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MY TURN AT BAT

The Kid from San Diego
By John L. Nunes

 

No other player visible to my generation concentrated within himself so much sport's poignancy, so assiduously refined his natural skills, so constantly brought to the plate that intensity of competence that crowds the throat with joy.

John Updike

 

Tongue-tied at forty-two. Couldn't speak, couldn't shake my childhood hero's hand. For a tense moment, Ted Williams towered over me, glanced down, and gruffly said hello before scanning the crowd.

All I could muster was a timid nod before alternately fiddling with my camera and staring at the ground.

A former newspaper reporter, I'd interviewed presidents, Oscar winners, rock stars, All-Stars, governors, best-selling authors, murderers, and a Watergate felon, but Theodore Samuel Williams managed to intimidate—without even trying.

As the Hall-of-Fame giant brushed past, I was flooded with childhood memories of growing up during the fifties in Greater Boston. Watching the Red Sox in black and white on the family's tiny tube, listening intently as Curt Gowdy melodically called the play-by-play. Getting goose bumps when Ted won the game with a homer or extra base hit. Rooting for Williams the year he battled teammate Pete Runnels all season long for the batting crown—up until the final game, as I recall.

In fact, the Splendid Splinter's heroics on the field were responsible for getting me hooked on newspapers. In 1956, the year I turned seven, Williams hit .345, knocked in eighty-two runs, and homered twenty-four times for the season—and I began the daily ritual of devouring the Boston sports tabloids much like the way my son pored over the latest Spiderman and X-men comic books when he was seven.

Like thousands—perhaps millions—of fans, I was deeply affected by Williams, who instilled in me a love of the game more than any other ballplayer or sportscaster. Regrettably, I never had the good fortune to attend a Red Sox game while Williams was still playing. No one else in my family was a fan of the game.

 

I didn't "meet" the man until he was seventy-four. It was July 12, 1992, which became known that morning as "Ted Williams Day" throughout the state of California. (To my utter delight, I had played a small role in making this happen, drafting the resolution honoring Ted while serving as the press aide to a state assemblyman.)

But at that moment I encountered Williams—some thirty-five years after I first began to idolize him—I wasn't ready. I didn't expect him to stop right in front of me, so close that I could hear his breath. He had been wading through a sea of a few hundred fans to get to the stage set up on the San Diego high school football field. As he approached, I was fumbling with my camera, trying to replace the telephoto lens with one for close-ups. For some reason I was determined to get a close-up shot of my hero instead of being in the moment. I could have shaken his hand or at least said something audible.

Before I could gather my wits, he was gone, headed for the stage. I put the telephoto lens back on.

 

In 1960, Teddy Ballgame retired from "The Show" and went fishing—a lot—eventually becoming a hall-of-fame angler. That year The Sporting News declared him the Player of the Decade for the 1950s. It was also the year that my parents uprooted the family and moved us to San Diego.

At the time, I didn't realize that Williams had been born and raised in that Southern California seaport. When I discovered Ted's birthplace a couple of years later, it made me feel closer to him. Once I got a driver's license, my buddy Joe Fuentes (who named his son Ted in honor of Williams) and I occasionally drove by the tiny, modest Utah Street home where Ted Williams grew up. The residential area, known as North Park, is now run-down and doesn't let on that a legendary ballplayer once lived there. Nor does it have a monument in the small park a couple of blocks from where Ted's old house still stands.

It was in that park that a young Williams practiced hitting, often into the night. Neighborhood kids, as well as adults, would gather to see him slug towering flyballs. Every day after school he would go to the park. Playground instructor Rod Luscomb, a former minor leaguer, often pitched to him. Later, Ted played ball for Hoover High School on El Cajon Boulevard, an area where hookers now roam. Williams led Hoover to a state championship.

To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Fall 2002 issue.

—EFQ

 

JOHN L. NUNES is the public relations director for San Diego Mesa College. A former Southern California newspaper reporter, he finds that his inspiration for freelance writing often stems from baseball. He recently completed a baseball novel that is scheduled to be available online by January 2003.

© 2002 John L. Nunes

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