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Jewish World Review July 17, 2002 / 8 Menachem-Av, 5762

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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The path to greatness is tissue-thin | The death of Ted Williams at age 83 has prompted tributes from all across the United States. Many of the testimonials have centered on the theme that with his passing, the last of baseball's legends has departed (although don't tell that to Stan Musial or Willie Mays).

Because Williams' life was so complicated and multilayered -- brilliant as a player, brittle and suspicious as a man, heroic as a military aviator, beloved in his final years -- his death has moved people in ways they may not have expected. One part of Williams' life referred to repeatedly since Friday is the famous gods-do-not-answer-letters story written by John Updike for the New Yorker in 1960.

Updike's story -- a report on Williams' last game, in which he hit a home run in his final at-bat, and then declined to acknowledge the cheers of the Boston crowd -- is considered perhaps the finest piece of sportswriting ever. Titled "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu," it was a long and finely textured article. Here is the celebrated paragraph:

"Like a feather caught in a vortex, Williams ran around the square of bases at the center of our beseeching screaming. He ran as he always ran out home runs -- hurriedly, unsmiling, head down, as if our praise were a storm of rain to get out of. He didn't tip his cap. Though we thumped, wept, and chanted `We want Ted' for minutes after he hid in the dugout, he did not come back. Our noise for some seconds passed beyond excitement and into a kind of immense open anguish, a wailing, a cry to be saved. But immortality is nontransferable. The papers said that the other players, and even the umpires on the field, begged him to come out and acknowledge us in some way, but he refused. Gods do not answer letters."

As beautiful a passage as that is, a case can be made that it does not readily apply to the lives the rest of us lead. As Updike observed, immortality is nontransferable -- none of us can expect to be Ted Williams.

But there is another, less noted passage in Updike's story -- a passage about Williams that I think contains a lesson for all of us, who may never rise to a level of artistry in our work, but who aspire to be worthy craftsmen. It is a passage that I often urge parents to read to their children.

Updike set it up by describing a home run he had once seen Williams hit in a routine game in Philadelphia when the Red Sox were visiting Shibe Park:

"... it went over the first baseman's head and rose meticulously along a straight line and was still rising when it cleared the fence. The trajectory seemed qualitatively different from anything anyone else might hit."

And then Updike wrote this:

"For me, Williams is the classic ballplayer of the game on a hot August weekday, before a small crowd, when the only thing at stake is the tissue-thin difference between a thing done well and a thing done ill."

There it is -- there is everything, right in that one sentence. There is the connection between Ted Williams and the rest of us -- whether we work in offices, or factories, or for police departments or government agencies or in retail stores ... there is the lesson for those of us who will never in our lives hear a cheer from a grandstand.

"... the tissue-thin difference between a thing done well and a thing done ill."

It's just about the only thing that matters in life -- doing your best in the moments when there is no one around to reproach you even if you were not to do it, trying your hardest because the only audience, the only judge that counts, is you. It is, as Updike put it, "the only thing at stake" -- but it is everything. What made Ted Williams magnificent -- what can make each of us magnificent, at least potentially -- has nothing to do with whether gods answer letters. What can make us magnificent, quietly, every day, is that tissue-thin difference. Knowing what it is, and honoring it.

A thing done well and a thing done ill -- the tissue-thin difference between the two, the tissue-thin difference that might as well be a chasm of a million miles. It all starts with that. It all ends with that. And the mastery of it is available to every one of us, as each new day begins.

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JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. His latest book is Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen. (Sales help fund JWR). Comment by clicking here.

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