Today is Opening Day. In a few hours I’ll be at the Yards watching the Bird open against Toronto. I don’t go to opening day every year but I’ve been to a fair few. When I look back, one such opening day stands out.
It was the year I was at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education trying to learn how to be a teacher. It so happened that all my classes were on a Monday-Wednesday-Friday sequence so a small group of us aspiring mathematics teachers headed over to Fenway Park for Opening Day, Tuesday April 12, 1966. There was no thought of getting tickets in advance – there was no need. We put down our money and had reserved seats about 15 rows in back of first base. There were some 12,000 fans in the park. It was a cold, partly cloudy day, but unlike the previous September the mood was upbeat. It always is on Opening Day. Also the face of the team was definitely changing. Last year’s manager, Billy Herman was still around but in the front office, Mike Higgins, who many felt, fairly or unfairly, had been too long associated with the team’s losing ways was gone. So were a number of the veterans – Eddie Bressoud, Frank Malzone, Lee Thomas, Bill Monbouquette. It was definitely a younger team.
It was an interesting and exciting game on a number of levels. The Boston lineup had evolved into a youthful one. First baseman Tony Horton, shortstop Rico Petrocelli, third baseman George Scott, and right fielder Tony Conigliaro were all under 25 years of age. So were infield reserves Joy Foy and Dalton Jones as well as pitcher Jim Lonborg. Most of these players had been with the club in 1965 but all were due to have increased playing time. We also had a new second baseman – George Smith, a slick fielder who had at one time barnstormed with the Indianapolis Clowns. Our opponent was the Baltimore Orioles who many people thought were well positioned for a run at the pennant. A first inning homerun by Brooks Robinson off Earl Wilson put them in the lead but the game see-sawed back and forth.
It was a fun day. Earl Wilson battled hard on the mound as he always did. Frank Robinson who the Birds had acquired from Cincinnati over the winter had his first American League homerun. I recall that we all celebrated when George Smith, known to be a weak hitter, had a couple of scratch singles. Tony Horton made a very good defensive play catching a difficult popup. The Sox went up 4-3 in the bottom of the eighth- it came close to being 5-3 but Rico Petrocelli was gunned down at the plate (for all his youth, Rico never had much speed on the bases).
The Orioles tied it in top of the ninth as Boston used four pitchers and the game went into extra innings. Jim Lonborg came in to pitch the tenth and stayed in the rest of the way. Baltimore finally scored a run in the top of the thirteenth off Lonborg and held on to win the game. The Sox had lost but there were things to be optimistic about. One of the Boston papers put it best when the writer said,
“They gave me reason to come back again.”
The Red Sox of 1966 finished in ninth place but the stage had been set. The following year under rookie manager Dick Williams they achieved their “Impossible Dream” which transformed baseball in Boston, a transformation that would lead to what has been referred to as the “Red Sox Nation.”
It’s been fifty-one years but I can still see it now.