Tale of the Toppled Hurler: A Peter Hartwell Story
by Bruce A. Kauffman
c 2017 All rights reserved.
For full story, visit: https://escondidograpevine.com/a-the-tale-of-the-toppled-hurler-a-peter-hartwell-story/.
They’ve weathered the crisis at the temple and now Hartwell heads for town to witness the rest of the Yankees’ series.
Jimmy drove me to Kenmore Square, where I checked into the hotel and lingered under a hot, needle-point shower until I could feel the tensions wash off and disappear down the drain. I dried off and wrapped a bath towel around me, sat down on the bed, nodded off and then managed to find my way between the sheets, where I cocooned with the thick, comfy blanket unfurled from a shelf in the closet.
When I woke up, it was dark. I looked out the window to find the lights off at Fenway Park. Dawn was an hour away. I’d slept through the game. I’ll make the one today? Was it Sunday?
That afternoon — it was Sunday– public address announcer Sherm Fellows announced how it is only fitting that Naomi Saperstein throw out the first ball, not only because of her family’s vast philanthropy throughout Greater Boston and eastern Massachusetts, but also for the generous gifts to the Willie Gee Foundation that support the youth center on the promontory in Hartsdale.
Mrs. Saperstein climbed the mound and toed the rubber, sixty feet and six inches from home plate. She leaned in, and then straightened back up as catcher Beannie Brennan strode twenty-five feet closer to the mound. Beannie, wearing a chest protector, squatted, the pocket of his mitt staring back at Sammy’s widow.
She zipped the baseball to Beannie underhand with startling speed right down the middle. It smacked the mitt with a resounding pop that echoed around the park.
People in the crowd were calling over to Derek Jeter in the Yankee dugout to step in and try to hit Mrs. Saperstein’s pitching. “You can handle this gal,” one fan called to him.
Jeter climbed to the top step of the dugout and smiled in the fan’s direction and shook his head. No, he mouthed, he would not be stepping into the batter’s box to face Naomi Saperstein and, yes, it was because he’d witnessed her stuff.
I shipped Jimmy’s story about the whole episode to our State House guy, Howie Grady, for editing. How could I possibly be both subject of the piece and editor of same; the editor of my own subjectivity?
Jimmy did not fail to point out in his story how the fat man got tripped up by the spelling of the two nicknames: the “u” in Sunny and the “o” in Sonny. I’m still confused as to which is which. Is Sunny with a “u” Slammin’ Sammy Saperstein’s son or Pietro “Plaid Petey” Petrocino’s?
Anyway, it’s any excuse for a party with the crowd at Bobby’s and they feted me during the last week of June, just after school let out. Jan and I were about to take off for Southern California and the Baja, planning to be beach bums for three weeks and to attend the closing day of the Del Mar Fair in San Diego County on the Fourth of July. The to-do at Bobby’s was billed both as a pre-Overton Prize celebration and a bon voyage party for me and Jan.
As for the Overton, the most coveted honor in journalism, Jimmy and I had already learned how expectations are futile and dumb. I need only to recall his devastation at our failure to get even an honorable mention for the coverage that led to the jailing of the ex-mayor of Hartsdale, Frank Brennan, (incidentally, a cousin of Red Sox catcher Beannie Brennan). During his bid for governor a few years ago, he was connected to a conspiracy to murder cranberry industry lobbyist Jeannie Doveman.
Jimmy would manage things at the paper in my absence and, since it had quieted down for the summer on Beacon Hill, Howie would back him up. He’d also house-sit at my place and keep an eye on Jan’s, too, picking up a picturesque change of scenery in the bargain during a Cape Cod summer. I told Jimmy to let Howie do as little as possible so he could enjoy the surroundings. The great thing for me was that they both were so good at their jobs that I would not have to give Hartsdale a second thought while I romped around the waves with my beautiful inamorata, Jan Eckert.
They’d hung a huge banner from the rafters in the big, barn-like main dining room at Bobby’s. Spray-painted on a white bed sheet in several colors, it read: “O U, Kid!” The O and U were dressed up like emoticons, the O sporting a wry grin and just short of a wink, and the U exploding into a spasm of a big, wide smile.
