I remember Fred Lynn leaving the Sox. I wasn't happy but I understood that he wanted to be closer to family and I understood that. Sure the extra money didn't hurt, but I understand the family piece as a factor too. Same with Nick Esasky - who's black and white 8x10 still sits over my desk. But I still remember Johnny Damon breaking my son's heart. If you want to see the pain kids feel when players leave a team for money, you should have been sitting in my living room the night Damon came back to Boston with the Yankees for the first time.
My little Pi took his WWJDD shirt, his pride and joy for years, and some white acrylic paint he bought as he was just starting to paint as well as draw. When Damon walked out onto the field, he calmly took his brush and changed the "a" in Damon to an "e," changing the word to Demon. He then, just as calmly flipped over the shirt and painted on devil horns and a pointed devil tail curling up by his ear. He wore the shirt just as proudly from that day forward to show how his anger had replaced his previous joy.
Even though that shirt is too small for him, he still has it tucked away in the box of "t-shirts that mean too much to me to throw out" box in the back of his closet.
Last night, I watched Papelbon's press conference and I recalled Pi all those years ago. Who knows why he signed with Philly and I'm sure the money didn't hurt, but in the days of jumping ship for the larger paycheck, I have to wonder, do these guys really know what they're doing to the kids that idolize and support them?
The ripping noise, punctuated by angry sobs, echoed through the house.
“You stupid, stupid man!”
“How could you do this to us?”
“I can’t believe I ever thought you were good.”
When the ripping stopped, Benjie’s mom knocked gently on the partially open door. On the floor were posters and newspaper articles he had hung on the walls over the years. Some were torn to shreds, some laying whole, but twisted, on the floor where they fell after they came off the wall.
Benjie looked so small sitting on his bed, curled into himself crying. His dark hair stuck out every which way, knees pulled all the way up covering his face and his arms wrapped around his legs. The racking sobs shook his whole body as he cried.
She sat down next to him and draped her arms over his shoulders. Even though, at 10 he was too old for such things. He shifted his body and curled into his mother for comfort as if he were just a little kid. He cried until he could bare breathe. He gasped a bit for air as she rubbed his back and murmured the comforting words she used to when he was younger.
“I just don’t understand,” he finally gasped. “Doesn’t he understand what he means to Boston? What he means to kids like me?”
“I’m sure he does,” she said. Looking down she noticed Papelbon’s smiling face looking up at her. The laminated front page of the Boston Herald from the 2007 World Series win was lying flat on the floor. “It’s just that some players need to think beyond Boston.”
“He did it for money,” the bitter words spilled out of his mouth. “You saw him at the press conference. He didn’t care.”
Silent tears began to roll down his face again.
She rocked him a bit more, smiling down at him.
“Benjie, the life of a baseball player is precarious at best.”
“Cautiously uncertain. Can you tell me what part of speech that might be?”
“Adjective,” he replied without thought, “it modifies or describes the noun.”
She smiled. “You’ll be fine,” she calmly said.
“I don’t understand.”
“This coming from a boy who, last summer, yelled at the TV that he needed a new pitch? Is this the same boy who got nervous that Papelbon might be losing his edge and expected blown saves? Is this the same boy who didn’t ask for a new Papelbon shirt for the start of school this year?”
“That’s not the point. I may have been mad, but I always believed in him. I just feel like he didn’t believe in people like me. You always taught me that sometimes you can feel angry and frustrated with people you love but that you need to work it out. He didn’t try, he just packed his bags and left.”
“Maybe six years in Boston was enough for him. Maybe his needs and his family needed to change where they were.”
“Mom he didn’t even sound like he cared. He said there were no regrets, but was he only thinking of himself?”
“I don’t know honey. I know this is hard on you and kids like you but he had to do what was right for him.”
“And it was too many millions to say ‘no’ to,” he spat out bitterly.
“Hey, that’s a lot of money to say ‘no’ to my friend. I’m not so sure I’d stay in Boston if someone offered me that much money to leave.”
“That’s not the point. The point is for the last six years so many of supported and loved him. We bought his shirts and cards. We bought bobble heads and other souvenirs. I fought for his autograph and always, always cheered for him. He was my hero and he left for what? A couple of million dollars more than what the Red Sox would have offered? He didn’t even give them a chance to make a counter offer. That’s what pisses me off.”
“Can you find another word?”
He sighed and rolled his eyes.
“Angers. Frustrates. Um… ticks me off.”
“That’s good,” she smiled.
They sat for a moment more.
“Do you know the name of the player in the photo over my desk?”
“Nick Esasky, the baseball ghod.”
“That’s right. What uniform is he wearing?”
“A Red Sox uniform.”
