The Odd Couple, Catcher John Bateman of the Montreal Expos calls them. No, says Broadcaster Vin Scully, they are The Tortoise and The Hare. In fact, Willie Davis of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Joe Torre of the St. Louis Cardinals—the leading hitters in a crowded race for the National League's batting championship—have practically nothing in common except a proclivity for getting on base.
Take Davis. Fidgety Willie, the perpetual-motion man, is a 9.7 sprinter who beats out bunts, legs out routine grounders to shortstop and third base, turns ordinary singles into ordinary doubles, steals bases and even scores from second base on sacrifice bunts—at least he did once against the startled San Francisco Giants a couple of weeks ago.
Now consider Torre. Swarthy Joe, who has the worst case of five o'clock shadow in baseball (more like noon shadow), is a 14-flat plodder whose idea of a leg hit is a ball hit off someone's leg. He runs so slowly that he turns doubles into singles, and the only thing he ever tries to stretch is his new Cardinal uniform. "You wouldn't say I'm a speedster," Torre admits.
Despite his lack of swiftness, Torre is hitting .358 this season and presently leads Davis by 14 percentage points in the batting race—a case of the tortoise showing the hare some early foot. But neither Torre nor Davis believes this can remain a private duel for the rest of the season. Four-time winner Roberto Clemente (.336) is just off the pace. He was carping last week that official scorers have robbed him of two other batting titles in the past and are out to deny him another one this year. Torre's teammate, Lou Brock, is at .337, and he has the speed, like Davis, to avoid extended slumps. Two long shots, Cubs Glenn Beckert and Joe Pepitone, refuse to wilt, and a couple of former batting champions, Matty Alou of the Cardinals and Pete Rose of the Reds, are still close enough to get hot and take it all. "You don't win a batting championship until the last day of the year," Davis says.
July 25, 1971
Neither The Tortoise nor The Hare has ever won a batting title—and they both have been in the majors for a decade—but past performance gives no reliable clue to their present form, because both are swinging with new batting philosophies. Torre—who turned 31 Sunday, three months after Davis—has altered his physique as well as his technique.
With a .297 lifetime mark, Torre has always been a high-average hitter, but he began making changes at the plate after going to St. Louis three seasons ago in a trade for Orlando Cepeda. Before that, while playing with the Braves, he was a roly-poly 225-pound, spaghetti-loving catcher with a home-run swing. "I hit 36 homers one year for the Braves," he says, "and that's all the people in Atlanta ever talked about." Now Torre is a svelte, 200-pound, water-gulping third baseman who disdains the long ball. Instead, he plays Ping-Pong with line drives off the synthetic grass at Busch Stadium. The typical 1971 Torre hit is a vicious one-bouncer between short and third, or a shot off the outfield wall.
"I stand a little closer to the plate here in St. Louis," Torre says, "and try to concentrate on attacking the ball. I'm never a defensive hitter, not even when the pitcher has two strikes on me. Then I just protect the plate a little more and try to go to right." According to Bate-man, who calls the pitches for the Expos, the best place to pitch Torre is high and inside. "But you really have to pinpoint it there," Bateman says, "and there aren't many pitchers in baseball who can throw to an exact spot. If you get the ball a little down or a little into the middle on Torre he will kill it. Put it this way: you pitch him carefully. With him, a walk isn't all that bad."
After his first year with St. Louis, Torre started on a high-protein diet and now has lost more than 25 pounds. When dieting he drinks eight glasses of water every day and goes heavy on beef and cottage cheese. Among the no-nos are beer (does Gussie Busch know that?), most vegetables and, of course, spaghetti. "I always felt tired and stale in the late innings until I went on my diet," Torre says. "Now I feel strong all game."
Playing third base, instead of catching, also helps Torre maintain his strength. "I'm not up and down, down and up all the time anymore," he says. "And it's a big change mentally, too. When you catch, you've got to be thinking about the other club's hitters all the time. You never really have time to think about your own hitting. Sure, you have to think at third base, but between innings you can concentrate on your own hitting, not how you will have to pitch the other club's hitters the next inning."
Torre usually bats cleanup for the Cardinals, following Brock and Alou and Ted Simmons, a young catcher who is hitting .307 despite all the thinking he has to do. Thus, with three .300 hitters in front of him, there is usually somebody on base for the pitcher to worry about when Torre comes to bat. Against the Expos one night last week Brock led off the game with a walk, Alou bunted for a hit and Simmons singled to load the bases. Torre stepped up, picked his pitch and lined a single to left field that scored two runs. In his next at bat he drove in another Cardinal run with a seeing-eye single between third base and shortstop. "Base hits," Joe cooed. "Love those base hits."
While Torre, whose .325 average tied Manny Sanguillen for second place in the 1970 batting race, has been an occasional member of the league's top ten, Davis is a relatively new resident in that community. He had eight erratic seasons with the Dodgers, his average ranging from .238 to .294, until he finally hit .311 in 1969 and then followed that with a .305 average last year after a horrendous start. Davis now will admit that he practically wasted those first eight years in the majors. It took him that long to prove to himself that he was not Willie Mays or Henry Aaron or Frank Robinson or Babe Ruth—or whoever struck his fancy at the time. Rather than hit like Willie Davis, he would adopt some other hitter's style and try to Xerox it at the plate. And he would fail. "I'm hitting my way now," he says.
Davis always seems to be in motion. When he gets up in the morning he usually goes to a driving range and hits several buckets of golf balls. "It helps my hands," he says. "Releasing the hands in golf is like releasing the hands in baseball." Once at the ball park he turns on his stereo cassettes and relaxes to the sounds of groups like the Supremes. He simulates putting strokes in the clubhouse with a bat, plays pepper constantly with the bat boys and hits fungoes to the outfield. "I've always got to have a bat in my hands," he says. "I've always got to be loose."
At bat he is, naturally, a nervous hitter. After going through a long series of muscle-stretching contortions, he will step into the batter's box, take his stance and start to wiggle his left elbow. After every pitch he moves out of the box, reaches down, picks up dirt with his left hand, rolls the dirt around and then rubs it into his right hand—as a tennis player does with sawdust. Then he bangs his bat against his cleats, touches the baseball cap tucked in his left rear pocket, reaches down again to adjust the flap on his cleats and steps back into the box—ready, at last, to torment the already thoroughly tormented pitcher with a line drive.
Normally, left-handed batters are susceptible to low, outside pitches. Not Davis. "He flicks those things to short or third and then beats them out," Bate-man says. "What we try to do is pitch to his strength. We like to pitch him inside. That way he'll pull the ball, and if he hits it to the right side of the infield at least we have a chance to throw him out."
Bateman thinks that Davis would be a certain .400 hitter if Dodger Stadium had synthetic turf instead of old-fashioned grass. "Just imagine all those line drives of his that the infielders barely catch in their webbing. They're doubles or even triples on a rug."
Davis, meanwhile, laughs off the way that pitchers around the league are throwing to him now. "So they're pitching me inside," he says, "and I'm pulling the ball. I'm hitting, what—.350? If I were one of those pitchers I'd try to pitch me someplace else. And real fast." Davis is determined to prove that fast and steady can beat slow and steady in any race.