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The Impossible Dream: Rico Petrocelli

"I looked around and didn’t know what the hell happened."

The Boston Red Sox have a knack for creating baseball moments that are easily referenced by name.

No further information is needed when someone says, “The Curse of the Bambino,” “The Bloody Sock Game,” or “The Buckner Game.”

Sox fans may not be so eager to talk about Buckner or The Curse, but you can certainly get them going when you mention “The Carlton Fisk Game” or “The Impossible Dream.”

There are only two Red Sox players who were in uniform for Fisk’s famous Game 6 home run in 1975 and for the Impossible Dream season of 1967: Carl Yastrzemski and Rico Petrocelli.

Petrocelli joins us for a special two-part feature to discuss his amazing Red Sox life in this week’s edition of Spitballin’.

Part I will take us up through the 1967 Impossible Dream World Series.

Petrocelli played 12 full seasons for the Sox before injuries cut his career short when he was 33. His time in Boston may have been truncated, but over the course of those 12 seasons, Petrocelli carved out a deep place in the hearts of Sox fans and had so many accomplishments that when all was said and done, he landed in the Boston Red Sox Hall of Fame.

An ever-present figure in the Red Sox landscape, if there was a major Red Sox event Petrocelli for about a ten-year span, Petrocelli was right there.

When the Sox became the first team to hit three home runs in one inning in a World Series game in 1967, it was Petrocelli who hit the third one. The homer was his second of the game, a feat no other shortstop had done in a World Series to that point and only Alan Trammell has done since.

When Bernie Carbo hit his improbable three-run, game-tying homer in the eighth inning of The Fisk Game, Petrocelli was on first base. When Tony Conigliaro was hit in the eye with a pitch, Petrocelli was on deck and was the first to get out to Tony C.

In 1969, Petrocelli became the first American League shortstop to hit 40 home runs in a season.

No AL shortstop topped that number until Alex Rodriguez did so in 2002. In ‘69, the American League All-Star team featured six future Hall of Famers, however it was Petrocelli who garnered the most votes of any AL player, outdistancing Reggie Jackson, Frank Robinson and Rod Carew among others.

BOSTON, MA - OCTOBER 11: Boston Red Sox shortstop Rico Petrocelli stands shirtless in the locker room after the Red Sox defeated the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 6 of the World Series at Fenway Park in Boston on Oct. 11, 1967. The Red Sox forced a Game 7 by winning, 8-4. (Photo by Frank O'Brien/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Not bad for an Italian kid from Brooklyn who had to make a choice between pro baseball or a college basketball scholarship.

So, let’s go Spitballin’ with Rico Petrocelli. To paraphrase the lyrics of The Impossible Dream, your world will be better for this.

What an absolute honor to speak with you, Mr. Petrocelli. When I was a kid collecting baseball cards, my uncle had me separate out all of the Italian players into a special pile, so that was my introduction to you as a player. It’s great to talk to you today. Let’s start right at the beginning. What was it like growing up as a young baseball fan in Brooklyn in the 1950s?

Like many others, Mickey Mantle was my idol. We looked up to him so much because of his talent. We’d see him on TV or listen to him on the radio giving interviews and he was just that big kid from Oklahoma. We just thought he was great.

He hit some balls in the old Yankee Stadium that people don’t realize how far they went. It was about 467 feet to centerfield, and he’d hit them over the centerfield fence, that’s how strong he was. He almost hit one out of Yankee Stadium, so that was a big thrill. He got a lot of clutch hits too. Even when he struck out, he was just awesome.

“Being a right-handed hitter in the old Yankee Stadium, I woulda got killed. But when I saw that wall in Fenway, I said, “Wow!”

So, were you a Yankees fan living in Brooklyn?

Well, I especially liked the Dodgers because their ballpark was small, but in a fun way. At the time, there was just something about them. They were the kind of guys that were scrappy. The Yankees were the business type of team, they went about their business very professional and weren’t really flamboyant. But the Dodgers, they were a fun, scrappy team.

Did you have a specific player you liked on the Dodgers?

You know, the first player I ever met was when I was in youth league baseball. I won the MVP Award and Gil Hodges was the presenter. I met him and it seemed like he was 15 feet tall. He gave me a bat, which was bigger than I was. What a thrill that was. But I loved both teams and when [Willie] Mays came up with the Giants, oh my God it was like being in baseball heaven.

