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Portrait Of The Artist As A Hitter
Ron Fimrite
June 13, 1983
The man behind the camera is Rod Carew, part-time photographer, full-time batting star, whose phenomenal .435 average has made him the focus of unwanted attention
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June 13, 1983

Portrait Of The Artist As A Hitter

The man behind the camera is Rod Carew, part-time photographer, full-time batting star, whose phenomenal .435 average has made him the focus of unwanted attention

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Carew is a man of ordered habits, of personal fastidiousness. He has his own rules about talking to the press—not after batting practice and, preferably, not after a defeat. If the rules are properly observed, he is invariably charming, because he is a man of wit and intelligence. Still, he has said both publicly and privately that he's so disenchanted with being on stage that he will seriously consider retiring when his contract with the Angels expires at the end of this season. He will have just turned 38. "Financially I can do it," he says. "I still enjoy playing baseball and I know I can do it for a few more years, but sometimes you have to give up things you enjoy. I know I can walk away from it and not worry. It wouldn't make any difference to me if I hit .400 this year. Marilynn, I know, wants me to go for 3,000 hits [he had 2,749 as of June 5 and was hitting .435], but I don't even think about that. People just don't realize the things you have to go through. I get tired of it all. I could be happy away from it. I love photography. I'd like to do more of it."

Carew is a skilled, self-taught photographer whose eye is at its most sensitive with seascapes and in portraits of his family and teammates. He has invested nearly $20,000 in photographic equipment and has his own darkroom in his beautiful home in Anaheim. His favorite photographs hang on the family-room wall, including a remarkable portrait of his 7-year-old daughter, Stephanie, that makes her appear to be a Polynesian beauty. "She hates it," says Carew. "She thinks it makes her look too old." He brings his cameras to the ball park and shoots his teammates at play. He brings his gear on the numerous off-season Carew family treks in California, Hawaii and Mexico. And he takes it with him on the road and wanders the streets in search of material. He gives his photographs as Christmas presents, and he is organizing a show of work by himself and other camera buffs among the Angels. A most solitary pursuit, in many ways photography suits Carew better than hitting line drives before 40,000 people.

Baseball would definitely be the loser if its most scientific hitter should pack it in. And Marilynn isn't so sure it's the right thing to do. "I don't want to see him retire prematurely," she says. "I think if he stays healthy [she raps on a wooden coffee table] and can still contribute to a club, he should continue playing. Naturally, you can't get inside someone and see the degree of pressure there, the degree of tired. I think he's got three more good years left. He's got a young body, and those hands are still quick. But you do get fed up. Only he can decide if he's had enough."

Carew is capable of such contrariness that he just might quit at the top. He said as much when he first signed with the Angels in 1979. All his life he has been a sort of storm center of conflicting influences. He was born in Panama of parents whose roots were in the West Indies, so that he grew up as a linguistic hybrid whose first language was Spanish and whose second was broken English with a calypso lilt. He speaks English today with the barest suggestion of a West Indian accent but with not a trace of Spanish. His English is precise and, for a ballplayer, remarkably free of slang or profanity. That alone sets him apart from most of his fellows. When Rick Adams, a rookie Angel infielder, joshed about not having been invited to the Carew family "pad," Carew looked up from the stool in front of his locker with an expression of mock horror. "Pad?" he asked incredulously. "Did you say 'pad'?" He looked about the room, conveying his shock. "What have we here? Some kind of Valley Boy?"

Carew was a sickly child yet such a superb athlete that at age 11 he was playing baseball with men in their late teens and early 20s. He has lived in the U.S. for 23 years but retains his Panamanian citizenship. In Panama he remains a national hero, although he hasn't set foot there in more than three years. Still, keeping his citizenship "gives the children there someone to look up to," he says. "They need that." He was raised an Episcopalian, but Marilynn is Jewish, and so he now observes the Jewish holidays and, like Sandy Koufax before him, will not play on Yom Kippur.

Carew is a steadfast hit-'em-where-they-ain't disciple in an era that rewards the long ball, patiently lining his artistic little shots to all fields, only occasionally muscling up for a home run. When asked to describe Carew's hitting, Gene Mauch, his manager both at Minnesota (1976-78) and California (1981-82), once remarked with rare humility, "It would be presumptuous of me to describe what an artist does. It would be like asking an art student how Michelangelo paints." Carew has a word for what he does at the plate: "soft." He says, "I relax the upper part of my body. I don't squeeze the bat. If you do, you lose flexibility. When the pitch comes I can direct my bat in many ways."

Carew is a hard worker who will come unbidden to the ball park a good four hours before every game to hone both his batting and first-base fielding skills. And yet he's such a graceful athlete that to unknowing observers he sometimes looks as if he's not trying. Early in his career, when he was with the Twins, this rap was an often repeated and largely unfair one. "He does things people take for granted because he's so smooth," says Angel Shortstop Tim Foli. He has another rare gift, says Foli: "Guys who hit .260 may make adjustments at the plate in the course of a few days. Guys who hit .300 will make them during a game. Guys who hit .400 will make them during a time at bat. That's Rod Carew."

Foli and the other Angels often speak of the "subtleties" in Carew's game. They are fond of describing a duel Carew had with Boston Reliever Luis Aponte on a chilly evening in Fenway Park in early May. Carew appeared as a pinch hitter (he was nursing the knee injury) in the ninth inning with the score tied 5-5. He fouled off the first pitch, a slider—purposely, it turned out, because he didn't think there was much he could do with it. The second pitch was a ball, and the third he fouled off. Next Aponte threw a forkball, which he later described as the perfect two-strike pitch to lure a batter into a swinging strikeout. Carew started to swing, but then, realizing the ball would drop out of the strike zone, he checked himself. Aponte said later that Carew might be the only hitter in the league with that kind of bat control. After fouling off four more pitches, Carew got the fastball he wanted, and he lined it into the gap in left center for a double. He scored the winning run when the next hitter singled.

Stephanie Carew, wearing No. 9 on the back of her yellow uniform, seems distracted as she plays first base for the Ms. Pac-Man team in Anaheim's Mini Bobby Sox league. The softball game is going on in front of her, but she's obviously preoccupied with her famous father, sitting on a grassy incline down the rightfield line taking pictures of her. "Stephanie," Rod shouts, "pay attention. Honey. Watch the game. Be ready with the pitch." These injunctions aren't issued in a commanding voice, but in gentle, fatherly tones. Stephanie turns back to the diamond, but between pitches she fusses with her uniform, pulling up her socks, adjusting her waistband, fiddling with the brim of her cap.

Rod laughs. "She's like me," he says. "I'm very fussy about my uniform. If it gets dirty, I change it. I've always been that way about my appearance. I had very little as a kid, but I made sure I was presentable." He looks back out onto the field. His daughter is fiddling with her shoes. "Pay attention, Stephie," he calls. He laughs again. "She may be even worse than I am."

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