A couple of summers ago I heard that the North Shore Spirit, Lynn's minor league baseball team, had planned an instructional session for kids.
''How would you like to meet the Monster?" I asked my son, Aaron, who was 8 at the time.
''What Monster?" he replied.
The Monster was a real life person, Dick Radatz, who once played for the Red Sox, and struck out Mickey Mantle 47 times, I answered, repeating the legend that grew throughout New England over the years. (Only recently did the truth surface that Mantle struck out 12 times in 16 official at-bats against Radatz.)
"The guy who was one of the best relief pitchers to ever play for the Red Sox. He's the pitching coach for the Spirit," I said.
On the drive over to the park, I dutifully recited Dick ''the Monster" Radatz's remarkable statistics from 1962 to 1965. During that time, Radatz was virtually unhittable while playing for very bad Red Sox teams. Over those four years, he pitched in 270 games, threw 538 innings, won 49, saved 100, struck out 608 batters, and posted a combined 2.60 earned run average.
I knew the numbers because of my father. For my dad, Sam Rosenberg, baseball was not just a game to be played or watched, it was worthy of a lifetime of study. His bible was the baseball encyclopedia, which he read nearly every day for the last 25 years of his life. Secrets to greatness could be found in a player's statistics, he told me. Radatz had a chance to be the greatest reliever if only he had been used more sparingly, my dad insisted. ''If Radatz had been brought in to pitch one inning a game like today's relievers, then he would have made the Hall of Fame," he used to say.
The stress and toll of all those innings caught up to Radatz in 1966, and that year, he was sent to Cleveland. There would be other stops with the Cubs, Tigers and Expos, but by 1970 the Monster was through.
Old Fraser Field was hot the day Aaron ran out to the outfield. Rich Gedman, a former Red Sox catcher and current Spirit coach, was showing the kids how to catch a ball. I whispered to Aaron that Gedman had caught Roger Clemens and also played in the World Series. Then there was a look of awe that appeared on my son's face; the kind that is beautiful and unpredictable, and sometimes occurs when miracles happen. He moved closer to Gedman, soaking up every word the baseball instructor was saying. When Gedman was finished, Aaron asked me if he had caught Pedro, too.
''No, but he hit a home run in the 1986 World Series," I said.
There was more fielding, and advice from players on how to hit, and then the session was over. Gedman and Spirit manager John Kennedy happily signed autographs until it was time for the kids to go home.
But Aaron wanted one last autograph. ''What about the Monster?" he asked.
Right. The Monster. We couldn't leave without at least trying to get his autograph.
We found him in the corner of the outfield, sitting alone on a chair in a shaded section of the bullpen. The sun was hot, and Radatz had his hand on his forehead, and at first glance, it appeared he had dozed off. He was awake though, and lifted his head and smiled.
Aaron presented him with a ball to sign, and told Radatz that he also planned to become a pitcher. The old pitcher then returned the ball to my son's right hand, and formed Aaron's index and middle finger around the seams of the ball. ''You have to grip the ball right to throw," he said.
Aaron wanted to know about him and Mickey Mantle.
''Yeah, I don't know what it was about Mantle," he told Aaron, talking to him like he was an adult. ''He got some hits off of me though."
He shrugged when I asked if he would have had a longer career if he had pitched just an inning or two at a time. I sensed that it was not a new question, and that he had made peace with his managers' decisions a long time ago.
It was time to go, and he politely shook our hands, and wished us well.
When I told Aaron that Radatz had died in a fall last week at the age of 67, he was silent for a while, and shed a few tears. Death even comes to great ballplayers, we realized. Next month, during our annual pilgrimage to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, we're going to find a way to honor the Monster. Aaron's going to bring his picture; I'll have his stats in my pocket.
Steven Rosenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.