Bill Buckner, Mookie Wilson and Me (Revisited)

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(10/2011)

I’ve never been able to appreciate the aesthetic perfection (that is to say, the perfection of baseball’s most imperfect play; it’s most jarringly incongruous moment) because it was too painful. I was too invested in the response to that stimulus and what it signified: game (and, we knew, series) over.

A lot of people forgot, or never knew, that this was only Game Six. It was not the end of the actual series; they had one more game to play even if everyone understood that it wasn’t necessary. This was the Red Sox, after all.

Is there any doubt in any Red Sox fan’s mind that if Oil Can Boyd had (been allowed to) pitch(ed) he would have won? I say that as someone who was 100% in support of the decision to pitch Bruce Hurst on short rest, once the Sunday game got rained out (yet another rung in the hellish labyrinth of Red Sox horrors: what seemed like a blessing turned out to be a …well I’m not going to use that word). Of course, pitching Hurst did work wonderfully, until he was understandably out of gas half-way through the game, when John McNamara, part of the unholy triptych of imbecilic Sox managers along with Don “The Gerbil” Zimmer and Grady “Gump” Little, went (too late) to the dugout. I thought (and think): why not Oil Can? I’ve always assumed that harsh words were exchanged when Mac told Can he was not getting the call (Can allegedly wept when he received the news). The reason all sensible Sox fans were relieved when Hurst got the nod is because we recalled Game 3, when Oil Can labored through about 300 pitches to get through the first inning: even though Can settled down, the Sox lost 4-0. At best, the question of whether he was suited for prime time was not yet answered. On the other hand, we knew Calvin Schiraldi was not. When, after leaving poor Calvin in the night before even as he looked like he was about to cry on the mound; after soiling his shorts on national TV, Mac went to him again, there was no doubt. The man who had been one strike away from baseball (and Beantown) immortality spit the bit when it mattered most. To redeem himself, of course he promptely surrendered the go-ahead run to the insufferable Ray Knight. (If the Sox were not so worthless and weak at this point, someone, anyone would have taken a run at Daryl Strawberry when his cherry-on-top homerun prompted the most egregiously disrespectful slow-circle of the bases in the history of the sport.) The rest, as they say is history.

But it couldn’t simply be history, because it was history. I literally could not count the number of times I saw replays of Buckner’s bungle, or the subsequent footage of the insufferable Knight crossing home plate (into the waiting arms of the equally loathed Gary “Camera” Carter). Or the ultimate indignity, Jesse Orosco’s histrionics after striking out Marty Barrett for the final out (in Game 7). I can’t tell you the intolerable pain these images caused, one million times worse than the shot of Bucky “Bleeping” Dent’s soul-to-the-devil shot over the Monster. All the way up to ’03 they were ubiquitous until, as it seemed, Satan conjured up the final insult by having the Sox’s eternally overdue beatdown of the Yankees (in Game 7 of the ALCS) mutate into a comeback only slightly less improbable –and painful– than the Mets’ second miracle.

(Sidenote: I was with my old man in ’86 and I was with my old man in ’03. On the other hand, I was with him in ’04 and ’07, so we got that goin’ for us…which is nice.)

This was what it was like to be a fan. It was not merely a matter of expecting the worst; all sports fans are acquainted with that (some more than others: Hello Cleveland!). It was that the worst was about to happen at the worst possible moment in the worst possible way.

And so, all together now: Thank God for 2004!

2004 cemented my already-existing penchant for underdogs. 2004 solidified my solidarity with teams and their longest-suffering fan-bases (except for Philadelphia).

Just as it’s difficult to articulate the unique and acute distress the events of ’86 (and ’03) caused, it’s similarly challenging to relate what 2004 felt like. A glacier dissolved to the final tear drop after thousands of years and riding the crest of a forever fever breaking; a billion babies’ burps; burnt-out batteries firing with life; the sports fanatics’ equivalent of the golden glow at the end of the dugout tunnel…

But before we got there we had to walk through that long and illogical darkness.

And what bothered me most was not the losses or the regret, but the fact that one figure unfairly came to bear the brunt of all of this pent-up rage and resentment.

This week marked the 25th anniversary of Game Six and the most (in)famous error in post-season (if not all-time) history.

(Real time edit: perhaps the baseball gods have both humor, perspective and perversity to burn, because we just witnessed another Game Six that might do the unthinkable and supplant the previous Game Six as the Game Six…time will tell and more on that later.)

I always knew, from October 1986 until October 2004 (and even now, really) who the real Red Sox fans are. If you blamed Bill Buckner for the loss it conclusively proved three things: you weren’t a real Sox fan, you didn’t understand baseball and most importantly, you were an asshole.

I’m not going to recount the play-by-play, just like I’m not going to embed any video (ugh), but suffice it to say, there was plenty of blame to go around. Much more egregious than Buckner’s error was the wild throw by Bob “The Steamer” Stanley who, that night, opened his name up to more scatalogical associations. (Plus, for anyone who happened to catch his post-game interview, the ease and disgrace with which he threw Buckner under the bus earns him eternal enmity.) Much (too much) has been made of the fact that Buckner should not have been on the field at all; that he should have been pulled for defensive wiz Dave Stapleton. Horseshit. If Schiraldi had done his job (or Boggs had charged that harmless grounder and made a play before it went foul) Stanley would never have been needed, Gedman’s fat ass would never have had to make the (lame) attempt to cover the wild pitch, and Buckner would have rightly been on the field to celebrate with his teammates after the winning out was recorded, and Bruce Hurst would have remained the series MVP (as he was prematurely declared when the game was presumably seconds from concluding…).

Coincidentally, watching the recent ESPN special “Catching Hell”, I was reminded how irrational fans can be, and how as Americans we insist on easy –if unfair– solutions to complex problems. That poor Steve Bartman was blamed for his team’s epic and embarrassing collapse (we are not talking about a one-run turn of events, we are talking about a collective meltdown that makes Calvin Schiraldi look like Bob Gibson) is enough to make you wish the Cubs never win another playoff game. Of course that is not fair to the organization, or the authentic fans, and human beings, who are unable to pin their own frustrations and real-world impotencies on an anonymous, unlucky fan. But watching that feature, which I highly recommend to even non sports fans, I understood that any sane person, seeing or hearing the way Buckner was treated and excoriated, would –and should– have hoped that the Red Sox would never win a World Series. Or more, that a city that could act so ignobly never deserved to win anything, as some type of atonement.

Again, thank God for 2004. Of course, Buckner has long since put the past behind him (although he was still very understandably bitter when, in 2004, idiotic sports reporters were asking him “do you feel forgiven now?” and other offensive questions). By 2008, after the Sox had won, again, enough water had, at long last, swept under the bridge that Buckner was willing to get his long overdue serenade. I kind of love the fact that Bill (and his partner in crime, Mookie Wilson), have managed to make money off of this play over the years. For all the grief he got, he damn well should have got paid. You go Bill. Decent story from this week’s Boston Globe here.

