He remembers hearing the popping sound from far away. He didn’t know what it was so he followed the noise from the house on Avenue O. Half a mile Leeronnie Ogletree ran, the pops getting louder, the intrigue multiplying until he saw the stadium. He peered through a chain-link fence with a 10-year-old’s wonderment. Baseball players in Winter Haven, Fla. Real baseball players in unblemished uniforms. Pitchers throwing, catchers receiving. Pop-pop-pop. It was the first day of spring training in 1973. Everything was pure.
A man asked Leeronnie if he wanted to meet the Boston Red Sox, maybe make a few bucks on the side cleaning around the clubhouse. Both knew what the answer would be.
“If you’re a kid, you fall in love with the game of baseball,” Ogletree says. “There’s one in a million chance of meeting a professional ballplayer, let alone working with them. If kids like something, and if you say you’re going to take that away, they’ll do anything to keep what’s good to them. I know what happened to me at 10 years old.”
Today, Ogletree is 48. He can’t forget about what happened when he was 10, not ever. So in September, after a long time away, he put a sign into his car and drove to a ballpark again. People would see what happened to him at 10 years old. And they never would forget, either.
Before Jerry Sandusky — before he allegedly used the Penn State football complex to commit sex crimes with young boys and before the university spent more than a decade covering up his sins and before the grand-jury report revealed the appalling details of his abuse and before the campus rioted over legendary coach Joe Paterno losing his job amid it all — there was Donald Fitzpatrick, the longtime Red Sox clubhouse manager who lured Ogletree and at least a dozen other young, African-American boys into two decades of systemic sexual abuse.
Not only has a serial child molester infiltrated sports before, he did so with one of baseball’s most storied franchises. Should the allegations against Sandusky prove true, the two cases are strikingly similar. Both men seduced their victims with the lure of big-time athletics. Both bribed them with equipment and other swag. Both enjoyed watching boys shower. Both fondled their victims and engaged in oral sex. Both committed crimes in plain view and, despite getting caught, were swaddled by a power structure that buried the truth to protect those highest up in the organization. Both used threats and mind games to silence their prey for decades. And both ended up being exposed as predators far too late, after they had laid waste to innocent lives.
Unlike Sandusky, Fitzpatrick’s shame did not make the nightly news and spur national discussions about moral responsibility vis-à-vis sex offenders. Outside of Boston and Florida, where his molestation of clubhouse assistants and batboys occurred, few knew of Fitzpatrick even after the accusations went public. He was the lead visiting clubbie at Fenway Park and Chain Of Lakes Park, the Red Sox’s spring training site in Winter Haven, a no-name. Nobody protested against the team’s inaction.
Never mind that the negligence dated back to 1971. One victim, according to a complaint filed by his lawyer two decades later, told Red Sox home clubhouse manager Vince Orlando that Fitzpatrick had abused him for the previous three seasons. Orlando fired the boy. Two sources, who asked not to be identified, said a Red Sox player caught Fitzpatrick sodomizing a boy in the shower, much like then-Penn State graduate assistant Mike McQueary did Sandusky. The player reported the incident to the team but not police. Fitzpatrick kept his job anyway.
And so the monster who tormented boys as young as 4 continued to parade them to his locations of choice: the private room at Chain of Lakes, the Holiday Inn, his Boston-area condo, even Fenway. Six of the boys remain unnamed. Seven wore Fitzpatrick’s scars publicly. Myron Birdsong, Terrance Birdsong, Walter Covington III, Eric Frazier Jr., James A. Jackson, Willie Earl Hollis and Leeronnie Ogletree. Most were related by blood. All are bound by another’s evil.
Some of the victims overcame the anguish and chaos sexual abuse portends. One is a doctor, another a minister. Most succumbed to drugs and crime and all of the mechanisms used to cope with the robbery of innocence, which is what makes widespread molestation cases so devastating and the Penn State case evermore frightful: the crime often doesn’t end with deed. It resonates and reverberates years and decades later, the worst sort of wrong, one that can break a man.
Sort of like it did Leeronnie Ogletree.
“Sometimes,” he says, “I’m not sure who I am.”
This keeps Ogletree awake. It did before prison, it did in prison, it has since prison. The Yankees were in Winter Haven. He cleaned their clubhouse. A small wall separated the clubhouse from the windowless box where Fitzpatrick assaulted boys and insisted they slap him.
“He grabbed me and told me to take my clothes off,” Ogletree says. “I’ll never forget him putting his mouth on my penis. I don’t mind telling it now because I’m over it. But that stands out. And I’ll never forget it.”
