Tuesday, April 22, 2008

John Marzano's Shining Hour

John Marzano died the other day, which is sad enough. The way he died was awful, falling down a flight of stairs, possibly following a heart attack. He's the second ex-Red Sox player to die like that; the first was my favorite Boston player ever, Dick Radatz. I wasn't a particular fan of John Marzano, whose playing career wasn't that special. But I did witness what was arguably his greatest moment in the game.

That was on July 6, 1991 at Fenway Park. I had a terrific seat for that game, in the first row behind the Red Sox bullpen. I could hear the conversation in the bullpen, enjoy a ground-level view of Roger Clemens pitching, and savor a good angle on the Green Monster. The Red Sox scored twice in the bottom of the first inning, which ended when Marzano grounded out with the bases loaded. He soon made up for it.

Clemens walked the leadoff man in the top of the second, and Pete Incaviglia blasted a pitch into the screen above the Monster to tie the game. As I remember it, Clemens' first pitch to the next batter, Rob Deer, was an angry fastball, and Deer pounded it OVER the screen above the Monster. This mammoth shot made two homers on two pitches off Clemens, and everyone at Fenway knew what was coming. No doubt so did the next Tigers batter, John Shelby, but there was no escaping it. Shelby ducked away, and the blazing fastball nailed him in the back, right between the numbers.

The next move was no surprise either. Shelby flinched, flexed, turned, and set sail to wreak a little vengeance on his attacker. Clemens stood his ground atop the mound, waiting for Shelby to arrive, probably hoping to do what Nolan Ryan got to do to Robin Ventura in a similar showdown, namely yank him into a headlock and pummel his head with six or seven uninterrupted rights.

Shelby never made it to Clemens. Here came John Marzano, Clemens' catcher that day, one of 30 games he started in 1991. Marzano caught Shelby with a flying tackle, sweeping him aside just a couple of feet in front of Clemens. They went down in a dusty heap, and within seconds the benches had emptied and everyone was piling on, one of those more-than-for-show brawls we always hope will happen (but usually in vain) when baseball players square off. A lot of those players were angry and serious.

The funny part of the affair unfolded right in front of me. The Fenway bullpens are next to each in right-center field. When the brawl began, both bullpens emptied -- and the pitchers (and warmup catchers) from the two teams ran more or less side by side, all the way from the bleachers to the infield. Once they got within viewing distance of the actual fight, they squared off and danced around until things died down. Or most of them did. If the pitchers had wanted to fight, they would have duked it out right there in front of the bullpens. But I still crack up at the idea of the ritualized baseball fight, with 15-20 pitchers sprinting 100 yards within punching range of each other, and then going through the motions of challenging each other.

Within a couple of minutes, the scuffling settled down and the players went back to their benches. And the bullpen denizens headed back to the bleachers to co-exist again until the next call to action arrived. But not peacefully. The Tigers crew arrived first and stood at the front of the pen, waiting for the Red Sox stragglers to approach. They appeared anxious and agitated. Pretty soon I discovered why. Steve Lyons -- yes, good old "Psycho" -- a bullpen resident that day, maybe as a reserve catcher warming up relievers, maybe banished to the bullpen because the regulars on the bench couldn't deal with him, made his approach. The Tigers started yelling at him about a cheap shot he had taken. Apparently he had had the nerve, finding himself in the middle of a fight, to hit someone. When he wasn't looking. I don't know whom he hit, but the Tigers did, and they screamed at him, cursed him, called him a pussy, the works. He jawed back at them and challenged them to fight, but was steered into his own bullpen by the pitchers who had better things to do with their hands than make fists and punch people.

Out of the melee, only one player was ejected: Shelby. Clemens, who was spared the main combat by his catcher, lived to pitch another inning, in fact seven more innings, winning the game 7-4. Marzano got to stay, too, went hitless but probably didn't care. He had saved not only his ace's ass but also his team's chances of winning the game. I hope Clemens remembers and is thanking him again this week.

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