|Ted Williams, guided by Tony Gwynn, threw out the first pitch for the 1999 All-Star Game. (Getty Images)|
The golf cart scooted in from right field carrying a civic monument. The July evening was postcard perfect. The ovation was so thunderous and so sustained that one of the All-Star starting pitchers said later he thought the stadium was going to come down.
But if we've learned nothing else over the first century's worth of thrills stuffed inside that wonderful lyric little Pandora's bandbox of treasures, it is that Fenway Park is as beautifully sturdy as Ted Williams' timeless legend.
You take the Carlton Fisk moment. Bucky Dent, too (Red Sox fans will give you that one for free). I'll spot you the Dave Roberts stolen base, Roger Clemens' 20 strikeouts, the final day of the Impossible Dream regular season in '67, Williams' final game in 1960 (only 10,454 were in the seats!) and even Game 8 of the 1912 World Series that closed Fenway's rookie campaign.
Singularly, the best Fenway moment of our lifetime was The Kid at 80 -- yes, still and always The Kid -- at the 1999 All-Star Game, cradled inside that ballpark one last time, love washing over him as three generations' worth of players lingered with him in the infield, three generations of fans hovered over him from the stands, cameras flashing, history beckoning, scrapbooks drooling.
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"I remember walking back toward the dugout after that thinking, 'We'll never have a moment like this in baseball again'," Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn said this week. "It was unbelievable."
Gods, author John Updike famously wrote of Williams 1960, do not answer letters.
On this night, 39 years later, the god to whom Updike was referring actually did.
Applause roaring, All-Stars star-struck, Williams, upon being driven to the mound in a golf cart, tipped his cap to the crowd. In appreciation, it turned out, not just for a deafening embrace, but in thanks for all those Fenway moments past. Moments when his hardened shell and ornery stubbornness conspired to bury any soft spot folks already were sure he didn't have.
"We talked about it before we got to that point," said Gwynn, who developed a deep and unique friendship with Williams over the years after the two first met in the mid-1990s.
Gwynn and his two brothers were baseball nuts, and when they were kids, their father went to Sears to get them Ted Williams baseball gloves and Ted Williams shoes. This was among the stories Gwynn had shared with Williams over the years as they grew closer.
"I asked him once, 'As great a player as you were, why did you not get along with people in Boston?'" Gwynn said. "He said, 'Stupidity on my part, and people making more of things than there were.'"
When Williams dramatically said goodbye with a Fenway Park home run on Sept. 28, 1960, his final at-bat before retirement, Updike beautifully captured the time in his famous essay, Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu.
"The papers said that the other players, and even the umpires on the field, begged him to come out and acknowledge us in some way, but he never had and did not now," Updike wrote. "Gods do not answer letters."
"I took it that he regretted, after his last home run, not tipping his cap," Gwynn said of his conversations with Williams on the subject. "He just ran into the dugout. I think it bothered him.
"That night, he tipped his cap. He threw that first pitch, and then he hugged Carlton Fisk.
"You'd have never thought there were any problems that night."
• • •He had long ago fled to Florida, where things weren't as claustrophobic for him as they had been in Boston. He could breathe in retirement. He could move around. The fishing suited him, and so did the climate.
Still, anytime Ted Williams made it to Fenway Park, which wasn't very often, it was like the Pope appearing in Vatican Square. Add to that baseball's last big blowout of the century. ...
Many players who would be named to the game's All-Century team the next summer in Atlanta were introduced on the field in Boston: Stan Musial. Willie Mays. Hank Aaron. Carl Yastrzemski. Bob Feller. Tom Seaver. Bob Gibson.
So, too, were legendary current All-Stars: Gwynn. Cal Ripken. Ken Griffey Jr. Mark McGwire. Pedro Martinez.
That luminous cast already was in place when Williams was introduced. "The greatest hitter who ever lived," said the public-address man, and nobody in Fenway was going to argue with that.
The golf cart came rolling in from the outfield. Everyone knew the great man's health was failing rapidly. He couldn't walk more than a few steps at a time. He was losing his eyesight.
"But he was still robust," said Dick Bresciani, longtime Sox publicity director who was the club's chairperson of All-Star Week in '99 and is a walking historian on all things Fenway. "He rose to the occasion.
"He loved Fenway and he loved the Red Sox."
Both loved him back, through the good times and through the rocky times. Never was it more apparent than at this moment.
The Sox and baseball had been planning for this all summer. They discussed details. Lobbed ideas back and forth.
Within them, there was one to which they kept returning.
"We had a feeling it would be nice if the players all surrounded Ted out on the field," Bresciani said. "But we didn't want to ask them because what if some of them said, 'We don't want to do that?'"
So they decided simply to allow events to play out and see what happened.
The man who chauffeured Williams in the golf cart was Al Forester, a Red Sox groundskeeper who had worked for the club at that point for 42 years. He tended the field when Williams played, and the two had a rapport.
