Sunsets At McCoy

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By Bob Socci

A couple of years ago, during my annual visit to Pawtucket as a radio broadcaster for the Norfolk Tides, I posed a question to my friend and colleague, Dan Hoard.

We were carpooling to and from McCoy Stadium for a four-day series.  Home for me, when not following the Tides around the International League, was — and remains — the town of Milton, on Boston’s South Shore.  Dan lived on the other side of the city, in Charlestown.  I happened to be on his way to the park, and he was kind enough to offer a lift.

Which goes to show the kind of guy he is.  By then, in late spring of 2011, the voice of the PawSox had already been named the next voice of football’s Cincinnati Bengals.  Even on his farewell tour, Dan was the one chauffeuring.

“What,” I wondered from the passenger’s seat of his Subaru Outback, somewhere along a dark stretch of I-95 on our way back toward Boston, “will you miss most about McCoy?”

Dan spoke of the many people he’d come to know in Pawtucket, and started to recite a few of the most special things that would become memories at summer’s end.  Then he paused.

“You know, I’m going to miss the sunsets,” Dan said, before describing nature’s nightly phenomenon that illuminates the sky above McCoy’s left-field corner sometime around the middle innings.

Until then, despite numerous trips into town since 2006, I hadn’t taken note.  In truth, the only time I seemed to notice the setting sun was when it blinded a first baseman trying to track a throw from third base or shortstop.  That reality, coupled with the vast foul ground between the bag and the oval-shaped grandstand, could make the Pawtucket experience quite an adventure for the right-corner infielder.

Still, I had many other impressions of my own, of evenings at McCoy.  All of them favorable.

Like the buckets of balls and sleeves of trading cards suspended on strings, lowered from the stands by fans fishing for autographs.  The constant reminders of Pawtucket’s place in baseball history, from countless mementos lining the hallways to murals marking every step up the stadium’s ramps.  The sounds of the game, under appreciated in most minor-league settings, resonating under the grandstand roof.  And bat boys running hard after every foul ball, as if hustling to earn a contract from any of the big-league scouts in attendance.

But mine was the point-of-view of someone who took up residence only four games a year in a booth slightly up the third-base line.  Dan’s was from the other side of home plate for more than 70 dates, season after season.  He enjoyed a much clearer view of celestial nightfalls on Pawtucket.

Recent good fortune has caused me to think a lot about that conversation, those sunsets, and how I’ll surely see things differently the next time I’m at McCoy.  The PawSox have been kind enough to invite me to join Jeff Levering in the booth Dan Hoard — and a long list of other outstanding broadcasters — once occupied.

The view from the visiting dugout, as someone fishes for an autograph well before game time.

The view from the visitor’s dugout, as someone casts his or her line in search of an autograph, well before game time.

Starting April 11, when the Sox host Rochester in their home opener, I’ll be making the familiar commute up and down I-95 the better part of the next five months.  Only, instead of riding shotgun, I’ll be driving myself, well aware that many different roads have led me to this exciting opportunity.

As a native of Central New York, I’ll admit that my first love in baseball were the anything-but-Amazin’ Mets of the mid-to-late seventies.  I was 3 when a family friend returned from a trip to Cooperstown with a miniature Tom Seaver flannel uniform.  I wore it almost daily, while memorizing the words to Meet the Mets and being mesmerized by the voice of Bob Murphy.  Before judging my early interests too harshly, at least consider that Murph once partnered with Curt Gowdy in Boston, and Tom Terrific wound up ending his career as a Red Sox.

Some years later, I discovered a new super station on our cable system; and with it, the BoSox and Bruins.  Exposed to entirely too much television as a kid, nonetheless, TV 38 quickly became a favorite.  Winter nights were spent with Fred Cusick, John Peirson and Mini 1 on 1 between periods.  Sounds of spring and summer included the voices of Ned Martin (Mercy!), (a pre-Hawkaroo) Hawk Harrelson and Bob (Monty) Montgomery.

As for the PawSox, among my earliest memories of the franchise was a mid-eighties night out at Syracuse’s MacArthur Stadium, where Paul Hundhammer and Oil Can Boyd were kind enough to give me their autographs.  When I asked The Can to explain his nickname, he uttered something about “drinking a lot of beer.”  It took a while, but eventually I figured out what he meant.

Not so long thereafter, another PawSox appearance in Upstate New York marked the official start of my broadcasting career.  I was a glorified intern for Rochester in 1991, in well over my head, when I was allowed to give the very talented Josh Lewin a three-inning break on the air.  The very first play I called was an Opening Day home run off Mike Mussina by Mo Vaughn, leading off the fourth inning.  Channeling my best Gowdy, if not Ralph Kiner, I intoned, “Going, going, gone, goodbye!”  For the record, I also referred to the hitter as Maurice Vaughn.

But like the ball off Mo’s bat, sailing toward deep right-center, I was on my way.  You might add, with nowhere to go, but up.  Five years later, I found my way to the U.S. Naval Academy, to broadcast basketball and football.  I still enjoy the privilege of calling the latter for the Midshipmen.  And for the last decade and a half, I’ve complemented that role by continuing to talk baseball.

Since 2003, I’ve been lucky enough to do it at Triple-A.  First, for the Albuquerque Isotopes of the Pacific Coast League; then for the IL’s Tides.  All the while, working for great men like John Traub, Dave Rosenfield and Ken Young; the first two as respective general managers, the latter as owner of both clubs.

Whichever organization I was with, and wherever I went, I always seemed to be tugged in this direction.  Conversations with various ex-PawSox convinced me of what people around the game long suspected: baseball is different — for the better — in Pawtucket…in The Nation.  Such affirmation came from players like Frank Castillo, Adam Stern, Cesar Crespo and David Pauley.  And from managers and coaches such as Gary Allenson, Ron Johnson and Mike Griffin.

I heard a lot about their experiences.  Now I get to live many more of my own.  Best of all, I’ll do it at home.

My wife, an area native educated in Providence, and I moved to New England five years ago.   From day one, I felt like it was where I always belonged.  It’s where our two kids — each younger than 3 — have already been indoctrinated in family traditions: fall Sundays are spent with the Pats, spring and summer with the Sox.

And it’s where, as I’ve more fully realized the last couple of weeks, a large number of friends and neighbors count themselves among the truly faithful; of not just the BoSox, but the PawSox as well.  I can’t wait to talk to them — and to you — from McCoy.

Of course, the legacy Jeff and I inherit is significant, to say the least.  As you know, the soundtracks of past Pawtucket summers were filled by extremely talented individuals.  Personally, few in this business have had a greater influence than the guy who helped start the PawSox radio tradition, Gary Cohen.  Same goes for another, who did his part to build on it, Dan Hoard.

Yet, in the weeks ahead, I look forward to teaming with Jeff, trying to create our own legacy on top of the one that already exists.  The only way to do so is by working daily to earn and retain your trust, attempting to match your passion with ours.

With respect to my broadcasting style, I prefer substance over schtick.  And, unlike today, I generally try to refrain from the first person.  A broadcast is about the game; not me.

I will, however, ask you to pardon at least one indulgence.  Please forgive me should I take a moment, every now and then, to soak in a sunset at McCoy.

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