Outfielder’s full effort in baseball and life wasn’t always such a good thing
By Jackie MacMullan | ESPNBoston.com
Now that he’s a major league ballplayer, a World Series hero, a three-time Gold Glove winner and a two-time All-Star, the narrative of Shane Victorino’s life has morphed into something like this: fleet-footed outfielder, battle-tested veteran, welcome addition to the clubhouse.
He’s already a Red Sox fan favorite, a whirling dervish of hustle and emotion who hurtles into walls, fences, front-row seats – anything that stands in the way of catching the ball.
The Flyin’ Hawaiian, they call him. Sometimes, when a ball is belted to right field, Victorino knows there’s probably no play to be made, that he should just let it go.
But he just can’t.
“That’s the way I play the game,” Victorino said with a shrug, “the only way I know how to play the game.”
Sometimes he tracks the ball down (Torii Hunter’s foul fly in early June, his sliding catch of Jose Reyes’ liner in late June). Sometimes, he doesn’t (Emilio Bonifacio’s home run in mid-May). Either way, his teammates and manager brace themselves for the inevitable collision at warp speed.
It was no different when he played for the Phillies. In 2007, the year before he helped lead Philadelphia to a World Series title, the bases were loaded when Eric Bruntlett of the Astros hooked a ball to right field. Victorino, a former Hawaii state sprinting champion, barreled full tilt in pursuit and dove headfirst into the stands.
It was a spectacular effort – except he didn’t come up with the ball and narrowly escaped serious injury.
“Afterward, my teammates were saying to me, ‘What the hell are you doing? You’re going to split your head open. Don’t be stupid,’” Victorino said. “When I go for a ball like that, consciously I know I probably shouldn’t, but I get caught up in the moment. I’ve always been that way.
"Ever since I was a little kid, I get fired up pretty easily.”
As an infant, Victorino tossed baby powder in his father’s face as he tried to change his son’s diaper.
When he became a toddler, he stood atop his toy Tonka truck wielding a baseball bat, smashing a line of vases his mother had carefully placed on the mantel.
Each morning, when he woke up, he jumped on the bed, jumping and jumping and jumping until he smashed his temple on the ceiling or fell off and landed on his Tonka truck, adding another gash to his little face.
“He was a cuckoo bird,” said his mother, Joycelyn Victorino, sighing. “So sweet, but so much trouble.”
In the first eight years of his life, his mother surmises, Victorino made 10 visits to the emergency room and amassed more than 30 stitches.
There was the time he cut his finger on one of the vases he smashed. There was the time he was driving with his aunt, bouncing around in the back seat, unable to sit still. When his aunt stopped short at a red light, Shane, who had ripped off his seat belt, fell forward into the metal ashtray.
When Shane was 4, he wanted to show his mother he could ride a two-wheeler. He bombed down the driveway, waved to his mom, lost control – and came up with a spoke sticking out of his ear.
Victorino had been in preschool just two months when the director called the house.
“You gotta pick this boy up,” the director said. “He’s hitting the other kids. He’s too disruptive.”
Joycelyn tried another school, then another. Something was amiss with her youngest son. She finally placed him in a Maui special-learning center.
“I was embarrassed to put him in a school like that,” Joycelyn said, “but I had to put my pride aside.”
The assessment concluded everything his mother had already feared: Shane was belligerent, uncooperative. He was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. His condition required medication, counseling and, most of all, patience.
That was an impossible order for a fidgety, active little boy who didn’t comprehend why he couldn’t contain himself.
“It was frustrating for me,” Victorino said. “I didn’t understand why I’d get so upset and act out the way I did and not realize the consequences of what was going on.”
His father tried to reason with him. “If something bad happens, move on from it,” Mike Victorino Sr. advised. “Put it behind you.”
His mother collected as much data as she could on ADHD. She consulted psychiatrists and asked for help from Shane’s teachers and coaches. She wanted to understand why a little boy would be riding in the car and inexplicably decide to open the door. (Naturally, he fell out, triggering another emergency room visit and another sleepless night for the Victorinos.)
