July 3, 2013

Steve Solloway: Bernie Carbo a saving grace for Sox, and now for himself

The former player, who overcame a drug and alcohol problem, now leads a spiritual life.

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.

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Bernie Carbo, right, talks with Jana and Scott Doughty of York, and their son, Luke, 9. Carbo and Luke Doughty threw out first pitches.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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Bernie Carbo, who hit a key home run for the Boston Red Sox in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series, throws out the first pitch at Hadlock.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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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.

(Continued on page 2)

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