Friday, July 8, 2011

Rhode Island Day 2011 Evokes Memories of the Recently Departed

It was almost as eerie as it was saddening.

On October 3 of last year, only a few hours after the Boston Red Sox dropped the curtain on their rough 2010 campaign, the Rhode Island and New England baseball community lost a beloved figure in PawSox owner Ben Mondor.

And then, on April 1, hours before the BoSox were to commence this season, the hardball world yet another important Ocean Stater in Lou Gorman.

On top of the news that “Impossible Dream” manager Dick Williams passed away on Thursday, it is bound to be a bittersweet Rhode Island Day at Fenway Park this evening as the Sox engage the Orioles. Odds are all three figures will meet up and watch the festivities together from the Ultimate Skybox, but one wishes they could have stuck around these parts a little longer.

Williams had no direct involvement or influence on Rhode Island baseball, given that his Fenway stint ended immediately before Pawtucket garnered a Red Sox affiliate. But naturally, his leadership during the 1967 season stimulated rooters from Aquidneck Island and the Providence Plantations as much as anyone in the Hub’s sphere of influence.

Not long after Williams sought a slightly more fruitful gig in Oakland, Mondor demonstrated an indubitable appreciation for the importance of baseball to Rhode Islanders. He stabilized the PawSox and became the most unmistakable personality on the local sports scene over the subsequent three-plus decades.

Gorman, who briefly played for the last incarnation of his hometown Providence Grays in the late 1940s, represented his home state as an accomplished Major League executive. He was the first in an ongoing string of New England products to hold the office of Red Sox GM (succeeded by Dan Duquette and later Theo Epstein).

And were it not for one absurdly ill-timed, blunderstruck inning in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, Gorman, rather than Epstein, would have had the distinction of assembling the championship drought-splashers.

After his last Major League job ended in the late 1990s, Gorman was humble enough to return to his roots and keep applying his influential touch. He joined the likes of Mondor as a key Rhode Island baseball executive, overseeing the affairs of the New England College League’s Newport Gulls.

In all but one of their last 10 seasons, some with Gorman serving as the team Chairman and others in an unofficial capacity, the Gulls have seen a steady increase in attendance. They went from an average of 676 fans per game in 2001 to a nightly median of 2,284 last season. And they have led the NECBL’s attendance leaders five years running.

It is not unlike the protracted, exponential increase the PawSox experienced throughout the Mondor era, which practically necessitated McCoy Stadium’s 3,000-plus seat expansion in 1999.

Surprising, is it not, that there were times when drawing wholesome quantities of fan interest was an onerous task for any New England baseball franchise. But Williams, Mondor, and Gorman all answered the bell when those challenges confronted their respective teams.

For that reason, all three men should be the subject of much reminiscence amidst tonight’s celebration of Rhode Island’s role in Red Sox Nation.