Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Why are we not in school on a Thursday? It must be the official Memorial Day. Actually, retrosheet.org informs me that nearly all the games played that day are day games, and that doubleheaders occur at the Polo Grounds (Cubs-Mets), Forbes Field (Phillies-Pirates), and Comiskey Park (Indians-White Sox), so it’s fair to assume this is the case.
Until then, any live baseball experience we enjoyed had been at Pynchon Park, a rickety wooden yard perched on the east side of the Connecticut River, watching the Springfield Giants of the double-A Eastern League grapple with the Elmira Pioneers, Charleston Indians and Binghamton Triplets. Following a departure pattern set by Matty Alou, Juan Marichal and Tom Haller, 21-year-old third baseman Jim Ray Hart was a big Springfield star a year ago*, but had moved on to Tacoma in the Pacific Coast League. where he would slug his way down to San Francisco, and there had been scant excitement that season at Pynchon Park. Box seats at Fenway to see the surprising fourth place Sox play the World Champion Yankees? We couldn't even get to sleep the night before.
Going into the day's action, the Orioles are the actual league surprise. At 30-16, the Birds of Brooks Robinson, Powell, Aparicio, Gentile and a staff of Barber, Roberts and Pappas, have a three-game lead on the Yanks and four and a half on Chicago, with Boston tied at 22-18, five games back and tied with the Kansas City A's. Through the first two months Baltimore has a +33 run differential, but the Yanks and White Sox are at +43 and the race is sure to get tighter.
The tool factory right in front of us with a crop of leafy trees was Fenway Park. My heart pounded. We inched through the gate, dropped down a concrete ramp and straight into a gloomy grotto of food stands, program hawkers and cigar smoke. Slogged our way to another, narrower ramp moving up...
...and stopped in our tracks to behold our first flash of major league green. Our Magnavox TV and standings page in the Springfield Republican had offered us nothing but black-and-white baseball, so the sight of the lush grass and monstrous left field edifice under a blue, early summer sky, the navy caps and red trim on Boston's home whites, were a true revelation.
Our seats were amazing, lower first base boxes behind the Red Sox on-deck circle, and it struck me how shockingly close the stands were to the field, certainly a lot closer than at Pynchon Park. We all got Fenway Franks but Porter's kids were never satisfied, and their father was out of his seat constantly to fetch them popcorn, ice cream and god knows what else throughout the game. Our dad, never one to spend a dime needlessly, still talks about this today.
Clete Boyer, the first major leaguer we ever saw bat, then grounded out to third, Malzone to Stuart, and the game began…
Mickey Mantle, coming off a very productive, injury-marred season in 1962, leads baseball with a 1.117 OPS on this day in 1963. After a scoreless first, Wilson fools him with a called third strike to begin the second.
They booed the Mick and Roger Maris pretty equally, but after Mantle whiffed, Maris bashed one over the bullpens in right-center, the first homer we ever saw. I guess we could’ve done worse.
And then we went to work on Terry. Dick Stuart bombed one over the Monster after a Lu Clinton single. Russ Nixon got plunked and Eddie Bressoud hit one out. 4-1 Sox! Was it always this easy?
Terry is undoubtedly talked to, because after Bressoud's homer he retires the next 14 Red Sox until Clinton singles with two outs in the 6th. New York, meanwhile, battles back, a single run on a force play in the 4th, before a walk and three singles in the 6th tie the game and finish Wilson for the day. Jack Lamabe replaces him, but has troubles of his own in the 7th. Dick Radatz, Boston's best reliever, is summoned for the high-leverage situation, something rarely seen today, and summarily walks Maris to force in the go-ahead run. By contrast, Ralph Terry never leaves the mound for the Yankees.
We were down 5-4 in the last of the 9th. Terry had already gotten Stuart and Nixon out, and it was up to Eddie Bressoud. We were out of our seats screaming. The Porter kids were finishing their second boxes of popcorn. Terry looked in, wound, and Bressoud smacked one high and deep toward the Monster...
...and it was GONE! Tie game! No wonder I became a baseball addict!
Arnold Earley had taken over for Radatz in the 8th, and bats for himself after Bressoud's homer. Pesky's plan doesn’t work. Elston Howard doubles and Phil Linz singles to start the 10th, before Boyer hits a one-out sac fly to make it 6-5. If pitch counts are being used by anyone, they certainly aren't being published, and I imagine Terry is well over 100 by this point, but he still takes the ball for the last of the 10th. (Houk burned through four relievers in their last game, an 11-6 loss at Fenway two days ago, so I'm sure that’s a factor here.)
Schilling flew out to left and Geiger grounded to Pepitone, so Carl Yastrzemski was our last hope. Their best hitter was 0-for-4 so far, not looking good at all, and my dad had us up and walking toward the exit tunnel as he stepped into the box. My brother and I came down with mild polio at that moment, slowed to a near-crawl, and managed to be right behind the backstop screen when Yaz took a mighty cut and missed a Terry fastball for strike three.
I have occasional discussions with various friends about our favorite moments from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Usually it’s a battle scene or Gollum’s schizophrenic soliloquy, but for me it’s always a different one. The Two Towers opens with a harrowing plummet down a mountain shaft between Gandalf and the Balrog, the creature’s fiery whip and Gandalf’s staff and sword snapping and clanging at each other in an adrenalin rush. Suddenly Jackson pulls the camera way back, and all we see is the distant flame of their battle as they drop into a humongous, water-filled cave. It is this perfect balance between intense detail and the broader, epic view that makes Jackson’s film so marvelous. Similarly, it is the perfect balance between baseball’s statistical minutiae and its unforgettable vividness that makes it the best game on this planet. If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that baseball stats and wonder go together like a hot dog and mustard.
Jeff Polman’s eccentric historical replay blogs can be found at http://1924andyouarethere.blogspot.com/ and http://funkyball.wordpress.com/. Snarky quips can be found at https://twitter.com/funkyball77