- Game Six: Cincinnati, Boston, and the 1975 World Series: The Triumph of America’s Pastime
- Hyperion, 416 pp.
The Game to End All Games
You know how you tried to explain the feeling to me? Your mother weeding in the garden, listening to Ted Williams smack one into the stands; the peculiar smell of swamp and stale beer and hot dogs under the stadium seats; the eternal heartburn of October as you watched your beloved Red Sox fall face first into ineptitude?
I’ve just read Mark Frost’s new book, Game Six.
Now I get it.
Baseball’s World Series. 1975. The Cincinnati Reds, manager Sparky Anderson’s Big Red Machine, are up 3 games to 2 against Darrell Johnson’s scrappy Red Sox. After a three-day rain delay that has drowned any hope of an inning, the sun rises on the oldest Major League stadium still in use. It’s Tuesday, October 21, at Fenway Park.
Intriguing fact: Mark Frost isn’t a sportswriter by trade. Heard of Hill Street Blues? Twin Peaks? He helped write them. Which may explain why Game Six reads like a drama, complete with scraps of dialogue and pithy character descriptions.
And the first rule of drama? You’re gonna need a hero.
Luis Tiant. The Cuban-born pitcher who in the last three weeks of the regular season and into the postseason “while throwing five complete-game victories at Fenway Park in a row… had allowed only one earned run to cross home plate.” El Tiante, the wily Red Sox ace who battled back from injured years to complete Game 4 of the Series with 163 pitches. Looey, Looey, the lodestar for fans and team alike.
George Anderson. The eminently quotable, highly superstitious (he never stepped on the foul lines) John of Arc who grew up poor and honest, and found god in a heavenly cathedral of blue sky, red dirt and green field. Sparky Anderson, who pulled pitchers at any hint of weakness and ruled with absolute authority over the four supernovas of 1970s baseball: Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan and Tony Pérez.
Second rule of drama: Point needs counterpoint. Heroes need villains. Drum roll please for the entry of Peter Edward Rose and Thomas Austin Yawkey.
Pete Rose, “Charlie Hustle,” the man infamously banned from baseball for gambling on games. The man who took out Indians catcher Roy Fosse in a 1970 All-Star Game collision, ruining Fosse’s career. The man who threw an elbow at Mets shortstop Bud Harrelson. The first Red to face Tiant in Game Six, crouching over home plate with an “elaborate Fu Manchu mustache adding piratical menace to the glower.”
Tom Yawkey, owner of the Red Sox since 1933. A product of the jazz age, a free-spending, hard-drinking New Yorker who stacked his team with “has-beens and never-would-be’s” and was perennially late to the party on issues like the farm system, night games and integration. Yawkey, old and ailing now, watching some of the remaining players from ’67 try to scrape together another miracle.
But this is baseball, folks, not Sparta. And though Frost won’t be sending any Valentines to Rose this year, he’s careful to mention a few moments that might have otherwise been lost to the history books.
Such as the time when Red Sox outfielder Bernie Carbo, down on his luck, found a personal check from Yawkey in his locker – enough to buy his house. Or the moment when Pete Rose turned to Sparky after it was all over and said: “That was the best game I ever played in.”
Top of the fifth. Centerfielder Fred Lynn goes back, back, back to the wall to catch Ken Griffey Sr.’s fly ball, misses it by less than a foot and crashes into the cement siding. He crumples lifeless to the ground while the Reds score two and Griffey advances to third. Anyone would think this damn Boston team was cursed.
It’s a clever trick, Frost alternating his detailed play-by-play (“Tiant came in sidearm with a curveball that Bench chopped foul”) with color commentary on everything from Boston’s busing controversy to Patty Hearst. Want to know where the Fenway anthem Tessie first was sung? Want a detailed examination of the Armbrister incident in Game 3? You got it.
Darrell Johnson is leaving Tiant in too long and the collective groan that rises from the Eastern Seaboard can be heard loud and clear in Portugal. The Big Red Machine is churning out the hits and by the bottom of the eighth, the score is 6-3 to Cincinnati, two men on, two out.
A full moon is riding low over the Back Bay as Bernie Carbo, an alcoholic with a point to prove, steps in front of Reds catcher Johnny Bench. After balls, fouls, strikes, Rawly Eastwick reaches down and serves him a belt-high fastball on a plate:
Rico Petrocelli, headed cautiously toward second, wasn’t sure until he nearly got to the base, and by then, every other living soul in Fenway had leapt to their feet in astonishment and joy, because Bernie Carbo had just deposited Eastwick’s fat fastball over the wall ten rows into the seats of deepest right center for a three-run pinch-hit homer with two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning and tied the god damned game.
Here’s what I learned about my beloved Red Sox. They weren’t cursed with bad luck for eighty-six years. They were cursed with mediocrity.
Not that managing a major league team is a profession I want to take up anytime soon. So many things can go wrong – one niggling injury, one out-of-sorts player, one night too long on the road – and the balance is lost. So many things can spiral out of your control – a shift to free agency, a player’s strike – and what looked like a sure-fire season fizzles into a damp squib.
But honestly, after reading Frost’s analysis of Johnson’s behavior in the Series (who puts a rookie pitcher on in the ninth inning against Griffey and Cesar Geronimo when you have Drago warmed up in the bullpen?) and the subsequent off-season, sometimes you have to wonder what was in the water.
We’re in the 12th now, way past bedtime. Pat Darcy is on the mound, readying for his third inning. He’s weakening, but Sparky, wiley tactician notwithstanding, has run out of pitchers. Carlton Fisk, ole “Pudge,” the Red Sox catcher and first up in the inning turns to Fred Lynn before he heads for the plate:
“I’m going to try and hit one off the wall…You drive me in. Let’s get this over with.”
You ever wondered what total silence is like? I’m guessing the 35,205 people at Fenway that night could tell you.
Carlton Fisk didn’t run. He turned sideways and took three abbreviated hops down the first base line, wildly waving his arms at the ball like a kid in a Little League game, urging, willing, begging it to stay fair.