Absent-minded on a summer afternoon, you could walk right by it without knowing. You might not have noticed the Fenway nun, black and in black habit, waiting with her radio till the game ends, when she'll get to her feet with the donation basket already full of quarters to make it look good. And you could miss the Fenway paraphernalia vendors--booths on a city street in Kenmore Square are nothing special. going left from Brookline Ave. to Lansdowne, you wouldn't know that the huge wall on your right, grimy the color of the warehouse and shop buildings across from it, was the backside of a baseball field. That a few thick feet away is another world, a green, swimming tank--the brilliant electric force-field of a few million peoples' dreams. It would only be Fenway Park, alive and in a pennant race.
"Ye olde lyric courtyard," as sportswriter Peter Gammons calls it, is the most beautiful patch of baseball turf in America. Small, old, eccentric, and a deep shade of natural green, it has escaped--with a few other holdouts like Chicago's Wrigley Field--the lunar module theory of the modern stadium: the physical analog to the wide franchises and slick operations of the new corporate baseball. This is a neighborhood park--no gargantuan concrete egg laid in the center of a vast parkingscape, slabs for seats, plastic astrograss, and conveniently adjacent to the suburban expressway. No, Fenway is rickety and ripe with a sad history--a lot of Red Sox clubs winning hearts and losing still; heros now dead or in the insurance business. Fenway is outmoded and wonderful, decaying like baseball itself is decaying: slowly shedding off its crowds, its glamour, and its primacy in American life.
But that is another story. Here and now, the Red Sox are in first place, four and a hall games ahead of the Yanks. The season is half over, and a bleachers cost a buck and a half. The subway costs a quarter, and Kansas City's in town the end of this week. Last season the Sox were soaring like this, and the Maine lobstermen who listen to the radio on their boats thought that that summer might be different. El Tiante was brilliant on the mound--the team was seven games in front on August 23. The nosedive came--a total collapse, and the fishermen cussed them as hopeless idiots (they'd always known it) and netted all those frustrations, just to haul them back into the sea of their passion for the 1975 season, when most is forgotten and the boys are a bunch of heros again. That Freddy Lynn, by god, he's a natural--haven't seen a swing like that since Ted Williams...and Pudge Fisk is back and better than ever. The passion is for a pennant and in Fenway a lot of Boston gets together and tries to find something in their city they don't have to hate each other about. This energy focused on 27 men, technically: technically because some of these "men" would be seniors here had they gone to Harvard (and only a sparse handful finished college), technically because only about 15 of the 27 of them matter. To get a feeling for them, and for the team in general, you have to take them one by one.
Carl Yastrzemski: Any roster must begin with Yaz, for while his statistical contribution to the team is often negligible, his symbolic value is impossible to assess--he is the real prism of the Red Sox, the central figure in almost every way. To understand Yaz is to understand the intricate relationship between the Sox and their fans and the Sox and themselves. It's all love and hate. When Yaz steps up to the dugout side of the plate and kicks at the dirt like a racehorse, as he has for fifteen years, his third spot in the line-up is like a stall with his prize of a name on it. The fans boo, or some of them do, always. They find an excuse, and they never fail to because he expresses all the disappointments of Boston fans for a decade. They are high expectations, derived in part from the yearly and wildly optimistic hopes of any dichard fan, but also because Yaz symbolizes the moment in history that fuels these expectations. That was 1967 the Impossible Dream pennant, when Yaz hit ...326, with 44 home runs, 121 RBIs, when he seemed to hit the game-winner or catch the game-saver every day. He won the Triple Crown, and was voted the Most Valuable Player in the American League. As Yaz became a near-god in Boston, his name took on an institutional quality. There was Yaz Bread, Yaz Ford, and the Yaz Song:
On Beacon Hill he gives them quite a thrill
In Southie too there's nothing Yaz can't do
In the North End they call Carl Friend
And they hope that the season will never end.
That year Yastrzemski also became the highest paid player in baseball. Catfish Hunter could claim that honor now, but Yaz's salary certainly hasn't shrunk, and since 1967 the money, the batting order, the hype, his longevity as the Sox's oldest veteran, the team leadership he has always displayed (sometimes challenged by the younger players on a club that has had its share of dissension), and the memories--these combine to put an incredible amount of pressure on him, the man who replaced Ted Williams. And since '67 he has flirted with the hopes of the people dangerously: when he fails to come through, the fans reserve their most exquisite fury. When he doesn't hustle to first they razz him. When he applies his talent for appallingly stupid base-running ran all-star from the neck down. white Sox manager Eddie Stanky once said) or fields half-heatedly at first base, his new stable in the field (left field, his time-honored turf in the past, is traversed by friskeir souls now) the hoots and curses come showering down. But the fickle fans relish in extremity: when Yaz plays well, they love him as no else. And this season Yaz is playing well, very well. Perhaps this is because for once his revered position on the team is under attack from a new upstart and young favorite. Yaz might not be quite ready for a successor. But then nobody was quite ready for Freddy Lynn.
