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December 15, 2008
In the year 1970, Rico Carty became the first player to make an All-Star team by virtue of a write-in campaign. He finished the season winning the batting crown with the highest average in more than a decade (.366), and seemed to be on the verge of bigger and better things. Sadly, it wasn't meant to be, as injuries, illness, and his own erratic behavior all conspired against this gifted hitter who otherwise may have knocked on the doors of Cooperstown. We sat with the "Beeg Boy" during a game at Estadio Tetelo Vargas in San Pedro de Macoris to talk about baseball, his beginnings, hitting, why he signed to play for twelve teams at the same time, and his opinion of Henry Aaron as a hitter.
Carlos J. Lugo: Mr. Carty, it's a pleasure to have these brief words with you. Let's do a little bit of history and talk about how you came to play pro baseball.
Rico Carty: The year was 1959, and it was my first year playing as an amateur for the Dominican national baseball team. I was a member of the team that participated in the Pan-American games in Chicago. I had a really good tournament, and that opened the eyes of many scouts that went there. Back in the time you really needed to be a super-prospect to be signed.
CL: At the time, did you have any dreams of becoming a major league player?
RC: Being honest, I was lucky enough [just] to be signed. I never imagined I was that good, and would grow up to be the kind of hitter I later developed into. I was a lazy kid; my father wanted to make me a boxer, and my mom wanted me to be a doctor, so I didn't have any particular dreams of being a ballplayer. Then, as an amateur, I started to develop my abilities, and the local scouts noticed. They said to me, "Rico you're good, you have a lot of ability, you're going to make it to the big leagues," but I didn't believe them at the time.
CL: Speaking of scouts and signings, there's a story that you signed with more than ten teams at the same time and the commissioner had to intervene, awarding your rights to the Milwaukee Braves. What's the real story?
RC: During the '59 Pan-Am games at Chicago, I played so well that all the scouts were impressed and quickly came with offers to sign right there. I had already signed with three teams of the Dominican League, but the truth is I just wanted to play baseball, and since I had no idea how serious those offers really were, I said yes to everyone that gave me one, just in case the others didn't work out. In the end I signed with nine major league and three winter ball teams. But here's the thing, I didn't take a single penny from anyone, because I've learned not to be seduced by money, and money was not my goal. That helped my case with the president of the minor leagues, because he saw there were no malicious intentions from my part. Finally my rights were awarded to the Estrellas team in the Dominican, and to the Braves in the major leagues. I was signed by John Mullen and Ted McGraw for the Braves for $2,000.
CL: How difficult were those first few years as a professional?
RC: Oh, I had a very bad start. After my first two at-bats in the winter league, I went home and wanted to quit right there. My first game was against the Escogido team and Juan Marichal, and he struck me out with three pitches twice. I said to a friend after the game, "If this is professional baseball, I quit, and I want no part of it." Mr. Rafael Antún, the president of my team, the Estrellas de Oriente, went to my home and asked me if I was losing my mind, and convinced me to return. What happened is that I was distracted by Juan's high leg kick, and instead of looking at the ball I was looking at his leg, and honestly didn't see any of the pitches he threw at me. Later I had my revenge against Juan [laughs].
Life at the minor leagues was difficult during that time. You know about the racism, the different culture, the language, the food. I remember I spent three whole months eating just hamburgers, and three other months eating fried chicken, because I didn't know how to order anything else. But you had to survive, every single day you had to remind yourself that you had to survive and be strong.
CL: In 1964, your first year, you battled for the Rookie of the Year award that finally went to Richie Allen. What do you remember about that first season?
RC: I think I won the award, but I maybe did something that hurt my case with the press. I was invited to a lunch by the president of the sportswriters association in Milwaukee, a gentleman named Wolfe, if I don't remember [too] badly. When he asked me to attend I said jokingly, "Sure, are you going to pay me for that?" and he took it seriously. I think I lost my chances right there, but I had a great year. I hit .330, 22 homers, and 88 RBI, and established myself as one of the better hitters in baseball, and kept hitting line drives for the rest of my career. I was born to hit.
CL: The mid to late '60s were not a very friendly environment for hitters. What are your memories of the great pitchers you had to face back then, and how difficult was it for a hitter to survive against them?
RC: Oh, it was really difficult. You had a bigger strike zone, the pitching mounds were higher, the parks bigger, and then you had to hit against many of the all-time greats like Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal, Don Drysdale, Ferguson Jenkins, Tom Seaver, Gaylord Perry, and many more. I'll tell you something, people talk about Nolan Ryan and how hard he threw, but a guy named Jim Maloney threw harder than Ryan. And then you had Marichal with all those different pitches and arm angles that confused you to death, Koufax and that killer combination of a fastball and curveball, a competitor with the weapons that Gibson had-I mean, it was a nightmare. People don't understand how hard it was to hit then. If you could hit in the '60s, you could hit anytime, anywhere, in any era.
CL: Latin American hitters are aggressive by nature. Most of them, even the best ones, can be defined as free swingers. You were one of the first Latin hitters who had some idea of waiting for a certain pitch you can handle to hit, and how to manage that aggressiveness. You even shortened your swing with two strikes. What's the ideal approach in your opinion?
RC: The story behind the shortened swing with two strikes has a lot to do with a hitting coach named Dixie Walker. He told me, "Rico, I'm going to take away ten to fifteen homers per year, but I'll make you a .300 hitter," and I kept using that approach. Later, many great hitters, like Henry Aaron, Orlando Cepeda, and a great hitting coach like Paul Casanova told me, "Rico, you didn't need to do that, you were destined to be a .300 hitter anyway." And come to think of it, they were right. But I became such a great hitter with two strikes that I laughed at pitchers when they put me in that count. During my first two seasons, rival manager Preston Gomez used to say to his pitchers, "Don't pitch to Aaron, pitch to Carty," but later everything changed, he'd rather pitch Hank and give me an intentional walk.