Bobby’s laid out a beautiful buffet featuring its signature lobster salad, complimented by grilled hot-dog rolls and cole slaw. The TVs were on mute, and the close-captioning was bursting with the day’s big news, broken by Jimmy the day before in our modest weekly: To wit, this year’s All-Star game was suspended, and the All-Star break extended, so that the Red Sox and Yankees could square off to decide afresh the official 2004 championship of the American League.
The commissioner had decided that there was sufficient appearance of “outside interference” in the outcome of the 2004 playoffs, a tidy euphemism for the assassination of star hurler Willie Gee.
Major League Baseball offered the Red Sox these choices: They could be declared the champions by default, with all the accompanying asterisks in the record books; they could play the entire best-of-seven series all over again, the champ as usual being the first to win four; or they could start where they left off, down three games to none in the potentially deciding game, at Yankee Stadium.
“What would you do?” we asked in a poll of the readers. “Play the entire series or have a showdown, just the one game, do or die?”
Our readers insisted that if there was to be just the one game, it should resume in the top of the seventh with the Red Sox up and sitting on a three-run cushion. Boston lost, they said, because Willie could pitch no longer. The relievers barely had a chance to warm up. Besides, as with both the other players and the fans at that moment, the bullpen was shell-shocked.
But the fact was that Major League Baseball was not about to propose re-starting such a crucial game where things left off, three run lead notwithstanding, when Willie collapsed. The league declared that such a crucial contest should not be decided in as little as two quick innings.
In the end, reader polls meant nothing, for it was up to the Red Sox front office to make the call.I sent Jimmy up to Fenway Park to wait for the announcement. He called it in late in the afternoon: It would be a showdown, do or die. The fourth game would be played all over again from the beginning, at Yankee Stadium, no score in the top of the first. The Yankees would still lead the series, three games to none. Given a win, Boston would still face the task of sweeping three games in a row. So here it was; the Red Sox would be in the same pickle they were in last October 17.
My first reaction was that the decision of the Sox front office was insane. Why roll the dice like this when you could give yourselves seven games to knock New York off. But when I thought about, it was so cool and so sound. No favors would be asked and none granted. Faith would indeed be rewarded, or the dream shattered. This was Boston honest; Boston strong.
My mother walked into Bobby’s for the party and Jan intercepted her, helping her off with her coat, and leading her to two stools at the bar just vacated by other celebrants. They ordered Chardonnay. They were making a toast to life when Chief Arnold , in street clothes, barreled through the heavy, oaken doors. He gave me a nod, a smile and two thumbs up, spotted my Mom at the bar and strode in her direction. He hovered at the two stools and the women swiveled around to acknowledge him. After a while, he turned his back to Jan and focused all his attention on my mother. I could see Jan signaling whether to cede her stool to the chief or stay as a buffer. My mother indicated let the chief sit. She looked resigned and reluctant to me.
“He’s had a crush on her for I don’t know how long,” Jan said when she returned to my side. “But I think she barely tolerates him.”
Jimmy arrived, not only wearing an “O U, Kid” tee-shirt, complete with emoticons, but also carrying a gross of them in several sizes. People slipped them over their shirts and blouses and the bar became a sea of winks and broad smiles in a rainbow of simulated spray-paint colors on white.
Soon, it was time for Jan and I to say our hasta la vistas what with the long day ahead tomorrow, starting with a drive to Logan for our flight west. Aside from wandering up the coast to Oceanside and south to, say, Ensenada, we would camp at Mission Beach and surprise our friend Warren Wyndham, the novelist, who had said that’s where he’d live and write until summoned to Hollywood for the actual shoot of the screenplay of his book.
Jan has promised not to call me the “Oh, you kid” for the duration of the trip nor to don the emoticoned “O U, Kid” tee shirt she got from Jimmy after tonight. And so I am serene and at peace as we board our plane at noontime in Boston and head for Lindbergh Field in San Diego, set to arrive around lunchtime in California. Fish tacos, anyone?
As we know by now, the Yankees went ahead by a run in the bottom of the eighth of that replayed fourth game with a quick double to deep center field and a single to right on the first pitch, a plum that creased the inside corner. It all happened with two outs. Down a run in the ninth, the Red Sox started things off with a bloop single just beyond the reach of a retreating second baseman. And then, as you may recall, they brought in the great Dave Roberts as a pinch runner.
