Like the Irish Chieftains of Old
They Boldly Went Forth, Seeking Adventure
During the Roaring Twenties anything was possible
for those who dreamed big and were willing to risk it all.
This is the story of two men who traveled different paths,
yet whose fates were inextricably entwined.
Theirs is a tale of love and lust,
truth and deception,
history and fantasy,
damnation and redemption—
Boston, Massachusetts — September 1997
The Sox had lost again. There would be no Impossible Dream this year.
The groundwork for this latest Beantown failure had been laid two seasons previously when, angered by an early playoff exit, management had deemed it necessary to stock the ball club with a lineup of designated hitters who couldn’t field. Errors abounded, pitchers trying to be too fine were lit up, and arguably the franchise’s best ever hurler had defected to Toronto. One manager had already paid with his job, and his successor wasn’t faring any better. More than one veteran was demanding to be traded at the end of the season, and the notoriously critical Boston sportswriters were circling like buzzards. Another autumn of discontent in New England.
As the last of the “businessman’s special” fans shuffled out of Fenway’s red brick portals the fleeting September sun cast shadows upon most of the grandstand where the cleanup crew was already at work. Some were using gas powered blowers strapped to their backs to shepherd the empty cups, peanut shells and hot dog wrappers to the lower levels while others known as “pickers” moved among the ancient, straight-backed blue and red wooden chairs with large Hefty bags, flipping up seat bottoms with a series of snaps that resounded like a string of firecrackers.
Dominic D’Ambrosio slung his red usher’s jacket over his shoulder and made his way down through the higher-priced, red curved-back plastic seats to the area behind home plate where Clancy sat. Dom’s feet hurt, tips had been poor that day, and on top of that, he’d promised Maria to pick up Chinese takeout on the way home. If it weren’t for Clancy, he’d be long gone. Hell, this was getaway day; even the ballplayers were probably on their way out to the team bus by now to start the season’s last road trip. Dom was grateful for the week he’d have off. Of course, he wouldn’t tell Clancy that. The old man would say he was blaspheming or some such shit.
It wasn’t that he disliked the old guy, far from it. Quite to his surprise, Clancy had welcomed him warmly when Dom had come aboard in midseason. Nobody could say how old Clancy was—you never asked—but management was aware he was slowing down and would need a replacement soon. As the senior usher, Clancy could’ve made Dom’s life miserable, but from day one, he’d clamped onto the young Italian with the fervor of a televangelist. Besides being shown the ropes and every nook and cranny of the old park, Dom had to endure an almost daily diatribe on the beauty of baseball, the Red Sox, and Fenway, not necessarily in that order. After every game Dom would make the trek to Clancy’s area behind home plate to sit and listen to him ruminate on the glories of the National Pastime as he sucked on an old briar pipe. With his faded red usher’s hat pushed back on his thin silver hair, loosened tie and too-big uniform, Clancy suggested an elongated Barry Fitzgerald from the old Bing Crosby movies. He was a living legend at Fenway. Even the ballplayers, who generally regarded the stadium workers as somewhere below plankton on the food chain, found the time to talk to him.
Dom sighed as he approached the old man, whose pipe sent wispy trails of smoke skyward. He thought back to his first day on the job. There he was, a 30-year-old Guido from Little Italy, taking this job to supplement his income as a sanitation worker—the hours meshed perfectly—to ease the financial strain on his wife and three young daughters. Like everybody else in his neighborhood, he’d played some ball as a kid, nothing special. He’d followed the Sox, even traded their bubblegum cards, until cars, girls, marriage, and finally kids had pushed baseball way down on the priority list. Then, at the D’Ambrosio Christmas Eve feast at his aunt Rose’s, he’d casually mentioned to his favorite uncle how his family was feeling the pinch. Uncle Carmine, a small, dark man with a perpetual five o’clock shadow, had chewed his scungilli thoughtfully, then snapped his fingers—which sent some fra diavolo sauce flying—and said, “I tell you what. I take care of Mr. Harrington’s lawn. He’s the guy who runs the Red Sox. I bet he could find you something there, at Fenway. Maybe a vendor, tickets, whatever. And you get to go to the ballgames!”
“Sounds good to me, Uncle Carmine,” was Dom’s reply.
When he’d relayed this story to Clancy that first day the Irishman had rolled his eyes. “But do you love it, boy?” the man had practically cried out.
“Love what, Mr. Clancy?”
“This!” the old man blurted, sweeping his arm across the bleachers out to the Green Monster. “The smell of the grass, peanuts roastin’, the pop of baseballs striking leather, bats crackin’, the organ playin’?” He dropped his voice to a conspiratorial tone. “Where do they play organs, boy?” he whispered.
“I said where do they play organs, boy?”
“Aye,” he smiled, “an’ that’s yer first lesson. This is a cathedral, boy, and you’re to learn to treat it with respect, with reverence. You and I, we’ve got the greatest job in the world.”
“Ballpark ushers?” Dom hadn’t wanted to aggravate the man, but he couldn’t hold his tongue. “C’mon, Mr. Clancy,” he said, “wouldn’t you rather be, like, a ballplayer?”
Clancy held up a gnarled hand, which now clutched a wooden match. “Yes and God bless all here,” was his reply. With a flourish, he struck the match on a nearby seat and lit his pipe, smiling all the while.
