That time Doug Mirabelli got a police escort to a Boston Red Sox game

Few cities would provide a police escort for a professional athlete en route to an important game. The mere suggestion would be chastised in most locales, while towns that harbour manic fandom for deified teams may consider such treatment for a star. The Cowboys’ quarterback, for instance, or the Lakers’ point guard. The Canadiens’ goalie, perhaps, or the Yankees’ shortstop. However, there may be no more poetic synergy between a team and its fanbase than that which binds Boston and its Red Sox. As such, in 2006, the Red Sox’ backup catcher, Doug Mirabelli, received a police escort so he could appear in a May regular season game at Fenway Park. Only in Boston is a fitting synopsis. Only with the Red Sox.

The circumstances that led to a rotund, 35-year old, second-string backstop flying cross-country, on a private plane, then hurtling through Bostonian traffic in a police car, to play for the hometown team, are difficult to comprehend – especially to baseball outsiders. Allow me to explain, then. Allow me to regale you with the tale of Doug Mirabelli and his unforgettable police escort. Allow me to recount a hallowed day in Red Sox folklore.

Tim Wakefield’s knuckleball was almost impossible to catch 

The timeless yarn begins with Tim Wakefield, the Red Sox’ gentlemanly pitcher and generational stalwart. A rubber-armed metronome, Wakefield resurrected his career by throwing a legendary knuckleball, which fluttered to the plate anywhere between 45- and 69-mph and tied big league hitters in knots. There was so much movement on the signature pitch, in fact, that Wakefield himself barely knew where it was headed. That was both a blessing and a curse – especially for the helpless guy crouched sixty feet, six inches away, attempting to corral a horsehide butterfly. Catching Wakefield was a thankless task, and many failed to master the art. 

Indeed, early in Wakefield’s Red Sox tenure, Boston catchers invariably led the league in passed balls. For instance, in 1995, Wakefield’s first Red Sox season, Mike Macfarlane recorded 26 passed balls, with a further 48 wild pitches on his watch. A year later, Mike Stanley fared slightly better, but still notched 18 passed balls, only for Scott Hatteberg and Bill Hasselman to take things up a notch in 1997, with 34 passed balls and 48 wild pitches combined. Hatteberg and Hasselman were so bad, in fact, that a young prospect named Jason Varitek, recently acquired from Seattle, soon earned a greater share of playing time. 

Even Varitek struggled to catch Wakefield, though. By 1999, ‘Tek was firmly ensconced as Boston’s everyday catcher and future captain, but Wakefield’s knuckleball gave him fits. Hatteberg stuck around to share the burden, awaiting his Moneyball crescendo while tinkering with an oversized women’s softball mitt, but a barrage of misplays stoked a critical mass of frustration. Something had to give, and when Varitek broke his elbow midway through the 2001 season, Red Sox GM Dan Duquette swung a deal for the surehanded Mirabelli, then a backup to Ivan ‘Pudge’ Rodriguez with the Texas Rangers.

Doug Mirabelli was Tim Wakefield’s personal catcher

Wakefield was used interchangeably as a reliever and starter during the 2001 season, before finding a permanent home in the Red Sox’ rotation partway through 2002. That year, the Wakefield-Mirabelli battery began to flourish, and a 22-4 thrashing of Tampa Bay in July secured Tim’s spot in the rotation. Wakefield went 8-2 down the stretch in 2002, with Mirabelli catching all his starts, as Boston finally stumbled upon a winning solution.

From there, the Wakefield-Mirabelli tandem morphed from pure coincidence to informal arrangement to defined synergy. As relayed in this fun YouTube video, between 2003 and 2005, Wakefield pitched in 102 games for the Red Sox, and Mirabelli caught 94 of them – a 92% appearance rate for the personal catcher. In that span, Mirabelli also displayed a penchant for occasional offensive power, contributing subtly to a vaunted Red Sox team that famously won the 2004 World Series and vanquished the ghost of Babe Ruth. Mirabelli developed a small, esoteric fan club, and Red Sox fans adored the hardnosed catcher for his dedication to the craft. 

