Wide World of (coronavirus-related) Sports

A worker sanitises the San Paolo stadium in Naples to prevent the dangers of contagion of coronavirus./Ciro Fusco

With all due respect to ABC’s Wide World of Sports…Spanning the world to bring you the constant variety of sports… the thrill of victory… and the agony of defeat… the human drama of athletic competition…This is The Escondido Grapevine’s Wide World of Coronavirus-related Sports.

Tyler Saladino turning South Korean (Baseball)

You remember Tyler Saladino. Some of you anyway.

Saladino, 30, made it to The Big Shoe on July 10, 2015 with the Chicago White Sox. He played for the Milwaukee Brewers last year, kind-a, filling in at Third Base and shortstop for the Milwaukee Brewers who went one-and-done in the Wildcard Playoff game with eventual World Series Big Enchilada Washington Nationals.

The University City High School San Diego flash known for good glove, trying bat, has a 2.2 WAR (wins-above-replacement) batting .226 with 19 home runs in 978 Major League Baseball at-bats.

Saladino got on the baseball fast track as a star player for Palomar College, one of the best junior college programs in the nation.

Following high school teammate Matt Frankfurth to Palomar from University City High School in San Diego Saladino quickly found success in the baseball program under head coach Buck Taylor.

“You have to take care of your business.” Saladino said in regards to what he learned during his time at Palomar that he still uses today in his professional career. Taking care of business is just one thing he did well.

Tyler Saladino batting for the Palomar College Comets./Palomar College Telescope

While in a Comets uniform Saladino had two first- team all-conference honors and as a sophomore was PCAC Player of the Year, a first-team All-State and All-West Coast selection and Community College All-American. He had a career .399 batting average making him number five on the Palomar all-time list.

Saladino transferred to Oral Roberts University. The White Sox drafted him in the seventh round of the 2010 MLB draft. However, his career took a detour in August 2014 due to Tommy John surgery. After recovery, The Sox added him to the 40-man roster in November 2014.

The Brewers non-tendered Saladino last November, a move that may have proved advantageous in this lost season. He signed two months later with the Samsung Lions of the 10-team Korean Baseball Organization.

Surprise. Coronavirus then hit a career home run since the KBO along with Taiwan, currently feature the most advanced level of baseball in the coronavirus world right currently.

While Major League Baseball was holding spring training in Arizona and Florida, Saladino was living on the other side of the globe, under everybody’s radar, just trying to keep his baseball career alive in East Asia, according to NBC Sports Chicago.

Out of sight, out of mind. That was Saladino.

Not anymore.

As one of the few Americans playing in the Korea Baseball Organization that began its season this week after a five-week delay due to the coronavirus, Saladino is not just playing baseball. He finds himself doing something far greater than that.

He’s helping to heal our baseball souls.

His too.

“Taking the field (on Opening Day), knowing that everybody back home was watching it, I almost teared up a little bit on the field,” Saladino said in an interview on the White Sox Talk Podcast. “Listening to the Korean national anthem, I was fighting a lot of emotions at that time.”

Last week, South Korean officials reported zero new domestic coronavirus cases for the first time in two months.

“They’re equipped for (the pandemic),” Saladino explained. “Their testing was available immediately. Facilities were put up immediately. There was nothing to worry about for all the front-line workers and medical staff. They were all suited up from head to toe. ‘Come and get tested.’ They were able to do all those kind of things. That’s the biggest challenge back home.”

Saladino signed with the Samsung Lions in January/Fox Sports Wisconsin screenshot

On game days, Saladino says that when players arrive at the field, they are all given temperature checks. Games are played in stadiums without fans. Coaches and training staff wear masks. But once the game starts, it’s baseball, or something as close to it as possible.

“The best way to put it, it’s truly surreal,” Saladino said. “Comparative to the first time setting foot on a major league field in Chicago against the Cubs and looking around and having that surreal moment. It’s obviously not the same atmosphere, but given the circumstances, it is the closest thing I’ve ever felt to something that’s truly surreal.”

With ESPN broadcasting the Lions’ first game, they handed Saladino a microphone and asked him to deliver a message into the camera to everyone watching in the United States. Knowing the situation back home, he realized the gravity of the moment.

“I wanted to just Stretch Armstrong through the camera and just hug everybody. That’s all I really wanted to do. I didn’t even have words,” Saladino said. “As thankful as I am for this situation, I feel a ton of pressure. I mean, there’s only a few of us (Americans) out here, so we’re representing in a big way.”

