Baseball, the Red Sox, and Me

Carl_Yastrzemski_at_Fenway_Park_2
Yaz at Fenway. Photo by Steven Carter.

Baseball grabbed me in the summer of 1967 and hasn’t let go since. That was the summer the Red Sox transformed themselves from perennial also-rans to a winning team. The Red Sox had last won the pennant in 1946, lost in a one-game tie-breaker to lose the pennant in 1948, and fell a game short in 1949.They would be good for a couple of more years after that, but in 1954 they finished an astonishing 42 games out of first place. They bottomed out in 1965, winning only 62 games and losing 100.

Attendance collapsed along with their record. In Ted Williams’ final season of 1960, the Red Sox averaged 14,674 fans per game, but by that dismal losing season of 1965, they only averaged 8,052 fans per game. If you’ve only been following the Red Sox for 10 or 20 or even 30 years, such a number must be surreal. Fenway has had at or near 30,000 fans at each game for more than 25 years. and more than 35,000 for 10 of the 11 last years.

I could–and perhaps I should–make the formal argument somewhere that in 1967 Carl Yastrzemski had the single greatest season in the history of baseball. He won the Triple Crown and the MVP while playing the best outfield defense in baseball that year. In an era when pitching absolutely dominated, Yaz put up amazing numbers. Cody Swartz of Bleacher Report nails it right here:

Yaz’s numbers were simply phenomenal, especially considering he did so in the middle of the biggest pitching era in baseball. Yaz led the league in home runs (44), and RBIs (121), and made a clean sweep of the percentages, topping in batting average (.326), on-base percentage (.418), slugging percentage (.622), on-base plus slugging (1.040), and adjusted OPS (195). He also finished first in runs scored (112), hits (189), total bases (360), runs created (150), runs created per game (9.90), extra-base hits (79), and times on base (284). He played virtually every game for the Sox (161) and grounded into just five double plays, one of the most overlooked yet nevertheless extremely important statistics.

Boston was enthralled by Yaz, by the season, by the whole team. We had the Cy Young Award winning pitcher in Jim Lonborg, great young talent in players like George Scott and Reggie Smith. We had a near no-hitter against the Yankees by the closest thing that baseball ever had to a one-hit wonder. We even had tragedy in the devastating injury to local hero Tony Conigliaro, the player many people of my generation and ethnicity will tell you could well have been the greatest home run hitter ever.

But more than anything else we had Yaz. He came through in the clutch again and again, both in the field and at the plate. For the eight-year-old me, it was like watching a god walk on the field each game and deliver exactly what his followers needed.They even wrote a song after him (and we had the album).

So this year is my 50th season following the Red Sox. I saw Fisk’s homer in 1975. I watched Yaz’s shoulders sag when Bucky Fucking Dent hit his home run in 1978. I saw the ball go through Buckner’s legs in 1986. I was at Fenway for a playoff loss in 1995 and a playoff win in 1999. In 2004, had the Word Series gone to seven games, I would have been sitting there in season’s tickets I shared for more than a decade.

But here’s my secret: I stopped loving the Red Sox in 2003. Boston fans remember too well the seventh game of the American League Championship Series that year. The Red Sox were winning. 5-2 going into the bottom of the eighth. Pedro Martinez had pitched great, but Grady Little left him in too long, the Yankees rallied to tie it, and then won it in the 11th. Game over. Series over. Season over.

It was after 1:00 a.m. when the game ended. I had to calm down, so I took my dog for a walk, and as I circled my neighborhood, I saw how ridiculous it was to be a grown man, a father of two boys, up in the middle of the night, walking my dog to calm myself down over a game. It was, after all, a bunch of millionaires, playing for a bunch of billionaires. I was 44 years old. It was time to move on.

So when the Red Sox won in 2004, I was happy, I was even emotional, but it really didn’t matter a fraction of what it would have mattered a year before. That was the year the Red Sox came back from three games down in the ALCS, again to the Yankees, to win. I had kept myself busy during those days, going back and forth to NYC three times on business. I was on Amtrak two evenings when the conductors kept announcing the score of the games. I really didn’t want to hear it.

When they won and the Red Sox had their celebration in the city, I had a bad cold. I knew my boys would have loved to have gone, and they probably wondered what I was up to. They were 13 and 11, and had each gone to dozens of games already. We had shared those great season’s tickets for more than 10 years, and they were spoiled by it, truly. I remember watching the “Rolling Rally,” on TV, but I don’t remember if we watched it as a family.  After years of going to games with them, showing them my love for the game and my team, that memory doesn’t feel so great.

