This is strictly for the album of Rod Carew’s Greatest Hits. It is not going to be some amateur psychological profile of the man, nor a study of the inner workings of his mind, nor a detailed chronology of the close-to 40 years he has spent on the planet, although heaven knows it has been an eventful life. Such mental gymnastics are unnecessary at this point. As Carew’s own T-shirt says: “Pushing 40 Is Exercise Enough.”
Besides, Rod Carew does not want you probing him, prodding him, pretending to know him inside-out after borrowing a small piece of his precious time. Carew would just as soon you studied him in the batter’s box, watched what he does for a living, form your own conclusions--ignorant as they may be--and leave him Garboesquely alone. We have here a man so enigmatic that you risk offending him by describing him as enigmatic.
But enough already; this is becoming an amateur psychological profile. A thousand pardons. Three thousand pardons. It is just that Rod Carew is not always the most cordial fellow in the world, and often leaves you with nothing more than your thoughts about him. Take it from someone who has attempted in three different years, in three different cities, to approach Rod Carew, speak with him, get to know him a little, wish him luck, only to be treated like a bug that has just crawled into the infielder’s cereal. At various times in his life, were Rod Carew ever treated by other human beings the way he himself sometimes treats human beings, he surely would have wondered what he ever did to make another man behave so insensitively.
Let us abandon this train of thought, though, before it goes much further. Rod Carew’s friends obviously like him, his California Angel teammates certainly like him, his favorite charities adore him, and barely a soul exists who does not admire what Rod Carew can do with a stick of wood. With a baseball bat he is Leonard Bernstein with a baton, Alan Ladd with a gun, Glenda the Good Witch with a wand, Luke Skywalker with a laser. He is a dangerous man with a blunt instrument, so be careful around him.
Carew struck Sunday afternoon against the only other major league team for which he has ever played, the Minnesota Twins, for base hit No. 3,000, becoming the 16th man in history to hit three grand. It was a clothesline single over third baseman Gary Gaetti’s head in the third inning off pitcher Frank Viola, and the Angels streamed out of the dugout to embrace Carew on the diamond.
Between innings, Carew addressed the crowd: “I’m just glad it’s over. I can sleep at nights now. It’s a very emotional thing for me, starting against the Twins, my first team, and getting the hit against them. I’m just happy it happened here so you fans could enjoy it.”
The first of 3,000 came more than 18 years ago, on April 11, 1967, against “one of the toughest left-handers ever,” in Carew’s opinion, Baltimore’s Dave McNally. The batter for Minnesota was a spindly, 21-year-old second baseman who had broken into pro baseball two years before with the Melbourne Twins of the Cocoa (Fla.) Rookie League. It was a single, which should come as no surprise. Rod Carew has had 2,360 singles since.
The years prior to that, quickly, just for recorded history’s sake, were spent mostly in Panama, where he remains a national hero and citizen. Rodney Cline Carew was born on a train that was taking his mother to a clinic; the baby was delivered by Dr. Rodney Cline. This child grew up so impoverished that occasionally, out of sheer hunger, he would walk into a corner market with a can opener, open some juice, sit in the aisle and drink it. Or he would screw off the lids of peanut-butter jars, finger some into his mouth and return the jar to the shelf.
The child was abused by his father, who eventually became so estranged from his son that he did not show up at Rod and Marilynn Carew’s wedding and did not meet his daughter-in-law or grandchildren until 1982. A sign painter, Carew’s father often came home from work, found a reason, real or imaginary, to lose his temper, then punished his son by whipping him with an iron cord that he had first soaked in water, or with a leather belt four inches wide. He also punched and kicked his son. That is why, as a grownup, Rod Carew sometimes gives talks at schools in Orange County, not on baseball, but on child abuse.
Rodney Carew could always hit a baseball. He could do it at 10, when he played with much older boys, and he could do it at 15, when his family moved to New York. By the time he got that first hit in the majors, he was a can’t-miss sort of kid, the kind who got 514 at-bats in his very first season. He hit .292 for the Twins that season and topped it by 96 points--really, 96 points--a decade later.
Carew’s greatest hits, mostly singles, piled up. There was No. 500, off Tommy John; No. 1,000, off Ed Farmer; No. 2,000, off Bill Lee; No. 2,500, off fellow Panamanian Juan Berenguer. Singles all. The sight of Rod Carew cranking a grounder between first and second or slicing one between second and third became as commonplace as seeing Reggie Jackson swinging for the next ZIP code, or Willie Stargell pulling everything to the right side. Carew’s bat control was amazing; he was like a kid with a video-game joystick. He even resembled a softball hitter, as if he had three seconds per pitch to decide where to stroke it.
