Palm Springs is not exactly the best place for a rich man trying to get ahead. In this California desert oasis, even the man in the street is a man of means, and if the street is not named after him—say, Frank Sinatra Drive—he may be dismissed as rabble. "It is a town," says Dr. William Randall Blakeley, a local thoracic surgeon, "where even the doctor bills are paid." And yet, Rod Carew, a veritable parvenu, is the man of the moment among all these tycoons, crooners, comedians, Nixon-campaign donors and former White House incumbents. Unusually large crowds of well-to-do well-wishers flock into Angels Stadium to root him on as he does his spring training with the California Angels. They ooh and ah delightedly as he strings out those clothesline drives, drops delicate bunts and fields elegantly.
That Carew should be a stick-out on a team whose payroll approaches the gross national product is in itself a measure of the esteem in which he is held. But it is not his $800,000 annual salary that commands respect, it is the hope he brings to the poor little rich boys of baseball. Owner Gene Autry, the old movie cowhand, has spent several fortunes acquiring and retaining expensive help for his team, but something always goes awry—Joe Rudi breaks a wrist, Bobby Grich herniates a disc, Nolan Ryan pulls a hamstring, Frank Tanana's arm drops dead from exhaustion—and the promised championship escapes once more. But Carew, the seven-time American League batting champion, is hale and hearty, and if he stays that way the Angels may yet take wing.
"We wouldn't be a contender without a good lefthanded hitter," observes utility man Merv Rettenmund, "and all we have is the best in baseball." The Angels needed a good lefthanded hitter, it must be said, because the very good one they had, Lyman Bostock, himself once the highest-paid Angel, was shot to death in Gary, Ind. last Sept. 23.
Many Angels are happy to see Carew in the fold for entirely personal reasons. "To me, it means breathing a little easier because I won't have to face the best hitter in baseball," says Tanana, "and it means having a man blessed with all kinds of defensive tools playing first base behind me." Rudi, the valetudinary outfielder, classifies Carew as an RBI. "He'll be someone on base ahead of me, and I place RBIs above everything, including home runs and average."
Carew's arrival will also spare Rudi the ordeal of playing some first base, which is not his favorite position. And Carney Lansford, the brilliant young third baseman, is glad Carew is a teammate because for a time last winter it looked as if the Angels would have to abandon the kid to get the batting champ. Indeed, trade talks with Twins owner Calvin Griffith stalled when the Angels refused to let Lansford go. In the end, Griffith settled for Outfielder Ken Landreaux, Infielder Dave Engel and pitchers Paul Hartzell and Brad Havens.
The cowboy looks to be the shrewder horsetrader. The acquisition of Carew gives the Angels a high-average (career .334) No. 3 hitter ahead of sluggers Dan Ford, who was a teammate of Carew's the last four seasons in Minnesota, Don Baylor and Rudi. Lansford, who hit .294 as a rookie, will most likely bat second, and he has the speed to steal and work the hit-and-run with the patient Carew.
Carew is himself a formidable base runner—27 stolen bases in 78—and he gives the Angels needed speed. Also, he will tighten the infield defense, which, with Lansford at third and Grich at second, requires only a quality shortstop to be outstanding. Rudi can now stay put in leftfield, where he plays as well as anyone, and with Rick Miller in center and Ford in right, the Angels are set in the outfield.
In the opinion of Manager Jim Fregosi, Carew's unusual consistency at bat will have a salutary effect on the averages of the other Angels. "Hitting is contagious," Fregosi says.
Carew may be the happiest Angel of them all, for the protracted haggling over his final destination is at last resolved. Besides, Anaheim is where he wanted to go in the first place. "The Angels were always my No. 1 choice," he said, relaxing after an arduous three-hour workout last week. "I like that part of California. I won't have to live far from the ball park, and I'll have a place where my kids can roam. I want a backyard. I don't want to live in an apartment or a condo." Despite the allure of Orange County, the Carews—wife Marilynn and daughters Charryse, Stephanie and Michelle—will continue to live in suburban Minneapolis in the off-season. After 12 years, it is home to them.
"Home" is an important word in the lexicon of this Panamanian-born ex-New Yorker. He is a family man who has minimal interest in enriching himself in commercial endeavors outside baseball. For this reason, and because he would have had to commute from some suburb to Yankee Stadium, the Yankees held little appeal for him. When it was pointed out to him how much he could earn off the field in the Big Apple, Carew said dryly, "My business is baseball."
Home to him is also the American League, and for this reason he said he never seriously contemplated accepting the trade Griffith had agreed upon with the Giants. In fact, he said, he repeatedly rejected it. Still Griffith persisted. Carew did accept Giants owner Bob Lurie's invitation to visit San Francisco and meet the players, and he said he was duly impressed.
"I like San Francisco, and the guys on the team had a positive attitude, but deep down inside I knew I wanted to stay in the American League," he said. "It's like a second home to me. I've been in it for 12 years. To switch leagues after all that time would have been a hard thing for me to do. What amazes me is why the American League would want to lose me. After hearing so much talk about how the National League has all the good players, why would they want to let one of their better ones go over there?"
Carew's difficulties with Griffith began in earnest three years ago, he said, when he encountered resistance negotiating his first long-term (three-year) contract. When he sought last spring to extend that agreement for another five years, he ran into more trouble. The Twins countered his proposal with a three-year offer. And so it went, until an exasperated Carew finally proclaimed, "Calvin, if you can't afford me, trade me."
He said he played much of the last half of the 78 season in a sort of mental fog (which didn't prevent him from winning the batting title at .333). His visits to hypnotist Harvey Misel, whom he started seeing "for relaxation" in 1976, increased.
He was not physically fit either, for in early July his right arm mysteriously went numb. "With all that, I could've said, 'Why play?' But when you play for a man like Gene Mauch, you don't want to do that. So I played. Then came the famous speech."
The oration at issue was delivered by Griffith on Sept. 28 before the Lions Club of Waseca, Minn. During the course of it, he reportedly commended the Minneapolis area for having so few blacks and suggested that Carew was foolish to play there for the peanuts Griffith could afford to pay him.
Carew is both intelligent and proud, and he was stung by these thoughtless remarks. "I don't want to be a nigger on that man's plantation," he snarled at the time. Much of the bitterness has subsided, but from Waseca on, Carew knew "there was no possibility of my coming back to the Twins. I have no regrets. I enjoyed playing there. The people saw me come in as a pampered, stubborn, temperamental kid. They saw me leave as a mature person."
Carew's marvelous career may well end in Anaheim; he says he will retire at the conclusion of his five-year contract if, in his opinion, his skills have eroded. "I'd like to get 3,000 hits [he has 2,085], but if I don't make it in the next five years, I won't hang around chasing after them. I know everybody says it, but I'd like to finish on top. Right now, I just want to go out there and have fun, let baseball be the little boys' game it's supposed to be. I enjoy playing. I get the feeling that no one can do the things I can, that I can get a hit anytime I want. It's a good feeling."
Carew has done nothing but spread good feeling in Palm Springs. Besides polishing his own skills, he has worked unselfishly with younger players—in fact, he has had some of them out running with him at 5:30 a.m. And he quickly established that, huge salary aside, he is no snob. "On the first day of camp, I helped a young player with his luggage. I think he was impressed."
In Palm Springs they call that noblesse oblige.