Los Angeles — No major league batting instructor, in his wildest dreams, would ever recommend that his students study the hitting technique of outfielder Jose Cruz of the Houston Astros. The fact that Jose tied Montreal's Andre Dawson for the National League lead in hits with 189 last year has nothing to do with it.
Cruz, a left-handed batter, appears to be stepping into a bucket with his right leg as the pitch arrives. His foot is so high one could easily slide an orange crate under it. Good hitters who stand one-legged like flamingos at the moment of impact are so rare that the only ones who come quickly to mind are Hall of Famer Mel Ott and Japan's home run king Sadaharu Oh.
Hitting, which is supposed to be a combination of balance, rhythm, wrist action, and keeping the bat level, is nothing more than seeing the ball well to Cruz.
''I grow up hitting a baseball,'' Jose told me during the Astros' most recent trip to Dodger Stadium. ''I born, I think, with the ability to adjust to different pitchers. Of course it's not so easy at first. You have to learn what your strengths are. But once you've proved to yourself that you can do it, everything after that mental.
''I play summer baseball with the Astros and winter baseball in places like Puerto Rico because baseball to me is a business,'' he continued. ''Other players say to me, you gonna get tired playing baseball the year around. I say to them, you got a brother or a friend who goes to work every day? If they can go to work every day and do a job, so can I. Tired, like hitting, mostly mental.''
For awhile last September, the 36-year-old Cruz threatened to become the oldest National League batting champion since Stan Musial (also 36) in 1957. Instead, at .318 he tied for third place with George Hendrick of the Cardinals, both of whom finished behind Bill Madlock of Pittsburgh and Lonnie Smith of St. Louis.
Asked if playing in the Houston Astrodome, where most fly balls carry like manhole covers, work a hardship on his hitting, Cruz replied: ''Only in the sense that you no try to hit a lot of home runs there. In park where the ball doesn't carry, you learn to do other things. Basically I am not a home run hitter anyway (his best total was 17 back in 1977), but a line-drive hitter. I do not try to overpower pitchers, I try to use them by spraying the ball to all fields.''
Cruz, in what has come to be regarded as a standard answer among smart hitters, says that he is a different batter with two strikes on him.
''At that point I am not looking for my pitch any more, but simply to drive the ball somewhere,'' Jose explained. ''At times like that it is important to protect the plate and concentrate more because now you are down to one swing. I never like to strike out because then the ball go no place. At least if I hit it , there is always the chance that someone might make an error or, if there is a runner aboard with less than two out, he can move up a base. I tell you something else: I hit left-handers better than I do right-handers because I see so many of them.''
One reason Cruz stays so trim and runs so well is that whenever there is a break in the Astros' home schedule during the season, he runs with Victor Lopez, the women's track coach at Rice University. Included in their workouts are sprints and distance running.
''Jose,'' says Houston manager Bob Lillis, ''is a player I write on my lineup card every day and forget. Twice in the last four years he has driven in over 90 runs for us, and I've often seen him get hits in the late innings on pitches that got him out his first two times up.''
In baseball lingo, Cruz is one of those rare batsmen who can roll out of bed on Christmas morning, and, without the benefit of warming up, get a hit for you.
''I laugh when people ask me if I can really do that,'' Jose grinned, ''but why not if you are in shape and the bat feels good in your hands! I use spring training not so much for my body as to polish the things I must rely on once the season starts.''
What causes opposing pitchers the most problems when dealing with Cruz is his ability to either slice a tight pitch into left field or pull it down the right field line. This is what is meant when baseball people refer to someone as not having a strike zone.
Jose is not goal-oriented in the manner of a Pete Rose, who sets statistical targets for himself. Even so, he would like to improve upon last year's 19-game hitting streak during which he batted close to .400.