Images crafted of favorite players usually not far off

Images crafted of favorite players usually not far off

Deep inside, we like to think we know our favorite players, even though we base our mental image of them on a very tiny amount of information -- a glimpse of their reaction to a home run or groundout, a read of an interview, what's on the back of their baseball card. (Sometimes the front, too. At the time I began wearing eyeglasses, which I embraced about as warmly as an announcement that it would be cauliflower sandwiches for lunch every day, John Curtis joined the Red Sox. Hey, a Red Sox guy wears glasses! It must be cool! He must be cool!)

John Juliano

We carry these images around with us forever, and there's usually little further input we get to change them. But sometimes, years later, we get to meet or see in person the subject of that faded mental image. We expect the images to be overturned -- after all, their basis was pretty silly to begin with. For example, my poor opinion of the entire person and character of pitcher Larry Andersen was based on rock-solid evidence -- I had seen it with my own eyes -- that the Red Sox traded Jeff Bagwell to get him. Now, never mind the fact that he actually had nothing to do with the decision. I had to blame someone, and, by his having pitched in a way that made the Red Sox want him, it was clearly his fault.

Years later, I was on spring break from grad school with my friend, Rob, hanging out in Clearwater, Fla., and watching Spring Training games (among other things). At a bar one night, Rob poked me and said, "Hey, that's Larry Andersen." Rob and I walked over, and he introduced himself to Andersen and chatted for a minute. Then he turned to me and said, "This is my friend, John. He hates you."

Without even hesitating, Andersen just looked my way and said, "Then you're from Boston." Good call. "Well," he continued, "they were [bad adjective] [bad noun] for making that trade." Despite it technically not being his fault, he made it up to me by having Rob and I join him and his friends for a night of bar-hopping. Needless to say, the "bad guy" had been transformed in the mental image bank into "quite possibly the greatest human ever that is not named Mother Theresa."

This should be typical, right? Our opinions are formed on such thin ice that an encounter with the real person should be a revelation. What's weird, though, is I've found that more often than not, we actually do a pretty good job with the little information we have -- and what we find later completely supports the image our 10-year-old mind built.

After Oct. 22, 1975, Carlton Fisk would always be the wide-eyed, baseball-loving New England kid (just like us!) who hit that home run. Twenty-five years later, I'd happen by chance to be in the Cooperstown Plaque Gallery on induction day when the newly enshrined Fisk strolled in with his family to see his mounted plaque, apparently for the first time. Cameras clicked, and then were put aside in respect as Fisk continued to stare with an expression that said, "Wow. That's me." This was his moment, and again, he was the same wide-eyed New England kid (just like us!).

Another case was an image that was not even my own -- like many images, it was passed down through a generation by my father. This was of Bobby Doerr. My father, who watched him when he was about the same age I was in 1975, painted him as not only a great ballplayer, but a humble and gracious man everyone in Boston liked.

That picture weaved its way through time long enough that I named my own son Robert Doerr Juliano (despite the fact that with my genes, he's more likely to become King of Luxembourg than a Major League Baseball player). My father contacted him and told him of this, and Doerr sounded sincerely honored and pleased in letters we exchanged over the next several months.

When my son was almost 2 years old, Doerr came east for a baseball card show in Boston, and we agreed to drive up from Maryland to try to meet up briefly with him. The show was packed, and we didn't get close over the couple of hours we were there. Suddenly, my father spotted him coming through the crowd and called over. Doerr stopped, remembered our correspondence and chatted for about five minutes. Then, another man asked us to excuse the two of them because Doerr needed to go "over there" -- and waved at the restrooms. This man, in his 90s, had to pee and still took the time to talk with us. At half his age, I would have ambled by at a minimum of 45 mph and completed the primary task before talking to these folks and their squirming toddler. But gracious and humble -- as our image defined him -- he stopped for us.

The list of images confirmed goes on -- the unexpected public bear hug I got from the effusive Luis Tiant when I asked for a photo, the lengthy "then there was the time" discussion with (rather, 98 percent by) Don Zimmer, and more. Maybe our brains are better at processing brief glimpses and quick reads into the semblance of the real man than we imagine. (Our images of players on the short end of historically stupid trades excepted, of course.)

John Juliano is an MLB Rewards Guest Columnist. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.