Playing shortstop and batting third, Saladino got the first hit of the season for the Samsung Lions, who are based in Daegu, 150 miles southeast of Seoul and 6,000 miles from the United States, where everybody is asking the same question:

Michael Jordan comes to San Marcos well before ‘The Last Dance’

Long before “The Last Dance” his airness, Michael Jordan, came to San Marcos High School where he played in a “War of the Stars” reality TV show against Martin and Charlie Sheen. They stayed at the La Costa Hotel and Spa in Carlsbad.

The 1986-1987 nationally syndicated television series hosted by Dick Van Patten brought together famous Hollywood actors and superstar athletes for a series of sporting contests that proved to be entertaining and often surprising.

The 15-show series included:

Milton Berle vs Willie Mosconi in billiards, Chad Everett and Sonny Bono vs Anne White in tennis, Actor Christopher Atkins vs Indy Car driver Danny Sullivan in auto racing, John Davidson and Pancho Segura vs brothers Nels and Vince Van Patten in tennis, Abby Dalton and Elke Sommer vs brothers Nels and Vince Van Patten in tennis, Actor Paul Sorvino vs Lou Butera in billiards, Comedian Norm Crosby vs Lee Trevino in golf, Actress Jennifer O’Neill vs jockey Laffit Pincay Jr. in horse racing, Tim Conway vs jockey Laffit Pincay Jr. in horse racing, Comedian Dick Shawn vs J.C. Snead in golf, William Devane and Jameson Parker lead a celebrity polo team against the USC Trojans, Actress Valerie Perrine vs Willie Shoemaker in horse racing, Gabe Kaplan vs PBA Hall-of-Famer Dick Weber in bowling, Comedian Jack Carter vs PGA tour player Rex Caldwell in golf, and Michael Jordan vs The Sheens.

The San Marcos contest shown above is believed to be the only episode of the show ever released on videotape. The film was copyrighted in 1987 and was possibly made after the 1986-1987 season when Jordan was still approaching superstar status, according to the Grantland Archive, an ESPN magazine now out of production.

Sports fans across the globe are reliving the icon’s biggest moments on the hardwood while watching “The Last Dance” on ESPN, but some lucky folks in San Marcos get to relive the time Air Jordan came to their school, according to NBC 7 San Diego Sports.

1986-1987 was a pretty good academic year for then-San Marcos High School senior Steve Tidd. He took his future wife Jennifer to the prom and something else pretty big happened on campus.

“Michael Jordan came to our high school, look it up, it’s there,” Tidd told NBC 7.

It’s true. In 1986-1987 Michael Jordan filmed a televised sports special called “War of the Stars” where he was slamming and jamming in the old San Marcos high gym. Steve and Jennifer actually had front row seats, sitting on the basketball gym floor just a few feet away from the Chicago Bulls All-Star guard.

“We were late, but it ended up being one of the best seats in the house, right on the floor. You could just see his moves and what he could do with his body, he could almost jump out of the building, it was amazing.”

Adding to the amazement  was the fact that Jordan was playing a game against Hollywood stars Martin and Charlie Sheen. Among the many funny things in the video, Charlie Sheen actually had a nice jumper and Jordan drove to the school in a bright red Volkswagen GTI. These classic moments can still be seen on YouTube and a few VHS copies of the show are floating around San Marcos.

“I was laughing at Jordan driving the Volkswagen, I was like ‘What?’” Tidd said.

Another big “what,” was what in the world was Air Jordan even doing there?

Remember, in 1986-1987, San Marcos High School was a small school, and North County urban sprawl was still years away, so San Marcos was kind of a remote place.

So how did the show happen to take place at San Marcos High School? Well, it turns out that when nearby La Costa Resort would host their annual celebrity golf tournaments in the 1980’s, stars would film all sorts of sports specials at San Marcos high. At the time, those were the closest sports facilities to La Costa and Jordan actually made multiple visits to the school.

Roger Dicarlo, a longtime girls basketball coach and teacher at San Marcos, said ”Jordan came back two or three more times, I know he interviewed George Gervin there, Elvin Hayes there, he came back later and did a H-O-R-S-E competition against the actor Elliot Gould.”

DiCarlo had heard stories about Jordan’s visits and dug up the old videos after watching the recent Jordan documentary on ESPN.

“It’s kind of cool to see that, how many people can say the best player in the world was in your facility three or four times,” he said.

With that said, meet Dion Cocoros, one of ‘The Last Dance’ producers

“The Last Dance” is a 10-part documentary series about Michael Jordan and the 1990s Chicago Bulls that was 20 years in the making. Already highly anticipated during the time it was being produced, starting in 2016, ESPN moved up the scheduled airdate from June 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and began airing the series over five consecutive Sundays starting April 19.

