Although a handful of players are demanding that their contracts be renegotiated or are threatening to become free agents, the upcoming season has the feel of the good old days. The Yankees are the defending champions, as they always used to be, and they are again the favorites, as they always used to be. The runaway races of the early seasons of divisional play have become closer the past few summers, and in the months ahead there again should be some furious two-and three-team races. And this summer legendary records are no longer under assault, now that Lou Brock has joined Henry Aaron in surpassing the most imposing achievements of Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth.
This is not to say that no individuals are worthy of special notice. Pete Rose certainly will be, as he collects the 34 hits he needs to become the 13th player to get 3,000 in his career. But there are two men not old enough to have many Ruthian, or Rosean, lifetime statistics—Rod Carew of Minnesota, 32, and George Foster of Cincinnati, 29—who are even more deserving of attention and acclaim. Last season's extraordinary performances by these two quiet players were unduly obscured by Reggie Jackson's World Series slugging. Even the selection of Carew and Foster as their leagues' Most Valuable Players led to little fanfare. But, as the following statistics compiled by Jim Kaplan indicate, they were not garden-variety MVPs. Ruth and Cobb would have been proud of what Carew and Foster wrought in 1977. Carew is assured of a place in the Hall of Fame, even if he never gets another hit; if Foster has a couple more seasons like '77, he'll join him in Cooperstown.
In 1977 Carew hit .3880, the highest average since Ted Williams' .3881 in 1957. With one more hit, Carew would have had the highest average since Williams' .406 in 1941. With only eight more he would have batted .400.
Last season Carew outhit all other big-leaguers by 50 points; Dave Parker of the Pirates was second at .338. The spread was the widest in modern baseball history.
Last year Carew's lifetime average rose from .328 to .335. He jumped 10 notches into 26th place on the list of the all-time best hitters, passing, among others, Al Simmons, Paul Waner, Stan Musial, Heinie Manush, Honus Wagner and John McGraw. Carew has batted .358 over the past five seasons. Another five years at that pace would put him in 14th place, at .343, and he will have passed Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Harry Heilmann, George Sisler and Bill Terry. His present average is the highest—by 22 points—among active players with 10 or more years of service.
Carew's 239 hits were the most since Terry's 254 in 1930. Carew averaged 1.54 hits per game. During his 11-year career he has averaged 1.28.
Baseball's best bunter, Carew beat out 20 in '77. He has a deceptive bunting motion that disguises his intentions until the last split second, and he can bunt with backspin. He is not afraid to lay one down with two strikes on him.
Last season Carew hit .418 by day and .367 at night, but he prefers batting under the lights! He likes cool weather, which is unusual for a Panamanian, claims he can see the ball better at night, which is contrary to what most players say, and finds the air, especially in California, cleaner after dark. He hit .401 at home and .374 on the road.
Carew finished at .388 despite slumps of 1 for 17 and 2 for 19. He claims he has lost no sleep over the eight hits he needed to bat .400, but he vividly recalls an 0-for-4 day against California in which he hit the ball hard every time. He is also well aware of his strong finish. "Another week and I might have hit .400," he says.
Here is an indication of how difficult it is to hit .400. On July 10 Carew was batting .401. Between July 11 and Aug. 25 his average dropped to .374, but during that period he went hitless in only six of 42 games. In that span, he had hitting streaks of five, seven, 10 and 14 games.