Fenway, fandom unite farmhands
Park stirs feelings in young Boston, Tampa Bay prospects
BOSTON -- In many ways Matt Cooney and John Mollicone have lived charmed lives, and it's not just because they're able to play professional baseball.
Considering the long, often-torturous history of Red Sox fandom, the fact that Cooney, a catcher for the Boston affiliated Lowell Spinners, and Mollicone, now a first baseman for the Hudson Valley Renegades -- a Rays club in the short-season Class A New York-Penn League -- have seen two titles in the past four years is certainly extraordinary.
"I grew up a Red Sox fan," said Mollicone, a 27th-round pick of the Rays in the 2007 First-Year Player Draft and a native of Cranston, R.I. "The past few years [have been great]. I've always enjoyed watching them on TV."
"The highlight had to be the 2004 World Series, seeing people who had waited [86 years] for that," said Cooney, who grew up in nearby Arlington, Mass., and signed as a non-drafted free agent with his hometown team last year. "I went to school in Connecticut and there were a lot of Yankee fans, so I had to deal with a lot of trash talking."
Thanks to the Futures at Fenway doubleheader, now in its third year, this duo can do some boasting of its own. Just setting foot on the hallowed ground here is something most Minor Leaguers would kill for. The two locals met up in the first game of the doubleheader -- Triple-A Pawtucket hosted Charlotte in the nightcap -- with Cooney's Spinners beating Mollicone's Renegades, 4-3, on Will Middlebrooks' walk-off single in the bottom of the 12th inning. In many ways, it didn't matter what happened in the game. Just being here was reward enough.
"I've been watching the Red Sox my whole life, so this is pretty incredible," said Cooney, who had at least a dozen family and friends here to watch the Spinners. "I signed as a free agent. My friends have asked me, 'Would you rather have been drafted by another team or signed as a free agent with the Red Sox.' I tell them I'd take this any day."
Cooney might indeed have the edge in terms of Red Sox Nation fantasies come true, playing for a club within the organization. The 22-year-old backstop probably has a pretty firm grasp of reality as well, knowing that the odds of any non-drafted free agent -- let alone one struggling at the Class A level -- making it to the big leagues is slim. Getting the opportunity to wear a Red Sox-related jersey professionally, especially here at Fenway, is not something he's taking for granted.
"I get to share a clubhouse in Spring Training with the guys I've watched every day -- you can't beat that," Cooney said. "Being a part of the organization makes you feel like you're a part of the team. Getting to wear that B on your sleeve is incredible."
A year ago, the fact that Mollicone played for the Tampa Bay organization wouldn't have added that much drama to the day's proceedings. But while the 22-year-old catcher-turned-first baseman didn't feel it registered too much with the Renegades, it was hard not to notice the big American League East standings at the base of the Green Monster, showing the Rays 3 1/2 games up on the Sox.
Mollicone is obviously pulling for his parent club these days, but has distinct memories of rooting the other way not long ago. He recalled seeing Pedro Martinez pitch here, just like Cooney remembered with a smile coming to Fenway for his 19th birthday and seeing David Ortiz hit a walk-off homer to beat the Yankees.
"I knew Hudson Valley came here last year, so I didn't think we'd be coming this year," said Mollicone, who expected as many as 25 people to come to support him. "When I found out about a month ago that we were coming, I was pumped."
Both were showing a little extra juice during batting practice. As right-handed hitters, it was kind of hard for them not to notice that unique, tall, green feature out in left field.
"You try to stick to your plan and help the team, but it's tempting," said Cooney, who's got one professional home run. "I might have to try to sneak one out there."
"We were all trying to hit them over the Monster in batting practice," Mollicone said before the game. "I hope I got one or two out there. We were talking about it, we'll probably be trying to hit some bombs out there."
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.