With those three teams, it seemed like we had two of them always playing in the World Series. We had a World Series almost every year growing up. It was thrilling. Me and the guys would hang out and have arguments about Mantle, Mays and Duke Snider going back and forth. It was really fun, and we loved to do that.

What an incredible era to grow up in New York City. I read that you were a great basketball player too and had a scholarship offer to St. John’s, but you chose baseball. What was your thought process there?

I love basketball and I had some scholarship offers. But realistically, I didn’t have the height or speed and I wanted to become a professional athlete in either baseball or basketball. So, that made me go towards baseball. I went to work out in Boston and there were about eight or ten other teams that I was going to work out for after I graduated high school.

The Yankees scout had told me they signed their quota, which worked out good. Being a right-handed hitter in the old Yankee Stadium, I woulda got killed. But when I saw that wall in Fenway, I said, “Wow!”

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer: Photographed on Monday, June 13, 2011 -- Former Boston Red Sox players Rico Petrocelli and Luis Tiant have a little fun before the start of the 9th annual George H.W. Bush Celebrity Golf Tournament. (Photo by Gabe Souza/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)

You debuted in the Majors at the end of the 1963 season when you were just 20 years old. You only played in one game, but that had to be great as just a young kid. What was the story behind your first game?

I came up in September and Johnny Pesky was the manager. He told me he didn’t know if I would get in there, but he would try. At first, I got my taste of being on the road. We had a nice hotel, and everything was new. We got meal money and flew from one city to the next. It was first class. I observed what was going on from the bench and talked to players and it was great.

Finally, one day Johnny Pesky told me I was gonna start at shortstop. I thought, “Whoa! Oh wow!” I was so nervous. I think I grounded out my first at bat, but then the second time, I got a hanging curve and I swung and hit a fly ball towards left field. I hit it good and I’m just running to first base as fast as I can go and the first base coach says, “Keep going! Keep going!”

I kept going and slid into second base on one of those popup slides. I looked around and didn’t know what the hell happened. I had my head down and wasn’t looking at the ball, but the fans were cheering. I hit it off the wall for a double. I still have the ball. What a thrill. There’s nothing like getting your first hit.

As a young player, were there any guys who showed you the ropes or took you under their wing?

It was just the opposite actually. They were rough. When I went to work out, guys were needling me pretty good. You know, they’re thinking you might take their job or their buddy’s job, so they weren’t too receptive to the rookies. The coaches were the guys who helped me.

I want to ask some questions about the Impossible Dream season of 1967. What an incredible year. Let’s start at the beginning. The team had struggled for so long and had lost 100 games just two years earlier. What were your thoughts going into the 1967 season after finishing 9th out of 10 teams the year before?

They had let Billy Herman go as manager in the offseason and they were gonna bring up Dick Williams. Dick came to the baseball writers’ dinner and we said hello, but Dick didn’t smile too much. He was a very serious guy. I knew him from Spring Training in the Big League camp and he was the same way there. He didn’t say much to anybody and always had an angry look.

He came on the scene and they got rid of a lot of the veterans. We had mostly young players and we were gonna develop in the Big Leagues. He brought a winning style. He taught us how to win. He stressed in Spring Training that we were gonna do the fundamentals. We weren’t gonna be like the old Red Sox teams that sat around and waited for home runs. We were gonna do all the little things and we started working on that in Spring Training.

How did that translate once the season started?

We went into the season and had a so-so start. But then, things started working out. We started doing the things that he was looking to do. We were getting the runners over, hitting sacrifice flies, all the fundamentals. He came from the Dodgers organization and he brought a lot of that theory over to the Red Sox.

It was fun because we started winning. Then we started coming from behind and winning late. The excitement started to build and build. The fans started coming to the park and it was so exciting. Then we won ten in a row. We won six before the All-Star Game and four after and that got us up to second place. Man alive, the fans were going nuts about that.

That was such a tight race all season. What were you thinking as the second half played out and the World Series was in sight?

We’d win a couple then lose a couple. It was a four-team race and I think that helped us. It came down to the last day. If we won and Detroit lost one game of a doubleheader, then we were in. They won the first game and so we were all listening in the clubhouse. When the Angels beat them, we were going to the World Series. All us young kids going to the World Series, oh my God.

Before we get to the Series, you mentioned the All-Star Game. You were the starting shortstop surrounded by so many incredible Hall of Famers. You were still young, just 24 years old. What was your feeling being among all those greats?

