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Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The 1975 Red Sox helped save baseball -- and my childhood

Forty years ago tonight the Red Sox and Reds played what is routinely cited as one of the greatest games in sports history. Filled with high drama and compelling characters, Game 6 of the 1975 World Series set TV viewership records and jump-started baseball's popularity -- which had waned with the rise of the NFL and Monday Night Football.

Some say Game 6 saved the National Pastime. It definitely helped save me.

I was in the stands at Fenway that cold October evening, and wish I remembered it better. It was well past an 8-year-old's bedtime, and most of my recollections of the evening revolve around the pregame -- when I joined the multitudes shouting "Looie! Looie!" into cardboard megaphones as we watched ace Luis Tiant warm up in the Boston bullpen -- and the climax -- lots of screaming, hugging, and organ playing after Carlton Fisk's shot to left field banged off the foul pole for a game-winning homer.

The 7-6 Red Sox win only temporarily staved off a Cincinnati celebration the next night in Game 7 , but the feats of Pudge, El Tiante, and their teammates during that season and beyond had a lasting impact on me -- providing a way to survive and then escape from the darkest force of my childhood.

Before '75, the Red Sox were not on my radar screen. My big brother Adam played in the Newton Central Little League, and I went to his games, but my father was an MIT-educated engineer who liked to joke that he "wasn't created with a sports gene." Dad could build or fix anything but looked like Felix Unger when throwing a ball.  

Baseball was never on the radio or the TV, and I connected with my father by building plastic model cars in his basement workshop. I'm not sure I even knew who Carlton Fisk was then, but I could tell any two Ford Thunderbirds apart by studying the taillights of my AMI replicas. At the time that was good enough.

Pre-Sox stats: A full-length taillight on the '66.

Then, on Friday the 13th of January, 1975, my parents sat me and Adam down on his bed to tell us they were splitting up after 13 years of marriage. My mother claims I said something mature like "Well, if you don't get along well together, at least this way you can stay friends," but at age 7 I certainly couldn't grasp the seriousness of what was going on. 

Dad moved the next day from our house in leafy Newton to an apartment abutting Routh 95 in Burlington, where the three of us hanged out every weekend watching late-night TV and eating burgers and creamed corn. Adam and I slept head-to-toe on a living room couch, like Richie's big brother Chuck and his college roommates on "Happy Days." 

For Adam, then nearly 11, it must have been scary and sad to see our father starting his life over. For me it felt like an adventure.

Beacon Village: Fun far from Fenway.

We didn't listen or watch baseball at "dad's house," but by the time the Red Sox clinched the American League East that September the games started appearing on the big Zenith in our den. Mom had a boyfriend, and he had plenty of sports genes.

Jack was big and strong, a jock-turned-lawyer and a rabid Sox fan. He had the games on no matter what he was doing; he even had a huge set of headphones with a built-in radio that he wore while mowing the lawn. I still made Rydell models in the shop, but Jack never went down there. To connect with the new man in the house, I had to watch the games too.

So I did -- and got hooked.

While my own baseball skills were and remained mediocre at best, I found I had a natural affinity for understanding the game and its history. Jack, who had played in high school and beyond, explained some of the finer points, and I began listening to the Sox on my clock radio as I fell asleep and then poring through boxscores in the next morning's Globe. Tiant, Fisk, Rice, Lynn, Yastrzemski -- these heroes provided the language I figured would win Jack over. 

"Hey, Looie got the win last night," I'd say to Jack as we passed heading to and from the bathroom, and I'd feel, briefly, like his equal.

When Luis was winning, life was easier.

Dad briefly took over as the baseball man in the family that October, when a friend of a friend hooked him up with tickets to all four home games in the Red Sox-Reds World Series. These were, I believe, my first visits to Fenway Park, but it was not the start of a trend; once the series and season were over we rarely went back.

