On Ben’s diagnosis and death: “That was crazy. I went to see him. He was pretty strong; I have to say that. Very strong, considering he knew very well that he didn’t have very many days to live. It was very sad. It’s hard to even comprehend, because a year before that, there was nothing wrong. So no one really expected that.
“To make it more sad, he had a little boy who was about four at that point, and when I went to see Ben in Atlanta, his little boy was there, too. It was sad for me, because I have kids, like, ‘Oh my God, the poor little kid doesn’t even barely know what’s gonna happen.’ I guess I didn’t really believe it. I was asking some people around, ‘Well, how long do you think?’ They were going, ‘A few weeks.’ I said, ‘Nah. You gotta be kidding.’ But there’s no way to get out from under pancreatic cancer, from what I understand. It’s a horrible thing to have.” — Ric Ocasek, Magnet Magazine interview, 2005
“The time with Ben before and while he was ill were some of the most important, exciting, life- and spiritual-expanding moments I’ve ever shared with anyone. Ben taught us so much about life, in the way he went through the process of cancer treatment and in day-to-day life. He was also an absolutely fantastic father to his son, and loved him more than he ever loved anyone.” — Julie Snider-Mennie, Let’s Go! Benjamin Orr and The Cars, page 192
How many times have you seen those cool pictures of Benjamin Orr in a softball uniform and wished you knew the backstory? Well, I am SO excited to tell you that I have recently had the privilege of speaking with Mr. Leo Yorkell (pronounced yor-KELL), the man who organized many of those ball games with Ben, and he has been more than generous in shedding light on that lesser-known piece of history for us!
The groundwork was laid back in 1992, when Leo’s brother Michael started Admit One Productions, an event planning group for charity foundations in the New England area like Big Brothers, police drug abuse awareness programs, and others. The company used a variety of athletes and celebrities to participate in sports competitions and indoor and outdoor concerts to raise money for these worthy causes.
The brothers were always looking for new ideas; ways to keep things fresh. Toward the mid-nineties the idea of high-exposure ‘rock and jock’ charity events was really picking up momentum. Leo’s two favorite fixations had always been music and baseball, and it seemed to him that pairing the two pastimes made perfect sense. He got to thinking… his company was well-versed in organizing softball events, and Michael already had a connection with John Cafferty and the members of the Beaver Brown Band. If the guys could expand their roster to include more musical artists they could establish a mixed team (athletes and musicians) that would play a circuit with enough guys to be able to swap players out and have the means to offer their clients exciting possibilities for future fundraisers.
Move now to the summer of 1995. Boston radio station WBOS 92.9 was doing a “rock n’ jock” softball game and concert in Cleveland Circle for The Genesis Foundation. Leo and Michael went to check it out and see who was involved. The game was fun and well-received, and afterward they decided to mingle and make connections. They saw a lot of familiar faces, as several athletes involved that day had participated in their own shows. They also caught sight of some of their favorite musicians. Leo was making mental notes of who was there: he saw Boston drummer Sib Hashian with his excellent afro, Randy Guss, the drummer from Toad the Wet Sprocket (a favorite of Leo’s), and legendary J. Geils singer Peter Wolf in the ranks. And then he saw Ben Orr.
Leo had been cool as a cucumber rubbing elbows with these other celebrities, but it was all different seeing Benjamin Orr in the crowd. Leo was starstruck.
You see, Leo was (and is, and always will be) a HUGE fan of The Cars. Back in the day, he and his buddies would hang around Syncro Sound Studio on Newbury Street, walking back and forth in front of the building, hoping to run into the band members. A drummer himself, Leo saw David Robinson as a bit of a hero and role model, so much so that Leo bought all of his drum equipment at Jack’s Drum Shop because that’s where David got his stuff. He even went so far as to slip a fan letter under the studio door for David. “It was awful,” Leo laughs about it now. “I was young and such a huge fan, and David was just so cool. Of course, I never heard back from him.” Leo saw The Cars play live on every album tour, and was, like thousands of fans, hugely disappointed when they broke up.
