Although a handful of players are demanding that their contracts be renegotiated or are threatening to become free agents, the upcoming season has the feel of the good old days. The Yankees are the defending champions, as they always used to be, and they are again the favorites, as they always used to be. The runaway races of the early seasons of divisional play have become closer the past few summers, and in the months ahead there again should be some furious two-and three-team races. And this summer legendary records are no longer under assault, now that Lou Brock has joined Henry Aaron in surpassing the most imposing achievements of Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth.
This is not to say that no individuals are worthy of special notice. Pete Rose certainly will be, as he collects the 34 hits he needs to become the 13th player to get 3,000 in his career. But there are two men not old enough to have many Ruthian, or Rosean, lifetime statistics—Rod Carew of Minnesota, 32, and George Foster of Cincinnati, 29—who are even more deserving of attention and acclaim. Last season's extraordinary performances by these two quiet players were unduly obscured by Reggie Jackson's World Series slugging. Even the selection of Carew and Foster as their leagues' Most Valuable Players led to little fanfare. But, as the following statistics compiled by Jim Kaplan indicate, they were not garden-variety MVPs. Ruth and Cobb would have been proud of what Carew and Foster wrought in 1977. Carew is assured of a place in the Hall of Fame, even if he never gets another hit; if Foster has a couple more seasons like '77, he'll join him in Cooperstown.
In 1977 Carew hit .3880, the highest average since Ted Williams' .3881 in 1957. With one more hit, Carew would have had the highest average since Williams' .406 in 1941. With only eight more he would have batted .400.
Last season Carew outhit all other big-leaguers by 50 points; Dave Parker of the Pirates was second at .338. The spread was the widest in modern baseball history.
Last year Carew's lifetime average rose from .328 to .335. He jumped 10 notches into 26th place on the list of the all-time best hitters, passing, among others, Al Simmons, Paul Waner, Stan Musial, Heinie Manush, Honus Wagner and John McGraw. Carew has batted .358 over the past five seasons. Another five years at that pace would put him in 14th place, at .343, and he will have passed Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Harry Heilmann, George Sisler and Bill Terry. His present average is the highest—by 22 points—among active players with 10 or more years of service.
Carew's 239 hits were the most since Terry's 254 in 1930. Carew averaged 1.54 hits per game. During his 11-year career he has averaged 1.28.
Baseball's best bunter, Carew beat out 20 in '77. He has a deceptive bunting motion that disguises his intentions until the last split second, and he can bunt with backspin. He is not afraid to lay one down with two strikes on him.
Last season Carew hit .418 by day and .367 at night, but he prefers batting under the lights! He likes cool weather, which is unusual for a Panamanian, claims he can see the ball better at night, which is contrary to what most players say, and finds the air, especially in California, cleaner after dark. He hit .401 at home and .374 on the road.
Carew finished at .388 despite slumps of 1 for 17 and 2 for 19. He claims he has lost no sleep over the eight hits he needed to bat .400, but he vividly recalls an 0-for-4 day against California in which he hit the ball hard every time. He is also well aware of his strong finish. "Another week and I might have hit .400," he says.
Here is an indication of how difficult it is to hit .400. On July 10 Carew was batting .401. Between July 11 and Aug. 25 his average dropped to .374, but during that period he went hitless in only six of 42 games. In that span, he had hitting streaks of five, seven, 10 and 14 games.
Carew has won six batting titles. Only Cobb (12), Wagner (eight), Hornsby (seven) and Musial (seven) won more. And Carew easily might have won others. After his first crown in 1969, he suffered a knee injury early in the 1970 season when he was hitting .376. He returned to the lineup in September and finished with a league-leading .366, but he did not bat enough times to qualify for the championship. While rehabilitating his knee in 1971, he fell off to .307. He has won the batting title every year since—except in 1976, when he lost out on the last day of the season.
Carew's 16 career steals of home are a major league record. In 1969 he stole home seven times, breaking Cobb's American League record and tying Pete Reiser's big league mark.
Carew finished 1977 with 351 total bases and a .570 slugging percentage, both second in the league to Boston's Jim Rice. Normally not a power hitter, Carew had an unusually large number of long hits: 14 home runs, 16 triples and 38 doubles. He also had 100 RBIs. All were personal highs.
In 1972 Carew won a batting title without hitting a homer. Only two others—Ginger Beaumont of Pittsburgh (.357 in 1902) and Brooklyn's Zack Wheat (.335 in 1918)—went homerless while winning titles.
Carew has 1,897 hits. By midseason he should join Rose, Carl Yastrzemski, Rusty Staub, Brock, Bert Campaneris and Willie McCovey as active players with 2,000 or more hits. At his present pace Carew will reach 3,000 by 1984.
Last year Carew had eight games with four or more hits and once scored five runs.
Carew's best months were June, when he hit .486, and September (.439). He hit .400 or better against Chicago (.492), New York (.450), Texas (.446), Toronto (.432), Milwaukee (.429), Boston (.422), Cleveland (.400) and Oakland (.400).
