At Immaculate Heart Academy’s softball field in Washington Township, NJ, there’s no question as to who the boss is.
Anthony Larezza works that field like it’s his backyard. And in a way, it is.
If he could mow the grass himself, he would, but it’s field turf, so he gets a break there.
But when Larezza, IHA’s head softball coach since 2005, watches a game at the home field, even when his team isn’t playing there, he’s a whirlwind.
Foul balls behind home plate and in the adjacent woods? He’s got them.
If there’s an empty bottle sitting around, he’ll either throw it away himself, or ask one of his players to toss it away. During last Saturday’s Bergen County Tournament quarterfinals, Larezza made sure Midland Park and Mahwah had dry softballs during a steady rain. He and the home plate umpire had a nice routine going on after a while where the ump didn’t even have to ask before a few new balls were tossed to him over a thin piece of fencing.
“Only two people in the world can make that throw everytime, and I’m one of them,” Larezza said to the ump, who laughs after catching the throws.
In between pitches, he recalls a line from Richie Aprile, the fiction character on the legendary television show, “The Sopranos”, which is one of Larezza’s all time favorites.
“I thought I told you to back off Beansie,” Larezza said, talking about Tony Soprano’s warning to Richie. “I did,” Richie says via Larezza. “Then I put it in drive.”
“You shot my foot.”
‘”It happens”, Larezza says, recalling Christopher Moltisanti’s famous line at the bakery in Nutley from another Sopranos episode.
And so it goes.
He recalls a day at the IHA Tournament a while back when an amateur umpire handed me a softball and said to tell Anthony, ‘make sure Anthony throws this ball out. This ball is no good. I’m a certified ump. I know these things.”
I relayed the message to Larezza, who smiles, looks at me and says about the ump, “Who’s he, Nestor Chylak?”, referring to the legendary Major League umpire. (The real Chylak’s birthday recently brought a tweet from me to him, which he enjoyed).
The ‘Memorial Day’ speech always comes up. It goes back to a IHA game against Livingston in early April of 2010. The Lancers were playing Larezza’s team in the annual IHA Tournament and had won a 1-0 decision.
“(Jess) Peslak didn’t even pitch that day for Livingston,” Larezza recalled some three years later of Livingston’s now-legendary hurler who was a freshman that season. “But she beat us at the plate by hitting a RBI single and we lost 1-0.”
Bear in mind, IHA had won the 2009 state championship a year earlier and had finished as the state’s top ranked team. So when it lost an early season game to a good Livingston squad the following spring, Larezza wanted to send his team a message.
So he carries on a conversation with a former IHA player, in clear earshot of a few current players, who were sitting a little to the left of home plate.
“It’s going to be one of those seasons,” Larezza said (and I’m paraphrasing) to the former player. “These kids don’t care. They won a championship last year, let’s take this season off, right? So, we’ll go 22-5 and our season is over by Memorial Day weekend. Let’s go down the shore. Works for me. Play the younger kids now. Memorial Day is coming, right? Season’s over.”
It might not have been General MacArthur’s farewell speech at West Point, but it did sound a lot like Colonel Jessup in ‘A Few Good Men’ when the Colonel called his aide into the office and said “Tom, get me the president on the phone, we’re surrendering our position in Cuba.”
If the two current players who were listening could have dug a hole to Taiwan, they’d be speaking Mandarin Chinese today while enjoying Kung Pao chicken. (Another ‘A Few Good Men’ analogy).
But the point got across. Larezza expects nothing less than the best his players can muster. And he knew that particular team could play better.
He pointed to the spot where the Memorial Day speech was given and laughed, “when I’m long gone, that piece of turf will be a memorial to me.”
He reads the Twitter updates on his phone religiously.
“You know,” he says to me. “That ‘get your popcorn ready’ theme you have is all over the place.”
He led IHA to another state championship and No. 1 ranking last season and this year could produce similar results.
When he’s not coaching at IHA, he loves to watch other games, so Larezza hustles over to the Essex County Tournament championship game at Ivy Hill Park in Newark later on Saturday to watch Livingston take on Mount St. Dominic.
There’s some confusion with a four-man umpiring crew, and both Livingston coach Jason Daily and Mount St. Dominic’s Lorenzo Sozio make multiple visits to question a few calls.
Larezza, standing by the fence on the first base line, shakes his head. “If that’s me, I’m thrown out of this game two times, already, and it’s the first inning,” Larezza said. “Seriously, this is a crazy game somtimes.”
He has fun talking about the strategy that will be employed.
“(Mount St. Dominic assistant coach Rob) Stern and Lorenzo are going a mile a minute right now,” Larezza said. “They never stop thinking of something new. And I love the way Livingston runs the bases. This is shaping up to be a really good game.”
Always one to keep you on your toes, he turns to me, out of the blue, in the middle of an inning and says, “what horse beat Man ‘O War,” knowing that I enjoy the history of great race horses.
Sean Reilly, a writer for Sideline Chatter, already knows the answer, and is surprised I don’t.
“Come on, you’re the horse guy,” Larezza chides. “(The name of that horse) is a common sports-related theme today. You gotta know this !”
I said “Sea Biscuit,” which elicited a few ‘are you stupid’ comments from the immediate crowd.
Turns out the only horse to beat the legendary Man ‘O War in 1919, was dubbed “Upset’.
He then says to me, “I know you call Jess (Peslak) Secretariat, but what name did you give (IHA’s) Steph (Thomas)?”
‘Affirmed’, I reply, about his stud pitcher and the 1978 Triple Crown winner, who I wrote about in a blog last month.
“And who’s (Livingston centerfielder) Kylie (McLaughlin)?”
‘Seattle Slew’, I said.
“I like your blog,” Larezza said earlier in the day. “I like the pictures. Makes me laugh.”
Before you know it, Larezza is off to get an ice cream, but comes back having consumed a Kit Kat bar, that of course, after carrying on a conversation with multiple fans in attendance.
Livingston goes on to win the county title, 5-4. Always complimentary to opposing teams and coaches, he is quick to elicit praise.
“Man, Livingston just finds ways to win,” Larezza said. “I can see why they haven’t lost since we played them. I’m not sure I want to play them again, not the way they’re hitting now.”
Larezza might meet up with Sozio and Stern in a few weeks if Mount St. Dominic and IHA play for the North Non-Public A title. The schools last met for the championship in 2009.
If nothing else, it will be a sight to behold, with constant games between the game, good fun and in the end, friendships which supersede all.
And on a personal note, thanks, Anthony, because I will never forget who beat Man ‘O War !
Just another day on the high school softball circuit.