Ted Williams, forever the hitter, discusses baseball's fine art
Winter Haven, Fla. — The 1983 baseball season is over already for Ted Williams - which is just the way he wants it. ''I love working with the young kids,'' Williams said during his annual tour as the Boston Red Sox' spring training hitting instructor.
''I'll always have enthusiasm for the game - especially the hitting part - and this is where I really enjoy it,'' he added while a succession of young prospects took their swings at the minor league complex adjacent to the parent team's training camp.
This is the sixth year Williams has performed the role, usually arriving at the beginning of March and remaining along with the minor leaguers after the Red Sox go north. The original idea was for Ted to work primarily with the big league hitters, but he changed that around pretty quickly.
''I decided after the second year that this was where I really belonged,'' he said gesturing around the minor league fields, where scores of young hopefuls were working out.
''There's more to see,'' he said. ''They're not so set in their ways. They're easier to communicate with, that's for sure. More and more I find myself working with the kids - and not even Pawtucket (Boston's Triple-A farm club) anymore as much as the kids in the lower leagues.''
It's more than two decades now since the Splendid Splinter's fabulous playing career ended. The Kid, as he was also called in those days, will be 65 this summer, but he still has the handsome features, the dark hair, and the commanding presence of old. Unless memory is playing tricks, in fact, he looks better than he did during his four years as manager of the Washington Senators/Texas Rangers in the late 1960s and early '70s - and maybe there's a message there somewhere.
''I'll never manage again,'' he said, repeating a sentiment he has expressed repeatedly over the years since then. ''I've got to say it was a great experience, and overall I enjoyed it. And I can see it could really be fun if you had a good team. But it's a pressure job. You're on call 24 hours a day. It's a strain, a burden. I wouldn't do it again.''
Down here, though, in the relaxed training camp atmosphere, he is in his element as he stands patiently for hours giving his young charges the benefit of his vast knowledge.
''Get your hips ahead of your hands! Look at the pitcher. Don't look down,'' he advises the 19-year-old in the batter's box. Finally Ted grabs a bat and calls him over. ''Don't whip here - whip there,'' he says. ''Follow through and open up!'' The bat in the hands of No. 9 whips around, the picture swing is still there, and it's easy to think for a moment that you're back in 1941, when he hit that memorable .406 which Rod Carew, George Brett, & Co. have been shooting at ever since.
''Don't swing so hard,'' he says. ''Not one-tenth as hard. Just get the movement, get the rhythm. Keep your shoulders level. Quicken up. Get yourself geared up. Good swing! Best yet. That's a major league swing!''
Chances are the kid getting all this advice wasn't even born when Williams played his last game in 1960, but he and the others know all about the .344 lifetime average, the 521 home runs, the six batting championships, etc. that made Ted one of the game's all-time greats.You can see it in their respectful attention, and in the look of accomplishment when he tells them they're doing something right.
And what don't they do right? What are the most common faults Williams sees in today's young hitters?
''Well, I go a lot by the look of a guy,'' Ted said. ''I think you'll find that over the years most guys who hit the ball consistently well look good. And I just don't see as much good style now as I used to.
''Maybe I'm more cognizant of it, or maybe I have a fixation, but I don't see as many guys out in front with everything. I don't see as good a cocking action and hip movement. And for sure I see more hands higher than they should be. Why have your hands at the shoulders or higher when the strike zone is between the chest and the knees?
Ted said the hardest thing to teach young hitters is to get their hips in front of their hands.
''Most kids have it naturally,'' he said, ''but if they don't, it's the hardest single thing to teach. I don't mean hips and hands together. That won't do it. The hips have to lead.''
The young Ted Williams, of course, seemed to come by it all naturally, but he likes to remind listeners that that picture swing and its consequences didn't just happen.
''One of the biggest factors - maybe the biggest - was the opportunity I had to play every day growing up in San Diego,'' he said. ''The weather was great, the playground was a short block from my house - and I wanted to do it. When I was 12 I was up early every day, made my own breakfast, and got to the sixth grade building before the janitor to get the ball and bat and be ready when the other kids came.
''I played so much that the only way I wouldn't have made it was if I had no talent at all. It was practice, practice, practice. And remember: if this is the hardest thing to do in baseball - or the hardest in all sports, as I think it is - then it figures that it's gonna take a lot of practice to do it well.''
And no matter how good a hitter is, Williams says, there is always room for improvement.
''Every hitter I ever saw could have been better,'' Ted insisted. ''Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, for instance. Both should have hit more than they did (Mantle had a .298 lifetime average, Mays .302). Mays had so much ability - maybe the best ever. I think he'd tell you he should have hit more. And today, you look at hitters like Rod Carew and Pete Rose and you know they don't hit with enough power for their size.''
Which one has come closest to realizing his full potential?
''I'd say Rose,'' Ted replied. ''He doesn't really look that good to me up there when he swings, but he gets the hits. But as good as he is - as great as he is, because I'll say he's great - he should've hit more homers!''
As for some of the younger Red Sox who were his pupils here a few years ago, Ted disclaims any credit for the success of hitters like Wade Boggs or Dave Stapleton.
''I didn't really do too much with those two,'' he said. ''I didn't see much they were doing wrong. I encouraged them, and told them a thing or two, but basically I left them alone - and I'm proud of that. I didn't talk to them just to talk to them. If a guy's doing well and looks good, leave him alone!
''I have talked to Boggs a little bit about power, though,'' he conceded. ''Here's a guy 6-2 and 190 pounds and a couple of years ago he hit just one homer in a whole season. I told him, 'If you've got the count in your favor, and it's a pitcher you see big, why not go for the ultimate hit?''
And still emphasizing his pet theme he concluded:
''We've got guys here who can get the bat on the ball as well as Ted Williams or Stan Musial or Joe DiMaggio, but not with the same power. It's all a question of technique. A homer is as easy to hit as a line drive to right center. You've just gotta get it up. Up to the pull field - that's where the history is made!''