For five years Ted Williams was away from the hunt that he loves best.
He tried to satisfy himself with the fly cast at dawn, the downturning flick of the wrist and the splash.
In winter he lives in the Florida Keys, trolling for bonefish near Islamorada. In summer the spiky air of Canada calls him to Miramachi to pursue the Atlantic salmon, greatest of game fish.
And in the fall the woods of Maine are lovely, dark and deep. What better, for a man without promises to keep than to set out early from Bangor with gun on arm.
But what of spring?
For Williams the month of March was always one thing: Open season on pitchers.
So now, the Splendid Splinter - age 59 - leans against the batting cage again. Once more The Kid is a hunter of pitchers, training his favorite pack of hounds: the hitters.
Here is the spring training camp of the Boston Red Sox, Batting Coach Williams is at home the way few men are anywhere, the way he is in only one other place - in a fishing boat on a lost lake.
These wild animals of Winter Haven fascinate him. Williams, professor emeritus of hitting, presses his face against the mesh of the batting cage as these brutish, critters pass in reveu before him.
The lynxish Yaz, the ponderous Boomer, the bristling Rice, the fierce Fisk, the wild and untamed Hobson: each is a separate specie of homo homerus (home run man).
Ostensibly, Williams has been hired "to help the rookies and minor-league kids any damn way I can." After all, the Bosox Major Leagues who hit 213 homers last season, hardly need remedial work.
But Williams has not had this sort of marble to chisel in half a lifetime, not since the late '40s and early '50s when Williams, Pesky, Doerr, Stephens and Co. produced 1,027 runs in one year.
As soon as a Bosox regular becomes restless and discontent, Williams approaches, delighted to take the thorn from a swing.
"Come on, Fisk, you idiot," stormed Carlton Fisk, lashing in the cage.
"In the spring you always feel betwixt and between," commiserated Williams. "The darn pitchers are ahead of us.
"Your hands aren't cocked in close enough. They're too high and far away," said Williams, grabbing Fisk and wrestling him into the proper position."How can you feel quick and explosive if you're not compact? Am I right? Am I right?"
"I missed the baseball," said Williams, who had been out of the sport since managing the Washington Senators in 1969-71 and Texas in 1972. "This is the uniform I should never have taken off," Williams added, meaning the Boston red, white and blue.
"You're always a fan of this game after you played it. You enjoy being around it, listening to the young guys in the clubhouse. This is my chance to be up close ot the game for a few weeks. I'll leave when the rookies are shipped out. But it's enough to give me an interest in the game again."
The Red Sox players are glad to have him as up close as he wants to get. Home run king Jim Rice has carried The Book (Williams' "My Turn at Bat") with him everywhere since he broke into the league. Dwight (dewey) Evans call, Williams "a genius and a great guy."
When Williams played a challenge tennis match against Carl Yastrzemski last week, 240-pound George (Boomer) Scott volunteered to be ball boy.
"Ted's never been this sweet-tempered for this long at a stretch in his life," joked one front-office man.
"He's mellowed a lot," said long time friend coach Johnny Pesky. "But his enthusiasm for the game hasn't. He brings that sharp mind to everthing. It isn't just the rookies who are in awe of him. A lot of us have always been."
Williams, at 59, is just as prone to feasts of skill as ever. "Hear that airplane engine?" Williams will say. "Bet I can spot it before you do." And, of course, he does.
Many a bet was made on how long William would resist getting into the batting cage himself. That didn't last long.
"I waited for a warm day with nobody around," said Williams, who took 100 swings two Sundays ago.
"I'd have paid to see it," lamented Evans. Only a few did.
"He wore that indoor pitching machine out," marveled rookie Chuck Rainey. "Nothing but line drives. Nice easy swing.
"Somebody switched the machine to curves. He took one, then said, 'Oh, breaking balls, huh,' and he lined them all over the place. It's like riding a bicycle to him. He'll never forget."
Two stupid questions follow Williams everywhere - one joking, one serious. Will he make a comback as a DH? Will he manage again?
Such constant petty prodding has driven Williams back to his fishing boat before.
But he tolerates fools more generously than he once did.
"No comebacks," he said. "I wouldn't want to tamper with themystique of my last at bat (when he homered)."
Once, Williams might have snapped, "What the hell's a mystique?"
Manager Don Zimmer, himself a former Senator, who calls himself, "just a .235 hitter with a metal plate in his head," can be thankful that Williams has finally convinced all comers that he is not after Zimmer's job. In light of Zimmer's open feud with Rick Wise, and his smoldering relationship with flabby Scott, that is a good thing.
"I have absolutely no interest in managing anywhere again," said Williams. "I'll come back as the season goes along to see a hitter who's struggling. But I won't do it too often. I want my summers the way there are."
William's face, which looks younger and smoother-skinned at close range, breaks into a grin.
He silently snaps his wrist in the imaginary two-part motion of a perfect fly cast. Miramachi is waiting. "A thousand salmon in one summer," he said. "That's my goal."
Williams can carry off the roll of The Star as few can. A young woman, perhaps a bit mentally slow, has worked here this spring. "Nobody's paying any attention to that poor kid," Williams told old hunting buddy Bud Leavitt. "Find out her name for me, will ya, so I can ask her out to dinner."