WASHINGTON, DC --- I’m not afraid to admit that despite years of writing about people -- regular folks, famous celebrities and infamous crooks -- I’m not immune to being star struck when I see or meet a particularly interesting person.
Not to be a name dropper, but I’ve met and seen my share of senators, governors and presidents. I even met a Supreme Court Justice once at Opening Day at old RFK Stadium.
Opening Day is like that for baseball fans. Part religious experience, part giant cocktail party, part fun and games. Grown men can still act like little kids when Opening Day arrives. And on Opening Day, fans can get excited about meeting celebrities.
But as fun as all that is, it’s nothing compared to meeting my boyhood idols.
For a young boy growing up in the 1960s and ‘70s, baseball players were my idols. And, as I got older, that feeling of boyhood amazement never seemed to leave me ---when it comes to a few special players.
For instance, when I met Mickey Mantle, I could barely get the questions out of my mouth. I was totally and completely awestruck because Mantle was my boyhood hero. I actually met him at an insurance conference. I did the interview, and I still remember the lead to that story, nearly 38 years ago:
“One half of the M&M Boys was in town yesterday,” I wrote for The Springfield Daily News in Missouri. “But take away the thinning gray hair, and the wrinkles, and it’s still him. It’s The Mick.”
It was a few days before Opening Day for the Kansas City Royals in 1980. Mantle was in town on a junket to make some money and hustle some guys on the golf course.
At this point Mickey was past his prime, drinking heavily, but still handsome, charming and limping with that famous gait of his. Long gone was the three-time MVP (1956-57, ’62) physique.
Mantle won the Triple Crown, hit 536 homers, and was a formidable presence in the Yankees lineup for nearly 18 years. Blond, muscular with a lilting Oklahoma twang, Mantle made men sigh and women swoon.
Half of the M&M Boys
Still on that day, despite the aging, it was The Mick for sure, and I enjoyed every moment. He muddled through the interview. By then, Maris, the other half of the M&M Boys, was a successful businessman. Mantle was working insurance conventions to make some money. So, in some ways it was bittersweet to talk to Mickey. But it was still a privilege.
Years later, I was taking a client out to dinner in New York at an Italian restaurant in midtown Manhattan. It wasn’t a big place, and all the patrons could easily see one another. We had spent the day on a media tour at The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Time, Businessweek and The New York Daily News. My client, a telecomm executive, was very happy, and excited about all the interviews we had been on that day. She was from Denver, and was enjoying the big city with all its glitter.
I was trying to act cool, outlining the next day’s agenda, when a flash of white hair with a toothy grin caught the corner of my eye.
Suddenly, I started to sweat. My pupils must have dilated, and my heart rate jumped.
“What’s wrong with you?” my client asked. “You look like you’ve just seen a ghost or something.”
“It’s no ghost,” I said. “It’s the Yankee Clipper.”
“Who is that?” she said.
“Yep, that’s him all right. That’s Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio.” I said.
Joe was sporting a young blonde woman at his table. She was something out of central casting, with Barbie looks and amazing high heels. She was lovely.
As was Joe.
Immaculate in a dark blue suit, with a light blue shirt and dark tie, he was, as always, sartorially splendid. DiMaggio’s reputation as being a great clotheshorse, as well as a ladies man (after all, he was married to Marilyn Monroe), all came together in that restaurant before our very eyes. The fact that he was an amazing hitter, a former captain of the New York Yankees, in the Hall of Fame, and an all-around American icon, all came together that night.
DiMaggio, he of the 56-game hitting streak in 1941, of the multiple Most Valuable Player awards, nine World Series rings, etc. Maybe the greatest center fielder the Yankees have ever had. And there he was, sitting not five yards from our table.
My client started to make fun of me.
“You’re acting like you are seven years old,” she said. “Are you going to go up to him and ask for his autograph?”
I was aghast.
“You don’t do that to celebrities in New York,” I said. “Joe deserves his privacy. Act like you don’t see him,” I said as I kept peaking a glance at him every 15 seconds.
But at the end of our meal, I did get up the nerve to go up to his table, much to the restaurant Maitre‘D’s horror.
“I just wanted to shake your hand,” I said. “I’m a huge fan. It’s an honor.”
DiMaggio was nothing but polite. He stood, reached out and shook my hand. I couldn’t help but notice three things:
The championship ring.
The Yankee logo cuff links.
The monogram on the left cuff of his pale blue shirt. It said: “Yankee Clipper,” which of course was among the famous monikers the press gave Joe.
“Pleased to meet you,” he said.
I asked him how throwing out the first pitch on Opening Day at Yankee Stadium had been earlier that day.
“Big crowd. Always good to be at home,” Joe said. He, of course, had been a Yankee his entire career.
