Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Year of the Gerbil

The Year of the Gerbil: How the Yankees Won (and the Red Sox Lost) the Greatest Pennant Race EverThe Year of the Gerbil: How the Yankees Won (and the Red Sox Lost) the Greatest Pennant Race Ever by Con Chapman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The passing of baseball lifer Don Zimmer brought a number of thoughts to the mind of this Red Sox fan. In 1978, as manager of the Red Sox, Don Zimmer brought the team to a 14 ½ game lead over the hated New York Yankees . . . and then the wheels came off, in historic fashion.

No need to recount the horror, the loss upon loss, Butch Hobson sailing throws past first base, Bobby Sprowl (“the kid has ice water in his veins”), the Boston Massacre, the one game playoff, Bucky (bleeping) Dent . . .  like I said, no need to recount the horror.

Needless to say, there were very few books written about that season. In fact, the only one I've ever run across dedicated to that season alone was this one, “The Year of the Gerbil” by Con Chapman.

Longtime Sox fans know 'the gerbil' was Red Sox lefthander Bill Lee's unkind* nickname for Zimmer, referring to his jowly visage. Of course, Lee had his own reasons for disliking Zimmer, not the least of which was Zimmer burying him on the bench, refusing to pitch him out of spite when the Red Sox might have used him, when winning just ONE GAME might have made all the difference.

What brought this book specifically to mind was reading the thoughts of former Red Sox shortstop Rick Burleson. As tough and gritty an on-field competitor as there ever was, Burleson played for Zimmer on that ill-fated 1978 team. In his tribute to Zimmer, Burleson said that Zimmer was “the best manager he ever played for,” and that's no surprise. As a former player himself, a teammate of Jackie Robinson, a member of Brooklyn's only world championship team, and an original Met, in his own day, Zimmer too was about as tough and gritty as they come. No surprise at all that Burleson and he would get along just fine.

But it's a quote about Rick Burleson that will forever stick in my mind from this book, that is that “Rick Burleson loved to win in the same way Norman Bates loved his mother.” And anyone who ever saw "the Rooster" play knows exactly what he's talking about.

Anyway, for this Red Sox fan, it was worth reliving the horror, if only for lines like that.

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UPDATE: Delighted to have a visit from the author himself. In the comments section, he clarifies just where the "gerbil" nickname came from, and at least initially (after Lee was goaded into it) it wasn't meant at all unkindly. Thanks Con for both the visit, and for clearing that up.


Con Chapman said...

Thanks for the name-check. Some people asked me why I didn't write anything when he died. I thought I'd stay silent rather than add currency to the "Gerbil" nickname, which (according to one Boston writer) he hated. Bill Lee wasn't totally to blame--he was responding to a sportswriter's question, to wit: "If Billy Martin is a rat, what's Don Zimmer?" Lee replied, "A gerbil. A cute puffy-cheeked gerbil."

Brendan P. Myers said...

My pleasure, Con. It really is a terrific book, and obviously one that has stayed with me. Don't blame you at all for not writing about it, however as a Sox fan, your book provided me the jumping off point I needed to gather my own thoughts, and it was a review I've long wanted to write anyway.

As I noted on twitter the evening of Zim's passing, as hard as it might be for Sox fans to believe, Zim was as embraced and beloved in Tampa Bay as Johnny Pesky ever was in Boston. High praise! And after three Sox championships the past decade, '78 is now just water under the bridge.

Once again, thanks for visiting, and thanks for writing the book! It's one every Sox fan should read.