March 23, 1978.
I began to stir as a stream of light pierced through my bedroom blinds that face east, towards the expansive Atlantic Ocean just a few miles away. After clearing my head, I realized I could make the two hundred-mile drive from the Arlington section of Jacksonville, Florida to Winter Haven—a modest hamlet situated in the central portion of the Sunshine State—in about three hours.
As I hastily left my flat, I scooped up a portable Radio Shack cassette recorder with fresh batteries. I hoped to include a few recorded interviews during my planned sojourn to the Boston Red Sox Spring Training facilities.
By reflex, I grabbed a tattered Red Sox hat on my way out of the apartment. Realizing that I would be attending an afternoon spring training game as a writer, not as a fan, I threw the Boston baseball cap onto the vacant passenger seat as I started my car.
As the bank clock adjacent to Exit 5A registered 7:30 am, my rickety ’69 Dodge Dart made its way towards Daytona on I-95 with an oppressive Florida sun shimmering off the highway blacktop. Heading southwest, I began to think–as long as I had been in love with the game of baseball, I had always assumed I would somehow end up in the sport.
After enjoying success as a player growing up in the Boston area, I somehow made my way onto the roster at nationally-ranked Jacksonville University, where I found myself buried in our bullpen like a dog’s bone in a well-worn garden. While I had pitched against such significant collegiate powers like the University of Miami and FSU early on, by this time, I had painfully acknowledged that my supposed “prowess” as a lefty on the mound would never enable me to enter the professional ranks through the constrained avenue as a player. Accordingly, in the summer of 1977, I contacted an umpiring school in Florida about possibly starting out in that lonely but honorable trade. When I received the brochure, however, I just couldn’t fill it out. I had always wanted to be Sandy Koufax – not Ed Runge.
Luckily, I had begun to find my voice as a writer. During my last year in college, I served as the editor of the university’s newspaper. Since graduating the previous spring, I found myself supplementing my job in the printing business in North Florida by working as a stringer for the Associated Press, mostly covering NCAA Division 1 basketball games featuring the University of Florida Gators and the Jacksonville University Dolphins.
I smiled as I pondered it, that the written word was about to become my doorway to the big leagues. The cobalt waters of the Atlantic framed my backside as I pulled onto the Interstate for the last major portion of the drive to Winter Haven, some 70 miles inland. A plethora of billboards upholding the virtues of both Orlando and Disney World began to peek through the stout palm trees that lined the highway.
An hour later, I turned onto Florida State Highway 27, the last thoroughfare on my itinerary. After driving past the renowned Cypress Gardens, I soon pulled into Chain O’ Lakes Park in Winter Haven, the then winter home of one of major league baseball’s most celebrated franchises, the Boston Red Sox.
Almost immediately, I was stopped by a weary parking attendant asking for my credentials. Proudly, I flashed him my pristine 1978 Spring Training Press Pass. He fingered it for a moment and then mechanically pointed to a long rectangular building off in the distance. “The Sox clubhouse is over there. You have to walk through it to get to the field beyond!” he bellowed over the din of traffic.
Instantaneously, I maneuvered my junk-heap into the choice lot next to the team’s clubhouse area. The blazing Florida heat caused my vehicle to wheeze as I turned off the ignition. My shitcan Dart looked absolutely ludicrous next to a shimmering new Cadillac, glistening in the sun like a sparkled jewel. Prominently displayed on the right rear bumper was a sticker proclaiming, “If You Outlaw Handguns, Only the Outlaws Will Have Them!” I reminded myself that I was in the heart of redneck country and felt suddenly out of place. Nevertheless, I strutted toward the Sox clubhouse with my cassette recorder in hand. I looked at my Red Sox hat on the front seat; I decided to leave it there. That day I was a reporter, not a fan.
30 seconds later, I entered a nondescript building that opened into a brightly lit chamber. A row of lockers greeted me as I began to saunter through the outsized room. The pulsating beat of a Latin American samba echoed from an unwieldy speaker in the clubhouse.
