Generally, I root for the story. I rooted against it, though, at the greatest game I ever saw: the sixth game of the 1975 World Series, Boston Red Sox versus Cincinnati Reds. Therein hangs a tale.
I had recently left the staff of SI to become what I'd always wanted to be, a free-lance writer. I was included in the magazine's Series coverage on a standby basis. In Game 1 Boston starter Luis Tiant, with his many wondrous windups, shut out the Reds 6-0. My assignment was to be ready to do a feature on Tiant in case he turned out to be the star of the whole Series.
Sportswriters tend to have a soft spot for the Red Sox, but I never liked being in their clubhouse. The Reds I enjoyed: It was fun to be around Johnny Bench and Joe Morgan and Pete Rose and Tony Perez when they were dressing and yelling. But the Sox were a dour lot. Tiant, however, was the exception, the only downright jovial Fenway denizen (if not the only Cuban Bostonian) in living memory. I had once watched him give an interview while he smoked a cigar in the shower.
I had the phone number of Tiant's father-in-law, who as I recall was Portuguese; and when I'd asked Rose if he had any good Tiant stories, he winked and said, "Oh, yeah." So I figured I was in pretty good shape if I had to do a story. I was freshly self-employed, and I had free tickets to the Series: I was in a mood to coast.
Tiant came back on three days' rest to pitch a complete-game victory in Game 4, delivering 163 pitches in 100 ways. The Reds won the fifth game, so the Sox went back to Boston behind three games to two. After the travel day it rained. Three days straight. So now Tiant was announced as the sixth-game starter. If he won again, he could be the MVP no matter what happened in Game 7. I called the father-in-law a couple of times. Nobody was home. I buttonholed Rose, and he said, vaguely, "Oh, uh, yeah, catch you later."
Still, it did not dawn on me until about the fourth inning, with the Sox ahead 3-0 and Tiant sailing along, that this could be one of the great alltime Series stories, and I didn't have anything. I looked at my notes. "You the ugliest Hawaiian I ever saw," I had heard Tiant saying to, I believe, Cecil Cooper. What in the world, when you thought about it, did that mean?
I was sitting in the rightfield bleachers, three rows up. Here I was, embarking on my freelance career, and I felt the way you feel in that nightmare about suddenly facing a final exam in a class you haven't attended all semester.
" 'You the ugliest Hawaiian I ever saw, 'quipped Luis Tiant, the Red-killer (whose father-in-law, unavailable for comment, is Portuguese), as he...."
As it happened, I was not the only person present who didn't have enough Tiant stuff. Neither did Tiant. When Cesar Geronimo led oil the eighth with a home run to put the Reds ahead 6-3, Tiant was relieved. And so was I.
And yet I felt...ashamed. Maybe if I'd done my job....
Boston's Bernie Carbo did his in the eighth, tying the score with a three-run pinch homer. In the ninth the Sox loaded the bases with none out, but the Reds held. Then, in the 11th, with Ken Griffey on first for Cincinnati, Morgan hit a shot right at me.
I sat there transfixed. Would the hopes of the Sox die right in my lap, and would 35,000 Bostonians look at me and say, "He's the one! See the guilt on his face? He jinxed Tiant! Get him!"?
No. The ball hooked down; Red Sox rightfielder Dwight Evans dashed back and made the best catch I've ever witnessed close up, right at the fence. I unclenched my mind and turned the game over to the players.
One of whom, Carlton Fisk, in the bottom of the 12th launched a drive into the other corner at the premises, way, way up above the leftfield wall, then danced down the first base line, waving the ball, writhing it...just...barely...fair.
The Fenway organist played the Hallelujah Chorus. Exultation reigned. Rose said afterward that he felt proud, even in defeat, to have taken part in such a contest. Tiant and I were off the hook (and the Sox, of course, lost the final game). I still feel grateful for that glorious sixth game, whose place in history turned out to be entirely independent of me. Well...I may have helped Fisk just a bit with the body English.