I entered teen-hood during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. By this time, as a Red Sox fan growing up in a central Connecticut neighborhood evenly populated by Red Sox fans and Yankees fans, I had learned some strong lessons in character.
Since my birth in 1949, the Yankees had played in all but two World Series, winning all but four. The best the Red Sox could do during that time was lose two games in a row to the Yankees on the last two days of the '49 season, thus squandering their one opportunity to contest the perennial NL champs, the Brooklyn Dodgers, for the championship.
But 1962 was to prove the Yankees last hurrah for a long time. Yet even in their decline, New York used the Sox as their whipping boy. With the retirement of the great Ted Williams in 1960, Sox fans had nothing to cheer about. In 1965, the Sox suffered the ignominy of finishing last in the AL, and second-last in 1966.
My father took my brother and I to a game at Fenway in '66, and, ever the contrarian, predicted great things of the Sox in '67. Yeh, right.
Strange things began happening in 1967. Ground balls squirted through the infield. Strikes sailed uncontested over the plate. Opposing fly balls landed in fielders' gloves. Impossibly long throws from the outfield to home plate arrived micro-seconds before the opposing batter.
Slugger Carl Yastrzemski was having a career year. Pitcher Jim Lonborg was smoking opposing batters. An unheralded supporting cast was coming up with big plays.
Could it be? Nah, impossible.
The vacuum left by the demise of the hated Yankees created a situation equivalent to Alexander the Great's generals scrambling for control of his empire in the wake of his death. Suddenly, improbably, four teams were in play. All of them would have finished five games behind the Yankees in their prime, but now they were scrapping it out against each other, eking out wins but hardly dominating. Improbably, the Red Sox were in the mix.
These were the days before divisions and interminable play-off series. Winner take all. The pennant race played out that summer like a high stakes horse race in slow motion. Each day, Red Sox fans, suddenly with something to cheer about, would grab the morning paper, not just to see how their team had fared, but how the other three teams had made out, as well. Minnesota won their game - dang! Chicago lost - hurray! Detroit, rained out.
June, July, August ...
In mid-August, an inside fastball on the eye knocked out slugger Tony Conigliaro for the year (and ultimately his career), but the Sox would quickly reload with an acquisition from Kansas City, Ken Harrelson. Unbelievably, a week later, the Red Sox were in first place. By now, people were singing in bad voices "The Impossible Dream" from the musical then running on Broadway, "Man of La Mancha."
The White Sox faded in September. Three teams battled to the wire. It would literally come down to the last day of the season. The Red Sox would need to sweep the Minnesota Twins at Fenway in the last two games while Detroit needed to lose one of their last two.
"They'll blow it," my father ever the contrarian predicted. Memories of the Sox' famous end-of-season meltdown of '49 was more firmly imprinted on his memory than my incidental birth of that year.
Jim Lonborg held the Twins to three runs that final day. Detroit lost its last game to California. The Red Sox were AL champions! We were going to the World Series!
Two days later, the Sox were facing the NL champs, the Cardinals in Fenway. A rested Bob Gibson - arguably the greatest pitcher of all time - was on the mound for St Louis. He held the Sox to one run. Lonborg in game two returned the favor, holding the Cards to one run, then repeated his feat in game five. Bob Gibson shut out the Sox in game four.
These were the days when starting pitchers went nine innings. Relievers were only called in when there was a solar eclipse or the starter suffered a myocardial infarction. Usually, both had to occur simultaneously.
It came down to a showdown in game seven. But an exhausted Lonborg, on only two days' rest, was no match for the great Bob Gibson. Final score 7-2 Cards.
But the Sox could hold their heads high, and so could their fans. For once, my step had a spring to it. It had truly been an impossible year, and all of us had good reason to look forward to next year. Then ...
That winter, Jim Lonborg broke his leg skiing. Forty years later, I can still hear my father's anguished howls echoing in my brain. Impossible!
It was a done deal. There would be no next year.
"Perish the day I was born, and the night which said, ‘A man is conceived!' ... Why is life given to men who find it so bitter?"
Why, God, why me?
Published On: September 17, 2007
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