We gave up our season’s tickets after that season. The prices had gone steadily up. Tickets we had purchased for $18 a few years before had gone to $65, and they raised them to $75 for the 2005 season. That meant, for the 20 tickets we would normally buy out of the season ticket package, we would pay $1500. To take the four of us to a game would be $300 just for the tickets, andnot including the parking and the food. My wife had the good sense to keep our money for ourselves.

Since then we’ve gone to a game or two a year. We would occasionally get the old seats, and dumb luck had us in them for Jon Lester’s no-hitter in 2008. That felt really good–not just the thrill of seeing something so rare, but seeing a nice young man do so well only two years after battling cancer.

Nothing so memorable has happened since for us as fans. My son and I did see the Red Sox win one playoff game in 2013 on their way to the World Series. We had nice seats in the center field bleachers, but they were nothing like our old seats, which were down the left-field line, 10 rows back, and close enough to Stephen King to watch him read a book between innings.

I don’t think I saw a game in person last year. If that’s true, it would have been the first time I hadn’t been to Fenway since 1986. I honestly don’t think much of going, but I have had a rule the past few years that I probably should go to a game a year.

(Heresy of heresies, I hate Fenway Park, and I have for years. It was built in 1912 for people a foot shorter than me. Some of the site lines have you turning your head ninety degrees to see home plate. An infuriatingly high percentage of the seats leave you guessing at what just happened in one corner of the field or another. You can pay full price for a view of a pole. Fenway has the highest combined prices in baseball for tickets, parking, food, and beer; making the average visit to the ballpark $314 for a family of four. That price assumes the family of four splits two hot dogs. Fun!)

Yet there I was this year on July 4th with my wife and friends. It was a good game on a baking hot day. We ran late, and by the time we got to our seats, the Sox were down 4-0 thanks to the pitching stylings of one Rick Porcello. He is a perfectly mediocre pitcher who makes $20 million dollars a year. I know we are supposed to be inured to these numbers by now, but $20 million is more than some Massachusetts towns put into their entire school budget for a year. I believe that is the definition of what they experts like to call “opportunity cost.”

Back in the day I would have been in agony arriving even a minute late. I would have been in my seat, scorecard open, pen in hand. I would have scored the whole game, and woe be to the person who suggested we leave early. I taught my boys to snarl at people who got up in the eighth inning to beat the crowd, especially in a close game. We would stay, win or lose, and file out with the big crowd.

It was hot yesterday, and the seats were in full sun. I enjoyed a beer and a slice (a decent microbrew for a mere $9.75) when we got there. A minute later I was baking. My wife, turned in her seat to watch the action at a 90 degree angle, was wedged into me. With her added body heat, I thought I would burst into flames. The Sox caught up, went ahead. The young woman next to me knew her baseball well, and we chatted about a few of the details of the game while my wife talked to her girlfriend.

In the fourth inning we went down to get ice cream. I didn’t hurry. It was cooler under the stands. When we headed back to the seats I walked instead up to a standing room area. It was nicely cool there. I couldn’t see the whole field, but not much was happening at that point, and the ice cream was really good.

We left in the middle of the sixth inning. The young woman next to me lost all respect for us, I am sure, but we were hot and tired. Our friends aren’t really fans, and their 9-year-old nephew had read for most of the game. We drove home in air conditioning, no radio on. I checked my app a few times. When our friends dropped us off at our car, we listened to a half an inning. I caught the ending, again on my app, sitting in my shady backyard. The Sox had won 12-5.

What a difference 50 years makes.

In that summer of 1967, I went to a Catholic Charities summer camp. It was a glorious two weeks in a postage-sized camp near the beach. I was homesick for exactly one evening, and then I was all good. My mom, an aunt, and my grand-uncle wrote me almost every day. I couldn’t read my grand-uncle’s cursive, so one of the Catholic brothers read it to me. My brother, god bless him, sent me a postcard each day with an abbreviated box score of the Red Sox game. Sox 6, Balt 4. W for Santiago. 2B and 3B for Conigliaro. Sox now 1½ GB.

The Sox went on a ten-game win streak that began while I was away and ended the day after I came home. The superstitions of baseball were already ingrained in me, and I considered asking my mother if I could go back to camp so the Sox would start winning again. For the rest of the summer and into September, they were in a four-team race for the pennant. My mother was in grad school then, teaching during the days and going to classes at night. That same great uncle would babysit and watch the games with us. My brother and I would hurl ourselves over the back of the couch, pretending to be Yaz going back on a fly ball and catching it, each and every time.

