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Original Issue

Strokes of Luck

Nobody expects Andres Galarraga or John Olerud to hit .400 for the season, but it says something that they have done it for this long

To be hitting .400, even two months into a season, is an act of arrogance. A batter mocks the game by operating that long in a zone where charts on hitters' weaknesses and defensive shifts and sliders have no apparent application. Until this season only eight men had carried such an average through June 15 in all the years since Ted Williams's .406 in 1941 made him the last man to bat .400 for a season. To even flirt with that stat, as sacrosanct as 56 or 1.12 in baseball numerology, reveals the kind of hubris that, in mythology anyway, invites destruction.

Ten years have passed since a hitter, Rod Carew, last demonstrated such bravado well into June. Now there's someone in each league doing just that—the Toronto Blue Jays' John Olerud, who at week's end was batting .401 and, despite a 25-game hitting streak, was slipping perilous I close lo mortality will) each 1-for-3 night, and the Colorado Rockies' Andres Galarraga, who had inspired a virulent case of Rocky Mountain Fever among fans in Denver with a mile-high .430.

They are odd additions to the list of June's .400 hitters, neither of them arrogant, both of them careful not to anger baseball's gods. Neither is gifted in the ways of Carew, the one player of recent vintage for whom carrying a .400 average into mid-June was not a kind of blasphemy: He did it four times—in 1974, '75 and '77 with the Minnesota Twins and in '83 with the California Angels. Neither will beat out bunts, as Carew did, or handle the bat the way he did. Neither will swing at a pitchout, as Carew once did during his '77 run, daring all of baseball to try to stifle him. Neither, in fact, will hit .400 for the season.

And everybody knows it. "Is it a miracle the Cat's hitting .400?" asks Rocky manager Don Baylor of Galarraga, who is known as Big Cat because of his grace at first base. "No. It's a miracle he's hitting .300."

Baylor, the man who had the biggest hand in reclaiming Galarraga's declining career, has been working almost as hard to dampen expectations as he did to open the Big Cat's batting stance. Galarraga, after all, hit .246 over the last four seasons. Even when he seemed to be inching up on stardom by hitting .302 with 29 home runs for the Expos in 1988, he still led the league in strikeouts. Baylor loves the Big Cat, a gentle bear of a man who likes to paint landscapes in the off-season. But Baylor, who was a teammate of Carew's in California, also knows there's something wrong with this picture. "That .406," he tells the Colorado customers, "is real safe."

It's not just baseball's recent history that teaches us that, although the evidence is pretty conclusive (boxes, pages 24 and 26). Only one of the eight men on the post-1941 list had a .400 average heading into the final month of the season—the Kansas City Royals' George Brett, who finished at .390 in '80. All fell to earth, although none too precipitously; only Carew, in one of his four runs, ended up under .350 for the year, at .339 in '83.

Baylor can only smile when Denver statisticians approach him with impossible numbers. What would it take for Galarraga to hit .400? Well, one of these numbers men told Baylor one day last week, it would take an 0-for-17 slump. In his long career Baylor has seen hysteria like this before. He knows that Galarraga, though reborn, is not the second coming.

True, the pitching this season is diluted by expansion, and Baylor, whose staff is the worst in baseball, should know that better than anybody. "In my day there were a lot of three-and four-man pitching staffs," he says. "I mean three and four good pitchers." In Galarraga's and Olerud's day it is difficult to locate a rotation besides those of the Atlanta Braves and the Philadelphia Phillies that doesn't seriously drop off after the No. 1 starter.

But while that might encourage hope for another .400 season, other factors will certainly prevent a year such as Williams had more than a half century ago. The Kid might have had to deal with The Shift from time to time, but he didn't have to cope with the constant charting, the defensive structure that managers routinely call into place now. "And can you imagine the pressure there'd be nowadays," says Baylor, "the press conferences that would be held after every game? If a guy is hitting .400 in August...." Baylor remembers when Reggie Jackson had 37 homers at the All-Star break in 1969 and was so haunted by the media he came down with hives. Reggie! "And the national media back then," Baylor reminds us, "was not what it is today."

Olerud (SI, May 10) is getting a double dose of the media already. Baseball Weekly and Maclean's, a Canadian newsweekly, hit him with a binational one-two last week. So far he has remained remarkably unruffled. "I don't know if he's excitable enough to notice all the fuss that would be made later in the year if he took a run at .400," said one Toronto teammate.

Olerud, not one to invite destruction, is downplaying that possibility, 'it won't be easy," he says. "I think it will take someone who has some speed; you have to be able to beat out a few infield hits and maybe bunt. Whoever did it would need some luck too."

For the moment Olerud, who is not fleet afoot, is beyond luck. With 26 doubles, 14 homers and 57 RBIs through Sunday, he could break his career bests in all three categories by the All-Star break. "I've tried a number of things against him, and he seems to put it in play," says Boston Red Sox pitcher Roger Clemens. "When somebody's in a zone like that...."

