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Loyal to his following

He has his own catchy nickname, his own website, his own hotdog stand, his own book on the local bestseller list, his own make-believe friend, and adoring fans who everywhere he goes call out his name, wear his face on their T-shirts and his hat on their heads. All that, and an honored place in living rooms throughout New England on most summer nights for the last 17 years. And now we learn that Jerry Remy used to be a tap dancer? Where does it all end?

"He always was so quiet, too," said Remy's mother, Connie, whose smile after 77 years has lost none of its fastball. "At home, he never had much to say. Oh, he always had a quick sense of humor, and could mimic and what-not, but seeing him like this? We can't believe it. If baffles us."

A few doors down from the NESN booth where their son was behind a microphone, Connie and her husband, Joe, along with their daughter, Judy, were sitting in a booth usually reserved for Red Sox executives. They had come up for the weekend from their home in Deltona, Fla., for a family reunion for Joe, an old Navy man and World War II veteran who did tours in Europe and Okinawa before returning home to Fall River, where he sold furniture at Mason's, which has long since closed. They've been back just a handful of times since Remy retired as a player in 1984.

Joe Remy, who turns 79 in two weeks and like his son has a bad back ("Would you believe I hurt it playing golf on Sept. 11?" he said), is in another way like his son. He doesn't like to talk about his playing career. He practically swore a visitor to secrecy before volunteering that in the old CYO League in which he played till he was 35, he once stole five bases in one game.

"I always like to say that Jerry learned his baseball from you, and got his timing from me," Connie said.

Those shoes with spats from Remy's past? Those come courtesy of Connie, who taught dance at Whelan Dance Studio, which was owned by her brother. She was the one who had Remy tapping.

"He was a good tap dancer," Connie said. "You should have seen him tap. He was fast, but he was all business."

Every year, there was a recital. Little Jerry Remy, a budding Gene Kelly, would take the stage by himself, hoofing to the popular music of the day. Other times he performed duets with his little sister, Judy.

"I hated it," Jerry Remy said. "But I had to do it. I did it till I was 14."

Connie, who would later become a hairdresser, laughs when she talks about the last time her son danced on stage.

"That last dance recital, I remember him coming down the stairs, holding his shoes, and saying, `I'm hangin' 'em up, Mom,' " she said.

But the baseball, that has yet to stop, from the time Jerry was 5 years old, sitting in front of the TV and imitating everything he saw on the screen. Joe bought his son a tiny catcher's mask. His grandmother, Connie's mom, actually made him a little chest protector. Somebody would hit a foul ball on TV, little Jerry would take off across the living room, pretending he was making the catch.

"He had an electric baseball game," Joe said. "When he'd play, he'd make the sound of the crowd."

That knack for mimicry didn't go away. His parents still laugh at watching him, when he was with the Angels, imitating teammate Mickey Rivers, who used to look like he needed a walker to reach home plate. He also did a wicked Carlton Fisk, who as Sox catcher could single-handedly add an extra half-hour to the length of a game while performing all of his routines.

School? "He didn't care about school," Connie said. "There's a picture in his high school yearbook, him running down a corridor in the school. I asked him, `Were you running to class because you were late?' `No,' he said, "I was running to lunch.' Those are the little things that stand out in my mind."

This cult status Jerry Remy now enjoys, no one in the family saw that one coming. Shoot, it was always a long shot that he would even play baseball for a living. The year he was drafted out of Somerset High (1971), he was the last player taken by the Angels. Signing bonus? You've got to be kidding. There wasn't one. By Remy's recollection, he was paid $500 a month that first year in pro ball.

It's always a good story around here when a kid winds up playing for the hometown team, but Remy never had any illusions about his popularity.

"I was on a team of superstars," he said. "Hall of Famers. Yaz, and [Fred] Lynn, [Jim] Rice. [Dwight] Evans. [George] Scott. [Butch] Hobson. Fisk. You know, where do you fit in there? The biggest draw for me was I could run, and they didn't have anybody who could run. That made me a little popular.

"The way I played, I played hard all the time, and I think people appreciated that. I didn't know any other way to play. I had to fight to survive. I always felt there was somebody ready to take my job.

"I wasn't very pleasant when I played. Just ask my wife [Phoebe]. I couldn't let it go. I couldn't enjoy it. You have a good day, you're right back the next day and you might have a bad day. A bad day, and you can't sleep."

The good days outnumbered the bad for Remy, at least until he caught a spike while sliding into home plate at Yankee Stadium and tore up his knee, an injury that ultimately led him to quit playing baseball at 31, after 10 seasons in the big leagues. The thought of what he might do afterward frightened him.

