Just as major league baseball's 70th All-Star Game was on the brink of starting at Boston's Fenway Park Tuesday night, tears and adulation hijacked it.
Indeed, in a carefully choreographed event with timing down to the second, including a fighter jet flyover as Donna Summer finished singing the National Anthem, everything went gloriously awry.
An introduction of Ted Williams, greatest hitter in the game's history, instantly had everyone in jammed Fenway Park standing, cheering, remembering - ad infinitum. Williams, the last player to hit .400 (.406 in 1941), was with Boston between 1939 and 1960, with time out to help fight two wars as a fighter pilot.
During that time, he built a reputation for being prickly and irascible. In his last at bat on Sept. 27, 1960, he homered. Then he circled the bases, never looked up, never tipped his cap. He ran, head down, to the dugout. He simply stiffed his adoring fans.
Williams also had a search-and-destroy tongue and never was short of ego. "All I want out of life," Williams said years ago, "is that when I walk down the street, folks will say, 'There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived.' " Out in right field, a father leaned down to a young son during the bedlam and said, "That's the greatest hitter who ever lived."
Tuesday night was the flip side of cranky. From the time Williams rode into Fenway in a golf cart, he was waving his cap as cheers thundered.
An introduction turned into a coronation. The Rangers Rafael Palmeiro said of the spectacle, "We had chills all over." And Williams had a new view of the locals: "They love this game ... and Boston's lucky to have the faithful Red Sox fans. They're the best."
There were tears in crusty Ted Williams's eyes. There also were stars every few feet. Bob Feller, Tom Seaver, Willie Mays, Warren Spahn, Al Kaline, Stan Musial, Carlton Fisk, and current mega-talents including Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Ken Griffey Jr.
But there was just one huge star at Fenway. The ones who understood best were today's players.
As Williams prepared to throw the ceremonial first pitch, the players couldn't help themselves: They circled the legend. McGwire was leaning in for a few words. So was young Boston shortstop Nomar Garciaparra. The older players, like Cal Ripken Jr. (17th All-Star Game) and Tony Gwynn (15) and Mike Piazza (7) had undisguised admiration in their faces. And the 24 first-time All-Stars - second most ever - were pictures of awe and reverence.
Williams slapped McGwire on the shoulder. He told Garciaparra they needed to get together. When he got up to throw the pitch, Williams was steadied by Gwynn. "I'm a better hitter now than I've ever been in my life," he chortled. Gwynn says contrary to conventional wisdom that good pitching will defeat good hitting. Williams once told him, "Good hitters will always hit." Williams was .344 lifetime.
And then, as if wanting to show the nail-hard Williams that youngsters know something about tough, too, starting American League pitcher Pedro Martinez of the Red Sox struck out the first four he faced - Barry Larkin, Larry Walker, Sosa, and McGwire. In two innings, he fanned five of six, which easily earned him MVP. Winning manager Joe Torre said the batting experience against Martinez was "like hitting in a dark room."
Afterwards, Martinez's mind - like almost everyone's - was still on Williams. Mused Martinez, who has a 15-3 record, "I don't think there will be any other man that's going to replace that one."
THE roaring emotional salute to Williams seemed to exhaust both fans and players. The game, save superior pitching from almost all the throwers, was flat. There were no homers, only a couple semi-dazzling plays, several errors. The AL won 4-1, its eighth win in the last 11 games.
Yet, watching the spectacle of Williams seemed to many observers to show not just the affection that fans can have for the game, but how the young and the old can be melded into one. In this case, the melder was the old man in the golf cart.
First-time All-Star Jeromy Burnitz, a Milwaukee outfielder, reflected on the Williams tour de force: "It was a pretty awesome experience to see everybody kind of surround him."
And late in the night, Torre said that while the event was an excellent time for all, "Ted Williams put the cherry on top."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society