The first thing that strikes you about four-time National League batting champion Bill Madlock is that physically he doesn't look like a ballplayer. The veteran Los Angeles third baseman is so stocky he resembles a sawed-off hydrant, his swing so compact it wouldn't disturb the cobwebs in a ghost-town phone booth. Yet his seeing-eye bat and occasional power have been a constant source of concern for the St. Louis Cardinals in the current National League playoffs. Madlock is hitting an even .300 for the first five games, is the only player on either team with two home runs, and leads the Dodgers in runs batted in with five. His second homer was a big one, too, keeping L.A. in Monday's pivotal fifth game until Ozzie Smith hit one out in the ninth to put the Cardinals up 3-2 in the best-of-seven series.
And with some of the other L.A. hitters having their problems (the Dodgers are batting only .233 as a team to the Cardinals' .270), Bill looms as a key figure in his team's hopes to pull it out as the series returns here for its conclusion this week.
``Any time a pitcher have to deal with a hitter like Madlock, who really have no strike zone, all he can do is move the ball around,'' explained Dodger batting coach Manny Mota in his broken English. ``One time he'll hit the ball in the power alleys for extra bases; next time he loops a single over the infield; then he go down the line; then maybe he see the third baseman playing back so he bunt for hit. With his swing, he is not a big home run threat, but I remember one year he drive in 95 runners.''
Yet until the Dodgers traded three young players to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Bill on Aug. 31, the last day they could acquire him and still have him eligible for the playoffs and World Series, he was hitting a very un-Madlockian .251.
That didn't stop L. A. scouts from recommending that the Dodgers get him and put him in the No. 3 spot in the lineup (he has alternated between there and cleanup in the playoffs). Bill proved their judgment correct, too -- batting .360 and compiling a 17-game hitting streak in what remained of the regular season
``I'm not a scientific hitter,'' Madlock told me during batting practice the other day. ``I'm not up there to do a lot of thinking. If I see a pitch I like, I'm going to react to it. Every pitcher is different, so you have to learn to make on-the-spot adjustments. It's not something you can plan ahead or take up to the plate with you.''
Defensively Madlock doesn't have a lot of range, but he does have good hands and instincts. Anything hit directly at him he'll get.
While the snap throw to first is not his style (he prefers to get set before letting go of the ball), he can make that play if it is the only way to get the runner. Opposing players who take one look at his roly-poly frame and bunt are usually sorry they did.
Ironically, Madlock was originally drafted by the Cardinals in 1969, but didn't sign. The next year he was signed by the Washington Senators, who were the Texas Rangers by the time he reached the majors in 1973. He hit .351 in 21 games, but the Rangers evidently decided it was a fluke, trading him to the Cubs in the off season.
It was no fluke, though. Bill hit .302 his first year in Chicago, then won back-to-back batting crowns in 1976-77, but was traded to San Francisco the following winter after a salary dispute.
Candlestick Park, with its swirling winds and raw weather, can make a frustrated hitter of anybody. While Madlock didn't like it either, he was a .300-plus hitter there, too, until the Giants dealt him to Pittsburgh, where he picked up two more batting titles in 1981 and 1983.
Where a lot of players these days hide in the trainer's room after a game (off limits to the media), Madlock is both honest and quotable. One way to wind him up is to engage him in conversation about his expensive collection of antique and unusual clocks: 35 at last count.
Bill's favorite is a strikingly beautiful Chinese pedestal model that is practically drowning in gold leaf. Perched on top of this clock and sitting in an ornate chair is a cherub playing a stretched-out horn. Nearby is an elegant 200-year-old desk that Bill acquired from the owner of a Scottish castle.
But Madlock's rich taste doesn't stop there. He also owns three homes, part of a fancy restaurant, and a number of antique automobiles. Although he recently sold a vintage Rolls Royce he still has his 1932 Ford V-8, the first year Ford came out with that model.
According to Los Angeles General Manager Al Campanis, one of the reasons the Dodgers got Madlock, aside from his bat, was to give the team more stability.
``We have some kids who need players out on the field with them who can show them how to close a game -- like when we're ahead in the 7th, 8th, or 9th innings,'' Campanis explained. ``Madlock can do that for you.
``While you want his bat in there every day,'' Al added, ``he's not just a one-dimensional player.''