Father and Son ... Boston

They didn't have the same opinions about the Red Sox, but talking about the team helped bring them together, especially at the end
November 01, 2004

GAME 7 of the ALCS, I was at Yankee Stadium, chanting, "Let's go, Red Sox" and "Who's your daddy?" with all the other red-clad insurgents. The chants began in the ninth inning, when Boston fans were suddenly everywhere, as if they'd just thrown off disguises or emerged from hiding places. The evil dictator had been overthrown, and we'd broken into his palace to celebrate. I thought of my late father and knew that other revelers were thinking of their fathers too. Most Red Sox fans are the offspring of Red Sox fans, and every one of them has a father whose story is longer and more painful than his own.

I remembered that sunny September morning in 1999 when an enormous black moth, like a flying catcher's mitt, came in through the window of my Mexico City apartment. Sometimes Latin America really does conform to its corniest script: I said to a friend, "Something terrible is going to happen." Minutes later the telephone rang. It was my mother, in Massachusetts. My father was in the hospital.

From Logan Airport I rode the taxi out to the Boston suburb where I'd spent most of my childhood. I knew I was going to the hospital to be with my father when he died, but I'd always believed there was no way my dad was going to die until the Red Sox won a World Series. This was the first summer in awhile--maybe since the Buckner World Series of 1986--that our team had a chance. The last time the Red Sox won it all, in 1918, my father was an eight-year-old Russian Jewish immigrant living in Boston. He couldn't really remember that great event, but he became a ballplayer and even played in the Cape Cod League. He married a woman from Central America, but he never lived anywhere but Massachusetts.

As the taxi headed down Storrow Drive, I craned for a look at the sky over Fenway Park. Well into his 80s my father would go to Fenway and buy standing-room tickets, especially when Clemens was pitching. "My boy Roger," he called him. Now the traitor was with the Yankees.

My father's doctor held out almost no hope. Even if my father somehow came out of his coma, he would probably be a vegetable. The doctor did encourage my mother, sister and me to talk to my father. Even if he was drifting off unaware into death, our voices might somehow soothe that passage. I blathered to him about the Red Sox. Later that week they would begin a crucial three-game series against the Yankees in New York.

On the sixth day of my father's coma, Pedro Martinez pitched perhaps his greatest game as a Red Sox, a 3--1 victory, a one-hitter with 17 K's. Leaning down to my father's ear, I told him all about it. "The Sox took the first game, Dad."

MY EARLIEST memories of going to Fenway with my father are a blur: many games, me too young to care, but aware that our team "stunk." In those years, the 1960s, the Red Sox baseball card I always coveted most was not Carl Yastrzemski's but the far more ordinary Felix Mantilla's. Though I didn't understand it at the time, it was the beginning of a long and complicated sense of fan identification with Boston's Latino players. Everyone knows what a bad reputation the city of Boston and the Red Sox--the last team to sign a black player--had with respect to race relations. The Red Sox were known as an uncomfortable fit for minority players, which explained why the team was so awful. That legacy was the franchise's true "curse." But my father rooted for them no less ardently.

In 1967, the year of the Impossible Dream, of "Big Yaz" Wonder Bread, my father took me to my first World Series game. Jim Lonborg took a no-hitter against the St. Louis Cardinals into the eighth. A Latino player, Julian Javier, broke it up with a long double that still looks like a tracer bullet in the mind's eye.

ON THE seventh day of my father's coma the Red Sox won 11--10, with Rich (El Guapo) Garces getting the win, shaggy Rod Beck the save. That team was a forerunner of this year's band of happy-go-lucky "idiots"--scruffy players with a crucial core of Latin Americans much of the city was falling in love with, especially Pedro. "Dad, the Red Sox took two. They took two, in Yankee Stadium!" I was holding my father's hand and felt him squeeze it. But the doctor said it was just a reflex. "They took two!"

Every summer my father's shouts of outrage at the Red Sox filled the house. Undisciplined hitters who struck out a lot especially got his goat, no matter how many homers they hit. George (Boomer) Scott was one target of his scorn. Only Republican presidents could make my father yell at the TV the way the Red Sox and Boomer could. Summers of anguish and rage over the Red Sox were to me a symbol of my father's frustrations. Jack Kerouac--who grew up just down the road in Lowell--wrote that all writers have tragic fathers. But all fathers who've been lifelong Red Sox fans must seem at least a little tragic to their sons. Across New England, every summer, these dads raging King Lear--like at their televisions, spitting out their coffee over the morning sports pages.

In the mid-1970s Luis Tiant, the rotund, cigar-chomping, masterly whirling dervish pitcher from Cuba, became Boston's first true Latino baseball star. Even Boston sports columnists, rarely warm toward minority players with outsized personalities, revered Tiant. Sure, I dug the Spaceman, Oil Can Boyd, Bernie Carbo, but Tiant was my favorite Red Sox ever. I thought of him as the Gabriel García M√†rquez of baseball, a magical realist pitcher, a true maestro. A shy slow starter, I even finally had sex for the first time while El Tiante pitched on television, though it wasn't planned that way--the girl I liked, bolder than I, dropped by my college dorm room while I was watching the game.

Later, seeing Tiant in a Yankees uniform was infuriating. But in Central America in 1980, beginning my years as a journalist there, I received a newspaper photo from a friend, of Tiant pitching the first Yankees game after the death of Thurman Munson. Beneath it my friend wrote, "Pitching against Death." In the picture he looked like a mythological warrior--even in Yankees pinstripes.

"DAD, THE Red Sox took three. And they beat Clemens!" On the eighth day of my father's coma the Red Sox swept the Yankees in New York for the first time since the pennant year of 1986. "They took three.... "

My father's dry lips twitched. The drawn leather cheeks quivered. I heard the faintest scrape of a voice and felt his hand pressing mine, hard now. I leaned down.

" ... eee ... teee ... three."

Three?

" ... three?"

His eyes, caked shut, flickered and slowly opened, just a narrow squint.

"They took three?" went the dry riverbed of a voice. "The Red Sox took three?"

My father lived for three more years. Three years of finishing behind the Yankees and crushing finales. I was again convinced that he would never let go of life until the Red Sox won it all. Wherever I was, we talked on the phone about the Red Sox. Like so many other ineloquent, emotionally clumsy fathers and sons, we used the game to communicate. But I also just loved listening to my father talk about baseball.

We had our differences. Manny Ramirez was becoming his designated object of scorn. But Manny remained one of my favorites, along with Pedro, of course, and now Papi Ortiz. I cringe to think what my father would have made of Manny's 2003 season, the one that resulted in his being humiliatingly offered on waivers to any team that would take him. I wonder if he would have recognized Manny's extraordinary transformation this year, the lack of resentment, the good humor and class he showed all season, the Red Sox' Ernie Banks. I wonder how my father would have endured last year's Grady Little game in Yankee Stadium, the most painful blow in Red Sox history. He would have been disgusted with Pedro for tossing old Don Zimmer to the ground a few days earlier in Game 3, and I would have defended Pedro and shared his wounded pride.

I've seen some newspaper stories in which last Wednesday's victory was described as something that might wake the dead. Well, wake someone from a coma, for sure. But an e-mail from a friend in Wyoming got it just right: "Cheers for the Red Sox and for your Dad, who is surely taking note from a puffy cloud with a red lining." Cheers for all our daddies.

Francisco Goldman's latest novel is The Divine Husband, which was published in September by Grove Atlantic.

COLOR PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMON LEGACY Kids in Boston today carry the banner of their fathers' relentless loyalty.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)