CHIN MUSIC

Selected Columns from Boston Baseball

By Glenn Stout

 

(Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2010 by Glenn Stout.  All rights reserved.)

 

ON THE DEATH OF TED WILLIAMS

I heard a rumor, but I don’t believe it for a minute.  Ted Williams isn’t dead.

Close your eyes for a minute and look.  Do you see it?  All green and gorgeous? Ted’s house – Fenway Park.  Mid-summer, in the sunshine. Ted Williams isn’t dead.  He’s everywhere here.

I’ll show you.  See up there, way, way, way up in right field?  See the red seat?  Ted’s still there — section 42, row 37, seat 21 – 502-feet from home plate.  In 1946 he hit a home run that landed there.  Well, sort of.  It put a hole in the straw hat of an engineer from Albany.

Now look up a little farther. The Jimmy Fund sign.  No one’s ever done more for the Jimmy Fund than Ted.  Even when Ted was getting booed and fighting with the press and complaining about everything, that all stopped when it came time to go to a hospital and see a sick kid.  See, when Ted was a kid and his mother spent all her time with the Salvation Army and his dad was away even more, Ted just about had to raise his little brother, Danny, all by himself.  Then Ted ran away to play baseball and Danny got in trouble and then got cancer and died.  Ted never said no to the Jimmy Fund.

Now look over to your right, on the façade of the roof.   9-4-1-8-42.  The way it was before they changed it.  The way it should be now.

Everybody knows number 9.  That’s Ted.  First, as ever.

He’s right next to number 4, Joe Cronin, Ted’s first manager.  Ted drove Cronin and everyone else crazy in his first spring training.  He never shut up and he never stopped thinking about hitting.  But he was too young.  When Cronin sent him down to the minors and a few vets gave Ted the business on his way out the door, Ted vowed he’d come back and make more than all of them put together.  He was right, and he did.

Then there’s number 1, Bobby Doerr, who played with Ted in the PCL, the only guy on the team who could calm Ted down.  When Ted talks about “my guys,” he means Doerr, Dom DiMaggio, and Johnny Pesky.  His guys.

And number 8, Yaz, Ted’s successor out in left field.  At his first camp with the Sox Ted gave Yaz a long complicated lecture about hitting.  When Ted finished and walked away, Yaz turned to a reporter, almost shaking, and admitted, “I can’t understand half of what he says . . .  He scares me.”   And then there’s number 42, Jackie, who should’ve played with Ted and would’ve if the men who ran the Red Sox had been half as smart as Ted was.  You know what Ted said when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1965, don’t you?  He said,  “Baseball gives every American boy a chance to excel. Not just to be as good as somebody else, but to be better.  This is the nature of man and the name of the game.  I hope some day Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson will be voted into the Hall of Fame as symbols of the great Negro players who are not here only because they weren’t given the chance.”

That’s right, that’s what he said.  Ted Williams was the first guy, the very first guy to bring this up.  And this was in 1966, when it wasn’t cool or p.c. to talk about such things, but he did anyway because that’s the way Ted was.  He just thought it was right and he said it.   Five years later the Hall of Fame took Ted’s advice.

Now look down a little lower.  That’s right, look at the bullpens, where a lot of pitchers got a lot of extra work because of Ted.  Tom Yawkey had them built in the winter after Ted’s rookie year so he could hit more home runs.  Didn’t work, at least in 1940, when Ted tried too hard and didn’t hit a single home run there.  The press called it Williamsburg, but the name never really took.  It made the fans mad, if you can believe it.  They thought Ted was getting special treatment.  They were right of course.  Ted’s always been special.

See the awning above the bench where the Red Sox pitchers sit?  Out toward center field?  Yeah.  That where Ted’s last home run, number 521, the one that made John Updike famous, landed.  Smacked it off Baltimore’s Jack Fisher in the eighth inning on September 28, 1960.  Ted didn’t stop at home, didn’t tip his cap, just crossed home plate and ran into the dugout and sat there by himself.

Notice how big right field is?  The biggest in baseball.  That’s where Ted played his rookie year, 1939, all arms and legs and enthusiasm.  Between pitches, he’d stand out there and practice his swing.  When the fans cheered him, he’d pluck hit hat off his head by that little button and wave it like mad.   Oh god, the fans.  They loved him at first, and truth to be told, Ted loved them.  That’s why he got so damn mad later, when he got booed.  You have to care about something to get angry about it, and Ted cared.

Now look out to left field.  That’s where they moved Ted in 1940, to save his eyes.  It worked, and Ted learned to play the wall when it was part tin, part wood, part concrete, when it had dead spots like the parquet floor at the Boston Garden and the scoreboard was bigger and had National League scores, too.  Ted played the wall well.  This was before it was called the Green Monster.  This was when it was covered with ads for Gem Blades and Calvert Gin.

