Friday, July 8, 2011

The Impossible Dream

There really is no other way to begin this but to say that Dick Williams is directly responsible for stoking one of my lifelong passions.

This isn't to say I didn't follow the Boston Red Sox before he became manager -- and propelled the team from ninth place in 1966 to an American League pennant a year later. I was ... but even in those childhood years (I was 14 when Rico Petrocelli caught that popup that ended the '67 regular season), I understood that being a fan of the Boston Red Sox meant being much too familiar with futility.

I understood that part of it. But I didn't understand the other part ... that from about 1964 on, the seeds that ultimately changed that ethic had already been planted.

Well, actually, we have to go back to 1961, when I was 8 years old, and Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris were battling each other for the honor of breaking Babe Ruth's home run record (for the record, I was pulling for Maris because everybody else seemed to be pulling for The Mick).

Carl Yastrzemski was a rookie in 1961, and the only thing I could really tell about him is that he looked as if his head was somewhere between his shoulders and his armpits when he stood up at bat. He had what I thought was the word's worst stance. But dammit if he didn't manage to hit the ball just the same.

Despite the promise he showed (I was much too young to know, or care, about his other traits), the Red Sox meandered in those years through an endless haze of mediocrity -- and worse. They always had guys who could hit. Dick Stuart hit a ton of home runs. The only problem is that he probably made MORE errors. He was the ultimate guy who could keep both teams in the game.

They even had some good pitchers in those years. Bill Monbouquette was a lot better than anyone ever gave him credit for being; and Earl Wilson went into have a fabulous career -- with the Detroit Tigers. Wilson's an interesting character study. He looked like an athlete; pitched like an athlete and even HIT like an athlete.

But Earl Wilson was black, and we're talking about the team that didn't introduce its first African-American player to the Major League roster until 1959 ... and one can only assume that was done with the gun of public opinion aimed squarely at Tom Yawkey's head. It's also safe to assume that even after that watershed day in Red Sox history, African-Americans probably had to tread lightly around the clubhouse, lest they get on the wrong side of some of the bastions of modern thinking that ran the team in those days.

Seems he went into a bar during spring training of '66 and the bartender dropped the "n" word on him after refusing to serve him.

He sought solace from the Red Sox management, who told him to forget it. He didn't. Instead, he told his tale to the media. Then -- of course -- he was shipped out of town, to the Tigers for Don Demeter. After he was traded, Wilson was 13-6 for Detroit in 1966. The following season he was 22-11 on a team that battled for the pennant the Red Sox eventually won until the last day of the season.

He never approached those figures again, but neither was he terrible. Demeter had a decent half-season for the Sox in '66 (to be fair), but by the middle of '67 he, too, was gone ... shipped to the Cleveland Indians for Gary Bell (who was a vital part of that '67 team).

My only theory on this is that Dick O'Connell, who had been named general manager in 1965 (on the same day Dave Morehead pitched a no-hitter), hadn't established enough of a presence in the Fenway hierarchy to stand up to whatever demands the Red Sox made to trade Wilson. By '67, he knew what he wanted, and wasn't as timid about acting. As I said, that's my theory. I could be all wrong.

Looking back, it is infuriating to realize what went on behind the scenes with those Red Sox. It really alters this image people seem to want to foster that Yawkey was a benevolent owner who "suffered" for 21 years without a pennant (from 1946-67). If he suffered, and if you're to believe some of the stories about how rampant the racism was over there, it was his own fault.

The only thing one does know is that O'Connell wasn't cut out of the same cloth. O'Connell brought players like Reggie Smith, Joe Foy and George "Boomer" Scott into the fold, traded for guys like John Wyatt (a valuable closer on that '67 team) and -- at the trading deadline -- got Elston Howard over here (who didn't hit, but was involved in what had to be the play of the year when he blocked the plate so that Ken Berry couldn't get near it, and then caught Jose Tartabull's throw that ended the first game of a doubleheader with the Chicago White Sox).

