On Impossible Dreams

It is indeed a day for the young, with the wonderful mystery of the MLB draft in full swing, where obscure high school and college players become household names in the midst of rabid fanbases overnight.

Tonight, 22-year-old David Pauley — just a week ago still playing in AA — will make his second career major-league start. And what a start: On the Yankee Stadium mound, trying to play the stopper after a humiliating defeat last night in the midst of a crucial (or as crucial as a series in June can be) four-game series.

This is reminscent of course of the most famous Red Sox rookie ever to make his Yankee Stadium debut — Billy Rohr, who won three games over the course of his two year career in Boston and Cleveland, two of those victories against the Yankees. The first — on Opening Day, April 4, 1967 — is part of what makes this rivalry so special, away from the ESPN-ization that has been foisted upon it.

Excrpted from Lost Summer by Bill Reynolds.

There are only 14,000 people rattling around in huge Yankee Stadium. … Ken Coleman, whose voice, like Curt Gowdy’s before him, has become synonymous with the Red Sox, is calling the game. As the innings go by, it is apparent this is not just another early-season game. Through five innings Rohr has not allowed a hit, a rare thing for any Red Sox pitcher these days, never mind a rookie making his first start in the major leagues. He’d appeared understandably nervous at the start, but has settled down and retired the first 10 batters he faced.

But the score is only 1-0, courtesy of a leadoff home run by Reggie Smith.

In the bottom of the sixth, with Rohr still breezing along, the Yankees’ Bill Robinson rips a hard ground ball that comes off Rohr’s shin. The ball ricochets toward third baseman Joe Foy, who throws Robinson out. Rohr limps around the mound, in obvious pain. Manager Dick Williams, also in his first year, and trainer Bobby LeRoux come out to see him. Williams is thinking of taking Rohr out. But Rohr walks around the mound for a while, testing his leg, and a few minutes later says he’s okay.

There is some concern that Rohr is going to be affected by the bruise, and Williams tells catcher Russ Gibson, another rookie, to let him know immediately if he thinks Rohr has lost anything. He hasn’t. In fact, Gibson thinks he’s getting stronger. He gets through the seventh without giving up a hit, as the drama starts to build. Rohr’s bid for a no-hitter has gotten serious. Rohr gets a cushion in the top of the eights when Joe Foy hits a two-run homer to give the Sox a 3-0 lead. He gets through the bottom of the eighth. An early-season game in the cold of Yankee Stadium has become as good as baseball gets.

After the Red Sox go down in their half of the ninth inning all the people in the stadium stand and cheer as Rohr walks out to the mound, just three outs away from baseball fame. If ever there is someone who seems like an unlikely candidate for baseball immortality, it is Billy Rohr, this skinny stringbean of a left-hander.

As the crowd stands and cheers Rohr’s walk to the mound in the bottom of the ninth the young pitcher does not acknowledge the applause. He looks grim, determined. The suspense builds, the essence of baseball reduced to this one moment. This is baseball at its best, consequences riding on every pitch. He looks around at his teammates, and turns to pitch to Tom Tresh. The count runs to three and two.

"Billy Rohr on the threshold of fame, with a tremendous pitching performance today," Coleman says on the radio. "Rohr winds and here it is, a fly ball to deep left. Yastrzemski is going back … way back … way back."

Carl Yastrzemski, in his grey road uniform with "Boston" on the front in navy blue letters, and number eight on his back, starts running back as fast as he can. He can’t see the ball, but instinctively knows where it figures to land. Behind him is the scoreboard. Behind it is the left-hand grandstand, with only a smattering of people sitting in it. On a dead-run Yastrzemski dives, his body in full extension, left arm straining, his momentum carrying him away from home plate. He manages to catch the ball just before he hits the ground, landing on his left knee and doing a full somersault. His cap is off, lying near him on the grass. He quickly gets up, momentarily holding his glove with the ball safely tucked inside it over his head, as Coleman screams over the radio, "One of the greatest catches you’ll ever see by Yastrzemski in left field. Everyone in Yankee Stadium is on their feet roaring as Yastrzemski went back and made a tremendous catch."

There is one out.

Yaz has done it, I think. He has saved it.

Joe Pepitone is the next batter. He hits a routine fly ball that Tony Conigliaro handles easily in right filed.

Two outs.

One more, I tell myself. Just one more.

The batter is Elston Howard. Ironically, later in the season he will be with the Red Sox. But no one knows that on this afternoon. On this gray day he has become the one thing that stands between a rookie pitcher and a sliver of immortality. Before he steps into the batter’s box Williams comes out to visit Rohr. The manager doesn’t really have anything to say, just feels he should say something, anything, to calm his young pitcher. Howard digs in, a wide stance. He is a right-handed hitter and he rhythmically waves his bat toward Rohr. The count runs full. Billy Rohr is one strike away.

"Russ Gibson gives the sign," Coleman says dramatically, the tension in his voice. "The left-hander delivers … a line drive into right field for a base hit. Tony Conigliaro takes it on the first hop. He had no chance."

David Pauley is not Billy Rhor. He’s not making his big-league debut tonight, and he’s not going to pitch a one-hitter. With any luck, he’ll hopefully have a longer and better career. But it’s a good occasion to remind all of us why we love this sport, and why this rivalry is what it is.

5 comments… add one
  • I’m lovin’ this post big time, but in order to get everyone right to the action, let’s use the post above for tonight’s game thread comments! Thanks!

    YF June 6, 2006, 7:04 pm
  • Are you saying to bring some respect in the house tonight?

    Rob June 6, 2006, 7:06 pm
  • It can’t be as bad as last night

    Rob June 6, 2006, 7:09 pm
  • Newsflash: Jeets leading AL All-Star vote getter.

    YF June 6, 2006, 9:01 pm
  • Just read this post for the second time. Great stuff.

    attackgerbil June 6, 2006, 10:32 pm

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