mickey mantle

Fenway game was a grand slam

Big_PapiAs published in The Providence Journal, August 19, 2018. Photo: John Walsh

With Mookie Betts, Chris Sale, and J.D. Martinez playing for the Red Sox these days, highlight-reel moments abound, all of which got me thinking about my top Fenway Park memories.

My first pilgrimage to the baseball shrine, for a Yankees game with my father on the last day of the 1968 season, was memorable for what didn’t happen. The Pinstripes’ Mickey Mantle, my boyhood hero, never stepped up to the plate. Unbeknownst to anyone, Mantle had played the final game of his career the day before. In five months, he would retire.

My next Fenway trek, with Dad and my brother Rob on September 2, 1971, was more satisfying. I had jilted the Mick-less Yankees in favor of Boston’s nine by then and cheered when Red Sox pitcher Sonny Siebert blasted two home runs in a contest against the Orioles. Not only did the right-hander drive in all the Sox runs; he also tossed a three-hit shutout.

Thirty years later to the day, on September 2, 2001, I was at Fenway again, this time with my college roommate, his two sons, and 33,730 other disbelieving spectators. Yankees ace Mike Mussina was one strike away from a perfect game – 27 batters up, 27 batters down. It would be only the 17th time in nearly a century that a major leaguer had attained pitching nirvana.

In the bleachers, the thought of being an eyewitness to such a rare sports feat had temporarily quelled the usual non-stop, beer-fueled jousting between Sox and Yankee fans. It seemed everyone, Fenway Faithful included, wanted to see Mussina throw one more strike.

Enter Carl Everett. With flashbulbs popping on a one-and-two count, Mussina fired a fastball high and outside – and the Sox pinch hitter stroked a clean single to left field. Leave it to the irascible Everett to deny Mussina, and the rest of us, a moment of baseball transcendence. The Yankee hurler retired the next batter, Trot Nixon, for a bittersweet win.

My most memorable trip to Fenway is one that I can’t entirely recall. My wife and I took our sons to see the Sox play the Blue Jays on July 3, 2005. In the grandstand above the first base line, in section 13, I sat next to a twentysomething woman decked out head to toe in David Ortiz gear. I heard someone call her Whitney; she clearly was a rabid fan.

In the bottom of the first, as Big Papi strode to the plate with two runners on, Whitney sprang to her feet, pleading for a hit. Ortiz obliged with a run-scoring single, and Fenway exploded. I rose to join the pandemonium just as the already-standing Whitney jerked her arm back with a triumphant fist pump. Her elbow clocked me square in the left temple, jolting me back into my seat.

Things get fuzzy after that. I remember that Whitney – which I have since realized rhymes with “hit me” – seemed unaware of her role as Muhammad Ali to my Sonny Liston. And then I forgot about the blow to my noggin – until I went to wash my hair in the shower the next morning. Ouch!

My doctor sent me for a CAT scan, which revealed a brain bruise. I was told the bruise would “resolve,” but that a second scan was needed to ensure the contusion was shrinking.

The following day, a radiologist greeted me with an impish smile.

“You were the talk of our staff meeting,” he said, leading me to the x-ray room.

“Really?” I said, my voice betraying concern.

“You’re the guy who got leveled by a girl, right?” he said. His cackle told me he wasn’t too worried about my condition; and my brain bruise did, indeed, resolve.

The box score from that Sox-Jays game highlights David Ortiz’s first-inning single, but it’s Whitney’s grand slam up in section 13 that I remember most.

 

Take Me In To The Ball Game

photo

You know what’s wrong with sports video games? They weren’t around when I was growing up. No Madden NFL, no NBA Jam, no MLB The Show. Damn.

I would have loved those games. Because I loved sports. I loved to play sports, I loved to watch sports, and I loved games that simulated sports.

It all started with electric football. There was something so promising about the shiny metal field – it looked perfect as my brother and I lined up our plastic players for the kick-off. And then with a flick of the switch, everything went to hell. Players slid unpredictably to electric football’s relentless hum, or locked arms in a gridiron square dance. Every pass was a Hail Mary, and forget about attempting a field goal. No wonder we ended up cranking the vibration screw as high as it would go. That’s what electric football was good for: simulating earthquakes.

Bobby Orr Hockey was in a different league. The table-top game put control of all six players at your fingertips. The overhead scoreboard dropped pucks for center ice face-offs that rewarded good eye-hand coordination. Sure, the action could slow to the pace of a Fischer-Spassky match when one of us tried to line up a pass from flat-metal Johnny Bucyk to flat-metal Phil Esposito – very unlike real hockey, to be sure. But the game was fun to play. Lots of fun.

The only problem was, you needed two people. What about those mornings when my older brother was off working at the Y and my younger brother was still sleeping? I needed a game that I could play solitaire.

My cousin Steven took care of that. When he got a new Strat-O-Matic Baseball Game in the late 1960s, I was the recipient of his old one. Lucky me.

Strat-O-Matic calls itself “The ORIGINAL Fantasy Sports Games!” According to The New York Times, “For youngsters whose thoughts are turned more to spring and baseball than summer and camp, there’s an array of cerebral board games that keep the mind limber with batting averages, earned-run averages, and fielding percentages. The most ingenious is a card-and-dice game put out by Strat-O-Matic.”

I spent the summer rolling dice, consulting charts, keeping box scores, adjusting standings. My house league consisted of the Cardinals and the Yankees, the Red Sox and the Tigers. Even now, the line-ups are fresh in my mind: Brock, Flood, Maris, Cepeda…

Strat-O-Matic Baseball was my “video” game, with the action playing out in my head. But it didn’t keep me from going out to play. Nothing could do that – well, nothing but Mrs. Gordon. She was our next door neighbor on River Avenue in Providence. Mrs. Gordon’s husband had a heart condition. He needed to rest in the morning, she said. So Mrs. Gordon asked that we refrain from whacking Wiffle balls off the side of her house until 9:30. Mrs. Gordon was nice, but in a no-nonsense way. I wasn’t going to cross her – or my mother, who assured Mrs. Gordon that we would comply with her request.

*     *     *

In the early morning light, the Wiffle bat stands untouched in the back hallway. Inside, I sit on the den floor amid charts and dice and Pop-Tart crumbs. Through the magic of Strat-O-Matic Baseball, I keep company with Bob Gibson and Denny McClain and Mickey Mantle and Yaz… Periodically, I run into the kitchen to check the time on the stove clock. 8:30… 9:00… 9:25… YES!

Out I bound into the backyard.

“Good morning, Mrs. Gordon!”

My best friend Chris walks up the driveway, as I scribe the backyard dirt with the knob of the Wiffle bat: a perfect batter’s box and home plate.

Play ball!

With thanks to my cousin, Steven Paulson, for the hand-me-down Strat-O-Matic Baseball years ago and for recent research support.

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