The mild Florida evening had all the ingredients of a pleasurable one for Rico Petrocelli. He was surrounded by his wife Elsie and four fidgety children, and his mother and father and his brother and sister-in-law and their kids, and television was showing West Side Story that night. Being a New York boy, Rico felt he was watching a part of his childhood, played to music. He had already seen the film six times. What did it matter that he was mired in his usual spring training slump, with only a few hits sticking up like cacti in a batting desert, or that he had struck out twice earlier that day? This was the new Rico Petrocelli of the new Boston Red Sox. Let the rookies worry.
Baseball appears to be a simple enough game, but for too many years it was a frustrating one for Petrocelli, a moody, sensitive Italiano off the concrete base paths of Brooklyn. He could never enjoy true contentment between the sport's painted lines, defeated as he was in his search for a manager who would regard him as a son and teammates who would treat him as a brother. Petrocelli served his family first and then his sport, drawing strength from the closeness of the home only to have it dissipated by the fragmented personalities and harsh realities of the game. His priorities are the same now, but his stature allows him the luxury and relief of occasionally leaving worries in his locker, along with his glove.
"Ever since I been playing I never hit in the spring," said Petrocelli, turning away from the television set. "I usually start off slow. But as bad as things are going for me personally, I'd rather start the season tomorrow."
So, apparently, would all the Red Sox. Overshadowed in recent years by the American League's power children, the Baltimore Orioles, Boston is throwing away the old formula and trying something new. The 1972 team brings speed and defense to the aid of its remaining sluggers. "You won't see many of those high-scoring games anymore," says Outfielder Reggie Smith, one of the few belters still in a Boston uniform, the others being Carl Yastrzemski and Petrocelli himself.
"People say, 'How come the Red Sox don't win?' " Petrocelli continued. "Baltimore is how come. They have a lot of talent. They have depth. But their biggest asset is their defense. They have eight great defensive ballplayers out there, guys making the diving plays, the plays you usually don't get. And they've made them the last three years."
Since the pennant of 1967, the first for the Red Sox since 1946, team togetherness has been a sometime thing. It was the flare-ups of last season, aligning George Scott, Billy Conigliaro and Petrocelli against the Red Sox Establishment—Yastrzemski and Manager Eddie Kasko—that eventually reshaped the team. Scott and Conigliaro were sent to Milwaukee and Boston got some speed in Centerfielder Tommy Harper. The 10-player deal also opened up a couple of spots on the roster, and Kasko expects to fill them from a well of swifties in the club's minor league system. Harper stole 73 bases in 1969. The youngsters, First Baseman Cecil Cooper, Shortstop Juan Beniquez and Outfielders Rick Miller and Ben Oglivie, all can run and are being given a good look by Kasko.
True, there will be no place to run unless someone like Petrocelli can advance them. In 1969 Rico set an American League record for shortstops with 40 home runs, then tailed off slightly to 29 in 1970 and 28 last year as a third baseman. Seeking an antidote, Petrocelli cut down on the off-season lasagna and came to camp 15 pounds lighter. "When I'm hitting good," he said, "I'm swinging quick. I don't have the brute strength of some of the hitters who are just strong. By losing the weight I thought I might be able to be quicker with the bat. I can move a lot better and my hands feel just as strong. I'm working hard. I could hardly lift the bat today, because I took so much batting practice yesterday."
Which is cause for applause in Boston, considering Rico's past emotional torment. He was so twitchy last season after he had criticized Kasko for a lack of communication that he thought of putting his house up for sale in anticipation of being traded. But Owner Tom Yawkey called him in for a meeting and smoothed things over.
"I think a lot of people believe Yaz has something over all the managers," said Petrocelli, reflecting on the team's dissension after charges that Yastrzemski and not Kasko ran the club. "It's true that Yaz is friendly with Yawkey, but he doesn't control managers. Yaz is a great ballplayer and any great ballplayer is going to be friendly with the owner."
