PORTLAND — What if Bernie Carbo hadn’t hit that home run in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series? What if the Red Sox pinch hitter had swung and missed on the pitch before? It would have been strike three.
It would have been the third out of the eighth inning. The Cincinnati Reds of Pete Rose and Johnny Bench would have held a three-run lead, needing just three more outs to win the World Series.
Carlton Fisk would not have hit his winning home run in the bottom of the 12th inning. The home run with the iconic moment of Fisk standing, waving and willing the ball to stay fair.
Instead, Carbo’s weak, flailing swing got enough of the pitch to dribble the ball foul. He had another chance.
Bernie Carbo was at damp, drizzly Hadlock Field on Tuesday night. He threw out the first pitch to start the doubleheader with Trenton. He autographed copies of his book, “Saving Bernie Carbo” beneath the stands.
He brought a patch of sunlight wherever he went. He was irrepressible. He doesn’t mind playing the what-if game but his what-if has nothing to do with baseball.
And everything to do with the spiritual faith that came to him so late in life.
“What if God hadn’t picked me up out of the grave?” he asked before he walked to the mound. “Ever think about that?”
He told the Boston Globe in 2010 he was high on drugs or alcohol for much of a promising career that went nowhere.
He couldn’t find what he was looking for in baseball. So he looked elsewhere.
He said and did outrageous things that made him very different in a sport that strongly defended its conservatism and traditions. Which is why he became so friendly with Red Sox pitcher Bill Lee, a fellow iconoclast.
“You know how we became friends? He was in the locker room talking about saving the whales, and I went and got a tray of barbecue chicken and dumped it over his head. He looked at me and said, ‘I like that.’ “
Carbo traveled with a rather large stuffed gorilla he named Mighty Joe Young, which sat in the middle seat next to him on plane trips.
He had a tendency of tampering with his bats, more to amuse himself than get extra hits. He’d shave them, sometimes wiping out all the markings. And then he would get a magic marker and scrawl “Louisville Slugger” on the barrel.
We had 15 minutes to talk and the words jumped out of his mouth. The Cincinnati Reds drafted him in the first round of baseball’s first amateur draft in 1965.
Did I know who was drafted more than 200 picks after him?
“Nolan Ryan,” said Carbo, with his big smile. Could I imagine that all those teams rated him ahead of the Hall of Fame pitcher?
Carbo hit .310 in 125 games in his rookie season with the Reds, playing the outfield. He showed power, hitting 21 home run and driving in 63. He couldn’t match those numbers over the next two seasons and was traded to St. Louis.
The Cardinals traded Carbo and pitcher Rick Wise to the Red Sox for outfielder Reggie Smith and pitcher Ken Tatum.
In Boston, it had rained for three days before Game 6 was played. The Red Sox had batting practice at Tufts University but Carbo said he couldn’t find the campus and never got in his hitting. He wasn’t exactly ready when Manager Darrell Johnson told him to pinch hit in the eighth inning.
Johnson had used Carbo as a pinch hitter in Game 3. Carbo hit a home run that day. Game 6 was a different story. Everything was on the line. When the ball left Fenway Park, Carbo ran the bases, hollering at old friends on the Reds.
Rose yelled back: Isn’t this great? Meaning the score was now tied at 6-6. This World Series had become a classic and to a player like Rose, that was very much part of the deal.
Carbo was out of baseball five years later and on a downward spiral. He ran into Dalton Jones, the famed pinch hitter on the 1967 Impossible Dream Red Sox team. “He looked at me and said, ‘you need Jesus’ and he was right.”
Carbo started Diamond Club Ministry in 1993. Born in Detroit, he now lives in Alabama but is in Maine more times than people realize, preaching to congregations as far north as Houlton. This weekend he was in Brunswick and Charleston.
Last summer he preached to about 50 people at Midcoast Christian Fellowship in Belfast. That was Matt McDonald’s congregation. Tuesday night, McDonald stood in line, asking Carbo to sign “Saving Bernie Carbo.”
“He got my father into a church and my father doesn’t go to church,” said McDonald. “But he’s a Red Sox fan and he saw Bernie hit that pinch-hit home run. I wasn’t born yet.”
Bernie Carbo got a second chance during that at-bat nearly 38 years ago and hit a home run. He’s done better with his second chance in life.
Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at [email protected]