In his 19th major league season, Rod Carew still has the lean, firm look of a svelte rookie. His eyes are as keen as ever, too -- perhaps on a par with those of Ted Williams, who could make out the numbers on a license plate before most people could even identify the car. Carew, who recently got his 3,000th career hit, tells a tale about his peripheral vision that would be hard to believe if it didn't come straight from the well-respected California Angels' first baseman.
``I can be driving down the street and, without turning my head from the oncoming traffic, read the inside wall clock in a gasoline station across the street,'' the seven-time American League batting champion told me in the Angels' clubhouse. ``It's a gift I've had for a lot of years, and one that has never diminished.
``Early in my career I used to go through periods when I would think home runs,'' added the collector of more than 2,000 career singles. ``But whenever I stopped using the whole field and consistently tried for distance, I discovered I was only creating bad habits. So eventually I forgot about power and concentrated on reaching base.''
Rod employs four batting stances with variations, two for left-handed pitchers and two for right-handers. This breaks the unwritten rule that a batter can't repeatedly change his stance and hit well, but you can't argue with results -- especially if you realize how much time Rod has put in over the years to find the things that work best for him.
``People talk about how talented Carew is, but nobody talks about how hard he works,'' said Minnesota coach Tony Oliva, Rod's roommate for nine years when they both played for the Twins.
``I've seen him place an old sweater along the third base line and not stop bunting until the ball came to rest 40 times on that sweater. He bunts differently than anybody else I've ever seen, too, because the ball never stops where it should: it reverses direction and rolls back toward home plate.''
Oliva says he and Carew never talked hitting, only pitching.
``We would take pitchers apart in our minds and not put them back together until we knew everything about them,'' he said. ``I watched Rod hit every day and he watched me -- and if we saw something out of place in the way we swung or held the bat, we'd tell each other.
``We liked to make a lot of noise coming into the clubhouse before a road game and then say: `Look, here is the hotel room that is batting .700.' But when I think about that now, I remember it was Carew who was hitting .370 and me .330!''
When a team is going poorly, clubhouse meetings seldom do much good, but the one called by Toronto Manager Bobby Cox on July 21 was an exception. The Blue Jays, who led the AL East by just 11/2 games, won 13 of their next 14 games. ``Actually that meeting was very laid back,'' said reliever Dennis Lamp. ``Cox didn't yell or anything like that. He just reminded us to tighten things up a little.'' Toronto's lead reached 91/2 games before a New York hot streak last week cut it to 7. That's still a solid margin, but things could get interesting -- especially with a four-game series coming up between the teams in Yankee Stadium in mid-September and a season-ending three-game set in Toronto Oct. 4, 5, and 6.
The Kansas City Royals, who nearly caught up to California a few weeks ago, have now dropped off the pace set by the Angels in the AL West. The Royals still have one of baseball's best young pitching staffs, though, in Bret Saberhagen, Mark Gubicza, Bud Black, Danny Jackson, and Charlie Leibrandt. As a result, the defending division champs figure to make another run at the Angels next month when the clubs meet seven times.