Friday, July 30, 2010

Remembering Rod Carew, The Magician With A Bat

Rod Carew's "Mod Squad" 1972 Topps baseball card, my favorite!

Rodney Cline Carew...

Three favorite adjectives for him? 
Perfection, effortless, unstoppable...he was the magician with the bat.  He played 12 seasons with the Twins, from 1967 to 1978.  This ended all too abruptly when he left the Twins after 1978 to join the California Angels.  A heartbreaking situation for Twins fans that was, especially considering the team had already lost both Larry Hisle and Lyman Bostock the previous year to free agency...

Rodney was a no-brainer all-time Twin and Hall of Fame player the day he left Minnesota.  He's now immortalized in the team's "sculpture garden" (in addition to Kirby Puckett and Harmon Killebrew) on the Plaza outside brand-new Target Field in Minneapolis. He gave fans like me a reason to tune in my radio in the 1970's for late night Twins games on the west coast, when they fielded some pretty mediocre clubs. I mean, the middle infield in the '74 opener was Rod at second, and the hot, new shortstop...Sergio Ferrar?  Exactly. 

Three main memories of him?
*The casual, three-quarters-underhand flip throw to Harmon for the out, second to first...
*The curious running style, his arms held curiously out to his side as if he were holding onto the rails of an escalator...
*The smooth warmup swings before the pitch, before he assumed a bent-over crouch with his bat held parallel to the ground...

Such an idiosyncratic guy.  It seemed as if there were two games going on - the one everyone else was playing, and then his elegant, "my-own-little-universe" version.  A man among boys. He was liable to hit the ball anywhere from the lefthanded batters box - a bleeding, lineshot to the gap in right, a little dinking bloop over the shortstop, or one of his famous bunts down the third baseline. 

No one ever seemed to be in the right spot for those bunts, even if they knew he might lay one down.  No question, he was the best bunter in the second half of the 20th Century. I remember hearing how he'd tap pitches in practice with disgusting regularity in ballbags placed around the grass in the vicinty of home plate
*********
He was born at 7 o' clock in the evening on a train traveling in the Panama Canal Zone on October 1, 1945. His mother, Olga Carew, wanted the birthing to take place at the largest hospital in Panama, Gorgas.  Her reason was practical: so many children were dying at the local facilities in Gatun. The train's bumping along exacerbated matters.  Luckily, a nurse on the train enlisted the aid of a physician, Dr. Rodney Cline, a man in the right place at the right time to have his name linked with baseball history.

The Back Story
Rod and his brother Dickie were verbally and physically abused by his father Eric Carew, a temperamental, drinking man. He would eventually abandon his family. Before that, Rod could tell a whuppin was coming just observing the way his father approached his home on the sidewalk. His Mother, Olga, would jump in front of his blows as he tried to wack away at their sons. Rod used the baseball diamond as a means of escape, as well as recreation; he was initiated into the game using broomsticks for bats and paper bags for gloves in Panama.  That was better than wandering off into the nearby jungle.  Indeed, kids who ventured carelessly could encounter poisonous snakes on the prowl...


And with that depressing genesis, quiet, private Rod Carew would find his identity in playing amateur baseball as a teenager in New York city.  He relocated there in 1961 with his brother, joining their mother. Much of his tutelage took place on fields just a short distance from Yankee Stadium, where the dynastic Yankees of the early '60's reigned. He could hear the roar of the crowd wafting through the air when Mickey Mantle or Roger Maris put a charge into one. 



Legend has it that the Twins were tipped off to his talent that early summer of 1964 by local scout Herb Stein, who saw the 6 foot, 150 pound Rod playing for the New York Cavaliers in the Bronx Federation League (a sandlot outfit).  He took batting practice in the fabled Yankee stadium. The ballpark at that time featured monuments honoring Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig right out on the playing surface.  They were near the flagpole in centerfield.  And it didn't seem weird at all. 

Now, of course, we have padded fences, shin guards, elbow guards, et. al.  You'll have to go to another universe to find granite markers on a playing field.  But I digress... 

Even with his skinny frame, he began blasting balls out of the park to all fields while wearing one of Tony Oliva's #6 uniforms  It grew so conspicuous that then-Twins manager Sam Mele hustled him off the field - fearing the Yankees might beat the Twins to the punch and sign him to an amateur free agent contract. Carew remembers catcher Earl Battey coming up to him afterwards, remarking "Hey, how's it goin,' skinny kid?" He signed a free agent minor league contract with the Twins on June 24, 1964.

