Thirty-two years ago, when baseball was still inarguably the national pastime, the New York Yankees hosted the Boston Red Sox at old Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. The temperature soared into the 90s. Neither team was headed to the playoffs. Yet 41,077 fans found their way there, by foot or subway or car or bus, into the park just over the Harlem River from Manhattan. It was the Fourth of July.
The Yankees pitcher that day was a 24-year-old left-hander named Dave Righetti, born in California, drafted by Texas, traded to New York. Righetti was coming off a shutout of the Baltimore Orioles in his previous start. His season was off to a fine start. What might happen that day?
The beauty of baseball – one of the beauties, anyway – is in the heat of July, with half the season gone and half the season ahead, no one game is more important than the next. Baseball is not an event as much as a lifestyle. Sure, there are marquee pitching matchups and series between first-place teams. Lose that one game? Get swept in that key series? There’s another one on the way, new hope each morning.
The Fourth of July kind of tips that balance. Baseball fits the Rockwellian version of Independence Day. Toss it in with all the clichés, with the backyard barbecues and the parades and the fireworks. No ballpark with any degree of pride will host a July 4 game and not dust off the red-white-and-blue bunting.
So people go. Want to feel American? Hop in your Chevy on the Fourth of July and drive to a baseball game. Last year, major league games averaged just more than 30,000 fans over the course of a season that runs from the beginning of spring to the edge of autumn. On the Fourth of July 2014, more than 540,000 people – an average of 38,602 – attended the 14 big league games in parks from Washington to Detroit to Minneapolis to Atlanta to St. Louis to Cincinnati to Denver to Anaheim, where crowds were all over 40,000. (The game in Boston was rained out.)
Tee up the memories, then. On Independence Day in 1939, an ailing Lou Gehrig stepped to the microphone at Yankee Stadium less than a month after his diagnosis with a disease that came to be named for him. He told the crowd that he considered himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.
On the July 4, 1980, the great Nolan Ryan recorded the 3,000th strikeout of his career. On July 4, four years later, knuckleballer Phil Niekro – the anti-Ryan in style, if not results – notched his 3,000th “K.” On the night of Independence Day in 1985, the Braves hosted the Mets in Atlanta, with fireworks scheduled for after the game. Problem: the game lasted 19 innings before the Mets won – at 4 a.m. It would have been somehow un-American to cancel the fireworks, so the Braves unleashed them anyway, though it was the morning of July 5.
This year, 15 games are again scheduled for the Fourth of July – starting with an 11:05 a.m. first pitch in Washington, a rare morning game scheduled so fans can take in the Nationals and San Francisco Giants, then make their way over to the National Mall, less than a mile-and-a-half north of Nationals Park, for the fireworks over the Washington Monument.
Yankee Stadium, albeit a newer, fancier version, will again host a baseball game this Independence Day. And no doubt some of those fans who make their way to the Bronx will think about that summer of 1983, when Dave Righetti slung baseballs at the Red Sox. With two outs in the ninth inning, Righetti still hadn’t given up a hit, and he faced Boston third baseman Wade Boggs, one of the best hitters of his generation, a Hall of Famer to be.
With the count at two balls and two strikes, Boggs fouled off a Righetti pitch and stepped back into the batter’s box. This time, Righetti got him to swing through a breaking ball. Strike three. Ballgame. A no-hitter in New York on the Fourth of July. Now what’s more American than that?
What’s it like to live through sports’ longest season, the 162-game Major League Baseball schedule? The Grind captures the frustration, impermanence, and glory felt by the players, the staff, and their families from the start of spring training to the final game of the year; classy baseball writing in the Roger Angell or Tom Boswell tradition.
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