It’s a funny thing about athletes who have competed at a high level. They’re rarely in awe of what they’re doing or of big moments. It probably comes from years of trying to shut out the fanfare and the hoopla, and just playing the game, no matter how big the moment.
I think that applies to ex-athletes too.
A few weeks ago, I sat down with Mike Roarke, the West Warwick native and Warwick resident who’s a former Major League catcher and pitching coach. The impetus for the chat was Roarke’s trip to Boston last month for the Red Sox’ celebration of Fenway Park’s 100th anniversary.
You probably saw the ceremony. It was one of those magic baseball moments, with the Field of Dreams theme playing and hundreds of former Red Sox walking slowly onto the field.
Roarke, who worked for many years with the Pawtucket Red Sox and spent the strike-shortened season of 1994 as Boston’s pitching coach, was there on the field.
When we talked, I was expecting him to wax poetic about the day, to revel in being part of such a special moment. But I realized that’s not his style, and even if it was, he wouldn’t have done it anyway.
That day was about the game of baseball, about the places it took Roarke and about the people he met along the way.
That was the awesome part.
Roarke found out about the celebration by way of a letter from the Red Sox. They were doing something big for Fenway’s milestone birthday and were planning to welcome back a host of former players and coaches.
Roarke was invited but he wasn’t sure if he would go. A stroke has left him in a wheelchair, so getting to Boston and getting around Fenway wouldn’t be the easiest thing in the world.
But eventually, he decided he wanted to be there. He talked to his friend and neighbor Clyde Bennett and the two of them made plans to head up.
What they found was a family reunion, baseball-style.
They got to Boston early for a pre-game reception. When they parked the car, the first person they ran into was Pedro Martinez, the former Red Sox ace.
They talked and quickly realized they had a connection. As a coach in St. Louis, Roarke had spent a lot of time working with Joaquin Andujar. Martinez said he had learned a lot from Andujar, a fellow Dominican Republic native.
The rest of the day went much like that.
Roarke talked to Bruce Hurst, who credits Roarke with saving his career. He caught up with Bill Buckner, who he hadn’t seen since he coached with the Cubs. Oil Can Boyd wanted to talk, and so did Bill Lee. Mike Smithson, a seven-year vet, had been on the verge of quitting when Roarke talked him out of it in Pawtucket.
At least one person was in awe.
“Where Mike was sitting, there was a line to talk to him,” Bennett said. “There were so many pitchers who came and thanked him for how much he had contributed to their careers. That was cool. I was as impressed with that as I was with anything.”
As our conversation went on, we started talking less about Fenway and more about baseball. When Roarke found out I was a Cubs fan, he had dozens of stories to tell. We even got on the subject of Negro League baseball and the legend of players like Satchel Paige and Cool Papa Bell.
Our conversation, much like the day at Fenway, wasn’t just about the pomp and circumstance of a special event. It was about a baseball life.
A special day at Fenway was just one more good day of baseball.
“I was glad I went,” Roarke said. “Once it was over with and once we did everything, I was glad we did decide to go. It was a chance to say hello and catch up with a lot of guys. It was great.”
William Geoghegan is the sports editor at the Warwick Beacon. He can be reached at 732-3100 and firstname.lastname@example.org.