(This is Part 2 of a 13-part serialization of the Peter Hartwell saga. Follow new chapters of the story each weekend at The Grapevine…)
“They killed my father, and now they’re coming after me.” – Marty Nolan, on the pain of being a Red Sox fan, in David Halberstam’s “The Teammates.”
I walked into the drab green waiting area of the emergency room at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital and circled a perimeter of family and friends who were carrying on an anxious, nail-biting vigil.
People greeted me warmly. I think they were relieved to see a familiar face with roots in the same place as their own and someone they thought could get the facts straight. They patiently told me what they knew:
The day from all accounts started out as usual. There were complaints of fatigue and of nagging, distracting aches and pains, but Willie said that was the usual at this point in the season; and true for just about all the guys on the team.
Willie and the others knew that adrenaline dulled and trumped aches and pain. Nothing would distract Willie and the Red Sox from dealing swiftly and surely with the New York Yankees in this make-or-break game.
Willie left the hotel shortly before noon, changed into practice sweats, trotted around the warning track, stretched, did windmills, and retreated to the clubhouse to gather up and focus his strength. He let his arms slowly rise over his head, palms up. He turned the palms down then and moved them toward the floor.
After a few minutes, he announced that he felt light, clear and confident. He said he drew energy from the ground. Then the trainer massaged Willie’s throwing arm, his back and his legs. A couple of hours before game time,
Willie ate his traditional pre-game meal, a bacon mushroom Swiss burger on a whole wheat bun with raw onion, with fries and a mixed spring green salad, dressed with vinaigrette, on the side. The meal had been sent over from the Howard Johnson’s restaurant in Times Square.
The meal was a crucial element in a pre-game ritual carried out at Fenway and Yankee Stadium when Willie was to start – and only, for whatever reason, if the Sox were playing better than .500 ball, at least one more win than loss, and the team had been invariably posting a winning percentage this entire 2004 season.
After Willie ate, he changed into his dress uniform. This also involved ritual. If the temperature at game time was in the forties, he would don as he did tonight a thick, cotton, red, long-sleeved tee-shirt. Over the tee, regardless of weather, went the dress jersey; the gray shirt with “Boston” in plain letters stitched across the chest for the away uniform.
He buttoned it from the bottom up. Then he put on his hat, blue with the big “B” in red with white trim. He pulled his red stockings up and installed white stirrups. He then donned his gray trousers, left leg first, and tucked them in a third of the way up his calves.
Finally, he slipped on a pair of shiny black cleats, first the right foot and then the left., He tied them securely, and threaded a black belt through the trouser loops. He kept to this same routine, all ordered and measured, by unloosing the cap of a can of chewing tobacco, grabbing a plug between his right thumb and forefinger, placing it between the tooth and gum on his upper right side, chewing seven times – he figured if he could last at least seven innings, the bullpen could come in and seal the deal – and spitting into a Styrofoam cup.
Then, as we all know, he pitched seven brilliant innings, collapsed, and here we are.
I left the waiting area for a gulp of the fresh fall air outside. When I returned a few minutes later, Willie’s cousin Rocco pulled me aside near the automatic sliding doors to the emergency room. Rocco told me the doctors were calling it severe indigestion, and thank God it was only that. The build up of gas in his chest mimicked a heart attack.
It looked as if Willie would stay in the hospital overnight and then ride home in an ambulance or a helicopter, a nurse along on either, first thing in the morning. When it seemed like there was nothing more to learn at the hospital, I left for Penn Station and caught the Acela to Boston.
I had a plain cake doughnut and a carton of milk in the café car and woke up three hours later at Route 128. In ten minutes more, we were at South Station downtown and I was walking through a labyrinth en route to the apron for the Plymouth and Brockton bus and a 75-minute ride to the commuter parking lot on the off-Cape side of the Sagamore Bridge
I found my car, drove over the bridge and cruised into Hartsdale. My first stop was a shop called the Donut Depot. It was 1:30 in the afternoon, near closing time.
The place was empty, except for me and Stuie Napier, who made the doughnuts and managed the place. He was watching the Willie story in the television news with an anxious look on his face.
I filled him in on the little I knew. I said the worst thing for Willie must have been not being able to finish off the damn Yankees. Stuie favored me with a large to go from a freshly-brewed pot of coffee.
He took the last two honey-dipped donuts from the display case and put them in a bag for me. I got to the office around two, giving myself around three hours to make deadline. I conjured up a headline: “Willie expected home from hospital. Gee, season, collapse as Yankees win. All anarchy loos’d.”
We were wrapping up the story and were actually done with ten minutes to spare until deadline. I was thinking what good shape we were in when the phone rang.
It was Martin Hanrahan from the funeral home. “Peter,” he said, “It grieves me to report that Willie is dead. He passed at the hospital an hour ago. At least he was in the bosom of his family. What a blessing they were there, even if the Red Sox lost.”
The news stabbed us, and we were left with no time to waste. We put our grief aside as Jimmy set to compiling Willie’s feats on the ball field and I ran to the press room to beg for more time.
I hustled back to my desk to do a drastic overhaul on my piece. I quickly rewrote the headline to read, “A Hero Is Gone.” A second deck became, “Gee fails to come back from seventh-inning collapse.” On a third deck, it said, “Sox season over.”
I made it clear how everything was under control until Willie got carted off. Only then, with relievers who’d barely had a chance to warm up, did all hell break loose on the diamond. By the time the presses rolled, my body was sore and my bones weary, my head ached and throbbed and, though sleepless, I had no urge to go to bed. I also had not eaten a real meal in ages, but any hunger I felt was alternating with nausea.
I checked in at Bobby’s Tavern nearby for a draft of Stag beer. One of my all-time favorites was tonight’s special – lobster salad on a grilled hot-dog roll – but even that held no appeal.
I patted myself down for the cell phone and called Jan Eckert. Tonight, with this news, I hoped she’d feel comfortable if I collapsed into her arms. “Darling,” I told her when she answered her phone, my throat choking, “Willie Gee is dead.”
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.
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