PORTLAND – Something wasn’t right, but Marty Macisso didn’t know what. He had walked into the crowded banquet room to join the Portland High girls’ softball team for their end-of-season dinner Friday night.
He was on time. Maybe a few minutes early. Instead of seeing people mingling and finding their seats, many were standing and everyone was looking at him.
He froze. He was the center of attention and had no idea why. For 20 years he has been equipment manager and designated jewelry holder for a team of teenage girls. Confidant and friend. A 62-year-old man with the unflagging expectation that tomorrow would be a better day.
That Marty Macisso has lived his life with cerebral palsy was always beside the point. He can’t ride a bike or drive a car, but he can walk or take a bus. He can’t speak clearly, but the text messages and notes and letters he writes are prized for their thoughtfulness and insight.
He’s spent his life doing for others. It was time, said Portland coaches Kelly Libby and Nicole White, for them to do something for him. The idea for a Marty Party was born.
They told Macisso the dinner was at 7:30 p.m. at Bruno’s Restaurant and Tavern. In fact the dinner was earlier in the evening. Thirty minutes before, family and friends started to arrive, which added to Macisso’s confusion when he walked in. His eyes went from one smiling face to another. What were his brother and sister doing here?
Why was Robbie Ferrante, one of his best friends and the former Portland High coach, in the room? Why was Dee Regan Allen, a former player and now Westbrook High coach, here with her husband and their baby daughter? Why was a newspaper photographer standing in front of him, camera clicking away?
The surprise on his face gave way to something more emotional.
“He doesn’t know it but he is a big deal,” said Dee Allen. “He’s pure, innocent. He puts the bases on the field, he gets the bats ready, and puts the balls out and all those things we don’t even think about, for the love of the game. For the love of the athletes.
“I don’t think I could understand when I first met him (as a freshman). By the time you’re in your senior year you really get what he’s all about.”
Macisso grew up on Portland’s Munjoy Hill, the eldest of six children of Joan and Martin Macisso. They learned quickly their first-born had cerebral palsy. The motor control centers of Marty’s developing brain had been damaged. His most noticeable disability is his speech. Less obvious is his impaired walking.
“In school kids would ask me what’s wrong with my brother,” said John Macisso. “I told them I didn’t know but to watch out. It could be very contagious. If you hang out with my brother for very long you could become just as nice as him.”
Joan and Martin Macisso raised Marty to be as independent as the five siblings (three brothers, two sisters) who followed. If he couldn’t play street hockey in the local schoolyard or on Munjoy Street, he’d be Don Cherry, the former Boston Bruins coach who favored rather garish suit coats and hats. Or he’d ride in the homemade go-karts powered by his brothers and friends. Or don a Davy Crockett coonskin hat and prowl the neighborhood with his brothers.
In the family photo album there’s a wonderful black-and-white of Marty with Gov. Edmund Muskie, taken in the mid-1950s. Marty was the poster boy for cerebral palsy.
Later, as a young man, Marty would take his brothers to Fenway Park to watch the Red Sox. “Afterward he’d take us to a speakeasy to listen to music,” said John Macisso. “Marty loves music. He could play the harmonica real well.”
One night Marty missed the last bus from Boston. He ended up in the lobby of the Parker Omni House. “We got him a (credit card) after that,” said his mom, Joan. “That’s where he stays now. They know him by his first name.”
Ferrante met Marty for the first time in grade school. “I was picking on him. I went up to him and asked why he talked so funny. He punched me in the mouth. I thought a guy who would stick up for himself like that would make a good friend.” They have, for almost 50 years.
The Portland girls with Ferrante as coach won the state championship in 2004. Marty got his championship ring. Ferrante got a letter from Marty he can recite from memory. “He wrote about where we started and how we climbed the mountain together to the very top.
“That was Marty. I’d get frustrated by a loss and take it hard and Marty was right there, telling me about tomorrow and how everything will be all right.”
Macisso did the same this year with a Portland team that didn’t make the playoffs. “It’s so gratifying being around Marty,” said Libby, in his second year coaching the Bulldogs. “He’s saying the things that need to be said. For the girls to hear his perspective on winning and losing helps all of us.”
In holiday cards, Macisso typically writes this: “I’m doing fine, with no complaints!”
If only we all could say that.
Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: