It's an off-day, so Hal McRae is watching the Cubs and Pirates on television at his house in Blue Springs outside Kansas City. "If a game is on, I'm watching it," he says. And watching it, he might have added, not just to pass the time on a muggy Thursday afternoon. No, McRae watches baseball games on the tube the way Edison must have watched the filament in a light bulb. No subtle alteration in the flow escapes his professional eye. His German shepherd, Duchess, is barking on the porch outside. Two of his three children, Cullen, 9, and Leah, 4, pounce upon him from time to time with assorted urgent requests, and his wife, Johncynca, putters noisily in the kitchen. But McRae steadfastly watches the Cubs and the Pirates.
"I like to know what a guy can do," he says as the Pirates' good young catcher, Tony Pena, comes to bat. "I think they should pitch Pena differently. He's getting a lot of hits off breaking balls. Oh, will you look at that. Oh-two count and Bird [the Cubs' Doug] throws him a slider down and away." Pena reaches out for the pitch and punches a single up the middle to drive in a run. "The ball was a foot outside, but he got it anyway. The other day, Jenkins [the Cubs' Ferguson] threw him the same pitch, and he hit a double down the leftfield line. They should pitch Pena inside more."
McRae, who turned 36 last Saturday, belongs to that endangered species, Student of the Game. Who can say what his teammates on the Royals were doing this day, but it's safe to assume that a fair number of them were seeing their stockbrokers, picnicking with their families or checking out the action at the luncheon spas in Kansas City's Country Club Plaza. Indeed, one of the Royals, Pitcher Larry Gura, even stopped by McRae's house to ask him to look at an apartment building they are considering buying together. McRae politely refused. He had a baseball game to study. McRae may be the team grind, but the Royals seem to respect him for it. "He's the one who taught us all how to play this game," says Second Baseman Frank White. "I look up to him," says Third Baseman George Brett. "He learned the game from Pete Rose, and I learned it from him."
That's high praise. And yet, McRae is really only half a player. As a full-time designated hitter—O.K., he has played one game in the outfield this year—he's all hit, no field. The DH rule, which went into effect in the American League in 1973, could well have been invented for McRae, one of the original DHs who has become synonymous with the position. Among hitters who have had 1,000 or more at bats as a DH, McRae ranks first in at bats (3,409 through Sunday), hits (1,012), RBIs (523) and runs (481), and second in average (.297 to Jim Rice's .301) and homers (94 to Willie Horton's 97). Even so, McRae staunchly defends his defense. "I was never the worst outfielder in the ball park," he says, speaking positively of the negative. In fact, as recently as 1975 he played 114 games in the outfield and wasn't once skulled by a fly ball. But as the injuries—which, in the athletic sense, have cost him an arm and a leg—mounted, it seemed safer to take the glove away from him and just let him swing his marvelous bat. Since 1978, when a torn rotator cuff finished off his right shoulder, he has played only 14 games in the field. But his bat has been a constant presence.
July 18, 1982
In '74, '75 and '76, he batted, respectively, .310, .306 and .332. His best overall season to date may have been 1977 when he hit .298, scored 104 runs, drove in 92 and had 54 doubles, 11 triples and 21 homers while playing in all 162 regular-season games, 46 of them in the outfield. But this year he's bidding to make even his biggest seasons seem inconsequential. At the All-Star break, he had driven in a league-leading 79 runs, was batting .315 and was also among the league's top five in hits, total bases, doubles and slugging percentage.
Other hitters marvel that McRae can be so productive playing strictly as a designated hitter. "DH-ing is one of the toughest roles you can have," says Lee May, a sometime DH and McRae's teammate now and when Hal broke in with the Reds. "But Mac has the mental capacity to concentrate solely on hitting. You'll see him talking to himself in the clubhouse or the dugout, telling himself to stay back or watch his hands. He'll be making little gestures. You'd think he was off his rocker. Before the game, if a guy's loosening up with a few swings in the clubhouse, we have one man keeping an eye out for Mac. He's so involved in his thoughts he's liable to walk right into a swing. And yet, after a game, he's back to normal—one of the nicest guys I've ever met in baseball."
