"It's always great to be home," said Theo Epstein, the Cubs president of baseball operations and former Red Sox general manager who grew up in neighboring Brookline. "It's always one of the highlights of the year -- bringing people together around music and baseball and raising money for very worthy nonprofits. That's what it's all about, really, these nonprofits that support disadvantaged kids and really do the most important work in our society."
The Major League ties were many, with several names familiar to Red Sox fans. Noted guitarists Jake Peavy and Bronson Arroyo were there. Longtime Yankee Bernie Williams, another guitar guy, at one point played a Kiss song with Gammons. Former Red Sox pitcher Lenny DiNardo took the stage -- to cheers -- alongside Arroyo. Even Kevin Youkilis, who crushes the tambourine and backup vocals, showed up.
Former Red Sox first baseman Sean Casey emceed along with actor Joel Murray of "Mad Men" fame and Farrelly Brothers film producer Chris Meyer.
On the music side, Daxx Nielsen of Cheap Trick played with Chicago's Hot Stove All-Stars, a group that included Cubs broadcaster Len Kasper. Tanya Donelly and Jen Trynin teamed up with several others to play a set.
There was no Motley Crue, but it was absolutely a motley crew.
"Most baseball players want to be rock stars, and most rock stars want to be professional athletes," Epstein said. "It ends up just working out."
Arroyo, a free agent who last pitched for the Red Sox in 2005, came out to one of the loudest cheers of the night. He's among those who play here every January, returning year after year for the atmosphere, the charity, the people.
Also, the dude just loves to jam.
"It starts with personal relationships, and I love Theo Epstein and Peter Gammons," Arroyo said. "'One of my first really good experiences in Boston was coming here, not knowing what I was getting myself into and standing on stage and playing a Pearl Jam song with Kevin Millar."
Hot Stove Cool Music has become the signature fundraiser for FTBNL, which the Epsteins started in 2005 when they wanted to funnel the region's positive energy following the Red Sox's World Series title to a good cause. That led to a partnership with Gammons, who first organized the concert in 2000.
More than a decade later, here they were, playing in front of a full house of about 1,000 at the Paradise Rock Club a mile and a half from Fenway and adding to the $8.5 million FTBNL has awarded in grants to more than 200 nonprofits.
In recent years, Epstein has also put on a show in Chicago every June. The Peter Gammons/FTBNL College Scholarship, which has helped send more than 50 local kids with financial need to college, is just one of the programs that the concerts have helped finance.
For Epstein, who had a rather productive first half of the offseason in his day job, the event is a highlight during the relatively calm winter months. Along with taking care of his under-the-weather children during the holidays -- "being a dad every day, that was awesome," he said -- this is right up there.
"Everyone is in a good mood, we raise money for a good cause," Epstein said. "Something unexpected always happens here."
Something unexpected happened earlier in the day, too, when Epstein and others visited the West End House, a nearby Boys & Girls Club that Epstein went to when he was young. During a raffle with the kids, Epstein drew a number that might resonate with the Cubs faithful.
"So I picked one out and it's a number, who knows," Gammons said. "But Theo picks one out. It's 1908. You couldn't make that up. He kept it. He's still got it. He's probably going to put it in his office."