(Editor’s note: I received a lot of feedback from this column. From Minnesota to Arizona to Kansas, people told me of ways they would have handled the situation and of their desire to do something good. As a secondary note, I can’t believe I haven’t posted anything since January.)

Christian Lopez is my hero. And he should be for anyone who craves the purity of sport or just the merits of doing the right thing.

If you don’t know who Lopez is, he is the 23-year-old cell phone salesman who wound up with Derek Jeter’s 3,000th hit in his hands Saturday afternoon at Yankee Stadium.

There’s nothing special about that; it’s what he did with the ball that is. He gave it to Derek Jeter.

Just like that.

No strings attached.

It’s been estimated the ball holds a cash value of $100,000 to $250,000. Most people would have held the ball for ransom — cash, signed memorabilia, a kiss on the cheek from Jeter’s girlfriend, actress Minka Kelly, or whatever it is that floats their boat.

Not Lopez.

During an in-game interview, Lopez revealed he asked for nothing. Lopez’s gesture touched the Steinbrenner family that they gave Lopez four tickets in the priciest seats for every remaining home game through the postseason.

He told reporters in what had to be a surreal post-game press conference that the ball — and the moment — belonged to Jeter.

Here is a 23-year-old kid, a year out of college who didn’t let greed blind him. He had no machinations of what any proposed bounty could do for him. Rather, he saw the situation for what it was.

Meanwhile, on sports talk radio Lopez was shredded by callers because he didn’t maximize the potential of the situation. To that I disagree. Lopez unknowingly took a stand. His good deed was paid forward.

Too often it’s all about me-me-me, or how my kid is the next great thing. Lost in the shuffle are the Christian Lopezes of the world.

If a stadium with more than 48,000 fans, and those who hear this story, learn to act selflessly when the world tells you otherwise, we’ll all be better.

What we should learn from Lopez doesn’t just apply to sports, but in life. Do some good and maybe some good will come back to you.

Fittingly, after Jeter, the second-largest ovation of the day was saved for Lopez.


When UConn takes the court tonight in Chapel Hill, N.C., to take on the 11th-ranked Tar Heels, it will be facing a different team than the one it beat by 41 points.

The biggest reason for the difference is the return of forward Jessica Breland, who missed all of last season after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
It proved the biggest challenge in her life.

“I don’t think I ever encountered anything like that in my life,” she said of feeling helpless. “I could say it was up there with going through treatments; having that mindset of going into the hospital and sitting there and not be able to do anything but get chemotherapy.”

Breland saw how much her teammates missed on the court as North Carolina went 19-12 and lost in the first rounds of both the ACC and NCAA tournaments a year after winning 28 games. Through six months of chemotherapy, all she could think about was her return.

She was cleared to resume basketball-related activities last February, but the going was tough. Between chemotherapy, and the emotional and physical tolls taken on her.

“I’ve (had) been thinking about my first game ever since I was going through the treatments,” she said. “Now that I’m getting back on the court, it’s like, ‘Wow.’ I haven’t been on the court in a long time so I don’t know what to expect or how to feel.”

The cancer was detected early enough that it is in remission, and according to her coach Sylvia Hatchell, Breland won’t be “cancer free for five more years.”

“It’s just a joy to have her back out there,“ Hatchell said. “She’s such an inspiration to the rest of the girls, especially when she steps in there and takes charges with all that she’s been through. She’s a come back kid.”

As a result of Breland’s return to health, a foundation was started in her honor at the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center called the Jessica Breland Comeback Kid Foundation. All the funds go to the pediatric division at the center.

Breland, a senior, has started all but one game this season and is second on the Tar Heels in scoring at 13.2 points per game — nearly a point off her career best — and leads the team with 8.0 rebounds per game.

On top of the numbers, she was included in the list of finalists for the Wooden Award.

“That should be an inspiration to every kid playing basketball,” said UConn coach Geno Auriemma. “Every person that’s not even involved in sports. I think it goes to show you that part of getting well, part of getting healthy in life is your outlook and how positive you are and the kind of attitude you have, Obviously, she has a tremendously positive personality and had a passion for wanting to get back to playing basketball and was able to do it.”