Things bottomed out in 1965 when the Sox lost 100 games. The malaise continued through the first part of 1966, when they were on pace to hit the negative century mark for the second straight season (opening with a 3-11 mark). Then, things jelled. They had a couple of lengthy winning streaks, and by September, they actually looked like a ballclub. By then, Jim Lonborg was in the rotation, Tony C. Foy, Scott, Rico and Yaz were firmly in place, and I could see -- even at my age -- that things were looking up. The question was how up? And besides, winning games in August in September when you're basically playing out the string is a lot different than winning them with a pennant within your grasp.

And besides, even with their late-season up tick, the Red Sox still led the American League in losses (90). The Yankees finished last (wasn't THAT sweet!!!) only because they played fewer games, won fewer, and had a lower winning percentage.

But in our cynicism to dismiss that second half of '66 as an aberration, we forgot one thing. Manager Billy Herman was going to be fired. He was a throwback to the "good old days of the good old boys," and, thus, not Dick O'Connell's kind of guy (whenever anyone starts talking about '67, I always caution them to leave room for Dick O'Connell).

These kids were playing to impress whatever manager came after O'Connell (who was, as it turned out Dick Williams, who'd managed their Triple-A team in Toronto).

Dick Williams was a Brooklyn Dodger. And like a lot of the old Dodgers (Don Zimmer being another one), Williams learned baseball at the knee of some of the all-time greats, like Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, Gil Hodges and Roy Campanella. Like Zimmer, Williams suffered a debilitating injury early in his career (a broken shoulder) and ended up being a utility player. Like Zimmer, Williams had no use for what we would describe today as "the modern athlete." He was old school. Even at the ripe old age of 38.

Those old Dodgers are a lot like those Orioles teams of the mid-60s and 70s. They only learned how to play baseball one way ... the right way. And they translated that knowledge ... and that passion ... wherever they went. Look at guys like Frank Robinson, Zimmer, Williams, Hodges, Don Baylor, and even (much as I can't stand him) Davy Johnson. You can't, even if their personalities may rub you the wrong way, argue that they -- as a group -- have a profound impact on the game.

I honestly don't think the Red Sox knew fully what they were getting when they hired Dick Williams. I think O'Connell knew that he was getting a young, aggressive guy who was sorely needed to turn this collection of young talent he'd assembled into a team. But nobody could have predicted how fast that would happen, or how profoundly the culture of ineptitude would be smashed to smithereens.

Williams was Marine drill-instructor tough. I can see him walking into spring training on Day 1 the way Gunnery Sgt. Hartman did in the opening scenes of "Full Metal Jacket."

(Scott, what are you doing to my beloved Sox!!!!).

Speaking of Scott, Williams said, famously, during that '67 season that talking to Scott was like talking to a cement wall. I've talked many times with Scott, both during and after his career, and I can easily see why the two of them might not have connected. But Scott, in 1967, was a .300 hitter with power, as Ken Harrelson used to say, he could "pick it" around the first base bag. He was a four-tool player (let's not get carried away; he was painfully slow around the bases).

One of the first things Williams did was strip Yastrzemski of his captaincy (a position Yaz still says, today, he never wanted). One gets the impression that spring training, in the Good Old Days of the Good Old Boys, was pretty much a paid vacation. Play a little ball in the morning, play a lot of golf (or do a lot of fishing) the rest of the time.

That wasn't spring training at Williams Island. By all accounts, the time was strictly structured, and the focus was on baseball. Players were urged to leave the sticks home.

Williams wasn't afraid to make examples out of players (such as Scott, who was benched when his weight ballooned ever-so-slightly at one point in the season). But all he asked, in the end, was unrelenting effort and attention. He could tolerate the odd physical error. Mental errors (such as throwing to the wrong base, or stupid base running) would definitely cost a player some in-your-face time, and maybe even a few bucks.

Coming out of spring training, he guaranteed that the Red Sox would be a hustling ballclub; and that they'd win more than they lost. This seemed brash coming from the manager of a team that lost 100 and then 90 games the previous two seasons. But I was only 13 when the '67 season began. I believed him.

