Commentary

Field of brief dreams

Updated: April 30, 2012, 12:42 PM ET
By Marty Dobrow | Special to ESPNBoston.com

"This is my most special place in all the world, Ray. Once a place touches you like this, the wind never blows so cold again." -- Moonlight Graham, in "Field of Dreams"

It's no cornfield in Iowa, of course, but for citizens of Red Sox Nation, Fenway Park is the field of our most fervent longing. On April 20, 2012, we celebrated the centennial of, depending on your point of view:

-- a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark (John Updike)
-- a dump (Luke Scott, Tampa Bay Rays)

One hundred years; 7,764 games (regular season); 1,515 Red Sox players. Some of them, of course, fixtures: Teddy Ballgame and Yaz, more enduring landmarks than the wall behind them; Carlton Fisk representing the little child in all of us, waving it fair, jumping for joy; Johnny Pesky seemingly airlifted off the Titanic back in 1912 and plopped down at Fenway forever.

How many of us in this past century of baseball anguish and joy have walked up the ramp for the first time, seen all of that glorious green and wondered what it would be like -- just once -- to play for the Red Sox at Fenway Park? How much of what is precious would you trade for that?

Over the years, there have been exactly six Moonlight Grahams for the Red Sox who have played their one and only game at Fenway. A single game. In baseball parlance, it is a "cup of coffee."

It can be bitter. It can be sweet.

"Well, you know, I … I never got to bat in the major leagues. I would have liked to have had that chance. Just once …" -- Moonlight Graham

Fenway's first season, 1912, ushered in a wild wave of winning. The Red Sox won the World Series that year, and did so again in 1915, 1916 and 1918 … before taking a little break.

In the regular season of 1912, the Sox were a dazzling 105-47-2. One of the rare losses came on July 10 against the St. Louis Browns, a 9-2 decision at Fenway. The disappointment of the day obscured three innings of solid relief from Doug Smith, allowing just a run on four hits, with no walks and a strikeout. One might think that the pride of Millers Falls, Mass., would warrant an encore, but that was all he wrote.

After the sale of a certain left-handed pitcher with a big bat to the Bronx, things took a rough turn at Fenway. In the nine-season stretch from 1922 to 1930, the Sox finished eighth -- meaning last -- every year but one. The lone exception was 1924, when they soared to seventh, half a game out of the cellar. That year also marked the 15 seconds of fame of one Lefty Jamerson.

On Aug. 16, the southpaw pitched the ninth inning against the Browns and dug an 8-2 hole a little deeper by allowing two runs on a hit and three walks. He never got back to the bigs.

Four years later, some team in pinstripes swaggered into town on June 30, 1928. The box score of that 11-4 Yankees victory lists guys named Ruth and Gehrig … and the immortal John Shea. A southpaw like "Lefty," Shea would also share Jamerson's career numbers: 1 inning, 2 runs, a lifetime ERA of 18.00.

The next two Fenway one-and-doners were position players, who -- like the real Moonlight Graham (with the 1905 New York Giants) -- never came to bat.

Able to brag to all of his sons and female children was one Bob Daughters, who made a cameo on April 24, 1937, against the Yankees. Daughters appeared as a pinch runner, and scored a run in the bottom of the 10th inning. It was, alas, not a blaze of glory. The Yanks had scored two in the top of the 10th and held on for a 6-5 victory.

In 1981, John Lickert would get his moment in the sun -- again with minimal SPF required. Probably the best win for the Sox in that strike-fractured season came on Sept. 19 against the big, bad boys from the Bronx. Down 5-1 with two outs and nobody on in the home eighth, there was no joy in Somerville. But a flurry of two walks, three singles, a double and a three-run Rick Miller home run suddenly had the lyric little bandbox/dump pulsing with an 8-5 lead.

Problem was, both of the team's primary catchers, Gary Allenson and Rich Gedman, had been pinch hit for in the inning. Drum roll, please. Enter John Wilbur Lickert, a 21-year-old September call-up, for the ninth inning. Closer Mark Clear began the ninth with a strikeout of Larry Milbourne, giving Lickert a putout -- the lone statistical tally of his big league career.

This would not, however, be the last licks for Lickert. Last Friday he joined more than 200 former Sox, walking back onto terra firma at Fenway to the soundtrack of "Field of Dreams."

