Sunday, May 3, 2009

A Writer's Night With The Breakers: Everything From Charise To Redbones

For any of you who have read my work, I think it is quite clear. I'm a baseball guy. Born and Bred Red Sox Red was more than a story I did, but a candidate for my epitaph when The Good Lord calls me up to that Fenway Park in the Sky.

I grew up with a glove on one hand and a ball in the other and sleep each night still with my Wally the Green Monster stuffed animal. It wakes me each morning by playing Sweet Caroline out of a muffled voice box it calls it's mouth.

My favorite all time movies are Fever Pitch, Field of Dreams, Bang the Drum Slowly and Bull Durham. My favorite moment in life, finishing just ahead of the birth of my three children was the Great Yankee Collapse of 2004 and the subsequent World Series victories in 04 and 07. As Bill Simmons so appropriately wrote, "Now I Can Die in Peace".

So what's a guy like me doing covering last night's Boston Breakers and Los Angeles Sol match-up? Can a baseball guy really be swayed to adopt the sport that is enamoured around the globe and thought to be a bit of a pest by many from Maine to Monteray? I don't see that happening.

And could a rookie sports writer elevate his own personal game enough to cover his first major sporting event? "A bit more likely", I thought knowing my own repetitive habit of over achieving.

I had become the unofficial Bleacher Report dude for the Boston Breakers about two months ago, stumbling upon the Breakers quite by accident. I was covering a Worcester Sharks hockey game and Greta Teller, Marketing Manager of the Breakers was there with two of the nameless, faceless girls from a team and a league I had never heard of.

Business man first and soccer fan way down the line, I struck up a conversation with Greta and bragged of my # 1 ranking as Red Sox Bleacher Report writer. We swapped business cards and I went in to watch the Sharks mop up the ice with the Manchester Monarchs of the AHL.

I went home, slept and woke the next morning and shot off an email to my new business contact. Greta turned me over to Kevin Hassett, probably concerned that a "good looking dude" like me was using my "high powered position" to get her email address. Not this time, Greta.

From there the rest has been synergy. Kevin opened the Breakers door to me and the Bleacher Report and feeds me news on a daily basis. Robert Penner, the league rep does the same for me. I volunteered to become Community Leader of the Bleacher Report and beckoned for others to join. Our membership is double digits now. Not a country but a community just the same.

We now have writers for each of the seven teams nationally and are becoming relevant on the WPS Public Relations and media coverage. At last night's game between the Breakers and the league leading Los Angeles Sol, we were there. Channels 4, 5, 7 and Fox seemed to be noticeably absent or hidden well. I stayed up until 2:00 AM writing with one eye on the keyboard and the other eye on the TV and recaps of the game must have fallen in line just beneath High School field hockey and Joey Chestnut winning another hot dog eating contest in Atlantic City.

This troubles me as I believe the success of the league and success of the Breakers is partially the responsibility of local media outlets. I suspect that the Breakers story was squeezed into an irrelevant corner of the Herald and well, the Globe has bigger issues.

Off of my soap box and back to the game. As my daughter, Kaitlyn and I entered historic Harvard Stadium, I got the same feeling as I did when I entered Yankee Stadium for the first time. Though not my home field and not my beloved sport, I had goose bumps from head to tail bone as I walked through the majestic gate. Roman Coliseum? Not quite but lets say it is the theological equivalent of going to Vatican City because you're not quite ready for Heaven.

We arrived at the stadium and the parking lot was filled with kids kicking soccer balls around the grassy field and tailgate parties in abundance. The odor of hot dogs, burgers and charise (Portuegese sausage) with saffron rice hovered above the crowded lot.

Outside the inner gates to the field, the atmosphere was filled with energy. Free booths were manned and gave away everything from Free Bumper Stickers and Breakers schedule magnets to Londonderry's own Stonyfield organic yogurt. Girls were everywhere with Dad's and were enjoying the Daddy/Daughter equivalent to Opening Day at Fenway.

