Thursday, Apr 19, 2018
One of America's Great Newspapers ~ Toledo, Ohio

David Shribman


A baseball tale of two cities

PITTSBURGH -- Let's not get carried away. The summer is long, and baseball, for all its lyricism and grace, is the most merciless of sports, a test of endurance rather than of elegance.

The appearance of a ball club for a day or two atop a weak division means nothing -- not even, as Abraham Lincoln might put it, the shadow of a ghost. Teams go on streaks and then fall into slumps, and the hopes of April, or even of July, so often seem foolhardy in September.

But for a fleeting moment this month, everyone in Pittsburgh believes in the Pirates the way children believe in Santa Claus. They believe that a team that has suffered 18 consecutive years of the foulest futility can not only achieve a winning season but also make the playoffs.

They believe that a bunch of young nobodies might make this a summer of magic and then perform what politicians sometimes call an October surprise. We do not ordinarily have baseball here in October.

We want this. We want our ball club to be like other cities' teams, to have a fair chance of winning every time the umpire shouts "play ball," and to think that the playoffs can be for us, too.

An entire generation of Pittsburghers does not know what it means to sit in the ballpark -- and ours is perhaps the prettiest in the majors -- and worry about how Milwaukee or St. Louis is doing and calculating what the combination of a Brewers loss and a Pirates win might do to the standings. That is a part of the game that until now has never been experienced at PNC Park.

Pittsburgh's sport is football -- and hockey, too. And until recently, the third sport in town wasn't baseball but university of Pittsburgh men's basketball.

But baseball has a special power -- maybe it is the length of a season, 162 games, more than 10 times as long as football -- a special ability to make this a summer that members of a gilded generation will remember their entire lives and will be marked by indelibly. They will think of this as their St. Crispin's moment.

For baseball has the ability to captivate and transform a city. I have seen it happen.

The Boston of my childhood was not so different from the Pittsburgh of our time. It had a proud and important national heritage. It was built by immigrant brawn and brains. It had great universities. It had robust ethnic enclaves. It had a cultural life the envy of cities many times its size.

But it also was a little sleepy, a little afraid of the future. The stream of immigration that had given it such life had slowed. It had lost its confidence. And it had one of the lousiest baseball clubs in the history of the sport.

An elite group of athletic aesthetes, mostly congregated around Harvard Square and John Updike's retreat 30 miles north in Ipswich, Mass., found poetry in the game. But the Red Sox of those days were a sorry bunch, bumblers and bunglers.

The star hitter, Carl Yastrzemski, batted .278 in 1966, and the great hope of the future, Tony Conigliaro, finished the season at .265.

A Red Sox ticket is impossible to get today, but hardly anyone cared about them 50 years ago. The greatest Red Sox player of them all, Ted Williams, retired in 1960. When he ended his career with a home run, an autumnal sporting gesture with a whiff of Greek theater to it, only 10,454 people were in the stands. When Dave Morehead, who had a great future behind him, threw a no-hitter on Sept. 16, 1965, the attendance at Fenway Park was 1,247.

That all changed in 1967, when Yaz reached his potential, won the Triple Crown, and led the Red Sox to a pennant.

Las Vegas had put the Sox' odds at 100-to-1. Yet the season began with the manager, Dick Williams, making an astonishing claim about a team that had lost 18 games more than it had won the previous season and had finished in ninth place, 26 games out of first. He said the Red Sox would do what the Pirates have not done since George H. W. Bush was president: win more than they lose.

As the Red Sox changed, so did Boston. It has long been my conviction that the combination of the Red Sox pennant run in 1967, the youth rebellion of the late 1960s and a new wave of immigration transformed Boston from a frumpy dowager of a city into one of the most electric entrepots in North America.

The Red Sox spree of 1967 is the most important sporting run in New England history -- more important than the 2004 World Series season because it infused the city, and all of its student visitors, with a spirit that allowed it to survive the busing crisis of the 1970s and made 2004 possible.

When the Red Sox beat those Vegas odds and prevailed in a dramatic four-way pennant race in 1967, WHDH radio produced a poem about the Red Sox that went viral at a time when the current meaning of the term was unknown.

A generation of baseball fans of a certain age still can recite it by heart, especially its opening, which I am now rendering without having to look it up:

This is really a love story,

An affair 'twixt a town and a team.

We're living our own love story here in Pittsburgh right now, a summer romance.

I am beginning to feel, at a time in my life when I have both feet on the ground, that Frank Sinatra was right, and that love is lovelier the second time around.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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