An Excerpt From 'Scribe: My Life In Sports'

This excerpt appears in Scribe: My Life in Sports by Bob Ryan. The author also joined Bill Littlefield on Only A Game. See our interview and book review.


Take Me Out to the Ball Game

This may seem strange coming from someone best known for his basket-ball background, but baseball is the greatest game ever to spring from the mind of mortal man. I believe that with my heart. Most every man and woman knows more about one thing than they do about any other. Think about it. If you were asked to filibuster on just one topic until you ran out of something to say, what would it be? In my case the answer would be baseball.

That doesn't mean I know more about it than statistician Bill James, Peter Gammons, or other historically knowledgeable baseball writers such as Bill Madden of the New York Daily News and John Lowe of the Detroit Free Press. I can’t compete with the New Age stat freaks with their hair-hurting statistical knowledge. I sometimes wonder if they ever bother to watch a game for sheer enjoyment. Any number of people know more about baseball than I do, but I know more about baseball than most people. And I know more about baseball than I do about anything else.

I suppose I’m largely talking about its history. The 1906 Cubs with their 116 wins, and the Hitless Wonder White Sox with their great pitching staff that was able to offset the .228 team batting average, seem very real to me. I can close my eyes and place myself in Shibe Park when the 1929 Athletics were running off that ten-run inning against the Cubs in the 1929 World Series. I can see myself  in Yankee Stadium when Hugh Casey’s spitball eluded Mickey Owen and led to that dramatic Yankees comeback over the Dodgers in the 1941 World Series.

Bobby Thomson’s home run? Wasn't I in a third-base  box? Larsen’s Perfect Game? Well, I actually did see the end of that one, flipping on the TV as soon as I got home from school. You get the point.

I think I have a pretty good feel for what makes the game tick. One of the great experiences of my life was working on my first book, a treatise on minor-league baseball entitled Wait Till I Make the Show. It grew out of a two-part Sunday  series in the Globe about the Red Sox Eastern League AA affiliate in Pawtucket, and ultimately, over the summers of 1971 and 1972, led to my traveling from Trois-Rivières, Quebec, to Honolulu, touching on every classification in as wide a geographic range as possible  to learn about the training ground for major leaguers from the viewpoint of players, managers, coaches, executives, owners, and, of course, fans. It was a master’s program and Ph.D. in diamondology combined.

I saw and heard things that filled in a lot of gaps. One of the biggest revelations was this: what ultimately separates big leaguers from so many who never make it is being able to repeat their success, day after day, night after night. Raw skill can manifest itself at the lowest level of play just as easily as it can in a World Series game. On any given day or night during the baseball season the best single play and the single best-played game might be in an A league and not in the bigs. In the course of my travels for the book I saw pitchers break off breathtaking curveballs. I saw batters hit 425-foot homers. I saw fielding gems. I even saw a perfectly executed two-strike bunt, something seldom seen in the majors. But had I returned the following evening—as I usually did—I  would see many instances of sloppy, almost unprofessional baseball, reminding me where I was and why these players were where they were.

Hanging around the minors broadened  my baseball appreciation beyond measure. If I were a sports editor of a newspaper or Internet outlet, I would reassign my chief baseball writer periodically to one of the major-league teams’ minor-league outlets, just to observe and ask questions. I guarantee he or she would return better prepared to cover major-league baseball. I would also insist, for obvious reasons, that my baseball writers have a reasonable knowledge of Spanish.

Having written that book gave me a leg up in my dealings with major-league players, managers, and coaches for many years, if only because I could initiate conversations by saying things like “How close did those stands feel in Visalia?” or “Did you ever hit your head on the dugout in Kinston?” or “Can you believe they say Boog Powell hit one into the Piggly Wiggly parking lot in Appleton?” Every once in a while, a player would tell me he had actually read the book, usually because a relative had recommended it.

That my first book was about baseball was important to me because I had been covering the Celtics for four years when it was published and people were logically assuming the only sport I knew anything about was basketball.

I’m not like most baseball fans. I have no idea when I saw my first big-league game, or even my first minor-league game. The fact is I cannot remember a time in my life when I wasn't going to games. So I have no great story to tell about my memorable first trip to the ballpark. But I did have a Ballpark Moment in 1972.

