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He would seem to epitomize the modern athlete: a tall, lean black man, swift and supple, a finely tuned physique sculpted in ebony. But appearances are invariably deceiving and, in fact, Rod Carew, the second baseman of the Minnesota Twins and, for the third time, defending batting champion of the American League, is about as contemporary as the Baltimore Chop. He is no disciple of Henry Aaron but the spiritual heir of Wee Willie Keeler, the legendary baseball savant who, when asked some 75 years ago to define his distinctive batting technique, replied immortally, "I hit 'em where they ain't."
Carew is hitting 'em where they ain't with such numbing consistency that he has to be conceded an outside chance to become the game's first .400 hitter since Ted Williams 33 seasons ago. And Carew, flanked by Atlanta's Ralph Garr and Cincinnati's Pete Rose, marches at the head of a movement that holds stoutly to the contention that lots of little hits are every bit as useful as a few big ones. They are The Singles Hitters, men who survive not on brute force but on guile. In their own anachronistic way, these throwbacks are subtly changing the modern game, influencing younger players, such as Houston's Greg Gross and the Dodgers' Bill Buckner, and creating through sheer omnipresence on the base paths their own kind of excitement.
Now, as June ends and the baseball season begins to take its shape, they seemed to be all but shouting. "Hey, look at me," not only on the diamond but in the ink of the batting statistics, where seven of the top 10 National League averages and six in the American League belonged to such singular men.
When a player of Carew's special skills is at the apex of his form—and he usually is—it is extremely difficult to keep him off base. Entering the ninth inning of a game last week with Baltimore, Carew had gone hitless in four at bats. "0-for" nights irritate him mightily, so it was reasonable to assume that corrective measures would be taken. Since many of Carew's hits roll up the middle of the diamond, shortstops and second basemen seem to congregate there, standing more or less shoulder to shoulder. In this series alone the Orioles' second baseman, Bobby Grich, deprived Carew of several hits and a game-tying run batted in by fielding balls directly behind second base.
But it is folly to shade Carew in one direction, for he has such precise control of his minuscule 32-ounce bat that he can guide the ball into any vacant territory. And so in his final plate appearance this night, Carew spotted Grich and Oriole Shortstop Mark Belanger conjoined near second base like a latter-day Chang and Eng. There did not seem to be anybody playing shortstop. So Carew slapped what ordinarily would have been a routine grounder to short but which on this occasion became a clean single to left field. The 0-fors would have to wait for another night. In the next game the properly chastened Grich and Belanger tore themselves apart. So Carew thereupon aimed his shots up the middle, going 2 for 4 and hiking his average to a celestial .399.
Although friend and foe alike consider him an uncanny marksman with a bat, Carew himself insists that he seeks only to "make contact" and that he has merely a fair idea where the balls he strikes will go. Hitting is an art, he explains, not an exact science.
"Outfielders tend to play me like a right-handed hitter," says Carew, who bats left. "That leaves me a hole in right field. If I could do it, I'd get a hit every time by just going for that hole. But I can't do it. Usually when I try to pull the ball I hit off my front foot and can't get anything behind my swing. So I just concentrate on hitting up the middle or going to the opposite field."
Carew succumbs to vanity only when discussing his bunting, a craft at which he immodestly but quite accurately considers himself a master. On those rare days when the hits are not dropping in for him, he resorts to bunting to keep his batting average at the proper altitude. If anything, it usually rises, as it did in 1972 when he bunted for 25 hits in 36 attempts. He has been known to bunt three or even four times a game if he spots an opening in the defense.
This added skill further distorts infield alignments. At bat Carew can see the third baseman advancing on him like one of Macduff's trees. No matter. "Even when they know I'm going to bunt, they can't throw me out," he says. "I can drop the ball to a spot where they will have an awkward throw. They have to come up clean with the ball and throw on the run. Not too many third basemen can do that consistently."
Carew is a natural hitter, but his bunting is the fruit of many hours of labor. Not many modern players are willing to devote much time to something so personally unrewarding as bunting, but Carew practices the art for as much as 45 minutes a day during spring training and for 15 minutes before most games.