Oh, but the fans in left.  With the wall catching the sound behind him, Ted could hear everything they said.  And the fans were so close, they could see Ted’s ears turn red.  The thing’s they’d say –  God, he’d get mad!  But you know what?  That’s what drove him, that’s what got him going.  The things they said and stuff those writers, the Knights of the Keyboard, the stuff they wrote.  Every word just made him madder.  And then Ted would pick up the bat, he’d pick up the bat and walk to home plate and dig in and look out to the pitcher, another guy trying to make him look bad, and Ted would dig in, and then, and then . . .

You can’t help but look to home.  That’s where Ted really lived, in that little 4×6 box on the first base side of home plate, focused on that invisible rectangle exactly seventeen inches wide above home plate from the his knee to his shoulder, and the square inch or so on his bat where he tried to hit the ball every time.  Remember the picture in Ted’s book, The Science of Hitting, with all the different colored baseballs in the strike zone with Ted’s batting average on them when he swung at those pitches?  When I first read that book when I was a kid, I thought Ted actually saw all those colored baseballs coming at him, and that he picked out the one’s with highest number to hit, and that’s why he was so good.  Maybe he did he did see them.

Because no one else in baseball history ever spent more time at bat, saw more pitches, cursed more or swung more than Ted Williams.  Forget about his off the chart 20-10 eyesight or the one-in-a-million reflexes.  Ted Williams was about practice.  Said so himself.  Listen: “There’s never been a kid who hit more baseballs than Ted Williams.”

Think about that for a minute, because Ted might be right. When he was a kid, a little kid, he spent hours and hours at the playground, swinging a bat.  And he never stopped, not really.  I think that anytime Ted was doing anything else he loved, like fishing or flying, he was, in a way, still just swinging the bat, concentrating, looking for a strike, tuning out the world and focusing on only one thing, the only thing that mattered, what he was trying to do right now.

That’s the first, best, and only lesson of hitting right there.  Hell, it’s the only lesson of doing anything.

Can’t you see him?  Can’t you see him swing?

Ted Williams isn’t dead. Close your eyes, and there he is again, bigger than life.

Number 9.  Swinging.   Kissing it goodbye and walking down the street.

The greatest hitter who ever lived.

 

LAST PITCH (from 2010) 

             

I remember the last time my father watched me play baseball.  Although I still have the page from the scorebook, I still wish my memory of that day was better,

He was a fan, but not a big fan.  No one in my family was, but baseball grabbed me when I was only three or four and never let go.  If it was dark when my father got home from work and we could not play ball, I would have a fit, so he installed floodlights in the backyard.  Then, no matter how tired he was from working twelve or fourteen hours, he would pitch to me.

That’s the way it was growing up.  Most of my memories of my father are somehow wrapped around a baseball – playing catch, him taking me to games and watching me pitch.  But in high school I tore my rotator cuff and after that we didn’t have much to talk about anymore.

Almost twenty years later, my shoulder healed, I joined an adult league, one in Boston and later, another in Worcester County, where I lived.  For three or four years I played fifty, sixty games each summer, pitching mostly.

I’d call home every week and for the first time since I was a kid my conversations with my father were wrapped around baseball again.  I sent him the ball after I won my first game in eighteen years, and a t-shirt I got for making the league all-star team, and I was as proud of each as of any book I’ve ever written.

The week my daughter was born in April of 1996 my father was diagnosed with prostate cancer.  He had ignored the symptoms for too long and was told he had a year to live, give or take a week or two, and to enjoy the time he had.   That July he and my stepmother loaded up the RV and he came out for his final visit.

I had a ballgame, last of the year.  I was new to my team and we were not very good and I had not been much help.  We were playing a team that had already beaten us once and only needed to beat us again to make the playoffs.

Half our team didn’t even bother to show up, but it was a beautiful summer Saturday morning and the old park, one of the best in the state, sparkled like a postcard, dew on the grass glinting in the sun.  My dad and stepmother, and my wife and baby daughter, my brother, and our neighbors and their kids all sat together in the bleachers, almost the only fans.

Before the game our manager muttered “We’re gonna get killed today,” and for the first few innings we played like we did not want to be there.

We were trailing 5 -0 in the fourth when I led off with a soft line drive.  From the bleachers I could hear his voice again. “Alright!

That’s all my father ever said at a game – “Alright!” I was happy to get a hit and some sloppy baseball netted us a couple runs to make it respectable.  But when our pitcher put a few guys on in the bottom of the inning it looked hopeless.  My manager waved me in and even though I had pitched in Boston two days before and my arm was still sore and my legs were shot, I took the ball anyway, just like my father took the ball after working fourteen hours, and I was his son.   A pop-up, a strikeout and a groundball wrapped around a walk got us out of the inning.

