JESSE BALL: The Cadets’ Last Game

From Hudson Valley Magazine (August, 2008)

On the evening of Saturday, June 7, 2008, a crowd of over 4,000 upstate baseball die-hards filled Troy’s Bruno Stadium to watch the Section II Class AA championship game between the LaSalle Cadets and the Columbia Blue Devils. The resulting nail-biter didn’t end until 12:22 the next morning, when LaSalle second baseman Will Remillard singled up the middle in the bottom of the seventh to send the winning run home — and the delirious Cadets, along with their exultant coach, Jesse Braverman, into the familiar, frenzied victory scrum on the mound.

The keyed up fans streaming into the Albany night knew they had seen one of the greatest baseball games of their lives. Few realized that they had also witnessed the culmination of one of the most impressive — and moving — comebacks in the annals of high school coaching.

In 2000, Braverman lost his position as coach of the varsity baseball team at Bethlehem High School, a job he had held for over six years. The reason: a newly instituted Suburban Council rule prohibiting coaches from managing both a high school and a summer league team. Ten years before, Braverman, a former high school pitching star who cut his cleats playing weekend sandlot ball, had founded the Bethlehem Mickey Mantle team for 15- and 16-year-olds. Now, suddenly, the Council decreed that he couldn’t hold both positions.

Braverman, who had won the 1999 Section II title with Bethlehem, took the Council to court on the issue and lost, sending him into an emotional tailspin. “To say that I was devastated after losing my team is to understate the case,” says the highly lauded instructor, who also teaches special education. After not missing a day of school for two decades, Braverman took sick for a year and a half to try to put his head—and his life — together.

The normally upbeat Braverman, who also goes by the moniker “Mr. B,” kept his hand in coaching by volunteering as an assistant at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and working weekends at the Sports Barn, a popular sports clinic in Halfmoon. One of the many fellow coaches who stopped by to commiserate and offer encouragement was Sal Forino, the varsity baseball coach at LaSalle, a Catholic military institute in Troy.

A few weeks after that visit, Forino died as a result of injuries suffered during a car accident. Two months later, Pat Mulcahy, the LaSalle athletic director, asked Jesse to take his place at LaSalle. The fact that Braverman happens to be Jewish didn’t matter. All Mulcahy knew was that Mr. B was good.

“It was a difficult way to restart my coaching career,” Braverman reflects, “but I like to think that Sal would have approved.” It’s hard to see how he couldn’t. Under Jesse’s stewardship, the Cadets have won five consecutive Big 10 championships before their astounding 27-game victory run this season (which finally ended on June 14 when they narrowly lost to Mamaroneck, 7-5, in the state championship).

If the super-dedicated, detail-minded Braverman has transformed the Cadets, molding what had been a creditable team into an outstanding one, Jesse’s LaSalle experience has, by his own admission, saved him as well. “I have been reminded, at a time when I was immersed in self-doubt, that one must persevere and remain positive,” is the way he puts it. “The Braverman Redemption” is the expression Jim Allen, who covers high school baseball for the Albany Times-Union, uses to describe the extraordinary mutual makeover. Hollywood couldn’t have scripted it better.

The LaSalle Cadets have learned a lot from Jesse, both about baseball, and about life. “I’ve learned to do my best no matter who is watching,” says centerfielder Scott Morrissey, “to do the best I can in whatever I try.”

They’ve also learned that — contrary to what Vince Lombardi and all too many current coaches and parents believe — winning is not everything: It’s how you play the game that counts. When asked to describe his fondest memory of the Cadets’ epochal 2008 season, Scott quoted the pep talk Braverman gave the dejected team as they sat around him on the field after losing the final game of the season.

“He said he wasn’t disappointed that we had lost the game,” Scott recalled.

“He said that either way, the season was coming to an end. Instead, what he said was most disappointing to him was that it was the end of the season, and that as a result he would no longer have the privilege of working with all of us as a team anymore. That is something I think I will always remember.”

“Somewhere, up there,” says Pat Mulcahy, “I know that Sal is smiling.” Amen!

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