Howie Rose photo by Kevin Ryan

Monday, October 20, 2014

Hub Fans Et. Al. Bid Kid Adieu Redux

The shadows reclaim the echoing green of Fenway Park in September’s waning hours. Even on this cloudless New England summer afternoon, when the warmth of the sun deceives the soul for a moment that the shortening day is but an illusion, one can play along for the few, final frames of the regular season.

The weather played no such tricks exactly a half century and four years ago to the day when a sky, grey as an old road uni, covered these same grounds, the air’s pronounced autumnal damp chill forced the players into long under sleeves and did all it could to  ensnare  nearly every drive off a bat in its windy grip. Gus Triandos hit home run for the visiting Baltimore Orioles that day but no one remembers that if they think about the game at all. What they do remember is the other dinger smacked that day, the one Ted Williams clouted in the bottom of eighth in his last ever major league appearance.

The infamously cranky kid from San Diego, that Splendid Splinter, ran around the bases in a flash and, with his head bowed, disappeared into the dugout forever even as what remained of the paltry crowd of ten thousand-plus cheered for a curtain call that never came.

The chill that Wednesday was maybe a reflection of Williams’ gnarly persona and always uneasy relationship with not merely the Beantown fans but, perhaps, the very earth on which he walked. Who knows what made Ted Ted? Maybe living in the shadow of DiMaggio for all those years or losing so many seasons—six to be precise—to two wars when, because of his, by all accounts, near superhuman eyesight and undeniable bravery that easily eclipsed staring down any fastball hurled by the likes of Bob Feller, he flew fighter in planes in WWII and Korea while DiMaggio (his evil twin?) escaped the perils of combat in exchange for glad-handing troops at the U.S.O. and the like as a poor substitute for putting life and limb on the line when it really mattered.

I bleed and have bled more than a little midnight blue Yankee blood but, call me a traitor, Teddy Ballgame was always a far more compelling character to my jaundicing eye than Joltin’ Joe.

Neither of my parents were much interested in baseball or any sports—spectator, participatory or otherwise. When I did coax a conversation out of my dad on his casual flings with fandom and ballplayer idolatry, Bill Terry, the Hall of Fame New York Giants’ first basemen player-manager, was the name that sprang from his lips. Ruth? Gehrig? Lazzeri? Eh.

My mother and her sister were only siblings and my grandfather, a brawny, brainy Texas Jew, tried but failed to make baseball fans out of them. She was not totally disinterested and still claims Cookie Lavagetto as the favorite ballplayer from her youth for reasons probably involving his odd name and her culinary proclivities.

And it was my mom who first read John Updike’s hallmark paean to Ted Williams and his final game to me. “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu” ( may not be the best baseball essay ever quilled but it should certainly make the starting lineup on any Opening Day.

In terms of pure stats and despite being the sixth all-time leader in career base hits, Derek Jeter was no Williams or DiMaggio.

Williams’ last dinger was the 29th of that season while compiling a more than impressive .316 average. And that at age 41. Okay, he only played 113 games in that 154 game season... but still. And check this out all you DiMaggio groupies: one was twice as likely to see him collect an extra base hit than swing or look at strike three. Seems he had a pretty sharp eye too.

Of the three, Williams—despite his ornery hide—was probably the guy you’d most like to hoist a brew with. And I gather he could spin quite a yarn or three... all of ‘em true.

That edgy exterior seemed to mellow somewhat in his last decades as he made himself more publicly available. The 1999 Fenway Park All-Star Game Ted Williams love fest at which he was the pre-game guest of honor was, by any standard, an unabashed three hanky job, a truly moving experience. The sight of both squads surrounding a dying man seated there on a golf court while he threw accolades and barbs in equal measure back at them could not have failed to make an impression on the smiling 26-year-old Yankee shortstop starting for the junior circuit who stood in awe among them on that mid-July evening.

Through the miracle of technology and the endless media looping cascading through our plugged-in brains, we know all those Jeterian moments by heart even as flew by so very fast. “The Flip,” “The Dive,” the “Mr. November” dinger, the 3,000th hit (a third inning home run en route to a 5 for 5 afternoon), the fadeaway, off-balance jump throw to first after snaring a hard grounder deep in the hole to catch the runner at first by a whisker, the “inside-out” swing... these will never cease playing themselves out in our dreams, fluid as memory but always still frozen like those reliefs in marble adorning the top of the Parthenon.

I never read the Updike story to my son, this among many regrets a father might cling to as they watch a child bloom and merge into, first adolescence, and then adulthood. But my boy grew up loving and playing baseball, appreciating its subtle nuances and confounding paradoxes, sublime joys, strategies, mythos and lore, and ultimate design on breaking hearts.

And, growing up in this last, elongated era of relative Yankee dominance, he came to love Derek Jeter almost as much as his old man. Jeter’s own narrative arc in the show in so many ways both triumphant and poignant, mirrored our own paths and journeys of father and son, from boy to man and man to older man.

