back

Carl Schonbeck

 

 

 

FIRST PLACE  

 

The Red Sox are in first place.

I’m 37 years old. I was born and grew up in Marlborough, Massachusetts. For the past twelve years I’ve lived in Milan, Italy, ten of those years with my Italian wife. I haven’t truly resided in the New England area since 1986. Where I am baseball is something you see either in a Kevin Costner film or occasionally played on a converted soccer field by Italians pretending to be Americans.

At the time of writing, they’ve got the best winning percentage in baseball.

I tune into games via the Internet. I pay the $14.99 MLB.Com subscription price and download Jerry Trupiano into our Milan loft via WEEI, where he provides the play by play from a time zone six hours away from my own. When it’s 7:00 pm in Boston it’s 1:00 am in Milan. During the week, this makes it tough to catch the action, but Teresa has by now grown accustomed to the “another punchado for Pedro” shouts and inane Miller beer ads vying for dominance over the news and Columbo repeats of Sunday evening. “My God,’  I say to myself, ‘they found me even here.”

The Yanks don’t seem so tough this year.

Even if the Sox do manage to get to the Series, I’ll be one of the very few here listening. Isolation. Most of my English-speaking friends are British and maybe follow soccer or cricket. George Plimpton is English, I tell myself, maybe there’s hope. As another World Cup gets underway in Japan, I realize there isn’t. My friend Ed, an ex-pat New Yorker, is the only baseball follower I know. He is a Yankees and Mets fan.

With the pitching staff and hitting they’ve got…

When I was twelve, lying under the covers listening to the games on my portable radio, getting an inning or two from another city (usually New York) was like making contact with a distant galaxy. Now, not only can I choose any game I want, I can also choose between hearing it in English and Spanish.  “Hey,’ I say to my wife, ‘I could put the game on in Espanol, it’s close enough to Italian that you might be able to follow!” She stares at me and says that bottle of Chianti was for the guests. Lowe strikes out the side and she has no idea. Isolation I say.

 …this really could be the year.  What am I saying? As I mentioned, I don’t even live in America, let alone Massachusetts. The truth is that a Red Sox championship would have a limited impact on my own life. Listening to the games these days is more a slice of old Bostoniana than hardcore fandom. Through the miracles of computer technology I can download the Boston Globe sports section whenever I want. I seldom do. It has little relevance to where I now live. Truth be told, soon I’ll have to choose between listening to the Sox in my private world and watching Italy play in the World Cup with my wife and our friends. I’ll watch the soccer game. All those things you’re supposed to have started doing when pushing forty: paying dues, taking the blows, doing your fair share of losing, all while looking for the TV flicker and paying the mortgage, have cut the Sox down to size. Today, on the rare occasions when I can actually watch a ballgame, I see talented young men who earn more money in a fiscal quarter than I’m likely to see in a lifetime rather than deities. With a handful of exceptions (thank you Ricky Henderson!), they are all younger than I am now. I’ll be happy if they win the Series but I won’t get too upset about it if they don’t. As you may have already guessed, that wasn’t always the case. 

I began following the Boston Red Sox in mid-summer 1975. I was eleven. If you’re too young to remember, it wasn’t a bad time to start. I don’t recall the exact the moment I jumped aboard definitively, but I do remember that by the time my sister and I were splashing around the pool of the Pilgrim Sands Motel in Plymouth (together with a cute girl from Andover I had taken a pre-adolescent shine to) I was hooked. Running up past the exotic ice and soft drink machines to the shady confines of our hotel room, it was a do or die appointment with TV 38. Ken Harrelson would exude his southern charm doing colour while Dick Stockton made every foul nubber sound as if it might suddenly bound over the green monster. The Sox always seemed to win. The names and numbers were becoming familiar; Wise, Rico, Lynn, Tiant, Pudge Fisk…ironically, the moment which stands out most in my memory from that holiday wasn’t a Sox game but rather the mid-summer’s classic. As number 8’s pinch-hit All Star Game homer sailed over the fence in Milwaukee I knew; Yaz would always be my man (even if with the Sox he seemed to do little else but ground out to second base that summer).Of course, Yastremski had simply gone into Clark Kent mode and left more space for the gold dust twins Lynn and Rice during the regular season (okay, actually he was hurt); in the postseason it was his turn to shine. As his game two playoff homer against Oakland settled into the leftfield screen that Sunday afternoon, our family cheers and my rapture were interrupted by the phone and the news that my uncle had died suddenly. For me, it was the first time anyone “real” had ever passed on. I’d never before been so brusquely torn from one emotion to another. Such is life, such are the Sox; the good times seldom last very long.

