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This giving of their ballpark is as good as it gets

To many people in New England, Fenway Park is -- and this is neither sacrilege nor misuse of the language -- a shrine. And no one knows that better than the people who own it.

"You can't believe how many requests we had from people to make use of the ballpark," reports John Harrington, now happily ensonced as executive director of the Yawkey Foundation.

In part because of the potential wrath of legendary groundskeeper Joe Mooney, and in part because he had a strong desire to maintain the special aura of the park Clark Booth used to refer to as the "baseball basilica," Harrington was extremely judicious in loaning/renting out the park when the team was on the road. There was, of course, an annual Jimmy Fund affair, which made sense because since the days of Ted Williams and Tom Yawkey the Jimmy Fund has been entered into the public's mind as a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Boston Red Sox.

There wasn't much else.

"It's a very big pain in the neck to carve out a day or two," explains Harrington. "We had the Jehovah's Witnesses in once, and we had the Beanpot Baseball Tournament every year. But you talk to Joe Mooney or [current groundskeeper] Dave Mellor, and they'll tell you what a strain on the park it is. At the same time, we did want to make the park available to worthwhile causes."

So it came to pass that, six years ago, Harrington made one of his best decisions ever. That's when he opened up Fenway Park to Action for Boston Community Development, the local anti-poverty agency that has been serving this community with pride and distinction for 40 years. The event was dubbed "Field of Dreams," and the idea was that local corporations would be willing to put up money for employee softball teams to perform on the Fenway Park diamond as a daylong fund-raiser.

The seventh "Field of Dreams" will take place June 2, and this current Red Sox regime should know that continuing this partnership with ABCD ennobles them. The money raised through "Field of Dreams" will go over the $1 million mark this year, and it never has been more appreciated than it is right now, when ABCD is desperately trying to stay afloat in the face of the most massive governmental indifference in its four decades of existence.

These are very hard times for ABCD, which has been forced to lay off needed staff and cut vital programs to a constituency that needs more advocates than ever, not fewer. The gap between we Haves and those Have-Nots -- and if you have cable, ate out this week, or went to the movies, you qualify as a "Have" -- is enormous, and it is growing.

You don't like prices? Too bad. At least you have a car. Most of ABCD's clients have more pressing issues in their daily lives than which late-model car I should drive to work.

"ABCD is grateful beyond words to the Boston Red Sox for making possible once again this grand ABCD "Field of Dreams" softball tournament at historic Fenway Park," says ABCD president and CEO Robert Coard, who, like all his employees, is a tireless advocate for the poor and forgotten members of our society. "When so many corporate sponsors pitch in over the years to raise a million dollars for ABCD programs, it means that the struggling families we serve -- including thousands of African-American, Latino, and Asian families throughout Boston's neighborhoods -- have hope and opportunities and have better lives."

Harrington no doubt heard from people representing many worthy agencies and charities. So why did he choose ABCD?

"I saw ABCD as a social service agency that served defenseless children," Harrington says. "I saw homeless and hungry kids."

He was right about that, of course. But ABCD is also about elderly people in need of fuel assistance, a hot meal, housing, or perhaps just someone to talk to every now and then. It's about job training. It's about that old parable concerning the difference between giving someone a fish to eat and giving them a fishing pole and some bait. It's about a world that we privileged types sail over, under, around, and through every day of our lives."

The people who work for ABCD are all givers, with no take. No one gets rich working there. The money raised by "Field of Dreams" will be for client services, not office furniture or leisurely lunches.

This is the ultimate win-win proposition. The participants get themselves the thrill of a lifetime, playing ball (soft, hard, who cares?) at Fenway, and doing it for this most worthy of causes. It is, of course, a photo-op extraordinaire, as fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, sons, daughters, and next-door neighbors step into the same batter's box that Manny or David Ortiz occupied the night before.

Some firms have been participating since that first year, 1998. Among them are the lawyers from Ropes and Gray and the doctors from Partners Health Care, who traditionally start playing early in the morning before heading off to perform surgery.

John Henry, Larry Lucchino & Co. have known from Day One that the ballpark is the ultimate franchise superstar. Witness the many ways they have broadened the Fenway experience, such as the postgame parade around the park following the Sunday games. But they should know that, while it is nice for a wide-eyed youngster from suburbia or a lifelong fan from Caribou to walk on the field, nothing they do with their precious ballpark is as meaningful as making it the ABCD "Field of Dreams" each June.

"Homeless children and families, old residents who can't heat their homes in the winter, teen-agers who rise above appalling circumstances, all benefit from Field of Dreams," reminds Bob Coard. "We thank the Boston Red Sox for their outstanding contributions to those in need."

It will be Wednesday, June 2. Stop by. ABCD will appreciate your moral support, and they wouldn't say no to a check, either. Look at it as one less fashion statement you didn't need, anyway.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com. 

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