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It was getting dark and I was standing in the parking lot beyond the right field fence at the high school baseball field. The kids call it "third lot." It once provided parking for Newton North High School students, but that was before too many kids got cars, so now it's reserved for faculty and seniors during school hours. At this moment, third lot was two-thirds empty and the only remaining cars belonged to the players on the baseball team, plus a handful of parents and friends.
I had my keys in my hand. I'd already said goodbye to my old high school coach, who'd made the drive down from New Hampshire to sit with me and watch my son play. It was a cold New England May day and the game was running long and I had to get going. I was due at a wake for the 21-year-old son of my cousin. The wake was taking place in the small town where I was born, an hour's drive to the west, and the notice in the newspaper said visiting hours would be over at 7 p.m.
It had been an emotional day, sitting on the cold metal slats, watching Sam hit, catching up with my old coach, and thinking about what my cousin Mickey was going through. I hadn?ft seen Mickey in over a year. We were never especially close. That happens when you have fifty-one first cousins and move away after college. But it was easy to remember everything I admired about Mickey. He was a terrific high school athlete, only two years older than me. He seemed to be better than everyone else at everything: Football. Basketball. Skiing. He was strong, tough, skilled, and movie-star handsome. He had his own rock ?fn?f roll band. Chicks dug him and guys wanted to be him. It wouldhave been easy to hate the guy, but he was generous and caring, and when I would see him years later he was always humble about his high school greatness. He'd made a fine life for himself, working for the gas company and raising two kids with his wife. Now he was getting ready to bury his son, young Michael, who had died at home in bed, another victim of the national scourge of Oxycontin. Michael had been a high school football stud, just like his father. He had been good enough to win a scholarship to Wagner College, and there had been a picture in the local newspaper of Michael signing his letter of intent. Now, just a couple of years later, his picture was in the paper again, accompanied by one of those impossibly sad stories about a promising young life that ended too soon.
So I was feeling a little guilty as I stood in third lot, jangling my keys and watching the high school baseball game groan into extra innings. I didn?ft want to miss the wake, but I remembered that earlier in the day Mickey's brother had told me, "We?fll be there long after seven." Besides, Sam was scheduled to lead off the bottom of the tenth and he was due. He had been hitting the ball hard all day, but he was sitting on an 0-4 and I knew his small world would tumble into chaos and panic if he went hitless for the day. Such is the fragility and self-absorption of the high school mind.
I was wondering about my own mind, too. I am a professional sportswriter, specializing in baseball. I?fve been a columnist for the Boston Globe for more than fifteen years, covering Olympics, Super Bowls, World Series, Stanley Cup Finals, NBA Championships, and Ryder Cups. I traveled with the Baltimore Orioles, Boston Celtics, and Red Sox back in the days when writers really traveled and lived with the ballplayers. I?fve written ten books, seven on baseball. I can go to any game, any time I want. And yet I find myself fixated on the successes and failures of Newton North High School and Sam Shaughnessy, my only son and the youngest of three ballplaying children. Sam's sisters had fun and fulfilling seasons in high school volleyball, field hockey, and softball, and I was amazed at how following their games connected me to their school and our community while kindling so many thoughts of my own high school days thirty years earlier. Probably that's why I found myself suddenly skipping Red Sox road trips and canceling TV appearances because of weather-forced changes in the high school baseball season. Random Sox fans wanted to ask me about Curt Schilling and Jonathan Papelbon. I'd rather talk about Newton North lefthander, J. T. Ross.
The score was still tied when Sam walked to the plate to open up the bottom of the tenth, and we were definitely losing the light, making it even tougher to hit. The Braintree coach came out to talk to his pitcher. I looked at the sky. I looked at my watch. This was it. I'd stare through the chain link for one more at bat, then get in the car. Darkness was going to make this the last inning, even if the score was still tied after ten.
And then, in an instant, the baseball was screeching over the first baseman's head, over the rightfielder's head, over the chain link, and onto the trunk of the 1998 Toyota Corolla that Sam had driven to school that day. It rolled across the lot and came to rest under a tree. I retrieved the ball while he circled the bases.
There was no such thing as a "walkoff " home run when I went to high school. We had read the stories about Bobby Thomson's Shot Heard Round the World, and all my friends and I knew that the Pirates?f second baseman Bill Mazeroski had won the 1960 World Series with a homer in the bottom of the ninth . . . but nobody talked about "walkoffs" until Kirk Gibson dropped one on Dennis Eckersley in the 1988 World Series. Eck popularized the term, and now there are walkoff homers, walkoff doubles, walkoff walks, even an occasional walkoff balk.