And so the Reds came, so the Sox came back and so Cincinnati came away with the championship. In the meantime, baseball, thanks to the greatest Series ever and a little body English from a young New Hampshire native, had emerged from its doldrums as the national pastime once more. And like a first year maths student asked to discuss physics with Einstein, I had seen too much way too soon.

For the next couple of years I was slightly past fanatical about the game. I read every book I could, memorized facts and stats, hit tennis balls around the neighbourhood envisioning ballgames only I could see and hear and made more than a few people think I’d gone completely mad. I was glued to every game. At school they called me “the baseball encyclopaedia” but it was seldom said kindly, apart from by my mother. At Marlborough Junior High in 1976, baseball was “square.” Soccer, Kiss, the Fonz and Farrah were what was happening. I couldn’t have cared less and kept swinging my bat at imaginary fastballs. I lived in my own world.

Actually though, playing organized ball did a lot to make me one of the boys (even if several of the best little leaguers were, in reality, girls). I’d always been shy and withdrawn, preferring things like science fiction and afternoon cartoons to roughhousing with the lads. Now suddenly, I was playing ball against some of the best young athletes in town and usually I held my own. Sometimes my name even got in the local paper. On the field, whatever hang-ups I had at school or home were neutralized. It was you against the pitcher, no one else. You ran hard and caught the ball or maybe you didn’t. It was all up to you. I liked that. In my own neighbourhood, my friends Craig, Mick and I formed our own whiffleball leagues, did commando raids into neighbours’ yards to retrieve home runs and were generally inseparable. When I look back at those sunny, carefree summers of ’76, ’77 and ’78, I realize that baseball was the one thing that got me out of the house once and for all and into that thing called life. For this I’ll always be grateful.

In the meantime, the Red Sox were making some good runs at the pennant without having much to show. Of course, 1978 is the year everyone remembers. The collapse. Thirteen and half game lead. The Boston Massacre. Clawing back. Tiant two-hitter against Toronto to clinch a tie. Up two nil at home. Yaz the hero. Only three innings to go. Bucky fouls it off his foot. New bat. Wind blowing out. One last try. Pinella in right. Yaz against Goose Gossage. Down into Nettles waiting glove. Yanks AL east champs for the third straight year. The horror, the horror…

It might sound like a cliché, but looking back, if there were one moment where I could say those innocent summers of my childhood ended, it would be in the heartbreak loss and setting down of my hero that early October afternoon. At times, I wonder how many other Boston bred, soon to be forty-somethings might say the same thing. For me, those autumn shadows moving across Fenway symbolized the approaching shadows of my own life. There were hard facts and changes to come I didn’t feel ready to face. It was the last summer the four members of my family went on holiday together. The disease eating away at my father’s body and mind and which would claim him a few years later was showing little sign of abating. Things at home and school were going from fair to worse and baseball was quickly ceasing to be the cure all it had been just a couple of years earlier. And oh yeah, I was now an adolescent.

