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A promise kept

Utah children live their father's dream of seeing Red Sox play at Fenway

James W. Taylor Jr., a Life Flight nurse who died in the line of duty, had promised to take his family to Fenway Park. James W. Taylor Jr., a Life Flight nurse who died in the line of duty, had promised to take his family to Fenway Park. (COURTESY TAYLOR FAMILY)
By Stan Grossfeld
Globe Staff / September 4, 2008
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When two medical flight helicopters collided near a Flagstaff, Ariz., hospital June 29, a promise died.

It was a sacred promise from a Red Sox-loving father to his three young sons. On his 37th birthday in August, they would make the 2,100-mile pilgrimage to see the Red Sox play in Fenway Park.

By all accounts, James W. Taylor Jr. was no ordinary dad. He was a hero.

He loved to save lives. He was an emergency room nurse who served as a first lieutenant in the US Army Reserves. He had treated medical burn victims from Desert Storm while stationed in Germany. Once a month he commuted from his Eagle Mountain, Utah, home to serve as a Life Flight nurse 500 miles away in Page, Ariz.

Baseball was his passion and he loved to play ball with his kids.

As a child he was drafted by a Little League team named the Red Sox and became inquisitive about the big leaguers. He fell in love with the 1984 Red Sox of Boggs, Rice, and Clemens. He decorated the house for Red Sox playoff games. He once even painted a Boston "B" on a mare he owned. When he finally went to Fenway Park in 2002 on a stop with the Army Reserves, a fan gave him a seat behind the Red Sox dugout.

"He came back saying the Red Sox fans were the greatest in the world," said his sister, Laurie Brady.

With his intense work schedule, Taylor would tape Red Sox games. Then on Saturdays, his boys - Mason, 10, Weston, 9, and even Jackson, 4, who is autistic - would watch the team together.

When Mason was drafted by a team called the Yankees, it bugged Taylor so much that he decided to coach a team called the Red Sox. But that was to be next year, and next year never came.

Taylor and six other people were aboard the Life Flight chopper that was transporting a man injured in the Grand Canyon. They were near Flagstaff Medical Center when the crash occurred. Only Taylor survived, but he was in critical condition. Most of his bones were broken and he was unrecognizable, according to Brady.

For five days, Taylor's sons were not allowed into the Intensive Care Unit to see their father because of the extent of his injuries.

But when things took a turn for the worse on the Fourth of July, the sons were ushered in to say goodbye to their father.

"My dad was in there, [too]," said Brady. "Mason stayed in there with his dad for a while, holding his hand. He couldn't let go. He was in there watching highlights of Red Sox games, believe it or not. Mason just looked up at him with tears in his eyes and said, 'Now I will never be able to get to see a real Red Sox game with my dad."

A Nation responds

Jim Taylor, a Vietnam veteran, broke down in tears but then recovered and hugged his grandson. He told him that although his dad wouldn't be there physically, he would always be there "in spirit and in heart." And he, too, promised to somehow get them to Fenway.

Brady posted a letter addressed to Red Sox fans on MLB's Red Sox fan forum relating the tragedy.

"I'm writing in hopes that there will be someone, somewhere that will read this story. Somehow, someway our family will find a way to get my brother's boys to a Red Sox game. With all the expenses of the funeral we may need help . . ."

And Red Sox Nation took it from there.

"I was suspicious at first," said Tom Nardozzi, a Red Sox fan from New Hampshire who quarterbacked the drive. "I asked her what she needed and she said, 'Damn near everything.' "

More than $2,000 in donations from as far away as New Zealand and Denmark were collected by Cyn Donnelly, a longtime Red Sox blogger. JetBlue donated eight round-trip tickets from Salt Lake City to Boston. Fight promoter Al Valenti took the family to Regina's in the North End but when he tried to pick up the check, the restaurant told him there would be no check.

Nardozzi bought the Taylor family eight box seats just up from the Red Sox' on-deck circle. But he didn't want to talk about his act of kindness.

"Whaddya mean why am I doing this? It just seemed the right thing to do. A 10-year-old boy loses his dad. The common connection is Red Sox baseball. I love the Boston Red Sox. Why not?"

For the three Taylor children, game day - last Friday night against the Central Division-leading Chicago White Sox - was shrouded in secrecy.

"It was all a secret," said their mother, Traci. "They only know that they will see a Red Sox game. They asked only if they could get there a half-hour earlier, they'd love to try to get an autograph."

They also said they wanted to go to the Museum of Science. They heard that the Bloody Sock was on display.

But they were in for treats far greater than dirty socks. Mr. Bloody Sock himself, Curt Schilling, agreed to meet the boys in the media room before the game. One condition, according to his publicist. No media. The Red Sox also appointed the two oldest Taylor kids honorary bat boys and the entire family would be given a VIP tour and allowed on the field pregame.

"[Schilling] hugged the kids, picked them out by name, he was great," according to Nardozzi. "He gave them signed jerseys."

Out on the field, an injured Mike Lowell found out about the boys' plight.

"Bring 'em over here," he said, inviting the boys to sit down with him.

Dustin Pedroia - Mason's favorite player - stopped by and gently placed his hands on Mason's shoulders and signed the back of Mason's No. 15 uniform.

He would reach base safely on his next 11 consecutive plate appearances.

"Awesome," said Mason.

Jonathan Papelbon wandered over.

"Cinco Ocho, baby," he said, extending his famous right arm, before signing autographs.

Jacoby Ellsbury, who was on his way down the dugout steps to the clubhouse, did a speedy U-turn when he heard about the Taylor boys.

"We'll try hard to give you guys a victory tonight," he said, putting his arm around the blond-haired boys, now seated in the dugout.

"Wait!" he told a photographer. "Let's shoot another picture, I wasn't smiling enough."

'I miss his smile the most'

The boys were taken to the batting cage behind the dugout, and unpacked the Sox' helmets and placed them into the cubicles. They unpacked the pine tar and rosin bag and were given a couple of pieces of Dubble Bubble gum for late-inning energy. They pulled their Curt Schilling-signed rookie cards out of a zip-locked bag and scooped sacred soil from the warning track.

Nardozzi had a smile on his face.

"These kids are floating 10 feet off the ground," he said.

After a VIP Fenway tour, the boys were introduced as honorary bat boys and posed with Wally behind home plate, and were shown on the Jumbotron.

Then they settled into their third-row seats. Their donors sat in the bleachers.

The Taylor boys bought rally monkeys and the Sox immediately scored twice. They sang "Sweet Caroline" like Fenway veterans. They good-naturedly teased a White Sox fan sitting behind them and did elaborate handshake routines when the Sox scored, which was often in an 8-0 rout.

And they thought about their dad.

"I miss his smile the most," said Mason. "But he's up there watching us. He's above the John Hancock sign."

Weston agreed.

"Yeah, he is up there . . . looking down at me and Mason and my other brother and my mom."

Jim Taylor watched his grandchildren and put it all into perspective.

"I know this is what my son would have wanted," he said softly. "What's really important in life is your family. You've got to cherish your family because you don't know if today or tomorrow you won't be here. These boys had the dream of their lifetime. They'll always remember all these people. It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing. And we are indebted to you folks for the rest of our lives."

Stan Grossfeld can be reached at grossfeld@globe.com.

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