In any event, Sam Shaughnessy had his first high school walkoff homer (a drive-off walkoff, given the dent in the Toyota) and knew enough to take his helmet off after rounding third base. He had seen Red Sox slugger David Ortiz do this a lot. A helmetless head is less likely to be pounded by your teammates.
I walked in from right field and delivered the baseball to my smiling son. I told him not to worry about the dent on the roof of the trunk (not sure my dad would have been so casual about the damage done). Then I got in my car and drove to the wake.
The country roads took me back. They took me to the place where I grew up, the place where I experienced all the highs and lows that were now happening to Sam. I remembered how it felt to have a moment like he had today, and I knew he would hold it in his heart for the rest of his life. Sports have a way of defining our lives, particularly teenage lives. The local high school basketball games were a big deal in my hometown when I was growing up. Most of our parents came to the games and sat in the back row of the small gym. The successes and failures of our team made for conversation around the post office and drug store in the center of town. We connected through sports.
Two decades later, when my classmates filled out a reunion form, there was a question regarding your favorite high school memory. I was struck by how many answered "Dances after the Friday night basketball games." These were not just the ballplayers and cheerleaders. These were kids who had never played on the team, but as grownups they had fond memories of cold nights in a warm gym, when a sporting event was the center of our tiny universe.
The trick is to keep moving forward and not let the glory days of high school become the highlight of your life.
When I wheeled into the funeral home a few minutes after seven, there was a line the length of a football field waiting to pay respects to Michael. Inside, I joined my sisters, cousins, aunts, and uncles and waited for the line to dwindle. In my mind, I pledged not to speak of why I was late or of how the game had ended.
A couple of hours later, the line completely exhausted, I knelt before young Michael and said a prayer. Inside the open casket, there was a photo of Michael celebrating a high school football victory with his teammates. When I stood up, cousin Mickey was there, sobbing, spent, but still strong enough to hug me with the force of a linebacker.
It is a universal truth that it's virtually impossible to say anything appropriate in a moment like this. Nothing is worse than a parent losing a child. The loss is unspeakable and incomprehensible. Only those who have experienced such a tragedy can possibly know what it feels like. But the events of my day had given me special perspective, and for once I felt like I knew exactly what to say.
"Michael must have given you a lot of joy."
"Oh, Danny," he said, smiling through the tears, pointing to the photo inside the casket. "You should have seen him play. And not just because he was my son, either. That was the Acton-Boxboro game. One of the greatest nights for all of them. I loved watching him play more than anything."
There it was. I knew then I had made the right decision, staying an extra inning to see the end of a high school baseball game while my sisters and cousins and aunts and uncles were already at the wake. And as I drove home, back across the roads of my youth, I knew I had to write something down.
Groton to Newton
It's embarrassing to admit, but I kept a diary in high school. Such a dork. Today, a teenager might get away with calling it a "journal," but only cheerleaders and pretty-in-pink girls keep a locked book under the bed and begin each entry with "Dear Diary." Naturally, I still have the two small books (covering junior and senior years), and it's hilarious to read through the well-worn pages. I have a 35- year-old niece who was born during my senior year of high school, and during a recent holiday gathering, I fetched the book to see what I had written on the day after she was born. And there it was. After several paragraphs about sitting next to Eleanor Lehtinen in study hall, and getting a pimple on my nose, and Friday night's big win over Nashoba Regional, there was a single closing line that read, "Mary had a baby girl last night."
In The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager, Thomas Hine wrote, "Figuring out where they fit in — to the universe, the economy, their social circle, their family — is a project on which teenagers spend a lot of their time and energy."
That, and looking in the mirror and thinking about the next game, of course.
My hideous, humble journal serves as a reminder of how immature and insecure one can be at the age of 18. Looking back, I?fm amazed how busy and needy I was in those final days of high school. But I don?ft need the diary to remember what it felt like when the next game was the most important event in my life. There's an 18-year-old forever locked away inside all of us; that's why you?fll always see balding men with big bellies driving sports cars, buying young women drinks, and pulling hamstrings playing full court basketball.
The joy of playing ball never leaves us. If you have hit a baseball over a fence or finished first in a race or even just sat on the bench — satisfied to be a part of something with your friends — you never forget the feeling. It starts the first time we kick a ball into a goal or beat our sister in a footrace when we are 4 years old. It might be in a backyard, on a beach, or in an asphalt alley behind a three-decker house. You don?ft have to be on Wide World of Sports to experience "the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat": it happens in your earliest days of dodge ball. Not everyone plays the piano or violin, but just about every kid boots a soccer ball and runs a race. Fortunate fathers and moms get a second go-around. Watching a child pass through the same passages connects every parent to his or her own youth.
I had the good fortune to be born in Groton, Massachusetts, in 1953, the youngest of Bill and Eileen Shaughnessy's five children. Bill was a sales executive at a bag company, a particularly boring and low-paying job. Eileen was a nurse. They met when he had his appendix removed at Cambridge City Hospital, where she worked. Family folklore holds that Mom and Dad's first date was a wake somewhere far north in Maine. My father had been pestering the pretty young nurse for a date, but she informed him that she didn?ft go out with patients. He persisted. She finally caved in, but only because she needed a ride to the wake of one of her roommate's parents. Way to go, Dad. Sounds like the defi- nition of desperation.
My father was a smart, handsome man. He had attended Boston College, where he matriculated with Thomas "Tip" O?fNeill, later the longtime speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. It turned out that the Shaughnessys had at one time rented from the O?fNeills in Cambridge, and my dad liked to dismiss the great speaker by informing us, "I put the bum through college."
My dad's brother claims Bill Shaughnessy was quite the sportsman in his youth, but by the time I came along, Dad wasn?ft moving much, unless he was picking up sticks and stones in our rather large backyard (our twelve-room farmhouse was purchased for $7,000 with help from the GI Bill one year after Dad came home from Germany). Dad was thirty-nine years older than me and I never saw him run. We never played catch or did anything athletic together. I guess that's what friends and older siblings were for. This was the 1950s and ?f60s, and fathers dressed like Ward Cleaver. Bill Shaughnessy wore white shirts and black shoes every day of his working life. He did a little yard work around the house, but that was it. There was one day when he came home from work and found me by the side door with a baseball bat in my hands, and for some reason he decided to offer a little instruction. He told me that he had been a pretty fair power hitter in his day and that he'd once scattered some local girls with one of his prodigious blasts off a park bench. Then he proceeded to demonstrate how he would walk into the pitch as it was coming toward home plate — for additional power. I was only 10 years old, but I knew that was dopey. I thanked him for the ridiculous hitting lesson and watched him go inside where he'd sit in his brown Archie Bunker chair, read his paper, and maybe wind down with a highball before dinner.
My dad never made much money, but somehow kept things afloat and managed to send all five kids off to college. He was a master money manager; we were so frugal we stripped tinsel off the Christmas tree and used it again the following year. When I was in high school, and the other four kids were gone — one still in college — Dad borrowed money from me. My diary entries are quite clear on this. Dad borrowed $250 of the dough I'd saved from working as a soda jerk at the local ice cream and fried clam joint, Johnson's Drive-In. Two-fifty was a fortune in 1970. Minimum wage was $1.60 per hour and making seventy-five cents in tips in one shift was noteworthy in my daily log.
Poring through the pages of my tattered journals, I am struck by how many of the daily entries began with "Dad and I went to the dump this morning." Apparently that was how we bonded. We would load up the trunk of Dad's four- door Ford sedan and off to the dump we'd go, toting bags of papers and trash (coffee grounds, eggshells, and other perishables were discarded in separate barrels and left on the curb to be taken to local pig farms). Dad spilled a lot of wisdom on those dump runs, but I cannot remember much of what was said. The conversation I remember best came in November 1963, when we drove to the dump on a rainy Saturday, the day after our president was assassinated, and he told me that people would be talking about this for the rest of my life. He saved the sex talk for a day when he was driving me to the orthodontist (I was 14!). The dump run was for talking about school and sports and family issues. There are no dumps anymore, only "landfills." Sadly, my kids have never been to a landfill. Or a dump. I have had to find alternative locations for heart-to-heart, dad-to-kid chats.
My mom was even less athletic than my dad. She was a stunning, strong woman who had helped raise her seven siblings (six brothers), making lunches, scrubbing piles of laundry, ironing everything (even socks and underwear), and washing dirty dishes by hand. When she became a wife and mother, it was more of the same. We never had a mechanical dishwasher or clothes dryer. My siblings and I share goofy winter memories of bringing frozen sheets and T-shirts in from the clothesline. We called them "the boards."
Mom would have been a perfect politician's wife. She was fastidious about remembering names and writing thank-you notes. She had great posture (her college yearbook declared that her favorite sport was "standing erect") and the best penmanship of anyone I have ever known. She could not afford luxury items, but she always insisted on quality. That went for us, too, when it came to buying shoes or sports coats. We didn?ft have many extras, but the stuff we had was top shelf. For all of her hard work — chores that made her hands rougher than she would have liked — Mom was something of a diva. No housecoats or curlers in her hair when she went out of the house. On beach outings, when it was time to leave, she made us fetch pails of water so she could wash the sand off her feet before putting on her shoes. The one-time Miss Silver Laker was ever dolled up, even when doing housework. She lived to be 81 years old, and not once did I ever see her with her hair wet or unkempt. Needless to say, I never saw her run, either.
Groton in the 1950s was something right out of a Ron Howard movie. The first play I saw in high school was Thornton Wilder's Our Town, and it struck me as totally boring and unremarkable because it depicted conversations and situations I heard and saw every day. Nothing special about that, right? Ours was a town of Yankee farmers who said little and wanted no one to know how much money and land they had. We never locked our doors and dialed only five numbers to make phone calls. Everyone knew everyone else's business, even when the days of the telephone party lines ended. My wife, Marilou, a native of Detroit, would be perplexed and charmed by this when she made her first trip to Groton in 1980. We stopped at Forcino's Market to pick up some groceries to bring home to my mother. As Leo Forcino was ringing up our purchases in his bloodstained apron (Leo was also the butcher, of course), he stopped, held aloft a half gallon of ice cream, and said, "Dan, you might not want this because your mother was in this morning and picked up some ice cream."
"Chocolate chip?" I asked.
"Yeah, chocolate chip, Dan," said Leo.
A half mile down the road, closer to home, we stopped at the town hardware store because Marilou needed double-A batteries for the flash on her camera. I stayed in the car and told her to ask for either of the Sargent brothers. My old schoolmates, Dana and Rickey Sargent, ran the store. She picked up a four-pack of Duracells and as Rickey was ringing up the purchase, she made an offhand remark about how wasteful it was to have to buy four batteries when you need only two. Invariably, the other two batteries get lost and go to waste. Hearing this, old Rick ripped open the package and sold her two of the batteries for half of the sticker price. Marilou was slapping her forehead and laughing when she got back to the car.
"What's up with this place?" she asked before relaying the story. Stuff like that never happened in Detroit.
For many years, there were no stoplights in Groton (one was grudgingly installed for the new millennium). It was a town of 4,000 in the 1950s, and I went to school with kids who lived on apple, dairy, and produce farms. Houses were far apart and we rode our bikes everywhere, sometimes lining our wheel spokes with baseball cards because we liked the way it sounded. An odd little man named Bravel Goulart cut our hair and would give me a nickel to go next door to Bruce Pharmacy and fetch a newspaper. Old school. Bravel cut our hair the way our dads and moms wanted it cut, even after the Beatles splashed ashore in 1964.
In this vast space of small-town serenity, it was baseball that filled the long summer days. And it was major league baseball that made us feel connected to something bigger than Groton. The Boston Red Sox weren?ft very good for most of the 1950s and ?f60s, but they always had a lot of home run hitters and every now and then someone would pitch a no-hitter. A huge relief pitcher named Dick Radatz entertained us by raising his arms over his head when he walked off the hill after fanning the great Mickey Mantle. We got to listen to the greatest announcer of them all, Curt Gowdy, and most of the weekend games were on TV. The Sox were the big league team in the big city. They were ours, even if they stunk. (Nobody ever said "sucks" in the 1960s, at least not without punishment. "Sucks" is, in fact, the new "stinks.") They lost more than they won, but we followed them anyway.
My first trip to a Red Sox game was in 1961, a weeknight win over the Orioles. Today, I silently curse my deceased parents for not getting to Fenway one year earlier. Ted Williams retired in 1960 and I never saw him play. His was a magical name in every New England home when I was a kid, but my folks did not think to get Danny to Fenway before Ted hung ?fem up. So I went in 1961, in the second grade, and I remember that famous first glimpse of the Fenway green when I walked up the ramp with my dad and brother. Fenway was grainy, small, and gray on the tiny black-and-white Philco at home. Like most people my age, when I finally walked into that ancient yard for the first time, I was awed, overwhelmed, and tangled up in green. Unfortunately, I was not struck by the sight of Ted Williams taking batting practice, so I settled for a rookie leftfielder named Carl Yastrzemski. The Red Sox beat the Orioles that night, and I fell asleep in the back seat on the ride home. I was still one year removed from a lifetime's immersion in baseball.
