5 Fred Lynn (Boston Red Sox 1974-1980)
By Jeff Blout, Wednesday, April 9, 2014. Posted here
Gold Dust, The ’75 Series and The Making of a Baseball Fan
Up until 1974, the only professional sport I really followed was hockey. Bobby Orr and the Big Bad Bruins were handed down to me like a well-worn pair of skates. Growing up in my house, it was like, “Here’s where you’ll sleep, this is what you’ll eat and the Boston Bruins are your team.” By ’74, I was starting to follow the Celtics, who were on the verge of another championship, and the Patriots, who were moving towards respectability, and the Dallas Cowboys (more on that later).
I went to Fenway Park for the first time that summer as a nine year old, a 7-0 loss to the California Angels. Yeah, the grass was really green, the wall was really high, and the uniforms were really bright, but other than it being a night game, and that I got to stay out late with my dad and Jimmy and some friends, it didn’t really take. Maybe it was the blowout score, or the slow pace that did it, but the Red Sox failed to captivate me.
Then, the following season, Fred Lynn showed up and changed everything.
I was still deeply disappointed by the Bruins early exit from the NHL playoffs when Fred Lynn and the Red Sox started making headlines in the spring of 1975. They took over first place in the AL East on June 29th and never gave it up. That summer, following the Red Sox was a magical ride. Some guy even wrote a song about the team at the end of the season: “Hey! Hey! Red Sox, we’re all here to lend you a hand. Go! Go! Red Sox, the best doggone team in the land…” Corny as hell, but very catchy.
For me, the most significant thing about that ’75 team was that they were my team. Baseball was not big in our house the way hockey was. No one told me to root for the Red Sox. The team had great leaders in Carl Yastrzemski, Rico Petrocelli and Carlton Fisk, colorful characters in Bill Lee, Louis Tiant and Bernie Carbo, and outstanding defensive stars in Rick Burleson and Dwight Evans. There were nicknames galore: “Yaz” “Dewey” “Pudge” “Spaceman” “El Tianté” and “Rooster”. But at the center of it all were the “Gold Dust Twins”, leftfielder Jim Rice, and the man who would become my favorite player, Fred Lynn.
I tried to copy Lynn’s batting routine; the way he stroked the length of the bat while taking his practice cuts and the smooth follow through as the barrell glided through the zone. But as a right-handed batter, I looked pretty foolish in my attempts. I don’t think it would’ve mattered if I’d been a lefty, though. Fred Lynn had a one-of-a-kind swing, and like fine penmanship, it was nearly impossible to duplicate.
His fielding was a thing of beauty as well. I remember people saying that, while in college, at USC, Lynn had been a wide receiver on the Trojans football team until Lynn Swann bumped him from the starting lineup. It’s an interesting piece of trivia, and I mention it because, as time went on, I thought if you were ever at a loss to describe the way Fred Lynn played centerfield, you could just point to the way Lynn Swann played wide receiver. Both were fearless, graceful and a little reckless. If the ball was in the air, they were going to catch it, or break their leg trying. And sometimes during pickup games at Robin Hood Park, I’d take an intentionally circuitous route to a fly ball in hopes of stretching out and making a Freddy Lynn diving catch. If Baseball Tonight had been on the air back then, Lynn would’ve made “Web Jems” at least once a week.
I loved the ’75 Red Sox the way my brother and his friends loved the ’67 Sox. That’s the way it was back then; when your city’s team has not won a World Series in 57 years, you tend to celebrate the ones that came close (I can’t imagine any runners-up anywhere being as revered as the ’67 and ’75 Red Sox were in Boston). And like Yaz in ’67, my new favorite player was leading the way.
In 1975, Fred Lynn had the greatest rookie season since Ted Williams. He led the AL in doubles (47), runs (103) and slugging (.566), was runner up for the batting title (.331), had a 3-HR, 10-RBI game in Detroit, and played spectacular defense. There was nothing he couldn’t do.
Baseball was now big in our house, at least amongst the males, and during that summer of ’75, we, along with every other baseball fan in New England, were swept up in an epidemic of pennant fever. The cynicism was present with the older, more jaded fans, but nothing like it would be in another ten years when an idiotic sports writer would invent a curse and sheep-like fans would latch on to the cliché as if the losing needed some metaphysical excuse (Seriously, ’67 Cardinals – 101 wins, ’75 Reds – 108 wins, ’78 Yankees – 100 wins, ’86 Mets – 108 wins. Some pretty good teams, no?). Going into the 1975 playoffs, I was cautiously optimistic; optimistic because the Sox had made the playoffs; cautious because of whom they’d be facing.
