Baseball intended to hold its final all-star game of the 20th century Tuesday night in Fenway Park. Instead, by a blessed serendipity, the evening came very close to summing up the entire century of baseball.
For one cool breezy evening that felt like a World Series in July, with the sky at dusk the same deep green as the famous left field wall as though heavens and park had been painted with the same brush, the best players of 1999 shared the field with many of the greatest players of the last 60 years.
Taking their places, a yard apart, from first base to second and second to third, were 31 players who had been selected earlier in the day to be among the 100 greatest players of all time. Who says there's no league higher than the Hall of Fame? Tuesday night, there was. Babe Ruth and Walter Johnson couldn't make it, but they'd have been proud of the youngsters, such as 80-year-old Bob Feller and 78-year-old Warren Spahn, who took their places.
Many in this crowd -- two seats together went for $1,950 each -- didn't quite understand the power and sweep of what they were about to see. Standing around the base paths in dark suits, Steve Carlton kibitzed with Roger Clemens and Al Kaline swapped tales with Reggie Jackson. Robin Roberts recalled how he once pitched 28 straight complete games to a delightfully incredulous Dennis Eckersley, who would have been out of a job if every pitcher of recent times had been like Robin.
As each player was introduced to the crowd by Kevin Costner, Cleveland's Jim Thome -- who loves to wear those old-school high-top socks -- was stretching in the outfield. Thome raised his hand and waved until Stan Musial, Carl Yastrzemski and Frank Robinson noticed him. Then, he made a fist and shook it toward them in a salute from one generation to its predecessor.
In the last row of the right field stands, Dan Murphy, a Red Sox season ticket holder from Springfield, Mass., was involuntarily talking to himself.
"This is unbelievable. I didn't know all these guys were going to be here," he said, in the general direction of his 12-year-old nephew, Joe Murphy Jr.
"Joe, in all the years I've been coming to games here, I've never seen anything like this," said the uncle. "It's amazing," said the boy, who just made an all-star team himself in the Wooden Bat League.
Is your dad here, someone asked Joe.
"My brother passed away a year ago. But he's here. He's got a better seat than we do," Dan Murphy said. The boy nodded and didn't cry.
Lots of people had a job holding their emotions together this evening. When 80-year-old Ted Williams was driven around the warning track in a golf cart so he could throw out the ceremonial first ball, he held a white cap above his head and rotated it, slowly and regally, as the Queen of England waves her hand to her subjects. However, by the time he reached the right field foul line, Teddy Ballgame's arm was tired -- age and strokes will do that -- until he lowered his good wing, saving his best stuff, no doubt, for the big pitch.
When Williams reached the mound, every all-timer and all-star gathered around him, protectively. Minutes before, jets had roared so low over Fenway that Willie Mays jokingly dropped into a mock fetal position. Fittingly, the only player on the field who might've been able to fly one of those fighter jets was Williams, who was a Navy ace in two wars.
As Williams bantered with Cal Ripken, Mark McGwire and his favorite modern player, eight-time batting champion Tony Gwynn, Ken Griffey Jr. circled the pack and, when he thought nobody was looking, asked Willie Mays for his autograph -- you know, one totally amazing No. 24 to another.
The capacity crowd, which had booed the traitorous Clemens and roared for Fisk and current Bosox heartthrob Nomar Garciaparra, absolutely tried to tear the place down for Williams. Why not? What harm would it do? After all, Fenway Park, christened the same week the Titanic embarked, is due to be sunk anyway in a few years in the name of sky boxes, profits and progress.
As Williams got to his feet uncertainly, evoking the achingly vulnerable Muhammad Ali lighting the Olympic flame in 1996, Gwynn understood what to do. Gently, he took Williams's left arm so Williams wouldn't topple as he threw to Fisk about 40 feet away. For two days here, players have talked about the seat 34 rows deep in the right field bleachers -- 502 feet from home plate -- where a Williams home run had once knocked off a fan's straw hat. Nobody in Monday night's home run contest came close to that spot and even McGwire's best blasts never quite reached 500 feet.
Now, could Williams throw the ball a dozen paces on the fly? You bet. With Gwynn's help, he reached Fisk easily. Why, the way they call the outside corner these days, it was probably a strike.
Williams's last act on the field was to fix American League starting pitcher Pedro Martinez with his gaze and give him the biggest grin you ever saw. It said, "You're a Red Sox. You have a job to do."
Talk about having big shoes to fill. On a night like this, almost everyone, except a few McGwires and Ripkens, seemed out of their league. Martinez, however, decided to jog the old-timers' memories. Remember that fellow Carl Hubbell, who once fanned Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons and Joe Cronin in a row back in 1934? Well, get a load of this.
As the Fenway faithful howled, Martinez began the game by striking out Barry Larkin, Larry Walker and Sammy Sosa -- swinging, looking and swinging. Then, he overmatched McGwire for his fourth straight whiff. Matt Williams spoiled the moment by reaching on an error on a routine grounder to Roberto Alomar. But Martinez finished his night's work by fanning Jeff Bagwell to start a double play as Ivan Rodriguez threw out Williams attempting to steal.
"I can count on my hands the players now who jump out at you the way Mays, Aaron and Williams did in my time. McGwire, Griffey, Frank Thomas. Sosa is coming," Hall of Famer Frank Robinson said. "Pedro Martinez is there. He's the Bob Gibson of this era. He's not intimidated. He pitches inside and doesn't care whether the hitters like it or not."
Virtually every contemporary player was shocked by the emotion he felt before this game. "I had one moment when I was emotional, but not for the strikeouts or the fans cheering for me," Martinez said. "It was just to see so many glories of the game at one time. I saw so many men I recognized as just names and numbers. There they were, people that you just dreamed of."
National League starter Curt Schilling's home is awash in tasteful baseball and World War II memorabilia.
"I'm a student of the game's history," Schilling said. "It got to me. . . . When I got to the mound, I couldn't breath for a few hitters."
Perhaps Walker, who has amassed Williams-like statistics in recent years, was the most moved. After coming out of the game, he still held a tuft of grass from Fenway's right field.
"When we all gathered around Ted, there were tears in his eyes," Walker said. "I turned away. It brought tears to my eyes. What an honor to stand on the field with Ted Williams and the other people who were out there. Just outstanding. I was in awe. I struck out in Fenway Park and hit a comebacker to the mound and I'm pretty proud of it."
Bostonians love their history, especially baseball history. "Do the people here eat and drink baseball?" Martinez said. The best moments in this old yard have been debated for years. Yet so many of them, ever since Ruth left, have been tainted with failure or sadness. Perhaps, as a kind of living literature, they were richer for that depth. No team makes you work so hard or dig so deep for your pleasures as the Red Sox.
Tuesday night was different. Fenway Park laid aside its Melvillian complexity, its darkness worthy of Hawthorne and its pinched, parched forever-unfulfilled version of pleasure that Dickinson would appreciate.
Instead, just once, a grand night in Fenway Park ended with big sentimental hugs all around, roaring cheers, plenty of tears and enough simple, inspirational fuel to send us flying into a new baseball century.
CAPTION: Former Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk, right, escorts Hall of Fame pitcher Warren Spahn.