Something happened.  We started making impossible plays and improbable hits, rallying against one of the best pitchers in the league.  I wiggled through the fifth and sixth, and in the bottom of the inning, down by one with runners on second and third, I bounced a single through the middle and now we led by a run and I needed only three outs.  “Alright!

I had nothing but I somehow got two outs and with runners on first and second the batter hit a ground ball down the first base line and I sprinted over to field the ball and end the game.

It felt like someone hit the back of my leg with a ball peen hammer and the next thing I knew I was face down on the ground.  As my hamstring tore and the batter reached first on an infield hit, loading the bases.

I stood.  I fell. I could not throw another pitch.

I stood again. I saw him in the stands.  I would finish the game.

Limping to the rubber, using all arm and one leg, I got the count to 3-2.  With two outs, a one-run lead, the bases loaded and all the runners moving, I threw the last pitch my father would ever see me throw, a fastball down and away.

Another grounder to my left.  I couldn’t reach it.  My first baseman ranged far to his right to make the play.

I ran to cover first, muscle fibers popping with each stride.  He flipped me the ball.    I could hear the runner.  The throw was wide.   The winning run was tearing around third toward.

I stretched out.  My hamstring exploded.  I reached out with my bare hand, grabbed the wide throw with my fingertips.  My foot, then the runner’s, hit the base.  I fell, ball still in hand.

Alright!

*

Later I sat on my porch with my father for hours, sharing a few beers, a bag of ice under my thigh, talking about the game.  He told me he was not surprised I had stayed in and that we had won the game, that I had always played the game that way, just as he had taught me.

He meant it.  After this small miracle I wanted to think there would be another, but cancer does not play fair.  Just as his doctor predicted, one week before my daughter’s first birthday, my dad was gone.

 

FENWAY NOTES (from 2005)

Fenway Park changed my life.

I grew up in Ohio and wasn’t a Red Sox fan, but I never had an opportunity to live in a city with a ballpark, and wanted to see major league baseball the real way.  So in the fall of 1981, in the midst of a recession, only five months after graduating from college and finding myself back home in Ohio pouring concrete, I sold my trombone, packed up the Dodge Dart and a small U-Haul trailer and drove.

New York and Yankees Stadium was too scary.  Chicago, with Comiskey and Wrigley, was too close to home.  I parked in front of a $225 studio apartment on Comm. Ave. across the street from the Terrace Motel.

There were no jobs – this was before nearly twenty-five years of non-stop economic growth that has utterly changed the face of Boston – and after a month I was down to counting spare change.  When I accidentally dumped a bowl of spaghetti on the floor, we ate it anyway.  On Christmas Eve I got a job as a security guard at minimum wage and worked double shifts through the holidays to make the rent.

Boston was different then.  Everything was gritty and worn.  There was broken glass everywhere.  The sidewalk outside every bar was stained with vomit.  There were no yuppies.  Boylston Street was abandoned at night.  Punk rock still had a chance.  The junkie next door once pounded his head on our door all night long and we never thought about moving out.

I lost the car on unpaid parking tickets but survived the winter and in the spring my girlfriend nabbed a job at BU.  We scammed our way into some sub-leased staff housing in Kenmore Square, I wrote papers for BU and Harvard students for extra money.  In 1982 I made $6000.

But I was right around the corner from Fenway Park. Perfect.  Ten bucks got me into the ballpark and three beers.  For another $10 I could go to the Rat, see some rock ‘n roll, drink two or three more beers and be home in five minutes.  I probably went to two dozen games that year, plus a few more after the ushers abandoned the gates to the bleachers after the third or fourth inning and I walked in with the panhandlers and drunks who collected empty beer cups for a teaspoon of swill.

I was poor, but I had baseball.  Walking up the runway into the bleachers changed my life.  It was like going to grad school.  I majored in Fenway Park, Kenmore Square, the Del Fuegos, poetry, baseball, and books.  I fell in love.  I saw, watched, learned, got curious, did research, read, stopped dreaming about writing and started doing it.   Five years later I was freelancing, writing the sports column for Boston Magazine and beginning the work I still do today.

None of this would have happened had I not been able to go to Fenway twenty or thirty times a year, none of it at all.  I went to work at the Boston Public Library.  My universe stretched from Kenmore Square to Copley, with Mass Ave. as the axis.   The city paid me to go to library school. In 1986 the Red Sox got popular.  Winning became important.  Prices rose.  I started writing books.  I was making more money and could afford to keep up with the price hikes, but Fenway was changing.    It became impossible to get a good ticket unless you knew someone, paid in advance and had a life that followed a plot.  Passion flagged into predictability.  All of a sudden Fenway Park was like Fanueil Hall, all tourists and loud talk.  Fans wore better sweaters, did the wave, and got up and down all the time, said the same things over and over.  The bleacher seats had backs, were reserved and usually sold out in advance.  Going to a game took more planning than going on vacation.

