The Sporting Scene - Legends of the Fens

Back the other day, when baseball mattered



Make mine Boston, just for a while again, after all baseball news went glimmering last Tuesday morning. This was before, back when we could still take pleasure in our games.

The Red Sox, as I was saying, have blown another season, this time falling on their faces with a thirteen-out-of- fourteen-game string of losses. They've lost a manager, the quirkily oblique Jimy Williams, who perhaps found his fungo bat the most enjoyable attribute of the job, and once, responding to a query about the team's lack of speed on the base paths, offered the Zenlike "You can't get a ticket riding a bicycle on a freeway, can you?" The bleacher fans chant "Yankees suck!" on a day when the team is playing the Atlanta Braves. (1 was there and can swear to this.) The Sox' everyday catcher, Scott Hatteberg,, has thrown out ten of a hundred and nine enemy base stealers, the worst such average in memory; On the other hand, he is the only man ever to bat into a triple play (on August 6th, against the Texas Rangers) and then smack a grand-slam home run in his very next at-bat. Boston loyalists can spray the Yankees' incomparable thirty-nine-year-old Roger Clemens with unspeakable invective when he warms up in the bullpen just in front of the Fenway Park bleachers but more or less applaud him when he goes on to beat them, 3-1, as he did on August 31st, striking out ten batters and lifting his won-lost totals to 18-1 for the season - this because they take bitter pleasure in the knowledge that their mistrusted general manager, Dan Duquette, let Roger depart the Sox in 1996, declaring him to be in the "twilight of his career." The Red Sox are also the only team whose favorite slugger, the gently ferocious dh. Manny Rarnirez, wears the outsized uniform pants of the fattest player on the squad, reliever Rich (El Guapo) Garces, for style's sake. And the Red Sox are the only team with a curse

I confess that I've made light of the "Curse of the Bambino" - a neat tagline and title used by the Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy, when he wrote a book about the home team's extensive and eloquent failures to nail down another world championship after they last did it, in 1918, and stuck needles into the club's owner, Harry Frazee, for his decision, a year later, to sell Babe Ruth, then a star pitcher for the Bostons, to the Yankees because, it was said, he needed cash as a backer of a Broadway musical. Kitschy kid stuff to me - right up to the moment at the end of May this year when the Red Sox' double-incumbent Cy Young Award starter, Pedro Martinez, mouthing off a bit after beating the Yanks by 3-0, laughingly offered, "I don't believe in damn curses. Wake up the damn Bambino and have me face him. Maybe I'll drill him in the ass." As every grandmother, tavern keeper, and six-year-old in New England knows by now, Pedro has not won a game since. Struck down almost on the instant by a shoulder ailment, he sat out two months, then pitched valianty on his return but without picking up another win. Now doctors have found that he is suffering from a slight tear in the rotator cuff, and he may be through for the season. Only in Boston.

Writers waiting to gain postgame admission to the Red Sox manager's office at Fenway Park line up outside the clubhouse, separated by a metal rail from the jammed-together, slowly departing right-field-side patrons, who are headed home in the opposite direction. If the Sox have won, the crowd is noisy and uninteresting, but when they have lost again, as they do by habit in late summer, this year and every year, the tableau becomes weighty and shadowed, with more irony and history and atmosphere to take in than any mere game can account for. It's dark down here under the stands, for one thing, and the shuffling, oppressed humanity, the dingy lighting, the food smells, the bunched strands of wires and cables" running haphazard overhead, and the damp, oddly tilting stone floor cast a spell of F Deck aboard the Titanic. Fenway Park floods a visitor with more images than a dozen other ballparks put together, every image apt. The joint opened on April 20, 1912, less than a week after John Jacob Astor and Leonardo DiCaprio gallanty left the lifeboats to the ladies. The Sox beat the New York Highlanders (the pre-Yanks), 7-6, that first Fenway afternoon, beginning a season that would feature Smokey Joe Wood's 34-5 pitching record for the Bostons, and a World Championship over John McGraw's Giants.

