Tuesday, July 30, 2013

It was a pivotal year

It's funny how people just keep popping up in your life to remind you of how old you're getting. It could be a relative you haven't seen in a while; an ex-colleague who happens to call you out of the blue; or -- in my case -- George Scott.

I'd say he kept popping up like a bad penny ... except there was nothing bad about him. So let's make an exception in his case and call him a "good penny."

"The Boomer," who died earlier this week, just happened to be there at key points in my life ... dating all the way back to 1967, when he was one of the unquestioned spark plugs of that "Impossible Dream" team that went from next-to-last to first in one season. 

First of all, 1967 was a pivotal year in lots of ways. It was for anyone in my generation, at least. And if you were from Boston, it may still be  -- collectively -- the defining year of our era.

I have four vivid memories of 1967 ... visceral events that have never left me. The first was watching, on a cold winter night, the two promotional clips of "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane" on TV. When we'd last left the Beatles, it was August of 1966, they'd just released "Revolver" and they'd just wrapped up their touring careers at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. They'd decided, after three hectic years of non-stop recording, movie-making and touring, that they'd had enough ... and that they were going to take a break to restore their collective sanity.

The oldest among them -- Ringo Starr and John Lennon -- were only 26, and looking back on it, just that simple fact alone is tragic in a way. Most of our lives are barely getting started at 26, yet they were already fed up with theirs.

Lennon made a movie, "How I Won The War," playing Private Gripweed; George Harrison started taking up Transcendental Meditation and continued studying the sitar; Paul McCartney bought a farm in Scotland and involved himself in that; and Ringo did ... whatever Ringo did.

By the time they reunited, they were changed men. As one author noted (and it's the best line I've ever read about Lennon), "the Beatle who disappeared into 'Private Gripweed was never to re-emerge." They had mustaches, and Harrison even had a beard. And the path from "She Loves You" to "Strawberry Fields Forever" had taken some serious turns (though we should have seen it coming after listening to "Tomorrow Never Knows," the final song on "Revolver"). I remember being totally bemused. It had taken me a while to get used to the songs, and now I was supposed to see these four Smith Brothers reincarnates and get used to that, too? It was the portent, I suppose, of a very tumultuous year.

I did ... obviously and so did everyone else. By the time "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" came out in June, the whole world was buzzing about the Fab Four once again.

Shortly after that clip was aired (or shortly before, I can't remember exactly), Albert DeSalvo, the self-styled Boston Strangler (that was his name, I swear), escaped from the Bridgewater State Hospital, where he was being held on a rape conviction (he was never tried for the seven stranglings he admitted to ... and on which he later recanted). He surrendered to authorities the next day in -- of all places -- my hometown of Lynn, Massachusetts.

I remember being outside shoveling snow with my sister (it was February and the snow always seemed deeper and more plentiful back then) when my mother came to the door and told us to get in the house. Just prior to that, state cruisers and up and down our street looking as if they'd meant business.

She never told us why, but I wasn't all that upset. By then, I'd grown to hate shoveling snow ... or, at least, my own snow ... I didn't mind shoveling other people's snow because they paid me.

That night, we were glued to the TV as news footage came over that DeSalvo turned himself in by casually walking into Simon's Uniform Store on Western Avenue. Others may have been horrified but I -- and my friends -- thought it was cool. There was a map of the Boston area on the news, with the word "Lynn" right above "Boston." As my friend Dickie Mariano said, "we're on the map." Right on. Who cared why?

I was 13 in 1967 (turned 14 in August), and all this stuff made a huge impression. Winter segued into spring, which segued into summer. And by then, you could really see the music taking a seismic shift into something heretofore unheard of. In 1966, we were grooving to "Summer in the City." A year later, it was "Light My Fire" and "Purple Haze." Quite a difference.

But jump back two months to April. The Red Sox had -- to put it politely -- stunk as long as I could remember. They were so bad my father used to say that if you turned the paper upside down, they'd be in first place. They never quite made it to last place (thank God for the Washington Senators and Kansas City Athletics), but eighth through 10th was their domain. They had some very entertaining guys on the team, but few of them could actually play.

But maybe because I was 12 and 13 and didn't grasp the subtleties, they'd infused the team with some young guys who could actually play by 1965 and '66. They took their lumps, finishing ninth both seasons, and by '67, they were ready to go. The Sox went out and got themselves a manger who, they felt, could bring these young kids along and teach them to win. His name was Dick Williams.