The 1972-74 Oakland A’s have never gotten their due as one of baseball’s great teams. In the 110-year history of the World Series, only four teams have won three straight championships. The Yankees account for three of those teams (1936-39, 1949-53 and 1998-2000), and then there’s the 1972-74 Oakland A’s. That’s it. Well, the Red Sox swept the 3-time defending champs in the American League Championship Series. And because of that, my cautious optimism was turning into hope as the Red Sox headed into the World Series against Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine.
The 1975 World Series was memorable even before Game Six (That’s right, Mets fans andSeinfeld creators, Game Six, capitol “G”, capitol “S”, was played on 10-21-75 in Boston, not 10-25-86 in Flushing. Game Six was an amazing game from start to finish, not a monumental Sox gag job. Okay, back on point…). There was Louis Tiant pitching two complete-game victories in games 1 and 4, the Reds dramatic 9th-inning comeback in game 2, the Ed Armbrister interference controversy in game 3, and Tony Perez hitting 2 homeruns in game 5 in Cincinnati to send the Series back to Boston with the Reds leading 3 games to 2.
Games 6 and 7 of the Series were originally scheduled for Saturday and Sunday, October 18thand 19th, as day games. But in a cruel twist of fate, rain delayed the start of Game 6—which wasn’t yet Game Six—until Tuesday October 21st. What was so cruel about this delay? A ten year-old with a strict weeknight bedtime of 9 pm would have been able to watch every inning of those originally scheduled games.
My mom was a bit insane when it came to bedtimes. Creep past your appointed time and she started buzzing around the house, “Come on…you’ve got to get to bed…” I know that sounds like every mother with school-age children, but there was something about her earnestness that made you believe something truly awful would happen to anyone who stayed up later than they were supposed to. So, with the Red Sox up 3-0 in the 3rd inning of game 6—with all of the runs coming on Fred Lynn’s first-inning homer—my mom started her mantra, Come on, Jeffrey, let’s go… I’m sure I resisted, probably sighed a lot, stomped my feet, too. But there was no negotiating, and I went to sleep feeling pretty good about having seen my hero give the Sox a 3-run cushion.
The next morning, mom came into my room to wake me up like she always did. “They were ringing the bells in New Hampshire last night,” she said, as she pulled the shade, flooding my room with light. She was cheerful, which was not her usual morning mood. Don’t get me wrong, my mother was never a grumpy morning person, but she was usually just as anxious to get us out of bed and ready for school, as she was to get us into bed the night before.
I had no idea what the Granite State ringing of the bells meant, but things became clearer when I got downstairs. It was all over the news: Carlton Fisk hit a twelfth-inning, game-winning (they weren’t called walk-offs back then) homerun to send the World Series to a seventh game. Apparently, church bells were rung in his hometown of Charlestown, HN, in a late-night celebration. But there was so much more: Carbo’s game-tying, pinch-hit homer, Dewey’s game-saving catch, and Lynn lying motionless for several moments after crashing into the wall attempting to catch Ken Griffey’s triple.
I was both elated and bitter. There would be a seventh game. But my mom, who knew nothing about sports, sent me to bed in the middle of the greatest game in Red Sox history, and then woke me up the next morning to tell me about it in the most uninformative way. And if that wasn’t enough, when I got to school, my firth-grade teacher, Miss McCarthy, announced to the class that my friend, Thomas Flynn, was “maybe a little tired” today since he went to the Red Sox game the night before. I looked over at my pal. He didn’t look tired to me. He was beaming.
Later that night, my mother shooed me to bed with the Red Sox again leading 3-0 in the third. But unlike the previous night, I could not get to sleep. Maybe it was all that I had missed the night before that had me staring at my ceiling with worry. Till this day, I cannot explain why I didn’t think to have a transistor radio hidden beneath my pillow.
After nearly two hours of restless fretting, I soft-footed it downstairs, stopping at the landing, just out of sight of any adult passersby. From there, I could hear Curt Gowdy’s voice calling the play-by-play from the living room television. 4-3 Reds. And it was over. I cried on the stairs; the only time a sporting event ever broke me with sadness.