Emerging from a whirlpool and smoking a long stogie was none other than Luis Tiant, a legendary Red Sox pitcher who was at the height of a brilliant eighteen-year career in the big leagues. “El Tiante” paid no attention to me as he wrapped a towel around his body and began to dance to the music. As the Red Sox starting pitcher circled to the tune, puffs of smoke formed a cloud near the ceiling above.
In 1978, Luis Tiant was my favorite Boston player. And there he was, dancing away less than 20 feet away in the Red Sox clubhouse! I’d officially enter The Twilight Zone. Somehow, I snapped back to reality and walked briskly through the room to find the nearest exit. I was there to get a story and would not interrupt the Boston pitcher who was oblivious to my meager presence.
I quickly ditched the clubhouse and skirted out onto an emerald field, which had just been watered down. While there was a handful of Sox players within shouting distance, a wave of trepidation consumed me as I tiptoed onto the spongy playing surface. My dream of being on a big-league field among major leaguers was suddenly realized. For a decade-and-a-half, I had dreamt of scrambling up Mount Olympus, and yet, now that I was there, I discovered I couldn’t speak to the bronzed idols circumventing the bulky iron cage jutting out around home plate. As I glanced again at the home plate area, shortstop Rick Burleson and second baseman Jerry Remy were leaning against the cage, bats in hand, laughing at the antics of outfielder Bernie Carbo, pretending to employ his bat as a cue-stick in a billiards game.
Sheepishly, I turned in the direction of two young men near the warning track in right field, dressed in civilian clothing – obviously reporters –and steeped in conversation. For the first time in my life, I felt more comfortable with two journalists than with the players encircling the field.
I closed in and gestured to the two reporters. “Hi,” I croaked, “my name is Shaun Kelly. I am from Boston, but I work for the Associated Press out of Jacksonville.”
“Hi, Shaun,” one of them replied. “You’d better face home plate instead of at us because the Sox are about to take BP.”
“Oh, sorry,” I muttered, embarrassed beyond belief.
I gazed at the batting cage and spotted a left-handed batter crouching in an irregular stance, his bat swaying forward like a flagpole in a gale. As the white ball was delivered to the plate, Carl Michael Yastrzemski’s bat uncoiled like a conductor’s baton.
Instantaneously, the ball whizzed over me. A ball hit by the Great Number Eight, Yaz, the first American League player to have 3000 hits and 400 plus home runs. The screech of the sphere passing over my head brought me to my senses. Yastrzemski motioned to the accommodating batting practice pitcher for another pitch. I looked closer and realized that Eddie Popowski, the famed third base coach of the ’67 Impossible Dream Red Sox, was throwing BP to the renowned Red Sox left fielder.
Immediately, I reverted to the batting circle. Carl’s sniper eyes converged in on another pitch. Crack. My eyes grew larger as another sphere lashed into the air, gathering momentum as it approached us.
“Your first time, Shaun?” one of the reporters sighed.
“Yes,” I said meekly. They could smell a rookie a mile away.
“My name’s Peter Gammons of The Boston Globe,” stated the reporter matter-of-factly. He stuck out his hand and gave me a firm handshake. “This is my friend, Tom Boswell.”
I glanced at the other reporter as a cordial smile promptly appeared on a broad, patrician face. “Hi, Thomas Boswell of The Washington Post. Heads up!” Crack. Another bazooka launch from home plate carved our group in two.
“The old man can still shell them out,” Gammons exclaimed, pointing to the batting cage where Yastrzemski, the winner of four batting titles, was hitting.
“I see that Yaz is working on another new stance. A genuine sign of spring!” laughed Boswell. We smiled collectively. For longtime Red Sox fans, Captain Carl’s annual experimentation with new batting stances was nothing less than insolence against advancing age.
I continued to watch the fabled Number Eight battle fate, time, and the game itself. As I looked at him closely, I realized that nothing was ever easy for Carl Yastrzemski. I pressed the record button on the cassette recorder and whispered a note: “The harder Yaz works, the more unlikely it is for him to surrender.” Silence began to engulf the three of us as we continued to watch Yaz. I wanted to linger in this intimate circle longer, but I knew I was a provisional member, at best. To break the quietness, I bleated out, “Is Ted Williams here today?”
