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The Next Stage

Former Red Sox general manager still doing battle with Yankees, this time with a song and dance

August 03, 2003|From Associated Press

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The Red Sox may have fired Dan Duquette, but the team's former general manager has waltzed into a new league still trying to overpower Boston's age-old rival.

This time, instead of going after the Yankees on the ball field, Duquette is doing it with a song-and-dance number as the manager of the Washington Senators in a local production of "Damn Yankees," the 1955 Broadway musical.

"This is my first try at anything in the theater," Duquette said.

He is taking singing and acting lessons to prepare for his role as Benny Van Buren, who inspires his team to win the pennant with a rendition of "Heart," the upbeat popular song that became a hit record for Eddie Fisher.

"It's a challenge," Duquette said. "But it's a lot of fun."

If he gets stage fright or opening-night jitters, Duquette can fall back on his home-field advantage. Growing up in nearby Dalton, Duquette was 8 when his father took him to see his first professional baseball game at Wahconah Park, where "Damn Yankees" was to start Thursday and run through Aug. 3.

"I got my first foul ball at Wahconah Park," Duquette said. "It's a nice place for a ballgame and a perfect setting for 'Damn Yankees."'

The idea of staging the 1956 Tony Award-winning musical in the 111-year-old ballpark came last summer to Jenny Hersch, a minority owner of the Berkshire Black Bears, Wahconah's home team. Also a bassist who plays in Berkshire-area theater productions, she was looking for a way to blend her love of baseball and musicals.

Hersch enlisted the help of director James Warwick, who pitched the idea to an organization working to restore Pittsfield's Colonial Theatre, a century-old former music hall, vaudeville playhouse and movie theater.

In return for the Colonial's support, Hersch pledged all proceeds from the play's $10 tickets to the restoration project. The cause helped her to attract top-notch professional actors, musicians and crew.

The production quickly became a community rallying point. Hersch rallied local talent from the Berkshires' arts scene eager to breathe new cultural and economic life into Pittsfield, which hit a slump after General Electric laid off thousands of workers in the 1980s.

She figured that keeping ticket prices low and staging the play at a ballpark would help make theater accessible to those who otherwise wouldn't go to a musical.

"The only missing ingredient was a real baseball guy to be in the show," Hersch said. "Dan Duquette made perfect sense. I knew he was out of work and returning to his native land, so I knew he'd be around and maybe available."

Fired by the Red Sox last year after new owners took over the team, Duquette built a sports camp in Hinsdale, Mass., not far from his childhood home.

His tenure as general manager was marked by an often fractious relationship with fans, the media and his star players. Duquette has laid low since his unceremonious dismissal by the Red Sox, who are paying out the remainder of a three-year, $4.5 million contract that expires next January.

His biggest regret from his years in Boston? "I wish we beat the Yankees in '99 (when New York beat the Sox in five games for the American League championship). That was a series I always dreamed about, growing up."

So when Hersch asked him in November to play the role of Van Buren -- who enlists slugger Joe Hardy to win the championship over the Yanks -- Duquette didn't hesitate.

He was already a fan of the play, having given Jerry Lewis a Red Sox jacket in Boston after the comedian played the role of Mr. Applegate, the devil trying to steal Joe Hardy's soul in return for his hardball success, in a 1994 Broadway revival.

"The only thing he asked me was whether he'd be able to say the line, `Those damn Yankees,"' Hersch said. "I told him he could probably say it a couple of times, and he said: `Well, that's worth the price of admission alone."'

Duquette, who as general manager called all the shots, has been willing to take direction on the stage.

"Dan has had no trouble," said Warwick, who called Duquette a "rather shy man."

Duquette is reluctant to preview his singing performance, turning down a request to sing a few bars of "Heart," with its refrain of "you gotta have heart. ..."

"A performer has to save his voice for performances," he explained.

But his voice booms when he recites some of his lines in rehearsal.

"My players don't play dead for the Yankees or any other ball club," he belts out as Van Buren.

Whether his "Damn Yankees" role marks a new career direction, Duquette won't say. He figures this was a chance to try something new and give Pittsfield and the Colonial Theatre project a shot in the arm.

"Besides," he said, referring to a recent commercial featuring the Yankees' owner and shortstop spending a night on the town, "If George Steinbrenner can get in a conga line with Derek Jeter, why can't I do this?"

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