Hal McRae of the Kansas City Royals is one of those hitters on whom opposing teams have no real how-to-stop book. Even Philadelphia's best scouts couldn't come up with a World Series strategy that hadn't already been tried and found ineffective by most American League teams.
This means that if an opposing pitcher is fortunate enough to get McRae out on a curve ball low and away his first time up, he would probably be wise not to throw that pitch again. Hal is what they call an adjuster -- that is, he's not apt to get fooled twice the same way in the same game.
In the first five games of the Series he has had nine hits in 20 tries for a .450average. His hitting was an important factor in Kansas City's third- and fourth-game victories, and he also threw a scare into the Phillies in Game 5 when his bid for a game- winning three-run homer in the ninth inning just hooked foul at the last instant, after which he hit into a force play as Philadelphia hung on for a 4-3 decision.
Although McRae is listed on Kansas City's roster as an outfielder, what he has become in the past few years is the American League's ultimate designated hitter (he batted .297 with 14 home runs and 83 RBIs this year). He seldom plays in the field because of an injured shoulder that heavily restricts his throwing.
Asked what some of the problems are that come with being a designated hitter, Hal replied:
"Most of the obvious ones, like staying loose between innings when you don't have a chance to run out to your position and back, you probably already know. The rest I won't talk about, and the reason is because I've had several years to perfect my role, and at this point I'm not sharing my knowledge with anybody.
"Maybe it would help opposing pitchers get me out easier if they knew what I was thinking," he continued. "I'm not sure. Maybe it would help players on other clubs to become better designated hitters against the Royals if I told everybody what I do. I'm not sure about that, either, but right now it's not for publication.
However, Kansas City manager Jim Frey says that McRae keeps himself physically ready between innings by going back into a hall near the Royals' clubhouse and running, skipping rope, and swinging a leaded bat. Mentally nobody seems to know how deeply Hal gets into his situation, but he did say this:
"During the three years Pete Rose and I were teammates on the Cincinnati Reds , I learned the value of thinking aggressively," McRae said. "Although Rose and I sometimes talked hitting, Pete didn't really teach me what I now know -- he shoed me! I saw all the things that worked for Pete because he was so aggressive, so I tried to make them work for me, and I think I've done a pretty good job."
Basically what McRae has learned is to adjust his stance so that he can pull the inside pitch to left, poke the outside pitch to right, and drive anything out over the plate up the middle. Good bat control has also allowed him to hit the ball in the gaps between the outfielders for extra bases, something he did 44 times during the regular season. In the Series he's had three doubles, a couple as the result of extra hustle on the base paths.
"If you're making your living almost strictly as a designated hitter, the way I am right now, you can't just be aggressive with the bat and earn your salary, you've also got to be aggressive on the bases," McRae said. "You've got to try to stretch singles into doubles and force throwing mistakes by the opposition."
"Look at it this way," he continued. "A man who plays both ways can go zero for four at the plate and still help his team win by making a spectacular catch in the outfield or by nailing a runner at the plate with a great throw.
"But my situation doesn't provide those kinds of options. If I don't get at least one hit in every game, I feel like I've let the team down.And if I go two games without getting something going with the bat, I really feel terrible,"
Pressed for more information on what makes a good hitter, McRae said: "Well, assuming you've got big-league eye-to- hand coordination, I think the most important thing is the condition of your legs.
"Legs are what give a batter his balance and they also generate the power that generates the speed in his upper body," he continued. "The reason Pete Rose has lasted so long is because his legs are as well conditioned now as they were 10 years ago, and I'm the same way."
Philadelphia's pitching staff would undoubtedly agree.