Once again, we are reminded that life is precious.
Rodney Dixon was an umpire, and a very good one. But he was much more than that. He was a loyal friend to many, a kind and decent man, and one who was slow to anger and quick to forgive, almost to a fault.
Dixon became an umpire many years ago, taking a class I taught in the early 1980s for the Middletown Board of Approved Umpires. He began, as we who umpired did, by working sub-varsity games and, like most young umpires, he wasn’t the best. But there may never have been an umpire who worked harder. He enrolled in a professional umpiring school and he willed himself to be good.
He worked at his craft tirelessly, took perhaps too much abuse along the way, but in the end, became not just a good, but an excellent umpire.
He became an umpire when there were not a lot of African-Americans who officiated games in any sport. I think then that they were unfairly held to a higher standard than white officials. Not that that is any surprise. It still is the case today when African-Americans rise to positions of power and influence to which they had not before achieved, or maybe better said, been allowed to achieve.
A personal story. Dixon took a big step, I think, when he threw me out of a Legion game in Berlin. Once upon a time I used to sit in the dugout keeping Middletown’s scorebook. I yelled at Dixon, who had the plate. I yelled too much, which I am ashamed to say I often did. He threw me out. Good for him. I deserved it, but the important thing here is that it perhaps helped to make him independent. After all, he ran his teacher.
Thinking about this right after his death at the much too early age of 49 last Sunday made me smile. He and I often joked about it in the years since.
Dixon went on to be selected for CIAC high school tournament games. He got the biggest Legion games and worked Legion postseason tournaments. There never was any doubt about his calls. When he rang up someone on a third strike, he sold that call as well as anyone. Everyone in the park knew when Dixon called a third.
When the count was full at three balls and two strikes, he had a signature line: “Count goes full.” It was almost musical. Those of us who knew him, waited for it. It was, well, reassuring.
His out calls on the bases were beautiful. His big sweeping punch-outs were almost choreographed. I kidded him about that. But the point is, he sold it so well that rarely did anyone argue. Hey, if he was that sure, then the guy must have been out.
He loved baseball. He worked games in the cold of April and the heat of August. He did everyday games and big games. But know what? It didn’t make any difference if he was doing a Junior Legion game in front of 25 people, or a high school tourney game in front of 2,000. He gave his best every time. His best was terrific.
When that obscenity known as cancer struck, he dealt with it the same way he dealt with everything else — with class, with determination and with a dogged belief that he was going to beat this thing.
He continued to umpire through debilitating chemotherapy. He was determined to keep on living, to keep on going, to keep on keeping on. He suffered setbacks along the way. After all, chemotherapy is in itself dangerous. There were hospitalizations. But each time, he came back. Last summer he did the plate in Legion games in stifling heat, with his partner on the bases worrying about him all the time.
One day, it was Dixon’s turn to take the plate on a brutally hot day, but his partner wouldn’t allow it. The partner took the plate. Dixon didn’t like that. He never wanted any pity, any special favors. But this time, his partner insisted.
I saw Dixon briefly at the Middletown Sports Hall of Fame dinner in January. He had come, in part, to honor fellow umpire Bob Peterson’s induction into the Hall. He was thin, but he had been thin since the disease was diagnosed and surgery and treatment had begun. I was busy as I always am that night, so other than saying hello, we didn’t chat. I regret that.
He was admitted to the Hospice Unit at Middlesex on the 14th. Marco Gaylord, the former MHS band director and now Fine Arts Director for the Middletown schools and a good friend of Dixon’s, sent a text to let me know. He told me that Dixon was alert, and talked about getting out of hospice.
At the Cromwell boys tournament game two Fridays ago, Dixon’s dear friend Dave Pierson told me that little time was left, but that Dixon’s spirits were, as usual, upbeat.
Gaylord told me he was going to visit Dixon again on Sunday and I planned to visit that afternoon. Then, on Sunday morning, Gaylord called to tell me that the battle was over. Some will say Dixon lost his battle with cancer.
Nonsense. He fought the good fight against an intractable enemy. That’s not losing.
But instead of a visit to say Godspeed, all I am left with are words in a newspaper.
He was a huge Yankee fan. At his funeral, the prayer cards were printed on one side with the Yankees’ logo. Perfect.