I remember, early on, that faith being sorely tested. I used to hang around with a guy named Dickie Mariano, who would go absolutely crazy if the Red Sox lost. He'd stomp around the room, yell, throw things ... and I'm afraid some of that rubbed off on me. No. Check that. A lot of that rubbed off on me.

So one day, in April, they were playing the White Sox, and they blew a lead in the late innings. And I went ballistic. And I distinctly remember, as I was stomping around the house, saying things like, "same old Red Sox," and "why was I stupid enough to believe this guy when he said they were going to win." I also remember my mother getting very cross with me for all the stomping around I was doing.

But soon enough ...

And you know, the season just became one maze of moments, all of them captured for posterity by announcers Ken Coleman, Ned Martin and Mel Parnell on the "Impossible Dream" album that was released in time for Christmas '67.

Who could ever forget ... "Yastrzemski going back, way back, way back, he dives and makes a tre-MEND-ous catch."

Or ... "He's out. He's out at the plate ... Tartabull has thrown the runner out."

And, of course, the one for the ages, "Petrocelli's under it, he's got it, and the Red Sox win. Pandemonium on the field."

The only other time I'd ever heard that word used was to describe Beatlemania. THAT'S how big this was.

There are still large parts of that recording forever etched in my memory.

"At all-star break, for heaven's sake, just six games from the lead."

"And Glory Be, There's Tony C, with homer number twenty; we may not win the pennant, but we sure will scare them plenty."

“They sounded attack, and came battling back. They called them the Cardiac Kids.”

Look at 'em go, ten in a row, and now our kids are second."

But it wasn't all euphoric either.

"And then, one night, the kid in right, lay sprawling in the dirt. The fastball caught him squarely; is Tony badly hurt?"

Tony WAS badly hurt. And he was never not hurt, in one way or another, from that night until he died at the age of 45.

The saga of Tony Conigliaro was every bit as incomprehensible as those of Darryl Stingley, Len Bias and Reggie Lewis. In fact, I'd even say it was more so, when you consider that Tony was a local kid, living not just his dream but all our dreams, and that he was pretty much on top of the world when he was felled by that Jack Hamilton fastball on Aug. 18 of 1967.

Tony may have grown up in Revere, MA, and lived later in Swampscott, MA, but he was a kid from my hometown of Lynn. That's where he played both his high school and American Legion ball. There are at least three of his best high school friends that I still see on a semi-regular basis (and who will return my phone calls at the drop of a hat no matter what they're doing).

Tony had it all ... looks, charm, charisma ... and talent. It's been said (though never really proven) that if there was one potential flaw that could have ripped that '67 team apart, it was Yastrzemski’s lingering resentment over the amount of adulation Tony C. received in comparison to all the criticism he received.

It's true that Tony C. was the very definition of the swinging '60s athlete. But nobody -- and I mean nobody -- gets to be as good as he was in his brief Major League career without having a passion for the game, and the motivation to work hard. So I'm sure a lot of that talk about him "burning the candle at both ends" was myth created by people who couldn't even have dreamed of being what he was and were, as a result, jealous of him.

And his friends (and I've talked to enough of them to get a consensus) tell a much different story.

Oh, sure, Tony wasn't above having himself paged in the lobby of a hotel in Chicago so that everyone would know he was there. And it's true that Tony liked the ladies a little too much sometimes. But, those friends also say, Tony was notoriously clean living when it came to all aspects of chemical health. They swear by that.

The only thing Tony C. didn't have in abundance was luck. He was star-crossed. At least once every season (and sometimes twice), Tony C. would either run into a wall and break his arm (or wrist), pull a groin or a hamstring and miss time, or have other nameless, mysterious ailments befall him (or so the stories go). He could never seem to get a full season in.

By August of '67, it looked as if he might. He was in the middle of a slump on Aug. 18 when he stepped up to face Hamilton of the California Angels. Maybe he was so anxious to snap out of it that he got a little too close to the plate (he always crowded it anyway) and dug in just a little bit more.