Clubhouse manager Donald Fitzpatrick, who died in 2005, pleaded guilty in Florida. (The Boston Globe/File)
It happened for the next eight years, abuse and shame and pain. Ogletree tries to reconcile that with who he wants to be, someone for whom hundreds of hours in intensive psychotherapy helps rid the abuse’s carcinogenic effect on his soul. He wants to believe that by talking about this he can save others, that by writing a book called “Major League Addiction” he can experience the catharsis he deserves. He wants to stop seeing Donald Fitzpatrick in others.
“I thought one time I wouldn’t be able to deal with older white people,” Ogletree says. “If I see somebody who resembles him, a rage comes through me. I just have to leave the scene. That’s something that can happen even right now.”
For decades, he has sought the in between, the place where he’s whole again. It still eludes him. He sees himself on the playground. He hears that popping sound. He doesn’t want to go. He can’t help it.
In 1969, Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey and his wife, Jean, opened Tara Hall, a home for disadvantaged boys in Georgetown, S.C. They didn’t have any children of their own, and before they could take the troubled kids and mold them at Tara Hall, they had a much cruder finishing school: Fenway Park.
Donald Fitzpatrick was an orphan, exactly the sort of boy Yawkey loved to rescue. He would play pepper with the batboys off the street before Red Sox games, and he took a particular shine to the 15-year-old Fitzpatrick, whom he soon put in the parking lot, the clubhouses — wherever someone needed him. Even as Fitzpatrick grew older and his tendencies to gravitate toward young boys became apparent, Yawkey protected him, according to two sources with knowledge of their relationship.
Save two years in the military, Fitzpatrick never left the Red Sox organization. When Yawkey died in 1976 after 44 tumultuous years of owning the franchise — charges of racism chased him all the way through his Hall of Fame induction in 1980 and to today — his wife’s continued employment of Fitzpatrick concerned some Red Sox workers. Players for years had told young boys — especially African-Americans — to stay away from Fitzpatrick. Higher-ups in the organization tried to isolate him from any possible social setting. Jean Yawkey just wouldn’t fire him.
For 15 years, Fitzpatrick ran the road team’s clubhouse. With Fitzpatrick no longer molesting Ogletree — “I got too old,” he says — he moved to Boston and lived with Fitzpatrick. While Stockholm syndrome certainly vice-gripped Ogletree, so did money and cocaine. He made lots and used more. When he chafed at Fitzpatrick, he heard a common refrain: “You’re going to do what I say or I’ll behead you.”
Fitzpatrick would say that to the kids in Winter Haven, too, and the players saw his predilection toward young, black boys as odd. Just not odd enough to look deeper. So finding witnesses to corroborate the Winter Haven seven’s stories was near-impossible. Whether it was players’ willful ignorance or health — Ted Williams was asked to talk with police but was too ill and died soon thereafter — nobody from the Red Sox claimed to know what happened.
“You heard things through the grapevine,” longtime Boston third baseman Wade Boggs told the Tampa Tribune in 2001, “but I knew nothing specifically of any incidents while I was in Boston.”
If ever the story was going to emerge, it would take the same thing it did with Sandusky and almost every case of pervasive molestation: Someone with the courage to ignore the stigma that bedevils victims and tell the truth so others can do the same. A Red Sox organization that had harbored a sexual predator since he was a child himself surely wasn’t going to self-report.
“Like most of these institutions,” says Ben Crump, Ogletree’s lawyer, “it is deny, deny, deny.”
Toward the end of batting practice before an Aug. 25, 1991 game in Anaheim, Calif., a man leaned over the Red Sox dugout and held up a sign:
Red Sox Statement On Donald Fitzpatrick.
- Mr. Fitzpatrick served as the team’s clubhouse manager from the 1960s until 1991, and the actions you have inquired about occurred between 1971 and 1991. When the team, then under a previous ownership group, became aware of the allegations against Mr. Fitzpatrick in 1991, he was promptly relieved of his duties. Civil litigation was filed in 2001 by victims of Mr. Fitzpatrick for actions that had occurred more than 20 years earlier. The team, which was acquired by the current ownership group after the lawsuit was filed, reached a settlement in 2002. Mr. Fitzpatrick has since passed away. The Red Sox have always viewed the actions of Mr. Fitzpatrick to be abhorrent.
The first victim to stand up to Fitzpatrick remains anonymous today. His bravery and boldness single-handedly ended Fitzpatrick’s career. Steven August, the Red Sox’s traveling secretary, told the Boston Globe that Fitzpatrick returned to the clubhouse that afternoon and “was basically cowering in a corner.” He left the team four days later and never returned. The Red Sox paid the victim $100,000 in an out-of-court settlement.