And that is some video I will be happy to share (although I can’t help noting, even the person good enough to record this was moronic enough to make sarcastic/disparaging comments even as Buckner strode to the mound).

There was, of course, nothing to forgive. But in the spirit of a quarter-century of misunderstanding, misplaced ire, recrimination and redemption, the last few, rocking, minutes of this delectable recording should resonate from the snowy environs of Boston to the lush fields of Idaho.

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Muhammad Ali’s Biggest Victory

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Question: What cultural figure of the 60?s best represents you–the way you dress, act, create, see the world, or wish the world saw you. It can be Chuck Berry or Chairman Mao. It can be Betty Friedan or Betty Rubble. More importantly, why?

Answer: I love the ‘60s and write often about the significant things that did happen, did not happen and should have happened during that decade. In terms of import, be it artistic, social, political, cultural, opinions on what matters and endures about the ‘60s says as much or more about the person offering an opinion. In spite of my interest and enthusiasm, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have wanted to be a young man in the ‘60s. Sure, I could have been witness to too many milestones to count, in real time. I also could have been killed in Vietnam, or in the streets, or fried my greedy brain with too much LSD or, worst of all, somehow been a Nixon supporter.

Every event and individual from this seminal decade has assumed mythic status, but so many of the figures we admire were not admirable people. It’s worth the gifts they left, we say, often correctly. But has there been a single period in American history where so many people get too much credit for talking loud and saying nothing (unlike, say, the cat who wrote that song)? The older I get and the more I learn—about the ‘60s, America, myself—the deeper my awe of the man who changed his name to Muhammad Ali grows.

Is there one figure (don’t say John Lennon) who humanizes, epitomizes, the racial, sociological, human upheaval of the era? Here is the rarest of folks who was the best in the world at what he did, at the height of his ability to make history, and money, willing to sacrifice it on principle. And more: a cause that every year is proven more prescient and unassailable on both moral and military levels. April 28, 1967, a little over a month before Sgt. Pepper initiated the Summer of Love, Ali made a statement as brave, audacious and impactful as any of that—or any—decade.

Look: we live in a time where we can boast about our beliefs and have our righteousness measured by likes and follows, all from the safety of an overpriced coffee shop. As such, I’ll continue to be humbled and inspired, as a dude with big hopes and modest abilities, by the icon who stared down doubt, ignorance, security and compliance. Ali is the exception to the way we’re ruled, and how we roll, and like the rest of us mortals, his biggest fight took place outside the ring.

This post originally appeared as part of a larger feature, with all the editors at The Weeklings submitting their choices for the same question. Check it out!

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The Bittersweet Science, Part Four: Four Kings (Revisited)

 

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Let’s finish this four part post off by letting Kimball, and the Kings, do the talking.

Duran was fifteen and walking his girlfriend home from a dance when they encountered half a dozen rowdy drunks who attempted to accost the young lady. In a few frenzied moments, Roberto knocked out five of the assailants. The sixth knifed him with a grazing blow to the back just before the police arrived (p. 17)

In the aftermath of a ludicrous decision that had gone against him in Annapolis, heavyweight Scott LeDoux interrupted Cosell’s post-fight interview with winner Johnny Boudreaux by aiming a karate kick at Boudreaux. He missed, and instead kicked Cosell’s toupee off. Howard tried to quickly replace it and conducted the subsequent interview with his hairpiece on backwards. (p. 34)

Now, in 1980, Duran’s and Leonard’s respective headquarters were only a few blocks apart, and it was inevitable that there would be chance encounters in the days leading up to the fight. Roberto Duran might not have spoken much English back then, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t give Leonard the finger whenever he saw him. One morning Leonard’s sister Sharon was walking down the street when she looked up and saw Duran leering at her from a passing car, “flashing a message…that did not require an interpreter. “Once his wife gave my wife the finger,” said Leonard. “Duran was just weird.” (p. 74)

Duran’s EKG had revealed an irregularity—an unexpected arrhythmia—and the fight might be in jeopardy. “How can he have a heart condition?” asked Arcel. “Duran doesn’t even have a heart.” (p. 75)

On the infamous “No mas” moment: My view was that Duran at the time actually believed himself to be committing the ultimate macho act (Kimball). Emanuel Steward (the ref) concurs: “Duran was completely frustrated…it was like he was saying ‘If you don’t want to fight, then fuck you. I’m not going to stand here jumping all around after you.’ In Duran’s mind I think he expected that the crowd would condemn Leonard for having made a mockery of the fight, rather than him for quitting.” (p. 116)

I’ve covered nearly four-hundred world title bouts since, but with all its fascinating nuances, Hearns-Leonard I remains the best fight I was ever privileged to watch. (Kimball) (p. 143)

But he (Hearns) paid dearly for the win (against Wilfred Benitez): In the eighth round he had rocked Benitez with a right hand. The punch landed with such force that it shattered several small bones in his wrist and popped them through the linear muscles at the back of his hand. Tommy fought the last seven rounds using only his left, but still won easily on two of the three scorecards. (p. 154)

I kept asking myself, “These kids are about to graduate from Harvard. What am I going to tell them? “You’re blessed, and I’m blessed,” Leonard told the students that day. “We’ve each been given God-given talents. Mine just happens to be beating people up.” (p. 155)

“You have to understand Thomas (Hearns),” Dr. Lewerenz (Hearns’ physician) told Sports Illustrated…”His whole value judgment is based on how hard he can hit. This man actually lives and exists mentally from the power of his right hand. It’s his self-image.” (p. 171)

A few days before the fight there was a chance meeting between the combatants and their entourages at a bank of elevators at Caesars. “I kill you! I kill you!” growled Duran as he brandished a fist. “No mas! No mas!” replied a laughing Hearns in Motown-accented Spanish. (p. 177)

On the best round of boxing, arguably, in history:

*Before the fighters were introduced…Billy Hearns was taunting Hagler from across the ring. Seemingly oblivious, Hagler continued to shadow-box. “I saw him,” Hagler recalled later. “I was thinking right then, ‘All you’re gonna do is get your brother’s ass kicked!”

*Early in the first round, Hearns rocked Hagler with a right uppercut that momentarily appeared to have stunned the champion, but Marvin kept charging forward. “I wanted him to know who was the boss from the opening bell,” Hagler said. “I knew I could take everything he had.”

*Because he was the one who was bleeding, Hagler’s corner was the focus of attention, but across the ring there was also cause for concern. “When Tommy came back to the corner after the first round he told me ‘My hand’s broke,” recalled Steward. “I said, ‘What do you mean? Is it sore?’ ‘No,” said Hearns. ‘It’s broke.’ It was, said Steward, but “the idea of quitting never entered my mind. That just wasn’t who Thomas Hearns was.”

*(In the third round) Hagler and Hearns went right back at it. “I’ve been refereeing for fifteen years, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen that much intensity in a fight,” Steele would say afterward.