Whatever, Hamilton threw high, tight, and hard; and Tony couldn't get out of the way. He got hit right below his left eye, detaching the retina and creating a permanent blind spot. That was it for him. He was never, ever the same, even after a fairly successful comeback in 1969 and 1970.

His horrible fortunes would continue. In 1982, he suffered a devastating heart attack while being driven to Logan Airport by his brother Billy ... after auditioning for the Red Sox color analyst job he probably would have landed. He lived in a vegetative state until 1990, when he died, at the age of 45.

Whenever someone shows footage of that 1967 clubhouse celebration scene, there’s always a short Tony C, Rico and some others doing four-part harmony while hanging out at one of the locker stalls. It was spontaneous, fun, and seeing it gives you goose bumps when it dawns on you how unfair life really is sometimes.

As someone who’s closely involved with the Harry Agganis Foundation (Agganis was another local athlete who played for the Red Sox, and who died tragically young – at age 26 – of a pulmonary embolism), this hits home once a year, in July, when the Agganis all-star classics are played in his memory.

Like all truly newsworthy people, Tony C. made life interesting. And Dick Williams -- taskmaster though he may have been -- had zero problems with Tony C. Why? Because Tony C. busted his ass on the field. That's all Williams ever wanted.

“The doctors say he’ll be OK, but he won’t be back this year; with Tony through, what will we do? Who’ll carry us from here?”

Carl Yastrzemski. Carl Yastrzemski. The man we call Yaz …

Jess Cain was an actor, born in Philadelphia, who matriculated up to Boston and became one of the city’s most beloved DJs. At the time his station, WHDH, was also the Red Sox flagship station, and when the season ended, ‘HDH (which has since been absorbed by WEEI sports radio) hit upon the idea of making its commemorative album based around some of the more memorable moments – from a broadcasting perspective.

As part of that album, Cain – who had done some theater in his day – took an old ragtime tune called “Shoutin’ Lisa Trombone” after the 1967 season ended, and composed the words to the "The Carl Yastrzemski Song" around it. It ended up being the indisputable “hit” of the record.

Yaz would go on, of course, to win the MVP, have a car dealership opened up in his name on the Lynnway in Lynn (Yaz Ford) and have his own bread (Big Yaz bread, which I confess never to have eaten despite being a diehard teenage fan).

And if he was having a phenomenal year prior to Aug. 18, Yastrzemski was just getting warmed up. Once Tony C. went down, he went into overdrive. You couldn't get him out! It's been said that while people have had far better numbers (.326, 44 homers, 121 RBI), nobody ever had a more significant season. Remember, too, that by the late '60s pitching was becoming so dominant that Major League Baseball lowered the mound after the '68 season.

As July segued into August, which segued into September, the Red Sox refused to die. Every time you said "this is it. Here comes the letdown," they'd rally, win a couple or three in a row, and pull back even. I don't ever recall, unless it was way early in the season, or maybe for five minutes here and there during the season, them even being in first place. They were always knocking on the door … forever looking up.

In the last week of the season, they had to play two games at home against the eighth-place Cleveland Indians. It was a perfect time to make their move, as the Indians were – as they often were – absolutely wretched. But Cleveland won both games (it just always seemed that no matter how bad the Indians were, they played like world-beaters whenever they played the Red Sox). And in one of them a pitcher who later became one of Boston’s most beloved baseball icons shut them out. His name was Luis Tiant.

Luis was great. I remember reading somewhere that all Luis did, that whole game, was taunt the Red Sox for choking. It was more likely that Tiant was just so good on that day that nobody could touch him. That happened often in Tiant's career!

By then, school had started and I was playing (or, should I say, trying to play) freshman football at St. John's Prep. Our coaches, sticks in the mud that they were, didn't care about the Red Sox being shut out by Luis Tiant. In fact, we tried to come up with a plan to ferret out information from the kids walking around with transistor radios to get updates, but the coaches smoked it out and made us run a lap for being inattentive.

