I grew up in a town in central Connecticut, about half-way between New York and Boston. This was the fifties and sixties. The New York Yankees had Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris in the outfield, with Whitey Ford on the mound and Yogi Berra catching.
Do you detect a mismatch? The Boston Red Sox had players like Frank Malzone and Jacky Jensen. Ever heard of them? Didn't think so. Oh yeh, they had Ted Williams, but Red Sox management made up for that by signing pitchers unfamiliar with the concept of throwing a small hard spherical object along a credible trajectory.
My father grew up in Massachusetts. Oh-oh.
"Anyone can be a Yankees fan," he sagely advised me, sounding like Kane's mentor in Kung-Fu. "They win all the time."
Yes, of course, I would be a Red Sox fan because they always lost. Perfectly logical.
Back in 1958, when I was in the third grade, when families could afford to go to major league games, my father took us out of school to attend the opening game of the season at Fenway Park. My mother wrote to the box office requesting tickets, "good seats right behind second base."
Fenway Park back then did not have the mystical allure it has now. It was simply just another ball park that dated from around the turn of the last century. Little did we know that Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium would be the only ball parks we grew up with to survive the wrecker's ball.
The streets were packed. Vendors hawked their wares outside. Something clearly exciting was going on behind that faded red brick edifice looming just ahead. We passed through the turnstile to a frenzy of sounds and sights and smells. Animated voices richocheted off ancient brick and concrete. The aroma of Fenway franks and roasting peanuts competed with disinfectant from the public restrooms. Giant black-and-white images of past Red Sox greats (admittedly not too many) reminded us that we were entering a shrine, almost a place of worship, the sum total of something far greater than ourselves.
My father handed me a scorecard and together our entire family - mom, dad, me, younger brother, older sister - joined the mobs surging into a concrete tunnel.
We came out into the open to the sight of a splendid emerald meadow. There, for the first time, I beheld the legendary Green Monster, that huge expanse of wall that bounded left field. You could practically detect the curvature of the earth siting the foul line from home plate to the left field foul pole.
The layout of Fenway resembled the school assignments I handed in. No clean flowing lines. No symmetry. No order. Not Neat! Jagged sections of stands protruded into the playing field every which way. Upper sections containing the press box and VIP seats seemed to have been randomly dropped from the sky. And of course that inexplicable slash they called the Green Monster.
What, were they too cheap to put bleachers there? Too lazy? Is this how they solved building problems in Boston? You just filled in the left-over spaces with a wall. It was all so crazy, chaotic.
It was beautiful.
We settled into our seats close to first base. Batting practice was taking place. The pitcher was throwing from behind a section of meshed fence into a home plate area surrounded on three sides by a portable enclosure.
The Red Sox were playing the Yankees. As the visiting team, the Yankees were in gray. The home team was in white. Following batting practice, the ground crew came out, dismantled the batting practice apparatus, tidied up the infield, and traced out fresh new white lines around home plate.
Could this be the Red Sox' year? The season before - at the ancient age of 39, before the era of career-extending medical techniques - Ted Williams had batted an incredible .388. Ted Williams in his dotage was incredibly slow. He could not outrace an off-balance throw from shortstop to first base. Yet he beat out his young and fast nemesis Mickey Mantle for the batting title.
Could the Red Sox do it this year? We already had Ted Williams. Just one pitcher. Some rookie from nowhere who would pitch a no-hitter in his first outing and finish the season winning 25 games without his arm falling off. That would do it. Ted Williams and the miracle rookie pitcher vs the entire New York Yankees.
This is New England, remember. This is how New Englanders think. Already, at a very early age, I was thinking like a New Englander, like a Red Sox fan.
Ted Williams was not in the starting lineup. Not to worry, my dad assured me. They would be using him as a pinch-hitter. Sure enough, in one of the middle innings, a unintelligible squawk came through the park's PA system. A tall slender man came out of the dugout heading toward home plate.
The number on his white jersey was unmistakable. Number nine. Ted Williams!
The recognition dawned. At once, the loudest sound in the history of the universe erupted around me. Ted Williams! Everyone was on their feet, cheering, stomping their feet, clapping their hands.
To this day, anytime I think about what Ted Williams still means to the people in New England, all I have to do is recall a spring day in Boston nearly 50 years ago.
At once, I was one with 35,000 people in Fenway. This could be our year, we all were thinking. Yeh, the Yankees may have wiped the floor with our face last season, but at least we could draw comfort in the fact that our venerable hero - veteran of two wars - had taken to school an upstart Mickey Mantle half his age. And today he was going to save the day, blast one over the right field bleachers, send the entire Yankees back to New York with their tails between their legs.
His warm-up swings were pure poetry. He literally sliced the air like a fencer with that light bat of his. Then he strode up to home plate like he owned it. Crowded in close, literally daring the opposing pitcher to brush him off with an inside fast ball. In a contest where the odds are strongly stacked against the batter, when it came to Ted Williams it was the pitcher who invariably backed down. Intimated mound opponents would often opt to throw four outside balls in a row rather than take on the greatest hitter in the game in a fair fight.
As a result, Ted Williams got on first base more than any player in history.
We resumed our seats. My father, I noticed, was literally on the edge of his seat. He lived and breathed Red Sox. He had yet to see them win it all. Could this be his year?
Could his year be my year, too? The year I could finally hold my head up high in my neighborhood? The year of the Nyah-Nyahs, my Nyah-Nyahs, the year I would do to all those insufferable Yankees fans what they had done to me?
Show ‘em, Ted Williams!
He struck out. Or maybe he grounded to short, or popped up to right. I can't remember.
My father told me he could see the great Number Nine, on his way back to the dugout, crying. My father was prone to exaggeration, but his point was clear. Ted Williams wanted this one as bad as anyone in Fenway that day, as bad as he did, as bad as I did.
It wasn't to be.
The Red Sox lost that day. They would finish the season in third place, behind second-place Chicago and the first-place Yankees. The Yankees would go on to beat the Milwaukee Braves in seven games for their eighteenth World Series championship and seventh in ten years. Ted Williams batted .328 that year, and would retire after the 1960 season, hitting a home run in his last career at bat, but never tasting the success of a championship.
One good pitcher was all he needed, all we needed.
Anyone can be a Yankees fan. Try being a Red Sox fan for just one season. Then talk to me.
To be continued ...
Published On: September 06, 2007
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