It's an off-day, so Hal McRae is watching the Cubs and Pirates on television at his house in Blue Springs outside Kansas City. "If a game is on, I'm watching it," he says. And watching it, he might have added, not just to pass the time on a muggy Thursday afternoon. No, McRae watches baseball games on the tube the way Edison must have watched the filament in a light bulb. No subtle alteration in the flow escapes his professional eye. His German shepherd, Duchess, is barking on the porch outside. Two of his three children, Cullen, 9, and Leah, 4, pounce upon him from time to time with assorted urgent requests, and his wife, Johncynca, putters noisily in the kitchen. But McRae steadfastly watches the Cubs and the Pirates.
"I like to know what a guy can do," he says as the Pirates' good young catcher, Tony Pena, comes to bat. "I think they should pitch Pena differently. He's getting a lot of hits off breaking balls. Oh, will you look at that. Oh-two count and Bird [the Cubs' Doug] throws him a slider down and away." Pena reaches out for the pitch and punches a single up the middle to drive in a run. "The ball was a foot outside, but he got it anyway. The other day, Jenkins [the Cubs' Ferguson] threw him the same pitch, and he hit a double down the leftfield line. They should pitch Pena inside more."
McRae, who turned 36 last Saturday, belongs to that endangered species, Student of the Game. Who can say what his teammates on the Royals were doing this day, but it's safe to assume that a fair number of them were seeing their stockbrokers, picnicking with their families or checking out the action at the luncheon spas in Kansas City's Country Club Plaza. Indeed, one of the Royals, Pitcher Larry Gura, even stopped by McRae's house to ask him to look at an apartment building they are considering buying together. McRae politely refused. He had a baseball game to study. McRae may be the team grind, but the Royals seem to respect him for it. "He's the one who taught us all how to play this game," says Second Baseman Frank White. "I look up to him," says Third Baseman George Brett. "He learned the game from Pete Rose, and I learned it from him."
That's high praise. And yet, McRae is really only half a player. As a full-time designated hitter—O.K., he has played one game in the outfield this year—he's all hit, no field. The DH rule, which went into effect in the American League in 1973, could well have been invented for McRae, one of the original DHs who has become synonymous with the position. Among hitters who have had 1,000 or more at bats as a DH, McRae ranks first in at bats (3,409 through Sunday), hits (1,012), RBIs (523) and runs (481), and second in average (.297 to Jim Rice's .301) and homers (94 to Willie Horton's 97). Even so, McRae staunchly defends his defense. "I was never the worst outfielder in the ball park," he says, speaking positively of the negative. In fact, as recently as 1975 he played 114 games in the outfield and wasn't once skulled by a fly ball. But as the injuries—which, in the athletic sense, have cost him an arm and a leg—mounted, it seemed safer to take the glove away from him and just let him swing his marvelous bat. Since 1978, when a torn rotator cuff finished off his right shoulder, he has played only 14 games in the field. But his bat has been a constant presence.
In '74, '75 and '76, he batted, respectively, .310, .306 and .332. His best overall season to date may have been 1977 when he hit .298, scored 104 runs, drove in 92 and had 54 doubles, 11 triples and 21 homers while playing in all 162 regular-season games, 46 of them in the outfield. But this year he's bidding to make even his biggest seasons seem inconsequential. At the All-Star break, he had driven in a league-leading 79 runs, was batting .315 and was also among the league's top five in hits, total bases, doubles and slugging percentage.
Other hitters marvel that McRae can be so productive playing strictly as a designated hitter. "DH-ing is one of the toughest roles you can have," says Lee May, a sometime DH and McRae's teammate now and when Hal broke in with the Reds. "But Mac has the mental capacity to concentrate solely on hitting. You'll see him talking to himself in the clubhouse or the dugout, telling himself to stay back or watch his hands. He'll be making little gestures. You'd think he was off his rocker. Before the game, if a guy's loosening up with a few swings in the clubhouse, we have one man keeping an eye out for Mac. He's so involved in his thoughts he's liable to walk right into a swing. And yet, after a game, he's back to normal—one of the nicest guys I've ever met in baseball."
McRae is keenly aware of the pitfalls of DH-ing. "It's hard to feel a part of the club," he says. "If you're not hitting, you're like a field-goal kicker who's not making field goals. You can't make up for what you're not doing by contributing in other areas. If you're a DH and tell someone that you've played in every game, he'll look at you kind of funny. And yet a club that has a regular DH is better than one that has somebody playing out there in the field every day who shouldn't be there, somebody you hope they don't hit the ball to. I don't think DH-ing is anything to be ashamed of. Take those guys making two million. How much of that money do you think is for defense? You can always find a guy who can catch the ball. Hitters are hard to come by. That's why you see old guys like me around."
Although he doesn't really need one, McRae says, "I still have a glove and, in my heart, I'm still an outfielder." And he works out regularly with the outfielders, if for no other reason than to stay in shape. His DH routine begins only when the game starts. Physically, it involves doing an elaborate series of stretching exercises, both in the dugout and in the clubhouse. He'll walk in endless circles, plotting, in conversations with himself, his attack on unwitting pitchers. If the mood is upon him, he may also retreat to the clubhouse to talk to equipment manager Al Zych. "I try not to spend too much time in the dugout," he says. "I'll see enough so that I'm in tune with the game. But if you're out there too long, you'll find you're not really watching the game, you're just looking at it. And you'll talk. Guys who don't play have to do something, so they talk about all kinds of things—the attendance, the way a guy wears his uniform, girls in the stands. In time, your mind will wander to things that aren't important. If you're laughing, you're not thinking. And you're just sitting. You get stiff and you're not ready, so I keep moving during a game and try to maintain a sweat. I can 'watch' the game better sometimes by listening to the radio in the clubhouse. I can visualize the situations I'll be facing. If you just sat still, you'd gain five pounds in a week."
McRae may not be the compleat ballplayer, but he does consider himself a complete offensive player, one who can hit to all fields, advance runners, sacrifice and, preeminently, run the bases. Although he has made some concession to past afflictions and advancing age and no longer runs the bases with reckless abandon, he remains one of the most aggressive base runners of modern times, someone whose name fills middle infielders and catchers with dread. "I've had a few run-ins with him at the plate over the years and I'd rather not talk about him," says Texas Catcher Jim Sundberg.
McRae has also made a brutal science of breaking up double plays, as when he set the tone for a tempestuous 1977 American League playoff series between the Yankees and the Royals. In the sixth inning of the second game, he body-blocked New York Second Baseman Willie Randolph and then, while still entangled with Randolph, motioned Freddie Patek to go home from third. Even Yankee Manager Billy Martin, who advocates such slambang play for his own charges, was offended by McRae's down-field block. Indeed, not long afterward the rules were altered to prohibit the cross-body method of obliterating infielders. Now pivot men may only be upended by a hard slide, an inhibition that scarcely affects McRae, who's one of the hardest sliders to come down a base path since Ty Cobb. As a result, McRae and Cobb have similar reputations. "Over the years I feel McRae has played dirty," says Seattle Pitcher Glenn Abbott, "but he plays to win, and that's what it's all about."