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Boston Globe Online / Sunday Magazine

The Spirit Lives

Nick Lopardo had his own way of doing things as a colorful investment banker on State Street. Now he's using his fortune to revive professional baseball in Lynn - his way.

By Gordon Edes and Maureen Mullen, 8/10/2003

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t is one of those rare spring afternoons when it is not raining on the North Shore. Nicholas A. Lopardo, owner of the newest professional baseball team in the neighborhood, is standing at the top of the grandstand at Lynn's Fraser Field, watching groundskeeper Greg Arrington -- he formerly worked for the Boston Red Sox -- pull a rake around the first-base bag with his tractor.

"Hey," Lopardo bellows in a voice that could reach across Lynn Harbor to Nahant, "you missed a spot."

When he ruled as the hard-driving bad boy of State Street in the 1990s, turning the money-management arm of State Street Global Advisors into an international powerhouse, Lopardo used to arrange for his employees to get their shoes shined by a bootblack in the mall across the way. Now, in his latest incarnation as the owner of the North Shore Spirit, Lopardo, 56, has spent nearly $2 million of his own cash to renovate a rundown Lynn ballpark as the home field for his independent-league team. It is money he has invested in hopes of reviving baseball in an old factory town that can trace its connections to the game back to the Civil War but has been a graveyard for minor-league teams for the last 20 years. Lopardo is determined that he get the look right here, too.

That is why he has hired a 62-year-old no-nonsense former Red Sox infielder, John Kennedy, to manage his team, and two other former Sox players, Dick Radatz and Rich Gedman, to serve as his pitching coach and hitting instructor, respectively. And he may be the only owner in all of professional baseball whose wife advised the team's players that spitting and scratching would not be tolerated.

"She's mentioned it to me," says John Kelly, the team's best pitcher, a right-hander from Leominster who originally was signed by the Seattle Mariners and made it to Class AA -- just two rungs below the big leagues -- but spent the last four years pitching in Taiwan and Italy before coming home. "And she seemed serious about it."

The edict of Diane Lopardo, called the "supreme allied commander" by her husband of 35 years, flies in the face of an insular masculine world that has always made room for tobacco juice and protective cups. It would seem just as out of place in the previous world inhabited by her husband, one in which his underlings at State Street Global would routinely play pranks many deemed inappropriately sexist.

"Some of the folks around here will tell you I see every piece of dirt and every piece of paper," Lopardo is saying on a day his ballclub is playing in Elmira, New York, where he will take his private jet along with one of his partners, a former State Police trooper named Allen Melanson, to see the Spirit game that night.

On Easter Sunday, he says, he spent the afternoon cleaning the team's dugouts, though he jokes that at 285 pounds, he doesn't find it as easy to bend over as he once did. "I drive people nuts," he says. "I do drive people nuts, but it's the way it's got to be. This is such a passion, this is like a temple.

"I've got a young man who goes in there and cleans the dugouts before every ballgame, but I know what he does. He takes his garbage can down there and sweeps it. It looks clean to him, but it's not Nick Lopardo clean. Every step needs to be swept up. He doesn't see the dirt on the steps, because that's the way ballparks are, there's dirt on the steps. I keep having to say, 'That's not the way Nick Lopardo's ballparks are going to look.' "

Lopardo, who left State Street Global in 2001 after his mentor, Marshall N. Carter, retired and the company passed him over as CEO, is new to this business of owning a sports franchise. But a man who once bluffed a roomful of Teamster officials back when he was making his reputation managing their pension fund ("the Jimmy Hoffa fund," he calls it) for the government, then wowed State Street with his success, may have his sights set beyond a neighborhood ballpark in Lynn.

A close friend of former Boston Bruins hockey star Raymond Bourque -- in 2001, he flew Bourque home from Colorado in a company-owned jet, Stanley Cup in tow, a final act of extravagance that preceded his departure from State Street Global -- Lopardo admits to interest in running a major-league franchise, in either baseball or hockey. "I didn't plan it that way," he says. "I didn't think about that. Would I like to do it if the opportunity presented itself? I might like to do it."

Gregory Ahearn, who worked for eight years with Lopardo at State Street Global as the head of external affairs, calls the Spirit "just an entry-level thing" for Lopardo. "He won't stop there. I'm willing to predict he'll be a major-league owner."