When the Angels returned Friday for their first home game in 19 days, Rod Carew was in the Anaheim Stadium batting cage early, ahead of nearly everybody, as is his custom. No matter how skillfully he might be hitting at the moment, or how expertly he has hit in the past, Carew generally considers it worthwhile to fine-tune his swing, rehearse it, fiddle with it, the way a mechanic would continue to tinker with a high-performance engine. This is a craftsman at work, Carew in the cage.
He had come home from the road trip four hits shy of 3,000. The men who already owned 3,000? Not a bad little bunch: Ty Cobb, Pete Rose, Hank Aaron, Stan Musial, Tris Speaker, Honus Wagner, Carl Yastrzemski, Eddie Collins, Willie Mays, Nap Lajoie, Paul Waner, Cap Anson, Lou Brock, Al Kaline, Roberto Clemente. A pitcher’s Public Enemy list if ever there was one.
This was the sort of batter Tony Oliva figured Rodney Carew would become, the minute he saw him. “Perfect swing,” Oliva remembers. “Always the perfect swing.” Oliva, who was pretty perfect himself, watched Carew break in as a young man with Minnesota in 1967, and now he was in the ballpark as batting tutor of the Twins, watching a virtual old-timer at work. There was something perfect about this as well--Carew going for 3,000 under the watchful eye of Oliva.
Carew pulled a batting-practice pitch over the right-field wall, then did it again. He emerged from the cage to find Oliva watching with interest.
“It’s corked,” Carew said.
“What?” asked Oliva.
Carew raised his bat. “It’s corked,” he lied, smiling. For years the Angels and Twins had had a running gag/running battle (choose one) regarding the use of corked bats.
In the cage, Carew worked peacefully for a while, long before the mobs of teammates, customers, reporters and photographers could assemble. Friday’s game would not begin for nearly three hours, but it was a big series for the first-place Angels, who had been struggling of late, and it was the last scheduled week of play before the strike deadline. Not only was it a homecoming for the team and a showcase engagement for Carew, but the Angels had just made an elaborate trade--getting George Hendrick, John Candelaria and Al Holland from the Pittsburgh Pirates--so this, too, created interest in the media and in the stands. The Angels were seriously bidding to win a pennant--sooner, not later.
Carew, who has never been to a World Series without a ticket, would be pleased to have a championship ring to go with those 3,000 hits, and he deserves both. While he could do little about the pennant for the time being, he did need only the four hits for 3,000, and teammates knew a hitter such as this could get the job done in a hurry--sooner, not later.
“End the suspense,” third baseman Doug DeCinces requested when Carew stepped back into the box. “Go 4-for-4 tonight.”
A small group had gathered to watch the master at work. DeCinces was doing what teammates do best, needling, and actor Chuck Connors, once a pretty fair big-league first baseman himself and later “The Rifleman” on television, was alongside DeCinces, kibitzing, and hitting instructor Moose Stubing was directly behind home plate, observing, saying little. Angel Manager Gene Mauch once described it as presumptuous to advise Carew on hitting, saying it would be like “an art student advising Michelangelo on painting.”
Carew set down three bunts, gently, then stung a grounder to the right side, one that nearly took teammate Dick Schofield’s ankles off as he jogged from first to second base.
“Look at this man hit,” DeCinces said. “Oh, do it tonight, Rodney. Four hits tonight, Rodney. Nothing to it.”
Carew sprayed make-believe singles to all fields and finally took one last cut. He lofted a ball deep to right-center that seemed to have a lot more than 180 pounds of hitter behind it. Back it went, back, back, until it cleared the fence.
“Oh, man,” DeCinces said. “That’s the one. That’s what you got to do for the 3,000th.”
“Absolutely,” Stubing said.
Carew just gave them a Cheshire cat look.
“Tell you what,” DeCinces said. “You do that for 3,000, it’s dinner on me, anyplace you say.”
Carew said nothing. His bat, as usual, was doing the talking.
He was like a Wild West marksman who could shoot so well that he rarely had to prove it. “Never overswings,” Chuck Connors said after watching the man in the cage. “He never swings too hard, but the ball still jumps off the bat. And he’s got great eyes. Great eyes. He sees everything.”