In his day, my boy was quite the Little Leaguer. He could, as The Boss sang, “throw that speedball by ya, make ya look like a fool.” Even as a very young child, he could bring it as he threw a tiny, foam-filled ball from one end of his room to the other. Never quite a prodigy but, when he was living right, a force to be reckoned with when throwing right-handed heat from a Prospect Park mound.

We often engaged in that archetypal American ritual: a father and son playing catch (and, believe it or not, sometimes still do). A primary facet of these affairs when we were both younger was when I would crouch behind a makeshift plate fashioned out of a sweatshirt or jacket, as he faced a veritable “Murder’s Row” comprised of my own devising and fancy.

One-by-one, he faced down the phantoms of yore as I would announce their plate appearances in the mock stentorian tones of Bob Shepherd whose voice of God heralded over the Yankee Stadium P.A. for what seemed like forever and a day. Ruth, Gehrig, Hornsby, Cobb, Greenberg, Mantle, Maris, Mays, Clemente, and so many others were but mere fodder for the kid’s fastballs, sinkers and occasional change-ups. Only one active player was ever courageous enough to approach the dish to take swings against the younger, mightier Trager. His name was Derek Jeter.

Along with the odd weekend sojourn to the old, better, and quieter, Yankee Stadium and, yes, sometimes Shea, I would take a day off from work so we could take in a mid-season, mid-week summer afternoon tilt. It was must have been ’05 when we went to catch a game in the Bronx and the Bombers sent the oft-injured Carl Pavano—one of their more notable early century pitching busts—to the hill. Typical of Pavano’s short tenure in pinstripes, he spotted the visitors a generous early lead.

In various and incremental fits, starts, bursts, and bubbles too fuzzy to easily recapture, the Yanks slowly fought their way back to some sort of striking distance as the afternoon—once sultry and balmy—turned first overcast, then threatening, then, finally, rainy. So by the time Jeter stepped to the plate with two out in the bottom of the ninth and representing the tying run, the boy and I were damp and getting a bit chilled as a hard August breeze blew in from Jersey.

The lights rimming the Stadium roof had been turned on since the seventh inning and, as we stood among the dwindled crowd cheering for an extension of the contest, it seemed somehow inevitable that the lithe shortstop would deliver on his always unspoken promise and produce a signature clutch moment we could ride far beyond the D to the F back home to Brooklyn.

The routine, the smooth choreography of #2 in the batter’s box had long since become familiar: the warm-up swings, the tug of the pants at the hip, the raising up of his right hand to the ump’s puss signaling that he was not quite ready as if that needed telling, then, with both hands now gripping the black-stained Louisville Slugger ash, the at-bat could commence in earnest.

Jeter battled the Tampa pitcher the gloaming, fouling off pitches and employing those bright hazel eyes to watch pitches off the plate nestle in the catcher’s pillowy leather for balls.

We’re all on our feet now, screaming with the wave of expectation before each pitch. From our perch parallel to third base in the upper deck, Jeter appeared his usual calm, measured self—just another baseball bodhisattva on a 10,000 mile stroll to Nirvana.

And then, with the count full and the rain sputtering and splashing down ever harder, the Tampa reliever unleashed the game’s final pitch and Derek Jeter swung and missed strike three.

He uncoiled himself from the futile whiff, rocked in the batter’s box for a moment as if regaining his balance, gave a quick glance towards the pitcher’s mound where the Tampans fist-pumped and high-fived in muted celebration, gripped his bat with one hand and retreated all pigeon-toed to the hometown dugout and a hot shower in the belly of the ballpark. There was a game to be played tomorrow.

There would be more games to play, many hundreds of them. Sands run through hour glasses, Mother Nature takes its bittersweet toll on us all, fathers die, mothers age, the great moments dissolve in the rear view mirror, prospects diminish, hopes and dreams fade, time winnows.

Jeter’s last Yankee Stadium at bat was all at once predestined, a minor miracle, the culmination of a hack Hollywood script, and a gift bestowed on us by the baseball gods. And these last two games in the Hub, but an awkward encore. Beating out a Baltimore chop for an RBI infield hit, while not Williams-like, was somehow poetically appropriate for a guy not known for his power.

Baseball prepares the soul for death and Jeter used such words to describe his feelings after his Yankee Stadium finale. The end of the baseball season can feel that way as well. Scoreboard watching, languid summer afternoons, extra inning games burning deep into a warm night... all blowing like away like autumn’s dry, fallen leaves. Division titles and Wild Card slots were decided as Jeter sat out the balance of his final game in the Fenway dugout. A no-hitter was even tossed in D.C.—a cherry on top of another season in the sun.

But when this aging hep cat ages some more, only one image of a shortstop—he somehow aging too—will linger in fading sepia.