The secrecy around Fitzpatrick’s abuse was crumbling. In 2000, Ogletree says, he told his sister, Rita, of his eight-year molestation. Her son, James A. Jackson, confirmed it happened to him as well. Ogletree had brought in other relatives to work for the Red Sox, figuring Fitzpatrick would stay away from them, that he wouldn’t have the hubris to molest an entire family.
Only he did, and more than a decade after the façade on Fitzpatrick cracked, and on the day after 9/11, the seven men filed a lawsuit seeking $3.15 million in damages. Even though lawyers worried the statute of limitations, conflicting stories and criminal histories of the victims would prove tricky, they surged ahead with the case. As the Winter Haven seven argued behind the scenes who deserved what cut of the potential award, Polk County launched a criminal investigation that ended with four counts of attempted sexual battery by Fitzpatrick between 1975 and 1989. He accepted a plea deal.
“Because I’m guilty,” Fitzpatrick, then 72, told the court May 16, 2002.
Another part of the deal: Fitzpatrick would serve no jail time. He could return to Randolph, Mass., with a 10-year suspended sentence and 15 years of probation. Six of the victims approved the plea. Ogletree called it a “sweetheart deal” and vowed to fight it. The fissure between Ogletree and the rest of the victims widened as the Red Sox’s new ownership — which bought the team after the lawsuit was filed — negotiated a settlement. When the club paid the $3.15 million May 28, 2003, Ogletree was in a mental institution. He says the previous ownership group had promised him psychiatric care for the rest of his life and reneged.
The Red Sox wanted to distance themselves from Fitzpatrick, a position from which they haven’t deviated. In a statement released to Yahoo! Sports on Wednesday night, the team said: “The Red Sox have always viewed the actions of Mr. Fitzpatrick to be abhorrent.”
Fitzpatrick never did go to prison. He died in 2005. Ogletree learned about it by reading a letter at the DeSoto Annex Correctional Institute, where he was serving the 678th day of a sentence that would last another 2,112.
Ogletree’s first rap came in 1992 for cocaine possession. He served 3½ months of a 2½-year sentence. Almost 10 years later, he started his second sentence, on burglary, grand theft and cocaine possession charges. He says a drug buddy stole travelers’ checks and gave them to Ogletree to trade for dope. He did. Ogletree took the fall, he says, because his friend’s family owned a restaurant in Polk County, and the checks were the buddy’s sister’s.
“They were powerful people,” Ogletree says. “They put it all on me.”
He struggles with culpability. Ogletree’s guilt for helping lure family members into a molester’s den “isn’t that much.” His drug problem “came from baseball.” And yet no matter his rationale, all of Ogletree’s misdeeds come atop a transformative crime that has no statute of limitations on how it poisons people’s lives and what shape it can take. For the rest of his life, Ogletree can look at a problem and blame it on Fitzpatrick, and nobody within reason could judge him.
“I was a good kid,” Ogletree says. “I was raised right. The sentence I really got was a life sentence because of what I went through with the Red Sox.”
Whatever caused him to endure misery and the doctor and minister to thrive in spite of their ordeals, it colors Ogletree jealous. Is it brain chemistry? Frequency of abuse? Something else doctors have yet to understand about the vagaries of molestation? Ogletree does realize this: Among those he knows, he is certainly more the rule than the exception.
Covington has booked jail time in two states, Frazier pleaded no-contest to a burglary charge and Hollis spent time in jail for assault and DUI convictions, according to the Boston Globe. As recently as last year, Hollis says, he spent time in jail — 23 days for driving with a suspended license.
“It’s no excuse,” Hollis says, “but come on. You always gonna think about it. Always. I was young then. I’m a man now. I just put it behind me.
“Just trying to survive, really.”
On his first day as a free man in more than eight years, Leeronnie Ogletree returned home for a feast. Whatever Leeronnie wanted his mother, Oreatha, gave him: ribs, chicken, steak, hot dogs, hamburgers, potato salad, mac and cheese, collard greens, baked beans, salad, pizza, cake, ice cream and, he says, “the main dish: a bunch of love.”
Slowly, Ogletree says, he’s figuring out what love means. He sees it from his mom and his sisters even if he can’t return it in full. And he wants to feel it toward his four children, 16-year-old Kadeshia, 15-year-old Leeronnie, 12-year-old Leeroy and 9-year-old Randell, none of whom he knows particularly well. He meets with them once a week. Goes to the mall. Catches a movie. Plays football or basketball.
