to play anywhere on the diamond.
“They were extremely, extremely close,” Mignano said. “You could say they were kind of like brothers.”
Strovink called Osik the best teammate with whom he ever played.
“He was completely unselfish,” he said in a 2006 interview. “He was in a position where he could literally steal bases at will. He wouldn’t, just to get me at-bats.”
In the fall of his junior year, Osik was the starting goalkeeper for the Wildcats in soccer. In the playoffs Osik found himself pitted against the team that he had helped lead to a state championship a year earlier. Jeff Reh, then a senior, had developed into the top scorer in Suffolk County. He netted 35 goals on the season, tied for the fourth most in county history for a single season.
But when he needed one most against the Wildcats, his old buddy Osik was there to deny him.
In a scoreless game Osik leaped and blocked a direct kick from Reh late in the second half, according to a Newsday recap. Then in overtime he made a diving save on a 20-foot attempt from Reh.
“I just shook his hand and told him, ‘Nice game. Give me a call sometime,’” Reh told Newsday after the game.
The Wildcats won 1-0 and advanced to the Class B county championship where they lost to John Glenn.
Osik had no undying love for soccer or basketball, he just sought competition in any form.
“I never did anything for fun,” he said. “I always did it because I wanted to compete.”
That burning desire to compete and never lose is where his charisma on the field came from, he said. If he was pitching he never wanted to give up a hit. On first base he never wanted to get thrown out at second. He never wanted to make an out at the plate.
Mignano said Osik always loved to put on a show.
“He would always add a little bit of juice to a play with a back-hand run or a driving shot to the basket,” he said. “That’s his most comfortable place in the world, on an athletic field.”
As a senior in basketball Osik led Suffolk County in scoring at 26.9 points per game. For all his success in soccer and basketball, it was never much of a decision as to which sport he wanted to pursue after high school.
“I felt like the other two sports were a little bit easier for me and I liked the challenge of baseball,” he said. “I just loved the game of baseball from such a young age.”
In his final three years playing baseball at Shoreham, Osik was the starting shortstop and ace of the pitching staff. Over his career on the mound he threw 244 1/3 innings and struck out 336 batters with a 1.43 ERA. He won 26 games and is still the school’s all-time leader in all four categories. He also holds school records for total at-bats, walks, runs and stolen bases. And he’s the only player in school history to win the Carl Yastzemski Award as the top player in Suffolk County.
Keith Osik already had two no-hitters and a perfect game on his résumé when he stepped onto the mound his final day as a high school baseball pitcher. On the morning of June 11, 1987, Osik took the ball to start the Wildcats’ state semifinal game against Port Chester.
He pitched a near flawless game, coming within two outs of a no-hitter as the Wildcats won 2-0. The state championship game against Chenango Forks came a few hours later.
As the legend goes, Osik practically begged Mignano to allow him to start the next game. Wary of his pitcher starting consecutive games on the same day, Mignano told him if the team got into trouble, he’d call on him.
“You don’t often get a chance to be in a state final game, and I told him I wanted the ball,” Osik recalled in a 2007 interview. “I pitched in the semifinals and emotions were running high with a chance to win the state title. We argued a little and I told him I’d be fine. I got all summer to rest.”
Trouble came brewing in the fourth inning with the Wildcats down 5-4 after Chris Maccaro started. In came Osik to throw another four innings, shutting down Chenango Forks as the Wildcats rallied for a 6-5 victory to clinch the only state championship in program history.
To cap off the whirlwind day, he later learned he had been drafted by the Texas Rangers in the 47th round of the amateur draft.
Osik had committed to playing baseball at Louisiana State University and faced a choice. Forgo college and go right into pro ball or play college and hope to be drafted again a few years later as a more seasoned ballplayer.
“It’s a difficult choice for a 16, 17-year-old,” Osik said. “There’s really not a bad choice you can make. I think I made the right one.”
He chose LSU, where his versatility to play multiple positions was put on full display. He bounced around the diamond, playing shortstop and third base before ultimately settling in at the position he’d be best known for: catcher. He had quick hands, a great arm and good speed. Catcher figured to be the position he had the best chance to reach the majors.
Osik struggled his freshman year, batting just .186 in 145 at-bats. But by his sophomore season he found his stroke. He hit .298 and scored 58 runs in 262 at-bats. He only got better the next season, batting .340 with 65 RBIs and 60 runs and 268 at-bats.
In one game during his college career as part of a promotion to attract fans, Osik played all nine positions.
It was “Keith Osik Night.”
He started at catcher before moving to first, short, second, third, right field, left field, center field and finally, pitcher.
The game went to extra innings and Osik came back out to pitch the 10th inning. With runners at the corners, he attempted a pick-off move and had the runner hung up between first and second. But in the rundown, the runner from third scrambled home. LSU lost by a run.
After his junior season, Osik was drafted in the 24th round of the 1990 draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates. With one year of eligibility left at LSU, he packed his bags, signed with the Pirates and headed for the big leagues.
