Déjà vu all over again?

While this year’s Boston Red Sox have been a joy to watch, I’ve got that old feeling that failure is inevitable in October.

I have zero confidence in their pitching, which reminds me of all those seasons when the best of times became the worst of times.

Or were the worst of times really the best of times? Was I a sucker for the angst – THE CURSE – before  2004?

Must be – since I took little pleasure when the Sox won two more World Series within a few years.

My favorite team was the 1978 edition, perhaps because I saw so much of Yaz & Co during my one year as a baseball writer, for the Toronto Sun.

Forty years ago today, I was in the press box at Fenway Park watching Fucking Bucky Dent – or, as some prefer, Bucky Fucking Dent – and the Yanks beat the home side in a one-game playoff for the American League East title.

As I recall in this excerpt from my memoir, The Expat Files, it was the final gut-punch in a season that began with great expectations in spring training:

Bosox - Yaz
Yaz 

I took a drive to Winter Haven, the Florida home of the Boston Red Sox. I had a rooting interest in the Sox since a visit to Boston in the fall of 1967, when they won the pennant on the final day of the season.

I fell in love with their star, Carl Yastrzemski, who seemed to come to bat in every crucial situation and come through with a home run or a game-winning double off the wall. I was disappointed when the Sox lost that 1967 World Series but also elated that I was engaged in baseball for the first time since the Dodgers left Brooklyn.

In Winter Haven, I watched Yaz in the batting cage, working up a sweat in the gloom of a foggy morning, under the watchful eye of the great Ted Williams. “This is probably the best hitting team I’ve ever seen,” Teddy Ballgame told me.

I received the same appraisal from the Sox manager, Don Zimmer, when I joined the Boston writers in his office that morning. Zimmer, a little Popeye look-alike, was derisively nicknamed “the gerbil” by his hippie-dippy pitcher, Bill “Spaceman” Lee …

On this day, the Sox manager was spitting confidence his powerful lineup would win the pennant after losing it to the damn Yankees the past two seasons.

I reckoned he was right. But, being a Sox fan, I assumed they’d find a way to blow it …

1978 - Williams and Zim
Ted Williams and Don Zimmer in the final days of the 1978 season

… Boston had collapsed over the summer, their fourteen-game lead over the Yanks evaporating in the heat of August and early September.

Since the Jays played their last twelve games of the season against the Yanks and Sox, I had a press box seat for the closing act.

Boston had regained its form to close within one game of the Yanks entering the final game on the schedule. When the Indians beat the Yankees and the Sox beat the Jays, Boston and New York were tied for first place. The division title would be decided in a one-game playoff the next day at Fenway …

The next morning, I caught a cab outside the hotel and asked the driver to take me to Fenway.

“Going to the game?” he asked.

“Yeah, it’s my job,” I said. “I’m a writer.”

“Which paper?”

“One in Toronto,” I said.

“Tough season for Toronto,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said. “Last place. Another hundred losses.”

“What do you think of the Sox chances?” he said.

“I’m a Sox fan,” I confided, “so I guess I expect the worst and hope for the best.” He laughed in recognition.

We pulled up to the press entrance to Fenway. I checked the meter and reached for my wallet.

“Forget it,” said the cabbie. “I like you guys from Toronto. It was nice talking to you.”

It was a perfect New England day, blue sky, bright sun, a hint of fall in the air.

I found my assigned spot in the press box, dumped my typewriter and scorebook on the table, and went to the dining room. There was a choice of baked cod or roasted veal. I had the veal, with roasted potatoes and a salad.

The New York writers were there, of course, so the volume in the room was turned up a notch or three. By this time, after five years in Canada, I thought I’d lost my New York accent, a mission I’d been on since I left home in 1968. Somehow, I found it more seemly to be a know-it-all New Yorker without saying caw-fee.

I certainly didn’t want to be associated with loudmouthed New York sports fans, especially after seeing big-haired women at Yankee stadium coated with makeup, wearing painted on designer jeans and tight T-shirts that read Boston Sucksor Yaz Has VD.

Fenway was full early for the Monday afternoon playoff game, 32,925 crammed into the little ballpark. Yaz, ever heroic, hit a home run in the second inning and Jim Rice knocked in another in the sixth to give Boston a 2-0 lead.

But in the top of the seventh, the Yanks had a couple of runners on with two out when their most anemic hitter, Bucky Dent, came to the plate. He hit a fly ball toward the thirty-seven-foot-high Green Monster in left. Yaz, playing left field, seemed prepared to make the catch and end the inning. But the baseball gods, ever Yankee fans, lifted the ball over the wall.

1978 - BUCKY DENT
Dent greeted at home by teammates

That put the Yanks ahead and every Boston fan from Fenway to Fiji knew the game – and the season – was over. Sure, the Sox rallied a bit. But Yaz popped out, with the winning runs on the bases, to end the game and any suspense.

I watched that last half-inning from the stands, behind the seats along the third base line, sharing the inevitable pain with the Fenway faithful. Littered copies of an extra edition of the Boston Globe, distributed earlier in the ballpark, were illustrated with a six-inning linescore under the front-page headline: SOX AHEAD.

I made my rounds of the two clubhouses, the champagne and euphoria in the winners’ room, the beer and gloom of the losers. My story in the next day’s Toronto Sun was a Sox fan’s lament.

BOSTON – It wasn’t supposed to end that way. It wasn’t right to break the hearts of the people of New England, just when their spirits were starting to rise, just when their expectations were at their highest.

October in New England offers the promise of two things: The leaves changing colors and the Red Sox playing for the world championship of baseball. Now, one is dead.

I whined on from there and closed the story with a quote from Yaz. “The last three weeks, with our backs to the wall, we played like champions. But now, there’s just tremendous disappointment.”

1978 - Yaz after game
A disconsolate Yaz after the game in this shot captured by Michael Maher of the Lowell (Mass.) Sun 

The next day, I flew home to Toronto, called (the Sun), quit my job and packed the car. Linda and I drove to the coast of Maine to look at the damn leaves.

The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism is available in paperback and Kindle editions from Amazon.com and Amazon Canada.

 

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