Forget for the moment that Dean Chance is one of the best pitchers in baseball, that his 11 wins have helped the Minnesota Twins to a place of contention in the American League pennant race. Forget, too, that in 1964 he was given the Cy Young Award after he won 20 games for the Los Angeles Angels and that last week he was the American League's starting pitcher in the All-Star Game. Forget these accomplishments and consider only this: Dean Chance, batter, is currently bearing down on one of baseball's most hallowed records—the most consecutive times at bat without a base hit. Chance is now 0 for 73, having been hitless his last 24 at bats in 1966 and all 49 this year.
When baseball men gather to talk about the great nonhitters of baseball, certain names, all pitchers, are invariably mentioned. Like Hank Aguirre of Detroit. Aguirre (.057 in 1964) used to like to say he was one for three—one hit in three years—but unfortunately every time Aguirre had a really good nonhitting streak going—say 50 or 60 at bats—he would spoil it by dribbling one up the third-base line and beating it out. Roger Craig hit .016 in 1956, spoiling a perfect 0-for-61 year with one little single. Sandy Koufax was a really awful hitter during the early years of his career (.065 in 1961), but then he spoiled it all by learning how. Clem Labine, the Dodger relief pitcher, never did learn how (lifetime average .076).
Until this season the American League record for consecutive times at bat without a hit was held by Bill Wight, who as a pitcher with Chicago and Boston went 0 for 69 between 1949 and 1951. Chance broke Wight's record just before the All-Star Game, and he did it with a flourish, striking out just to make certain. He is now only 14 at bats away from the major league record of 87, held by Bob Buhl, a truly remarkable nonhitter who established the mark between 1961 and 1963 when he was with Milwaukee and Chicago. Barring a fluke, like a ground ball hitting a pebble, Chance is a cinch to crack Buhl's record by mid-August.
So let us now observe Chance in the batting cage of Metropolitan Stadium in Minnesota, taking his cuts. Chance does not so much take cuts as flaps. His stance is nothing unusual. Perhaps the feet are a little too far apart, and the left, front foot points, awkwardly, straight at third base, but everybody recalls Stan Musial and remembers that stance is not everything.
It is only when the pitch approaches the plate that Chance's true futility with a bat is apparent. As the ball comes to the plate, Chance appears to be leaving the area. ("He's bailing out," says Batting Coach Jim Lemon. And he does look like a man with a parachute on his back.) At the same time he makes a strange gesture with the bat as if the ball was off on a cruise to the Riviera and the bat was waving bon voyage.
Normally you can summon any vendor out of the stands and he will be able to sock a few in batting practice, where the pitches are straight and harmless. Thus this fallaway act from a man of Chance's size, 6'3", 204 pounds, confirms the belief that he is conducting his own personal peace campaign with the ball. Dean Chance is batting's flower child.
"He is really bad," says Pitching Coach Early Wynn, who has been around long enough to have seen some really bad ones. "In fact, I can't say enough bad things about his hitting. It's hard to remember anyone that bad."
It is a part of baseball tradition that most pitchers take great pride in their hitting and talk about it constantly. Jim Kaat of the Twins, a good hitter, likes to take batting practice and remember his hits. "I grew up loving to hit," he says, "but a guy like Dean doesn't get any fun out of it. He was never really able to hit, and now all his desire to hit is gone. I think Dean is worse now than before. When he was with the Angels years ago he beat me with a bloop after we walked the eighth man to get to him."
Curiously, Chance does not treasure the memory of that hit. He seldom works on his batting, save for the few swings he takes with the scrubbies every day. Indeed, he seems not to remember too vividly any of his hits or near hits, almost as if they were flying saucers and he a skeptic who has seen but does not believe.
"Look," he says with friendly impatience, "I used to work on my hitting. I was out there with the Angels last year every day for a while. I used to swing like this. [He moved his hands a foot apart on the bat and waved it.] Swinging bunts, you know. I tried batting left-handed. I pushed it, swatted it. I tried everything. It didn't work. I think I'll try swinging bunts again."
The Minnesota management does not seem worried. They have always had a stable of good hitting pitchers. Kaat, Jim Grant, Jim Perry, Dave Boswell and Jim Merritt are all pretty good at the plate, and each has helped his own cause numerous times. "Kaat, Grant and Perry hit home runs to win games for us last year," says Lemon. "Chance's best shot is a bunt."
Cal Ermer, who came up from Denver early last month to manage the Twins, tries to get his star to push the ball past the pitcher, but Chance just cannot make contact. Although he is a poor hitter, he is an even worse bunter. No one recalls exactly how or why Chance got his last hit, but the records do show it was on August 7, 1966 against Joe Horlen of Chicago. Presumably God was in His heaven and the infielders were asleep. This season he has not even hit the ball out of the infield.
"Yes, I have," Chance corrects, in a rare but feigned moment of concern. "Right out there." All eyes are directed to the spot, as if following the flight of a tape-measure home run. The spot is on the dirt to the left of first base. "It was against Boston. Waslewski curved me. I pushed one in the air to Scott. He caught it just on the grass behind the dirt. It should have been in there." Chance also hit a momentous line shot to California First Baseman Don Mincher at Anaheim on May 20, but that has long since been forgotten.
Prior to Saturday's start against Kansas City, Chance had grounded out 11 times, bounced to the pitcher four times and struck out 30 times, along with his two outs in the air. On April 28 at Washington, in a performance that must be included in any catalogue of his hitting, Chance struck out four times.
In two trips to the plate against the Athletics last Saturday, Chance appeared particularly and completely helpless. He struck out on three pitches both times, and in the seventh inning, with the Twins trailing 2-1, he was called back from the on-deck circle to be replaced by a pinch hitter. Deprived, for the moment, of reaching the magic seasonal mark of 50 hitless appearances, he dejectedly walked away. "When you can't hit, you can't hit," says Dean Chance.