NOTE: we will be posting a selected column weekly from Garry Brown’s Greatest Hits.
Late winter, 2004. Our grand-daughter, Sonia Marie Brown, signs up for her second season in the Amherst Little League. Yes, girls are welcome, thanks to the Amherst league’s open-minded director, Stan Ziomek.
Sonia makes a team called the Mets. She plays right field most of the time. At the plate, her speed helps her get on base. When she comes around to score, her male teammates are right there, giving her the high-five.
On an evening in late May, we take a ride to Amherst to watch Sonia play. Before the game, her dad takes a photograph of her. She poses on one knee, with bat in hand, looking like a hitter on deck. It’s a beautiful picture, a family keepsake.
Sonia’s interest in baseball also includes the Red Sox. Her favorite player is Pedro Martinez, the team’s Cy Young Award-winning pitcher.
At the time, I was covering the Red Sox for The Springfield Republican. I worked almost every home game at Fenway Park.
One day, Sonia hit me with a tough question: “Grandpa, can you get Pedro’s autograph for me?”
First let it be said that it’s a major no-no for baseball beat writers to ask players for autographs. I tried to explain that to Sonia, but she wasn’t buying it.
“What if I give Pedro an autographed picture of me in my baseball uniform? Would he do one for me?”she said.
Well, that put grandpa directly on the spot – but it also sounded like a really good idea.
“OK, let’s try it,” I said.
Sonia went directly to her room, and came back with her baseball picture, neatly autographed, as follows:
“Best wishes to Pedro Martinez, my favorite baseball player. Sonia Brown, Amherst Little League.”
On my next trip to Fenway, I sidled up to Pedro’s locker. He had his back to me, buttoning his uniform shirt. Then he turned, gave me that million-dollar smile and said, “So how’s my old man doing?”
Okay, so I was 73 years old but still working full time, but when Pedro called me his “old man,” he meant that in a good way. He often called me that when I would approach him for an interview.
This time, I didn’t want an interview. This time, I handed him Sonia’s picture, and told him what a great fan she was. And, yes, I also mentioned that she would love to have his autograph.
Pedro smiled as he studied the photo. Then he turned and put it in an upper compartment of his locker. By then, it was time for him to get onto the field to do his running (pitchers do a lot of that between starts).
Over his shoulder he said, “We will talk later.”
Two days later, I walked into the clubhouse for the daily interview time. Pedro saw me and called me to his locker. Without a word, he handed me a brown envelope.
As soon as I could, I hurried up to my seat in the pressbox. To go to work? No, to see what was in the envelope.
Eureka – there it was. An 8 by 10 color photograph of Pedro, with this autograph: “To Sonia . . .Pedro Martinez CY 97-98-00.” (a reference to the years he won his three Cy Young Awards). What a treasure.
When I delivered Pedro’s picture to Sonia, she gave it suitable star treatment on her bedroom door.
All of that happened in June of ‘04. As the pennant race and playoffs unfolded, Pedro’s autographed photo became a symbol in our family of a world championship that will live forever in Red Sox lore.
Meanwhile, Sonia finished her Little League season, then took part in a local tournament. In what would be the final game of her baseball career, she made a nice running catch of a foul fly down the right field line for the game’s last out.
After baseball, she went on to compete in volleyball and track at Amherst Regional and Smith College.
Now, her favorite baseball player is heading to Cooperstown, N.Y., where he belongs. In July, he will be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Throughout his illustrious career, Pedro was known for having two personalities – warrior on the field, gentleman away from it.
In my years on the Red Sox beat, I came to know Pedro asa friendly sort in the clubhouse, and a consummate artist on the mound. Without question, he’s the greatest pitcher I ever saw in person. I also saw him as a man who cared about the feelings of a Little Leaguer from a small town.
A Hall of Famer? Yes, in every way.