One afternoon during the summer of 1979 I was over at Craig’s house when unexpectedly he said, “Hey, let’s go inside, I want to show you something.” This was unusual. The standing rules at his house seemed to be we weren’t to go in, ask for snacks or even request a glass of water (what else was the hose there for?). Of course, this was the total opposite of my own home, where my mother’s Irish hospitality was such that our friends seldom had it half as good with their own families. Craig and I stood in the living room (!) where he took an LP from its jacket and placed it on the turntable. “No talking, just listen and then tell me what you think,” he said in his usual semi-authoritarian way. The crackling, twangy guitars, the oddly distinctive nasal voices with their strange accents, the great melodies…. I knew at once I was hearing the Beatles but they’d never really had any impact on me. Suddenly, the Fabs were all I wanted to know about. Within a few months I had bought armfuls of Beatles and Stones albums (the stuff on the radio in ‘79, like today, just didn’t seem as good) and started taking guitar lessons. By the time Yaz got his 3000th hit late in the season, I was a part-time fan if one at all. Music was in and baseball on its way out.

By late 1980/early 1981, three things had become certain. Jimmy Carter would not have a second term, the Beatles, thanks to a sicko with a 22 calibre pistol, would never reunite, and the Sox weren’t going to get the championship those great late ‘70s teams had tantalized us with. One by one they left or were traded; Lynn, Burleson, Remy, Butch, Pudge, Lee…even the mighty Tiant went to the Yankees. Yaz was playing out his final act. Rice and Evans would be the keepers of the flame when next time rolled around. Not that I cared very much. Between trying to unlock the mysteries of both blues guitar and high school (much more luck with the former) and doing my part to hold my family together in the face of my Dad’s worsening alcoholism, I had plenty beyond the Sox to keep me busy.By the time my father died and I was released from Marlborough High School, both in 1983, I had little idea of who was even on the team. Yaz had called it a day. It was time to move on. Baseball was for kids. I started working odd jobs, rarely staying at any one of them very long. My hair was 1969-approved length. I was making new friends with plenty of 1969-approved habits and spending more and more time out of the house. Home was for sleeping and grabbing a quick meal now and then. Days passed without me seeing my Mom or sister. My guitar playing got good enough that I was asked to join a local rock band. We played the dives, spent our money on the things musicians spend their money on and dreamt of being “discovered.” It was my dream of major league stardom all over again, this time clad in leather and denim together with the roar of a Fender twin reverb. Sports had become so low on my list that I was nearly punched out after innocently asking a club owner in Worcester to turn off the television as the Celtics celebrated their championship in 1984. Hey, the noise was keeping the punters from digging the band, man. The Sox, meanwhile, could have been playing on Mars for all I cared. In the film Bronx, there’s a scene where Robert DeNiro’s son says something like “It was 1968, I was eighteen, the Yanks were in last place and I couldn’t have cared less.” At least he knew where they were in the standings.

It wasn’t until early 1986 that the Red Sox entered my life again. I had passed the better part of three years running from my father’s death, getting high, and dreaming of becoming a famous musician. I was spending most of my time in Worcester playing sleazy bars, frequenting a lot of less than upstanding people and getting nowhere. Many of my friends, old and new, were heading down slippery roads I didn’t care to take. It started to dawn on me that no one resembling Brian Epstein (or even Tom Hanks in That Thing You Do) was going to bound into Sully’s Timeout Pub and say “Hey, you guys are great, I want to take you to London!” The band broke up and shortly after our bass player was put in a mental institution. Too much reality. I was scrubbing pots and pans for a bit of coin while wondering if I might be joining him. Going nowhere. I actually started to miss those baseball/bike riding summers and trips to Marshfield of old. I wanted to go home and get to know my Mom and sister again. And I wanted to see my old pals the Sox.

I also had a strange premonition I wouldn’t be living in New England much longer. Everything felt distant and temporary. I’d always wanted to travel, preferably in a band-touring mode (anyone who had done it assured me it was miserable) but now I really started to catch the wanderlust. A lot of my friends had gone out to California but they always seemed to return spiritually and materially bankrupt, vowing never to leave Middlesex County again. That was no good; there had to be another way. I turned twenty-one and knew something had to change.