A clear dichotomy formed in the years that followed. Weekends at dad's house from spring through early fall were fun-filled with mini-bikes and James Bond movies and burgers, while the weekdays back in Newton were for baseball. Dad married his girlfriend Judy, who was and is a great stepmom but also lacks a sports gene. Mom married Jack, assuring that the Red Sox would always be on at her house.

Hoping for the best, fearing the worst.

As I got older and began to understand a little how the real world worked, I learned one had to be careful when watching and listening to games with Jack. 

If the Red Sox were winning, he smiled and laughed and was your buddy; if they were losing the smile disappeared and he filled up his big glass from the liquor cabinet more often. He never took me and Adam to games or even played catch with us -- those honors were reserved for his own son -- so this hit-or-miss bonding was the best I was going to get.

Sprawled out on the shag carpet in front of the TV, with Jack in the dark leather recliner behind me, I prayed for wins. After Bucky Dent in '78 and the dismantling of the club that soon followed, the drunk, angry moods became more common. It wasn't just the slumping Sox, I learned later; Jack's once flourishing law career was also on a downward trend. 

Time for another drink.

It was best just to stay away, and I found I could momentarily forget about him and the scare he put into me by listening to Ken Coleman call the Sox games on WHDH -- "850 on your AM dial." If there was no game on, I could sing along to Jim Croche or Don MacLean albums with my mom. She made sure I felt loved, and when Jack was in one of his dark moods I guess I did the same for her.

By the early '80s, when Yastrzemski was winding down, I had given up any chance of bonding with the big guy across the hall. I still loved baseball, and began taking the Green Line from Boston College to Kenmore Square with friends in a rite of passage that allowed me to escape the tension at home by making a new home at Fenway. Occasionally dad got there with me -- one game he took me and 10 buddies to right after my Bar Mitzvah remains a great memory -- but the Red Sox were mostly "my" thing. That was fine.

Yaz retired in October 1983, but the last links to the '75 team, Dwight Evans and Jim Rice, were still going strong when I left for college a couple years later. The next summer I returned just as the Red Sox and young pitching phenom Roger Clemens were heating up. 

It was the type of club that even Jack and I might have enjoyed together, but by this point Mom had finally endured enough. He was on the way out, and when he meekly offered me great tickets to a few games that August -- not to go with him, just free seats -- I politely refused. I'd rather grab a standing-room spot balanced atop the guardrails behind the last row of Section 25 with my friends than take his weak-ass handouts.

By '86, I'd rather hang here than with him.

I have no idea where Jack is now; the last I heard about him, he had done some time in jail and been disbarred for stealing money from clients. I occasionally Google him but nothing comes up other than a few short stories and court documents describing his incarceration. I know people who know one of his other ex-wives, and a few calls would likely unearth his whereabouts. But I don't make them.

Mom found a guy worthy of her love -- and ours -- and they had a great decade together before he died of cancer. She and dad did indeed stay friendly and still get together with Adam and my families often. Ballgames are usually on in the background; Dad and Judy still have not developed sports genes, but they'll go to their grandkids' games.

Jack is about 80 now; I imagine the next time I read his name -- if I ever do -- will be in an obituary. Forty years after he entered my life, and nearly 30 years after he left it, the fear and anger are long gone. What's left are the memories of a great team, and a love for the game that I developed in 1975 out of desperation -- but has remained far beyond its original intent.

Maybe Jack never took me to Fenway, but now I can go whenever I want. I tend to look at it not as revenge, but it feels sweet just the same. 

Like a fly ball heading deep to left, staying fair, and making us believe anything is possible. 



Saturday, October 3, 2015

Here's how Dave Dombrowski can solve the Farrell-Lovullo Red Sox managerial dilemma

Have we seen the last of this? 

The rumors out of Yawkey Way are that John Farrell will be back as Red Sox manager for the 2016 season, provided he is healthy after treatment for Stage 1 lymphoma. This would be a mistake.

As much as I wish Farrell well in his cancer battle and respect him for his 2013 World Series success and classy demeanor, this has been a different team since his bench coach Torey Lovullo took over as acting manager. The Red Sox have played with more energy, heart, and success since the switch, with numerous late-inning comebacks -- which was not the case earlier in the season.

