Steve Garvey is a leader on and off field for the San Diego Padres

``Whenever I go up to the plate, no matter who the pitcher is, I always think I can get a base hit,'' said Steve Garvey, who is off to a fast start at the plate this year with the defending National League champion San Diego Padres. ``I've come to the conclusion that for players with big league reflexes, hitting is 60 percent physical and 40 percent mental their first couple of years in the majors,'' Garvey explained. ``But once they establish that inner confidence where they know how to adjust to situations while also continuing to protect the strike zone, then the reverse is true. I have my slumps at the plate like everyone else, but over the years I've learned how to deal with them, and I've never struck out much.''

Steve explains this by saying that if he is hitting the ball well, but always right at somebody, then he doesn't change anything because that situation is going to cure itself with a little patience. But if he knows he's not making good contact, then the first thing he does is try to hit to the opposite field.

``Whenever you're looking to go the opposite way, you're buying yourself two things: more concentration and more time in which to pick up the ball,'' he said. ``I can usually make this work in a relatively short period of time. But I'll also be looking for a third baseman who has become a little careless and is playing back farther than he should so I can bunt my way on.''

Steve has always been a tough hitter in the clutch, as he showed once again in last year's playoff victory over the Chicago Cubs, hitting .400 with 7 RBIs to earn Most Valuable Player honors.

Opposing pitchers may keep the Padres' first baseman down for a while, but eventually his talent is going to surface as surely as crab grass finds its way through the cracks of a big-city sidewalk.

``I played with Garvey on the Dodgers and I later played against him, and a slump for him was one game without a hit,'' said former Rookie of the Year, Ted Sizemore. ``Like all great hitters, when Steve is in a groove all the opposition can do is hope he hits the ball at somebody.

``Once when I was with the Cardinals, I made the mistake of telling Bob Gibson that the best way to get Garvey out was to jam him inside,'' he said. ``Gibson told me he'd already tried that, and because Steve was so strong through the wrists and arms he could still hit that pitch for extra bases. Bob's preference was to pitch Garvey away from the plate; he'd concede Steve the hit to right field almost anytime in exchange for nullifying his power.''

Garvey has the short, powerful stroke of a small-bore engine -- forceful enough to drive the ball to all corners of the field, but compact enough to allow him to swing comfortably in a silo. If you ever saw former heavyweight champion Joe Louis launch a six-inch punch with his right hand, you should be able to understand the kind of devastating power Garvey can generate with a bat.

Asked how he viewed Garvey after the Padres signed him two years ago to a multi-year $6.6 million contract, Manager Dick Williams replied:

``Steve has always been a leader, and leadership is something every winning ball club must have. I think a lot of the kids on the Padres were amazed when Garvey showed up and, whether he had a good day or a bad day at the plate, always walked out of the clubhouse with a smile on his face. They seemed to sense that he already knew he'd be back hitting by the next day and I think it helped them to relax when they were going poorly.

``As the manager, I saw Garvey as a player who could win a lot of games for us with his bat, and as a first baseman who would save our infielders some throwing errors by being able to dig the ball out of the dirt. Steve is ideal for the middle of your batting order because of his consistency, plus the fact that he's only been hurt a couple of times in his entire career. You can write him into your lineup every day and forget him.

``While even some of our local writers pointed out that Garvey hit only eight home runs last year, my answer is that we didn't get Steve for his average or his home runs. We got him to hit the ball where it's pitched and to drive in runs.

``When I managed Oakland, Reggie Jackson had some great seasons for me. And when I managed Boston, Carl Yastrzemski for one year [Dick meant 1967 when the Red Sox won their ``Impossible Dream'' pennant], Yaz was as good as anybody I ever saw.

``I don't hesitate to put Garvey with those guys, not necessarily because of his power but because he hits in the clutch against good pitchers. It doesn't make any difference whether Steve is ahead or behind in the count, either; you know when he's really needed he's going to drive the ball somewhere.''

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