Last Day at Fenway Park

From Yankee Magazine October 1979 “It was the frozen twilight moment as Yaz walked to the plate through the gathering din, the collision of all memory and hope, the confrontation cementing the game’s place as a classic, the setting from which I […]

By John Helyar

Oct 26 2007

From Yankee Magazine October 1979

“It was the frozen twilight moment as Yaz walked to the plate through the gathering din, the collision of all memory and hope, the confrontation cementing the game’s place as a classic, the setting from which I would spin my dreams of different endings.”

“I have this thing about Red Sox closing days.”

I go to them — nine out of ten of them since 1969. Mostly I go alone. I have friends who are good baseball fans but even they do not readily understand this exercise, this mixture of reflection, celebration, mourning, and beer. But then they do not stubbornly cling to a baseball autographed by Dick Radatz in 1964 either.

Many more people, of course, pride themselves on getting to every opening day, at the other end of the long season. Politicians go for exposure, businessmen for status, schoolboys for glee. But opening day is not so much a ball game as a ritual of renewal. As with most rituals, the anticipation almost always exceeds the actual event.

On closing day the game itself is the thing, for nearly always there is surely nothing else. The crucial series have come and gone, been won or lost; the batting averages are all but frozen, the standings are settled; and a just-for-the-fun-of-it feeling prevails.

Closing day is for opening up the senses an extra notch, being, for a change, superalert for all the sights and sounds of the day. In the sultry afternoons and soft evenings of summer it is easy to stop looking for the little things that make baseball the best game. Familiarity breeds laziness, and a July game unmarked by special heroics can be a mild disappointment.

But not on closing day, when the billboard on Brookline Avenue shows no coming attractions, and the only thing left is Now. The urgency is not to win, but to crystallize and catalogue it all, ensuring that something has been tucked away which can be brought carefully out for inspection on barren, bitter cold winter nights. It is the last chance for memories.

But the events of one year ago, October 2, 1978, belong in a compartment all their own. It was the least typical of closing days in one respect, for up until the final swing of the bat it was not clear it was to be closing day. Yet it brought forth the essence of the season ended — only so much more vividly and wrenchingly, its like will almost surely never again be seen.

To appreciate the pattern of the game it is important to know the pattern of the season. The Red Sox jumped out ahead — way ahead — of the Yankees and the rest of the division. But the advantage began to dissipate in late July and then was abruptly wiped out altogether almost violently, in mid-September when New York invaded Boston for a four-game no-contest sweep, seemingly leaving no survivors.

Somehow the Sox regrouped and revived, winning their last eight straight to pull even on Sunday, the final regular game of the season. I came away from the box office afterwards with precious tickets to the play-off Monday.

One of the tickets was for my friend Bill, who had not given a second thought to winging in from upstate New York for one afternoon of baseball. I met him in the early afternoon in a crowded Kenmore Square, where the Indian-summer air was electric with excitement, people surging toward Fenway, straining for their first look at which way the centerfield flag was blowing; scalpers testing the marketplace and the ticketless appealing for handouts; radios blaring the pregame show from stands where vendors were shouting ten times a minute, “Hey, SOUVENIUHS”; people chattering speculation on what amazing events might unfold on this gleeful reprieve of a day when the passions and wills of decades of bitter rivalry would meet head-on. (“Tell you what Zimmer oughta do,” Clif Keane was saying. “He oughta have somebody warming up as soon as Torrez throws his first pitch.”)

Our seats were in the right-field stands near the foul pole. We watched the green-trimmed low-slung country grand-stand slowly fill, the players go through their perfunctory warm-ups, and a few puffs of white clouds go scudding across the perfect blue sky.

We were talking about history. About how I had been sitting near this spot for the penultimate game of the ’67 season when Yastrzemski cranked out a three-run homer to win it, and how as he circled the bases you would not have thought a group of people could make that much noise.

