'Only A Game' Turns 20 And Littlefield Looks Back On The First Broadcast

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The original Only A Game crew.

Darin Erstad played 14 years with the Angels, Astros, and White Sox. He hit .282 over the course of his career and made two All-Star teams. Only A Game first met him in 1993, three years before he made the bigs, when Erstad was a member of the Cape Cod League's Falmouth Commodores. The future All-Star was looking forward to hitting against the New England Gray Sox, led by retired Red Sox lefthander, Bill Lee.

“If he leaves it up, I'm going to hit it,” Erstad said. “I love the high pitch, and I'm going to swing at it if he leaves it up there.”

For the record, though Lee was the winning pitcher, he left one up to Darin Erstad, who hit it out of the park.

The story about the game between the Commodores and Lee's traveling Grey Sox was the first field piece ever to run on Only A Game when the program debuted on July 24, 1993 on WBUR in Boston. (NPR began distributing the show nationally in 1996.) That story included Lee's advice to potential ballplayers even younger than Darin Erstad.

“When you've finished with this game, I want you all to run back to your houses and on the way find two five pound rocks," Lee said. “Because when I come up in the morning, after I stretch, I grab rocks, and I go down and get the mail, and I go like this. What does that do? It builds my upper body.”

Only A Game's first promotional poster.
Only A Game's first promotional poster.

We haven't been able to determine whether anybody present on that evening made the majors by carrying rocks.

That first program also featured a rookie radio host's attempt to say something significant about this time of year, when so many sports are competing for our attention. Then, as now, NFL camps had just opened, and in those camps, the players had begun to sustain injuries, and there were decisions to be made. Decisions that I pondered.

“Which tight end should we keep? Let's keep the one with both legs. Who's gonna tell the guy with eight concussions that he's been cut? Ah, it doesn't matter. He won't remember who it was.” 

I wonder why I was talking so fast? I guess I thought that's what NFL coaches sounded like. (To hear the original audio, click the play button above.)

Anyway, only two decades after Only A Game made that point, the NFL has acknowledged that suffering multiple concussions shouldn't be part of business as usual in the workplace, no doubt thanks in part to the 4000-plus former players who've made that point via lawsuits.

We were also concerned with other serious matters in that first show, back in the days when Only A Game was local and the local football team was making noises about needing a new stadium. This explains why we gave some air time to then-Massachusetts Senate President William "Billy" Bulger, responding to then-Massachusetts Governor William Weld's suggestion that building a so-called “megaplex” with an indoor stadium might stimulate the economy.

“There are better uses for public monies right now than the construction of a domed edifice,” Bulger said.  “So far as we have been able to determine, there is no truth to the rumor that Bulger feels the money should be used to establish more state lotteries for his brother to win,” I said, followed immediately by a rimshot.

We were fond of rimshots in those days when William Bulger's brother, Whitey, hadn't been caught, because he hadn't yet run away. He hung around Boston until 1995.

But back to that ballgame in Falmouth, Mass., on that balmy evening in July of 1993. A high point of the evening found Bill Lee's representative, former major leaguer Bernie "Bernardo" Carbo at home plate for the umpire's instructions, a tradition that gave Bernie an opportunity to advise the plate umpire.

“They're very young, and we're very, very old,” Carbo said. "So they're very young, and we're very old, so they get two strikes on 'em, anything close is strike three. We got two strikes, nothing's strike three.”

These days Bernie leads the Diamond Club Ministry, the mission of which is "to tell the greatest story ever told through the greatest game ever played."

It would be pleasant to recall that a good time was had by all at that ballgame 20 years ago, but it would also be dishonest. The game happened because Bill Lee had a dream. Like most attempts to bring a dream to reality, this one didn't quite fulfill the dreamer's expectations.

“Modern day signing autographs seems to jump up. And it's a double-edged sword. And I'm finding out that it's difficult to satisfy what you want to do when you try to satisfy everybody else,” he said.

Bill Lee is still pitching, most recently for the Burlington Cardinals of the Vermont Senior League, and still signing autographs.

I suppose it would be presumptuous to suggest that we set the tone for the program with that first field piece by juxtaposing the fantasy of the game with the reality of those who valued autographs they could carry home above an evening's fragile beauty. Yeah, it would be. We were just trying to tell a story as well as we could tell it. And thanks in large part to you and the rest of our listeners, 20 years later, we're still doing that.

This segment aired on July 27, 2013.

Bill Littlefield Host, Only A Game
Bill Littlefield was the host of Only A Game from 1993 until 2018.



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