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Comeback Would Top Them All

COLUMN ONE

The arrival of Ted Williams' body sparked interest in cryonics firm Alcor. But can Alcor really give its famous 'patient' new life?

January 22, 2003|J.R. Moehringer | Times Staff Writer

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — It stands 10 feet tall and gives off a loud, gasping hiss from its nozzles and gauges.

It looks like a giant thermos, but sounds like a cappuccino maker.

And it's now the resting place of perhaps the most talented hitter in baseball history.

But not the final resting place, not according to officials at Alcor Life Extension Foundation. If their predictions about cloning and cryonics prove true, Ted Williams, who retired from baseball nearly 43 summers ago, will one day make a jaw-dropping comeback.

Just before he died last July, the 84-year-old Hall of Famer apparently signed a piece of paper authorizing Alcor to ship his corpse here to be frozen -- or cryonically "suspended" -- then stored upside down in this stainless-steel tank full of liquid nitrogen until cures are found for the heart and brain ailments that ended his life.

Williams signed the paper privately, in the presence of his grown son and a daughter. But a daughter from a previous marriage made the paper public, insisting that her father's real wish was to be cremated and sprinkled off the Florida Keys.

A nasty fight ensued. Hard words were exchanged, strange accusations aired -- including one of DNA-harvesting for future profits. The eldest daughter even filed suit in Citrus County, Fla., trying to retrieve her father and transfer him from ice to fire.

Finally, last month, the sad custody battle ended. The siblings announced a few days before Christmas that they had reached a deal. The eldest daughter would let her father stay at Alcor in exchange for a sum of money and a batch of autographed bats.

None of the siblings or their lawyers will comment publicly on the deal. But son John Henry Williams insists that his father's final wishes have been honored.

"Anyone who really knew my father, or who was really close to my father, knew that he made his own decisions his entire life," John Henry says. "He was very stubborn, always had his own opinion, and no one could make him do anything he didn't want to do -- for instance, like wearing a tie."

John Henry said his father put great faith in the future.

"He was very into science and believed in new technology and human advancement and was a pioneer. Even though things seemed impossible at times, he always knew there was always a chance to catch a fish -- only if you had your fly in the water."

Asked if he believes his father is coming back, the son heaves a sigh.

"I believe," he says. "I believe. I believe that one day my dad will be back."

Days after the deal was struck among the Williams children, there was no sign of anything different here at Alcor. Like every other day at the foundation -- a palm-festooned warehouse behind Scottsdale Airport -- a feeling of ongoing suspense, of perpetual stasis, hung in the air.

Williams -- who hit .406 in 1941, a feat still ranked among the greatest in sports -- is one of 55 people to have chosen the frozen limbo of Alcor over the cold finality of the grave, says Dr. Jerry Lemler, president and CEO of Alcor. Nearly 100 people worldwide are said to have been frozen by a handful of organizations, Lemler says, and another 1,000 are pending.

But Alcor is the leader, the center and the Cooperstown of the burgeoning cryonics movement.

Founded in 1972, Alcor claims more members than any other cryonics organization and counts among them James Bedford, said to be the first man ever frozen back in 1967.

Williams' stainless-steel tank, or Dewar, stands alongside Bedford's and the rest -- opaque, vacuum-sealed, undistinguished. Lemler says he can't point out exactly which Dewar holds Williams because confidentiality agreements prevent him from even confirming that Williams is on-site.

When pressed, however, Lemler fixes his gaze on one tank and raises his eyebrows.

"You should be able to figure it out," he says.

Many people view death as something to be avoided. Alcor members take that instinctive aversion a step further. To cheat death, they seal it up, flash-freeze it, forestall its attendant decay. Without decay, they believe, human bodies may someday be like well-preserved engines, capable of taking a jump-start from some unforeseen spark.

Many of Alcor's members -- whom the foundation terms "patients" after they die -- are less private than Williams. They let themselves be photographed and give permission for their pictures to be displayed in the lobby after their deaths.

Beneath each picture, a gold plate bears the patient's name and the dates of his or her "first life cycle." Each patient's face, meanwhile, bears a look of anticipatory triumph. Behind the shy smile, a single thought seems to lurk:

I'll be back.

Some pay as much as $120,000 to join Alcor, which is a nonprofit and tax-exempt foundation, and the money is seen as more than just down payment on resurrection. It's an investment in a deeply held belief, gaining considerable momentum these days, that humanity will inevitably vanquish its archfoe, the aging process.

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