Well, about a week before I got hit with a ball in the wrist. It was giving me problems, so I had it taped. I only had one at bat. That was that 15-inning game in Anaheim. Tony Perez hit that home run to win the game.

But it was great. I got to meet guys from all the different teams. And what about the guys on the other team? Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, [Sandy] Koufax. All of them, oh man!

It’s amazing all of this happened in the ’67 season. I don’t mean to bring up a tough subject but talking about 1967 I have to ask about Tony Conigliaro. You were on deck when he was hit in the eye with a pitch. Can you take us through your memories of that?

I could see the ball coming up high, but I didn’t know if it was gonna hit him. The umpire and catcher yelled, “Watch out!” but by that time it was too late, he got hit. I said, “Oh my God!” I ran up to him and loosened his belt and I said, “Tony, you’re gonna be alright, you’re gonna be alright.”

He wasn’t out, he was still conscious, but had his eyes closed. Then, all of a sudden, his left side started to blow up, just like blowing up a balloon. The doctor and trainer came out and we had a stretcher to take him out to the hospital. It was really sad. To see a teammate get hit like that right below his eye. The first thing I thought was that it hit him straight in the eye and he was gonna be blind.

You were there for his comeback a year and a half later, which was incredible. What was that like?

We were on the road when he came back against Baltimore and the first game, he hits a home run! Oh my God, the whole dugout just erupted… we ran out in front of the dugout and everyone was hugging him. It was really something.

He ended up with 20 home runs and 80 RBIs, it was amazing. He never let any pitcher intimidate him. He never stepped in the bucket because he worried about getting hit. He went right at the pitcher with his stride and hung right in there. It was incredible.

It really was. OK, now onto the ’67 World Series. Going into the matchup with the Cardinals, what were your thoughts?

At first, we were just happy to be in the World Series. We were walking on air. I mean, Holy Mackerel, here we are in the World Series. Initially we didn’t think about the Cardinals too much, but then we started to prepare scouting reports and we realized what we were up against. We knew about [Bob] Gibson because we faced him in Spring Training, but they were a powerhouse. They had [Lou] Brock, [Curt] Flood in center, Roger Maris in right. Orlando Cepeda was an MVP and [Tim] McCarver was a good catcher.

But they didn’t really have great depth in their starting pitching past Gibson. We were able to beat a couple of the other guys, but Gibson was just overpowering; he was incredible. Everything you knew of him was accurate. He was just a great pitcher and he did a job on us.

I always imagine hitting against Gibson had to be terrifying. What’s it like to get in the box against Bob Gibson? How do you prepare for that especially in the World Series?

Personally, the first thing I’m thinking in that situation is, “This is the World Series, he’s not gonna throw at anybody.” At least I didn’t think. He didn’t really have to. The first game he gave up a home run to our pitcher and then he didn’t give up much after that. I think Yaz hit him pretty well, but we couldn’t put anything together against him.

We had [Jim] Lonborg and he did a great job against him and that great hitting team. We lost, but the season was such a success that we didn’t feel so bad. We had all these young guys and we felt like we were gonna be around next year too. Little did we know, we had a little of this happen, a little of that, some injuries and all that. Then they wouldn’t pitch to Yaz, they just walked him every chance they had. But to play in a World Series was the ultimate.

One last question about the ’67 Series. I wanted to ask about your performance in Game 6. You were the first shortstop to hit two home runs in a World Series and helped force a Game 7. Can you talk about that game?

It was great to be able to hit the two home runs and to be in the World Series. There were ten teams in each league and whoever won went right to the World Series. It’s tougher now going through all those rounds.

In Game 7 we were facing Gibson and with all the great pitchers you have to stay close to them. You hope to beat them 2-1 or 3-2. But Jim Lonborg only had two days rest and you could see right away he didn’t have his good stuff. They got a couple of runs right away and then Julian Javier hit a three-run homer and then it was pretty much over.

Come back to BallNine next Friday for Part II of Spitballin’ with Red Sox legend Rico Petrocelli as we discuss the 1975 World Series, his relationship with Red Sox royalty and his legacy with one of the most storied franchises in Major League history.

Rocco is a baseball writer with too much time on his hands who lives in the dusty corners of Baseball Reference. He was one half of the battery for the 1986 Belleville Recreation Farm League Champion Indians. He likes early 20th century baseball nicknames, pullover polyester jerseys and Old Hoss Radbourn. He works as a College Athletics Director and his second book will be out in April 2021.

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