Excerpted with permission from Game 7, 1986: Failure and Triumph in the Biggest Game of My Life by Ron Darling. Copyright © 2016 by Ron Darling. Published by St. Martin’s Press.
Baseball touches you in fundamental ways. It does. Your first taste of the game becomes an abiding memory, meaning, the way you’re wired as a kid becomes the way you’re hard-wired ever after. A lifelong Cubs fan looks out at the world in a certain way, always hoping for the best while somehow bracing for the worst. A lifelong Yankees fan takes an inverse approach, expecting the best and never quite accepting anything less. A Cardinals fan, say, might go through life doing just enough to get and keep ahead, in ever-changing ways—and, he’ll love his Cardinals players, no matter what.
For the longest time—indeed, for the whole of my growing up—the lot of the card-carrying Red Sox fan was to fall in line somewhere toward the back. We didn’t tempt fate, we accepted it. We were good enough to dream, but not nearly good enough to get it done. Not even close. And we loved our players, too, just not enough to overlook their flaws, their missteps. It was okay for one of us to ride one of our own, but God help the enemy fan who talked trash about our beloved Sox.
Consider: the Red Sox hadn’t had a winning season since 1958, hadn’t been to the World Series since 1946, hadn’t won the World Series since 1918, and by the time I came along they were in the cellar. Every year, they’d finished last, or next to last, or damn near next to last; every year, the diehards would drift from the stadium, attendance dropping in lockstep with the Red Sox in the standings—the law of diminishing returns on full display. There were no pink baseball caps dotting the Fenway crowd, the way you’ll see today, no full family outings, no Neil Diamond anthems pulsing on the stadium sound system—just a bunch of guys named Sully, swigging a bunch of beers and cheering on their Sawx.
In 1965, the first summer I started really following baseball, my hometown team lost 100 games. One hundred games! That’s a steep mountain to climb, to be down so low and expect to reach the top, but as a freshly minted fan I was endlessly and innocently hopeful. (Also, I was five and six and seven years old . . . so what the hell did I know?) Oh, there were other teams with long World Series droughts, but the Red Sox I knew back then weren’t even competitive beyond the first couple of weeks of April, so it’s a wonder I followed the team at all. But I was a kid from Millbury, in a sports-mad household, so of course I followed the team. And frankly, I cared more that they hadn’t won last night than they hadn’t won in years and years.
The lot of Red Sox fans started to change in the summer of 1967, only they took awhile to spark to it. The home opener at Fenway drew only 8,324—a heartbreakingly small number, especially when you compare it to the throngs that now pack Lansdowne Street before and after every game. But like I said, that all started to change, and by the end of the season the Red Sox would finish first in the league in home attendance. (Hey, how’s that for a turnaround?) By some wild alchemy, some shift in the prevailing winds of our national pastime, the momentum started to swing our way, mostly on the back of Carl Yastrzemski. More than any other individual player I’ve ever followed in a team sport, Yaz carried the load. More than any Boston athlete I’d seen play other than Bobby Orr, he lifted a city.
Every morning during the season, my brothers and I would wake and wonder what Yaz had done the night before. It was the burning question of my childhood, and each day I awaited the answer, the same way other kids followed the latest heroics of Superman or Batman. The answer wasn’t always close at hand. There were no sports tickers, no ESPN, no talk radio, no way to know at the stroke of a couple of keys the results of any sporting event on the planet as it unfolded. We had to wait until these outcomes found their way to us, and very often they found us in the box scores and game accounts of the morning paper. I had a newspaper route for a while, so I’d get a first look at the sports pages before I set off on my rounds, but that came a little later. As a little guy, I have a clear memory of waking up early and reaching for the morning newspaper to see what happened after one of those great Ali heavyweight bouts, and on pretty much every morning following a Red Sox night game during that great stretch run of 1967. In those days, I was usually the first to wake in our house—other than my father, of course, who went to work at 4:30 in the morning, hours before the Worcester Telegram was delivered, neatly folded, in our mailbox. I would run outside, grab the paper, and fist it open to the sports pages, careful to preserve the fold so I could restore the thing to its original pristine state. On Sundays, I’d press my father to get the Globe, which in those days had some of the best baseball writers to ever cover the game: Leigh Montville, Will McDonough, Peter Gammons, Bob Ryan. They also had a killer Sunday sports section, with expanded stats and extra features. I could get lost in those pages for hours.
