Chris Christie less keen to play hardball as a young man

February 1

In 1980, Scott Parsons was a star pitcher on the baseball team at Livingston High School in suburban New Jersey. One day, the team’s best catcher — a senior named Chris Christie — came to his house, upset, to ask for advice.

The problem was that Christie wasn’t the team’s best catcher any longer.

A better player was transferring in from another school. Now, it looked as if Christie might spend his senior season on the bench.

“The family was considering consulting attorneys, to see if this could be blocked,” Parsons remembered Christie telling him. “He told me that if that happened, there was a chance that the whole team would have to forfeit the spring season. And he asked me what my thoughts were.”

Parsons told him: Don’t. “I looked at him and I said, ‘Chris, hey man, I want to play my senior season,’ ” Parsons said.

In that instance, Christie passed up the chance to play legal hardball. Parsons didn’t hear about the lawyers again. The new kid played, Christie sat, and the Livingston Lancers won the state title.

Today, the 51-year-old Christie is New Jersey’s Republican governor, and one of the great split personalities in American politics. He is an affable Jersey everyman, who has stayed loyal to friends from back home and shows a goofy devotion to Bruce Springsteen and the New York Mets. And he is a town-hall shouter, a confrontational campaigner, whose political team apparently tied up a highway bridge to settle a personal score.

In Livingston, people saw the first half of that personality take shape. They saw him as the eternal class president, elected three times in high school and again at the University of Delaware.

But they saw little of Christie’s now-famous edge. To Parsons, the most impressive thing Christie did in high school was to surrender his starting spot without a fight.

“He stayed on the team. Just about anybody else would say, ‘I’m going to have a friggin’ good time, I’m not going to sit around and watch games,’ ” Parsons said. “We still remember how he conducted himself. . . . He did it with such class.”

In Livingston, a comfortable suburb about 25 miles west of Manhattan, those who knew Christie in high school are puzzled by the tough-guy image he has developed as governor.

Today, Christie’s political future is threatened by documents showing that his underlings orchestrated a massive traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge, apparently to get back at a politician from the bridge-side town of Fort Lee, N.J.

“Not quite as combative as he is now. Not quite as aggressive. And a lot lighter,” said Al Berlin, who was principal of Livingston High School, describing the Christie he knew. “As smart as Chris is, I doubt if he would have done something as stupid as they’re claiming he did.”

Of course, Christie has fooled him at least once before.

During Christie’s senior year, Berlin said, the charismatic class president helped his efforts to keep students orderly at chaotic events such as graduation. It was a good year they had together, with one big blemish: Some rule-breaking students had climbed up on the roof to paint a giant “80” (for the class of 1980).

“I found out years later . . . that Chris was one of those who had gone up there” to paint it, Berlin recalled.

And that wasn’t all he didn’t know. Last year, Christie told the Philadelphia Inquirer that after Berlin had the number painted over, he led a group of students up onto the roof and did it again. “I went to my friends and said: ‘We gotta paint it this weekend,’ ” Christie told the paper.

A new pecking order

Friends say the lowest moment of Christie’s high school career was likely the news that he was losing his starting spot on the baseball team. Christie had played with the same group for years, and this was the season all their practice had led up to.

Then, in the middle of the year, catcher Marty Writt transferred in.

As good as Christie was, there was no question Writt was better.

“It was a very disappointing and emotional time in the house,” Todd Christie, the governor’s younger brother, said in a telephone interview. “My father’s knee-jerk reaction was, ‘What can we do to stop this and save my son’s season?’ ”

Todd Christie said his father, Bill Christie, had the idea of trying to block Writt’s transfer. He said Chris Christie thought his dad was wrong, given the apparent risks: The season might be forfeited, and the team and the town might be turned against their family.

“It was like, ‘Oh my God, you got to be kidding me. I hope he calms down,’ ” Todd Christie said, recalling his brother’s reaction.

Still, Chris Christie sought opinions about the idea from two of his closest friends on the team: Parsons and Bill Giuliano.

“I remember Chris coming to me venting over the thought that his dad wanted to look into Marty Writt’s transfer. I don’t recall anything about him mentioning lawyers getting involved,” remembered Giuliano, who now owns his family’s catering business in New Jersey. “Chris just wanted to leave it alone and was seeking my opinion as well.”