[+] EnlargeLiving Red Sox
AP Photo/Michael DwyerJohn Lickert, Harley Hisner and Steve Lomasney were among the many former Red Sox players honored at the 100th anniversary celebration

There Lickert was, along with Sox legends like Yaz and Fisk, Pedro and El Tiante, Eck and Tek, Pesky and Petrocelli -- not to mention Harley Hisner and Steve Lomasney.

Who?

Hisner and Lomasney are two of the 10 one-game wonders for the Sox whose lone big league appearance happened to take place away from Fenway Park. Their brief careers were more Jack Kerouac than Willie Nelson: on the road, but not on the road again.

Back on a September day in 1951, the now-84-year-old Harley Hisner roared into the parking lot at Yankee Stadium to make his one and only big league appearance. It was a good one, too. He started his career by fanning a rookie named Mickey Mantle. Against a lineup in which five of the first six hitters were headed for Cooperstown (Mantle, Phil Rizzuto, Joe DiMaggio, Johnny Mize and Yogi Berra), he pitched six innings, allowing three runs on seven hits. Evidently it wasn't good enough for a reprise at Fenway, at least until six decades later.

Joining him on the hallowed diamond was Lomasney, a former star catcher at Peabody High School, who gunned down two would-be base stealers in a 1-0 victory at Baltimore on Oct. 3, 1999. That is a better way of framing his big league career than focusing on his time at the plate: two at-bats, two strikeouts.

Not in the house for the centennial celebration, alas, was one Charlie Zink. Of all the shooting stars to blaze through the moonlight of Red Sox Nation, none would shine so colorfully as Zink at Fenway Park on Aug. 12, 2008.

"That's my wish, Ray Kinsella. That's my wish. And is there enough magic out there in the moonlight to make this dream come true?" -- Moonlight Graham

Born in Carmichael, Calif., Zink is the son of two guards at Folsom State Prison -- the one made famous by Johnny Cash. Zink's late father, Ted, was the associate warden of the place, known as "Cobra." His mother, Joyce, is a Japanese-American woman whose parents and older siblings were forcibly removed from their family farm and taken to an internment camp during World War II. Charlie, their lone child, spent his first two years in a house on the Folsom grounds, living in what Joyce calls "a gated community."

His first athletic love was not baseball, but taekwondo. By age 12 he was a second-degree black belt, routinely splitting a stack of bricks with his pitching arm.

Zink's college pitching career played out at the athletic powerhouse known as the Savannah College of Art and Design. He studied architecture and historic preservation and compiled a 9-17 record for the Div. III SCAD Bees. This was small-time baseball with one big-time exception: the coach was Luis Tiant.

As a result, Zink scored a spring training tryout with the Red Sox in 2002. For a signing bonus of exactly nothing and a monthly salary of $850, the Sox signed him on April 1, as if this were some sort of baseball April Fools' joke. His friends at art school ate it up. "If you make it," they told him, "we will come."

He began pitching long relief in Class A, essentially baseball Siberia. Zink was an "organizational player," rather than a "prospect." He was there to fill up some innings. One day late that summer, Zink was having a catch in the outfield with the team's strength and conditioning coach, a behemoth named Darren Wheeler. Mischievously, Zink decided to throw a knuckleball, a pitch he had never thrown in a game at any level. The ball danced and fluttered -- and shattered Wheeler's Oakley sunglasses. Racing up to the stricken coach, Zink could muster only three words: "Dude, you're bleeding."

Three stitches above the eye later, Charlie Zink's world had turned upside down.

At spring training in 2003, the Sox announced to Zink that henceforth and forevermore he would be a knuckleball pitcher. He would throw the pitch 95 percent of the time.

People are always trying to master the knuckler, baseball's elusive Powerball ticket, the singular ingredient that paved the path to Cooperstown for Phil Niekro and Hoyt Wilhelm, and the one that converted a failed minor league infielder named Tim Wakefield into a beloved figure in Boston for a generation. It seems so easy. One pitch to glory.

It almost never works.

In 2003, Zink's rise was more meteoric than most meteors. He rocketed up through extended spring training to High A, and then to Double-A with the Portland Sea Dogs. In one month there, he took one no-hitter into the eighth inning and another two outs into the ninth. He had become, in no time at all, a cult hero.

ESPN Insider Rob Neyer wrote that Zink was "easily the best young knuckleball pitcher in the world," and that he was "likely to have a career something like Tim Wakefield's. And he might be Phil Niekro."

