REVEALING ENCOUNTERS with famous athletes

First, let me tell you what this post will not be about.

This won’t be a “bartender for the stars” kind of thing — how I made their drinks and became their best friend.  I’ve met lots of celebrities and athletes while working, but certainly no more than anyone else behind the taps.

But today I’m thinking of some of the famous people I’ve served, and how what happened revealed something about them.  (It’s the athletes that always interested me most.  As an amateur boxer, I was encouraged by my coach to stick with it and and turn pro — I never did.  Now when I meet a professional athlete who had the drive and talent to make it to the top, I’m curious what they’re really like.)

I was behind the bar at The Cantina Italiana, in Boston’s North End, when a legendary Boston athlete took a seat.  I won’t reveal his name, only that he had played for the Boston Red Sox and was a Hall of Fame kind of guy.  I’ll call him Famous Athlete (F. A.).

F. A. was instantly recognizable, and quite comfortable with that.  He had the quiet confidence of a man who knows that everyone looks up to him.

“This one’s on the house, F. A.,” I said as I set down his beer, “It’s a pleasure to serve you.”  We shook hands.  He had an unassuming air, as though he was just a regular guy who enjoyed meeting other regular guys.

F. A. was there to meet an account executive from a local radio station.  They wanted to feature him in an up-coming advertising campaign.  He talked mostly about what it was like now that he was retired . . . but of course the conversation drifted back to some of his great moments in the game.

A while later, a young man in his early twenties came into the restaurant and walked directly to where F. A. was sitting at the bar.  He was wearing an expensive suit and tie, and was accompanied by a very pretty young blond.  I was at the service station giving a waitress her drinks and didn’t hear the exact introductions as they all shook hands, but when I came back I noticed that the guy and the young woman were both wearing wedding bands.  From their body language and behavior, I assumed she was his wife.  (Maybe she’d heard that he was meeting with F. A. and had asked to come along.  Did the kid mention this to F. A.?)

With F. A. in the lead, the three of them followed our tuxedoed host to their booth, . . . and once there F. A. stepped courteously aside to allow the young lady to slide in.

Then F. A. smiled, and sat down next to her.

The young man stood there for a moment.  He looked confused..  F. A. was sitting next to his wife on the same side of the booth, . . . and now he was just standing there.

The young man continued to stand there.  He looked a little upset, as though he didn’t know what to do, or say.

Then he sat down by himself, on the other side.

As I glanced over at them from behind the bar, I could see the whole thing unfolding.

F. A. did most of the talking, and now he was talking more to the young lady than to her account executive husband.  Then F. A. reached back and put his arm around the wife’s shoulder as he told a story.  Everyone laughed, but the young man was clearly not comfortable with this.

But he did nothing — maybe because of his job, he didn’t want to lose the account, or maybe he just didn’t know what else he could do — but he sat there and watched as his young wife was being hit on by a legendary sports figure.  His face was that of someone trying to smile while they’re being tortured.

I kept glancing over at them when I wasn’t making drinks.  It was like being unable to look away while watching a train wreck.

At one point — when the young man went to the men’s room — F. A. and the woman both had their cell phones out, as though comparing them.  They leaned close with the phones held next to each other and laughed as they continued their conversation.  (I thought she was blushing a little.  Did they exchange phone numbers?)

Both phones were put away by the time the young man returned.

When they all left, F. A. turned and gave me a short wave . . . a customary wave to the bartender.  I forced a smile, and nodded my head, but all I was thinking was, “Man, that was low . . . you really shouldn’t have done that.”

I met other famous athletes while bartending at The Cantina — Kevin McHale, K. C. Jones, and Larry Bird from the Boston Celtics.  Brad Park of the Boston Bruins became a personal friend of our owner, Fiore Colella, and he sometimes brought in Mike Milbury along with half of the Bruin’s team.  When I first came to town, one of our waitresses at The Sunflower Café used to hang out with Bill “Spaceman” Lee of the Boston Red Sox (he was not F. A.)

But the two athletes I got to know best from The Cantina were both former boxers; Tony DeMarco and Marvin Hagler.

Tony DeMarco was a former World Welterweight Champion who had been born and raised in Boston’s North End.  The first time I spoke with him I asked him about a rumor I’d heard — that ‘Tony DeMarco’ wasn’t his real name.  He and his best friend had supposedly swapped names when they were teenagers.

I learned that Tony’s real name was Leonardo Liotto, but at only sixteen-years-old he was too young to fight as a professional — so he borrowed the birth certificate of his friend.  He won that first pro fight at age sixteen, knocking out his opponent in the first round.

After stringing together an impressive series of knock-outs, Tony had to stick with the new name.  It was under that name that his wins had been recorded.  He fought his way up the ranks, and eventually became Welterweight Champion of the World . . . all as Tony DeMarco.

Years later, when Boston Mayor Thomas Menino named a street in the North End after this hometown fighter, . . . of course the street was named “Tony DeMarco Way.”

“It doesn’t matter,” he said, “It’s been so many years . . . I’ve been Tony DeMarco almost all my life.”

“Marvelous” Marvin Hagler stopped into The Cantina late one night with a small group right at last call.  I let them hang out while I was closing, and then we all went to The Bell in Hand, just off Quincy Market, a short walk from the North End.  (The Bell in Hand is America’s oldest still-operating tavern — established in 1795.)

After that night at The Bell in Hand, I ended up partying with Marvin several more times, and you couldn’t find anyone more down-to-earth, or unpretentious.  It was as though he’d fought all his battles — had won far more than his share — and now had nothing to prove.

