When I’m furiously typing away to the sound of the radio, hearing that a legendary major leaguer is about to speak is enough to distract me for a few minutes.
And a few days ago, that legend was Fred Lynn, he of the Red Sox’ center field in the 1970s, one half of the Gold Dust Twins (with Jim Rice) and all around nice guy, was on 98.5 FM to talk baseball, past and present.
I tuned in, and Lynn had some great thoughts on the current Sox, on what it meant to play at Fenway, and a bit of inside dirt on how he was traded to the California Angels against his will in 1981.
He also had a funny story on how it feels to be completely over matched by a pitcher:
“A guy that used to give me a lot of trouble was Franky Tanana, when he first came up with the Angels, because he and (Nolan) Ryan both were striking out 300 guys a year. And Franky, being a lefty, had four pitches, and he knew how to pitch. …
“We went out there with the Sox with a good hitting team, and he struck out 17 of us. He struck me out three times, I didn’t even foul one off. This is my rookie year, and I’m coming up for my fourth at-bat, and D.J. (Darrell Johnson), he taps me on the shoulder and says, ‘I’m gonna pinch hit for you,’ and I go, ‘woo hoo!’ [Laughs in the studio].
“But he sent up Juan Beniquez and he struck out. I said, ‘well, thank you!’ [More laughs]”
Now, while great story tellers, major leaguers sometimes get fuzzy on the details. They get killed for it by some fans and writers, and I’ve never understood that — they didn’t spend hours studying their own quips, they were busy trying to hit and throw. But I was still curious to see how accurate his memory was, so I did some searching, looking for a game in 1975 where Frank Tanana dominated the Red Sox.
Sure enough, a quick search of the game log for the 1975 Red Sox reveals a night game on Saturday, May 10, where the Angels won 2-0 in Anaheim Stadium, California’s Frank Tanana topping Boston’s Luis Tiant in dueling complete games.
Tanana was impressive, though not quite 17-strikeouts impressive. But, the 13 strikeouts he did get are nothing to sneeze at, along with only three walks and four hits — all singles
Lynn didn’t have a great game, and sure enough, Tanana struck him out three times. And in the bottom of the ninth, he was called back for a pinch hitter, who promptly struck out to end the game.
That wasn’t Juan Beniquez, though. It was Tony Conigliaro, just a month shy of his final game.
♦ ♦ ♦
Conigliaro had an incredibly bad run after taking a pitch in the eye from Jack Hamilton on Aug. 18, 1967. It ended his season and denied the Red Sox their dynamic right fielder for the rest of their Impossible Dream season.
He missed all of 1968, played well in his return in 1969 and 1970, but his eyesight was permanently damaged, and he retired after 74 games with the Angels in 1971, the last of which came on June 9.
Which brings us to his attempted comeback.
Four years later, the Red Sox’ favorite son returned. No longer the young gun who found his way to Fenway Park from Lynn, Conigliaro was 30 years old and attempting to find a place in the game as a designated hitter.
I recall watching some tribute to Conigliaro on TV38 as a kid, and saw him, a little bigger and heavier than in his phenom days, cross home plate after a home run in 1975. It was one of only two he hit that season, to go with an average of .123 and an OPS of .466, certainly not numbers worthy of a player who is still the youngest in American League history to hit 100 home runs.
His final game came on June 12, 1975. The Red Sox didn’t release him until Sept. 2 that year.
The rest of Conigliaro’s story is much more tragic. After interviewing for a broadcasting position with TV38 in 1982, Conigliaro suffered a heart attack on his way to the airport. Severely limited for the rest of his life, he died in 1990. He was 45 years old.
The Sox wore black arm bands on their sleeves that season, and as an 8-year-old fan, I didn’t realize the significance. But the team was honoring an amazing talent, cut short in a flash at the height of one of their more incredible seasons ever.
So, today, this Aug. 18, take a moment and think about Tony C. I remembered him by chance, seeking out a 36-year-old box score. But it’s important that he be remembered.