The road to the majors wouldn’t be so simple.
He joined the Welland Pirates in the summer he was drafted and played in 29 games. In his first full year as a minor leaguer in 1991, Osik, then 22, had an impressive start with the Salem Buccaneers in Class A, batting .274 through 87 games. He received a promotion to the Carolina Mudcats of Double A where in 17 games he batted .302.
Still, he needed more grooming. In 1992 he played a full season with Carolina where he batted .259. The next season, instead of a promotion to Triple A, Osik found himself back in Carolina. He knew it wasn’t a good sign, and if he was going to make it any further, he needed to rededicate himself to the sport.
“People don’t realize how difficult it is when you’re in a minor league setting,” he said. “You’re somewhat of a number. It’s really a business for them. There’s 120 more kids coming the next year for your job or there’s somebody underneath you looking to compete and take your job at whatever position you’re playing.”
In his second full season at Carolina, Osik hit .280 with 10 home runs in 103 games. It was enough to bring him to Triple-A Buffalo for the start of the ’94 season and to the cusp of the major leagues with a spot on the Pirates’ 40-man roster. A September call-up when rosters expanded seemed like a real possibility.
Before any of that could happen, the players strike in August of ’94 put baseball on hold. Osik had been struggling to start Triple A. And it didn’t get easier when the Pirates signed a veteran catcher to serve as their backup. Jerry Goff received a demotion to Triple A and was splitting time with Osik. In the fall, Osik was bumped off the 40-man roster and his future appeared in limbo.
As the strike wore on, Osik received an offer to be a replacement player with the Pirates, which put him in a precarious position of crossing over the picket line. He knew he needed to put his future above all else, and accepted the offer.
When the strike was settled just in time to start the ’95 season, Osik made his way to the Calgary Cannons in Triple A. The make or break point of his career, Osik put together his best season in the minors, posting a .336 average with 10 home runs and 59 RBIs.
He was one year away from the majors.
In seven seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates beginning in 1996, Osik served as the backup catcher behind All-Star Jason Kendall. They reached the majors in the same year, Kendall as a highly-rated former first-round pick of the Pirates. Kendall stepped right in to hit .300 his first season as the everyday catcher. Still with the Kansas City Royals today, his career average in 15 seasons is .288, a superb figure for a catcher over that length of time.
The two became good friends and Osik once called Kendall “the toughest ballplayer I’ve ever seen play the game.”
His toughness, however, meant little playing time for Osik.
In his first season, Osik played in 48 games and batted .293. He matched that average in 2000 when he played in 46 games.
The versatility that was so evident during high school and college made him more valuable in the big leagues than just a backup catcher. He played every position in the major leagues at some point except shortstop and center field. He pitched in two games, giving up a total of nine runs for a career ERA of 40.50.
He spent one season with Milwaukee in 2003 where he got the most playing time of his career. He played in 80 games and batted .249.
He closed out his career with brief stints in Baltimore and Washington before retiring in 2005.
As one chapter in baseball closed, another immediately opened.
Osik became head coach of the baseball team at Farmingdale State in July 2005. Since then his team’s have made one national championship appearance (2009) and four NCAA Tournament appearances. He was the 2009 ECAC Division III Metro Coach of the Year and in 2010 was honored as the Skyline Conference Coach of the Year.
He still lives in Shoreham with his wife Sherry and three kids, Tyler, Kayley and Kamryn.
One of his first projects after his big league career ended was opening a local baseball facility. In 2006, Keith Osik’s Major League Instruction opened its doors in Middle Island. Osik spoke at the time of how he didn’t want to be just a name on the building. It’s a promise he’s more than fulfilled five years later, as they prepare to move into a new building in a more prominent location in Rocky Point near the North Shore Little League complex.
“When MLI is at full action, which I’d say is probably November through the spring time, he’s in there giving lessons non-stop every day,” Mignano said. “You walk in there and he’s giving a lesson to a 5-year-old or a 17-year-old. That takes a lot of time and a lot of dedication.”
He comes across as proud of his players’ accomplishments as anything he did in the big leagues. Since MLI opened, 40 kids who used the facility have received college scholarships for baseball, Osik said. His team of 17-year-olds just placed fifth out of 240 teams in a tournament in Georgia.
He’s often asked if he misses the big leagues.
“I’m so involved, I’ve got so much baseball through the course of the whole entire year that it hasn’t made me miss it,” he said. “Teaching kids, it’s been a blast.”
Pittsburgh manager Jim Leyland appreciated Osik’s winding journey to the big leagues. When Osik made the opening day roster in 1996, Leyland made sure to pencil his first start for New York at Shea Stadium. It just so happened the Pirates’ second series of the year was in New York.
Osik left around 50 or 60 tickets for family and friends on the afternoon of April 5, 1996. Many more from the community bought tickets on their own to see the hometown kid fulfill his lifelong dream.
On the field before the game, Osik could feel the support.