And now here was Benjamin Orr, standing within spitting distance. Sure, he was sporting platinum blonde hair, and he was a little older and a little heavier, but it was definitely Ben. Leo was thrilled. He had to go talk to him; had to take this opportunity to meet this rock icon. Leo’s brother Michael was less impressed but supported Leo’s willingness to strike up a conversation in the hopes that Leo could recruit Ben to work with them in the future.
Leo crossed the parking lot to where Ben had his head in the back of a huge white van with Vermont plates. “It was like a shaggin’ wagon, you know what I mean? And it had this ladder on it up top and very little windows. It looked like it was from the early nineties.” Ben was putting his glove away and getting his gear situated when Leo approached.
“I walked up to him, pretty nervous, and I go, ‘Excuse me, are you Ben Orr?’ and he said, ‘Yes, I am.’ And inside I was like, ‘Ooooh! Coooool!’” Leo introduced himself and couldn’t help but go into fanboy mode over the band, confessing to the antics of his early years on Newbury Street. “I’m gushing like a little girl, you know? And I’m telling him all this stuff and he’s just listening to me,” Leo laughs. He went on to explain to Ben that he and his brother did similar softball events, about eight to ten games a year in the New England area, and he mentioned that they were always looking for new guys to get involved. “I said to Ben, ‘I saw you play; you play pretty well. Would you be interested in coming and playing in some of our games? If you come and join us we’ll give you first crack, and if you need a hotel room we’ll get you a hotel room, whatever you need. Just let me know.’
“Ben was so cool. He said, ‘Thank you very much. I appreciate all the kind words about the band and me. I would definitely be interested in playing if you want me to, but you can’t go through me. I need you to go through my road manager.’”
That manager was Dave Tedeschi. Dave was there at the game but since everyone was getting ready to leave, Ben gave Leo Dave’s contact information and the arrangements were hammered out later over the phone. Leo’s original offer was, “We’re paying $300. Your guy comes, he signs some autographs, he plays some softball, he talks to some fans and he leaves. It’s like three hours, tops.” Dave was being a typical manager and trying to get more money so they haggled back a forth a bit, and ended up settling on about $400. “I understand the whole business end of things; that’s just the way it goes,” Leo said.
And so began a working relationship between Leo and Ben that bloomed into a sincere friendship, with lots of cool little stories along the way. “Before he came to play with us Ben wanted to meet with us and talk to us and make sure that we were good people,” Leo remembers. Ben was playing a solo concert in Boston with Dale Bozzio from Missing Persons, who was opening up for him. Dave Tedeschi put Leo and his brother on the guest list and they headed down there early in order to spend time with Ben before the show. He was staying at the hotel next door, and Leo remembers meeting the band, with John Kalishes and Tom Hambridge, and Ben mentioning that his dogs had their own room.
The group hung out and chatted, and when it was time for Ben to head over to the venue, Leo and Michael went along. They bumped into Dale Bozzio in passing. Ben introduced them to her and they all laughed over a harmless flirty exchange between Ben and Dale. Dale’s young son was with her dressed in his Catholic school outfit, his little green pants and plaid shirt in amusing contrast to Dale’s teased blonde-and-red streaked hair and sexy 80s outfit. These crazy memories are still cemented in Leo’s mind.
Leo isn’t sure of all of the specifics of the first game that Ben played in, but he remembers that they had some ex-Patriots and some ex-Boston Bruins guys, and John Cafferty was there, too. The lineup also included two members of the Beaver Brown band: saxophone player Michael Antunes (‘Tunes’) and drummer Jackie Santos. The team was called the Legends League, and on this day they were playing against a local police department all-star team. Leo recalls, “We introduced each player and gave some stats about them as they walked onto the field. We played music samples during the introductions, too, which was fun.” Ben, in jersey number 21 (later Leo would give him number 1), took his place in left field, smiling and waving to the crowd.
