The Ghost Grins
Wendell Whitney Thorne
I received an email from my brother shortly before seven this morning. “Sox win the Series for the first time in 86 years ON YOUR BIRTHDAY. How cool is that?” he wrote.
How cool, indeed.
Even earlier this morning, an hour or so after the Boston Red Sox swept the St. Louis Cardinals, and not long after I lay my weary head on the pillow and closed my eyes, that same thought brought a bit of a smile to my lips, and then sleep. Not such a big deal when your birthday is late in October, but I don’t believe in coincidence. In fact, it was about the same day in October eighteen years ago that “the horrible event” occurred. I’m talking about the one that led a guy named “Bill”—whom I chance met in a pub in Knoxville in 1993—to take a clearing scan right and left before he looked me in the eyes and quietly uttered his last name: “Buckner.” Sigh.
But, like I said, I don’t believe in coincidence. In the years after I left home, the Boston Red Sox were about the only thing—it was easier to allow myself to think so, anyway—that my Dad and I had in common. He’d call and say, “how about them Red ‘Slops?’” And I’d say, “Yeah,” all the while thinking, “can’t you say something meaningful to me?” Of course, in his own way, he was saying, “You’re my son and I love you and can’t we both go back to the beginning when all we had, all we cared about, all we needed, was baseball?” But he really didn’t know how—or if it was even alright—to say that. My deepest regret is that I never told him I knew. I knew what he was trying to say. I knew The Code. I guess I figured he knew the code, too. Probably learned it from his father.
As a result, we didn’t get along well. Like the Sox, we had our own “curse”: we were very much alike, and I suppose neither of us was quite fond of what the other had become. Or was becoming. But still, the Sox.
When I was young, we lived in what was then the sleepy suburb of Hanover, thirty minutes towards Cape Cod from Boston, and a few times in my childhood (and sometime before the gloves came off), Dad took us to the inner sanctum, baseball’s holy of holies, Fenway Park. I’ll never forget walking from the darkness below out into the sunlight and the green. The grass, the Monster, all of it was so green. All the colors were brilliant, yes. The red letters on the jerseys, the colors of the Citgo sign. But the green, that’s what I’ll always remember. It was there in 1966, perched behind the obstructed view in the right field grandstand, where I crowned my first—and maybe my best—hero, Tony Conigliaro. He hit a homer that, I swear, was still climbing as it cleared the wall in center field.
“Goodbye Mr. Spalding.”
Out Of The Park.
Tony C’s tragic, abbreviated career was followed by a series of failures, and his most untimely death at the age of 45. He actually died the same day as Malcolm Forbes, the billionaire. I really couldn’t tell you much about what Forbes ever did, but I’ll remember Tony C’s lanky, powerful swing until my last day.
We went to Fenway twice in ’67, both with Cleveland, both losses, but we did get to see a triple play. On one hot day deep in August in ‘68, we sat in the bleachers and watched a fatigued Jim Lonborg toss two wild pitches in a row almost over the netting behind home plate. A few years later, it was Sonny Seibert deftly dispatching the Orioles with authority.
I lived and died with the Sox for twenty years. As I have said, they were often the only connection between Dad and me. I guess it was safe. As time ushered us through life, he increasingly disapproved of my life, or perhaps he was just preoccupied with this own. I resented his distance and inability to show me how he felt about me. To this day, though, I don’t really know if it was that, or if he had just made a choice to not feel anything. His work in my life, such that it was, was done. Why waste time worrying about a son who turns his back on your values?
At 47, he had his first major heart attack. It was July of 1969, and even though he battled his way out of that one, his health and any zest for life he might have once had slowly deteriorated for the next 30 years. Heart attacks, strokes, cancer and multiple open-heart surgeries left him bitter, weary, and a slave to health care’s revolving door. To tell you the truth, I think most of him did die that summer of ’69. But always, always, the Red Sox. And always, always, one game, one out, one strike short.
We went to see our last game together in July of 1989. It was a make-up game with the Orioles, and Ellis Burks, who was recalled from Pawtucket during the game eventually got the game winning hit. The day was hot, and Dad was tired and in obvious pain that stole his joy the entire day. That evening, as I watched him driving, I saw his face and I knew that he was using every heartbeat just to try and survive, to maintain whatever it was he had become, whatever it was that life had made him. I decided that my sojourn home for the summer to try to make peace with Dad was in vain. He was just so whipped.
Ironically, “Field of Dreams” was released to theaters that summer, and a co-worker and I went to see it. I remember explaining the film to Dad, how a son who turned a youthful back on his father is, later in life, given a second chance and a different perspective on the life of his father through a miraculous baseball diamond and a whispering voice in an Iowa cornfield. I entertained the notion of taking him to see it, but his hearing was just about gone, and Dad never was one able to suspend reality, let alone glean the existential message of it all. In fact, it was many years and dozens of viewings (and four kids of my own) before I began to fully embrace the film’s message myself.
Dad passed away in March of 2002, a month before we learned that the “baby” my wife was carrying was actually identical twins, which, in September emerged as boys. I’ve always believed that Dad may have had something to do with that! (Something like, “God, I’ve been your faithful servant despite the pain for lo these many years and haven’t asked you for much; please, please give that boy of mine two sons and let’s see how he likes it!”). It was also two-and-a-half years before last night, a night that eluded him his entire life.
As I watched the Red Sox win the World Series, and quietly celebrated my own 47th birthday, I thought of Dad. How, in the midst of his inadequacies as a father, he actually taught me how to be a good Daddy. If that sounds like a son’s indictment or a backhanded compliment, it probably is. But in his absence he taught me to be present. In his guarded heart and hands-off nature, he taught me to show my love and to embrace my children. In his rigid false bravado, he taught me it’s okay to be vulnerable or to not have all the answers. And he taught me to hate the code.
In the years he was on this earth, neither Dad nor his beloved Red Sox came out on top. I once thought it appropriate that this cantankerous old man who always seemed to expect the worst and almost willed his body to fall apart around him should always, like the Sox, come up short.
But then I look at the outcome last night, and to the future now fast asleep in their bedrooms as I write this, and it occurs to me that all those years, those dysfunctional seasons hammering away at the fundamentals of how to lose, just may have been an elaborate period of preparation, “spring training,” for the players and fans—and the fathers and sons—yet to come.
And how cool is that?
October 28, 2004