BOSTON – It is an article of faith among their fans that the Red Sox will hit better at home than they did against the Los Angeles Angels in the first two games of the AL Division Series, after managing just a run on eight hits in Anaheim. If they don't, of course, they will be eliminated by the Angels, who look to close out the Red Sox after losing playoff series to Boston three times in the last five seasons.
It is a matter of faith for Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell(notes), who is hitless in his seven playoff at-bats, that Sunday's start (noon ET) for Game 3 will preclude him from spending time beforehand with a close friend who cracks as wise as Conan O'Brien – and who was also O'Brien's housemate at Harvard – who has a soft spot toward ballplayers even though he has little tolerance for the game, and who, while wishing the best for Lowell and his teammates, ultimately hopes they have time for issues that transcend the outcome of a baseball game – like feeding some of the hungriest souls in Massachusetts.
Paul O'Brien, or simply Paul, is Lowell's friend. He's no relation to the "Tonight" show host, though they remain fans of one another. To the parishioners of St. Patrick's Church in Lawrence, Mass., he is known as Father Paul, the priest who has enlisted the help of Conan and ballplayers like Lowell to establish Cor Unum Meal Center, which offers breakfast and dinner, seven days a week, to those most in need of something to eat.
Lowell grew up Catholic in Miami, where he and his buddies used to jump the fence to play pickup basketball on the schoolyard courts of Epiphany Parish, where one of the priests, Msgr. Jude O'Dougherty, often would join the games.
But Lowell said he has never met a priest quite like Father Paul, to whom he was introduced a year ago by Sean Casey(notes), who was a backup first baseman for the Red Sox. Casey met Father Paul while playing baseball in the summer after his sophomore year in college in the Cape Cod League. They became close friends, and when Casey married his wife, Mandi, Father Paul officiated at the wedding. Father Paul, at Casey's invitation, began showing up on Sundays in the Red Sox clubhouse to celebrate Mass for a small group of players.
"Case told me a little bit of his background," Lowell said. "Harvard grad, Conan O'Brien's roommate. You know, you don't really picture a priest – not that they can't be Harvard grads, but the Conan O'Brien thing, him being such a public guy, a talk-show host, it seemed a little weird.
"But I think he's got a really good grasp on reality, and the needs of a lot of people.
"He hates baseball, admittedly, which is unbelievable. I tell him, 'Man, stop hounding me for tickets.' He'd rather burn alive than come to a baseball game."
Before coming to St. Patrick, where mass is celebrated in three languages – English, Spanish (because of the large number of parishioners of Dominican ancestry) and Vietnamese (a smaller yet visible group) – Father Paul served with Mother Teresa in Calcutta and worked with AIDS patients in Rome.
It took him little time to recognize that hunger was a profound issue in his new community. The misconception, he said, is that it is a homeless problem. Most of the hungry in Lawrence, he said, come from the working poor. More than 28 percent of the 80,000 residents in this one-time thriving mill town live beneath the poverty line. Forty-two percent of the children live in poverty.
Father Paul turned to his friends, a circle that included Casey, Conan O'Brien and his brother
Luke, a lawyer, and Mike Toth, whose Toth Brand Imaging made J Crew and Tommy Hilfiger instantly recognized icons. They hatched a plan to sell a line of edgy T-shirts in a program called "Labels are for Jars" – to raise money for a facility to feed the hungry. The T-shirts were a huge success.
Cor Unum, which means "One Heart," opened its doors in October 2006. Father Paul estimates that they've served over 450,000 meals since, relying heavily on donations from food banks and volunteers who serve as cooks, serving food, bussing tables and washing dishes.
Lowell and his wife, Bertha, and their two children were among a party of Red Sox family members that visited Cor Unum one evening this summer to assist in serving dinner. Jacque Francona, wife of the Red Sox manager, and their teen-aged daughter, Jamie, came. So did Yuka Okajima, wife of relief pitcher Hideki Okajima(notes); Ronda Mills, wife of bench coach Brad Mills(notes); and Lori Page, wife of David Page, the team's strength coach.
The Lowells had been before, and were so impressed they made a $25,000 donation from the player's foundation.
"I was impressed by the fact it was really clean, and it was truly restaurant-style, not a cafeteria style where you're just getting people in and out," Lowell said. "You want people to sit down and enjoy a meal. I think I was pretty moved by that because there are people really struggling for a meal, but it's still very important that someone is treating them with so much respect.
"I was really blown away when Father Paul tells me in the mornings, they've got 10- and 12-year-olds bringing 5- and 6-year-olds to eat before they go to school."
It doesn't surprise Father Paul that the experience made an impact on Lowell.
"He's obviously seeing his kids and those kids and totally making the connection that those kids are as worthy of dignity and respect as his own kids," the priest said. "He sees his own daughter bringing in her little brother, and he feels outrage."
Lowell has had more than his share of struggles this season, primarily due to off-season surgery to repair his right hip after breaking down at the end of 2008, causing him to miss the playoffs. Even a year later, Lowell still has trouble running, and his range afield is diminished, though he said the condition has not affected his batting.
"I never felt pain during my swing," he said, "though I do feel bad when I hit a ball between short and third, and the shortstop dives, gets up, makes a cell phone call, eats a sandwich and still throws me out."
Lowell batted .290 this season with 17 home runs and 75 RBIs in 119 games, the second straight season in which he has played fewer than 120 games after playing 150 or more in the previous four seasons.
It used to be, he said, that he'd stretch with the team, take a few swings, and be ready to go. Now, he said, his daily routine consists of two stretching sessions with assistant trainer Mike Reinold. Miss a day, and he pays.
There have been a couple of times this season, including just before the playoffs, that Lowell has needed more help. He has had fluid drained from the hip joint and received injections of a synthetic lubricant that is supposed to offer temporary pain relief and better range of motion.
"There's a little bit of a honeymoon, two or three days where you think, 'Wow, I'm great,' then everything settles back in," Lowell said.
But he has learned to live with it. He made a terrific fielding play in each of the first two games against the Angels, though the hits have not come, for him or his teammates.
Maybe they come on Sunday against Scott Kazmir(notes), the former Tampa Bay left-hander who says he loves pitching in Fenway Park. Manager Terry Francona said Saturday afternoon he may tinker with his batting order.
But before they swing their bats there will be a few prayers. Even though Father Paul will not be there, Mike Lowell will find his way to Mass somewhere before the game. And a full plate will count at least as much as home plate.
"Mike has always believed his first obligation is to God," Father Paul said. "And we can honestly do something to end this.
"It's not that complicated. We give the time. We give the food."
Anyone wishing to donate to, or volunteer at, Cor Unum Meal Center can visit its website.