Bill told about his parents 30 years ago making the same pilgrimage as he was today, journeying to Fenway to watch the play-off with the Indians, when manager Joe McCarthy played a bad hunch named Denny Galehouse and the pennant was lost. This, we agreed, spoke worlds both about the legacy of Sox fandom passed down from generation to generation and the nature of its anguish.

The game finally began, one of quiet tension interspersed with bursts of drama. The first came in the second inning when Yastrzemski caught a Ron Guidry fastball flush, stroking it in a long line drive out our way, just fair around the foul pole for a home run.

I abandoned the careful nursing of a searing sore throat and was screaming, “YAZ, YAZ,” and less intelligible things while repeatedly jumping up and down for joy for the first time since I couldn’t remember when.

Then came the slow accumulation of innings, Bill and I exchanging sporadic, shorthand appraisals, Mike Torrez after all his stretch drive disappointments mowing down the hated Gothams, then the addition of another Boston run in the sixth.

The grandstand and light-tower shadows were beginning to cut deeply into the field, the sun lowering to the blinding treachery level for right-fielders, when in the seventh New York for the first time put together two straight hits.

That brought up less-than-fearsome Bucky Dent, who looked even less fear-some sitting on the ground for several minutes after fouling a pitch off his shin. We were speculating on who would pinch-hit when he finally hobbled back to the plate.

Torrez came to the stretch, looked back at Chambliss on second and over his shoulder at White on first, then pitched.

Dent swung and lofted a fly ball toward left. The grandstand overhang blocked its flight from view, and I watched Yastrzemski looking up, looking up, as though setting for the catch. Then he turned around, still looking up, and staggered.

The ball did not come down. The worst had happened. Fenway Park was silent except for the pockets of Yankee fans emerging from their closets, on their feet shouting with glee.

The score mounted to 5-2 with a Reggie Jackson eighth-inning homer, and now I was not so much tired as empty.

“It’s gone,” I said, watching Jackson’s well-practiced October Cadillac trot.

“I don’t know,” Bill said bravely. “I think we’re going to see a real garrison finish. It’s the pattern of every classic game — go ahead, fall behind, come storming back.”

I held my skeptical tongue and watched him proven correct. The game, the season, had one more twist.

The league’s best reliever, Rich Gossage, had been overpowering on entering the game in the seventh, but Boston was rocking him with singles in the eighth while the revitalized Fenway Faithful rocked in approval: Yaz driving in another run, Fisk fighting off fastball after fastball before singling to keep the rally alive, before, finally, George Scott fanned to strand two runners.

Still, we were down only 5-4 now, and the top of the ninth was only an occasion for recharging voices. I looked at my scorecard. One batter, just one batter on, and Rice would have another shot.

With one out in the last of the ninth Gossage obligingly walked Rick Burleson Jerry Remy followed with a line drive to right and my eyes quickly riveted on Lou Piniella, perhaps 150 feet away squinting into the sun, standing frozen.

“He’s lost it,” I shrieked, a piece of intelligence unfortunately lost on Burleson rooted between first and second. The ball hopped directly to Piniella, and he threw toward third. Burleson rounded second, then came skidding to a halt and retreated.

Now the wildest fantasy I could have spun way back in March, when I was listening to the first exhibition game on the car radio, the snow stacked high on either side of Route 2, was unfolding –the whole season coming down to Rice and Yastrzemski coming to bat with the tying and winning runs aboard.

“Swing at the first one and I’ll personally strangle you,” I hissed as Rice stepped in, for fearsome hitter as he is, he often does not wait for the optimal pitch. He watched the first pitch go by, but the best he could then do was fly deep enough to right to move Burleson to third.

And then there was one. The roar rolled down from the stands and tumbled over the field as Yastrzemski came out of the on-deck circle, the noise swelling to a near-insupportable din as he approached the plate.

Yaz. Thirty-nine years old. A rookie when I saw my first game, the one link to all that history since.

