The team's best player so far has been Rico. Known in the box scores as Petrocelli, S.S., Rico Petrocelli probably has made the most ignored comeback of any player in the major leagues this year. With the Red Sox finishing fourth last season, the problems endured by Petrocelli went virtually unnoticed outside of Boston. He finished the year with an elbow injury that he himself believed had put an end to a very young career. Petrocelli's batting average tumbled to .234, and for most of the final month of the season he could not throw a ball. In those moments between innings when the first baseman rolls the ball around the infield to the rest of the players, Rico would be passed by.
"I just couldn't throw," he said the other day. "I wanted to save what I had in case a play came up in the game when I had to try to get something on the throw. By the end of the season I was convinced that my career was probably over and that I would have to get out of baseball. I had a calcium deposit in my elbow that made throwing hard. It had come on me before, but last year it was awful.
"If you play baseball you know what a hard game it is to play and how tough it can be to play it day in and day out. When the season ended I told my wife that I might be done at the age of 25 and that the time had come to think about trying to get into something else. But I didn't want to. Anybody in baseball is terribly lucky to get a chance to play for an owner like Tom Yawkey. It is impossible to describe the way I feel toward him. He has done so much to help me. Paid so much interest in me, advised me and made me feel so much a part of the Red Sox organization that I cannot really define everything that he has done for me.
"We decided, my wife and I, to try it again this spring. I took it easy, never threw the ball real hard until I was ready and just hoped for the best. I have to take three cortisone pills some days, shots on others, and am on a diet that restricts the amount of milk I can drink and ice cream I eat, and I love both of them. I guess I haven't had two glasses of milk in six months."
After last Sunday's games Petrocelli was the second leading hitter in the American League at .341 and leading in homers with 19. He still has problems throwing the ball from deep short to first but has made only one error all season and achieved plays that he was not supposed to be capable of.
"My quick start this season is probably no more than a lot of luck," Petrocelli says. "The hits are falling in, and that has made me more aggressive when I go to the plate. Of course, I've had quick starts before, and I hope to be able to keep this one going. Playing in Boston is like playing nowhere else. These tremendous crowds of kids root for you, and no matter how you might try not to hear them, you do. Right now my arm doesn't feel real great and the whole thing can go anytime. That's what you worry about."
Only four seasons ago the Red Sox struggled to draw 650,000 to Fenway as they finished 40 games behind the pennant-winning Minnesota Twins. At that point the American League was undergoing its transition from the dominance of the New York Yankees to a period in which competition became tighter and a wave of new stars came into the league.
Over an 18-year span only Cleveland and Chicago had won pennants as the Yankees seemed to both control the league on the field and dominate its activities within baseball's inner councils. The Twins, playing an assertive, National League-type baseball, took the highly favored Los Angeles Dodgers to a seventh game against Sandy Koufax before losing. In the three years that followed, the Orioles wiped the Dodgers aside in four games in the World Series, the Sox took the Cardinals and Bob Gibson to the seventh game of their Series before losing and last year the Cards made the fatal mistake of letting the Detroit Tigers up after holding a 3-1 lead in games. Once the Tigers got up, they proved the worth of American League competition by coming back to win.
Although they were a terrible team in that 1965 season, one in which they lost 100 games, the Red Sox were starting to slide young talent into their lineup. The nucleus of today's club was either just getting started in the major leagues or making strong impressions in the minors. Second Baseman Mike Andrews, one of the most underrated players in the league, was at Toronto and nearly ready to come to the Sox. Third Baseman George Scott was in Pittsfield and drawing strong notices. Tony Conigliaro and Dalton Jones were very young and only in their second year with Boston. And Jim Lonborg and Rico Petrocelli were rookies learning to live the wrong way on what was considered the largest country club in baseball. Carl Yastrzemski, that old veteran, had been with the Sox for four seasons and had managed to promise enough and fail enough to confuse everyone.
Once the "impossible dream" of 1967 evaporated into the unbearable nightmare of 1968, many wondered what might happen to attendance at Fenway. Oddly, it climbed to 1,940,788, and the park became the finest and most interesting place to watch a game.