“You couldn’t help but hear people in the stands,” he said. “Normally you don’t hear anybody. There was probably two to three hundred people from this area that came into Shea that night.”
In his first career at-bat against Dave Mlicki, he lined a ball to center field that Lance Johnson mishandled. Osik sprinted around to third on a three-base error. Soon after he came around to score his first career run. He finished the game 2-for-4 with an RBI, a perfect finish to his long-awaited debut.
Among the fans in attendance that night was Sal Mignano, who had become a father-like figure to Osik over the years. To see his former student and player in his first major league game was the biggest thrill for Mignano.
Every year after Osik graduated high school, Mignano made sure to see one of his games in person.
“Some family vacations revolved around where Keith was that year,” Mignano said. “Through him and because of him my family has gotten a chance to see a lot of the country and a lot of different ballparks.”
Among other memorabilia from his career, the ball of Osik’s first career hit will go up on display in the new MLI facility, forever a reminder of what can be accomplished through perseverance and hard work.
The following article appeared in the June 11, 1987 issue of The News-Review after the Shoreham-Wading River High School baseball team won the New York State Class B championship.
UTICA—For now, SWR baseball coach Sal Mignano is not even thinking about the fact that he losing seven starters from his state championship team (22-7) that became the Class B champions on Saturday night at Murnane Field in Utica. “Someone asked me the other day if I’ve come down yet and I answered, ‘Why should I?’ ” said the Wildcat skipper who waited 11 years for the title.
“It is the ultimate thrill,” he said, referring to the dramatic, 6-5 win over challenger Chenango Forks that gave SWR the coveted title. “You can have all the league championships you want but the goal you shoot for is the states. You keep asking yourself if it really happened afterwards.”
The game was a topsy turvy affair that almost got away from Mignano and his team, who trailed, 5-4, after three innings. Chris Maccaro, who was 6-1 on the year had started, and according to Mignano, was the victim of a few bad breaks and close pitches before he was pulled for stopper Keith Osik. Osik had thrown a one-hitter [in the morning] against Port Chester (a game SWR won, 2-0) and had asked if he could start again.
Mignano answered in the negative but went with Osik after watching him throw on the sidelines before the game. “He was throwing free and easy and I could tell he had plenty left. … I felt he could give us four innings and we could score some more runs.”
Both of those strategies paid off with help from Chenango’s defense. Eric Strovink walked and went to second on a Jared Janoski single. When Chenango pitcher Mike Manley threw wild into left field while trying to get Strovink going to third on a Chris Porter bunt, SWR evened up the game. Porter scored minutes later on the leading edge of a delayed double steal.
Great Catch, Good Call
According to Mignano, the seventh inning was very tense. The lead-off hitter got on and reached third on a sacrifice bunt. Then, with the infield drawn in and Shoreham looking for the squeeze, the Chenango batter looped a pop up that sent Kevin Verdi scampering into the outfield. Verdi made the catch over his shoulder and as Mignano said, “What would have been a good catch in the middle of the season turned into a great catch.”
Alert coaching on the part of Mignano and a change in coaching strategies may have saved the game altogether. With Osik pitching from the windup, the count ran to 2-1 on the clean-up hitter who then promptly fouled off the next two deliveries. “I felt he had Keith’s fastball timed,” remembered Mignano. “I rarely call pitches but this one I called from the bench.” What that batter got was a curve and it froze him, ending the game. “All pandemonium broke loose,” recalled Mignano.
Shoreham-Wading River baseball coach Sal Mignano has coached the varsity team since the program’s beginning more than 30 years ago. Here, he gives his list of the top five SWR athletes of all-time.
5. Keri Bettenhauser (1994): Undoubtedly the best female athlete in SWR history — Field Hockey, Basketball, Softball. Would have loved to have her play for us on the baseball team.
4. Buddy Gengler (1997): All-County in baseball and soccer. Played baseball at West Point where he was a 2x All-Patriot League shortstop and NCAA Regional participant. Intense work ethic and discipline. Two tours of duty in Iraq. Now an Assistant varsity baseball coach at SWR.
3. Julio Vega (1990): All-County in three sports — baseball, volleyball and basketball. Signed professionally with the San Francisco Giants in 1990 after being drafted in the 5th round. After his baseball career played college basketball at Brockport.
2. Jesse Jantzen (2000): His accomplishments in wrestling and his work ethic set him at a category of his own.
1. Keith Osik (1987): Enough said … Unquestionably SWR’s greatest athlete ever. I doubt SWR will ever see a more skillful, versatile, charismatic athlete ever. Would dominate any HS sport he would have ever played.
In minor league baseball, it is important not to get stuck in one town or on one team for an extended length of time. You want to keep moving up the ladder to reach the ultimate goal known as “The Show.”
The major leagues are the rare place only Shoreham-Wading River graduate Keith Osik has reached locally. But that doesn’t mean he’s the only one who’s tried.
