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Sox honor 'Impossible Dream' team

Sox honor 'Impossible Dream' team

BOSTON -- The Back Bay Fens were a baseball backwater when Gary Bell and Lee Stange visited Boston in 1965 as teammates on the Cleveland Indians.

At the time, Boston was just another tour stop for American League pennant contenders. Bell and Stange remember coming into a near-empty Fenway Park during September's dog days and seeing the usual group of gamblers isolated in their customary right-field bleacher seats, wagering on foul balls and strike calls.

"There couldn't have been 5,000 people here," Stange said.

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Two years later, Stange and Bell played before legions of Boston faithful on the same grounds, this time as a pair of Red Sox. Each was moved by the Indians in separate trades -- Stange in '66, Bell in '67 -- and each, as critical components of the 1967 Boston pitching rotation, helped the Red Sox realize their Impossible Dream.

The Red Sox honored their 1967 predecessors, who went from ninth to first place in the American League until they lost to Bob Gibson's Cardinals in the World Series, in a stirring ceremony at Fenway Park before Tuesday's home opener.

One by one, beginning with Triple Crown winner Carl Yastrzemski, 23 men from the Impossible Dream team emerged in period uniforms from behind a gigantic American flag, which unfurled from the top of the Green Monster.

Former stars Reggie Smith, Rico Petrocelli and Mike Andrews took their fielding positions as Lawrence, Mass., native Robert Goulet crooned the lyrics to the song, "The Impossible Dream." Billy Conigliaro, who played for the Red Sox from 1969-71, represented his late older brother, Tony, whose promising career was derailed by a beaning in August 1967.

After a brief organ interlude, manager Dick Williams emerged from the Green Monster and the crowd roared, a moment of spirited vindication for the skipper and his team. Although widely celebrated by fans for "bringing baseball back" to Boston, as Yastrzemski said in a media session after the celebration, the Impossible Dream Sox had not assembled as many members together at Fenway since the year they won the pennant.

Forty years later, Red Sox Nation stretches from coast to coast -- and well beyond.

"Before '67, there wasn't a Red Sox Nation, I can tell you that," Yastrzemski said.

Case in point: the Sox completed their 20th straight year in 1966 without an American League pennant. After the retirement of Ted Williams in 1960, yearly attendance had hovered around 800,000, well below the league average and a fraction of last year's turnout of 2,930,588.

In 1967, a meager 8,234 fans showed up for the Sox home opener. And "that was a big crowd," Yastrzemski said with a laugh.

On Tuesday, after yet another phase of renovation -- this year, engineers found a way to fit bleacher seats high above the right-field corner, naming the section "Conigliaro's Corner" -- fans packed storied Fenway, which now holds 38,805.

With the game broadcast throughout New England and beamed across satellites at home and abroad -- and transmitted via the web on MLB.TV -- the total number of viewers for the average game is almost impossible to comprehend.

Red Sox Nation achieved its statehood, in other words, in 1967. Not that Williams was aware of anything like that.

"I didn't know about Red Sox Nation until I read about it in the paper the other day," Williams joked. He added that the fans "hopped on, and not on our 'bandwagon,' because the best sports fans in all sports are right here in New England, and probably right in Boston. You can name any sport. They're knowledgeable about it. They know if you're giving your 100 percent or when you're playing well and not playing well. They let you know."

Even before '67, Petrocelli explained, Boston's rabid fans were the same-only fewer and more skeptical.

"I think the gates opened up earlier [in 1965-66], so the fans were able to come out during our batting practice," he said. "And you could hear them running. They couldn't wait to get in and start swearing at us and throwing stuff at us. We were terrible."

"There was no excitement," he added. "No interest."

And so maybe the more Impossible Dream was the building of baseball's most tradition-rich franchise, a financial powerhouse in a middle-tier market. Winning in 1967 only got a 40-year dream going.

"We've had good stuff every year," Bell said. "You get a real lousy team, the fans really aren't gonna come. Anywhere."

With that, Bell and Stange retired from Fenway's interview room to go see the park's recent improvements. They knew full well to be proud of the house that they helped build.

Alex McPhillips is an associate reporter to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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