A celestial field of dreams

A most heavenly player

July 06, 2002|By Rob Hiaasen

Sadly, the Splendid Splinter has left us too soon. He's gone off to Ebbets Field, the Polo Grounds or some other version of baseball heaven where undoubtedly he'll get a warm welcome and probably some razzing too from such as the Flying Dutchman, the Georgia Peach and - without question - the Sultan of Swat himself.

Probably, they'll greet The Kid with a pick-up game, a dream inter-generational All-Star Game. Teddy Ballgame might find himself playing left field behind the Rajah, the man he regarded as the best hitter ever. Maybe over in center, he'll glance over to see one of the Yankee greats who bookended his career, Joltin' Joe, say, or The Mick, who, by the way, always said Ted Williams was the best hitter he ever saw. Ted will be equally happy to see either the Scooter or Pee Wee at short.

Hammerin' Hank, another rival but a fellow World War II vet, might be over at first, but only if the Iron Horse is uncharacteristically willing to take a breather. You've got to figure that Ted himself will happily make room in left for Shoeless Joe, whose induction into the Hall of Fame Ted championed. Speaking of which, think what a kick Ted will get out of playing with the likes of Cool Papa Bell or hitting against Satchel, both stars from the Negro Leagues who Ted also insisted be given places alongside him at Cooperstown.

You've got to guess that Ted, who - let's face it, did not lack for confidence - will be itching to dig in against some of the pitchers he was too late to test his mettle against, the Big Train, maybe, or the Big Six or Three Fingers. Surely he deserves more hacks against The Barber, who, because they were in different leagues, Ted never got to see that much. And, because he retired too soon to face him in the Big Leagues, Teddy would have fun taking his swings against Catfish.

What a game it will be! But knowing how impatient he was, Ted is probably already looking forward to the influx of even more stars, to the days when Stan the Man arrives and The Say Hey Kid and Mr. October and The Big Unit.

But please Ted, let's not rush things. As with you, we want to hold onto them as long as we can down here.

- Michael Ollove

In 1965, Manuel Ortiz and his wife Isabelle opened a small Cuban restaurant in the Florida Keys. For two years, their Islamorada restaurant struggled. No one, it seemed, was buying their Cuban sandwiches and homemade Key Lime Pie. The tourists and locals went instead to the Green Turtle Inn or Ziggie's place, the Conch.

Then, one afternoon in 1967, a tall and rugged American came into Manny & Isa's Kitchen. He looked like a fisherman and was. The man brought his own freshly caught fish - dolphin or maybe red snapper - for the Cubans to cook with their customary rice and beans. Manny and Isa, who had come to America in 1955, had no idea they were serving Ted Williams. They had no idea baseball's greatest hitter lived in the Keys and would change their business forever.

"He started coming to my place. Thanks to him, I got famous," Ortiz said yesterday. At 72, he and Isa still run the kitchen and still sell the best Cuban sandwiches and Key Lime Pie in South Florida.

After discovering the restaurant, Williams invited sportswriters to join him for fishing and a late lunch at Manny and Isa's. He liked the restaurant - it was simple, private and good. "Fishing with Ted" stories appeared in Sports Illustrated and in the Miami Herald, and duly noted the little Cuban kitchen.

"I started getting busy after that," Ortiz said.

Photographs of Williams were soon hung in the restaurant. Eating at Manny and Isa's in the 1960s, patrons, especially young boys, couldn't take their eyes off the black-and-white photographs of Williams: White V-necked T-shirt, khaki shorts, white tennis shoes, aviator sunglasses. In several, Williams stood, smiling, next to a hoisted beast of a tarpon caught off the Keys.

Over the years, customers walked off with many of the photos. Other celebrity photographs were hung, including one of Steve Martin. But Ortiz has managed to hang on to one or two of Ted's old pictures. Years ago, he gave his nephew a baseball Williams had signed for him. He remembers Williams gladly signing baseballs for kids at the restaurant in the 1960s, and somewhere, Ortiz still has an autographed copy of Williams' book, The Science of Hitting.

For 15 years, Williams went to Manny and Isa's. Then maybe he moved away or stopped fishing or something, Ortiz said. He doesn't remember the last time he saw his old customer.

Yesterday, Ortiz was told that Williams had died. "Oh, my God," he said. Then, on the phone to Islamorada, one could overhear Isa saying something in Spanish and Manny saying something back, and then politely saying he had to go.

Just like old times, it was another busy day at Manny and Isa's.

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