Not many of the faces facing me now, on a more recent date, appear comforted by the memory. Many of the men have thick upper bodies, partly concealed behind loose shirts or sweats, but with boyish-looking shorts and big sneakers below.  Here comes a large, dignified-looking gent with well-tended white hair, a bankerish demeanor, and a white T -shirt emblazoned with, yes, "YANKEES SUCK," in blue block letters. There are more kids than you see at Yankee Stadium; fewer Latinos but perhaps more families. Some of the nine- and ten- and eleven-year-old boys, with their big mitts and Red Sox wristbands and summer buzz cuts, carry an unmistakable Fenian bloom - a look that is confirmed in the faces of their dads. I know what they know, and it comes to me once again - forget the Titanic - that these lads could be from Armagh or Roscommon instead of Melrose or Walpole or West Newton, and their heads already full of the Battle of the Boyne and the Easter uprising and Cuchulainn the Hound of Ulster. These local heirs have been handed a similar burden of oppression and unfairness from their earliest breakfast memories, which have the old man groaning over still another bleeding headline in the Globe sports pages ("BOGGS SLAPPED WITH PALIMONY SUIT,” "SOX POST-SEASON LOSS SKEIN AT 13," "PEDRO FALLS TO BOMBERS"), and you can almost envision the kids exchanging miserable glances as they try to fit the fresh stuff in with the troubles they were born into and the long tales imparted during their first trips to Mass at the Fens. There's 1975 to remember, and Why Did We Take Out Willoughby? and Bucky Dent's dying screen shot on a haunted October afternoon in '78, and black Billy Buckner slowly straightening up behind first base at Shea Stadium in '86, with the easy ground ball skittering off behind him, and, farther away; Pesky holding on to the ball in St.Louis while the Cardinals' World Series - winning run comes in: throw the ball, Johnny, for the love of God. There's Pudge leaving us, and Roger and Mo as well. We haven't won since before Grandpa's time, Timmy my boy, when we let Babe Ruth go - yes, he was ours, a thug of a lefty pitcher then, and he got away; It doesn't mean anything, this Curse of the Bambino, but some day, maybe in your lifetime....  Don't you go worrying about it.

While I stood in line outside manager Joe Kerrigan's office, moments after the Sox had lost to the Yankees in familiar but heartbreaking fashion, to run their losing streak to six, a teen-age boy, mournful under his backward-facing Sox cap, was nudged closer to me by the outflowing crowd. Spotting the credential hung around my neck and my clutched tape recorder and notebook, he leaned close, tilted his head, and murmured, "Ask him what's going on."

Good question. This year's promising Red Sox saw their vibrant shortstop, Nomar Garciaparra, a two-time defending batting champion, go down early with wrist surgery, and in June lost Pedro, the best pitcher in baseball, to that aching shoulder. Against all expectations, the Sox hung in, mounting an offense around the electrifying Ramirez, a free-agent slugger who fired a home run into the left-field screen off his first Fenway pitch. They also sent a succession of tough elder non-Pedros to the mound- the knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, the thirty-eight-year-old ex-Yankee David Cone, and the erstwhile Dodger (and Met and Brewer and Tiger) strikeout machine Hideo Nomo, who threw a no-hitter against the Orioles in the second game of the year. The Sox grabbed first place in their division, at times leading the pack by as much as four games, and then, yielding to the inevitable, fell behind the Yankees in early July, but hung close as they waited for their missing icons to get better - Nomar by August; Pedro, with luck, in September - and help win a shot at the wild-card opening in the playoffs.

But rosiness never lingers long around the Red Sox. Despite the team's success, a cranky dislike festered between some of the regulars and their semi-silent manager, Jimy Williams, who rarely visited the clubhouse, posted late and mystifying lineups, and responded to press queries with a gnomic and infuriating "Manager's decision." Irritability became a clubhouse refrain. Why am I sitting out again? Why the hell am I coming out of the bullpen so often in no-win games? Manny Ramirez smiled through it all, with CD earphones clapped on to blank out the sounds of bickering. Somewhere in my notes is a reminder about the flaplet that began when Trot Nixon let drop that the ailing Carl Everett might be "waiting around and not rehabbing or anything" - and attempted to take it back the next day with "I am not trying to piss off Carl by any means because that is not my job."