“Oh, yes,” replied Gammons. “He’s off in the minor league complex working with some of the rookies. If he were here, you’d have surely heard him by now!” Boswell and I snickered, knowing that was true about the retired Boston legend who then habitually worked with “his kids” during Spring Training.
Crack. I looked up and observed a white sphere disappearing into the orange grove beyond the reaches of the outfield. I had seen Carl Yastrzemski hit innumerable home runs since 1963, my first year following the club, but not from this angle! I remained standing near the worn part of right field, the spot where the regulars transformed the area into a shallow patch.
Crack. I looked up as Yaz swung from his heels. The ball whistled over first base and seemed to pick up speed as it headed toward us. I skipped out of the way as the white blur hurtled past me.
“Looks like he’s aiming for you!” chortled Gammons. The reporters chuckled as we moved past the right-field foul line.
After explaining my motivation, I asked the two men which Sox players might be amicable enough to accommodate a struggling reporter with a short interview on the field. “Most of the backups are pretty reasonable,” Gammons volunteered. “Some of the regulars are, by nature, not the friendliest people in the world. You learn to live with it in this job. It’s part of the business.”
Just then, I noticed Bill Lee doing wind sprints in the outfield. Lee, an iconoclast of the first order, had appropriately been nicknamed “The Spaceman” by announcer Ned Martin. Lee, who famously had admitted to smoking pot in the Red Sox bullpen and had counted Jerry Garcia and Warren Zevon as two of his close friends, was the embodiment of the generational gulf that I had already observed on the field. In the bluest state in America at the time, Massachusetts, Bill Lee was already a veritable icon. The Spaceman approached the outfield where we were still huddled forth like a crowded island. “Lee might give me an interview; am I right?”
“Normally, yes, “replied Gammons, “he loves the spotlight, but this spring, Bill’s been avoiding the press. I doubt he’d give you–or any of us–the time of day right now, especially with the season almost upon us.”
“Well, I am going to try anyway,” I smiled as Gammons nodded, emitting a slight chuckle in the process. I thanked both reporters for spending a few minutes with such a conspicuous novice. They shook my hand warmly as I left the outfield.
I silently crept away from them as Boswell spit out a few observations on other camps around the Grapefruit League. The Globe baseball writer started to take down notes as Boswell spoke in rapid fire; some of the tidbits would be subsequently used in Gammons’ Sunday “Baseball Notes” column.
As I sauntered near the first base bag, I noticed the Red Sox third baseman was headed towards the Boston clubhouse. Remembering that Gammons claimed Hobson was an agreeable sort, I blurted out, “Excuse me, Butch. Can I ask you a few questions?”
He turned around and appraised me with weary eyes. Hobson was dripping sweat but proved too much of a gentleman to turn a juvenile correspondent aside. “Okay, for sure,” he mumbled with a soft Alabama drawl.
We sat on a bench adjacent to the Red Sox clubhouse. I held my cassette player and asked him a series of inane questions. I concluded the two-minute interview by inquiring, “And what about the Yankees?”
“Whatever team outlasts the other will be the one who wins,” Butch replied. “It’s gonna be a dogfight all the way. I think we have the horses to do it. We have a lot of gamers on this side of the field. We’ll get it done, or there’ll be heck to pay up in Boston!”
I thanked the young Sox third baseman, noting to myself that he poured more clichés down on me than sparks in a firestorm.
As the chivalrous Red Sox infielder sprinted away from me, veteran Sox players Dwight Evans and Fred Lynn approached my bench from the batting cage. The two mates were chortling as they drew near – Lynn cracked up as Evans replicated Yaz’s new stance. In a game where failure is more ubiquitous than success, laughter is the only preemptive strike against madness.
In the past, I might have said hello to both Dwight and Freddy. But I had been part of a fraternal baseball collective in college, however, so I knew to keep my mouth shut. The two players skated by me to the shelter of the Boston clubhouse.
