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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."