Rodney Dixon’s life wasn’t perfect. No one’s life is. But he knew that relationships are what makes life worth living. I wasn’t one of Dixon’s closest friends. But he had many intersecting circles of friends and that I was in one of those circles was a privilege.
To Will and Bettye, to the rest of his family and friends, it will be no bulletin to read that there were a lot of people who loved him.
We meet wonderful people in the world of sport. In kids’ sports, it’s always the kids that come first. People go to see them, not the umpire. But without the guys who call the kids safe or out, there is no game for kids. Rod called them safe and out, but the truth is, they were always safe with Rodney Dixon on the field.
There is, I hope, a better place than this. A place where all of us will know true peace and joy and where our imperfections will all be washed away. I hope that as this is read by those who knew him and those who didn’t, that this sweet man already is experiencing that peace and joy. And one more thing, I expect that Rod will keep on calling ‘em the way he sees ‘em
For that, I pray.
Middletown High Director of Athletics Mike Pitruzzello received a CIAC Award of Merit at the organization’s annual dedication ceremony prior to the opening of the state basketball championships at the Mohegan Sun.
The CIAC’s statement said, in part, that, “Mike has had a profound and lasting impact on students, coaches, colleagues, programs and schools that he has touched.”
I have known Mike since he was 16 years old, and that’s more than a couple of months ago. The CIAC is exactly right. In Middletown, he has been a transformative AD. He hasn’t done everything right — who among us has? — and he handled some things badly, most notably the messy firing of Eric Marszalek, the former football coach. Sometimes, he is the proverbial bull in a China shop.
But there is no doubt that under his tenure, the culture of Middletown High sports has changed for the better. He has hired very good coaches and almost across the board, programs have been improved. No longer are good teams one-trick ponies. Football, girls soccer and boys swimming are recognized state powers, and many other programs are increasingly widely respected.
In almost every area there is success. No, not every teams wins all the time. That happens nowhere. But to say there has not been quantum improvement, or to say that the future doesn’t look very bright, is to wear blinders.
Pitruzzello was responsible for MHS joining the Central Connecticut Conference, one of the state’s premier leagues. The schedules of virtually all teams features state Class L and LL powerhouses. The schedules now played by Middletown High kids is light years better than in the days of the Northwest Conference. You get better when you play better teams.
Pitruzzello was handed a great new facility at MHS, and he worked to make it better. The locker facilities at the stadium, the baseball dugouts, the new track to be built at Wilson Middle, all have his fingerprints all over them. The athletic facilities at MHS are the envy of the state.
The CIAC recognizes MHS as a go-to location. Rosek-Skubel Stadium is the place for soccer and track state championships. The Class L and state open diving championships are held at MHS. The football field is a site for playoff games, the gym for volleyball playoffs.
Like the city’s downtown, the high school is a destination spot.
And, there is a high level of accountability at MHS. Coaches, players, parents are held to high standards., Each team’s parents are assigned concession stand times. Coaches are evaluated continuously. Kids are expected to meet standards of conduct that are not of themselves new, but are now more clearly defined and explained in detail. There are meetings with parents prior to each season that clearly delineates how things work.
And importantly, there are high academic expectations and programs to assist student-athletes in place. It’s not lost of people in this city that student-athletes are going to places like Wesleyan, Bates, UConn and Trinity, and that kids not yet seniors are being courted by Yale and Harvard. Yeah, I know, that MHS kids in the past have gone to all of the nation’s great schools, but that high-profile athletes are also being pursued by great places of learning is without question, a product of a more demanding culture that is in place at the state’s oldest continuing operating high school.
There is more, and it would be wrong to say that Pitruzzello is solely responsible for all of this. But boys and girls, he did a lot of it. This Award of Merit is well-deserved. You’re not perfect, Mike. But you’re pretty darned good.
Agony is the right word to describe Cromwell’s boys basketball team loss to Valley Regional, just as the right word for Valley’s win is ecstasy. From an unbiased point of view, the game was terrific, with all kinds of twists and turns.
It was such a tough loss that some Cromwell players came off the court sobbing. I get that. Oh, kids are resilient and by now they’ve bounced back. But at the time, when you put so much effort into it, to lose a game like that is brutal. Over time, the kids will realize who good this year was, and how lucky they wee to play for as good as coach as John Pinone.
Valley’s point guard David Bradbury was magnificent. Not only did he lead everybody with 25 points, he hit huge shots in big spots. Chris Jean-Pierre is also the real deal for the Warriors. This is written before Sunday’s title game, so you’ll know what happened in that one before you read this. But nothing would surprise me.
