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From Teddy Ballgame to Yaz, he’s seen it all from his seat at Fenway Park

Even a pandemic can’t dampen 84-year-old spirits on an Opening Day when hope springs eternal

John Kilroy, 84, is ready to attend another Opening Day at Fenway Park.
John Kilroy, 84, is ready to attend another Opening Day at Fenway Park.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

He walks slowly now, a revered father and grandfather, but days like this can transport him back to when he was a little kid — a 12-year-old from Jamaica Plain who sat in reverential silence each time Ted Williams approached the plate.

“Fifty cents,” 84-year-old John Kilroy said, recalling the ballyard’s price of admission and the days of his youth when the games were broadcast in black-and-white to big, boxy TV sets with antennas called rabbit ears.

He was eager to return to Fenway Park Friday to notch a personal record of his own: some 75 home openers at Fenway.

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As game time approaches, Kilroy plans to join a small group of family members as they walk toward the corner of Jersey Street and Brookline Avenue. Then they’ll step inside, joining some 4,500 fans allowed to watch the Red Sox play the Baltimore Orioles.

Flags will wave. An anthem will be sung. And another season like no other will begin.

A season of pandemic and despair. A season of hope that comes with the dawn of spring. Another blessed season of baseball in Boston.

And, again, Kilroy will be there.

“The fans love the Red Sox,” he told me this week. “They always will.”

Mr. Kilroy certainly has.

He’s cheered for the great Ted Williams. As a kid, he’d plunk down 50 cents and sit just about anywhere he wanted, watching up to 40 games a season. He’ll never forget the Impossible Dream team of 1967, the year New England’s love affair with the Red Sox was cemented.

He remembers — as many New Englanders do — the first time he walked up the ramp and spied the emerald infield and the impossibly manicured outfield. Who could ever forget that?

“Yeah, I remember,” Kilroy said. “Third base side. Twelve rows back. I was 12 years old. And I had me and my friend. We had tickets for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. And there were two girls — sisters — who sat behind us. They hated the Yankees.”

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As the years rolled by, the names in the box scores kept changing. Carl Yastrzemski. Rico Petrocelli. George Scott. Wade Boggs. Dwight Evans. Nomar Garciaparra. Mo Vaughn. Pedro Martinez.

But the man in the stands — the steady, unwavering fan with the well-worn scorebook in his lap — never did.

“Roger Clemens. I remember having a crush on him,” Tricia Burke, Kilroy’s daughter, told me. “And the idea of watching him and Wade Boggs and just knowing how important they were to my dad was special. My father would explain their stats to me. He showed me how to keep score.

“It’s deeply rooted in him. It’s just incredible.”

Forecasters are calling for springtime temperatures in the mid-50s Friday, and John Kilroy will walk into Fenway Park like a man returning to a comfortable home after a cold and miserable winter away.

“He’s just a simple man who loves, loves, loves his sports, and baseball is his first love,” said Maryanne Fitzgerald, 51, the older of his two girls, the daughter with whom he lives. “He used to keep score in pencil and saved all his programs.”

“The fact that he’s [84] and he still gets it and can talk about it and he’s so excited for this is great‚” she added. “He told somebody he’s going to the Super Bowl. But I loved that. I’m thrilled for him.”

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The Super Bowl. For John Kilroy, walking into Fenway Park means something even bigger than that. Something grander. Something that he has felt in his bones since boyhood.

John Kilroy, 84, with his Boston Red Sox World Series baseball and memorabilia baseball bat outside his home.
John Kilroy, 84, with his Boston Red Sox World Series baseball and memorabilia baseball bat outside his home.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

“It’s deeply rooted in him,” Tricia Burke said. “I’ll never have the passion that he has, but I get excited walking into Fenway Park. I don’t ever want Fenway Park to be different than it is today.”

Like father, like daughter.

But, of course, this is different.

Or maybe not. With the Red Sox allowing just about 4,500 people — or about 12 percent of Fenway Park’s capacity — into the opener on Friday, the old ballyard will recall for Kilroy the bad old days when the Rex Sox were cellar-dwellers and packed houses were as uncommon as a no-hitter.

Still, from where he will sit, a pared-down crowd will be better than none at all.

And it’s hard not to smile, thinking about John Kilroy taking his rightful place among the thinned-out Fenway faithful on Good Friday.

That’s the way Christine Slyne, Kilroy’s niece, felt about Friday’s opener.

“When he called and asked if I would be able to go to Opening Day, my first reaction was: I would be honored,” she said, “because it was such a bummer to miss it last year.

“And I know how important it is to him. I started to tear up because it was just like the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s a feel-good story, especially after this past year. It’s a big morale boost.”

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If you’re lucky enough to get a ticket next to John Kilroy this season, take some time between innings to ask him to review the highlights from his days in the grandstand under a brilliant summer sun or the bright lights that burn from the light standards after the sun sets.

Remember Carlton Fisk waving the ball fair after his game-winning home run in the 12th inning of Game 6 of the 1975 World Series?

John Kilroy does.

“I was there,” he said. “I was sitting on the third-base side. I was waving that the ball would be fair.”

Who wasn’t?

There are those moments of cherished triumphs. And too many squandered chances.

But on Friday, as he settles into his seat — into the comfortable embrace of the old ballpark — it will be time for a fresh start. Time to open a brand-new scorebook.

So what about the home team’s chances this year as the calendar turns to April, when the hardball slate once again has been wiped clean?

“They need pitching,” their longtime and ardent fan said. “Like all teams do.”

He speaks the truth.

He’s seen it all.

Play ball.


Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.