Old, but still in the game

19Apr12

Sixty may be the new decrepit, but on April 20 Fenway Park will celebrate its 100th birthday, proving that not everything old has a date with the wrecking ball. Last Friday, I attended the Red Sox home opener at the undersized and antiquated ballpark. April 20 may be the official centennial celebration, but last Friday’s Opening Day fanfare provided a preview.

Fenway Park Opening Day 2012Per Opening Day tradition, members of each team were introduced during the pre-game ceremonies. One of the more touching moments came when Red Sox legend Johnny Pesky was introduced. At age 92, Pesky is just eight years younger than the ball park where he played with the likes of Ted Williams, Bobby Doerr and Dom DiMaggio.

Pesky made his Red Sox debut 70 years ago this week. He played for Boston until 1952, but like so many players of his generation, Pesky lost three of his prime years to military service during World War II. Some think that but for those three lost years, the lifetime .307 hitter would have had a shot at the Hall of Fame.

When he was introduced to a standing ovation last Friday, Johnny Pesky was able to walk onto the field with the support of Dwight Evans on one arm and a ball girl on the other. It seems like only a couple of years ago that Johnny was on the field hitting fungoes to players. This gives me an excuse to tell my Johnny Pesky story.

In March of 1999, I spent almost two weeks in Florida at Spring Training. Between the Red Sox and Minnesota Twins camps in Fort Myers and the Texas Rangers training camp an hour to the north in Port Charlotte, there was never a day without at least one preseason game to attend.

One day before a game in Port Charlotte, I spied legendary sportswriter Peter Gammons idly chatting with a Texas player near the stands. I decided to ask Gammons to sign a baseball that I had brought along.

When I approached, the player assumed that I was after his autograph and took the baseball first, signing “Carlos Pena.” Pena was a minor leaguer at the time, having been the Rangers’ first round draft pick in the 1998 Major League Baseball Draft. The Haverhill native and Northeastern University standout athlete wouldn’t make his Major League debut until September 2001.

The next day, back at City of Palms Park in Fort Myers, I happened be sitting in the front row watching batting practice when Johnny Pesky walked by with a couple of bats in tow. I called, “Hey Johnny, will you sign my ball?”

Johnny Pesky“Why not?” he said, walking over. I handed him a Sharpie and the same ball from the previous day. Pesky rolled the ball over in his hand. “Carlos Pena,” he muttered, “who the hell is that?” I told him that he was a Texas Ranger player.

“Never heard of him,” Pesky said, and signed the ball in perfect cursive penmanship.

Ironically, as Johnny Pesky was introduced during last Friday’s opening Day ceremonies, Carlos Pena, now a veteran major leaguer, was standing across the infield with his Tampa Bay teammates on the third base line and was in the starting lineup that day at first base for the Rays.

His body might be old, but there was nothing feeble about Johnny Pesky’s voice when at the conclusion of the ceremonies, the most loyal Red Sox old-timer of them all was called upon to utter the words he’d heard a thousand times in his life.

“Play ball!”

[This column originally appeared in the April 19 Wakefield Daily Item.]

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