LINKS LETTER, 2009 ANNUAL EDITION

A WHOLE NEW BALLGAME

By Jeff Hopper

When Carlton Fisk’s towering home run crashed off the left field foul pole to give the Boston Red Sox the sixth game of the 1975 World Series, one of his closest witnesses was longtime Red Sox infielder Rico Petrocelli.

The 12-inning showdown is still regarded as perhaps the most compelling game in Series history, and Petrocelli himself considers the whole seven-game affair—though it resulted in an eventual loss to the Cincinnati Reds—as one of the chief highlights of a career that included another Series in 1967, three All-Star Game appearances, and his fair share of MVP votes in three different seasons. It was also the virtual swan song for Petrocelli, whose career waned and closed the following season.

Petroccelli still resides in New England, semi-retired, making corporate appearances and keeping a speaking schedule. And last year, Petrocelli did what a number of other golfers around the country are doing. He started a Links Fellowship, allowing golfers to meet regularly for Bible study and prayer.

It’s a life that seems as tidy as you might expect for a former professional athlete, but the story of how Petrocelli and his wife Elsie made it this far needs telling, for it reveals the need for God in the life of even “a man among men.”

In 1969, Elsie Petrocelli was diagnosed with uterine cancer. After a successful partial hysterectomy, doctors told the Petrocellis that if five years passed without a recurrence of the cancer, she was probably in the clear.

“Those were the worst five years of my life,” Rico Petrocelli says now. “We had four small children and we were both 27 at the time and I started worrying more and more as the years went by. ‘Will it happen this year?’ I kept asking myself, all the way up until the fifth year.”

It was at this point that Petrocelli began to feel overwhelmed by the growing weight of possibility.

“I’m telling you, not only was I worried, but I was depressed, I was getting depressed bad. Finally, one night we got down on our knees and prayed for the Lord to help.”

Petrocelli’s upbringing was Catholic, but he admits that until this event in his life he had no real relationship with God.

That’s when Pat showed up. On an otherwise normal night in the Red Sox clubhouse. All of a sudden, in the days when there was no such thing as a team chapel, here was this guy walking around a major league clubhouse telling the individual players he was praying for them. He didn’t go unnoticed.

“They called up to the front office,” Petrocelli recalls, “and said there was some crazy guy here talking to the guys about God. He had just walked right in, which was a miracle in itself, because they had security people right at the door and nobody got in. He got in. It was incredible.”

Petrocelli walked over and started talking to Pat. They shook hands and headed out for a cup of coffee.

It turned out that Pat had his own big struggles. His son, one of three children, had been born with cystic fibrosis. He told Rico, “We just prayed.”

So when Petrocelli told Pat about his anxieties, Pat responded frankly. “He told me what to do as far as trusting in God—have a relationship with God, really trust, take it off your back, off your shoulders, give it to the Lord,” Petrocelli says. “‘So what do I have to do?’ I asked him. He said, ‘We can pray and commit your life to Christ.’ And I said, ‘OK, I’ll do it.’”

Of course, Elsie’s healing was foremost in Petrocelli’s mind. But Pat encouraged Rico to keep praying, and he gave the ballplayer a Bible. “Don’t worry if you don’t understand it,” Pat told him. “Just keep reading.”

Petrocelli and his new friend began meeting regularly. Pat would even follow the Red Sox on the road. At first it was just the two of them. But later others joined them, including right fielder Dwight Evans and infielder Denny Doyle, who both gave their lives to Christ as well.

“So here we were,” Petrocelli explains, “every time we went out on the road and it was the weekend, Pat was there, and more guys came, and by the end of the season we had about 15 players and members of the press and TV, coming to these chapel services. It was just awesome—what a miracle!”

In the ensuing years, the Petrocellis plugged in at Grace Chapel, growing as a family in the Lord. Their children are strong in their faith and Rico and Elsie—whose cancer never returned—have been married 44 years. Meanwhile Pat’s son, the one with cystic fibrosis, is 38 years old and raising a family of his own. “Wow, did we see God work in him in a big way!” Rico beams.

Petrocelli’s post-playing career included time in broadcasting, minor league management (both on and off the field), and in business, which had always interested him. When he turned over his most recent business endeavor—a marketing company—to one of his sons in 2004, he settled into a more relaxed lifestyle. He makes appearances on behalf of the Red Sox, as well as a regional bank—and he takes time for golf.

When a friend from New Hampshire moved to Florida and became connected with a Links Fellowship there, Petrocelli heard about the idea of golfers meeting for Bible study and Christian encouragement and he liked it. But when he looked at the list of existing Fellowships on the Links Players web site, he noticed a big hole: no Fellowships in New England.

“I said, ‘I can’t believe this, there are none here.’ So I just said, ‘I’ve got to do this.’ I said, ‘Lord, I think you’re leading me,’ which He was, I know He was. So I called my son and two other friends and we got together.”

After that initial meeting and a decision to go forward based on the information supplied by the web site and Links Players regional director Randy Wolff, they started asking others to participate. By last fall the group had grown to 20 men.

“I’m trying to break it up,” Petrocelli explains, “so that those who live in different areas will start their own. The men say, ‘This is great, you know. It’s just a terrific help.’ So the Lord has really blessed it and we’re praying that He’ll continue to make it grow throughout New England.”

Rico Petrocelli’s ramp-up of his local Links Fellowship went rather quickly compared to others. But it followed years of struggle and then growth in faith in Christ and in knowledge of the Bible. They were years that taught Petrocelli that the excitement of seeing others follow Christ makes every effort in that direction worth it.

COPYRIGHT 2009 LINKS PLAYERS INTERNATIONAL

  • Rico Petrocelli

    Rico Petrocelli played in two World Series and was a three-time all-star for the Boston Red Sox, playing in the majors from 1963 to 1976.