Baseball Prospectus' ranking of the top 50 prospects for 2004 included the likes of Joe Mauer, Prince Fielder, Justin Morneau, David Wright … and Charlie Zink.

In spring training, Wakefield took Zink out to dinner and bought him a couple of suits. A dazzling future beckoned.

But in the golden Red Sox year of 2004 Zink turned to rust. He went 1-10 with an ERA of almost 6, plummeting back from Double-A to Class A, to instructional league, his confidence shot.

The 2005 season started off just as poorly. He pleaded with the Red Sox to allow him to return to his days as a conventional pitcher. They refused. This is it, they said. His one chance. Throw the knuckleball, or kiss the dream goodbye.

In June of that year, an exasperated Zink said: "I just don't feel that confident with it. I never really did. Even when I was having all that success, I wondered how people were missing the ball … I don't know. It's a pitch that has just driven me crazy for the last three years."

Toward the end of the year, though, he began to reclaim the no-spin zone of the knuckleball. In 2006, he led Triple-A Pawtucket in wins. In 2007, spending most of the year at Double-A, he became an Eastern League All-Star. And then he put it all together in 2008, the year of his baseball life.

Zink went 14-6 at Triple-A with a superb 2.84 ERA, good enough to earn the honor of International League "Pitcher of the Year." Throughout the season rumors buzzed about Zink finally getting a chance to pitch in the big leagues. It was one false alarm after another, before Wakefield came up with some shoulder tightness and landed on the disabled list in August.

"You know we just don't recognize the most significant moments of our lives while they're happening. Back then I thought, well, there'll be other days. I didn't realize that that was the only day." -- Moonlight Graham

Charlie's mother, Joyce Zink, flew in from California. Several of his friends from the Savannah College of Art and Design made good on their old pledge, flying in from as far away as Oregon. Charlie's girlfriend -- Madeline Munroe -- was in the house, along with some of her relatives who wore shirts saying, "Think Zink."

In the first inning against the Texas Rangers, Zink faced three straight All-Stars: Ian Kinsler, Michael Young and Josh Hamilton. Out they went, 1-2-3.

[+] EnlargeCharlie Zink
David Butler II/US PresswireCharlie Zink's one game in the major leagues resulted in a no-decision.

Then, in the home half, the Red Sox went wild. Batting third, David Ortiz cracked a three-run home run. Later in the inning, he came up again -- and smashed another three-run blast. While Zink sat starstruck in the dugout, the Sox raced out to a 10-0 lead.

In a better world, there would have been a long rain delay at this point -- or perhaps some cryogenics lab would have frozen Fenway for historic preservation. But Zink and his knuckleball beat on, boats against the current. He was gone after 4 1/3 innings, having surrendered eight runs. The Sox managed to squander the entire lead and fell behind 16-14. Then they rallied for a preposterous 19-17 victory, tying a 50-year-old American League record for most runs scored in a game.

It was, to say the least, a long night.

Outside the Red Sox locker room around midnight, Zink signed Major League baseballs for his mom, and Maddie, and his college friends. In one sense, his debut had been a disaster, but he could not have been more gracious. Sure, he said, he wished he could have done better, but he still treasured the experience. "This will be the best memory of my life, still," he said. "Hopefully, there's more to come, but if there's not, this was still amazing tonight."

That very evening he was sent back to the minors. He never returned. The next year at Pawtucket he was 6-15 with a 5.59 ERA. In 2010, he made three starts with the Minnesota Twins' Triple-A team in Rochester before hurting his shoulder. Last year, he pitched in independent ball for the Lancaster Barnstormers.

Here in 2012, Charlie Zink is out of baseball. He and Madeline Munroe are now married, and they have a baby son, Noah. Zink is working in Sacramento selling Mercedes-Benzes (including one to former teammate Manny Delcarmen). He says that he is making better money than he ever did in baseball, and that he's happy.

Zink spent eight years with the Red Sox organization, including one unforgettable night at Fenway. He did not return for Friday's auld lang syne, but he still looks back at the whole journey with satisfaction.

"I enjoyed the experience, just growing and becoming who I am now," he says. "I'd do it all over again. I have baseball cards. I have stuff I can give my son. I feel like a big fan of the game who was lucky enough to play it for a while."

Marty Dobrow

ESPNBoston.com

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