*Rudimentary computerized statistics of the day revealed that Hagler and Hearns had unleashed a combined 339 punches in just eight minutes of boxing, and that each had landed well over half the punches he threw. Hagler connected on 96 of 173, Hearns 94 of 166.

*”Emanuel Steward would say years later that Hearns fought the last five minutes of the eight-minute dance on raw courage alone. “After the first round,” said Steward, “his hand was broke and his legs were gone. But that night, Tommy told me not to mention anything about the hand. He said he didn’t want to take anything away from Hagler’s victory. That’s the kind of guy Tommy was.”

Hagler: “I want to give Tommy all the credit in the world…He came out the only way he could if he wanted to take something away from a champion.

Hearns: “He came in, took my best shot, and fought his ass off.”

Citro: “It was a roll of the dice. They both had to gamble. Hagler gambled and won, Hearns gambled and lost. I think he just punched himself out.”

*The trash talking of the past few months was quickly forgotten as the two adversaries embraced. “You’ve got a lot of class coming in here like this,” Hagler told him before promising, “If I had lost, I’d have done the same thing.” The two gladiators hugged again.

An amusing anecdote about the shameless and insufferable Don King: “You know,” King continued, “I had a little talk with Mugabi after the fight, and he says he wants to go with me (as promoter), but of course I told him you and me were in this together.” “I let him get it all out,” said Duff. “And then I said, ‘Don, if that conversation took place you must be fluent in Swahili, because the lad doesn’t speak a word of English.” (p. 206)

More on the kind of guy Hearns is: After Richie Sandoval was killed in the ring, Thomas not only flew to Philadelphia for the funeral, but also returned the NABF belt he had won from Shuler (who beat Sandoval to death in the ring) so that his fallen foe could be buried with it. (p. 209)

What was unquestionably the highlight of the (Hagler/Leonard) undercard came during the first televised bout, between Lupe Aquino and Davey Moore. At the beginning of the second, a round-card girl…was negotiating her way into the ring between the ropes when she leaned too far forward and one of her breasts flopped out of her top. The unintended nudity was greeted by considerably more applause than either Aquino or Moore had received. (When she climbed through the ropes a round later and her boobs didn’t fall out, she was booed by the crowd.) (p. 233)

After the Leonard/Hearns rematch: Leonard and Hearns were mutually gracious when they jointly met with the press the following morning. “Tommy came into this fight seeking redemption,” said Leonard, “and he got that.” Hearns: “When I woke up this morning my mind was clear. I was lying there in bed thinking, ‘Hmm. I wonder who Ray is thinking about this morning?’ I still love this man, added Tommy. (p. 267)

After the Leonard/Duran “Uno Mas” fight: The whole fanciful notion of a protracted Seniors Tour involving Leonard, Hagler, Hearns, and Duran seemed to have evaporated amid the chorus of boos that serenaded Leonard’s exit at the Mirage after what would be the last win of his career. The era of the Four Kings had ended, not with a bang but a whimper. (p. 282)

However much Duran got out of Las Vegas with, it seemed a fairly safe bet that it wasn’t going to last long. “Duran will keep fighting,” predicted Arum. “Duran wants more money, because Duran likes to spend money.” (p. 282)

The conclusion of the rivalry among the Four Kings precipitated an almost immediate decline in the sport. There have been “big” fights since, but none has recaptured the magical aura created by their internecine battles. (p. 294)

Those only casually acquainted with the sport seem amazed when they watch two boxers beat each other within an inch of their lives, only to warmly embrace when the final bell rings. The bond of mutual respect, and even genuine affection, between men who have experience this unique form of combat can be bewildering to those outside the fraternity. So it is with Leonard, Hagler, Hearns and Duran, who not only shared a glorious decade on the world stage together, but made one another rich. It’s hard to carry a grudge under such circumstances. “We still run into each other now and then,” said Sugar Ray Leonard. “When I see Hagler it’s civil, like ‘How you doing?’ but that’s all. Marvin now is like Marvin then. He was always old-school. He never had an entourage; he carried his own bags. He’s like that today…Tommy Hearns was at my wedding…he’s always smiling and joking…but somewhere in the back of his mind I know he’s still hoping I’ll come back and fight him for a third time, even after all these years. And when Duran and I are together we can even joke around a bit.” The subject of No Mas has never come up between them, and, says Leonard, it never will. (p.299)

Best for last: (Leonard was having breakfast in Mexico City for a WBC convention and Duran walked in). “Hey Roberto,” Leonard beckoned with a smile, “come over here. Come over here and sit down, godamn it!” As the two old rivals sat across the table from one another, Leonard said, “I need to know something. We’re older, we’ve got kids and grandchildren, so you can tell me now. Did you really hate me as much as you seemed to hate me back then?” “Ray, Ray, no no no no!” said Duran, looking offended. “I was only acting.” “Acting?” Leonard laughed. “Well, you must have been a damned good actor, then, because you sure convinced me!”

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The Bittersweet Science, Part Three: The Fight (Revisited)

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Let’s end the suspense and get this out of the way right up front: Hagler vs. Hearns on April 15, 1985 is the best sporting event I’ve ever witnessed.

First, some history: I’m not sure I thought so at the time; I had not seen enough yet. I’ve lived 27 years since then and seen lots of other great sports moments and the time has only confirmed my verdict. Obviously I would never want to be put in the position of declaring what is the best sporting event (it’s not unlike “the best” anything: does that mean most enjoyable, most important, most influential, most popular, etc.?), but if I want to stand up and be counted, for my money and based on what I’ve witnessed, nothing can possibly top The Fight.

(To be a bit more clear: I did not have any money riding, I did not necessarily prefer either fighter –though I did/do greatly respect both– and in many senses this was not close to the most personally satisfying sports moment. It was not Larry Bird in Game 6 of the ’86 finals, or Dennis Johnson shutting down Magic in ’84, or any number of moments from the Red Sox World Series of ’04 and ’07, or what the Redskins did to the Broncos during the 2nd quarter of the ’88 Super Bowl, or Riggo’s 4th and 1 run in ’83 vs. the Dolphins, or Dale Hunter’s 7th game series winning goal vs. the Flyers, or the glorious shock of Mike Tyson fumbling around for his mouthpiece after Buster Douglas beat his ass, or any number of sublime moments from the various NHL playoff series in the last two decades, particularly the beyond-epic series between the Stars and Avs and then Stars and Devils during the 2000 finals or…you get the picture.)