Both the Celtics and Bruins were opening their respective seasons on the same night in Detroit. The Tigers were playing the Oakland A’s in the American League Championship Series, and sports editor Ernie Roberts dispatched me and hockey writer Fran Rosa to the ballpark to augment our ALCS coverage of Game 4. I distinctly recall walking up the Tiger Stadium ramp for the first time and feeling like a seven-year-old kid marveling at the green-on-green-on-green of that wonderful old park. It appeared to me to be the greenest place on earth. The park was painted  green. All the fifty-thousand-plus seats were  green. The only things not green were the infield and the bases.

Tiger Stadium immediately  became my new favorite ballpark, and that feeling never changed. I liked it better than Yankee Stadium, better than Wrigley Field, and even better than Fenway Park. The seating capacity was about 50 percent more than Fenway’s at the time, but it was even more intimate. The seats were sooooo close. The upper-deck seats were beyond-belief good. They weren't all that high, and you could hear voices when the first-base coach talked to the runner or the runner talked to the first baseman.

Dead center field was 440 feet, but somehow even the view from those bleachers felt chummy. I cannot exaggerate how much I loved Tiger Stadium, enough so my wife Elaine and I said good-bye in 1999 by attending a three-game farewell series. I requested the lowest possible upper-deck seats and we were thus stationed at first base, listening to those voices for the last time. Fenway and Wrigley are great, but for me they get the silver and bronze. The gold for the best ballpark I ever knew was Tiger Stadium.

A few weeks after I left the Celtics beat, I was on vacation with my family when Peter Gammons accepted an offer from Sports Illustrated, and the legendary Clif Keane retired. The Globe was suddenly in need of a baseball writer. I did something that is unimaginable today: I wrote sports editor Dave Smith a letter, asking him not to do anything permanent with the baseball beat until he talked with me. Yes, a letter—paper, envelope, stamp, the whole bit. Pretty quaint!

Happily for me, I got the job. We decided I would split the remaining road trips with Larry Whiteside, who had been the main guy with the evening Globe, but that in 1977 I would become the Red Sox primary beat man for the morning paper.

During my years covering the Celtics I had had occasional baseball opportunities and I cherished them all. The Globe policy of the day was to allow staffers to write columns when regular columnists Ray Fitzgerald, Bud Collins, and Harold Kaese were on vacation or having off days, and I got to Fenway Park on business every now and then. One of those columns turned out to be a little more than routine.

In June 1975 the Red Sox were playing decently, but not as well as had been expected. They were about to embark on a whopper thirteen-day road trip to Chicago, Kansas City, Detroit, and Baltimore with a 28-22 record. I had a column to write on the day the trip started in Chicago and I offered a detailed analysis of the team. Let’s just say I didn’t exactly pull a Johnny Mercer and accentuate the positive. Sometimes the headline on a column or story is misleading, but not this time—Frankly, Sox Are In Trouble, it read.

Among my observations was that Captain Carl Yastrzemski should be batting no higher than sixth against lefties, that the Sox should consider trading Dwight Evans, that “as far as Diego Segui and Reggie Cleveland are concerned, there’s a charter plane leaving tomorrow with Amelia Earhart at the controls,” and that “Doug Griffin is a totally unacceptable major league second baseman.” Among other things.

Red Sox TV color man Ken Harrelson tore me apart that night on his pregame report. That was to be expected. But the most interesting reaction came the next morning when the phone rang at the Globe sports department, and on the other end was a woman identifying herself  as Amelia Earhart’s sister. She lived in Squantum, Massachusetts, and she was not pleased with my reference. I had reasoned that some sort of statute of limitations existed on Amelia Earhart references since the famed aviatrix had disappeared thirty-eight years earlier. I must admit I had not considered the possibility of offending her sister.

Two or three days later the Red Sox made a deal for a second baseman to replace Doug Griffin. Denny Doyle hit .310 the rest of the season and played a big role in their drive to the American League East pennant and trip to the World Series. So I had gotten that one right.

The Sox had a good 9-4 road trip, ripping off six straight in one stretch. They came home for three against the Indians—all losses—and then the Yankees came to town. I had not attended any of the Cleveland games, but I made sure I got to the New York series. I had to go back to the locker room sooner or later. Them's the rules.

