The summer of '69 was so much more than a moonwalk. For a young boy in Washington, D.C., it was about two names: Vince Lombardi and Ted Williams.
The Redskins and Senators had been awful my entire life -- all eight years of it -- and now these two men were being introduced to me on the Channel 9 news by Warner Wolf. Lombardi to coach the Redskins! Williams to manage the Senators! It was surely impossible. But by the summer of '69, the Redskins were actually in training camp with Green Bay's coach, and the Senators were somehow in third place. Who could sleep?
It ended badly, of course. Lombardi, after one 7-5-2 season, died in 1970, and Williams' Senators were packed up and moved to Texas by '71. If innocence can end over the relocation of a baseball team and its manager, then so be it. It's what happened to me.
And so the news came last week that Ted Williams died, and while it was a sad day for the people who saw him play, there are some of us who only saw him manage. We're the ones who saw him protect Frank Howard with Mike Epstein, who saw him turn Eddie Brinkman into a hitter. We're the ones who saw the last winning season in Washington Senators history, in the summer of '69. The last summer we loved baseball.
By the summer of '70, the Senators had nose-dived again. They had acquired Curt Flood and Denny McLain -- has-beens -- and, from a distance, Ted Williams seemed bored. Lombardi had died, and now Williams was dying to quit -- life, for a 9-year-old, doesn't get any worse than that.
"He was just unhappy about the overall lack of talent on our team, I think,'' says one of his former Washington players, Jeff Burroughs. "That's why I thought he got tired of managing real quick. Because the team got worse and worse.
"After a while, I think he was just kind of along for the ride. Manage out the contract. You had the feeling he just couldn't wait to get out of there. The way he acted. The team was so lousy for so long. He probably would've much rather been fishing somewhere. That was the feeling most of the players got."
The summer of '69, Ted Williams had been so eager to teach, so eager to talk hitting with even the 25th player. He'd even been voted manager of the year, by year's end. But, by the summer of '70, maybe the cliché had come true; maybe super-great players can't become super-great managers.
"He just couldn't understand why we all weren't .400 hitters,'' Burroughs says.
It didn't help that Ted Williams was getting old by the summer of '70, that he was aging. That he needed a hearing aid and didn't even know it. "He was quite a spectacle -- with his bad hearing and his loud voice,'' Burroughs says. "We had to yell, too, because he couldn't hear himself talk, so he'd always be screaming. It didn't matter if he was ordering breakfast or teaching hitting or whatever. You could hear that guy coming like 10 miles away. I really believe he thought nobody else could hear him. So he'd basically be screaming all the time.
"But he was a good man. He just got frustrated by our lack of ability, as a ballclub. You could just see he wasn't too enthusiastic after a while. The first year he was real enthusiastic, and it seemed after that he just kind of got less and less. The team had gone into the crapper, and he got more and more fed up with everybody. I don't blame him. I would've too, with that team."
That team, as we said, now belongs to Alex Rodriguez and Co. It is still a nothing team, still in need of a 1969 Ted Williams.
But, then again, aren't we all?
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