January 1, 2011

Writing samples

Giving on and off the field / Cape grad, Villanova star donates marrow for girl

(Source: The Press of Atlantic City)

VILLANOVA, Penn. - Matt Szczur did what most freshman football players do when they first get to Villanova University -- he registered to become a bone marrow donor. 

He didn't think much of it at the time and never expected the phone call he received last fall when he was told someone needed his help. But on Tuesday, he sat in a chair at Hahnemann University Hospital in Philadelphia with needles in both arms donating his peripheral blood cells to a little girl. 

"I wasn't even sure what the donor program was," Szczur said during a news conference Thursday on campus. "I was just going through the motions and getting my cheeks swabbed." 

The 2007 Lower Cape May Regional High School graduate learned he was a match for a 19-month-old girl with leukemia in November. He doesn't know anything more about her because of the National Marrow Donor Program's confidentiality clauses. 

Szczur joined the registry of the Be The Match foundation during a drive hosted on campus. He never thought he would get called since there is a 1-in-80,000 chance of being a match. 

Villanova football coach Andy Talley has hosted an annual drive for 18 years and reached out to campuses in the region to do the same. School officials estimated more than 20,000 people have joined the registry through Villanova's program. 

"I have no doubt in my mind this is going to work," Szczur said of the procedure. "I don't even think about something like that (not working). I don't think it's really courageous just because I think if you had the opportunity to do something like this, you would jump on it." 

Margate native and Holy Spirit High School graduate Michael Holland donated his bone marrow in 2005 after he enrolled and played football at Villanova. 

Szczur's initial procedure was scheduled for Dec. 16, 2009, just two days before the Football Championship Series national championship. Szczur would have missed the biggest game of his collegiate career because it meant giving a little girl a chance to live. 

But Szczur, the 2007 Press Athlete of the Year, got to play when the procedure was pushed back. He was named the MVP after rushing for a career-high 159 yards and accumulating 270 all-purpose yards in a 23-21 win over Montana for the Wildcats for their first FCS title in program history. 

The feeling Marc Szczur gets when he watches his son compete is nearly indescribable. When he saw Matt win the national championship, his heart raced and his hair stood upright on the back of his neck. He was so full of pride, he found it difficult to breathe. 

But this past week, Marc couldn't find the words to explain his emotions to his 20-year-old his son. This was bigger than anything he ever felt while watching Matt play football or baseball. 

"Take everything I felt in that game and multiply it," Marc, 52, said. "I told Matt the only way he will ever know how I feel is for him to have a son just like him. Hopefully, he will have one." 

The procedure began last Friday when Szczur received his first of five injections of a drug that would force his body to produce more white blood cells. A nurse came to his room at school to give him the medication. From that point, he couldn't do any strenuous activity because one of the side effects of the medicine is an enlarged spleen. 

Even though the procedure was explained to his father, Matt, and mother, Kathy, none of them was entirely prepared. They were all nervous. 

Matt sat in a chair where his left arm had to remain still for nearly three hours. A needle was inserted in his arm from which blood was taken out and filtered through a machine the size of a 25-inch television set. A bag was on top of the machine that had three different colored areas, Marc Szczur said. The bottom layer was dark red, the middle was salmon colored and the top layer was clear. 

The blood returned through an IV into his other arm as "Dumb and Dumber" played in the background. 

"This doesn't even come to close to all the touchdowns, home runs and hits he gets," Marc said. "When you think of people saving lives, you think about police officers or firefighters. This is what he's doing now." 

Matt missed last weekend's baseball series with Georgetown and will be out at least another 10 days. Szczur will still travel with Villanova this weekend when they compete against Rutgers in a three-game series. 

There are concerns his baseball stock will drop by taking two weeks off. Szczur, who leads Villanova with a .435 batting average, was drafted in high school by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 38th round in 2007. Szczur is a converted catcher who has power, speed and can hit for average. 

He is eligible to get drafted again this year. The MLB draft is held from June 7 to 9. Many baseball experts expect the junior outfielder to get drafted much earlier this time and he could start his professional baseball career instead of returning to school. 

"I talked to people about that and they said with all the character issues in sports these days, (baseball teams) wouldn't bat an eye for this kind of stuff," Matt said. "It's more about character than anything else. It will really might help me. I am not worried at all. Hopefully, when I can get back I will keep my batting average." 