Secondly, some perspective: in other sports, championship moments are often (or at least all-too-often) lackluster affairs. Consider how many mediocre Super Bowls, World Series and NHL (even NBA) finals we’ve hyped up and been disappointed by. And that is just referring to the ones that are either blow-outs or the function of one team demonstrating their dominance on a day when everything falls perfectly into place. Those are understandable, even inevitable. But how many other times have we been let down by a World Cup final or a boxing match, because one or both parties tried to avoid the loss rather than secure (and/or earn) the win? I think of Brazil in the ’80s: those were the best teams and they probably should have won one or two World Cups (led by the incomparable playmaker named Socrates), but they could not restrain themselves and play it safe. Overwhelmed by their love of their game and their affinity for joga bonito, or allergic to the conservative style employed by the European powerhouses (like West Germany and Italy), they played with flair, audacity and because they could not help it, allowed a combination of hubris and zeal to expose their collective chins. My passion for the World Cup is hardly diminished, but I regret seeing teams play too-safe and sit on small leads, resulting in lackluster games on the biggest possible stage. It has only gotten worse in recent years, but it’s an undeniable recipe for success. As soon as Brazil reined in their aggressive and unbridled impulses they finally broke through, albeit it in joyless, aesthetically muted fashion. Their victories were, in many seneses, objective fans’ loss: to finally win they had to play mostly sterile and boring soccer. As such I retain a fondness and appreciation for the ’82 and ’86 squads and care –and remember– very little about the ’02 team that won the prize.

The preceding paragraph might underscore why, in addition to loving the sheer entertainment spectacle The Fight provided, I appreciate and am humbled by the way Hearns and Hagler approached the biggest bout of their lives.

Am I supposed to do The Fight justice?

I will say, without too much irony, that in some ways I still feel slightly unworthy of what these two men gave us. I’m serious.

There is nothing in sports (is there anything in life?) that can match the three minutes of that first round. Not a second wasted, too many punches thrown to count, and a simple reality that transcends cliché: Hagler took Hearns’ best shot and stayed on his feet. There is much more involved, but it can really be boiled down to that simple fact. Hearns threw the same right hand that had devastated pretty much everyone to whom it had ever landed flush; he threw that punch at least a few times and not only did Hagler absorb it, Hearns broke his hand on Hagler’s dome. At the same time, Hagler was inflicting unbelievable damage himself, and once Hearns’ fist, then feet, were shot, it was just a matter of time. As was covered in the previous post(s), it’s fair to say that Hearns made it through the next round and a half on instinct and courage alone. Hagler, for his part, used anger, resolve and willpower to, as he memorably put it, keep moving forward like Pac Man.

The second round allowed everyone, especially the viewers, to catch their breath. The gash that Hearns had opened up on Hagler’s forehead fortuitously ran down his nose, and not into his eyes (that could have changed the course of the fight), and when the ref sent Hagler to his corner (even though at this point Hagler had all the momentum) in the third round, it’s possible that this was what inspired –or scared– Hagler into going for broke. There was simply no way he was going to let the fight get stopped, not after he had already taken the best Hearns could give him. In that classic finish, an almost-out-on-his-feet Hearns jogs away from Hagler, turning to grin (as if to say “that didn’t hurt”) but Hagler is already upon him, literally leaping into the air to throw his right-handed coup de grace. Down went Hearns, up went Hagler, and both men became immortal in that forever moment.

It was hard to begrudge Hagler, who had never been a media darling and had been done wrong by several judges and promoters over the years. This fight was his vindication, and it was sweet (the sour taste in his mouth, that he still carries to this day, courtesy of the controversial ’87 fight with Leonard, is an unfortunate footnote) while it lasted. I love Hagler for the guts, tenacity and resolve he displayed: he deserved to win. I admire Hearns for the respect he showed (to himself, the fans and the sport), willing to lose everything in an all-or-nothing strategy that would be unheard of, today. It was practically unheard of, then. More, he accepted the loss with grace and humor, and it remains moving to see the way he and Hagler embraced after it was over. The mutual respect the two men still have for one another is, understandably, unshaken.

What do we make of Hearns, who finished second in two of the best fights of the decade, both of which could easily be in the Top 10 (if not Top 5) of all time? In both instances, had he chosen to box instead of brawl he very likely could have won. He may still second-guess his strategy in the Leonard fight –if he’d been wise (or craven) enough to just dance away, he would have easily won on the scorecards. But he couldn’t; he just didn’t have it in him. I see this as neither hubris nor recklessness; Hearns had a pride that was bigger than winning. I guarantee, despite his understandable regrets about being one of our most celebrated runners-up in sports history, he sleeps like a baby each night and is proud to look at himself in the mirror. He should be. In losing, especially the way he lost, Hearns is more inspiring than any number of athletes who own the hardware, claim the victory, and have done little if anything to make anyone emulate them. I’m not suggesting that a go-for-broke approach is advisable, in sports or life, and as The Gambler reminds us, you’ve got to know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em. On the other hand, when the light is shining brightest, or perhaps more importantly when no one else is looking, you have to be willing to put it on the line and achieve something you’ll be proud to remember.

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The Bittersweet Science, Part Two: Getting Acquainted with the Late George Kimball (Revisited)

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Every so often there is a confluence of events that, if you’re lucky or perceptive enough, leads to a revelation. Other times there are just the happy accidents that function like electrical storms, intense and unforeseen. Back in December I saw a story on Deadspin, a site I do not frequent, about a man called George Kimball. If I had not checked that site, it’s possible I never would have seen the piece, (an excellent piece of journalism by Alex Belth, entitled “The Two-Fisted, One-Eyed Misadventures of Sportswriting’s Last Badass.” It’s highly recommended and can be read here.)

Kimball passed away (another casualty of cancer) last December. Google him and you’ll quickly see that everyone adored this dude. So much that it makes you think: “How could I not have been familiar with him, and what the hell is wrong with me?” That moment passes and is outweighed by the gratitude you feel for finding him, finally. Here’s a representative sample from fellow Boston scribe Bob Ryan, who knows a thing or two about Beantown, sports and writing:

But the reason why so many of us will miss George Kimball is, shall we say, his off-the-field self. If one were to conduct a poll of local writers, broadcasters, team officials and even players who have worked in Boston during the last 35 years or so, the question being, “Who is the most absolutely memorable personality you have encountered in the writing business?” the runaway winner — perhaps even the unanimous choice — would have to be George Kimball.

That is, unless you know of some other bearded, one-eyed, chain-smoking, beer drinking, pot-bellied (I say this lovingly) vegetarian writer friend of Hunter S. Thompson who never saw a party he didn’t like. (more here.)

The more you read about him the more you ask yourself: How in the fuck was this guy not on ESPN’s Sports Reporters every week? And then you remember, it’s ESPN, and the reasons are self-evident. (In case you think I’m being too oblique let me put it this way: the reason a man like Kimball was not on ESPN’s Sports Reporters every week is the same reason a man like Mike Lupica is on every week.)

I was, obviously, sad to think that we were robbed of another few decades, or even days, of this man’s writing, but the pain was significantly mitigated when I discovered he had written an in-depth study of an era many consider the pinnacle of the sweet science: the ’80s and the ceaseless rivalry that existed between Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns and Roberto Duran, a rivalry that produced some of the best fights in boxing history. That book is called Four Kings.

