TALK RADIO, PINCH HITTING FOR THE SPLINTER

September 1, 2009

Can you imagine Ted Williams on talk radio? The Boston Globe’s Bob Ryan wrote: “Any time there’s a little flare-up in player/fan/media relations in this town, I ask myself: “WWTD?’’
That’s “What Would Ted Do?’’
Talkin’ ’bout No. 9, The Splendid Splinter, The Thumper. How would The Thumper fare in this era of talk radio, Internet chat rooms, and Twitter? The mind truly boggles.
And yet when something like this mild flap stemming from the Kevin Youkilis comments to my colleague Dan Shaughnessy occurs, I like to turn it around. I wonder how some of today’s athletes would have coped in a Boston where there were seven daily newspapers and some very caustic columnists, and this in an era when everybody read somebody. If anyone thinks any of us are tough on players, managers, coaches, and general managers – but players, mostly, and one in particular – it’s only because that person is too young to remember the likes of Dave Egan and Austin Lake. We write Hallmark greeting cards compared with what those guys did.
Baseball has mattered in this town for more than 130 years. The famed Royal Rooters came into being in the 1890s. They traveled to Pittsburgh during the 1903 World Series and raised holy hell. They were the BoSox Club, only they drank more.
With that kind of deep interest has come media coverage. The passion has always been there. The only difference now is the method of providing interested fans with their daily fix of news and opinion. In the old days, fans had to vent through the printed press via letters and phone calls. Now a fan may vent by picking up the phone or jumping on a computer. Direct confrontation has always been an option, too.
There are two distinct items here. Media scrutiny is one thing, and a pure fan passion that can manifest itself in ways good or bad is another.
The idea of athletes and their bosses becoming upset when they are being panned is a given. Often people who appear to be enlightened do not, in crunch time, truly get it at all. Youk spoke the other day of the media “having our backs.’’ But that is not our role, and never has been.
Simply put, our job is to call ’em as we see ’em, and with that comes the assumption that we have the proper background to make judgments in the first place.
No writer or commentator will ever be 100 percent correct. When a judgment turns out to be incorrect, it should be an easy thing to say, “Looks like I was wrong.’’ And I would say that in the majority of cases a writer or commentator is personally pleased to be proven wrong if it means that something good is going on. For, contrary to a prevailing school of thought, most writers and commentators I know do not revel in team failure and conflict. We value a happy working place, and winning normally enhances that possibility.
The second item is trickier. Most players appreciate being in a place where there are large numbers of passionate fans, some more than others. Consider that Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Jonathan Papelbon, Jon Lester, Jacoby Ellsbury, Manny Delcarmen, and Daniel Bard, all products of the Red Sox farm system who joined the club after the 2004 championship season, have never played a game in Fenway in front of anything less than a capacity crowd. Think about it. It is all they know. Tell them about one Dave Morehead pitching a no-hitter here in 1965 before fewer than 2,000 people and they will look at you as if you’re describing a battle in the Peloponnesian Wars.
These fans don’t come to the ballpark in a vacuum. They go home and talk about the game, they jump on the computer, and they get on the phone. And there are hundreds of thousands like them, all over New England. They all feel they have an emotional investment in the team.
All this is good. The problem in the early 21st century is that baseball has been subtly hijacked by technology. Fans have always had opinions about player and managerial performance, but there was also an understanding that baseball was a game in which it took a long time to play things out. The greatest hitter goes 0 for 4 and strikes out three times. The greatest pitcher has a day in which he has nothing and gets tattooed for six earned runs in three innings. Teams can lose on days when they hit a half-dozen line-drive outs with men on base and win on days when all they can muster is a bloop single or two and a game-winning dribbler that doesn’t travel 40 feet. The worst team will beat the best team on occasion.
There is no more inconsequential sampling in American sport than one baseball game, or two, or five. Baseball was never meant to be football, a game played once a week and then dissected in detail the day after. Baseball is a game in which you’ve got to let go. Tomorrow is another day. But in this age of talk radio and Internet chats, people are encouraged to micro-manage on a daily basis. People are less forgiving.
Perspective and a common-sense approach to baseball are hard to find these days. Players don’t understand why fans don’t understand. Some, like the emotional and volatile Kevin Youkilis, say what they think. But others keep their counsel. What does 12-year veteran Jason Varitek think about all this? We don’t know. He doesn’t say. But he appears to cope very well with the reality of a ballplayer’s life in Boston. Perhaps he should give a seminar.
But, boy, what would Ted do?
HOST: Ted from the Hotel Kenmore, you’re on the air. CALLER: Hey, you chicken-neck geek, I oughta come down there and wring your neck. You think I’m kidding?”