If Matt wasn't already a celebrity at his college, he is well on his way now. Szczur was voted Athlete of the Year by the school's student newspaper, and he has received fan mail at his home on Seashore Road in the Erma section of Lower Township. 

Matt is allowed to contact the recipient's family through a liaison, but cannot write anything that will say who he is, where he lives or any type of information that would give away his identity for at least one year. After that, Szczur can reveal himself to the family and the Szczurs hope to have a relationship with them. 

"It would be unbelievable to meet this girl," Matt said. "Maybe one day she can come see me play."  

(SOURCE: Beckett Sports Card Monthly)

No matter the arena. No matter who is wrestling. Don West undoubtedly hears someone yell out one of his catchphrases.

“Gem Mint 10”

“The phones are locked up!”

Even though he works for TNA Wrestling hosting shows on the company‘s websites, West is known for the 10 years he spent selling trading cards and memorabilia late at night on the Shop at Home network with his aggressive style and gravelly voice.

West, 47, is getting back to his roots. As the face and voice of WildWestDeals.com, West is selling sports cards and collectibles once again.

“You don‘t know how much you miss something until you dabble in it again,” West said from his home in Nashville, Tenn. “I‘m glad to be doing sports card again. I love it. It‘s what I collect.”
The categories on WildWestDeals.com are like many other shopping sites such as Computers, Kitchen and Gadgets.

But the newest and fastest growing category is Collectibles, which the company is pushing more toward.
Even though collectibles is new to WildWestDeals.com, West is getting calls from former contacts who he says are excited to get back into business with him.

Once you watch one of West’s videos, it’s hard not to think he ever left the business when you see the passion in his clips. Collectors can find autograph items from Ted Williams, Oscar De La Hoya, Willie Mays and Tom Brady. There are baseball card sets such as the 2010 Tristar Obak rookie set that was only found at the National Sports Card Convention in Baltimore this year.

Mr. Gem Mint is quickly at it again.

“I always wanted to get back involved, but I was looking for a good way to do it,” West said. “The Internet felt like the perfect place to go.”

West started collecting baseball cards when he was in college. Think of him as one of the original flippers. He didn’t want to ask his parent for money while in school he would go to mall card shows with some top stars such as Pete Rose and Willie Stargell. West would put the cards in a fish bowl and sold them for $10 a piece.

“Those baseball cards kept me alive for a while,” he said.

Once West got onto television, he became a cult hero. It wasn’t just the items West sold, but the way he sold them.

West shouted at the television and with his partner Eddie Lewis. He was animated, using his arms and his entire body when he sold.

At its height, the Shop at Home network was in 60 million cable homes and was one of the highest rated overnight programs.

West’s passion for his items made an impact on viewers whether they were buying or just insomniacs.

There is one night West will never forget.

As he was doing a live show, he looked over at a muted television and saw Will Farrell imitating himself on Saturday Night Live. The skit involved selling Shaquille O’Neal plaques (Shaq plaques), which was the item West sold the week before.

“To look up and see someone imitating you is just tremendous,” said West, who used the Beckett Price Guide as a selling tool on his show. “That to me was one of the greatest feelings - other than getting married.”

For years, West has been looking for a way to get back into selling. It was something he fell in love with, but when the Shop at Home Network changed ownerships in 2001, he and the company parted ways.
But working at Shop at Home Network took its toll on West. He worked from midnight to 6 a.m., four nights a week. He became sleep deprived and his blood pressure rose.

In 2002, he took a job with TNA Wrestling as a color commentator through August 2009. Two months later, he reappeared on TNA as Amazing Red’s manager.

Now, he hosts many wrestling shows on TNAWrestling.com and sells items on the website as well.
Even though he has been doing that for eight years and has turned from heel to face to pitchman, West is constantly recognized from his days selling collectibles.

“I’m on TV every Thursday night. I do 200 cities a year,” West said. “More people come up to and tell me how they remember my Shop at Home days.”

WildWestDeals.com president Kenny Barrickman met West about a year ago. Barrickman used to watch West overnight and recalled his memorable sales pitches.

The two teamed up to figure out the best way to get West back into selling.

Having a website like WildWestDeals.com allows West to be his animated and boisterous self, but without the challenges that came with working a late-night shift. West can record videos any time and at his own convenience.

Plus, his fans get to watch anytime they want.

“I was in college in the 1990s and I would be up all night until sunrise,” Barrickman said. “I used to watch Don sell stuff. It‘s great to bring him back into sports memorabilia and card collecting.”