I have read the book, and not since I enjoyed the fascinating story of Percy Fawcett’s life (in the enthusiastically recommended instant-classic, The Lost City of Z: read my review here) as well as the indescribably awesome Hellraisers (the trashy, sensationalistic, poorly written masterpiece by Robert Sellers, the full title of which is Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole and Oliver Reed. My giddy celebration of that tome can be found here) have I known, while reading, that I not only would write about the book, but quote extensively from it. An entire post, coming soon, will be dedicated to some of the funniest, most enlightening and unbelievable sentences I encountered. And that should only be a taste, a teaser of the goodies that await you when you get hold of it and see for yourself why this guy (Kimball) and these guys (the boxers) are so universally beloved.

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The Bittersweet Science, Part One (Revisited)

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It probably says something about evolution that the younger generations see the future as expansive, malleable and positive while the older generations eventually—and inexorably—see the past as safer, simpler and more sensible. Bob Dylan had it right, of course: the times they are a-changin’. But it wasn’t a ’60s thing: the times are always changing, it just depends on where you’re standing and what you expect (or want) to see.

And so: athletes were less corrupted, politicians more honest, employers more human. Take your pick and add to the list, because it applies to everything and goes on forever.

But in the early ‘80s it really was a period of transition, perhaps unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Way before the Internet, obviously, but even before cable TV was ubiquitous and the news was a half-hour show you watched after you woke up or before you went to bed.

Looked at in the necessary continuum of history, it’s easier to understand that the decade was simply straining toward the future, as we all do by virtue of being one second closer to death every time we exhale. And the ‘80s were faster and more—or less—complicated than the ‘70s, just as, in comparison, the ‘90s makes those years seem prehistoric. Example: at the dawn of 1980 nobody owned compact discs; by 1999 this revolutionary technology had already begun its death march.

Still, looking at where we are, now, and where we came from to get there, the ‘80s are somewhat suspended in time, a decade of transition.

For me, nothing represents the shift quite like professional boxing. Baseball, football and basketball have not changed: they are still the biggest sports, only more so. But with MMA, ever-splintered affiliations and weight class rankings, DVD box sets and especially YouTube (like porn, people prefer violence when it’s cheap, readily available and as authentic as possible), the boxing game has changed. Few would argue it’s changed for the better or that it can ever be anything like what it used to be. Certainly this has something to do with the star quality (of which more shortly), but mostly it involves the logistics of entertainment, circa 1980-something. A title bout was an event that got hyped, shown on live TV and was then…gone (like virtually all forms of entertainment until cable TV and then VCRs came along to save—and immortalize—the day). Before ESPN, before everyone could record everything, you had to make time to witness an event, because the show would go on, with or without you.

This, perhaps more than any other factor, illustrates the once-insatiable appetite for pay-per-view events: they were events and you not only invested your money, but your time to be a part of it (at least as much as any witness can be said to be a part of any activity). It may seem quaint now, but the pay-per-view model revolutionized by the boxing promoters of this time is a microcosm of what the world would become; a blueprint for the business model that is no longer confined to sports. Consider reality television or even the music and, increasingly, book publishing industries, wherein a washed-up rock star or talk show host or someone with a Twitter account can decree who matters and, more importantly, why—and how—they should matter to millions of people. It’s equal parts hype, viral marketing and the machine of modern commerce: Everybody wants everything and whatever that thing is becomes the most important thing on the planet, at least while it’s being watched.

The 1980’s were, in short, the perfect time for immortals to roam our earth and ply a trade dating back to days when the loser became food for lions and being voted off the island meant public execution.

All of which brings us to Duran, Leonard, Hagler and Hearns. These men defined a decade and their fights function as Shakespearean works of that era: heroism, hubris, tragedy and, crucially, comedy—all delivered with lots of blood, ill-will and, considering what was at stake and how abundantly they rewarded us, honor. It was the neighborhood and schoolyard code writ large: the best fighters in any environment will inevitably find and confront each other. Before days when obscene dollars and unspeakable promoters did more to determine who fought whom for how much on what platform, these men sought one another to settle the simplest score: who was the best and who could wear the belt. Yes, there were malevolent forces, rapacious bean counters and outside-the-ring influences that we can only guess about, but it’s neither wrong nor naïve to assert, unselfconsciously, that it was a more unsullied age.

Exhibit A, which can serve as the Alpha and Omega of my formative sports-loving life: For years, I regarded the Hagler/Hearns masterpiece the way oral poets would preserve the ancient stories: I remembered it, replayed it and above all, celebrated it. Put one way: I can remember everything about the circumstances of that fight (Monday night, 9th grade, watched it in living room with Pops, etc.). Put another way: still many years before YouTube I was in a bar with a bunch of buddies in Denver. We were busy telling old stories, catching up one new ones and drinking. All of a sudden one of us noticed that the TV above us was replaying The Fight. Immediately, and without a word, we all stopped whatever else we were doing and focused in on the magic, savoring every second. If that sounds sentimental, it is. It’s also something that could never happen today: in our mobile and connected world, circa 2012, this incident would be impossible to reproduce. And that’s the whole point. Sure, there is nostalgia involved (but let’s be clear: I would not change that world for a world where I can pull any of these fights up, for free, and watch virtually anywhere I happen to be), but more than that, this was an era where nobody who cared was unaffected and no one, looking back today, will trivialize. We saw the careers of Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods and Wayne Gretzky, but those were extended marathons of magnificence, sporting miracles built like the pyramids: requiring time, sweat, blood and monomaniacal dedication. The great fights of the ‘80s were more like natural events, hurricanes that came, moving the earth and shifting the landscape, permanently.

To be continued…

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Question: What’s Your All-Time Favorite YouTube Clip?

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No pressure, right? Favorite YouTube clip? That’s like asking what’s my favorite orgasm (answer: all of them) or best bourbon on the rocks I’ve ever savored (answer: most of them, at least once I could afford good bourbon), my favorite Beatles song…you get the picture. The Internet is like the universe: vast, impenetrable, intimidating. Only it has Google and YouTube.

Want to know how much the world has changed in less than a decade? Ask someone under age 20 to imagine the world without Google or YouTube. Then ask yourself. YouTube is perhaps the best metaphor for democracy anyone could imagine: it’s messy, often ugly, occasionally brilliant. It is by the people, for the people. How many miraculous moments (in song, sport, celebration, comeuppance) has it captured? Too many to count, and it has single-handedly helped stave off quiet desperation for countless uninspired cube-dwellers.

If pushed, I’d have to pick a real feel-good moment, one that flies in the face of all those naysayers who insist the Internet is a forum that obviates connection and soul. On the contrary, at its best, the Internet (in general) and YouTube (in particular) connect us across cultures and languages and showcases our barbaric yawps, our joyful noises, celebrations and defeats. My choice ostensibly goes against all my natural impulses (hint of jingoism, the notion that it’s merely a sporting event, albeit a world event and perhaps the world event, and it features the good ole USA in a role we’re not remotely accustomed to (and likely will remain for the foreseeable future): underdog. In this regard it’s at once humbling and hopeful).