Haphazardly, I glanced down at the cassette recorder that was begging for more interviews. I wondered if I could muster up the gumption to talk to another Sox player. Had I somehow crossed a line that I shouldn’t step over?
Moments later, I glanced at the stands and noticed more and more people filing into Chain O’Lakes Park. Hundreds streamed in like a horde of bees. The vast majority of fans were wearing blue or red Boston baseball caps. I touched my hatless head and suddenly felt utterly exposed.
“I should be sitting with them,” I thought.
Moments later, I detected a solitary Boston player completing his wind sprints in the haze of the outfield. Before I knew it, he was lollygagging my way, bathed in perspiration, his left hand playfully juggling a baseball like a ball of Silly Putty.
I considered what Gammons had told me earlier about Bill Lee not talking to the press, but now the fan in me wanted desperately to speak to him. The last bit of reporter left in me began to wonder if Lee might possibly talk to me, a neophyte.
In 1978, WCAS in Cambridge, Massachusetts was an alternative folk-rock station whose playlist ranged from Richard Thompson to Patti Smith to John Prine. The tiny, 5,000-watt station could barely be picked up beyond the Newton hills and through some obscure FCC ruling, ‘CAS could only broadcast from sunup to sundown. Since its inception, WCAS, like Bill Lee, always marched to its own drummer.
I made a bold move to get Lee to talk to me. Instinctively, I surmised that Lee was probably a keen listener of the station. “Excuse me, Bill,” I barked. “I am a stringer for WCAS in Cambridge. Can I talk to you?”
Lee’s chocolate eyes widened; he broke into a bemused smirk when he observed the el-cheapo recording system in my shuddering hands.
“You must have come down here on your own time and money. I can’t see that station spending money sending anyone down here.”
Man, he is smart, I thought. “You’re right Bill,” I retorted, “I’m here on my own. Could I ask you a few questions anyway?”
“You know, I really like ‘CAS,” he began, looking me directly in the eyes. “I can usually pick up the signal near the Belmont-Cambridge line—in the afternoon, of course.”
Lee suddenly dropped down on the bench next to me as the sun dropped, quilt-like, over the grandstand behind us. I instantly raised the issue of the Yankees in my opening salvo to the Red Sox lefty pitcher. He looked out at the field as the visiting Minnesota Twins begin fielding practice. “The Yankees will always be a force. The gods have determined that, of course. However, the challenge over the years has been to confront the notion of predestination. In so doing, one defies fate. I’m a fate buster.”
I waited for him to finish and then asked, “Don’t you feel that this year, particularly with pitcher Dennis Eckersley having just been traded to Boston, that this is the year for all of you to change that fate?”
He chewed on the inquiry and then replied, “Hopefully, but it’s all out of our hands. All 25 of us could come down with hamstrings on the same day. You ride it out, hoping that the wind will be blowing your way at the end of the day.”
I then commented on the teeming pack of fans and the wave of press engulfing the team whenever it traveled. He immediately gestured out to the infield, “There is a certain magnitude to all of this, I guess. Still, I’ve never forgotten how, in one sense, we are not very important compared to what social workers or teachers or doctors or nurses do on a daily basis.”
As I continued listening to the Red Sox pitcher, Tom Boswell and Peter Gammons walked by us, their eyes wide open. I could hear slight laughter in the background as the two reporters walked together to the batting cage.
I looked back at Lee who began to finger a baseball as he continued his sermon: “I find myself playing for the Boston Red Sox in Boston, Massachusetts, New England. Who’s to say that if I ever end up in a commune outside of Spokane, Washington that I actually might find a greater truth ultimately? Some of us need to get perspective in life,” Lee spat out emphatically as a purposeful Carl Yastrzemski walked by, careful not to glance at the quixotic Red Sox hurler.
He ended the interview with this thought: “You know, our entire universe could be encased in an atom on the fingernail of a much greater being – so we all have to keep perspective of the comings and goings of our lives. Whatever we do in life, information is processed and then regurgitated—only to then be forgotten. Nothing lasts in this world. The earth continues to rotate regardless of our successes or failures—and will do so no matter what happens this season.”
