Willie Gillante took the mound to pitch the game that would decide if the dream gets dashed or faith is rewarded. If Willie and his precious Red Sox lost tonight, their exhausting season-long march to the world championship of baseball would be over, and the hope gone that the crown would finally come to Boston for the first time in a long eighty-six years.
The night was crisp and cool and the climate alien: Yankee Stadium, the Bronx, New York City, New York. The date was October 17, 2004. All the Yankees needed was one win over the next four games.
Willie rubbed his hand in the pocket of his glove, pounded his fist in it, caught a lob from catcher Beannie Brennan, took his glove off, tucked it under his left arm, rubbed the ball up with both hands, put the glove back on, went to his mouth with his fingers, gripped the ball behind his back at waist level, reared back, pointed his elbow toward home as if to guide the ball, cocked his wrist like he was pulling back the hammer of a gun and rifled a missile into Beannie’s mitt.
Even from way back in the recesses of the press box, where I sat, you could hear the ball sizzle when it left Willie’s hand. Now I don’t mean to leave the impression that I’m in the press section working the baseball beat for the Boston Globe or the Patriot Ledger, covering the ball club in a deep and comprehensive way, day-in and day-out, home and away, all over the country. No, I’m from a hometown weekly in a place called Hartsdale, on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and we cover baseball the same way as everything else, which is local angle, local angle, local angle; all Hartsdale, all the time.
And Willie Gillante is major local angle. He happens to be a Hartsdalian, and not as some nouveau riche ballplayer who settled there with his long-term contract and built a mansion on a hill with a view of the sea. No, Willie is a guy who’s from the town in the same sense that I am: Raised there, hardly ever left, and lives there still, not far from the house he grew up in. He roots his kids on at Little League games and loads up on pancakes like everyone else at the Rotary Club’s all-you-can-eat breakfast the first Saturday in February to benefit the high school scholarship fund.
My paper is called the Hartsdale News, Arts and Leisure Weekly. The town is near Sandwich and Mashpee, not far from the Cape Cod Canal and the Sagamore Bridge, if you know the Cape at all. My name, by the way, is Hartwell, Peter Hartwell. Officially, they call me the editor, which actually means I do whatever has to be done, whether I like it or not.
The other thing that might interest you is that Willie and I have known each other since I guess around sixth grade. We were graduated from Hartsdale High in the same class and I interviewed him many times back then as the sports reporter for HighLights, the school newspaper.
I don’t want to give you the idea that we hung out a lot together or were best buddies or anything, but we did get invited to some of the same parties and we’d hobnob and talk about school and sports and so on, scholastic and pro. Also, our parents have been friends for ages.
Covering a few games a year at Fenway Park and now, this contest in New York, is one of the most pleasant things about my job. Tonight, though, like everyone else in the Red Sox Nation, I was riddled with a raging anxiety that, even with Willie on the mound, you never know what could go wrong.
Another nice thing about my job, by the way, is covering music, emphasis again on the strong hometown angle. This beat had me following around one homegrown band that made it big beyond belief. I’m talking about a group you surely have heard of called Harry Hardcore and the Saints. Need I say more?
Red Sox manager Bob McChesney and Yankees’ skipper Arnold Freen were exchanging line-up cards at home plate and going over the ground rules with an umpiring crew headed by Thor Hilverson. You could hear the anxious murmuring in the seats behind the visitors’ dugout, where a klatsch of Sox fans sat dressed in the team regalia. They sounded hopeful, frightened, and full of prayer. That it could end like this, in New York, swept four games in a row, with the pennant at stake, along with a trip to the World Series, was unthinkable.
A group of nuns from Boston sat in their own section in the right field stands. They rubbed their rosary beads and entreated the Almighty to rain down the blessing of just this one Red Sox victory tonight; just this one for now. They could at least thank the Lord above that the great Willie Gee (jee, as in jee-ahnt-ee) was on the mound as starting pitcher. As I sat here, chronicler of the biggest game of the year, I fluttered between faith and doubt.
Thirteen years ago, in April of 1991, I’d been there, this time at Fenway Park, when Willie pitched his very first major league game. He gave up just three hits and one run in eight innings and got credit for the four-to-one win over the Baltimore Orioles. The story led our paper that week: “Gee,” read the headline, corny as it was. “A Hart-ening Start.”
Since that day, Willie has won 224 games and lost only 92. This year, he leads the league with a keen earned run average of 2.62. (Sorry for assuming everyone’s as hard-core a fan as me, but earned run average, or e.r.a., is the measure of how many runs a pitcher allows per nine innings. Not to get too technical, but the earned run average does not factor in runs scored by players who’d reached base by way of a walk, an error, or being hit by a pitch—a so-called unearned trip to first.)
A New York City transit police officer, a tenor, sang the Star Spangled Banner and the Yankees took the field. A roar from the stands echoed throughout the stadium.
Willie started out smoothly and stayed that way, on cruise control, holding New York scoreless through six and giving up only four hits. He was rhythmic, cunning and baffling. He got stronger as the game progressed. He froze the Yankee batters. Nothing was ruffling our Willie Gee. The Sox contributed a cushion of three runs to provide him some breathing room.
The fans rose for the seventh-inning stretch as Willie walked slowly off the mound toward the dugout. He stopped halfway, pressed his left hand to his temple, took a few more steps and then fell to his knees. He managed to get back up on his own, but then stiffened as if he’d been hit by a bolt of lightning. He remained ramrod straight for a second or two and then toppled over liked a felled old oak in a vicious hurricane. The trainer sprinted out of the dugout toward him, took a quick look and cried for an ambulance.
The crowd fell silent. A garage door slid open in the right field corner and a bright red ambulance whooshed across the outfield grass, raising a tail of dust as it crossed the infield between first and second. It slid to a stop on the grass and one paramedic bounded out as another popped open a rear door. They slid a gurney onto the ground, braced Willie’s neck with a stiff collar, loaded him on, rolled him in, sealed the rear door shut and disappeared through the same garage door they’d come from. All was hushed.
Bruce Kauffman was a longtime North County Times editor and writer with emphasis on business and sports. He now operates a writing consultancy and authors creative works. This is is from his latest effort, a work in progress, exclusively at The Grapevine. For more visit Oceanside Scribe.