HERE AND THERE
Sheehan High is the place where local teams go to die … Mercy, and both the Cromwell boys and girls lost semifinal games at the Wallingford school … next year don’t play at Sheehan … pretty cool that MHS football stars Dario Highsmith and Isaiah Thompkins are on the short lists at Yale and Harvard respectively … the local kids may not end up at those places, but that the two greatest universities on earth are interested tells you that the kids have the brains and academic records to go with their football abilities.
Said it many times, Alabama and Florida State send alums to the NFL … Yale and Harvard send them to the White House … the last four presidents are Yale and Harvard folks.
Each year the Reeve family raises money for a scholarship it gives at MHS in memory of their son, Brandon, who died in a motor vehicle accident … the 9th Annual Brandon Reeve Memorial Golf Tournament and Charity Auction will be held at the Quarry Ridge Golf Course in Portland on July 12 … also, the New Britain Rock Cats will hold the fifth annual Brandon Reeve Scholarship Night on July 28 … but you must buy your ticket for the game that day with the Portland Sea Dogs from the Reeves … call the Reeve family at 860-347-3573 for information.
Middletown Legion baseball coach Tim D’Aquila said that he, his assistants and players have been running clinics for Middletown Little Leaguers over the winter …the fledgling Middletown High lacrosse team has received a grant from U.S. Lacrosse to cover the equipment costs for 24 boys and 24 girls, plus goalies for the upcoming season … the program, which will start this year at the club level, has scheduled eight games thus far … girls coach Ann Buchanan said that nearly 50 kids have signed up … “We have upperclassmen that to my knowledge have never played a sport at MHS,” said Buchanan. “And we are extremely diverse.”
Nice to see former local student athletes doing well in college … former MHS girls basketball star DeAsia Lawrence made the President’s Academic Honors list at Plymouth State and former MHS swimmer Kacper Szarek made Dean’s List at Fairfield University.
Xavier alum Tucker Landy finished a heckuva season at Dickinson College … the team made it to the Elite Eight in Division III, losing to Illinois Wesleyan after two NCAA tourney wins … in the last game, Landy had nine points and three rebounds … he set a school record for games played with 112 and started 102 of them … the 24-7 record was the best in school history and the first time Dickinson advanced to the Elite Eight.
The Big East was an afterthought around here for most of the year … once it became an All-Catholic school league, it lost of a lot of its MoJo … without the heathens like UConn, Syracuse and Pittsburgh, it was like Gertrude Stein said of Oakland … “there is no there, there.”
The NCAA, one of the more useless organizations I know, showed little respect to the AAC … but that’s how institutions operate … it’s self-preservation first and they don’t play by rules … the NCAA didn’t care that it clearly dumped on Louisville and UConn … the NCAA is the power conferences and the heck with anyone else … hey, Mercer, North Dakota State, Manhattan were just as good or not better than many of the “names” in the country, but the “names” are the NCAA … that Louisville and UConn have brushed past their much too low rankings to get to the Sweet 16 while Duke and Syracuse are doing whatever what can be found to do in North Carolina and upstate New York in late March is kinda fun.
Take each winter sport, pick the best player, and you come up with this: MHS swimmer Matt Dagenais is the best athlete in the area … and it’s not close … no other kid so thoroughly dominated his/her sport like this kid … a truly great high school swimmer … MHS diver Dan Kinney, no slouch himself, was bitterly disappointed with his performance in the State Open … but pay that no never mind … the kid is one of the state’s best divers … he finished seventh in the Open, but he’s better than that … and he will soon forget the two hours of disappointment … MHS Monica Marcello was also disappointed, but ended up the best female diver in Connecticut.
MHS finished fifth in the State Open Saturday out of 54 high school teams and finished ahead of powerhouses Glastonbury and Darien among others … and their school record smashing continued as Dagenais set another school record in the 500 freestyle, sophomore Jack Doherty smashed his own record in the 50 freestyle and the 200 yard freestyle relay team of Szymon Szarek, Michal Ciebielski, Doherty and Dagenais broke the record it set at the Class L meet earlier in the week.
For all that team achieved — and it ended up being the highest ranked state high school swim team outside of Fairfield County, the MHS swim team wins this week’s Way To Go Award.