Early this season a New York sports columnist, who has long recorded the chatter of athletes more or less precisely, approached Casey Stengel exuding frustration and defeat, common enough emotions, perhaps, for anyone who has been following the New York Mets around.
"What's the trouble?" asked Stengel.
"Well," said the columnist, "I've been interviewing athletes for many years, and this is only the second time I've been unable to interview a guy. That kid out there is polite and everything, but all he says is yes and no."
"Wait a minute," said Stengel, as he summoned the player with a kingly wave of his arm. "I'll get you the story." The player trotted over and Stengel, forgoing his generally ensnarled rhetoric and roving verbosity, said, "I want to ask you three questions."
"Did you ever play Triple-A ball?" asked Stengel.
"No," said the player.
"Were you ever in the major leagues?"
"Well, now," said Stengel, "were you given the job when you came to camp last year?"
"No," said the player.
"There you are, my friend," Stengel said to the columnist. "There's your story. He never played higher than Double-A, never played a game in the majors, and at this time last year nobody thought he could make this ball club except him. He just wouldn't let any one of six other guys take the job away from him."
Include a few facts about his age (23), his height and weight (5 feet 11, 186 pounds), his home (St. Louis), his off-season job (truck driving) and that really would seem to be the whole story of Second Baseman Ron Hunt, a contained young man who happens to be the first New York Met to make the All-Star team and the first to give strong indication that he will not end a young career pinch-hitting at Buffalo. Nothing on or off the field ignites a display of emotion in him, and his sad, frozen expression and his somnolent eyes (Roger Craig used to call him Nap Time) have a way of making a visitor feel uneasy. He makes it plain that it is an imposition to try to open a conversation with him. Talking breeds familiarity, and Hunt does not like to be familiar with people.
"I'm very moody," he says. "I don't like people around me. I just don't have anything to say to them. No, Casey and I don't talk much. I sit a good distance away from him in the dugout, and I like it that way." When Hunt does talk, each word seems to struggle out, and then there is a long pause before another word is spoken. He has cultivated no interests outside of sports, though occasionally he watches the late show just to add a little zing to the evening. His reaction to being named to the All-Star team was typical. "Fine," he said to a reporter who called to tell him. "It didn't matter one way or the other, but you might say I'm a little excited."
Hunt may have been stretching matters to call himself excited, but there is no question about the stirring quality of his recent performances. He has been hitting superbly—especially against good pitching—and has stayed well above .300 all season. He can make all the plays, and in his second year in the majors he has become one of the finest second basemen in baseball. "If he has a failing," says Met Coach Don Heffner, "I'd say it's the way he makes the double play. He doesn't do anything mechanically wrong. He has a good arm, and he gets the ball away quickly, but he never tries to avoid the runner. He just stays in there, and he is taking a lot of physical abuse he doesn't have to take."
The point made by Heffner is sharply revealing. By the time a player reaches the majors, the pivot should be a perfunctory maneuver combining footwork, timing, quick hands and judgment. The footwork—either straddling the bag, stepping across the bag or stepping back toward the outfield—is adjusted to the speed of the ground ball and the runners involved. Some players execute the pivot with more imagination than others, but all of them try to vary their styles. It would be easy for Hunt to vary his style, but generally he makes the play straddling the bag, and in this open defiance of danger he reveals his baseball philosophy. It is a mode of behavior that makes the statistics of hits and runs empty figures. "This is a good game now," says Heffner, "but the way Hunt plays it it's a better game. He plays the kind of game that brings you to your feet."
Hunt's "kind of game" is vintage Cobb—without the lacerating spikes or clubhouse threats. It is a style that always attracts suspicion and derision and the most hated of all descriptions: "hot dog." It has a code. No fraternal conviviality, no small talk with the runner around second base, no exchange of bon mots around the batting cage. The player who plays like Hunt is always alone, even, in a sense, on his own team. The style does not conform to the unwritten precepts of modern major league conduct, and the player is never spoken of in the saccharine clichés so often used by teammates to describe another player. "What they say doesn't bother me," says Hunt. It is all quite simple for him. Others may think they are still playing a game, but not he. Baseball is his business, and he must take advantage of every edge, because a seat in a big-league dugout is not far removed from a seat behind the wheel of a truck loaded with aging cabbage bumping down a bad road. "It's the only way I know how to play," says Hunt; he made the same comment to a bewildered shortstop after running over him in an exhibition game in spring training. And then Hunt adds, after showing (upon request) the thick and thin scars that crawl over his left leg: "I take a lot, too, you know. But I don't play to hurt anyone. I just play as hard as I can. The fight with Bailey wasn't my fault."
The incident with Milwaukee Catcher Ed Bailey is a fine illustration of Hunt's disinterest in baseball etiquette. There was a man on first, and Hunt was on second as the play leading up to the battle with Bailey developed. A ground ball was hit to third base. The throw went to second and Hunt, believing there was a good chance Frank Bolling's relay to first would not be in time to complete the double play, raced around third and headed for home. Boiling, however, did not go for the double play, but threw to Bailey at the plate. Hunt crashed into Bailey, but the catcher held the ball for the put-out. Hunt started to walk away; Bailey charged him, and a brawl ensued. It was a typically aggressive play of the kind Hunt has been pulling since he came to the Mets in a $25,000 conditional deal with the Braves in the spring of last year. "Thinking plays, I call them," says Heffner. "Bunting with two strikes. Diving into first. Stealing home at just the right time. That's the kind of baseball he plays."
"I know nobody likes to lose," Hunt says, "but I just can't stand it. It sort of eats away at me." Jimmy Brown, a member of the old Gashouse Gang and Hunt's manager for three of his four years in the minors, and Solly Hemus, who advised the Mets to make a deal for him, have influenced Hunt greatly. "I guess Hemus gave me the best advice I ever got," says Hunt. "He said a guy has to look out for himself, because no one else is going to."
"You see," says Stengel, "he ain't what you would call the lovable type."