McRae is keenly aware of the pitfalls of DH-ing. "It's hard to feel a part of the club," he says. "If you're not hitting, you're like a field-goal kicker who's not making field goals. You can't make up for what you're not doing by contributing in other areas. If you're a DH and tell someone that you've played in every game, he'll look at you kind of funny. And yet a club that has a regular DH is better than one that has somebody playing out there in the field every day who shouldn't be there, somebody you hope they don't hit the ball to. I don't think DH-ing is anything to be ashamed of. Take those guys making two million. How much of that money do you think is for defense? You can always find a guy who can catch the ball. Hitters are hard to come by. That's why you see old guys like me around."
Although he doesn't really need one, McRae says, "I still have a glove and, in my heart, I'm still an outfielder." And he works out regularly with the outfielders, if for no other reason than to stay in shape. His DH routine begins only when the game starts. Physically, it involves doing an elaborate series of stretching exercises, both in the dugout and in the clubhouse. He'll walk in endless circles, plotting, in conversations with himself, his attack on unwitting pitchers. If the mood is upon him, he may also retreat to the clubhouse to talk to equipment manager Al Zych. "I try not to spend too much time in the dugout," he says. "I'll see enough so that I'm in tune with the game. But if you're out there too long, you'll find you're not really watching the game, you're just looking at it. And you'll talk. Guys who don't play have to do something, so they talk about all kinds of things—the attendance, the way a guy wears his uniform, girls in the stands. In time, your mind will wander to things that aren't important. If you're laughing, you're not thinking. And you're just sitting. You get stiff and you're not ready, so I keep moving during a game and try to maintain a sweat. I can 'watch' the game better sometimes by listening to the radio in the clubhouse. I can visualize the situations I'll be facing. If you just sat still, you'd gain five pounds in a week."
McRae may not be the compleat ballplayer, but he does consider himself a complete offensive player, one who can hit to all fields, advance runners, sacrifice and, preeminently, run the bases. Although he has made some concession to past afflictions and advancing age and no longer runs the bases with reckless abandon, he remains one of the most aggressive base runners of modern times, someone whose name fills middle infielders and catchers with dread. "I've had a few run-ins with him at the plate over the years and I'd rather not talk about him," says Texas Catcher Jim Sundberg.
McRae has also made a brutal science of breaking up double plays, as when he set the tone for a tempestuous 1977 American League playoff series between the Yankees and the Royals. In the sixth inning of the second game, he body-blocked New York Second Baseman Willie Randolph and then, while still entangled with Randolph, motioned Freddie Patek to go home from third. Even Yankee Manager Billy Martin, who advocates such slambang play for his own charges, was offended by McRae's down-field block. Indeed, not long afterward the rules were altered to prohibit the cross-body method of obliterating infielders. Now pivot men may only be upended by a hard slide, an inhibition that scarcely affects McRae, who's one of the hardest sliders to come down a base path since Ty Cobb. As a result, McRae and Cobb have similar reputations. "Over the years I feel McRae has played dirty," says Seattle Pitcher Glenn Abbott, "but he plays to win, and that's what it's all about."
Remarkably, though, it's McRae himself, not some unsuspecting fielder, who has been the chief victim of his belligerent base running. In 1968, when he was only three years out of Florida A&M and one of the hottest prospects in the Cincinnati chain, his aggressiveness nearly terminated his career during a winter league game in Puerto Rico. He was on third when a ground ball got away from an infielder. "I wanted to take advantage of a mistake," he recalls, "but the ball didn't roll as far as I thought it would. Now it became my mistake. I decided I was going to score anyway by jarring the ball loose from the catcher." The catcher was a compactly built veteran named Hector Valle. He held his ground, and, in the collision, McRae fractured his right leg in four places.
McRae missed all but 17 games of the 1969 season with Indianapolis, and for the next three years in Cincinnati he was little more than a one-legged outfielder who "hopped around out there." He had, in effect, converted himself into a DH before its time had come: Despite his injury, he could still hit. He thought of himself in those days as a pull hitter with home run power, partly because it was the thing to do in Cincinnati then and partly because he hadn't played enough to learn otherwise. "I'd hit eight, nine home runs playing part-time and only against lefthanders," he says, "and people kept telling me that if I played every day, I'd hit 25. I believed them, and I could hardly wait to prove that I could."
The Reds gave him the chance by trading him to Kansas City on Dec. 1, 1972. "I came over with the intention of tearing the American League up by hitting the ball out of the park." Charley Lau, who was to become McRae's and later Brett's Merlin, was the Royals' hitting coach then. "Charley told me I could be a .300 hitter," McRae says. "I already considered myself that, but I was going to hit home runs. As it turned out, I didn't hit anything. I fell on my face."
