By Joe Flynn. Every member of Red Sox nation has a story of how they became indoctrinated into the fanaticism of that beloved team. Those collective stories become woven into the nostalgic fabric of baseball folklore in Boston.
My tale is perhaps an unusual one, but the end result converted me into a Red Sox fan of manic proportion. It occurred in the summer of my 5th year of life. I was just beginning to assemble ideas, formulate notions and thoughts. Like all children of that age, I was a sponge to the temperament of the adults around me. Their emotions were my weather vane and so, as their moods swung, so did my own. There was a certain degree of excitement brewing in my home in the summer of 62’.
My cousin, Martin Tierney, a rather roguish Irish man, was our houseguest for the summer. He was over from Ireland and feeling out our country with the goal of immigrating. Martin was a boisterous, egotistic man with a quick wit but a rather oafish, uncultured way about him. After several weeks, his welcome had worn as we became weary of his foreign arrogance, but we still hosted him unselfishly.
What we were to discover about Martin though, was that in Ireland, he was the national fly fishing champion. That simple fact was brought to our family’s attention by none other than Ted Williams himself. Beyond his baseball legend status, Ted Williams was also a prolific fly fisherman and somehow, through the magical network of fly fishermen, Ted came to discover that Martin was staying as a guest in our home. Upon learning that, he took great strides to seek him out. How the dots connected for these two men, remains to this day, a complete mystery to me.
When Ted Williams called, our house was abuzz with excitement. My father answered the phone and the family circled around that one wall hung phone in hopes of overhearing some or all of the conversation. My father, who was not a baseball fan, was cordial but not overly exuberant. He had never been the type to genuflect over celebrities and, while he knew of Ted Williams and his prominence in baseball history, he was seemingly unphased.
Unfortunately, Martin was not at home to receive that call. When Ted Williams asked if Martin would consider going fly fishing with him, my father accepted on Martin’s behalf and tentative plans were made. As the Saturday drew closer, it was clear that Martin would need to borrow my older brother Tommy’s fly fishing gear. Tommy, who was not a fan of Martin – in any way – protested and refused to allow such a gratuity. He claimed that his hand tied flies were of great emotional value to him and he was concerned that Martin would either lose or destroy them. That act of defiance though, was powerful and just enough to throw a considerable monkey wrench in the entire outing.
My father’s solution was that he would volunteer to go along on the fishing trip and safeguard my brothers fishing gear. Tommy, though still bristling with bitter anger, could not launch a reasonable argument as to why that would not be an appropriate caretaking response. The fishing trip was back on.
The day of that outing, my dad and Martin left the home well before dawn and none of us saw them depart. The day wore on and we all collectively imagined what it must have been like to be fishing – with the Splendid Splinter.
Me? While I knew of the name Ted Williams, the rise in his career occurred at the beginning of my life. I was just learning how to walk and talk as he was taking his last at-bat in Fenway Park. Our worlds, had just barely intersected chronologically, but yet – I still knew who he was. Ted Williams was a legend, and even at a young age of 5, I understood that this man, was indeed, larger than life.
I went to bed that night, at the prescribed early hour, but remember not really sleeping. My little brain was filled with excitement and wonderment. It was several hours into that fruitless sleep that I stirred, hearing loud voices coming from the kitchen. I sat up straight. I sat there and listened intently. There was a new voice in our home. It was a deep, masculine voice and I knew instinctively that it must have been Ted.
I considered all the martial punishments that my father would later dole out, and then decided that it was definitely worth the risk to leave the comfort of my bed, creep quietly down the hall and spy on the kitchen’s activities. It was a risky, bold move for a 5 year old as I think back, but my emotional options, were limited.
I perched myself in the adjacent dining room, beneath the table and studied the activity in the kitchen. There at our kitchen table, sat my dad and Ted. There was a USMC rifle and a bottle of Jack Daniels on the table and the two men were exchanging war stories as only two Marine veterans could. The drunken bond they shared was not of baseball, nor was it fly fishing – but rather, war. Their voices were raised, excited, booming. They laughed at the tales of wartime comedy and choked back the tears as they shared their individual losses of comrades. I sat there wide-eyed, fascinated, and completely sucked into the exchange between these two heroes of mine.
I lost my balance and in trying to regain, a dining room chair spilled backward to the floor. My father rushed into the room, turning on the lights. He was filled with drunken rage and quite ready to unleash his paternal anger at me. I started to wail in the kind of fear that only a 5 year old could muster. Ted came to my rescue, laughing heartily at the innocence of the moment. He gently ushered my dad back to the kitchen, then grabbed me by the forearm and dragged me from beneath the dining room table. He spoke directly to me, his eyes glassy – his smile big and toothy. I stared up at him and while I had much to say, I was at a complete loss for words at that very moment. He ended that brief conversation by telling me that it was okay and asked me if I would like to be his guest at Fenway Park. I nodded politely.
Two weeks later, I sat with my Dad in the seats that Ted Williams had given us. I was perched there in Fenway Park – filled with the kind of magical wonder that any child would, over that first experience in America’s little bandbox. But I was enriched with a different tale, a different reference point. I was sitting in Ted Williams’ seats!
Every year after that, my father, again – not a lover of baseball, would take me to Fenway Park for my birthday. It was our way of bonding, of remembering a truly magical, albeit completely accidental night. My dad would sit there by my side, proud and fatherly while my heart would pound away to every single moment of that baseball experience.
And the Splendid Splinter – would never leave our hearts, for a single moment.
And that – is how I became a lifelong Red Sox fan.