And so there was Rob Bono in his backyard one night last week, relaxing with his fellow baseball coaches at Central Connecticut — a few steaks, a few lemonades, a few laughs. Perfect early summer night on the patio. But a peaceful scene that belied all the forthcoming madness required to make the Blue Devils the conference champs in a few days.
Indeed, Bono, Pat Hall, Charlie Hickey and Franklin Jennings knew this tournament was doable, but sizeable. They’d have to beat Bryant … but learned not as much as the rain at Dodd Stadium. The effort noteworthy to make the NCAA Tournament … but then not as hard as trying their hands at impromptu groundskeeping.
And then Sunday, the day that would become Central’s occasion to book its fifth trip to the dance in the last 11 years, became an unwitting rendition of “This Is Your Life” for Bono, who found himself in his adult life acting out the same script as a kid in Waterford.
Bono grew up at the Waterford Babe Ruth field, the home office of the town’s sports passions. Bono wasn’t merely a player. He learned groundskeeping from his dad, Bob, the longtime league president, who kept the field looking as fancy as Fenway, what with all his assorted tools and power equipment.
The end of a Babe Ruth game was just the beginning for Bono and his Band of Businesslike Brothers, who would start raking, watering, lining and dragging industriously, all without ever getting paid a cent.
“It was pretty easy to see that the grounds crew at Dodd, who did a great job, needed more bodies to get the field ready,” Bono was saying earlier this week, upon learning that the Northeast Conference champs would be flying to Eugene, Ore. to play in the tournament.
“So we told them we’d help any way we could. The kids were getting water off the warning track using cups. It’s just like how I was raised. You’re at the park, you do what’s necessary. If we didn’t play that game because of field conditions, Bryant would have been declared the champion.
“So there we are and the commissioner of the conference (Noreen Morris) and our athletic director (Tom Pincince) are out there in the mud helping. It was great. It’s what we preach to our players. No excuses. No matter what life throws at you, you have a job to do. It’s not ‘I’m tired.’ It’s ‘go out and get it done.'”
Central came through the losers’ bracket, finally conquering the long day’s journey. Had you seen the camaraderie on Bono’s patio from a few nights earlier — a bunch of guys who truly like each other and the kids they coach — you’d have been even happier for them.
“One of the reasons I like coaching is because I want to give back to the kids through everything I’ve learned,” Bono said. “Sometimes, they don’t like it because I can be tough. They’ll hear about it if they don’t run hard to first or back up bases. We always say our kids are built differently.”
It begins with Hickey, on a 21-year run as the head coach. Hickey learned from Roger Bidwell and his 1,000 wins at Avery Point, among others.
“Charlie’s great. He lets us coach and doesn’t micromanage,” Bono said. “He sets the tone and we play off that. He lets me run the offense. Pat does the pitching. When Charlie needs to talk, he talks, believe me. But he lets us make mistakes and doesn’t second guess us. He’s preparing us to be head coaches.”
Ah yes. On the subject of head coaching: Bono says his goal is to be a Div. I head coach. He has extensive baseball experience, from his days pitching in the Florida and Houston organizations, working with the great John Schiffner on Cape Cod, head coach of the Mystic Schooners and nine years at Central.
Earlier this spring, Bono applied for the head coaching position at Coast Guard, where his dad has been a fixture for 30 years. In an old interview, Rob Bono said that his unofficial jobs growing up at Coast Guard were “water boy, towel boy and ball boy.” Bob Bono said that former Coast Guard basketball player Pat Shaw even changed Rob’s diaper once.
Rob Bono didn’t even make the final round of interviews. A more cynical fellow might suggest Coast Guard has some ‘splainin’ to do, as Ricky used to tell Lucy.
“It hurts because the values and morals I coach by and I’ve been raised on are ones I learned at Coast Guard,” Rob said. “It hurts because of how much that place meant to me. But then being at Coast Guard doesn’t lead to the kind of opportunities I have this week with these guys.”
Two years ago, Central won the NEC and beat No. 24 California before exiting the tournament. The goals here don’t change. Maybe that’s because they’re rooted in Charlie Hickey, the Waterford Babe Ruth Field and the values of Coast Guard.
“No one’s saying we have to win this tournament,” Bono said. “If we play the best we can and do what we’re capable of, you can’t expect any more than that. That’s what we expect and our expectations will never change. When you do what we do — get after them in practice every day, the spotlight is no big deal.”
This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro