LITTLE FERRY – It was a regular day, just another page in the life of Detective Michael Hinchcliffe of the Little Ferry Police Department.
Yes, it’s the same Mike Hinchcliffe who was born and raised in Harrison, who grew up a member of the Blue Tide. They say in Harrison that once you get swept away in the current of the Blue Tide, you never come back. You’re a Blue Tide for life.
But yes, it’s the same Mike Hinchcliffe who worked wonders last fall in his first year as the head football coach at Harrison High School, thrown into the position at the last moment and turning around a moribund program whose new coach was dismissed before he could ever coach a down. Yes, Mike Hinchcliffe is a veteran cop in Little Ferry, in the shadows of MetLife Stadium, in a town where hot dogs are considered fine cuisine.
Hinchcliffe was given the responsibility of running the Little Ferry Police Activities League a few months ago and was soon introduced to a man with a plan.
Hinchcliffe didn’t know who Jay Horwitz was, but then again, why should he? After all, Hinchcliffe is a die-hard Yankee fan and Horwitz is the long-time director of public relations for the Mets, spending almost 40 years in the position.
So when Horwitz just happened to stroll into Hinchcliffe’s office one day 18 months ago, Hinchcliffe didn’t know what it was all about. It was about doing something nice to honor Jay’s adopted daughter and caretaker, Shannon Dalton Forde, who went from being a simple secretary to Jay’s assistant PR director over her 22 years with the club.
You see, Shannon, perhaps the most beloved person in all of Major League Baseball’s underbelly, a smiling, beaming face who never put a uniform on, but never wavered in her love of the national pastime and especially her love of her beloved and beleaguered Mets.
“Jay approached us and asked if we could rename a field after Shannon,” Hinchcliffe said.
At the time, Shannon was unfortunately losing her brave and stoic battle with breast cancer. Dalton Forde spent the better part of the last five years trying valiantly to kick cancer right smack in the rear end, but like the millions of other brave souls in our wonderful country and in our big towns like New York City and little ones like Little Ferry and Harrison, cancer wins.
More often than not, the hideous, disgusting and relentless foe known as cancer claims another victory.
In the fall of 2015, with her beloved Mets making a miraculous and unfathomable run at a trip to the World Series, Shannon Dalton Forde was about to leave John without a wife and little Kendall and Nicholas without their mother.
And Jay Horwitz wanted to make sure that his buddy and long-time associate was not going to be soon forgotten. Horwitz knew of Shannon’s love of baseball and thought a field dedication would have been a nice gesture.
There was only one obstacle.
“All the fields in town were already named,” Hinchcliffe said.
But there was this patch of grass that was next to a firehouse, an area that Shannon used to take her sister to go play baseball when they were kids.
Horwitz first was set to donate a scoreboard, but when Hinchcliffe got the Little Ferry PAL involved, then Horwitz got the Mets and Major League Baseball involved. It just happened that the township had just received $3 million in state and federal aid to rebuild the town’s playgrounds after Hurricane Sandy devastated the area and left most of Little Ferry without electricity for over a month.
“A lot of people got involved,” Hinchcliffe said. “But getting to know Jay was a joy. It just sort of steamrolled from there.”
That patch of grass where Shannon once played catch with her sister is now Shannon Dalton Forde Memorial Field. The dedication was held last Wednesday and several key players and officials were on hand as Shannon’s two children cut the ribbons on the new field.
A lot of the reason why the idea steamrolled was the way Shannon was beloved by her peers in the media, but especially by the guys who wore the blue and orange uniforms.
“So many people wanted to make sure that we did it right,” said Hinchcliffe, who made sure that the clay on the infield was perfect and that the lines were as straight as an arrow.
Hinchcliffe mentioned Sgt. Mike Derwin and especially Det. Sam Aguilar as influential Little Ferry police officers in the project.
“So many people wanted to see it right, so I’m not surprised at all with the star caliber of people that showed,” Hinchcliffe said.
David Wright was one of the most prominent people on hand. The Mets’ seven-time National League All-Star third baseman, currently on the disabled list with spinal stenosis, had to be there to honor his late friend.
“I was 21 years old and I just got called up to the Mets,” Wright said. “I didn’t know how to get to the ballpark. I didn’t know how the ballpark worked. I didn’t know my way around. I didn’t know where we could sit, where I could get something to eat, nothing.”
But Wright was introduced to Shannon and his life changed.
“She was the driving force behind me learning all about that,” Wright said. “That was the beginning of what became a pretty good friendship. She told me where it was safe for me to hang out. She treated me like I was her younger brother.”
Some $240,000 was raised through a charity auction to refurbish the grassy area where Dalton Forde played as a young girl and turned it into a baseball field, complete with fences, dugouts, scoreboards and picnic areas.
Hundreds of people _ from former managers and players to current players like Wright and current general managers like Sandy Alderson _ turned out for the official dedication of the new field that was constructed with the help of Major League Baseball, as well as the borough’s Police Activities League and Hinchcliffe.
Alderson, who has battled his own unknown cancer for the last 18 months, said that he drew courage and strength from Dalton Forde.
“The way she chose to respond to her illness was definitely inspirational to me,” Alderson said. “She was a motivation to a lot of us. She always had a smile on her face despite facing a serious illness. No one was as feisty both physically and spiritually.”
“She was one of a kind,” said Horwitz, who anonymously donated a lot of money and time into the project. “She had a lot of courage, especially at the end. She fought it right until the end. The front office loved her. The players loved her and the media loved her. That should tell how much she was loved.”
“Shannon was like a daughter to Jay,” said former Mets pitcher and current MLB Network analyst Al Leiter. “Shannon was a dedicated member of the PR department, but beyond that, she formed friendships with a lot of people. She was always smiling, always willing to help. To have this for her and for her family is amazing. Her legacy lives on. She was loved in every way.”
Despite her illness, Dalton Forde was on hand for the 2015 pennant run that resulted in a trip to the World Series.
“Shannon was able to connect with everyone,” Mets chief operating officer and co-owner Jeff Wilpon said. “I always admired the way she was able to blend her family with her job. And she worked all the way until the end. She worked for us for 22 years and was one of a kind.”
Former Mets closer John Franco said that the turnout to honor Dalton Forde “shows how well liked she was.”
“Having her name on this field is special,” said Franco, who worked with Dalton Forde for 14 years. “People don’t realize all she did off the field. Her kids can come here and play here like Shannon did, but now their mom’s name is on the field. It’s a great tribute to her.”
“We might have lost Shannon, but her soul and spirit is right here,” said Ron Darling, a former Met pitcher and current analyst on SNY. “It’s a great legacy to have.”
Others on hand included former Met managers Bobby Valentine and Willie Randolph, former general manager Omar Minaya, former assistant general manager Jim Duquette and former Met player Todd Zeile.
Hinchcliffe said that there is still work to be done on the field, like putting permanent roofs on the dugouts and some landscaping.
“With what we were given to work with, we really created some magic in cutting some costs,” said Hinchcliffe, who credits a lot of local contractors and businessmen for helping like Frank Lavato of LaSalle Landscaping. “It turned out to be more of a community effort. I was really happy to be a part of it.”
Needless to say, as a head football coach and director of a PAL, Hinchcliffe has a heavy workload and a busy schedule.
“My schedule is way beyond what it needs to be,” said Hinchcliffe, who will begin workouts with his returning players this week. “The PAL here is starting to evolve and taking me into another direction.”
And it’s allowed a Yankee fan to become friends with the Mets PR director, all for a great cause.
“It’s really been fun getting to know Jay,” Hinchcliffe said.
Little Ferry Det. Mike Hinchcliffe, a Harrison native and the head coach of the Harrison High School football team, addresses the crowd at the dedication of the Shannon Dalton Forde Memorial Field in Little Ferry last week. Dalton Forde was the assistant public relations director of the New York Mets who died in 2016 after a battle with breast cancer. Photo by Jim Hague
Det. Mike Hinchcliffe is surrounded by baseball royalty, namely Mets co-owner and chief operations officer Jeff Wilpon (left) and former Met All-Star closer John Franco (right). Photo by Jim Hague