All of which reminds me of 1999, when Fenway Park was the center of the hardball universe and we enjoyed perhaps the best baseball weekend in 120 years of taking ourselves out to the ballgame.
It was Ted Williams’s final visit to Boston. It was Pedro Martinez summoning the stuff of Carl Hubbell. It was 29-year-old Ken Griffey Jr. beating not-yet-tainted Mark McGwire in the greatest Home Run Derby of them all.
And it was without doubt the greatest collection of baseball talent ever assembled on any diamond as 31 players nominated for MLB’s All-Century Team joined the 1999 American and National League All-Stars on the Fenway lawn, surrounding Williams before and after he threw a ceremonial first pitch to Carlton Fisk.
It was 23 years ago this week. John Henry had yet to buy the Red Sox and young Ortiz was hitting .315 for Minnesota’s Triple A team in Salt Lake City. There were no seats above the Green Monster, the Sox hadn’t won a World Series since 1918, and Peter Gammons was writing baseball notes for the Sunday Globe, which cost $2 and featured 546 pages.
Teddy Ballgame was 80 and in failing health but made it over to the Jimmy Fund Clinic to meet 63-year-old Mainer Einar Gustafson, the original “Jimmy” from Ralph Edwards’s 1948 radio broadcast, “Truth or Consequences.” Like everyone, Ted assumed the anonymous young patient had died, but Gustafson came forward in 1998 and Williams was eager to meet him.
The Home Run Derby was wildly popular at this time. McGwire had hit 70 bombs in ‘98 and was credited with “saving baseball” after a strike canceled the World Series in 1994. McGwire’s showdown with Sammy Sosa at Fenway was perhaps a tougher ticket than the All-Star Game.
Globe Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Stan Grossfeld was denied a press credential for the ‘99 Derby. The stodgy Sox were unhappy with publication of a (discreet) photo of catcher Scott Hatteberg relieving himself at the infamous dugout runway trough just a few feet from the Red Sox bench (Hatteberg loved the photo and requested a copy for his home bar). Lacking a credential, Grossfeld received a permit from Mayor Menino for a hydraulic cherry picker lift on Lansdowne Street. As the Derby started, our man Stan rose, Lazarus-like, from the far side of the Green Monster, camera in hand, and got the best photos of the event. His best one appeared on page 1 on July 13, 1999.
McGwire had an epic first round, but the Derby was won by Griffey, and one of Griff’s home run balls was caught in the right field seats by Berj Najarian, a young Boston University grad who was then a member of the New York Jets public relations department. One year after the Derby, Bill Belichick brought Najarian to New England and Berj has served as Belichick’s consigliere for 21 seasons.
Game day did not disappoint.
Williams was engulfed by dozens of legends, including Stan Musial, Willie Mays, Bob Feller, Hank Aaron, and Bob Gibson, as he sat in a golf cart near the Fenway mound. None of them wanted to leave. As the moment lingered, I noticed nervous television types scurrying around, talking into their radios, then we heard the PA announcer say something to the effect of, “Would the greatest players of all time please clear the field?”
That means you, Bob Gibson!
Williams was finally taken to Box L-22 upstairs on the third base side, where he entertained guests throughout the night. Ted particularly wanted to meet the young pilots who’d buzzed Fenway’s light towers with a daredevil pregame flyover. The boys broke some Back Bay windows in their zeal to impress Ted, but all agreed it was worth it.
Matt Damon visited Ted during the game, bringing his dad, the late Kent Damon, who was a longtime baseball coach at Newton North High. When Matt told Ted he’d read Williams’s book, “The Science of Hitting,” Ted challenged the young actor and asked, “What’s the most important message in that book?”
“Get a good pitch to hit,” answered Damon.
Correct, young man.
There was an actual game, a 4-1 American League victory, but about the only thing anyone remembers is MVP Pedro, who was at the height of his powers in ‘99, striking out five of the six hitters he faced — three Hall of Famers (Barry Larkin, Larry Walker, Jeff Bagwell) plus McGwire and Sosa, two guys who combined to hit 1,192 big league homers.
The losing pitcher was Phillies righthander Curt Schilling.
Not quite sure whatever happened to that nice young man, but I think I recall him doing some special things five years later at Fenway.
▪ Quiz: 28 big leaguers hit at least 500 homers. Only three of them never struck out more than 85 times in a season. Incredibly, one of the three played more than 1,000 games in the 21st century. Name the three (answer below).
▪ Is it going to be awkward when folks realize that new Celtics sixth man Malcolm Brogdon is a better basketball player than Marcus Smart? Brogdon doesn’t sound like a guy who lacks self-confidence. This is going to be fun.
▪ While we are planting seeds of controversy, Bruins players are going to be on notice at the start of next season. It certainly sounds like the guys in the room got Bruce Cassidy (.632 winning percentage) fired because he was too tough on them. Swell. This puts a bull’s-eye on the backs of Jake DeBrusk and Co. moving forward.
▪ N’Keal Harry is not the worst first-round pick in Boston sports history. In 1963, the great Red Auerbach passed on future Hall of Famer Gus Johnson and used his first-round pick on Bill Green, a 6-foot-8-inch forward from Colorado State. When Green arrived in Boston, he told Red that he did not fly. And that was that. Auerbach bought the kid a train ticket home and Green never played in the NBA.
▪ A.J. Pierzynski sounded like the ultimate player suckup last weekend when he interviewed Chris Sale during Fox’s Red Sox-Yankees telecast and said he understood Sale breaking a television at Polar Park because of all the pressure “created by the media.” Please. Sale has a $145 million guaranteed contract and has won 11 games in four seasons. Pressure would apply to working folks trying to make ends meet to take care of their families.
▪ Sale and Kutter Crawford both went to Florida Gulf Coast University, which must have a great science program.
▪ Bet you didn’t know that competitive-eating GOAT Joey Chestnut lives in Westfield, Ind., which is where Kevin Plawecki went to high school.
▪ The Red Sox are not helping Bobby Dalbec by keeping him in the big leagues. This year’s exposure has tanked Dalbec’s trade value.
▪ Four members of the 1969 Miracle Mets — Art Shamsky, Ron Swoboda, Ed Kranepool, and Cleon Jones — plan to be in Cooperstown when the late Gil Hodges is finally enshrined in baseball’s Hall of Fame.
▪ Third baseman Kody Clemens was optioned back to the minors after batting .161 with three homers in 25 games for the Tigers. Shows you how tough it is to succeed in the bigs. Clemens was used as a late-inning pitcher twice and gave up one run over two innings.
▪ Great to see Whitman-Hanson’s Kristie Mewis still getting it done for the US women’s national soccer team. A goal by the former Boston College star pushed the US past Mexico in CONCACAF W Championship group play at Estadio Universitario Monday.
▪ On the eve of the 150th playing of the British Open at St. Andrews, the New York Times sat down with 86-year-old Gary Player and produced interview gold. Player ranks the British as the “greatest championship in the world,” and first visited St. Andrews in 1955 when he failed to qualify for the tournament. Still remarkably fit, still shooting in the low 70s (”I’ve beaten my age 2,400 times, plus, in a row”), here’s what he had to say about diet: “People in America don’t worry about health. Two percent, maybe . . . What’s the most important thing in your life? Your health. People are just eating themselves into the grave. I had no breakfast today. I had a hamburger (for lunch) with no bun. I don’t eat the bun. The bun is crap. You might as well eat green grass. I don’t eat bacon. I don’t drink milk. I don’t eat ice cream. I love ice cream. I love bacon, but I took an oath to God I would never have it because if I want to live a long time, it takes effort, it takes work. It takes dedication.”
▪ Sorry, Pittsburgh’s newly named Acrisure Stadium is always going to be Heinz Field. Wonder what happens to the giant ketchup bottles?
▪ Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been added to the Broncos’ ownership group. There’s got to be a punchline in there somewhere. Submissions are welcome.
▪ Happy retirement to Barry Gallup, who spent more than 45 years at Boston College as a player, coach, and administrator. A native of Swampscott, Gallup came to BC in 1965 and was an outstanding wide receiver for the Eagles, while also playing for Bob Cousy’s Elite Eight 1967 basketball team. Barry’s BC years were interrupted while he served for 10 seasons as head football coach at Northeastern (he was also athletic director at NU for three years). The renovated sports medicine center for BC football is appropriately named the Barry Gallup Sports Medicine Center.
▪ Quiz answer: Mel Ott, Ted Williams, Gary Sheffield.