Thank God, the pivotal Twins-Red Sox game was on a weekend. Coming into the '67 season, the Orioles, who'd won the World Series the year before, were the favorites to repeat. But Frank Robinson collided with Al Weiss' (White Sox) knee trying to steal a base, and was injured seriously enough to miss significant time. The Orioles were a great team, but they were nowhere near as good without Frank Robinson. The O's faded early, and it became a four-team race among the Red Sox, Tigers, White Sox and Twins.

Of the four, the Twins were probably the best on paper, with the Tigers next. Minnesota had two of the game's best pitchers at the time: Dean Chance and Jim Kaat (in today's parlance, Kaat was "filthy"; he had stuff on top of his stuff). The Twins also had Harmon Killebrew and Tony Oliva (who was still a facsimile of the player he was earlier in the decade), Zolio Versalles, Cesar Tovar (who got the only first-place vote Yaz did not get for MVP), Bob Allison and a rookie named Rod Carew.

The Twins were one of those teams that you couldn't help but like ... unless they were standing in your way. Even today, I like the Twins. But I didn't in 1967, only because they were standing in the way. But if the Sox couldn't win, I'd have been happy with them.

I did not want the White Sox. Their manager, Eddie Stankey, was obnoxious. But in retrospect, we should all give Eddie a heartfelt thank you. He's the one who insulted Yastrzemski by calling him "an all-star from the neck down."

The White Sox also couldn't hit, even if it was by accident. They won with pitching ... and they had plenty of that. But they were BORING. And rumor had it they cheated. They couldn’t hit, so they made sure no one else did either. Reportedly, they stored their baseballs in a refrigerator to deaden them … and grew the infield grass high to slow down ground balls.

And people worry about steroids!

I had no feelings for the Tigers, except when Earl Wilson pitched (although knowing now what I know about the likes of Al Kaline and Norm Cash, I’d have probably liked them a lot).

Coming down the stretch, the Tigers seemed to be in a good spot because they had three pitchers (Denny McLain and Mickey Lolich being the other two) who were winning consistently. But according to Sports Illustrated, McLain, who lived pretty fast back in those days, got in trouble with the Detroit mob over gambling debts. The story goes that McLain was somehow roughed up during the season, and that as a result, he injured his foot and couldn't pitch. Who knows what would have happened otherwise!

The first team to be eliminated was the White Sox, who got beaten by the Kansas City Athletics (as in last place Kansas City Athletics) on the Friday before the final weekend.

Thank you God. Anybody but them. And what makes this really ironic is that for five years, I played for the West Lynn American Little League … you guessed it … White Sox.

That left it a three-team race. The Sox had two at Fenway against the Twins on Saturday, Sept. 30 and Sunday, Oct. 1. And entering that series a game out of first, the Red Sox had to sweep.

The Tigers had four (back-to-back doubleheaders) with the Angels over the same two days. If they won three of four, and the Red Sox swept, there would be a tie between the two teams after 162 games.

This shows you how different things were back then. No way would a team in the middle of a pennant race be forced to play back-to-back doubleheaders to close out the season in today's MLB. We'd play until December before that ever happened.

The Saturday game looked as if it might be the end of the road. Jim Kaat was on his game, and the Twins led 1-0 into the fifth. The way Kaat was pitching, things looked pretty bleak.

Over the years, several members of that Red Sox team have said that although Chance was the one challenging Jim Lonborg for the Cy Young Award, they feared Kaat more. They figured they could get to Chance. They were far less confident of facing Kaat.

And for good reason. The man ended up with 283 big league wins, and won 16 games in '67. Why he's not in the Hall of Fame I'll never know.

But Kaat heard (and presumably felt) something pop in his elbow on his way to mowing down the Cardiac Kids and had to leave the game. An army of pitchers followed, beginning with Jim Perry. And none of them were any kind of a match for the Red Sox, who, freed from the burden of facing Kaat, pounded on them all for six runs in the final four innings. Two of them came off the bat of Scott; and three more came from Yaz, who hit homer No. 44 -- a three-run job.

