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Jewish World Review Oct. 29, 1999 /19 Mar-Cheshvan 5760

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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The tissue-thin
decisions that define
who we are -- FOR SOME OF US, at least, the one indelible moment of the last World Series of the 20th Century will not consist of anything that happened on the field of play, or of anything surrounding the Pete Rose controversy.

Instead, the moment that will live in time will be the mind's lasting picture of Ted Williams, 81, being helped to a chair set up near the pitcher's mound on the baseball diamond in Atlanta, then, frail and smiling, listening to the crowd salute him as a member of the honorary team voted to be the best ballplayers of the century.

For those too young to remember Williams' career, the sight of the old man in the chair may be deceptive, a false-light replacement for who he really was. Williams was brittle, was combative, was tough, arrogant; when he first came up to the Major Leagues, he matter-of-factly proclaimed: "All I want out of life is that when I walk down the street folks will say `There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived.' " He refused to cater to or even acknowledge the Boston fans who paid to come watch him play, routinely declining to tip his cap in response to their cheers; he despised the sportswriters who chronicled his work, and did not attempt to disguise his contempt for them. He was not an easy man.

But he was--in the very highest sense of this word--a craftsman. He honored his craft, which was hitting baseballs, he cared for it more than he cared for anything else, he chose to communicate most intimately only with it. He lived for it.

The best sports story ever written is very likely John Updike's "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu," an account of Williams' last game ever, on the afternoon of Wednesday, Sept. 28, 1960, when his Red Sox played the Baltimore Orioles in Fenway Park. On that day--and this is remarkable--only 10,454 customers showed up to witness the final baseball game of Ted Williams' life.

In his last at-bat, Williams hit a home run--and there is one paragraph in John Updike's account of that hit that is often, with ample reason, quoted in anthologies:

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 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 unforgettable as that passage is, it is not the one I think about when I consider Ted Williams, and what he stood for. Hitting a home run in the last at-bat of a superlative career is the stuff of heroes, of legends.

But there is another line in Updike's story that, I believe, speaks even more eloquently not only about Ted Williams' career, but about how all the rest of us should regard our own days at work. Updike wrote:

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.

That's it--right there. The rest of us will never be, can never be, Ted Williams--we will never hear those kinds of cheers.

But the tissue-thin difference between a thing done well and a thing done ill--the quiet, private determination to do one's best not because anyone is watching, not because anyone will ever know, but because you are watching, because you will know--few parts of life are more important.

The highest moments in your life, and the lowest, are what tend to define you--in the eyes of others, and sometimes in your own. But that can be as deceiving as the sight of an 81-year-old man sitting in a chair on a ballfield on a chilly Atlanta night. Who are we, really--each of us, Ted Williams, you, I? Who is our truest self, and where do we find that truth?

In those tissue-thin moments, when the decision is made. To do something well. To be our best.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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