March 15, 1988. 27 years ago, I experienced one of the most incredible days of
my life. It was like a wedding or the birth of a child for most people, where everything is
so vivid, so easy to recall, and filled with moments that stay with you forever.
I was in my first full week of spring training with the Boston Red Sox organization in
Winter Haven, Florida. I was that kid in the candy store, the one with the huge smile on my
face and not a care in the world. I was playing baseball while wearing a Red Sox uniform and
loving every second of it. Heaven, I thought, couldn't be much better than this.
But things on this sun-splashed morning in a baseball facility lined with palm trees, were
about to get even more special and even somewhat surreal. It was something that has stayed
with me til this day and an incredible experience that nobody can ever take away from me.
I had just finished up catching what seemed like a hundred pitchers in the bullpen. In spring
training, there are 10 pitchers to every catcher and you spend most of your time squatting and blocking 88-mile an hour sliders in the dirt. I had made the position switch to catcher during
my junior year at UNC, and have long regretted that I didn't don the tools of ignorance sooner.
I loved everything about the job, which is the most physically demanding one in the game.
After catching a long litany of pitchers for close to two hours, the camp coordinator told us to
go get in some swings in the cages, which were located smack-dab in between the major and
minor league clubhouses. I had taken a fastball in the dirt off my wrist so I stopped off at the
trainer's room to get some ice before I went to hit.
There was already a long line in there as the pitcher's who had thrown earlier, were icing down
their arms. Catching and blocking baseball's in 85 degree heat for almost two hours is like running
a half-marathon, so I wasn't in any hurry to go hit. The ice pack the trainer had given me,
and the 20 minute wait seemed to rejuvenate me before I had to make the trek over to the cages.
Once I got there, there were only few people around. The other position players didn't have to
catch in the bullpen all morning and most of them had already gotten their hitting in before
calling it a day. I stepped into the cages and took some swings off a coach who was positioned
about 45 feet away, the shorter distance forces you to react quicker and develop some at speed.
As I was taking my swings, I noticed a large figure walking down the alley between the cages,
out of the corner of my eye. He was coming from the major league camp where he had been
offering instruction to players like Wade Boggs, Jim Rice, and Dewey Evans. I kept swinging
and he kept walking toward the cage where I was. An adrenaline rush washed over my entire
body and I became more focused on the pitches that were traveling my way.
The footsteps of this large figure got louder and louder as I went through my hitting drills.
My heart started racing faster and faster and I was swinging harder and harder, drilling balls
into the nets of the cage. All of sudden, those footsteps stopped. This imposing figure, which
stood about 6'4" had stopped to watch me hit. There were only three people in this area of the
cage, the coach, who was throwing me batting practice, me, and one of the greatest hitters in
the history of the game.
He shouted out to me with this booming voice, "Now, open those hips and drive through the
ball". His voice was so unique, but very strong. It sounded a lot like John Wayne. But I knew
damn well who it was. After my follow through, I turned around to see Ted Williams staring
back at me. It was a moment that was so surreal, yet so powerful. I had seen Williams on tape
and books, but I had never seen him in person, and here he was, about to talk to me about hitting.
Just me and him.
Having Ted Williams talk to you about hitting, is like a musician getting tips from The Beatles
or Elvis. This was unbelievable. I'm not star struck and never got intoxicated by celebrity. Three months earlier, I was standing in a batter's box with Kevin Costner filming a scene for "Bull Durham", and I didn't consider it any big deal. This was a big deal. This was like Moses telling
me about the Ten Commandments. This was Ted Williams, a true American hero, talking to
me about hitting. I said to myself, "Oh my @*#$ God". Is this really happening?"
I stared at Williams as he was telling me about swinging with a slight uppercut, which I had
read and memorized from his book, "The Science of Hitting", and amazingly, I didn't see him
as a baseball icon. I saw him as a real, live American legend. He was telling me about finishing
high with my hands, but I wasn't really listening. Thoughts of him going through, not one, but
two tours of duty in the military during his baseball career, rushed through my head. That would
be like Albert Pujols taking a break from baseball to fight for his country. Twice That would
never happen in today's world.
Williams was a fighter pilot in World War II and the Korean War. He had the opportunity to
take a position that kept him out of battle, but Williams pretty much said, "screw that". He flew
39 combat missions in the Korean Ward. 39! The great General Douglas MacArthur was a big
fan of Williams and for his 40th MacArthur sent the Splendid Splinter a painting of himself with
a note that said,:
"To Ted Williams — not only America's greatest baseball player, but a great American who
served his country. Your friend, Douglas MacArthur. General U.S. Army.
I continued to take swings in the cage with Williams shouting out instructions to me. I said to
myself, "This is unreal. Nobody is going to believe this." After a few more swings, Williams
entered the cage, took the bat from my hands, and started to talk more about hitting. I looked
around to see a row of nothing but empty cages. If was still just Ted Williams, the coach
throwing batting practice, and me. I said to myself, "Wow. Here I am with the last man to hit over .400 in a season. Please, don't anybody wake me up."
Williams told me to keep working on my hitting. He said I should think about hitting "even when
you sleep. To be a great hitter, you have to hit all the time. Morning, noon, and night." I didn't
say anything, just nodded. He said he had to go and I didn't want the moment to end, so I said
"I'll walk out with you." As we left the dark cages, the world seemed so much brighter, the
sun proudly bursting as spring time approached. I was walking on sunshine, just having the
greatest baseball experience of my life.
There were a lot of fans who had lined the fence along the facility, and when they saw Ted
Williams appear, their eyes lit-up like bulbs on a Christmas trees. One of those fans was my
grandfather, who had made the journey from Sarasota to see me in spring training. My
grandfather had been a pitcher in the minor-league system of the New York Yankees and this
was a big thrill for him. I asked Williams if he could say hello to my grandfather and he did.
I left to go back to the training facility, thanked Williams for the time, and told my grandfather
I'd meet him after.
Years later, in 2004 , just before he died, my grandfather sent me a letter via mail. I opened
it, and out came a picture of me from my college days at UNC. On the back of the picture,
in the neat lettering of my grandfather, were the words and numbers: 3-15-88 Winter Haven,
FL. Training camp. And under it was the autograph of Ted Williams.
I did not know my grandfather had gotten Williams' autograph that day. He just told me what
a thrill it was for him to meet him. I have kept the picture and autograph in my wallet ever
since that day 9 years ago. It's a reminder of the special moment that both my grandfather and
I shared with Ted Williams.
That was 27 years ago today. I remember it like it just happened yesterday. A lot has happened
since that moment, but talking with Ted Williams about hitting is something that I'll never forget