Monday, February 20, 2006

At the Center of Our Beseeching Screaming
By Blogger

Today, February 20, 2006, was a perfect day for baseball in the San Francisco Bay Area. The temperature was in the fifties, but the sky was clear, thanks to the light breeze, and the sunlight was particularly sharp, as it always seems to be through crisp air.

I had to take the family car to a shop for some glass work this morning, and the insurance company had arranged for me to bring it to a place on 4th Street, down near the water. I dropped off the car, then walked several blocks to the ballpark, where I got a cup of mocha in a nearby shop and sat to read David Halberstam's Summer of '49.


I'm about halfway through the book -- I've just passed Halberstam's explanation of how Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio's hitting approaches differed, Chapter 9 -- and it's getting to me. I feel the knot in my stomach that only forms when something touches my core, when something important happens in my life.

I knew Williams's story, the difficult childhood in San Diego, the struggles with the press, the singular drive to be the best hitter ever. But coming through Halberstam, I'm hit with Williams's individuality, in the sense that he was a boy, then a man, who breathed, loved his mother, suffered a traumatic childhood, made friends, rubbed veterans the wrong way, was stung by criticism, and after becoming the most feared hitter of his day took batting practice for hours, all the while muttering aloud, "I am Ted F###ing Williams, the best f###ing hitter in baseball."

I'm shocked that no one has made a movie about him, or (as far as I know) worked him into a major work of literature as a central figure. Did Roy Hobbs wear number nine in the movie version of The Natural as a nod to Williams? Perhaps. Frank Deford attributes to Bobby Knight the famous quote that Williams was the world's best at three things: hitting a baseball, fly fishing, and flying a fighter plane. Isn't that a concise symbolic description of what so many American men have wanted to be for the past century? Where are the countless literary examinations of why Williams was ostracized? Yes, he spit in the direction of reporters. Yes, he refused to tip his hat to the home crowd after home runs. And hundreds of ballplayers insisted their late night carousing go unacknowledged. Joe DiMaggio became the idol of the generation, and he was worthy of that stature, but my throat tightens when I read of Williams being denigrated and abused because he wasn't Joltin' Joe, because he neither kissed asses nor kept his mouth shut, in spite of everything else there was to love about him. Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? I would like to take the great DiMaggio fishing. Where have you gone, Ted Williams? He's either taking batting practice, or fishing. If you ask him about either, he'll tell you what he knows.

I suppose I can sum up my feelings about Williams with a personal list. There are only four baseball players whose jerseys I would wear in public and feel absolutely at ease with the association: Matt Williams (Giants), Will Clark (Giants), Roberto Clemente, and Ted Williams.


About half an hour before I had to get the car, I walked to the Safeway on King Street, a block away from the ballpark, and bought lunch. There are tables on the wide sidewalk outside, so I sat in the sun, munching lettuce, carrots, chicken, and egg lightly doused in ranch. Half a block away, between me and the ballpark, a little girl, perhaps seven years old, took a running start and then leaped into her father's arms, and he swung her around and around and the two of them laughed and laughed before he put her down and they skipped into a bookstore.

I looked at the ballpark's facade, taking in the brick, the clock tower, the green light standards. The ballpark is never really dormant. It hosts the odd soccer game, football game, or rock concert... But everyone knows it's a baseball park. After all, Willie, Willie, and Juan permanently oversee the grounds, and Barry will eventually take his spot on the corner of 2nd and King, by the left field gate.

I can see myself years from now passing that statue, telling my children, "Barry Bonds was the greatest hitter I ever saw." They might then ask, "What kind of man was he?" and I'm not sure what I will say.


Blogger Zachary Geballe said...

David, you've referenced two of my absolute favorite pieces of sports writing, in fact of writing as a whole. The Summer of '49 absolutely is a fabulous book, even if I know it ends sadly (at least to me). Similarly, Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu may be the best newspaper article written about anyone, ever. I too am feeling that indefinable yearning for baseball. Even if the weather in New York isn't quite as conducive to it.

9:39 PM  
Blogger Ben Valentine said...

Nice post David. I'd probably tell my kids Barry Bonds was the greatest hitter I ever saw and who he was off the field makes no difference to me. I expect my friends to be good people. I expect athletes to perform on the field. Who they are off the field makes no difference.

11:41 PM  
Blogger Paul Thomas said...

Not to nitpick, (okay, a nitpick) John Updike's wonderful story of William's last homer was a New Yorker magazine article. And you can read it here:

I think fans who grew up 30 years ago have the same problem trying to explain Pete Rose, in the same way we try to explain Barry Bonds. He was a phenomenal player, too.

4:22 PM  
Blogger Zachary Geballe said...

Rose may be similar in terms of being a jerk off the field, but he's nowhere near the player Bonds is.

10:30 AM  

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