"I was really worried because I'm not a highly educated guy," he said. "What the hell am I going to do and where am I going to find the same thrill?"

The only option, he felt, was to stay in the game.

He thought he might like to coach and eventually manage, so he spent a season in Double A with New Britain, working with a group of kids that included Ellis Burks, who is now winding down a stellar career. He enjoyed it, especially working with the kids who had no shot but would show up hours early to get better, but he didn't want to travel, and when the Sox wouldn't move Ed Nottle out of Pawtucket to make room for him, he did nothing for a year.

"I felt a little guilty," he said. "My kids would come in and say, `Dad, what do you do?' I said, `I don't know, I just sit here.' `Do you work?' `Actually, no, I don't.' "

But then NESN needed an analyst, and Remy decided to give it a shot. "I figured it might be a bridge to get a coaching job," he said.

"I think I got it because No. 1, I was local, willing to work full time, and No. 2, I just got finished playing."

By his own admission, he was awful at the start, especially since he was hired on the eve of spring training and received no training whatsoever.

"Absolutely horrible," he said. "I remember the first game I worked in spring training. I didn't know the score. I didn't know the count. I knew baseball, but I knew nothing about TV. I was totally lost. I remember my first replay was a ground ball to short, and I said, `There's a ground ball to short.' "

His saving grace was that he was partnered with Ned Martin, an elegant broadcaster and a generous man who guided Remy through his apprenticeship.

"Halfway through that year," Remy said, "I started to understand the TV better, and then the baseball stuff came out."

It was his good fortune, he said, to have one fine partner after another. Martin. Bob Kurtz. Sean McDonough, who now does Sox games on a once-a-week basis, was the first broadcaster, Remy said, to really test him as an analyst, from game situations to off-field stuff. And now, Don Orsillo.

Sox ownership, he said, has never questioned anything he has said on the air, neither the John Harrington regime or the new ownership group, not even when he was outspoken about the sacking of Jimy Williams as manager in 2001.

Players? He can recall maybe four or five times in 17 years when a player has complained about something he has said, but never, he insists, in an angry or confrontational manner. Being an ex-player, he said, helps. Being an ex-player who tries never to forget what it feels like to be a player and be sensitive to that helps even more.

Remy can't say exactly when it was that his popularity in the booth really took off, though he points to his years with McDonough as the catalyst, especially after McDonough a couple of years ago picked up on Remy referring to the Sox as "dirtdogs" and began referring to his partner as "Remdawg."

He acknowledges that his regular inclusion of a doll, Wally the Green Monster, in Sox broadcasts also took things to another level.

His friend, John O'Rourke, was the driving force behind theremyreport.com website. The book, "Watching Baseball," written by Remy with Corey Sandler, has been a surprising seller. The Remdawg hotdog stand on Yawkey Way, in partnership with the Sox, just opened within the last month, and it's not out of the question, Remy said, that it could be franchised.

National aspirations? Remy has done a few games for Fox, but this, he said, is where he wants to be.

"I'm very comfortable here," he said. "This is my home, my environment, my people that I have relationships with. I don't need that other crap. I totally, 100 percent, enjoy what I'm doing. I like coming to work. I think I'm in the best time of my life.

"What I want to be, quite honestly -- and I don't want this taken in the wrong way, because I'm not as talented as they are --but I want to be a Vin Scully, or an Ernie Harwell. I want to be the guy who over the years when people turn on Red Sox baseball, they'll know who they're going to hear."

You spend a season with Jerry Remy on TV, he thinks you're entitled to feel like you're with him, home and away. That's why he'll tell you a funny story about what happened on the team flight, or on the cab ride to the ballpark, or something in the clubhouse that strikes his fancy. He wants you to feel like you're sitting on the next stool beside him, hearing his latest story, or just telling you something you really want to know about the game. Will he always get the syntax right? His English teachers at Somerset High could have answered that one for you a long time ago.

"I grew up here," he said. "I played here. I think I know the culture and I think they've appreciated that from me. I just want to be like one of them. People like to hear about the things that make them feel like they're with us. A lot of people, especially women, seem to enjoy that.

"It's not my strapping good looks."

It's a lot about baseball, and maybe even more about the right timing. It's why Joe Remy, 79 in two weeks, is wearing a Remdawg hat at Fenway Park, proud as can be. And why Connie, with a figurative wink and that smile that hasn't lost any of its fastball, can say after having a Remdawg for lunch, "It's the best hotdog I've ever had."

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