The clubhouse hostility was benign, a heat rash, compared with relations between Williams and his boss, the executive vice-president and general manager, Dan Duquette; the two parted so vividly a year ago (perhaps when Duquette refused to back the manager in a dispute with the ill-tempered and scary Everett) that it was not expected that Williams would be back this spring. Duquette, stiff and cautious by temperament, is not above tossing the occasional player or manager to the writers, in the manner of a fox loin to the hounds. Asked on the Red Sox radio show why Pedro Martinez had been removed after the sixth inning of a strong effort against the Yankees in June (the Yanks rallied against the Boston relievers and won the game), he said, "I think Jimy needs to talk to the fans about his thinking on that, because it caused a lot of controversy in the market here throughout New England." Martinez, it turned out, was already suffering from the shoulder inflammation that would put him on the disabled list, but neither the manager nor the G.M. could find a way to be straight with the media about the news.

It all came apart on August 16th, when the consonantally challenged Jimy was axed, after the team, in slow decline, had slipped behind the onrushing Oakland Athletics on the wild-card sideline. Managers always get canned during bad news, and the Sox' hopes had long since turned sour.  Jason Varitek, an essential catcher and pitch-caller, broke his elbow making a diving catch in foul territory; Everett sat out too many games with a sore knee and swung at too many up pitches when he did play; Manny fell into a depressing slump; and, worse, Garciaparra’s return to action was cut short when his wrist blew up again, finishing him for the year. The emotional high-water mark at the Fens, it turned out, had come with a 4-3 win over the White Sox on July 29th, Nomar's first day back, when he tied the game with a homer in the sixth and won it with a single in his next at-bat.

The burdened inheritor of these woes was Joe Kerrigan, the lean and furrowed pitching coach, who was named manager only when Duquette, by his own unhelpful admission, failed to persuade Felipe Alou, the revered ex-Montreal skipper, to accept the post. Kerrigan, a computer apostolic, was widely credited for the Sox' astounding conversion from their long tradition of wall-bashing into a pitching-and-defense club, with the lowest earned-run average in the league over the previous two years. He also served as advance scout, scouring game tapes from around the league and disseminating them in daily printouts of pitcher proclivities and situational batting scenarios. Hardworking and intellectual, he was handicapped - in the minds of his players, if not his own - by having never previously managed a game, at any level. Quickly it became clear that Kerrigan lacked another essential managerial attribute: luck. The departed Jimy; for all his veterans' injuries and whinings, had put a respectable, fiercely contending lineup on the field every day that could coax out wins under unlikely circumstances, but on Saturday night, August 25th, ten days into the Kerrigan regime, the Bostons ran into an abutment in Texas: a ghastly eighteen-inning, six-hour-and-thirty-five-minute standoff against the Rangers, played in soaking ninety-degree weather, which was lost, 8-7, at two-forty in the morning. Only a bit earlier, the schedule had twice forced the Sox to play a game a continent away from one completed the previous day (this happened within a span of ten days, in fact), and the psychic toll of those post-dawn arrivals and screwed-up body clocks, taken with the nine pitchers wasted in Texas, finished the club just as it was about to enter the critical stretch of the season- thirteen successive games against the Indians and the Yankees, away and at home and away again. Every player and fan and sportswriter had stuck a Post-It on these couple of weeks in his mind and looked forward to them since spring training. Too late. The Sox, down to the Yankees by four games after the eighteen-inning debacle, were six behind by the time the two met at last, at Fenway Park, less than a week later, and in the toils of the free-fall streak that would push their season into nullity and despond.

The Yankee games, it turned out, were high entertainment, stuffed with old-fashioned low-score baseball and great pitching, and played out in front of a gallant, beaten-down audience that half expected loss and irrelevance and could handle irony with the flair of a Nomar plucking up a low line drive behind second. Baseball news was piling up elsewhere, to be sure-Barry Bonds in avid pursuit of Mark Mc- Gwire's home-run record; the embar- rassments of the Adanta Braves; u~e inexorable successes of the Mariners and their skinny new star, Ichiro; and the recent moment, undreamed of in "Field of Dreams" or "Casey at the Bat," when Omar Vizquel, the Indians shortstop, complained to an ump about the distracting earrings sported by Seattle reliever Arthur Rbodes, and won an on-the-spot disjewelment - but these bonbons would have to wait.

