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Hitting His Stride : After 19 Years of Consistency in Milwaukee, Robin Yount Is About to Join Rarefied Company With 3,000 Hits

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Robin Yount was pumping iron in the visitors’ clubhouse at Tiger Stadium.

This was more than an hour after the Milwaukee Brewers had defeated Detroit last Friday night, 5-3.

The clubhouse was almost empty, the bus was about to leave, but even at this late hour there was work to be done.

Even at this late hour in a career that began when Yount graduated from Taft High in Woodland Hills and became the Milwaukee shortstop at 18 after only 64 minor league games, commitment and consistency remain the hallmark.

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“The Kid” turns 37 next week and is about to reach a benchmark. Yount needs only one more hit to become the 17th player to reach 3,000--virtually an automatic invitation to Cooperstown.

“Every Little Leaguer dreams about playing in the big leagues, but the Hall of Fame is beyond dreams,” Yount said between sets.

So are 3,000 hits, he said. Especially, perhaps, for a player who considers himself nothing more than “all right,” who thinks there is no way he should be joining “a list of legends.”

“It’s kind of hard to believe,” he said. “If I can do it, it seems like a lot more people should have been able to do it.

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“I mean, the sole factor behind all of this is longevity. I’ve been here a long time and been fortunate to be injury-free as far as missing games. I had a couple pretty good years, but the way I look at it is that I’ve been just good enough to keep my name in the lineup--never too great and never too bad.

“It’s a game of streaks, but my strength, I guess, is consistency. I’ve been able to avoid the roller coaster. I’ve been consistent on an almost daily basis.”

Consistent? Yount got his first major league hit in 1974. He got his 1,000th six years later and his 2,000th six years after that. He will get his 3,000th six years after No. 2,000.

Yount might not consider himself worthy of a list of legends, but in his 19th season with the Brewers he is climbing more than one ladder.

He is 25th in total bases, 31st in extra-base hits, 16th in games played, sixth in games with the same team, 12th in doubles, 36th in runs, eighth in at-bats and 48th in runs batted in.

He was the first shortstop to hit .300 or more with 20 or more home runs and 100 or more RBIs in the same season, 1982, and he is one of only three players--Hank Greenberg and Stan Musial were the others--to win his league’s most valuable player award at two positions, shortstop in ’82 and center field in 1989.

He is also about to join Willie Mays as the only players with 3,000 hits, 200 home runs, 200 stolen bases and 100 triples.

Yount, of course, is more than “all right.” He has done more than merely keep his name in the lineup. The statistical litany is more than just the result of longevity and consistency. But with all of that, his name is not quickly mentioned when people talk about great hitters.

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Part of that is because he is an anomaly, having spent his entire career with the comparatively small-market Brewers. He also does not flaunt--nor necessarily believe in--statistics and does not seek attention or headlines.

“All of this attention is not his game at all,” Manager Phil Garner said of the interest surrounding Yount’s drive to 3,000.

Yount has cordially accepted the demand for interviews, but he would much prefer to be playing golf or riding or racing his assortment of motorcycles and off-road vehicles on the desert tracks near his Phoenix home. He is comfortable playing in front of 50,000, but don’t ask him to speak to a crowd of 50.

“This has been a different scenario for me because it’s the first time I’ve ever gone to the place conscious of numbers,” he said of 3,000. “I mean, there’s a group of benchmark numbers--.300 average, 20 homers, 100 RBI--that every player hopes to reach, but that’s never been my motivation.

“Statistics don’t tell the whole story. There are .250 hitters I hate to face in the clutch, and I respect them more than I do some hitters who may hit for a higher average.”

Yount said he has never had any goal except to win, and that he keeps hoping the Brewers can repeat their World Series appearance of 1982 so that he can again “experience baseball the way it should be experienced.”

Yount was only 21 and already fed up with the losing when he considered turning to a career in professional golf in 1977.

Then he looked hard at the Brewers’ chances again after the 1989 season, listened to free-agent offers from the Angels, Dodgers, Chicago Cubs, Kansas City Royals and Toronto Blue Jays. He almost sat down to hammer out a deal with the Angels, who were thinking of giving him the half of Arizona that he and his brother, Larry, don’t already own, then chose to remain in Milwaukee.

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Yount said it came down to his long friendship with owner Bud Selig, to the family atmosphere of Milwaukee--he and wife Michele are so intent on raising their four children in an environment close to normal that they don’t allow them to be photographed in a publicity vein--and to a feeling “that it was easier for me to be myself in Milwaukee than it would be anywhere else.”

“It’s been beneficial to my career to play in a small city,” Yount said. “I have no regrets or no desire to play anywhere else unless I could be guaranteed a championship.”

There are never any guarantees, although Yount had some things going for him when he arrived in Milwaukee almost 20 years ago. Gordon Goldsberry, the scout who signed him, once said that Yount was the best athlete he had ever been associated with. And pro ball wasn’t foreign to the teen-age Yount, despite his brief time in the minors.

