PAWTUCKET, R.I. - He did not want the stadium named after him, and he more than likely would not have been too thrilled about what they were doing to perpetuate his memory now, but when you leave so many people behind who loved and respected you, the issue is out of your control.
That is why visitors to McCoy Stadium will now find a life-sized statue of the truly beloved Ben Mondor just outside the left-field foul pole, adjacent to what is known as the “Mondor Gardens.’’ At the base of the statue is an oft-heard Mondor passage that sums up his outlook on being involved in baseball:
“We’re blessed to make our living playing a little kid’s game on a field of freshly cut grass under God’s blue sky.’’
The ceremony in which the statue was unveiled and the speeches made took place Friday afternoon in a race to the crossing with a storm. As he usually did, Ben came out on top.
Why a statue for Ben Mondor? Why not? Thirty-five years ago, Ben Mondor took a bankrupt and untrustworthy franchise known as the Pawtucket Red Sox - a team that could barely draw 70,000 people annually in a run-down mess of a ballpark - and turned it into as important a social, cultural, and philanthropic institution as there is in all of Rhode Island. He did this by virtue of both his business acumen and his enormous personal charm, and he did it customer-by-customer and business-by-business.
“If anyone deserves a statue, Ben does,’’ said Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Kilmartin. “The PawSox are one of the best organizations in all of American sport, not just baseball.’’
Kilmartin was one of many dignitaries in attendance, among them Pawtucket Mayor Don Grebien, Rhode Island Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Roberts, some state legislators and city councilors, plus Red Sox folk such as Joe Morgan, Dick Berardino, Frank Malzone, John Tudor, Lou Merloni, Tommy Harper, Mike Roarke, and Bob Montgomery.
The story behind the sculptor, who goes by the name Tayo, is fairly amazing. When Mondor, who died at 85 in 2010, assumed control of the PawSox’ fortunes in 1977, one of the first things he did to spruce up the 37-year-old, falling-apart stadium was to commission murals of past PawSox greats on the walls. The young lady who got the job, fresh from the Rhode island School of Design, was, yup, Tayo.
“I had to show him a portfolio,’’ Tayo recalled, “and I could see right away this was going to be an adventure.’’
Her first subject was Jim Rice.
“I really didn’t know much about baseball,’’ she acknowledged, “but what I do recall is that I started work in April and it was cold, so cold that the paint would freeze in the can.’’
She persevered, and as veteran PawSox fans will attest, she soon had the walls covered with her murals. In time, however, they had to sandblast the walls and she had to redo the murals on canvas.
“That didn’t bother me,’’ she said, “because they came out better the second time.’’
Her current creation is all the more remarkable, because this represents her first stab at a life-size statue. She had created smaller works in the past, but this was a very large responsibility, all the more so because she had grown so close to the great man over the years and she wanted to get it right.
“It does make a difference in your work if you know the person,’’ she said. “I knew Ben so well. I knew his spirit and his generosity, but he could also be powerful and strong. That’s why I have him holding a bat. I wanted that dichotomy the people who knew him would recognize.’’
Well, I knew him, and I can tell you the likeness is eerie. Team president Mike Tamburro, who along with general manager Lou Schwechheimer began working for Mondor 33 years ago, is similarly impressed.
“She got the shoes, his loafers, right,’’ he said. “He must have had 15 pair, all the same style. And she got the way his pants fell on those loafers.’’
Bob Montgomery took one look and said, “She got the ribbed bottom on his PawSox jacket. That’s definitely him.’’
Ben Mondor was 52 when he bought the team, and as the decades rolled on, I began to think, “Why couldn’t Ben be 20 years younger?’’
The way everything evolved in Pawtucket was almost too good to be true. Where else was anyone going to find a man with Ben’s singular touch and wisdom?
The answer, of course, is in the persons of Messrs. Tamburro and Schwechheimer, who really were the sons Ben never had, and who have clearly absorbed their lessons well. Right now, it’s safe to say that the PawSox are the PawSox are the PawSox, and always will be with Ben looking over his flock.
But following Ben Mondor is not unlike following Vince Lombardi, John Wooden, or even Johnny Carson. Surely, Mike Tamburro must find it to be something of a burden.
“It’s not a question of following,’’ he explained. “We spent 33 years together, and we’re still together. Ben was a big part of my life. We were attached at the hip. So I feel like I’ve lost a limb.
“But one of the things he loved to do was greet the fans before and after games. Now he’s still out here, interacting with fans.’’
And now I ask, why can’t Mike and Lou be 20 years younger? People of Pawtucket, I hope you realize how good you have it.