But first, there is a scrap of paper to be picked up on the third-base concourse, a young usher to be told how to greet a fan, and a game to be won. The Nick Lopardo way.

WHEN IT OPENED IN 1940, Fraser Field was hailed as a gem of a ballpark, a tribute to the rich history of minor-league baseball in Lynn. Combined with the adjacent Manning Bowl football stadium, it offered a sports complex that was unrivaled in the area.

Few communities can claim the baseball tradition this blue-collar city can: Regularly scheduled games were held on Lynn Common in the 1860s; the first time a catcher's mask was worn was in Lynn in 1877; at least seven players with Lynn ties -- Blondy Ryan, Bump Hadley, Johnny Pesky, Jim Hegan and his son Mike, Billy Conigliaro, and Kenny Hill -- have played in the World Series.

Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Satchel Paige, Pesky, and two tragic figures -- Tony Conigliaro and Harry Agganis -- are just a few of the stars who have graced the city's diamonds. And long before Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball's color barrier in 1947, Bud Fowler played three games for the Lynn Live Oaks, a minor-league team, in May 1878, temporarily crossing the line that excluded African-Americans from professional baseball.

"There was more acceptance of black players in baseball right after the Civil War and during Reconstruction," says James Riley, author of The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues. "But even in the Northeast things weren't good for blacks, and from 1885 through the turn of the century, they were systematically excluded from organized baseball."

Nearly 50 years later, Lynn made its mark again on baseball history by hosting the first night baseball game -- eight years before Major League Baseball turned on the lights in Cincinnati's Crosley Field. On June 25, 1927, Lynn's entry in the New England League beat Salem's club, 7-2, in a seven-inning game under lights at the General Electric field in West Lynn. Bucky Harris, manager of the Washington Senators, and Bill Carrigan, the Red Sox skipper, were among those in attendance.

The Cornet All-Stars, a traveling semi-pro team, began play at Lynn's Little River Park in 1912, were well known throughout the region, and captured several New England League championships. It has been reported that it was common for crowds of 10,000 to watch the All-Stars.

The city broke new ground with the building of Fraser Field. Tucked in a neighborhood of single- and multi-family homes mixed with retail shops and industrial businesses, Fraser is virtually hidden from street view. The field was built as part of the Works Project Administration at a cost of approximately $210,000, and its design was considered unique for that time. Fraser's cantilevered concrete roof covering part of the grandstand was believed to be the first of its kind in the United States -- joining Istanbul and Rio de Janeiro as the only cities with similar stadiums.

The park hosted its first game on June 18, 1940, when the Lynn Frasers took on the Pittsburgh Pirates in an exhibition game. Nearly 6,500 fans paid from 15 cents to 75 cents to watch the Pirates, who received a $1,000 appearance fee, handily beat the Frasers, 10-1, with a lineup that included Arkie Vaughan and Vince DiMaggio, brother of Joe and Dom, who delivered the park's first home run.

"Lynn has a great minor-league history," says Red Sox legend Pesky. "You don't see anything like that anymore."

Pesky, who would stop to watch minor league games in Lynn on his way home from playing at Fenway Park, played in Lynn several times, including a 1942 exhibition game pitting the Red Sox against a Lynn team. In one game, with a runner on second, Pesky attempted the hidden ball trick and caught the runner off guard for an out. Lynn manager Pip Kennedy successfully argued to the umpire that the trick was not allowed in his league. The runner was allowed to return to second base and later scored what would be the winning run.

"Well, I wasn't too happy about it at the time," says Pesky, now a special-assignment instructor with the Red Sox, "but I laughed about it later."

Fraser has been home to several minor-league teams -- the Lynn Red Sox in the 1940s, the Sailors (a Seattle Mariner affiliate) and the Lynn Pirates (Pittsburgh) in the '80s, and the independent Massachusetts Mad Dogs in the '90s. But by then, Fraser Field was decaying. The seats, where there were seats, were falling apart. The cantilevered concrete roof was crumbling. The dugouts were unusable.

"I played there in 1999 when I was with Waterbury [Connecticut]," says Spirit pitcher John Kelly. "It should have been torn down. It was junk."

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