Wineka column Don Neal realizes his lifelong dream when he attends Boston Red Sox game at Fenway Park
There were four boys in Don Neal’s family, and he remembers the day they each chose the Major League Baseball team they would root for.
His older brother decided on the Cleveland Indians. His younger brother chose the New York Yankees.
Don’s twin brother went with the Chicago White Sox.
Maybe it was fate that drove Don Neal to the Boston Red Sox.
It was 1948, and he was 10. Ted Williams ó a.k.a. the Splendid Splinter, Teddy Ballgame, the Kid ó naturally became his favorite player.
Williams missed a couple of big chunks of his career serving as a Marine Corps fighter pilot, first in World War II, then in Korea. “He did what had to be done,” Neal says today. “He didn’t bellyache.”
You realize, of course, the bellyaching that came with being a diehard Red Sox fan.
No matter where he lived, Neal followed his Red Sox through the days of Williams, Yastrzemski, Lynn, Evans, Boggs and Clemens.
All you have to say are names such as Bucky Dent, Bill Buckner and Aaron Boone to understand the angst of Red Sox Nation during Neal’s first 55 years as a true believer.
The Curse of the Bambino was real.
But things changed with the treasured World Series win in 2004, followed up by the championship again in 2007.
Neal had always kept track of the Red Sox’s fortunes from afar. As a kid, he relied on scratchy radio broadcasts, newspaper box scores and fuzzy Game of the Week television offerings. In the modern era, he has added the Internet to his repertoire.
Through all those years, he never saw the Red Sox play in person. He had never been to their home field, Fenway Park. He had never seen the Sox play in any other Major League stadium.
Neal repeatedly told his wife, Penny, that before he “graduated” he was going to a Red Sox game at Fenway. But he kept putting off that No. 1 thing on his Bucket List.
Last winter, to celebrate his 70th birthday, Neal and Penny drove to one of their favorite restaurants in Kannapolis. Waiting there were his son, Jason, and his girlfriend, Kelly Massaro, who had driven from Charlotte.
Neal’s daughter, Kellie, soon walked in the restaurant door after her 10-hour drive from Pensacola, Fla.
Neal knew something special was up. For his 70th birthday, his family told him, he was going to the June 11 Boston Red Sox game at Fenway Park. Neal talked about the pending trip for the next four months.
Penny and Jason accompanied him to Boston. Penny had contacted the Fenway Ambassadors, who told the Neals to be at the ballpark early, around 4:30 p.m.
Neal assumed they would be part of a large tour group. But Fenway Ambassadors Courtney and Garo met only the Neals at the entrance and became their exclusive guides.
“This is your first time, and we want you to remember this birthday,” one of the ambassadors told him.
They gave Neal, who doesn’t always walk well, the use of a wheelchair and pushed him onto the playing field to watch the Red Sox take batting practice.
Standing up, he took picture after picture of the players who seemed like family: Lowell, Varitek, Drew, Lugo, Ramirez. He took a photograph of the electronic message board under the John Hancock sign because it had the game’s date ó a day he wouldn’t forget.
Courtney asked Neal where he wanted to go next. The Green Monster in left field ó the 38-foot-high wall that is Fenway Park’s iconic symbol ó became the obvious destination. Neal and his family rode up in an elevator, and he posed for pictures from the top of the Green Monster as the Baltimore Orioles took batting practice.
Several of the Orioles smashed balls their way.
“I kept saying, ‘Get it out of your system,'” Neal recalls.
Neal’s chance to meet famed Red Sox player Johnny Pesky fell through because Pesky ó he of Fenway’s “Pesky Pole” fame ó had to attend a funeral.
Before the ambassadors left him with a gift bag and well wishes, Neal saw the seat painted red in right field where Ted Williams hit the longest home run in Fenway Park history ó 502 feet.
He also took pictures of the Ted Williams statue outside Gate B before the game. His family’s game tickets were choice ó tucked in behind home plate and near the concession stands.
To Don Neal, who works in special projects marketing at Rowan Business Forms, the Fenway Park experience was his version of fantasy baseball. At the end of the first inning, his Red Sox owned a 5-0 lead. They went on to win 6-3.
In the middle of the eighth inning, he joined all the other fans in Fenway Park to sing Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.” In the ninth inning, his favorite closer, Jonathan Papelbon, sealed the deal.
Don and Penny Neal have a feeling this year that the Red Sox and Chicago Cubs ó her favorite team ó will meet each other in the World Series. If that happens, you might want to steer clear of their house in Spencer during game times.
Neal says he now plans to make the pilgrimage to Boston once a year.
As for his first trip, Neal describes it as surreal, actually sitting there in a narrow, wooden Fenway seat and getting a chance to stand on the field where men such as Teddy Ballgame once played.
“It was a blessing from the Lord,” he says. “It really was.”