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The impossible dream

For many Bostonians, 1967 was the year of hurrahs and heartbreak

By Larry Whiteside, Globe Staff, 09/04/97

The pecking order of heroes who made the 1967 Red Sox impossible to forget generally reads something like this: Carl Yastrzemski, Jim Lonborg, Rico Petrocelli, Dick Williams. Reggie Smith is well down the list.

But to assume he didn't play a major role in the Impossible Dream season that is still reverently recalled after 30 years would be a mistake. A rookie in 1967, Smith went on to an outstanding 17-year major league career, the first seven seasons of which were spent in Boston. But though he appeared in three World Series with the Dodgers and at various times batted above .300, hit 30 homers, and drove in 100 runs, Smith's most gratifying accomplishment may have been his role on the 1967 Red Sox, who rose from ninth place the year before to capture the American League pennant in a four-way cliffhanger with the White Sox, Tigers, and Twins, then lost an epic seven-game World Series to the Cardinals.

At 51, Smith is the last daily reminder of that fabled team that turned a foundering franchise into a New England mania. He's the only member of the '67 Sox who's still employed in the majors, as hitting instructor and first base coach of the Los Angeles Dodgers. In his current role, he's deeply involved in another pennant race, but he has no trouble looking 30 years into the rearview mirror. ``You never forget your first World Series,'' he says. ``The others were exciting, but not as much as the first one, which is burned in my memory. I think back about all the great players who never got to play in a World Series and how lucky I was. I got to do it for Boston in my first year in the major leagues.''

Though he spent most of his time in 1967 and throughout his career as a center fielder, Smith is the answer to a trivia question: Who was the Opening Day second baseman on the Impossible Dream team? Before his Fenway Park stay was finished, he would engage in feuds with management and some teammates and would be among the first black athletes to openly question the racial climate in Boston. But none of that was relevant in his rookie year, when first-year manager Williams relentlessly drove Yaz and the gang to Boston's first pennant since 1946.

``It was a special season,'' Smith says, ``quite a year for a team that had several rookies and second-year players. Only maybe a handful of the players, I recall, had as much as four years in the majors in terms of experience. ``It was a fun time. It was only a 10-team league that year, and we were the next-to-last team to win a pennant outright without a separate playoff'' before the division format was introduced in 1969. ``I was just glad for a chance to be in the major leagues.''

Out of nowhere

No one gave the Red Sox a ghost of a chance in 1967. They were led by an alleged tyrant from Triple A who was managing his first major league team. Smith was a long shot to make it, even though he had hit .320 in 143 games for Williams at Toronto in 1966.

Fortunately, Williams appreciated the versatility Smith brought to spring training. Smith had been signed as a shortstop and had played both second base and the outfield in the minors.

The circumstances that put Smith in the Opening Day lineup were bizarre, to say the least.

The story began in 1966 with a series of broken promises. Smith thought he could make the jump from Double A Pittsfield to Boston. Then manager Billy Herman thought otherwise. At the end of the season, Herman was fired and Smith was called up for six games. In spring training of '67, it looked like more of the same. Smith was prepared to go back to Triple A, though not willingly.

``I recall being upset because they were sending me out again,'' says Smith, who was informed of the impending move by general manager Dick O'Connell. ``That year they could keep 28 players -- three extra for 30 days -- because of the labor situation. I had a pretty good spring and thought I deserved the opportunity. O'Connell conceded they might be making a mistake but wanted to do it, anyway.

``I told them they didn't have to think about it twice. I was out of options and this was going to be the last time they would do it. I agreed to go to De Land, Fla., for spring training with the Toronto ball club.''

He never got there. An injury knocked fellow rookie Mike Andrews out of the lineup, and Smith was the only reserve above Double A who could play two infield positions and the outfield.

``The next thing I knew,'' he says, ``I was the Opening Day second baseman at Fenway Park.''

He played six games at second, and when Andrews returned to the lineup after two weeks, Smith not only stayed up but replaced Jose Tartabull in center field, playing 144 games there. He batted just .246. But he was part of the revival.

``In 1967, we lost that losing stigma and developed a reputation for winning,'' he says. ``That proved to be the turning point for us and the organization.''

After a time, Smith remembers, he knew he was part of a quality group.

``You try to pick out some things about that season, and so many come to mind,'' he says. ``I think about Yaz, Rico, Jim Lonborg, George Scott, Billy Rohr, Gary Bell, Joe Foy. A lot of guys.''

