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'Can you smell the bat burning?'

Special to

July 5

Ted Williams got what he always wanted. When he walked towards a San Diego playground before the 1991 All-Star Game in his hometown, a man stopped his car, turned to his son and said, "There goes the best hitter who ever lived." It was Williams' mantra, and it was repeated at Fenway Park in 1999, when, surrounded by Henry Aaron and Mark McGwire and Willie Mays and the rest of the All-Century team, Tony Gwynn spoke those very words.

He was a man whom John Wayne and Robert Ryan tried to emulate, was John Glenn's co-pilot in Korea, was the last man to hit .400. He also batted .388 at the age of 39 in 1957 -- without one infield hit. Was that his greatest hitting achievement? "Nah," he said, "that was the year my bat slowed down, but the league didn't adjust to me. I was late on a lot of balls and got hits to center and left-center. They were out of position a lot. No big deal."

No big deal? .388!

He was too stubborn to use the whole field, but his patience and simple creed -- "Get a good pitch to hit" -- defines the approach to plate discipline that marks the Yankees and A's of this era. He loved hitting, its science, and all its attributes. When I was driving Ted and Wade Boggs to Clearwater for a dinner of hitting talk with Don Mattingly in spring training of 1986, Ted asked Boggs, "Have you ever smelled the bat burning?"

"What are you talking about?" Boggs replied.

Ted didn't reply.

At dinner, Ted repeated the question to Mattingly.

"People think I'm crazy, but yes," replied Mattingly. "It takes a perfect rising, four-seam fastball, a perfect swing, a foul straight back ... and you can smell the burn of the seams and the bat."

"Only the guys who whip that lumber have smelled it," said Ted.

When all those great players surrounded Williams at Fenway at the '99 All-Star Game, he motioned for McGwire to come closer. He asked the same question.

After the game, McGwire repeated the story of how Ted called him over and asked if he'd ever smelled the bat burning. "I told him I had," said McGwire. "But can you believe that he knew who I am?"

"What are you talking about, smelling the bat burning?" asked an All-Star teammate.

That teammate didn't understand that Ted, McGwire and Mattingly speak a language of their own, the language of the gods.

In 1991, ESPN producer Debby Wrobleski and I were trying to do an interview with Williams concerning the 50th anniversary of .406 and other subjects. At 6 a.m. one day, the phone rang. "So," boomed the voice on the other end. "When the hell are you coming down here?"

He said he had no more than 30 minutes ... and finally had to get ready for a court date after the interview had run more than 100 minutes. He recounted why he wouldn't sit out the second game after passing .400, and that the best right-handed and left-handed pitchers he ever faced were Bob Lemon and Herb Score. With the interview over, he called me into the kitchen. There, he'd set up six glasses with ice, two plates of nachos and cheese and crackers for the six people in our crew. "They probably got tired and hungry and thirsty listening to my BS," he said.

In snapshots, he could be one of the warmest men on the planet, as he was the first time I met him doing a sidebar at a Senators-Red Sox game in 1970, when he was managing the Senators and I was a cub reporter; after an hour in his office, he said, "Kid, you're OK. You like this game."

He could have been bitter about all the time he missed in World War II and Korea and with injuries, but when he did a commercial for the Hall of Fame he so loved, he listed being a Marine as one of his two greatest accomplishments. Oh, he'd also have hit more than 521 homers had he used the screen above The Green Monster, but he never whined. In fact, he always stayed in tune with the game. One day he called Dan Duquette out of the blue and said, "Nomar Garciaparra is the best damn player who ever played for the Red Sox." He loved McGwire and Barry Bonds, and one time he told me, "Every time I watch Paul Molitor hit, I close my eyes and see Joe DiMaggio."

Molitor saw the interview on ESPN, and said he was floored. Soon thereafter, Molitor was at the B.A.T. Dinner in New York, and when he went into the room with the head table, Ted was sitting in a corner telling stories with several of his contemporaries. "Get over here," Williams hollered to Molitor. "I want these guys to meet you. You're one of the greatest damned hitters who ever lived, kid."

But it had to be his way. When the Sports Illustrated baseball preview issue came out with Boggs on the cover and featuring the three-way discussion on hitting, Ted charged me, waving a copy of the magazine. "See ... see ... look at Boggs' bat," he hollered. "Is it an uppercut? You're damned right it's an uppercut. See ... see ... Ted was right, Walt Hriniak was wrong. Period."

Unfortunately, Williams got only one chance at a World Series, in 1946, and in an exhibition before the first game, he was hit by a pitch, damaged his wrist and could barely swing the bat against the Cardinals. So he is left with the memorial that he was beloved by teammates, and when Fenway Park holds his memorial service on July 22, he will be remembered as the greatest damn hitter who ever lived.

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ESPN's Peter Gammons looks back at the life of Ted Williams.
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