At seven years old, I had to go to bed way too early to watch those night games—typically by seven-thirty or eight o’clock, even over the summer. (I think my parents hit on that early bedtime for all four of us kids just so they could squeeze in a precious few hours of peace and quiet and alone time.) I’d fall asleep imagining some new Yaz heroic, some crooked number in the box score next to his name, an exclamation-pointed headline adding to his legend to lead the sports section. I’d wake up and position myself in front of the mirror, trying to perfect my Yaz batting stance—I must have spent half that summer trying to imitate his swing.
For the first time in my life I got caught in the thrill of how important these late-summer games could be. And Yaz, he carried that team on his back—with me along for the ride. If the Sox lost a couple of games on Friday and Saturday, Yaz would come back with that big hit on Sunday to salvage a game in the series and keep his team (my team!) in the hunt. The Sox contended all season long and closed to two and a half games back by August, in what was developing as a five team race for the American League pennant with the White Sox, Tigers, Twins, and Angels. Remember, this was back before the onset of division play and way before the establishment of the wild card, so the entire league was scrambling for the top spot—a thrilling season by any measure, but especially so by the measure of a seven-year-old kid who’d never really had any reason to root, root, root for his hometown team.
By September, the Red Sox were in first place, and it got to where everyone in New England—everyone in what we now know as Red Sox Nation—was eyeing these late-summer games, biting their fingernails, wondering the same thing my brothers and I had wondered all season long.
What did Yaz do last night?
As most fans of a certain age can recall, Carl Yastrzemski ended up winning the Triple Crown that year, leading the league in batting average, home runs, and runs batted in—a big deal, although to me at the time it was more of an afterthought, a grace note. Recall, Frank Robinson had won the Triple Crown just the year before, so I had no reason to think it would be nearly fifty years before Miguel Cabrera finally earned the next one. To me, just then, a Triple Crown was something that happened from time to time, a natural by-product of a long season, and here it happened that all those hits and homers and runs batted in added up to this glorious pennant race.
That entire summer, whether you were at Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire, on the Cape, in Burlington, Vermont, or a student at Smith College, you were cheering for Carl Yastrzemski, pulling for him to pull his Red Sox teammates across that elusive finish line. And that’s just how it felt—like Yaz was pulling the rest of the team along. Every day, he found a way to help them win—to help us win. Every day, he spun an extra bit of magic on that field, even on defense, like the time early in the season when he saved a no-hitter against the Yankees for rookie pitcher Billy Rohr with an over-the-shoulder, back-to-the-bases catch in deep left. (Okay, so the no-hitter was later broken up by Elston Howard, who would end the season playing for my beloved Red Sox, who stroked a soft single to right-center with two outs in the ninth—but as heroics go, as magic goes, this catch was right up there.)
Every day, we stopped what we were doing to see what he was doing.
Absolutely, it was the summer of Yaz—at least, in my limited worldview. And, out of that summer, I think I had my first thoughts on what it meant to matter. Like a lot of kids, I wanted to grow up to be a professional athlete—hockey, football, baseball—whatever was in season, that was the dream I was growing. But here, watching Carl Yastrzemski will himself and his teammates through these paces, capturing the full attention of everyone I knew, everyone I cared about . . . this was a lesson on what it meant to be truly great, what it meant to be counted on, what it meant to make a difference.
I became a baseball fan that summer, and once the game got into my blood there was no shaking it. And the Red Sox, they were in there, too, and I mention this deep connection because it must have played with my head as these 1986 World Series games approached. I didn’t think so at the time. I would not let it at the time. I was professional about it, analytical about it. My allegiance was with the New York Mets, one hundred percent. My fortunes were tied to the New York Mets, one hundred percent. My focus was on winning a World Series for the New York Mets, one hundred percent. But even as a big-league sapling, now three full seasons into my career, I still scoured the box scores each day during the season to see how the Red Sox were doing—force of habit, I guess. On some level, I was still that seven-year-old kid from the summer of 1967, pulling for Carl Yastrzemski and the Boston Red Sox.
The world had changed, of course. I had changed. Yaz had given up his spot in left field to a young, quick-wristed slugger from South Carolina named Jim Ed Rice. But the more things changed, the more they remained the same. These were my Red Sox, after all.