“The Spaceman” abruptly got up, grabbed my hand, and shook it earnestly. “Hey, kid,” Lee smiled, “you tell ‘CAS not to ‘sell out.’ So many do these days, but you probably know that already.”
Lee’s last words hit me between the eyes.
Despite my success in securing a Lee interview–even under somewhat false pretenses–I felt somehow tainted. As I stumbled away from the bench and towards the Red Sox clubhouse, I asked myself, “What the hell am I doing here?”
Over the course of the next four hours, I completely embarrassed myself by welcoming pitching stud Dennis Eckersley to the Red Sox during his first official press conference with the team; fumbled an interview with closer Bill “Soup” Campbell, whose exasperation with me left me disconsolate; observed Yaz in a screaming match with a mortified fan over an autograph; sat and listened to a number of jaded reporters in the crowded Chain O’ Lakes press box while they gossiped about the lives of many of the players, and passively watched as the local press interviewed Jim Rice and Carlton Fisk at the end of the game. I hadn’t even bothered to tape Fisk’s and Rice’s responses to the press, even though I had stood five feet away from the two future Hall of Famers. As the day progressed, I found myself wanting to chuck the cassette recorder away and join my baseball brethren in the stands.
After the last player left the clubhouse at the end of the afternoon, I found myself sitting alone in one of the seats near the Boston dugout. While the notes I secured would be used as the basis of a future story – and WCAS would receive my interview as well – I realized I did cross a line I had never wanted to step over. I looked at the press box one last time and ripped up my official MLB press pass.
Moments later, I circled the outer lining of the park as the sun began to peek its way toward the shadows behind the orange grove in centerfield. I trudged towards my Dodge Dart, aware that I had a lot of hard driving ahead of me. I figured I could make Jacksonville by 8:30 if there was no traffic. I got into my car and threw my cassette recorder brusquely on the passenger seat.
Off in the distance, a familiar figure could be seen approaching the parking lot from the adjacent minor league complex. The echo of his shoes hitting the pavement reverberated off the elevated press box behind the lot. Heading in my direction, the approaching man seemed like a lone sheriff inspecting the main thoroughfare of a Western frontier town. He approached the car parked next to mine, saddled up to his pallid Cadillac, and disappeared behind the tinted glass.
Instinctively, I rolled down the driver-side window. Not knowing really what to say, I finally blurted out, “Thank you, sir!”
Slowly, his passenger window mechanically stopped halfway; the gentleman’s creased face became a fissure behind the glare of the sun. He stared at my youthful eyes, puzzled, and then made an educated guess. “No problem, kid!” he roared, his voice cutting through the air like a machete. “Remember, always swing with a slight uppercut.”
“I will,” I grinned, thrilled beyond belief that the great Ted Williams concluded I was one of the many Red Sox prospects he had helped earlier in the minor league batting cage.
Watching my reaction to his morsel of advice, “The Splendid Splinter” flashed me a smile and motioned an abbreviated wave. He then closed the window of his car, ignited the engine, and leisurely pulled out of the Red Sox players’ parking lot. I smile as I observed the “If You Only Outlaw Handguns – Only the Outlaws Will Have Them” sticker that covered his right bumper.
“Of course,” I laughed to myself, “Williams would have that on his car!”
I cranked up my own car as the baseball legend’s car disappeared in the distance.
When I thought about it later, I found it fascinating that I had cried out “thank you” to Ted Williams. On the evening of Number Nine’s death 24 years later, I finally figured it out. Intuitively, I wanted to thank him back then for being the greatest hitter of all time; for being the greatest Red Sox player to ever wear a Boston uniform; and for serving our country so nobly in two separate wars. Most importantly, my show of gratitude for “Teddy Ballgame” had come from the heart of a fan.
After Williams left that afternoon, I put on the Boston baseball cap I had left behind earlier in the day. Within moments, my car pulled out onto Florida State Highway 27.
My one-day career as a baseball reporter was forever in the rearview mirror.