Rod Carew, man with the blazing bat, is in the groove again
Outfielders tend to play him like a right-handed hitter. Pitchers move the ball around on him. Third basemen have to be alert or he'll drop a bunt so perfectly down the line that he can almost walk to first base.
The general consensus among baseball people is that if anyone can hit .400 for an entire season (and Ted Williams was the last to do this in 1941), that man would be first baseman Rod Carew of the California Angels.
Among the 6 ft. 180-lb. Carew's most noticeable gifts are patience at the plate, excellent bat control, and extraordinarily acute eyesight.
Last year Carew, who was bothered by a wrist injury all season, still batted .319, his 14th consecutive year over the .300 mark. He struck out only 49 times, about average for him. Reggie Jackson, who has had one year in his entire career in which he reached an even .300, would be ecstatic with figures like that.
But Rod has had nine years at .331 or better, including a high of .388 with the Minnesota Twins in 1977. In case you're wondering how close he came to .400 in '77, eight more hits was all he needed. As it was, he collected 239 in 616 times at bat.
This year, the 37-year-old Carew is off on another of his tears with the bat. Even though Rod is a left-handed hitter, he seldom drives the ball to right field. Instead he laces line drives onto a strip of no-man's land just inside the left field foul line and far enough behind third base that no defensive player can get to it.
Always content to take what the pitchers give him, however, he'll pull the ball if that's his best option; or he'll drive the ball over the middle; or he'll engineer a bunt that can handcuff a third baseman who is playing too far back or a pitcher who is slow getting off the mound. One year, for example, he bunted safely on 25 of 36 attempts.
When Carew was chasing .400 with the Twins in 1977, he did not like dealing with members of the media, who dogged his every step late in the season, asked many of the same questions over and over, and upset his concentration.
''I tried to hide and I couldn't,'' Rod once told me. ''At a time like that, a man needs to get away by himself; to relax; to do whatever he needs to do. But everywhere I went, writers were calling for interviews or shoving microphones in my face.''
Perhaps that is why Carew seems to be purposely down-playing his current .400 average - saying it is much too early in the season to get serious about figures that a mini-slump could destroy overnight. I heard him tell a television interviewer one night recently at Anaheim Stadium that if he were still hitting .400 in July, that would be time enough to get excited about it.
Because Carew is very proud of what he has accomplished as a hitter, he is often cool to writers who, over the years, have wondered in print why he hasn't driven in more runs. In other words, they think he should hit better with men on base.
Even allowing for the fact that Rod usually leads off or hits high up in the batting order, where there are fewer opportunities for big RBI figures, his totals of 44 in '82 and 21 the year before seem smaller than one might reasonably expect.
When this subject surfaced again right after the start of the current season, Rod told reporters that he didn't want to hear any more of that stuff. Then he went out and had two of the best weeks in his career at producing with runners on base.
Although 59 is the highest RBI total Carew has had in the past four years, he once drove in 80, 90, and 100 runners during a string of three seasons with Minnesota in the mid-1970s. But RBIs remain a touchy subject with him and probably always will.
Years ago, when Ted Williams first spotted Carew swinging a bat, he was impressed, but fooled into thinking that Rod didn't have the drive to hit .400 because of his lackadaisical style. Williams later retracted that statement; called Carew a picture-book athlete; and marveled that anyone could make hitting a baseball look so easy.
Just a couple of weeks ago, with three chances to collect 50 hits earlier than anyone in the history of baseball, Rod twice met the ball sharply, then had a hit taken away from him on a diving stop by Minnesota first baseman Kent Hrbek. So far it is about the only blemish Carew has expe-rienced in an otherwise spotless season