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Saying Farewell to A Legend

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Yesterday the Boston Red Sox managed to salvage some small manner of dignity in their series against Baltimore. And though it was at the cost of an opportunity to improve their draft position, and to force a tie atop the division between the O's and Yankees, sometimes a fanbase just needs to see a win. That it came yesterday, on a day when the Red Sox had weightier affairs on their mind, was all the better. A loss would have made the day perhaps too depressing for words.

Following the afternoon game, the Red Sox held a memorial service (or, as they more accurately termed it, a "celebration of life") for Boston icon Johnny Pesky. Fans, Sox employees, and players gathered in the left-field grandstand to hear stories of Pesky's impact on the team, his love of the game, and the joy he brought to everyone around him. Given the way Boston's season has gone, it was hard to help seeing the ceremony as partly a final mourning for the lost year, and more importantly a strong reminder of better days.

More importantly, of course, it was a celebration of Pesky, a man who lived and breathed baseball, who somehow maintained his enthusiasm in the face of every challenge the game presented. Seeing players from across the decades come together to share their memories of Pesky, and the substantial number of fans who showed up to hear those stories and pay their respects, caused me to marvel, not a bit enviously, at a man who had lived his life so fully.

Over the course of the formal portion of the ceremony, panels of players from three eras were asked to speak about Pesky. Carlton Fisk, Luis Tiant, Reggie Smith, and Jerry Remy took their turn for players whose heyday was in the seventies. Bill Lee, Rich Gedman, Jim Rice, and (in a truly surprising moment about which more later) Roger Clemens for players later into the eighties. And the core of the last decade's teams closed out the ceremony, with Jason Varitek, Tim Wakefield, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, and Pedro Martinez all speaking (the latter three much more than the former).

All of these players are of course well-known, there weren't any utility guys featured. Two of these players are already in the Hall of Fame, two more will (should) be soon, and two more are working on interesting cases. The rest are an assortment of past stars, but beyond that had very little in common. And yet every single one had the same basic stories about Pesky. His total lack of pretension. His ability to connect with any ballplayer almost instantly. His constant, infectious enthusiasm. The wonderful nickname, first bestowed upon him by Ted Williams, that Pesky went by in the clubhouse.

How much did players and fans love Johnny Pesky? Well, as previously mentioned, Roger Clemens showed up. Think for a moment about Roger Clemens, and your general feelings toward him. Even if they're not still filled with anger toward him for his bitter departure and his time with the Yankees, they're probably not warm and fuzzy. And one never gets the impression of Clemens as a particularly fun-loving or joyful guy. And yet there he was, sharing fond memories of Johnny Pesky. When he was introduced, there was an audible pause in the applause for the players, and you could tell the crowd was working around our mixed feelings for Roger. Then, of course, we remembered why we were there, realized that he was there for the same reason, and for the first time in my life, I identified with Roger Clemens.

When Pedro Martinez spoke, he summarized why we were able to so swiftly put aside our lingering anger toward Clemens: we all had Pesky in common. "Pesky was New England, he was the Red Sox and their tradition." It's been commented on many times that Pesky, more than any other player, had become something more than an honored former All-Star. He had become a symbol of baseball itself. Not that he would have thought of himself that way. He was just a guy who loved baseball, who wanted nothing more every single day than to be a part of the game.

That was why, watching the players speak, standing on the warning track, and wandering around the edge of the field I've been watching from afar for so long, I couldn't help but envy Pesky a bit. He spent ninety years doing what he loved most. That's something that very few of us ever get to even dream of. If we're lucky, we find a job we can tolerate, or a hobby that brings us joy. Most of us are able to find a person to share our lives with, even if we can't spend as much time with them as we'd like. But to be able to approach each day knowing that you'll be able to enjoy every moment... What a truly wonderful life that would be.

So as the season winds down, and the cold reality that there will be no baseball until the spring settles in, take a few moments to find the joy in what games remain. Cheer when Felix Doubront strikes out 11. Applaud when Jose Iglesias does something awe-inspiring at short. Look to the people on either side of you at the park or the sports bar and raise your glass in recognition of your shared love of the game. Baseball is one of the rare things in life that can always bring us joy, even in the bad moments, because in our shared despair over a team, we find a common bond. Pesky was the living embodiment of that bond, and as long as we live a little like him each day, he'll remain with us and with the team he lived for.