West doesn’t just sell collectibles, he’s also a huge collector. He has autographed pieces of sports figures such as Mohammed Ali, Willie Mays and Joe Montana. He and his wife Terri, who is also a big sports fan, are into collecting memorabilia more than cards these days.

Even though West has bout 50,000 cards, he enjoys looking through his memorabilia more.

He and Terri recently re-organized through their memorabilia room, putting new items in place.
The two stood back and looked around the room.

“We’re just touching the tip of the iceberg,” West said. “Collecting memorabilia is really cool. I just love it.”

(SOURCE: Beckett Sports Card Monthly)

Walking on the floor of a card show is an interesting experience. There aren’t usually hawkers trying to get me to look at their wares. Rather they look behind me in hopes to find the child who dragged me to the show.

For the record: there are never children with me at card show and I didn’t go there kicking and screaming.

I’m a card collector. And, I’m a woman.

The surprise from many vendors can be laughable at times. When they finally realize I’m a customer with cash to spend, they’ll do whatever it takes. There is no discrimination now even though some can hardly believe a woman collects cards.

Then, they pull out their greatest collection of WNBA cards.

That’s when I usually walk away.

While collectors are overwhelmingly male, there are still many female collectors out there, which shouldn’t come as surprising as many people seem to be.

Women make a large portion of the fan bases for professional teams. The reach of women by online sports site is close to the same as men in a study released in August by ComScore. Among women 25-to-34-year olds, the reach is 30 percent and when compared to men of the same age bracket the reach is closer to 40 percent.

Men still spend more time on sports sites than women, but the study shows women do love their sports.
So, why shouldn’t women also be collectors?

“Baseball is my favorite sport to watch and attend games,” said Marie Pecora, 29, of Valley Cottage, N.Y., who is co-author of a card collecting blog A Cardboard Problem with myself.

“I like the thrill of the chase, picking up packs of cards and seeing if I can get my favorite players,” Pecora said. “It's a fun hobby and a way to make friends with similar interests as an adult.”

Female sports fans are a growing market across most sports. Look at hockey where 25 percent of the Philadelphia Flyers' season ticket holders are women, said Brian Smith, the Flyers' public relations assistant.
In the first two rounds of the 2010 Stanley Cups playoffs, women viewers increased 15 percent over last year, NHL research showed.

But even with the burst of estrogen, it seems women have yet to conquer the card-collecting world.
At a recent card show Pecora attended with her mother, a vendor asked her what kind of cards she collected.

When she told him baseball cards, he told her “the bright, shiny ones sell for lots of money.”

“For a minute I just stood there with my mouth open in shock that he thought I was that stupid,” said Pecora, a New York Yankees fan who collects Robinson Cano and Albert Pujols. “Then I just laughed and said, they are refractors. I collect cards, I'm well aware of what they are. Then I found out he was from Boston.”

Female card collectors aren’t different from their male counterparts. Collections start in similar ways.

Lisa Su, 35, of Mountain View, Ca., began collecting when she was in elementary school when a friend Jeff would sell her 1985 Fleer for a couple of dollars a bundle.

“I used to enjoy looking at the cards and reading the back,” Su said. “At the time, I had more male friends because the girls shunned me because I didn’t speak English very well. But the boys accepted me because I could kick a ball really far and throw a ball really far.”

Su took a similar path of many collectors. When she was in high school, she lost touch with collecting cards, but in 1993 she caught the collecting bug once again.

Su collected Brett Favre and one of her favorite cards she owns is a 2002 Stadium Club Co-Signers Dual Autograph Kurt Warner/Brett Favre.

But her collecting choices received a few off-hand remarks that a man who collected Favre would likely never hear.

“I’ve been asked, ‘Do you only collect hot guys?’” Su said. “I think it’s because I collected J.T.
Snow and Brett Favre.  I loved J.T. Snow because of his defensive skills and his batting, not because of how he looked.  I collected Brett Favre because he's a gunslinger.”

That’s a common misconception for many female sports fans in general. As a Derek Jeter collector, I have received the same comment.

But I’ve never heard a guy ask another Yankee if he only likes Jeter because he’s cute.

We look at numbers, statistics and how they play the game. We funnel toward certain players because we enjoy aspects of a person’s talent.

And like men who collect Cat Osterman cards, we would agree, they are easy on the eyes. That’s just the bonus to collecting trading cards, but never a reason.

