Mr. Tony Conigliaro
c/o Baseball Greats
Somewhere Up There
You would have loved this touch. About 15 minutes before the funeral Mass, this big guy comes sauntering up the church steps. He was wearing a trench coat and -- get this -- a Red Sox cap. Who else but Dave Cowens?
I asked him if you two had ever met. “No,” he replied. “I’m here out of respect for the family. The love and care and support they gave Tony impressed me very much. I would have to say that Tony C was a very special sports story in Boston.”
Boy, he got that right, both about the family and the fact that you were something unique around here. Your family taught us all a lesson about love and loyalty and selflessness, and I’m going to be honest with you. When you and your brother Billy were in your heyday, a lot of people in this town mocked the family. They kept hearing about Richie and Sal and Teresa and they thought maybe you were all getting a little too carried away with each other. Turns out it was no act. You people simply knew what being a family was all about. Since most people don’t, it doesn’t take long before latent jealousy turns into bitterness.
But the way your family came to your aid after what happened back in ‘82 grabbed everyone and made the critics feel foolish. A guy like Dave Cowens, who’s always been tuned into the what’s what of relationships, picked up on that. It didn’t surprise me at all to see Dave Cowens show up to say goodbye. Too bad you couldn’t have seen him in the hat.
And it’s also too bad he couldn’t have seen you in your prime. I was telling him about how you were still living in your own house when you were a Red Sox rookie. Instead of getting up, eating breakfast and going off to school, you were getting up, eating breakfast and heading off to Fenway to face Mudcat Grant. You were living out some Frank Capra vision of major league baseball, and we were all envious of you and happy for you at the same time.
Bishop John Mulcahy tried to put the thing in perspective for us yesterday. ‘’Tony did what God wanted him to do,” he said. “God gives special talents to many people, and it’s obvious that He gave to Tony C a singular, unique talent of being able to hit a baseball. God gives those talents to people so they can make other people happy.” There is no doubt you made people very happy, the only exception being lefthanders with mediocre stuff. I doubt they considered their encounters with you to be very pleasant.
For 22 years, your life was pretty sweet, but the real you came out after you took that pitch in the face. Let’s face it; you had been the Wonder Boy, the guy who had always just shown up and been the best kid on the field, and no one knew how you’d react to adversity. What we discovered was a fighter’s instinct. How you ever managed to hit 36 homers and drive in 116 runs in 1970 while focusing with one eye will always remain one of baseball’s great mysteries. I can only imagine how shattered you must have been when Dick O’Connell traded you to the Angels a year later. How were you going to get a Kelly’s Roast Beef sandwich in Anaheim?
But you never knocked O’Connell, not even four years later when you were sitting in a dingy locker room in Pawtucket’s McCoy Stadium near the end of your second comeback. This was after you had been out of baseball 3 1/2 years, and after you had battled your way back into the Opening Day lineup of the ‘75 season, and after you had been cut by the big club. You thanked O’Connell for the opportunity, and do you know what else you said?
You said, “I’m lucky. I have a new house and a new car. Look, I grew up when I went to Vietnam for 30 days with the USO. How the hell can I go around complaining?”
Of course, you never got a chance to complain after the heart attack in ‘82, because that vicious blow disabled you completely. You never got a chance to express what your family and your public thought out loud; namely, why? At your funeral Mass yesterday, Rev. Dominic Menna offered the only answer. “Suffering,” he told us, “is a mystery.”
You certainly went out in style. It was a gorgeous winter’s New England morning, and St. Anthony’s has got to be the Yankee Stadium of churches. It’s big and undeniably beautiful. And you should have heard the singing! A woman named Judy Levis did something I’ve never heard before. She took hymns and, without calling attention to herself, turned them into just plain beautiful songs of faith and inspiration. She was like a respectful cabaret singer. Hope St. Anthony’s has her signed to a long-term, you know what I mean?
Meanwhile, all we can do is assume that the Big Guy has signed you to a real long-term pact, giving you eternal space in a lineup with a good leadoff man and some solid protection behind you in the No. 5 spot. I’m pretty certain that’s the way it’s going to be, Tony, because we all heard it in the First Reading, which was taken from the Book of Wisdom. I know the author had to be thinking of you when he wrote this one:
The souls of the just are in the hands of God, and no torment shall touch them.