All the Hits, All the Time
The Irish have a saying, "looking with their mouths," which describes a state of awestruck reverence—mugs that have surrendered to the truth-beauty they behold. Two Fridays ago, everybody in the newly doomed Metrodome, or at least everybody of a certain age, or at least everybody of a certain age who ever saw him play, was looking with their mouths when Rod Carew walked onto the field.
He stood between Tony Oliva and Harmon Killebrew in a lineup of former Twins who were there to help sign into law the new Twins stadium. He stood below the giant poster of himself that hangs on the right-center field baggy, in a hot box between posters of Oliva, Killebrew, Kirby Puckett, Kent Hrbek, and Jackie Robinson. All five men hold bats; Carew holds two, as if even during the photo shoot, he's preparing to hit a baseball.
"I used to read the baseball. I really allowed the baseball to tell me where I should hit it," Carew says, sitting in a Twins ticket sales office in the basement of the Metrodome. He is retired and living in California now, but he still coaches and talks about hitting to anyone with the patience to listen. He has just finished meticulously autographing a box of baseballs and photos, and a few jerseys with his retired number 29 on the back. He's wearing an impeccably tailored suit. His hands are those of a guitarist, long fingers and neatly manicured nails, and his ring finger, which tremors with a slight but persistent tic, sports a Hall of Fame ring the size of a crab apple.
"I never predetermined where I was going to hit a pitch until after I saw the ball released, and saw the movement of the pitch," he continues. "And then I would basically react to the movement. I found it so much easier to hit that way, instead of saying, 'I'm going to hit a certain pitch to a certain area.' Because sometimes when you predetermine where you're going to hit a pitch, the ball might move on you and you're stuck. You don't know what to do."
It's been said that hitting a baseball is the most difficult thing to do in sports. Longtime Cubs pitcher Ken Holtzman said of Carew, "He has an uncanny ability to move the ball around as if the bat were some kind of magic wand." To be sure, it's debatable whether Carew hit a baseball better than anyone else, but at the very least he did it with more elegance. "Hit 'Em Where They Ain't" was the headline of the July 1, 1974 cover of Sports Illustrated. Pee Wee Reese coined the term; Carew made it into an art form.
"That's what my work was all about—it wasn't just going up there and trying to hit the ball out of the ballpark," he says. "I was not going to give away at-bats, and I wanted to be ready. I wanted to be ready to adjust pitch to pitch. And bunting is a lost art. In spring training, I'd go down into the [batting] cage and bunt for an hour. Because I knew I ran well, and if I'm going to get 25 to 30 [more] hits a year, I had to work on it. I think it really helped me—not only getting bunts as hits, but drawing the third baseman in and hitting ground balls by him and choppers over his head."
Sitting with Carew in the Metrodome basement, one is reminded of why a Sport magazine feature labeled him "Superloner," or why Larry Batson's kid-lit sports bio on Carew was called, It's Not All Bad Being a Loner. He smiles easily as former Twins manager Frank Quilici holds gregarious court in front of the captive but genial Harmon Killebrew, who apparently is used to suffering fools. But Carew doesn't say a word; he simply signs one ball after another, one thing at a time.
"I developed a discipline about myself, what I can do and how much I can do, and staying within those bounds and not trying to overswing or hit home runs," he says. "That's the way I've lived my life: not wild, I think before I speak, I don't want to embarrass anyone, I don't want to put anybody down. That's just the way I am."
It served him well. The Panama-born and New York City-bred athlete played second base for the Twins from 1967 to 1978, and second and first for the California Angels from 1979 to 1985. He was the American League Rookie of the Year in 1967, and the league MVP in 1977, when he hit .388, the closest anyone had gotten to .400 since Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941. Two years ago, Panama's National Stadium was renamed Rod Carew Stadium.
"Because I've experimented with so many kinds of hitting and different approaches at the plate, I knew that I could jump from one to the other and not be afraid to do it," Carew says. "In comparison to a guy who hits the same way every time and all of a sudden is in a little bit of a slump and doesn't know how to adjust...I could always make adjustments. And that's what I try to teach kids now.
"And use your hands. That's the key. A lot of kids want to use their bodies, but your hands are what allow you to get the bat through the hitting zone. So your hands should always be trying to generate bat speed.
"There are a lot of home-run hitters now, and they're built for that. But you can ask any pitcher, in a clutch situation with the game on the line, who would you rather face? And he's gonna tell you, the guy who swings for the fences. Because there's a lot of holes that he has that you can pitch to. But the guy that's just going to try to hit the ball on the line, [the pitcher's] going to have work harder."
In 1994, the Beastie Boys paid homage to Carew on the single "Sure Shot," rapping, "I got mad hits like I was Rod Carew." When asked to name a contemporary player who hits with the same style, Carew says, "[Seattle's Suzuki] Ichiro, because he uses the whole field. I like players that consistently get the bat on the ball, put the ball in play. I think the more you can put the bat on the ball, the more success you can have."
An hour later, Ichiro leads off the game against Twins phenom Francisco Liriano. The youngster overpowers the veteran for six pitches and gets two strikes on him. But Ichiro patiently battles and finally strafes an opposite-field single to left. Two days later, Ichiro hits a stand-up triple. Former Twins ace-turned-TV-color-commentator Bert Blyleven compares Ichiro's grace to Carew's glide, and, looking with his mouth, sums up the artistry of both men, and why we continue to pay attention to sports: "He is fun to watch."
Jim Walsh can be reached at 612.372.3775 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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