Like Yaz, Rico is a transplanted New Yorker, born 28 years ago in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn to Italian immigrants, Attilio and Louise Petrocelli, the youngest of seven children. Attilio scraped out a living in Manhattan's garment district, grinding scissors. As the baby of the family, Rico got plenty of affection at home, if not on the streets. "Outside of breaking windows when he used to play ball, I never had a complaint," said his mother. "He had all the older brothers to pamper him and to spoil him a little. If he wanted money he would go from one to the other. I don't know how many baseball gloves or footballs he had. We used to live across the street from the school and he used to just forget about them and leave them there. So the next day one of his brothers would go and buy him another."
Mrs. Petrocelli still beams at the memory of 3-year-old Rico being paraded around the neighborhood, wearing a New York Yankee uniform. "He always liked to play ball," she said, "even in an empty lot, kicking cans or picking up anything he could throw."
The elder Petrocelli came to America as a teen-ager and first worked in a foundry for 73¢ per 12-hour day. He recognized early that Rico's sporting exploits conferred special stature in his neighborhood. If baseball made the people respect you, then play baseball, was Attilio's reasoning. He wears Rico's 1967 World Series ring, respectfully.
Although Louise Petrocelli hoped that Rico would become a priest, it was obvious as he grew up that he had something more outdoors in mind. After he finished high school, the Red Sox invited him to Fenway Park for a three-day tryout. There he hit seven or eight pitches into the left-field screen, and the Red Sox offered him a bonus eventually worth $60,000. Older brother Davey said O.K., and Rico signed. "Davey's been following and helping me since I was in sandlot ball," said Petrocelli. "Every time I've gone into a real slump, Davey has always showed up at the house to encourage me. 'Don't worry about it,' he'd say. 'You're going to hit.' "
When the Red Sox play in New York Rico stays with his mother and father, and at the slightest provocation the entire 40-member clan gathers for a celebration. But rarely, it is safe to say, to lift a few glasses of Chianti to an ex-manager. Petrocelli was fined $1,000 and temporarily suspended for jumping the Seattle club in 1964 when he refused to play because, he said, he had a sore groin muscle. In Boston, Billy Herman fined him $1,000 in 1966 because of another walkout, this one taking place in the eighth inning of a game. Petrocelli went home to his sick wife. When Herman was fired, he said Petrocelli had contributed to his departure. "I think Billy wanted to fine me $2,000, but I wasn't making enough," said Petrocelli, who was drawing $10,000. "He was mad. Obviously, he didn't like me. I guess not many of them do. I just get that feeling. I don't know why. I'm a pretty quiet guy. Player relationships with managers are something you sense. I realize that a manager has a lot of things on his mind. Players on other clubs have talked to me, and they know when something's wrong with the relationship.
"I've never complained about a manager saying something to me. The only time I've complained about managers is like when they don't talk to you for three weeks. And that's not being a baby. That's the thing that a player hates most about managers."
Says Eddie Kasko: "Rico's a high-strung boy and takes things to heart. I don't think he's as tough-skinned as a lot of players."
Kasko's personality is the opposite of Petrocelli's. As a player he needed little encouragement, only a chance. "I knew my ability was limited and I did anything I could to stay in the big leagues," he says. "I think the game has changed in that more players today expect answers to questions. They don't take everything the manager says as gospel the way they did years ago."
Baseball, a team game, is no more team oriented than golf in one of its aspects. No one blocks for the hitter or sets a screen for him. It is the batter against the pitcher, a lonesome duel—and if you are not hitting and especially if you have an idea the manager doesn't much like you, life can be miserable. "I feel at one time that I really had the world on my shoulders," Petrocelli says. "The responsibilities on me, with my personality, were tremendous. Somebody else might have been able to handle it easier. I always wanted to be like Mickey Mantle or Ted Williams or the other stars. But if I didn't get a hit it was a disaster. Finally one day I realized that I had a certain ability. From that day on I relaxed. Now I can handle it much better. I've matured.
"My wife has been great. When I was first married I would come back from a game and just stare at the TV; just staring through it, thinking about baseball. Now I come back and play with the kids and just relax."
So begins the most hopeful season of Petrocelli's career. The kids don't want to leave because Florida has a lot of lizards and they spend their days trying to catch them. But Rico is in a hurry to get started. "When you're a contender," he says, "second place just isn't good enough."