Sometimes it’s the paper cut rather than the knockout punch, the scribbled note rather than the headline, that clarifies that message. At Red Sox spring training in 1987, Al Nipper ran away from me. I’d made arrangements to interview him when he came out of the clubhouse, but evidently he’d changed his mind while he was in the shower. When he did come out, he spotted me and began trotting toward his car. I jogged a few steps after him, my tape recorder bouncing off my leg, before realizing that running after Nipper for an interview was ridiculous. The allegedly “gritty” pitcher drove away in a cloud of sand and pebbles.
But it had begun before that. A year earlier, I was NPR’s game guy for the postseason in Boston. That meant that I was at Fenway Park for Game Five of the World Series, when the Red Sox took a three-games-to-two lead over the Mets. In the early morning directly after that game, Kenmore Square was full of optimists, not all of them drunk. Sure, the next two games were scheduled in New York, but the Sox had won games one and two there. Why shouldn’t they win Game Six? Or at least Game Seven.
My editor had already told me that he wanted a commentary immediately after the final game, no matter who won. As I walked up Commonwealth Avenue, I began thinking about what I’d write if the Red Sox prevailed. They hadn’t done so since 1918. It would be a good story. But it occurred to me in the chill of that early morning that there might be a better tale to tell if this team, so thoroughly identified with perversely disappointing its fans, found yet another macabre way to lose. I’d become a fan of the story rather than a fan of the team.
Years ago, Roger Angell wrote of Major League players that “they are what they do.” But I became more interested in what else they were.
In 1989, Red Sox pitcher Wes Gardner was arrested, accused of pushing his wife into a wall. They were staying in a hotel in Baltimore during a series between the Orioles and the Sox. Gardner’s wife declined to press charges and he agreed to seek counseling. The next day, he was on the mound. When asked about the alleged domestic abuse, the manager would say only that it was a family matter and Gardner would stay in the rotation.
It’s easy to stop rooting for an organization insensitive and dumb enough to respond that way to a question about an employee who’s been accused of assaulting his wife.
Which is not to say that I stopped hoping good things would come to some of the Red Sox players. I began to like and root for the ones who could look me in the eye and laugh and talk about matters beyond what pitches they had hit. When I learned that Dennis Eckersley had found sobriety, I rooted for him wherever he was pitching — Oakland, St. Louis, Boston, it didn’t matter to me. Later, I was similarly inclined to wish the best for Dwight Gooden when he told me in the late ’90s, during his decades-long battle with substance abuse, that he felt each day he could go to work at the ballpark was a gift.
One evening I helped out at a dinner to raise money to fight lupus, and Mo Vaughn was the featured attraction. When the organizer later told me that Vaughn had not only stayed around until the last autograph seeker had been satisfied but had also quietly made a large cash contribution to the cause, I became a Mo Vaughn fan.
More than a century ago, William Butler Yeats wrote “Though I am old with wandering.” Over the years some of my wandering has taken me beyond baseball. I am still a fan of the game. I still relish double plays and patient at-bats and pitchers who set up hitters and managers who tell good stories well. But the three teams about which I care most these days are not in baseball.
One is the men’s basketball team at Curry College in Milton, where I teach. Their coach, Malcolm Wynn, is an old friend who used to run the men’s team at Roxbury Community College. There he was exceptionally successful at doing two things. He consistently led his teams to preposterously successful seasons, including one in which they won a community college national championship, and he guided his players into four-year schools, where many of them earned degrees and subsequently built lives with shape and purpose.
Malcolm faces different challenges at Curry, where he has also been successful. But his achievement at Roxbury, with young men who were often the first members of their families to attend college, was especially impressive. Malcolm never seems to give up on anybody, for which I admire him and wish him wins and other good things.Continued...