Ghost Story

Published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette in 2004 and posted today in honor of Yaz turning 82.

     The Babe is alive, alive I tell you, and the Curse is dead.  Scatter its ashes from the Charles to the Hudson and speak not its name again.  Let the Sudbury piano decompose in peace at the bottom of the murk.  The Curse which has cursed us since 1918 is kaput.  This current squadron of Red Sox has seen to it, but—and stay with me now—they’ve had some help.  What’s the word you use when you’ve seen a ghost?  Egad?  I have seen a ghost.  Many, in fact.  Just little glimpses here and there, but  enough to know that something’s going on here and nobody’s saying just what.  It is apparent that the GREAT GODS OF RED SOX PAST, those hoary visages of Williams and Foxx and Smoky Joe, who watch over Fenway like the giant heads of Rushmore, have entered the fray.      

     Were the seeds of this Disturbance in the Force sown the summer before last?  Remember when Ted Williams died and the new Sox owners opened the gates and let The Nation in?  Was there something in the air that day as we wandered around old Fenway, paying our last respects, laying our hands on the Green Monster, scuffling our feet in the warning track dirt Ted once patrolled?  Did we feel it then, some sort of strange melting-of-the-icebergs transference, as the last vestiges of the good ‘ol boy Yawkey regime—who once auditioned the incomparable Willie Mays and saw only colored boy—gave way to the congenially ambitious John Henry group, who’d soon put together a rollicking, swashbuckling, bear-hugging team led by Dominicans?  Was it then that the Gods, frustrated for eight long decades, wriggled down off the walls and got involved?    

     Exhibit A:  Pedro Martinez and Smoky Joe Wood.  If you remember bullpen carts you may remember seeing Smoky Joe Wood riding in one.  This would have been in his capacity as the “Oldest Living Red Sock,” where they’d wheel him out once a year to wave feebly to the Fenway crowd, looking more geezerly than the toothless, one-foot-in-the-grave fireman who played checkers with Beaver Cleaver.  But a whole long time ago, Smoky Joe Wood shared headlines with the Titanic.  A flamethrower, faster even than Walter Johnson, Wood pitched in three World Series, winning three Series games for Boston in 1912.  But here’s where it gets eerie: in 1911 and 1912 he struck out 489 batters.  Pedro Martinez in 2002 and 2003 whiffed 490.  Wood’s e.r.a for the same period was a cumulative 1.96.  Pedro’s was 1.98.  Both were listed as 5’11” and 180 pounds, and—are you sitting down?—when Smoky Joe Wood was being serenaded on his 95th birthday up here in Connecticut, Pedro Martinez was in Manoguaybo blowing out the candles on his 12th.  That’s right, THEY SHARE THE SAME BIRTHDAY, October 25th.  Is your spine sufficiently chilled?

     And who is Manny if not Jimmie Foxx?  Who else had arms like legs and a swing as unwavering as the world on its axis?  Who hits the ball harder than a man has a right to, but whose large liquid eyes reveal tenderness, forgiveness, an abundant humanity?  Now dig out an old picture of Foxx and see the same thing in his translucent pale blues.  And how many opposing managers have bemoaned a Manny Ramirez who “slashed through our pitching staff like Zorro?”  Now brace yourself.  Zorro is Spanish for fox.  Is your hair standing on end? 

     Now take a good look at Trot.  See the way he holds his bat high above his head, grinding sawdust from its handle in a death grip of anticipation.  Now see the violent uncoiling of all the muscles in his back, see the explosion at the plate, and see him charge down the baseline, running in that two-fisted crouch, chest forward, all haunches and thighs.  Now see where the ball ends up and tell me Trot’s not Yastrzemski.  Change the 7 on his back to an 8, put a couple of stripes on those hiked-up red socks, look how he prepares in the on-deck circle and tell me he’s not Yaz.  

