Baseball's Best Hitter, Rod Carew, Takes Another Crack at the Impossible Dream—a .400 Season

updated 08/08/1983 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/08/1983 01:00AM

Rod Carew carefully adjusts the chew of Red Man tobacco in his cheek, focuses intently on his adversary, and leans in expectantly as the man's right hand moves forward. The millisecond of decision has arrived.

"Gin," says California Angels reserve catcher Mike O'Berry, triumphantly dropping his cards on the table in the visiting clubhouse at Detroit's Tiger Stadium. Rod's eyes grow wide at this third successive thrashing at O'Berry's hands. "I can't get a card," complains Carew, whose prowess at the game is well known among teammates and is such that his wife, Marilynn, says, "I quit playing with him."

Opposing pitchers in the American League this season would love to have that option. Rodney Cline Carew, 37, now in his 17th big-league campaign, is making his second assault on the Mount Everest of baseball accomplishments, batting .400. Only eight players have done so since the turn of the century, the last being Boston's splendid Ted Williams in 1941. And only Carew in 1977 (.388) and Kansas City's George Brett in 1980 (.390) have come close since. As of last week, Carew was hitting .378.

Carew would, of course, be delighted to bat .400, but he loathes the hoopla that attends his attempt. On the road he faces a numbing barrage of reporters, all wanting to know the same thing: "Can you do it?" With two months left in the season, "It's too early to think about" is his standard reply. Having been through it all in 1977, he's made adjustments this time around. One of the first players to reach the park, as much as four hours before game time, he is generous with his time in the clubhouse. But once he is on the field he is off limits, and teammates will shoo away overly zealous interrogators during batting practice.

Carew's journey, which will eventually land him in Cooperstown, N.Y. and the Hall of Fame, began on a train in Panama. Olga Carew's youngest son was born before she could reach a clinic, and his birth was attended by a physician on the train named Rodney Cline, who gave him both a name and a start in life. At age 7, Carew started hitting sponge balls wrapped in tape. "When I got out of Little League," recalls Rod, "I started to play with kids 16 and 17. They couldn't believe this skinny little runt was hitting as well as I did." When Carew was 15, the family moved to New York, and Rod settled into a routine of classes at Manhattan's George Washington High and after-school work in a grocery. "I was a loner," he says. Weekends were reserved for sandlot baseball games in Macombs Dam Park in the shadow of Yankee Stadium. The Minnesota Twins spotted him at age 18, got bug-eyed over his batting, and quickly signed him to a $5,000 bonus. Three years later he was Rookie of the Year.

In a Minneapolis bar, Rod met Marilynn Levy, a perky dental assistant who says, "I was brought up as a good Jewish girl to get married, raise children, clean a house and take care of my husband." They fell in love, which proved to be awkward. When Marilynn brought Rod to his first Seder, Marilynn's nieces and nephews had hung a sign in the window that read, "Guess who's coming to dinner?" Although Carew has not converted to Judaism, he observes Jewish holidays and does not swing a bat on Yom Kippur.

Now the house Marilynn Carew keeps is a commodious half-million-dollar spread on a hill in Anaheim. The most energetic occupants are the Carew daughters: Charryse, Stephanie and Michelle. In the front yard Dad throws batting practice to the two oldest, both players in a Bobby Sox soft-ball league. "Charryse has more power," says their hitting coach. "Stephanie is more of a line-drive hitter. And Michelle's always asking me when I'm going to teach her how to hit."

An intensely private man, Carew prefers those hours at home to basking in the attention his accomplishments invite. He takes refuge in the coast-to-coast gin games and usually spends evenings in his hotel room scanning the channels for movies, a subject about which he has an encyclopedic memory. He also lugs part of his collection of eight cameras and a dozen lenses from city to city. "When I don't play," he says, "I usually shoot the game from the dugout."

Angel fans prefer to see Carew with a bat in his hands. His five-year, $4 million contract runs out at the end of this season, and he hinted as early as last year that the F-147 model bat he swings may be permanently retired to the rack. That would deny him the opportunity to reach another baseball milestone, 3,000 hits.

Marilynn is one fan who would hate to see that happen. "There is no reason to end a career prematurely," she says. "Why stop before your time is up?" Rod has professed that reaching 3,000 hits is not that important to him. Puckishly, Marilynn says, "Maybe he'll listen to his wife—for once." Apparently, he has. Two weeks ago Carew announced that he would be back next year.

Down the road, there may be a career in broadcasting. Carew says he will seek some on-the-job training in the off-season. But it is his wielding a bat, not manning a microphone, that keeps fans coming to the ball park. As his onetime manager in Minnesota, Bill Rigney, says, "Nobody will be happy to see Rod retire except 148 pitchers."

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