From the age of six, when his first at bat sent a rifle shot past the ear of his unsuspecting father, Minnesota Outfielder Ken Landreaux has been a hitter. While growing up in suburban Los Angeles, Landreaux would go to games armed only with his bat. He purposely left the rest of his equipment at home, figuring that mundane accessories like balls and gloves could always be borrowed.
Today, bat still firmly in hand, Landreaux has slashed his way into a prominent position among American League hitters and has begun to justify some extravagant self-promotion in only his third full major league season. Landreaux, 25, was batting .316 through last Sunday's games, 13th in the league, and had hit safely in 49 of his 60 games overall.
He hit in 31 of those games consecutively (from April 23 to May 30) to build the league's longest streak in 31 years. "People around me were talking pressure and Joe DiMaggio but I didn't want to think of that before I got to 40 games, because I was having a ball," Landreaux says. "It was an unreal feeling, knowing that I was gonna get at least one cookie every game."
Even though the cookie crumbled against Baltimore's Scott McGregor, Twins Manager Gene Mauch says of Landreaux that major league pitching "poses absolutely no mystery to him." Landreaux himself says hitting has never been a problem: "All they have to do is let go of the ball." He's right, even if he does look smallish at 5'11", 170 pounds and seems to shrink when he puts on his uniform. He compensates for this lack of stature at the plate with a steely concentration that begins in the on-deck circle and with a steady stroke that sends most hits up the middle and leaves pitchers wondering just how they're supposed to get the man out.
"When I faced him in the Dominican Republic a couple of years ago, the book was to pitch him inside," says White Sox Reliever Mike Proly. "But now we're supposed to pitch him away."
"Pitchers have all sorts of systems," says Landreaux, "but nothing is gonna work all the time."
Perhaps it is protective coloration, but Landreaux exudes a confidence that borders on cockiness. His mouth can be as quick as his bat as he fires off at pitchers or anyone else who crosses his path. This confidence is even apparent in his bad-dude step. But none of it is really the result of braggadocio; rather it is the effort to make his body back up what his mouth has promised, a trait that goes back to his youth.
"My friends and I would go to Dodger games, against the Giants, say, and Willie Mays would do all these great things," Landreaux recalls. "They would all ooh and aah, but I just said 'I can do that.' Whatever I was doing I would pick out whoever was the best and try and top him."
Landreaux has been motivated in other ways, too. His Little League coach walked the bench with a paddle in his back pocket to ensure that his players' minds stayed on the game. "There was no room for error," Landreaux says. "If you didn't hustle or if you made a mental mistake, he'd give you a swat."
Most often, however, Landreaux has done the swatting. In his junior year at Dominguez High in Compton, Calif. Landreaux batted .380 and led his team to the sectional title, getting a double in the championship game at Anaheim Stadium. His performance impressed scouts from Arizona State, who were checking out another prospect; they guaranteed Landreaux a scholarship upon graduation.