Here’s a guest column from BDN political editor, and baseball umpire, Robert Long. I’ve worked with him for more than a decade. We share a deep love for baseball and I had an idea of what the ’67 team meant to him, growing up in Massachusetts. So, I dragged him to the game last night to meet Rico Petrocelli. — Troy R. Bennett
Rico Petrocelli threw out the first pitch at Hadlock Field on Thursday night, but it was a catch he made 50 years ago that changed my life.
Petrocelli, the shortstop for the Boston Red Sox, drifted back under a humpback liner by Rich Rollins of the Minnesota Twins to end the last game of the season, eliminating the Twins and securing an improbable American League pennant for the Sox. The title did not officially become theirs — and ours (more about that later) — until the Detroit Tigers lost a few hours later. But that technicality did not delay the outbreak of “pandemonium on the field” and throughout New England.
Boston sports were different then. There was no Red Sox Nation. The Patriots were a sideshow act in a soon-to-be-defunct league. The Celtics were churning out NBA title banners, but no one paid much heed. And Bobby Orr was just beginning to make the Bruins big, bad and worth watching.
Boston sports fans were far more accustomed to disappointment than celebration. “Pandemonium” — the great word used by broadcaster Ken Coleman to describe the reaction to Petrocelli’s catch — ensued because we had no clue about how to react to success.
Saying that a catch in a baseball game I watched on TV changed my life probably seems like a cheesy attempt to manufacture something profound from a game that many believe is meant to distract us from politics, history, science and other far important matters. But I have had 50 years to think about it. Acknowledging that my perspective on that catch and the Impossible Dream season will always be framed through the eyes of a 10-year-old, I still hold fast to lessons 1967 offered and value bonds it forged.
The most important lesson was about redemption and the key bond was with my father.
Younger friends ask me to explain why this cynical curmudgeon waxes poetic about the Impossible Dream team. The best response I can offer is to suggest that they think about recent epic moments in local sports — the Patriots’ Super Bowl comeback this year or Isaiah Thomas’ amazing playoff performance this week are two examples — and imagine them lasting for an entire season. Then replace the star performers with relative unknowns who, like Petrocelli, earned so little that they had to sell oil or shoes or lumber in the offseason to complement their meager salaries.
The veteran players, who teamed with unknowns fresh from the minors, had generally “distinguished” themselves with disappointing performances during their major league careers. My father called them the “Flop Sox,” in part because they flopped around the field like hapless flounders while trying to field or run the bases and in part because a generation of fans had come to expect each season to unfold like a bad Broadway play. But with more unintentional slapstick and far less entertainment.
By 1966, when only a rainout kept the Sox out of last place, the stands were mostly empty, the few remaining fans could only claim allegiance to Frustration Nation and apathy marked New England’s attitude toward the team.
“We lost a total of 190 games and nobody was interested in the Red Sox,” Petrocelli said Thursday, referring to 1965 and 1966, his first two years with the team. The team had not finished with a winning record since 1958.
That all changed in 1967. The Flop Sox became the Cardiac Kids. Starting in April and carrying through the final game of the season against the powerful Twins, the team “came back to win a bunch of games,” as Petrocelli modestly said Thursday.
These guys were not dynasty material. They were uber underdogs. Their late-game heroics included home runs, dribblers and, in one case, a most improbable throw.
In the process, they became my heroes. They also taught me about the power of redemption.
Baseball is a sport built upon redemption. The norm is to fail. The best hitters make outs seven times in every 10 at-bats. Many of the game’s greatest pitchers never throw a no-hitter. Success derives from rising above the routine failures and overcoming adversity.
The Impossible Dream team did that. They overcame injuries to key players, including Petrocelli and star outfielder Tony Conigliaro, who was hit in the face with a pitch on Aug. 18 and lost for the season. Off the field, they overcame New England’s ambivalence and the franchise’s downward thrust fueled by a decade of failure.
They showed that redemption is more than a catechism buzzword.
A little more than a week later, after losing a hard-fought World Series to the Cardinals in seven games, they provided another valuable life lesson: Storybook endings are usually reserved for stories.
Other than a name, my father and I had little in common when I was growing up. He was a physics professor; I became an English major. He listened to Handel. I listened to Hot Tuna. He liked to build things and blow them up. I liked to write.
I know he loved me but one of the more telling things he said about me to my mom was, “I just don’t understand that damned kid.”
Baseball gave us both a route to better understanding each other, and the fact that we lived through that magical season together opened a path to communication that we might otherwise not have found. We had “the talk” that dads have with their adolescent sons on the way home from a Red Sox game. Both of us were relieved to quickly change the subject back to the lousy pitching.
Baseball was our therapist. It broke down barriers.
Likewise, the 1967 team also fostered a much bigger and more important bond. At a time when our nation was fracturing as young men were coming back from Vietnam in body bags, and racial, generational and cultural gaps were ripping society asunder, the Impossible Dream united New England.
The Red Sox, who in 1959 became the last team to desegregate, now fielded a team that sometimes had more black position players than white ones. The mix of players with names like Yastrzemski, Petrocelli, Tartabull, Ryan, Smith and Scott at least temporarily soothed the racial and cultural tensions. By August, Kennedy Democrats, Nixon Republicans, flower children and ROTC officers crowded onto the Logan Airport tarmac to welcome home a ragtag bunch of players who somehow managed to capture the region’s imagination and allegiance in a way that bridged the schisms.
Red Sox Nation is a brand for an ad campaign but it could never exist without the regional bonds that the Impossible Dream team forged in 1967,
As Petrocelli reminded us Thursday, the team’s ownership had just about given up on Boston and was seriously considering a move to dump the team. That’s unthinkable now, and we have the 1967 team to thank for that.