The outsized Clemens, riding the wave of his fourth or fifth or fiftieth career reinvention, filled the Friday-night game with himself, throwing ninety- two-mile-an-hour splitters that had the Sox batters waving at his stuff in the dirt (Dante Bichette even reached first after fanning on a wild pitch), coughing up doubles off the wall, shouting at himself for a mistake or another great pitch, and drawing sustenance from the low, baiting cries of "Ro-ger! Rohhhhh-ger!" rolling in from the bleacher wolfpack. The Rocket will pick up his sixth Cy Young Award this winter, and he has pitched so well for so long-eighteen years now, with active-career leading marks in wins, innings pitched, complete games, and strikeouts - that seeing him work is like watching Monet at his easel or F.D.R. lighting a Camel. Almost every game he gets into produces another historical voice-over. His strikeout of Chris Stynes to close the Boston seventh became his ninety-eighth outing with ten or more K's, and moved him (we were told) past Sandy Koufax and into third place in the annals in this category. It was an effort to notice that Clemens was actually trailing in the game, 1-0, at this juncture, having been clearly outpitched by the Boston starter, the veteran Frank Castillo, whose exquisite in-and-out, fast-and-slow stuff had the Yankee batters swaying at the plate like cobras to a flageolet.

The fans had noticed, though, and their cries of disbelief when a different pitcher, the deeply fallible Derek Lowe, came out in Castillo's place to start the eighth were followed by noises of shock and outrage when the infield misplayed a grounder, putting the lead-off Yankee batter on base, and Jorge Posada swiftly deposited another Lowe offering into the center-field stands-the game-winning poke, as it turned out. Boston baseball had once again proved confirmatory: Roger can't lose this year, and the abiding tradition in this traditional rivalry is Yanks win.

Kerrigan, in his office, was rational. This had been only Castillo's fourth effort since a stint in rehab, he pointed out, and Lowe was well rested - the kind of humane considerations that most September managers of contending teams keep safely stuffed away with their New Year's resolutions. Cruelly, I preferred Lowe's summation, which he delivered from beneath his clubhouse sun visor: "Every little bad thing has turned into a big bad thing for me lately; The booing has been going on for months. We've had a good year and now it seems like we've faded in the last couple of weeks. I'd boo, too."

Saturday morning put the Kerrigan decision into perspective: it was madness. Up in the press box, Dan Shaughnessy, the amiable, pink-haired Globe master, said, "It's a legend every day around here. The whole scene of Kerrigan taking out Castillo after two hits and fourteen straight outs - why; it's a fable already; It'll never be forgotten."

"It's like the other manager getting the can with his team only four games out of first place," said a New York columnist. "The story of Jimy is improving every day. It's just a matter of time before he's beloved."

Pleasure in bad news is an old reporters' game, but one perhaps played best here in Boston. I'd heard the raw anger of the fans the night before, and the resident writers told me that general wrath over the Sox' recent failings was deeper than it had ever been. The other local obsessions, the Bruins and the Celtics, have fallen from the heights of late, and in May and June expectations about the Sox were almost off the charts. Manny Ramirez, leading the league in batting and home runs, was living at the Ritz for a thousand dollars a day. Eddie Andelman, the veteran sports announcer on Boston's WEEI, announced a "Yankee Elimination" party on his show, and the call-ins went wild. The Sox had spent a hundred and ten million dollars in salaries this time around, the second-highest total in baseball. The Sox had Nomar and Pedro. The Sox had to win. Why, amid such blighted memories, do I find Fenway such a benign baseball setting, and baseball happiness closer at hand here than anywhere else? It can't just be the postcard setting: that dinky fed peanut-and-cashew wagon plunk in the middle of Yawkey Way, or the patio street signs for sale inside the souvenir shop across the street (a Palazzo of Memorabilia) that say "Hideo Nomo Drive" (forty smackers), or the stunning not-for-sale poster in there depicting a skinny young Yaz, in those pinkish striped stockings, just finishing his swing. Inside the doomed park, an older souvenir stand by the front gate bears a "Red Sox Apparel" sign, and outdoors again, down by the players' parking lot, on Van Ness Street, the kid autograph hunters lie face down on the pavement, peering under the canvased-off chain-link fence, where they can pick up no more than an inch or two of the shoes of their arriving heroes or the make of the tires on their swollen S.U.V.s. "Mr. Ramirez!" the kids cry out, shoving pens and baseball cards and pennants under the barrier. "Mr. Everett, Mr. Everett!" Fenway Park will be torn down before long -- as soon as the sale of the club to one or another of the six current bidding consortiums is completed, in the next few months, and the new management gets its act and its political connections (and its new general manager) together and finds a spot to put up a nice modern five-hundred-million-dollar park with luxury suites and limo parking. One fan I know has begun a last-minute "muttering campaign," to persuade Jack Welch, the retired G.E. genius, to snap up the club. "Self-made Salem boy, fanatic fan, practitioner of tough love," his E-mail runs. "God knows they need something."

