My friend Ted Williams is gone now, and piece of me has gone with him. During the 14 years I called the Red Sox games, we became good friends and fishing companions. He made great demands on himself — in the field and on the water. When he — or someone around him — did not perform well, his wrath could flow like hot lava.
If his language at those moments could be rendered on canvas he would hang in the best galleries in the world. But always he was sorry afterward and ready to make amends. That's what matters, doesn't it? Between the bouts of anger, which became fewer over the years, was a man of extraordinary sensitivity. If he accepted your friendship he took care of it for life, tending it like a constant gardener.
For 50 years, not two weeks went by when we didn't at least talk on the phone.
To be with him at batting practice was like being in the presence of Einstein explaining the theory of relativity. Intense, engaging and brilliant, he was just as insightful about flyfishing for Atlantic salmon or bonefish.
He approached every day as though it were not his last, but his first. Filled with a fresh spirit, he sought new experiences as though they were steps to a higher level of existence. He never lost the enthusiasm he carried as a lonely boy back in San Diego. Emotional maturity came hard for my friend, but you accepted the dark moments in exchange for the brilliant days in his company.
Many people of Boston never understood him while he played. They saw selfishness in his volatility. Ted was about as selfish as Sister Theresa. He was generous to teammates and to kids who didn't have much of a chance. He paid for their education and hospital bills and would have throttled the writer or PR-man that went public about it.
He didn't like being used without his consent. He didn't like phonies any better than, say, Holden Caulfield. He didn't like fawners and sycophants. He didn't like quitters, complainers, sneaks and liars. If those are negatives, then I — and a lot of other people — share Ted's faults.
Doing it right was Ted's credo. Where he usually did it right, perhaps more often than anyone, was in the batter's box, on the casting platform of a flats skiff or in the cockpit of an F-9. He didn't drink or smoke, hated neckties, and loved to talk about the things that interested him, which were many beyond fishing and baseball.
Journey into the sublime
If Ted was a searcher, and he was, then he believed that hitting a baseball or casting a fly was a journey into the sublime realm where the mental and physical worlds became one. Each is a private pursuit, as private as flying a fighter jet over Korea. But when he tried to apply what many would call his existential, Zen-like methods to the world at large he often came up short.
But for all those who knew him, each felt touched by Ted in a private way. We, each of us, felt that we understood him, as perhaps others didn't. He engaged us separately and with an intense interest. Growing up, he was often ignored by his parents. On many nights, he would have to wait on the porch of his modest home until his mother or father returned to let him in.
Well, he's home now with Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio and Izaak Walton — and there should be no end to the discussions.
I will miss that handsome head, that booming laugh and great mind. I will miss, too, those words of cheer and encouragement. Never false, never sentimental, Ted Williams walked through his life a man utterly and totally true unto himself — in the best sense.
Tight lines, folks.
ESPN Classic will air a 24-hour tribute to Ted Williams beginning at noon, Wednesday, July 10.