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.)