Intriguing, How Things Might Have Been...
1967 Twins Issued Photo:
The Rookie, Rod Carew

Rod played in the Cocoa Rookie League (see minor league stats) that first summer, before moving up to "A" ball for the seasons of 1965 and '66.  It is not well known that the Twins, along with other teams during the Vietnam War era (see "Hardball Times article on major leaguers in 'Nam), had him designated for an early call up to the majors during the 1965 season.  The possiblity existed that players could be selected any time for active duty overseas.  Rookie catcher John Sevcik and second baseman Bernie Allen were both eligible for the draft, but the call never came. Intriguing, the thought of Rod Carew starting at second base against Sandy Koufax and the Dodgers in the 1965 World Series!  Cool, actually!

[picture at left: the Twins middle infield, spring training, 1970]  As it was, he went right from A ball to the major leagues in 1967. But that was only because Twins team owner fought for him to be included onto the opening day roster, over Manager Sam Mele's objections. The skipper wanted to give Carew more seasoning, to develop his fielding prowess.  The curmudgeonly owner prevailed.

Griffith was vindicated as Carew was voted Rookie of The Year in 1967 (voting results).  That was the year the greatest pennant chase in baseball history took place, when 4 teams could have mathematically won the pennant on the last day of the season.  The Red Sox won out over the Twins, Tigers and White Sox for the chance to advance to the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals. See my post on Rod's Major League Debut, "In The O's Nest."

The Stealer - 1969
Rod and the Twins both had what was considered a subpar year in 1968. Before the 1969 season, he and newly assigned manager Billy Martin retooled his running game and his fielding maneuvers; he also switched to a heavier bat, with a bigger barrel. It forced him to cut back his swing, discourage him from overswinging, and gain bat control.  The result was his first American League batting title, which he corralled by hitting .332.

Remember, this was against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, Woodstock, Led Zepplen, student protests, and civil unrest in many cities nationwide, Chuck Manson (ugh!). But all I remember from that season was a lovely summer, Fourth of July fireworks, my mom, dad and family, swimming outings to nearby lakes...and, of course, the inspired play of a surging baseball team with many, colorful stars - including Rod. He was also participating in National Guard drills during that season (a sure sign of the times!), which took him away from competition for many games at a time.

He also gained notoriety with his seven steals of home (one short of Ty Cobb's season record), a facet of his performance that year recalled wonderfully in the highlighted blog account.

Billy Martin suggested that Carew take a long, walking lead instead of coming to a stop. How long a lead Carew took depended on how close the third baseman was to the bag and whether the pitcher went into his windup or checked him from the stretch position.

Of his seven steals of home during the 1969 season under the approving eye of manager Martin, Rod Carew used the surprise factor five times in the first inning.

[Stealing against Angels, 1969]

''Pitchers,'' Carew has explained, ''don't expect you to take a risk so early and kill off a potential rally.'' Carew also ran in a crouch that, he believed, propelled him toward the plate faster. But he also knew when not to try to steal home. Never with two strikes or three balls on the batter. Never with none out. Even so Carew had six steals of home by June and in July he equaled Pete Reiser's 1941 record. He stole home nine more times in his career, but he was a marked man.

The Game I'll Never Forget
The Place: Jack Murphy Stadium San Diego, CA.
Date: July 11, 1978
What: All-Star Game
TV Broadcast: by ABC, announcers Keith Jackson, Don Drysdale, and Howard Cosell
Radio: by CBS,by Vin Scully, Win Elliot and Jerry Coleman

It's the top of the first, and Rod Carew (wearing splendid, powder-blue road uni)arrives at home plate to face off against the National League starting pitcher Vida Blue of the San Francisco Giants. The national television audience has just settled into its seats for viewing the contest.

Meanwhile on CBS, Dodgers radio legend Vin Scully is intoning "You have to go back to 1963 for the last time the American League won an All-Star game...and that's a long, long time ago!" No sooner do those words leave his lips when Rod Carew lofts a high, looping drive to the left-centerfield gap, to the fence. [ok, I used to have an audio tape of the play-by-play.  Shoot me now for the crime of sports nerdiness]

Playing out of position is centerfielder George Foster. Foster, Carew's 1977 Most Valuable Player counterpart in the National League, is properly a left fielder.  He's there only because all star election rules specify no provision for left fielders, centerfielders, and so on...only that the three players with the most votes for the three outfield slots get the nod.

