"Just listening to you sling it."
Sometimes Ted closes his eyes, and his mind conjures up the pitchers he beat and the ones who beat him long ago. He sees the ball pulled cleanly to right. But more and more he is haunted by visions of his happiest moments, alone with a line and a stream. "I dream of bonefish, I dream of salmon," he says. "I dream of casting for them, I dream of the beautiful spots I've been. And then I dream of some of the fish I've lost."
He speaks about his refuge on the Miramichi River in New Brunswick, Canada, and about spending hours tying thousands of flies and about the throat-catching moment after you've cast the fly and played the fish and you feel the hook dig in. Talking about fishing is not like talking about baseball or politics or history. No, Williams calls what he did in the water "a privilege" and lowers his voice as if describing something holy. And he keeps coming back to the same fish, that 35-pound salmon he hooked 3½ years ago on Quebec's Cascapedia River. It was the middle of the day. "Jeez, what a place!" he says. "Only kings and presidents and big shots and billionaires get to fish in there."
It was as big a salmon as he ever fought. "I made a helluva good cast because I was in kind of a narrow spot, and I was picking at it," he says. His hand slices back and forth across the kitchen table as if it were the surface of the river. His face is alight. "Picking at it this way, and I'm shootin' it that way! I was casting 60, 70 feet—a dry fly—and he took it."
Williams leans forward, sets his feet and bears down. His face reddens. "And I fought him," he growls. His voice drops, goes soft as goose down. "And I fought him a little harder. And I fought him really hard. I'm thinking, Jeez, I can't bring this fish home, and I'm really flossing it to him, see! And it's a deep little run there. He was down maybe 10 feet, and I couldn't see him...and I'm really lifting him up! Ummmmph!" He has an invisible fly rod in his hands, and he's trying like hell to pull the fish up through the kitchen floor, his face screwed up from the strain.
"And then I let go," he says. The invisible rod drops. He crooks a finger in his mouth and tugs. "I had hooked him on this big, dry single hook, and I was just pulling him too hard! I tried the hard pull and he didn't break, so with a good bend I dragged him right up, and the hook pulled out just as he came out of the water." The salmon dropped with a splash. Gone.
It's over. Ted Williams comes back to himself, to a chair in a kitchen, with a fish show on TV. "I didn't get him," he says. "I'll always remember that moment when I close my eyes." He is asked to name the river again, and he repeats it: Cascapedia.
"The closest place to heaven I'll be," he says. "I know that."