Not a soccer fan? Don’t care. Not interested in sports, period? Doesn’t matter. How many times are you going to hear anyone this excited about anything? For anyone who is unaware, Andrés Cantor is the sine qua non of sportscasters: his enthusiasm, knowledge and passion are unsurpassed, period. For anyone who is understandably cynical about the cynicism of our…everything these days, particularly as it plays out in politics, the media and yes, the Internet (where Irony died but was resurrected by itself, making it a kind of secular Holy Trinity), this clip is an antidote for apathy, a free adrenaline burst and a reminder that we are on earth for two reasons: to bear witness and sing the song of ourselves.

(Incidentally: my choice, which I stand by a month or so later, was somewhat ironically submitted days before news broke that Donovan, the primary face and hero of the U.S. team, was being left of the 2014 Olympic squad. This post should receive neither praise nor blame for that decision.)

This post originally appeared as part of a larger feature, with all the editors at The Weeklings submitting their choices for all-time favorite YouTube video. Check it out!

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33 Thoughts about Villanova vs. Georgetown, 1985

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March Madness, indeed.

The timing could not have been better: gearing up for another annual marathon to see which team emerges from the fray (and that’s just my personal bracket), ESPN debuted the newest installment of their excellent 30 for 30 series, Requiem for the Big East.

Now, I can’t be anything but excited about this for at least three reasons. When it comes to sports, I’m very American in my tastes, which is to say, I’m sentimental to a fault. Two, I grew up—and remain—an east coaster: Big East territory. Third, I watched so many of these classic games in real time, and by “real time” I mean the great old days when VCRs were still new-fangled, so if you wanted to watch a program, your choice was to arrange your schedule accordingly. As such, these games became events, which afforded them an extra air of importance.

Needless to say, as a historical document, Requiem for the Big East could not be more highly recommended. So much of this footage is not readily available, or else recorded and lost forever to the ill-fated Betamax tapes they were recorded on during the early-to-mid ‘80s. Yes, my family was one of the half-dozen who bought the hype that Beta was better than VHS. Let’s move on.

As a sociological document, this feature is exceedingly bittersweet. Obviously it recalls a, well, simpler time, and also illustrates with occasionally painful clarity how much less of a business all aspects of sports were only a few decades ago. The fact that The Big East, a conference that went from upstart to powerhouse in short order, became a shell of itself, is a statement that needs little elaboration or explication. As such, the footage is equal parts requiem and celebration. For those of us who lived through it, we can lament it, but we should also count ourselves lucky we were around to see history made before our unblinking eyes.

As it happens, a few years ago I caught (and recorded, it being the 21st Century and even VCRs are antiquated concepts compared to the miracles of TiVo) a complete repeat of the epic Georgetown/Villanova final from 1985. I had not seen, or even seen many highlights, of this game since it was played (on April Fool’s Day, naturally). Prompted equal parts by nostalgia and genuine fascination, I could not help but compile some thoughts. Here is one of the greatest college basketball finals (and certainly the biggest upset) seen through the eyes of a fan who may not be wiser, but is most definitely older.

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1. I had sort of misremembered it being a fairly slow, sloppy game; not the case. It was quick(er) paced but controlled, all due to Villanova and their brilliant game plan. Rollie Massimino gets full props for outcoaching John Thompson. Thompson had his guys playing full-court from the get-go but Villanova was too savvy (their senior leadership was crucial) and beat it throughout. I kept thinking: a lesser team, any other team would just collapse under this relentless pressure.

2. Not only did Ed Pinckney (future Celtic) have a great game, he outplayed Ewing. (Let that sink in for a moment. Then consider their careers, before and after this final, and appreciate the full import of what this statement of fact signifies, on multiple levels. During the 30 for 30 footage, Ewing maintains that the best team did not win that night. He’s right, but he’s also one of the primary reasons this was the case.)

3. Ewing, as he sort of did vs. UNC and definitely did a few times in the NBA, came up smaller than expected (or hoped) in the biggest games (it hurts but it’s true). He should have dominated because of his size advantage but Pinckney somehow outhustled and outsmarted him throughout the game. There is a notable moment when Thompson briefly benches Ewing and can be seen exhorting him to get under the basket and get busy; it works, and Ewing comes out with some rafter-shaking dunks. But then he picks up 3 quick fouls, which changed the momentum (which I totally remember that from when I was a freshman in high school watching it…). Things worked out OK for Ewing, but if you had told me in 1984 that this would be his only championship on the college or pro level, I would not have believed it.

4. The players all look like they are wearing speedos.

5. It is astonishing how thin and, opposed to college athletes today, comparatively tiny they all are (with the notable exception of man-child Ewing). Obviously not a lot of weight lifting back then. Reggie Williams is a stick.

6. Reggie Williams had sick game. Smooth as silk but hard as nails (just as I remember), and he arguably had the most maturity/poise –and heart—on the team, as a sophomore; Wingate and Martin each had so-so games but Williams was tight on both ends–just as I remember.

7. Sad but true: Michael Jackson (fellow alum of South Lakes High School in Reston, VA, which should give you an idea who I was rooting for) did not have a very good game. He certainly ran the floor well, but a few bricks and bad passes did not help the cause; a better performance and he could have gone out a two-time champ (Sidenote: I recall still being in grade school when Jackson was the man at South Lakes: we went to those Friday night games and cheered for the team, and him. It was big news, huge news when he decided to go to Georgetown because back in those days we would not have been able to follow his college career nearly as closely had he gone out of state. Less than a decade later, Grant Hill would become a star at South Lakes before becoming one of the more successful and beloved college basketball players of his era.)

8. I hadn’t thought in quite a while about Thompson and his big white towel that he kept slung over his shoulder. Genius. (The 30 for 30 show replays the almost indescribable moment when Thompson came out, before a huge game against rival St. John’s, wearing a replica of Lou Carnesecca’s infamous sweater. This was gamesmanship and game-within-the-game material for all time, and it is celebrated accordingly.)

9. If Michael Graham hadn’t sabotaged his career (and the team’s dynasty, when, after blowing off his studies, Thompson proved why he was the man and kicked him off the team), Georgetown would have not only won in ’85, but ’86 as well. Remember him? That was a scary dude, and he rocked the shaved head way before it was remotely fashionable.

10. Villanova’s poise is astonishing. Yes, the ball kept dropping but as I watch, they were just taking high percentage shots and using their senior smarts to its full advantage.

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11. If there had a been a shot clock in ’85, 100% Georgetown wins.

12. If there had been a shot clock in ’82, for that matter, 100% Georgetown wins.

13. No tattoos.

14. It’s an alarming commentary on how annoying announcers are these days that Brent Musburger –whom I loathed in the ’80s– sounds remarkably restrained and reasonable to my ears today.