Two aspiring area players, Southold High School graduate Dave Kubiak and Miller Place’s Kevin Mahoney received calls out of the blue earlier this season that sent them in different directions.
Less than 24 hours after blowing the lead and losing the game while surrendering his first home run, Kubiak learned he was getting promoted from the Gulf Coast Rays in the Gulf Coast League to the Princeton Rays in the Appalachian League in the Tampa Bay Rays organization.
Life sure can work in some unusual ways.
“I guess so,” Kubiak said. “I was real surprised. I wasn’t going to tell them no.”
Even though he was doing well with the Tampa Yankees in the Florida State hitting a solid .287 as an infielder, Mahoney was stunned to learn when he was heading toward a lower league through no fault of his own — to the Charleston RiverDogs in the South Atlantic League in the middle of June.
The Yankees had to make room for several players who were signed to higher bonuses.
“There just wasn’t any room for me to play there and I wasn’t going to play so I got sent down,” Mahoney said. “The big thing is to be patient. You’ve just go to wait for your opportunities that when you get them, you need to perform.”
Through last weekend, the left-handed hitting infielder is hitting .277 with seven home runs and 40 RBI in 93 games.
“They cared enough about me to put me into an everyday playing role,” Mahoney said. “That’s always good that they care about me. They’re not going to let me sit on the bench and play and basically let me be a fill-in guy.”
Welcome to the minor leagues, where the pay is terrible, the travel is tough and the hours are unusual.
Yet, neither player would have it any other way.
Mahoney, 24, is in his third year in the minors, where moving around is common place. In 2009, he played for the Gulf Coast League Yankees. Last year, he performed for four clubs — the Staten Island Yankees (New York-Penn League), Charleston, Tampa and Trenton Thunder (Eastern League in AA ball).
“I love baseball,” he said in a recent interview. “It has been my life for my whole life. There’s days when you can’t wake up in the morning and when you do, you feel just so terrible, your muscles ache and you can barely roll out of bed. You’re saying, ‘I do not want to go play today’ and you realize I have to roll out of bed because I am playing. That’s what I’m doing — is playing a game.
“It really motivates you that a bad day on the field in baseball is a heck of a lot better than a better day sitting in the office. Not many people get to play a sport for a living and I’m one of them. Just waking up every day being able to do that is a great honor. It’s been my life for so long. Now I get the opportunity to pretty much become a big leaguer like any other kid whose dreams were in the backyard playing wiffle ball, pretending to be Derek Jeter and all those people. One day I could be a big leaguer, too. It’s really cool.”
Kubiak and Mahoney perform in organizations that have differing philosophies in developing players. The Rays like to keep their players. Kubiak noted that the Tampa Bay pitching staff is home grown.
The Yankees, on the other hand, are not afraid of trading their prospects for short-term payoffs to bulk up for the post-season.
Both players understand and are comfortable with their situations and organizations.
“They don’t have the money to go out and buy big free agents and stuff, which is awesome for me,” Kubiak said. “I would rather them try to develop somebody like me, whatever, to go out, instead of somebody like the Yankees who would go and buy someone to fill a spot. Not bashing the Yankees at all, but . . .”
And speaking of the Yankees, Mahoney, who lists several current and retired Yankees as among his favorite players, knew what he was getting into when he was drafted by the club.
And besides, there are always trades involving minor league prospects.
“Those stories always get thrown around in minor league ball when guys are down in the dumps or aren’t playing every day or aren’t playing at all,” Mahoney said. “Those stories are like a little bit of fuel to get you through those periods of time.”
Mahoney cited third baseman Jimmy Paredes, a former Yankees prospect who was traded, played in AA ball earlier this season and is now performing for the Houston Astros.
“You wait for your opportunity and trades are definitely an opportunity for you to make it to the big leagues,” he said. “It could happen. Over a year it could happen.”
Mahoney isn’t the only local high school product currently in the Yankees farm system. Rocky Point graduate Dan Burawa is in his first full season as a Yankees minor leaguer and he’s also split time between Charleston and Tampa this year, appearing in 33 games as a reliever.
Burawa, a 12th round pick out of St. John’s, has pitched 71 innings for a 3-3 record and a 3.52 ERA this season.
Kubiak, 22, is in his first season after he was drafted by the Rays in June following a career at the University of Albany. So, it has been an eye-opener.
“To play Division I baseball, you see a lot of good talent,” he said. “There’s some teams that you see are a lot better than other teams. Some players really standout. It’s funny how you really haven’t seen one person or anything that doesn’t stand out to be here because everyone is just very, very good. Every player makes the routine plays look routine. They look so athletic and everybody is so fast here. That is a little bit of a change.”
Through last weekend’s games, the 6-7, 245 pound right-hander has a 2-2 record with a 3.80 ERA, striking out 29 and walking only four in 21 innings over 12 appearances. He has allowed four homers.
“I really didn’t change too much my pitching approach,” Kubiak said. “I don’t throw 95, so I’m not going to throw the ball by anybody. I kind of just pitch to contact. I have been doing pretty well with that.”
