Red Sox rookie Centerfielder Fred Lynn was charged with a borderline error last week when his throw to home bounced twice and the catcher couldn't get a grip on it. "I didn't like that," says Lynn sadly. "I'd like to not have any errors. Now I have one."
Boston fans, not being completely crazy, are willing to overlook that lapse. After all, Lynn hit the first pitch thrown to him this season, bingo, off Fenway Park's center-field wall, and at week's end he was batting .381—fair enough for the lad who hit .419 in 15 Red Sox games last September—and was among the American League leaders in home runs and RBIs. He had already thrown out the remarkable total of six runners in '75 (five in spring training, but still ...), and the other day against the Orioles he made a running, diving, reaching-across-the-body catch that had thousands of Bostonians whooping and squealing. And although he hasn't shown a great stealer's quickness, he has proved to be fast and smart on the bases. Aside from the one imperfect throw, he hasn't made a mistake, or even looked like he might make a mistake, anywhere on the field.
Fred Lynn, then, is hot—can't-miss, do-it-all hot—and people are comparing him to everyone but A. Sommers Day. They are saying he resembles Tommy Henrich, or "a left-handed Al Kaline," or Stan Musial, or even, as someone said on the Boston radio recently, "No. 9," which is to say Ted Williams. Most frequently, though, they are calling him "a young Yaz," a rather poignant appellation, considering that some of the people who are calling him that are booing the old one.
"People bring up Williams and Musial," says the 23-year-old Lynn in a tone of true-enough modesty. "I never saw those guys play. I don't know."
Standing there in the dugout-to-clubhouse runway, talking, Lynn seems quite pleasant and chipper, but not sensational. He is 6'1", weighs 185 pounds and looks smaller; there is no hint of hulk or tower. He bats and throws left, has brown hair, brown eyes and no nickname and is married to the former Diane May Minkle. Not only is he comparable to his famous teammate, Carl Yastrzemski, as a potent line-drive hitter, but' 'people say I look like Yaz in the face," Lynn chuckles. He glances at Yaz, who is walking by. Yaz, 35, does not respond. A lady is supposed to have told Cary Grant once that he didn't look like Cary Grant. What Cary Grant said to her in reply, the story goes, was, "Nobody does."
But if anybody is ever going to look like the deliverer whom dedicated, oft-disappointed, doggedly impatient Red Sox fans demand—and have been demanding more and more ever since Yastrzemski filled the role in the team's last pennant year, '67—it may be Lynn. He does resemble Yaz, and also Musial, facially, and he has what pitchers see in nightmares: "a live bat."
That is the phrase used by former Sox slugger and scamp Ken Harrelson, now a TV colorman. "Some guys are strong as 12 rows of onions," says Harrelson. "They overpower the ball, but their bats aren't live and the ball just flares off them. Fred can catch it on the tip end of the bat and it'll still go through the infield—hot. The ball jumps off. His stroke is that long." Here Harrelson holds his hands some 12 inches apart, to express how short—that is to say how compressed, efficient, nonflailing, mystically economical—is Lynn's assault on the wily and forceful pitched ball.
"He does everything right," says Harrelson. "The two best-looking ballplayers I've seen when they first came up are Fred Lynn and Reggie Jackson—and Reggie still hasn't really become what he looked like he would."
Who has? Certainly Red Sox prodigies seldom do, and their fans let them know it. The standard booer's assumption, when the Sox lose, is that they are overpaid and pampered by Owner Tom Yaw-key and do not always put out as hard as the booer would in their shoes—or even as hard as the booer does, booing, in his seat. It often seems that a Sox fan takes real and sustaining pleasure in a game that will enable him to say after-ward, "Yaz looked very bad. Bad. Very bad."
Last year in the stretch the Sox folded like a dropped concertina. This year it appeared that their fans might be spared another such collapse only because the team didn't figure to stay in contention so long. The Orioles and the Yankees appeared to be the Eastern Division's real powers. The Red Sox had big names, but three of them were Yaz, who at his age can hardly be expected to play at his '67 triple crown pitch, especially after he sprained an ankle recently; Third Baseman Rico Petrocelli, who is also up into his 30s and has been sidelined with an arm injury; and Tony Conigliaro, 30, who is trying to make a comeback after being out of baseball for three and a half years because of the lingering effects of a traumatic eye injury. Tony C. says his doctor has told him that "the hole in your eye I told you you would have for the rest of your life is ...gone," but the former phenom has already pulled a groin muscle running. Last week in batting practice he was popping the ball up and saying sarcastically to himself, "Oh, that's fine. That's just fine."
