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One of a kind

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By HUBERT MIZELL, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published July 6, 2002

There won't be another Ted Williams. He was to hitting a baseball what Albert Einstein was to solutions in math. Number Nine knew as much about constructing a swing as Frank Lloyd Wright did about building a house. His works should be eternal study for succeeding generations, not unlike those of Van Gogh and Michelangelo.

Splendid Splinter.

The Thumper.

The Kid.

Teddy Ballgame.

Williams was all those but far, far more. Joe DiMaggio is indelibly remembered well beyond baseball, in Old Man and the Sea literature and Mrs. Robinson song, and as Marilyn Monroe's husband. If baseball means fair play, today's extraordinary lyricists and authors should be humming in search of Theodore Samuel Williams immortality.

Ted died Friday, but his excellence constantly will be recalled, not merely in Cooperstown bronze or Boston granite but in the Williams words, methods and mentality that were the heartbeat of baseball's most scientific, most solid hitter.

An enormous part of Beantown's ample history, sandwiched somewhere between Paul Revere and Cheers, Ted generously counteracted but never overcame "The Curse of the Bambino." Yankee Stadium would be the House That Ruth Built, but Fenway Park was elegant green grass and an unforgettable Green Monster that was bombastically ruled by Williams.

A fiery son of Depression-era San Diego, he was a more complete hitter than Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Duke Snider, Stan Musial, Pete Rose, George Brett, Tony Gwynn, Hank Aaron or Jackie Robinson.

A historic mouthful.

As stupendous as Williams was in baseball, his military heroism was no less imposing. A consummate Marine, he flew fighter planes. A combat hero in World War II who was recalled to fly missions in Korea, he never whined about relinquishing what surely would've been some of his most prodigious Red Sox seasons.

Even into his 80s, health failing, sentenced to a wheelchair, Williams still spoke with old-time passion about hitting. Putting famous, mega-skilled hands in bat-gripping position. Cocking a head that always whirred with genius. Putting as strong a focus as an old man could, with eyes long noted for nearly inhuman sharpness.

Ted had come to a Rays game. One more standing ovation. His body was failing but the spirit was forever. How blessed were we, on Florida's left coast, to have been graced by the final Williams years. But now, sadly, when communing with his Hitters Hall of Fame, there'll be no chance of Williams happening by.

To say he was baseball's all-time best hitter will prod arguments from disciples of Ty Cobb, Rogers, Hornsby and Babe Ruth, but I always will shout that Ted was the best ever with a bat. Such an elegant study of lean, left-handed, artistic, relentless smacking of baseballs.

You truly sensed the Williams depth as a baseball artist when he would privately confer with the best players of succeeding generations. You saw Gwynn, Brett, Robin Yount, Rose, Frank Thomas, Ken Griffey Jr. and Johnny Bench plunged into awe as they listened to the master lecture. "It was stunning," Gwynn said, "like hearing a monument speak."

So painful, the silence.

When the year is 2041, commentators may still be referring to Williams as "the last to hit .400." His colossal .406 in 1941 is measured always in June or July, when some Todd Helton or Brett or Gwynn appears to be threatening a summer of .400, but they always fall shy. Reminding us just how difficult it is to accomplish two hits in every five at-bats.

Ted was tough. A little John Wayne in his persona, but with even more fire. Belligerent at times. In his Boston prime, Williams had combustible relationships with sports writers. He was Bob Knight long before Indiana's guy ever dribbled a basketball or heaved a chair.

Not unexpectedly, Knight idolized Williams. He so wanted to share some time. Maybe a dozen years ago, I tried to get them together, being aware it could be like introducing gasoline to a flaming torch. But then, through the power of television, there would come a Ted-Bob meeting. Immediate, warm, talkative friendship.

Then something more.

Both fellows were always deep-dish outdoorsman. Williams, a terrific fisherman, spent offseasons hooking the most prized of sea prey in the Florida Keys or off New England's coast. Knight is devoted to big-game hunting and sport fishing.

They just had to go together.

One of TV's outdoors shows put together a Williams-Knight fishing expedition. They would go to waters never before experienced by either of the accomplished, controversial jocks. To me, when I heard the logistics, it seemed a global diplomatic risk at the time. Bob and Ted went fishing in Russia.

It went beautifully, Knight told me. But you always wonder, did that week of Williams and Knight, with all their zeal and defiance, have anything at all to do with the breakup of the Soviet Union?

Bless you, Ted Williams.

Your glory is centered in Boston but spills across a recollecting, appreciative nation. You are beyond the possibility for future duplication. There won't be another Ted Williams. Yes sir, Teddy, you were the greatest hitter.

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