Publish date:


Swinging for the gaps instead of the fences—and flirting with .400—Rod Carew leads a band of throwbacks who are splendidly defying the game's long-ball mania

He would seem to epitomize the modern athlete: a tall, lean black man, swift and supple, a finely tuned physique sculpted in ebony. But appearances are invariably deceiving and, in fact, Rod Carew, the second baseman of the Minnesota Twins and, for the third time, defending batting champion of the American League, is about as contemporary as the Baltimore Chop. He is no disciple of Henry Aaron but the spiritual heir of Wee Willie Keeler, the legendary baseball savant who, when asked some 75 years ago to define his distinctive batting technique, replied immortally, "I hit 'em where they ain't."

Carew is hitting 'em where they ain't with such numbing consistency that he has to be conceded an outside chance to become the game's first .400 hitter since Ted Williams 33 seasons ago. And Carew, flanked by Atlanta's Ralph Garr and Cincinnati's Pete Rose, marches at the head of a movement that holds stoutly to the contention that lots of little hits are every bit as useful as a few big ones. They are The Singles Hitters, men who survive not on brute force but on guile. In their own anachronistic way, these throwbacks are subtly changing the modern game, influencing younger players, such as Houston's Greg Gross and the Dodgers' Bill Buckner, and creating through sheer omnipresence on the base paths their own kind of excitement.

Now, as June ends and the baseball season begins to take its shape, they seemed to be all but shouting. "Hey, look at me," not only on the diamond but in the ink of the batting statistics, where seven of the top 10 National League averages and six in the American League belonged to such singular men.

When a player of Carew's special skills is at the apex of his form—and he usually is—it is extremely difficult to keep him off base. Entering the ninth inning of a game last week with Baltimore, Carew had gone hitless in four at bats. "0-for" nights irritate him mightily, so it was reasonable to assume that corrective measures would be taken. Since many of Carew's hits roll up the middle of the diamond, shortstops and second basemen seem to congregate there, standing more or less shoulder to shoulder. In this series alone the Orioles' second baseman, Bobby Grich, deprived Carew of several hits and a game-tying run batted in by fielding balls directly behind second base.

But it is folly to shade Carew in one direction, for he has such precise control of his minuscule 32-ounce bat that he can guide the ball into any vacant territory. And so in his final plate appearance this night, Carew spotted Grich and Oriole Shortstop Mark Belanger conjoined near second base like a latter-day Chang and Eng. There did not seem to be anybody playing shortstop. So Carew slapped what ordinarily would have been a routine grounder to short but which on this occasion became a clean single to left field. The 0-fors would have to wait for another night. In the next game the properly chastened Grich and Belanger tore themselves apart. So Carew thereupon aimed his shots up the middle, going 2 for 4 and hiking his average to a celestial .399.

Although friend and foe alike consider him an uncanny marksman with a bat, Carew himself insists that he seeks only to "make contact" and that he has merely a fair idea where the balls he strikes will go. Hitting is an art, he explains, not an exact science.

"Outfielders tend to play me like a right-handed hitter," says Carew, who bats left. "That leaves me a hole in right field. If I could do it, I'd get a hit every time by just going for that hole. But I can't do it. Usually when I try to pull the ball I hit off my front foot and can't get anything behind my swing. So I just concentrate on hitting up the middle or going to the opposite field."

Carew succumbs to vanity only when discussing his bunting, a craft at which he immodestly but quite accurately considers himself a master. On those rare days when the hits are not dropping in for him, he resorts to bunting to keep his batting average at the proper altitude. If anything, it usually rises, as it did in 1972 when he bunted for 25 hits in 36 attempts. He has been known to bunt three or even four times a game if he spots an opening in the defense.

This added skill further distorts infield alignments. At bat Carew can see the third baseman advancing on him like one of Macduff's trees. No matter. "Even when they know I'm going to bunt, they can't throw me out," he says. "I can drop the ball to a spot where they will have an awkward throw. They have to come up clean with the ball and throw on the run. Not too many third basemen can do that consistently."

