Commentary

Where have you gone, Tony C?

Our Sox Nation scribe turns his eyes to an unfulfilled legend as Fenway turns 100

Updated: April 20, 2012, 3:59 AM ET
By Gordon Edes | ESPNBoston.com

Editor's note: The story below imagines what Friday's celebration of Fenway might have looked like if a certain Boston Red Sox slugger hadn't been beaned many years ago ...

[+] EnlargeTony Conigliaro
Focus on Sport/Getty ImagesOn April 17, 1964, Tony Conigliaro made his home debut with the Red Sox, driving the first pitch he saw, a fastball from Chicago's Joel Horlen, out of Fenway Park.

BOSTON -- All the greats already had made their way to the center of the diamond, ringed by the scores of gray-haired men who once had worn the uniform, if even for just a day, a season, a memory. Pedro and El Tiante. Boggs and Rice. Dewey and Freddie, Pudge and Tek. Nomar and Mo. Wake and the Spaceman. Lo and behold, even Manny and the Rocket.

This was an afternoon of celebration and forgiveness. Tears? Oh. Yes, many of those, shed by the folks who measured the passage of their own lives by the players for whom they had once cheered, those players magically appearing again, generational lines vanishing for one afternoon. Malzie to Rico to Greenie to Bruno to Naehring to Lowell.

But boos? Not a single one rose from throats hoarse from the roars that had greeted so many of their favorites, the ancient ballpark shaking for a full two minutes when Terry Francona was introduced.

Now there were only two, just the way Maestro Charles Steinberg had planned it. They stood behind the center-field wall, the one cadging a last drag on his cigarette, the other humming a tune to himself. On the video board, a montage of their highlights played. The Impossible Dream, and the first of the World Series titles they'd won together. The 3,000th hit. The home runs. No. 400. Then 500. Then 600, the first player to reach that milestone since Willie Mays.

"I hate these things," Yaz said, his uniform jersey hanging untucked over his pair of chinos.

"Hey, old man," said his teammate, running his hand through hair still as thick as it had been when he was 19, "we're at that point in life where it's still better to be seen than viewed."

They hadn't seen each other in years. Yaz ever the recluse, happiest with a golf club in his hands, his teammate having long since moved to Malibu, where the girls still made a detour hoping to catch a glimpse of him sunning on his deck. For the few times that Yaz had come back to Fenway, his teammate always had sent regrets. There was always another movie project, a TV taping, a promotional appearance.

"Chicks dig the long ball?" He had laughed when he'd heard that on an ad for the first time. "You're about 40 years too late," he thought to himself.

The couple of times he had come back to Boston were a blur. So many old friends from the North Shore. His brothers, their wives and kids. He loved the Whiffle ball games with the kids, seeing their mouths drop open at how far their uncle could still swat them. And he had always enjoyed cutting up with Lobie, howling every time Lobie would say, "How come we can't get players like that?" while showing his highlights the year after Messersmith, when he had decided to finish out his career as a free agent on the Coast.

His mom, God rest her soul. The old man, still as proud as the day the neighbors called to say his son, still a teenager, had homered in his very first game in Fenway Park, until the father, too, had passed.

He was glad he had come back for this one, happy for the chance to trade stories with Lonnie and Mike Andrews and the Boomer, Reggie and Rico. He was stunned by how many of his old teammates were already gone. Elston Howard had been the first, dead of a heart attack in 1980, at age 51.

[+] EnlargeTony Conigliaro
AP PhotoSadly, Tony Conigliaro's trajectory was forever flattened after he was beaned by Jack Hamilton in 1967.

Joe Foy, the third baseman. Heart attack, gone at age 46 in 1989. Jerry Adair, the supersub, dead of liver cancer at age 50 in 1987. Johnny Wyatt, the former Negro League star who came out of the bullpen to win Game 6 against the Cards, heart attack in 1998. He was 63. Don McMahon, another relief pitcher, dropped dead of a heart attack while pitching batting practice as a Dodgers coach in 1987. He was 57. Bob Tillman, the catcher, heart attack, 2000. Sixty-three years old.

And Ken Brett, the youngest of them all in '67, a 19-year-old kid when he'd pitched in the World Series, dead of a brain tumor in 2004.

His eyes grew moist. He knew how lucky he had been to have stayed healthy all those years. He was so glad he'd taken the advice of Ted Williams, who warned him to change his batting stance. It had kept him out of harm's way, backing off from the plate and not diving into pitches, without robbing him of any of the power he'd been blessed with since the day he stepped onto a field for St. Mary's.

And yeah, it was good to see Yaz. Old enmities had long since faded. The winning had helped, of course. People talked about him and Yaz the way they once talked about Ruth and Gehrig, Maris and Mantle, Mays and McCovey.

The PR person holding the script in his hands signaled to them as the sound of their highlight reel ebbed, replaced by trumpet flourishes from the Pops. It was time to be introduced.

I wonder, the teammate thought, if Yaz has ever gotten over me being chosen over him as Greatest Living Sox player. Of course, neither one of us will ever be bigger than Ted.

"You're up first," the teammate said to Yaz.

"Just the way it always was," Yaz said. "Me getting my swings in before you."

"And now Ladies and Gentlemen, two of your most beloved Red Sox players ...

... No. 8, Carl Yastrzemski.

... And the greatest slugger in Red Sox history, No. 25, Tony Conigliaro."

"Thanks for the memories," Tony C said.

Editor's note: Tony Conigliaro played with the Red Sox in 1964-67, 1969-70 and 1975. He died Feb. 24, 1990, at 45.

Gordon Edes

Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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