Tom Yawkey was dead, Tony Conigliaro was off somewhere being a godawful TV sports announcer, Rico Petrocelli was on call-in radio, Orlando Cepeda was in jail — and Yaz was peering out at Gossage, his bat cocked.

Everyone in the ball park was standing, now, for this final exquisite agony, our best against theirs, another season of giddy highs and abysmal lows, all hanging in the balance in the Back Bay gloaming.

Bill and I looked at each other and shook our heads slightly, beyond words. I rolled up my scorecard into a tight baton and turned back toward the plate. It is funny what you notice and recall. I looked up at the spectators standing along the left-field roof, silhouetted against the sky like elongated pigeons.

Gossage was ready. The first pitch rode in, and 32,925 people winced. Ball one.

The crowd roared anew, and a thought sprang loose in my mind — my God, this could happen. I was suddenly assaulted with mixed feelings. Could I handle winning? Had I become so adept at rationalizing close-but-no-cigar, so comfortable with second-guessing and speculating, that I didn’t in my heart of hearts want anything else? Did I want it to end cleanly and honorably right now so that I would not have to face the pressures of a stake in the Series? I was, after all, the one who missed Fisk’s legendary foul-pole home run in 1975 because I had gone to bed, unable to endure the tension.

On the mound Gossage was looking for his sign.

And then another random thought:

“Bobby Thomson.” He of the 1951 playoff-winning homer for the New York Giants. I had always envied Giants fans the eternal ecstasy of that moment, had run through many a daydream of something like it in Fenway one day. Now the day was here and I was thinking, “No thanks”?

I looked out at Paul Blair in center, waiting, and pictured Yaz ramming one over his outstretched glove. Remy would be flying around the bases for the winning run, I would be pounding on Bill, he would be pounding on me, and the general eruption would make the ’67 homer seem like afternoon tea at the Copley.

I decided, with an exhaled heave of breath, I could take a stab at living with victory.

Gossage set and fired again. Yastrzemski uncoiled a full swing, and I could not see where the ball had gone. Then I saw Gossage jumping up and down on the mound and beyond him third baseman Nettles backpedaling.

“I was thinking,” Bill said in a darkened Brattleboro, Vermont, bar months later, “I was thinking I saw Brooks Robinson drop one just like that in 1970.”

But Nettles did not, and within seconds the tableau between batter and pitcher had dissolved into a swarm of joyful Yankees near third base, the cheers of Yankee fans echoing thinly around the park, while the rest of us were abruptly gagged.

John Kiley started playing the organ, and with that cue the park emptied quickly. It was as though you had pulled the plug on something. Bill and I stayed put, staring at the people bunched up in the aisles and past them at the line of ushers and cops around the perimeter of the field, unaccountably guarding against an invasion of jubilant fans.

I started filling out my scorecard box score methodically, deliberately totaling the at-bats, runs, hits, and RBI’s trying to make the statistics a cushion against all else.

The score came out the same every way I added it.

Finally the ushers started moving in on the stragglers, and Bill and I got up slowly and headed for the exit. I went down the ramp and away from the 1978 season without the usual last, lingering look. I knew I already had the vision that would stay with me.

It was the frozen twilight moment as Yaz walked to the plate through the gathering din, the sudden collision of all memory and hope, the confrontation cementing the game’s place as a classic, the setting from which I would spin my dreams of different endings.

Outside Fenway the day had lost most of its sparkle. Commuter and ballgame traffic had met and snarled. The smell of exhaust and the blasts of horns were rising to meet the first leaves falling from the trees along Park Drive.

Bill finally spoke.

“It was the best game I ever saw,” he said.

“The best,” I said.

There was nothing else to add, and we walked along in silence.

I was wondering why Remy’s hit had to bounce to the blinded Piniella, neat as you please. I was wondering why storybook endings hardly ever happen outside storybooks.

I was wondering, just like every other year, why winter had to come so soon.