Kaitlyn and I wandered into a Breakers tent and I helped one of the volunteers blow up a few of the complimentary noisemakers which fans banged together as the announcer yelled G-O-O-A-L-L-L!

The lyrics of the Electric Slide pop into my over imaginative cabesa as I weave my way through the euphoric crowd of little girls. "Some say it's mystic. It's electric. Boogie woogie, woogie. You can't resist it. It's electric. Boogie woogie, woogie!"

Like a kid with a sweet tooth at Mrs. Fields Cookies, I show my finely laminated press pass and walk onto the Harvard Stadium grass. While pinching myself slightly and then again, I look at Kaitlyn and say my three favorite words in the language..."Oh, My God!"

We walk around for a bit, still unsure what I'm about to do and I quote Bill Belichick, "Act Like You Been There Before."

I regained my composure and hung for a bit with a group of Brazilian fans who have come to see Marta. The World's Number One Player. It is the first non-World Cup meeting of the top two players in the World. Though living in and around Boston, the Brazilian fans aren't here to see the Breakers tonight but to see the Babe Ruth of Women's Soccer.

"Marta is the equivalent of Pele", explained Sammy Rodrigues who traveled all the way from Portsmouth, NH and Minas Gerais Brazil to see the diminutive Brazilian Princess. "We don't care who wins. This is about seeing Marta play."

I quickly realized that the game was a secondary event to seeing Marta for the Brazilians and seeing Number 1 vs Number 2 for the other 8,000 plus fans who passed through the turn styles tonight. Like McGuire Vs. Sosa in the pre-roid days and like Larry vs. Magic in the days of the tight NBA shorts. Not David vs. Goliath per se but Goliath vs Goliath.

"It's like a mini-World cup" added Rodrigues. "Like when Renaldo plays."

Rodrigues' friend and fellow Marta fan, Juliana Lima added, "We are so, so happy just to see her play."

We entered the stadium which was quickly "filling up" by US soccer standards and took a seat on the 50 yard line. Where the ghosts of Harvard vs. Yale traditionally took place, a new rivalry of equal importance was soon to commence.

Taking their seats in the stands near the Boston goal was Marcus Santos and Bloco Afro-Brazil. I assumed the band, which was comprised of 2 bongo players, several drum players, a spicy female dancer and a guy who played some sort of Brazilian maraca, was here to root on Marta, but I was grossly mistaken.

"We're here to pump it up for the Breakers", said an excited Marcus Santos, who played a beautiful wood grain bongo and occasionally blasted a loud golden whistle while the band cranked.

The handsome Brazilian with a toothy white grin, wore a green bandanna on his head and a bright yellow tank top to match the Brazilian flag which waved in the Cambridge breeze. "This is our first Breaker game and we are so happy to be part of this great event."

The band's official name, Bloco, simply means Group explained Santos, who can only be described as refreshing and exuberant.

"This is very exciting for us," added band spokesman Sandro Scoccia, a native of Somerville by way of Salvador Bahia, Brazil. "We've played all over the country for five years and have wanted to play at an official local event for some time. This is great."

Scoccia explained that Afro Brazil as a member of the Harvard Square Business Association, who got Scoccia in touch with a team spokesman who was thrilled to have Boco play.

I asked Scoccia his opinion of the brand of soccer he expected to see, "Female soccer is a grade below men's soccer. The skill is there, but the difference is the strength and speed and athleticism. The girls can do everything the men can do skill wise, but they simply don't have the strength of a male athlete," added Scoccia who has clearly watched a game or two in his lifetime.

Being a man, I, of course, had to spend some time speaking with Melinda Rhone, who danced at the front of Bloco while they banged out their rhythmic sound. Rhone, a pretty Brazilian gal, who is a Harvard grad and a college professor, was dressed in a green and yellow half shirt and a grass skirt. She danced barefoot and swayed energetically to the rhythmic sound of Bloco.

