Baseball dreams = Northeastern reality

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The 25-0 score? That will be all but forgotten by the time their bus arrives in Winter Haven late Saturday night.

When you play baseball at Northeastern, the city school a loud foul ball away from Fenway Park, the stories, not the score, are what you take home with you after you've played an exhibition against the Boston Red Sox. Especially when it's the first game ever played at JetBlue Park, Boston's new spring home.

Maybe none of the stories are quite as good as last year, when a senior infielder from Arlington, Mass., named Ryan Maguire hit the first pitch of the game for a home run off Sox rookie Kyle Weiland after joking in the dugout beforehand that's exactly what he planned to do.

Maguire's reward for his home run? Catching a nonstop earful from Dustin Pedroia.

"It was real funny," said Chris Carmain, a junior from Methuen, Mass., who pitched in last year's game but had Tommy John elbow surgery six months ago and just watched this one.

"I just remember Ryan coming around the bases and Pedroia talking to him the whole way, really getting after him," Carmain said. "The worst part was his next time up, when Ryan made an out and Pedroia was going, 'What's the matter, you can't hit two home runs in a game? What's going on?' He was really chirping him."

Wouldn't you know it, Pedroia was the first player Saturday afternoon to collect a hit at JetBlue, a line-drive double off the screen in left field, one feature that distinguishes this version of the Green Monster from the one it otherwise faithfully replicates. Well, almost faithfully. This one is 3 feet taller than the 37-foot sentinel on Lansdowne Street.

"He was the guy I really wanted to get out," said Sam Berg, the senior right-hander from Brooklyn, N.Y. "I love the way he plays, scrappy, cocky.

"He didn't chirp, but he was dancing around second base, and gave me a little smirk when I looked at him."

Berg didn't retire Pedroia, who eventually came around on a couple of walks and Darnell McDonald's flared two-run single, but he got the first batter he faced, rookie Jose Iglesias, to chase a third strike, then broke Jacoby Ellsbury's bat on a tapper to first.

You don't think the kid went home empty-handed, do you? Berg made sure a bat boy retrieved the broken pieces of Ellsbury's wood, and gave them to his parents, Peter and Anne Berg, who were in the stands, as a memento.

He'll also be able to tell how he was lucky that Adrian Gonzalez was content just to draw a walk from him.

"When Adrian Gonzalez got to first base," he said, "he told our first baseman [Jason Roth] that I was tipping my changeup. He said he could have hit it 450 feet."

Berg smiled. "I guess I'll have to work on that," he said.

Gonzalez also figured in another story, the kind that makes this day of college games (Boston College played Saturday night) so different from the days that follow.

This one came from Pete Castoldi, a junior second baseman who grounded a base hit up the middle off Sox left-hander Jon Lester in the second inning, an at-bat he won't soon forget.

"My confidence went up when he threw me his first pitch and I actually saw it," Castoldi said. "Then I got a solid single. Pretty cool. Not like anything I've ever done."

Castoldi, from Marblehead, Mass., has been in Fenway plenty. How strange was it to be more than a thousand miles away and surveying a landscape so uncannily familiar?

"You step in the batter's box and you're looking out at that outfield," Castoldi said, "and you're thinking, 'This is what A-Rod looks out at in Fenway.'

"You don't even want to think about the score. You just don't want to leave with any regrets, that you left the bat on your shoulder. Be aggressive, swing the bat, and hope for the best."

It was after he reached base that Sox first baseman Gonzalez became a part of the narrative.

"Adrian was giving me a few pointers," Castoldi said. "When to steal, how to steal."

Castoldi grinned. "I probably shouldn't be telling you that," he said.

No worries. Even with A-Gon's coaching, Jarrod Saltalamacchia threw Castoldi out at second.

While Bobby Valentine is new as Red Sox manager, Northeastern is not just another city school in the town where he is employed. Long before he was hired, Valentine had been going to Solomon Arena on the school's Huntington Avenue campus to watch the Huskies' women's basketball team. On the night he was named Sox manager, he left Fenway Park and went straight to a game.

The thread that connects Valentine to Northeastern begins on 9/11 and ties him to two kids, Matty and Jamie Conroy, whose father, Kevin, perished in the North Tower. The whole story was told beautifully here, but here's the short version:

Valentine was friends with the chief financial officer of the insurance brokerage firm where Kevin Conroy was one of 295 employees who died that day when the planes hit the towers. When Valentine was looking to take someone to see the Yankees in the 2001 American League Championship Series, his friend suggested Matty Conroy.

The game went so late that night, Valentine called Georgette Conroy, Matty's mother, and asked for permission for Matty to come home with him to Stamford, Conn. The next morning, Bobby and his wife, Mary, served Matty breakfast and took him to Mass, and a relationship was born.

Valentine invited Matty to serve as bat boy on a Mets road trip the following summer. When he went to Japan to manage, he invited Matty for a visit that became an annual event.

Jamie, meanwhile, was 9 when her father died.

"Jamie wanted to quit basketball," says her mother. "If Kevin wasn't going to be on the sidelines, coaching her or cheering her on, she didn't want to play anymore."

Valentine helped to fill the void, going to Jamie's games whenever he could. Matty would go to Northeastern first, and when his club baseball team won the national championship, he was delighted when Valentine mentioned it on "Baseball Tonight."

Then Jamie followed. Nice that her brother was there, she said, but she went to Northeastern because it was the only Division I school that offered her a scholarship.

A good decision. Wednesday night in Solomon, Jamie, now a senior, had 10 assists, setting a school record for assists in a single season.

The next morning here, Bobby Valentine was having his daily media session, and mentioned Saturday's game against the Huskies.

"And by the way," he said, "the person dear to me at Northeastern set a record for assists last night. How about that?"

How about that indeed? You say 25-0? I say as long as Bobby Valentine is here, Northeastern will always be welcome.

Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.