College basketball season starts officially tonight, so no better time to share with you my thoughts on the women’s game (Yes, I like it). I’ve written the national preview for the Sporting News the last three years, and while some of the content is already outdated (it was written in June), the overwhelming majority still holds true.

During the process, many coaches shared their take on players and teams, and not just theirs. That goes into the equation for Top 25 and All-America selections.

Rather than typing everything in again, I’m just going to post a link so you can see the great job the Sporting News does in presenting my words. Talk about putting lipstick on a pig. I kid. I’ve also added a poll so you can vote for who you think will win the national championship.


2010-11 Sporting News

Giants bench coach Ron Wotus argues a call in 2009. Wotus will participate in his second World Series with San Francisco. (Photo credit: San Francisco Chronicle)

When the leaves change color and the air becomes crisp, Ron Wotus thinks of Connecticut.

His mind takes him back to the fields of his youth, vivid memories of soccer matches won and lost on penalty kicks. The Colchester, Conn., native had planned to return Monday for his annual visit home. But that will have to wait at least another week.

Wotus and the San Francisco Giants, for whom he serves as bench coach, begin the World Series tonight (7:57 p.m., FOX) against the Texas Rangers. It’s Wotus’ second Fall Classic after reaching it with the Giants in 2002.

In his 22nd season with the organization, Wotus joined as a player and worked his way up from minor league coach and manager to his current position, which he reached in 1999.

“The biggest thrill is getting back into the postseason,” he said. “I think anybody who is a competitor or in sports, you strive, your motivation is to win. That’s what you plan on doing when you go to spring training.

“There’s a sense of accomplishment when you execute and you perform. Certainly as a coach, that’s what you want the players to do. Getting into the playoffs and having a shot at going to the World Series is what you play for.”

The Giants last won the World Series in 1954.

Wotus was on the staff when the Giants played in their last World Series. He knows the opportunity to play in baseball’s biggest event doesn’t happen every year.

Just ask the Yankees.

“It’s very difficult to get where you are going; it’s one bad pitch, it’s a bloop hit, it’s a matter of inches on a hit or not,” Wotus said. “You really have to be appreciative when you get here and do everything you can to win.”

In 1979, Wotus graduated from Bacon Academy where he was an All-State honoree in baseball, basketball and soccer. He averaged 30 points per game on the hardwood and was the Pittsburgh Pirates’ 16th-round draft choice, but his heart was on the pitch. Wotus was All-New England in soccer and set the state scoring mark.

“I enjoyed them all, but soccer was special to me,” he said. “We enjoyed a lot of success. Not that I didn’t enjoy the other ones, but it was special. I had a lot of great coaches in Frank Aloia, Dave Shea and John McKiernan.

“Maybe it’s something about being outside and playing in the fall. Maybe it’s in my heart. I always come home in the fall. The fresh crisp air and the competition in soccer, I loved it growing up. I loved all the sports. That had a special place. I can’t put my finger on it but it was special to me.”

Wotus’ family still calls Colchester home, and several members were in Philadelphia on Saturday to watch the Giants beat the Phillies for the National League championship. He hopes to be back in Connecticut in January for the World Baseball Coaches Convention at Mohegan Sun.

Wotus’ All-State basketball photo and a basketball with his career point total are still on display at Bacon Academy. School legend Shea coached Wotus in basketball, and remembers him being all the things you want in a student-athlete: Hardworking, dedicated and a good teammate.

“He was a great competitor regardless of the score,” Shea said. “He always played hard and played to win, right up to the final buzzer.”

Joining Wotus on the Giants are eight former Norwich Navigators/Connecticut Defenders — Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Sergio Romo, Brian Wilson, Jonathan Sanchez, Travis Ishikawa, Pablo Sandoval and Nate Schierholtz. That gives this World Series a Connecticut feel.

Wotus said the topics that came up most among the teams’ alumni are the local fishing hot spots and the difficulties playing at Dodd Stadium.

