Los Angeles — Richard Hirschfield Williams, the new custodian of Steve Garvey's consecutive game-playing streak, had been quoted recently as saying that he might want to rest his first baseman occasionally.
As the manager of Garvey's new team, the San Diego Padres, Williams has that right. But would he really yank baseball's No. 3 all-time Iron Man out of the lineup if he weren't playing well or if his hitting or fielding were restricted by an injury?
''If Steve wants to go for Lou Gehrig's major league record (that's 2,130 games without a miss and would require almost seven more years of playing time), I won't be the guy to stop him,'' Dick told me in the visitors' clubhouse at Dodger Stadium. ''Of course if he were injured at some future date or in a slump , I'd probably stop playing him in every inning of every game.
''But that doesn't mean that I wouldn't keep his streak alive by bringing him off the bench as a pinch-hitter,'' he continued. ''Ideally I'd want to do this in a situation where we already had men on base, there were two outs, and Garvey could drive in a run for us.''
The first 1,107 games of Garvey's streak were forged during his long stay with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Then, in a coincidence of the schedule, he played his 1,118th straight game - breaking Billy Williams's National League record - during his first series in Dodger Stadium this spring with his new club. Now the only two longer streaks are oldtime New York Yankee and Boston Red Sox shortstop Everett Scott's mark of 1,307, which Garvey could pass sometime next year, and Gehrig's incredible figure.
Exactly how does Williams look at Garvey?
''I see Steve as a guy who can win a lot of games for us with his bat,'' Dick replied. ''He's ideal for the middle of your batting order, partly because you can write him into your lineup every day and forget him, but mostly because he hits the ball where it's pitched. For that reason opposing teams can never defense him that well.
''I'm not asking Garvey for a big batting average or a lot of home runs,'' he continued. ''I've never been impressed with those kinds of statistics. What I want from him are game-winning hits and a lot of runs-batted-in; like between 90 and 100 every year. If he can give me that, then I can win with him, the same way the Dodgers won with him.
''When Garvey signed with us during the winter as a free agent, I said that he would make us instant contenders and I still feel that way. Until we'd had a spring training together and I had a chance to observe Steve up close, I didn't really know the man. I still don't know everything about him. But he's class, and he makes things easier for a manager because by working so hard himself he makes everyone else hustle.''
Garvey is so polite, so much the gentleman, so right about the things he says and does, that people who know I write baseball often ask me if he's real. As far as I'm concerned he is; so real that a troubled junior high school in northern California tried to improve its image by putting Garvey's name on it.
On the negative side, some of his Dodger teammates accused him of being too public relations-conscious. Most of them never seemed sure where Steve was coming from and resented it when writers speculated that he might someday be governor of California.
Yet Steve seems to have a genuine feel for people and, adult or child, will often go out of his way to be nice to them. Part of this may stem from the fact that as a kid he acquired an unusual sense of values from having to take care of an invalid grandmother while his mother worked. This included cleaning house, shopping for food, and often preparing dinner.
But Garvey is obviously extremely tough mentally or he wouldn't have lasted in the big leagues. As a hitter, Steve is just about as tough as they come to move off the plate. Oh, the opposition will brush him back occasionally with an inside pitch or throw at his feet. But for him it's no more than a diversion until he gets the pitch he's been waiting for, belt-high fastballs being his favorites.
Physically the 5ft. 9 in., 190-lb. Garvey could rent his forearms out to Popeye. He's built like a hydrant that has been equipped with arms and elevator shoes. He has a short, compact batting stroke. And while only once has Steve hit as many as 33 home runs in a single season, his nine-year average of more than 20 per annum demonstrates that the threat of the long ball is always there.
Garvey's life for the past two years (because of family problems) has not been easy. Last season, for example, he struck out 86 times - his highest total in that department in six years. There have also been times when it looked as though his concentration had deserted him at the plate.
However, with most of these problems behind him now, plus a new five-year, $6 .6 million contract with the Padres, it's almost like Steve is starting over - but with the same old skills intact.