As we chatted about not only the Breakers but her position as a college professor of History of African Diaspora Through Dance, a fan interrupted politely to speak to my new friend. "It's like being at Maracana in Rio" exclaimed the fan, speaking of the world renowned Futbol Stadium in Rio De Janeiro.

Rhone agreed excitedly and wished the fan boa sorte (good luck) before chatting with me about her role as a college professor. "If you mention me in your story, please tell the readers that I am not a dancer at soccer games but an actual Harvard Grad, professor, researcher, lecturer and choreographer. It is important that girls not only play and love soccer, but spend time investing in their future."

Kaitlyn and I traveled back into the stands and settled back on the 50 yard to watch as the event within the events finally began. We cheered feverishly along with the excited crowd as Kelly Smith scored the quickest goal in league history at the one minute mark of the first half. The goal marked the first scored on the Sol this season and the crowd erupted as the shot tickled the twine.

The crowd was extremely knowledgeable and I listened to all of those around me in hopes of picking up some nuances of the game. Rhealms Wilford of Worcester explained to me, "It's like a chess game. The girls see what is about to happen three or four moves in advance and anticpate who they are going to pass to."

Jamie Wheaton, an eleven year old soccer aficionado from Lexington, said, "The new Breakers seem to be much more popular than the original team." Wheaton who plays for the FC Greater Boston Bolts and who has seen several men's professional games in England, added, "I love to watch what the girls do and feed what I learn into my game."

His Mom added, "It is a unique event to see when the number one player in the world (Marta) takes on the number two (Kelly Smith). These two would normally only meet in the World Cup."

The first half ended with the Breakers ahead 1-0 and Kaitlyn and I grabbed a Pulled Pork sandwich and some BBQ beef from my favorite BBQ joint, Red Bones. "Dem Bones, Dem Beers" I heard a customer say while wiping some BBQ sauce from his beard. Not sure what it meant, but I laughed just the same.

We settled back into our seats and I watched the last 45 minutes with the in the same intensity that I watch a World Series Game 7. I was hooked. The Breakers and Sol swapped second half goals sandwiched around several close calls by Marta. The Breakers were in her shorts most of the match and marked her every move.

Kaitlyn continued to educate me and I finally got the hang of offsides and how it differed from the game I call football. I even finally know the difference between direct and indirect and a corner kick and a goal kick.

The game ended 2-1 Breakers and I hustled down to do my first post game interviews. Possessing a pair of balls slightly larger than the Puma which the girls kicked around, I walked up to Kelly Smith and introduced myself as Todd Civin, a reporter from the Bleacher Report. She acknowledged me as if I had said Todd Civin from ESPN the Magazine.
I instantly realized that not only was Bleacher Report relevant but so was I. "What did you think of the fan support?" I asked Kelly before trying to decipher her British accent. I think she said, "It was amazing. Great support from so many amazing fans."

I told her that my Bleacher Report friend from across the pond, Maire Ofeire, had asked me to tell Kelly that she is needed back on Arsenal, her British club. Kelly laughed and told me, "The overall product of the WPS is better than the original league. The girls play a better game technically than the old teams."

"The fans come to see us play good soccer. And we really played well."

I then went and talked for a bit with Angela Hucles, who was a pleasure to interview. "This was a great win for us. We needed to concentrate on getting three points. Los Angeles entered the game four points ahead of us and with this win we closed the gap to one. It was a great win". We exchanged email addresses and I pinched myself again as I left the field.

Kaitlyn and I drove home chirping like two hens all the way from Cambridge to Winchendon. I had about five story ideas flowing from my brain while trying to listen to everything Kate was excitedly explaining.

I knew I was hooked and knew that I had just fallen for the new gal in town. The baseball guy is now a soccer guy too and I left the match knowing I had left no stone unturned in my coverage of the event.

Better change my business card. I am officially a soccer writer, too.

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