Fenway changed my life again.

There was no reason to stay.  In 1993 I quit my job to write full-time and moved away.  I didn’t miss Fenway, but I did miss what it had once been.  It no longer told me anything authentic about Boston, except to underscore the fact that nothing much in Boston was authentic.

Two years ago, I moved again.  Now I’m in Vermont, a long way away.  And all I remember about the last time I was at Fenway Park is that I sat in a seat I couldn’t afford with 35,000 people I no longer recognized, that somebody won, and somebody lost, and  what had once brought me to Boston was gone.

I wonder if it changes anyone’s life anymore.

 

GAME OVER (from 2003)

Funny, how this game grows on you.

This spring I followed in a long tradition of paternal guilt and helped coach my daughter’s seven and eight-year-old softball team, although I’m not sure if either “coach” or “softball” were the right words, at least at the beginning.  But there was no question about one thing; those girls were definitely seven and eight-years-old.

I realized this immediately at our first practice.  For the first time ever, I was surrounded by players who had longer hair than I did and wore butterfly earrings and sparkly sneakers.  Two, maybe three, put the glove on the correct hand every single time and held the bat with the knob end down.  These were obviously our “cagey veterans.”  Another tip off was that these grizzled few chewed bubble gum, wore braids and didn’t have to ask what a shortstop was.

For some reason, in our town little girls bat against live pitching (thrown by the coaches), whereas the boys, with their delicate constitutions and big league dreams, hit off a tee.

I was sure this spelled disaster.  After all, I had spent the spring pitching to my daughter and then picking up the ball after she missed it and ran around the bases anyway.  The kid can read Harry Potter like a fiend but thrown objects seemed like something from another planet.

But that first day she dug in and swung at the first pitch and hit the enormous bright yellow ball with all her might – directly into her face.

A scream, then tears, and, I was certain, psychological damage that would someday cost me thousands.  But then a funny thing happened.  Peer pressure. She got back in and that was the only time all year a tear was spilled on the field. Well, almost.

After a few “practices” (although it was really impossible to call them that since practice denotes improvement), the big day arrived.  Uniforms!  And a parade!

Up until then the girls spent most of their time standing around looking bored and waiting for a ball (“Please, God”) to be hit.  But put uniforms on them and march them in a parade and the real goal, giggles, start right up.  I canceled the time-share for the psychiatric couch.

Then the games began. Everybody bats and plays all over the place and when the last batter hits, everybody gets to race around the bases, which all they really want to do anyway.  No one keeps score – a good thing – since not even Bill James can add that fast.

But even when you are seven and eight-years-old, you get up for the game.  In practice, no one had ever fielded a ball and thrown a runner out.  On the rare occasion when both fielding and throwing took place, the rest of the equation, a never before seen skill called “catching” was also required.  I figured the odds of all three happening in succession, at the right base, before the runner got there, were about on par with the Red Sox winning the World Series.

This too, may now be a possibility.  For in the heat of the game, these little girls who couldn’t run, catch, throw, field, hit or hit with power, all had the that unspoken sixth tool, the really big one that makes the all others seem really dumb.  They played.  And then they made the plays, hitting, fielding, catching, and throwing, just like real players.

Okay, not very often, but often enough so at the end of the first three-inning game, which only took approximately seventeen hours during a driving rainstorm while I tried to stay upright and awake, my daughter said, “Daddy, that game seemed like it only took a minute.”

She was right, of course, because when you are seven and having fun and cheering and running around the bases and wearing a uniform and BEAMING every time you do something right, like stop at first base, time does fly.  That’s what happens when you PLAY ball, which is something each one of these kids could do better from the start than any of us could have hoped to teach them.

But we were moving away and had to miss the last week of the season.  That made me sad, because I liked seeing all those smiley faces and tying all those shoes and making bad jokes while giving everybody “high-fives” from the coach’s box.  And along the way every single time they played they all got better and even better than that, had more fun.

It wasn’t until after our last game that anyone cried again.  The girls knew we were leaving and somebody made a cake and brought brownies and soda and all the girls signed one of those big yellow softballs in their very best handwriting and gave it to me.

I was afraid my daughter might start bawling, but she had fun to the end, giggling and still playing while saying goodbye to friends she would never see again, little girls that I will never, ever forget.

I didn’t let them see, but the only tears were mine.