It was during this game that Williams did something I've never seen before (or since). The Red Sox went into the ninth inning up 6-2. But with Gary Bell on in the ninth, Minnesota got a base runner and Harmon Killebrew -- who ended up tied with Yastrzemski for home runs with 44 -- stepped up to the plate. Williams was not interested in putting him on so that the Twins could have runners all over the bases and perhaps gain some momentum. Neither did he feel particularly duty-bound to protect Yaz's triple crown ... not with a pennant at stake.

So, he went out to the mount and told Bell to pitch to Killebrew. And not only did he tell him to pitch, he told him not to be afraid to throw him a nice, big, fat strike and take his chances. Williams figured that 6-4 with no one on base was a whole lot better than 6-2 with runners moving all over the place and the likes of Tony Oliva, Bob Allison and Rod Carew coming up next (even as a rookie, Carew hit .292 that season) facing a jittery pitcher with the whole season on the line.

Bell did what he was told. And Killebrew did just what you knew he was going to do. He put one into the left-field screen (no Monster Seats in '67). But just as he figured, that was all the damage Minnesota could do, and Bell hung on.

Sunday brought us a pitching matchup for the ages: Dean Chance vs. Jim Lonborg. Before we go on, let's talk a little about Lonborg. Lonborg came up in '65 and for two seasons, wasn't really much of a factor. One of the reasons was his nickname: Gentleman Jim. He took that moniker to extremes. Batters dug in on him, and Lonborg let it go. But when Williams came to the team, he brought with him Sal Maglie as his pitching coach. As in Sal "The Barber," so-named because he wasn't afraid to give Major League hitters a close shave if they dug in.

Maglie and Williams were teammates for a while on the '56 Dodgers, before Williams got shipped to Baltimore (in fact, Maglie was the opposing pitcher in Don Larsen's perfect game in the '56 series).

Maglie saw talent in Lonborg, but saw no desire to be mean. And mean was something Sal the Barber was all too familiar with. He looked like the Grim Reaper, and certainly put the fear of God in batters.

Maglie hounded Lonborg to be meaner out there, and Lonnie got the message. There was no more Gentleman Jim in 1967 ... at least not on the mound. Lonborg was involved in a signature moment during that season and -- as always seems to be the case -- it was against the Yankees.

Thad Tillotson of the Yanks drilled Joe Foy in the helmet with a fast ball ... one night after Foy had hit a home run to win a game between the two teams. Foy stayed in the game. Next time Tillotson came to bat, Lonborg plunked him on the arm (not that it's entirely on the subject, but this is but one of many reasons the DH doesn't work for me ... pitchers don't have to face retribution for doing stuff like that).

A brawl ensued (with Petrocelli and Joe Pepitone of the Yankees on the bottom of the pile flailing away at each other). They were old Brooklyn acquaintances. Petrocelli's brother, a New York cop, was duty at Yankee Stadium too. Life is just full of ironies!

(Another irony: The single act that perhaps spurred the Red Sox to come together in 2004 after meandering their way through the season (to that point) was the famous Varitek-ARod fracas.)

Now, Lonborg was pitching in what turned out to be the single most important game of his life. And like Saturday, he and the Red Sox fell behind early, 2-0. And like Saturday, with each scoreless inning, it looked as if the air was slowly escaping from the balloon.

But Lonborg began the Red Sox half of the sixth inning by laying down a surprise bunt and beating it out. From there, everything the Red Sox did was charmed. And the inning turned into a nightmare of errors (mental and physical) for the Twins. Jerry Adair and Dalton Jones followed with singles – neither of them hit particularly hard -- leaving the bases loaded for Yastrzemski, who was 7-for-8 in the two-game series and so locked in it was scary. There was no way he was not going to get a hit. He took a nice, even swing and lined a two-run single up the middle to tie the game. And things just unraveled for the Twins from there.

Ken Harrelson hit a grounder to short on which Versalles tried for a play at the plate ... and he was too late. Jones scored the go-ahead run. Two wild pitches by Al Worthington later, it was 4-2 as Yastrzemski scored. An error led to the fifth and final run.

The Twins looked as if they might stage a little two-out lightning against Lonborg in the eighth, but when Allison hit an RBI single scoring Killebrew, he tried to stretch it into a double and was thrown out by Yastrzemski, who -- as I've said about 100 times already -- was scary good in 1967.

