February 11, 2004
Aim For The Head
Memory LaneBack in 1996, a discussion on the Red Sox mailing list that I manage turned to a discussion of what being a Red Sox fan meant to each person, or what was it, specifically, that turned each person into a Red Sox fan. Many people contributed to the thread with stories both wonderful and sad. I also shared my experience: a story about attending my first major league baseball game with a very BoSox-esque twist at the end. A slightly edited version of that story appears below:
The defining moment of my Red Sox fandom must have been the first major league game I ever attended--naturally it was at Fenway. It was 1979, we were going to a game to celebrate my birthday, and the Sox were playing the Angels.Ah, memories! But, thanks to the good people at Retrosheet, it's now easy to go back and look up the exact details of the game. Which is exactly what I did recently.
Wow, Nolan Ryan started the game. I'm surprised I didn't remember that, but I guess he really wasn't the legend he later became just yet.
Or, maybe there's another reason I didn't remember. It's wasn't one of Ryan's more stellar outings:
California Angels IP H HR R ER BB K Ryan (L, 4-2) 0.2 4 0 6 4 2 1OK, let's see what else. Hey, Mike Torrez pitched a complete game (one of 12 CGs that year--a total that would have led either league in 2003, but didn't place among the top 10 in 1979). Reigning MVP Jim Rice went three-for-four and missed hitting for the cycle by a double.
Several Hall of Famers played in the game--Ryan, of course, but also Rod Carew and Carl Yastrzemski. Several other players had won or would win MVPs, batting titles, and HR crowns. Carney "Tree Stump" Lansford, Don Baylor, George Scott, Fred Lynn, Dwight Evans, and Bobby Grich, who tied for the HR lead in 1981.
And sure enough, there's the accursed three-run HR in the 6th inning by Joe Rudi.
But wait a minute. According to Retrosheet, Rudi's home run didn't give them the lead. It didn't even tie the game. The BoSox were still winning. And I'd forgotten that Brian Downing homered right after him, going back-to-back. But even that didn't give the Angels the lead.
In fact, the Angels didn't lead the whole game. The Red Sox scored six runs in the bottom of the first, and never trailed, winning 9-4.
The Red Sox won the game?
This was a stunning revelation. For years, I'd been retelling the story of how the Red Sox lost the first game I ever saw at Fenway. I'd written to a mailing list of hundreds proclaiming how this was my definitive Red Sox moment--an inside joke that even found its way into the dedications of an earlier edition of Baseball Prospectus.
And now I find out they won?
What had started as a nostalgic trip down memory lane instead turned into a powerful (and embarrassing) lesson in the unreliability of human memory. No matter how strong an impression that first game made on me, no matter how certain I was of the details, the facts contradict what I thought I knew.
This incident makes me think of the reminiscences of older ballplayers, recounting their days facing Ted Williams or whomever. Or insisting that they always hit better in September, struck out more batters during the day, or had a three-homer game while facing Sandy Koufax. Often, when we check out these claims they prove to be false, and that fact is often reported with a snide comment made about embellishment or senility. And while a comparison to a young boy's memories isn't quite the same, I've prided myself on a good memory, careful analysis, and having objective evidence. So maybe it's time to eat a little crow. Perhaps I'll be a little less judgemental in the future when another former athlete's nostalgia trip departs from reality a bit. Confronted with the fallability of my own brain--the realization that my own memory can play tricks on me, is humbling.
But I have the perfect excuse.
Joe Rudi made me do it.