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Mudville: July 23, 2024 12:25 pm PDT

The Impossible Dream II: Rico Petrocelli

"I always thought that the players were the lucky ones."

On January 12, 1975, the Bangor Daily News in Maine prophetically ran an article under the headline, “Frustration gone, Rico ready as ever for ’75.”

Rico Petrocelli absolutely was ready for the 1975 season, but little did the UPI know that 283 days later, he would have a front row seat to two of the most historic home runs in perhaps the greatest Major League Baseball game ever played.

Petrocelli revisits the 1975 World Series and his role in the historic Game 6 in Part II of this special edition of Spitballin’.

Part I can be found here.

Petrocelli was on first base when Bernie Carbo hit his improbable two-strike, two-out, three-run game-tying home run in the bottom of the eighth and was due up third when Carlton Fisk ended the epic battle in the 12th, desperately waving his blast fair.

There was a backstory to Petrocelli’s ’75 season, as the Bangor Daily News alluded to nine months prior. The popular shortstop and one of the two remaining holdovers from the 1967 Impossible Dream team along with Carl Yastrzemski and had battled injuries in 1973 and ’74.

Petrocelli’s 1974 season was cut short when he was hit in the head with a pitch from Jim Slaton on September 15. Combined with a number of other nagging injuries due to his aggressive style of play, Petrocelli seemed to be nearing the end of his career at the age of 32.

He quietly battled through the after-effects of his beaning throughout the 1975 season and while his offensive output wasn’t what fans had become used to, his defense remained sharp and his leadership was invaluable as the Red Sox careened to an American League East title.

His clutch home run in Game 2 of the ALCS off Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers helped lift the Red Sox to a sweep of the Oakland A’s and his .308 World Series batting average was second only to Yastrzemski’s .310 among Red Sox regulars.

Petrocelli returned for one more season in 1976, but again wasn’t fully healthy – and for the first time in his Major League career, he failed to play 100 games in a season. In 1976, one day short of the two-year anniversary of his beaning, Petrocelli appeared in a Red Sox game for the last time. He entered the game as a defensive replacement for Denny Doyle but didn’t get an at bat.

1975: Rico Petrocelli and his wife Elsie celebrate the Red Sox '75 AL Pennant in style.

The starting pitcher that night for the opposition was Slaton.

Although Petrocelli’s career ended when he was just 33, he remains one of the most beloved players of his era among Red Sox fans. His place in franchise history is so revered, that he was among the second ever induction class for the Red Sox Hall of Fame.

So, come on Spitballin’ with this Fenway favorite as we remember Game 6 and Rico Petrocelli’s legacy in Red Sox history.

We spoke previously about the 1967 World Series and how you and Yaz were the only two players who played in ’67 and ’75. You were a young guy in ’67 and then a veteran in ’75. What were your thoughts going against The Big Red Machine in 1975?

It was different. We really thought we had the team to beat them. We had a couple of young guys in [Jim] Rice and [Fred] Lynn and they had great years. But most of the guys were veterans. We had myself, Yaz and [Carlton] Fisk. Our pitching staff was mostly veterans with Luis Tiant and Rick Wise. We had a good bullpen, and we could score runs. We weren’t intimidated at all. It was just a matter of going out there and being aggressive.

But they had some great players, of course. Don Gullet could throw hard and was the toughest to hit consistently, but the rest of the pitching staff was hittable. A lot of the games we went back and forth. The games we won our pitchers pitched great. Bill Lee pitched great and Tiant, of course. There were a couple of things that went on that you can question, but overall, it was pretty even.

There was so much drama in that Series and it’s considered among the best World Series to ever be played. What is like to look back and think that you were a big part of that?

It was a great series. There were great catches, home runs, all kinds of stuff. Even bunts, with the Ed Armbrister thing with Fisk. That was a big controversial play. There was a lot to that World Series. We talked about Luis Tiant too, that series showed how much moxie he had. I think he threw about 160 pitches and wouldn’t come out of the game.

“He would say to us, ‘If you see that a pitch is an inch outside, let it go.’ We’d be sitting there saying, ‘An inch? We’re just trying to see the ball!’” – on Ted Williams

That was such a legendary performance and a big difference from what we saw in this year’s World Series. What are your thoughts about starters only going five or six innings these days, even in a World Series?

I played with Luis and sometimes in the late innings, the manager would come to take him out and he wouldn’t come out of the game. I used to laugh, the manager or another player would come out to the mound when Luis was pitching. You know, he might have been having some control problems so the first baseman would come over. Luis would look at him and say in that voice, “You want to pitch? Come on, you wanna pitch? Get back there and play first base.”

That’s just awesome. I love it. Moving on to Game 6, which many consider the greatest World Series game ever played, or even the greatest baseball game ever played. You were a huge part of the game and were due up third in the inning when Fisk hit his home run. Where were you for that and what were you thinking when he hit it?

