My pal didn’t want to be in Fenway Park on that cold, dank April night 21 years ago. He would have been far happier had he scored tickets to Boston Garden, where Larry Bird and the Celtics were playing the second game of the Eastern Conference semifinal against Dominique Wilkins’s Atlanta Hawks. Second choice would have been watching the Celtics game in the comfort of his home.
But the Celtics, not the Red Sox, were the impossible ticket in those days. So with his former college roommate, a passionate baseball fan, visiting town, my friend secured two tickets to the baseball game—not a difficult get, with just 13,414 fans in the stands. They were pleased they would get to see the Red Sox’s young stud, 23-year-old Roger Clemens, who had shown flashes of brilliance in an injury-shortened season the previous year and was off to a 3-0 start.
What they witnessed turned out to be a magical evening of baseball immortality. That was the night that Clemens broke baseball’s single-game record by striking out 20 Seattle Mariners. The Clemens connection would stick, a forever bond between two friends that would supersede even their shared alma mater. When his pal got married, my friend gave him a framed picture of Clemens from that historic game. Over the years and distance—the ex-roomies live 1,000 miles apart—their contact became a little more sporadic. Still, they stayed in touch and, of course, they always had “Rocket Roger.”
So the day after Roger emerged from his annual Hamlet turn—“to retire or not to retire …”—to announce that he was signing with the New York Yankees, my pal wasn’t surprised to find an e-mail labeled “Clemens” from his old friend. He wrote: “Of course I thought of that wonderful night.” But the warm nostalgia was quickly erased by the news that followed. His friend’s wife had died of cancer and the memorial service was, in fact, scheduled for that very day.
Baseball first, life second. This could only be a story about men, and I don’t mean that in any unkind way. For certain men of certain generations—including me and mine—baseball, with its day-in, day-out drumbeat, provides a measure of constancy in our lives. And it serves as a touchstone with normalcy and the familiar that, at the worst of times in the worst of places, can provide great comfort.
I have relied on its solace many times. I remember when a colleague and I lay on our backs behind a shallow wall in a cesspool of a Managua slum, chatting baseball trivia to pass the fearful time until a sniper got bored and went away. And I can recall walking through Dachau on a blustery March morning with one of my best pals, talking about the upcoming season as if only baseball could hold the Nazi horrors at bay. At the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, I scrawled a prayer—long ago when the team needed those prayers more—for my Red Sox, placing it inside the wall with others’ most precious wishes.
This is not intended as a confessional. I am not inviting your amusement at how shallow I am. In fact, I am not embarrassed by any of this. I am hardly alone in relying upon baseball as one of the currencies with which I traverse the world. Through my column, I hear from folks who share their views on sports and, sometimes, proceed to share far more. One correspondent from Seattle has told me of the death of his son, punctuating the intimacies with his Mariners obsession. Another from Portland, Maine, stays faithful to the Cleveland Indians and to his hometown AA Sea Dogs, providing me with savvy updates on Red Sox farmhands there. Here’s last week’s dish: “Don’t know if you saw it or not, but the Red Sox moved [Jacoby] Ellsbury to [AAA] Pawtucket. He will end up in the show one day. He left here on a 15-game hitting streak, average of .452, 10 doubles, two triples and stole 8 out of 9 bases. A great prospect for Fenway!” In truth, I don’t know if my correspondent saw it either; as he incidentally informed me, the cancer is back and has severely impacted his vision.
It’s OK with me if this comes across as a rather hokey “God bless baseball” moment. It might also explain why I can mine unfathomed depths of sanctimony when I write about the game and those in it who have failed to protect its rich legacy. When these folks—players, owners, commissioners, union officials—trifle with the game, they fail to respect that which is at the core of so many vital relationships between families and friends. My brother Billy and I have shared much throughout our lives. But I have no doubt that if forced to choose the “best ever” moment, each would single out that magical night in the Bronx when the Red Sox beat the Yankees for the American League championship. A week later, the morning after Boston ended 86 years of cursed failure by winning the World Series, I headed to the cemetery where I placed the morning’s Boston Globe, like a bouquet of flowers, on my dad’s gravestone.
All this explains why I welcome back Clemens—even if I would have preferred his return in anything but pinstripes. To Yankee fans, he brings with him renewed faith, the hope that he might once again help bring a championship to the Bronx. Frankly, I doubt it. But what he will bring in the future is not as important as those things he already carries with him. And for those, all baseball fans should be grateful.