It was good theater. On the mound was Atlanta's Phil Niekro, 40, one of the most popular athletes in the Southeast. A couple of weeks earlier Niekro had won his 200th game for the lowly Braves, thereby certifying himself as a Hall of Fame candidate. At bat was the Cardinals' Lou Brock, 39, one of the most popular athletes in the Midwest. As baseball's single-season (118) and career (919) record holder for stolen bases, he is already certain to make the Hall. While a Mother's Day crowd of 16,762 looked on last Sunday at St. Louis' Busch Memorial Stadium, Brock reached another milestone, one he's been chasing for 18 seasons. He came to bat for the 10,000th time (and flied out).
The 10,000 Club is not exactly the game's most renowned fraternity, its main entrance requirement being survival. But that's just it. To survive through so many at bats, it's not enough for a player to be good; he must also be tough and smart. No wonder that of the 13 men who have batted 10,000 times, only one, Luis Aparicio, is not now—or is not certain to become—a Hall of Famer. Of even more significance to Brock is the fact that membership in the 10,000 Club can only help him gain access to a far more celebrated organization, the 3,000-Hit Club.
And Brock is moving swiftly toward becoming the 14th player—all of them current or assured future Hall of Famers—to get 3,000. Through last Sunday he had played in 24 games this season and had 29 hits, which brought his total to 2,929 and, surprisingly, made him the National League batting leader with a .382 average.
Brock has been doing these things while staging something of a comeback. Going into the 1978 season, he had 2,834 hits, and the 166 needed to attain 3,000 seemed easily in reach during the two more seasons he expected to play. But last year he had just 66 hits, batted .221 and finished the season on the bench. He was still 100 hits short of 3,000. On April 9 of this year, when Brock announced that he would retire at the end of the 1979 season, most people thought he was giving up the chase.
During most of April, Brock did little to dispel this assumption. Benched against lefthanders, he had only 13 hits through April 29. Then in an extraordinary six-game period that began the next day, Brock got 13 hits in 21 at bats, and raised his average from .277 to .382. Suddenly, 3,000 was very much within reach. Now, even if he continues to play part time and levels off at a .250 pace, he will reach 3,000 by Sept. 9, the date long ago selected for Lou Brock Day in St. Louis.
There have been the usual rash of explanations. It has been pointed out that Brock strengthened his legs on a Nautilus machine during the winter and watched videotapes of himself at bat in spring training. It has been said that he is "stroking through" the ball, hitting confidently, aggressively and to all fields, instead of lunging defensively and rolling weak grounders to second, as he did in 1978. But the real explanation, Brock himself maintains, is that there is no explanation at all.
"A top player doesn't fall off a cliff," he says. "It's a gradual decline down a slope. Last year I seemed to fall off a cliff, but because there was nothing physically or mechanically wrong, I knew I would come back."
Brock backs up his argument with some pretty compelling precedents. "A lot of guys—Kaline, Williams, Musial—told me that late in a career things get bad before they get better."
He might have added that you can look it up. Ted Williams fell off to .254 in 1959, but finished his career with a .316 average in 1960. Stan Musial had three consecutive disappointing seasons—.255, .275, .288—in 1959-61. Then, at 42, he nearly won his eighth batting title by hitting .330 in 1962. Al Kaline's lifetime average fell below .300 late in his career, but with the advent of the designated hitter rule, he ended on an upswing, getting 146 hits, including his 3,000th, in 1974.
"I'm not obsessed with 3,000," Brock says. "I've always said I didn't believe in records, but people disbelieve me." Now they aren't so skeptical. "It's mainly a pride thing," says Cardinal Manager Ken Boyer. "He's always been motivated by winning teams, and he wanted to go out as part of a team resurgence." To the contrary, Brock says, somewhat immodestly, winning teams have been motivated by him. The record can be viewed either way. After Brock was traded by the Cubs to the Cardinals on June 15, 1964, he hit .348 in 103 games and helped St. Louis win a world championship. In 1967, when the Cards won their next World Series, he hit .299 and had career highs in homers (21) and RBIs (76). In three World Series he batted .391. Conversely, in 1978, the fifth-place Cardinals had their worst record since 1924—and Brock had his worst ever.
This year's third-place team (17-14) seems to be a great improvement. In addition to Brock's hitting, the late-inning play has been tighter, the relief pitching has been better, and two players who were not healthy at this point in '78 have made major contributions, Tony Scott with a .314 average and George Hendrick with .308.
Despite denying interest in statistics, Brock is not about to cancel his application for the 3,000-Hit Club, if only because admission would settle a longstanding grievance. "I've always been thought of as a base stealer, not a hitter," says Brock, who has two steals in six attempts this year. "But stealing is an option. Hitting is a necessity."
Although his lifetime average is .293, Brock's hitting has been easy to overlook because it's difficult to categorize. With only 145 career home runs, he's not a slugger—but neither is he a classic singles hitter, as his 610 career doubles and triples attest. In fact, his extra-base hits and his steals combine to make him the leader among active players in earned bases (total bases plus steals) with 5,032. He is 12th on the alltime list in this obscure but revealing category, and those ahead of him have names like Aaron, Cobb and Ruth.
"If I have any regret," he says, "it's that I've tried to hit balls off the corner of the world. I once hit a tremendous homer into the centerfield stands at the Polo Grounds, and I've been trying to do it again ever since." As a result, Brock has the fourth-highest strikeout total (1,698) in history.
But beyond his considerable skills as a hitter, what has made 3,000 a possibility for Brock are conditioning and common sense. He is a moderate eater and drinks nothing stronger than wine. "He had a severely sprained ankle in 1975, but he was ready to pinch-hit a week later," says Cardinal Trainer Gene Gieselmann. "I can't remember Lou having a pulled muscle in my 10 years with the club." In one of the few manifestations of Brock's advancing age—he looks 10 years younger than he is—last week he had a slightly sprained ankle and a strained muscle in his right thigh. He sat out several games, but made his infrequent tries at the plate count by going 6 for 12.
Except for such nagging aches, it would seem that the only thing that may prevent Brock from reaching 3,000 is that he's traditionally a fast starter who tends to slump later in the season. For example, he was hitting .328 in early May of 1978 and then dropped off to that horrendous .221. And big accomplishments—even those seemingly inevitable—can become elusive under the burden of pressure. In 1962 Musial went 0 for 15 before tying Honus Wagner's record for most hits by a National Leaguer and 0 for 9 before breaking it. Brock himself had no trouble in the late going while breaking Maury Wills' record for most steals in a season in 1974, but he was 5 for 46 in 1977 when in close pursuit of Ty Cobb's career-steals mark.
Brock is unlikely to have the 502 plate appearances required to qualify for the 1979 batting title, but even with little injuries and big pressure, he should get the 71 hits he needs to reach 3,000. If he falls a few short, he would have to unretire and return for as many games as necessary in 1980. His pride would be injured by such an eventuality. "It hasn't even entered my thinking," says Brock.