John Cafferty himself remembered this game fondly and the team’s surprise over their victory against the police department (read his quote about it here). Leo recalls that Ben hadn’t met Cafferty before this game. We know now, of course, that Ben would go on to play with John and other Beaver Brown members in the Voices of Classic Rock a few years later, at John’s invitation. How great it is to make those little connections in Ben’s history!
After the game, Leo observed Ben’s behavior with the fans. The last thing they wanted was a star who was standoffish and picky about autographs but that definitely wasn’t Ben.
“He was freaking awesome! He talked to everybody. I’d been doing this for a few years… I had never seen anybody who was so nice, so kind, so engaging with people, and kids especially. I asked my brother, ‘are you watching this guy?’ He signed everything for everybody. He was just amicable, kind, gentle. He would kneel down to talk to a kid… He actually cared about people, you know?”
In fact, Ben was always the last one to collect his check after the game because he spent so much time with the fans; invariably, Leo would have to walk it over to him.
The summer continued and Ben (and John Cafferty) played often. Dave Tedeschi came to one or two of the early games, too. In fact, Leo remembers one time when their event was scheduled on the same weekend as an annual local Renaissance Fair, where Dave and Ben had apparently stopped. “They showed up with those big-ass giant turkey legs that you get, you know? They’re gnawing away on these things,” Leo chuckles. “I was like, ‘What the hell? You’re going to get greasy fingers before the game? C’mon, man!’ It was hilarious.”
Soon enough Leo was able to deal with Ben directly when it came to scheduling. It was an important milestone for Leo. “When he gave me his phone number I knew that meant he trusted me, that we were friends. I did not take that lightly.” Leo would call him up and give him the details for the next event, and their phone conversations would sometimes turn into chats about everyday life. “As he played more I got to know him a whole lot better,” Leo reflects. “He is one of the top three greatest people I have ever met in my entire life, and I’ve met a LOT of people.”
The games continued over the next two years. Leo has so many great memories of those halcyon summer days. “Ben brought Edita and his son with him a bunch of times. They would pull up in that white van with two big ol’ Doberman pinschers in the back. Ben was so proud of his boy, introducing him as ‘Little Ben’ and pointing out often that he wasn’t a junior. He was the cutest little guy, with his blonde mop-top Beatles haircut.
“At one point we played a weekend series, with a Saturday game in Massachusetts and a Sunday game in Rhode Island. After Saturday’s game Ben was looking for a motel recommendation for himself and his family. I booked the room for him at a place I knew in Rhode Island, and I told him about a drive-in movie theater about a half a mile up the road. The next day when he arrived at the game Ben told me about how they went to the drive-in and had such a great time, and that the motel staff was so friendly. Ben was just so appreciative of me setting it up, and it was such a little thing, you know? But that’s just the way he was.
“There was never any pretense, no ‘rock star’ attitude or expectations. Sometimes athletes would give Ben shit for blowing a play or whatever, saying things like, ‘I hope you don’t play bass like you play softball’ and teasing like that, just goodhearted camaraderie. Ben had a great attitude.”
[Intermission: Leo’s willingness to share his video footage with me was above and beyond! He allowed me to put together a little montage of one of Ben’s games to publish with this article. Click to watch, and then scroll down to read more of Leo’s adventures with Ben!]
In addition to softball, Leo and Michael would organize charity football games. In the fall of 1997 they were putting together a game to benefit the Easton Firefighters and they asked Ben if he wanted to play. He was all in. Leo recalls, “These guys were firefighters, right? They were some pretty tough dudes. Ben was a lineman next to the center, and I was playing as a wide receiver since we were short a player. We had an ex-Patriot guy as the quarterback.”