“How long did he play for the Sox?”
“The ‘89 season. He was the throw in from Pete Rose who wanted to get rid of him.”
“Boston loved Nick. My friends and I sat in the stands chanting the Nickelodeon ‘Nick Nick Nick Nick Nick Nick Nick Nice’ theme when he would come to the plate. In fact, your uncle Hunter even printed off a giant banner on a dot matrix printer that we held up from our seats whenever we got to games. Do you know why he left?”
“Because he wanted to move back to Atlanta near his family.”
“But he didn’t do it for the money. He did it because he wanted his kids to be near their grandparents and cousins. That’s a reason to leave a place that loves you. Being traded is a reason to leave a place that loves you. Money is not a reason to leave a place that loves you.”
“Do you know, first hand, that’s the reason he left?”
“You saw him. There was no emotion in his voice. It was as if he rehearsed it with someone a bunch of times. He stuck to the script.”
“So it seems to you. You don’t know him personally, you don’t know what was in his mind when he did this. Perhaps he wanted to be somewhere where he wasn’t constantly questioned or criticized. Maybe he was just tired of feeling like he couldn’t do anything right anymore after everything he did here.”
Benjie shrugged, but he began to sit up and move away from his mom.
“Perhaps it was just time for him to move on. I know you’ve loved him since the day he stepped foot on the mound. There was something about him that you just gravitated towards, but does that mean you don’t want to pitch anymore?”
Sitting up and looking at his mom in disbelief, Benjie was shocked.
“Of course not!”
“Then what’s next?”
Benjie looked around the room.
“Clean up this mess?”
“That sounded a bit tentative.”
“Adjective,” he replied.
“You’ll be fine,” she said as she rose from the bed. The side of her shirt had a dark spot from where his tears had been absorbed. Looking down at the spot she smiled. “I guess I better change my shirt.”
“That’s what I like to see.”
She turned to leave, carefully stepping over the carnage ripped from the walls.
She turned at the door and looked at Benjie and raised an eyebrow.
“Any time pal. Hey, see what you can save. You never know what might want to save.”
“By the way, I’m making your favorite dinner tonight. Steak, smashed potatoes, peas and corn.”
“Do I have to set and clear the table tonight?”
“Hey, he only signed with Philly. It’s not like he died unexpectedly in a plane crash or something like Thurman Munson.”
“Can’t blame a kid for trying.”
“No and you still have to do your homework tonight.”
“Seriously? I can’t have a day off to mourn?”
“Save your mourning for when you need it my friend.”
As she stepped out of the room, she heard a quiet, “Mom?”
Going back in she saw Benjie standing there surveying the damage he had done.
“Did you need something?”
He ran across the room and hugged her.
“Thanks. I knew you’d understand.”
Giving him a hug back, she couldn’t help but smile broadly.
“I’ve been there a few too many times myself. Of course I understand.”
He let go and turned his attention on his room. She watched for a moment before going downstairs. She walked into her office and sat down at her desk.
Looking up at the photo of Nick Esasky, she gently reached up and touched it.
“Oh Nick, this just isn’t easy is it?”
The smiling player said nothing from behind the glass. Looking around the room to make sure she was alone, she opened up the secret compartment on her desk. There on the cork board were her old baseball cards. She looked at her Wade Boggs and Roger Clemens cards and wiped a tear that slipped from her eye. She thought for a moment before closing things up.
Looking at her computer, she started typing.
“Gentle reader,” she began typing, “if I had a chance to sit down with certain players, I would look at them and ask the same question: ‘When you chose to leave a team because of money, did you ever once think of the kids that idolized you?’ Maybe I would also ask, ‘Did you ever think they would get over it?’ If they thought they would, I would show them my collection of cards and say, ‘No, no they didn’t.’ So Jonathan Papelbon, you broke my son’s heart today. I don’t know your full reasons for doing so, but you did. For that I will have a hard time forgiving you. I wish you well in Philadelphia but please don’t expect me to welcome you back to Boston with open arms until you truly acknowledge the hearts you broke today. Until you do, like Johnny Damon, you’re dead to me. Now I have to make dinner for a young boy who just learned that the game he loves is a business and it’s players are business men at heart.
Life will go on, my son will recover but just understand you broke something in him today that will never be repaired. Good luck, heaven bless and may you figure out how to throw a third pitch because, trust me, you’ll need it in the NL. If you think Philly is easy, just ask Tito how kind the fans can be.”
Hearing footsteps on the stairs, she hit the “post” button and headed into the kitchen. If she knew here son, and she did, he’d want to help cook and tonight she needed some happy mother-son time to help heal the old wounds she felt and start healing his new one.