On April 11, 1967, nine days before Tom Seaver won his first game, a skinny lefthanded hitter from Panama named Rod Carew lined a Dave McNally slider up the middle for his first big league hit. At the end of the year, Seaver and Carew were named the National and American League Rookies of the Year, and both were on their way to the Hall of Fame.
Some 18½ years later—last Sunday, in fact—as Seaver was trying for his 300th win, Carew came to the plate on a bright and glorious afternoon in Anaheim Stadium. It was a perfect time for Carew to step into the light of his own brilliant accomplishment. With one out in the third and Brian Downing on second, Carew hit Minnesota lefthander Frank Viola's cut fastball for a looping single to left. It was his 3,000th hit, making him one of 16 hitters in the history of the game to have that many.
As the crowd of 41,630 stood and cheered for the 39-year-old Carew, he doffed his batting helmet. He then stepped off the bag and looked toward the dugout, but his exuberant teammates had already vacated it. Catcher Bob Boone, the first to arrive, hugged him. Then manager Gene Mauch helped him lift the first base bag from its moorings. Carew, the active leader in steals of home, with 17, had finally stolen first base.
At the end of the inning, Carew listened to more congratulations from Angel owner Gene Autry, then stepped to the mike. "I'm just very glad it's over," he said. "Now I can sleep at night. After so many years, it's a very emotional thing for me."
Afterward Carew met the press with his 7-year-old daughter Michelle on his lap and his wife, Marilynn, and daughters Charryse, 11, and Stephanie, 10, standing close behind him. "It's been a nervous day for the last two weeks," he said. "It's hard to go to bed at night thinking about when it's going to happen."
Carew's quest for a 3,000th hit had become a two-year ordeal, punctuated by injuries, a minor international crisis and a brief brouhaha with the press. He had always made the art of hitting a baseball seem easy, but this season it has obviously been difficult, as both his .264 batting average and his expression have attested. But on Sunday all was right with the world. As always, Carew's quick hands seemed to be flicking a baton rather than swinging a bat. The crowd applauded his artistry with an 80-second ovation. As it was ending, Carew doffed his helmet for a third and final time.
Carew's accomplishment serves as an advance check-in to Cooperstown. Except for Pete Rose and Carl Yastrzemski, neither of whom is eligible but both of whom have plaques already cast, every other player with 3,000 hits is enshrined in the Hall of Fame. In fact, every player with 2,800 hits resides there.
Carew's .328 career batting average is the highest in the last 22 years. Most remarkable, however, are his seven batting titles, a number met or surpassed only by Ty Cobb (12), Honus Wagner (8), Rogers Hornsby (7) and Stan Musial (7).
"Most guys hit when they can—he hits when he wants to," says Angel center-fielder Gary Pettis. Journeyman utility player Alan Bannister once said, "Rod Carew is the only guy I know who can go 4 for 3."
"He stays within himself so well," says teammate Bobby Grich. "He doesn't try to hit home runs. Because of that, there are hitters who can cause more damage and can carry a team further, but for getting on base and getting base hits, he's the best."
Carew is simply the best singles hitter of the modern era. He is No. 7 with a bullet on the alltime singles chart, having passed three people already this year. He is dangerous in the clutch, a fact often overlooked by his detractors. According to The 1985 Elias Baseball Analyst, Carew hit .388 in late-inning pressure situations last year and .336 with runners on base. In the last 10 years, when a runner has been in scoring position, Carew has driven him home 35% of the time, the third highest percentage in baseball over that span.
For all his accomplishments, Carew has often been slighted. He was all but asked to apologize for leading the American League first basemen in the All-Star voting until Eddie Murray overtook him at the last minute. Then AL manager Sparky Anderson left him off the team, denying him his 19th selection. Carew's goal has been largely overshadowed this year by those of Rose and Seaver. USA Today, for instance, has been printing a little Rose countdown on its NL page since June 14, beginning when Pete was 47 away from Ty Cobb. Last Friday it began a similar Carew graphic below the AL standings. The countdown was "4" at the time. And on Sunday, while the Angels had no—zero—out-of-town requests for credentials, the New York Yankees received an additional 200 press requests to watch Seaver go for his 300th victory.
Perhaps the seeming ease with which Carew has lined, chopped and bunted his way to success has worked against him. Since he first arrived in the majors, people have mistaken his mask of concentration and his relaxed posture at the plate for nonchalance. Nothing could be further from the truth. From the moment he started hitting tennis balls with broken broomsticks as a kid, Carew has labored diligently at his art.
"Rod was born with great hand-eye coordination, but he worked his rear end off to become a great hitter," Mauch says. "He has 3,000 hits, and he's gotten 100 in practice for every one of those because he's practiced more than anyone you ever saw."
Tony Oliva, a three-time American League batting champ who now is the hitting coach for Minnesota, roomed with Carew for many years. "When he was hitting .340, .350, he would come to the ball park and take extra batting practice," Oliva says. "He knows that you can lose your timing overnight."
Carew hasn't lost it, but he now occasionally misplaces it. He hit .339 in 1983 and at the end of the season was within reasonable distance, 168 hits, of 3,000. He earnestly considered retirement, but finally signed a new contract that was, fortunately, for two years.
Last year Carew suffered from a pinched nerve in his neck for much of the season. He played only 93 games and his average was .295, the first time he had finished below .300 in 16 years. On May 2 this year, he suffered a small fracture in his left foot in a collision at home plate. He was hobbled for 2½ weeks and then went on the 15-day disabled list. When he came off the DL, his foot was hurting and so was his hitting. He discovered, just as his teammate Reggie Jackson had last year as he approached home run No. 500, that a milestone could become a millstone.
"The media consumes you when you approach a milestone," says Jackson. "It takes everything out of you."
In Boston, just after the All-Star break, Carew went 1 for 18, striking out five times. "He didn't hit worth a damn," Mauch says.
Then came woe Canada. A story in the Toronto Globe & Mail on July 24 unearthed a two-week-old comment about the 3,000th hit—"As long as it doesn't come in Canada"—and polished it up with a headline that read, CAREW SLIGHTS CANADA. Los Angeles Herald Examiner baseball writer Tom Singer, who had originally published the quote, said that it had been taken out of context, that Carew had meant that he wanted the historic hit to come in a more traditional baseball locale, preferably Minneapolis or Anaheim, the two cities with which he has been associated.
The day after the column ran, Carew was awakened by angry phone calls from people who apparently would like to keep the Great White North very white. Carew was also booed unmercifully at Exhibition Stadium. At that point he cut off the print media, although he later told one writer this was mostly to keep the 3,000-hit distractions to a minimum.
By Saturday, with Carew just two hits away, the principal distractions came from his teammates.
"There were all these people lined up for tickets outside," Pettis teased Carew. "I said, 'What're you in line for?' They said, 'To see Rodney get 3,000.' "
"Rodney, you want us to call time out tonight?" third baseman Doug DeCinces asked in mock seriousness. "We can break up Blyleven's momentum. You want us to have Bert sign the ball before we give it to you?"
Carew got No. 2,999 off old teammate Bert Blyleven in the fourth, but he was robbed of the big one by shortstop Ron Washington in the sixth. And so he had to wait till the next day. At 1:47, Carew went the other way on Viola, one hour, 24 minutes before Seaver earned his 300th win. Baseball may never see such a Sunday again.