Thursday, October 14, 2010

The man Maz made a Communist

I’m friends with a man who became a Communist because of Bill Mazeroski.
It’s true. My buddy Paul and I were sitting in a Pittsburgh bar after a Pirate game about 15 years ago when we struck up a friendly conversation with another baseball fan.
And with the exception of some addle-brained Cub fans, friendly is about the only kind of conversation you can have with a fellow baseball fan.
Unlike professional football, a game played exclusively by and for mental meatheads, baseball has a charming civility about it. The lax rhythms of the game lend themselves to sunny chats.
His name is Tom Zanot. He was about 60 years old, but maintained an animated demeanor about baseball like a junior high spaz on a six Pepsi sugar high.
He talked about all the great games he’d seen, the players he’d cheered and the recollections of more than 50 years of great Pirate baseball.
That was until we asked the one question every Pirate fan asks every other Pirate fan who was conscious during the magical 1960 season.
“Where were you when Maz homered?”
ESPN voted it the most sensational home run in World Series history. His walk off dinger led the scrappy underdog Pirates to Game 7 victory over Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and the rest of the swaggering New York Yankees. 
Tom winced and said, “I don’t like to talk about that.”
But talk he did.
“You have to understand, I came of age in the 1950s,” he said. “I was raised to be respectful of the country. I was in ROTC at Penn State during the World Series. A friend of mine had tickets to Game 7. Great seats.”
His friend wanted Tom to skip marching drills and attend the game.
“‘Just blow it off,’ he said. ‘C’mon, it’s Game 7!’ But I felt it was my duty. So there I was on that beautiful Thursday afternoon.”
Right, left, right, left, right . . .
He told how he marched the whole afternoon while the rest of the baseball world fixated on what would become one of the greatest games ever played.
“Then right at 3:36 -- I remember looking at my watch -- I heard these cheers erupting from all over.”
As every Pirate fan knows, that’s the precise moment Maz homered. Pittsburgh fans everywhere went crazy.
Tom went right, left, right, left, right . . .
“To have missed it left me profoundly depressed. My life changed. I’d missed out on one of the greatest moments of my generation. Really, it broke my heart.”
Not thinking clearly, Tom decided to he needed to shake things up.
“I volunteered to serve in Vietnam. It was the biggest mistake of my life. I came to hate the war and my government for conducting it. That’s when I became a Communist.”
So, we asked, you became a Communist because of Bill Mazeroski?
“I never thought about it like that, but I guess so.”
The three of us ended up becoming great friends and he remains the only Communist who’s ever bought me beer, something that factors into my visceral disdain for Bolsheviks.
He moved to Florida and we haven’t seen him in years. I thought of our old comrade yesterday as I was attending what may be the world’s greatest pseudo sporting event.
It was begun by one man, Saul Finkelstein, on Oct. 13, 1985. All alone, he went to sit at the base of the lone remaining wall of old Forbes Field. It’s a 50-foot stretch of ivy covered brick in a small, shady park on the University of Pittsburgh campus. 
With a cassette recording of the original NBC broadcast he listened to the game, commercials and all, in real time so when broadcaster Chuck Thompson calls Maz’s home run ball leaving the old park it’s precisely 3:36 p.m.
What started with one man has grown to thousands, including Maz and every surviving Pirate from the 1960 championship team.
It’s Pittsburgh’s most magical gathering. Fans picnic, drink beer and sing off-key renditions of “Take Me Out To The Ball Game” during the seventh inning stretch. They bring mitts as if they expect haunted foul balls to start dropping out of the sky.
It’s difficult to convey the eeriness of listening to a broadcast of a game from 50 years ago and still feeling tense about the outcome.
I took it all in standing in what used to be centerfield.
Had it been 1960, I could have whispered pep talks to Pirate centerfielder Bill Virdon, Heck, I could have pantsed Mantle.
And at 3:36 when Maz’s homer leaves the park, the crowd erupts as if it was happening right before our very eyes. It’s as if the lousy, stinking Pirates of the last 18 years never happened.
That one city, one people can from one man preserve and nurture a memory like that makes me proud to be a Pittsburgher.
Mazeroski, a rugged son of a West Virginia coal miner, made a moment immortal, something to be forever savored.
That one good man lost his soul to a corrupt belief system in the bargain seems a small sacrifice.

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