In addition to leading the league in batting average, Carew was first in runs (128), hits (239), singles (171) and triples (16). He led the good-hitting Twins with 38 doubles, 351 total bases, a .570 slugging percentage, 155 games played, 616 at bats, 23 stolen bases, only 55 strikeouts and just six double-play grounders.
Most Valuable Player was not the only honor Carew won in 1977. He was named to the All-Star team for the 11th consecutive year and made it with 4,292,740 votes, the most ever.
Some oddities about Carew: he was born on a train in Panama. The doctor who delivered him was named Rodney Cline, so Carew's parents named him Rodney Cline Carew. He came to the U.S. at age 15, but is still a citizen of Panama.
In the MVP balloting, Carew received 12 first-place votes out of a possible 28 and outpolled the second-place finisher, Al Cowens of Kansas City, 273-217 in total points. Unbelievably, one elector left Carew off his ballot. Carew's handicap was playing for a fourth-place team.
When Carew was playing Little League ball in Panama, he won his first MVP title. The reward: a Ted Williams bat.
Asked what her father does for a living, Carew's 4-year-old daughter Charryse said, "Daddy strikes out."
George Foster's 52 home runs last season placed him among baseball's immortals. Every one of the nine 50-homer men who preceded him is either in the Hall of Fame or has received votes for enshrinement. Foster's .320 was 10 points below their average, but his 149 runs batted in were four above it. Only three other National Leaguers—Hack Wilson, Willie Mays and Ralph Kiner—have hit 50, and no one in either league had done it since Mays hit 52 in 1965.
Foster has led the National League in RBIs each of the last two seasons. The only players to do that in the past 30 years have been McCovey (1968-69) and Ernie Banks (1958-59).
Foster's 52 homers were the third highest in National League history, trailing only Wilson's 56 in 1930 and Kiner's 54 in 1949. Foster came within one RBI of becoming the second National Leaguer to hit 50 homers and drive in 150 runs during the same season. Wilson had 56 and 190 in 1930.
Foster hit two or more homers in eight games last season. The major league record of 11 was set by Hank Greenberg in 1938, and the National League mark of 10 by Ralph Kiner in 1947.
In addition to homers and RBIs, Foster led the league with 388 total bases, the most in his league since Aaron's 400 in 1959, and 124 runs; he was among the leaders in average (.320), doubles (31), at bats (615) and strikeouts (107).
Only seven times has a National Leaguer had 150 or more RBIs. Foster's 149 were the most since 1962, when Tommy Davis drove in 153.
A right-handed batter, Foster had 20 homers off lefthanders and 32 off righties. He hit 21 at home and 31 on the road. He had none until his eighth game and only four almost a quarter of the way through the season. Beginning May 25, he hit seven in six games. Thereafter he never went as many as 10 games without a home run and peaked in July and August, with 12 in each month.
Foster uses a black bat and steps out of the box more than anyone in the majors. His power is out of proportion to his 6'1", 185-pound build. Since Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium opened in 1970, only eight balls have been hit into the upper deck. Foster has hit three, including two last season. One, on Aug. 3, is Riverfront's longest. An engineer estimated that it might have come to earth as far as 720 feet from home plate if it hadn't hit the stands.
Foster's lifetime statistics are not breathtaking because he has had only three impressive seasons. But they have come consecutively, and each has been dramatically better than its predecessor. If he were to increase his output as much in 1978 as he did in 1977, he would hit .334 with 75 homers and 177 RBIs.
Named on all 24 ballots, Foster was selected the National League's MVP even though he did not play for a pennant winner. That had happened only 15 times in 46 previous elections. He was Cincinnati's fourth Most Valuable Player in the past six years, joining Joe Morgan (1975-76), Rose (1973) and Johnny Bench (1972). Foster received 15 first-place votes to nine for Philadelphia's Greg Luzinski. In players' balloting for a similar award, Foster outpolled Luzinski 155-24.
"There are four parts of self that lead to success," Foster once said. "The first part is discipline, the second is concentration, third is patience, and fourth is faith."
Foster first attracted notice in the big leagues in 1972, when he raced home on a wild pitch to give the Reds the pennant. Afterward, he suffered through a dry spell, including a demotion to the minors in 1973. While at Triple-A Indianapolis, he visited a hypnotist who enabled him to regain his confidence—and his swing. Foster subsequently earned his nickname, the Destroyer.
Foster is a quiet bachelor who takes his Bible and his mother on trips, but he is not humorless. After his 43rd homer last year, he was asked if he would reach 50. "Well, I'm 28 now," he said. "If I keep my health, live a clean life and take vitamins, I think I'll reach 50."
If Foster gets 50 again this season, it will mean that umpires and catchers will have 50 fewer pitches to argue about. As the following story points out, their discussions run the gamut from subtle to unseemly. Next up are scouting reports on all 26 teams and a quiz to help sharpen your wits for the season ahead. And to start the season off right, turn to page 92 for a unique look at Opening Day and other baseball traditions.