'He would help out any way he could'
Ailing Maldonado has nurtured generations of Red Sox prospects
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- It was on a better day in spring training, one on which Felix Maldonado was still circulating among the young Red Sox ballplayers who have been his surrogate sons for the better part of four decades, that he greeted a familiar face.
"Did I tell you," he said softly, "that this winter I was inducted into the Puerto Rico Hall of Fame?"
Maldonado's smile shone as brightly that afternoon as the day a few years ago when he learned the Red Sox were according him the same honor they had given their other venerated figures, Johnny Pesky, Eddie Popowski and "Broadway" Charlie Wagner. They were naming one of their practice fields here after him.
Pesky did not know until the other day, when ballpark security guard John Ruzanski called him back home in Massachusetts, that his friend Felix, after almost 52 years in the game, was no longer at the ballpark. Maldonado was in a hospice in nearby Cape Coral. The cancer that had ravaged him three years ago, causing him to lose two-thirds of his stomach, had returned with a vengeance.
That first time, the Red Sox flew Maldonado back to Boston, and paid for his surgery, chemotherapy and convalescence, and a year later, he was back on the field.
This time, there might not be any coming back. "Tell him," Pesky told Ruzanski, "that I'm praying for him."
The fans don't know Maldonado the way they knew Ted Williams' pal Pesky, beloved third-base coach "Pops" or former pitcher Wagner, who even after turning 90 was one of the most dapper dressers around.
But for generations of Sox hopefuls, especially Spanish-speaking kids, one of the people most responsible for nurturing their dreams was Felix Maldonado.
Baseball pedigree? Maldonado, a center fielder and the son of a Puerto Rican pitcher of some renown, never made it to the big leagues. But he went through the Giants' system with the Alou brothers and Juan Marichal, and was a player in the Sox system with the likes of Reggie Smith and Tony Conigliaro. He was Jeff Bagwell's first manager and one of Hanley Ramirez's earliest mentors.
And back home in his native Puerto Rico, Maldonado played in the winter leagues with Orlando Cepeda and Tony Perez on the legendary Santurce teams managed by Hall of Famer Earl Weaver, and played against the island's most beloved figure, Roberto Clemente.
Maldonado played, and then scouted and coached, in the dark ages when the Red Sox barely paid heed to Latin America, an unsurprising legacy for the team that was the last in the major leagues to break the color barrier.
It is so different today. The Sox minor league camp is filled with young Dominicans, Puerto Ricans and Venezuelans, not to mention a special Cuban-born shortstop named Jose Iglesias. Many of the most important jobs in the team's player development system are manned by bilingual coaches, instructors and managers.
"You know what, diversification is only a catchphrase," said Craig Shipley, the team's vice president of international scouting. "To me, it's about getting the best possible staff, and these people are outstanding. I played with Luis Lopez as a young kid coming to the big leagues. Victor Rodriguez is one of the greatest people you'd ever want to meet. He cares about the kids; he's a great teacher, a great communicator. Carlos Febles, a tremendous person. This is more about great people who happen to be Latin, and it's also true about our Asian staff.
"This organization is about people, great people, and our players figure it out fast."
When the Red Sox finally decided to hire their first Latin-born manager, Popowski recommended Maldonado, who had scouted Puerto Rico for the Sox for nearly 20 years after retiring as a player and who had served as an instructor. Ed Kenney Sr. was the farm director who hired him. For seven years, Maldonado managed the greenest kids in the system with the rookie Gulf Coast League team, and it was there that he first had Bagwell.
When Dan Duquette became general manager and flung open the door to expanding the team's reach into Latin America, Maldonado was his choice to serve as Latin American coordinator, a position Maldonado held for seven years until he slid into his current position as consultant.
The job titles, though, tell you little about the man.
Raquel Ferreira, a Rhode Island native, is beginning her 11th season with the Red Sox, third as the team's director of minor league operations after previously serving as director of minor league administration. She oversees the daily operations for all six of the team's minor league affiliates, tendering contracts and overseeing player transactions, payroll and insurance. She took the time one day to describe Maldonado.
"I'm not sure that I can put into words what Felix has meant to this organization over the past 45-plus years," she wrote in an e-mail. "He is one of the kindest people that I know, and I am sure if you ask anyone who has come in contact with him, they would say the same thing.
"On a personal level, he has been like a second father to me. He took me under his wing my first year with the Red Sox and treated me like family. He introduced me to the Latin culture and shared his knowledge and wisdom with me. He always said that you are never too old to learn something new every day. You have never met anyone more proud than Felix to wear the Red Sox uniform."
With Maldonado now 73, the Red Sox weren't really expecting him to expend a great deal of energy in his role as consultant, but that message never really got through, Ferreira said.
"Even when he 'retired,'" she wrote, "he would show up at the minor league complex every day to help out in any way he could -- even if that meant serving as first-base coach during 95-degree weather in the Gulf Coast League. Being a part of the game keeps him young."
Ruzanski, who when he isn't in Florida works clubhouse security for Pawtucket in his native Rhode Island, recalled the afternoon here when Maldonado approached, a couple of friends in tow, and asked Ruzanski whether he could take them to see Felix Maldonado Field.
"He could have just gone right out there, but instead he asks me if it's OK," Ruzanski said. "I said, 'Felix, let me take you there, and I'll take the pictures.' He posed with his friends, then handed one of them the camera and asked for a picture with me."
The cancer returned unexpectedly. "I was just getting back from Puerto Rico," Maldonado said, "and planning to be at fantasy camp, and went to see my doctor, and he said everything was fine. That day was the 14th of January."
But within a month, the pain in his stomach returned and he couldn't eat, and this time the doctors came back with a different prognosis. He underwent four hours of surgery, then made the decision that the next step was to enter hospice care.
The Sox had planned to honor Maldonado for his induction into Puerto Rico's Hall of Fame with a ceremony before an exhibition game at City of Palms Park.
"I stand in a long line of many staff members and players who think the world of him," Ferreira wrote. "To say that he is a special man is an understatement."
He was sorry, Maldonado said, that the ceremony had to be postponed. But he was hardly alone in his room at the hospice. A caller asked whether he had many visitors.
"Like a Fenway Park sellout crowd," he said.
The caller, fumbling for the right words, asked him what the future held.
"You know, I've always believed in good hands," the baseball lifer said, "and now the Lord's hands are working on me."
Felix Maldonado can be reached through the Red Sox, 4 Yawkey Way, Boston, MA 02215.
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