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Singer: Red Sox fans say goodbye
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07/22/2002 10:25 pm ET 
Singer: Red Sox fans say goodbye
 

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 Tom Singer

Fans walk past framed photos and posters on the Green Monster showing Ted Williams throughout his career. (AP)
"Amazing tradition. They throw a great party for you on the one day they know you can't come."
Michael Goldman (Jeff Goldblum), in The Big Chill

BOSTON -- Forty-two years ago, New England pleaded for a chance to shower Ted Williams with love.

Monday, it finally got the chance.

Fans sat in the same first-base dugout into which The Kid had disappeared for good on Sept. 26, 1960, damn the pleading roars of 10,454 begging for a curtain-call, after homering in his swan at-bat.

Young, old, saddened, just curious -- they stomped all over The Kid's old stomping grounds, grabbing this chance to spend fleeting minutes in the medium of a god.

Fenway Park is often revered as a shrine, a cathedral, a place where you feel compelled to remove your hat before entering. Monday, it was a true house of worship.

But, of what? Ted Williams, a great hitter, a greater folk hero who, had he not been born, would've been invented by Hemingway? Or of an ideal, a time and place of purity to which Williams was serving as the bridge?

A long, unforgettable day convinced me it was more the latter.

True, the formal evening portion of A Celebration of an American Hero shed a narrower focus on the three pillars of The Kid's life: the ballplayer, the war hero, the philanthropist. And it was a stirring tribute. It would've even melted John Henry Williams', er ... heart.

But the 12,000 common folks who trod throughout Fenway Park in the morning were divided into two groups: Those who had heard enthralling stories about The Kid's post-World War II years and wished they could go there, and those who wished they could return there.

Proof of that were the ovations showered hours later by 20,500 on each former Red Sox as The Kid's teammates filed onto the field for the nighttime tribute.

And when the same oldsters, bow-legged and back-bent, came out in their uniforms and tried to trot to their positions for the finale ... well, Kleenex had to be the one bullish stock on Wall Street.

This is what The Kid bequeathed New England. At a time negativity is rampant in his game, he afforded everyone this taste of baseball's virtues.

Hall of Fame memorabilia, stunning photographs, loving displays, words and music radiated the warmth and elicited emotions of which only something intrinsically good is capable.

"This is a wonderful thing. And this is still a wonderful game," Commissioner Bud Selig noted. "Ted would understand. I know he didn't want a memorial service. But this is Fenway Park. This is Boston. This is where he always wanted to be."

If you're going to stop the clock, this is a wonderful place to do it.

You didn't just have to picture The Kid's life. You could see it flashing before your eyes. It happened here. The huge carnation-traced No. 9 in left field wasn't merely in his position, but in his footsteps.

There are only two other places where this ceremony could have unfolded like this, in the shadow of the past. Wrigley Field and Yankee Stadium. Elsewhere, history is buried. Here, it is celebrated and given fresh coats of paint.

Snaking along the warning track under the blistering midday sun, people looked at the black-and-white which depicted The Kid posing in his follow-through with the oddly-configured bleachers rising over his shoulder -- and glanced over their own shoulders to see those same banks of green seats.

They saw The Kid strike a defensive pose in front of the Green Monster-embedded scoreboard in another photo -- hung five feet to the right of the same scoreboard.

These glimpses into the past, from the unchanged present, were overwhelming.

The night belonged to scripted emotion. Not that anyone minded. Paeans to The Kid were recited, voices quivered, doves flew. Side-by-side, Nomar Garciaparra and Johnny Pesky lay roses inside that giant "9."

Lumps lodged in throats, even as it wasn't difficult imagining the always-unpretentious Kid looking down from above and snarling, "Oh, for Chrissakes!"

But the morning ... spontaneous, innocent magic. Amid the trappings of The Kid, people touched their own pasts.

They ran their fingers over the scoreboard panels, leaned over the short bullpen fences, kicked up the red clay in the corners.

There were guys who rode up on their Harleys and in their Hell's Angels vests, girls in pig-tails, middle-aged men whose eyes glazed over upon falling on a life-sized statue of The Kid.

"If you close your eyes," a guy said to his gal, "you can hear the crack of the bat."

A mound of bouquets grew against the wall in left-center, in front of a makeshift shrine.

The Hall of Fame artifacts, which had arrived from Cooperstown at dawn with a Marine Corps escort, drew oohs and aahs.

Siren songs of the '40s and '50s filtered out of the monster center-field speakers and wafted across the field.

"Moonlight in Vermont ..." "You'll Never Know ... " "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company C ... "

I stood off to the side, where the box seats jut out to meet the left-field foul line, soaking in the scene.

It was so comforting. And so temporary.

At the foot of the scoreboard, people milled around a table. Atop it were two huge green cardboards, and everyone paused to pen a farewell message to The Kid.

"Semper Fidelis" -- John Beatrice.

"We're going to put these in the Red Sox archives," said Cheryl, one of the club attendants standing guard around the table. "And the new Red Sox owners plan to establish a Hall of Fame, then they'll go in there."

"Your (sic) good at baseball" -- Wendell M.

"We've already got 17 of these cards filled up," Cheryl said.

"To the greatest hitter of all time. You gave us so much over the years - strength, power, dedication, grace under pressure and dignity. You are a great example and role model for us all. Thanks, Ted & God bless." -- Mitch Gosberg & Family, Athol, Ma.

It was a day Red Sox Nation chased its past. The following day, the Red Sox would resume their chase of the Yankees. Which will be easier.

The Yankees, after all, can be caught.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.



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