Tomase: Remembering a long-ago gesture of kindness from Julio Lugo


June 21, 2008; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Red Sox shortstop Julio Lugo (23) warms up before the start of the game against the St. Louis Cardinals at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Just a quick story about the late Red Sox shortstop Julio Lugo, who died on Monday in the Dominican Republic, one day shy of his 46th birthday.

While the reporter-player dynamic is often collegial, every day begins with the possibility that it turns adversarial. That's just the nature of our respective jobs. Athletes perform, journalists inevitably criticize.

But there's a level of understanding that has always existed most uniquely in baseball, and that is the rarely articulated but ever-present shared experience of the full-time traveling writer who hits the road with the team in February and stays there until October.

Alex Cora, ex-Red Sox players react to Julio Lugo's death

Players are generally more accommodating with the traveling beat because they recognize the sacrifice. They know how it feels to say goodbye to their families, and so do we. They know how it feels to miss holidays, and so do we. They know how it feels to wake up and have no idea what city you're in because it's the end of a 10-day road trip, and did we go Detroit-Minnesota-Kansas City or vice versa?

And so it was that one afternoon in Tampa in 2008, I happened to be chatting with Lugo at his locker before a game against the Rays. In the Before Times, when reporters spent two or three hours a day in the clubhouse, such commonplace conversations helped athletes and media interact in ways that had nothing to do with why they booted that ground ball in the ninth or took that fastball down the middle for strike three.

I don't remember how it came up, but I mentioned that we had a newborn son at home and it was getting harder to leave. Lugo nodded vigorously. "Congratulations," he said, pumping my hand and clapping my back. "That's great. Is your wife doing OK?"

He mentioned that he had children of his own, and it tore him up to say goodbye, too. There was an earnest back-and-forth about the miracle of fatherhood that young parents share in ways that make world-weary old parents roll their eyes.

We were both young parents in our 30s. After a bit of conversation, Lugo reached into his locker, because he had something he wanted to give me.

He produced a pair of his batting gloves, still shrink-wrapped. He wanted me to set them aside until my son was old enough to play baseball, and then give them to him with an explanation that they once belonged to a player who tried his best every day, and my son should do the same.

I told him I couldn't take them. He insisted. I politely refused. He pushed. I explained that reporters don't take things from players, even little things like batting gloves.

"I'm a dad, just like you," he said, and jammed the gloves into my jacket pocket.

Honestly, I don't know what was wrong with me. He wasn't trying to buy positive coverage. I sheepishly left the clubhouse hoping no one had noticed. And when I got home from Tampa, I put the gloves in my son's room, alongside all manner of Celtics, Red Sox, and Patriots paraphernalia.

When I heard the shocking news that Lugo had died of a presumed heart attack after leaving a gym, I climbed to the attic and searched an old memory box. There amongst the macaroni necklaces, stuffed animals, and handmade holiday cards were a pair of red and white Franklin batting gloves, still shrink-wrapped and emblazoned with JL23.

I opened them and thought about Lugo's career. He won a World Series here in 2007, but he never came close to meeting the expectations that accompanied his arrival in free agency. The player who stole 39 bases with the Rays in 2005 and had long fascinated general manager Theo Epstein hit just .251 in parts of three seasons before being shipped to the Cardinals at the 2009 trade deadline for Chris Duncan -- another athlete who left us too soon, dying of brain cancer in 2019.

The light-hitting and error-prone Lugo is not the one I choose to remember. I instead think of the guy who made a small gesture of kindness to a new parent missing his six-month-old baby.

My son just turned 14, and like so many kids his age, baseball isn't his thing. He plays basketball, joins friends online for Minecraft, and argues with his younger sister.

He has no idea who Julio Lugo is. Today might be a good day to tell him.

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