The Sox appeared to have a pretty good team from what I could see. There were some relatively new guys named Boggs, Gedman and Clemens who seemed up to snuff with my 1975 heroes, but then again, who could tell? Mick, whom I had stayed in touch with over the years (Craig and I had become bitter enemies in high school), suggested we hit the home opener on April 18. It was the best idea I’d heard in ages. It would be my first visit to Fenway without my Dad (he’d always taken me to at least one game a year, usually leaving the tickets under my dinner plate Pretty Boy Floyd style; how I loved that!). Mick had changed. In our ball playing days he was the skinny, hyperactive kid you sent up on the neighbour’s roof to get the ball. Now he stood at six foot four and did nautilus bodybuilding day and night. He was aggressive and no one you wanted to mess with. He also drank a lot and apparently did steroids. Even so, it was great going back to Fenway with him. We roared in on the green line, knocked back a few brews and even got on the telly trying to grab a foul ball. The Sox lost 8-2. It was almost like old times. Walking into the kitchen that evening, I noticed my Mom had a worried air about her. Before she could say anything, the ABC special report image that would become so familiar a few years later flashed on the screen. We were bombing Libya. Little did I know then that only 12 days later I would be eligible to join in.

I enlisted in the Navy on the first of May and left for RTC San Diego a week later. The time had come to go. The Sox would have to do it without me. Though I hadn’t yet decided anything as Mick and I watched Clemens strike out nineteen Mariners on our newly acquired NESN, I knew I was about to do something drastic. Sitting with Mick and I was Bob, a Marlborough native my Mom had started to see. We hit it off. He encouraged me to go out and do what I had to do, things that fathers say.  This made my departure a lot easier. I had never been out of New England before but I literally counted the minutes leading up to my departure. I couldn’t wait to land in San Diego.

And so, as I got on my first airplane and proceeded through the rigors of basic training in the warm California sun, the Red Sox dominated the league. McNamara and the boys had the chosen the year of my pilgrimage west to have the best Hub team since 1946. By the time I re-emerged from my two-month odyssey of marching and learning to make a proper bunk, semi-brainwashed but in the best shape of my life, there was little doubt they’d win the division. As I gingerly began to take my first steps out into the magical world of Southern Cal, a Red Sox-Angels playoff series was looking increasingly likely. Was I really going to watch this from enemy territory?

As the right and left coasts prepared to do battle, I was studying at the Radioman A-school near where I’d done bootcamp. After an initial period of making me feel very lost and alone (“Mom, I want to come home!”), California was now beginning to offer the sun, fun and freedom I had hoped for. I quickly fell in with a group of non-conformist students like myself who had decided to give the Navy a shot. On weekends we haunted Tijuana and made spectacles of ourselves. My friend Rick Czerniak was chased to the border by the Federales so often he claimed to know more shortcuts than the Mexicans. During the week, our classes were from 3:00 to 11:00 pm. As soon as they finished we could usually be found at Ocean Beach until the early morning hours drinking, chasing sandpipers and getting to know the various surfers and lunatics that populated the area by night. University students never had it so good. It was one of the best times of my life.

As the AL playoffs got underway, I had no chance of seeing the evening games due to my studies. Petty Officer Ingrim, our instructor, often left the classroom to see how his beloved Angels were getting along. Upon his return, I would put my message traffic aside and ask the score. Dropping into perfect radioman-speak, his answer would inevitably be, “I’m sorry Seaman Schonberg (or some similar mispronunciation of my name), but that’s reserved information given on a need to know basis; and you don’t need to know!”  

Of course, he was right. The Angels had quickly gone up three games to one. With game five looming just up the road in Anaheim, they seemed poised to clinch their first pennant ever. About twenty of us gathered in the barracks that sunny afternoon to cheer on our respective teams. I was dismayed to see how many of my future shipmates seemed to relish the thought of Boston going down. Enemy territory. Non-New Englanders generally didn’t like the Red Sox or at best couldn’t understand what made the special Boston team/fan relationship tick. Held in special contempt were the Hub faithful, which most saw as rude, arrogant, possessors of the most obnoxious accents since Minnie Pearl and positioned distressingly close to the playing field. But who, us?

