Robin Williams’ brilliance impossible to ignore, even in baseball

He riffed on the Marlins when they visited Yankee Stadium for the World Series

Joe Torre got his picture snapped with Robin Williams during batting practice for the opening game of the 2003 World Series. Jack McKeon, sitting grumpily in the visitors’ dugout at Yankee Stadium, couldn’t be bothered.

Managing in the World Series is serious business, after all, and McKeon professed not even to know the identity of the Hollywood A-lister who was getting all the attention of reporters and camera crews behind the batting cage.

The real celebrities on the field, said Jack, were his soon-to-be champion Florida Marlins, unafraid to take on Torre’s Yankees, unimpressed by the shiny Big Apple spectacle.

In a strictly baseball sense he was right, but nothing that involved Robin Williams was ever strictly anything. His stand-up comedy routine was abstract art. His dramatic acting went deeper than most directors even know how to dig. The combination of the two was as mesmerizing as any entertainer could be, an instant antidote for life’s mundane moments and a Mensa-level puzzle that will never be completed.

I was part of the media mob pressed in around Williams that night at Yankee Stadium. The mission from editors was to gather interesting pregame color and conversation. The result was too kooky for words, unless, of course, those words were Williams’.

“You look all about this stadium, all the history,” said Williams, “it’s like the Colosseum, except they didn’t serve concessions back then. Actually, they did. ‘Get your hot hummingbird lips, right here!’”

Silly stuff, delivered as always on the dead run, but even more amusing was watching all those baseball writers huddled up later, replaying tape-recorders on slow and trying to get it right.

Nobody could stay up with Williams, who talked a mile a minute and thought about 100 mph faster. Even Billy Crystal, who invited his friend to the game that night, simply stood back and watched the show, grinning broadly when Williams gave this answer to what he knew about the Marlins.

“What do they get for games during the regular season, 5,000 people?” Williams asked. “They need to work on that.

“You know, like, ‘Hey, it’s Walker Night at the Marlins game.’ Or, ‘I hear there’s an early-bird buffet at the Marlins’ game. Let’s go.’ Then it would be, ‘I hear they’re having a nice piece of chicken right on home plate. Oh, there’s only baseball on home plate? Oh, too bad.’ “

This week, with news of Williams’ death by suicide just beginning to sink in, those echoes of spontaneous comic combustion are especially impactful. He was impossible to categorize, with a range that ran from nightclub blue to Disney pastel and a willingness to take shots at everybody and everything.

Does it seem, for instance, that these gags from 2003 seem especially hard on the Marlins? Well, Williams, a fully-involved fan of the San Francisco Giants, also sent a wicked two-hopper their way that night.

When asked about blustery old Candlestick Park, Williams said, “At the Giants park, we have Handgun Night. An old guy leads you to your seat and he says, ‘Oh, I wouldn’t go up there. People who go to the upper deck don’t come back.’ “

This was only one fast-moving scene from a thoroughly unscripted life. It doesn’t say everything about Williams, who struggled with depression and substance abuse. Maybe it doesn’t say anything at all.

To be within arm’s length of this guy, however, if only for a moment, was like leaning into a roaring campfire with a marshmallow stick. Too hot to handle, but too sweet to step away.

There’s an old photo of Williams play-boxing with Muhammad Ali and placing a posed poke on the champ’s nose. If during Ali’s prime those two had ever engaged in a true battle of rhymes and riffs, the sparks would have lit the sky.

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