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Wednesday, August 21, 2002
Mass appeal

By by Pete Thamel


BOSTON -- Lou Merloni's cell phone whizzed around the Boston Red Sox clubhouse last week. From Derek Lowe to Carlos Baerga to Manny Ramirez to Johnny Damon, and on and on.

In Williamsport, Pa., a gang of 12-year-olds from Worcester, Mass., listened in stunned silence.

Lou Merloni
Lou works wicked hahd to suppoht Woostah.

As a buffet line of their heroes continued to offer advice for the Little League World Series, the kids from the Jesse Burkett Little League reciprocated the good luck wishes.

"Win the Cy Young, Derek."

"Hit a home run for me tonight, Manny."

At the end of the line, Merloni handed the phone to Grady Little, who told the Little Leaguers: "We'll see you in Fenway after you win this thing." When Merloni took the phone back from his manager, the giddy kids greeted him with a chorus of "Louuuuuuuuu!"

Merloni set up the conference call with his teammates because of his friendship with Gordie Lockbaum, the former Heisman candidate at Holy Cross whose son is the Worcester team's shortstop. (Lockbaum and Merloni share the same stockbroker, Worcester-based David Brunelle, who connected all the parties on the line.)

The squeaky voices of the 12-year-olds touched Merloni, a local icon who hails from nearby Framingham, Mass. (If you meet someone from Framingham in their early 20s, chances are they had a minor leaguer named "Mr. Merloni" as a substitute teacher.)

With the Sox swooning, labor strife looming and old friend Carl Everett stewing on Tuesday night at Fenway, there's little hardball joy in the Hub. That's why Merloni's take on the Worcester kids resonated.

"It's the innocence of the game at that level," Merloni said. "No one is talking about contracts or this, that and the other thing. They're just out there to play as hard as they can."

Merloni vividly recalls his Framingham Little League days. He played shortstop but didn't pitch. "We had a good staff," he said with a laugh. His team won the town's "World Series" at age 10, lost in the playoffs at 11 but won again at 12. Merloni described himself as "devastated" when his team lost.

"When I was 10, 11, 12 years old, I cried when I struck out, too," Merloni said. "It brings back memories of those ages, when you're young and innocent. That part of the game is what a lot of people miss when they see professional baseball."

Cast in the spoiler's role when they play Harlem on Thursday at 7 p.m., the Worcester kids aim to keep central Massachusetts on this ride through the weekend. The town, with shouts of encouragement on marquees and newspaper clippings posted in stores, has offered full support.

So have the Red Sox.

Pete Thamel is a frequent contributor to ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at vpthamel@yahoo.com