Fortunately, I wasn’t totally alone. My friend Randy Kulick, a feisty kid of nineteen from Amesbury, was there ready to take on any and all non-believers (unlike myself). How dare these Californians and Midwest yokels insult the olde towne team! With Randy around it was like having the first two rows of the centerfield bleachers along with Kelly’s Tavern in Allston sitting beside you. We’d met on the plane coming out to basic training in May and had entertained the other passengers by throwing our hands up in turbulence and screaming “we’re all going to die!” before collapsing into hysterical laughter. We’d promised to keep in touch. Now we had to cheer on our team in the wolves’ den, surrounded by infidels pretending to be Angels.

It didn’t look good. The Angels were a taking a 5-2 lead into the ninth inning. Suddenly, with one out, Baylor hit a two run homer to make it 5-4. Randy and I punched the air and cheered, but it was more a Braveheart-like shout of defiance before the beheading than a true victory yell. That changed quickly as new pitcher Gary Lucas hit Rich Gedman, putting the tying run on first. Red Sox Nation West was starting to stir. Randy and I were on our feet shouting, “C’mon, c’mon” as Dave Henderson stepped in, with Randy adding the occasional “Make up for that screw up back in the sixth” (Henderson had tipped Bobby Grich’s homer over the centerfield wall). Lucas, meanwhile, had been replaced by Donnie Moore, who had a nasty forkball. Randy seemed to be a man possessed. “Hey, Mahlbro…I tell ya…. he’s gonna hit it outta the pahk… I know it.” Strike one. “He’s gonna do it….Hendy kin hit….Mooah’s throwin’ gahbage up theah….” Strike two. The noise was deafening. The TV was up full blast but we were all but drowning it out. The Angel fans bayed for the final blow. Randy and I fought savagely against the storm; “Do it, do it Hendy!” Two outside the strike zone: baseball hadn’t been this much fun since the Sox were wearing red caps and Travolta a white leisure suit. This was what it was all about. Randy’s newfound clairvoyant powers became apparent on the next pitch. It was a forkball, low and straight. Henderson golfed it towards deep left-centre. The Angel fans present and televised fell silent while Randy and I did a curious imitation of a Boeing gathering speed at Logan. It was a homerun and the Sox were ahead 6-5. And there’s pandemonium in the barracks…. mercy.

Of course, these were the Sox and the Angels tied it in the bottom of the ninth and put the winning run on third with one out. DeCinces hit a short fly to left that Rice caught while holding the runner. Grich went down and the game headed into extra innings. By the eleventh we were limp with exhaustion and emotional release. The two kids with the Boston accents were by now mentioning things from long ago: “Cahbo”, “sixth game”, and “foul pole.” Finally, Mr. Henderson drove in the game winner with a sacrifice fly. We were going back to Boston. As Randy and I jumped up and down and did our own version of Kenmore Square 1967, Seaman Johnson, a recent Afro-American arrival at the school, looked us from the corner with squinted eyes and muttered, “Dumb ass Boston (expletive).” He was wearing a Mets cap.

I didn’t ask Petty Officer Ingrim for the score during the next two games at Fenway, for his face told me all I needed to know. I felt sure they’d blow away the Angels back home and sure enough they had. Towards the end of the last lesson, my instructor congratulated me on my team’s pennant. I felt like I should present arms to a fallen foe or make a similarly noble gesture but instead just said, “It was a great series.” The Red Sox would meet the New York Mets. We’d see more comebacks. For the moment, however, celebrations were in order. Few Ocean Beach residents slept that night.

