Alex Cherry Paddleball profile by Dave Siegel
Many of us in the paddleball community have asked these troubling questions concerning the sport: Will it survive? Will it even be played 25 years from now? The game is at a crossroads now and there is no doubt that in order for paddleball to flourish, there needs to be a great deal of extra effort by people who love the game and will go the extra mile. One of the persons who is dedicated to the growth and survival of paddleball is Alex Cherry.
Alex is a 47 year old NYC player who has been playing for only 8 years, but has emerged as one of its best upcoming players, improving all the time. As we all know, when taking up any new sport at age 39, it is quite difficult to excel, but Alex has done just that through amazing dedication, spartan-like training, playing 10-15 times per week (Wow!) and most importantly possessing a love of the game. It culminated this month when Alex won the PFA Small Ball “B” Singles Tournament. He truly believes he can continue to upgrade his game, and though not there yet, he would love to achieve an “A” ranking.
Alex’s paddleball roots go back to his Mom, Joanna, who played in the 80s. He took up the game at the PS 28 playground in Manhattan and now plays at multiple parks across the city. He is strictly a small ball player, believing that its faster action requires a higher level of skill. Alex is a steady, hard hitting, offensive player, fast afoot, has great stamina and a powerful spike, which is his favorite shot. He also mixes in a soft game including cut shots. And he is quite a student of the game, going to school every day at the courts, while developing the strategies necessary to win. But perhaps his most outstanding quality on the court is his respect for the game and his opponents. He is known to be a true gentleman and a fair player, almost to a fault, even giving up calls at times.
But the real story of Alex Cherry is his amazing drive to elevate the game and have it grow. To this end, he formed the Madballers United Smallball Group and under its auspices, he organized and ran a highly successful “B” tournament in August at Marine Park. The tournament had it all: sponsors, prize money, food, beverages and lots of interest and enthusiasm. Alex gave all his energy (and there is plenty there!) in putting this together, especially in the procurement of sponsors. He did it because he believes that well run, publicized, sponsored tournaments are a powerful vehicle for spurring the interest of players, including women and kids. He even had a professional video done on the event by Chrystal Stone, which featured enlightening interviews, as well as great clips. Check it out on YouTube. https://m.youtube.com/watch?feature=youtu.be&v=bwqOtkQJBXM
Alex would now like to hold many more tournaments and is targeting December for his next one. In addition to tournaments, Alex believes that in order for the sport to flourish, it is imperative for there to be unity among the various paddleball organizations, along with strong sponsorship and uniform stringent rules for conduct. Bringing the children and women into the game is paramount as well.
Alex is certainly on the right track for promoting the growth of the game. Let’s hope that his energy is contagious, because we need more people like him to assure that the game is being played in 25 years!
You can become part of the Madballers United Smallball Group by joining the Facebook group by the same name.
Let’s go back to 1971 when paddleball was starting to take off at the city playgrounds, up in the Catskills, in Florida and the many beach clubs in the NYC area. It was played with wooden paddles and a “555” handball. The man who was at the forefront of the flourishing game was Howie Hammer. He and his partner John Bruschi unquestionably comprised the best doubles team in the game, having won the recent American Paddleball Association championship. Besides being a great player, Howie truly wanted to help the game grow. He wrote a book, taught the game in college, and during this summer he assembled a touring crew of top players. The group included John, Steve Rothfeld and Dennis Majorino. They visited the beach clubs and other venues, conducting mini-clinics and playing exhibitions against the best of the local players. On July 25th, the show came to Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach Baths (BBB), which contained Garber Stadium. I was there and what happened was amazing.
BBB had many fine wooden wall courts plus one showcase court in Garber Stadium. The bleacher seats that surrounded the court could accommodate perhaps a thousand people, and they were packed that day. Though the Garber court was a true-bounce, well maintained court, it was unlike any other paddleball court in that the wooden wall was super live and very prone to killers staying down.
The program started with a match between Steve Rothfeld and Dennis Majorino vs. two BBB kids, Anthony Cirillo, age 16, and Hank Grassi Jr.,15. Most of you remember or have heard about Steve, who went on to become one of the best players in the game. He was in his early twenties at the time and already a terrific player. Dennis, also in his twenties, was every bit Steve’s equal. Unfortunately, he did not stay with the game and sadly has since passed away, far too young. Who would have thought that the two kids could even give Steve and Dennis a game? Well, they gave them all they could handle in a thrilling match, finally going down 21-17. The crowd loved it!
But that just whetted the appetite for the fans for the excitement that was to come. The feature match pitted Howie and John against Peter Grassi, Hankie’s 17 year old brother, and their Dad, Hank Grassi Sr., who was 45 at the time. It’s ironic that in the present paddleball era, 45 is actually young, but back in those days, Hank Sr., who was a very good, steady player, was considered old. Peter was a kid, inexperienced as far as playing top competition and an unknown in the paddleball world. Howie and John were in their early 30s, highly skilled, in their prime – the very best in the game.
