Catching up with ol’ Sully

Frank Sullivan swears he didn’t start watching baseball, really watching it, until he left the game.

Sully, as the old Red Sox hurler is known, would sit in the dugout with his teammates when it wasn’t his turn on the mound, but it was kind of, well, boring.

“I loved basketball better than baseball,” said Sully, all 6-feet 7 inches of him. “Baseball was something that tied me over until it got to basketball season.”

Yet, Sully carved out quite a big league career and had, in his words, one heck of a time doing it.

A lot of time has passed since then, not to mention different careers. But more than four decades after the pitcher hung up his glove and landed on Kauai looking for peace and an adventure, Sully is still at home living in Lihue.

“We’re so spoiled here right in the middle of everything with a view,” he said from his home off Nawiliwili Road whose windows open up to lush, tree-covered valley.

But the playing days, those were good times, too.

Sully whiffed the Mick plenty of times, played alongside the Splendid Splinter and posed for one of the most famous baseball paintings of all time.

“I was lucky as hell,” Sullivan said, looking back at the 10-year career that began in 1953.

The righthander threw 73 complete games, too. That could make baseball fans today pause. Seventy five percent of Sully’s career wins, 97, were games the sinkerballer finished off himself.

Now? There’s something called the pitch count. But don’t get ol’ Sully started on that.

“It’s a joke.” the colorful righthander said. “They’ll leave the game because of a hangnail.”

Back then, if a hurler looked over his shoulder and saw a teammate getting loosened up, he knew he was pitching for his starting job, not just the game. Plus, there’s strategy in wasting pitches, even walking hitters.

“If somebody got warming up you had to get your (stuff) together,” Sully said.

Sully was colorful back then, too. He dropped one of the best lines about facing Micky Mantle. He whiffed the Mick three times in the first game he faced the Yankee legend before surrendering a home run. Sully eventually surrendered seven homers to Mantle, and was once asked how he pitched to the Hall of Fame slugger.

“With tears in my eyes,” Sullivan had said, a quote which made the rounds and was the focus of a Sports Illustrated baseball preview article in 2012 by Mantle biographer Jane Leavy.

Except Leavy accidentally said that Sullivan was dead in her book, “The Last Boy.”

“You’re probably not off by much,” Sullivan, now in his 80s, told the writer when he contacted her, which was the focus of the 2012 article.

Today, Sullivan can’t pinpoint the conversation when he said the famous line about pitching to Mantle, but “I’m sure I must have said it.”

“When you have a mouth like mine …” he said.

But how about fanning the Mick three times the first game he faced him?

“I wasn’t chopped liver. I was pretty good,” Sullivan said. “Of course, the older I get, the better I was.”

Sullivan, married, is still living in Lihue 40-some years after landing here. It still suits him quite fine. After his career, Sullivan picked Kauai off a map and moved with his old catcher, Sammy White, to get as far away from big city life as possible. They dug ditches and built helicopter pads. Kauai, he said, “was the best place to be if you can’t do anything and you have to find a new world.”

“We broke rock by hand. We were out there working like dogs. It was wonderful,” Sullivan said. “I spent all those years trying to get major league hitters out. When that was over, the shock of the real world happened.”

Eventually, Sullivan, now retired, worked his way up from pro shop employee to director of golf at Kauai Lagoons. Kauai hasn’t lost its charm, either, all these years, and careers, later.

He’s become quite a fan of watching baseball too, really watching it, appreciating the nuance of the sport. He didn’t miss an inning of the Red Sox World Series title last month, and caught as many of their games during the regular season on his TV or laptop. The images of the crowd at Fenway Park, baseball hallowed ground, moved him, as it always does.

“It’s hard to explain, but pitching there and winning there, it’s about as good as it (can get),” he said.

And while his career is filled with accomplishments, like his induction to the Red Sox Hall of Fame in 2008, he doesn’t yearn for the old days. It was a good time, but it was a different era. He missed out on the million-dollar contract era, but he doesn’t let the uncontrollable cross his mind too often. He doesn’t wonder, what if?

“I think about it but it’s a different time and place. It’s a different world,” he said of the sport whose business model has exploded since the 1950s. “Three million people went to Boston games this year. Think about that.”

Players held jobs in the off season back then. Sully ran a commercial boat on the east coast. Owners called players into their office individually before each season and told them what they were going to pay them that season and if they didn’t like it, well, tough. It took Sully three seasons to break even. That’s to say, it was in his fourth season that the cost of living in Boston during the summer season didn’t exceed his salary. There weren’t steroids, either. Heck, players didn’t even lift weights. Then again, Sully doesn’t ever remember hearing of a player pulling a hamstring, either. That injury wasn’t even invented yet.

“We kept everything loose as a goose,” he said.

Not that he’d trade any of it, a field’s worth of memories. He remembers trotting out of the bullpen for his first big league inning at the ripe age of 23.

“Boy, you took your sweet time, rookie,” the umpire barked when Sully finally got to the mound.

“I couldn’t feel my knees,” Sully remembered, and he remembers telling the ump just that.

“Don’t worry,” the ump said. “Just get ‘em close and I’ll get him out for you.”

So Sully reared back and threw, let it fly, one of the best fastballs he ever threw and he can still remember the feeling of the seams flying off the tip of his fingers and the pop of the catcher’s mitt.

“And that S.O.B. said, ‘Ball one,’” Sully said.

The hitter walked on four pitches.

“And I know three of them were strikes,” he said.

And then there was the time he posed as a model, twice over, for the famous Saturday Evening Post cover painted by Norman Rockwell, called “The Rookie.” He posed once as himself, sitting in the locker room and once standing, letting his basketball frame double as Ted Williams, who didn’t make the trip. Williams, by the way, had rabbit ears, Sully said. He could let a heckler in the stands ruin his day, heck his week.

Rockwell, though? By all accounts, the artist was a “skinny, tiny” but “very nice guy,” who bought the young players lunch before he asked them to pose.

“We didn’t have a beer for lunch,” Sully said. “We finally get an off day and we can’t even have a beer?”

It was a heck of a time, he said, all of it. And he wouldn’t trade any of it, not one stadium, teammate, strike or ball. Not that he’d trade his current spot, either.

“I always had the feeling when I’m in a big city that something’s going on that I’m missing,” Sully said. “When I’m on an island, I feel like nothing’s going on that I’m missing. I’m very content being on an island.”

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