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A Moving Ceremony

So much of sports now is just hype: the desire to build something up, to make
it bigger or more important than it really is, overwhelms most events. So we get
the Super Bowl, which is nearly always a bore, the Final Four, which is rarely a
bore but certainly way overhyped,  and, may God help us all, Don King.

Sometimes, though, the sports - or the fans - speak for themselves. We've
been very fortunate this year to see a gorgeous UConn team  (no matter how
much it hurt us to lose them they were gorgeous), a U.S. Open which was
thrilling even for non-golf fans,  and a women's World Cup team which
actually played like a team and not like a bunch of spoiled brats.

But somehow, musty old baseball, which lately has in some ways found itself
again, outdid them all last night.  If you didn't see the opening part of
the All-Star game, you really missed something special.  The Kevin Costner-introduced
team of the century was nice, pleasing even.  But when Ted Williams came
riding out, in his golf cart, near the end of his own life and the end of the
life of Fenway Park  to throw out the first ball- that was something to
see. 

The ride itself was dramatic - Williams, who for his entire career refused to
ever tip his hat to the fans, with whom he had a complicated relationship, took
his hat off and waved it to the crowd.  There were men there his age there,
no doubt, combat veterans among them we're sure, who had never expected to see
such a thing.  Yet there he was, the Splendid Splinter, taking a long, slow
ride out to the field. 

When he got there, the All-Stars surrounded him: it was obvious he was one of
their own. They patted him, shook his hand.  "Where's Sammy!" he
called out, looking for Sammy Sosa.  Ken Griffey Jr. stepped forward,
almost bashfully, and shook his hand.  He called for Mark McGuire to come
close, put his hand on his shoulder and asked: "have you ever smelled the
bat burn on a foul ball?" (That's from memory, but that's roughly what
McGuire said he said)

It was clear that this wasn't a bunch of spoiled jocks indulging a fogey. 
The respect and admiration was almost startling to see, and it wasn't a 30
second thing, either (Fox had the sense to shut up most of the time).  It
was also clear that Williams thought he had the measure of them and wasn't
backing down to anyone, even at his age and after a stroke.

When it came time to throw the ball out he was helped from the cart and, for
the first time, it was obvious how much he had lost to the stroke. A player (we
think it was Tony Gwinn) braced him and turned him towards the mound. 
Williams, who had incredible eyesight as a player and pilot (we're thinking
20-10), had to ask twice where the catcher was.  He had to be steadied to
throw.  But he threw the ball right to Carlton Fisk - no  Reaganesque
bounce-and-roll.  Then the greatest hitter in the history of his game got
back in the cart and rode out. 

We've grown used to looking at celebrities and then waiting for them to fall,
to show us the big flaw.   What was particularly great was the guys
who gathered around Williams were products of this environment, yet they
gravitated easily, immediately, to his charisma. They knew the history,
certainly.  But they also could see the man.

Bob Knight said that Ted Williams was the only man ever who was the best at
two things: hitting and fishing.  But now it's likely safe to say that he's
also proven to be one of the best at arresting cynicism as well, and considering
the days we dwell in, that's an astonishing thing.  He's also not bad at
reminding us how baseball, though it sometimes damages itself and hangs by
a thin thread, so well reflects the culture of this nation.