More than a decade ago two promising kids, Dave Kingman and George Foster, were teammates on a Little League all-star squad in the Los Angeles suburb of Hawthorne. Five years ago they were briefly teammates again on the Giants. And last week, as San Francisco stumbled along trying to keep from being demoted to American Legion ball, ex-Giants Kingman and Foster were, in a sense, together once more, battling each other for the National League lead in runs batted in.
The Giants sold Kingman to the Mets in February 1975 for approximately $125,000 and have since watched him develop into a million-dollar slugger. Foster took longer to make his old club regret his departure. He was traded to Cincinnati in 1971—for two players who never did much for the Giants—but only made the Reds' starting lineup last year, helping them become world champions. This season, swinging his black bat with power and precision, Leftfielder Foster is elbowing his way into the pantheon of Riverfront Stadium heroes alongside Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez and Pete Rose.
Foster, 27, has been playing in other people's shadows for a long time. He hit only five homers in Little League the summer Kingman hit 20. He never hit .300 at Leuzinger High in Lawndale, Calif. While Kingman was starring at tradition-rich Southern Cal, Foster was an obscure player at El Camino JC until the Giants saw something in him, gave him a small bonus and shipped him off to the Triple-Z boondocks. In three trials with San Francisco, he was known primarily as Bobby Bonds' buddy; after he shifted to Cincinnati, he was unused or, at best, platooned. In 1973 he was even sent down to Indianapolis for 134 games.
Last year he got his big break. With the Reds slumping in May and part-timer Foster hitting .275, Manager Sparky Anderson moved Rose from left to third base so that Foster could play regularly. The shift paid off handsomely. Foster hit an even .300, which must have been a surprise to his old coach at Leuzinger. He batted safely in 16 consecutive games during August and, in another happy stretch, had hits in 32 of 40 games.
July 18, 1976
Foster used to be able to stroll on the streets of Cincinnati relatively unbothered by autograph hounds, but that is changing quickly. The fans now recognize his precisely cut jaw, his precisely cut L-shaped sideburns and his precisely cut clothes. The 6'1", 195-pound Foster has a muscular torso and legs—and a 30" waist. Two of him would probably fit inside Batting Coach Ted Kluszewski's uniform, with room left over for a fungo bat or two.
There is an appealing swagger about the Reds. Bench, the biggest vote getter in the All-Star Game elections the last three seasons, squires beautiful women and has won eight straight Gold Glove awards. Morgan and Rose are tough, versatile infielders and hitters, throwbacks to the hard-nosed era of John McGraw.
Foster does not fit the model. He is quiet and extremely religious, and despite the fact that he studied karate between seasons, it is hard to imagine him being pugnacious—or even the slightest bit impolite. He reads the Bible. He prays. He does not drink anything stronger than vanilla milkshakes, which he loves. He does not smoke. "George has always been like that," says his mother, Mrs. Regina Davis (she divorced his father and remarried). "If someone makes him angry, he just turns and walks away."
It seems consistent that Foster is a dutiful son who took his mother to Hawaii after last season, when the Reds appeared in the Superteams competition. And whenever Cincy visits Los Angeles, Foster escorts a group of his teammates to his mother's modest house near the L.A. Airport—and just a few doors north of the True Vine Baptist Church—for a soul-food feast. Foster skips the chitlins because he will not eat pork.
"Eight of 'em want to come this next time, including Pete Rose," says Mrs. Davis. "Some of the Cubans like Perez haven't had soul food before, but it looked to me like they couldn't get enough."
It is a pleasure to report that, amid all his devotion to God, motherhood and home cooking, Foster is not a saint. He has a hint of hot dog in him and a touch of moodiness. He likes to make all his catches in the outfield one-handed and has been known to hold on to the ball, with his arm cocked, daring a runner to try for an extra base. And on a recent evening he hit what he was certain would be a home run and stood at home plate admiring the majestic flight of the ball until it unexpectedly bounced off the wall. Foster had to scramble to make second. When a reporter asked him what he had been doing standing at the plate instead of running, he replied, "Just digging the scene."
Foster used to swing a 33½-ounce bat, but he was never comfortable with it and kept borrowing bats from teammates until, one night in Indianapolis, he was loaned a 35-ouncer. "Right away I started hitting the ball on the nose," says Foster. He has been using bats of that weight ever since and, perhaps as another display of hot doggery, has the Louisville Slugger people stain them black. "I'm integrating the bat rack," he says.
Opposing pitchers are not particularly fond of Foster, not just because of all the runs he has knocked in with his black bat. What they object to is Foster's penchant for leaving the batter's box between pitches; he may well be the most fidgety batter in the majors. Three times this season he has had strikes called on him when he was out of the box or just stepping back in.
"Most pitchers think I'm trying to break up their rhythm, but I'm not," says Foster. "I'm trying to get my concentration, and when I do get it, I'm trying to keep it turned on. The main thing is how I'm going to apply my time while I'm in there. There is a rule restricting pitchers from taking too much time, but there's no rule restricting batters."
His concentration must be pretty good, for last week he ran his latest hitting streak to 18 games (best on the Reds this season) and at week's end he was batting .327, had driven in a league-leading 73 runs—six more than Kingman—and was leading the Reds in homers with 17. He started the season batting in the sixth spot in the order, then was moved to fifth. Two weeks ago in San Diego, Anderson put him in the cleanup spot. Earlier, when Second Baseman Morgan had been spiked and was forced out of the lineup, Foster had taken his place as third in the order.
Sixth, fifth, fourth, third, Foster is unimpressed. "There's no guarantee that when you get up there on top you're going to stay there," he says. "You just have to keep working." Although a little time off outside the batter's box apparently helps, too.