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Case of the diffident clouter

Everybody's keyed up about Graig Nettles' homer splurge but Graig

This should be the happiest of seasons for Graig Nettles of the New York Yankees, whose home-run binge has generated outrageous Ruthian projections, but if it is, Nettles is doing a good job of concealment. The 29-year-old third baseman is a six-foot 187-pounder who acts as if he holds the copyright to the term low-keyed despite his phenomenal start in this, his seventh major league season. In prior years Nettles' batting average and run production were proof only that April is indeed the crudest month. The expectations that arose in 1968 when he hit five home runs in his first four days in the majors were frustrated year after year.

Perhaps as penalty for that imposing debut and subsequent cooling off, Nettles has been shortchanged on plaudits he believes he deserved. Last year, for instance, he hit 22 homers and drove in 81 runs, the former a Yankee record for third basemen, but instead of applause for respectable labor, he heard only grumbling over unfulfilled potential when the Yanks fell out of the pennant race.

Ah, but this year. Through the first 22 games he hit 11 homers, nearly half the club's total, to break Frank Robinson's American League record for the leadoff month and tie Willie Stargell's major league mark. During that time Nettles had a 10-game RBI streak, a .304 batting average and was the American League Player of the Week twice. In an astounding doubleheader against his former Cleveland Indian teammates he drove in seven runs with four homers and a single.

Those who dote on projections pointed out that if Nettles continued at his current home-run pace he would surpass Babe Ruth's 60 for 1927 by exactly 31, which may be a trifle much to expect. More rational is the assumption that he will top his previous high of 28 by a smaller number—and maybe even kick up his heels a time or two. So far, though, his only discernible tinge of color has been the way he spells his first name. Through his hitting rampage he has looked like a roller derby fan watching a ballet. After he tagged Kansas City's Marty Pattin for homer No. 10 he was approached by a reporter, column in mind, who asked, "Graig, is this the real you? Is your theme song Que Serà, Serà!, you know, whatever will be, will be?" Nettles replied, "I know what it means. Yeah, I guess it is, but you can't quote me." To another who asked, "Won't you be sorry to see this month end?" he said, "No, because I can't move into my new apartment until the first of May. Right now I'm living with my family in a motel in Paramus, N.J.

"I know I'm swinging the bat good," he did go on, "so my chances of hitting a home run are good. The thing is, it can come and go in one day. Tomorrow I might get up to the plate and feel lost. I haven't set out to get any record, so it isn't any Pig thrill. I don't think about home runs and I'm not going to worry about them. I try to be the same person, one way or another. To keep my sanity, I don't try to get too high on a good day or too low on a bad one."

Neither does Nettles offer any ready explanation why he has started this season so well when others began dismally. Hard work might be the answer. Nettles reported to spring training 10 pounds lighter than his '73 playing weight and, thanks to Yankee Manager Bill Virdon, benefited from more hitting time than he had previously been given.

Nettles was born in San Diego, where he spent many youthful hours swinging a bat in the North Park neighborhood playground, as did Ted Williams. Like Williams and Roger Maris, Nettles wears No. 9 on his uniform, which may not sound like coincidence one day. Maris' 11th homer in 1961, the year of his 61, came on May 30, in the Yanks' 40th game. Nettles is 18 games ahead of that pace. Who knows—74 in '74? That kind of season might get even Nettles excited.