Fred Lynn captures peoples' imagination in a way that makes history before it happens. Lynn, a rookie centerfielder fresh up from a quick but unbrilliant career with Pawtucket, is having a sensational, sensational year. He is leading the league in RBIs and leading the majors in run production--RBIs plus runs, minus the homers, which are duplicates. He is fourth in homers and number two in batting average, behind Rod Carew--which is like running second to Hermes. He handles centerfield like a fish in water and he runs the bases like a pro. In late June he knocked in ten runs in one outing against Detroit, and made headlines on every sports page in the country. Earlier in the year he had hit successfully in 20 straight games until he blew it on national TV--these are the kind of things that win All-Star berths in the national balloting. Despite ardent attempts by Boston fans to stuff ballots. Lynn lost out to the likes of Bonds. Rudi ad Reggie Jackson. Still he will play tonight in Milwaukee, chosen by manager as an early substitute. All-Star or no, he's Rookie of the Year baring a major nervous breakdown, and Most Valuable Player is not out of the question, either.
But his greatest achievement is in the minds of these treacherous, demanding, hopelessly in love Red Sox fans, for he has awakened in them the purest essence of their love for Boston and baseball, he has transported them back to a Land of Oz. And as usual, this nirvana is an anachronistic place. Bars rustle wwth talk of Freddy Lynn--who is he like. Ted Williams or Joe DiMaggio? The comparison is borne of the old debate between those two heros, in the Golden Age of modern Boston baseball, when the Yankees were regarded with about as much affection as the National Socialist Party in Germany a few years before. Lynn might have been compared to Willie Mays the same early promise, the same fielding position--but comparisons like this seldom cross racial lines and the Williams DiMaggio axis conjures up memories of great days for the Red Sox and great days for baseball, both of which people are afraid to admit may be waning. And Lynn himself, and all-American nothing-too-flashy, cocky but thrilled-to-be here folks golden boy for so the press likes to portray), does little to deter these flights of fancy. Hell, he's an old-fashioned talent, graceful as a gazelle, and when he swings the bat your heart leaps out of your chest. Thank God he's white.
This leads us to a sobering subject of some controversy in baseball circles, particularly this year in this city racism. No one's going to argue that Puerto Rican pitcher Diego Segan is getting a raw deal in favor of white players, but some observers do feel that Jim Rice, say, the team's other rookie whose performance is only a shade less amazing that Lynn's might not be getting the recognition he deserves. Do the Boston Red Sox have a systematic policy of racism. It's fruitless to argue specifies did black so and so get traded for white so and so--but in a general sense the Red Sox record in race relations is somewhat less honorable than that of the NAACP. Boston was the last franchise in the major leagues to sign a black player--passing up Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays to do so. When they finally did take one on, it was a woefully inadequate infielder named Pumpsie Green, who quickly became a laughingstock. Since then, no black players have made history with the team. Those who promised to-Reggie Smith. George Scott. Tommy Harper--were traded, the first two of whom went instantly red-hot on their new teams. Now Boston has a whiter team than almost any club, as the American League as a whole is whiter than the National.
But still, there are probably more blacks on the field (or in the dugout, anyway) at a given time than are in the stands. Black attendance at Boston sports events has been especially sparse, lately, but the fact is that in baseball there are just fewer black players all over. Athletes trying to make it in sports usually have ten varsity letters and several options as they finish high school, and blacks--for whom the stakes are higher--are increasingly rejecting the baseball route. For one, baseball players don't tend to get scholarships to college; and when the game is so desperate the arduous season and low prestige of baseball makes it less attractive. Many say that the Sox have a more or less deliberate anti-black policy anyways: they point to plantation-owning owner Tom Yawkey, "Massa Tom," who is a very old and wildly wealthy man ("management and control of mines, mineral interests, timber lands, lumber and paper mills...") who doesn't hesitate to spend his riches in pursuit of a pennant. He seldom gets this pennant, and some claim that a decidedly loaded sense of priorities contributes to this poor record. The front office that negotiates the agreements that have junked so many black players is lily-white, or course, but this situation is not uncommon in American sport. Whatever degree of truth in the racism theory. Boston has had more than its share of embarrassing trades, not only in exchanging gold for manure but in the parting shots--Reggie Smith called Boston "racist," as Bill Russell of the Celtics had before him--levelled by some departing victims. Some, on the other hand, say that Reggie Smith was a troublemaker anyway, and we are lucky to be rid of him.
At any rate, Jim Rice has been the Lou Gehrig of the Red Sox this season, an over-shadowed second fiddle to Lynn's Babe Ruth. Winner of the minor league Triple Crown last year with Pawtucket he was expected to be the real star, and in a Lynnless summer he would have been. As it stands, he's hitting almost ...300, and is third in the league in RBIs. Beginning the season as a designated hitter, he's recently moved to left field and has been fielding well.
This move to left for Rice only makes the incredible depth on the Red Sox outfield more frustrating and impressive Bernie Carbo a strong hitter with erratic tendencies that have led him to kick off seasons brilliantly and sag near the end, has been leading off the order and playing right. Dwight Evans, another young right fielder, has plumped lately, but has an excellent arm and hits well for power when he's on top of things. Center fielder Rick Miller, also a striping, would be a starter on virtually any other club: Yaz is available to play left in a pinch. Depth like this puts splinters in the trousers of young ambitious players and some have mumbled to reporters that they'd just as soon be put out to fairer pastures in another city. And a trade or two, for reasons we shall see, should be high on the agenda. Some say that Juan Beniquez, a left fielder currents injured, would be a good bet to barter. An abominable fielder, he's speedy and a solid punch bitter who engineers enough singles to put him at a steady ...300. His Spanish speaking origins drove one local expert to predict that he would in fact be traded, inevitably, for twelve packs of baseball cards and a print of Birth of a Nation