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15. As much hype as the Big East gets these days, it was the realest of deals from early to late ’80s –as local fans will recall. St. Johns was also in the final 4 this year (’85). Think about that.

16. The ’80s was, for sports, a decade that improves with time. As a (then) fanatic Celtics fan, enough said (and I’m not sure we’ll ever see the likes of those Celtics/Lakers series). As a college basketball fan, we had playoff-like games seemingly every week with these Big East rivalries (I still remember it was like Ali-Foreman redux, each time these teams clashed, not capable of being contained on campus; these games were played in  The Carrier Dome, Madison Square Garden, Capital Centre. The glory days of the NFC East, and the real glory days of a great Redskins team (The hogs, the rings, etc.), and we still had the Patrick Division in the NHL (sigh). Oh, and the Yankees sucked.

17. Not saying this is a good thing, but ESPN (and modernity in general) changed everything: even in this final game, there were few in-game replays and much fewer TV time-outs/commercials/nonsense. Again, not saying the hi-def, 15 multiple angle replays is a bad thing, but there is something quaint and –yes authentic– about this.

18. Georgetown did not choke, Villanova deserved to win. They were undeniably fortunate (22 of 28 from the floor for a 78.6% shooting percentage; are you kidding me?) but they were not lucky.

19. Gary Mclean had the weirdest, most unorthodox shot ever.

20. Remember the days when players stayed all four years?

21. Michael Jackson and Billy Martin on the same team? And both of those (more) famous associations were still very popular circa 1985.

22. Exactly two weeks after this game the most exciting round of boxing ever took place in the most surreal title bout ever: Hagler/Hearns. I vaguely recall the Miracle on Ice; I remember every detail of that epic brawl, of which more another time.

23. Is it possible that Georgetown did not take Villanova seriously enough?

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24. Having appreciated the 30 for 30 feature on Michigan’s Fab 5, I can attest and confirm that the Hoyas were the real deal: these were all dark-skin brothers and you know huge chunks of our country hated them and rooted against them on principle (I knew it, and saw it, then). The Fab 5 were more notorious for their sheer talent and trash talking (and, of course, lack of discipline which certainly cost them at least one title game), but if we are going to talk about influence and legendary us vs. them sociology, it was embodied by this era’s team. Everything John Thompson did worked, except when it didn’t.

25. Seriously: Ed Pinckney outplayed Ewing. That was the difference right there.

26. The number one album in the country the day this game was played: No Jacket Required by Phil Collins.

27. St. Elmo’s Fire was not released for another 6 months. (Rob Lowe just turned 50.)

28. You can never, ever underestimate how crucial it is to hit your free throws. (Villanova had two one-and-ones in the final two minutes to stay in the lead and hit all four shots. Huge.)

29. John Thompson looked utterly defeated with at least three minutes left. Who would have imagined that? Who could have guessed he would never get to another title game?

30. Billy Packer (the young/er Billy Packer who had not succumbed to the prissy arrogance and negativity that almost overwhelmed his final years) was all but openly rooting for Villanova in the final moments.

31. One of the more bizarre things I’ve ever seen, at least in an athletic competition: During Georgetown’s last time-out, they show the bench and the school’s academic advisor (Mary Fenlon) is sitting at the end of the bench…she is a middle-aged white woman wearing a garish 19th Century-style dress…a middle-aged white woman ON THE BENCH with all these tall African Americans. Surreal.

32. Michael Jackson scored the final two baskets for Georgetown. Just saying.

33. This list has 33 items. Respect for #33.

*Bonus: The only NCAA final I’ve ever missed was the 1987 final. Why? I had tickets to see The Pretenders (at Capital Centre, of course). It was worth it. Iggy Pop was the opening act. Plus, I would have hated to see a Big East team lose at the buzzer. It wasn’t personal; it was strictly business.

http://www.punchnels.com/first-person/33-thoughts-about-villanova-vs-georgetown-1985/

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Do You Believe in Miracles? (Revisited)

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On Feb. 22, 1980, in a stunning upset, the United States Olympic hockey team defeated the Soviets at Lake Placid, N.Y., 4-to-3. (The U.S. team went on to win the gold medal.) NYT story here.

If I’m not mistaken, this is the only cover in Sports Illustrated history that does not have a headline, or text of any sort. Naturally, it doesn’t need any. There were certainly magnificent (semi-miraculous?) upsets in sports before (The Jets beating the Colts in Super Bowl III) and after (Rulon Gardner beating the unbeatable Alexander Karelin in the 2000 Olympics), but the import of this victory has to be considered within the context of the times. Pre-Internet (pre-VCRs, really), pre-ESPN (pre-cable, really), in an era when you really did get news on the radio. As in, driving in the car with your parents, during a commercial.

Because in 1980 most Americans actually listened to the radio in the car (pre-Satellite, pre-CD changer, pre-cassette, really). 8-tracks were entering the last stage of their ascendancy, not even aware that they were already dead and subsisting on the last gasps of their magnetic fumes. And how many 8-tracks could one family own? How many could one family fit in a car? And so, by default, the radio still ruled. Some people may even have listened to that epic game on the radio, in their cars, in real time. That was just over three decades ago.

Arguably, being nine years old, I was the ideal demographic to be fully impacted by this event. Not old enough to appropriate (or be unduly influenced by) the political implications, but old enough to understand that in winter Olympics games, the U.S.S.R. (and Eastern Europe) still held sway. We could not appreciate, or care too much about the irony of the big, bad U.S.A. casting themselves as underdogs, in any capacity. Two unavoidable facts: it was just a sporting event, and pure and simple, the U.S.A. were underdogs. Did this unanticipated and inexplicable victory tilt the scales in the escalating cold war?

Arguably, if you measure political history by such standards as Rocky Balboa defeating Ivan Drago in Rocky IV, it makes all the sense in the world. More, if you are of the opinion (aided by propagandist historical revisions by certain, influential right-leaning folk) that the cold war was an even battle between two socially and economically equal parties, this cartoonish perception of Good vs. Evil is resonant, and revelatory. For younger, less politically impressionable viewers, this victory did, unironically; reinforce the genuine (if mythical) notion inherent in the American Dream: if you worked hard and played fair, anything was possible. It’s not merely the ability to believe this claptrap that underscores the naiveté we lament losing as we get older and wiser, it’s the ways in which real events, however fictionally applicable to real life, can occasionally inspire kids to believe in miracles.

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Bill Buckner, Mookie Wilson and Me (Revisited)

(10/2011)

I’ve never been able to appreciate the aesthetic perfection (that is to say, the perfection of baseball’s most imperfect play; it’s most jarringly incongruous moment) because it was too painful. I was too invested in the response to that stimulus and what it signified: game (and, we knew, series) over.

A lot of people forgot, or never knew, that this was only Game Six. It was not the end of the actual series; they had one more game to play even if everyone understood that it wasn’t necessary. This was the Red Sox, after all.

