If there is any activity that brings forth the Uriah Heep in a ballplayer, it is the pursuit of a batting championship. The way the leading contenders disavow interest in the title would lead one to conclude that it must be more of an embarrassment than an honor, a little like wheeling a Ferrari into the old neighborhood. Even so feverish a competitor as the Reds' Pete Rose turned to mumbling apologies when asked last week if he covets a fourth National League title. Well, maybe that is an exaggeration. But he did deny that he had a chance to win it, which for him is humble pie.
We should not be deceived by such false modesty. It is just that with the pennant races concluding (the Yanks and Reds had clinched, the nightmare of collapse was over in Philadelphia, but sleep was still fitful in K.C.), the boys in the batting races can no longer hide a lust for personal gain in team achievement, and it is unfashionable now in sports to appear selfish—on the field, anyway.
The fact is, the leading contenders for the American League title, Hal McRae and George Brett, fit every definition of the team player and are, in fact, teammates on the Kansas City Royals. Neither admits he wants the championship for himself; both say they would be happy if it went to the other. What might keep either of them from getting it, they agree, is their continuing involvement in the struggle for the championship of the American League West with the dogged Oakland A's, to whom they lost two of three games last week in Kansas City. McRae's and Brett's nearest challengers are Minnesota Twin teammates Rod Carew and Lyman Bostock, who, say the two Royals, have an edge in the competition because they need only concern themselves with individual rewards.
"They're in a batting race," said Brett succinctly. "We're in a pennant race."
Not that the two races are mutually exclusive. In a critical 2-1 defeat of Texas last Friday, McRae and Brett each had three hits, McRae's last one winning the game in the 14th inning. Still, McRae could say afterward, "Winning the batting championship doesn't enter into my thinking at all. We've got to hit-and-run, advance runners, sacrifice, try for homers in the late innings when we're behind. On a losing team you can lay down bunts for hits, do anything you want to build your average."
Such talk fills Carew and Bostock with righteous indignation. "We do the same things they do," says Bostock. "It's the same game, isn't it? You don't stop trying to win whether you're in first or last."
"If anything," snapped Carew, "they [McRae and Brett] have the advantage. You'd think they'd be bearing down harder on a winning team. It's easier for them to get up for a game. Anyway, I've been doing all those things they talk about. It sounds to me as if they're beginning to feel a little pressure. If they can't stand the heat of a batting race, they should get out of it." Carew hit .359 last year to win his fourth consecutive batting title and join Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner and Rogers Hornsby as the only players to win that many in succession.
In the National League the powerful Reds, as might be expected, have three bona fide contenders in Rose, Joe Morgan and Ken Griffey. Rose is a switch hitter who sprays searing line drives. Griffey, like Morgan a left-handed hitter, is so swift afoot he has beaten out more than 30 infield hits in each of the last two seasons. Morgan became a .300 hitter for the first time last season, but in this, his finest yet, he has been in the batting race almost from the beginning.
"I once said that winning the batting title didn't mean anything to me, but that isn't really true," he conceded last week. "It would be something special. What I meant was that I wouldn't change my style to keep my average up. I pull the ball and that cuts down on the area you are hitting to."
The hitter the various Reds feel they will be obliged to beat is Bill Madlock, the Cubs' third baseman, who is the defending champion. He won last year with a thumping .354, even though he played the final two weeks with a painful hand injury. Getting hurt is a perennial problem with him. This year, however, he escaped serious injury on the field. Off the field his luck was worse than usual. Last Friday night he was assaulted outside his room at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York by two muggers who threw him against a wall and robbed him of some $50. Suffering a slight concussion, Madlock checked into a Chicago hospital the next day. At the time of the crime, he was leading the league.
Morgan describes Madlock as a "pure" hitter. "One time he'll beat out a chopper, another time he'll hit a bullet. Even the balls he doesn't hit well have a way of getting through and he seldom hits a line drive at someone."
Madlock is a natural hitter, as is Carew. Brett and McRae, by their own acknowledgment, are "created" hitters, their Dr. Frankenstein being the Royals' respected batting coach, Charley Lau. McRae was strictly a pull hitter when he came to Kansas City from Cincinnati in 1973. "I was a fastball hitter in a breaking-ball league," he says. "I got so fouled up I couldn't hit anything. Charley got me to go to the opposite field. He flattened out my bat, got my feet closer together. You look at pictures of the old hitters—not the power hitters, the high-average guys—and you'll see they carry their bats flat off the shoulder. What has Charley meant to me? Oh, I'd say about a hundred grand."
Brett similarly credits Lau with adjusting his style to cope with the generous dimensions of Royals Stadium, with its 385-foot power alleys. Both he, a left-handed hitter, and McRae, a righty, now specialize in liners to the opposite field.
Of the nine serious candidates for the batting titles—Philadelphia's Garry Maddox should be included—five are lefties, three hit right-handed and one switches; five are infielders, three are outfielders and McRae is a designated hitter. This is not because of any defensive inadequacy—McRae is a respectable outfielder—but because, as Manager Whitey Herzog suggests, "he plays with such enthusiasm out there, he's always getting hurt." If McRae were not so industrious about staying alert during a game, his relative inactivity could well prove a liability; it could affect his concentration.
Rose, 35, and Morgan, 33, are the veterans of the group. The junior member, Brett, 23, is, naturally enough, the least nonchalant, the least successful at hiding his eagerness for the title. "I try not to notice my average, but of course I know it," he says. "I try not to think about it. Then I come up to the plate here in K.C. and there it is, in giant numbers on the scoreboard—'Brett .333.' There's no way I can't notice it."
When the calculators stopped flashing Sunday, the contestants stood: McRae .335, Brett .331, Carew .326, Bostock .325; Griffey .339, Madlock .336, Maddox .330, Rose .326, Morgan .324.
Yes, George, it would take a heap of false modesty not to notice.