Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Thurman Munson, In Memoriam

I was eight years old when real life intruded on my theretofore hermetically sealed sports fan life for the first time. I had already had my heart broken by the 1978 Red Sox, of course, but August 2, 1979 was different.

I remember the moment clearly, though I think I have conflated the context. I was riding in my Dad's silver Chevy Blazer, a big-assed SUV in an era where Big-assed was good and no one knew what an SUV was. We were listening to the radio, and they interrupted the broadcast with breaking news. Now keep in mind that this was an age before ESPN, before sports talk radio, before the internet. If you were a sports fan you had the games themselves when they were broadcast, you had the daily newspaper, and you had a few precious minutes on the news in the evening and snippets on the radio. Sports and news were simply not ubiquitous. Breaking news was a big deal, unlike today when the Sportscenter after Pardon the Interruption opens with breaking news virtually every day. ("This just in: Brett Favre could not choose between waffles or pancakes at breakfast this morning.")

Thurmon Munson, the Yankees fireplug of a catcher and the New York version of local hero Carlton Fisk, had gone down in a plane crash in Canton, Ohio in which he was the pilot. He was dead. And I was legitimately crushed. By that time I truly, absolutely, unquestionably loathed the Yankees. I hated Thurman Munson because he embodied the evil doppelganger of Pudge, and because he was the heart and soul of that mighty but detestable Yankees team. But even then I knew that the hate existed within a context and that some things -- life and death -- were more important.

In my memory I have always remembered hearing that broadcast, and its grim updates confirming the fatal climax, in New York with my Dad and his then-girlfriend. That memory is plausible -- she was from New York, Dad enjoyed a good two-or-three year span in which he spent much of his time in New York, even living on Long Island for a spell. My uncle had just moved to Long Island (where he raised my cousins as Red Sox fans, God bless him) and so we went down somewhat regularly in elementary school and junior high. But my guess is that when I heard that terrible news we were simply driving around Newport -- running to a farm supply store or an auto parts place for one of my Dad's projects on the farm. The memory provides a nice symmetry -- young Red Sox fan from a farm in rural New Hampshire driving with his Dad on the outskirts of the big city that represented so much promise and hope and excitement and most of all the damned Yankees, hearing news that for at least a little while changed his worldview. It may not have quite happened where I thought it happened, but the slight transformation, and the intrusion of the real world on what was still at that point the sparkly fantasy world of sports, was very real then, and still strikes me as one of the most real experiences I have had as a sports fan even thirty years hence.

1 comment:

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