CL: Getting back to the question of patience versus aggressiveness at home plate, as a hitting coach, do you think that some hitters are overly aggressive to the point of hurting themselves, and they need to learn the importance of correctly identifying a pitch and knowing the strike zone?
RC: I'm sitting here right now watching this game, and I can immediately see things that hitters of today do that a hitter of the past wouldn't do. Listen carefully: a hitter must search and know his zone. I'll give you an example. In a 2-0 count, if you're going to swing at a pitch, you cannot swing at any pitch. You need to establish a target in the strike zone; if the pitcher enters that target, then you kill the pitch. Where's your power? High, inside, low, outside? There is where you establish your zone.
Hank Aaron asked me once, "Rico, what kind of hitter are you?" And I told him, "I don't know," and I wasn't joking, I really didn't know. And his response was, "You're exactly the same kind of hitter that I am." I said "What?!" And he said, "You're a zone hitter. If the pitch is outside you can hit a homer to right, if it's in the middle you can hit it a long way to center," and so on. People like Hank, and Orlando Cepeda, Nolan Ryan, Juan Marichal, Manny Mota-they all said to me that I was the best right-handed hitter they ever saw.
You know what you don't see these days? Many good low-ball hitters. I once hit a home run off Nino Espinosa playing winter ball, with a pitch that was right on my left knee. Hitters nowadays wouldn't go down looking for that ball. Mickey Mantle did that, Willie Mays also did it; Hank will go down but not as much as myself or those two. You don't see that anymore. That was a special ability of the hitters of that era.
CL: You were one of the first players to catch fly balls one-handed in the outfield, and you were widely criticized for that. I read an opinion once, I can't remember who wrote it, arguing that you were actually ahead of your time because when catching a ball that way, an outfielder gets in a better position to throw, if necessary. Why did you start to field one-handed?
RC: When I was playing at Class-C, my manager was Jim Fanning, and he was also the second catcher of the club. He hurt his back and was unable to play, so he moved me to catcher because of the emergency. The thing is, I already had an injured finger on my right hand, and most of the time I received a pitch with two hands it hurt my finger, sometimes to the point of bleeding. Jim told me, "I'm going to tie your hand behind your back if you don't stop catching the ball with two hands," so I became adept at catching the ball with one hand. When I was moved back to the outfield, I just couldn't do it any other way. To the present day, I haven't dropped a single fly ball catching that way-oh, but I was booed every single place we played. Our GM Paul Richards, one of the most knowledgeable baseball men ever, told me, "Rico, you can't change the way baseball is played." They tried everything to correct it: I was fined for it, they once hit fly balls to me for one hour in left field, catching with both hands and one hand, and I just didn't feel comfortable catching with both. I couldn't do it. They were finally convinced, and said all right, just leave him alone.
CL: Of all the great players you played with or against, who do you consider the best?
RC: Willie Mays is the best player I've ever seen. There hasn't been anyone like him. As a hitter, I'll say Hank Aaron. A lot of people will say Ted Williams, but I didn't see him play, nor did I see Babe Ruth. I hit behind Hank Aaron, and to me he's the greatest hitter I've seen.
CL: What made Henry Aaron such a great hitter?
RC: I'll tell you a story. In the year 1966, at the end of May, he was hitting .200 or something like that. I asked him, "What's wrong with you, what are you doing?" And he told me, "I'm lost at the plate, I'm trying to hit home runs. But from tonight on, I'm back hitting to all fields," and the guy hit line drive after line drive, and no one could take him out. When he was hitting .300, he said, "Rico, now I'm going for the homers," and he finished the season leading the league in homers. That's a hitter. He did everything he wanted to do, hit .300, hit homers, everything.
CL: Your career was shortened by injuries and other ailments, and many people believe you would have knocked on the doors of the Hall of Fame if you'd had a healthier body. Do you think about what could have been, if not for the lost playing time?
RC: That's maybe true, but it was my destiny. I broke one leg playing winter ball one year after winning a batting title, had tuberculosis and lost two years, but I couldn't control those things. Keep in mind that even with all those problems my numbers were still very good, and probably Hall of Fame-worthy. I always say that I was born blessed with the ability to hit a baseball, but at the same time-and I accept that-I had a volatile temper. I fought a lot, many people were scared of me, and I developed the reputation of a hot-blooded Latin player. There's one thing, though: back then you had to demand respect. If you didn't do that, you were going to be out of baseball very quickly. It's not easy to hear people offend your country, or yourself without a reason, and many times I reacted in a bad way. All these reasons would have hurt my chances for the Hall of Fame.
CL: It's funny, because nowadays you're a beloved figure, people approach you all the time wanting to hear stories, get an autograph, say hello; younger players come to you for a few words of advice, and you're always willing. It's hard to relate the Rico of today with the bigger-than-life character of your playing days.
RC: And I tell you what, I'm maybe more popular in the United States than in my own country. When I do autograph-signing shows, you wouldn't believe how many people come to me with their children or grandchildren, thanking me for some autograph I signed for them forty years ago, or the time I spent a few minutes talking baseball to them when they were seven or eight years old. Down here people recognize and respect you, but you're also part of their everyday lives because they see you on the streets all the time.
CL: Who's the best hitter in the major leagues right now?
RC: That's easy, Manny Ramirez. Sure, you got Albert Pujols, David Ortiz, and others, but to me Manny is the best. He's such an accomplished hitter. There's no one pitcher that can take him out easily. Sometimes he seems to be toying around with the pitcher at home plate until he gets what he wants. He needs to be a little more serious, and goof around less, but he's the greatest hitter of his era.