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Monday, November 10, 2014

How a gift from Red Sox fans gave Boston Mayor Tom Menino strength and support

A man and his cane. (Boston Globe)

In the last months of his life, after his retirement from office and before his death from cancer on Oct. 30, Boston Mayor Tom Menino was almost never seen in public without wielding a very distinctive-looking cane he was given exactly one year ago today.

It was fashioned from a genuine Louisville Slugger baseball bat, with Menino's name and the years of the last three Red Sox World Series championships emblazoned on its barrel. The mayor liked to point out with pride that the 2004, 2007, and 2013 titles were all won during his administration, and he had several Sox players autograph the bat -- including '04 pitching ace Pedro Martinez and various members of the '13 champs.

The "bat cane" went everywhere with Menino, including his stays at Brigham and Women's Hospital and his chemotherapy treatments next door at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. When mourners passed by his open casket at Faneuil Hall last week, they could see the unique walking stick lying beside him. Afterwards, the mayor's press secretary, Dot Joyce, was seen carrying it out of the hall.

"When they showed Angela [Menino's widow] on TV walking up the steps and into their home that night, you could see she was carrying the cane," says Lynne Smith, the Red Sox super-fan famous for her extraordinary outfits, including a Fenway Park hat with working lights and Citgo sign. "That was so hard for us to see. We knew how much he  cared about it."

That Smith noticed the cane during its brief TV appearance was no surprise. It was she and her husband, Gary, who had ordered the very special walking stick for Menino, and then presented it to their friend at a charity event last Nov. 10.

The Smiths and the Mayor -- friends and fans.

"We got the idea when we went to the [2013] Red Sox-Tigers ALDS games in Detroit, and saw an elderly man walking with a baseball bat cane at Comerica Park," says Smith. "Gary and I just looked at each other and said 'Menino' at the same time. We knew it was something the mayor would love, so we asked the man where he had gotten it."

It turns out there was a retired firefighter named Rick Just who made the Little-League-sized Louisville Slugger canes -- available at -- as a one-man operation out of his DeLand, Florida home. After the Red Sox won the World Series, the Smiths contacted Just with their request for a Menino model.

When they gave the cane to the mayor last November, "his eyes just lit up," recalls Lynne Smith. "You could tell he liked it."

John Henry views the cane. (Tom Fitzsimmons)

Menino had already been using a cane for a variety of health reasons, including a broken leg in April 2013 and his bone-weakening cancer treatment this year. He was not happy with the walking sticks he had, however, including one that had been used by the late Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy but was too long for the mayor. As a result, he wasn't going out as much. 

This changed once he got the bat cane. Suddenly this Red Sox fan who signified "Boston Strong" as well as anybody was proud to walk the streets with its assistance, and loved showing it off. 

A familiar sight during the last year. (Boston Globe)

"It was extremely important to him, and he would not leave the house without it," one of his Dana-Farber social workers explains. "It made having to use a cane feel like a source of strength, because it was connected to his Red Sox pride."

Probing reporters asked Menino where he got the bat cane, and at first he would only say it was "from friends." Finally he relented and told them, and when Lynne and Gary went on the record with Just's name, the firefighter-turned-craftsman was inundated with orders.

"He was so appreciative, he insisted on making a bat cane for me," says Lynne Smith. "Louisville Slugger gave him a pink one at my request, and he inscribed it to,  'Lynne Smith #1 Red Sox Fan.'" Like the mayor's version, it lists the 2004-07-13 championships, and is one of her most cherished Sox-themed objects in a home filled with them. 

 Lynne loves her pink bat.

While Menino's bat cane did not prove magical for the 2014 Red Sox, it was not for lack of effort. It went to spring training in Florida with the mayor, and on many trips to Fenway Park during the summer. It even made it to the White House when the mayor accompanied last year's title-winning Sox to a celebration with President Obama. Lynne Smith made sure to call Rick Just and tell him, "One of your bats is in the Oval Office."

The last time the mayor ever visited Fenway was with current Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey, for the final game of Boston's dismal '14 season. As always, the cane was by his side. 

"Angela told us that the mayor just carried himself differently with the cane," says Lynne Smith. "Once he went to a school and a little boy took the cane and didn't want to give it back, and one time the airlines gave him a hard time and said it was a weapon. But he always got it back."

Menino's last Xmas tree lighting (Olga Khvan)

The Smiths got a deeper sense of how important their gift had been when several members of Menino's staff approached them at the mayor's funeral on Nov. 3 to say how much the cane had meant to him. 

"It was a random act of kindness," Lynne Smith says now. "We gave it with love, and just hoped he would have some fun with it.

"We had no idea it would take on a life of its own."

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