Rod Carew grew up swimming in the Panama Canal, went to the same New York high school as Henry Kissinger and is the best pure hitter, for what that is worth, in baseball. When he arrived in New York last week he was leading the American League in batting by so much it was a wonder anybody else in the league could see him.
The Twins' star second baseman was ahead of the next best hitter, Boston rookie Fred Lynn, by 68 points. And Lynn was hitting .350. Furthermore Carew was producing quantities of RBIs and extra base hits—items in which a salary arbitrator deemed him too deficient to be worth the $140,000 he wanted for the season. (He got $120,000 instead.) Although Carew persists in his claim that he is a free swinger who doesn't plot out his hits, the suspicion is growing around the league that if arbitrators demanded doubles that rolled dead exactly 385 feet from the plate, or ground balls whose big hops measured exactly 11 feet at the crest, or line drives over the pitcher's left shoulder, Carew would contrive to turn out those, too.
"He swings his bat about as perfectly as anyone I've seen," says Cleveland's Frank Robinson.
"He has an uncanny ability to move the ball around as if the bat were some kind of magic wand," says Oakland's Kenny Holtzman.
Media people being so abundant in New York and .418 hitters so scarce, Carew had not a moment's peace during the Twins' two-day visit to the Yankees; there were constant calls to his hotel room and reporters surrounded him at the park.
What people fix upon with Carew is the magic figure .400. Last year he reached that level in mid-April and stood there as late as June 27. Eventually he tapered off to .364 and his fourth league batting title, third in a row. This year he pulled a muscle in each thigh and was struggling along below .350 late in May, but then he went 15 for 18, or .833, over five games, and that kind of streak will help even a Carewvian average.
Over .400. Nobody has stayed that high for a full year since Ted Williams in 1941. What is the secret, everybody asks Carew. In the one game he played in New York (the other was rained out) he went 0 for 4—a blanking rare enough to merit a subhead in The New York Times—and dropped to .408. By week's end he had slipped to .401. Pretty soon, probably, his average will be down close to something human and the interviewing will slack off drastically. Apparently no one wants to know the secret of batting .350. Except every other hitter in baseball, even Atlanta's Ralph Garr, who is Carew's only rival in either league as a hitter for average and who is adrift in the .260s so far this season.
"Carew watches the defense and hits according to how they play him," says Jim Northrup of the Orioles.
Bobby Grich says, "With a man on first base, and the first baseman holding the guy on, I've seen Rod intentionally try to pull that ball through the hole." Another Oriole, Jim Palmer, says, "He seems to hit the ball where he wants to, which is something not too many can do." "It looks like he tries to take the ball and dunk it over the infielders' heads or hit it where they ain't," says Mickey Lolich of Detroit.
But Carew denies such guile. He admits that his favorite kind of hit is one "just one inch or two outside a guy's reach. Maybe he cheated over a step in the other direction on me, and I kept him honest." But he says he doesn't try to place the ball through holes, just tries to keep it sprayed around. "I hit the ball to the opposite field so much that sometimes they'll move everybody to the left side against me. But I just take my natural swing. It seems like every time I try to pull, I tap the ball."
Carew doesn't agree with Ted Williams' wait-for-just-the-right-pitch ideas, however. "My own theory is swing the bat," he says. "If the ball's around the plate, swing and make contact." That, he agrees, is part of the Latin baseball tradition. "I grew up that way in Panama. Here a lot of guys look for certain pitches, in certain areas. But you may never get those pitches. I hate to take."
He does not try to anticipate the type of pitch that's coming, he says, although many opponents think he is very good at it. "If I could be a guess hitter I'd hit .500," he says. "But I don't like to think too much about hitting. I like being up there, not guessing, just getting up there and swinging free."
There is no question, however, that Carew's free stroke is highly disciplined, certainly much more so than Garr's, and in fact more so than just about anybody's. He may not maneuver the ball into certain spots (except when he is bunting, with perhaps more accuracy than anybody else in the game), but he has learned to manipulate the meat of his bat into the path of any pitch. Good pitchers used to have some success jamming him with high, tight fastballs and tantalizing him with off-speed stuff, but that doesn't work anymore, although John Hiller of the Tigers says he can be made to fish for an up-and-in fastball. He may not try to outthink the pitcher, but he does foul off pitches until he gets one he can handle and he does wait until the very last instant, reading the pitch as it comes, before he triggers the easy swing of a man slapping out brisk fungoes.
That swing, which he keeps tuned up with extra batting practice, has built him a lifetime batting average which stood at .323 coming into '75 and after this season should be edging up fairly close to .330. After his first nine years, Roberto Clemente, who went on to a .317 career mark, had a cumulative average of .303. Carew's swing is also strong enough that outfielders can't cheat in on him. "There's no way you can play him," says Oakland's Bill North, "because he can hit with enough power to keep you back deep so you can't play him like he's going to drop everything right over the infield. And he can drop it over the infield. Rod Carew is in a class all by himself."
Not in as high a salary class as he thinks he deserves, though. After losing his arbitration hearing, during which Clark Griffith, son of Twins Owner Calvin Griffith, described him as an error-prone second baseman and a singles hitter, Carew said, "I thought I was a member of the Twins family, but I guess I'm just a number." There is talk around the league that he is shooting this year for more highly negotiable batting numbers. Besides cutting down on his fielding errors drastically, he has picked up six home runs and 30 RBIs already, whereas he has never finished a season with more than eight of the former or 62 of the latter. Although few people have noticed it, he is also very uncharacteristically third in the league in slugging percentage, with .582. Last year Dick Allen led the league, comfortably, with .563, and Carew slugged only .446.
One of Carew's strong points, people around the game agree, is that he is wise enough to stay within his limitations. "He's got control of his whole game," says Bill Freehan of Detroit. "He never lets it get away." A very controlled-looking person on the field, with that arms-only swing and a tight way of carrying his upper body when he runs, Carew is easier going than he was as a younger player, but despite his ready smile he seems reserved. There aren't many Carew anecdotes, aside from the one about a fight, in his more sensitive days, with then-teammate Dave LaRoche. The two went into a broom closet to have it out, but when several teammates came along to watch, the place became so crowded that the principals were falling over buckets and weren't able to swing, causing the fight to break up in laughter.
When Carew moved at 15 to Manhattan from the Canal Zone, where he had dreamed of coming to America and playing big-league ball, he found himself an outsider who spoke halting English, in George Washington High School. Carew speaks perfectly good English now, and he hits pretty close to perfectly as well. Opponents just about concede him two hits a game; if they worried about holding him under that, they would wind up as frustrated as Ken McMullen did one day when he was California's slick-fielding third baseman. Carew bunted for three straight base hits against McMullen, who kept playing him closer and closer in until finally he was almost within arm's reach and still unable to throw him out. After the third perfect bunt McMullen threw his glove in dismay.
So who knows just how crafty Carew can be? Enough to hit .400? Well, many American Leaguers point out that he is handicapped by not playing on artificial turf as often as he would in the National, where he might bat 25 points higher, and Carew says the pitching is getting better and better and richer and richer in breaking balls—"every pitcher throws a spitball at least once in a while." But everybody says that if anybody hits .400 it will be Carew, and he says, with who knows how private a smile, that he'll be taking his natural swing at it.