LONGSHOTS: A week of highs and lows in sport
by Dave Long
Over the last seven days we saw the high of local lad Chris Carpenter celebrating as his St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series and the low of Boston Celtics Nation mourning the loss of patriarch Red Auerbach. They were the latest studies on how sports affect the lives of their followers, where you can be sad over losing someone you didn’t really even know, and elated for someone you do, even if it’s just a bit and comes more from the fact that he’s from where you live.
I can’t really speak to Red the guy, although I always got a kick out the fact that the man who had conquered this New York-hating region’s sports heart long ago was Brooklyn-born and the epitome of the brash New Yorker many in these parts claim to absolutely hate. I guess that made him the ultimate example of you love him if he’s on your team and not if he’s with the other guys. Fortunately he was a Celtic.
I only had two direct dealings with him, and didn’t like him much then. Each time he was, as every tribute since his death has described, irascible. Wanted it done his way and in the case of the 1989 Manchester tribute for the retiring K. C. Jones, he wasn’t going to do what I wanted – period. He only agreed after a ribbing M. L. Carr intervened. And upon finishing summing up KC’s great career, he walked off the stage, out of the ballroom, into his limo and was probably in Londonderry before his standing ovation died out.
Still he was larger than life to most, including me, even though I was stunned to see how small he seemed the first time I saw him up close. That was in the doorway of the locker room after a rare Celtic win the year after John Havlicek retired. I wasn’t a writer then, just a covert basketball fan entering under false pretenses with an illicit press pass. So, understandably, I was on the nervous side when the pasty-faced legend, victory cigar in hand, stepped into the doorway as I walked by. So I kept my head down and tried not to make eye contact. Still, small or not, he was totally intimidating and would’ve been if I were there by decree from then-Commissioner Larry O’Brien.
Having said that, I always knew there had to be more to him than just the bravado. Otherwise, the unique and very real Celtic family thing – which I saw up close covering the Pitino regime – couldn’t have developed. It says that while irascible, competitive, cagey and even vindictive, he was one of those guys you had to get to know. And when you did, you got it all a lot better. You could tell the Celtic family felt that way about the bombastic New Yorker and it lasted for nearly 60 years.
At 6’6” Carpenter actually is bigger than life, but his personality is the opposite of Red’s – not imposing at all. He’s cooperative, friendly and a good guy who remembers where he came from, even as he’s become the best pitcher in the National League. That probably doesn’t surprise the scout who convinced Toronto to take him with their number-one draft pick, but it does make the story a little sweeter. That’s because he spent what probably was a dark winter wondering if he‘d even make it back after surgery on his pitching shoulder. It also left him without a job as, fearing they’d have to pay big dough to a guy scheduled to miss the entire next season if he beat them at arbitration, Toronto released him.
Fortunately, the Cardinals took a chance by signing him for a $750,000 free agent deal to rehab his shoulder in 2003. That paid huge dividends: he won a career-high 15 in 2004, followed by last year’s Cy Young Award- winning season and 15 more in 2006, which he capped off with a momentum-changing three-hit shutout in Game Two that catapulted the Cardinals to a World Series crown.
I asked the question on my radio program last week, where he falls among the baseball players to come from the Granite State. Carlton Fisk and his 376 homers tops the list. So talk centered on the best pitcher with Mike Flanagan and Bob Tewksbury identified as one and two. Although legendary Nick Garberdina told me in the grocery store a few days later that Bob Savage might have been in that group if it weren’t for the war and his pitching for terrible teams in the 1940s. The consensus was that after winning a Cy Young and 51 games the last three years he’s now between Tewks and Flanagan, who won 163 games over 17 seasons. But with 100 wins now, with another four or five good years he’d challenge the Memorial lefty for the top spot.
For Red the category is greatest New England sports legends and the multiple-choice answer includes Red, Ted Williams, Bobby Orr, Bill Russell and Tom Brady. Most will say it’s Williams. Hockeynauts pick Orr and footballers see Brady moving up on the outside. For me it’s Red. With all due respect to Russell, who is absolutely number two, he put all the pieces together for the only true dynasty New England’s ever had. The winning started when Russell arrived, but they won five more after he left and the only common denominator was Red. And those final five are as many as Brady, Orr and Williams have combined.
However, his greatest legacy lies in drafting the first African-American NBA player, having the first all-black starting five and naming Bill Russell the first black NBA coach. And for all that, two nitwits named Filip Bondy and Harvey Araton wrote a damning book saying he put white players on the end of the bench over blacks. The reality is that he played a major role in changing the racial make-up of all sports while operating in a Boston that wasn’t exactly the most tolerant of places for people of color. It’s a record to be proud of and celebrate as we mourn his passing.
Carp doesn’t quite have that on the résumé, but he did make many of us proud last week, especially those with him in the Trinity years and that is something to celebrate as well.
Dave Long can be heard on Sports Night with Dave Long nightly from 6 to 7 p.m. on 610 WGIR-AM