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."