In the first inning Friday, Carew saw a 2-2 pitch from Ken Schrom of the Twins so perfectly that he let it go by, and it just missed the outside corner. He slapped the full-count delivery between short and third for hit No. 2,997.
In the eighth inning, Carew’s seeing-eye grounder off Pete Filson oozed into into center field, and he was at 2,998. Hitting immortality was drawing near.
Oh, the hitting this man has done. He has won seven batting titles, and has a living room full of silver bats to prove it. In 1977, with Minnesota, he hit .388, getting 239 hits in 616 at-bats. He topped .300 in every season from 1969-1983, inclusive, including .366 (1970), .350 (1973), .364 (1974), .359 (1975) and .339 (1983). Never mind that he has been a fine infielder at both first and second base and an imaginative baserunner who has stolen home plate 17 times. It is Rod Carew the hitter being discussed for the moment.
Rod Carew the man remains fiercely private, intensely proud, affable with friends and aloof with strangers. He does not trust outsiders easily and often regrets it when he does.
Having kept mum on the matter of 3,000 hits for some time, Carew finally spoke up after a three-hit game brought him to 2,990 last week in Milwaukee. “For the last 18 1/2, 19 years, I’ve supposedly been a horsebleep ballplayer,” he said. “But 3,000 hits is something they can’t take away from me.”
Who these cockeyed detractors were, Carew would not say, but he undoubtedly has felt slighted and mistreated. Carew has not always been kind to the media and they have not always been kind to him. Now and then, Carew has opened up to the press, only to regret it afterward.
“Three thousand hits is something that should stand for itself,” Carew said in Milwaukee. “For the last 18 1/2 years, I’ve been doing it. I feel I don’t have to explain it again.” No sooner were these words out of his mouth than there were people who wanted Carew to explain what he meant by that .
Quotes also were thrown back in his face on the next leg of the road trip, in Toronto. Carew had been asked about the possibility of reaching the 3,000-hit barrier soon, and happened to say: “As long as it isn’t in Canada.” He meant no slur to the nation, but one writer made it sound as though Carew had called Canada a bad place. He was booed by Blue Jay crowds for the rest of the series.
Moving along to Oakland, just before returning home, Carew was touchy enough on the subject of the press that he wondered what one guy meant when he referred to the player as “enigmatic.” Reggie Jackson assured his friend that there were worse things to be called.
Carew wanted to hit, not talk. He was Mauch’s leadoff man Saturday night, ostensibly giving him more opportunities to come to the plate. He wore the “Pushing 40 . . . " shirt beneath his jersey.
First time up, Carew lined one that Minnesota center fielder Kirby Puckett misjudged. Puckett pirouetted and retreated before making the catch. In the fourth inning, Carew hit one only half as well, breaking his bat, but broke up Bert Blyleven’s no-hitter, his pop-up dropping in short left field for hit No. 2,999.
The fans were on their feet when Carew came up in the sixth. Blyleven mixed his pitches--curve, curve, change, fastball--before Carew took the 2-and-2 pitch into short left. Shortstop Ron Washington ran hard, spun and caught it over his shoulder.
In the eighth, Carew batted with two out and the tying run on second base. After a discussion on the mound as to whether to walk Carew intentionally, and catcher Tim Laudner theatrically stayed on his feet until the last possible moment, convincing the fans that Carew was about to be walked. They were booing when Laudner went into his squat.
Four pitches later, Blyleven got Carew on a routine fly to center. He was at 2,999 and holding.
“I’m starting to feel it now,” he said afterward. When the fans stood for him, he said, “I think it broke my concentration. It was a nice gesture, but I didn’t get myself under control and concentrate like I wanted to. I guess it’s starting to get to me a little.”
It is difficult to be casual when even your teammates are on their feet. Teammate Brian Downing said: “You know something’s big when everybody is standing in the runway waiting to see a guy hit. That’s pressure when even your peers are waiting to see what you do next. I know what I’d like--I’d like to see him hit 3,000 out of the park, that’s what I’d like.”
Carew was pleased that a tough lefty, Frank Viola, was pitching against him Sunday, because it reminded him of McNally. First time up, Viola got him to bounce out to the mound. Next time up, Carew reached his milestone.
“It’s something I thought I’d never accomplish,” Carew said at a press conference after the game, “but I’ve been around for 19 years, and if you stay around long enough, good things happen to you.”
