Rod Carew, the best-hitting American League second baseman since Charlie Gehringer, finds it almost impossible to hit the headlines. This is puzzling. For one thing, Carew was born on a train, and very few second basemen have been born on trains. For another, his is not the average situation in life. He is black and Hispanic; his wife is white and Jewish. And though the league has recently been hypnotized by the feats of Dick Allen, Allen is not the defending batting champion. Carew is.
All this would be reason enough to talk about Carew while the season warms up, but there is another, more timely one: Carew's Minnesota Twins, third in the West last year, have been kicking the whey out of the world champion Oakland A's. Now it may not be nice to fool with Mother Finley and his mighty pitching staff. Retribution usually follows. But the fact is the Twins murdered the A's three straight in Oakland and then, back in Minnesota on Friday, picked up where they left off by shellacking them again 8-4. Not until Ken Holtzman broke through Saturday with a 2-1 four-hitter did the A's retaliate.
During this splurge Carew was getting a hit here, scoring a run there and fielding his position with his usual unspectacular competence. Carew's batting average was .250, well below his lifetime .309, but it will merely be a matter of time before the figures fatten up.
Carew is only 27 and improving. Just five men who have been in the majors five full years or longer—Rico Carty, Rod's teammate Tony Oliva, Henry Aaron, Matty Alou and Pete Rose—have lifetime averages as high or higher and only Rose (.309) does not appear to be past his prime. Carew, despite having to cope with injuries and slump-producing military absences, has hit better than .300 in each of the last four years and won the batting title in 1969 (.332) as well as in 1972 (.318). If a knee injury had not shortened his 1970 season to 51 games, making it impossible to have enough appearances at the plate to qualify for the title (he hit .366) and transforming 1971 into a year of recuperation (.307 worth of recuperation), Carew might now be defending the batting championship for a fourth straight year.
Carew is conceivably the best pure hitter in baseball—a slashing, piece-of-the-ball swinger who beats out bunts and Baltimore chops in the infield, slices Texas Leaguers down the lines and rips line drives everywhere in the park.
Such hitters are considered most effective against outside pitches, which they simply poke to the opposite field. Pitchers try to set most of these men up for money pitches that jam them, but not Carew. He is a left-handed hitter who can slice a tight pitch into left field or pull it down the right-field line. There is no surefire way to pitch him.
Last season Carew polished his bunting and reached first on 25 of 36 attempts for hits. He has learned to deaden the ball to such a degree that he can bunt on a charging third baseman prepared for just such a move and still beat a good throw to first. "When I am bunting right," Carew says, "I don't care where they play me. If I put it where I want, there is no way I'm going to be thrown out."
Carew has also learned to bunt a buck past Calvin Griffith, one of baseball's more notably tightfisted owners. He began the year after a holdout in which he managed to wrest a raise of more than $15,000 (to about $60,000). Manager Frank Quilici had a little shock for him as he joined the club. The Twins had found a good leadoff man in Larry Hisle. Quilici asked Carew, batting second, to concentrate on moving Hisle to third. So baseball's best bunter laid down only two in 56 at bats in spring games and baseball's best spray hitter pulled three doubles and two triples to right. "I think Rod can do anything he wants to," said Quilici. "He is a smarter hitter now, making the effort each situation demands."
Despite the abrupt change in his style, Carew hit .339 in the spring. This did not mollify critics who feel Carew has the natural ability to bat for a considerably higher average. "It was a lousy .339," said one.
The Mets' Jim Fregosi, while in the AL, observed Carew for five seasons and believes .380 or .390 is within his reach "if he uses all his ability. He's the type of player who looks nonchalant. Maybe inside, though, he is trying as hard as he can."