From the age of six, when his first at bat sent a rifle shot past the ear of his unsuspecting father, Minnesota Outfielder Ken Landreaux has been a hitter. While growing up in suburban Los Angeles, Landreaux would go to games armed only with his bat. He purposely left the rest of his equipment at home, figuring that mundane accessories like balls and gloves could always be borrowed.
Today, bat still firmly in hand, Landreaux has slashed his way into a prominent position among American League hitters and has begun to justify some extravagant self-promotion in only his third full major league season. Landreaux, 25, was batting .316 through last Sunday's games, 13th in the league, and had hit safely in 49 of his 60 games overall.
He hit in 31 of those games consecutively (from April 23 to May 30) to build the league's longest streak in 31 years. "People around me were talking pressure and Joe DiMaggio but I didn't want to think of that before I got to 40 games, because I was having a ball," Landreaux says. "It was an unreal feeling, knowing that I was gonna get at least one cookie every game."
Even though the cookie crumbled against Baltimore's Scott McGregor, Twins Manager Gene Mauch says of Landreaux that major league pitching "poses absolutely no mystery to him." Landreaux himself says hitting has never been a problem: "All they have to do is let go of the ball." He's right, even if he does look smallish at 5'11", 170 pounds and seems to shrink when he puts on his uniform. He compensates for this lack of stature at the plate with a steely concentration that begins in the on-deck circle and with a steady stroke that sends most hits up the middle and leaves pitchers wondering just how they're supposed to get the man out.
"When I faced him in the Dominican Republic a couple of years ago, the book was to pitch him inside," says White Sox Reliever Mike Proly. "But now we're supposed to pitch him away."
"Pitchers have all sorts of systems," says Landreaux, "but nothing is gonna work all the time."
Perhaps it is protective coloration, but Landreaux exudes a confidence that borders on cockiness. His mouth can be as quick as his bat as he fires off at pitchers or anyone else who crosses his path. This confidence is even apparent in his bad-dude step. But none of it is really the result of braggadocio; rather it is the effort to make his body back up what his mouth has promised, a trait that goes back to his youth.
"My friends and I would go to Dodger games, against the Giants, say, and Willie Mays would do all these great things," Landreaux recalls. "They would all ooh and aah, but I just said 'I can do that.' Whatever I was doing I would pick out whoever was the best and try and top him."
Landreaux has been motivated in other ways, too. His Little League coach walked the bench with a paddle in his back pocket to ensure that his players' minds stayed on the game. "There was no room for error," Landreaux says. "If you didn't hustle or if you made a mental mistake, he'd give you a swat."
Most often, however, Landreaux has done the swatting. In his junior year at Dominguez High in Compton, Calif. Landreaux batted .380 and led his team to the sectional title, getting a double in the championship game at Anaheim Stadium. His performance impressed scouts from Arizona State, who were checking out another prospect; they guaranteed Landreaux a scholarship upon graduation.
The Sun Devils stuck to their promise despite a senior year in which he played sparingly and batted well under .300. Landreaux says the problem was a new coach who spent more time preparing for the football season than coaching baseball. In turn, Landreaux attended only selected games. "He didn't want to coach and I didn't want to play for him," Landreaux says. "Besides, I knew more about the game than he did."
Landreaux was much happier at Arizona State, where he played three years, averaged .342 and made All-America. Coach Jim Brock says, "Ken came in as the classic player, the most complete player we ever had." No mean compliment, considering that Landreaux's predecessors include the Dodgers' Rick Monday, the Brewers' Sal Bando, the Yankees' Reggie Jackson and the Rangers' Bump Wills.
Landreaux left ASU in 1976 to sign with the Angels, and that year he played 21 games with El Paso of the Double A Texas League. In 1977 he became the minor league Player of the Year after a torrid split season in which he batted .354 at El Paso and .359 at Salt Lake City (Triple A).
This immediate success convinced Landreaux that the next step, playing in the majors in his own backyard, would be a breeze. Instead, he rode the Angels' bench in 1978, appearing in only 93 games and batting .223. During the off-season Landreaux was one of four players California sent to Minnesota for Rod Carew. Landreaux took the news of the trade in typical fashion, insisting the Angels had been robbed, that a straight-up Carew-for-Landreaux deal would have been more equitable. "That's how I felt, I had to put some static in the air," Landreaux says.
Landreaux may not have measured up to the Carew of today last season, but he did compare well with Rod at the same stage. By batting .305 and driving in 83 runs, he easily topped Carew's (1968) second-year figures of .273 and 42.
Despite Landreaux's continued success, he is feeling disillusioned about life in the major leagues. He is still upset that the Angels traded him, and even more upset at what he considers shabby treatment by owner Calvin Griffith. Recently Griffith fined Landreaux $100 for wearing his pants so low that they covered the team emblem on his leggings. The fine was imposed early in Landreaux's hitting streak and was immediately followed by a two-game benching because, according to Mauch, "Ken's pre-game warmup indicated to me that he needed a rest."
Landreaux has also been chagrined by what he considers to be a lack of recognition for his defensive ability. After spending the first part of the season in leftfield, he was moved to center two weeks ago and has played very well there. This is no small accomplishment considering the adventurous terrain in Metropolitan Stadium, where, Landreaux swears, line drives have hit the turf and rolled back toward the infield.
"I can't play defense; that's what I've always heard," Landreaux says. He is so hung up on the matter that when Mauch recently described Landreaux as his "best defensive outfielder," the player said the manager didn't really mean it.
Mauch feels Landreaux's unhappiness could be cured by the sixth-place Twins winning a few more games. "Everything about the man is taste, class and style," Mauch says. "Losing the way we've been doing is very upsetting to him."
Landreaux smiles at the suggestion as he moves into the batting cage. Doing what he does best, shooting the ball up the middle, he releases some of his annoyance. "Right now I'm just tired," he says, which may explain why his average has fallen from a May 21 high of .366. "I'll probably taper off until the All-Star break, but after that, look out. I mean, I don't even start to hit until July."