Brother Larry, now in the real estate business and Yount’s agent, had pitched in the Houston Astro system.

“When Larry was in triple A at Oklahoma City I went there twice during the summers,” Yount said. “I’d go to the park early and basically go through the same routine the players did. I had an idea of what professional ball was like when I signed, and I had already taken a lot of batting practice against professional pitchers.

“I also benefited from the fact that I wasn’t thrown into the pressure of a contending situation. No one expected much of the Brewers then. I had a chance to develop without worrying if I went up, down or sideways.”

Yount smiled and said his approach to hitting is basically the same now as then, but there have been significant changes physically. At 18, he was still growing, and weightlifting was just becoming an accepted practice in a sport that had always shunned it.

“I became stronger physically,” he said. “I mean, I’ve always believed in using the entire field and hitting line drives, but I became capable of hitting with power.”

Yount has hit 20 or more homers only four times, but he has had 30 or more doubles seven times, batted .290 or more nine times, driven in 70 or more runs seven times and stolen 10 or more bases every year but three. Goldsberry once said that Yount’s athleticism allowed him to live on the edge on and off the field, but teammate Paul Molitor views Yount’s approach as “more methodical and grind it out.”

“The numbers have just accumulated machine-like,” Molitor said. “He’s had a couple MVP years, but it hasn’t been the type (of) career that grabs and shakes you. You can see a (Kirby) Puckett or a (Jose) Canseco once and know what they’re all about, but you have to see Robin over a period of time to admire his perseverance, endurance, competitive desire to win.

“I mean, in that context, it’s been exciting to watch 3,000 develop, and the exclusivity of that club will help distinguish his career. I know it’s not his motivating factor, but it’s nice to see happen.”

In his book, “Men at Work,” George Will quotes then-Milwaukee manager Tom Trebelhorn on his perfect inning. The sequence: A bunt single by Molitor, who steals second, moves to third on a drag bunt by Jim Gantner and scores on a hard grounder by Yount to the backhand side of the second baseman.

Now a coach with the Cubs, Trebelhorn reflected and said: “That inning tells you all you need to know about Yount’s attitude. He knows nothing about stats. He gives himself up to get the run in. He’s the pure player. I’ve always said he belongs on Kevin Costner’s field of dreams.”

For a rookie manager, as Garner is, Yount is a dream, indeed.

“I believe that Robin could be two hits away from 3,000 on the final day of the season and I could ask him to bunt every time up and he’d do it, accepting that it was in the best interest of the team,” Garner said. “I really believe that if he wasn’t being asked about it every day, he wouldn’t know how many hits he had.”

Garner cited Yount’s mental tenacity, saying: “Most guys can’t play when things aren’t going right, but I think that’s the key to Robin’s success. When I got this job I didn’t know much about the Brewers. I asked a lot of scouts, and they all indicated that it was a proud club that always hustled.

“The ingredient that has been constant in that for 19 years is Yount. I catch a young player not hustling and I say, ‘Listen . . . don’t embarrass yourself, the team or that guy in center field.’ We have a chance to build on what he’s started, what he means to the organization.”

Said teammate B.J. Surhoff: “Yount is the greatest example there is, the perfect player, the ultimate competitor. I’m not sure all of our young players realize that, but at some point they’ll look back and appreciate it.”

How much longer Yount will be there to appreciate is uncertain. He said his children have reached ages at which they need their father more. He holds a $3.2-million option on 1993 and said he will decide after the season if he is going to exercise it. He is batting .259, having come back from a .192 July and a one-for-33 slump to hit .379 over his last 67 at-bats.

He is closing in on 3,000 with style, but he said the best part of September is that his team is still in the race. As for 3,000, the attention should be on George Brett.

“He’s the best hitter I’ve seen and a much better hitter than I’ve ever been,” Yount said. “If he hadn’t been hurt so often, if he hadn’t injured his knees, he’d have blown by 3,000 a long time ago.

“For me, if I stayed in the lineup, it was going to happen in time.”

Perhaps, but isn’t the Kid being too modest about all of this? For 19 years he has been pumping hits with the rhythm with which he resumed pumping iron.

The 3,000-Hit Club

MAJOR LEAGUE PLAYERS WITH 3,000 OR MORE HITS:

PLAYER: HITS

1. Pete Rose: 4,256

2. Ty Cobb: 4,191

3. Hank Aaron: 3,771

4. Stan Musial: 3,630

5. Tris Speaker: 3,515

6. Honus Wagner: 3,430

7. Carl Yastrzemski: 3,419

8. Eddie Collins: 3,309

9. Willie Mays: 3,283

10. Nap Lajoie: 3,252

11. Paul Waner: 3,152

12. Cap Anson: 3,081

13. Rod Carew: 3,053

14. Lou Brock: 3,023

15. Al Kaline: 3,007

16. Roberto Clemente: 3,000

ON DECK (NEARING 3,000)

*Robin Yount: 2,999

*George Brett: 2,978

* Through Tuesday


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