One of the producers, NBA Senior VP of Content Production Dion Cocoros, lives in Wilton, and sat down for an exclusive interview with GOOD Morning Wilton about the making of the film and its impact on the world of sports–both in general and during this unprecedented time. Good Morning Wilton Editor Heather Borden Herve kindly made the interview available to fellow members (like The Escondido Grapevine) of LION (Local Independent Online News producers).

credit: ESPN PR

The series was produced using never-before-seen footage from the 1997-98 season as the Bulls chased its sixth NBA championship in eight years. The footage was shot by NBA Entertainment film crew that Jordan, Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf, and head coach Phil Jackson agreed to allow follow the team all season long. The footage then sat in the NBA archives until it was ‘unearthed’ in 2016 and turned into “The Last Dance.

The series will also be available in the U.S. later in the year on Netflix.

Directed by Jason Hehir (“The Fab Five,” “The ’85 Bears,” “Andre the Giant”), “The Last Dance weaves its way through the tumultuous 1997-98 season. Viewers are transported back to how it all began–from Jordan’s childhood roots, the Bulls’ dire circumstances before his arrival and how the team was built after drafting him in 1984, to the struggles that eventually led to the team’s first NBA championship. As the series takes the audience through the Bulls’ first five championships, viewers experience the off-court challenges, struggles, and triumphs that were a part of the culture-shifting phenomenon created by Jordan and the Bulls.

It’s an unlikely scenario that serves as a fascinating backdrop for the inside tale of the 1998 championship run, with extensive profiles of Jordan’s key teammates including Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, and Steve Kerr, head coach Jackson, and featuring dozens of current-day interviews with rivals and luminaries from basketball and beyond. All throughout, the tension and conflict that defined that final championship run are very much on display.

  • Sunday, May 17 at 7 p.m. (Episode 7 re-air); 8 p.m. (Episode 8 re-air); 9 p.m. Episode 9 Premiere; and 10 p.m. Episode 10 Premiere.

On to the crazy case of Ryan Jaroncyk, Escondido/Valley Center baseball prodigy

Jaroncyk arrived in pro ball with strong stats and glowing reviews, as displayed on the back of his rookie card.

Sports Illustrated and Yahoo Sports last week profiled the former Escondido, Valley Center and Stanford baseball phenom on the anniversary of his sudden retirement from the game following a well-publicized start with the New York Mets organization.

The baseball draft is something of a crapshoot. Even teams with the best scouts and analytics departments pick a lot of guys who never make it close to the big leagues. Even first rounders frequently don’t get a sniff of the majors.

Take the 1995 draft for example. That year there were 30 guys picked in the first round. One of them — Roy Halladay — was a Hall of Famer. Another six guys — Darin Erstad, Kerry Wood, Todd Helton, Geoff Jenkins, Matt Morris, and Mark Redman — were named to at least one All-Star team. But eleven of the 30 players never made it out of the minors.

The Mets’ first round pick was one of those eleven. His name was Ryan Jaroncyk, a highly-touted high school shortstop out of Escondido. Except Jaroncyk didn’t flame out in the minors because he got hurt, because he couldn’t field his position, or because he couldn’t figure out how to hit a curveball. He just quit. At age 20, after just 134 games. Why? Because, he said at the time, he thought baseball was “boring.”

Jaroncyk was the son of USC football standout Bill Jaroncyk, and, growing up, sports were his life. It was a lot of pressure but, on the field at least, he met expectations. He was heavily scouted and those scouts thought him to be the total package. That year Topps put out a set of cards featuring draft picks and, on the back of his card, he was described as having, “perhaps the best combination of defensive actions, intelligence, and makeup of any infielder in the draft . . .Ryan is a major league shortstop waiting to happen.”

That was certainly the assessment of the Mets, who selected Jaroncyk with the 18th pick, giving him an $850,000 bonus and a $100,000 college allowance on top it. They had to do that because the highly-intelligent young man had a baseball scholarship to Stanford as a fallback that they needed to buy him out of taking. He signed and was sent to the Gulf Coast League where he hit .276/.326/.339 in 44 games but showed the organization enough to where they let him play four games in the New York-Penn League at the end of that summer. Not the usual late-season promotion for a kid only a couple of months out of high school.

Things weren’t necessarily going great for Jaroncyk, though. Baseball was not necessarily the most important thing in his life as 1995 turned into 1996. While still only 18 he had gotten married. At one point that offseason he told the organization that he wanted to retire. They talked him out of it, though, and he reported for spring training in 1996. That year he played for Kingsport in full-season rookie ball. His numbers weren’t stellar, but the organization wasn’t concerned. He was still working hard, showing effort, and after the previous offseason’s talk of retirement, he didn’t make any further suggestion that his head was not in the game.

