When the voting ends on Nov. 9, Jimmy Rollins surely will emerge as the fan’s choice for shortstop on the all-time Scranton/Wilkes-Barre minor league baseball team.
And he should. After being promoted to the Bigs, Rollins, who played for the Red Barons in 1999 and 2000, became the National League MVP in 2007 and was a key player for the 2008 World Series champs.
But my favorite Red Baron is another shortstop, Nick Punto.
Nick won my heart for something he did on the field at Lackawanna County Stadium, but not during a ball game.
During the summer of 2001, my friends Tom Robinson and Bobbi Steever asked me if I could provide publicity for the Greater Wilkes-Barre Association for the Blind, now known as Northeast Sight Services. They had taken on the challenge of trying to raise a few million dollars for a new building.
They introduced me to executive director Ron Petrilla, who eschewed the title “Doctor” that his PhD afforded him. I was trying to come up with a PR angle, and when Ron told me he would be taking a busload of clients, all blind or seeing impaired, to a Red Barons game, I had one.
I told him I’d meet the bus at the ballpark and asked him to select a few clients for a photo with The Grump, the Red Barons mascot. Ron wound up picking only one, but his choice set some exciting things in motion.
Joe Bogwist, blind since birth, was a 40-something Philadelphia Phillies fanatic. He listened to all their games on the radio and TV. He was thrilled when I hung a field pass around his neck.
“Tell me when we’re on the field,” he said, and when I did, he asked, “Can I touch the artificial turf?”
Watching him on his knees made me contemplate how those of us blessed with sight take so many things for granted.
“Can I touch the dirt around home plate?” he asked when he stood up, and away we went.
“Can I run the bases?” was his next request, but by then a security guard was approaching.
The game was about to start so I showed our credentials, got the photo, and started to take Joe out to the rest of the group in the right field bleachers.
But I was enjoying his company too much.
“Joe,” I said, “let’s see how far these passes can take us.”
Well, they took us right into the press box and the folks there gave Joe the experience of a lifetime. They could not have been any nicer.
When it came time to leave, I stopped Joe and wound up saying the dumbest thing I’ve ever said. I told Joe I wanted to paint the scene for him and talked about the view from up above home plate and all the colors below us. And then I added, “Joe, if you could see, you’d be so happy.”
“Ed,” he said, “I’m happy.”
I felt horrible. How could I think only those who can see can be happy?
Joe quickly forgave me.
Joe told me he earned his living as a singer, and my wheels started turning. I asked if he could sing the National Anthem.
“With my guitar, with an orchestra, a capella, anyway you want it,” he said.
The next day, I called the Red Barons. They told me they’d gladly have Joe sing the National Anthem but they were all booked. We’d have to wait till next year.
I got back to them the next April, but by then had expanded my plan. I wondered if I could find a blind person to throw out the first pitch at the same game. And I did. Atty. Michael Ference of Hanover Township said he would give it a shot.
And with Ron’s, and Tom’s, and Bobbi’s help, we planned the first Blind Association Night at a Red Barons game.
On the day of the game, Joe, Mike, and I met early at the stadium to practice. Joe sang, Mike threw a few pitches, and then Joe and I ran the bases. We walked from third to first so he could “see” how long a throw it is. Then from home plate to the centerfield fence so he could get the feel of a home run.
This is where Nick Punto comes in.
We looked over and standing by the dugout was this good-looking, young guy in a Red Barons uniform.
“I heard the singing,” he said, “so I came up to see what’s going on.”
When we told him, he said, “Let me get out some stuff.” And he brought out bats, and batting helmets, and catcher’s equipment. And Joe tried it all on. Nick posed for pictures and made a big fuss over Mike Ference’s 8-year-old son.
Nick was 24 and a long way from his home in San Diego. And he was a shortstop in a system that had an all-star, Jimmy Rollins, at the same position.
“I can’t control any of that,” he told me. “All I can do is play my best.”
Nick Punto made the International League All-Star team that summer, and wound up playing 14 seasons with six different teams in the Major Leagues. He was on the World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals in 2011.
A couple of last things:
Joe Bogwist got a standing ovation for his National Anthem and Atty. Mike Ference shocked the crowd by throwing a strike. But right before his pitch, with TV cameras all around, his little boy tugged on his pant leg and said, “Dad, I have to go to the bathroom.”
“I got this,” I told Mike and went looking for Nick Punto.
Years later, I ran into Mike Ference and he said riding home in the car that night with his wife driving and his kids in the back seat, he was on top of the world. He couldn’t believe what he’d just accomplished.
“But all my little boy kept saying was, ‘Dad, I got to pee where the ballplayers pee.’”
You can vote for the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre all-time team at swbrailriders.com.
Ed Ackerman writes The optimist every week for Greater Pittston Progress. Look for his blogs during the week at pittstonprogress.com.