As the 2018 baseball season kicks off, we take you back to Spring of 2002, as lifelong NY Yankees fan Johnny Ramone talks baseball with a rival Red Sox fan, and leaves him with a few words he will never forget
Listen: Jay Hale talks baseball with Johnny Ramone
When word leaked to me that the Ramones were finally headed to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I saw this as a chance to fulfill one of my lifelong dreams: interviewing the original lineup of one of my all-time favorite bands. Whether I had to beg, plead, steal, or make a deal with the devil, this was getting done.
Unfortunately, my negotiations with Old Scratch were fruitless, as Joey was taken from us in 2001, just under a year from being enshrined in the hall. Pressing ahead, I leaned on some friends, and tracking down Tommy and Dee Dee after the induction ceremony was relatively easy. But when the subject of interviewing Johnny Ramone was broached, people became less enthused.
I was told, “I get that you want to talk with all of the members, but Johnny’s a dick. He screams at people for being late. He’s a grumpy old man who hates fun. He’s too opinionated and all of his opinions are wrong.”
Basically, I thought, it would be almost exactly like interviewing myself. Except for one thing:
Johnny was a goddamned New York Yankees fan.
Rooting for the Bronx Bombers always seemed like sports fandom’s path of least resistance—glomming on to the team with the most championships, the most storied stable of athletes . . . where’s the fun in that? Adversity, especially in rooting interests, makes you stronger. He being a New Yorker, I know I should give Johnny a pass since the Mets didn’t break ground on Shea Stadium in his home borough of Queens until just after his thirteenth birthday but, c’mon. The Yankees had been fitted for eleven World Series championship rings prior to his birth, and another fifteen during his lifetime, oftentimes humiliating my beloved Boston Red Sox in the process.
When banjo-hitting shortstop Bucky Dent plopped a three-run homer over the Green Monster to demoralize the Sox in a winner-take-all, one-game playoff in 1978, Johnny was playing a gig over in London and I was tooling around in my crib. Eight years later, on October 26, 1986, as a weak ground ball squirted through Bill Buckner’s crippled wickets, securing an extra-inning victory in Game 6 of the World Series for the aforementioned Mets, Johnny must have muttered “typical” with a chuckle, before turning off the TV. And I’m sure he really howled at the frustration of BoSox fans when the Ramones played a sold-out show on Landsdowne Street behind Fenway Park one week after yet another playoff meltdown.
But the indignities didn’t stop there in this lopsided Boston-New York baseball rivalry. After the Sox won the American League East in 1995, the Yankees spent the mid-1990s in the midst of a youth injection, introducing the world to the likes of Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera. Taking the phrase “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” to an infuriating new level, the Bronx Bombers also added former Boston all-time greats Wade Boggs and Roger Clemens into the fray.
The moves paid immediate dividends, with Boggs earning his first ring in 1996 (the image of him celebrating on the police horse STILL makes me want to puke) and Clemens nabbing a pair in 1999 and 2000, and nearly a third the following season. To shore up the offense, the Yanks inked Oakland A’s galoot Jason Giambi, as New York’s squad began to resemble the Gashouse Gorillas from Bugs Bunny fame—only with more mongoloids and twice the human growth hormone. The Sox countered by signing Giambi’s former Oakland teammate, the light-hitting Johnny Damon.
On paper, everything was coming up Yankees, so when Johnny Ramone said, “Don’t get your hopes up. I just don’t see it,” to my intimation that the Sox had a chance one week into the 2002 season, I was inclined to believe him.
As I steeled myself for the forthcoming barrage of insults from the Ramones’ Mosrite-slinging taskmaster, I was pleasantly surprised by what transpired—a perfectly rational baseball discussion by two fans of the game. Johnny was extremely knowledgeable about the current state of America’s pastime—from fat Mo Vaughan’s lifetime stats against the equally porcine David Wells to Nick Johnson’s defense when compared with Giambi’s to the controversial idea of Major League Baseball franchise contraction. We could have talked baseball all night had he not just fielded an hour-plus of Ramones fanboy softball questions lobbed over the plate. In the end, Johnny was right: 2002 wasn’t the Red Sox year. But at least the Yankees didn’t win either.
The 2003 season saw a major shift for the Red Sox. A change in team ownership ushered in a new analytical approach to signing players and their approach to hitting. The Yankees more or less stood pat.
Fittingly, the two franchises would meet in the American League Championship Series—a true contest between the new school and old school of baseball. For a while, the back and forth battle looked like it was leaning toward the Red Sox … until fate yanked the wheel, driving the beleaguered BoSox’s World Series hopes into the ditch yet again. Up three runs in the eighth inning of Game 7, Boston manager Grady Little decided to leave exhausted staff ace Pedro Martinez in to face the heart of the Yankees lineup. It went about as well as any Red Sox fan could imagine—the lead evaporated and the game went in to extra innings.
After pitching a scoreless 10th inning for the Sox, knuckleballer and potential ALCS MVP Tim Wakefield returned to the mound for the next frame, and it was déjà vu all over again. Just as Bucky Dent tore out the hearts of Bostonians 25 years prior, Yankee lightweight Aaron Boone poked a homer to left, ending the season in a similar fashion. Before he crossed home plate, hundreds of television sets around New England had been smashed in disgust. After sobering up the next day, five words continued to echo through my throbbing skull:
“I just don’t see it.”
Little did I know, the 2003 ALCS would be the last time Johnny Ramone watched the Red Sox and the Yankees square off in the playoffs He succumbed to prostate cancer on September 15, 2004—one month to the day the Sox finally bested their rivals from the Bronx in the greatest comeback in sports history.
Johnny missed it all: David Ortiz’s walk-off hits, A-Rod’s glove slap, Curt Schilling’s bloody sock, and Boston’s celebration on the field at Yankee Stadium. One week later, under a creepy blood-red moon, the Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years.
After the championship T-shirts were printed, the souvenir magazines purchased, and Boston streets were scrubbed clean of confetti, I often thought back to the conversation I had with Johnny about baseball. What would he have thought about all of this? I would have killed to hear his thoughts on David Ortiz, on Schilling’s ankle, on Pedro Martinez redeeming himself against the Yankees. What would Johnny think about the Red Sox winning another championship in 2007? After watching Boston flounder for decades, would he finally have something complimentary to say?
My heart thinks “Sure, how could Johnny not praise what they accomplished.” But my brain? My brain tells me, “I just don’t see it.”
Jay Hale lives outside of Boston and can be found complaining about slow drivers to anyone within earshot, listening to baseball on the radio, and on all major social media outlets at @fatcitymagazine. The Ramones issue of Fat City Magazine is still available for purchase.