I said something, thanked him, and then we left.
Out on the street, my client still didn’t understand all the fuss.
“I mean, I get it, he was a baseball player,” she said. “But WHO was he?”
I thought about it a moment. “Do you know the Simon and Garfunkel song Mrs. Robinson?” I asked her.
“Yes,” she said. “So?”
“Do you know the line, ‘Where have you gone Joe DiMiaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you, whoo hoo hoo?”’
“Yeah, I know that song,” she said, her eyes lighting up.
“Well, that’s DiMaggio. That’s the Yankee Clipper. And you even saw it on his shirt cuff,” I said. “That was one of the coolest things you’ll ever do.”
Years later, I mentioned meeting DiMaggio to Art Garfunkel himself backstage after Garfunkel’s solo concert at Wolf Trap, outside Washington.
Garfunkel smiled. “I love Joe D,” said Art.
I’d like to tell you the third leg in this stool of Opening Day stories features more cool stuff. It doesn’t.
But as I was sitting in the Red Porch Restaurant in center field during batting practice on Monday at Nationals Park, at yet another Opening Day, I couldn’t help but think about another legend still in our midst.
In many ways he is a completely different ballplayer than Mantle, who was power and speed; or DiMaggio, who had timing and grace.
Shagging balls in center field, standing no more than 75 feet from me was Ichiro Suzuki.
Now Pete Rose has more hits.
Babe Ruth is more famous.
And Ted Williams had a much sweeter swing.
But for my money, I think Ichiro may be among the greatest to have ever played baseball.
Suzuki is now 43, and a part-time player on a mediocre Miami Marlins team. What’s amazing about him is that he now has 4,308 total hits, albeit over two different careers. The first career, in Japan, where he had 1,278 hits; and an additional 3,030 hits (as of this writing) in the Major Leagues in the United States. Add that up, and Ichiro has 4,308 hits. The official major league record belongs to Pete Rose, who had 4,256 hits --- all with Cincinnati, Philadelphia and Montreal in the majors.
Sleek and Lithe
In his story this week in the April 2017 edition of Esquire, Alex Belth describes him this way: “Ichiro is sleek and lithe, his ascetic face framed by wraparound shades. His gloves are handmade, his bats rest in a humidor, and the insouciant way he glides on the field is imbued with a sense of efficiency and purpose.
“He’s just cool,” said Marlins Manager (and former Yankee great) Don Mattingly. “Watch him catch a fly ball or throw the ball in --- there’s a unique flair in everything he does.” Bleth wrote.
Consistency is a hallmark of greatness. And perhaps no one has been more consistently excellent when it comes to hitting than Ichiro.
Strictly a singles hitter, he helped show how a simple base hit can often be much more important than a home run. This machine-like consistency has allowed him to collect more than 200 hits in each of his first 10 seasons, including an MLB-record 262 hits in 2004. In fact, as a part-time player last season, at 42, when most players are well past retirement, Ichiro hit .291 with 91 hits. You can look it up.
Rose was a very fine hitter; perhaps a flawed human being, but still, a great player.
Ichiro is both a great person and an amazing hitter. He is funny, polite, reportedly a great teammate and is willing to chat with reporters. Nice, humble and as you now see, he can hit better than, well, anyone.
Unfortunately, Ichiro didn’t get to play on Monday. If he had played, and gotten the game-winning hit, it would have been a great end to this story.
Instead, the Nationals won the game 4-2. Another emerging star, Bryce Harper, hit a huge home run.
Ichiro never got into the game.
Still, I now realize I spent much of the game Monday watching Ichiro, not Harper. I strained my neck to catch a glimpse of Ichiro on the dugout steps. As with the other greats, my heart skipped a beat whenever he walked past my seat.
Harper, the sports writers tell us, is much more in the vein of Mantle than DiMaggio or Ichiro. When all is said and done, 20 years from now, we shall see how Harper stacked up against the other players mentioned here.
Will Harper have a greater career than DiMaggio? Will he hit more home runs than Mantle? Will he have more hits than Ichiro?
It is worth mentioning that in all five of his appearances on Opening Day in his young career -- Harper has slammed a home run. None of the others mentioned in this story ever did that in their first five years. In fact, at age 25, no player in baseball history has hit more home runs than Bryce Harper.
We shall see.
Meanwhile, as much as I enjoy watching Harper play, my pulse doesn’t race when I see him. My hand doesn’t tremble, and my mind doesn’t wander to days of yesteryear.
Harper is good. Very good. Maybe, someday, even great.
But the little boy in me doesn’t feel the excitement when I see Bryce Harper. Not like it did with The Yankee Clipper, The Mick, or the Amazing Ichiro.
And I doubt it ever will.
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