NEW YORK — The affair began when my hotel room door shut behind me. I can’t tell you what time it was, but I can tell you what inning. The ninth inning. That’s what the announcer said. “Top of the ninth . . . ” I felt in my pocket for the room key, tapped my shoulder bag, and headed for the elevator. In my hand was one of those miniature TVs, a five-inch set with a one- inch screen, the kind people bring to the beach. I flicked it on. And although I didn’t know it then, I had just put my grip on the greatest championship series baseball game ever played. Or maybe it was the other way around.
What made me grab that thing? I hate electronic gadgets. I was meeting two fellow writers, Gene Guidi and Mike Downey, to catch a taxi to Shea Stadium, where the Mets were to lose to the Astros, 3-1, in the National League championship series, and I figured, why not? Bring it with you. Watch in the cab. See what happens.
What happens? What happened? Did you see that game? Can you ever forget it? From the moment the elevator doors opened, top of the ninth, with the Red Sox trailing, 5-2, and down three games to one in this best-of-seven series — surely a hopeless situation for a star-crossed team like the Sox — the whole thing comes back to me in jump cuts, like a rock video. Here, there. This hit, that play. How long? Forty minutes? Fifty? An hour? Who knows? I remember being in the lobby when Boston put a man on base. And walking through the revolving doors just as Don Baylor — who hadn’t hit a home run yet in the series — sent a ball into the seats.
“Hey, hey,” I said, “a home run.”
“You’re kidding,” said Guidi, right behind me. “What’s the score now, 5-4?”
“Yeah. Ninth inning.”
We got in the backseat, all three of us, and I pushed the volume knob, so the voices were like miniature screams from the silver electronic box. The driver pulled out. We huddled together. Rich Gedman, the Boston catcher, was hit by a pitch and took first base.
The tying run.
Hit by a pitch? . . .
I’m sure there are a million of these stories this morning. Where were you when the Red Sox played the Angels? Won’t that be the question from now on? Where were you when Dave Henderson, sad-faced Dave Henderson, playing only because Tony Armas had left the game, and who had inadvertently knocked Bobby Grich’s high fly ball over the fence for a home run in the sixth inning — where were you when he came to bat with two out in the ninth and the Red Sox’s season on the edge of his bat? Where were you?
We were in a taxi, bouncing along Third Avenue.
Strike one on Henderson.
“Jeez,” I said. “Poor Red Sox.”
“Man,” said Guidi.
“Hmmph,” said Downey.
Another strike on Henderson.
“Look out,” I said.
“We’re going to California.”
So this was where the American League pennant would be decided. This pitch. Two strikes. The taxi hit a pothole and the little TV lurched in my hand.
“Watch this,” said Downey. “He hits one into the seats.”
“Yeah, right,” I said.
“Yeah, right,” said Guidi.
He hit one into the seats.
I will never forget it, because the picture kept buzzing in and out — what kind of reception do you expect in a cab, for pete’s sake? — but I saw the left fielder go back to the wall and could make out his stationary pose, an outfielder’s surrender, and I said, “Holy bleep! He hit it out! Ho-hooo! He hit it out!”
“No!” Guidi said.
“Yes!” I said.
Unbelievable. The Red Sox lead, 6-5. My God, what a moment! Had the thing ended there it would have been great. But this game, and my love affair with that five-inch television with the one-inch screen, was, in the ninth inning, really just beginning.
You know how you can sometimes chart a baseball game by the stains on your program? Ketchup, third inning. Coffee, sixth. For the three of us, the greatest championship game ever was scored by clicks on a meter and landmarks out the window. When did California’s Bob Boone hit that single in the bottom of the ninth? Was that the FDR Drive? And Ruppert Jones came in to pinch-run
— 98th Street? 99th Street? When Joe Sambito took the mound for Boston — and we said, “forget it, he stinks” — was that the Triborough bridge? It was the Triborough, wasn’t it? 10.50 on the meter?
“Hey, any of you guys got change?” the driver yelled, as we pulled to the toll booth. I didn’t answer him. None of us did. A pitch was on its way.
“He hits a single!”
“Who hits a single?”
“Wilfong! Jones is gonna score! HOOO!”
“What’s that make it?”
“It’s tied. It’s TIED!”
LOOK AT that. The wind blew through the taxi window as we cruised through Queens and Steve Crawford took the mound for Boston on this tiny screen. I pulled on the antenna.
Crawford? A guy who hadn’t pitched an inning yet in this series. And he surrendered a single and intentionally walked a man to load the bases with one out.
“I can’t believe they’re gonna lose it after all this.”
“Typical Red Sox.”
And then Crawford got Doug DeCinces to fly to right, and Grich to break his bat on a liner to Crawford’s glove, and this game, which felt like an eternity, was going to extra innings. We pulled up to the curb alongside Shea.
Guidi opened the door.
A sudden thought. How good were the batteries? This game might go all night.
WHAT CAN you remember about the rest? Where were you? At a friend’s? Stuck in your car? Late for supper, in a bar that you were supposed to leave an hour ago? In games like this, you lose track of time and space, and I can only tell you I was in a dreamy fog, keened into that tiny black and white picture, with my legs taking me through a press gate and an elevator and down the stadium steps and toward the field, but my eyes never leaving the one-inch screen.
“What’s the score?” someone would scream when they saw me pass, antenna high.
“Tied 6-6, top of the 10th,” I answered.
“Who’s up?” someone would ask when I passed a food stand.
“California, bottom of 10th,” I said.
“Who-ee!” someone would say.
IT WAS somewhere in the top of the 11th, when Gedman tapped a bunt single to load the bases and bring up Dave Henderson — who, as far as I was concerned, had crawled into the Red Sox pantheon back on the Triborough Bridge
— that I completely gave up on my present. I became small. I crawled inside that set. Whoever passed, I ignored. Whoever screamed, I could not hear. My husk was somewhere in the hallway of Shea, next to a nachos stand. My soul was on the field in Anaheim.
I was there when Henderson lifted the ball to center field, bringing in the deciding run on a sacrifice. I was there when Brian Downing made that unbelievable catch on Ed Romero’s fly ball — saving a sure run — then crashed into the wall. I was there in the bottom of the 11th when Calvin Schiraldi — who, the night before, had buried his head in a towel after blowing the game — came to the mound and shut down the Angels 1-2-3.
California had been one strike away from a pennant, and now Downing’s foul pop was ending the thing. The final out. And Schiraldi came dancing off the mound into the arms of his teammates, who were suddenly going back to Boston after all. Weren’t you there? Weren’t you? What a game. What a bloody great game.
“Red Sox win,” I said, to no one in particular. “Red Sox win.”
THERE WAS a sudden blast of organ music that brought me back to the here and now. I had lost Guidi and Downey somewhere along the way. I don’t remember where.
I know this game was 3,000 miles away. I know watching it on a one-inch black and white screen is like trying to catch whales with a plastic bag. I know all that. But when the announcers said, “That’s it from Anaheim Stadium
. . . ” — which I heard only by pressing the speaker to my ear until it hurt
— I felt as if I was watching a lover walk out the door. I felt alone.
The scoreboard in Shea’s center field lighted up, right above a cookie ad. It read BOS 7, CAL 6. That’s it. Duly noted. The Mets’ and Astros’ players continued their warm-ups, unaffected. Ushers helped fans to their seats, then held out their hands for tips.
“WELCOME EVERYBODY,” the Mets’ announcer boomed. And as I clicked off the little TV, I realized, for the first time since entering the stadium, that another baseball game was going to start in a few minutes.
Lord, how could it possibly matter?