Hendrick's stance is probably one part principle and one part convenience, and his agent, Ed Keating, has given up trying to talk him out of it. But the silence has left Hendrick underappreciated and misunderstood. Through Sunday Hendrick had 17 homers and 85 RBIs to go with that .319 average.
Herzog calls Hendrick "the best rightfielder in the National League," and his teammates say he has never missed a cutoff man. But these days he's playing first base in place of the traded Keith Hernandez. Hendrick volunteered to play first in spring training because he thought he would be traded and wanted Hernandez, who has five Gold Gloves, to teach him to play first before he left. When Herzog decided he had to trade one of the two, he chose to keep Hendrick.
Hendrick was a little apprehensive about taking over at first base. After his debut, Hummel wondered if he was nervous. Hendrick, true to his word, didn't say anything. But he did open his mouth in mock horror and pat his heart. He has done a creditable job, despite his seven errors, and although he lacks the range and grace of Hernandez, he does hold one advantage. "He's tall enough," says Ozzie Smith, "so that I don't have to worry about coming down over the ball when I throw it."
Nobody has ever questioned Hendrick's baseball instincts, although they have questioned his hustle. His problem has been that he only goes as hard as he has to. In an interview he gave to Hummel after the 1979 season, Hendrick said, "I've been criticized about my style of play ever since I came up here. Some people call it lazy. Some call it lackadaisical. Some people call it graceful."
Hendrick was always a natural. He grew up in central Los Angeles, which has come to be sort of the Emerald City of baseball talent. Hendrick didn't play ball at Fremont High because of a run-in he had as a freshman with the junior varsity coach. But he did play on the Pirate Rookies, an amateur team.
Bob Zuk, who is now a Phillies West Coast scout, was the first scout to spot Hendrick, when Zuk was working for the A's in 1966. On Zuk's recommendation the A's, who had the first pick in the January 1968 draft, made Hendrick their No. 1 choice. Zuk then had two problems: 1) persuading Hendrick, who was headed for junior college, to sign, and 2) keeping A's owner Charlie Finley out of the picture because he kept calling and offending George's mother. Finally, Zuk signed Hendrick for $20,000, a $4,000 Pontiac and the promise to bring his mother up to Oakland for the '68 opener.
Hendrick excelled at every level of the minors. In 1971, after hitting 21 homers in just 63 games at Triple A Iowa, he was called up to Oakland. When Reggie Jackson pulled his hamstring before the 1972 World Series, Hendrick took his place in the outfield. But the A's couldn't wait for him to blossom, so they traded him the next year, along with Catcher Dave Duncan, to the Indians for Catcher Ray Fosse and Infielder Jack Heidemann.
At first the Indians raved about Hendrick. But then he ran into trouble with Manager Ken Aspromonte, who thought Hendrick wasn't getting enough out of his talent. Frank Robinson took over the Indians in '75, and Hendrick responded with 167 RBIs in two seasons. But on Dec. 8, 1976 the Indians traded him to San Diego for Outfielder Johnny Grubb, Catcher Fred Kendall and Shortstop Hector Torres.
"When we made the deal," says Bavasi, "Cleveland writers said we'd made a mistake, that Hendrick was a problem player, but I found out that that wasn't true." Hendrick had a terrific year in 1977, with 23 homers, 81 RBIs and a .311 average. But in '78 he got off to a slow start, and, in another bad trade, the Indians sent him to St. Louis for Pitcher Eric Rasmussen.
"We all have balls signed by George."