And apparently, he had a first name entirely appropriate to his personality.

The Red Sox opened the season at 100-1 odds to win the pennant, but Williams rode herd on the boys. And he rode no one harder than George Charles Scott, an affable country boy from Mississippi who loved to hit long home runs (he called them taters) and loved to eat even more. Scotty, "The Boomer," was a big kid whom Williams disciplined often for his lack of management with regards to his physical conditioning. Williams even benched Boomer in the middle of the piping-hot pennant race that summer because he was a few pounds over the weight he'd designated as acceptable. That prompted one sports writer, Tim Horgan, to fume that "the other nine teams in the American League have managers; the Red Sox have a dietician."

Williams also said talking to Scott was like talking to a cement wall. 

But whatever Williams did, he got the best of The Boomer in 1967. He hit .303 with 29 homers -- none of them bigger than the September 30 game against the Minnesota Twins when he hit the go-ahead homer in a game the Sox had to win -- and did. That set up perhaps the most dramatic game in Fenway history until the sixth game of the 1975 World Series came along. My third truly vivid memory of that year was seeing Rico Petrocelli go out into short left field to catch Rich Rollins' flare of a popup that ended that game.

No. 4 came shortly after, when we got to see the scene in the Red Sox clubhouse after Dick McAuliffe of the Detroit Tigers hit into a double play that ended their game with the California Angels and meant the Red Sox had won the pennant outright. McAuliffe was a pesky little second baseman/shortstop for the Tigers who had a batting stance a Little League coach would have detested. He used to drive the Red Sox nuts and one reason was that he was impossible to double up. Even when you thought you'd gotten him out ... there he'd be on first base, having either beaten out an infield nubber or hustled down the line to foil a double play bid.

He only hit into two DPs all season. So it was especially sweet that one of them came on October 1 and it gave the Red Sox the pennant ... their first since 1946.

And to think: all Williams ever promised at the beginning of that season was "we'll win more than we lose."

The pennant race made us forget all the other stuff. Hippies loitering and littering in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park? "The Summer of Love?" Maybe somewhere else. Nobody around here was going to San Francisco with flowers in their hair.

 It was the "Summer of the Impossible Dream" around here. It was the summer of the "Cardiac Kids," and of Carl Yastrzemski (who basically walked on water). We saw Tony Conigliaro's career effectively end (though he'd come back for a few years) on August 18 when he was hit in the face by a pitch. We saw the Red Sox and Yankees (who, by this time, were as wretched as the Sox once were) engage in a true brawl when Thad Tilloson of the 'Stripes hit Joe Foy; and Jim Lonborg retaliated by plunking Tilloson). We saw guys like Jerry Adair, Dalton Jones, Lee Stange, Gary Bell, Jose Santiago, and many others have career years in the same season.

Boomer was one of the constants. He may have eaten a ton, but he also hit a ton as well. And the joy with which he played was infectious. He was truly a fan favorite.

But the magic didn't last, either for the Red Sox or for Boomer. He had an absolutely awful year in 1968 (.171 average with three homers). And even though he rebounded in 1969 with better numbers, they never approached his numbers in '66 and '67.

By 1971, he was 27 (certainly not old by Major League standards), and the Red Sox were out of patience waiting for him to achieve consistent power numbers. He was part of a 10-player trade in October of that season (including Lonborg and Billy Conigliaro) with the Milwaukee Brewers in exchange for, among others, Marty Pattin and Tommy Harper.

Pattin had a couple of good years for the Sox, and Harper did as well. But neither was around by 1975, when the Red Sox won another pennant. Scott, meanwhile, terrorized the Red Sox every chance he got. In '75, he broke up Rick Wise's no-hitter with a two-out, two-run homer. And it always seemed as if whenever the Brewers would come to down, Scott would put on a show. No doubt he was deeply hurt by the Red Sox' decision to trade him, and he made sure he let them know (similarly, Carlton Fisk did the same thing much later on when the Red Sox, with their dithering and incompetence, allowed the best catcher they ever had to sign as a free agent with the White Sox).

By 1977 he was back on the Sox, though in all honesty, the trade that brought him back here was not one of the best ever. To get him, they Red Sox gave up Cecil Cooper, who later emerged as one of the best hitters of his era.