“We talked a little bit,” he said. “The thing that always comes up is it was an extremely tough hitters’ park. It was difficult to hit there in Norwich. I certainly always told the guys I lived up the road in Colchester, and they knew where it was at. I always heard about how crazy it was in our area on the lakes.”

And if the Giants were to win the World Series, it may serve as the perfect send-off for Wotus, who expressed interested in the Pirates’ managerial opening to MLB.com. The Pirates drafted Wotus in 1979 out of Bacon Academy.

“It’s not really the right time for me to speak about it on the record,” he said. “I can’t say I’m definitely interested in managing Pittsburgh or any club that would be interested in me. That’s what I’d like to do and it’s certainly out of my control. That’s up to the people that are doing the hiring. … I’ve been here my whole career as a coach. The personal thing of managing is great, but it’s not at the forefront for me, it’s finishing a job that we set out to do here.

“This is what it’s all about right now.”

The New York Jets sure know how to draw attention to themselves. But for all of their bravado, if reports are true, they’ve gone too far.

The Jets should know better. They’ve drawn a gigantic bull’s eye on their backs with their mouths, added to it with their appearance on HBO’s “Hard Knocks” and then supposedly behave as if they live in a cave. The latest news is that members of the organization harassed a female reporter.

If true, they — the Jets — were dead wrong. But they aren’t the only ones to shoulder blame.

From what published reports are detailing, the Jets, led by assistant coach Dennis Thurman, overthrew passes intended for defensive backs so that the balls would land near Mexican television reporter Ines Sainz. Later, head coach Rex Ryan joined in as did linebacker Jason Taylor. Taylor decided he needed to learn a new position. My guess is “Dancing with the Stars” wasn’t enough.

It didn’t stop there. Once in the locker room, the purported harassment continued. When another reporter checked to see if Sainz was OK, big nose tackle Kris Jenkins yelled something along the lines of it being the team’s locker room, suggesting it can do as it pleased.

But also at fault is Sainz.

This is the same person who once had a pair of Indianapolis Colts carry her around on their shoulders at Super Bowl Media Day to draw attention to herself — not her work.

Before anyone becomes indignant with me, understand that Sainz (yes, that’s her AT WORK below) is a reporter. That means that she, like any professional, should approach her job as such.

Showing up to report on Mark Sanchez or any other subject, sports or otherwise, you show respect for yourself and for your assignment. Wearing jeans a few sizes too short is inappropriate.

This is what she claims to have been wearing Saturday. Just to be clear, that picture was not taken Saturday. There are Web sites that have that photo posted as far back as April of this year.

Listen, my trunk is bigger than average, but I’m not going to show up anywhere wearing clothes in which I couldn’t smuggle air. And I don’t think she can only find clothing at Baby Gap.

There are two extremes. A colleague of mine believes in arriving late to assignments and wearing clothing that is equipped with armpit stains or with holes. None of those are acceptable, so it isn’t a case of gender discrimination. If my colleague and Sainz switched wardrobes, it would still be unacceptable.

There are some who might point to what is culturally acceptable for Mexican television opposed to in the States. But if someone were to go to another country to report, you should follow the guidelines or norms of that culture. For example, had Sainz dressed as she’s known to at a soccer, er, football match in Saudi Arabia, she would have been in hot water. The excuse of this is what is acceptable in Mexico wouldn’t fly — and it doesn’t here, either.

The Jets’ players and staff, who were apparently aware of what happened, were 100 percent out of line and should be punished. And I can understand that maybe they found Ms. Sainz distracting, still she deserved to be treated as a person and not some piece of meat.

While I can’t tell you exactly what she was wearing, her track record of leaving little to the imagination in what is supposed to be a professional environment disrespects everyone.

It’s just a shame that neither Sainz nor members of the Jets believed professionalism mattered.

NEW LONDON, Conn. — Outside the walls of the Coast Guard Academy, there’s little faith in the 2010 Bears’ football team.

One poll, conducted by the coaches of the New England Football Conference, predicts the Bears finish no better than fifth in the Bogan Division. One poll has them finishing their nine-game schedule 0-10.