Carew is a natural hitter, but his bunting is the fruit of many hours of labor. Not many modern players are willing to devote much time to something so personally unrewarding as bunting, but Carew practices the art for as much as 45 minutes a day during spring training and for 15 minutes before most games.

Watching him take batting practice is an education in itself. Carew does not see this interval in his workday as a time for engaging in distance-hitting contests. "All some of these guys want to do is hit the ball in the seats during practice," he says disdainfully. "I concentrate on moving the ball around."

And so he does, first dropping exquisite bunts along the base lines and ground balls up the middle and...crack...slicing delicate line drives into left field or...bang...launching hard shots down the right-field line. For all his modesty about placing the ball, he is as accurate as an archer.

Carew has a thin, almost skeletal face, a serene, handsome visage that he disfigures with Red Man chewing tobacco. With his cheeks popped out he looks even more like the survivor of another era, like someone who has recently emerged from a time capsule buried in 1912. But he does not chew tobacco to give him the authentic look of a dead-ball hitter. He chews it to keep from drinking Coca-Cola, a habit that reached epic proportions a few seasons ago when he downed as many as 15 Cokes during a game. "It got so I was starting to feel sick in the last innings. With tobacco in my mouth I can't stand the taste of the stuff."

Tobacco chewing generally identifies the chewer as a tough guy, an aggressive, even combative, ballplayer, which Carew is not. If there is any criticism of his play—and his manager, Frank Quilici, has said, "How can you criticize a guy hitting .400"—it is that he is too much the perfect gentleman on the field.

"I don't go out there to hurt anyone," Carew says. "I avoid that whenever possible. Reggie Jackson came into second base once this year standing up on a double-play ball. It would have been easy to hit him with the ball. But I knew he had a bad leg, the hamstring thing, and probably didn't want to risk sliding, so I went well out of my way to throw around him. He thanked me for it."

Carew was as hurt emotionally as physically four years ago when Mike Hegan of the Milwaukee Brewers barreled into him to break up a double play. Surgery was required to repair torn ligaments in Carew's right knee and he missed two-thirds of the season. But he was even more hurt that Hegan, a gentleman like himself, should have treated him so shabbily. "The play was over," Carew says. "I had already thrown the ball. He just kept coming." The accident, he admits, left him slightly gun-shy at second base for the better part of two seasons. But as the strength in his leg returned, the timidity disappeared.

Carew was born in Panama—on a train—and though his family moved to New York when he was in his early teens a trace of Latin accent persists, lending even more gentleness to a soft voice. He laughs easily, although he is an acknowledged loner and "certainly no goer." City life does not sit well with him and he does not enjoy driving a car in traffic. Instead, he prefers riding his 10-speed bicycle the 15 miles from his home to Metropolitan Stadium. He is an enthusiastic movie fan—"sometimes two or three in a day"—and, unlike so many of his contemporaries in baseball, a serious reader. At the moment he is studying Judaism, his wife Marilynn's religion, toward the possibility of embracing that faith.

At 28 and in his eighth season, Carew is at a point in age and experience where a player is supposed to peak, which further encourages the speculation that he might become the first .400 hitter since Williams. Carew won the batting title last year with a .350 average, the highest mark in the American League in 12 years. Last week his average hovered tantalizingly around .400, some 40 points above his nearest competitor, Oakland's Jackson. A power man, Jackson cuts an entirely different figure at the plate from Carew, the lineal descendant of Wee Willie, the Georgia Peach, Honus Wagner, Shoeless Joe and the Brothers Waner.

"If he gets lucky and stays healthy, I think he can hit .400," says Manager Quilici. "He has so many offensive gifts. He has great speed [41 stolen bases last year] so he beats out a lot of ground balls. And when he isn't hitting he can always bunt for hits. Now, after seven years in the league, he's found himself. He's around .400 now and his hottest months are always August and September."

