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Devoted Yankees fan goes to bat for rival Red Sox as team's physical therapist

Though a Yankees fan, physical therapist Ray Mattfeld

Though a Yankees fan, physical therapist Ray Mattfeld has found a professional home at Fenway Park in Boston. Credit: Erik Jacobs

Sometimes an email can change your life.

The one that altered Ray Mattfeld's arrived in his inbox on Labor Day weekend in 2013. Mattfeld owns a thriving physical therapy practice and was on the faculty of Touro College's School of Health Sciences, from which he earned his master's and doctorate in physical therapy. Both workplaces are minutes from the Bay Shore home he shares with his wife and four daughters.

The email was from Dan Dyrek, coordinator of sports medicine for the Boston Red Sox. The club needed a physical therapist, and Dyrek wanted to know whether Mattfeld could recommend someone.

Though he and Mattfeld had worked together before, and Mattfeld had dreamed of working with major league athletes or Olympians, the thought of leaving Long Island gave him separation anxiety.

"I said, 'I've got four kids, I've got my practice, I'm a professor — I'm not going to leave my family,' " Mattfeld said.

His wife, Dawn, suggested he apply for the job himself. She knew that working for a major league sports team would be her husband's dream job, and she encouraged him to "leave home and join the circus," as the family — which includes daughters Casey, 14; twins Megan and Elizabeth, 12, and Catherine, 4 — teasingly called the gig.

So he offered his services and the Red Sox gave him the job, signing him to a two-year contract. Joining the team's staff would mean less opportunity for Mattfeld to attend games of his other team — the Bronx Bombers.

"We're pretty heavy Yankee fans in my family," said Mattfeld, who switched his allegiance to the pinstripes after the Mets traded his favorite player, Tom Seaver, to the Cincinnati Reds in 1977.

Indeed, Mattfeld, 50, attended the last game at the old Yankee Stadium in September 2008 and the first game at the new one in April 2009.

Mattfeld joined the Red Sox staff in January, taking him to the pinnacle of his profession and flipping him to the other side of what has been called the greatest rivalry in sports.

 

Unusual route to Boston

Mattfeld has always loved sports, though his own game was lacrosse, not baseball. He graduated from SUNY Cortland in 1986, earned a master's degree from Touro College in 1991 and completed his doctorate in physical therapy at Touro in 2008. He opened Bright Bay Physical Therapy in March 2001, and treats high school, college and professional athletes.

Mattfeld made the connection that led to his midlife career change in 2011. Team owners and players in the National Basketball Association were at an impasse in contract negotiations that year. Dyrek was at the time a consultant for the Indiana Pacers, and asked Mattfeld to provide physical therapy for four players from the New York-area who had returned here during the lockout; the team wanted to make sure they would be ready to play when the dispute was resolved. Mattfeld was happy to take the assignment.

His new job includes far more players and a much longer season.

He helps assess the severity of player injuries sustained on the field, such as being hit by a pitch or collisions between outfielders. In addition, Mattfeld provides short-term treatment to players experiencing discomfort so they can stay in the game and also works with athletes recuperating from more serious injuries or surgeries.

Mattfeld's gig involves working at Fenway Park — which he said is "a national treasure" -- for 81 home games and at stadiums around the country for 81 more, tending to the players he used to root against.

His father, Frank Mattfeld, 79, of Yaphank and Naples, Florida, had followed the Bronx Bombers through the Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Derek Jeter eras.

He recalled the day when his son broke the news about his new job.

"His first question to me was, 'How would you like to be a Boston fan?' " said Frank Mattfeld, former assistant principal of R.C. Murphy Junior High School in Stony Brook. "Very colorfully, I told him, 'No way.' I was, of course, very happy for him."

Mattfeld's contract is for the 2014 and 2015 seasons and meant he had to resign as director of clinical education at the Touro Bay Shore campus, though he retains the title of clinical assistant professor.

When he told his students about his new job, Mattfeld said they were excited for him, even though "for those who are New York Yankee fans, it was ironic I was working for the Red Sox," Mattfeld said at the time.

Bright Bay Physical Therapy's staff of 12 soldiers on without him, though Dawn Mattfeld, an attorney, looks in on the business a couple times a week.

 

A grueling schedule

With his first season behind him, Mattfeld said he is enjoying the job and if he is offered another contract when his current one ends, he will weigh his options then.

In joining the Red Sox, Mattfeld traded up to a more grueling schedule. The 2014 season of 162 games gave him only 18 days off. During the six weeks of spring training in Fort Meyers, Florida, he had one. Even in the off season, he works Tuesday through Friday at Fenway Park.

There's no spare time at work to watch other teams or read about how they're doing, so he gets updates on how the Yankees are doing from the folks back home, especially his father.

"It's really Red Sox 24/7," Mattfeld said.

While life in the major leagues has its perks — travel by chartered planes, team chefs and top-tier hotels — it also comes with missing out on some calendar dates. Mattfeld was not on hand for any of his daughters' birthdays this year, but he was there in spirit.

"We'd FaceTime when we were singing or opening presents, so at least he could still be part of it," Dawn Mattfeld said, referring to the videoconferencing feature of Apple computers.

Halfway through Mattfeld's career change, the family has had its own adjustments to make.

"It definitely was a challenge," Dawn Mattfeld said. "Ray's practice was right here in town, so we could see him throughout the day, he could go to school events or we could drop in. I could drop the baby off to run errands. It was a struggle and we all missed him, but it was definitely easier on us because we're all still in our routine and we're busy. I definitely think it's harder on Ray."

But that's not always the case. When the Red Sox come to Yankee Stadium, the Mattfeld family gets good seats — in the section reserved for Red Sox family members and guests.

"We've had no problems at all," Frank Mattfeld said. "They're really good and they tolerate us cheering for the Yankees. I've found them to be very nice."

And that goes for the archrivals in red, too. Dawn Mattfeld said Red Sox slugger David Ortiz was delighted to learn her children call her grandfather "Great Poppy," and autographed a baseball for Jack Casey that read: "From Big Papi to Great Poppy."

In true Yankee fan spirit, Casey, 87, joked that maybe he'd sell it on eBay.


CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated Mattfeld's current title with Touro College's School of Health Sciences.

 

A LONG-STANDING RIVALRY

The Yankees-Red Sox rivalry dates to 1920, when Red Sox owner Harry Frazee sold outfielder and pitcher Babe Ruth to the Yankees for $100,000, according to the Society for American Baseball Research.

At the time, the World Series had been played 15 times, and Boston had won five, most recently in 1918. But losing Ruth and other star players sent the team into a tailspin. Fans called it the "curse of the Bambino."

The spell didn't break until 2004, when the Red Sox beat the St. Louis Cardinals in the Fall Classic. Fittingly, Boston made it to the World Series by defeating the Yankees.

 

SOME STATS

26 Yankees' world titles during Boston's 86-year championship drought

2,117 games played between the two clubs from 1904 to 2014

1,149 Yankees wins over the Red Sox from 1904 to 2014

954 Red Sox wins over the Yankees from 1904 to 2014

14 Tie games between the clubs

Source: Baseball-Reference.com, New York Yankees

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