I now had evenings free. Having finished my radioman studies, I had been transferred to Morse Code School and another sleeping quarters the day before the Series began. My new home had more in common with a college dorm than a military barracks. Navy duty didn’t get much softer than this. The only thing there to remind me I had even enlisted was the fact that I had to pull MP duty every third day outside the Anchor, the on base club. It was here that a large number of sailors present and future were following the Series. I had seen four of the first five games there with Randy, Rick and the rest of our radioman gang. Ken French, maybe my closest pal through my time in San Diego, was from Connecticut and didn’t follow baseball. Just to make things a little more interesting though, he threw his lot in with the Mets. Randy, who couldn’t believe it, taunted him mercilessly and called his state “a friggin’ suburb of New York.” Boston had shocked everyone by winning the first two at Shea Stadium behind Hurst and Clemens, while New York took the next two at Fenway. Hurst came back with another great outing to win game five. We were on the threshold. The Sox were going back to New York needing only one win to clinch it. Clemens would start game six. Randy bought “cigahs” and promised rounds of champagne for everyone, even Ken (on the grounds that technically he was a New Englander).

The only problem was that on the evening of October 26, 1986, a certain Seaman Schonbeck was pencilled in for MP duty outside the Anchor and the surrounding area of Naval Training Centre San Diego. I wasn’t going to get to sit back with a few frosty ones at our usual table and watch the Sox do it. I begged. I pleaded. I attempted to exchange duty days with various people. I considered going AWOL. As the Mets took the field, however, I was mustering for duty in the square with the other unlucky souls who, like me, would miss the game.

There was one small glimmer of hope. Being the low man on the totem pole, I was required to make the rounds outside the various buildings near the club every so often to make sure base rules weren’t being infringed (bringing girls back to the barracks was a big no no). I wouldn’t be able to disappear for too long, but perhaps I could see a bit of the action through the windows and at least know who was winning. Better than nothing. For our junior unit, entering the club was strictly forbidden, since the senior petty officers on duty had that beat sewed up for themselves. I’d have to make due playing peeping Tom.

From what I was able to understand, it was going as planned. Boston had got a run or two in the early innings while Clemens appeared to be Clemens. A long glance in through a window of Building 27 during one of my “rounds” confirmed it: 2-0 Boston through four. As I was returning, I came across Seaman Johnson and some of his pals heading toward the club. They were decked out in Kangol hats, gold chains and the type of track outfits popular in those years, the whole rap look. I was doing my best impersonation of Sean Connery walking his beat in The Untouchables when Johnson called over to me loudly. He’d obviously had a few glasses of his favourite malt liquor.

“Yo Boston! That you?”

“Er…yeah, I’ve got duty as you may have noticed.”

This hit his funny bone. Laughing, he answered, “Yo cuz, it be your turn to mind the ‘hood tonight, needs of the Navy, doll…but I just wanna tell y’all somethin’ homie.”

“What might that be?”

“Your boys gonna lose tonight…. they gonna lose!”

Remembering Lee’s ill-fated attempt to fool Tony Perez with a changeup in the seventh game of the ’75 series, I walked a little faster and said to myself, “Just throw fastballs Roger, just throw fastballs….”

Arriving back in front of the club, it seemed I had missed some excitement. Petty Officer Cason was holding a towel to his head and it was stained brown. Nothing too serious, but it wasn’t a pretty sight. I quickly discovered that some seaman fresh out of bootcamp, whom I’ll call Seaman Goober, had seen his ex-drill instructor (whom I’ll call Chief Bulldog) outside the club. After eight weeks of subsisting on powered eggs and doing pushups, Goober had earlier decided to celebrate his freedom by emptying the contents of a Jack Daniels bottle. Very drunk, he had then begun to insult his recent tormentor. Chief Bulldog had responded with something like, “You (expletive) maggot, do you know who the (expletive) I am? I’ll stick your (expletive) face in this (expletive) cement and make (expletive) gargoyles with it” or one of those things drill instructors say. As the two prepared to exchange blows, Petty Officer Cason had stepped in trying to break it up. Goober had grabbed his nightstick and swung it wildly. Cason’s head had got in the way and Goober was now probably on his way to Leavenworth.