Female collectors have formed a bond with each other as they know what stereotypes they have to contend with. They have met through social media websites such as Facebook, Twitter and message boards. They have also become some of the best traders. Whenever I get a Josh Hamilton card, the first person I think about making trades with is Tricia Hall, who runs the blog The Hamiltonian.

Her blog amongst others that are run by women have opened the eyes of many collectors.

“I'm not so surprised with women collectors because I've been exposed to so many of them on the blogs,” collector Peter Caprara, 29, of High Point, N.C., said. “I don’t remember any female collectors when I was a kid. I was surprised when I got back into collecting to find female bloggers, who wrote about baseball cards.”

But the reason there aren’t as many female sports collectors varies in opinion between collectors.
It could be from a lack of friends who are interested in the same hobby or that girls aren’t exposed to the hobby when they’re young. For little girls there are many competing hobbies, but recently there seems to have an influx of trading cards revolving around what girls like such as Hannah Montana.

“Usually, collecting memorabilia is something that connects you to a specific sport whether you’re there or played the game,” said Brian Rozsahegyi, a collector from Calgary, Alberta. “It’s something you have to hang on to that memory. For women who never played sports or went to games, it doesn’t mean the same thing.

“But times have changed,” he added. “Big time.”

(SOURCE: The Press of Atlantic City)

Editor's note: Susan Lulgjuraj was a season-ticket holder in Section 39 of the bleachers at Yankee Stadium for several years before moving to southern New Jersey. She still visits friends and roots for the Bronx Bombers. 
With Yankee Stadium hosting its last baseball game today and a new park being built, Lulgjuraj spoke by phone to friends who have been sitting in the bleachers even longer than her. The Bleacher Creatures are a group of fans in right field from all walks of life who came together simply to root for the Yankees but found so much more. 

48 hours to go.

The tears have already started.

It's the last Friday night game at Yankee Stadium, a night that has become a staple for the regulars through the years.

Most "Bleacher Creatures" were there Friday, including those who thought it would be too difficult to show up today for the final game in The Cathedral.

"I've been crying the whole weekend," said Tina Lewis, 46, better known in the bleachers as The Queen. "It's been 30 seasons. I practically grew up there. It's like losing your home."

The Section 39 Bleacher Creatures became famous for more than their raucous behavior. It wasn't for the battery-throwing incidents or the profanities directed at opposing players.

The Creatures started the roll call, when each Yankee starter is called by the crowd in right field, until the players wave back. It's a unique relationship between players and fans, but it's not why anyone started sitting in the bleachers.

It just made it better.

"I was fairly new to the city, and I thought, 'Where can I go? Because I don't have many friends, and I don't want to stand out,' " said "Sheriff" Tom Brown, 40, one of the principals of Section 39. "It probably took two innings to feel part of something. Within a week, I was part of the inner circle."

That was in 1993, and Brown didn't stop going to games regularly until around 2002. Then, he and wife Dana Brown, whom he had met in the bleachers, had their first child and life took priority.

But not enough to keep him away from a smattering of games since, and certainly not for the final game.
"It was part baseball, part beer, part comedy improv," Brown said. "It was like going to a party with a baseball game right in front of you at Yankee Stadium."

Miles Seligman, 38, who started sitting in the bleachers in 1989, attended every game at Yankee Stadium this weekend. But he hasn't paid much attention to the score.

"I've been zoning out the last couple of games," said Seligman, who grew up in New Brunswick. "I'm trying to hold on to this image in my mind's eye. Parts of the upper deck, the way a patch of green infield opens to us, the whole geography of it. I want to have it in my mind for all time."

24 hours to go

The plans are being made: where to meet up, what time, and who's going to the final game.
Sheriff Brown and fellow Long Islander Justin Shibilski will be there in the afternoon. Even if Brown didn't have a ticket, he would have been on River Avenue.

Standing outside the gate, listening to the game on the radio and the cheers from the crowd, was still better than watching from home.

"There was a playoff game in (1995) against Seattle, and I was in Section 57 (the left-field bleachers)," Brown said. "I tried to go to 39, but the security guards wouldn't have it. I remember watching with different people, and it wasn't fun."

Everyone who has been part of the bleachers has a story of how Section 39 became home. Seligman loved the camaraderie. For Lewis, The Queen, it was an escape.