God, the tension, the focus, the pressure, the drama as he gathered his energies, combined them with all he knew about the art of base stealing and kept a lookout for the Yankee pitcher’s quirks; quirks that might be tells. Leading off first an extra six inches could make the difference. He was looking for a split-second advantage. To me, he looked at once alert, coiled, intense, and also relaxed; on a kind of calm high alert, relaxed tension. He knew what had to be done, and he had the skills to do it. His senses seemed to fuse into one clear energy field, synchronized to the job at hand, the theft of second base.
It became silent when he took off. The catcher released the ball quickly and threw on one-hop to the right side of second base. The second baseman fielded it deftly and swept his glove down and toward the bag as Roberts chugged in like the sprinter he was and managed to slide under the tag. He was safe. Red Sox Nation roared. The steal took the oxygen out of the Stadium, as they say. The tide looked to have been turned.
The momentum building, a single slapped to right scored the fleet-footed thief and now the game was tied. The way things were going now, you got the feeling nothing could stop them; not just in this game, but in the three to follow. When Beannie Brennan short-porched a solo home run into the right-field stands to put the Red Sox up by one, the feeling was validated. When the Red Sox bullpen combined to retire the meat of the Yankee batting order one-two-three, it was over.
Pain may be part of being a fan, but our faith will not waiver and our faith will be rewarded. The reward would have to be three more wins in a row.
As you’ve likely heard already, the momentum from that stolen base steamrolled the Red Sox over New York in the next three games to make Boston the official American League champions for 2004. When the Red Sox then rolled over the St. Louis Cardinals in four straight to win the World Series, it felt like an afterthought.
Here in Hartsdale, we are jubilant even as our hearts still ache. Our anger seethes about the murder, so sloppy and stupid and unnecessary. But we are coming to realize that the seething will only destroy us. We take comfort that Willie’s wish came true. The crown is installed in Boston, Mass.
There’s a youngster out of Hartsdale High coming up through college now who’s got people in town talking about reincarnation. The Red Sox scouted him in high school and now keep an eye on him in Worcester at, wouldn’t you know it, The College of the Holy Cross. Word is he’ll report to the Double-A club in New Britain, Connecticut once he graduates in May. The townsfolk here are talking about how he’ll mature into a steady, powerful winner just like another hometown great — need the name be said?– Willie Gillante. And every time this new kid takes the mound, he’ll be honoring the legacy of the slain superstar.
As for the fat man, who we know as Gabriel Spoiltessoni now by the name his watch is registered to at Rolex, my theory is that he lies to himself about what he’s doing without realizing it. He has to, because facing squarely what’s deep inside would only crush him. He coats himself with layers of denial to mute the dissonant screech resounding in his cortex: He’s nothing but a depraved murderer who gets a big kick out of it. He uses food, notably doughnuts, as anesthesia. Stuffed with enough Bavarian cremes, there’s no room left inside to feel a thing, anything at all.
The Nation bets with its heart, the fat man would say. It gives you an edge in business. Yet who could have imagined that this corpulent corpus would actually mastermind a murder to give the Yankees the win? You’d have to be certifiable to entertain even a fleeting notion that it could happen, am I wrong? Yet it did happen.
Looking back now at the night when Willie collapsed, it felt cold and foreboding from the start. You could hear the anxiety bouncing off the rosary beads from the triangle of nuns from Boston seated out in deep right field. Please, just one more win, Almighty, one more in the name of Jesus; one piddling more run for the Red Sox than the Yankees by the time the game ends, by your Grace.
Bobby’s Tavern plays the playoff games over and over again on the huge screen in the main dining room. Another screen behind the bar is on a continuous loop of Dave Roberts’ daring theft of second base. Willie’s spirit hangs in the air the whole time. But for his absence, the fans could not be more happy and fulfilled.
We hope this kid coming out of Holy Cross and heading for New Britain will not make us forget Willie Gee, but will ease the sting of our loss. I hold onto that hope along with everyone else, and I hold on tight to Red Sox Nation and to Jan Eckert, too.
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.