“Hey, Schonfeld or whatever your name is,’ shouted the duty chief, ‘take Cason’s place over in front of the main entrance of the club.”

“Er…. okay Chief…what about, er…making the rounds?”

“Don’t worry about it, you’ve seen enough of the game by now anyway.”

For the next half-hour I had no idea of what was happening. I had heard some cheering from inside the club but didn’t know whom it was for. Had the Sox already won it? Were we world champs without me knowing it yet? I cursed the Navy for what it had done to me this night. We’d been waiting since 1918; didn’t they understand that? Suddenly, I saw a marine pop his head out the door for some air. It was the chance I’d been waiting for.

“Hey, what’s the word on the ballgame?” I shouted.

Startled, he looked around and said, “Tied, they’re in the tenth.” The accent sounded familiar.

“Where are you from?” he asked.

“Near Boston,’ I said approximately, ‘how ‘bout you?”

“Oh, wow …I’m from Fitchburg,’ he exclaimed, ‘this is too much!”

For the next several seconds it was like having Tom Larson on the old Red Sox Wrap Up show standing in front of me. The guy should been working for NESN. The Mets had scored two in the bottom of the fifth to tie it. The Sox had gone up by a run in the seventh but the Mets had got a run off Schiraldi in the eighth to send it into extra innings. Calvin was still on the hill.

“I’ll keep ya posted Boston,’ he said, and went back inside.

It was dark now and the evening desert air was starting to feel chilly. The minutes passed slowly. Could any other team possibly put its fans through so much? Suddenly, I heard a loud cheer.

“Boston!” called my kind messenger after several minutes, ‘we’re up 5-3 man! Henderson hit another homerun! We’ve got it! We’ve got it! Two outs away!” He was gone again.

Rarely, if ever, has military bearing so totally broken down. I raised my clenched fists into the air. I sang a verse of “The Impossible Dream.” I danced a jig. I took my nightstick and swung it like Goober had done earlier, just for old times sake. They’d done it. They’d finally done it.

I now waited to hear that final distinctive cheer of fans witnessing a championship victory. It seemed to come a few minutes later but was  followed by another, and then still another. I’d seen enough Celtics finals to know this wasn’t how it was done. Something was happening and it wasn’t good. A thunderous roar went up. Maybe that was finally it, the Sox had a two run lead after all. The seconds passed. Silence. The Sox were by now shuffling elatedly into the clubhouse and the corks were popping. Randy was lighting a victory cigar and ordering enough glasses of champagne to leave him in debt with the government for several years. My thoughts were interrupted by the loudest cheer yet and the sound of tables being pounded. There was whooping and cries of disbelief. Whatever it was, it was big.“Hey Boston,’ called that by now familiar voice a few moments later, ‘just wanted to let you know we lost.”

I was speechless.

“No…. but how? What happened?”

“Don’t ask, you wouldn’t believe it.”I never saw him again. He was simply the messenger, or as Bob Dylan once said, the wicked messenger.

I had been one of the lucky ones. I hadn’t actually witnessed the carnage. Red Sox fans that had pitied me three hours earlier now looked at me with envy. Like my own personal Kennedy Zapruder film, I wouldn’t actually see the video of that Mets tenth inning until I got out of the Navy three years later. By then it seemed curiously banal in respect to the horrors I’d imagined in my own mind. The South has Pickett’s charge; New Englanders have that tenth inning. There were two out. Hurst had been named the Series most valuable player. Microphones were positioned in the victor’s clubhouse. The champagne had been brought out. Carter singled. Mitchell and Knight also followed with hits. It was 5-4. In came Stanley. Carter scored the tying run on a wild pitch. Mookie Wilson rolled one to Buckner at first. The ball skipped through his legs. The Mets had won 6-5. Why Stapleton was not put in as a defensive replacement is a question we will still be asking long after the Big Dig is complete and the Sox have a string of World Championship pennants in their chic new ballpark.

