The Ghost Grins
hen you walk through the front door to my barbershop, it hits you. Banners and flags draped from the ceiling. The poster of Ted Williams. Teddy Ballgame. The Splendid Splinter. Look closer though, and you’ll see the commemorative poster of the 1967 Impossible Dream season. Or maybe the miniature baseball bat signed by Rico Petrocelli. You may even be savvy enough to notice that the walls of the shop are painted a certain shade of green, exactly the same color as a 37-foot wall in an old ballpark in the city of Boston.
I am a Red Sox fan.
To those of you who root for another team let me also add that, more importantly, I am a Baseball fan. Like most boys, I played the game through high school, and even for a bit after. I had decent velocity on my fast ball, and even some good breaking stuff. Alas, I could not hit.
But, growing up a half-hour from Fenway Park means you are a Red Sox fan (it also usually means you’re a Bruins fan and a Patriots fan and ugh a Celtics fan, but hockey isn’t the same game I grew up with, football is just madness and basketball? Well, I’ve just broken a rule of my own by even uttering the word). Like having brown eyes, it is genetics of the geographical; it’s just the way it is.
Fans of other teams are most welcome in the shop; even the band-wagoning Tampa Bay Rays fans. But if I notice you staring with pride at the panoramic poster of Dave Roberts sliding under Derrick Jeter’s tag in Game 4 of the 2004 American League Championship Series, I’ll know, and I’ll pause for a moment of silent bonding with you. I’m not the avid lunatic, the Yankee-hating, Mets-hating fan I once was, however, and there’s a story behind that.
I don’t like to drop names (Kevin Costner once told me that to do so exhibited poor taste), but there came a time in 1993 when I met a man who had, years before and entirely without his knowledge, changed my life.
The man is Bill Buckner.
Unless you live on the Moon or—perhaps it’s possible—don’t possess the love of baseball that I do, you know who Bill Buckner is; if not, you may still know Mr. Buckner although you may not know his name.
October 25, 1986
On, a cool night in New York City, the Boston Red Sox were one out—one strike, really—away from winning the team’s first World Series since 1918. They’d been here before, in ’49, ‘67 and ’75. Each of those years they came up short. Before that, in ’12, ’15, ’16, and ’18, the Red Sox owned the World Series. Couldn’t be beat. Shortly after that, something happened.
During those ensuing years, (and we can talk about it in the open now) rumors abounded in New England about the existence of a sinister force. And no, I’m not talking about the Kennedys. This fear-inducing apparition was the “Curse of The Bambino,” which involved a ballplayer named Ruth, his trade from the Sox to the Yankees, and the inability of the Red Sox to win a world series since his departure from the team in 1920. Ballplayers—and often their fans—can be quite superstitious.
On that October night in 1986, however, Lucy held the football and Charlie Brown convinced himself that this time—this time—Lucy would let him kick the damn thing. The Sox held a one run lead in the bottom of the ninth when Red Sox pitcher Bob Stanley threw a wild pitch, allowing the Mets’ Kevin Mitchell to score from third base, tying the game. With the Mets’ Ray Knight on second base, Mookie Wilson was at the plate with a full count (if you don’t know what a full count is, your visa has expired). Wilson clicked a number of pitches foul, but, on the tenth pitch of the at-bat, hit a slow roller down the first base line, towards first-baseman Bill Buckner.
Buckner staggered towards the obviously easy grounder on two badly injured knees, but was unable to corral the ball, which slipped between his legs and into shallow right field. Knight, running on contact with two outs, scored easily and the Mets won that game and, two nights later, the World Series in seven games.
Like everyone else in America, I blamed Bill Buckner for the loss of the game and the loss of the World Series. Like a lot of Red Sox fans, On October 26th I found myself at Circuit City purchasing a replacement television (you see, my wife at the time dabbled in the art of ceramics, and she’d made this ash tray about the size of a pie plate with a high edge made out of ceramic dolphins happily chasing each other in a perpetual circle. As luck would have it, the ash tray was on the end table to my right as I stood in front of the sofa during the above-described miscue and, more particularly, in the hot-blooded few moments after when time stopped and a volcano erupted in my head. Before I knew it the ash tray had been moved and the living room got somewhat darker and the television was silent. Oh yeah, and there had been quite an explosion).
I stepped out of my house that night in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina and just walked around town all night. I went out to one of the fishing piers and sat, staring out over an Atlantic bright as day under a full moon. And walked. I don’t remember thinking much at all, and I don’t recall satisfying some inner desire or nagging pain. But somewhere in that long night there was release. I did not watch Game 7.
After holding on so tightly to the Red Sox for so many years, I let go.
Then came the night seven years later. O’Charley’s on the strip in Knoxville, around 9:30. I was having a drink with my then wife (I prefer to think the dolphin ash tray incident had nothing to do with my first divorce) when in walked a friend of ours. She was with a middle-aged man, who was tan, tall and athletic with a headful of well-cropped silvery curls. And a mustache. We caught our friend’s attention and waved them over.