That same pipe now drew Dom to the old man like a magnet. He settled into the seat next to Clancy and began, diplomatically, “Listen, Mr. Clancy, I’d like to stay with you a while but—” Then he saw the pipe, bowl side down, beginning to burn a hole in the old man’s jacket. “Jesus Christ,” Dom said as he swiped the pipe away, all the while looking at the Clancy’s face. He was dead, very dead, his eyes closed as if he’d just nodded off. Dom started to spring from his seat to get help, but he caught himself. Lowering his butt back into his seat, a strange smile came over his face, and there followed a peaceful, quiet feeling of awareness quite unlike anything he’d ever felt before. “I guess I don’t have to go tell them right away, Mr. Clancy,” he whispered.
He sat with Clancy for a long time.
* * * *
John Henry Williams looked around at the folders and ledgers that inundated his desk and rubbed his temples. Cicadas chirped outside in the fading Florida sun, reminding him of the many days he spent fishing with his dad on local lakes and in the Gulf. Their angling expeditions had been cut back since Dad’s strokes, so they were more of an occasion now. What he’d give to be hip deep in water, fly casting, instead of doing this stuff.
He forced himself to look back at the computer terminal, which flashed a spreadsheet of his father’s businesses. As Dad’s financial manager, he’d been given a tremendous amount of responsibility and work, especially since the illness. It seemed everyone wanted a piece of his father, even more so when word went around that maybe he didn’t have too much time left. They were wrong, but Dad had slowed down, no doubt. Even Ted Williams, the greatest hitter who ever lived, was mortal.
The past few years had not been easy for them. First, a business partner had bilked his father for thousands before his eventual arrest. Then, their fledgling sports card company, despite producing an excellent product, had failed. The two strokes just compounded matters.
On the plus side there was the Famous Hitters Museum they’d opened in nearby Hernando which gave his dad a chance to meet with current and former players to talk about his greatest passion, hitting. And the money rolled in. Lord, people were paying $100 or more for an autographed baseball and hundreds more for a bat. Of course, along with this came endless phone calls concerning forgeries, rip-offs, scams and whatnot. When he wasn’t flying around the country making business deals, John Henry was appearing on 60 Minutes or being interviewed by some sports card publication or baseball show. There were times he wondered what it would be like to be the son of a bank clerk.
It was during this latest rumination that Ted Williams entered the room. Despite his cane and slightly stooped posture, he still dominated this and every other scenario he was part of. A ruggedly good-looking man in his younger days, he was America’s closest thing to John Wayne, a gifted athlete and former war hero. In many ways, probably, he was more John Wayne than Wayne was himself, since the Duke was merely an actor portraying heroes. “How’s the work going?” he barked in his familiar booming voice.
“Not bad. I’ll knock off soon.”
The elder Williams settled into a La-Z-Boy and clicked on a widescreen TV. “San Diego’s playing Pittsburgh tonight on ESPN. I want to watch Gwynn hit. The kid finally listened to me.”
John Henry smiled as he punched the keyboard. Tony Gwynn, the National League’s preeminent batsman, had sat at the foot of his father the previous December and had been given a chapter and verse explanation of why he should be able to hit for more power without losing points off his average. Gwynn, who was pretty sharp and open to suggestion even after many stellar years in the majors, had implemented Williams’ subtle technique changes and he was up around .370, with a lot more pop. The world’s greatest hitter couldn’t have been more pleased unless, of course, it was he who was out there hitting.
The telephone rang and John Henry picked up. He listened, frowned, and put his hand over the receiver. “Dad, phone for you.”
Williams, absorbed in the game, waved him off. “I’m not here. Take a message.”
“It’s Mr. Harrington from the Red Sox.”
“Okay,” sighed the slugger, clicking off the remote. “I hope this is damned important.” He took the receiver, listened, shut his eyes and slowly exhaled. John Henry heard him say, “All right, I’ll catch a morning plane. See you around noon. Just make sure Yazstremski and Clemens get their asses there, too.” He hung up and ran his hand through his hair. “John Henry, get us on a morning flight to Boston, I’ve got to be at Fenway by noon.”
The younger Williams rolled his eyes. “Dad, you know you’re not supposed to be traveling around too much—”
Williams Senior cut him off. “First, I haven’t been to Boston since they named that tunnel after me a couple years ago. Second, there’s been a death. I promised when the time came I’d be there.”
Names of former contemporaries of his dad raced through John Henry’s mind. More than a few were very old or sick, and it pained his father when another one passed on. “Who was it, Dad?” he asked softly.
“Clancy, Martin Clancy.”
John Henry furrowed his brow. “Clancy... second baseman, Detroit?”
“Nope. Senior usher, Red Sox.”
“What! You’re going up there for an usher’s funeral? Come on, Dad, you don’t have to—”
Williams held up his hand. “I promised. We all promised.”
“Me, Yaz, Roger Clemens. We were his favorites. We promised him that when he croaked we’d bury him.”
“Can’t you just send the family some flowers?”
“No. There is no family. And there’s no funeral home to send it to, anyway.”
“So, where’s he being buried?”
Williams grinned. “That’s the beauty of it. See, someone else made him a promise long ago. He’s being buried at Fenway. Under the pitcher’s mound.”
“You’re kidding me!”
“Wish I was. Now, call the airlines and get us two tickets for tomorrow. I’m going to sleep. And tape the San Diego game for me.”
“Wait a minute, Dad,” he called to the aged slugger as he shuffled away. “Could you please tell me why this guy rates getting buried under the goddamn pitcher’s mound at Fenway Park? Who the hell was he?”
Ted Williams turned back in the doorway. “It’s a long story. I’m probably the only guy in this world outside of Mr. Yawkey, God rest his soul, that knows the whole thing. I’ll tell you on the plane. Okay?”
“Sure,” said John Henry Williams, as he reluctantly dialed the number for American Airlines.