Coming off a 4-5 season, Coast Guard Academy won’t concern itself with what anyone else thinks when it begins the season today with the Secretaries’ Cup on the line against the Merchant Marine Academy at Cadet Memorial Field (2:30 p.m.).

“We’re aware of what the polls are, and we know what level we’re capable of playing to …,” said senior left guard Paul Gerow. “The outside polls are … somebody else’s opinions.”

There is certainly reason for optimism.

Strong quarterback
Quarterback Jesse Karr returns with second-team All-NEFC honors attached to his name. He became the first quarterback in school history to throw for 300 yards twice in his career en route to 1,640 yards and 13 touchdowns on 141-of-264 passing.

Karr missed most of the final three games of the year with an injury, but another camp under his belt in the no-huddle offense has him confident the team will improve.

Karr’s offensive line is seasoned, but lacks starter experience. There are four new starters, two of whom are seniors. The lone holdover is Gerow, the left guard.

Getting solid play from the line will be crucial, said coach Bill George. George, who is also the position coach for the O-line, said that line’s ability to protect Karr on pass plays will set up the Bears’ running attack.

The Bears won’t expect Gerow to carry the weight of the entire line.

“You can’t put much pressure on a player to take charge of a group,” George said. “I’ll just say that anywhere. It’s different if you have two or three seniors who have been playing and one freshman pops in there, then they can carry that guy along.”

Experienced defense
Defensively, the Bears have eight returning players with starting experience, although George noted that not all could start in 2010. Among those making a return to the field will be cornerback Pat Bennett. Bennett was an Eastern College Athletic Conference Northeast and NEFC Bogan Division first-team selection in 2008. He sat out 2009 to concentrate on academics. Another returning player is linebacker Kyle Ennis. Ennis, who led Division III with solo tackles in 2008, but missed last year with an injury.

What will ultimately determine the Bears’ success when they don’t have the ball is whether they can stop the run and pressure the quarterback.

“I know last year we were young at a lot of spots on defense,” said senior linebacker Ben Barrett,” and especially with the additions of Pat Bennett and Kyle Ennis, we’re looking to really step things up on that side of the ball and help out the offense as much as possible.

NFL Predictions

We take a look at the start of the NFL season, predicting where teams will finish and who has what it takes to reach Dallas in February.

NFC East
1. Dallas
2. Philadelphia
3. New York Giants
4, Washington

NFC North
1. Green Bay
2. Minnesota
3. Chicago
4. Detroit

NFC South
1. New Orleans
2. Atlanta
3. Tampa Bay
4. Carolina

NFC West
1. San Francisco
2. Arizona
3. Seattle
4. St. Louis

AFC East
1. New York Jets
2. New England Patriots
3. Miami Dolphins
4. Buffalo Bills

AFC North
1. Baltimore
2. Pittsburgh
3. Cincinnati
4. Cleveland

AFC South
1. Indianapolis
2. Houston
3. Tennessee
4. Jacksonville

AFC West
1. San Diego
2. Kansas City
3. Denver
4. Oakland


Minnesota at San Francisco, Philadelphia at Dallas
Minnesota at Green Bay, Dallas at New Orleans
Dallas at Green Bay


Pittsburgh at Baltimore, New England at San Diego
San Diego at Indianapolis, Baltimore at New York Jets
New York Jets at Indianapolis

Green Bay over Indianapolis

Yankees draft pick Cito Culver overcame tragedy to reach professional baseball. (Photo courtesy ESPN)

NORWICH, Conn. — It wouldn’t be a stretch to believe Chris “Cito” Culver would fit in among the dozens of players depicted in the movie “Field of Dreams.”

Polite and smiling, Culver can’t believe he is living out his dream of playing professional baseball. In town this weekend with the Staten Island Yankees, Culver is a modern day Moonlight Graham.

It was so important for him to begin his career that he signed his first contract days after being drafted, a far cry from many of his peers.

There’s a certain warmth that he draws from the diamond, but when the topic changes from the game to what his family experienced two years ago, a sadness permeates his eyes.

