On July 24, 1993, radio listeners who had their dials tuned to 90.9 WBUR heard the very first broadcast of a new half hour show.
One story in that first show introduced some of the themes we’d revisit again and again during our long run.
New England Gray Sox Vs. Falmouth Commodores
One morning in the summer of 1993, rookie host Bill Littlefield, senior producer David Greene and I drove to Falmouth, Massachusetts.
We had no idea how we were going to fill a whole 30-minute show every week with sports stories. But we were giddy as school kids because, on that day, we were going to meet up with former Red Sox pitcher Bill Lee and his aging squad of ex-MLB teammates and opponents. They called themselves the New England Gray Sox. And they would be the subject of our first story.
The day began with a baseball clinic. As kids gathered for drills, Lee addressed the growing crowd:
"My dad said, 'You’re Irish, you're Catholic, and you drink a lot. You’re gonna go far in the Red Sox organization."
So, irreverent humor. Check. This was promising.
Compassion and empathy were also on display. Jim Lonborg, who pitched in the bigs for 15 seasons, greeted one kid this way:
"How are you doing? You're about ready to lose that tooth, aren't you? Doesn't that drive you crazy?"
Lonborg couldn’t help but to be what he was ... which, in 1993, was a dentist.
Just before game time, we checked in with Darin Erstad, then just 19 years old. He’d go on to become an MLB All-Star. On this day, he was thinking about facing Bill Lee.
"I probably won’t be able to hit his fastball, but maybe a slower pitch, I can be able to hit," Erstad told us.
"This man is almost 50 years old," Bill Littlefield replied. "I believe you probably can hit his fastball."
Erstad laughed and said, "Well, we'll have to see."
So there was our first brush with the vulnerable and honest athlete, the first of many.
And, for the record, Lee left a pitch up, and Erstad clobbered it out of the park.
But, despite all the fun, Bill Lee confided that the event wasn’t living up to the vision he had for it. Because most of the kids — and many of the parents and grandparents — just wanted to collect autographs.
"Society has changed in such a way that we're so, so collecting, you know, that we don't seem to enjoy the moment as much," Lee said.
And there was the biggest theme of all. About a minute and a half before it actually happened, Lee foreshadowed the explosion of sports from merely a big money-making enterprise to a gargantuan one. This was a recurring theme on Only A Game for nearly three decades.
Bill Littlefield ended the story by noting Lee’s dismay and by adding his own thought, which was prophetic in its own way:
The best we can hope for is that the brave and mighty dream will provide us with a good show before it fades.
Bill Lee and the Gray Sox did that. All these years later, I think that Only A Game, which was our dream, did that and more.
I hope you think so, too.
This segment aired on August 29, 2020.