On Saturday afternoon, June 27, the Red Sox rolled, 9–1. I entered the locker room when it was opened to the media and was heading over to say hello to Johnny Pesky, Mr. Red Sox himself and someone I considered a friend, when I had the sensation someone was behind  me. I turned, and there was Doug Griffin. He started shoving me, yelling something like “You don’t belong in here!” The clubhouse man came over and suggested I exit before something regrettable happened. I took his advice. As soon as I got outside the door Dwight Evans made his move. He spat on the door and told me never to write anything about him again—good or bad. I thought that was pretty creative.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that such a thing is an unofficial rite of passage, but I do think most any writer who has ever taken  a stand or offered a harsh opinion has had some kind of boisterous encounter with a player, manager, coach, or administrator, even an owner, and sometimes they get physical, as this one did. It is an unsettling experience but something you must be prepared for. If you go negative, you must give the target a chance to respond in person. It was a pretty big deal in the tight little journalistic community. The Associated Press ran a small story and I heard from people by phone around the country in pre-Internet days, among  them Paul Westphal, the ex-Celtic who had just been traded a few days before to Phoenix and had read about the altercation in Los Angeles.

The tension blew over, as it had to, but I needed some kind of assurance things were okay. I got it a short time later when I placed an interview request for a chat in the dugout before a game to rookie sensation Jim Rice. He was a bit late, and I feared he was going to stiff me, but he showed up and I got my story. The long and the short of it was that both Griffin and Evans were on the team two years later when I took over the Red Sox beat and we got along fine. Evans played for the Red Sox until 1990 and he never once objected if I happened to lavish him with praise.

Was I excited about going to my first spring training in 1977? The short answer is yes, and the long answer is that I was so fired up about finally becoming a baseball writer that I kept score for all nine innings of each exhibition game I covered. Nobody does that.

I recall one spring training incident in 1977 above all. The Red Sox had a rookie right-hander named Bob Stanley. He hadn’t pitched higher than A ball, but he impressed one and all that spring with his hard sinker, which the catchers said was like a bowling ball. Manager Don Zimmer took an immediate liking to him.

On March 27 the Sox went to Tinker Field in Orlando to play the Minnesota Twins. Stanley worked the first five innings, allowing two runs. The custom was that Zimmer would have  his postgame press briefing after returning to the Sox’ base in Winter Haven. He told us that Stanley was going to make the big club, but that he’d appreciate it if we didn’t speak with him until he had told him the good news himself.

That night I was having a few beers with my friend George Kimball of the weekly Boston Phoenix when we saw Stanley across the bar. We said we should buy him a beer and went over to say hello. Stanley was somewhat dazed by the day’s events.

“What am I going to do with twenty  thousand dollars a year?” he said. Stanley remained Everyman in his demeanor for his entire thirteen-year career, all with the Red Sox, but let me assure you George and I referenced that one many times over the years.

Once I became a full-time baseball writer, keeping score became a daily necessity. Be difference for me was that even after I ceased becoming a full-time baseball writer I felt some kind of inner need to keep score, whether I was in the press box or in the stands, at a major-league  or a minor-league game or perhaps even a college or Olympics game. Scorecards can, years later, recall individual plays or oddities and historical occurrences, which a rabid fan like me will appreciate.

I have kept score at every baseball game I have attended  since that first spring training game in Winter Haven, Florida, between the Red Sox and White Sox on March 14, 1977. The Red Sox won, 8–7. Eric Soderholm, Jim Spencer, and Wayne Nordhagen homered for the White Sox; Jim Rice, George Scott, and Butch Hobson went deep for Boston. Andy Merchant won it with a sacrifice fly in the ninth, driving in Carl Yastrzemski, who had walked to lead off the inning, advanced to third on an error by Soderholm  (why he advanced two bases will forever remain a mystery), and then was brought home on that fly to right fielder Royle Stillman. The winning pitcher was Tom House. The loser was Jim York. Bill Campbell, recipient of an unheard-of four-year, $1 million contract as a newfangled  free agent, was roughed  up, allowing  two runs on four hits and two walks in two and two-thirds innings of work. Carlton Fisk had a passed ball. The time of game was 2:25. Anything else you want to know?

Once baseball season comes, I never travel without my score book because you never know when a baseball game is going to break out. Exhibit A: While I was in Phoenix covering the 1984 NBA Western Conference Finals between the Suns and Lakers, North Carolina had come to town for a series with mighty Arizona  State. I had a free afternoon and was able to attend the game, score book in hand.

It turned out to be a very interesting day. Batting third and playing left field for Arizona State was Barry Bonds, who went two-for-three with both a regular and—what  a surprise!—an intentional walk. Several other players in that game would make the big leagues, among them Bonds’s teammates Oddibe McDowell and Luis Medina. Leading off and catching for Carolina was B.J. Surhoff. Batting second and playing shortstop was Walt Weiss. There were even two future major-league managers, Arizona State catcher Don Wakamatsu and Weiss. Arizona State won, 6–4. That score sheet is quite a baseball artifact.