Actually, he hit .234 with nine homers as a DH and outfielder in 1973, but he had played so far beneath his expectations that he fell into despair. "I had gone from feeling great to feeling like nothing," he says. "I was ready to quit. It was then I turned to Charley. I would've gone to anybody and done anything anybody told me at that point, I was so low. There was no longer any sense in doing it my way. Charley and I started from scratch." Lau told McRae he'd be better off using the whole field, rather than just the left side of it, particularly in a ball park, like Royals Stadium, with an artificial surface and 385-foot power alleys. He had McRae bring his feet closer together, hold his bat less perpendicular to the ground, had him put more weight on his back foot and worked with him on striding into the ball. That was the mechanical part of it. Looking back, Lau says, "Nobody was more of a student of hitting. Hal took what you told him and tried it."
Lau helped psychologically, too. "Charley became a person I could talk to," McRae says. "Your mind gets warped when you think everybody's against you. Charley said the right things to me. Whether they were true or not didn't matter. I needed it. He turned my career around. I got my confidence back. The mind is a powerful thing. It can work for or against you."
McRae increased his average by 76 percentage points in 1974, and he has never looked back. In 1976 he came within one disputed hit of the batting championship, finishing second to Brett. In the ninth inning of the final game, against Minnesota, Brett got an inside-the-park home run on what most people felt was a routine fly ball that Twins Left-fielder Steve Brye didn't try hard enough to catch. Batting behind Brett, McRae grounded to short and lost the batting title .3333 to .3321. McRae was enraged by what appeared to him to be duplicity on the part of the Twins. Even though Brye insisted that he had misinterpreted defensive instructions and was playing too deep to catch Brett's ball, McRae charged that Brye's less-than-aggressive play was racially motivated because Brett and Brye are white and he is black. There were also intimations that the Twins wanted revenge on McRae for his takeout plays on the base paths. Whatever, McRae soon let the incident slide. "It never bothered me as much as people thought it did," he says. "Sure, it did at the time, but I was happy to do something I never thought I could do—hit better than .330. And besides, we won the division for the first time." Brett and McRae remain good friends, but Brett, who won a second batting title with his unapproachable .390 in 1980, still thinks of the first one as somewhat tainted. "A bad circumstance," he says, sadly.
McRae's 1982 success represents a comeback of sorts from last year. Unhappy, because he wanted his contract renegotiated, and overweight, he groused through much of the '81 season and hit a miserable, for him, .272. In an off-season tour of Japan with the Royals, though, he played with his usual passion on the base paths, shocking Japanese fans by piling into one of their infielders in the opening game of the series. The in-fielder was carted off the field, and so, of course, was McRae, this time with a twisted left knee. While rehabilitating the injured limb in the winter, he arrived at another positive decision: He would report for this season in excellent shape. He even shaved off his beard; it symbolized to him his past frustrations—"It saved me looking at myself in the mirror every morning," he says. And he took off 20 pounds.
But after an April slump left him at .200, McRae felt it was also time to make technical adjustments. He turned this time to the new K.C. batting coach, Rocky Colavito, the old slugger, whose thinking about hitting is antithetical to Lau's. Ever the student—McRae also has been known to listen in on dialogues between opposing coaches and hitters—he heeded the lessons of his old mentor, but borrowed freely from those of the new, thus achieving a perfect synthesis. He's spraying the ball Lau-like to all fields, but with Colavito-ish power. His 14 homers in the first half of this year equal or exceed the number he hit in four of his last six complete seasons. As for the astonishing runs-batted-in total, "Well, we call him Mr. Ribbie," says Manager Dick Howser.
Mr. Ribbie sits before the TV set, still resolutely watching the Cubs and Pirates. "The most important thing I can do now is play good baseball," he says, as Pena comes to bat once more. "I'll most likely go the free-agent route when my contract expires after this season to see what it's all about. The next contract, after all, will be my last." Pena steps up to the plate. McRae's eyes are upon him. "I have a son, Brian, who'll be going to college in about three years. I have to think about my family. I know what that is, because I was one of 10 kids in our family growing up in Florida.... Look, they're throwing Pena breaking stuff again." Pena hits a line drive to left that rolls to the wall. He steams around second base and slides safely into third with a triple. "Damn," says McRae, "he can run, too." As Pena dusts himself off, McRae shakes his head and says, "I always wondered what I might have done on two good legs." Pitchers would argue, however, that he has done quite enough already.