They left it alone. Todd Christie said his father eventually gave up on the idea, and Chris Christie stayed on the team. Bill Christie did not return phone messages this past week.

Chris Christie was elected a team captain anyway. But he played only sparingly, cheering from the bench and offering advice to the other players. “I don’t know if I could have handled it the way he did,” said Tony Hope, who was a coach on that team.

Today, a peripheral figure from Christie’s high school days has taken a central role in the scandal that is threatening the governor’s political future. David Wildstein, who graduated from Livingston a year ahead of Christie and was a statistician for the baseball team, apparently carried out a plan to shut down lanes on the George Washington Bridge last year. Recently released e-mails have appeared to show that Wildstein was told to shut down the lanes by one of Christie’s aides.

Now, Wildstein could provide crucial information about the role that Christie himself played in the closures — if, indeed, the governor had any role at all. On Friday, a cryptic letter from Wildstein’s attorney alleged that Christie had lied about his knowledge of the incident.

But it did not spell out what, exactly, Christie had lied about. Or what evidence Wildstein could produce to prove his allegation. On Saturday, Christie hit back with an e-mail to supporters that attacked Wildstein’s credibility, citing, among other things, a report that Wildstein’s high school social studies teacher had once accused him of deceptive behavior.”

“Bottom line — David Wildstein will do and say anything to save David Wildstein,” the e-mail said.

Checking in with old friends

After graduating from high school, Christie went to the University of Delaware. This was the time he lived for a significant period outside New Jersey — and it was only about 18 miles outside. His junior year, Christie ran for student body president, leading a slate of candidates from the Campus Action Party.

“They took it way more serious than we did. Like, they had a platform. And I remember, there was a debate, and he got dressed,” said Kathleen Tregnaghi, who was running for vice president from the rival Commons Party. “He wore like, a suit and tie.”

Christie won with 62 percent of the vote, although only a fraction of the students voted. He was an activist president, pressing the university on topics like improving evaluations and graduation ceremonies. The next year, Mary Pat Foster — now Christie’s wife — ran for the presidency unopposed.

“It’s kind of boring,” Lee Uniacke, whom Christie beat for the presidency, told a reporter who called. “I apologize.”

After college, Christie went to law school at Seton Hall University, back in New Jersey, and joined a law firm. But he kept a cadre of close friends from those early days, bonded over the Mets, Springsteen and a love of sports.

One of those old friends was Parsons, the former star pitcher at Livingston. He was drafted by the San Diego Padres but never made the majors. In his fourth year in the minors, Parsons was with the Charleston (S.C.) Rainbows. He found out that he would be playing another minor league team at New York’s Shea Stadium, home of the Mets.

“I didn’t even tell anybody [in New Jersey] I was coming. I had always felt that I’d let people down: People expected bigger things out of me,” Parsons said. Then, when the game was over, “I was kinda jogging into the dugout, and who do I see — behind the dugout, waving both arms? Chris Christie.”

Christie had somehow found out about the game and made the trip in. He and Parsons watched the Mets play that night, then went back to Livingston to hang out.

“I never told him. But afterwards, after we said goodbye, I almost started crying,” said Parsons, who is now a high school teacher in New Jersey. “He didn’t care that I was floundering in the minor leagues. He didn’t care. I still get teared up talking about that.”

Today, other old friends of Christie’s say they hear from the governor, out of the blue.

“I’ve just been shocked at all the phone calls that I’ll get — 10 or 11 o’clock at night. ‘Did you see the Knick game?’ ‘Did you see the Mets?’ ‘Did you read this book?’ ” said Robert Brenner, a high school and law school classmate who shares a fantasy football team called “Christie Blue” with Christie.

Christie named their team in the 1980s. After all those years, Brenner still doesn’t know what the name is supposed to mean. “I wish I could tell you,” he said.

This group has expanded to include friends of friends, and it includes a long-running baseball fantasy league as well (Christie once held a draft get-together in Drumthwacket, New Jersey’s 175-year-old governor’s mansion). Brenner said he thinks this male-dominated group provides a way for Christie to decompress, in a world separate from politics.

“While I appreciate him calling me to talk about this stuff,” Brenner said, “I think it’s for him.”

Ed O’Keefe and Dan Balz contributed to this report.

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