Opinion, Sports

An Angel’s death really hits home

Boston Red Sox outfielder Tony Conigliaro writhes in pain on the ground after being beaned by Jack Hamilton of the California Angels in the fourth inning of a baseball game at Fenway Park in Boston. (Associated Press)

There’s a theme that runs around newsrooms that goes like this: If (name a person) dies, what’ll be in the first paragraph of his obit?

The New York Daily News answered that question in the case of Jack Hamilton, the former New York Mets and California Angels pitcher, who died Thursday at the age of 79.

The Daily News headline read, in part, “whose errant pitch derailed the career of Tony Conigliaro.” The headline!

In the lead of the obituary, the Daily News said Hamilton “gained baseball infamy as a member of the California Angels when his errant inside pitch damaged the eyesight of Boston star Tony Conigliaro in 1967.”

For all anyone knows, Jack Hamilton was a good guy. Most people, stripped of the rough edges of their personalities, are somewhat tolerable people.

He was a decent pitcher, though not great. Good enough to be a journeyman. The idea of him going from the Mets in 1967 to the Angels, who were competing for a pennant, was probably considered great for his career.

None of that matters. All anyone around here is going to remember is that Hamilton, on the night of Aug. 18, 1967, uncorked a high hard one that traveled a little too far inside — and smack into the bone beneath Tony Conigliaro’s left eye, shattering it and detaching his retina. It’s not a stretch to say the pitch almost killed him.

There have been significant injuries in Boston sports, both as the result of competition and of sheer stupidity (such as Jim Lonborg, a Cy Young winner, ripping up his knee skiing during the offseason).

Ulf Samuelsson laid a borderline legal check on Cam Neely that permanently injured the Bruins star and ended his career. Matt Cooke of the Pittsburgh Penguins blind-sided Marc Savard of the Bruins and the resulting concussion was so severe Savard never recovered.

Jack Tatum’s helmet-to-helmet hit to Darryl Stingley rendered Stingley a quadriplegic. It was certainly a serious injury that may have changed the course of New England Patriots history, and ended Stingley’s life prematurely as well.

I say Conigliaro’s injury affected the region more personally and viscerally. He was one of us, a Revere/Swampscott kid who went to St. Mary’s. And he was a bonafide star.

Not only was he a promising home-run hitter (he’d already hit 100 of them at a younger age than anyone else in the American League had at the time). He had no problem seizing whatever moments the game gave him, and was, already by the age of 22, becoming a feared clutch hitter.

He was a personality, and he enjoyed his status. Once, when he didn’t feel as if he was getting enough love in a Chicago hotel lobby, he went to the desk and had himself paged. If he’d had the privilege of an extended career, there’s no telling what we would have become, both on the field and off.

Hamilton made sure none of that happened. There are conflicting stories about the genus of that pitch. Tony C loved to crowd the inside of the plate. Heck, he practically stood on it. He dared pitchers to do something about it.

It was obvious Hamilton took him up on it. We’ll never know, now, whether he meant to bean Tony C, but there can’t be any doubt he meant to send him a message. Most pitches of that variety are intended to send the batter sprawling in the dirt. You know, “let’s see how brave you are now!”

As an aside, Bob Bolin did that once to Frank Robinson. He came perilously close to his face. Robinson went down like a sack of cement, got up, brushed himself off, and hit 3-run homer. I’d like to think — and those who admired him as much as they did — would also like to think that’s what Tony would have done too.

Whatever the motivation, that one pitch changed two careers — and most certainly one life. Conigliaro actually came back from that injury in 1969, and for two years continued to hit homers and drive in runs. Then, inexplicably, the Red Sox traded him to the Angels (of all teams) after the 1970 season. His eyesight, which was always touch-and-go once he got hurt, got worse and he had to retire. And after a brief comeback attempt in 1975, he left the game again. In my long career, one of the real thrills I got was being at Fenway when the 1975 Tony C put one into the left-field screen.

Tony C had a heart attack in 1983, brought on by some quirk of cardiac physiology (it certainly wasn’t because he’d let himself go, and his friends swear he did not use drugs), and lived seven more years before dying, at 45, in 1990.

Curiously, Hamilton was never the same either. He got traded from the Angels to the Chicago White Sox, and within two years, he was out of the game entirely.

I am guessing that if you’d been able to ask either one of them in the latter stages of what would have been (in Conigliaro’s case) their lives, they’d both say unequivocally they’d have given anything to roll the tape back to before that pitch was thrown.

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