That was it. Lonborg mowed them down in the ninth, with Rich Rollins hitting the popup to Rico Petrocelli that became one of Ned Martin's most iconic broadcasting moments.

Still, we had to sweat out the Tigers-Angels. The two teams split the Saturday doubleheader, and Detroit won the opener of Sunday's games. If Detroit won the second one, the season would have ended in a tie between the Sox and Tigers, forcing a one-game playoff (which is how the American League settled things, as opposed to two-of-three in the National League).

But the Angels -- who had really been a thorn in the Red Sox' side all season (don't forget who they were playing when Tony C. was beaned) -- were managed by another one of those old-school baseball lifers back in 1967, Bill Rigney. He wasn’t going to give anyone anything. And California won the nightcap, 8-5.

Channel 4 of Boston, which was the Red Sox broadcast station in those days, kept a camrea in the lockerroom so that we could see the players react to the final out ... a double play grounder by Dick McAuliffe. The station also broke in with a news bulletin, with a red script no less, that the Red Sox had won the pennant. I really think that the last time I'd seen an actual news BULLETIN like that was when JFK was killed.

What a time. What a season. The Sox may have lost the World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals, but by then it really didn't matter. What they -- and specifically Williams -- did that year was enough. And although the Red Sox have had their down seasons, and have certainly disappointed us on many, many occasions, the fact of the matter is that they were, and still are, relevant enough in the scheme of things to put us in the position of BEING disappointed.

Sure, some of those losses have been excruciating. But what would you rather have: An opportunity to have the guts taken right out of you or mind-numbing mediocrity. Myself, I'll take the lows for what the highs bring.

And this is Dick Williams' legacy to baseball -- at least in Boston, and at least to me. He went onto win two World Series with the Oakland A's at a time when the A's had some of the greatest talent ever assembled in one stadium, but don't dismiss what he brought to the table even with all those stars. Someone has to lead the orchestra, and someone has to manage all the egos that exceptional talent spawns. Look at what he had to deal with over there. There's no way you can minimize his contribution to that era.

Williams also took the San Diego Padres to the 1984 World Series, rallying them from an 0-2 deficit to the Chicago Cubs. Everywhere he managed, his teams won more than they lost. Current Red Sox manager Terry Francona talked Thursday about the time he played for Williams in Montreal ... and of how petrified he was of him.

Williams probably couldn't manage today ... not with his style. The ship of the autocratic manager has sailed. Too many players make too much money, and they all have agents who, when they're not negotiating contracts, are finding all sorts of nefarious ways to interfere.

And in the end, he couldn't see eye to eye with Yawkey, though with what we know now about TA (A for Austin), that's not necessarily a bad thing now, is it? He was fired with about a week to go in the 1969 season, an act that -- to me -- signified the return of the Country Club that the Red Sox were notorious for being prior to Williams' tenure.

They went through some flat years with Eddie Kasko – an era where they were just good enough to relevant, but not anywhere near good enough to break through the Orioles stranglehold on the American League East.

Also during the Kasko era, the specter of racism in Boston reared its head once again when Tommy Harper ran into trouble in Winter Haven … and was roundly ignored by the powers-that-be. And it wasn’t just Harper either. Reggie Smith took to wearing a batting helmet when he went out to play center field because he was afraid of being pelted by projectiles that actually hurt him.

This was also around the same time that former Boston Celtics center Bill Russell sounded off about his experiences with racism in Boston. Within a few years of all this, Boston was embroiled in a serious, real-life racial meltdown when federal judge W. Arthur Garrity ordered the integration of Boston’s schools via forced busing.

Kasko also presided over another sad denouement: the trade that sent Conigliaro to the Angels (of all teams!). This happened after the 1970 season, when Conigliaro hit over 30 homers and it looked as if it has all come back.

His brother, Billy, blamed Yastrzemski and Smith for the trade, saying the two of them were jealous of Tony and undermined him every chance they got – charges both vociferously denied. For the most part, the media sided with Yaz and Reggie (who were best friends in those years).

