In honor of Memorial Day (which was technically yesterday), I wanted to throw it back to last August, when I published my most personal column to-date. My grandfather wasn’t just a World War II veteran, he was the person most responsible for me becoming the baseball fanatic I am today. I know Memorial Day is actually for soldiers who died on the battlefield, but in my eyes, Charles J. Brucato is as worthy of an In Memorium piece as anybody who was lucky enough to make it back home from the Pacific Theatre.
Originally published: August 10, 2022
My grandfather was a Red Sox junkie.
Born in 1916, Charles J. Brucato was the amalgamation of virtually every cliché one could expect of a father to four Baby Boomers like my mom and her three brothers. He was a decorated marine veteran that fought all over the Pacific theatre during World War II. He was a local baseball (shortstop) and football (fullback) legend that played minor league baseball in the Philadelphia A’s organization, including one exhibition game against a worn down Babe Ruth. He was a long-tenured high school administrator.
He couldn’t hammer a nail, happily left all the housework to his wife, coddled his only daughter, and was stern with his three boys. He was the strong, silent type who had little use for movies or novels, but he loved to play cards, visit the dog track, and watch his Red Sox.
Every Italian boy in 1950s-era Milford, Massachusetts was a sports kid, and my uncles were no exception. They all played baseball and football through high school, with the omnipresent aura of my grandfather, and all the expectations that came with such a pedigree, continually hovering over their heads. That’s how he got the nickname that he carried throughout the last several decades of his life.
His eldest son, my Uncle Bronc (a nickname he inherited from the Orb, whose appearance and running style echoed that of NFL legend Bronco Nagurski), bore the lion’s share of those expectations. Bronc was a standout pitcher at Deerfield Academy and the University of Vermont. The Orb’s … unique brand of encouragement was a staple throughout his baseball career.
After attending one of Bronc’s more disappointing outings, and the even more disappointing on-field temper tantrum that followed, the Orb laid into him with a reprimand that would go down in Brucato family lore.
“You made an asshole outta yaself … and me too!”
As a mere grandson, one without a speck of athletic talent, I had no such encounters with the Orb. After a botched eye surgery and some struggles with depression sapped him of much of his enthusiasm, I found myself spending more time with him in his final years than virtually anybody else. I was a fixture at my grandparents’ house as a child, and I spent far too much time in front of the TV. And once Joe Morgan’s Red Sox took the field, if the Orb’s TV was not tuned to channel 23 (NESN) or 6 (TV38), it damn sure would be before the top of the first inning had concluded.
One night, while my grandmother was engrossed in a week-long airing of the miniseries The Thorn Birds, the Orb grew tired of waiting for commercial breaks to check in on the Sox. Just as a secondary character fell off his horse and found himself face-to-face with a hungry wild boar, the Orb brazenly flicked over to the game.
“Charlie,” my grandmother moaned, “do you know what you’re doing to me?”
The Orb shrugged with distaste, “the man’s being attacked by an animal. You really wanna watch something like that?”
I can’t say for sure if I fell in love with the Red Sox because I wouldn’t get my fat ass away from the TV, or if baseball was pre-programmed into my DNA like it was with Uncle Bronc. But by the time the 1988 Red Sox reached the All-Star Break, I was in it for life.
I learned about baseball at the feet of two masters … Jerry Remy and Charlie Brucato.
I was a second baseman, so Remy taught me all about shading to a hitter’s pull side, pivoting off the bag, and covering first on a bunt. But the Orb taught me so many baseball nuances that usually never make the airwaves of a MLB broadcast.
Once during a schoolyard baseball game (tennis ball and taped whiffle ball bat, of course) at Brookside Elementary School, somebody hit a pop up on the infield. One of my classmates yelled “Infield fly! He’s out!”
There was nobody on base, but nobody challenged the ruling because we were all baseball fans and knew that the infield fly rule was a thing. Of course, we’d also seen infield pop ups where the rule was not invoked, but none of us wanted to be the first to admit to not knowing the circumstances under which the rule truly applied. On we went for weeks, ruling any batter who popped one up on the infield automatically out.
