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Original Issue

His bat blossoms in the spring

Ken Reitz of St. Louis has started another season with a flourish, but this time maybe his high average won't wilt

As the crowd files into Busch Memorial Stadium half an hour before a recent game, the left side of the St. Louis Cardinals' infield is in a subterranean chamber, playing basketball. Shortstop Garry Templeton misses from the corner, and now he and Third Baseman Ken Reitz both have H-O-R-S. Reitz lofts a 15-foot jumper. Swish! With the pressure on, Templeton tries to match the shot, and...that's an E-6, if you're scoring.

Considering the time of year, the outcome of the game was inevitable. Reitz just can't miss in the early spring. He and Templeton exit the court laughing, and then Reitz goes out and gets two hits in a Cardinal victory over San Francisco.

Every year, you see, Reitz comes in like Denny Lyons (.367 in 1887) and goes out like Lyman Lamb (.254 in 1921). He has a standing reservation among the Top Ten hitters the first few weeks of the season. A lifetime .263 batter, he has hit .325 for his eight big league Aprils. That is a remarkable 56 points higher than his next best month, June. Reitz' finest April came in 1974 when he batted .417 and finished the year at .271. April is the cruelest month for him, only because it raises such high expectations. But this year his quick start has continued into May. On April 30 Reitz was batting .397 and at the end of last week his .385 average was 11 points better than anybody else's in either league.

Not all of his getaways have been so spectacular. He has also had some rotten Aprils, a .177 in 1973, his first full major league season, and a .211 in 1977, the year he returned to the Cardinals after a season in San Francisco. But he was pressing that month, so his April surge was delayed until May when he hit .366 with six home runs and 23 RBIs and was named National League Player of the Month. Reitz' fast starts also include September of 1972, the month he broke in with the Cards and hit .359. But a .231 career average in the seven Septembers since makes that his worst month.

St. Louis Manager Ken Boyer can make no sense of Reitz' fast starts and limping exits. "Maybe it's because he's such a ball of fire that he wears himself out," Boyer says. "He's a good fastball hitter, so maybe it's because he sees a lot of fastballs early in the year when the pitchers can't get their curves over."

Reitz himself has no answer. "I don't know why April is so special," he says. "Let's see, I was married during the All-Star break, my kids were born in February and November. My birthday is in June. Maybe I just love April because that's when the baseball season starts."

Reitz' average has never been this high so late into the season. At one point two weeks ago he was hitting .417. After a 3-for-5 game against San Francisco, teammate George Hendrick, who was batting .355 himself, came up to Reitz and said, "They call me Hard Hendrick, but I'm giving that name to you."

The Cardinal lineup is so loaded with .300 hitters—five St. Louis batters among the league's Top Ten—that the leading hitter in baseball has to bat sixth. Though that may seem an injustice, it's not; Reitz is near the bottom partly because he is one of the game's slowest runners.

This spring some of the Cardinals detect a new Reitz out there, one who won't fall off as dramatically as he has in the past. "He's being much more selective about what pitches he goes after," says defending batting champ Keith Hernandez, taking note of Reitz' increased number of bases on balls. "He's always been a free swinger, but now he's waiting on the pitch. Once the pitchers catch on, they'll start throwing strikes, and Kenny can start swinging again."

Jack Krol, a Cardinal coach who managed Reitz in the minors, says, "I think it's a matter of maturity. I've got some stories about when he was with me in Tulsa. Do you want to hear about the time he leveled a row of seats with his batting helmet, or the time he threw the game ball over the centerfield fence after a friend of his was ejected? Today he doesn't throw things nearly as far. His temper is 100% improved." Nevertheless, Reitz did tear up an airport waiting lounge last season when he was annoyed by a plane delay.

In an indirect way, Reitz' prolonged fast start this season may be the result of his pregame basketball playing. "He's calmed down this year," Boyer says. "He's in the same mold as Pete Rose in that the adrenaline is always going, but he's not taking a hundred ground balls in practice like he used to." Instead, he's down in the stadium's disused handball court horsing around with teammates like Templeton, Pete Vuckovich and Steve Swisher. "I like the idea of all those people in the stands waiting for a baseball game, and me, down there, playing basketball," says Reitz. "It relaxes me."

Reitz' lack of foot speed is sort of a running joke with the Cardinals. A few winters ago the club asked UCLA Track Coach Jim Bush to try to quicken his pace. According to Reitz, Bush told him he could turn a raw 9.8 dash man into a 9.2 sprinter, but that Reitz was hopeless. "I'm like a station wagon at Indianapolis, but at least I know the direction to first," he says.

Slow as he is, Reitz has amazing lateral range as a fielder. And his glove and his arm are as steady as any third baseman's. The Cardinals can't understand why Mike Schmidt of the Phillies keeps winning Gold Gloves that they feel Reitz deserves. Schmidt even won in 1977 when Reitz set a record for fewest errors by a third baseman (nine). Oddly, his only Gold Glove came in 1975, when he made the most errors of his career, 23. "I was embarrassed to get it," says Reitz.

Reitz' interest in playing H-O-R-S-E may be derived from the days when he performed in rodeos on real horses. He gave that up when the Cardinals said they didn't like the idea of his being thrown. "I didn't much like being thrown off, either," he says. His horsing around also helped to foster the myth that he is of Indian heritage. Some players still claim Reitz is part Cherokee, and they call him "Crazy Horse." The fact of the matter is that Reitz is of German and Irish descent. He grew up in Daly City, Calif., not far from Candlestick Park, in a baseball family. His father played at Mission High School, a few years before Hernandez' dad, and his brother Roy was in the Giants' organization for a while. "At the dinner table, we used to slide into the soup," says Reitz. Signed at 18, Reitz made a rapid rise to the majors, thanks mainly to his fielding. At 28, he is already an eight-year veteran.

Reitz' fits of temper haven't kept him from developing a good-guy image. "He keeps everybody loose," says Hernandez. "You can't help but laugh around him." Reitz is also known for his generosity to relatives, teammates and the kids at St. James (Mo.) Boys Club. "Baseball's very important to him," says Cardinal Outfielder Dane Iorg, "but what he does goes beyond baseball. He's just a fine human being, and when you get down to it, that's the most important thing."

There you have it. Great heart, great glove, great bat. Well, at least for now.