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A day for legends and heroes // "A TRIBUTE TO TED'

Every once in a while, Boston Red Sox slugger Ted Williams hit a home run when all he really meant to do was put the ball in play. Thirty-six years after the Splendid Splinter retired from baseball, he did it again Tuesday morning.

Williams, clearly the day's most honored guest no matter who went home with the plaques, ushered the sophomore class of five inductees into his Hitters Hall of Fame wing in a ceremony more homey than Hollywood, more baseball than boastful.

In the past, event organizers swung for the fences. Two years ago, for the grand opening of the Ted Williams Museum, the VIP lineup included Muhammad Ali. Last year, to christen the Hitters Hall of Fame wing, organizers brought in former President George Bush, pop-music superstar Michael Bolton and military jets.

This year's ceremony was about just making contact _ a genuine effort to honor baseball's legends.

And it was a hit.

"This basically is a tribute to Ted Williams on the part of these great ball players," said NBC sportscaster and master of ceremonies Bob Costas, referring to the turnout of nearly two dozen Hall of Fame players who journeyed to out-of-the-way Citrus County, where the Citrus Hills development serves as home to the museum and where Williams lives part time.

"It's the authenticity of the man that means something, not just the accomplishments and the records, which are staggering. It's that this guy is about the game," Costas said.

Inducted into the Hitters Hall of Fame _ as selected by Williams _ were sluggers Josh Gibson, Chuck Klein, Harmon Killebrew, Willie McCovey and Duke Snider. Honored as Williams' 1995 Hitters of the Year were Albert Belle of the Cleveland Indians and Edgar Martinez of the Seattle Mariners from the American League and Dante Bichette of the Colorado Rockies and Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants from the National League.

Other than Gibson and Klein, who are dead, all attended the festivities in some fashion _ either the Legends Dinner on Monday or the Tuesday morning ceremony _ much to the delight of spectators who flocked to the museum for a glimpse of their heroes, past and present.

And this year's event was certainly fan-friendly. An open tent _ far smaller than last year's half-acre structure _ and the public address system made every seat or place to stand a good one.

The highlight: Three of the game's most feared sluggers _ Baseball Hall of Fame members Killebrew, McCovey and Snider _ accepting their places in Williams' Hitters Hall of Fame with humility and humor.

"Sparky Anderson would walk past the dugout before the game and put four fingers up to signal he was going to walk me," McCovey said. "The first two times I was up he walked me intentionally. The third time, I swung at a ball out of the strike zone and tapped a grounder to third base because I didn't want to walk.

"Now, I don't get mad very often, but that one day I was so frustrated, that my fourth time up I yelled over to the dugout, "Who do you think I am, Ted Williams?'

"To be honored here today by Ted Williams," McCovey said, "is one of the highlights of my career. As a hitter, there is no greater honor than being chosen by the man himself."

Williams was casually dressed, as is his trademark, in gray slacks, an open-neck shirt and a Marine Corps baseball cap. He chewed gum through the ceremony, jawing between speakers into the ear of Hall of Fame announcer and friend Curt Gowdy.

Hometown touches came in several forms. Crystal River Little League players carried flags bearing the insignias of the 28 major-league teams; Inverness Primary School students paraded banners bearing the names of the 1996 inductees to Williams' Hitters Hall of Fame; and Hernando Elementary School first-graders sang This is America To Me.

Drawing on Williams' military career _ he interrupted his baseball career to serve as a Marine flier in World War II and Korea _ the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing Band from North Carolina played the Corps anthem, Hey, Look Me Over and the national anthem.

Finally, Williams' turn at the podium came. At 77, the game's last .400 hitter has been slowed by a stroke that robbed him of his 20-10 vision and forces him to walk with a cane.

But his mind, and his purpose Tuesday, were clear.

"I personally am sick of hearing about Ted Williams," he said. "A lot of this stuff that's been said is a little overrated. I wasn't going to speak, but I felt like I had to because I want to thank the fans and the volunteers.

"And it's great to see all the past great hitters and the young ones that are going to be here in just a few years. Hopefully, we're going to be able to carry on for a few more years, and I'm inviting you all to come if you can."