Tagged: Boston

Swing and a Myth…

Finding the Real Ted Williams

The Kid in color

By: Scott Conroy

For a sports-obsessed kid like myself, growing up in what is arguably the nation’s most sports-obsessed city, Ted Williams’ very name conjured a mythic quality.

In the pantheon of historical significance, he placed somewhere between Joan of Arc and George Washington — and was just as unknowable.

I never saw more than a few seconds of archived footage of the legendary Red Sox left fielder in action, but I knew a few facts about the man, which were as ingrained in my mind as my own date of birth.

Williams was the last player to achieve a .400 batting average, which he pulled off during the 1941 season — a singular accomplishment in a sport that venerates individual statistics.

He hit a home run in the last at-bat of his 19-year career, every inning of which he played in a Red Sox uniform.

And, most importantly, Ted Williams was “the greatest hitter who ever lived.”

The Kid and The Babe

This laudatory and unnuanced appraisal was regarded — in my world, at least — as a matter of undisputed fact. Any peer who might have argued otherwise during an elementary school recess or a backyard Whiffle ball game would face ridicule as biting as if he had claimed that 1 + 1 = 3.

The Kid is the culmination of a decade-long effort by longtime Boston Globe reporter and editor Ben Bradlee Jr. to provide a comprehensive look at the man whose posters adorned his bedroom walls as a Boston-area child in the 1950s.

The result, an engrossing and exhaustively researched biography, applies plenty of ink across its nearly 800 pages in documenting Williams’ Hall of Fame playing career — the facts of which back up most of the legends about him.

While Bradlee eagerly touts Williams’ peerless attributes as the player who could hit for both power and average better than anyone in baseball history, he also engages in some welcomed myth-busting.

The Kid eyes itAmong the Ted Williams “facts” that youth baseball coaches like to trumpet in batting cages up and down New England: his vision was so phenomenal that he could actually see the seams of the ball as it hurtled toward him at upwards of 95 miles per hour.

As it turns out, Naval doctors determined that Williams’ vision was 20/15 — an excellent mark that put him in the top 95 percent of young men his age, though not quite in the realm of superhero acuity.

Though Bradlee’s recounting of Williams’ career is candy for any baseball fan, The Kid shines brightest in detailing the paradoxical character, cinematic life and sad circumstances surrounding the death of the Splendid Splinter.

That Williams spent much of his life either hiding or downplaying his half-Mexican heritage is perhaps unsurprising given the biases that permeated his southern California upbringing and the segregated sport in which he became a star.

But the extent to which his ethnic background has remained obscured is striking. If one were to gather a roomful of passionate baseball fans today, I’d confidently wager that more than half would have no idea that Teddy Ballgame was among the first great Hispanic ballplayers in the big leagues.

Bradlee is at his most compelling when detailing the circumstances surrounding Ted InductedWilliams being drafted into the Navy in World War II, just months after his .406 season — and a time when he was entering what should have been the prime years of his career.

After originally being granted a Class 3-A deferment, on account of being the sole economic provider to his mother, Williams quietly asked his attorney to challenge the U.S. government’s decision to change his draft status to Class 1-A (available for unrestricted military service) — an appeal that the Selective Service rejected.

Williams’ initial attempts to avoid leaving the batter’s box for the cockpit were catnip for Boston’s aggressive newspaper reporters in the post-Pearl Harbor patriotic melee.  In the months before he reported for duty, he received a bevy of letters in support of him and more than a few that questioned his courage.

One unidentified heckler mailed the All-Star left fielder two sheets of blank yellow paper — a message intended to remind Williams of the color of cowardice.

“I’ve noticed that the mud-slingers border on the illiterate side,” the famously prickly Williams, who often viewed himself as a victim of  overly aggressive media, said at the time. “The encouraging letters come from well-bred persons.”

Once he reported for duty, Williams took the hard road — becoming a commissioned second lieutenant in the Marines Corps. He did not see combat over the Pacific — a disappointment for a man who, once he was on active duty, envisioned “downing a Zero” (a Japanese fighter plane) as something of an all-time life achievement.

Instead, Williams spent the last months of the war as the U.S. military’s most famous flight instructor in Pensacola, Fla., where he was somewhat of a ringer while playing for the base’s recreational baseball team.

After returning to baseball and eventually entering the latter stage of his playing career, he did not mask his fury over what he considered unfair treatment: He was recalled to fly combat missions over North Korea in 1952.

Ted in Korea

During his very first engagement of the Korean War, Williams’ fighter jet was hit by small arms fire. He considered ejecting, but fearing that a crippling injury would make his return to the diamond impossible, he made a daring emergency landing.

In all, Williams lost five of his prime playing years to military service — a fact that makes his final stat sheet all the more remarkable and that has long been a centerpiece in any discussion of his greatness.

After all, who could imagine a pro athlete in the modern era giving up all of the money and privileges of sports fame to serve his country?

Well, Pat Tillman may not have been a star approaching Williams’ caliber when he left the NFL to join the Army Rangers after the 9/11 attacks, but the $3.6 million contract the Arizona Cardinal safety turned down in favor of fighting in Afghanistan, where he gave his life, dwarfed Williams’ 1941 salary of $30,000.

That’s not to say that Williams’ wartime service was any less honorable, but Bradlee details the extent to which it was initially reluctant.

A hallmark of Williams’ post-playing career was his generous charity work on behalf of the Jimmy Fund, Boston’s leading foundation for cancer research support — time and money  that he insisted not be accompanied by media attention.

Bradlee’s painstaking efforts to recount the macabre details of the family struggle that led to Williams’ body being cryonically preserved after his death in 2002 are difficult to digest but nonetheless serve as an essential postscript to this “immortal life.”

Bill Weld and Ted open the tunnelIn 1993, Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld was tasked with naming the long-awaited tunnel that would connect South Boston to Logan Airport — a major component of the epically over-budget Big Dig project that would finally modernize The Hub’s traffic-plagued highway system.

After determining that there were already enough public infrastructure projects named after politicians, Weld decided to honor one of Boston’s sports heroes.

There were several more-decorated local candidates from which to choose.  No athlete in the history of sports, after all, is more synonymous with the words “winner” and “dynasty” than Bill Russell, who led the Celtics to an astounding 11 NBA championships during his 13-year career. And three-time consecutive NHL MVP Bobby Orr revolutionized the defenseman position during his 10 seasons with the Bruins and  scored one of the most memorable goals in hockey history in clinching the 1970 Stanley Cup.

Ted Williams, on the other hand, slumped his way through his Red Sox’s only World Series appearance, in 1946, and never won the fall classic.

But then again, neither did Carl Yastrzemski, Jim Rice, or any of the other Red SoxTed and Yaz greats who graced Fenway Park during the team’s infamous 86-year World Series draught.

Despite never having brought home the big one, no sports hero’s legend shines brighter in Beantown than the man who liked to be called The Kid. And so the cane-wielding 77-year-old was granted the honor of opening The Ted Williams Tunnel in 1995.

Even if that landmark must one day share valuable downtown real estate with Larry Bird Drive, The David Ortiz Parkway, or Tom Brady Bridge, Ted Williams’ mystique will remain unparalleled in Boston lore — and The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams is now the definitive biography.

The Kid book cover

Boston native Scott Conroy is the national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. Follow on Twitter @RealClearScott.

Advertisements

Big Papi defined the term ‘sportsman’…

From: Scoop Jackson – ESPN

David Ortiz spoke with his bat, but it was his words that won the World Series

Boston Red SBig Papi Boston Strongox savior David Ortiz’s path to World Series MVP and my pick for sportsman of the year began on April 20. During a ceremony before a baseball game in front of his city, inside of his park, he grabbed a microphone and said these five words: “This is our fucking city!”

From that moment forward, David Ortiz became a symbol of hope, pride, strength and resilience for a city that was in need of something more than baseball to heal the pain it was struggling through.

Now all it needed was a hero.

Bats speak louder than words.

That’s what true baseball historians, aficionados, legends and lifers will tell you if you ever get into a real conversation with them about the importance of the game and the role it’s played in this country.

The game’s association with apple pie and Chevys is minimal and almost degrading. The game, when put in proper perspective, is so much larger. Pies get eaten, cars get driven. Bats create sounds and produce runs. They feed souls and drive spirits. And those who swing bats — and swing them well — have always had voices that have the power to go beyond the impact their hits can have inside the diamond.Ortiz Celebrates WS 2013

Somehow, Ortiz used the six months following the Boston Marathon bombing to let his bat speak. To back up the words he spoke on that horrific day.

He was able to take a team (and organization) that had just had one of the worst seasons in its 112-year history and ignite a resurrection rarely seen in modern-day sports.

