FORT MYERS, Fla. - Momma knew best.
Johnny Pesky was ready to grab the cash - such as it was. He was leaning toward the Red Sox after scout Ernie Johnson made his living room pitch, but the Cardinals moved in at the 11th hour and were offering a little more money than the $500 the Red Sox were discussing. It was 1939, Depression time. Any extra dollar would have meant a lot to the Paveskovich family of Portland, Ore.
But Maria Paveskovich did not want to hear it.
“She said, `No, no, no Johnny,’ “ Pesky recalled. “‘I don’t care about the money. You go with Mr. Johnson. He will look out for you.’ “
And thus was born a 65-year relationship that added another sweet chapter yesterday when the Boston Red Sox formally named practice field No. 2 at their minor league complex the “Johnny Pesky Field.”
“You’re only supposed to get something like this when you’re dead,” he quipped.
The Red Sox couldn’t afford to wait. The irrepressible Johnny Pesky is liable to outlive Theo.
At 84 going on 31, Johnny Pesky remains a viable member of the Red Sox family. His institutional memory would be enough to justify his presence in uniform (attention, Dan Duquette: shame, shame, SHAME!), but the active octogenarian has far more to offer than a few Thumper stories. He still swings baseball’s most sophisticated fungo, for one, and he remains a walking “How-To” instructional for every new generation of infielders. He is Red Sox baseball, past, present, and future.
“Does this mean I have a lifetime job?” he laughed, looking at CEO Larry Lucchino.
“I didn’t say that,” Lucchino replied. But almost in the same breath, that’s exactly what he said. Johnny Pesky will truly be a Boston Red Sox for life. We all heard him, and we’re holding Mr L to it.
Which doesn’t mean Johnny thinks he’s any big deal. “We’ve had better players to name fields after than me, for God’s sake,” he insisted. “This is embarrassing, really. I was just an average player. I was no Nomar, no Aparacio.”
Speaking of the incumbent shortstop, he was one of the current players taking part in the ceremony. He and Pesky have been close since the first day they met, and it’s pretty safe to say that Pesky is Nomar’s No. 1 fan.
And vice versa.
“You had a pole all this time,” Garciaparra said. “Now you have a whole field.”
About that right-field foul pole . . .
“Mel Parnell started that,” he explained. “I won a game with a home run down the right-field line against the Athletics. Elmer Valo nearly broke his elbow trying to catch it. But I didn’t have any power, and I knew it.”
A lifetime .307 hitter who had just 17 career homers, Johnny Pesky was a classic table-setting hitter and an integral member of the Red Sox in those notable, but frustrating post-World War II years between 1946 and 1950 when they won more games than any team in the league and only had one pennant to show for it.
“This is a game that can break your heart or build you to the heavens,” he mused. “The Red Sox have not been a lucky club.”
Who better knows how baseball’s cruel fate can be than Johnny Pesky, who so long has been accused of “holding” the baseball on a relay throw from Leon Culberson while Enos Slaughter, running with the pitch, scored the winning run in Game 7 of the 1946 World Series?
He did, of course, no such thing. “Bobby Doerr defended me,” Pesky said. “Ted Williams defended me. Even Slaughter defended me.”
Johnny Pesky went away for a while. They traded him in 1953 and he spent time managing in the Pittsburgh organization. But he always remained a Bostonian, and now it’s as if those years away from the Red Sox never happened. The only team that means anything to him is the Boston Red Sox.
“The way they took care of me and my family, how could I feel otherwise?” he asks. He told a story about being summoned to general manager Eddie Collins’s office before he was about to leave to enter the service after the 1942 season and being handed an envelope. When he opened it, he found a check for $5,000.
“That money represented the down payment on a house my brother and sister still live in,” he said. “When something like that happens, you never forget it.”
He has served the big club as a player, coach, manager, broadcaster, and general all-around good-will ambassador. Not too many years ago, he even answered an SOS to finish managing a season in Pawtucket. His wisdom, his counsel, and his enthusiasm for the game he loves have benefited baseball, and the Red Sox in particular, for 6 1/2 decades.
They caught him off-guard yesterday. He had just come off the field and was heading to the shower when he was intercepted by Kerri Moore, an assistant to Dr. Charles Steinberg, the Red Sox’ executive vice president/public affairs. She redirected him to what used to be field No. 2, now Johnny Pesky Field.
“This means a lot to me,” he said. “I can’t explain exactly how I feel. This is the height of my baseball life today.”
The Red Sox being the Red Sox, the real highlight awaits. “There is nothing I want more than to see the Red Sox win a World Series,” said the man who attended his first big league camp in 1942. “I thought we were going to do it last year.”
Last year, last year. What? Did something happen last year?