And this is where our lives intersected for the first time. In September of that season, the sports editor where I worked at UPI observed Yom Kippur ... and it was on the same night the Red Sox were playing the Yankees at Fenway. It was a huge game. The Sox, Yankees and Baltimore Orioles were all duking it out for the American League East championship. The Sox and O's finished tied for second with 97 wins while the Yankees had 100. Such was the parity in the AL East that season. In '78, the Red Sox won 99 games ... and lost the division when the Yankees went on a tear reminiscent of the 1951 New York Giants, and beat the Sox in a one-game playoff thanks, in large part, to Bucky "Bleeping" Dent's three-run homer.

These days, 97 wins will probably get you into the playoffs under the expanded system ... and they might even win you a division.

Scott had himself a game that night. He hit the two-run homer that put the Sox ahead (to right field ... his power always was to the opposite field) and then, with one out in the ninth and a runner on first in a 3-2 game, picked a low liner practically off the ground and then reached to first to double up the runner to end the game.

The post-game was almost as good as the game. That was the night the "Reggie Sucks" chants (Reggie being Jackson) started and even though it was a doozy of a win, the instructions from our New York office were to get Reggie's reaction to his new-found fan club. Not a good night to be chasing Reggie around. But he accommodated and gave a quote for the ages (and one that I couldn't use): "it's bad for baseball ... it's bad for kids .. it's bad for people who bring their kids to the ballpark ... and there's no need for that fuckin' shit."

Priceless. I got it, filtered it as much as I could (bleeping bleep was how we chose to use it) and, on my way out of the Yankee clubhouse, saw George Kimball of the Boston Phoenix, who was late for the party. He asked me if Reggie had said anything, and I gave him the quote verbatim.

"He really said that?" Kimball asked.

"Yup," I replied. And he used every word of it in his story.

This put me in the Red Sox clubhouse long after the horde had left. I encountered The Boomer sitting at his locker eating this enormous salad (this was his way of fighting the battle of the bulge ... eating salads with enough lettuce that Cesar Chavez had to pick it and deliver it personally; there was other stuff in there too, plus it was loaded with dressing, and one wonders in retrospect whether he'd have been better off just eating less of whatever it was the Red Sox had on the post-game menu that night).

I approached him with trepidation. No one likes to be disturbed when they're eating, and I'm sure for Boomer that went double.

"George," I began, "would you say this was your best game of the season?"

I thought it was a fairly harmless question. I figured he'd say yes (because it was, if you're going on all-around game). Instead he went off on me, spitting lettuce all over me in the process.

"What do you mean saying that? I bust my ass 162 games a year. I don't take no games off. I go out there and play hard every game ..  not just this game." He was steaming. And the more steamed he got, the faster he talked (and he was hard to understand anyway). And let's just say he was imposing. He probably could have eaten me if he'd put his mind to it.

"I didn't mean to imply you didn't try," I stammered "I wasn't trying to insult you ..."

"Well you did," he said. "If you want to ask me about the game, go ahead. But don't gimmie this shit about 'best game'."

All right, then. I'll ask.

"What kind of a pitch did you hit?"

"Fastball," he snapped. No more.

"And what about the double play?"

"Instinct," he said, just as flatly, muttering something about catching the ball and just instinctively going for the bag.

And that was it. I'd gotten a huge break being asked to cover this game solo for UPI (I was 24 years old!) and this is the best I could do with the star of the game? I was doomed to many more years of overnight radio thanks to this, I figured.

And even though I'd worshiped Scott as a kid, I rooted against him, and laughed at his increasing futility, for the next two years (not to mention got angry with him for striking out against Rich Gossage in that '78 playoff game, but in retrospect, at least he swung; Bob Bailey just watched three pitches go by).

I've only had three athletes get mad at me over the course of my career: Pete Rose, Jim Rice (who got mad at everybody) and Boomer.

But nobody cared. New York's main focus, even though the Sox won, was Reggie. He'd had his own tumultuous season, and quite a bit of the controversy surrounding him had come at Fenway (including practically getting into a fist fight in the dugout with manager Billy Martin a few months earlier). I got great quotes out of him for that, so rather than being a bum for whiffing on the Boomer, I was a hero for hitting Reggie out of the park. So see? Life is like a game of baseball. You go 1-for-4, and hit the game-winning homer, you're a star. Even if you whiff badly the other three times. Just ask Mike Napoli.