"That made it comfortable for Ted," said Bresciani, who last spoke with Forester about a year-and-a-half ago. The club lost touch with Forester after that.
Williams' son, Ted Jr., quietly had asked Gwynn that afternoon if he would be on the mound to help steady his dad for the first pitch. Gwynn had done the same thing a couple of years earlier for another first pitch in Williams' native San Diego.
Already, this was Cooperstown sprung to life. Fenway Park was literally a Field of Dreams, only better. Who needed the baritone of James Earl Jones when Williams' booming voice was the one thing that wasn't failing him?
As the golf cart reached the mound, the question baseball was reluctant to ask the players answered itself. The magnetic force of Williams pulled everyone in toward him. Gwynn. Ripken and Griffey. McGwire.
Build a legend, and they will come. All of them.
"And the conversations," Gwynn said, chuckling. "Ted asked Mark if he ever smelled the burn of the wood when he fouled a ball off. I just started laughing because the first time we met, he asked me the same thing.
"He wanted to know what kind of bat speed Mac had. He knew that if Mark didn't smell that burn, then he didn't have enough bat speed."
Yes, McGwire replied, the ongoing roar from the 34,187 emotionally charged fans threatening to drown him out.
"The conversations were genuine," Gwynn said. "Nobody was doing it because somebody told us to do it.
"You've got Bob Gibson out there. Stan Musial. Everybody just kind of flocked to their favorite guys."
Already, the moment was fleeting. And it wasn't even finished yet. Where was the remote? Who would find the pause button? Couldn't somebody do something?
Williams emerged from the cart. Somebody handed him a ball. His mind was sharp, but his eyes were not.
"Where's home plate?" he boomed.
"Mr. Williams, just throw it right in front of you," Gwynn told him.
So from in front of the mound, another incredible moment: Williams fired ... a strike? Yes, a strike.
And the cap tip.
"There seemed to be even a little bit more of a roar when he did that, in my mind," Gwynn said. "He had a big smile on his face."
• • •Fisk came to the mound and hugged him. Told the great Williams that this was one of the best moments of his career. Larry Walker, an NL All-Star that night, said later he saw tears rolling out of the last pair of eyes sharp enough to hit .400 in the majors.
"I had to turn away because tears were coming out of my eyes, too," Walker said.
The pause button? If only this moment could stretch out a little longer ... so Gwynn, Ripken, Griffey and Co. did what they could. Everyone, from the All-Stars to the Old-Timers, they just kept right on talking. The All-Star Game, the national television audience ... everything else could all wait.
Never before, and never since, has Fenway Park been as frozen in time as in that moment.
Finally, another booming voice besides that of Williams was heard. It was the PA announcer asking the players to please clear the field. There was an All-Star Game to play.
"Nobody was going nowhere," Gwynn said.
"It was maybe unlike any other moment here," Bresciani said. "Here was this legendary Hall of Fame player, everyone knew his health was not good. ... especially those of us who had known him in the past as vigorous, John Wayne in person.
"It choked you up because it was such a dramatic scene."
It is a moment that still produces chills. The years cannot fade these photos.
Williams that night watched a few innings of the game with Commissioner Bud Selig in the box seats off the first-base line. Then he was driven in that golf cart up to the owner's suite. He requested a visit with a lady named Helen Robinson, now deceased, who ran the Fenway Park switchboard for 60 years.
"He was a kid and she was a kid when he first started," Bresciani said.
Up in the owner's suite, Williams, who served as a U.S. Marine Corps pilot in World War II and in the Korean War, had another request.
"I want to meet those pilots from the [pre-game military] flyover," he demanded.
"We went to get them, and we brought them to Ted," Bresciani said. "Oh God, they were telling stories about this and that, about flying. He was telling them how great they were. He wanted to know all about them."
He stayed the entire game. In the ninth inning, with the AL leading 4-1, Bresciani even recalls him bellowing, "Who are we bringing in now to close this damn game?" Told John Wetteland would be the guy protecting the win for Pedro Martinez -- the man who would say he thought the thunderous ovations were going to bring the stadium down -- Williams relaxed. "We'll be all right," he said.
"Ted was one of a kind," Gwynn said.
The night was coated in emotion and charged with the kind of crackling electricity that can only be produced when generations converge, history smiles and everyone in the joint knows he or she will never pass this way again.
"I remember walking off the field that night thinking not only of how great a night it was, but when was the last time the PA guy had to tell players to clear the field?" Gwynn said. "It was awesome. Just an electric, electric event."
At 100, it's hard to believe that Fenway Park is only 20 years older than Williams was on that night for the ages. It would be his last appearance in the place where he authored his legend and, for one night, answered the letters.
In his office at SDSU, where he is in his eighth season as Aztecs baseball coach, Gwynn has a framed poster from that night hanging on his wall.
"I can still hear the roar of the crowd when they were driving Ted in down the right-field line," Gwynn says.
Listen closely enough, you can still hear the echoes today.
Happy 100th, Fenway. With all of those flash bulbs popping over the years, who needs candles?