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Rod Carew, who was hitting .476, nonetheless was taking a little extra batting practice at Anaheim Stadium three hours before a mid-May California Angels game with the Minnesota Twins. Carew was concerned about a sudden and unwelcome proclivity he'd developed for pulling the ball to right-field. He is a batter who earns his keep—about $900,000 this year—by spraying his hits to all fields, by using, in baseball vernacular, "the whole ball park." He hadn't played, save for one pinch-hitting appearance, in nearly a week, having aggravated an old knee injury, and was worried about regaining his whole-ballpark stroke. It was a pleasantly warm afternoon in Southern California, and aside from Carew and his batting-practice pitcher, Angels Coach Bobby Knoop, there was scarcely anyone on the field. The circumstances were made to order for Carew, a man who treasures his solitude. There he was, alone with his bat and someone to throw baseballs to him, an artist with his brush and canvas.
For the first few minutes Carew whacked screamers down the rightfield line, frowning at this unwanted consistency. Carew is a handsome man, but not in the conventional sense. The most arresting features on his face are a tiny turned-up nose and a mile-wide mouth that can exaggerate the mildest emotion. When he smiles, the light can be seen as far away as Newport Beach. When he's downcast, there's an eclipse of the sun. This unusually expressive face, as much as anything else, is the source of Carew's reputation for moodiness. Now, his face took on a studious look. Carew stopped the proceedings long enough to place a ball on the outside corner of the plate. "Bobby, would you try to throw it right here," he said in his precise manner, indicating a spot directly above the ball on the plate. Knoop obliged. Still Carew hit the pitch to right.
Knoop offered some unsolicited advice, speaking respectfully, as would anyone proposing to give hitting pointers to a man with a career batting average of .331. "Rodney, it looks like you're breaking your wrist too soon," Knoop said. "You're breaking it right at the plate, instead of afterward." Carew nodded. He stepped into his familiar crouch, which actually isn't really so familiar, because he has half a dozen different variations on his stance to select from, depending on the circumstances and the opposing pitcher. Only his hands, large, yet delicate like a pianist's, remain the same—the bottom, or right, gripping the bat lightly, the top providing an open cradle for it. Not until the pitch is on its way does that top hand grasp the bat. These are quick, strong hands. They are the source of Carew's magic. "He has his own style," says Carew's teammate Bobby Grich. "I call him a hands hitter. You rarely see him pop up because he turns that left hand over."
Carew accepted his coach's counsel, and, as if on command, the line drives started moving from right-to leftfield. Carew smiled luminously. But darkness descended upon his face as he left the batting cage, for he could see a phalanx of cameras and tape recorders awaiting him at the dugout steps. His solitude was broken.
For Carew it was starting all over again. His astonishing early-season hitting had thrust him once more into the glare of publicity he so deplores. There was talk again of his becoming the first .400 hitter since Ted Williams in 1941. He had been through it all once before, in 1977, when he ended up hitting .388, and it nearly drove him to distraction. Another early surger, George Brett, who had his own flirtation with the magic mark in 1980 (he hit .390), had taken some of the heat off Carew in the first weeks of this season, but Brett cooled off and Carew kept going. In late April he had 12 hits in one four-game stretch, a feat all the more remarkable because he went hitless in one of those games. By May 6 he was at an even .500—48 hits in 96 times at bat.
Even his illustrious teammates were stunned. "I've never seen anybody hit like that for so long," said Reggie Jackson, who has had some streaks of his own. "I was like that in the '77 World Series, but that was only six games. We're talking about a hundred at bats here. And of all those hits, there were only a couple of bloopers or infield hits. He was hitting .450 on line drives alone. And he hasn't even started bunting yet." This last was a reference to Carew's exceptional bunting prowess, which has gotten him as many as 25 hits in a season. "The man never wastes a time at bat," says Grich. "I don't care if the score is 16-1 or 2-1. And he makes hitting look so effortless. You watch him and you say to yourself, 'Boy, that looks easy.' Then you get up there and pop one up."
"The difference between this guy and the rest of us," says another Angel, Doug DeCinces, "is that when we get hot, we go up to .300. When he gets hot, he goes up to .500."
Carew is of two minds about celebrity. On the one hand, he feels he merits recognition as one of the best hitters ever. He's the active player with the highest career batting average. He has won seven batting championships and put together 14 consecutive .300 seasons. Only Ty Cobb, with 12 titles, and Honus Wagner, with eight, have won more batting crowns than Carew (Stan Musial and Rogers Hornsby have won as many), and only Cobb (23), Wagner (17), Musial (16) and Cap Anson and Ted Williams (15 each) have had longer strings of .300 seasons. To be mentioned in the same statistical breath with such bona fide immortals should be worth something, Carew logically concludes. Actually, because he isn't a power hitter, doesn't have a flashy personality and has never played in a World Series, he's comparatively unrecognized. He's a little wistful about this.
On the other hand, Carew is an exceptionally reserved man who abhors the trappings of fame—the constant theft of his time, the invasion of his privacy. Carew can be short with impolite strangers, be they autograph seekers or microphone wielders. "He's too sensitive for his own good," says Jackson, Carew's friend and personality opposite. "Rod is relaxed outwardly, but not inwardly. George Brett, Pete Rose and I get a lot of positive press. Rod can turn writers off. I tell him he only needs to reinforce his career through the media to get the recognition he deserves."
"He's an introvert," adds Marilynn Carew, Rod's wife of nearly 13 years. "He's not loud and vivacious. He's deep. He's just a private person. There's nothing wrong with that. The whole world can't be made up of extroverts. You can't make a quiet guy into something else."