About the hit: “Reggie wanted me to hit a line drive, and some of the guys wanted me to bunt, but Bob Boone said it would be a typical Rod Carew hit, probably something by the third-base line. I thought about Boonie when I got to first base.”
About getting it against the Twins: "(Tom) Brunansky told me before the game he was going to charge me $5,000 for the ball, and (Roy) Smalley said if he got the ball he was going to sell it to pay the mortgage on his home if there was a strike. I told him I’d have the Jewish Mafia out here waiting for him if he did.”
About the significance of the hit: “When you get in the class with Ty Cobb, with Hornsby, with Pete Rose, it means a lot. I was blessed with the ability to hit--with good eyesight, good hand-and-eye coordination. When I first came up, the Twins expected me to hit .240 and play second base, but I knew I could do more than that.”
And, naturally, about the respect he has or hasn’t gotten: “I have never had a good relationship with the press. I can’t do anything without being described as aloof or sensitive. Well, I am a sensitive person. I don’t believe they have given me the respect I deserved. I go out and have a good day and it’s negative. I go out and have a bad day and it’s negative. I’m aloof and hard to get along with, but I’ll tell you something: As long as my teammates and my family know what kind of person I am, that’s all I care about.”
The press conference ended, and any member of the press who wished to speak with Rod Carew individually was told to forget it. He had 3,000 hits and better things to do.
‘I’m just glad it’s over. I can sleep at nights now. It’s a very emotional thing for me, starting against the Twins, my first team, and getting the hit against them. I’m just happy it happened here so you fans could enjoy it.’
‘I’m starting to feel it now. . . . It’s something I thought I’d never accomplish. But I’ve been around for 19 years, and if you stay around long enough, good things happen to you.’
CAREW’S CAREER: 19 SEASONS, 781 GAMES AND 3,000 HITS
Year Club G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO 1967 Minnesota 137 514 66 150 22 7 8 51 37 91 1968 Minnesota 127 461 46 126 27 2 1 42 26 71 1969 Minnesota 123 458 79 152 30 4 8 56 37 72 1970 Minnesota 51 191 27 70 12 3 4 28 11 28 1971 Minnesota 147 577 88 177 16 10 2 48 45 81 1972 Minnesota 142 535 61 170 21 6 0 51 43 60 1973 Minnesota 149 580 98 203* 30 11* 6 62 62 55 1974 Minnesota 153 599 86 218* 30 5 3 55 74 49 1975 Minnesota 143 535 89 192 24 4 14 80 64 40 1976 Minnesota 156 605 97 200 29 12 9 90 67 52 1977 Minnesota 155 616 128* 239* 38 16* 14 100 69 55 1978 Minnesota 152 564 85 188 26 10 5 70 78 62 1979 California 110 409 78 130 15 3 3 44 73 46 1980 California 144 540 74 179 34 7 3 59 59 38 1981 California 93 364 57 111 17 1 2 21 45 45 1982 California 138 523 88 167 25 5 3 44 67 49 1983 California 129 472 66 160 24 2 2 44 57 48 1984 California 93 329 42 97 8 1 3 31 40 39 1985 California 74 269 38 71 10 1 1 27 35 25 Totals 781 9141 1393 3000 438 110 91 1003 989 1006
Year SB Avg. 1967 5 .292 1968 12 .273 1969 19 .332* 1970 4 .366 1971 6 .307 1972 12 .318* 1973 41 .350* 1974 38 .364* 1975 35 .359* 1976 49 .331 1977 23 .388* 1978 27 .333* 1979 18 .318 1980 23 .331 1981 6 .305 1982 10 .319 1983 6 .339 1984 4 .295 1985 3 .264 351 .328
*--Led American League
vs. West AB H HR RBI Avg California 639 194 8 79 .304 Chicago 862 278 5 97 .323 Kansas City 741 258 10 88 .348 Minnesota 260 86 2 30 .331 Oakland 967 298 9 111 .308 Seattle 385 137 3 50 .356 Texas 741 230 10 95 .310 Totals 4595 1479 47 551 .322
Vs. East AB H HR RBI Avg. Baltimore 684 214 4 70 .313 Boston 748 255 7 82 .341 Cleveland 736 268 6 66 .364 Detroit 706 242 10 73 .343 Milwaukee 698 225 4 70 .322 New York 646 213 11 70 .329 Toronto 328 106 2 21 .323 Totals 4546 1523 44 452 .335