Ted Williams still can’t catch break

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HERNANDO, Fla. – At least Ted Williams looks at peace.

It’s a warm spring morning and he’s sitting on a park bench. The rolling landscape of Citrus Hills spreads out before him.

It’s a nice scene, the kind Teddy Ballgame deserves to enjoy for eternity. Then you hear a road grader rev up and are snapped back to reality.

Ted is a statue. The noise is a fitting symbol of his afterlife.

All Williams really wanted was to have his ashes spread over the nearby waters where he loved to fish. Instead, his dreams have been shuttered, debased or bulldozed by embarrassment.

“Officially closed.”

So says the sign on the door of the Ted Williams Museum and Hitters Hall of Fame. The lights inevitably went out three weeks ago.

“Location, location, location,” said David Staples.

He was a volunteer worker for the museum’s 12-year run. Everybody around here suspected it would happen eventually. Once Ted’s looming presence left, the biggest thing around Citrus Hills is the expansion on State Road 486.

At least this postmortem twist isn’t all sad. The memorabilia has been moved to Tropicana Field, where thousands more see it in one day than used to see it in a month.

“During the summer, we’d be lucky to have two or three people in here a day,” Staples said.

Williams’ stuff has gone to a better place. The sadness comes in when you pull into where it left.

You see the statue of The Splendid Splinter, still waiting to welcome the world. You hear fluttering from three nearby poles. They still bear the flags of Ted’s three great loves.

The United States. The U.S. Marine Corps. The Boston Red Sox.

He was a patriot, a war hero and the greatest hitter baseball has ever known. The museum was the one dignified thing Williams had left.

What we have here is a Reverse Elvis. The King’s legacy and bank account have grown in death. The Kid’s image has turned into a black velvet painting.

Williams’ profiteering son turned him into an autograph machine. As cheesy as that was, nobody thought Ted Williams would ever become an international punch line.

Of course, who ever thought Ted’s head would spend eternity in a tube of liquid nitrogen? The last man to bat over .400 deserves better than to be called the Splendid Popsicle.

The family feud over Williams’ remains became a tragic comedy. At least Ted didn’t have to live to see his opportunistic boy, John Henry, try to play pro baseball at age 34.

John Henry died of leukemia two years ago. He has reportedly joined his father in the Arizona cryonics lab. The boy’s business legacy lives on, however.

Just last week, Williams’ family said it might sue a San Diego museum to get some of his memorabilia back. The museum founder, one of Williams’ oldest friends, said he’s holding onto the 1949 MVP trophy and other items because John Henry welched on a $500,000 loan.

If only Williams were still in charge. Nobody this side of Mount Olympus commanded more awe. His voice certainly rang loud that spring night 12 years ago when he stood at the entrance to his greatest legacy.

“We hope the museum will become a place millions of baseball fans will visit and enjoy for years to come,” he said.

The visitors that day included Mickey Mantle, Muhammad Ali, Bobby Orr and Joe DiMaggio. That kind of A List doesn’t get to this rural part of Central Florida very often. But the area always enchanted one of the world’s greatest outdoorsmen.

Williams retired there before the developers started moving in. His presence actually helped them sell this rural slice of retirement heaven to thousands of Yankees.

“It’s sort of like New England. A small town and hilly and quiet,” said Bill George. “And if it was good enough for him, it was good enough for me.”

George is originally from Ipswich, Mass. As a 13-year-old, he remembers seeing Williams hit a home run in the 1946 all-star game at Fenway Park. Five decades later, George and his wife saw the legend sit in a booth next to them in a local restaurant.

That aura was still there. So much that the Georges dared only to steal glances at the great man.

“Our generation is respectful,” Nan George said.

Before suffering a stroke, Williams liked to pop in at his museum unannounced. As impressive as the old uniforms and awards and photos were, nothing compared to seeing the real thing.

“People would line up to listen to his conversations,” Staples said. “Nobody would interrupt or ask for autographs. He was like the Pied Piper.”

Then he died four summers ago, and there was nobody to follow. Hernando County is growing, but it will never be a tourist destination. Locals debate whether better marketing would have kept the museum open, or if its closing was preordained.

“The influence and attraction was Ted Williams,” Staples said.

Some lives belong in a museum. In his final at bat, Williams hit a home run.

Teddy Ballgame always dreamed of another perfect ending, with a happy family and millions of people visiting the place he loved.

Now he sits alone, next to a quiet parking lot, wondering if his any of his final wishes will ever come true.

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