Ken Singleton is a proud, deliberate man. Everything about the Baltimore Orioles' designated hitter bespeaks his solidness, his dependability, his dedication to task and his ease in accepting responsibility.
From his three-piece suits on road trips to the tailored taper of his spotless double-knit uniforms, Singleton is a man who never wants to embarrass himself or feel unprepared for any situation. After sliding, he will change pants between innings. If his black spikes get dirty, they'll be buffed back to a shine before his next at bat.
In the handsome Singleton, this is not so much vanity as it is part of the interlocking fabric of an ordered and purposeful life. Although he appreciates humor, it is order and logic and decency that appeal to him. Good manners and a genuine smile are his law; patience and forebearance are natural to him. Husband and father, teammate and friend is written on him. On planes and in hotels, even in locker rooms before games, he reads the sort of books on politics and history that first intrigued him at Hofstra.
"Just readin' my book," he says, boring forward from one to the next.
More than anything, Singleton hates surprises, uncertainty and any violation of his world of deliberately chosen patterns and hard-won achievement. His home is furnished almost exclusively in black and white, in mirrors and stainless steel, as if anything brighter would be disruptive and unsettling.
For this man, the 1982 season was hell.
And 1983 has been a summer of redemption.
When Singleton goes home this weekend to play in Yankee Stadium (WDCA-TV-20, 8 p.m. today), where the Orioles have a four-game series, his parents and lifelong friends will be in the stands. For him, it will be a return to baseball grace. The last time Singleton visited the stadium, in June, his career was in jeopardy. Now, all his stripes are back on his shoulder. To sense the change that just a few weeks of baseball time can bring, let's first step back a full year.
Last season, Singleton, a major league star the previous 10 years, was suddenly and tormentingly a baseball basket case.
Throughout his career, Singleton had been a picture of a man in control. Despite being one of the most imposing specimens in baseball--a 6-foot-4, 212-pound hulk who would look at home in the bestial NFL--Singleton was a hitter with a passion for precision.
Any pitch that missed the plate by an inch was ignored. Any strike on a corner was eschewed unless there were already two strikes. If the pitcher made a good pitch, Singleton merely tried to hit a crisp single. Only if the pitcher made a serious mistake did Singleton swing for the fences.
Of all hitters, perhaps none kept such elaborate mental notes on pitchers. Singleton was an encyclopedia of expectation. Sitting next to him on the bench was unnerving to his own team's pitchers because he could, repeatedly, predict the exact sequence of pitches that he would see in his next at bat. Pitchers were creatures of habit, and Singleton, the man of habit, had their number.
Then, suddenly, Singleton's well-built baseball edifice crumbled.
When the strike of 1981 shook baseball, Singleton was at the peak of his career. At that juncture, he held the distinction of being the hardest man in baseball to get out. Then, it was Singleton, not George Brett or Rod Carew, who had the highest career on-base percentage of any active player.
During the six weeks of the strike, Singleton became engrossed in behind-the-scenes work at a TV station. By a pro ballplayer's standards, he did no exercise. For that oversight, he suffered for a season and a half. His weak limb--a right arm that has had major surgery to remove bone chips and transplant the ulnar nerve--was the place where atrophy struck.
The tale of that arm's misery is long and dull. As soon as the elbow was restrengthened, the wrist went bad. When it wasn't the wrist, then it was the last two fingers of the hand that were disastrously weaker than normal.
The result was that Singleton, always an excellent hitter left-handed and a good one right-handed, suddenly discovered that he was merely a good hitter left-handed and a pathetic batter right-handed. For the second half of 1981 and all of 1982, Singleton may have been the worst right-handed hitter in the game. Statistically, he was worse than Mark Belanger in a bad year, batting under .180 and slugging under .200.
To say he was shaken would be understatement.
Baseball experts--that is to say, anyone who sees 10 games a year--assumed that Singleton was simply the latest washed-up slugger who had passed his 35th birthday.
Singleton's reaction was predictable. He consulted experts. He made a plan. He stuck to it dutifully, often standing in the twilight of dawn on winter mornings so he would be the first one through the clinic doors to start his offseason work. Although his faith in himself was shaken, it never died.
On the first day of spring training this year, Singleton said, "Just watch."
In an intrasquad game, he hit a 420-foot home run right-handed.
"Singy's back," crowed Eddie Murray in the dugout.
Singleton heard him. "When Eddie pronounces it around here," Singleton said with a grin, "it's kind of law."
Singleton knew it was just a matter of time. But no one else did. When April brought a multitude of misfortunes--the death of his father-in-law, a strained back and a cold-weather slump--the Orioles were within days of benching him for good against left-handers.
Then, in June, Singleton got hot with the weather. The Yankees sent Ron Guidry, Dave Righetti and Shane Rawley to the mound and Singleton turned their southpaw heat around. In Boston, Bruce Hurst and John Tudor sent fast balls to the plate and Singleton fed the Green Monster a diet of line drives.
The last two months have been a joy and a vindication to Singleton, especially when hitting righthanded.
"It's been fun. They've been throwing the fast ball and I've been hitting it," says Singleton. "I've always prided myself most on being one tough out."
Now, he is again.
Singleton's career on-base percentage, the bedrock measure of his excellent, is .396. His mark this year is .400 (fifth in the league).
Singleton's power and production figures are also back to his old levels. His 18 homers and 75 RBI in 423 at bats are well above his career ratios and only slightly below his best years of '79 and '80.
Actually, his 75 RBI are an amazing figure since Singleton, now batting sixth instead of third, leads the AL in intentional walks with 15. That doesn't count all his semi-intentional passes. With men on second and/or third, Singleton seldom gets to swing if first base is open because foes can't wait to get to Rich Dauer (.226) and Todd Cruz (.218), who bat behind him.
By contrast, Cal Ripken, batting in Singleton's old No. 3 spot in front of Murray, has no intentional walks.
Even batting sixth, the uncomplaining Singleton finds a way. Last Friday night in Minneapolis, his right-handed homer in the ninth produced a 1-0 win. "Last year, the best I could have done on a high-away fast ball like that would have been a foul ball," he said. The next afternoon, Singleton smashed a 417-foot grand slam homer while swinging righty.
"Last year, I had to labor to get the ball to the warning track," he says.
Now, Singleton is back where he always was. Excellent lefty (.287, slugging .484) and good enough righty (.270, .439).
The memory of his humiliations, however, are never far from him.
Like any conscientious player, Singleton does special arm exercises before every game, and, of course, he says, "Baseball is now a 12-month-a-year job for me." But how many players would keep a 15-pound dumbbell in the clubhouse and lift it between at bats?
There, in the middle of games, Singleton retreats with his inanimate friend. First, he meditates ("my quiet time") and tells himself to relax, be patient, wait for good pitches. Then, he lifts and twists that barbell, looking all the time at his massive, rebuilt arm.
"It's like a bodybuilder pumping iron to get the blood to rush to a certain group of muscles," said Singleton. "I can feel the surge in that arm and see it swell up."
Then, his arms pumped up like Popeye full of spinach, Ken Singleton walks to home plate, a proud man determined to rehabilitate his very good name.