I don't care that much. I will sign no petitions to save Fenway (I've been asked), and I don't believe that it's simply habit and an old green-walled brick ball yard and my faded memories of Yaz and the Kid and El Tiante that make Fenway work. I think it's pain and anger, and all the gruesome, farcical losses as well.  Yankee Stadium sells you winning and nothing much else, but Fenway offers the full range-rage and sweetness and ridiculous remembering-and makes games here matter, however you groan or curse. 

The Saturday disappointment differed only in the barest details from its predecessor. There was bright and blowy September weather this time, and a quicker insufficient lead for the home side: a solo homer by Trot Nixon, the first Boston batter of the day; You could almost hear the "uh-oh" s as the ball went out. Pedro Martinez and Orlando Hernandez held it right there for the next hour or so, while a nice little flow of K's and mannerisms accumulated in the sunshine. In the fifth, El Duque shouted "I got it!" while fielding a mini-pop by Mike Lansing - a magical tipoff on the order of Patty Duke at the water pump, that he is bilingual at last. The convalescent Pedro took his leave after six, and the Sox unravelment built itself around a modest eighth- inning fly ball that was lost in the sun glare or the gusting breeze in short right field, good for the tying run in time, and Bernie Williams's ninth-inning homer, which reached the first row of seats in center. In two games, the starters had nothing to show for their thirteen goose-egg innings, and the Sox trailed by eight in the East instead of a coulda-been four. Over. Sunday promised little more than a spicy pitchers' pairing - David Cone versus his Yankee replacement, Mike Mussina, who had signed on with the Bombers for $88.5 million over six years - but the quality of the game quickly put secondary distractions to one side. Mussina had pitched so well this year that a little more run support could have found him 'at Clemens's level, instead of his entering 13-11. Cone, for his part, had rediscovered himself at the Fens, bouncing back from his horrific, injury-marred 4-14 record and that 6.91 earned-run blot last year. Adopting a mini-windup fashioned by Kerrigan, and waiting out a two months' sidelining with a shoulder inflammation, he found better results even while working within pitch limitations on his thirty-eight-year-old arm. He stood at 8-3 on this day; with the Boston rooters and interloper Yankee fans perhaps finding equal pleasure from the Sox' run of a dozen consecutive wins in starts of his this summer. As Cone said last year when things were going the other way for him, "Sometimes it's not how you pitch but which games you pitch that matter." 

This game-which would end up 1-0, Yankees, with the losing pitcher more or less in triumph and the winner in near-despair - will go straight into the Boston family storybook Indeed, you can already savor the bitter, flushed-faced joy of future Back Bay grandpas and barflies when they come to the good part-the ninth-inning pinch-hit, two-out, two-strike single sailed into left center by Carl Everett for the first and only Sox hit of the evening, and the ruination of Mussina's masterpiece. "Sure, the Yankees won it, lad - what did you expect - but oh, my!”  

Mussina and Cone pitch with intensity and with the same leaning stillness while they take in the catcher's sign and begin their little back step. Mussina had such stuff and command this time that he rarely threw the knuckle curve that has been his signature. Nor, of course, did we see the deep courtier's bow of his that inaugurates a pitch with base runners aboard. He was brooding and hunched - a man who wanted no news at all this day and almost got that wish. Nine of his eventual thirteen strikeouts went into the books in the first five innings - he struck out the side in the second - with most of the victims standing immobile as the dismissing ninety-plus fastball or the downflared two-seamer flicked by.  