Is there any doubt in any Red Sox fan’s mind that if Oil Can Boyd had (been allowed to) pitch(ed) he would have won? I say that as someone who was 100% in support of the decision to pitch Bruce Hurst on short rest, once the Sunday game got rained out (yet another rung in the hellish labyrinth of Red Sox horrors: what seemed like a blessing turned out to be a …well I’m not going to use that word). Of course, pitching Hurst did work wonderfully, until he was understandably out of gas half-way through the game, when John McNamara, part of the unholy triptych of imbecilic Sox managers along with Don “The Gerbil” Zimmer and Grady “Gump” Little, went (too late) to the dugout. I thought (and think): why not Oil Can? I’ve always assumed that harsh words were exchanged when Mac told Can he was not getting the call (Can allegedly wept when he received the news). The reason all sensible Sox fans were relieved when Hurst got the nod is because we recalled Game 3, when Oil Can labored through about 300 pitches to get through the first inning: even though Can settled down, the Sox lost 4-0. At best, the question of whether he was suited for prime time was not yet answered. On the other hand, we knew Calvin Schiraldi was not. When, after leaving poor Calvin in the night before even as he looked like he was about to cry on the mound; after soiling his shorts on national TV, Mac went to him again, there was no doubt. The man who had been one strike away from baseball (and Beantown) immortality spit the bit when it mattered most. To redeem himself, of course he promptely surrendered the go-ahead run to the insufferable Ray Knight. (If the Sox were not so worthless and weak at this point, someone, anyone would have taken a run at Daryl Strawberry when his cherry-on-top homerun prompted the most egregiously disrespectful slow-circle of the bases in the history of the sport.) The rest, as they say is history.

But it couldn’t simply be history, because it was history. I literally could not count the number of times I saw replays of Buckner’s bungle, or the subsequent footage of the insufferable Knight crossing home plate (into the waiting arms of the equally loathed Gary “Camera” Carter). Or the ultimate indignity, Jesse Orosco’s histrionics after striking out Marty Barrett for the final out (in Game 7). I can’t tell you the intolerable pain these images caused, one million times worse than the shot of Bucky “Bleeping” Dent’s soul-to-the-devil shot over the Monster. All the way up to ’03 they were ubiquitous until, as it seemed, Satan conjured up the final insult by having the Sox’s eternally overdue beatdown of the Yankees (in Game 7 of the ALCS) mutate into a comeback only slightly less improbable –and painful– than the Mets’ second miracle.

(Sidenote: I was with my old man in ’86 and I was with my old man in ’03. On the other hand, I was with him in ’04 and ’07, so we got that goin’ for us…which is nice.)

This was what it was like to be a fan. It was not merely a matter of expecting the worst; all sports fans are acquainted with that (some more than others: Hello Cleveland!). It was that the worst was about to happen at the worst possible moment in the worst possible way.

And so, all together now: Thank God for 2004!

2004 cemented my already-existing penchant for underdogs. 2004 solidified my solidarity with teams and their longest-suffering fan-bases (except for Philadelphia).

Just as it’s difficult to articulate the unique and acute distress the events of ’86 (and ’03) caused, it’s similarly challenging to relate what 2004 felt like. A glacier dissolved to the final tear drop after thousands of years and riding the crest of a forever fever breaking; a billion babies’ burps; burnt-out batteries firing with life; the sports fanatics’ equivalent of the golden glow at the end of the dugout tunnel…

But before we got there we had to walk through that long and illogical darkness.

And what bothered me most was not the losses or the regret, but the fact that one figure unfairly came to bear the brunt of all of this pent-up rage and resentment.

This week marked the 25th anniversary of Game Six and the most (in)famous error in post-season (if not all-time) history.

(Real time edit: perhaps the baseball gods have both humor, perspective and perversity to burn, because we just witnessed another Game Six that might do the unthinkable and supplant the previous Game Six as the Game Six…time will tell and more on that later.)

I always knew, from October 1986 until October 2004 (and even now, really) who the real Red Sox fans are. If you blamed Bill Buckner for the loss it conclusively proved three things: you weren’t a real Sox fan, you didn’t understand baseball and most importantly, you were an asshole.

I’m not going to recount the play-by-play, just like I’m not going to embed any video (ugh), but suffice it to say, there was plenty of blame to go around. Much more egregious than Buckner’s error was the wild throw by Bob “The Steamer” Stanley who, that night, opened his name up to more scatalogical associations. (Plus, for anyone who happened to catch his post-game interview, the ease and disgrace with which he threw Buckner under the bus earns him eternal enmity.) Much (too much) has been made of the fact that Buckner should not have been on the field at all; that he should have been pulled for defensive wiz Dave Stapleton. Horseshit. If Schiraldi had done his job (or Boggs had charged that harmless grounder and made a play before it went foul) Stanley would never have been needed, Gedman’s fat ass would never have had to make the (lame) attempt to cover the wild pitch, and Buckner would have rightly been on the field to celebrate with his teammates after the winning out was recorded, and Bruce Hurst would have remained the series MVP (as he was prematurely declared when the game was presumably seconds from concluding…).

Coincidentally, watching the recent ESPN special “Catching Hell”, I was reminded how irrational fans can be, and how as Americans we insist on easy –if unfair– solutions to complex problems. That poor Steve Bartman was blamed for his team’s epic and embarrassing collapse (we are not talking about a one-run turn of events, we are talking about a collective meltdown that makes Calvin Schiraldi look like Bob Gibson) is enough to make you wish the Cubs never win another playoff game. Of course that is not fair to the organization, or the authentic fans, and human beings, who are unable to pin their own frustrations and real-world impotencies on an anonymous, unlucky fan. But watching that feature, which I highly recommend to even non sports fans, I understood that any sane person, seeing or hearing the way Buckner was treated and excoriated, would –and should– have hoped that the Red Sox would never win a World Series. Or more, that a city that could act so ignobly never deserved to win anything, as some type of atonement.

Again, thank God for 2004. Of course, Buckner has long since put the past behind him (although he was still very understandably bitter when, in 2004, idiotic sports reporters were asking him “do you feel forgiven now?” and other offensive questions). By 2008, after the Sox had won, again, enough water had, at long last, swept under the bridge that Buckner was willing to get his long overdue serenade. I kind of love the fact that Bill (and his partner in crime, Mookie Wilson), have managed to make money off of this play over the years. For all the grief he got, he damn well should have got paid. You go Bill. Decent story from this week’s Boston Globe here.

And that is some video I will be happy to share (although I can’t help noting, even the person good enough to record this was moronic enough to make sarcastic/disparaging comments even as Buckner strode to the mound).

There was, of course, nothing to forgive. But in the spirit of a quarter-century of misunderstanding, misplaced ire, recrimination and redemption, the last few, rocking, minutes of this delectable recording should resonate from the snowy environs of Boston to the lush fields of Idaho.

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