"I have compassion for Roberto Alomar," he says, his voice starting to rise as he refers to Alomar's spitting at umpire John Hirschbeck in September. "I know how upset you can get at a certain thing, and I was so upset!" His face twists, his mouth gapes to reveal a pair of incisors worn to nubs. "I had dropped a fly ball. Just as I started looking up to get the fly ball, bases loaded, a" goddam raindrop came down, you know? And I lost just a little bit of the ball, and it hit my glove and bounced out. Well, I really got booed. Boy, I can understand how a guy can get so pissed. He hears that boo, boy, he wants to crack the goddam bark off!
"All those things happened to me because I wasn't doin' as good as I should, or they didn't think I was tryin'." He pauses, and when he speaks again his voice is quaking. "God almighty, was I tryin'. But I was a long, skinny guy, couldn't run. If you can run good, they all think you're a hustler. Well, crap, not everybody can run. I think every day about it: God, do I wish I could've run. They bring in that guy, Rickey Henderson. Christ! I wish I'd had wheels like that. I just close my eyes and say to myself, Oh, boy."
Even now he maintains a touch of innocence. He's thrilled by anything new, curious with the intensity of someone who, having missed out on college, has an autodidact's respect for knowledge, books, information. What's going to happen in the Middle East? Is Penn State going to win? Who's the greatest man of the century? Yes, the ball is juiced, but, Williams says, "there's as much talent in the big leagues today as there's ever been. I see plays in the outfield I have never seen before." He doesn't stop with baseball. "What do you think of that Agassi? You know who's done more for tennis in the last 15 years? Bud Collins. You know he used to chew me out in the goddam papers? I hated the little bastard. But he knows what he's talking about, no question! He should be the commissioner of tennis! You tell him that."
It's that odd, outsized passion, as much as his .344 lifetime average and his 4½ years of service in World War II and Korea, that always made Williams larger than life. So big that four U.S. presidents—Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George Bush—speak of him on tape at his museum. So big that Boston just named a tunnel after him. Unlike DiMaggio, who carried himself with Olympian reserve, Williams was all too human, radiating flaws and ambition. Bats flew into the stands, fishing rods splintered and sank. "He always wanted to be perfect," says Florida Keys fishing guide George Hommell. "And when he wasn't, he'd get mad."
His wars with the Boston fans and media so scarred Williams that he refused to tip his hat after homering in his final at bat, in Boston in 1960. But in time this denial took on power, became a strange symbol of integrity, of one man's insistence on remaining true to himself. How else to explain why a thirtysomething candidate for sheriff in Massachusetts goes all the way to Florida to seek Williams's blessing? How else to explain why, in 1988, Bush asked Williams to campaign for him during the New Hampshire primary? The two hit a fishing show in Manchester, and, Bush says, "I might as well not have existed."
"Ted would bring out these tremendous crowds," says Hommell, who accompanied Bush and Williams on those campaign stops. "In that area Ted is God. After all these years, it's still the same."
So is he. When Williams began rehabilitation from his stroke in March 1994, he met a 17-year-old girl named Tricia Miranti from nearby Inverness, Fla. Confined to a wheelchair since the age of five because of a brain aneurysm, Tricia had a lively manner and a roaring laugh that struck a deep nerve in Williams. He is famous for his charity work, but when he is with Tricia, he shows a tenderness few people ever see. "If you could explain love, that would be it," says Tricia's mother, Vicki.
"Have you met her?" Williams says of Tricia. "Didn't you think she was special?"
For a while Williams visited Tricia on weekends, but that wasn't enough. He made calls that helped her get into college; he has arranged weekly training sessions for her with his personal trainer, at his expense. All this took Vicki by surprise. "Close friends of ours would say, 'We see him on the golf course, and he's always very abrupt and very rude,' " she says, "but they haven't seen the side we've seen."
When people hear of Tricia's relationship with Williams, they ask her to get his autograph for them. She refuses. "I don't see Ted Williams," Tricia says. "I just see him. As he is." He will sit by as she works out in his pool, suggest new exercises and goad her to try harder. Since Tricia began working with Williams's trainer, she has been able to do more assisted walking than doctors thought she ever would. This has given her a confidence she didn't have before. "It has made me want more," Tricia says. "Anything is possible."