Friday, May 15, 2009

Rocky Was A Fan's -- Fan! We wiss miss ya!

John J. ''Rocky'' O'Connell (right) at Eire Pub in Dorchester with friend Jimmy Dennis and Red Sox World Series trophy.

John 'Rocky' O'Connell -- Fan of Dorchester and Sox

The word "faithful" was invoked often at Rocky O'Connell's funeral Mass yesterday. The Catholic Church celebrates that virtue, but he applied it just as religiously to his home and his home team.

"He was a loyal person," said his daughter, Catherine of North Weymouth. "Loyal to his family, to his friends, to Dorchester. He didn't quite get why people left Dorchester."

He didn't get a few other things, too, like why anyone would consider switching the channel to golf at the Eire Pub when a Red Sox game was on. For years, he perched on a bar stool at his favorite haunt in Dorchester's Adams Village, watching season after season as he waited for the championships only the faithful were sure would someday come.

"Everybody knew him here," said Martin Nicholson, the pub's head barman. "He's a big loss to us here at the bar, he is, because you always expect to see him walking in the door, and now he won't."

A short walk from the pub, more than 100 people gathered in St. Brendan Church to bid farewell to John J. O'Connell, who died of congestive heart failure May 9 in Carney Hospital in Dorchester. At 78, he had lived, tipped a few with his buddies, died, and was mourned, all within a few blocks in Dorchester.

A fan's fan, Mr. O'Connell developed his own coterie of admirers. At the pub, where he sat squarely in front of a TV for Sox games, he was part of an extended family of regulars who preferred a bar with no jukebox and plenty of camaraderie.
"Rocky was the best," said Bobby Mullen, who repaired to the Eire Pub with many others after the Mass.

"He was always with the thumbs-up," Mullen said, lifting his fists, thumbs cocked upward. "When the procession went by, we all went outside and saluted him with a thumbs-up. It was pretty cool - there were about 30 of us."

Said Nicholson, "People loved him for what he was, a natural guy."

Mr. O'Connell, a longtime member of Utility Workers Union of America Local 369, spent decades working for Boston Edison and was "a great union man," Bill Mooney said at the pub. "I'm in there now, and I liked the way Rocky took me under his wing."

More than just a father figure to coworkers and buddies at the pub, Mr. O'Connell became a single father when his wife died of cancer at 36. He had met Helen Tewksbury in Dorchester High School and married her in 1955. When she was gone, no other woman would do.

"He used to say: 'She was gorgeous; I don't know how I landed her,' " said his son, Jack of Boston.Continued...

After she died in 1968, "people would say, 'You're young, get married,' " said Mr. O'Connell's best friend, Jimmy Dennis of Quincy. "He said, 'You'll never see me married again.' "

"He would say no one could hold a candle to my mother," Mr. O'Connell's daughter said.

His children were 12 and 9 when their mother died, and he took over all parental responsibilities.

"We were everything to him," his son said.

"He was honest, loyal, and reliable," Mr. O'Connell's brother, Bill of Dorchester, said during the funeral Mass. "No matter what, you could count on him."

Born in Boston City Hospital, Mr. O'Connell was the youngest of four siblings, and no one's quite sure when and how he picked up the nickname Rocky.

He graduated from Dorchester High School in 1948 and did a tour of duty with the Air Force, stationed first in the Philippines and then in South Korea, where he developed a lifelong distaste for cold temperatures.

Mr. O'Connell met Dennis when the two played on opposing Catholic Youth Organization baseball teams. They did the same a few years later in a city league. The friendship lasted after the competitions ceased, and in retirement, they traveled to Florida each year to watch the Red Sox for a few weeks of spring training.

They had barely begun their Florida sojourn this year when Mr. O'Connell took ill with the pneumonia that led to his congestive heart failure.

At one point, just before Mr. O'Connell died, his health seemed to rally. Family and friends attributed the respite not to an act of God, but to the fall of Manny. When Ramírez, the former Red Sox slugger, was suspended for using a banned substance, Mr. O'Connell was relieved, even in the depths of illness.

"The one guy he did not like - he hated him, actually - was Manny Ramírez," Nicholson said. "When this drug thing came out, Rocky died in peace."

Mr. O'Connell never thought Ramírez was a team player. Being part of the team meant a lot to Mr. O'Connell, whether the team was his immediate family, his friends at the pub, or the baseball players whose colors he proudly wore. Indeed, he thought everyone should share his clothing tastes, which always included at least one item from the Red Sox.

"Every Christmas, every birthday, he'd ask: 'Catherine, do you want a Red Sox jacket? Do you want a Red Sox cap?' I'd be in my 40s, and he would be asking me that," his daughter said, smiling at the recollection.

So much did Mr. O'Connell's friends identify him with the Red Sox that the sport was on their minds as the funeral Mass ended.

"We all came over here after the Mass, and we all said, 'They should have played 'Take Me Out to the Ball Game' in church," Mullen said as he stood in Eire Pub. "As they were playing 'Ave Maria,' we were all thinking, 'Take Me Out to the Ball Game.' "

© Copyright 2009 Globe Newspaper Company.


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