I can’t tell you how many times over the years I’ve been sitting in my seat at a ballpark other than Fenway, score book in hand, and someone will say, “Are you a scout  or something?” Very few people keep score anymore, and it’s sad. My wife does. Unlike me, Elaine does not add up the totals at the game’s conclusion and she never looks at her notations again. But she has her own book and it wouldn't be right for her to be at a game and not keep score. She always checks to see if the caught stealing went 2-4 or 2-6, whether the rundown went 1-6-5-6-5 or 1-6-4-6-5, or if the putout on that shift was 6-3 or 4-3. That's us, Mr. and Mrs. Score Book.

The 1977 season was a good year to cover the Boston Red Sox. They were a lopsided,  ball-bashing team trying to win a pennant with a spotty pitching staff. They hit 213 home runs. Eight players hit 14 or more. Jim Rice was the league leader in both home runs (39) and slugging percentage (.593).

Sixteen of those home runs came in one scintillating three-game sweep of the Yankees starting with six on Friday, June 17. The noble Catfish Hunter was chased from the game in two-thirds of an inning as Rick Burleson, Fred Lynn, Carlton Fisk (the first of two), and George Scott hit first-inning solo home runs. The Sox hit five more homers the next day in the famous game when the ever-combative Yankee manager Billy Martin embarrassed Reggie Jackson by removing  him for a defensive replacement after Reggie had already taken the field, and the two got into it, not just verbally, in the Yankee dugout.

The bombardment continued on Sunday when the Red Sox hit five more home runs in an 11–1 rout, the last of which was an eighth-inning Yaz bomb off Dick Tidrow that missed becoming the only ball ever hit over Fenway Park’s right-field roof by a foot or so. That was the first time anyone had ever hit the facade and it has never happened again.

The Red Sox went to Baltimore, where they swept a four-game  series highlighted by a five-homer bombardment off Jim Palmer in the third game. When they got on the bus to the airport after winning the final game they were in a joyful mood, having just won seven in a row, thirteen of fourteen and sixteen of eighteen.

Their next stop was Yankee Stadium, and things were looking good as Bill Campbell, working since the sixth, took the ball in the bottom of the ninth to protect a 5–3 lead. He quickly retired Mickey Rivers and Bucky Dent. The Red Sox were one out away from a big road win.

I was standing next to my friend Charlie Scoggins of the Lowell Sun at the top of the press box, ready for the usual sprint to the elevator that would take us down to the locker room level. Willie Randolph hit a ball to left-center and Yastrzemski moved to get it. I don’t know which one of us said, “Captain’s got it,” and which one of us replied, “Not this one,” as the best defensive left fielder of his generation mysteriously overran the ball, which went over his right shoulder for a triple. Roy White promptly launched one into the third deck, tying the game.

The teams played into the eleventh. Veteran left-hander  Ramón Hernandez was brought  in for the Red Sox. As long as I live, I will never forget the sequence: Walk to Graig Nettles. Balk to second. Intentional first-base-open walk to Mickey Rivers. Single by the pinch-hitting Reggie Jackson. Game over. Yes, indeed—walk, balk, walk, single.

The Yankees won easily the next day. Sunday was a killer. The Red Sox scored three in the top of the ninth to tie the game at 4–4, but Campbell was unable to hold the lead in the bottom half, Paul Blair winning the game with a bases-loaded single to left.

The season had been turned  upside down. The Sox went to Detroit and lost all three. They came home and lost three more to Baltimore. That made nine straight losses after they had won sixteen out of eighteen to take over first place. They reversed course to win nine of their next eleven but would spend the rest of the season trying to catch up, eventually finishing tied with Baltimore in second place, two and a half games behind the Yankees.

Pitcher Reggie Cleveland did throw a game late in the year that I am certain will never be duplicated. On September 25, a sunny Sunday afternoon, he beat the Tigers 12–5 with an eighteen-hit complete game. I’ll let that one sink in for a moment. The Tigers had a hit in every inning, with three hits in the first, third, and eighth. But Reggie walked nobody and only had two three-ball counts. Sadly, his pitch count was lost to the ages. Zimmer paid him a visit in the ninth after Detroit scored twice and had men on first and second, but Reggie was able to talk his way into staying in the game. Phil Mankowski lined to Rick Burleson at short and that was that. It was the last road game of the season and it was also Reggie Cleveland’s last victory in a Red Sox uniform. And it remains one of my all-time favorite games. I have shown that score sheet to baseball aficionados many times. That's why I still score every game. You never know.