At 37 years old and in his 16th year in baseball (11th with the Red Sox), his .309, 30 HRs, 103 RBIs, .395 OPB stat line was the omphalos, the center point, of a remarkable turnaround. In 2012, the team finished with 93 losses. In July, the Sox were 20 games over .500 and took back first place in the American League East by the end of the month. They never looked back.

Ortiz looks on 2103 WS

His numbers in the World Series did more than speak for themselves. Still two months after the fact it is difficult to comprehend what Ortiz did between the Wednesdays of Oct. 23 and 30.

Before the final game of the World Series, Ortiz was hitting .733 with a slugging percentage of 1.267 in the first five games. His 11 hits at the time were two shy of the most ever in a World Series and he still had two more possible games to play; they accounted for a third (11 of 33) of the total team hits. And this is without the first-at-bat grand slam that St. Louis’ Carlos Beltran robbed him of in Game 1. Add that to the list and Reggie Jackson loses his “Mr. October” nickname and his legacy is no longer as mythical and untouchable as it’s been made out to be.

The media dubbed Ortiz “King of October,” while his teammates began calling him “Cooperstown.”Papi WWE Champion

Ortiz’s final World Series math added up to him having a .688 BA, .760 OBP, 1.188 SLG with eight walks (a Series record), two HRs and six RBIs. His final postseason math for 2013 was .353, .500 OBP, .706 SLG. More telling: His World Series OPS was 1.948 while the team’s was .484.

When a player hits almost .700 in a championship round and the rest of his team hits below .179 and that team still wins it all, it becomes appropriate to for that moment spell team with an “i.”

“I would be doing him a disservice trying to put it into words,” Red Sox GM Ben Cherington told reporters after the World Series. “He just keeps writing new chapters. I know great players are great, are more likely to be great in any moment, but it’s hard to see him in those moments and not think that there’s something different about him. He’s locked in. We’ve seen him locked in before, but to do it on this stage, and do it in so many big moments, I can’t add anything more to the legend that’s already there, but he keeps writing more chapters on his own.”

But it was the chapter he wrote in the dugout of Game 4 that elevated his team, Red Sox Nation and his own stature. It was a pivotal, Series-changing moment. With Boston down 2-1 in the Series, Game 4 was tied at 1 going into the sixth inning and Ortiz — not his bat — decided to speak.

“It was like 24 kindergartners looking up at their teacher,” said teammate Jonny Gomes, who moments after Ortiz’s speech hit a three-run game-winning homer. “He got everyone’s attention, and we looked him right in the eyes. That message was pretty powerful.”Ortiz and Koji

In his own way, as only he could, Ortiz told his team to just do what he was doing: Play ball. Simple. “I know we are a better team than what we had shown. Sometimes you get to this stage and you try to overdo things, and it doesn’t work that way,” he remembers saying.

And afterward, whether it was sitting with his son, the World Series MVP trophy and Chris Berman on the field or in a studio chopping it up with David Letterman, Ortiz came off as the one athlete for whom moments like this were born.

A marriage of performance and personality. The mastering of craft and class. All along, when everything was supposed to be about him, about what he had just accomplished, Ortiz never ventured or leaned away from keeping this entire experience about — and for — Boston.

He put the victims and people affected by the bombing ahead of himself. He reminded us all along the way that while the game itself cannot change lives or save them, a sense of freedom can come through the swing of a bat. It can lift the souls of fans and in this case a city.

$120K Celebration

I’m not the first to suggest Big Papi as sportsman of the year. Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci suggested it as well. I hope we are not alone.

The sublimeness of sports rests in the fact that no one sees something like this coming. No one at the beginning of 2013 could have told you that David Ortiz would elevate himself and the Boston Red Sox and the city of Boston (almost) single-handedly within a span of eight months. Especially someone who started off the season on the disabled list.

“Baseball deludes us,” Cal Fussman once wrote. “The crack of the bat, the majestic flight of the ball, the slow, regal trot around the bases. We rise to our feet and roar. We think we are seeing power.”

He started the next paragraph to open the final chapter of “After Jackie” with, “But we’re not.”

But sometimes, even in baseball, we witness something more.

Ortiz flashes his Treasure

After Ortiz released his infamous and FCC excused and approved “f-bomb” on Boston’s field of hopes and dreams, the words that followed were this: “And nobody’s going to dictate our freedom. Stay strong.”

Sometimes, even when a bat is making a historic amount of noise, words can speak louder.