Last Saturday afternoon, two hours before the Minnesota Twins were to play the Baltimore Orioles at Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, Minn., Bob Allison, the Twins' right fielder, watched Zoilo Versalles, the quiet Cuban shortstop, limp down the dugout steps.
"Z," said Allison, "you don't feel very good, do you?"
"No," said Versalles. "The leg, she bothers me."
"Go in and lie down for a while before the game starts," said Allison.
"No," said Zoilo. "Is bad to lie down. Once you lie down someone can come along and bury you."
Six weeks ago the Minnesota Twins themselves were a buried ball club. Nine teams in the American League had flipped dirt on their cold, lifeless bodies. During their first 31 games of the season they lost' 11 one-run games and were shut out six times. Their pitchers were pitching well but lived in constant fear of throwing a shutout only to have a playmate circle the bases in reverse, thereby losing 0 to —1. Since May 15, however, these same Twins have been the hottest team in the American League (25-12 through Sunday) and, of all the mirages that keep springing up before the New York Yankees, the only one that may be for real.
The Yankees this year have been unable to glide serenely away from the rest of the American League despite a seven-game winning streak at one point and a schedule that has matched them with ninth-place Detroit and 10th-place Washington 24 times in their first 64 games. Any Yankee fan, of course, will tell you that the only reason the Yankees have not been able to run away from the opposition is injuries. In truth, the Yankees have had only one serious injury, and that was the annual one to Mickey Mantle. Yankee fans will also gladly tell you that Tony Kubek missed 15 games because of an injured leg, neglecting to mention that at the time of the injury Kubek was hitting .205. Roger Maris hurt his back and then got a pain in his big toe, and everyone is supposed to cry. Luis Arroyo's arm went dead, and Yankee lovers mourned for days. So important has it become for every true Yankee to own an injury that Mel Allen, the announcer, suffering from a virus, fell, was pushed or dived into a bathtub in Detroit and was out of action a week.
The first portion of the American League season has been an interesting thing to behold, because at one time or another since the first week in May four different teams not named the New York Yankees have been in first place. Kansas City got there for a while, but the A's were not dressed for the part. The Boston Red Sox fired and fell back. The Chicago White Sox have played good baseball, refusing to believe that they are supposed to be long on managing but short on talent. The Baltimore Orioles got themselves 3½ games in front and then folded like a dollar suitcase. The Twins are now on their way to the top, however, and they may be around to haunt and harass the Yankees not only for this season but for many seasons to come.
They do not like to talk about it, but the Twins have been hurt twice as badly as the Yankees this year. Harmon Killebrew, the league's top home-run hitter of 1962, missed a month of the season; Allison has been playing with an assortment of viruses and a stiff neck; Richie Rollins, the third baseman, played three weeks with a broken jaw; Jim Roland, the Twins' top rookie pitcher (4-1), got a pinched nerve in his elbow and is out for three more weeks; Camilo Pascual, the best right-hander in the American League, is complaining of muscle troubles in his back; starter Dick Stigman missed 12 days. Despite all this the Twins are now rattling the fences with their hitting, and in the interplay among Cleveland, Chicago, Baltimore, Boston and Minnesota the Twins are 17-10, far ahead of the others.
The Twins have so fascinated the cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, the entire state of Minnesota in fact, that Calvin Griffith, the club president, is convinced that 1,700,000 people will pay to see his team play in 1963. If Griffith is correct then only the Los Angeles Dodgers will outdraw the Twins. And Griffith's Twins—all 24 on the roster—were pulled together at a cost of about $120,000, plucked from high schools and colleges or acquired through trades.
Last week, as part of a promotion to bring people to see a baseball game, the Twins offered a package to amateur fliers, including lunch, parking for their planes and admission to the game, all for 56. Some 250 planes arrived from 84 communities to take advantage of Griffith's offer, and he was there to meet more than 500 people, pat little girls on the head and shake the hand of anyone who wanted to meet him. He also delivered a short speech. "We're not going to let you down," he said. "We're gonna win."
Every boy in the state of Minnesota seems to be wearing a Twin cap and Twin jacket. Car bumpers carry a sticker that says in simple blue and white, Win! Twins! The team holds baseball clinics for youngsters age "zero to 12." as one official puts it, and over 4,000 usually show up at "The Met." Angelo Giuliani, a scout, tells the boys over a microphone, "You know what I want to hear." They do know, and there is no trouble hearing it. In unison they holler, "We're gonna w-i-i-i-n, Twins."
When the Twins play at home no bed-sheets wave, no bugles blow. "Charge" does not flash on the scoreboard when the home team comes to bat. There are no fireworks. Only two team yearbooks are sold—the Minnesota Twins and the New York Yankees.
Aside from Killebrew and Allison, Rollins and Bernie Allen, Vic Power and Earl Battey, the stars of the current Twin upsurge are Zoilo Versalles and Relief Pitcher Bill Dailey. Versalles has become just about the best shortstop in baseball, and if he is not the All-Star shortstop then the voting will have been rigged. He is hitting .284, not quite so high as Kansas City's Wayne Causey—who is in a slump—but at least 10 points above any other shortstop in the league. Versalles is 22 years old, and the man he will probably beat out for the shortstop job on the All-Star team is Baltimore's Luis Aparicio—who happens to be Versalles' idol. The other evening Aparicio hit a hard ground ball up the middle for a sure base hit; Versalles began to move, however, and, leaning over while running at full speed, he got the ball, stopped and threw Aparicio out. Aparicio cut across the diamond to go back to his dugout. He looked quickly at Versalles. Versalles returned the look, and then, although his leg was hurting, he turned his back toward the infield and smiled.
The month of July will tell the truth about the Twins. They must play 25 games in July with the Yankees, Orioles, Indians and Red Sox. The month of July is also going to be interesting for Twin fans and baseball in general, because a great deal of pressure is going to be thrown onto the narrow shoulders of Bill Dailey. Dailey, who was bought from Cleveland in April to help strengthen the Twins' bullpen, has become a super hero in Minnesota.
When the Twins get in trouble Dailey comes on from the bullpen in a convertible. He is big—6 feet 3—and his hair pops out of the side of his cap in large clumps. Before he gets to the mound he reaches down and makes the sign of the cross in the dirt with his right index finger. Then he begins his walk to the mound, and he has the walk of Shane—loose, but ready to gun anyone down. The organist begins to play, Bill Bailey, Won't You Please Come Home? and Bill Dailey warms up, scowling.
Four times last week he saved the Twins by stopping rallies in tight, tension-filled games with the White Sox and Orioles, and Bill McGrane of the Minneapolis Tribune has written words to Bill Bailey that tell the story better than anything else.
Won't you come in, Bill Dailey,
Won't you come in,
We blew a three-run lead.
You do the pitchin', baby, we'll get 'em back,
We like your sidearm speed.
Remember last Tuesday evening,
You bailed us out,
With nothin' but an infield hit.
Camilo's to blame, ain't it a shame,
Bill Dailey, won't you please come in.
Sam Mele, the manager, has been through some rough weeks and he may have others ahead, but he believes that his Twins can seriously challenge the Yankees. "The job of my players," he says, "is to keep after one another, to keep each other going. If they don't, then I'll get after them, and they'll know it. There are an awful lot of people who don't believe in us. But our fans believe in us, and we believe in ourselves."
The New York Yankees had better believe in the Twins. They have the things that pennants are made of.