While many in The Show are millionaires, minor leaguers, especially those in Class A ball, are on a perpetual austerity league budget. Salaries range from $1,000 to $1,250 per month — yes —that’s per month, not week. And that includes room and board, which doesn’t leave room for other living expenses.
Kubiak figured he usually has $650 left over after taxes and expenses.
“Not the millions everyone thinks it is yet,” he said. “But hopefully they’re coming.”
“You really don’t walk away with much if you do walk away with anything at all,” Mahoney said.
So, the major league minimum of $414,500 looks like a grand pot of gold.
“I sure as hell wouldn’t mind taking that minimum,” Kubiak said.
In the minors, players have to watch every penny, especially since players have to pay for their own gear.
Mahoney said he was still paying off an order of 12 bats that cost him $450.
“And that’s pretty much a whole pay check of mine,” he said.
“Every time you break a bat, it’s an $80 hit or $80 broken bat. So every time you see a minor leaguer break a bat, that hurts in the wallet,” he added with a laugh.
“You don’t play for money when you’re in the minors, that’s for sure. You play for the love of the game. You play for the opportunity that you might be a big leaguer one time and you make a lot of money.”
It’s more than money. The minor leagues in any sport is a unique life style where most of the traveling between cities is by bus.
“I happen to love bus trips,” Kubiak said. “Some people will think I’m nuts, but being on a bus for seven hours, between sleeping and talking to the kids on your team and getting to know everybody, there’s always movies on. We get DirecTV on our bus. We haven’t had too long of a road trip yet. We have a six-day road trip coming up, where there’s s seven-hour bus trip in there. I like it.”
When he was in the Florida State League, Mahoney said he did not have to travel that much. The longest trip was four hours, while most trips were an hour or less, so players got an opportunity to sleep in their own beds. The South Atlantic League, however, is another matter.
“We’re on one of the worst road trips ever,” Mahoney said. “We’ve had a four-game series at home. We got on a bus on our off day to travel 7 1/2 hours to Charleston, W.Va. We had a sleeper bus with a whole bunch of beds and that kind of stuff. We left at eight o’clock and got in at four in the morning. We’ve got four games here and after tomorrow’s game, we have a seven o’clock game followed by a 7 1/2-hour bus trip, getting in at six or seven a.m. Then we have a 5 p.m. the same day.”
But Mahoney wasn’t complaining.
“You get used to it,” he said. “We’re lucky that we have this job. This is what I call a job.”
He then chuckled.
“We have a job that we get to sleep in really late,” he said. “We don’t have to be at the field until one or two o’clock and away three o’clock. We’re up late and we’re not going to bed until two, three or four in the morning. But we get to sleep in later, so its kind of like a night job.”
Regardless of what transpires, it doesn’t sound like either player is about to throw in the towel or his glove any time soon. They’re going to have to wrestle the ball or bat out of their hands and rip their jerseys off their backs to get them out of pursuing their goals.
“My goal is to play this game until someone comes out to the mound and says you are not good enough any more to play this game,” Kubiak said. “Wherever that takes me — obviously, I would love to make it to make it to the big leagues. It has been my dream since I was a little kid. That’s my goal, to play as long and try to get as good as humanly possible for me, not give up any sooner and really push myself until I reach however good I can be. Only God knows that.”
Mahoney had similar sentiments.
“Basically all these games we are playing right now is preparing for the big leagues,” he said. “You have one goal — the big leagues. Not a lot of people say I got to play A ball. You were a big leaguer or you weren’t. Right now you’re in a gray area that you hope one day you get that call. You play your butt off until you get that opportunity.
“I’m just going to keep going until they take the jersey off my back. Even if I wasn’t a choice to be a big leaguer, I’m still going to try. If I’m a big leaguer and they say, you’re not going to be a big leaguer any more, you can hang them up, I’m still going to say, ‘Well, I don’t believe you.’ When I can’t physically play any more, that’s going to be the last day I play. When I wake up and say, ‘I don’t want to play any more,’ that’ll be the day. That’s not any time soon.”
So many thoughts raced through Julia Smit’s mind when presented a seemingly impossible question — What’s the proudest moment of your career?
Only 23 years old, Smit has traveled the world as a competitive swimmer, from Brazil to Moscow, Tokyo to Germany. She’s shattered records from her earliest days at Mount Sinai High School and never stopped through four years at Stanford University where she became a 26-time All-American. She won state championships, NCAA Championships, gold medals at the Pan America Games, the Honda Sports Award as the top female college swimmer in 2010 and she still holds two short course world records.
“Gosh, I can’t decide,” she says, “because so many things are so cool.”
A few more seconds passed as she rattled her brain, ultimately settling on one unparalleled accomplishment.
Reaching the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
In the National Aquatics Center, better known as the Water Cube, Smit not only competed for the red, white and blue, she helped bring home silver and bronze medals.