“He’s confused how to be a father,” says Crump, his lawyer. “It’s one of the saddest experiences possible.”
He wants to learn, to live for something beyond his own salvation, which he has tried for years to no avail. He sees his balance in his children and a real relationship, the sort he’s not exactly sure how to cultivate. He says he’s sober, and that helps. And that as he was getting out of prison, Kadeshia and Leeronnie looked up his name on the Internet, found these awful stories and started to understand better that their dad wasn’t some deadbeat junkie, even if he had left them with their grandma for eight years.
This, Ogletree says, is where he becomes a person again, where he must shed the fears and insecurities and conquer a man long dead and a disease that will continue to curse him unless he kills it.
“I have my moments where I’m so overly protective,” Ogletree says. “That’s what I’ve got to get away from being. My son’s ready to play sports. I want to be right there. It does affect me. Kids have to be kids. I don’t let them go to no events unless I’m there. I might say it’s overprotective. But what else do I know?
“It’s too difficult to avoid. You’ve got to look at some of the people — and I pray to God I’m not one of those — who turn around and become a monster themselves. That’s why I think it’s so important.”
So he promises them things he can’t promise like a book deal for “Major League Addiction.” He says it’s got good dirt. Something about a cabal of child molesters in clubhouse whose names he doesn’t remember and a full accounting of the steroid users he saw working in Fitzpatrick’s clubhouse and how Major League Baseball failed by letting a sexual deviant run rampant for 20 years.
“im taking care of buss so we can get rich,” Ogletree wrote his two eldest kids on Facebook. That excited them. They didn’t ask where the settlement money went.
“I’m not sure what happened to it,” Ogletree says. “It wasn’t there when I got out.”
So he got a job inspecting roof trusses, like he did before he got locked up. At night, he helped his sister, Connie, clean up her day-care center. In late June, about three weeks after he breathed free air, he joined Facebook. It was starting. If people didn’t know who he was, who Donald Fitzpatrick was, they would. He’d make sure.
The drive from the house on Avenue O to Tropicana Field on Sept. 10 took about 90 minutes. Ogletree loaded his cardboard sign into the back of the car and told his mom he was about to leave for his protest. Oreatha raised him in that house to be a strong boy. She hoped he had strength for this.
He parked at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla., chatted with the police to make sure they were OK with what he was about to do and got the go-ahead. There was no big Facebook crowd. That was OK. Maybe someday.
Anyway, it’s not like he was protesting as much as offering an informational session for anybody interested in the big, bold, catchy headline on his sign. The Boston Red Sox were in town that weekend. Ogletree knew the crowd would be bigger than the poor excuse at most Tampa Bay Rays games. He knew, too, they would want to talk with him.
Above him read a big, unmistakable headline: Man Warns Parents About Sexual Abuse in Major League Baseball. The passersby gawked. And for those bold enough to ask, Ogletree told them about Donald James Fitzpatrick and the horror he caused.
“I need to tell people my story,” he says.
He will repeat it to friends and strangers, to the concerned and the insensitive. He plans on driving to different training camps in Florida this spring to warn fans of sexual predators. There’s just one person who can’t hear it, not anymore.
Oreatha Ogletree, 83, has lived at the house on Avenue O for more than seven decades. She grew up there, raised her three kids and 10 others. Her mom was a real-estate investor and bought the property. Oreatha says someone offered her $1 million for the place and she said no. Her mom lived to 101, so she figures she’s got a long time left in that house.
“God will get you through anything, and if you’ve got him, that’s all you need,” Oreatha says. “My mother said that. You don’t need money. If you’ve got God, he gives you all you need. Whatever you need.”
Where, then, was God when a wicked man was causing irreparable harm to her son? That’s not a question Oreatha cares to answer. She says she’s not that wise.
She just has faith because “he’s a strong boy” and because “he’s with the people that really love him” and because there’s really no alternative. There never is a certain answer for victims of sexual predators.
Like getting away from Winter Haven, up and moving. Maybe, Ogletree says, it would help. Maybe it wouldn’t. His extended family remains there. Same with some of the other victims.
So does Chain of Lakes Park. The Red Sox are long gone from the complex as are the Cleveland Indians, the team that replaced them. When Ogletree was in prison, they left and nobody came. On the first day of spring training, no longer does the air fill with a pop-pop-pop. The field is empty, silence pervasive except for the house a half-mile up the road, on Avenue O, where Leeronnie Ogletree still hears it loud as ever.
Someday, he hopes, the sound will stop.