Cone's work provided greater amusement, but mostly he avoided the high counts, bases on balls, or crisis innings that we have come to know so well. He throws more curves than sliders these days, and as always on a good Cone day you enjoyed his thinking almost more than the speed or slant of a given pitch - the wisdom of his four pitches just out of the strike zone to Tino Martinez in the fourth, say, before he fanned Posada to end the inning. The game was going by in a rush, with the accruing edginess of the Mussina no-hitter and possible perfecto matched now by anxiety, about Cone's pitch count and potential removal by attrition. Still no score. The Yankees, in fact, brought in no runs at all in the first seven of any game of their three-game sweep- another first, for any pair of teams, in the annals. 

Cone, visibly less by now, worked through an eighth inning of lowering troubles, with the quick Soriano on first after a lead-off single. Knoblauch went down with a fly ball and Jeter on a strikeout; Derek said later that his tottering wave at Cone's sidearmer was the worst swing of his professional career. With Soriano on second now, Bernie Williams stroked a high drive that was pulled in by Nixon a step in front of the center-field wall. The end - the first ending, that is - arrived predictably enough in the Yankee ninth, when the fill-in Boston second baseman, Lou Merloni, botched a hard-hit double- play grounder that would have closed the inning. Enrique Wilson's double brought in the run at last, and finished Coney for the day. At least he got the shot, having talked his manager into letting him go back out there and take what came: death by the bullet, not the bullpen.

The building, no-hit, nobody-on melodrama by Mussina had been buzzed about and gabbled over in the stands all evening, because it was Cone, of course, who had last turned the trick, two years ago this past July, when he shut down the Montreal Expos on Yogi Berra Day at the Stadium, for the sixteenth such marvel on record. The coincidence added a flair of moral drama to the proceedings, and now in the ninth Everett's two-out, l-and-2-count single, struck off a third successive high fastball, was greeted by pathetically exulting Fenwayian cries. Mussina had got within two outs of a perfect game four years ago in Baltimore, but he had to come up here to be inaugurated into the Hall of Pain.

No gleam of light has showed itself for the Red Sox since that day; and their season has trailed off into scandal and bottomless loss. A pitching coach (Kerrigan's successor) was fired moments after a losing game, more or less in full sight of the media, causing Garciaparra to mutter, "That's why nobody wants to fucking play here." The whine was delivered to a teammate but overheard and disclosed by a hovering writer, as has happened before in the players' slummy little tenement. Pedro has continued to pitch, despite his sub-par shoulder; he was taken out of his start in New York ten days ago, down by 3-2, after fifty-four pitches. No one in baseball - well, no one outside of the Boston management - can understand how a franchise arm could have been put at such risk.

After winning a game at last, against Cleveland, the Red Sox dropped four more - "AGAIN, A CRUSHING DEFEAT FOR REGION" was the headline over a prior Shaughnessy column in the Globe - and trailed the Yankees by thirteen games before the Trade Center tragedy intervened. David Cone lost to Mussina once again, with the teams in New York, in a suspense-free 9-2 renewal. Coming off the field in the sixth after throwing a second home run of the day to Martinez (Tino drove in five runs, all told), David received a handsome, non-ironic standing O from the fans. He was gracious in the clubhouse: "It was very, very appreciated. I can't remember the last time I tipped my hat after giving up five runs." But his season and his hopes of pitching in Fenway in the post-season had gone south, along with everyone else's, and it came out in time that he'd gone wild in the clubhouse after the accolade, throwing chairs and food around-a "snappage," in his lexicon.

Cone will be back next year - his great game up in Boston assures it - but I don't think it will be with the Red Sox.  Losing him will be sad for the Fenwayites, but it fits nicely within the legend.  He is bitterly disappointed about the collapse of the Red Sox, but loss, of course, is something these pros encounter almost every day; When Cone learned that the dour and inward Mike Mussina was still feeling the shock of Everett's killer single, he arranged to meet him at the Stadium, where he comforted him with a longer view.  "It's not so bad to talk about a game like that after it's over," he explained to me.  "You don't want to turn a masterpiece into a negative.  It feels pretty good to be told that you were part of the best game played this year."


By Roger Angell

This article appeared on pages 42-47 of the September 24, 2001 issue of The New Yorker magazine