Last Day at Fenway Park
From Yankee Magazine October 1979
“It was the frozen twilight moment as Yaz walked to the plate through the gathering din, the collision of all memory and hope, the confrontation cementing the game’s place as a classic, the setting from which I would spin my dreams of different endings.”
“I have this thing about Red Sox closing days.”
I go to them — nine out of ten of them since 1969. Mostly I go alone. I have friends who are good baseball fans but even they do not readily understand this exercise, this mixture of reflection, celebration, mourning, and beer. But then they do not stubbornly cling to a baseball autographed by Dick Radatz in 1964 either.
Many more people, of course, pride themselves on getting to every opening day, at the other end of the long season. Politicians go for exposure, businessmen for status, schoolboys for glee. But opening day is not so much a ball game as a ritual of renewal. As with most rituals, the anticipation almost always exceeds the actual event.
On closing day the game itself is the thing, for nearly always there is surely nothing else. The crucial series have come and gone, been won or lost; the batting averages are all but frozen, the standings are settled; and a just-for-the-fun-of-it feeling prevails.
Closing day is for opening up the senses an extra notch, being, for a change, superalert for all the sights and sounds of the day. In the sultry afternoons and soft evenings of summer it is easy to stop looking for the little things that make baseball the best game. Familiarity breeds laziness, and a July game unmarked by special heroics can be a mild disappointment.
But not on closing day, when the billboard on Brookline Avenue shows no coming attractions, and the only thing left is Now. The urgency is not to win, but to crystallize and catalogue it all, ensuring that something has been tucked away which can be brought carefully out for inspection on barren, bitter cold winter nights. It is the last chance for memories.
But the events of one year ago, October 2, 1978, belong in a compartment all their own. It was the least typical of closing days in one respect, for up until the final swing of the bat it was not clear it was to be closing day. Yet it brought forth the essence of the season ended — only so much more vividly and wrenchingly, its like will almost surely never again be seen.
To appreciate the pattern of the game it is important to know the pattern of the season. The Red Sox jumped out ahead — way ahead — of the Yankees and the rest of the division. But the advantage began to dissipate in late July and then was abruptly wiped out altogether almost violently, in mid-September when New York invaded Boston for a four-game no-contest sweep, seemingly leaving no survivors.
Somehow the Sox regrouped and revived, winning their last eight straight to pull even on Sunday, the final regular game of the season. I came away from the box office afterwards with precious tickets to the play-off Monday.
One of the tickets was for my friend Bill, who had not given a second thought to winging in from upstate New York for one afternoon of baseball. I met him in the early afternoon in a crowded Kenmore Square, where the Indian-summer air was electric with excitement, people surging toward Fenway, straining for their first look at which way the centerfield flag was blowing; scalpers testing the marketplace and the ticketless appealing for handouts; radios blaring the pregame show from stands where vendors were shouting ten times a minute, “Hey, SOUVENIUHS”; people chattering speculation on what amazing events might unfold on this gleeful reprieve of a day when the passions and wills of decades of bitter rivalry would meet head-on. (“Tell you what Zimmer oughta do,” Clif Keane was saying. “He oughta have somebody warming up as soon as Torrez throws his first pitch.”)
Our seats were in the right-field stands near the foul pole. We watched the green-trimmed low-slung country grand-stand slowly fill, the players go through their perfunctory warm-ups, and a few puffs of white clouds go scudding across the perfect blue sky.
We were talking about history. About how I had been sitting near this spot for the penultimate game of the ’67 season when Yastrzemski cranked out a three-run homer to win it, and how as he circled the bases you would not have thought a group of people could make that much noise.
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