Lovullo is now a hot commodity, and Boston stands to lose him as other teams seek to make managerial changes this offseasonConfounding the problem is that Lovullo has already said he will not take the Boston job if his friend Farrell -- who he served as a coach in both Boston and Toronto -- is fired or kicked upstairs to a desk job.

There is a solution, however, that might satisfy both men.

Your move, Dave. (

Monday morning, new Boston baseball czar Dave Dombrowski could invite them into his office and praise them for making the most of a tough situation. Since it was by working together that they were able to turn this hopeless year into a respectable one, he could explain, he doesn't want to break up that partnership. 

He just wants to reverse it.

Imagine a 2016 Red Sox team with Lovullo as manager and Farrell as his bench coach. It would be the best of both worlds.  The grizzled veteran providing wise counsel to a protege-turned-colleague out to match his past success.

Young players like Travis Shaw, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Blake Swihart who blossomed under Lovullo this late summer would not feel abandoned, nor would veterans like David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, and Xander Bogaerts who went through the 2013 wars with Farrell. 

Lovullo has connected with players in 2015... Farrell did before him. (Boston Globe)

Look at the Yankees dynasty of recent vintage. Any time he wanted in-game consultation from 1996-2003, manager Joe Torre could turn to his side and ask bench coach Don Zimmer -- a veteran of 1,744 games as a manager. The godfather-consigliere arrangement resulted in six AL pennants and four World Series titles.

Zimmer was no doubt frustrated he never won it all as manager, but he could seek solace in the fact his insights were beneficial to Torre's success -- and recognized as such. Zim didn't let his ego get in the way of a good gig.

Zim and Torre made it work. (Sports Illustrated)

Farrell doesn't quite have Zimmer's MLB tenure -- he's managed less than 800 games -- but he has won championships in the Boston pressure cooker as both a manager and pitching coach (under Terry Francona in 2007). Since pitching is the biggest fix now needed here, Farrell's expertise before, after, and during games would be invaluable.   

Both Farrell and Lovullo are proud men, but also smart enough and close enough to see that this could work. 

Even if he recovers fully, Farrell could probably benefit from being in a job with less stress and media demands. He could head home earlier after games, get more rest, and still be near the world's best medical care. 

Farrell can also look to his track record. Sure, he was at the helm for the 2013 champs, but he's also finished last 3 of his 4 years in Boston (the club was 50-64 when he stepped down this year). In six years as a manager, including 2011-12 in Toronto, he's finished over .500 once. Maybe he's a great baseball man but not cut out to lead.

Could they handle a role reversal?

Then there is Lovullo. As well as he has done in his first two months as an MLB manager, he is still largely unproven. He knew the players on this team well when he took over in August, and they responded beautifully to him. If he stayed he could help them take the next step; in another city he would be starting from scratch -- and without a close friend by his side. 

Why not give it a shot? Farrell has a guaranteed contract from the Red Sox through 2017, with a club option for 2018, so John Henry will be paying him regardless. If it doesn't work, Dombrowski would still have the option of offering Farrell another position in the organization and/or firing Lovullo. 

Dombrowski and Lovullo: still a chance. (Getty Images

Firing Farrell and/or losing Lovullo to Washington or another team would be a public relations nightmare. Flipping their roles would be a wonderful feel-good story, providing it is spun as a decision made by the two men involved. Farrell has already won it all, so maybe he would enjoy helping his friend do the same.

There is one more reason Dombrowski should make this move: He knows it was not Farrell who assembled the train wreck of a roster Boston had entering 2015. Farrell didn't let Jon Lester go and fail to sign a true No. 1 starter. He didn't bring in Hanley Ramirez and his crappy attitude to play left field, or overpay for Pablo Sandoval because he had a cute nickname and gaudy World Series stats.

That was Ben Cherington and John Henry's team. The 2016 Red Sox will be all Dombrowski's, and John Farrell and Torey Lovullo should both be given a chance to lead them -- together.