NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Doug McBrierty couldn’t believe it.
There was Rico Petrocelli out on the field, walking toward him, ready to coach the Boston All Star Baseball Fantasy Camp in Florida.
Growing up on Cape Cod, McBrierty said his family would always talk about the retired Red Sox star in reverential tones, and now McBrierty was going to get some personal tips on playing the game from one of his idols.
McBrierty, a New Haven firefighter and Iraq war veteran, is active in the Wounded Warriors Project that helps returning soldiers deal with injuries they have received fighting overseas.
As one of those veterans, McBrierty said he was lucky enough to get a scholarship five years ago to attend the Red Sox camp, which makes a point of incorporating Wounded Warriors into the mix.
There will be a fundraiser at O’Toole’s Pub, 157 orange St., from 5-10 p.m. Friday to raise money to send as many veterans as they can to join the camp Jan. 31 to Feb. 8, 2015, in Fort Myers, Florida.
McBrierty, who suffered a traumatic brain injury when his convoy got hit by a rocket, credits Wounded Warriors with helping him recover.
In return, he has become an ambassador of sorts for the group as they engage with vets on several fronts.
He said Wounded Warriors offers physical outlets and stress reduction programs, as well as family support.
A big part of that recovery involves sports, and that is how the Red Sox fantasy camp, led by Larry Marino, fits into the picture.
“It’s an ingenuous idea by Larry Marino. We are so grateful for what they have done for our country,” Petrocelli said.
Wounded Warriors chooses which vets will get to attend, while $3,500 scholarships sponsored by fundraisers like O’Toole’s and others underwrite the cost of the weeklong event with WWP picking up the airfare.
Checks should be made out to Sports Adventure, which runs the camp, with Wounded Warrior Project written in the memo line. Only those made out to Sports Adventure will benefit the scholarship. Admission to the fundraiser is $15.
Petrocelli called the veterans “heros” and said the coaches and campers from all walks of life who join the fantasy team develop real friendships with them.
“It helps us to hear what they have gone through, to see them battle through. The friendships we have made will be lifelong,” Petrocelli said.
The former shortstop and third baseman played his entire career with the Boston Red Sox.
He said after the practice sessions with the campers, and the games, everyone goes back to the hotel and the Wounded Warriors always draw a crowd.
“You look forward to it,” Petrocelli said.
McBrierty said he has struck up a strong friendship with Gary Allenson, who made his debut as a catcher with the Red Sox in 1979.
“I have a fantastic relationship with him. We talk on a regular basis,” McBrierty said of Allenson, who now manages the New Hampshire Fisher Cats, a minor league team with the Toronto Blue Jays.
McBrierty said he hadn’t touched a baseball bat in 20 years when he first went to the camp. “Ability didn’t matter,” McBrierty said.
“They greet you with open arms. It’s like a family reunion every year,” he said.
McBrierty now attends the camp as the go-to person to help other Wounded Warriors who are having issues and need to talk to one of their own.
“There are a lot of people there with disabilities, but they take the time to teach them,” McBrierty said.
Petrocelli recalled one vet who had to walk with a cane, while another had lost an arm.
By the end of the eight-day event, the vet with the cane “made a diving catch in right field” and the batter learned to hit using his good arm.
“It was incredible,” said Petrocelli, who most fans remember as a key player in the 1967 World Series “Impossible Dream” team when the Red Sox made the series that year.
Walsh/PCL, the company constructing the massive expansion of the Pearl Harbor Memorial Bridge, and the unions who work for them, have already donated $4,000 to the scholarship cause, while members of the Southern Connecticut State University Vets club donated $2,400 through a number of fundraisers.
Jim Corsi, a former Red Sox pitcher with 11 years in the majors, will be at Friday’s fundraiser to speak briefly and sign autographs.
A silent auction item is a baseball signed by the this year’s coaches and 15 former Red Sox, including Corsi, Petrocelli, Steve Lyons, Bill Campbell, Bob Stanley and Rich Gale. Other items include a pair of bicycles and the makings for a Memorial Day clam bake, while the New Haven County Firefighters Emerald Society Pipe and Drums will provide entertainment.
Damian Cashman, co-owner of O’Toole’s, said with the site of the pub formerly an armed service recruitment office, “the place kind of echoes military service. We get a lot of military guys coming in telling us their stories.”
As fairly recent U.S. citizens, both Cashman and co-owner Colin O’Toole said they feel an obligation to support vets and McBrierty.
The fundraiser was organized by Michael McCann, despite his continuing battle with pancreatic cancer.