Carew is not so optimistic. "I don't like to set goals for myself," he says. "That just adds more pressure, and there is enough as it is. Then, too, I'm pretty much of a free swinger. I don't walk much [only 62 times in 1973] and I think to hit .400 you have to walk a lot. [Williams had 145 walks in 1941 when he hit .406.] And now with so many relief pitchers you are always facing somebody fresh. Every team has three or four strong starters and a couple of very good relievers. That's a lot of pitching."

"Nothing is impossible," says Ralph Garr, the Atlanta outfielder whose .318 career average is two percentage points higher than Carew's and who is batting a heady .370 this season. "But for someone like me or Carew to hit .400, we'd have to get about 250 hits. That's a lot. But I won't say it's impossible."

Garr, like Carew, is basically a left-handed singles hitter with speed who is reluctant to accept a base on balls, but there the similarity ends. Carew has a swift, guided stroke with the bat. Garr is a wild swinger. "I try to hit the ball harder than Carew," Garr says, "so I top the ball a lot. I beat out a lot of those rollers. I just hit the ball where they pitch it to me. But I won't always try to go to left on an inside pitch. And in certain situations I might go for the home run. I take whatever comes."

Pete Rose will also "muscle up" and play long ball on occasion, as he did in the fourth National League playoff game with the Mets last year. But Carew, who is a sturdy 6' and 180 pounds, sees no reason to alter his disciplined swing.

"He could be a different type of hitter if he wanted to," says Quilici. "He could hit maybe 20 to 25 home runs. I've seen him hit the long ball. In the old Kansas City park he hit one over the equipment house in center field. But he never thinks home run. He thinks line drive."

"What a lot of people don't realize is that certain guys on certain clubs have a job to do," says Carew, defending his style. "My job is to get on base, to try and hit the ball somewhere. On this team, when Harmon [Killebrew] and Tony [Oliva] were playing every day, we had guys who could drive in runs. But they had to have somebody on base to do it. Every hitter knows his capabilities. I know mine. Oh, I could hit the ball hard if I wanted to. But if I hit 10 home runs I'm not going to help the club. If I get on base and score 95 runs, I am."

Last year Carew scored 98 runs. Of his 203 hits, only six were home runs. Only 11 of Garr's 200 hits were homers. He scored 94 runs. Five of Rose's 230 hits were homers. He scored 115 runs.

Carew, Rose and, to some extent, Garr are singles hitters by design. Others are in their company as creatures of circumstance. Baltimore's Tommy Davis has hit as many as 27 home runs in a season, but he now considers himself a "Punch and Judy" hitter. "It's a matter of survival," he says. "I've been traded so often I feel I'm showcasing myself every time I come to bat. I've got to do something up there. I like the man who thinks up there, who touches the ball. A guy who gets 180 or more hits can do just as much damage as a guy who hits 40 home runs. And the new, bigger ball parks have changed the game. People are beginning to realize the value of the line-drive hitter."

Davis' famous teammate, 37-year-old Brooks Robinson, changed himself into a singles hitter this year, he says, because in his athletic dotage he lost the strength to hit home runs. Robinson is currently batting .330, about 60 points above his career average.

The game may be changing, as Davis suggests, but the public seems loath to accept the change.

"It is true that power hitters dominate baseball," says Lenny Randle, the singles-hitting Texas Ranger infielder, "and that is true because that is the way the fans have wanted it. Home runs mean power and power is a symbol of authority and superiority. The fans apparently need to affiliate with those kinds of feelings."

"Singles hitters," says Houston Pitcher Don Wilson, "set the table for the power hitters. If they hit singles and the power hitter blasts one out, you've got yourself a feast."

Carew might bristle mildly at the suggestion that he and his kind are merely busboys, but it will not change his approach to the game. He will continue to practice the ancient arts, dragging and pushing the ball through the infield, outsmarting the enemy, just as if he had never heard the adage about home-run hitters driving Cadillacs.

"A Cadillac?" he inquired over coffee one day last week. "Why should I want a Cadillac? I ride a bicycle."



Carew steps gracefully into a pitch, while Atlanta's Ralph Garr rears back, ready to strike.


A new believer, Greg Gross, is at .346.