ATTLEBORO — Some of the details of Charlie Baker’s emotional 2009 encounter with a soulful fisherman may have been lost at sea.
Baker on Thursday acknowledged that he may have misstated some of the particulars of the story he told tearfully during a debate this week. That, in turn, has complicated efforts to locate the man whose hardships, in Baker’s retelling, produced one of the most remarkable moments in this year’s race for governor.
“There may be a detail or two that I got wrong, but obviously the image and the message from him has stayed with me for a very long time,” Baker told reporters after greeting supporters at Morin’s Diner in Attleboro.
The fisherman story surfaced during a debate with Democrat Martha Coakley on Tuesday. Baker described an encounter with a New Bedford fisherman who felt he had ruined his son’s lives by persuading them to turn down scholarships and follow him into the fishing industry, which has since struggled under tough federal regulations. Baker’s eyes grew watery and he choked up as he told the man’s story.
But despite searches mounted by both campaigns, several media outlets, and various New Bedford fishing industry lifers, no one has been able to find the massive man whose embrace Baker described as “like hugging a mountain.”
Coakley’s campaign on Thursday issued a press release titled, “Questions surface about Charlie Baker’s story about a New Bedford fisherman.” The press release pointed to newspaper reports noting that local people in the fishing industry say they do not know of any such person.
Baker, who said he never got the man’s name, denied that this was a mere fish tale.
“Look, I had the conversation,” Baker said Thursday. “I remember it. And I’ve been telling the story for a number of years. And, as I said, I may have gotten some of the details wrong, but the essence of the story is true.”
Baker blasted Coakley for questioning the authenticity of his recollections, saying, “That’s because they don’t have a positive message or a positive vision for the people of Massachusetts.”
Baker made his comments Thursday before learning that former Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston had died. Minutes later, his campaign announced it was canceling events Thursday and Friday out of respect.
Late Thursday, Baker’s campaign manager acknowledged that some of the specifics in the fisherman story might have been inaccurate.
“Charlie had a conversation with a family fisherman in New Bedford,” said the campaign manager, Jim Conroy. “It is certainly possible that this person did not live in New Bedford, and Charlie was mistaken about that five years ago.”
It is also possible that the sons in the story may not have had athletic scholarships at all, Conroy said, the result of an embellishment in the fisherman’s telling or of Baker’s own mishearing.
So, what if the fisherman was not from New Bedford? Or perhaps his sons played some other sport? Maybe one or both ended up in college after all?
Over the course of Wednesday and Thursday, a handful of likely candidates materialized for the role of the fisherman Baker had described: a “big huge man, completely soaked in sweat and salt water,” with two boys who had turned down scholarships to join the family business. But all those fisherman denied sharing a tearful embrace with Baker, or declined to speak about the matter.
Ron Smolowitz, who helped lead the December 2009 tour during which Baker has said the exchange with the fisherman took place, said he did not witness the conversation. But he said that Baker spoke to many fishermen that day, and he added that he does not doubt the story. Smolowitz appears in a campaign video produced at the event; the gigantic fisherman does not.
Smolowitz said he and several fishermen he spoke with believed the description best matched a man who fishes out of South Boston and whose sons were wrestling standouts in Stoughton.
One son wrestled collegiately at Ohio State and Binghamton universities and is now a mixed martial arts fighter who was featured on a cable reality show called “The Ultimate Fighter.”
Boat registrations obtained by the Globe from the Department of Energy and Environmental Affairs list the man as 6 feet 2 inches tall and 300 pounds, fitting the physical description Baker supplied during the debate.
Several attempts to reach the man by telephone, in person, and through intermediaries were unsuccessful. But the man’s wife told her real estate agent — who relayed the message to the Globe — that the burly fisherman was not the tearful one whom Baker had met.
Approached at his boxing gym in Stoughton, the man’s son was unaware of the kerfuffle. He had fished for a time, and his brother still did, he said. He called his father in an attempt to clear up the confusion, but their conversation was brief.
The fisherman was not willing to be interviewed.