 

 

 

“It happened so quickly — almost in the blink of an eye — that Carroll Hardy remembers precious few details.

It seemed so insignificant.

“Nobody thought a thing about it,” Hardy says. “It wasn’t a big deal, that’s for sure.”

The date was Sept. 20, 1960.

Hardy, a baseball journeyman, was nestled into his usual spot on the bench. The reserve outfielder and his Boston Red Sox teammates were in Baltimore, where Ted Williams was playing out the final days of his Hall of Fame career.Williams, arguably the greatest hitter in baseball history, stepped to the plate in the first inning against Orioles starter Hal “Skinny” Brown and promptly fouled a pitch off his instep.

“It hurt him so badly,” Hardy says of the Splendid Splinter, “that he limped off the field, through the dugout and up into the clubhouse. They said, ‘Hardy, get a bat; you’re the hitter.’ So I grabbed a bat and ran out there and hit into a double play.”

And that was that.

Or so Hardy thought.

It wasn’t until months later, when a Boston sportswriter called to tell him, that Hardy realized he had achieved trivia immortality: He was the only player ever to pinch-hit for Ted Williams.

“I had no idea,” he says.

For Hardy, now a 76-year-old grandfather living in Longmont, Colo., things like that just sort of happened.

His long career in professional sports, as a player and executive, had sort of a Forrest Gump quality to it.

“It wasn’t just Ted,” Hardy says.

In 1955, in his only season as a running back and wide receiver for the San Francisco 49ers, Hardy caught touchdown passes from Hall of Fame quarterback Y.A. Tittle.

Three years later, with the Cleveland Indians, he hit his first major league home run — as a pinch-hitter for Roger Maris.

Hardy also played a role in Williams’ major league finale. Williams, after hitting a home run in his final at-bat, briefly took the field in the ninth inning at Fenway Park before Hardy was summoned to replace him.

“They booed me all the way out,” Hardy notes, repeating a line he has trotted out before, “and cheered him all the way in.”

The next year, Hardy pinch-hit three times for rookie Carl Yastrzemski, another future Hall of Famer, and went two for three. (Yaz was lifted for a pinch-hitter 48 times in his career.)

Then, after leaving baseball in 1967, Hardy spent 20 years as a player personnel executive with the Denver Broncos, helping put together three teams that reached the Super Bowl.

“I was there,” Hardy notes, “when John Elway came in.”

Of course he was.

Still, it was Hardy’s association with Williams, slim though the thread may have been, that kept his name alive.

“When I was working with the Broncos,” he says, “I rarely got asked for an autograph. But as soon as Ted Williams passed away and it was noted that Carroll Hardy was the only guy who ever pinch-hit for him, I started getting all these letters.”

Hardy says many of the autograph hounds are specific: “They want me to sign my name and then add in quotes, ‘The only man ever to pinch-hit for Ted Williams, Sept. 20, 1960.’ ”

Which he does.

“It’s amusing,” he says. “When my friends hear about it, they say, ‘We didn’t realize you were such a celebrity.’ ”

In Colorado, Hardy was somewhat of a local big shot long before he morphed into a correct answer in Trivial Pursuit. A native of Sturgis, S.D., he lettered in football, baseball and track at the University of Colorado, setting school records that still stand — 6.9 yards a carry, .392 lifetime batting average — and posting a personal best of 9.8 seconds in the 100-yard dash. The most valuable player in the Hula Bowl, he was the 34th pick in the 1955 NFL draft.

After signing with both the Indians and 49ers, Hardy picked baseball over football after his only NFL season.

“I enjoyed it,” he says of his short time with the 49ers, “but it’s a tough sport. I wasn’t the most physical guy around, and I took some pretty good shots. I always thought that I could play longer and have a better career in baseball.”

In the major leagues, however, Hardy never reached great heights. He played for four teams over eight seasons, batting .225 with 17 home runs and 113 runs batted in.

“I can’t say that it was a great career,” he says.

As his career wound down, Hardy started scouting for the Broncos. Later, he moved seamlessly into an executive role with the team, remaining on the job for two decades before retiring in 1988 to a life of golfing, skiing, hunting and fishing.

“I’ve had a good life,” he says.

Including a brush with celebrity.

Even now, Hardy notes, “I probably sign cards or baseballs for people maybe four or five times a week.”

All because, one evening in Baltimore in 1960, he happened to be in the right place at the right time.”

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