Persevering FitzGerald more than just a home run king
By Kevin Paul Dupont, Globe Staff | December 26, 2004
The Burlington Fun League, which is where Scott "Nomar" FitzGerald is the all-time home run champion, is the huggable mongrel of all summer softball leagues. Any guy in town over 30 years old is eligible to play, but even that basic rule gets stretched thinner than a politician's promise if, say, a young and spry townie shows the ability to smack the ball around Marvin Field with some regularity, or even better, with some distance.
There are no balls and strikes called in the slow-pitch BFL. Sliding is illegal. There is a home plate umpire, Ken Pondelli, but with no balls and strikes to judge, his arbitrations are, shall we say, few. On top of it all, no one strikes out. In the Fun League, you swing till you get the ball in play, be it a banker or lawyer, bricklayer or baker. The Fun League's six clubs stock rosters from all walks of life. (For the record: Walks aren't allowed, either.)
"One team in the league is the Hackers," said Art Parmet, player-manager of the Aces, the club for which FitzGerald wields his mighty stick. "Well, they're the Hackers for a reason, and it's pretty much a league of all hackers."
If there were such a thing as a BFL league charter, it would read something like: Anyone who's got a glove, and an equal desire to play, must be included. FitzGerald, now 45 years old and long past the bout of pneumonia that nearly killed him as an infant, wouldn't be a convenient fit in most leagues, which is another way of saying that most leagues, fun or otherwise, wouldn't appreciate all the tools he brings to the field.
"He's defintely our league mascot, a gift to the league," said the 56-year-old Pondelli, who has been behind the plate for all 30 of the BFL's seasons and has witnessed every one of FitzGerald's round-trip clouts. "The first time you meet him, and see him play...I mean, what can you say...the guy's a gem.
"What we get out of Nomie playing with us far outweighs anything he gets."
BFL vets better know the free-swinging FitzGerald by his nom de field, "Nomie" (pronounced "No-Me"). A Sox fan virtually all his life, FitzGerald through the years has picked his team favorites, dating back first to Dwight Evans, and then later Bob Stanley, and more recently, Nomar Garciaparra. They've been his guys.
When Garciaparra was swapped to Chicago over the summer, not to worry, FitzGerald showed up for his next Fun League game wearing a Cubs cap the way he likes it, snugged down almost to eyebrow level.
"It's OK," he told his fellow Fun Leaguers. "I have a future." A Scott FitzGerald pledge of allegiance is a pledge of a lifetime.
"I'm not sure why he picks the players he picks, but he always singles out that one person," said his mother, Kay FitzGerald, who has made more than 20 trips to Florida with Scott to see their beloved Sox in spring training. "He likes who he likes, I guess. But just the other day I said to him, `You know, Scott, I'm not sure picking a favorite is such a good idea, because whoever you pick, they're gone.'
"Last spring, gee, we got autographs from Pedro Martinez and Nomar, and now look where they are -- they're both gone."
It's not a simple thing for Scott FitzGerald to express even the simplest things, such as why Garciaparra is his guy. Ask him, and he'll say, "Nomie. Like him. Favorite. Good hitter." And make no mistake, he's pulling now for Martinez and the Mets in 2005, he said, "because Tommy Glavine's there, too. Good pitcher. Glavine."
The pneumonia that almost killed Scott Richard FitzGerald at age 8 months, and left doctors convinced that the resultant brain damage was extensive enough that he should be institutionalized, severely diminished his cognitive powers, all but obliterated his potential to speak. The doctor who suggested to Kay in early 1960 that her infant son be put away in a hospital or home, adding that the boy might never lead anything close to a normal life, reached for a ruler to illustrate her son's plight.
"He held up the ruler, pointed to the bottom, and said his brain had been damaged, and there was no way of knowing how much he'd ever get back," Kay recalled last weekend. "It was awful, what happened to Scott. He took sick over a weekend. He was throwing up. He had diarrhea, got terribly dehydrated. By Monday morning his temperature was 106 degrees, and he was in a coma. But you know how mothers maintain their cool. I sent my husband off to work, got our other two children off to school -- and then I called the Burlington Police Department and said, `You better come -- I need an escort to the hospital.'
"The fever's what did it. They told me at the hospital that he was down to his last hour -- one hour to live -- and when he came out of it all three weeks later, his brain...the speech center was totally damaged. He's like a person who took an electrical shock."
Whatever the comparison, whatever her son's diagnosis, Kay FitzGerald and her husband were not giving in to easy treatment of the times. The only place Scott FitzGerald was going to was the family's home in Burlington, where Kay and husband Richard had two other children, Thomas (T.J.) and Karen, to help surround Scott with love and care.
" `No way! I'll take him home and see what I can do,' " Kay Fitzgerald recalled telling the doctor who suggested institutionalization. "And look at the result. Scott works. He's lived on his own the last five years. He takes no medicine. And, he loves his softball."
By day, five mornings a week, FitzGerald works for UNICCO at the Burlington Mall, cleaning tables and picking up around the second-floor food court. He takes a bus from his nearby apartment, and arrives early, allowing him time to visit the many friends he's made at the mall over the years. "Everybody knows Scotty -- he's the most popular guy in the mall," said 33-year-old Larry Studebaker, working at the mall's first-floor "Sportsworld" kiosk one day recently. "Ask him anything about the Red Sox, bang, he knows it. He's like an encyclopedia, the stuff he remembers -- stats, dates, everything."