He had fought Sugar Ray Leonard, Roburto Duran, and Tommy “Hitman” Hearns.  These four guys were the giants of their sport.  Marvin was a local guy (fighting out of Brockton, MA) who had been Middleweight Champion of the World for over six years, but when you got him to talk about his legendary fights, he was totally matter-of-fact about it.

His bout with Tommy Hearns (now known as “The War) is still considered one of the greatest fights in boxing history, but Marvin might as well have been talking about someone’s high school or collegiate career . . . he was that low key about it.  (If you’d like to watch that fight — it only lasted eight minutes — click here.)

I once asked Marvin about that terrible split-decision against him in the Sugar Ray Leonard bout.

“You know the game going in,” he said, “The only thing you can do is get in there and leave it all in the ring.  You can’t control how the ref and judges are going to score the fight.”

It sounded like good advice for a fighter — or a writer — and a lot of other endeavors as well.

Marvin had come into The Cantina not long after that night with F. A.  I’m glad he did.  It was a welcome change after watching F. A. in the booth.

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14 Responses to REVEALING ENCOUNTERS with famous athletes

  1. Not to be too picky, but I thought the Bell in Hand was the oldest in the country until I read this article:

    According to that, Bell in Hand isn’t even the oldest in BOSTON (if you count Charlestown). That said, I fully plan to check out the Warren Tavern and the White Horse Tavern down in Newport, just for the novelty. Bell in Hand certainly CLAIMS to be the oldest, but it seems that it’s not true.

  2. Case says:

    I saw the Hagler-Leonard fight. Hagler won but wasn’t the crowd’s darling boy like Leonard. Enjoyed the boxing stories.

  3. Julia says:

    I felt that poor man’s pain, that was so not cool of “F.A.” As you say, his bevahior speaks volumes about him as a person. Another example of a celebrity behaving badly.

  4. MikeQ says:

    McAwesome: My bad, McA … The Bell in Hand is the “oldest” only in the sense that its doors have been opened longer than any of the others.

    Established in 1795, the only time The Bell in Hand stopped pouring was during prohibition. Other taverns that opened earlier were closed for extended periods of time, to be revived at a later date by different owners.

    Mine was off-hand, word-of-mouth reference. I believe the staff at The Bell in Hand explained it more accurately, talking about the establishment’s (roughly) 203 years of serving pints — which may be the current record.

    But thanks for the comment — that was the first time I’ve been to your site, and it’s a great blog! I guess I don’t get out enough , … but now I now I’ll be back there regularly.

    Case: I agree, Case. They gave the fight to Sugar Ray because he was the more marketable of the two.

    Julia: Too often we do see that, don’t we Julia? Thanks for commenting!

  5. Colleen says:

    I can’t believe you met Hagler and this is the first I have heard of it, and you know I love the fights. I remember the Hagler-Leonard fight. I initially thought Hagler won but I have seen it several times since and think Leonard took the title.

  6. MikeQ says:

    Colleen: I met other former world champions when I was an amateur boxer — Carmen Basilio and Floyd Patterson. I was supposed to fight a kid Floyd Patterson was training, but I pulled out the week before because I had the flu. After meeting him at the fights that night, I felt like such a wimp for bailing out. I regret it to this day.

    Don’t know why I never mentioned Mavin Hagler. I know you love the fights … guess it never came up. That was all back at The Cantina, before we met … you would have loved to have met him … he’s a great guy.

  7. Thanks, Mike. Didn’t want to be “that guy” pointing out errors, but I thought it was cool that there are some even OLDER places around. Bell in Hand certainly makes the list, however.

    I’ve been really enjoying your blog as well. You’ve got a lot of great stories, and I’m always excited when there’s a new post up.

  8. DAbertini says:

    I knew the thing about Tony DeMarco’s name from my dad. He saw DeMarco fight at the Garden. You never hear about him anymore. Didn’t know he was still alive and in the area.

  9. Starbucks8294 says:

    Saw the fight between Floyd Patterson and Igmar Johansson a bunch of times on late night TV. It was one of the great old fights.

  10. MikeQ says:

    McAwesome: I’ve been reading more of your blog, McA … and you’re right about Vonnegut … “Mother Night” is one of my favorites. Hey, not to chance the subject, but can I borrow your Porsche sometime? : )

    DAbertini: When I met him, DA, he was living with his wife in Arizona. He’d come back to Boston for a visit, and had stopped into The Cantina to say hello to some old friends.

    Starbucks8294: Floyd caught him with that leaping left hook. I’ve watched it on the boxing reruns many times as well, my friend.

  11. Caveman says:

    Great story Mike. Thanks for sharing. I see that kind of shit from time to time at my bar too.

  12. Llylak says:

    How does the saying go, “It takes two?” I find the wife more culpable than anyone else. What was wrong with her that she wasn’t aware of her husband’s discomfort? And still she continued. F. A. was a jerk, but she should have considered how her actions were affecting her “life-partner”. The fact that she didn’t says so much about her, and about their relationship.

  13. MikeQ says:

    Caveman: The names, faces, and places change, Caveman … but many of the stories remain the same, don’t they?

    Llylak: I wasn’t a big fan of her, either, Lly … but I remember as I watched I was thinking more about his behavior, and overlooked the role she played in this. It would have amounted to nothing if she’d only supported her husband, and not played along with it. You’re right — it takes two.

  14. Holy! The stuff you see behind the bar, huh? That deal with FA is some shady business. It takes some nerves of steel to still smile and provide that kind of customer service!

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