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Rod Carew grew up swimming in the Panama Canal, went to the same New York high school as Henry Kissinger and is the best pure hitter, for what that is worth, in baseball. When he arrived in New York last week he was leading the American League in batting by so much it was a wonder anybody else in the league could see him.
The Twins' star second baseman was ahead of the next best hitter, Boston rookie Fred Lynn, by 68 points. And Lynn was hitting .350. Furthermore Carew was producing quantities of RBIs and extra base hits—items in which a salary arbitrator deemed him too deficient to be worth the $140,000 he wanted for the season. (He got $120,000 instead.) Although Carew persists in his claim that he is a free swinger who doesn't plot out his hits, the suspicion is growing around the league that if arbitrators demanded doubles that rolled dead exactly 385 feet from the plate, or ground balls whose big hops measured exactly 11 feet at the crest, or line drives over the pitcher's left shoulder, Carew would contrive to turn out those, too.
"He has an uncanny ability to move the ball around as if the bat were some kind of magic wand," says Oakland's Kenny Holtzman.
Media people being so abundant in New York and .418 hitters so scarce, Carew had not a moment's peace during the Twins' two-day visit to the Yankees; there were constant calls to his hotel room and reporters surrounded him at the park.
What people fix upon with Carew is the magic figure .400. Last year he reached that level in mid-April and stood there as late as June 27. Eventually he tapered off to .364 and his fourth league batting title, third in a row. This year he pulled a muscle in each thigh and was struggling along below .350 late in May, but then he went 15 for 18, or .833, over five games, and that kind of streak will help even a Carewvian average.
Over .400. Nobody has stayed that high for a full year since Ted Williams in 1941. What is the secret, everybody asks Carew. In the one game he played in New York (the other was rained out) he went 0 for 4—a blanking rare enough to merit a subhead in The New York Times—and dropped to .408. By week's end he had slipped to .401. Pretty soon, probably, his average will be down close to something human and the interviewing will slack off drastically. Apparently no one wants to know the secret of batting .350. Except every other hitter in baseball, even Atlanta's Ralph Garr, who is Carew's only rival in either league as a hitter for average and who is adrift in the .260s so far this season.
Bobby Grich says, "With a man on first base, and the first baseman holding the guy on, I've seen Rod intentionally try to pull that ball through the hole." Another Oriole, Jim Palmer, says, "He seems to hit the ball where he wants to, which is something not too many can do." "It looks like he tries to take the ball and dunk it over the infielders' heads or hit it where they ain't," says Mickey Lolich of Detroit.
But Carew denies such guile. He admits that his favorite kind of hit is one "just one inch or two outside a guy's reach. Maybe he cheated over a step in the other direction on me, and I kept him honest." But he says he doesn't try to place the ball through holes, just tries to keep it sprayed around. "I hit the ball to the opposite field so much that sometimes they'll move everybody to the left side against me. But I just take my natural swing. It seems like every time I try to pull, I tap the ball."