By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist
If we measure years in losses, this was a very big year. Johnny U and Teddy Ballgame are gone.
We lost Ted's wrists, cocked back like a hammer on a gun, all clean action and pop. Even years after he stopped playing, the hands couldn't stand to be idle and batless -- they had to swing, cut the air, feel the line, sense the moment, take a cut. They found their form, became useful, bundled at the knob of the bat. The bat, too, was somehow more its righteous, lyrical self when it sidled up to them.
Gone is the Unitas flat-top -- the sharp edge that seemed to cut back against a cutting wind, that seemed to be a dictionary sketch alongside the word "steadfast."
Gone are the Williams eyes. Could they really see the stitches on the ball in flight? Could they actually take a snapshot of the moment when leather meets wood? Could they see the flaws in another hitter's swing almost instantly? Could they stare into the soul of a pitcher, and spot the spot he wanted to hit before he did?
The thought and feeling -- the sense -- of throwing maybe the sweetest, tightest, most pointed and purposeful ball that's ever been thrown (over and over again, on big plays, insignificant plays and sidelines warm-up drills) is no more.
The idea (the ideal) that runs from the batter's head to his fingers, and comes bolting back on contact as a delicious shiver straight to the satisfied heart, is no more.
The quiet confidence has passed.
The brilliant bounce and strut is a thing of the past.
Forty-seven straight TD-games, .406. Numbers in books, not flesh.
The Colt and the Kid are done.
They're not completely gone, of course, because they remain in us and for us as images and ideas.
Bum a ride in Baltimore this afternoon. Just wave your hand on a street corner. Odds are, some kind soul will pick you up and take you where you need to go. Along the way, he'll tell you Johnny U used to do the same for people all the time, even when he was a big-shot quarterback. He'll tell you that was the thing about Johnny: He was one of the guys, and at the same time, he wasn't; he was basic and basically great, like us and like no one we'd ever seen.
Stop a guy on the street in Boston today and he'll tell you a Splendid Splinter story -- one of his own, one his dad told him, one that's been making the rounds for years. Ask him to describe the swing and he'll stumble and reach for words that sweep upward, move quickly, seem perfectly timed and big enough to suit their occasion, whatever the occasion. He'll try for these words, then he'll smile quietly, just glad for the chance to think of Williams, and hopeful he'll get the chance again tomorrow.
These guys, and folks just like them all over Baltimore and New England, and all over the country, carry Unitas and Williams around with them. They have for years and will for all the years they've got left, and they'll pass their memories on to their kids and grandkids. The legends aren't going anywhere.
Still, there's an emptiness about heading into '03 without the men themselves.
We have footage and photographs. We can watch Unitas shuffle back and peer ahead. We can look back on Williams going head-to-head with Joe D in '41, or going deep for the last time in his last AB in 1960. These things inspire. They stoke the fires of our devotion. They'll sustain our feeling for Johnny the hero and Ted the legend.
Still, even though it's been decades since either one took a snap or a swing, knowing they're gone gets us.
They were fixed stars and we gravitated around them. Without them, we float a little more untethered and anxious in the world.
We can remember coming into their orbits. We were young, they were invincible. We were who we were in relation to them: a Unitas man, the son or grandson of a Unitas man; one of the Williams tribe, as long as we could remember -- forever, it seemed. Who are we now, without the star at the center of our system? Will we hold together? What paths will we follow without them? If they're vulnerable, what kind of peril must we be in, what kind of time must be passing and taking its toll on us?
And maybe what gets us as much as anything is the thought that icons -- the kind a league is built on and a city is fiercely loyal to, the kind major league players gather around on the infield grass at the All-Star game -- are a rare, maybe vanishing, breed. We still have Willie Mays. Jim Brown. Who else, really? We lose two like Unitas and Williams and we wonder, who will replace them, who will generate the feelings of awe and devotion we felt for them? Brett Favre is a marvelous player. Is he an icon? Will he ever be? Barry Bonds is a transcendent hitter. Is he an icon? Can we imagine it? We lose these two giants, and we wonder: Are there more coming? Will others feed our imaginations and bear up under the weight of our expectations in the same steady, spectacular way? Will we gravitate again?
And so, we miss the men.
Eric Neel reviews is a regular columnist for Page 2. You can e-mail him at email@example.com.