It was a seasonably warm July 3rd at Moulton Field. The trees deep in center were motionless and still sun drenched in the early evening just past six. The Wakefield “Townies” team was on the field defending against their cross-town rivals from Melrose who were swinging. The Melrose leadoff hitter was fast and the catcher could see him dancing off of second on the balls of his feet, ready to race toward home on any opportunity. A sharp single to right was that opportunity and the catcher got ready.
Plays at the plate were one of the most fun things about being a catcher. It probably placed just behind gunning out would-be base stealers and just ahead of calling pitches. The cat and mouse game of keeping hitters off-balance with pitch selection and location was the brains exercise, defending home was all brawn and a matter of personal pride. After Ralph Romeo jarred a ball loose from the catcher in a high school team scrimmage, the young receiver vowed it would never happen again.
Donnie Morelli charged the ball and fielded the single cleanly on two hops. He gracefully extended one more stride and uncorked a perfect throw toward home. It was targeted right at the first base “cutoff man” and was about waist high when it passed him, just one clean skip off the green grass away from the crouching catcher facing it.
At the crack of the bat, the catcher sprung up and got in position to defend the plate. If the runner was going to touch it, he’d have to get past the (almost) six foot, one hundred and ninety pound backstop first. Collisions at home were part of the game and there were some classics in those years including the late, great Yankee Thurman Munson bowling over the Red Sox Carlton Fisk ensuing a brawl, and Pete Rose ending the career of Ray Fosse with a shattering home plate impact in the 1970 All-Star Game.
A couple seconds before the throw arrived, a quick flash in the left periphery told the young batterymate the runner had rounded third, but since then all his focus was on the incoming throw. The ball hit the mitt cleanly with a puff of dry Moulton dust. The catcher quickly turned his head from right field toward left to find the runner, but time had run out. The Melrose runner barreled in knee first and the impact was directly to the catchers face. Bodies tumbled like jeans in a dryer and dust exploded, obscuring the verdict. The catcher landed on all fours, knees and hands buried in the khaki colored powder, the ball still clutched in his right hand. “OUT!” barked the umpire, and that’s what the catcher was on the verge of. It was in that moment he first experienced “seeing stars.”
His mother was sitting in the corner of the room at the Melrose-Wakefield Hospital when he awoke from surgery on July 4th, 1975. The local paper wrote that the injury was similar to that of Red Sox pitcher Dick Pole, who was struck with a line drive in a game against the Baltimore Orioles, an injury ironically witnessed by the catcher and his dad just 5 days earlier. Medically speaking, his injury was nowhere near as bad as the Sox hurler. It was a simple fracture of the zygomatic arch requiring only 20 minutes of “plastic surgery” to repair. The procedure involved an incision above the hairline to hide scarring, that’s why it was considered “plastic.”
“Nice mouth on you” were the first words he recalled hearing from Mom after emerging from the July 4th fog of sodium penethol. Apparently, when the on-call nurse visited every 15 minutes to check vital signs, the young and the injured politely requested that she “leave him the f___ alone.” Mom quickly realized the poor boy was still quite out of it when he asked in all seriousness, “Can I go out tonight?” “Out” would have to wait until the 5th, when he got together with his buddies for a few cold ones and a thorough analysis of the events. There were only a few wisecracks about the protective metal and foam bar taped to his face. After all, the injury was now being seen as a deliberate act by a Melrose player alleged to have been drinking before the game and laughing after the play. The catcher didn’t care.
I held the ball and he was out.