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EVEN IN THE LAST YEARS OF HIS LIFE-even as America and the sub-nation of baseball hungrily re-embraced him-I knew I could provoke surprise (and more than a few arguments) when I said that Ted Williams was not just a great ballplayer, he was a great man.Reputation dies hard in the baseball nation, and in the larger industry of American iconography. Even at the close of the century, forty years after he'd left the field, there still attached to Ted a lingering whiff of bile from the days when he spat toward booing Fenway fans. And there were heartbroken hundreds who'd freshen that scent with their stories: how he was rude to them when they tried to interrupt him for an autograph or a grip-and- grin photo. (The thousands who got their signa-tures or snapshots found that unremarkable.) In the northeast corner of the nation, there were still thousands who blamed Ted for never hauling the Red Sox to World Series triumph. (Someone must bear blame for decades of disappointment when their own rooting love was so piquant and pure.) . . . Around New York more thousands still resented Ted-and had to re-duce him-for contesting with Joe DiMaggio for the title of Greatest of the Golden Age. They insisted that Ted never won anything (and reviled him, in short, for never being a Yankee). . . . And westward through the baseball nation-even where the game, not a team, was the pas-sion- historians huffed about his merit (or lack thereof) in left field; the stat-priests essayed talmudic arguments about how many runs he failed to drive in (because he'd never swing at a pitch out of the strike zone); and mil-lions of kindly, casual fans (even those who'd agree Ted was the greatest hitter) seemed comfortable if they could tuck him into some pigeonhole-most often as a minor freak of nature: "Wasn't it true his eyes were twice as good as a normal man's?" ... They missed the point. It wasn't his eyes, it was the avid mind behind them, and the great heart below. Ted was the greatest hitter because he knew more about that job than anyone else. He studied it relentlessly. If you knew anything about it, he wanted to know it- and RIGHT NOW! He ripped the art into knowable shards, which he then could teach with clarity, with conviction (something he was never short on), and with surprising patience and generosity. That's how he was about anything he loved. It was the love that drove him. Fans couldn't take their eyes off Ted because they could feel his heart yearning with theirs. His want-in his guilelessness he never could hide it-was ratification for theirs. If the coin of his love flipped, and all they could see was rage-still, it was honest currency, for there was no counterfeit in him. Love and rage make a warrior . . . and in the inarticulate gush of words that attended his death in 2002, the particularity of our loss was lost. There were endless rehearsals of his stats, and comparisons to Ruth, Cobb, Gehrig, DiMaggio (of course), Hornsby, Wagner, Mays, Aaron, Barry Bonds . . . there was solemn reference to his service as a pilot in two wars, and speculation on where Ted might have pro-truded from the great number-pile if he hadn't lost those five prime years . . . there were interviews that seemed intent on reassuring fans that Ted was a nice guy. But he wasn't a nice guy. He was an impossibly high-wide-and-handsome, outsized, obstreperous major-league over-load of a man who dominated dugouts and made grand any ground he played on-because his great warrior heart could fill ten ballparks. And latterly (here was our loss writ large), he was our link to that time before baseball became just another arm of the entertainment cartel.