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  • Writer's pictureRich Honiball

Not All Heroes Get To Bat

Growing up, many of my heroes stood at home plate.

They launched balls over the Green Monster, made miraculous plays in the field, and pitched inning after inning of shut-out ball.

I had the opportunity to meet several of them when I was younger, caddying for a local country club. During the annual celebrity pro-am, we waited in anticipation for the likes of Fred Lynn, Bob Stanley, Dewey Evans. I was once fortunate enough to carry the bag for Jim Rice, eighteen holes with a man who could crush a golf ball as far as he could launch a baseball. We would leave each tournament with tips, tickets, autographs and stories of meeting our heroes.

A few years later, post college (round one), I opened up a retail store with a partner and thought it would be a good idea to try and get a baseball player to come in for the grand opening to sign autographs. I was young and knew nothing about agents, so I naively wrote to those same heroes and asked if they would consider coming by. As you would expect, most of those letters went unanswered. I did receive a very kind note from Johnny Pesky, apologizing that he couldn’t attend, but wishing me well.

One day, while home from my full-time job, the phone rang. “Hello, is this Mr. Honiball?” asked the man at the other end. When I replied that it was me, he said “this is Dom. . .I am calling you about the letter you sent me…”

It was Dom DiMaggio!

I wasn’t sure what to say. I had written to him and some of the retired players that I had great admiration for, knowing that it was a long shot, and here he was taking time out of his day to call me! “I really apologize” he said, “I’d love to help you out but I only sign autographs a couple of times a year with my friend, Ted.” Ted. He meant TED WILLIAMS. I told him that I understood completely and thanked him very much for the phone call. Then instead of just saying goodbye and hanging up, he did something that I will never forget. . .he stayed on the phone with me and chatted for another ten minutes, like an uncle that you haven’t caught up with for some time. After a bit, he apologized again and wished me the best of luck. I never did find someone to sign autographs during our grand opening, and after a couple of years of successful sales, I finally made enough mistakes to consider it a “learning experience”, closed the place down, and went back to my regularly scheduled career.

Years later, while at my first corporate position at Jos. A. Bank, I was responsible for wardrobing several NBA coaches and MLB managers. One day, I got a call that I needed to meet Earl Weaver who had just been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Excited, I made my way to our flagship store to meet Mr. Weaver, who lived up to his reputation as being a bit of a cuss. He once said, “on my tombstone just write, ‘the sorest loser who ever lived’” and I could quickly see why. Ultimately, after several cancellations, changes and last-minute alterations, we had him ready for his big day. Mission accomplished, and time to move on! A couple of weeks later, his business manager, a man by the name of Dick Gordon came by my office and handed me a box. In it was an official HOF baseball bat signed by Earl Weaver on the day he was inducted. He told me that “Earl” knew I had worked hard and wanted me to have it. To this day, I’m not sure I believe that Mr. Weaver asked him to deliver it, but I genuinely appreciated the gesture from Dick. We started up a conversation and shared our love for baseball. Over time, Karen and I became friends with he and his wife Gloria and we would see them from time to time. One highlight - he invited us to the 1999 All Star game at Fenway Park where another of his clients, Carl Yastrzemski was being honored, along with Ted Williams. Dick and Gloria wanted nothing in return, they just loved that we loved the game as much as they did.

Over the next few years, after moving to NYC, Dick would reach out from time to time, asking us if we could help with a show, an event, or a signing. He would call and say “I will gladly pay you” and ask for help watching the door, handing out tickets, sitting with the players, knowing that for me, it was never about the money, it was the experience. One of the more memorable occasions was in Teaneck, NJ with the surviving members of the 1961 New York Yankees. Sitting in the bar that night after the event, listening to old friends and teammates, some of whom hadn’t seen each other in years, telling stories about the good old days...I still can’t put into words what an experience that was. One day, Dick called me and said “hey, I need your help.” He asked if I could pick up a retired player at the airport, take him to lunch, and get him to his hotel. I told him of course I would, anything for him. Who would I need to pick up?

It was Dom DiMaggio! I had told Dick some time ago about my earlier experience with him and how much of an impact that had left me with. Dom was coming in to for a book signing for The Teammates, a book about he, Bobby Doerr, Johnny Pesky, and the passing of their teammate and friend, Ted Williams. He could have had anyone pick up him up, he asked me because he knew what it would mean to me.

I met Mr. DiMaggio, now in his eighties at the airport, brought him to a local diner and then got him checked in to his hotel room. Before leaving, I told him “Mr. DiMaggio, I know you won’t remember this. . .” and about the impact that he had on me almost ten years earlier. He apologized and said “no, I’m sorry, I don’t remember, but I am glad that you remember me kindly and that I treated you with respect” As I said thank you and turned to leave, he said “can I give you some advice?” Absolutely he could! He continued, “when you introduced yourself to me, you didn’t really say your name that loud and your handshake was a bit weak. When you meet someone for the first time, grip their hand, pull it towards you, and introduce yourself in a way that will make them remember you, with excitement!” He then proceeded to spend the next ten minutes with me teaching me how to introduce myself and shake hands.

Dom DiMaggio taught me how to properly introduce myself!

The next day I sat with he, Johnny Pesky and Bobby Doerr, and listened to stories of their friendship, their teammate, and their love of the game. We eventually moved to Texas as I advanced in my career, and though we kept in touch with Dick and Gloria through social media, we weren’t close enough to ever connect in person. I’d thought about reaching out in person from time to time, but life always seemed to get in the way. A couple of weeks ago, I was in San Francisco for Dreamforce. My brother, sister-in-law and nephew live in the area, so we decided to meet them for a baseball game. It would have been easy to make excuses, to "let life get in the way", I was tired from business and from travel and they would have understood. But it was my nephew’s birthday and there is something magical about a ballgame. We sat and visited for a few innings, enjoying the time together, and then I received news that Dick Gordon had passed away. A mix of emotions washed over me - regret for not having reached out, thankful for having known him, and a sense of subtle irony that the span of our friendship was book-ended by the game of baseball.

He may have never stepped to the plate, but many heroes never do. Dick Gordon, a true hero of mine passed away that night. I am forever grateful that I had the chance to get to know him and that he left an impact greater than any baseball player ever could.

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