Looking down for a second, Culver looks forward as he joins his teammates in their pre-game warm-ups and says, “It’s what keeps me going.”

Life hasn’t always been roses for New York’s first-round selection in June’s draft.

In March 2008, he woke up to find his father, Christopher, Sr., attempting to burn down the family home with him and his estranged wife inside. The house burned down but Cito, his two younger sisters and mother made it out alive. His father pleaded guilty to first-degree burglary, third-degree arson and first-degree criminal contempt, and is now serving a maximum nine-year sentence.

Fittingly, Culver says the biggest thing he’s learned over the first 42 games of his career is remaining positive.

“When you play every day, you’re going to have your good days and bad days, and you just have to learn to life with it, how to cope,” Culver said. “That’s something that’s big in this game because you’re not going to have a good day every day.”

When he’s on the field, however, the pain goes away.

Just a few days shy of his 18th birthday, Culver is as an unassuming baseball star in the making.

On the fourth pitch he sees in the batting cage, Culver slammed the offering high against the right field wall. There are no oohs and ahhs. Even with Yankees officials in attendance to watch their investment’s every move, Culver carries himself with the innocence of a child blissfully ignorant of the expectations placed at his feet.

From the moment the Yankees selected him, the switch-hitting shortstop has been anointed Derek Jeter’s heir apparent. The Yankees, he said, protect him from the pressure.

Growing up a Yankees fan in Rochester, N.Y., Culver even sounds like Jeter, his idol.

“It was really the highlight,” he said of being drafted by New York. “I’ve always wanted to be playing for the Yankees. It’s pretty much a dream come true for me.”

Staten Island’s hitting coach Ty Hawkins said Culver is still growing into the game.

“That’s one of the things, in the limited time of seeing him — his personality; he just seems like he really enjoys being here,” Hawkins said. “He doesn’t feel like he has to live up to any expectations. He just goes out and do what he can.”

Playing just his second game since being promoted to New York’s short-season team in Staten Island, N.Y., Culver hasn’t come down from the cloud he’s been on since June’s draft.

“It still doesn’t (seem real),” Culver said. “It still hasn’t sunk in. I just go out here playing every day. It’s really lost of fun.”

STORRS, Conn. — At 6-foot-5, Ted Jennings is hard to miss. So when he broke through the offensive line on a 3rd-and-six play during practice Thursday morning, the quarterback knew he had to get rid of the ball quickly.

Jennings had other plans.

Racing with both arms extended above his head, the redshirt sophomore defensive end deflected the pass, ending the play.

“I just cranked up that pass rush and not jump offsides,” Jennings said. “I was watching the ball, came on the ball hard — a little slap, rip — and used my height to my advantage.”

UConn hopes to see much more of that from Jennings. After sustaining two losses at the position, the Huskies will look to younger players to step up and fill the void. Along with Jennings, Trevardo Williams and A.J. Portee will be expected to contribute immediately.

The most recent setback occurred last week when Marcus Campbell sustained a torn anterior cruciate ligament during a non-contact drill. He had surgery Friday and now begins the rehabilitation process.

But before the Huskies lost Campbell, who missed last season due to academic concerns, they lost Greg Lloyd Jr.

Lloyd will sit out this season while he recovers from a knee injury. Even if he were to play, coach Randy Edsall said Lloyd will move back to linebacker before he ever sees a snap at defensive end.

At first blush, it appears a sage move. Because of injuries, the defensive ends are a young group that will gain plenty of experience. The top four players are sophomores. Meanwhile, UConn will lose two starters at linebacker and Lloyd’s experience will be needed at that position.

It’s not quite a baptism by fire for Jennings and Portee, but they getting closer to the flame.

“What we’ve been able to do is have A.J. and Teddy exclusively run with the twos,” Edsall said. “They’re getting more reps because they’re up with the twos and we’re not having to alternate anybody.”

For now, the defensive line will be led by its one returning starter, Jesse Joseph. Joseph started all 13 games last season. The first true freshman to start for the Huskies in the program’s NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision history, Joseph had two games with seven tackles.