     “But Bob,”  I hear you say,  “you’re talking about reincarnation here, coming back from the dead as it were, but Yaz? Yaz is not dead yet, Bob, Yaz is not dead.  Yaz is alive, retired, hair as silver as the chrome on Kevin Millar’s bike!”  

     And I say to you that a god is a god, dead or retired, and gods decide when and if they want to play.  It’s all right there in Field of Dreams.  And what the hell is the point of reincarnation if you can’t bring back Yastrzemski?  All I know is when the Curse struck in ’78, when Bucky Dent’s pop fly somehow plopped into the leftfield screen, when Yaz’s knees buckled in the Green Monster’s shadow as all the hope went out of him, Trot was in his playpen back in Durham, taking his first steps. 

     And speaking of Millar.  What make we of the Tinseltown hair, the light-up-the-ballpark charisma, the moving, grooving raw sexuality of Karaoke Guy?  Who does he think he is, this Millar, Tony Conigliaro?  Uh-oh.  I said it and I see it.  I see it when he gets hold of one and belts it into the left-center gap.  I see it when he runs down the street still in uniform and sets up drinks for the fans at The Baseball Tavern.  Now I hear the first few strains of “Playing the Field” on WMEX and I can see him digging in on that August night 37 years ago, and I see the Curse strike him down at the plate, right then and there, Rico bent over him, fearing the worst, knowing it’s over.  Tony C left us then, came back for a short time and then really left us.  But he’s home now, in the dugout with a bat, smiling as ever.           

     They’re all here, these star-crossed, mashed-up, quixotic victims of near-misses and Boudreau Shifts and Slaughter’s Mad Dash.  Doerr is here except he now plays third, Pesky’s moved over to second, still slicing four-baggers off foul poles, and Dominic’s back in center, now a southpaw, with enough hair for all three Dimaggios. 

     And speaking of hair, take a look at our shortstop the next time his helmet flies off.  Where have you seen that ‘do before, all black and wavy and luxurious?  Give up?  It’s Ted’s!  Yes, his House of Usher relatives have him frozen in pieces like cuts of poultry  and we may never have a clear idea of the whereabouts of his head, but we know exactly where his hair is—resting atop Orlando Cabrera.                 

     But never mind any of that.  The main reason we can kiss the Curse goodbye is because the catalyst for the whole cockamamie thing, the Bambino himself, walks among us—trapped, until now, in purgatory.  Turns out he didn’t like his sale to the Yankees any more than we did.  For crying out loud, they wouldn’t even let him pitch.  And EVERYBODY AND HIS MOTHER wanted a piece of him.  “Eat at MY restaurant, Babe, drink at MY tavern, Babe, carouse at MY nightclub, Babe, frolic with THESE procured women, Babe.”  There’s even a feeling on his part that if he’d stayed in the Hub he wouldn’t have gotten so damn fat.  

     Take measure of him now, the size of him, the make of him.  See the collossal shoulders, the broad nose, the blue moon face, the easy way he has with fans young and old, with his teammates, with sportswriters, even.  What did he say to them at that press conference last October after breaking out of a mini-slump and clubbing in the winning runs in Game 4 over Oakland?  “Don’t give up on me, man—I mean, c’mon.”  And with a grin all full of teeth and heaven, he put his massive arms around us in a group hug for the ages, squeezing the pessimism out of this bare-treed region like sap.  Now count up the game-winning blasts, look at his patented opposite field Green Monster stroke, the same stroke he would have used had he played here in the twenties.  Now take another look at that impossibly wide back and the crimson number stitched to it.  That’s right.  34.  Everybody talks about 1918, the year Babe was sold to the Yankees, but the real year is ’34, the last year Babe played for the Yankees.  And at last it hits you, and beyond a shadow of a doubt, you know:  DAVID ORTIZ OF SANTO DOMINGO IS GEORGE HERMAN RUTH.  Back where he belongs.  The Curse is no more.  The sun is shining in Kenmore Square.  And in Mashpee and Montague and Montpelier and Milton.  And we will not complain about anything, ever again, as long as we all shall live.     

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