WINTER HAVEN, Fla. - They sneaked into the springtime home of the Boston Red Sox to gaze at the stars and snag a baseball or two to sell on the streets. They couldn’t have imagined the pride and profit they would later reap - or the pain they say they now share - because of one trusted Sox employee.
“Hey, kid,” Lee Ronnie Ogletree recalled former Sox clubhouse manager Donald J. Fitzpatrick first calling out to him from a golf cart at Chain O’ Lakes Park in 1971. “Do you want to meet some of the players?”
So began a disturbing odyssey for Ogletree, then 8 years old, and six friends and relatives. Enlisted by Fitzpatrick as clubhouse aides, the youths soon were associating with Sox greats such as Carl Yastrzemski, Dwight Evans, and Jim Rice. They earned more in a day than some of their parents made in a week as migrant laborers.
But in a case that threatens to scar the rich legacy of one of baseball’s most storied franchises, the seven have filed a $3.15 million civil suit in US District Court in Tampa against Fitzpatrick and the Sox. The suit accuses Fitzpatrick, now 72 and living in Randolph, Mass., of enticing, then sexually abusing the boys for more than two decades.
“I didn’t know I was actually being used, like this guy was hiring me to be a sex slave,” said Ogletree, now 38, during a meeting with Globe reporters and four other plaintiffs at their lawyer’s office in Bartow, Fla. “To me, the [Sox] let us be there to feed Fitzy’s habit. That’s the ghost that haunts Fenway right now.”
Horrendous as their charges may be, the men still face a wall of questions, including why they kept working for Fitzpatrick, a man who they say abused them at will. The accusers all are related, and several of them have had brushes with the law.
Still, they may not be alone in their allegations.
Fitzpatrick, a favorite employee of the late Sox owner Thomas Yawkey, is also suspected of recruiting and targeting a young aide at Fenway Park.
Two individuals with knowledge of the case said the club made a $100,000 out-of-court cash settlement with the aide after he stunned the team before a 1991 game against the Angels in Anaheim with a sign that read, “Donald Fitzpatrick Sexually Assaulted Me,” according to witnesses. The man, now a physician in San Diego, could not be reached for comment.
Fitzpatrick, a Brookline native, left the team after that road trip and never returned. He resigned four months later, according to news reports, but the reason was never made public.
In addition, the allegations raised in the lawsuit have led Florida police to conduct a criminal investigation, which is nearing its end after two months. Under Florida law, there is no statute of limitations on criminal sexual abuse involving children.
Fitzpatrick, who has no criminal record in Massachusetts, was contacted several times by Globe reporters but declined to comment. He directed all inquiries to his attorney, Joseph W. Monahan III, but Monahan did not return numerous phone calls over the past two weeks and was not available at his office.
`Epitome of corporate irresponsibility’
In their formal response to the lawsuit, however, Monahan and Fitzpatrick denied the allegations and asked that the case be dismissed. No court date has been set.
The suit contends the Sox knew that Fitzpatrick “was committing improper sexual acts on male black children” while he was with the team but did nothing to stop him.
“This represents the epitome of corporate irresponsibility,” said Neal L. O’Toole, a lawyer for the seven. “These gentlemen make millions of dollars selling baseball cards and paraphernalia to children, and they let [Fitzpatrick] run around their stadium molesting children for over 20 years.”
When the suit was filed in September, team attorney Daniel L. Goldberg said the Red Sox “absolutely abhor the conduct alleged in this case,” adding that his ability to comment was limited by the Florida criminal investigation. Goldberg said the Sox are fully cooperating with investigators; when contacted last week, he declined further comment.
In their motion to dismiss the claims against the team, the Red Sox contend that a four-year deadline to file civil claims for liability had expired in the case, and that Fitzpatrick alone is responsible for any alleged harm.
In interviews with the Globe and in the lawsuit, all seven men said Fitzpatrick had a pattern to his abuse: He watched them shower, then enticed them into a solitary setting, such as the windowless equipment room at the spring training complex.
There, they said, he invited them to try on Sox apparel, began playfully touching them, and ultimately performed oral sex on them.
They said Fitzpatrick also abused them in his room at the Holiday Inn - the team’s official hotel in Winter Haven - and in the visiting clubhouse at Chain O’ Lakes, which sat vacant between games.
When Fitzpatrick asked him if he wanted to help load the team’s bags on a bus, “I really felt big-time then,” Ogletree said. “I was only toting them onto the Greyhound, but I was a superstar because there were people around yelling for autographs. I think after that happened, he gave me $10 and we cleaned up the clubhouse and then . . .
“I’ll rest my case on that,” he said. “That’s when my nightmare started.”
Yet Ogletree and the others kept working for Fitzpatrick, even after several of them were old enough to understand and resist any alleged improprieties. They said they were lured back by the prestige, the chance to associate with some of baseball’s top players, and the money.
