Righthander Jim Bouton of the Yankees remembers a storied rivalry
Back when I pitched for the Yankees, we'd read in the papers that teams were so awed by our reputation they would roll over and play dead against us. That's an exaggeration. To test the theory, one day we threw our scrapbooks onto the field. It didn't work. The scrapbooks lost, 5-4. But they almost pulled it out in the ninth.
I was never a Yankee fan, except when I played for them. In the blue-collar town where I grew up in New Jersey, you either rooted for the Dodgers or the Giants. A few ornery kids rooted for the Red Sox. I was a Giants fan. I only rooted for the Yankees if they played the Dodgers in the World Series.
Today, I'm a baseball fan who roots selectively. I started rooting for the Minnesota Twins when baseball commissioner Bud Selig tried to contract them out of existence. I root against the commissioner's Milwaukee Brewers on the same impulse. (My rooting seems to be working.) Like all real baseball fans, of course, I'm rooting for a Cubs-Red Sox World Series -- although can you imagine the fallout for the loser?
Now that I live in Massachusetts, I root for the Red Sox for reasons of personal safety. There are too many hunters with guns wearing camouflage and Red Sox hats. That's why I never wear my Yankee hat, especially when I'm out in the yard; I might as well be wearing antlers. I have great respect for Red Sox fans. Also a certain wariness.
"Just wait till we get to Boston," my Yankee teammates warned me in the spring of 1962, my rookie year in the big leagues. Then they'd roll their eyes and slowly shake their heads. Or grin ominously. "What do you mean?" I'd ask, wondering if I might need something more in the way of equipment than a protective cup.
The meaning became clear when our team bus pulled up to the visitors' entrance at Fenway Park. A large throng of what appeared to be deranged people surrounded the bus, shaking their fists and screaming at us in a foreign language. And this was five hours before the game.
I felt a lot safer inside the visitors' clubhouse, a small cement box that resembled a bomb shelter, with toilets and a rubbing table. But, unlike the other clubhouses -- not to mention bomb shelters -- there was no food. No snacks, no cold cuts, not even a plate of cookies. Just a small basket of bubble gum. "Hey, Vince," I once said to the clubhouse attendant, "Ya got any mustard for this bubble gum?"
Fortunately, we didn't have to spend much time in there. Our pregame meetings took only a few minutes. "Watch out for Yastrzemski," pitchers were cautioned, "he'll try and slap that outside fastball off the Monster." That was about it.
"The Monster," of course, is the famous wall in short left field that looks a lot closer than 298 feet because it's so high. It seems like it might fall on you. And it can't be ignored if you're pitching. With a man on second base, it comes into view every time you check the runner. That's when you see that your left fielder is playing a few feet behind the shortstop.
Everything is close at Fenway. It's the only ballpark where you can be on the mound during a game and hear personal insults from the stands -- if you can figure out what the hell they're saying. Beautiful little ballpark; not a bad place to die, if it came to that.
And one afternoon I thought I might.
This was during the heyday of relief pitcher Dick Radatz, Boston's other "Monster" -- at 6 feet 6 inches and 260 pounds -- who'd stroll onto the field in the final inning and strike out the side with his rising fastball. Even the great Mickey Mantle was humbled by The Monster. But it was the postgame strut that they all waited for. After fanning the last batter, Radatz would march off the field with his fists clenched and his arms raised over his head like a conquering hero returned from the wars. The fans loved it.
It was 1963 and the Red Sox had just won the first two games of a weekend series, with Radatz striking out the side in the ninth inning of each game and swaggering off the field with his Monster salute. On Sunday, the place was packed to watch Radatz do it again.
But he never got the chance. Pitching my best game of the year, I beat the Red Sox, 2-0. So far, so good. Then, for reasons it would take a therapist to explain, I got it into my head that I should march off the field with my arms raised over my head, just like Radatz. Boy, wouldn't that be funny?
Some joke. Before I even reached the foul line I had to start dodging things from the stands. Popcorn boxes. Half-eaten hot dogs. Cups of beer. Could bottles be far behind? My triumphal march to the dugout became a broken-field dash. It was lucky I wasn't killed -- depending on your point of view. Fortunately, Radatz never sued me for trademark infringement, but I've never been invited on his radio show, either.
I loved pitching in Fenway Park. I loved the challenge, the excitement, the intimacy. (These days I like any ballpark not named after a bank.) I love the passion and the knowledge of the Red Sox fans. Most of all I love their loyalty.
"Why do they keep rooting for them?" my wife asked recently.
"Because it's going to feel so good when they finally win it all," I said. "For those who are still alive."
The biggest reason the Red Sox don't win it all is the Yankees. The second-biggest reason is the Red Sox. Space limitations prevent me from recapping the near-misses and self-inflicted wounds. Suffice it to say that it's gone beyond the laws of probability, into the realm of the supernatural.
The current explanation is the "Curse of the Bambino," which supposedly changed the fortunes of both teams when the Red Sox sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees. A more likely problem, at least until recently, is that the Red Sox were the last team in the big leagues to hire black players. Call it the "Curse of the Albino."
But now the team is politically correct, if not particularly balanced. They've got a general manager who knows how to talk to people, owners who are committed to Fenway, and a manager whom the players actually seem to like. Even Grady Little's wife is nice. I once met Debi Little at a book signing (she was promoting one by the Red Sox wives) and she seemed quite sane.
But it's still early.
Jim Bouton pitched for the Yankees from 1962-68 and authored the groundbreaking 1970 book "Ball Four." He has just published a new book "Foul Ball: My Life and Hard Times Trying to Save an Old Ballpark."
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