“I think that’s the thing that means the most,” Smit said. “That’s the one thing I always dreamt about when I was little. Just being able to say I accomplished that goal, I’m pretty proud of.”
Of all the local athletes who dreamed of reaching the Olympics, who pictured themselves with a medal draped around their neck, Smit stands alone as the only Olympic medalist this area has ever seen.
Julia Smit arrived at the 2008 Olympic Trials in Omaha, Neb. well aware of the competition that lie ahead. She was by no means a newbie when it came to the pressures of swimming in an event of that magnitude. She had already competed in one Olympic Trials for the Athens Games in 2004, the summer following her sophomore year of high school. At 16 years old, she placed seventh in the finals of the 400-meter individual medley. As she stood on the blocks before the race began in Long Beach, Calif., she said she would “freak out,” according to a Newsday article the day after the race.
The Olympic Trials are often described as more intense and more pressure-packed than the actual Olympics. And not without reason. In the Olympics, a third-place finish produces a bronze medal. In the Trials, a third-place finish in nearly every event equals a ticket home.
The room for error is nonexistent.
On the morning of June 29, 2008, the first day of the Olympic Trials, Smit dove into the pool for one of her signature events — the 400 IM. She had already began making a name for herself in the event. Only four months earlier she won the first of three consecutive NCAA titles in the 400 IM, while posting the second-fastest time in Stanford history. She had become the first Stanford swimmer to win an NCAA title in the event since former Olympic medalist Summer Sanders in 1992.
She entered the Trials with the third-fastest seed time behind Katie Hoff and Elizabeth Beisel. Hoff, a stud from Baltimore who trained with Michael Phelps, had already competed in the 2004 Olympics while only 15, and was quickly becoming the face of U.S. women’s swimming. “She’s the Michael Phelps version for the women’s side,” the announcer on NBC would say during the finals. Beisel, a 15-year-old from Rhode Island, was about to make her first major splash as one of the sport’s rising stars.
The top three swimmers — Hoff, Beisel and Smit — all swam in separate heats during the preliminaries of the 400 IM. All three smoothly won their heats, with Hoff posting the fastest time.
Smit set up in lane three for the finals with Hoff and Beisel to her left as they dove in for the first butterfly lap. Smit raced across the first 50 meters with the fastest time, before Hoff surged ahead during the return lap. As they switched to the backstroke, Beisel grabbed the lead for the next 100 meters. It was short lived as Hoff regained the lead during the breastroke. Hoff continued to pull away into the freestyle as the crowd rose to a crescendo, sensing her closing in on a world record.
As the swimmers turned back for the final 50 meters, Smit’s only hope was to catch Beisel. But nearly a full body-length behind, it was too wide a gap. Hoff hit the wall in 4 minutes, 31.12 seconds, lowering the world record set by Stephanie Rice of Australia four months earlier. Beisel clocked in at 4:32.87, just under Hoff’s previous American record.
Smit settled for third place, just under three seconds short of a spot on the Olympic team.
Two days later Smit returned to the pool faced with a choice. She had qualified in both the 200 freestyle and 200 IM, another one of her signature events. But both races in the morning were separated by just one event, the men’s 200 butterfly. To compete in both events would have required a Herculean effort.
While most events require a swimmer to finish first or second to qualify, the 200 freestyle provided a safety net — finish in the top four and qualify for a relay.
Less than a month before the Trials, Smit was a relative unknown in the 200 freestyle. That changed in early June at USC’s Janet Evans Invitational. With 20 meters left in the 200 freestyle, Smit trailed Natalie Coughlin, who in 2004 took home five Olympic medals in Athens en route to becoming one of the most decorated swimmers in Olympic history (she added six medals in Beijing). Smit was unranked in the event. But over the final 50 meters she swam a record time to just outtouch Coughlin by .03 of a second to finish in a meet record time of 1:57.34.
At the Trials a few weeks later, the choice became clear for Smit. She opted out of the 200 IM and elected to focus on the 200 free.
Smit advanced to the finals on the night of July 2 holding the third fastest time.
Once again, she came tantalizingly close to qualifying as an individual. She finished in third place in the finals in 1:56.73, just behind Allison Schmitt (1:55.92) and Hoff (1:55.80).
But her dream had come true. She was headed to Beijing.
Born in Santa Rosa, Calif., Smit lived on the west coast for four years before moving to Pennsylvania. It was there, under the guidance of her father Peter, that she first began swimming at age 6. She came from a swimming family. Her father swam and her older brother Mike was a swimmer as well. Mike, 25, would go on to his own superb career at Cornell and still swims competitively today. Along with Julia, he competed at the U.S. Nationals earlier this month. Their younger brother Kevin also swims, but not as much now since he joined the Coast Guard Academy.
The family moved to Mount Sinai in the summer Smit was about to turn 11. By the time she joined the Three Village Swim Club in East Setauket at 12, Smit was already on her way to becoming a standout swimmer.
