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Every time George Hendrick comes to bat in St. Louis' Busch Stadium, his likeness is projected onto the giant color screen in right centerfield. For a moment, his countenance seems full of menace and power. But, like the terrible head of the Wizard of Oz, it's only a mask. At a closer glance, the illusion disappears. You can detect twinkles in Hendrick's eyes, and if you stare long enough, you can see the corners of his mouth turning in a northerly direction. When the Wizard was found out, he said, "I am a humbug." And so is Hendrick.
After 13 years in the major leagues, Hendrick remains a mystery, hiding behind a face that hardly ever smiles for a camera and a policy of almost never talking to a notebook or a microphone. He may be the ballplayer's ballplayer, but he'll never belong to the public.
This much is known about Hendrick: He pals around with the Los Angeles Lakers; he hits with an M-253 Joe Morgan Model Louisville Slugger (34 inches, 31 ounces); he likes to watch soap operas; he loves automobiles; he's fond of children; he's superstitious; and he wears the bottoms of his uniform pants down low, over the stirrups. He has also been at or near the top of the National League batting leaders most of the season. As of Sunday, he was at .319, chasing Bill Madlock of the Pirates, the league leader at .321. And St. Louis was in a four-team dogfight for the NL East Division title, 1½ games behind first-place Montreal.
Hendrick's friends say that to know him is to love him, but the problem is getting to know him. He may be kind to children, animals and colleagues, but he can still turn on a reporter as he would on a hanging curveball. Because he doesn't talk, others will just have to talk for him.
Almost directly below the huge Color-board in Busch Stadium sits the George Hendrick Fan Club. The members of the fan club all belong to the Hohn family from Collinsville, Ill., which is about 15 miles east of St. Louis. Counting Robert, the father, and Toni, the mother, there are eight Hohns. They show up early to claim the first row of the bleachers and unfurl their WE LOVE YOU GEORGE banner, which has to be rolled up before the game starts.
The Hohns discovered the real George Hendrick at spring training in St. Petersburg, Fla. Robert, employed by Action Data Services, recounts meeting Hendrick: "Carol, she's the 13-year-old, is very outgoing, and she sort of singled George out last year. You can talk to the players through the fence down there, and he ended up taking her out on the field and giving her a cap. This spring Carol asked us if we could take George to dinner, and we said, 'He's not going to want to go to dinner with us.' Two days later Carol came back and said that George and Tito Landrum [now an Oriole] had accepted her invitation."
The Hohn children are delightful, but they all seem to speak at once, so it's hard to make out which one is saying what. On this particular evening in the bleachers, the participants in the discussion are Carol; Ann, 16; Amy, 10; and Bobby, 2.
"We had spaghetti and salad at dinner, and George had two helpings."
"Then we drove in his Mercedes."
"He bought some vanilla candles."