That was the hardest loss I ever had to endure as a baseball fan. Of course, there were other crushing Red Sox defeats. The one-game playoff against the Yankees in ’78 was tough, but I was a little older then, and I was an adult with adult distractions in ’86 and ‘03, when I just got angry and swore a lot. But as a ten year-old, the calluses of sports fan disappointment had yet to form, and I carried the pain of the 1975 World Series around like a jagged pebble in my shoe during an off-season that never seemed to end. Years later, when asked to comment on the greatness of Game Six, Johnny Bench said, “The fans of Boston still believe the Red Sox won that series 3 games to 4.” I, for one, have never felt that way.
I still tease my mom for making me miss Game Six, but perhaps I should thank her for Game Seven. Because I was hiding, I was allowed to mourn in private, out of sight of my father and older brother. That was a seminal moment for me. I could’ve gone back to bed, woke up the next day, and said, “I can’t take this drama. This just isn’t for me.” But it was too late. If the Sox had lost and I hadn’t felt a thing, maybe I would’ve continued with the guitar lessons I was taking at the time, became some kind of artist instead of a sports fan. But I liked the drama and emotion of team sport competition. Win or lose, I wanted to feel it.
In the weeks that followed the Series, Fred Lynn became the most decorated rookie in the history of baseball after winning a Gold Glove and being named AL Rookie Of The Year and Most Valuable Player (I did care about MVPs back then). He was the first player ever to win both ROY and MVP in the same season (and the only one in my book – Ichiro Suzuki had already played 9 professional seasons in Japan before his “rookie” season in 2001 – but no one reads my book, working title: Ignoring The Facts: Protecting My Hero’s Legacies).
Over the next several seasons, Lynn continued to be one of baseball’s biggest stars. He made the all-star team every year he was with Red Sox, and in 1979, had a monster season with career highs in runs (116), homeruns (39) and RBI (122), and led the AL in batting (.333), slugging (.637) and on-base pct (.423). The 39 homers were 14 more than he would hit in any other season (imagine the suspicion today?), and I remember hearing that his extra power came from working out on Nautilus machines, so I dropped my free-weights program and joined a nearby gym where I could workout on machines. I did this, not because I was going to hit major league home runs, but because Fred Lynn did it.
In 1980, talk of Lynn’s expiring contract and the difficulty the Red Sox were going to have resigning him dominated local sports pages. The reality of the free agency era was hitting this 15 year-old hard. Bobby Orr’s departure in 1976 was confusing and complicated and hurt like hell, but for me it was sudden, and all had been made right during Bobby Orr Night in 1979, when his number was retired and fans at the Garden gave him a 10-minute—I think it’s up to 20-minutes, now—standing ovation. But Lynn’s leaving moved about as fast as the second hand at the end of a school day.
The announcement came in January, 1981: Fred Lynn traded to the California Angels (For me, this was a bit ironic seeing as how the Angels were the team that crushed the Sox during my first trip to Fenway; the night I didn’t become a fan). As mentioned in an earlier essay, by the time of the trade, I had been leaning towards George Brett as my favorite player. But Fred Lynn and the 1975 Red Sox are the reasons I did become a baseball fan, and Lynn’s exit from Boston severed my most enduring tie to that unforgettable era (By that time, Jim Rice had become the most feared hitter in the AL, but he missed the ’75 Series with a broken wrist—damn you, Vern Rhule!—and Yaz had been fading for some time).
Fred Lynn himself sums up exactly how I felt when he was asked about leaving Boston in a 2013 interview for the website, BostonBaseballHistory.com:
“I hated to leave Boston. … I have a lot of great memories of the city and the team. I think you have a special attachment to the team you start out with. I’m always going to be a Red Sox.”
Fred Lynn was never part of a World Series championship team. He is not in the Baseball Hall Of Fame. But he was the player who made me love the game of baseball, the one who drew me in, and the ’75 Sox will always be my favorite team. “I think you have a special attachment to the team you start out with.” I think so, too.
*One last note about the ’75 Series: Jim Rice was hit by that Vern Rhule pitch on September 21st in Detroit. At the time, he had 102 runs batted in and 92 runs scored. The Red Sox lost three one-run games in the 1975 World Series. Rice’s primary replacements were Cecil Cooper and Juan Beniquez, who went a combined 2-27 with 2 RBI in the Series. Is it possible that Rice could have been the difference in any of those one-run games?…