“She was a very, very hard working girl, very dedicated and focused on her success and what she wanted to do,” said Barry Roffer, the head coach at Three Village Swim Club, who will be retiring this summer after 31 years.
Smit posted her first qualifying time for the Junior National Championship at age 12.
As a freshman in high school in November 2002, Smit secured her first state championship by winning the 200-yard IM in 2:03.47, an automatic All-American time. She swam as an independent throughout her scholastic career since Mount Sinai didn’t have a school team.
In the spring before her freshman season she competed in her first individual national meet in Minnesota.
When Smit first posted the qualifying time for the national meet in the 200 backstroke, she had no idea.
“Barry came up to me and was like, ‘You made nationals,’” Smit recalled. “I was like, ‘I don’t even know what that is really.’ ”
The success quickly added up. By her sophomore season she was named the Most Outstanding Swimmer at the state championship at the Nassau Aquatics Center. She won the 200 IM in state record time and also finished first in the 100 freestyle.
Practices started at 6 a.m., followed by school, weight training and more swimming from 5 to 8 p.m, all part of a rigorous routine that helped her continually improve.
“I was very amazed at how she progressed in high school,” Roffer said. “She got better all the time. When the pressure got greater, Julia Smit stepped up and swam really, really well.”
Among high school students in New York, Smit was on a level all to herself. As a junior she won her third straight state championship in the 200 IM, blowing away the field by close to eight seconds and topping her own state record. She ended up just missing the state record in the 100 free. She went on to compete at the FINA World Cup in February 2005, where she was second in the 200 and 400 IM while placing third in the 200 back. Her second-place finish in the 200 IM came behind Kaitlin Sandeno, a four-time Olympic medalist from 2000-04.
In the summer going into her senior year, Smit posted four personal records that included two second-place finishes in both IM events at the ConocoPhillips National Championships in Irvine, Calif.
When the college recruiting got into full swing, it began sinking in for Smit just how talented she was. The flood of schools begging for her services took her by surprise.
“So many people wanted me to go to their school,” she said. “I didn’t expect so many people to be calling me and trying to convince me to go to their school.”
In the back of her mind, she always knew which school she hoped to attend. Her grandmother lived in Menlo Park, just next to Stanford in Palo Alto, Calif. As a little kid she always used to see Stanford and it stuck with her as she grew older.
Stanford offered everything she looked for in a school: great academics, an elite swim team and the beauty of California.
A week after officially signing with Stanford in November 2005, Smit entered the state championship in Buffalo a near lock to win her fourth straight state title in the 200 IM. At that point, she wasn’t just thinking state title, she wanted to break the national record.
“She knew when the time came to step up on the blocks, she had tunnel vision,” Roffer said.
Smit swam 1:58.29 to break the record previously held by Coughlin.
“I didn’t feel like I had to go all out,” Smit told Newsday after the meet. “I just wanted to get in a good place and try and break the national record.”
At the USA Spring Championships in Washington, Smit won a national title in the 200 back.
All along while competing at such a high level in swimming, Smit maintained a near flawless academic record. She was the salutatorian at Mount Sinai High School and won the Dellecave Award as the top female student-athlete in Suffolk County.
“I normally don’t set specific goals, but I really would love to compete in the Olympics,” Smit told the Sun after accepting the Dellecave Award.
Julia Smit stands a statuesque 6-feet tall, or to put it in a more nautical term as she would like to say, “2 yards tall.” Her grand stature contrasts her humble personality. She once described posing for pictures after winning a meet as one of her least favorite parts. A story in the San Francisco Chronicle once described her as “…so timid she hardly talked to anybody for a month after arriving on the Farm from Long Island, N.Y.”
She was never one to seek the spotlight; it always found her.
“I think a lot of the kids were in awe of her and how well she swam in practice,” Roffer said. “Basically she swam alone in practice because she was that far ahead of everyone else. When you have a person of that caliber on your team, she’s like an idol to other people.”
If Smit faced high expectations coming into an established program like Stanford, she easily surpassed them her freshman season. She was the Pac-10 Newcomer of the Year and earned six All-America honors. In the 200 IM she broke a 15-year-old school record. Stanford finished second in the Pac-10 and fourth at the NCAA Championship.
“She was the key reason for our improvement this year,” Stanford coach Lea Maurer told the Sun in 2007. “She carried a heavy load. If we needed someone to win an event, we penciled Julia in.”
She may not have been the most outspoken member of the team, but her performances in the pool were unmatched. In the summer after her freshman year she traveled to Rio De Janeiro, Brazil for the Pan America Games. She won four gold medals and a silver. Afterward Maurer didn’t hesitate to say she has the “potential to be one of America’s best swimmers ever.”
By the start of her junior season, fresh off her first Olympic experience, Smit was utterly dominant at the NCAA level. She won both the 200 and 400 IM in American, NCAA and U.S. Open record times at the NCAA Championship, capping her season as a seven-time All-American. She was named a finalist for the Honda Sports Award, which went to Dana Vollmer, a 2004 Olympic gold medalist from the University of California, Berkeley.