“Your friends would be outside the gates saying, `How did you get in there?’ “ said Eric Frazier Jr., 23. “You go from picking oranges for pennies to making $10 a ball. And you got 10 balls a day, and that doesn’t include the tips. Basically, you’re bringing home what your momma was bringing home, if you didn’t spend it before you got home.”
And, Frazier said, “While you’re wearing an iron-on jersey to school that you bought from Wal-Mart, I’m wearing Ellis Burks’s jersey - his jersey - with his autograph on it, and his hat.”
But Fitzpatrick, the seven allege, exacted a steep price.
“He had the power,” said Willie Earl Hollis, 45. “But he had a double personality. If you looked at him once, he was the nicest guy you’d ever want to meet. And other times, he changed” and his dark side emerged.
Whispers about hiring children
“But when you’re young like that, I felt good about what I was doing down there,” Hollis said. “I knew all the players, I’d go to games with them, bat-boy for them, drive their cars. I just felt good about myself working there. And I wanted to keep my job.”
Before the Anaheim incident, several former Sox personnel said, there were whispers about Fitzpatrick’s practice of hiring and associating with children. Fitzpatrick ran the visiting clubhouse during most of his supervisory tenure with the Sox, while the late Vincent Orlando oversaw the home clubhouse.
The plaintiffs said several Sox players and staff members expressed concern about Fitzpatrick. They said Orlando and former players such as Lee Smith, Rice, Dennis Eckersley, Mike Easler, and Sammy Stewart all warned them to be careful around him.
A number of former Sox clubhouse assistants, players, coaches, and executives who were contacted for this story - including former general partner Haywood Sullivan, a top team official at the time - either declined to comment or said they had no evidence to support or refute the group’s charges.
Eckersley said he knew nothing about Fitzpatrick’s private life during his first stint with the Sox. Former Sox hitting coach Richie Hebner and former manager Butch Hobson also said they were unaware of the allegations.
“We talked now and then, and I always found him to be pretty pleasant,” Hobson said. “That charge surprised me.”
Despite laying out details to support their stories, the seven are likely to face tough questions from lawyers for Fitzpatrick and the Sox. Chief among them:
Why did they wait more than a decade after Fitzpatrick left the team in 1991 to file the suit? Was the filing motivated by the pending sale of the team?
And why did at least three of them - Ogletree, Walter Covington, and Hollis - continue working for Fitzpatrick as adults, long after they say he first molested them?
Ogletree himself worked with Fitzpatrick both in Winter Haven and Boston until he was 25 and, as an adult, lived with Fitzpatrick in his Randolph condominium.
Several of the plaintiffs have criminal records.
Frazier entered a no-contest plea to a 1996 burglary charge. Covington said he served jail time for an undisclosed crime in another state. Ogletree pleaded guilty to cocaine possession in 1992, while Hollis has a 1975 conviction for assault and a 1984 conviction for driving under the influence, according to Florida records. Neither Terrance Birdsong, nor Myron Birdsong, nor James A. Jackson have felony criminal records.
In addition, all seven men are related to one another, and will share a heavy burden of proof: No one can independently corroborate their charges.
Fitzpatrick joined the Sox as a bat boy
By the time he left the Sox, Fitzpatrick had dedicated most of his life to the team. After joining the organization as a 15-year-old bat boy from Brookline High, his tenure was interrupted only by two years in the Army in the early 1950s.
Fitzpatrick knew Yawkey well and witnessed every major event in Sox history for several generations. And he was generally well regarded, even by reporters who covered the team. The Globe described him in 1990 as “a wonderful man” and the Boston Herald wished him good tidings during the 1991 holiday season.
By then, though, Fitzpatrick’s life was forever changed by the Anaheim incident, which unfolded Aug. 25, 1991. During batting practice before the Angels game, the former team aide leaned over the Sox dugout with the sign accusing Fitzpatrick of molesting him.
“I literally got on the phone to find [team president] John Harrington and [general partner] Haywood Sullivan to notify them,” said Steven August, then the team’s traveling secretary. “At that time, [executive vice president and counsel] John Donovan was still alive. It was just kicked to him.”
August also recalled Fitzpatrick’s reaction.
“I came back [to the clubhouse],” he said, “and Fitzy was basically cowering in a corner.”
Fitzpatrick completed the club’s West Coast road trip. But four days later, he walked away from his chores before a game at Fenway Park and never returned.
The seven plaintiffs said they never shared their secrets of Fitzpatrick’s alleged abuse until earlier this year, when Ogletree became increasingly troubled by flashbacks and nightmares.
“I woke up and saw things that happened to me,” Ogletree said. “It got so bad, I couldn’t hardly sleep. I said, `I’ve got to get this out of me some kind of way. It’s killing me.’ “