“These guys are doing a great job,” Joseph said of his D-line teammates. “As every day progresses, they get their skills up. They’re ready for the season. I can tell, everyone can tell.”

Opposite Joseph will be Williams. Like his counterpart, Williams played in every game, including one start. But life as a regular starter, Williams said, is more challenging.

“By moving up, the offensive line is really bigger and more experienced,” Williams said. “Moving from second defensive to first defense really takes a lot of focus. The second defense can slack a little bit because the guy across from may not know what he’s doing sometimes, he’s learning at the same time. Moving to the first defense is like picking up at another pace.”

The Huskies aren’t fools. They know teams will do their best to test their defensive ends until they prove they can hold their own.

That, they say, means there is more pressure than ever.

“Expectations are a lot higher,” Joseph said. “People are looking at us now, saying they wonder if the D-line is going to be as good or worse with Marcus out. We’re just going to prove them wrong. Our defense is going to be up there and our defensive line is going to go hard. We’re going to show everybody what we can do.”

NORWICH, Conn. — For more than a decade, Major League Baseball claimed it was waging a war against performance-enhancing drugs. Late last month it made a significant move to clean up the sport.

Baseball will begin blood testing non-40-man roster players in the minors for HGH, or human growth hormone. Major League Baseball does not need players’ consent to implement this random testing, because players in the minor leagues are not members of the Major League Baseball Players Association.

When the time comes for the union and MLB to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement, blood testing is expected to be a contentious sticking point on both sides. But closer to home, those who are immediately affected — the Connecticut Tigers — support the testing.

“I don’t mind it, I think it’s a long time coming,” shortstop Ryan Soares said, adding there’s a sense of pride in being clean. “I think it’s a big step in the process of trying to clean the game up.”

The Tigers players who spoke on the topic said they have yet to be tested.

Players who test positive will receive a 50-game suspension, the same punishment levied for steroid use.

While testing in the minors for HGH is new, there has already been one suspension. Atlanta minor leaguer Jordan Schafer was suspended 50 games in 2008 after it was determined he purchased HGH.

A pitfall in the testing is the use of some nutritional supplements and medications, which give no advantage, leads to positive test results.

To combat this, players are advised to consult with their team trainer, who will let them know if a product is approved or not. On the major league level, there is a telephone hotline — in English and Spanish — players can use to make sure their purchases are in compliance.

The Detroit Tigers require their players to speak with the individual’s team trainer, strength and condition coach or the minor league strength coach in Lakeland, Fla., to gain approval. The latter makes the rounds, visiting affiliates to keep them abreast of policies regarding supplements, so that it’s never out of mind.

“That’s too bad,” Connecticut manager Howard Bushong said of the sometimes tricky supplement situation. “That’s why our whole organization has to be careful about them, the products that they purchase at a gym or a health food store. It may seem harmless — and it may be harmless. But if it’s against baseball’s rules, well then that’s the thing (that gets people into trouble).”

Not everyone is pleased with the testing. Don Catlin, a scientist who developed a urine test to detect HGH, said MLB’s method is flawed.

“The fact that it’s been around a few thousand tests and only one positive suggests either that there’s much less growth hormone being used than thought, which is doubtful, or the period of detectability is pretty short — a few hours,” Caitlin told The Associated Press. “It’s probably the latter.”

Other critics claim blood testing, because it can reveal more than the test’s intended purpose, is an invasion of privacy.

Even though the players association is reluctant to agree to testing because it doesn’t believe there is reliable, accurate testing, several players have come out in support of blood testing.

The likes of the Yankees’ Lance Berkman and Derek Jeter, as well as the Phillies’ Roy Oswalt, believe blood testing is a step in the right direction.

Their argument is if there isn’t anything to hide, why fight testing. The goal, after all, is to clean up the game.

It’s a sentiment echoed at Dodd Stadium.

“It’s good for me,” said Josh Ashenbrenner. “It’s good for the people who don’t use, because it gives us more of a chance (to succeed).”