Red Sox struggles without Doug Mirabelli

Nevertheless, after the 2005 season, on 7 December, Boston traded Mirabelli to the San Diego Padres for Mark Loretta, a solid second baseman. Red Sox architect Theo Epstein sought greater value from his final roster spot, while Mirabelli figured to get a shot at starting every day for the Padres. Those aspirations were sadly scotched when San Diego signed an aging Mike Piazza in February, putting Mirabelli back on the pine. Doug missed Boston from the moment he left town, and there was a sense of unfinished business about the entire arrangement.

Without Mirabelli, Josh Bard inherited the responsibility of catching Wakefield for the Red Sox, but the younger backstop struggled in the role, as so many did before and after. Catching Wakefield’s first five starts of 2006, Bard allowed 10 passed balls in four losses, leading the passionate Red Sox commentariat to raise valid concerns. Meanwhile, Mirabelli endured a pretty miserable start to his Padres tenure, hitting .182 with zero home runs through 14 appearances. The transition was far from smooth.

Almost instantly, Epstein regretted letting Mirabelli go – for his ability to catch Wakefield, yes, but also for the veteran presence he gave to a complex team. Mirabelli was a great clubhouse guy upon whom manager Terry Francona relied to police the more mercurial members of his combustible group. Mirabelli was a glue guy for the Red Sox, and things became frayed without him.

Red Sox reacquire Doug Mirabelli

To that end, Epstein woke on the morning of 1 May 2006 with the Red Sox at 14-11, tied with New York atop the AL East. As ever in the Boston pressure cooker, scrutiny was mounting, and Epstein sought marginal gains in the perpetual arms race. That evening, Boston played host to the rival Yankees, live on ESPN, as Johnny Damon – one-time Red Sox rabblerouser – returned to Fenway for the first time since accepting 52 million Steinbrenner dollars. Wakefield was scheduled to start, and the Red Sox needed a shot in the arm. Epstein got on the phone to Padres GM Kevin Towers and tried to help his team.

Negotiations to bring back Mirabelli actually began the night before, as the Red Sox fell, 5-4, to the Devil Rays. Towers wanted Epstein to include pitching prospect Cla Meredith and Bard in any potential deal, but Boston tried to haggle. After sleeping on it, though, Epstein relented. Meredith and Bard went to the Padres, along with $100,000, in return for Mirabelli. The deal was completed around 10:00 AM ET, shortly after the Yankees tried to thwart Mirabelli’s homecoming by acquiring him themselves.

According to this Hardball Times retrospective, Epstein made a comical error while calling the players involved in the trade. Epstein punched in ‘Josh B’ on his cell phone and inadvertently called Josh Beckett, his ace pitcher, rather than Bard. Beckett was rightly perplexed, only for Epstein to realise his hilarious mistake.

Briefing the media, Epstein explained the unconventional deal and praised those involved. “We had no doubt Bard would get it figured out in the long run, but we need to win now,” said the Red Sox chief. “It was a chance for us to bring back the one guy who’s probably most qualified to catch Tim Wakefield, put him in a situation to succeed. Josh was working really hard and going about it in a very professional way, but we just didn’t necessarily have the luxury of time waiting to find out if things would get better. So we made this move while Doug was available at a reasonable cost.”

Doug Mirabelli’s mad dash from San Diego to Boston

A normal team, in a normal town, with normal expectations, may have allowed Mirabelli to amble cross-country and join the team in a few days. Not the Red Sox, though. Not Theo Epstein. Mirabelli was needed in Boston right away – as in, later that night. Epstein wanted him in the lineup to face the Yankees and catch Wakefield. Hence a wild race to bring Mirabelli home.

Towers informed Mirabelli of the deal shortly after 07:00 AM PST, and the Red Sox chartered a private plane for his journey, departing San Diego Airport at 10:15 AM PST. Mirabelli had no time to collect his thoughts, and rushed to the airport without his equipment. Two further problems soon emerged. Firstly, the six-passenger private jet had depleted fuel and would likely require a stop-off. And secondly? All being well, the plane was due to land at Boston Logan Airport at 18:48. First pitch was scheduled for 19:05. 