Unlike his veteran colleagues, Smith was painfully aware of Williams's firebrand approach.

``He did things to make you angry,'' says Smith. ``His feeling was that by doing it, it would make you play better. The one thing I do credit him for is that he helped us develop a kind of mental toughness that you need to play the game.

``He would not tolerate mistakes. It didn't take long for you to realize that you couldn't afford to make them with him and still play. He stressed the idea mistakes cost ballgames and winning teams just don't make mistakes.'' Although Boston had finished ninth the previous two seasons while losing 190 games in the process, Williams knew the Sox were spiced with winners, according to Smith, and that it would be the manager's mandate to bring it out of them. But the initial returns were meager as the club got off to a slow start.

``Finally, we came together on a 10-game road trip in July of that year,'' says Smith. ``All of a sudden, we discovered we could compete. Most of us in the minor leagues, we were reminded, had never been on losing ball clubs.

``Under Williams, players had developed a winning attitude that enabled us to compete with the other teams. That's all we focused on. Williams kept us focused on winning.''

The grand finale

The 1967 pennant race went down to the final week, even past the final game for the Red Sox. Although Petrocelli's game-ending catch of a popup that Sunday afternoon sealed a 5-2 victory over the Twins and created ``pandemonium on the field,'' in the immortal words of broadcaster Ned Martin, the Sox still had to sweat out Detroit's doubleheader against the Angels, because a Tiger victory in the nightcap would have forced a one-game Detroit-Boston playoff. When California won, it set off a champagne shower in the Boston clubhouse, where Yaz, still half in uniform, was at the center of the tumult -- fittingly, Smith recalls, for it was the Triple Crown accomplishmenmts of the onetime petulant owner's pet that made the impossible come true.

``Even when comparing him to today's players, I have yet to see a season like the one he had,'' says Smith. ``That whole year was dream-like, anyway, considering what we did and what we accomplished.

``When you're talking about a superstar, you're talking about a person who can make the people around him play better. No matter what the situation was, he'd come through. We'd get ourselves into a situation that Yaz could win a ballgame for us and he did.'' Being in the Opening Day lineup was only one of the indelible April memories for Smith. He will never forget Rohr's major league debut against the Yankees on April 14. Rohr hurled 8 2/3 no-hit innings before giving up a single to Elston Howard, who ironically would be Boston's catcher in the World Series. Yastrzemski made a highlight-reel catch in the ninth to keep the bid alive. Bottom line: Boston 3, New York 0.

``That was such a dramatic performance,'' says Smith. ``We all know that Billy's career went sour after that and he never came close to another one. But it was typical of what went on that season. You had peaks and valleys. Don McMahon was there at age 37. Ken Brett came along and at 18 wound up the youngest pitcher ever to pitch in a World Series. Yaz, Rico, and myself hit consecutive home runs in Game 6 in Boston.''

The miracle wasn't just happening on the field. It happened for the Fenway Faithful, too. ``It was unbelievable,'' says Smith. ``People used to talk about the Boston Garden and the 13,909 crowd each night. It became the same way with us in 1967. We knew there would be a chance we would have 29-30,000 every night in little Fenway Park, which was unthinkable.

``They were coming to see a young team that was playing a winning brand of baseball. You can't fool the East Coast fans. They knew the game. And what we were giving them for a while was as close to what NL ball was like. For a while, we were even stealing bases. That was Williams's input.''

The friendships developed along the way can never be recaptured, according to Smith.

``Ellie brought his knowledge and his leadership and experience from having played on all those winning teams with the Yankees,'' he says. ``What it did was settle our pitching staff to the point they began to dominate and become much more consistent. There was just an aura about him.

``As for Rico, he was a lot like me. A little temperamental. Very sensitive to his performance because he wanted to do well. He took a lot of pride in his job. He probably retired a lot sooner than he should have. ``There is no doubt in my mind that Jim [Lonborg] was one of the best pitchers in the league at that time. He was dominating and feared and put up the numbers to support that view. He kept us in ballgames and found a way to win'' on his way to a 22-9 record and the Cy Young Award.

Later there would be much controversy punctuating Smith's Boston tenure. ``But,'' he says, ``I don't want to confuse that period with 1967. It was too great an experience, and you don't want to spoil the memory.''

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