I got along well with just about everyone, I thought, but there was one memorable moment of discord. As part of my baseball duties, I had to produce the popular Sunday notes column, and I led off one Sunday late in the year by mentioning that one of the big problems with the season was that pitcher Luis Tiant, who had been a beloved figure among both fans and his mates since 1972, had not gotten in proper shape, and this partially explained his so-so performance thus far that year.

I was in the clubhouse early that day, and so was he. The man had a right to have his say, and he exploded angrily, ending up his tirade by saying something pretty foul and pretty dumb. We have gotten along nicely these many years since, and he doesn't need to be reminded of that one slipup.

There was a buzz at the batting cage about our set-to, I’m told. When the game was over, I made my rounds. Carlton Fisk, who had caught Tiant all year, told me he wished I had written this sooner. Shortstop Rick Burleson, for whom “Good morning” was a lengthy soliloquy, told me I had done a good thing and said, “You’ve got a lot of friends in here.” That was nice to know.

Immersing yourself in a full baseball season is a test of fidelity. Covering basketball full-time is taxing: there are eighty-two games and possible playoff games, but you still have a little time for a life. Covering baseball from spring training to season’s end is a lifestyle, and that’s a very dicerent thing. You are at the ballpark virtually every day, and interacting with many of the same people for upwards of nine months. You get home from a road trip and get out to the ballpark hours later. I recall once getting home at five a.m. from the road and seeing my neighbor, who worked in Boston’s dower district, going to work as I was coming in.

Manager Don Zimmer was great to work with. He was a treasure chest of baseball lore, having broken into Organized Baseball at age seventeen in 1949. He was well-known to baseball fans for having been twice hit in the head  as a member of the Dodgers organization, thus short-circuiting a promising career and turning him into a journeyman, rather than the star shortstop he was projected to be. On one of those occasions, he spent two weeks in a coma. As a result, he had a cork placed in his head. People assumed it was a plate, but he would always patiently explain it was a cork.

Even by 1977, with more than thirty years of baseball service ahead of him, “Popeye,” as he was known throughout baseball for his forearms, was regarded as the quintessential baseball Lifer. He had been married at home plate in between games of a doubleheader at Dunn Field in Elmira, New York, in 1951, and his wife, Soot, once told me she’d have gladly done it all over again.

He did not, however, get along very well with his pitching staff. The armchair psychologist in me reasoned that his two beanings gave him an innate antipathy toward pitchers. He was not very solicitous of a pitcher’s feelings and this came to a head the following year when there was practically an open revolt led by Bill Lee and Ferguson Jenkins.

Lee was well-known for his rather iconoclastic ways. Zim was a high school–educated baseball lifer with a somewhat  limited worldview. He was, thus, an easy target  for someone of Lee’s erudition and wit, and Lee, a.k.a. “the Spaceman,” couldn't resist making fun of his skipper. This, to me, was regrettable  because, whatever their personal differences, the thing that should have bonded these two very different men was a mutual love of the game. I’m surprised no one tried to broker a truce between them on that basis. Perhaps I should have tried.

Zim would sit in the dugout and tell stories about the Boys of Summer Dodgers any time you wanted. He was still spry enough, despite his growing girth, to jump into the batter’s box at the tail end of an occasional batting practice and pepper the left-field wall, or even hit one over it. As far as I was concerned, he was a joy to be around.

On a late-season road trip to Chicago, he invited the traveling writers to his suite for food and drinks. That was not the baseball norm. A year later, when he found out I was heading to do a story on his son, Tom, then managing an independent-league team in Butte, Montana, he called me over, pressed a $50 bill in my hands, and told me to take Tom and his wife Marian out to dinner ($50 was perfectly adequate to cover three steak dinners in 1978).

That first season behind me, I was feeling pretty good about things. Luckily I didn’t get too comfortable. Sometime in the winter of 1977 Peter Gammons did a U-turn. He had spent most of the previous seventeen months at Sports Illustrated covering just about anything but baseball and now he was ready to come back to the Globe. If you’re the sports editor and can get someone who had a chance to be the Best Baseball Writer Ever, you grab him first and ask questions later. That's exactly what Dave Smith did. And so, like Sparky Anderson, who had one full year in the bigs, I was going to be a one-year wonder as a baseball writer.


More from Only A Game

Listen Live