But if Olerud is in a zone, where do you find Galarraga? Even in 1988, when he made the All-Star team and led the National League in hits (184) and doubles (42), he was a project for hitting coaches; he struck out 153 times that year. The next two seasons with the Expos the strikeouts edged up and the hits plummeted. "He was getting into Dave Kingman country," Baylor says, "except he wasn't hitting 40 home runs."

It's hard to say exactly what happened to him. The word around the league was that his bat speed was simply gone. Galarraga and Baylor blame misguided attempts by Montreal coaches to cut down on his strikeouts. To do so, the Expos decided he should be a pull hitter. The Big Cat, ever obliging, went along with everything suggested. "I am too nice a guy," he admits. "I say no to nobody."

When all the experimenting was over, the only people delighted were opposing pitchers, who discovered they could pitch Galarraga inside with impunity. "Word gets around in this league," says Rocky teammate Jeff Parrett, who enjoyed facing Galarraga when he was pitching for Philadelphia. "If a guy has a hole in his swing...." Pitchers could hardly keep a straight face with Galarraga at the plate. He became the most effortless punch-out since Buster Douglas.

In 1991 he hit .219, and after the season he was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals, whose hitting coach happened to be Baylor. "Was he a wreck? Well, his power was gone, his home runs were gone, his average was gone. He was a wreck, all right," Baylor says. "By then he was as low as you could go. He was searching for anything, listening to his wile, his lawyer, anybody." He was ready for Baylor.

And last year Baylor decided to do "something drastic, something entirely different." To get the Big Cat's bat out in front of those killing inside pitches, Baylor opened the stance of the righthanded-hitting Galarraga so that his left foot was almost in the dugout. "Another thing we stumbled on, once we found out he was wearing contacts," Baylor says, "was that his right eye was his dominant eye. So we turned him, had him almost facing the pitcher, getting a good look at the pitch."

Still, he didn't see it well enough to get out of the way of a Wally Whitehurst fastball in a game against the New York Mets last season. Second game of the year, broken wrist, out 44 days. All the work Baylor and Galarraga put in during spring training—hitting balls off tees, tinkering with stances—went for naught. Galarraga struggled to come back but couldn't get his average over .200 by mid-July. "I always think, I can do it," he says now. "I am young. But I hear the bad things people say about me." The little whisperings, the rumors, the innuendos? "No, the 'Hey, Gato, get out of the game.' "

Then, suddenly, the new stance started to work for him. In Galarraga's last 45 games of the season he hit .301 with eight home runs and 29 RBIs. Baylor was encouraged, if the Cardinals weren't. St. Louis bought out the option on Galarraga's $3 million contract. But by then Baylor was the new manager of the expansion Rockies. And he had no trouble talking management into signing Galarraga.

After all, the Big Cat was a proven Gold Glove first baseman, with sporadic power. He might hit 20 to 27 home runs in Mile High Stadium, Baylor guessed. Anyway, he came real cheap. The Rockies got him for $600,000, which is the per them for a lot of guys with seven years in the big leagues. That contract, which Galarraga diplomatically says is "so-so," can double in value with incentive clauses. But by the time the Rockies approached him, he was so humiliated he would have played for nothing just for the chance to prove he could still play.

"I do not get angry," he says. "I try always to be positive. But since I left, Montreal has had about 10 first basemen. I would have gladly gone back. But they said, no, not talking to you. So when I played Montreal, something came up inside." The Big Cat is not one to swing at pitchouts, but he does have his pride. He has torn the Expos apart this year, getting 13 hits in 26 at bats with four doubles, two homers and 12 RBIs.

Even after Galarraga went on the disabled list May 9 with a partial tear of his right hamstring and missed 17 games (and enough trips to the plate to keep him from being listed among the league leaders until last week), he returned to hit .500 in his next 68 at bats, with power (six doubles, two triples and six home runs). Even Carew didn't not enjoy a run like that.

Nobody expects this to continue. Galarraga is stout, has no speed, hits right-handed and cannot draw a walk to save his life. But his biggest disadvantage—and it's impolite to mention it in his clubhouse—is that he'll never get an opportunity to feast on Colorado pitching, the worst in the National League. Imagine if he could swing in a couple of four-game series against the Rocky rotation? But just forget we brought that up.

It will be story enough if he finishes above .300. "There's talk about him making the All-Star team," says Parrett. "But the way I figure, by then he'll have moved up. He belongs in the Other League." Somewhere where sliders never work, the charts always lie and defensive shifts backfire. Where a hitter, however briefly, can give himself over to destiny and wave confidently at pitchouts. Where everyone hits .400.



Galarraga (left) is hitting almost 200 points better than his average for the last four seasons, while Olerud is swinging with surprising power.



[See caption above.]



[See caption above.]



With his career on the decline, the Big Cat came cheap but has paid off big for Colorado.













Bullish on .400

No major league player has hit .400 since Ted Williams batted .406 in 1941, and only two players—Rod Carew in '77 and George Brett in '80—have finished a season within 20 points of that barrier in the last 35 years. With Andres Galarraga of the Rockies and John Olerud of the Blue Jays both batting over .400 at week's end, here is how their seasons thus far compare with those of Williams, Carew and Brett in their best years. Also noted are the highest and lowest averages after April for the five players during those big seasons.