"Tide," an equipment man said. "We use Tide."
"Now why do you use Tide?" the voice boomed. "Is it better than all the other detergents? Is it cheaper? Is there some secret ingredient? Why do you use Tide?"
The fun began. Somehow I had never been in the same room with Ted Williams, never had talked to him, never had been around him. Would he fill out the picture I'd had in my head for so long? Or would he—like so many famous figures encountered without their press agents and handlers—be a mean-spirited disappointment? What? At first glance I had to say he looked like John Wayne. He talked like John Wayne. He was John Wayne.
He was on the scene as a hitting instructor. For a number of years he had skipped the rituals of the baseball spring and gone off to fish for salmon or bonefish or do whatever he did, but for some reason he'd decided to return for this season. He would show up every morning in his old Ford station wagon, identifiable by the IF GUNS ARE OUTLAWED, ONLY OUTLAWS WILL HAVE GUNS sticker on the rusty bumper. He would change into his uniform and head to the minor league complex.
"What's your name?" he would ask some kid in a batting cage. "Get over here. Where are you from? Mississippi? Let's see what you're doing here."
He would jump from the cart, adjust the kid's stance. He would take the bat, squeeze it hard, swing with emphasis. See? Pow! He would talk baseball, baseball, more baseball, laying out hypothetical confrontations between pitcher and batter, each ball and strike forcing the pitcher to alter his strategy, so that at 3 and 2 he had to come in with a fastball, and, oh, brother, here it comes. Pow! The kid from Mississippi would return to work looking slightly dazed.
I stood with other members of the new generation of the Knights of the Keyboard, Williams's term for his longtime adversaries in the press box. I listened to his declarations. (If you were anywhere in the state of Florida, you couldn't avoid them.) I did the obligatory Ted-is-here column.
He was charming and frank. He actually listened to the questions, actually thought out the answers. He laughed easily in large sonic booms. The writers who had tormented him during his career, Colonel Dave Egan and Mel Webb and the rest, were dead. The torment also was dead. The uncomfortable star, sensitive to all criticism, spitting in the direction of the clacking typewriters, was long gone. Williams wore his advancing age as if it were a bathrobe and slippers. He couldn't care less what anyone wrote.
He would pose for pictures with a daily stream of worshipers, penitents, strangers. ("You gonna take that lens cap off before ya take the shot?" he would bellow. "Here, let me do it.") He would argue with anyone about politics, sports, detergents, anything. He would question. He would tell stories. He would interact, hour after hour. There was a liveliness about him that was different from the ordinary. He was larger than larger-than-life, if that makes any sense. He was Ted Williams, and he knew who he was. He played his own role. Himself.
The highlight of the spring came when he set up a public tennis match against Carl Yastrzemski, then the Red Sox' elder statesman. He didn't just challenge Yastrzemski to the match, he promoted it for an entire week. He told the world. Time, date, place, probable outcome (a huge Williams win). When the great day came—Yastrzemski, 21 years Williams's junior, won easily, making the big man move too much and lurch for shots—there must have been 1,000 people surrounding one of those apartment-complex courts, all to see an event that Williams simply invented.