The man introduced himself as “Bill,” and, in the course of the conversation, divulged his profession as the traveling hitting coach for the Toronto Blue Jays minor league teams. A ballplayer. Still, given my level of inebriation and the years that had passed, he did not look familiar to me. Eventually, I had to ask.
“What’s your last name?”
Stealthily, he scanned the room, first left, then right, then behind him. Looking back at me, very quietly now, he leaned in close and said, “Buckner.”
I felt like an imbecile for asking. Me, a Red Sox fan since 1964. Me, the guy who could recite batting averages and ERA’s for every team member for years. Me, the guy with the flying dolphins and exploding televisions because of the very man now seated to my right!!
I began to gush when Heather, my wife at the time, shushed me. When I asked for an autograph, she gave me the eyes and the face like I was insulting the man, so, as usual, I deferred and dropped the subject, and we just talked baseball.
Around 1:30, Bill picked up the tab and we went our separate ways. Once home, I exhibited the type of judgment a night’s worth of alcohol renders, and called my brother in Maine.
“Hmmnllo?” after several rings (maybe too many, but who counts in that condition?).
On the other end, (at least I think it was the other end) a lot of nasal breathing, lip-smacking and other noises associated with semi-consciousness, a yawn and then, quietly, “Who?”
Chad does not say “No shit?” or “Really?” or “You gotta be kidding me.” In fact, he says nothing. There is a long pause. I’m thinking he’s fallen back to sleep when I begin to hear those semi-conscious noises. A deep breath. A long siiggggggggghhh. Then this: “McNamara should have pulled him and Schiraldi out of that game.” REM sleep to archive game analyst in sixty seconds. Yeah, he’s a Red Sox fan, too.
The next eleven years came and went. I really missed all the Pedro Martinez/Roger Clemens years and some of the Eckersley years and, sadly, the Wade Boggs years. I gradually slid back into my place as a Red Sox fan, albeit without all the drama (okay, with some of the drama), and grew into a somewhat reasonable man doing his level best to hold his emotions in check and to get a handle on expectation. Then, of course, 2004.
I’m not going to get into all that “Fever Pitch” stuff, because if you know what happened, you know. And if you don’t, then you aren’t interested in Baseball (and the Mother Ship is waiting to take you back to your home planet). Because deep into the night of October 27th, 2004, the St. Louis skyline beheld a Full Moon, and a Total Lunar Eclipse. It was my 47th birthday.
Oh yeah, and shortly before midnight, the Boston Red Sox won the World Series for the first time in 86 years.
Mr. Buckner had been vindicated. More importantly, a cosmic release of 86 years of pent up emotions filled the atmosphere across America and around the world. Think I’m kidding? Facebook got nothing on Red Sox Nation.
In the midst of that supernova, I experienced a cathartic burst of clarity, and my world was brought into a focus I’d never before experienced. I looked forward and backward and saw a pathway, one at once created by me but also for me. I felt a connection to a past that I had let slip from my hands like a rope that hurt too much to hang onto. And I saw a future so thoroughly within my feeble grasp. I cried and I breathed and then—on October 28th— Chad wrote me the email that elicited the following Essay.
The Ghost Grins
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, our personalities and our motivators, 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. A very 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 hero, Tony Conigliaro. I just loved the way stadium announcer Sherm Feller said his name. 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.
On August 18th, 1967, California Angels’ pitcher Jack Hamilton caught Tony in the left eye and cheekbone. Some thought—as he lay motionless in the batter’s box where he fell—he was dead. He wasn’t. But, though no one knew it for a few more years, his career was.
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 games with Cleveland, both losses, but we did get to see the Sox turn 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 remember.
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 some of the choices I’d made in my life, or perhaps he was just preoccupied with this own. I resented his distance and inability to show me whatever it was 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 all you value?
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, a make-up game with the Orioles. Ellis Burks, who was recalled from Triple-A 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 myself began to fully embrace the film’s message.
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 helikes it!”). It was also two-and-a-half years before last night, a night that eluded him his entire life.
So naturally, 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?
 Crazy as it sounds Buckner, in an interview with an ESPN reporter on October 7, 1986, eighteen days before his infamous error, had this to say: “The worst nightmare is letting the winning run score on a ground ball going through your legs.”
 It took many years and a lot of thoughtful, rational analysis, but the truth of the matter is that Bill Buckner—or any individual, really—could never be solely responsible for a loss (okay, maybe a pitcher, but even then his offense probably provided no run support).
 Actually, Chad—even in his semi-consciousness—was right. The manager, John McNamara, was foolish to leave Buckner in the game; he was not in the lineup for his defensive skills. “Billy Buck” was a hitter and a damn good hitter at that. With the Red Sox holding a 2-run lead going into the bottom of the tenth inning, McNamara should have—as he had done many times during the season—substituted Dave Stapleton for Buckner as a defensive replacement at first base. And even if Buckner could have somehow run the ball down, pitcher Bob Stanley made no effort to cover first base.
 You should see this movie, btw.