Los Angeles — Outfielder George Hendrick of the St. Louis Cardinals, because of his distrust of the press, has made himself off-limits to all members of the media. So how do you set up an interview with a man who has produced 46 game-winning hits in the past four years and carries a 34-inch bat?
Once I discovered that Hendrick collects old cars, I figured I had my vehicle of entry. Me, I can't drive past a 1935 Hupmobile without stopping to see if the curtain on the back window has been properly restored. Duzenbergs and Cords excite me, and I can't wait to play with the electric gearshift (with the finger-size arm) mounted on the steering column of a 1937 Hudson Terraplane!
Anyway, while the Cardinals were in Los Angeles recently for a series with the Dodgers, I approached Hendrick outside the batting cage and asked him if he'd talk with me about antique automobiles.
''Why?'' he wanted to know.
''Because I'm as much of an old car buff as you are,'' I told him. I didn't mention that later on maybe we'd get around to discussing the mysteries of hitting.
''Well, I've got a 1923 Model-T Ford and a 1926 roadster,'' Hendrick told me, adding that these were not kit-cars that you put together yourself but the real thing.
Asked if he had also become a mechanic, George replied: ''I make some repairs myself, but usually I'll have someone with me who knows what he's doing.''
Then I made my mistake. I asked Hendrick if he minded if I wrote some of this down.
''Hey, I don't talk with people like you,'' he said. ''Besides it's my turn to get in some hitting. Gotta go now.'' And when George did complete his swings, he was careful to exit the batting cage on the opposite side of where I was standing.
Since shortstop Ozzie Smith gets along with everybody and is probably the most popular player on the Cardinals, I asked him if he'd fill in some of the gaps concerning Hendrick as a person and as a player. I also asked him how well he knew his teammate.
''I know George very well and if I can help you without saying anything that he wouldn't like, I'd be glad to answer your questions,'' Smith explained.
But when I asked Ozzie how many old cars Hendrick had and if he'd ever ridden in them, he admitted that he was unaware that George had any hobbies. How private can you get?
However, Hendrick cannot hide his natural instincts as one of baseball's best right-handed hitters. For example, in 1983, for the fourth year in a row, George led the Cardinals in doubles, sacrifice hits, home runs, runs batted in, and slugging percentage. Attempting to get a third strike past George in a clutch situation is, in the immortal words of Bugs Baer, like trying to throw a lamb chop past a wolf.
''I don't think you'll find a better hitter in the National League with men on base than Hendrick,'' explained former manager and present St. Louis coach, Red Schoendienst, who collected 2,449 hits himself during a 14-year big league career. ''What makes George so tough is that he hits all kinds of pitching so well. If an adjustment has to be made betweeen pitches, he'll make it almost without thinking about it.''
Although Hendrick will probably never belong to the public because of his game-day personality, close friends say that behind that tough facade is a heart of kindness and understanding.
In fact, California Angels' general manager Buzzie Bavasi tells a story about George that bears repeating. It has to do with the time several years ago when both were with San Diego and Bavasi submitted his resignation as the Padres' GM. When Hendrick heard about it, he called Buzzie and wanted to know if he needed any money.
(Editor's Note: If anyone would like to send Phil Elderkin a 1935 Hupmobile, his only request is that it include two sets of keys!)