Ted Williams and Wade Boggs had been talking nonstop from the time they left Winter Haven, Fla. 70 minutes earlier. The two batting champions were on their way to a rendezvous with yet another, Don Mattingly, when Williams, in the backseat, posed a question to Boggs, who was in the front.
"Have you ever smelled the smoke from the wood of your bat burning?" asked Williams in a voice not unlike that of John Wayne.
"Whaaat?" said Boggs.
"The smell of the smoke from the wood burning?"
"What are you talking about, Ted? I don't understand."
"Five or six times, hitting against a guy with good stuff, I swung hard and—oomph—just fouled it back. Really hit it hard. And I smelled the wood of the bat burning. It must have been that the seams hit the bat just right, and the friction caused it to burn, but it happened five or six times."
Boggs shook his head. "Awesome."
Five minutes later the pair of Red Sox sat down at Tio Pepe, a Clearwater restaurant popular among baseball people, for a dinner arranged by Peter Gammons of SI. Mattingly soon arrived from the Yankees' afternoon game in Sarasota—"Nice to meet you, Mr. Williams," he said—and for the next 2½ hours, three great lefthanded batters talked hitting.
Before we listen in, it should be explained that Williams, who still instructs the Red Sox in hitting during spring training, has long held the belief that the theories of the late Charley Lau "may have set hitting back 25 years." Williams's The Science of Hitting, which remains a classic work on batting, stresses the discipline of the hips, while Lau's The Art Of Hitting .300 teaches the discipline of the head and the importance of shifting weight. What was particularly galling to Williams was the fact that Lau's leading disciple. Red Sox hitting coach Walt Hriniak, was practicing nearby under his very nose. Hriniak is Boggs's mentor, while Mattingly's teacher is Lou Piniella, who learned from Lau in Kansas City. So in rounding up the three men for both dinner and discussion, Gammons brought together two apparently different philosophies. Yet the three ended up agreeing on the fundamentals of hitting.
Be forewarned that some of the technical debate in the beginning may be, like a Ryne Duren fastball, over the head. But the three proved worth listening to. As they conversed, players and coaches from other teams came up to the private dining room to eavesdrop.