Yet two years later, while signing autographs and talking with reporters, Carlton Fisk, then a rookie, happened to mention casually that he didn’t think either Yaz or Reggie showed the requisite leadership that veterans are expected to show.

But you had to know Yastrzemski. A lot of what you see today (the Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy calls him the Garbo of Red Sox alumni) is basically what he’d always been. He had his friends. He took his job seriously. But he just wasn’t a gregarious person … not in 1961, 1967, or anytime before or after.

The only time we ever saw Yastrzemski get emotional was the day he retired at the end of the 1983 season and took an unplanned lap around Fenway Park slapping palms.

Yastrzemski had one more hurrah, and that was in 1975, with Kasko long gone and Darrell Johnson running the ship. That was the year Fred Lynn and Jim Rice tore the American League apart and the Red Sox basically ran away with the A.L. East and then swept the three-time champion Oakland A’s to win the pennant.

Toward the end of the season, Rice – who ended up being one of the most feared hitters of his time – was hit by a Vernon Ruhle fastball and broke his wrist. That meant Yastrzemski, who had played first base just about all season, had to go to left for the playoffs and World Series. And boy, did he ever put on a show … both with the bat and with the glove. Just like in ’67, he threw out a runner trying to stretch a single into a double, in the pennant-clinching game. In ’67 it was Bob Alison; in ’75 it was Reggie Jackson.

The Red Sox didn’t win that World Series either. But they did take part, along with the Cincinnati Reds, in what has been judged by the MLB Network as the greatest game of the modern era: Game 6 of that series when Bernie Carbo’s three-run homer tied the score in the eighth, and Carlton Fisk’s solo job off the left-field foul pole won it.

All childhoods have defining moments. For me, that 1967 Impossible Dream Red Sox team was one of my biggest. I'd been a baseball fan prior to that. But '67 turned me into a fanatic ... which is something I continue to be today. And despite all the heroics, performed by all the heroes described above, the author of this amazing turnaround … the resurrection that turned Boston into a baseball town again … was Dick Williams.

If there was greatness in Yastrzemski, Williams coaxed it out of him. George Scott became a Gold Glove first baseman under Dick Williams. Rico Petrocelli’s first two years with the Red Sox showed him to be tough … but brittle, and woefully inconsistent. Rico flourished under Williams and became an all-star shortstop.

Go down the line. Reggie Smith, if he’d just been able to stop being offended by anything anyone said to him, was an all-star center fielder. He learned from Williams. Jim Lonborg was an average pitcher until Williams/Maglie got hold of him. Then, he became a Cy Young Award Winner, and probably would have won a few more of them had he not liked to ski.

The other thing Williams never really got a lot of credit for is this: That Red Sox team, if you compare it to the one they put on the field these days, suffered by comparison. But what that team had was a lot of castoffs and reserves (Adair being perhaps the most notable) who somehow meshed to become greater than the sum of their parts. You can attribute that to very good managing.

One of the byproducts of the free-agent era, sadly, is the paucity of Jerry Adair type of players. They’re the ones being driven out of the game by ridiculously high salaries, because GMs now fill their teams with cheap talent to compensate for having to pay all the stars. There’s just not enough room for middle-of-the-roaders unless you have the New York Yankees’ payroll.

Dick Williams made all of this work. It’s been said over the last couple of days that he’s still, after all these years, the best manager the Red Sox have had in our lifetime. Maybe. You can’t just dismiss someone who won two world championships without at least thinking about it, so I’d be cautious before I just eliminated Terry Francona’s name from the conversation.

But that said, I’d put Williams up against anyone else … and maybe even Tito too. Who knows? However, whatever else you want to say about the late Dick Williams, who died Thursday at the age of 82, his legacy will be that he saved baseball in Boston, and catapulted the Red Sox back into the conversation at a time when Fenway Park could have passed for Sunday mass.

And, true to his word, and with a rare exception or two, the Red Sox have, since 1967, won more they’ve lost.

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