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February 11, 2004

Aim For The Head

Memory Lane

by Keith Woolner

Back 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.

Someone had mentioned to me that it was really rare for your team to win the first time you go to see them in person, and therefore it would be really unusual if the Sox were to pull it out that night. For some reason, I believed him--I was young, and much more easily swayed by faulty reasoning then.

It's funny the things you remember. At the ballpark, I had a slice of what was to me at the time, the greatest slice of pizza I'd ever had--which upon reflection probably meant it was a greasy mess. But the fact that I was eating it at Fenway Park made it great.

We had seats along the third base side, out along left field--not great seats, but amazing for a kid at his first game. I think Mike Torrez was pitching, but I don't remember who was pitching for the Angels. The Sox took the lead early on, and had a decent but not commanding lead into the 6th.

Having been told of the rarity of a first-game win, I was pretty psyched about the Sox taking this game--they'd held on this long, so they were going to win!

Not only I was saying this in the 6th inning, but less than a year after the Bucky Dent-capped BoSox debacle that was 1978. You'd think I'd have known better.

Then the Angels started to rally, and got a couple of runners on (I don't recall if Torrez was still in the game at this point). Joe Rudi clubbed a three-run HR over the Monster, giving the Angels the lead, and as it turned out, the game.

I was stunned.

Joe Rudi beat the Sox;
Joe Rudi spoiled my chance at seeing a first-game win;
Joe Rudi ruined my birthday;
Heck, Joe Rudi made the second piece of pizza I had on the way out of the ballpark taste terrible!

I have never forgiven him.

Joe Rudi pushed the ball between Buckner's legs; Joe Rudi paralyzed Schiraldi with fear; Joe Rudi knocked the ball off Henderson's glove over the fence; Joe Rudi whispered the words into Clemens' ear before he got ejected. Joe Rudi was distracting Pesky in 1946, too. I even think Joe Rudi advised Frazee on managing Broadway shows.

Most Sox fans hate Bucky Dent for what he did in the '78 playoff, but I know the truth--it's not Dent's fault. Joe Rudi's spirit possessed him for a single swing of the bat, and destroyed a generation of Sox fans in the process.

I don't know why he's out to get me--but he is.

The Sox can never win, because Joe Rudi won't let them. No matter what happens--however close they get, Joe Rudi will hit a three-run HR to spoil their chances, and dash your hopes. Forget Murphy's Law--this is Rudi's Law.
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   1

OK, 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.

Keith Woolner is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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