I left UPI by 1979 for my hometown newspaper, the Daily Evening Item (which has since been shortened to simply The Daily Item). And in 1996, the Massachusetts Mad Dogs became the latest minor league/independent team to try to make a go of it in Lynn. The Mad Dogs thought the best way to corner the market was to hire a popular figure as their manager ... and they picked George Scott.

We were all much older, and wiser, of course, by '96 (not to mention fatter ... all of us!). And this is when I got to really know The Boomer. The first time I interviewed him, we were getting along famously, talking about arcane baseball things that only two guys who love the game could do. After about 20 minute of non-stop baseball chatter, I broached the subject of 1977 and how mean he was to me.

"I was?" he said, with genuine surprise in his voice. That didn't surprise me. Back then, I was one of a horde of reporters entering his domain. I don't suppose he gave any of us much thought beyond the moment.

"Yes," I said. "You were very cross with me. You scared the hell out of me. You had a big salad in front of you and I thought you were going to throw it away and come after me instead."

He let out this enormous belly laugh.

"Man," he said, "I'm sorry. Musta been in a bad mood over something."

"Can't imagine what it would have been," I replied. "You won the game practically all by yourself."

"Don't matter," he said, going on to explain that even though he hit a lot of home runs that season (he ended up with 33, and a .269 batting average ... not terrible), he went through long slumps where all he'd do was strike out (112 times). And he always had coaches telling him that if he's lose the gut, he wouldn't strike out so much because he wouldn't be tied up inside. I can relate to that. So I understood. He was touchy about the "best game" question because he'd had so many bad ones ... and all I did was remind him of it.

He stayed with the Mad Dogs through his tenure, and when I became sports editor two years later, I did a lengthy profile on him that covered both his Major League career and his managerial philosophy.

He was, when he wanted to be, both accommodating and effusive. And he was "on" the day I interviewed him. Toward the end of the session, he told me "I only have four rules I tell my players. Wanna hear them?"

"Sure," I said. "I'd like to."

"Well," he began, "Rule No. 1 is be on time ... for the bus, for the game ... anything we ask you to do ... be on time."

OK, I thought. Fair enough. That's everybody's rule.

"No.2," he continued, "bust your ass every moment you're on the field."

Again, I thought. No surprise there. Nobody wants a player who dogs it.

"No. 3," he rattled off, "no alcohol in public. I don't want no drunk players making any scenes"

Well, I figured, it's too bad you have to spell that out for people, but I guess you do ...

"And No. 4," he said, with great pride, "no fightin' with womens in the streets"

Now that one came at me like a fastball to the chops. First, that's not a typo. That's what he said. Womens. And second, I didn't know how to take it. I sure he meant no scenes involving women where there was a whole lot of yelling back and forth, waking the neighborhood and causing unwanted bad publicity to the organization.

But it was open to so much interpretation! Did he mean it was OK to do it in private? I'm not sure! I don't think so, but you never know.

Anyone who covered the Mad Dogs had Scott stories. He didn't like thunderstorms, and once, while a colleague was riding back from New York with the Mad Dogs, they got caught in a storm. Scott was uber-nervous, begging the "bussie" to pull over until it passed. "Bussie," he said, "I'll give you a hunskie if you just pull over."

That, in case you don't know, is a hundred dollar bill.

Boomer liked to conduct post-game interviews in the altogether. Which was sort of disconcerting for a variety of reasons.

And, he was easy to imitate. Anyone who came in contact with him over an extended period of time had him down to a tee.

The downside to watching Scott in those years was that he'd gotten dangerously big, and had a tough time getting around. He had horrible knees, and had to climb a mountain of stairs after each game just to get to the house the team had commandeered as its administrative offices. It was painful to watch.

After the Mad Dogs folded, he stayed in the Boston area for a while, but pretty much dropped out of sight. He died Sunday at the age of 69, and absent any official ruling on what caused his death, it's reasonable to assume his weight, which he never conquered, and his diabetes, were contributing factors.

With him goes an indelible part of my childhood, adolescence and young adulthood. Life would have been so much duller had there not been a George Scott. And there's a good chance that the magical summer of 1967, which meant to many things to so many people, would have been simply three months of reading about hippies and listening to "Purple Haze" and "White Rabbit" had Scott not been with the Red Sox, and had he not played such a vital role in the "Impossible Dream."

I turn 60 next month. I don't need any more reminders of how old I'm getting, but this is the type of thing that hits you between the eyes.

May he rest in peace ... and may he never have to eat another salad up there!

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