It happened in the summer of 1962. Something just clicked. My older brother, Bill, was a local teen baseball sensation by the time I was 8, and no doubt this had much to do with my sudden fascination for all things baseball. I knew every player on every major league team. I collected baseball cards and baseball coins and watched every game that was on television. The ?f62 Sox were dreadful, but that hardly mattered. My world was baseball, and I would play imaginary games with a rubber ball and my S & H Greenstamp/Tito Francona–model glove. We got our mail at the post office, and I faithfully stalked the brick building when my monthly Sport magazine was due. Sport featured a few too many stories about Mantle and Whitey Ford for my liking, but it didn?ft really matter much as long as it was baseball. The town librarian learned to set aside any new young-reader baseball novels. I'd inhale the cliché-laden texts and return them in a matter of days. I invented a baseball dice game and played an entire 162- game season with my imaginary teams. I wallpapered my bedroom with baseball photographs and played some form of baseball — often by myself — from the time I woke up until the sun went down, unless of course there was school or a family function. My sisters still laugh recalling my narration of imaginary games with a rubber ball at the back porch steps. They would chuckle while they dried dishes at the kitchen sink. Joan, who is ten years older than me, claims I would sometimes work myself into a fit of tears while playing one-on-one with myself. "Why didn?ft you just let yourself win?" she would later ask.
It was not that simple, of course, but how could anyone else understand the game inside my head? I was an 8-year-old baseball Rain Man.
In Billy Crystal's City Slickers, a female character teases three 40- year-old guys regarding their lack of intellectual curiosity contrasted with their remembrance of everything having to do with baseball. When she says, "I don?ft remember who played third base for Pittsburgh in 1960," all three simultaneously say, "Don Hoak."
Alone in the theater, I, too, stared at the screen and said, "Don Hoak."
I remember my uncle Chappy looking at the scorebook I kept while watching the 1964 World Series on television (Cardinals over the Yankees, 4–3) and telling me, "This is good. You should keep doing this. You might be able to do something with it."
Uncle Chappy was probably into his third whiskey by then. I?fm sure he never remembered the conversation. But I did. And he was right.
As a professional baseball writer for more than thirty years, I?fve learned that many of the best big league players know little about players who came before them. It seems that the gifted ones are rarely devoted fans of the game. They?fre just really good at it. Nomar Garciaparra didn?ft waste any time memorizing the lineup of the 1982 California Angels. He was busy playing soccer and baseball better than the rest of his friends. In my experience, people who love baseball the most are often one step removed from the dugouts and bullpens. Fans, writers, broadcasters, and professional baseball executives get into the game because they love baseball. A lot of players get into it because they are good at it and it pays well. In the spring of 2006, Red Sox reliever Keith Foulke, the man who closed out the first Red Sox World Championship in eighty-six years, a pitcher making more than $7 million annually, admitted, "I?fll never be channeled toward baseball. I?fm not a baseball fan. I actually find baseball kind of boring. It's not my life. I can?ft sit around and watch nine innings of a baseball game."
My playing career was fun but unspectacular. Brother Bill was my first obstacle. When I was a kid, my big brother seemed to be better at baseball than just about anybody who ever played in Groton. They put him on the high school varsity as a starting rightfielder when he was in the seventh grade. By the time he was a sophomore, he was hitting home runs and winning a league championship as a pitcher. Bill is six years older than I am, and I?fm convinced that I learned to report on sports by going to his games, then coming home and telling my parents and sisters what had happened.
Going to Fenway was not common. It was a once-a-year event, like Christmas and my birthday, and usually timed to soften the blow of my annual visit to the Lahey Clinic, where I was treated for asthma. Groton is only forty miles from Boston, but we didn?ft make many long drives when I was a kid, and a trip to the Hub was treated like a trip to Europe. We usually had to stop at the Howard Johnson's in Concord to mark the midpoint of our long journey. This made faraway Fenway even more fascinating. Thinking back, I remember a couple of times when my annual game was rained out, and to this day I deal poorly with unexpected disappointment. It reminds me of a rainout for that summer day I looked forward to the most.