Come the summer, each and every Thursday night, FitzGerald is surrounded by his pals in the Fun League, where with each at-bat he builds on his impressive lifetime home run record. The exact home run count is unknown because, in keeping with the BFL's mission, statistics are a somewhat relaxed fit.
"I can tell you this, I've never seen him up there when he hasn't hit a home run, and I bet he's hit at least 15 off of me," said Ken Scrocca, a veteran righthander for the Nomads. "I'm like every other pitcher in the league. When Nomar comes to the plate, I turn to my outfielders and yell, `OK, guys, it's Nomar -- play back, way back.' "
FitzGerald is as patient as he is prodigious. Ultimately, though, he picks out a pitch and gives it a ride, or at least a roll, which inevitably triggers a series of mesmerizing and incredible events. No matter where he hits it, there isn't a Fun Leaguer who can handle it. A typical FitzGerald hit is a dribbler that rolls through the shortstop's legs, which typically leads to the left fielder booting it. By the time some sad sack center fielder has gained possession, a gleeful FitzGerald is cutting second base and heading full steam for third. The throw to third is usually at least 20 feet wide, and by the time someone has chased down the black Labrador who now has the ball clenched in his mouth, FitzGerald has crossed the plate with yet another home run.
Awaiting him at the plate is a benchload of Aces, with high-fives and head rubs. In his wake, a fallen cast of BFL defenders, all scratching their heads and checking their gloves for holes.
"How many's that, Nomar?" umpire Pondelli asks amid the fracas.
"Twenty-seven," says a beaming Nomar. "Home run No. 27."
The Burlington Fun League is not a tough ticket. Most nights, there is a crowd of only one watching from the fringe. Kay FitzGerald takes in all of her son's games, and she usually arrives with transistor radio, allowing her to keep track of the Red Sox games. Part of the nightly ritual is for Kay to tell Scott the score at Fenway Park, and then for Scott to relay inning-by-inning updates to his friends on both teams. He only hits, because his reflexes are a bit slow for him to play in the field.
"I don't want to get hurt," he said.
Ace teammate Bryan Ellsworth likes to man the third base box for his pal Scott's at-bats. Like everyone in the park, he knows what's coming. Once Nomar connects, Ellsworth is there to usher him home with an emphatic wave of his arms, bellowing to his friend, "Go for home!"
Whatever is happening in the field, Ellsworth figures, it doesn't register on his pal's scorecard. When the ball is in play, Scott "Nomar" FitzGerald goes his way, a series of three left turns, without fail.
"When he's up, I think he blocks everything out," said the 27-year-old Ellsworth, who fits comfortably and illegally under the league's over-30 mandate. "Really, I don't think he looks out there and sees Marvin Field, but Fenway Park and the Green Monster. And when he runs the bases, he sees himself as Nomar running -- that's it, period. I know he lives for that excitement. And you know, everyone on the league is on the same page with him. It's great. He talks all week, all winter about playing softball again, and watching the Red Sox next summer. It means everything to him."
Richard FitzGerald died 15 years ago, and Kay knows that her youngest son learned his love of sports from his father, whom he idolized. Dr. Thomas (T.J.) FitzGerald, Scott's eldest sibling, is head of the oncology department at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worcester. Karen FitzGerald, Scott's only sister, was born in 1955, but she died some seven years ago of breast cancer. In his sister's memory, Scott began a scholarship fund, and last spring a Nomar Scholarship Tournament in the BFL raised about $500 for the first Karen FitzGerald Memorial Scholarship awarded at Burlington High School.
"All that was Scott's idea," said Kay FitzGerald, who added her own funds to make it a $1,000 scholarship. "He loved his sister. He misses her terribly. He came up with the whole idea by himself -- and his pals in the softball league were great to help him."
Kari Marie Ricker, now a freshman at Worcester Polytech, was the scholarship's first recipient. Scott and his Fun League buddies already have May 26, 2005, inked in for the second Nomie Scholarship tournament.
There are far more serious athletic endeavors than what plays out every Thursday night in the summer under the lights on Marvin Field in Burlington. They call it the Fun League for a reason, and that's no joke. But fun has many textures, and meanings, some with belly laughs and others barely detectable chuckles of irony. Amid all that fun, no one enjoys it more than Scott "Nomar" FitzGerald, his home run record a tribute to both his perseverance and his fellow BFLers' timely defensive faux pas.
"Oh, everything in context," said Parmet, who does his best to make sure that Nomar gets at least two at-bats per game. "Yeah, OK, there might be a couple of questionable plays out there. But Nomie's one terrific placement hitter, too. I mean, you talk about hittin' 'em where they ain't. This guy's the best there ever was! And every home run ends the same -- Nomie with the million-watt smile, just beaming."
Anyone who would like to contribute to the scholarship fund can send a check or money order to: Karen FitzGerald Scholarship Fund, 5 College Road, Burlington, Mass., 01803.