The game started off as expected, with Howie and John taking an 8-3 lead. They were playing well and Peter was cold. The champs seemed destined to an easy win. Peter related to me what occurred next. Hank told Peter, who was playing the left side, that they should switch sides. Peter “insubordinated” his Dad and told him “Absolutely not!” At the same time, Peter, who was accustomed to playing shirtless and had been wearing a borrowed jersey, decided to toss the shirt. Why had he been wearing it? Peter told me that prior to the game, Howie had asked him to wear a shirt to add “class” to the game. From that point on, Peter caught fire with an incredible offensive display of killers. He was literally unstoppable, in an unconscious zone. By one account, he hit 17 kill shots total for the game! They beat the best team in paddleball 21-12!
How could this happen? In retrospect, Peter and Hank had a home court advantage. They were accustomed to this uniquely live court and Howie and John were not. I recall that the following year, the APA tournament was held at BBB, which Howie and John won, the final match was not played at Garber, but on one of the side courts. I believe that Howie requested this. Another factor in the Grassi win was the vocal support of the home crowd. But the most significant reason was that Peter, despite his youth and inexperience in top competition, was a terrific, super-confident, steady and aggressive offensive player. Perhaps he was too young to get nervous and become overwhelmed by the event. He recalled that he truly believed he was going to win and even told this to a friend before the game. I’m certain Howie and John underestimated Peter’s ability.
Immediately after the game Howie grabbed the megaphone and started the paddleball clinic. To paraphrase his first line: “I think I’m going to let Peter run the clinic!”
Who is Peter Grassi? Peter started playing paddleball at age 10 at the Brooklyn’s Raven Hall and then Washington Baths. When these beach clubs closed, he moved on with his family to Brighton Beach Baths and he absolutely loved it. Except for playing some in Manhattan Beach during the 2 month off-season (BBB was open 10 months), he never traveled to play among the other players in the city. He did play against many fine players at BBB and was always one of the best. Peter is probably the only player to ever use the Knight Official Tournament Paddle, which he originally bought from a street vendor. One story he related to me was about the day Victor Niederhoffer came to the beach club to play paddleball and he challenged Peter to a singles game, spotting him 5 points in a 25 point game. Peter beat him by 6 points, probably enabling some fellow BBB’ers to win some wagers. (Peter did not bet!) Niederhoffer at the time was the number one squash player in the US and also the former paddleball singles and doubles champ. (You can look it up!) When the beach club closed in 1997, Peter pretty much stopped playing paddleball.
Hank Sr. was an excellent athlete who was also terrific in four wall paddleball, paddle tennis and handball. He passed away in 2016 at age 90. Hankie did not stick with paddleball, but was, and is, a great racquet athlete, excelling in tennis, racquetball, paddle tennis and pickleball.
July 25th, 1971 was a great day for paddleball. Fortunately, in addition to the memories, we have some terrific photos. Be sure to check them out!
Mitch Goldberg by Mike Melendez & Dave Siegel
He’s a Master Chef, a gardener, a softball player, a bowler, a magician, a PFA youth program volunteer, an actor and, oh yes, he plays paddleball. It’s amazing that with all these activities, Mitch Goldberg is not only able to play 3 to 4 times a week, but is one of the top players on the circuit today. He is a rare player with many tools at his disposal, fierce and focused, excelling in tough competition.
Mitch started playing the game over 30 years ago at O’Connor Park in West Orange NJ, which is still his home park. He learned from his father, who was also a very good player during the 60’s/70’s era. His love of paddleball started the very first time he picked up a paddle and it has never waned.
Mitch’s game is comprised of awesome physical and mental skills. On the physical side, he can hurt you with formidable power, blending it with finesse, using his patented change-of-pace drop-shot killer, which is his favorite shot. He also has excellent foot speed and quickness, which is surprising for the big man that he is. Mitch is one of the few top players to use his backhand and it is very effective. He is also extremely accurate, rarely making unforced errors.
On the mental side, Mitch is very smart with his shot selection and plays like a chess player, always thinking 2-3 shots ahead. He understands the nuances of positioning and invariably is in prime position for a good shot. Plus, he has nerves of steel, always rising to the occasion under pressure.
“Rising to the occasion under pressure” applies not only to paddleball, but also to real life. Last year, in perhaps the greatest pressure situation anyone will ever encounter, Mitch, along with Keith Jackson and Mitch Resnick, heroically saved the life of fellow paddleball player Tony Cascella, employing CPR in conjunction with a defibrillator (AED).
Mitch is one of the major proponents of the PFA (he is the Vice President) and its major mission: injecting youth into the game. He backs it up by giving much of his free time to the cause. He would love to see all of paddleball under one organization, flourishing with the support of corporate sponsorship. In order to achieve this, Mitch feels that the overall level of sportsmanship needs to improve and all of the players should “just get along in peace and harmony!” His advice to his peers: “Play hard, try your best; winning every game is impossible.”
You may be wondering about Mitch Goldberg, the actor. Mitch has two feature length movies to his credit. “Zombie Honeymoon” (2004), in which he plays a Zombie (really!) and “The Homeboy” (2001), where he is a cook by the name of Mitch Goldberg who gets into a fist fight! You can watch the latter on YouTube. Search for more on Google. Enjoy!