“It was just myself, the pilot and the co-pilot,” recalled Mirabelli in the Hardball Times piece. “They came back to tell me, ‘Look, I think we can make it gas-wise, but if not we’ll have to land.’ I’m not sure I really want to run out of gas trying to make it to a game. I’m sure they didn’t, either.”

Early in the flight, the travelling party actually struggled to make good progress, but airspace was cleared over Cleveland and New York City – upon the Red Sox’ request – allowing a more efficient route. “I don’t know who you are, but I’ve carried hearts and lungs and never had this much clearance over airspace,” the pilot told Mirabelli. Their plane was also given preference in the Logan landing queue, enabling an 18:48 touchdown.

Doug Mirabelli and the Boston Police escort

According to 162-0, a book by Mark Cofman, while Mirabelli was airborne, Red Sox travelling secretary, Jack McCormick, arranged for Mirabelli’s uniform to be placed in the back of a state police cruiser and escorted to Logan. McCormick had connections in the police department and at the airport, and the Red Sox’ team bus often received escorts to and from roadtrips. A plan was quickly concocted by McCormick and his contacts, and taxpayer resources were deployed in aid of beating the Yankees.

As revealed by Chad Jennings of The Athletic, Sgt Dave O’Leary was the lucky driver who picked up Mirabelli – on the Logan tarmac, no less – in a dark blue Ford Explorer police car. Logan and Fenway rest a little over six miles apart, but traffic clogging Storrow Drive typically complicates the journey. Perhaps against his better judgement, and possibly induced by McCormick, O’Leary flicked on his lights and siren, while a helicopter whirred overhead. Onlookers may have thought a head of state was in town, or perhaps even the pope. But no, it was just Doug Mirabelli, en route to catch Tim Wakefield against the Yankees. Some things are more important than diplomacy.

Back at Fenway, Red Sox manager Terry Francona found himself in a bind when prodded for a finalised lineup card. Briefed on the absurd escapade, but unsure if Mirabelli would make it to the ballpark in time for first pitch, Francona wrote out two different lineups – one with Varitek catching, and the other with Mirabelli behind the dish. Both were ready to be exchanged with the umpires, but Francona chewed frantically on his trademark gum while awaiting updates.

As popularly retold, an employee of the private jet company phoned into a Boston sports radio show to inform listeners Mirabelli was en route, and traffic duly parted as car radios carried the news. There are even tales – perhaps apocryphal – of fans hanging banners from bridges, welcoming Dougie Baseball back to New England. All the while, Mirabelli rolled around in the back, attempting to get dressed. “It was the first time I’d ever been naked in the back seat of a police car,” he later reminisced, according to 162-0. Again, only in Boston.

The Doug Mirabelli Game – Red Sox vs Yankees, 1 May 2006

Remarkably, footage of Mirabelli’s arrival – at 19:02 – was relayed on the big screen inside Fenway. When the catcher stepped out of the police car and into the player’s entrance, thunderous cheers cascaded through the ancient ballpark. Once inside, Mirabelli raced to borrow equipment from his teammates. Wily Mo Pena lent a pair of cleats, while Varitek offered his catching gear. Hilariously, Mirabelli left his protective cup in the police car, and decided to proceed without it – one of the ballsiest moves in Boston sports history.

Freshly dressed and newly equipped with borrowed tools of ignorance, Mirabelli caught a dozen pitches in the cramped batting cage near the Red Sox dugout, while Varitek warmed up Wakefield – sans knuckleball – in the bullpen. Trying to buy time for Mirabelli to get sharp, Red Sox officials used every trick in the book to delay the game – from numerous ceremonial first pitches, to a staged sprinkler issue in the outfield, to extensive (and likely needless) work on the mound. Fenway organist Josh Kantor later revealed that a Red Sox executive jumped on the production headset and ordered him to stall for as long as possible. Meanwhile, on NESN, Jerry Remy filled time by telling viewers how the Red Sox considered getting Mirabelli to the ballpark in a helicopter. All in all, it was an unprecedented shitshow, but partisan fans lapped it up.