Catcher Carlton Fisk, an established star at 27, is out with a broken arm, and for pitchers the Sox must rely primarily upon a couple of interesting characters. Luis Tiant is a Cuban who turns his back on the hitter before delivering and who yells at opponents such things as, "You the ugliest Hawaiian I ever saw." Bill Lee is a Southern Californian who once helped the ground crew smooth the infield halfway through a game he was pitching and who likes to hit fungoes to himself. With so many older batting stars hurt, the job of supporting these eccentrics offensively has fallen to such extreme youngsters as Rightfielder Dwight (Dewey) Evans, 23, Designated Hitter Jim Rice, 22, and Lynn.
The year was shaping up as one in which Boston fans might have had to learn compassion and restraint. But Evans has looked very solid in his third full season. Rice is hitting well to justify the fact that the Sox organization has always considered him to be even more promising than Lynn. And Lynn is tearing up the league.
So, with decent pitching, the Sox jumped off to a good start, beating New York and Baltimore four out of five on the road and returning home last week in first place. That gave the home folks every excuse they needed to be perversely gratified by what followed: quick 12-1 and 5-0 losses to the Yankees. Yaz, his average down around .220, was booed for walking, for lining out, even for coming up to bat. The pitchers also heard critical noises. Even Lynn, though he was regularly accorded applause, could do no better in those two games than bat .333.
Comes the third and last game of the series. Catfish Hunter seems to have come to the right place for his first victory of the year. Going into the seventh inning, Hunter has been hurt by Evans' homer and double and Rice's booming double off the famous high, close, green left-field wall, but he is leading 7-3 and has held Lynn to a ground-out and two walks.
The first few minutes of the seventh inning are eventful. A blue balloon drifts over the field and holds up play for a good while, to the apparent satisfaction of most of the fans, as the plate umpire waits for it to come down. It never does, finally floating off over Jersey Avenue. Then a fight breaks out in the stands that lasts long enough to bring the Yankee bench warmers, who have a bad angle on it, out of their dugout for a better view. When everyone settles back to watch the game, they notice that not only have the balloon and the most prominent scufflers departed, but so has Hunter, and the Sox have a run in, two men on and Yaz up.
There follows an awkward, or tentative, moment. After the game a fan will explain, "People were thinking, 'Well, maybe he'll hit one. Maybe we better not.' " But they do, they go ahead and boo Yaz a little, and as he takes three big swings and sits down the booing grows in confidence until it drowns out the undertone of encouragement. Yaz doesn't have the swing he used to. "Gosh," says the same fan, "it's great to hear Yaz booed like that."
And here comes the cleanup hitter, Lynn, to face the pitcher he calls the toughest he's faced, Yankee lefthander Sparky Lyle. A curve is high, and then Lynn doesn't look too good, missing a breaking ball low and away. Now Lyle gets a second strike on him. Let's see what the kid is made of.
He is made, in large part, at least so far, of line drives. He hits one up the middle to score a run, and then Rice drives in another with a single, and then Catcher Bob Montgomery doubles the two of them in with the tying and go-ahead runs.
Great cheers for these two young men. Lynn grew up in Southern California playing in the street with his father every evening. Fred was a slap hitter in Little League, "but then I found my swing, and my hands went right down to the end of the bat. My father used to plead with me, 'Just choke up a little.' But I had my swing. I've never changed it. I never will." Rice grew up in Anderson, S.C. playing ball with his brother. "I've never worked on anything," Rice says. "It just came naturally. Just gifted."
In the eighth the Sox load the bases, Yaz comes up, is booed heartily, pops up on the first pitch, and then Lynn hits off the tip end of his bat a smart grounder just inside third base, a double that scores three runs. When you are going good, everything works. The final score was 11-7 Red Sox and they were back in first place until the Tigers sprang on them later in the week.
"How do you feel," Yaz was asked before the game, "when people call Lynn 'a young Yaz'?"
How is he supposed to feel? For one thing, old. But he says, "I haven't thought about it. You can only be yourself."
In Lynn's case so far, that's something.