"If you don't know him, you say, 'Aw, there's old Joe, a nice quiet guy who'll sign anything Finley sends around to him.' But he's a man's man. Not only do I like him, I respect him. He's always true to his word. There's nothing you can say bad about him. No, that's not right, there is something you can say bad about him—he's allowed himself to be underpaid. His shyness and humbleness are the reason for this. His public projection of humbleness has hurt him."
Rudi would concur. "I've always been a fairly easygoing guy, never pushy. When Finley would tell me, 'That's all you're getting,' I'd take it at face value. I didn't want to be a holdout and I can't blame Finley. He's a businessman. He wants to keep his payroll down."
Rudi was one of nine A's who took Finley to salary arbitration last winter. He was also one of the four who lost the fight. A series of virus ailments and assorted injuries cut down on Rudi's playing time last year, so that he was not completely healthy until near the end of the season. He hit .366 in the last 30 games and finished the year at .270, some 35 percentage points below his 1972 average. But he hit .333 against the Mets' tough pitchers in the World Series and, as always, fielded brilliantly. At salary time he asked for $67,500, an increase of $17,500 over what he earned in 1973. After arbitration he settled for $55,000. There was no bitterness, although he and Tenace were alone among the A's stars to flunk out in arbitration.
"Money doesn't mean all that much," Rudi says, almost convincingly. "If you make a lot of money, you have to put up with all the bull. That's the trouble with being famous. It's nice to be able to go into a restaurant with your family and not be recognized, to be able to go where normal people go and not be hassled. I hear some players complain about how they can't get any peace when they go out at night. But where do they go? To places where they know they'll be recognized. You hear ballplayers gripe and moan, but I can't think of one of them who'd say, 'Find me something else to do.' "
By his own acknowledgment Rudi is a self-made player. He has only average speed and he compensates with pinpoint accuracy for what his arm lacks in strength. He has learned to play the hitters well, and because he normally stands closer to the infield than most leftfielders, he is particularly adept at cutting off bloopers. At 205 pounds Rudi can hit for power, but he prefers to shorten his swing and spray line drives to all fields. This was not always his style.
"I was a pull hitter when I first came up," he says. "I held the bat high like Yaz and I took a big swing. In 1970 Charley Lau [then the A's hitting coach] changed me around. He closed up my stance and taught me a more compact, quicker swing. I learned to go with the pitch. I'm the type of player who has to concentrate on being consistent, doing all things well. I had some talent, but nowhere near what Reggie had. I could never run and throw with him or hit with such power, so I had to learn to do well in other things."
"Joe is like a Bill Bradley in basketball," says Jackson, an avid fan of all sports. "He doesn't have a lot of color, but he's a hell of a defensive player and a hell of a team player. And he seldom makes mental mistakes."
"I'll say one thing about Joe Rudi," said Milwaukee Manager Del Crandall, watching Rudi in batting practice. "He may be underestimated, but never by a manager and never by a ballplayer."
Rudi can endure slumps such as last week's with equanimity because they must end—he ended his on Sunday with a rather unseemly flourish, a grand-slam home run and a double against Boston—and because, as he says, "Baseball is not an end in itself. It's just a period of time you go through. When you're finished as a player, you're not just going to pass away. The older you get [ Rudi will be 28 Sept. 7], the more you realize this. I have some real estate investments and I like fixing up houses. There'll be plenty for me to do."
And in the meantime?