Want more childhood trauma? Try this: I was traded in Little League. In the fourth grade I started out as a member of the Dodgers, but Groton's in-town Little League Dodgers and Yankees were too strong and the Giants and Braves too weak, so they put my name into a lottery for a dispersal draft to break up the superpowers. Probably because my brother was so good, the Braves assumed I would be good and took me for their roster. Sort of the Dominic DiMaggio effect. My Dodger coach, Andre Van Hoogen, called me before school one morning to break the news. I was crushed.
I loved Mr. Van Hoogen. He was the father of a raft of talented sons and daughters, and he'd come to our town from Chicago, where he'd coached Bryant and Greg Gumbel. Mr. Van Hoogen had had a childhood bout with polio that rendered his right arm useless. Still, he managed to hit us fungoes with his good arm — smoking a cigarette at the same time. It was impressive. He also was some kind of engineering genius and used a lot of big words. When we started calling a familiar umpire by his nickname, "Jake," Mr. Van Hoogen told us to knock it off. Said it sounded like we were in "cahoots" with Jake. Cahoots. I had to look that one up. Mr. Van Hoogen had a Fort Devens sticker on his car, which meant he could drive onto the army base in nearby Ayer and shop at the PX, where everything cost less. There were a lot of great men like Mr. Van Hoogen when I was a kid — men who'd served in World War II and come home never to speak of it again. Mr. Kopec, dad of my Little League teammate Woody, had fought on the beach in Normandy.
Then there was Mr. Zeamer, whose house was on Old Ayer Road. My friends and I knew it as the hallowed home of the great-looking Zeamer girls. My sister Ann was friendly with the bubbly Jackie Zeamer, and when my dad and I went to pick up Ann after a slumber party, Dad mentioned that Mr. Zeamer had been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery in World War II. None of the Zeamer girls ever mentioned this, and neither did their dad.
Tom Brokaw would later call them "the Greatest Generation," but we just knew these remarkable men as solid citizens who seemed to love the pace and beauty of small-town life. When I started behind the counter at the ice cream joint, the owner, Norm Johnson, told me the most important thing was serving customers quickly. He reminded me many of his customers had waited in lines during their hitch in the service, and they didn?ft ever want to wait in line again.
No doubt there are psychologists who'd enjoy getting inside the head of a little boy who was traded in Little League then grew up to be a wisecracking sports columnist, but we will have none of that here. Getting traded turned out to be okay, because I got two hats and a small trophy when the Dodgers won it all that year. I guess it was my World Series share for spending a portion of the season with the champs.
The real highlight of my baseball playing career came when I was 12 and led the league in home runs, hitting six in nine games. That first homer was the best. If you love playing baseball, hitting your first home run over a fence is easily a bigger deal than your first day of school, first kiss, first day on the job, or any of that other stuff. My first homer came on my first swing of the 1966 season off Yankee righty, Buzzy Lanni. Big Buzz threw hard and straight and I got him with the thirty-inch Al Kaline Louisville Slugger I'd purchased from Moisen's Hardware (later owned by the battery-bartering Sargent brothers) for six bucks. It was a beautiful, tapered, light bat with wide grain and perfect polish — like those shiny wooden checkerboards on the shelves of the souvenir shops at Hampton Beach. It even smelled good. It was my Wonderboy.
Standing on the mound on that perfect May Sunday, big Buzz held a right-out-of-the-box baseball that was as white as a Chiclet. That's how you knew the game was for real. In all forms of practice or backyard baseball, we'd use scuffed balls, taped balls, tennis balls, rubber balls, pimple balls, half-balls, anything. Not this time. Not on opening day. Hitting this ball would be like making the first sled marks on a hill of fresh snow. My heart beat fast as I stepped into the righthanded batter's box. This never changed. There was always an element of fright and anticipation whenever I went up to hit. Now I get that feeling when Sam is hitting. I suspect it's the same for all ballplayers and all parents.
Old Buzz's first pitch was a knee-high fastball, right where I like ?fem. I did not put anything extra into the swing. I simply did what I'd done before thousands of times in my backyard. I followed the flight of the pitch, opened my hips, swung at the ball, and heard a click. The great Yaz once talked about that perfect hitter's moment when you take a big swing, connect with the sweet spot of the baseball, and feel absolutely nothing as your bat whooshes through the hitting zone. The hardball takes off like a Titleist struck by a two-iron. I experienced this only once.
