Teddy Ballgame finding it hard to rest in peace

Ted Williams was a complicated enigma in life and sadly the afterlife has been no different for the Splinter.

Updated: August 15, 2003, 8:47 PM ET
By Mark Kreidler | Special to ESPN.com

It is hard to say which is the more strikingly bizarre, the notion that Ted Williams' cryonic cranium has accidentally cracked 10 times or the assertion by the company handling said noggin that such cracks occur all the time during the freezing process. (They're said to be microscopic, for those scoring at home.)

Ted Williams
Saying goodbye to Ted Williams has become a sorry saga.

It is hard to say which is the more curious, the notion that these latest allegations come from a person described as a "disgruntled employee," the assertion by Alcor Life Extension Foundation director Carlos Mondragon that said employee was actually the company's chief operating officer until last week, or the idea, also floated by Mondragon, that Alcor's then-COO asked for a $500 advance when he picked up his last paycheck. That top-level executive pay certainly appears to be tapering off at your major companies.

(Again for those keeping book: The ex-COO is named Larry Johnson. Which answers the question of what GrandMaMa's been up to lately.)

And it is difficult beyond all measure to deal with the allegation, since denied by Alcor, that some of Williams' DNA samples are missing, particularly in light of the long-held assertion by Ted's daughter, Bobby Jo Ferrell, that Ted's son, John-Henry, had planned to sell his father's DNA.

What isn't such a stretch, though, is the idea that all this controversy would be attached to the general subject of Ted Williams. In life and afterlife, the man has proved to be an extraordinary magnet not only for attention, but, on so many levels, basic confusion.

This is not a case of a person suddenly emerging from a quiet existence into a raucous row. From his early playing days forward, Williams represented one of the great paradoxes of modern sports: The elite athlete who, when you really got down to it, didn't want to be bothered with many of the trappings of his fame.

Williams was brilliant on the field and often truculent away from it. His testy relationship with sports writers and broadcasters, particularly in Boston, has been chronicled more than adequately. But Williams also was an enigma to the fans.

He was an athlete whom the fans wanted to love, but who, for reasons not even Williams completely understood, simply wasn't able to embrace that affection. He played his entire career at arm's length, up to and including that great final scene at Fenway Park, the career walk-off home run after which Williams could not bring himself to emerge from the dugout for a final bow before the roaring Red Sox crowd.

Controversy and Williams thus seemed to be permanently joined. It was almost purely in his long retirement (and, now, beyond) that Williams' public image cracked open to the small point that much of baseball-loving America felt it had even a glimpse of the man's soul.

When he did open up, Williams could be funny, candid, disarming and generous. Ask Tony Gwynn about the days and evenings he spent in conversations with Williams on the art and science of hitting; Gwynn recalls them as some of the most interesting conversations of his career.

But those days of open talk weren't so plentiful, and in his post-baseball life Ted Williams remained a hot-button issue. It's the way the man lived his career, body and soul, that made it so.

It is an open question as to how much of that soul (or body, now that we read the reports closely) is still being preserved at the Alcor facility in Scottsdale, Ariz. What's fairly certain is that the Williams of old would be horrified not merely by the PG-13 particulars of the story, but the fact that he is in the middle of it.

"It's a terrible thing," Williams' friend Dom DiMaggio told The Boston Globe. "Here's a man who achieved so much during his lifetime, and now when people think of Teddy after all this, they are going to think of this gruesome treatment he received after his death."

It's true. There probably is no life that could be lived in such a way as to make what has happened to Williams, in death, seem even remotely appropriate. It's a post mortem that started out sick and keeps on getting sicker. The humor available is of the darkest sort, just a kind of get-through-the-day bad joke dropped here or there. Anybody taking actual glee in the details needs help.

Nope, any response short of abject horror and repulsion here is all wrong -- that, and the notion that Ted Williams in death is extending, in a way almost too bizarre to mention, some of the controversy with which he lived his life. It's an extension you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy.

Mark Kreidler is a columnist with the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com

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