With the late afternoon sun (5-5:30 Pacific Coast Time) hindering his view of the high drive, Foster looks silly, twisting to get a bead on it...the ball bounds between him and the wall. His return throw has no chance of nailing Carew, who slides in easily past Pete Rose at third with a triple. I remember the excitement I had that our guy, super hitter Rod, had gotten the first hit of the game, that the American League had a chance to finally win one. It wasn't to be!  Alas, Rod would have to wait until 1983 for an American League team to win one, in which he scored on Fred Lynn's grand slam, the first in All-Star Game history.
Here's the all-star game AB from MLB video
(Carew, Robin Yount, Manny Trillo press the flesh with Lynn - how bitchin' was that!?)

The Magical Year of 1977
1977 was the year that would define Rod Carew.  He hit .388, nearly pulling off the first .400 year in baseball since Ted Williams did it with .406 in 1941.  Had 239 hits.  38 doubles...16 triples...14 homers.  Drove in 100 runs.  Won the MVP.  He was profiled in Time Magazine that summer, found at the link - an excellent spread.  I remember my sister, Susie, handing me that edition, and my flipping out.  Today, in 2010, I look back at the year he had and think it was far more impressive than the famous year Williams pulled off in 1941 (when he batted .406).  For one thing, Carew ( see Baseball Reference) had many more at bats than Williams did, 616, walking 69 times; Williams had 456 at bats, with 147 walks.  And Carew accomplished it in an era with a longer season of games, relief pitchers who could throw your timing off, jet travel between time zones that leave people groggy, etc., etc.,...sorry Teddy Ballgame - (he's about my favorite player of the old-time players, along with Stan Musial) - but to me, it's just a far greater test of endurance that Carew displayed as opposed to Williams...it's just so hard for a hitter, even a super-fantabulous one like Carew, to maintain a high batting average the higher up the at bats ladder he climbs.

To wit: I held up an SI mag with Rod and Ted from '77 in front of Rod at a Twins Fest at the Metrodome in Minneapolis a few years back, hoping he'd sign it.  Instead, he got all sparked up and went into a real cool Ted story from his playing days, all the way to the photo session you see here on the mag -  all on live radio.

This great, ABC news segment on Carew gives you a sense of how head and shoulders Rod was above every other player in 1977.  Pardon the poor quality - you'd swear a solar flare is ready to incinerate Metropolitan Stadium, with the bright, washed out quality of the tape.  By the way - Ted Koppel appears (pre-Iran hostage crisis!) - and has he ever looked more incongruous and out of his element than he appears here?  While we're poking fun, how about those atrocious White Sox clown outfits? HAH!

[Rod, mourning passing of Lyman Bostock, Sept., 1978]

Looking Back
Rod went on to win seven batting titles in his career, again, 2nd only to Ty Cobb (had 11) made 3,053 hits (that's a 200 hits yearly average for every 162 games he played), and had a .393 on-base percentage.  He was enshrined in the American Baseball Hall of Fame Museum as chosen by sportswriters nationally in 1991, along with Gaylord Perry, Tony Lazzeri, Fergie Jenkins, and Bill Veek.  He is currently employed by the Minnesota Twins.

He sadly lost his youngest daughter, Michelle, to bone marrow cancer on April 17, 1996. With her varied, Panamanian-Jewish ethnic background, she proved a difficult donor match for a bone marrow transplant.  She was 18 years old.  Rod was been quoted as saying he'd gladly exchange his fame and accomplishments as an athlete if he could get his daughter back. 

Indeed.  Wouldn't all of us fathers feel that way, who love our daughters?

Clip from April 9th, 1974 Minneapolis-Star Tribune
(Historical perspective: Henry Aaron had set the homerun record the previous day, hitting number 715 in Atlanta against the Dodgers)


 

2 comments:

Dan said...

Wow! Great blogpage. I've started my own blog about baseball in the '60's. Not much on it yet though.
http://bneenterprises.blogspot.com/search?updated-min=2010-01-01T00%3A00%3A00-08%3A00&updated-max=2011-01-01T00%3A00%3A00-08%3A00&max-results=4

Chad said...

Superbly written. There is a lot of Twins history here. I'm learning a lot!!!

Thanks for the education!