Rico with Yaz

That was of course the winning home run, but the other big home run was Bernie Carbo’s in the eighth and I was on first base for that. Bernie had some bad swings, but then he got a pitch and when he hit it, I saw the trajectory going out to centerfield and thought it had a chance. I was running and watching the ball and it goes into the stands and, wow! It was just incredible we came back and tie it up and Holy Jesus. That was how that series was.

A lot of people don’t realize that Fisk’s homer wasn’t the next inning. We had a few innings of back and forth. Fisk really hit that ball though. He got it right down the line. It was a special game for us, and you thought, man, we won that game, there’s no way they could beat us Game 7. It felt like God came down and said, “OK, I want the Red Sox to win.”

But that’s the team they were. They came back after a 3-0 lead. Perez hit a two-run homer and they scrapped a couple more across. That was more disappointing than ’67 for me. We had some veterans and knew it wasn’t easy to get there. We thought it could be the last time.

Yes, you never know if or when you’ll ever get back. Like Ted Williams in 1946. Speaking of Ted Williams, you missed playing with him by a few years, but I imagine you knew him well. How was your relationship with him?

Ted was great. He’d come to Spring Training and was bigger than life. He would hit fungoes to the outfielders and he’d laugh. He’d hit them just out of their reach as they were running across the outfield. He’d lead them on and was just amazing with the bat.

That’s for sure. It had to be great to see him in action and to talk hitting with him.

It was. He loved talking hitting and explaining things to us. He tried to make it as simple as possible, but, you know, it was different. He would say to us, “If you see that a pitch is an inch outside, let it go.” We’d be sitting there saying, “An inch? We’re just trying to see the ball!”

But the simplest thing he said about hitting was that you had to get a good pitch to hit. As a kid, you want to go up there and swing at everything. One of the biggest things for a young kid is to learn the strike zone and get pitches that are hittable. But of course, you gotta hit them.

He said, “Look, if you’re fooled on the first pitch, take it. If a guy wants to start you with a changeup and you’re looking for a fastball, take the damn thing!”

Seems like pretty good advice. That had to be great to be a young guy being able to learn from the best who ever did it.

We knew he was right about that kind of stuff, but it took time. When you’re in the games and you see the ball and want to hit it, and you’re anxious, it’s hard to be patient. But finally, it starts to sink in. You learn to be patient. When you’re young, you want to swing. You don’t want to let it get to two strikes; you want to swing at the first pitch.

You want to swing at anything close because you’re looking for a hit. Then eventually, you start realizing things. You say, “Yea, I got a strike on me, so what.” You learn how to be patient and wait for your pitch.

Did you ever get to meet any of the real old Red Sox? Guys from the early part of the 20th Century?

I met Lefty Grove in the offseason. They had a big dinner for Joe Cronin, who had gotten cancer. They had a dinner for him through the Jimmy Fund. Of course, guys like Bobby Doerr and Johnny Pesky. I met a lot of the guys from that 1946 World Series team, most of them actually.

Petrocelli along with teammates Jim Lonborg and Carl Yazstremski at Fenway Park

Those are some incredible names not just in Red Sox history, but baseball history. You’re right among them as a member of the Red Sox Hall of Fame. Can you tell me what it means to you to be included in that group, among players like Babe Ruth, Cy Young, Tris Speaker and so many others?

Rico and Luis Tiant have some fun at Red Sox Fantasy Camp. Photo from Dan Tiant

It’s an honor and to be in there with a lot of the guys, not only the older guys, but the guys I played with too. It’s a camaraderie; it’s like a brotherhood. You get to meet players and a lot of them become your best friends for life. Luis Tiant is a perfect example.

We’d do anything for each other because Luis is a great guy. You look at the things he went through, coming from Cuba and leaving his family. I remember when his mom and dad came to see him and what a thrill that was. So, you remember all of those things about him and the same with other guys and you say, “Wow, that was great. Our dreams came true and we got to experience that together.”

Amazing to put it in that perspective. Just to play in the Majors is incredible. Then to be able to have the experiences you did while playing with and against some of the best to play the game was amazing. What a great experience. I have just one more question for you as we wrap this up. Are there any final reflections you’d like to leave our readers with?

Playing in the Major Leagues was a dream come true. A dream that I had from a young age. I went day by day, practicing and putting a lot of work in at a young age, because that’s when you develop. From the age of eight to when you’re 17, that’s when you’re developing. They start evaluating you around 17 or 18, so you put in a lot of work leading up to that.

It was a privilege to play in the Majors. I always thought that the players were the lucky ones. I could never dislike the Red Sox because they gave me an opportunity. They said, “We like you and want to sign you.” Then the coaches and managers help you along the way, some players too, and it was just a dream come true.

I was the lucky one to play Major League Baseball and Boston was the perfect place for me. Not only the ballpark, but the fans too. I look back at my life and I say, “Wow, I couldn’t have scripted it any better to play baseball in a great sports city like Boston.”

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 was released in April of 2021.

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