Ryan Jaroncyk from his website/Ryan Jaroncyk

The following spring Jaroncyk reported to spring training again and was assigned to Columbia, South Carolina’s Capital City Bombers of the South Atlantic League. Twenty-nine games into the season he was struggling. At the same time Mets general manager Joe McIlvaine came to Columbia for a routine visit. Jaroncyk told McIlvaine that he wanted to meet with him in private. Here’s McIlvaine recounting the story to Sports Illustrated a few years ago:

We sat down, and he said, ‘I want to quit. I don’t enjoy baseball. I just want to throw away my glove. I’ve had enough.’ I asked him all the usual questions, whether he wanted to go through with it, whether he was sure. And he said, ‘The minute I walk out of here, I’m going to throw my glove in the dumpster.’ And that was that.”

A couple of weeks later Buster Olney, then with the New York Times, interviewed Jaroncyk, who said ”I always thought [baseball] was boring.” Jaroncyk, who was serious about his physical health and who was a devout Christian, also told Olney that the physical and emotional straing and the lifestyle of the game was not for him: “the food, the traveling, the garbage that goes around the clubhouse. . . . there’s a lot of immorality in baseball,” he said. He also told Olney that, yes, he had in fact thrown his glove and the rest of his baseball equipment away once he got home to California. The Mets let him keep his signing bonus.

That’s how the story came out — the prospect who thought baseball was boring — and, to most people who remember it, it was as simple as that. But there was, not surprisingly, more going on.

It would come out later that Jaroncyk’s father Bill had put a great deal of pressure on him to excel in sports. Warning signs that Ryan was not as interested in becoming a professional athlete as Bill was were ignored. Soon after he was drafted his parents divorced and, while no doubt traumatic, it also allowed for his mother and him to forge a more independent relationship. It’s implied in various stories you can find about Jaroncyk that that whole process helped him figure out what he wanted a little better.

Or, as he put it to the Los Angeles Times in 2001:

“I was a young man with a lot of problems. I just needed get away from the game and get my head straight. I had a lot of pressure growing up all the time, to be the best, to be the best all the time. My home life was just focused on me being the best baseball player. A person can only take so much of that and they break and that’s what happened to me.”

That conversation with Joe McIlvane in 1997, however, was not the end of Jaroncyk’s time in baseball.

In 1998 Jaroncyk was attending junior college when he wrote the Mets about the possibility of returning. His heart didn’t really seem to be too into it though, and the Mets, who by then had fired McIlvane and whose front office was led by Steve Phillips, were no longer interested themselves. He was eligible for the minor league Rule 5 draft that winter and the Dodgers took a flier on him. He played in eight games in 1999 and only 12 games in 2000, all in the low minors, but injuries and ineffectiveness doomed any chance he had to revive his baseball career. He retired once again, this time to far less fanfare.

Jaroncyk’s athletic career nonetheless continued. Despite the fact that he had never once played organized football, he sought a tryout at Claremont McKenna College in San Bernadino, California and made the team as a wide receiver. In that L.A. Times story his football career was just getting started — he had notched a couple of very long touchdown receptions in the early going and his coach spoke well of him — but I can’t find how long he played there. According to his writing bylines, however, he received a Bachelor’s Degree from Claremont McKenna.

Writing bylines you say? Why yes. Jaroncyk is a pretty dang prolific writer. The Sports Illustrated profile gives you a taste of his work:

He’s remarried now, with young children, living in Ohio. He is still devout—he has published extensively online on creationism, for the young-earth creationist organization Creation Ministries International, and in 2008 even wrote for them a children’s book, The Adventures of Arkie the Archaeopteryx . . . He’s also written a good deal about politics; he classified himself as “a registered Independent who leans libertarian on most issues.

Jaroncyk has his own website in which describes his work as “creative storytelling,” which he calls “one of his earliest passions.” He cites J.R.R. Tolkien, Dante Alighieri and George MacDonald as his primary influences. He also cites his “cinematic influences,” name-checking Stanley Kubrick, Tobe Hooper and Ridley Scott.

His site has ten full TV pilot and movie scripts he’s written. They range from sports, to historical drama, to historical fantasy, to horror to documentary to ancient war epics. One of his scripts, which seems to be closely based on his relationship with his elderly grandmother, who he encouraged to return to competitive bowling when she was in her 90s, appears to have been produced as a short film.

One of the horror titles is baseball-related. It’s called “The Unholy Orb.” This is the synopsis:

An Orthodox Priest exorcizes a little league cult bent on ushering in the incarnation of a demonic, baseball deity.

We all have some issues, I suspect, that we spend our whole life working through.

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