WEST WARWICK — In a black and white photograph displayed at AJ’s Restaurant, a young Mike Roarke kneels in a field, a Detroit Tigers cap on his head and a wooden bat in his hands. The image, a relic of Roarke’s storied career, was hung recently to pay homage to the late baseball legend in his go-to lunch spot.
“This was his favorite place in the world,” Clyde Bennett said last week, sitting in AJ’s with three others who used to meet Roarke at the diner for lunch almost daily.
Roarke, a West Warwick native beloved for his athletic achievements and his philanthropy, died in July at the age of 88.
Bennett, Jack Gazerro, David Lussier and Alfred Rosati still meet regularly at AJ’s. The four sat there Friday, one table over from their usual spot beneath Roarke’s portrait, summoning memories of their friend over plates of food.
And though he wasn’t there physically, Roarke’s presence amongst his lunchmates was almost palpable.
Pointing toward a corner booth, Lussier recalled the origin of those daily lunch outings. Roarke used to eat at AJ’s with former state representative Tom Lamb, Lussier said, but was left without a dining partner after Lamb’s death.
“I came in, and Mike was all by himself,” Lussier said, an empty plate on the table before him. “I said, ‘Mike, come on, join us.’ We sat here, and we’ve been here ever since.’”
For a while, there were seven of them who met at AJ’s nearly every day — Roarke was a big fan of the scallops, which he’d occasionally pair with a cup of chowder.
Roarke would choose to eat at AJ’s over anywhere else. Even after golfing all morning at West Warwick Country Club, Lussier said, Roarke would insist on heading to his regular lunch spot.
“I’d say, ‘let’s have lunch at the club here,’ and he’d say, ‘oh, no, I’ve gotta go to AJ’s,’” Lussier said with a laugh. “He just loved this place.”
And as they’d eat their midday meals, the guys could always count on Roarke to regale them with all sorts of stories.
“His memory was unbelievable,” Gazerro said, whistling as he thought back on Roarke’s ability to recall tales from decades past.
Roarke was frequently invited to speak at events, added Bennett, who near the end of Roarke’s life would accompany him to many of those speaking engagements.
“I’d wheel him in his wheelchair, I’d get out of his way and he’d immediately have them fascinated,” Bennett said. “I mean, the stories he told, and the people he could tell stories about — people like Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio and Whitey Herzog.”
He loved to discuss the Red Sox, Lussier added.
When they weren’t dining together, Lussier would visit Roarke at West View Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. Though the conversation would occasionally center on Providence College hockey, Lussier said the topic most often on Roarke’s mind was “baseball, baseball, baseball.”
“He’d call me up and say, ‘Dave, did you watch the game last night?’” Lussier added. “I’d say, ‘yeah,’ and he’d say, ‘well let me tell you something.’”
Lussier always enjoyed Roarke’s stories, though. Days before his death, Roarke gave Lussier a detailed account of his career in the Army.
“It took maybe 20 minutes, and I just sat there and listened,” Lussier said. “When he finished, he said, ‘thank you for listening to my stories.’”
Though Roarke is no longer there to tell them, there are still plenty of stories being told around the table among his buddies: stories, for example, of childhood friendships.
“I used to go to Mike’s house, and he’d come to mine,” Rosati said, reflecting on the early years of his friendship with Roarke.
Rosati graduated from West Warwick High School with Roarke in 1948. Students in those days were assigned desks alphabetically, so throughout much of high school Rosati sat behind Roarke.
“We had a fight the first day of seventh grade,” Rosati said, “and we never had a disagreement after.”
For Bennett, on the other hand, the friendship with Roarke didn’t form until later in life.
Many decades after they played against one another as high school athletes — Bennett, as a student at Warwick’s Gorton High School, and Roarke as a West Warwick Wizard — the two became neighbors when Roarke moved into the apartment across from Bennett’s.
“That was maybe now 10 years ago,” Bennett said, “and we hit it off; my wife and his wife hit it off. And that was when I became, I would say, a close friend of his.”
Although the two didn’t really know one another as high school students, Bennett in those days certainly knew of Roarke.
“He was outstanding,” Bennett said, recalling his friend’s reputation as an athlete. “He became well known as a kid, his ability was so great. And he played everything.”
Not surprisingly, many of the stories told Friday about Roarke involved his achievements on the baseball and football fields. But it was clear that he’ll be remembered for a lot more than that.
“You can’t go without mentioning his athletic [accomplishments]. He’s one in a million,” Bennett said, “but I think Mike should be remembered as much for the person that he was.”
Roarke never badmouthed anyone, Gazerro said. And even after he had his stroke, he added, Roarke never complained about being confined to a wheelchair.
“You knew when he didn’t like somebody, though, because he would say, ‘he’s a beauty,’” Gazerro recalled. “Then we all knew that was somebody he wasn’t too fond of.”
“He had a unique personality,” Rosati added. “I don’t know anybody that didn’t like Mike Roarke.”
Rosati said he’d also never heard Roarke utter a swear word.
“He lived his life with the same principles,” he continued, “and that’s one of the things I think he was most respected for.”
From the portrait that now hangs in AJ’s, Roarke looks out over the row of two-tops where he, Lussier, Gazerro, Bennett and Rosati used to eat; the table at the end sits slightly lower than the others, adjusted specifically to accommodate Roarke’s wheelchair.
Beneath Roarke’s photo, a plaque reads: “Major League Baseball player, gentleman and friend.”
“That was him in a nutshell,” Bennett said, as the others nodded in agreement.
“It was a privilege to know him and have him call you his friend,” Gazerro chimed in. “I think the four of us would agree to that, without hesitation.”