There were no over-the-fence homers for me after that fi- nal Little League season. I was a scrawny second baseman/out- fielder with little power. I played three years of varsity baseball at Groton High, but our teams were terrible and I was lucky to hit .250. We had more fun in the summertime, playing Babe Ruth games and commuting to surrounding towns in the flatbed of Mr. Friedrich's green truck. He would carry the whole team, ten to twelve guys, in the back of the rusty old Ford. His son, Albane, painted a "chartered" sign and taped it across the front of the truck. We would rumble across the bumpy, winding roads of Ayer, Pepperell, Shirley, and Lancaster, drinking Coca Cola from those 6½-ounce green bottles and singing songs we'd heard on F Troop. Then we would harass the other team's players ("This kid's got nothing! He's throwing junk!"), bash our way to victory, hop on the flatbed, and chug back to Groton. We might even stop for ice cream if old man Friedrich had a spare ten dollars. None of it would work today. You couldn?ft put kids in the back of a truck and you certainly could not hurl insults at the other team. Not now. Parents and officials would get in the way of the fun.
When I first touched down on Holy Cross's campus in September 1971, I went out for fall baseball for about a week. Once a national power, winning the NCAA Championship at Omaha in 1952, Holy Cross's baseball program was struggling by the time I arrived. I had brought my spikes and glove to school and went to a few captain's practices. I remember doing pretty well in batting practice at Fitton Field and getting the attention of the senior captain who was running the workout. But I knew the time demand would be large and the reward small. A plodding, .250 hitter from the Wachusett League wasn?ft good enough for Division I college baseball.
This was the proverbial fork in the road. In high school I had been class president, played three sports, worked twenty-five hours a week, wrote for the town newspaper, and even served as an audio-visual aide (the ultimate in dorkdom). I had promised myself to commit to only one extracurricular activity in college. It would not be baseball. I would write for the weekly student newspaper.
My first assignment for the vaunted Crusader was covering the freshman football team. In my first story, I wrote that the freshman football team was in a "rebuilding year." And I wasn?ft even kidding.
Sports writing worked out pretty well in college. I was sports editor four weeks into sophomore year and soon realized that it would be prudent to spend more time on the school paper than on my studies. I nagged the Boston Globe editors and writers constantly for work, and after my junior year the Globe sports editor Dave Smith asked me if I would like to cover the Boston Neighborhood Basketball League during the summer. I would have walked on my lips through busted glass for any opportunity to get bylines in the Globe. It was then the paper of Peter Gammons (also a Grotonian), Ray Fitzgerald, Leigh Montville, Bud Collins, Will McDonough, Fran Rosa, and Bob Ryan. A tour through the Globe sports department was a walk through the clouds, and I spent the next three summers driving Globe cars in and out of sixteen different Boston neighborhoods, watching teenagers play summer basketball outdoors. It was the best training I could have had. I learned the city from Savin Hill to Mattapan, from Charlestown to Brighton. Due to forced school busing, the Hub was immersed in racial tension during those years, but my game knew no colors and no political points of view. I was a sportswriter for the Boston Globe. I covered and befriended men named Kevin Mackey, Leo Papile, and Jim Calhoun, guys who made it big in later years. But in those years, we were all just part of the Hub's hoop culture, sweating nightly and wondering when the city would ever cool down.
I graduated from college in 1975 and spent the next two years blissfully enjoying independence and learning the life of a sportswriter. I got to run quotes for the Associated Press at Fenway Park during the World Series season of 1975. It paid only seven dollars per night, but we could eat and drink all we wanted in the expansive, wood-paneled press dining room at Fenway. I introduced myself to old Mr. Tom Yawkey. I ate scrod and drank Scotch with Jumpin?f Joe Dugin, who played third base for the 1927 Yankees. Jumpin?f Joe had roomed with Babe Ruth and loved to tell stories about the Bambino. He would sometimes put his glass down, glance at me stuffing my face, and exclaim, "This kid eats more than Ruth!" I loved that.
Sitting in the smoky pressroom, I could listen to Billy Martin, Earl Weaver, Gene Mauch, Dick Williams, Bill Veeck, Calvin Griffith, Clark Booth, and all the writers I grew up reading. The stories got better as the night lengthened and the whiskey flowed. I quickly realized you learn the most by just listening.
This experience helped me land a job as a baseball writer at the Baltimore Evening Sun in the summer of 1977. I was 23 years old and vividly remember my first road trip to Cleveland. I found myself alone in an elevator with Brooks Robinson; he asked me my name and how old I was and said, "You?fre going to have a great time."
Brooks Robinson. How many times had I pretended I was him while tossing the rubber ball against the backdoor porch in Groton? Now, I was standing with him in an elevator at the Hollendon House in an American League city. I was in the big leagues, even if it was only as a small writer. The Orioles were then managed by Weaver and had a pitcher named Jim Palmer and a rookie designated hitter named Eddie Murray. All would make it to the Hall of Fame, as would a Maryland high school kid the O's drafted in 1978 — Cal Ripken Jr. Cal's dad, a third base coach, used to take me to dinner almost nightly at the old Dupont Plaza Hotel when the Orioles trained in Miami. When young Cal came to spring camp, the three of us would dine together.
The Orioles made it to the World Series two years after I left Boston. By then I was covering the Baltimore team for the Washington Star. A month before the ?f79 World Series, the O's made their final trip to Boston, and I hosted a Saturday night party in my high-rise corner room at the Boston Sheraton. Weaver and several of his coaches appeared, and the old men were quite taken with some of our young female friends. We still talk about Earl dancing in my room with several of the lovely Brissette sisters. The next day, I gave the maid ten dollars to clean up the room before my folks arrived for Sunday brunch. Proud of my expense account, I bought lunch for the folks, and I know Dad loved that. Later that day, before the game ended, I went to see my parents in section 27 of Fenway Park. It would be the last time I saw my dad.
The scheduled first game of the 1979 World Series in Baltimore was rained out. It snowed lightly overnight, and I stopped by old Memorial Stadium the next morning to see if Commissioner Bowie Kuhn might postpone game one for a second day. This was long before the cell phone era and I had no way of knowing that my family in Massachusetts was trying to reach me. When I walked into the Orioles?f offices, a secretary said, "There he is," and whisked me into the office of veteran public relations director Bob Brown.
"It's about your dad," he said, stumbling to find words.
"He died, right?" I asked.
"Yes, he died," said Bob Brown.
It was a conversation I'd been expecting to have since my earliest days. Dad had had a lot of heart trouble as a young man and we were actually surprised he made it to the age of 64. I called my mom, brother, and sisters from Memorial Stadium, then flew home to Boston. We buried Dad three days later, and I rejoined the World Series in Pittsburgh before game four.
So it was always baseball. The last time I saw my dad was in Fenway Park. I was in Memorial Stadium when I learned he died. And he's buried in a small cemetery in East Pepperell, Massachusetts, right next to a Little League ball field.
I even met Marilou — who knows next to nothing about base ball — through baseball. It was six months after my father had passed and I was in Chicago with the Orioles, knocking back a few with Weaver and a radio guy in the Lion Bar at the Westin Hotel on Michigan Ave. A young woman — the only young woman at the Westin that night — kept running in and out of the bar (I found out later she was calling her boyfriend from the lobby payphone). I stopped her, offered to buy a drink, and pointed out that the great Earl Weaver was seated on a nearby stool. Naturally, she'd never heard of Earl. A month later, she would join me in Milwaukee when the Orioles were in town to play the Brewers. When I introduced her to Earl in the Pfister Hotel coffee shop at breakfast, he blurted, "In my day, we ordered room service!"
That Earl always was a sweet talker.
It mattered not that Marilou knew nothing about baseball. I got enough of it every day from fans and friends. John F. Kennedy was said to be relieved that Jackie never greeted him at the door with "What's new in Laos?" Marilou and I were married in February 1982 in Detroit (big draw, Detroit in February), and by then I was working at the Boston Globe, occasionally covering the Red Sox.
Baseball bookmarked our new family events. Sarah, who would grow up to become a catcher, was born in 1984, which was a good year to fly our family to Detroit because the Tigers were on their way to winning the World Series. When Kate was born in July 1985, I walked from Beth Israel Hospital to Fenway Park, where I handed out cigars behind the batting cage. Kate, who would become an outfielder, fell in love with baseball before any of our other kids, and when she was diagnosed with leukemia at the age of 8, it was the Jimmy Fund — the official charity of the Boston Red Sox — that saved her life. Sam was born on a Friday afternoon in October 1987, the day I was supposed to be flying to Detroit for a season-ending series between the Tigers and Blue Jays. The next day he (sort of) watched his first game, an extra-inning pitcher's duel between Jack Morris and Mike Flanagan. We brought Sam home on Sunday and I flew to Minnesota for the American League Championship Series the next day.
Baseball has been there at every important moment of my life. It has been very very good to me.
Copyright © 2007 by Dan Shaughnessy
Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company