For an agonizing week at the end of September they were in second, then clung to first, then fell behind by one game with two games remaining. They went into the final two games of the season against first-place Minnesota, and won the first game, setting up the finale. They needed to win and they needed California to beat Detroit.

They won, and they won because of Yaz. In the final two games of the season, with the pennant on the line, Yaz went seven for eight with six RBIs. In the finale, he went 4-4. With the Sox down 2-0 in the bottom of the sixth inning of the last game, Yaz tied the game with a two-run single, and then he scored the go-ahead run on a wild pitch. The Sox won 5-3, Detroit lost, and the Sox advanced to the World Series for the first time in 21 years.

It was a great World Series, even if the Sox lost. The Cardinals were a transcendent team then, led by Bob Gibson, one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history. Gibson won games one, four, and seven, and even hit a goddamned home run off Lonborg in the seventh game. I was crushed, but even at eight I was wise enough to know the better team won.

I had snuck my transistor radio and earpiece to school for the World Series games. They were day games then, and started late enough in the afternoon that I only had to get away without being caught for the last hour of school. I had the sweet and lovely Mrs. Radcliffe that year for third grade, and somehow I knew that if she did catch me she wouldn’t be that hard on me. She would probably have just confiscated the radio and given it to my mother, who taught down the hall. My mother would have scolded me, but she would have understood. She loved the Sox almost as much as I did.

Yaz ended his Hall of Fame career in 1983. In his farewell speech before his last game at Fenway he said, “Over the years, I’ve learned that Red Sox fans are the greatest and most loyal. I hope I’ve represented Boston and New England with class and dignity.”

Indeed he had. He had taken over in left field when Ted Williams retired, and he was the opposite of Ted in many ways. Ted was a brilliant, once-in-a-century talent, the self-proclaimed “Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived.” He was explosive and profane, famously outsized in everything he did, from baseball to flying jet planes in two wars. Yaz was a quiet man who made the most of what he admitted was modest talent. He had willed and worked his way to excellence.

Yaz played his last game on October 2, 1983. The Sox won that day, closing out a bad season at 78-84, 20 games behind the Orioles. Oddly enough, the Red Sox had reverted almost perfectly to their form of the 1950s and early 1960s, when the team was bad but somehow full of offensive stars. Wade Boggs won the batting title, and Jim Rice led the league in home runs with 39 and tied for the league in RBI with 126.

Yaz had had the kind of year you might expect from a 44-year-old man. He hit .266 with 10 homers and 56 RBIs in 380 at bats. There would be no 4-4 that day. And there would be no parting home run in his last at bat they way Williams had done 23 years before. Yaz went 1-3 with a walk, and in his final at bat he popped out to second.

I watched the game alone in my apartment, sitting in a wooden chair in my tiny kitchen.  I thought back to that 1967 season, my brother sending me those box scores, the two of us hurling ourselves over the sofa. Of course I cried that day. Was it about childhood lost? Was it about letting go of the last of my heroes? I was 24 by then, working, married, and in graduate school, and wasn’t watching much baseball then.

I would reclaim it, though. Two years later, with Clemens in his prime, my brother and I walked up to the same Fenway we had gone to 10 and 15 years before. We bought standing-room-only seats, and watched Clemens pitch a gem of a game. 10 years after that, I was sitting with my family in some of the best seats in the stadium. Then, in 2003, I was kind of done.

I still follow them, but from a distance. I read about them much more than I watch or listen to the games. Really though,  even with my distance from the game I once loved, it has been a great run. I saw that no-hitter. I saw Reggie Jackson, Cal Ripken, George Brett, Ken Griffey, and a score of other players. I saw two great but tainted players–Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire–hit home runs. And I saw two and now three generations of Sox players come up from the minors, sometimes play their whole careers and move on. Yaz is 76 now. 76. I can hardly believe it.

Gail Mazur, also a Sox fan, has a great poem, “Baseball,” where she reminds us “this is not / not even a slice of life” and talks about not straining for analogies (though of course she finds analogies, and nails them). So I won’t strain too hard,  because even if I do, I won’t quite get there. So I will just say that I once loved the game, and have stayed with it for 50 years, and may well come to love it again.

3 thoughts on “Baseball, the Red Sox, and Me

  1. Great article. We are the same age and Yaz was my favorite. I lived in Pennsylvania and getting to Fenway wasn’t easy. I did see Yaz’s last 2 games and had him autograph pictures I took and the ticket stub to last game. Thanks for sharing.

    Like

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