It was 20 years ago.
July 13, 1999.
When the All-Star Game came to Fenway.
These were days before anybody had heard of Tom Brady or David Ortiz. It was before Boston’s 21st-century run of championship seasons. In those days, the only John Henry we knew was John Henry Williams, son of the greatest hitter who ever lived.
Ted Williams was in Boston that week. For the final time of his life.
Ted stayed at the Four Seasons. He was 80 years old and visually impaired. A couple of strokes had diminished his physical prowess. He didn’t like to travel, but agreed to one final pilgrimage to Boston. To Fenway.
Those were the first years of the Ted Williams Tunnel, which was still not open to everyday traffic. In ’99, Ted’s tunnel was restricted to taxis and commercial vehicles. Ted had been given an honorary pass from Governor William Weld when he came to Boston for the tunnel’s dedication (1995), but that didn’t stop the cops from pulling over Ted’s son when he was caught driving through the tunnel during Ted’s visit. When John Henry Williams produced the pass, he was allowed to proceed without penalty.
The first stop on Ted’s six-day return visit was the Jimmy Fund, where he was introduced to 63-year-old Einar Gustafson — the original “Jimmy” of Jimmy Fund lore. For decades, everyone in New England, including Ted Williams, assumed “Jimmy” had died, but in 1998 Gustafson emerged from the backwoods of Maine and had proof that he had been the child Dr. Sidney Farber selected to represent young cancer patients in 1948. Williams, the godfather of all Jimmy Fund children, was heartened to meet the original poster boy.
“This is the biggest thrill of my trip, right here!’’ Ted said before the two visited with young patients.
There would be more thrills for Ted and Boston before the trip was over.
Home Run Derby was at the height of its popularity in 1999. We were a year removed from the phony, headline-gripping home run chase between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa and the prospect of the contest unfolding at homerlicious Fenway was wildly exciting. Three days before the contest, Williams predicted the winner.
“That McGwire is gargantuan, but [Ken Griffey Jr.] would be my pick,’’ said Teddy Ballgame. “For hitting the ball consistently, maybe he is the best.’’
Globe photographer Stan Grossfeld, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, wanted to shoot the Derby but was not issued a credential because the Sox were angry about a photo that appeared in his book on Fenway Park (disclosure: I was co-author). The “controversial” photo was a shot of Sox catcher Scott Hatteberg using the urinal that adorned the hallway tunnel leading from the Red Sox dugout to the clubhouse.
It was a benign shot — taken from behind — of a fully uniformed Hatteberg standing at the trough doing his business. Hatteberg liked it so much he asked Grossfeld for a copy to hang on the wall of his rec room at home. But the Sox didn’t like it and banned Grossfeld from the Derby. Resourceful Stan worked other channels, acquiring a cherry-picker permit from Mayor Tom Menino. Stan set up shop in his aerial work platform on Lansdowne Street and, at the start of the Derby, we were treated to the sight of Grossfeld, camera in hand, rising on a hydraulic lift from the far side of the Green Monster. Sox brass fumed. Working outside and above Fenway, Stan had the best view and got the best photos.
In mid-Derby, WBZ reporter Alice Cook and her 6-year-old son ventured onto the roof of the parking garage across Lansdowne where the McGwire-Sosa homers were crash-landing.
“It was like a snowstorm of baseballs,’’ recalled Cook. “I scrambled after one of them and put it in my pocket. Gave it to Bob Lobel and he used it for a ‘bounce test’ on ‘Sports Final’ proving that the Derby balls were juiced.’’
One of Griffey’s Derby homers was caught in the right-field grandstand by young Berj Najarian, who would later become consigliere for Bill Belichick. Griffey won the Derby. As predicted by Ted.
On the night of the actual game — 20 years ago Saturday — baseball unveiled its All-Century team and Kevin Costner introduced the likes of Bob Feller, Stan Musial, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and Sandy Koufax. The greatest, and oldest living member of the team was Williams, who arrived last — on a golf cart driven by grounds crew member Al Forester, who’d worked at Fenway in Ted’s playing days.
Everyone knows the story of Ted throwing out the first pitch to Carlton Fisk, then basking in the love of the All-Century greats, and modern-day All-Stars. Given the combination of old and new, this was without doubt the greatest assemblage of baseball talent ever gathered on one diamond, but that didn’t stop almighty television from trying to ruin the moment. When the Ted lovefest ran too long, network executives got nervous and we had a hideous PA announcement requesting that the greatest players of all time “please clear the field.’’
Ted went upstairs to enjoy the pregame ceremonies. He particularly loved the flyover when the Green Mountain Boys buzzed Fenway from 700 feet, shattering windows in the Back Bay in an effort to impress Williams, who flew 38 combat missions during the Korean War. The pilots visited Ted in roof box 22 during the game.
Another visitor was young Matt Damon, who’d already won the Oscar for “Good Will Hunting,’’ but trembled in the presence of Ted Williams. Damon was raised by a hitting coach — the late Kent Damon taught young hitters at Newton North High School — and was prepared for Ted’s grilling.
“I read your book, ‘The Science of Hitting,’ ” said Matt Damon.
“Oh yeah?’’ said Ted. “Then tell me what’s the most important message in that book?’’
“Get a good pitch to hit,’’ said Damon.
The correct answer.
Ted loved that.
Like everyone, Williams was dazzled when Pedro Martinez struck out five batters — Barry Larkin, Larry Walker, Sosa, McGwire, and Jeff Bagwell — in his two innings of work. The 1999 Pedro was at the height of his Hall of Fame powers and was named All-Star MVP after the American League’s 4-1 win.
Everything else about that game is a blur. And none of it matters. We had the man and the moment. And perhaps the greatest night in the history of old Fenway.