Lewis lived in California but traveled to New York every summer from 1979 to 1990. She spent every summer in the bleachers. She finally decided it would be cost-effective to move New York, where "the Yankees ruled her life."

Lewis had ran away from home when she was 14. She said her parents had forced her into a marriage with a man who abused her.

At Yankee Stadium, no one judged her. It was a place where people understood her passion for the game.
"I've been through a lot in my life to get here, where I want to be," Lewis said. "It's very sad because it's the end of something. I know the stadium next door is going to be beautiful, but it will never be the same."

Game time

Not all the Bleacher Creatures will be in the house today.

“There are some that are upset about it, some people that are angry about it," Brown said.

Many said it's like losing an old friend.

Shibilski, 32, was choked up sitting in the upper deck with his father on Saturday as he watched Mariano Rivera come out in the ninth inning.

Shibilski had two stints as a Bleacher Creature separated by college. He now lives in Chicago. But he came back to celebrate the stadium and the friendships he created in the bleachers this weekend.

"It's a group of people that would not give each other the time of day under normal circumstances and are bound together by something," he said. "That's stronger than a building."


It wasn't until 1998, when I was 18 years old, that I sat in the bleachers regularly.

I grew up in a strict, patriarchal family. Women weren't supposed to like sports. The norm for my culture was going from your parents' house to your husband's. There was no middle ground.

After much pleading, I finally was allowed to attend Yankee games, which were just a 15-minute ride from our Yonkers, N.Y., home. There was one condition: I had to take my younger brother, Johnny, with me.
The moment we sat down in Section 39, we were home.


Lewis turned out to be The Queen's married name. Her real last name was the same crazy one as mine. I didn't believe her when she said her last name was Lulgjuraj (pronounced La-ju-die) but I forced her to spell it on the spot. We discovered that we are cousins.

She passed the test, and when I mentioned her to my father, his response was: "You know she ran away from home."

But she found a home in the bleachers.

So when Yankee Stadium shuts down for good, a little bit of all us will go with it.

(SOURCE: A Cardboard Problem)

First, there was the Stephen Strasburg superfractor sale.

Then came Bryce Harper.

The Washington Nationals drafted Harper as their top overall pick in June out of junior college. His 2010 Bowman Chrome USA Baseball superfractor 1/1 recently sold for $12,500.

A tremendous price for a baseball card no doubt, but the buyer Aaron Marcus of Long Island, N.Y., had no problem putting out that kid of cash.

He became interested in Harper when he read about him in a Sports Illustrated cover story.

“He has been referred to as a once-in-a-generation talent and a more talented high school baseball player than Alex Rodriguez, Justin Upton and Ken Griffey Jr.,” Marcus said in an email. “I feel as though the sky is the limit with him. He also has a tremendous work-ethic, and is a hard-nosed baseball player that plays with intensity.”

As a New York Mets fans, Marcus started collecting his favorite players in the early 1980s and continued his collection with some of baseball’s best players. But like many young collectors, he left the hobby for a while before he came back in 2007 when he started a collection of Mets prospect Fernando Martinez.

Marcus owns other rare Harper cards not just the 1/1. He has a 2010 Bowman Chrome red refractor BGS 9.5, orange refractor, gold refractor BGS 9.5, blue refractor BGS 9.5 and a regular refractor BGS 9.5.

Marcus says he has no plans on grading the super.

“I really do not see the point in getting it graded as it is the only one that exists,” Marcus said. “I know that some people would probably disagree with this logic. I generally buy graded cards, but I don't send my cards in for grading.”

Here’s some more from Marcus:

Are there any other players, teams or sets you collect?
I mostly collect high-end Mets cards, as I am a huge Mets fan. I also collect Miguel Cabrera, Hanley Ramirez, Albert Pujols, and top prospects. I am also a fan of football cards, as well as UFC cards.

What made you want to get back into collecting?
I left the hobby for about 14 years. One day I started to look into collecting baseball cards again in 2007 when Fernando Martinez's cards came out (as I am a big Mets fan). I discovered all of the changes that took place in the hobby (as far as rare parallels being manufactured are concerned).

Besides the Harper superfractor, is there another card you're happy to own?
I have a bunch of cards that I am quite fond of. I have a few 2000 Topps Traded Miguel Cabrera Auto RCs that are graded BGS 9.5, a Bowman Chrome Albert Pujols Auto RC PSA 9, and a 2002 David Wright Gold Ref Auto RC.

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