With about two yards to go to score, the quarterback set up the play in the huddle and the team executed it perfectly. “I catch this touchdown pass and as I’m celebrating I look and Ben is on his ass, just laid out flat, right? He got plowed by a guy on the field… run over like nobody’s business. I immediately ran over there to see if he was alright and he was like, ‘yeah, yeah, I’m good, it’s all part of the game.’
“Now, in all this time I never lost sight of who Ben was, you know? And I know it sounds funny, but I was looking at him down there on the ground and out of nowhere I thought, ‘Jeez! This guy played at Live Aid! And there he is, like a turtle on his back!’ But really, I felt awful. He took a huge hit and he was walking pretty gingerly; it was bad. He had a great attitude about it but I could tell he was hurting. After the game we ended up sitting in his van for a long time, just talking – with those big Dobermans in the back!”
And then there was the music. Ben would let Leo know when he was going to be playing a gig nearby and invite him to come watch and hang out. One of those shows was in August of 1997 in Cleveland Circle. Ben told Leo about it and encouraged him to come. Leo had a connection that allowed him to use some public access TV equipment, so he offered to shoot some of the performance for Ben.
“I said, ‘Cool. I’ll get a camera, I’ll get a tripod, and I’ll film the concert.’ So he came, I saw him pre-show. Edita was there with Little Ben. Ben told me, ‘You know, our keyboard player didn’t show up so I don’t know how the hell we’re going to pull this off, but we’re going to go out there anyway.’ I ended up shooting the whole concert.”
[Another video intermission: here is an excerpt from that show in Cleveland Circle, featuring my all-time favorite, “Bye Bye Love”. It’s SO rockin’! Thank you, thank you, thank you, Leo!]
“Now, my mom’s favorite song is ‘Drive,'” Leo continued. “I shot the show in August and I had Ben in a game in early September. My mom’s birthday is September 7. So I cut the footage of ‘Drive’ and put it on a brand new tape. I took the camera to the game and asked Ben if he would shoot a little video for me that I could add to ‘Drive’ of Ben wishing my mom a happy birthday. He was immediately excited and responded, ‘Oh, I got this man! Just roll it!’ And he recorded the coolest message just for my mom. She wasn’t expecting it at all and it just blew her away!”
Ben played ball for Leo and Michael from 1996 through the summer of 1998. Michael sold the company in November of 1998, and Leo lost contact with Ben at that point. Time passed as Leo immersed himself in working and traveling for his new job. He thought about Ben often and considered calling him, but life just seemed so busy and the time slipped by. He heard through John Cafferty that Ben was with Big People, and that he was engaged and based in Atlanta, but that was about all Leo knew.
Then one day he was in a hotel in Dallas, Texas, in October of 2000 when he came across a small obituary of Ben in USA Today. It was a terrible blow. “My whole heart sunk. I was pissed at myself for not staying in touch with Ben after the company was sold because he was a good guy. He was my friend. I was devastated.”
Leo had had no idea that Ben had even been ill. Later he saw the final interview where Ben was so sick, and it was awful. “I know this sounds rotten to say, but I was kind of glad that I had cut off ties with him in a way. Seeing him like that, I think I would have lost my shit. It would have been hard to get past; I would have wanted to support him, not feel sorry for him.” Still, his regret over not connecting with Ben before his unexpected passing has changed the way Leo lives today: he makes sure to keep in close contact with those people who are most important to him.
It took a long time for the shock to lessen, though it will never entirely be gone. And now, nearly twenty years later, Leo looks back on those videos he has, the autographed memorabilia that adorns his wall, and sorts through his internal memories with laughter and gratitude.
“Thank you for encouraging me to find the pictures and videos for this article. If it weren’t for you I would have never gone to look for them and see how great those times were. I’m grateful for that. I feel very privileged that I was able to get to know Ben and to share a part of our lives, you know?”
I am so appreciative that Leo took the time to reminisce with all of us! When I thanked him for contacting me and for being willing to tell his stories through my blog, he replied simply, “I love Ben, and I think everybody should know what a great guy he is. I’m so glad to share the joy that is Ben.”