Mirabelli finally took the field around 19:10, ready to take some warmup tosses from Wakefield. Ironically, Mirabelli actually dropped the first warmup knuckleball Wakefield threw, earning taunts of mock derision from fans and teammates alike. A standing ovation soon ensued, though, while homemade signs heralding the return of Mirabelli punctuated a sea of anti-Damon placards. Boston had its folk hero back, and at 19:13, the game finally began.

As he strode to the plate, Damon was roundly booed, but a smattering of applause emerged when he boldly stopped, removed his batting helmet and acknowledged the Fenway faithful. Later, upon taking his position in centre field, Damon was showered with fake $100 bills from salty Red Sox fans – a reminder of his strained defection. A playoff atmosphere engulfed the lyrical bandbox as Boston beat New York, 7-3. For his part, Mirabelli went 0-for-4 in the game, but caught seven strong innings as Wakefield found his groove.

All told, Mirabelli travelled 3,000 miles in six hours, at a speed of 500-mph, from one coast to the other – via planes and police cruisers – then went out and caught a big league victory. The scope of that achievement should never be overlooked. “Not since Moe Berg was a spy working for the US government in the years leading into World War II has so much been made of the exploits of a light-hitting backup catcher,” wrote Cofman in 162-0. Mercifully, the Red Sox had a day off following the Mirabelli miracle. Doug probably spent it asleep.

Doug Mirabelli, Tim Wakefield and their folkloric Red Sox legacy

Perhaps understandably, the impromptu police escort was heavily criticised in some quarters. In fact, the aforementioned Hardball Times piece even included a conciliatory statement from Massachusetts State Police. “We wouldn’t do something like that again, certainly not with lights and siren,” read their decree, a decade later. “As a public safety agency, that was not an appropriate use of our assets.”

Other detractors struggled to grasp why the Red Sox did not just give Mirabelli time to travel east at a more manageable pace, and perhaps join the team a few days later. Well, his mad dash was a microcosm of the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry at that time. Their feud was that intense. Every game mattered. Heck, tickets to see Boston and New York play in spring training went for $500 back then. The enemies were locked in an epochal battle for supremacy, and every marginal gain was magnified. There was no let-up in either organisation, and a national ESPN audience heightened the scrutiny. That is why Doug Mirabelli was fast-tracked to Fenway. This shit mattered back then. There may be no greater symbol of Red Sox mania during the mid-2000s.

Even to this day, New Englanders refer to the Mirabelli police escort at every available opportunity. If no opportunity presents itself, they will shoehorn it randomly into conversations – and so they should. The story is a communal heirloom at this point – a barely believable time capsule of Red Sox omnipotence passed from one generation to the next. It should never be forgotten, and hyperbolic retellings will ensure its timeless allure.

Mirabelli won another World Series ring with the 2007 Red Sox, but was out of baseball just a few months later. Epstein gave his backup catcher a $550,000 deal to return in 2008, but Mirabelli was released in spring training, aged 37, when the younger Kevin Cash finally beat him to Boston’s last roster spot. Fittingly, the 2008 Red Sox once again led the league in passed balls, but Epstein resisted the urge to bring back Dougie Baseball. Mirabelli later coached high school baseball in Traverse City, Michigan, and collegiate softball with the Florida Gators, while also working as a realtor. 

Though he has gradually drifted away from baseball, Mirabelli returned to Fenway in 2012 when the Red Sox paid tribute to Wakefield, who retired in 2011. Narrating on the field, play-by-play man Don Orsillo told fans that Mirabelli’s flight was delayed and he was not going to make it. Then, a Boston police car emerged from centre field, delivering Mirabelli once again, much to the delight of those in attendance. Wakefield delivered a strike with the ceremonial first pitch – Mirabelli catching it effortlessly – as the books closed on a glorious chapter of Red Sox history. 

Alas, Wakefield passed away in 2023, at the tragically young age of 57, having battled brain cancer. A gentle giant, he is missed every day by Red Sox Nation and the wider Boston community he served so well. I dedicate this piece to Wake, the author of so many childhood memories, and I hope it rekindles the magic of that moment – the buzz of that era – for those who never forget. Rest easy, Wake. I hope there is somebody up there who can catch a knuckleball.


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