The following afternoon we repaired to a quieter café on the other side of the base to see the seventh game. Randy didn’t look well. Between sips of much needed coffee he muttered the name over and over, as if it were a mantra. I realized then that Bill Buckner would not be in the Boston area much longer. Like the seventh game of the ’75 Series, this one had an anti-climatic feeling, the only difference being the sensation that the miracle sixth game team would actually win it all. The Sox jumped out to a 3-0 lead but by now it all seemed too good to be true. We watched, we nodded, we muttered the occasional “all right” but no one, above all Randy, got excited. We had been seared by the previous evening’s events. We looked on with little surprise or emotion as the Mets tied it and then went ahead for good on Ray Knight’s homer. Barrett fanned in the ninth and the Mets had their second World Championship. Not bad for an expansion team. Ray Knight was named the Series most valuable player. Pete Rose had been MVP in the 1975 Series. His backup at third base that year? A young man named Ray Knight.

I left San Diego four months later. Through the autumn months I had continued to frequent Ocean Beach, go to Tijuana and take road trips with the friends who had made my time in California so wonderful, but these things were by now no longer new. I saw little of Randy following that seventh game defeat and later discovered he had been sent to the fleet. He was now in the real Navy, while Ken, Rick and the rest of us waited our turn and lived out the remainder of our college campus fantasies. The Navy had invested a lot in me and wouldn’t be happy to hear I intended to get out after my first enlistment was up. Ken and I drove across America during February of 1987 on the Navy’s dime. His destination was Key West while mine was Norfolk. We passed through an enviable list of places: Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, the deserts of the Southwest, the Texas Pan Handle, Memphis, Nashville, the Mississippi Delta, New Orleans, Fort Lauderdale and finally Key West. It was time to say goodbye. From now on I would speak of Ocean Beach, the Anchor, Randy, Ken and Rick, not to mention that great 1986 Red Sox ball club, only in the past tense. I’d miss them all.

In the years that followed, the Red Sox would pop back into my life occasionally, but never again like in 1986. My ship, the USS Hermitage, would do a six-month Mediterranean deployment in 1988 and I would pass much of it thinking the Sox had hired ex-Reds great Joe Morgan as manager; same name, wrong guy. I would make new friends and become a petty officer. I would leave the service in 1989 and attend U Mass Boston, often going to Fenway by myself. It wouldn’t be the same anymore. I would lose my sister in an auto accident in 1990. I would move to Italy the same year and teach English while giving music another shot. Eventually, I would have a bit more luck with it. Speaking of luck, I would marry my wife Teresa in 1993. The Sox would completely drop off my radar for a number of years. In 1998 I would go to a game at Fenway with my mother and discover she knew the starting line-up while I could barely name one player. In 1999 I would buy my first computer and discover I could tune into games through the Internet. It wouldn’t seem like a bad idea at all. I had a lot of catching up to do.

Today, I’m another of the thousands of ex-pat Americans living in Italy. I like soccer, drink espresso and can make a pretty mean plate of risotto. Sometimes I talk to myself in Italian. My accent is no longer that of a New Englander, but rather a strange Italian/Brit/East Coast gumbo. One August, when Teresa and I arrived at Logan, I suggested we have a drink in the airport bar before facing the final leg of our trip out to Marlborough. Sitting down on a stool, I saw the Sox were playing the Mariners. “What’s the scooah,” I asked the barman in my best Randy Kulick imitation. “Mariners are up 5-1, they knocked out Wakefield in the third,” he answered. Then he asked, “How long will ya be visiting our country?”

He thought I was French.

Oh well, if there’s one thing I’ve learnt, it’s that you’ve got to live in the present. After twelve years in Italy, I guess I can’t expect to walk into a Boston bar and be mistaken for Lou Merloni. Even so, if the Sox make the Series this year, I think I’ll put a game or two on in Spanish. There are some things an Italian soccer wife shouldn’t miss out on.

 

Like what you read? Want to contribute? Send your stories, screenplays and poetry to DigiZine