Bruce Bochte, the fine young hitter of the Seattle Mariners who has twice batted over .300 in American League, runs just a shade faster than fourth-class mail.
If that sounds like a cruel thing to say about a big league ballplayer, it isn't meant to be. It's just that Bochte's lack of speed was mentioned recently when a reporter asked Seattle Manager Darrell Johnson if he thought there might be a batting title somewhere in Bruce's future.
Usually when a player leads his league in batting, it's possible to go back over the season and discover that he has gotten 12 or 15 infield or "leg" hits -- hits directly related to how fast he goes down the first-base line.
I don't know," Johnson replied, not really meaning to be evasive. "Bruse is a smart kid who uses the whole field to drop his hits into and who doesn't get fooled very often at the plate.
"You're right, he's not going to get many leg hits and he could destroy himself if he ever decided to just pull the ball and forget about going with the pitch," Johnson continued. "But I suppose if everything went just right for him some year, he could win a championship."
When Bochte was asked about his chances, he grinned and said: "Frankly, I've never considered myself a batting title threat for two reasons. First, I almost never beat out a hit to an infielder, no matter how deep he has to go. And second, I find that I generally get tired near the end of the season and need a rest.
"That's basically why a few years ago I started lifting weights -- not for strenght, but for stamina," he continued. "I got 175 hits last year in 554 at-bats, and that's a lot of hits. But to make that 200 I'd probably need another 100 at-bats, and now we're right back to the stamina thing."
Still there are people like Seattle batting coach Vada Pinson, who are so impressed with Bochte's ability to get a piece of every pitch that they think he might win a batting crown.
"I'm not going to try to tell you that speed isn't important to a hitter," Pinson explained. "Foru times during my big league career, when I was fortunate enough to make 200 hits in a single season, it was probably infield htis that put me over the top.
"But Ernie Lombardi won two batting championships during his stary in the big leagues [in '38 with Cincinnati and in '42 with the Boston Braves] and Lombardi might have been the sloest runner ever to play in the majors," Vada continued. "I mean every hit Lombardi ever got was legitimate because if the ball didn't get into the outfield he couldn' make it in time to first base."
Three other very average runners who won batting titles were Jimmie Foxx (twice), Johnny Mize, and Lou Gehrig.In fact, the year Gehrig won with the Yankees (1934), he also got 210 base hits.
"One thing I've always liked about Bochte is that he knows his capabilities," Pinson said. "You have to stay with the kind of swing you have and Bruce is a line-drive hitter. He knows the strike zone, he's very selective, and basically he makes the pitcher come to him.
"If Bochte were suddenly to say to himself, 'Hey, I'm 6 ft. 3 in. and I should be hitting 30 home runs every year,' it would be aterrible mistake," Vada continued. "Instead he's smart enough to go with what he knows will work for him."
When Jhonson made Bochte the No. 3 hitter in Seattle's order last year, Bruce responded by becoming a bona fide RBI man with 100 runs batted in. Prior to that, and mostly because previous managers had moved him around so much in the batter's box, Bruce major league RBI high was a modest 51.
Bruce had a week in April this year when he went 11-of-26 for a .423 average. Included in that outburst were three doubels, a triple, two homers, and six RBIs.
"The only way for an expansion franchise like us to grow is to build with kids like Bochte," Johnson said. "The old guys may give you balance, but the kids are our future."