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Mar 17

The Weekend from Hell

by Milton Thomas

(or Why I will always hate the Red Sox)

The spring of 1961 was the worst of all times from this 12 year old Washington Senators fan point of view.  The old Washington Senators were now the Minnesota Twins. This wasn’t fair! They were just getting good…anybody with half a brain could see that. Harmon Killebrew, Bob Allison, Jim Lemon (my favorite), Camilo Pasqual, Jim Kaat (he was new but he was going to be a beast), Earl BatteyPedro Ramos for goodness sake! The Nats had sucked since the day I was born but now they were getting good. And they were gone. Life ain’t fair. In their place appeared a bunch of has been’s and never will be’s that no self respecting team would have on their roster. Johnny Klippstein, Johnny Mahoney, Chuck “bad field, can’t hit” Cottier, Danny “one homer” O’Connell, Willie Tasby, Dave ‘I walk everybody’ Sisler and on and on.  To quote a line from the film classic “Major League”… “who the hell are these guys?”

Well they may have been bums but it was all we had. So I followed them with devotion, read every column Shirley Povich wrote. From Mr. Povich I learned that there were indeed some ballplayers on the club – Bennie Daniels and Dick Donovan could actually pitch, a young (21) Claude Osteen was destined to be a star, Tom ‘big curve’ Cheney had promise, Chuck Hinton could really rake and geriatric Gene ‘I used to be a Yankee’ Woodling could still swing the bat. By the end of spring training my youthful yearning for a good major league baseball team had convinced me that Chuck was as good as Roberto Clemente, Willie Tasby was our very own Willie Mays and Jim King was as good as my hero – Jim ‘wide stance’ Lemon. Who needed stupid old Clark Griffith? These guys were better!

Well, maybe not. Opening Day came and April proved to be a bucket of cold water in the face. The Nats lost…a lot.  But come May and something happened. They started to win and win big. And it didn’t matter who…the Nats took 5 of 6 from the Red Sox and Yankees. That had never happened in my lifetime. We smacked around old Clark’s boys (Minn) three straight…In Griffith Stadium (his own cathedral) no less. Take that Clark. Usually in Washington by June we were saying “wait til next year”! Not this year…by June 16th, after taking two straight from the reviled Baltimore Orioles, the Nats stood at 30 wins and 30 losses. .500 baseball thank you very much. Your American League standings showed a three way tie for first and your Washington Senators nestled in fourth place. And we were hot.

It was the time that good teams make a move. The Red Sox were up next, a four game series at Fenway Park. I was so excited that everything else in life was an afterthought. I read the Post sports pages over and over all day in school (the fact that the teachers didn’t catch me meant the gods were in my favor). It was a foregone conclusion that we’d take at least three of four. The Red Sox stunk, Ted Williams had retired…there was nothing to fear.  The entire family, including my mom, gathered to listen. My dad, who had sworn off baseball after the dastardly Griffith had moved away, was a fan again. By the bottom of the fourth the Nats were smacking around the Sox with glee, 6-2. Okay, we’ve got this one…who’s pitching tomorrow? All of a sudden Nats pitcher Tom Sturdivant forgets how to pitch…after an opening groundout he sandwiches three walks around two singles…its 6-3 and the bases are full of Red Sox. The manager of the Senators, the great Mickey Vernon, calls in the immortal Johnny Klippstein to pitch. A more fateful move has never been made.  Klippstein trudges in from the bullpen carrying a can of gasoline. All of a sudden the baseball is bouncing around Fenway Park like a pinball and by the time Danny O’Connell corrals the damn thing and steps on third for a force out, eight runs have crossed the plate. Remember that number eight – it has great significance for this weekend.  The same wind that had to be blowing in Boston had blown my entire family somewhere else. I was left to suffer alone.

Okay, don’t sweat the small stuff. It’s only one game. Win tomorrow and we’re back on track. But Saturday proved to be a repeat of Friday. Bottom of the fifth…Nats hold a comfortable 5 to 1 lead. They can’t blow another one…can they? Ah, the baseball gods are a fickle lot. E-6 (damn you Mahoney) leads to a run and in the bottom of the 6th the carnage is complete with a pinch hit Jim Pagliaroni home run. Jim Pagliaroni? You know him, don’t you? Look up journeyman in the dictionary and you’ll see his picture.  Game, set, match…to make matter worse, the Red Sox have jumped over us in the standings. What a revoltin’ development this has turned out to be. I’m devastated, but with an undying faith that 12 years olds have in their team, I’m still a believer. Doubleheader Sunday…all we gotta do is sweep both games and all is right with the world again. But I needed to change the location for viewing the game. Like any baseball guy I am superstitious. When you win, don’t change a thing. When you’ve blown two straight games you should have won, change something…change everything. I changed locations…went to grandma’s house to watch with Uncle Clarence. Uncle Clarence was a genius; he always knew who was going the win the wrestling matches. So when he says, “come on over, watch with me and they can’t lose”, I believed him.

Like I said, Uncle Clarence is a genius. After the Nats score 5 in the top of the ninth I am looking for the white flag of surrender from the Red Sox. 12-5 baby…put that in your pipe and smoke it. Some kid named Carl Mathias is pitching a complete game for heavens sake. Two outs, one on in the bottom of the ninth…Uncle Clarence and I are sliding fives and taking smack about the Red Sox.  But Mathias is getting tired…a couple of singles and a walk make it 12-6 with bases loaded. I’m not worried…nobody blows a seven run lead with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. But my confidence takes a hit when Uncle Clarence screams at the TV, “Vernon, you idiot, don’t bring in Sisler!!!”

Dave ‘Titanic’ Sisler strides to the mound, unbeknownst to us, carrying a 100 megaton nuclear weapon in his back pocket. (Well maybe Uncle Clarence knew.)  Uncle Clarence gets up and says “I can’t watch this!” He leaves. I stay. They CAN’T lose this…can they? Sisler can’t find the plate…walk….walk…two runs in and up to the plate strides??? You guessed it. Jim ‘freakin’ Pagliaroni. Bases loaded…12-8…this can’t happen.  Of course it can. BOOM!!!  Pagliaroni hit the longest ball in the recorded history of baseball (at least that’s how I remember it) to tie the game. The reconstituted Nats look like wet mackerels flopping about on the field as the Red Sox do a conga line around the bases to finish their demolition work. Eight runs score with two out in the bottom of the ninth. Nat lose 13-12. Did I mention there were two outs in the bottom of the ninth with a seven run lead! I’m sorry; I’m still traumatized after all these years. (You think the Clint Longley touchdown thing was bad? This was worse!) They actually muster up some moxie for the nightcap but karma will have its way. Red Sox 6  - Nats 5 in 13. Ah, well, wait til next year.

Postscript

After the disaster in Fenway the Nationals never sniff the .500 mark for most of the rest of the decade. They muddle on to a record of 31– 66 the rest of the year.  At one point they lose 23 of 24 games. Carl Mathias is so traumatized by what happened he was released in July never to be heard from again.