Because of his pride, intelligence, sensitivity and, perhaps, because of his vanity and subbornness, too, Rod Carew takes everything to heart and keeps it there. At times, he seems to be the only man in baseball capable of hitting .400 and being melancholy at the same time.
"I'm hurt by what's said about me . . . Maybe I'm too sensitive, but that's the way I've always been," said Carew, the California Angel who bears seven batting titles and one cross--the fixed thought that he's unappreciated.
"I think in my career I've played the game as intelligently as anyone. I do what I'm capable of doing. I know my limits and I don't try to go beyond them," said Carew who, at 37, is hitting .411 and, simultaneously, threatening to retire because he is disgusted with "unfair" criticism.
"Sometimes it seems like all I hear is how I don't drive in enough runs, don't hit home runs . . . don't hit well under pressure. Or else somebody's knocking me as 'aloof and moody.' I just get sick of it. Maybe it doesn't bother some other guys, but it hurts me . . . I'm human . . .
"What about the rallies I get started and the ones I keep going? It's always my RBI or runs (scored)," said Carew, who in 16 seasons has driven in more than 70 runs only three times and scored more than 100 runs only once. "My (career) on-base percentage (.395) is one of the highest. But I can't drive myself in . . . I just want credit for what I've accomplished."
Of all the outstanding players in baseball, few are as much of a pleasure to watch, or as hard to evaluate, as Carew. It is easier to appreciate the artistry of what Carew does best, hit singles, than it is to decide where those one-base hits place him in the history of his game.
As a batsman, a student of a rigorous and changing craft, Carew stands alone in his generation as Ty Cobb and Ted Williams did in theirs. No hitter in the game is more watched and discussed at the technical level than Carew. His style is intensely individual, matched to his personality, and unconventional to the point of being unique.
"Carew never swings at bad balls, he never lets his ego interfere with playing the game his way, he never overswings," said Charlie Lau, batting coach of the Chicago White Sox. "Mechanically, he's fluid, with no tension. He barely uses his muscles.
"The worst thing you can do is think you have a book on him. You can't go with a pattern to Carew, because he'll recognize it very quickly and then he's got you. You have to disguise your ideas, save 'em for an important situation."
Last season, for instance, Baltimore became convinced Carew could be confounded by a diet of slow and slower curve balls; he hit .219 against the Orioles. This year, Baltimore has tried more of the same. The result: Carew is 15 for 25 (.600) and another "pattern" has been unraveled.
On a team full of star hitters, each Angel sees a different, distinctive quality in Carew. To Bobby Grich, it is Carew's stillness at the plate, his "quiet" gestures, that are most striking, as well as the way "he hits with his hands, not his body. And he almost never pops a ball up." To catcher Bob Boone, it's a mystery how a man can be master of six stances and switch from one to another within the same at bat; what hand-eye coordination, a pure inexplicable gift, that must require.
Pitcher Tommy John likes to needle Carew about his knack of hitting fast balls on the fists with the label part of his bat, yet still dumping the ball over the infield for a soft bloop hit. "Rodney's secret is that he cheats," said John, for Carew's benefit. "He corks his bat. Other players cork the barrel. I think Carew corks the handle."
Perhaps it's Fred Lynn, the other batting champion on the team, who perceives Carew's innovations most clearly. "First, he bunts better than anyone else, even with two strikes. That distorts the whole infield and creates wider angles for him to hit the ball through. It's like he's always hitting with the infield pulled in. His bunting creates holes.
"Also, he's the only hitter I've ever seen who has an inside-out swing that puts topspin on the ball. Usually, you only get top spin when you pull the ball. As he swings, Carew's hands are way out in front of the bat, and the barrel is actually laying below the plane of his swing. Then he snaps his left hand from completely under the bat to completely over it."
Thus, Carew has invented a swing that incorporates almost every advantage that a contact hitter could want. He can wait until the last instant to commit his wristy, inside-out swing. He's snake quick because he uses little body movement and relies on reflexes, not muscle. His bunting, and his unique knack for hitting smashes past a drawn-in left side, complement each other.
What Carew's swing does not allow him to do is hit with power. Of his 2,757 career hits (31st in history), 78 percent have been singles; Carew has only 85 homers and he knocks a ball out of the park about once a month.
It is Carew's perverse misfortune that he has accomplished so much that he has moved his name into a class where it may not belong.
When a player has the highest career batting average (.331) since Ted Williams retired, and when he wins seven silver bats to move into the same batting champion category as Ty Cobb (12), Honus Wagner (8), Rogers Hornsby (7) and Stan Musial (7), then the standards by which he is measured tend to change.
Instead of being judged only in relation to the innate limits of his talent and physique, a player is inevitably measured against the achievements of those whose statistical company he keeps.
For instance, Cobb, Wagner, Hornsby and Musial not only hit for average, but, by the standards of their eras, for power and run production. All of them won titles for total bases, slugging percentage and RBI as well as batting average. Carew hasn't won any of these, and almost certainly won't. As he said, "When I try to jerk a ball out of the park, I only hurt myself. I tried to do it on Monday night and I pulled a muscle in my back (forcing him to leave that game and miss the next)."
Carew is a finesse player, and a fragile one; he has missed an average of 26 games a year with injuries, usually minor, nagging ones. He asks for a night off more often than most stars because he knows he must be in perfect working order to ply his delicate craft. Also, he'll rest against tough left-handed pitchers.
All this contributes to the perception that Carew plays only when he feels like it, and when it suits the interests of his batting average. Adding to Carew's image problems are other elements of style, and a couple of nagging numbers. Carew is meticulously neat, hates to get his uniform dirty and considers it the height of poor judgment for a great hitter to injure himself while playing defense. Thus, he almost never dives for a ground ball and moves aside to play many hard ground smashes sidesaddle.
In short, it's all too easy to see Carew as a sort of baseball lyric poet with extremely clean fingernails. The fact that he has one RBI in 50 at bats in four league championship series and one RBI in 13 All-Star games also gives fodder to those who want their hitting heroes to be macho.
Despite the sport's inherent bias toward muscle, it should be noted that, over his career, Carew has averaged nearly a full run produced per game (.973). Only a dozen active players, names such as Schmidt, Jackson, Rice and Murray, have done better.
It is Carew's misfortune that, as he approaches his eighth batting title and 3,000th hit--and a possible .400 season--he continues to be placed under a scrutiny that, while it may be fair, hardly seems as generous as befits a man so elegant.