TAMPA, Fla. — In all the long history of major league baseball, only 15 players have ever gotten 3,000 or more hits. They are all household names, a roll call of legends--Ty Cobb, Pete Rose, Stan Musial, Hank Aaron, Nap Lajoie, Willie Mays, Honus Wagner, Tris Speaker.
Sometime this season, they will be joined by a 16th, Rod Carew. The game will be stopped, TV crews will come onto the field, ceremonies will be held, and the ball will be sent immediately to Cooperstown, there to await the arrival of its hitter.
And sometime in 1986, this regal crew may be joined by a guy who wears a zero on his back and who might as well have played in a mask and under an assumed name all these years, for all the attention anybody paid. He might as well have had a question mark on his back. When he passes the milestone, 50 million people will ask "Who?"
Al Oliver is so little known you'd think he came to fix the plumbing. The guy who lives next door to him must think he spies for a living. A night watchman is more of a celebrity. Oliver leaves the house every night and disappears like a safecracker. You'd think he couldn't cast a shadow or see himself in a mirror. The player without a number is a man without a name.
It's one of baseball's enduring mysteries. You'd think Oliver would be able to get his name someplace besides the back of his uniform--if not in lights, at least on the cover of The Sporting News once in a while.
No one in the game today ever struck a ball with more consistency and authority than Mr. Zero. He has rattled 2,676 hits off his bat. The interesting thing is that, of the Hall of Famers ahead of him on the hit list, most of them took a significantly higher number of times at bat to get to their plateaus. Almost all of them played 1,000 or more games.
Lou Brock, for instance, got 3,023 hits--in 10,332 times at bat. Pete Rose, of course, has gone to bat 13,411 times for his 4,097 hits. Carl Yastrzemski stepped in 11,988 times for his 3,419 hits.
All Oliver has needed for his 2,676 hits are 8,783 times at bat. He could, conceivably, achieve his 3,000th hit in fewer appearances at the plate than any of them.
Like all of them, like all good hitters everywhere, Oliver has more hits than games played, a ratio, in his case, of 2,676 to 2,272.
None of which solves the mystery of what does Al Oliver have to do to get noticed--solve the Middle East crisis? Balance the budget? Control the climate? It's clear he's been going about it all wrong. Being the best hitter, pound for pound, in his league won't get it. The public must want him to do card tricks, too.
Usually, when a player's exploits outrun his recognition, baseball nods wisely and looks for the story on why there is no story. The fellow has to be something anathematic. A clubhouse lawyer, for example. That worthy who starts more mutinies than he does rallies.
Or, he is whispered to be "not a team player." This can mean a variety of unspeakable things, but since baseball is not precisely a team game, it seldom means much of anything if the guy leads the league in hitting--as Oliver has done. It's pretty hard not to help your team when you bat .331 or get 209 hits in a single season--as Oliver has done.
Sometimes, management accuses a hitter of protecting his average, chopping line singles or bunting his way on with men already aboard base. But Oliver's 214 major league home runs are a respectable total for a player who strikes out as seldom as he does, only 28 times one year. He's not a wild swinger, just a hard one. His 1,295 runs batted in are more, for example, than Pete Rose, Mike Schmidt, Steve Garvey or George Foster have. Oliver holds the bat down at the end, all right. He's not a clubhouse anything. He just uses it to shower, like everyone else.
Oliver, in fact, is as mystified as anyone else over his invisibility. He sat in a dugout at Al Lopez Field here the other day and admitted his bafflement.
"I would think you guys would be delighted with me," he admitted in some candor, indicating the surrounding press. "I never ducked in a trainer's room from an interview in my life. I never screamed at any official scorer for charging an error on a hard-hit ball. I talk to people whether I go 0 for 4 or 4 for 4. I like interviews. I like to talk."
Therein may lie the tale. The press, you see, or that part of it involved in the sporting scene, is sometimes like the lovelorn suitor in "Of Human Bondage." It thrives on rejection. The chase is the thing, not the conquest. Inaccessibility titillates it. Challenge stimulates it. Steve Carlton got more press, not less, when he stopped talking to the media. Howard Hughes became twice as famous in absentia than he had been in person. Garbo made a career out of it.