Then one Sunday afternoon, I was sitting on the recliner across from the Orb’s couch when Mike Marshall popped out to third with the bases loaded, sending him immediately trotting to the dugout. It had never occurred to me to ask the Orb about the infield fly rule until that day.
“If there are runners on first and second, or on first, second, and third,” he never used terms like bases loaded or on deck, “the batter is automatically out if he hits a pop up to the infield.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Well, why do you think?” he asked right back.
I thought about it for at least a minute while he patiently lapped at a popsicle. When it finally came to me, I beamed like a proud honor roll student.
“So the fielder can’t let it bounce and double up the runners!”
A subtle nod and another lick affirmed that I was correct. I left a group of ten-year-old boys stunned on the playground the next day after imparting that knowledge.
But the vast majority of what I learned from the Orb are things you can’t look up in the Baseball Almanac.
For instance, one day when he was telling me about his days as the player-coach of a minor league team in Nova Scotia, I asked him where he batted in the lineup.
“Well, remember, I was the coach. I made the lineup. So, where do you think I batted?”
“I was the coach, Lukey! I batted third!”
That marked the day that I learned that the best hitters (at least up until the early 1990s) always batted third. I had always thought of the four-hole as the money spot in the order until then, probably because it carried the ceremonial cleanup designation. It wasn’t until that conversation that I took a moment of pause and realized that the more dynamic Ken Griffey Jrs and Will Clarks of the world always hit third, while the one-dimensional Jay Buhner and Kevin Mitchell types batted fourth.
When the Atlanta Braves began their run of National League dominance in 1993, I became enamored with the way Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine would dominate hitters by changing speeds and offering a diverse pitch mix. That happened to be Nolan Ryan’s last year in the Majors. While the Orb extolled the marvel of Nolan Ryan pitching 27 years in the Majors throwing 100 mph gas, he was amazed to see that I was unimpressed with the Ryan Express.
“He really only throws one pitch,” I arrogantly offered.
“Why can’t he throw anything else?”
“Why the hell would he?”
“To keep the hitters guessing. To keep them off balance.”
“Lukey, do you know what it feels like when a guy throws a 100 mph baseball at you?”
“No,” I grinned.
“You’re pissin’ yaself, fa cryin’ out loud! You’re not balanced!”
Simplicity often falls by the wayside for baseball fans. Simplicity, however, was the Orb’s specialty.
He didn’t love Mo Vaughn (he just called him Mo) because he put up MVP numbers. He loved Mo because he hit line drives all over the field. Statistics were largely above his purview, as were contemporary MLB salaries. Mo’s well-publicized contract negotiations irritated the Orb, despite his complete lack of comprehension of the figures in question.
“He wants a million dollars!” he once cried.
Mo would sign a 6-year, $80 million contract with the Anaheim Angels after the 1998 season.
The Orb also gave Nomar Garciaparra his official stamp of approval very early in his rookie season because of how hard the ball jumped off his bat.
“Just like DiMaggio,” he told me. “He hits everything hard.”
It’s a bummer that the Orb never got to see his Red Sox win a World Series. He was two years old when they won in 1918, and he was 83 when he passed away in 1999. My embarrassment of riches, seeing four World Series from ages 22 to 36, would astound him.
I’d pay good money to get his opinion of the Idiots team that took home the curse-killing title of 2004. My guess is that he’d call David Ortiz a “big fella” and Manny Ramirez a “hoss-shit” after seeing him stumble around in left field for a couple innings.
How big of an influence can the people around you shape your passions?
I’ve been a baseball guy my entire life, and it all started with watching too much TV in a house where the Boston Red Sox were appointment viewing. What would “my thing” have been if I hadn’t spent so much of my formative years with the Orb?
Honestly, I could care less. They’ll find 108 stitches on my heart when they perform my autopsy, and the anxious, trembling hands of the Orb sewed the first several on himself. If not for him, I may have never had the opportunity to to tell you all how much I know about the greatest game in the world.
And for that, we all owe the Orb a debt of gratitude.