Shane was bombing down the hill on his scooter with his brother, Mike Jr., one afternoon without paying any attention to the oncoming traffic. A woman struck him with her car, and Victorino was so distraught that his parents would be mad he popped up and tried to run off. The woman called the police, who called an ambulance, which chased him through the streets.
“It was a battle,” Victorino conceded. “I wasn’t an easy kid, and my parents tried so hard to help me.
"It’s not someone I wanted to be. I was born with it, and it took a lot of time and effort, particularly from my mom, to figure out how to help me.”
Athletics were a welcome release yet often were the backdrop to another spasm of frustration. He couldn’t corral his emotions, which, unbridled, caused carnage at every turn.
Kevin O’Brien, who would later become one of Victorino’s football coaches at St. Anthony’s High School in Maui, got a call one afternoon from Charlie Ane, a legendary sports figure on the island. Ane was born in Hawaii and was a multisport star. He played in the NFL for the Detroit Lions in the ’50s and won two championships.
“Charlie told me, ‘You’ve got to come to this middle school basketball game with me,’” O’Brien said. “’You’ve got to see this kid.’”
“You mean your grandson?” O’Brien asked.
“No,” Ane answered. “The Victorino kid.”
Shane and Ane’s grandson Keola dominated the game. By the time Keola grabbed the rebound, Victorino was already halfway up the court, ready to convert a fast-break bucket. His timing was impeccable, his athleticism as explosive as his temper.
“He had a tantrum while I was watching that game,” said O’Brien. “The coach took him out for a second, but it didn’t last long. He needed him in the game.
"Shane was a controversial figure in Maui. Many thought he was cocky, arrogant, out of control. But they all wanted a piece of him, because he was so good at everything.”
His mother knew his tender side, his willingness to come after games, still in uniform, and help her with her second job – cleaning office buildings – until well after midnight. At home, she saw a thoughtful boy who would go on to be an Eagle scout, who knew how to balance a checkbook by the time he was 15.
But most simply saw a poor sport with a horrendous attitude who teetered on the brink of disaster.
Victorino was desperate to keep pace with older brother Mike, four and a half years older than him, and when he couldn’t, he resorted to pushing, kicking, punching, even biting.
“He hated losing,” Mike said. “He got kicked out of just about every sport in every league because of his temper.”
One year, when his father was the director of the soccer program, Shane scored a goal, flipped off the parents of the opposing team and tried to pick a fight with its coach.
Soon, both benches emptied, with voices escalating and fists flying.
“I started a brawl,” Victorino said. “It was terrible.
"Most of the time, I was a soft-hearted kid, but when I got into one of those tirades, I let it all out, and it would go to levels it never should have.”
Ane, the head coach at St. Anthony’s High School who boasted the résumé Shane craved, was one of the few coaches who would sit Victorino when he acted up. O’Brien, Ane’s assistant, also worked closely with Victorino, stressing, above all, self-discipline.
“I loved Shane,” O’Brien said. “He was a pain in the butt, but he was fun to coach, a tremendous challenge. When you got him directed in the right way, he was great.
"There was no one else like him.”
Victorino’s exceptional speed and dexterity left coaches tugging at him from all sides. He played soccer, football, basketball and baseball and ran track and field. In his senior season, he won the state championship in the 100, 200 and 400 meters; his 100-meter time of 10.8 seconds remains the state record.
The baseball stadium was adjacent to the track, so once the game ended, Victorino would sprint through the parking lot to the track, shedding his glove, uniform and cleats as he went.
“My parents would be running behind picking up all his stuff,” said Mike Victorino.
His mother allowed the sports as long as Shane kept meeting with his doctors and counselors. The battle for self-control continued, with many potholes along the path to maturity.
“Shane liked to talk,” O’Brien said. “He liked to yell at people. He liked to think he knew better than you. It was hard for him to hear, ‘No, we’re doing it this way.’
"The thing was, he could make up for a lot of his mistakes because of his athleticism.”
