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Jim Murray

An Artist Blessed With Deft Stroke

August 06, 1985|JIM MURRAY

The pitch was right where it had to be--where, in fact, it always was.

Not quite a strike, not quite a ball. Not quite fast, not quite off-speed. A sucker's pitch. The kind Rodney Cline Carew always got.

So, he knew what to do with it. Whirrr! The computer in his head spun. The mental screen told him to adapt to stance No. 483, to shift the weight to Position D. The stride shortened into a half-step. The bat swung in a gentle semicircle.

It was Baryshnikov doing Tchaikovsky, Caruso sobbing out the clown aria, Kelly pirouetting in the rain. The artist at bat.

Hitting is an art form when Rodney Carew practices it on a baseball field. It's the graceful application of skill and imagination to produce an aesthetic effect. Art is doing something no one else can do the same way.

With Rodney Carew, hitting a baseball is not just a skill. A total of 3,000 hits suggests a brutal assault on the fabric of baseball--broken fences, broken bats, blood on the basepaths, the wild reckless frenzy of Ty Cobb or Pete Rose, the brute strength of Carl Yastrzemski or Honus Wagner, the daunting arrogance of Roberto Clemente.

But, Rod Carew, who never raises his voice above a semi-whisper, who never did an undignified thing in his life, got his 3,000 hits as silently as a spy. He rolled through baseball like a moonlit river. His career was almost poetic.

There wasn't anything he couldn't do with a baseball bat. He wielded it as Toscanini wielded a baton. He orchestrated a time at bat, he didn't just take his cuts. It was the "Moonlight Sonata" in cleats.

In Rodney's hands, the bat was also a wand. Getting 3,000 hits with it seemed no challenge. He should also have to change pumpkins into coaches, handkerchiefs into rabbits.

It always seemed to purists as if asking Rod Carew merely to hit the baseball safely someplace was not enough, gave him unfair advantage.

When he was young, he could place the ball with such dazzling accuracy it seemed as if the league should require him to call his shots, like Willie Mosconi, not merely just to hit the ball someplace but to say where, to point to the exact location he wished the ball to drop, to call out the velocity, trajectory and the exact number of bounces he

planned to use.

He should be required to say before taking his stance: "Curve ball over the left fielder's head and off the 360-foot sign into the left field corner." Or: "Bunt just out of the reach of Carney Lansford and two inches inside the foul line."

He should be made to diagram the sequence of stances and hand positions he would use on any given set of pitches, just as a prosecutor is constrained to give the defense a list of the witnesses and evidence it has before the trial begins.

Outfielders have accused him of tantalizing them by hitting the ball just three inches from their grasp. Carew just smiles. "I just try to hit every ball right up the middle," he says.

He seldom does. That's because he hasn't gotten a pitch up the middle since the beginning of his sophomore year. The very first base hit he ever got went right through pitcher Dave McNally's legs. He almost hasn't gotten that pitch since.

His 3,000th hit Sunday was off a pitch he hit in the only place it could be hit and fall--just over the third baseman's head and just short of the left fielder. It was vintage Carew. The pitcher got it where he wanted it--and Carew put it where he wanted it.

And it looked easy. It isn't, but that's been one of the banes of Carew's career.

Since he makes it look so easy--and since he did so much of what he does in Minnesota--Carew always believed he didn't get the total respect due him.

He really did. But one of Carew's main aims in life has always been control--control of himself, control of his environment. An eminently decent person, Carew lives the rest of his life at a whisper, too. He's the least loud superstar you are apt to meet.

The biggest surprise of his 3,000th hit was that his cap flew off making it. Carew got his other 2,999 hits without getting his hair mussed or his shoe shine scuffed. He does what he does without conscious effort, like Crosby singing or the Pope praying. The great DiMaggio was that way. When the ball came down DiMag was there. When the curve broke, Carew's bat was there.

When he ran, he glided. The trick was, he would get there half a second before the guys who were busting their buttons or going into a head-first slide. But Carew was no showman. He always seemed to have something left.

He concealed effort, as if it were uncouth. This is not to say it wasn't there. Gene Mauch, who, as his manager at Minnesota and on the Angels, probably saw more of Carew's hits than anyone besides Carew himself, points out: "Those 3,000 hits were only the tip of the iceberg. Rodney probably hit 4,000 others in batting practice. And he didn't just go up there swinging away or playing pepper. Every swing had a purpose. Rodney in the batting cage was a university of hitting. He worked longer hours than a plumber."

Like all great achievers, Carew believed that his art or craft required religious concentration. Like Ben Hogan in golf or A.J. Foyt in auto racing, this would put him in a creative funk before competition and he didn't like it interrupted. This brought clashes with the media and resentment on the part of the artist who thought the huzzahs were muted. Rembrandt probably felt unappreciated, too.

Three thousand hits are their own reward. But Carew's hits have four times propelled his teams into playoffs, within a hair's breadth of the pennant.

But they have done more than that. The charm of baseball is not its scores, it's its artistry.

Carew has enriched that part of the game immeasurably. It will be enough some day just to be able to say, as in "I heard Roosevelt speak" or "I saw Tracy act" that "I saw Carew bat."

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