As a junior, the once timid girl had been promoted to a team captain.
“I definitely led by example, but I was also able to find my voice by the time I was a senior,” she said.
She served as captain along with Elaine Breeden, who combined with Smit to form an incredible one-two punch four years together at Stanford. Breeden excelled in the butterfly events and was a three-time NCAA champion in the 200 fly. Breeden traveled to Beijing with Smit after qualifying in two events, including the 200 fly. At the Olympic Trials she broke a 24-year-old meet record to become the top American in the event.
“We both had a lot of success together, so she’s always at my side,” Smit said.
Since graduating from Stanford, the two still train together at the university under Maurer.
As seniors the duo helped lift Stanford to the verge of an NCAA Championship. The Cardinals finished in second place in 2010, two and a half points behind the champion University of Florida.
The loss stung for Smit. Having never competed on a high school team, she relished the atmosphere of swimming with teammates and still thought her senior year rivaled her Olympic experience. But for all her individual accomplishments, that one team goal eluded her. The disappointment was eased somewhat later that year when Smit won the Honda Sports Award, which put the finishing touches on one of the greatest careers in Stanford swimming history.
“It was definitely a really good way to end my senior year, because I was disappointment that our team had lost,” Smit said. “We did everything we could.”
In the weeks leading up the 2008 Olympics, Julia Smit’s mother Louise had her morning routine thrown out of whack. When she would go for a run through the streets of Mount Sinai, she found herself getting stopped every day by neighbors congratulating her and wishing Julia luck in Beijing.
Julia’s parents originally thought they wouldn’t be able to make it to Beijing to see their daughter compete. Accommodations for athletes’ parents for a hotel through USA Swimming started at $9,000 for a week and topped out at $37,000. The cost was simply too great.
Shortly before the Olympics, they received surprisingly good news.
The parents of one of Julia’s teammates at Stanford lived in Beijing and offered to host Louise and Peter for their 10-day trip. That left a $4,300 round-trip plane ticket on Air China for the two of them as the main expense.
They got to watch first-hand as Julia helped lead the U.S. to a silver medal in the 4 x 100 freestyle relay and bronze in the 4 x 200 freestyle relay. She swam in the preliminaries in both events, but was replaced for the finals. Coaches have discretion to pick any four swimmers for the finals.
In the 4 x 100 relay Smit swam the third fastest leg of the four American swimmers. She and Emily Silver were replaced in the finals by Coughlin and 41-year-old Dara Torres. The U.S. quartet swam an American record in the finals, but couldn’t beat out the Netherlands.
In the 4 x 200 relay Smit swam the anchor leg in the preliminaries and she swam the fastest leg. But she was still replaced again for the finals.
“I swam as fast as I could,” Smit said, “and my coach was just like, ‘Julia, this is a learning experience. Now you have the experience of being in the Olympics, which is awesome.’”
Following the Olympics Smit swam some her best races. In July 2009 at the ConocoPhillips National Championship in Indianapolis she set the American record in the 200 IM. Her time of 2:09.34 was subsequently broken by Ariana Kukors in Rome at the World Championship a few weeks later. But Smit’s time still stands as the fastest ever on U.S. soil.
In December 2009 she set the short course world records in the 200 and 400 IM at the Duel in the Pool in England (a short course pool is 25 meters, while a long course that’s used in the Olympics is 50 meters).
Both records still stand today.
Following her graduation from Stanford, Smit faced some her biggest hurdles in her career. She didn’t consider quitting swimming, but wasn’t as happy in the sport as she had always been.
“Last summer nationals I think it was more of a transition type year,” she said. “I just finished with college and all my friends in my class and on the swim team were moving away and I was a little lost.”
This summer she had hoped to swim a little faster. At Nationals in her home pool at Stanford earlier this month, she finished sixth in the 400 IM, nearly 10 seconds behind Beisel. In the 200 IM she placed fifth behind Beisel and Hoff.
“It’s kind of disappointing but luckily we’re still a year out from trials,” she said. “I have a year to make changes and get better.”
Smit says with almost near certainty the pursuit of the 2012 Games will be the end of her competitive swimming career. She’ll be 24.
She said she plans to drop the 200 free this time and focus on the 200 IM. She’ll also swim the 400 IM and 100 free, which will allow her a chance to again qualify for a relay.
Before the Trials she’ll have one more big meet when she swims in the Pan America Games in Guadalajara, Mexico in October. Competing at an elevation of more than 5,000 feet will present a unique challenge for Smit. “I’m unsure how I’m going to react to that, but hopefully well,” she said.
Smit graduated from Stanford with a degree in anthropology and a minor in studio art. She hopes to work in an art-related field one day and she may pursue an art therapy program for a master’s degree. “Maybe work with kids,” she said.
Little will the kids know — don’t expect Smit to brag — but they’ll be learning from one the greatest American swimmers of this generation.