Victorino played wing back and defensive back, returned kicks and punted. One day in practice, Ane instructed the team what to do when there was a bad snap punting out of the end zone. The choices included taking a safety or trying to knock the ball out of the end zone.
“So the bad snap comes back, and Shane tries to field it like a shortstop,” O’Brien said. “The ball takes a funny hop and it’s about two feet off the ground, and then somehow Shane kicks it out of midair.
"I’ve never seen anything like it. The ball took off like a rocket ship.”
By the time Victorino was a senior, O’Brien, who was also his world history teacher, went to all of the kid’s games, “because I knew it would be over soon, and I didn’t want to miss it.”
He saw Victorino, a forward in soccer, dribble to the far right corner with three defenders in pursuit then somehow, some way, come out with the ball. He saw him dominate a game against a school twice the size of St. Anthony’s, but not before he drew a yellow card, then a red card, which meant an automatic ejection.
As he moved to the sideline, Victorino angrily ripped off his jersey. Joycelyn covered her face. She couldn’t bear to watch anymore.
She half expected to hear the roar of another dustup, but … nothing. When she finally looked up, her son was sitting on the sideline, talking with his coach.
“That was a turning point, not only for me but my family,” Victorino said. “It was such a relief to know I could keep myself in check.”
The years have come and gone. Victorino became a Major League Baseball star, beloved in Philadelphia as much for his community service as for the National League Championship Series Game 2 grand slam he hit off CC Sabathia or the clutch World Series Game 5 hit with the bases loaded.
He is still on medication for ADHD and keeps in touch with his doctors regularly. In recent years, he’s even become a spokesman for the disease.
There are flare-ups from time to time. In August, while still playing center field for the Phillies, Victorino was ejected after waving his hands in disgust over strikes called by umpire Ed Rapuano. It was a bizarre scene, to see Victorino tossed from the outfield, and he took responsibility afterward, confessing, “I let my emotions get the best of me.”
“I can still see evidence of it when I follow him,” said O’Brien. “But it’s a credit to Shane, and especially his family, that’s he’s been as successful as he has. It’s been a long road for him.”
Earlier this season, Victorino attempted a diving catch that got away from him. The play was ruled a double, and when Ryan Dempster balked, the runner advanced to third.
“So one of the fans stands up and yells, ‘Yeah, way to go, Victorino, way to catch the ball!” Victorino said.
He could feel his blood rising, the anger building, his heart pounding. But at 32 years old, now a husband and a father, he knows now how to convert that adrenaline into something positive.
“I tried to make a diving catch in the gap,” Victorino said. “I’m thinking, ‘Really, buddy? You got a problem with that?’ That kind of stuff really drives me.
"So now I’m thinking, ‘You wait, pal. You wait until the next one is hit out here. You’ll see.’
"The dugouts are so close to the field here in Boston. Some guys hate that. Me? I love it. I want those fans right up on us. One of the reasons I came to Boston is because I wanted to be part of that, of everyone in the whole stadium singing ‘Sweet Caroline’ and everybody getting all fired up about whatever play is being made, or even not made.
"Bring it on. It’s great here.”
Victorino is batting .290 for a Red Sox team that is in first place in the division as August approaches. His adventures in the outfield have caused him to miss 33 of the team’s 97 games, but, manager John Farrell conceded last week, “I can’t tell him not to play as hard as he does.”
“This group has a chance to be special,” said Victorino. “They remind me of our great Phillies teams. We grind it out, 27 outs. We’re going to get right in your face. We might lose, but we’re coming for you, even when we’re down nine runs.”
These days, O’Brien is a coach and a teacher at Kamehameha High School in Honolulu. He is also a part-time bartender and loves to strike up conversations with his patrons about his former player.
“The thing you kept hearing was how the Red Sox went out and got character guys,” O’Brien said. “And whenever that’s said, Shane’s name comes up.
"It makes me so proud. And I know it would make Coach Ane proud too.”
Charlie Ane died in 2007 after a long illness. Victorino can still hear him saying, “I was where you want to go. Listen and you’ll learn something.”
Consider it done.