It is customary for major league teams to invite their most promising young players to frolic with the established stars for a few weeks at spring training each year. Nothing is supposed to come of it. The young fellows shake hands all around, play a few innings late in the practice games when the regulars feel in need of a cool shower and soon pack their bags and depart with a pat on the back for a summer of minor league tutelage.
This spring the world champion St. Louis Cardinals issued such an invitation to Edward Wayne Spiezio, a little curly-haired third baseman who smiles a lot and is properly awed by his temporary high status. But, while Spiezio is a pleasant fellow, pays close attention to advice from his elders, runs when his coaches tell him to run, shags flies dutifully during batting practice and is generally a model of deportment, the Cardinals have been genuinely embarrassed by his presence. They don't know quite what to do about him. With just a year and a half of professional experience behind him, Spiezio should be assigned this season to the St. Louis farm club in Jacksonville. Obviously, the Cardinals are in no great need of a third baseman, since Ken Boyer plays there for them and Boyer happens to be the Most Valuable Player in the National League. Fine, but Ed Spiezio has strong, quick wrists, a steady eye, unusual and unwavering confidence—and he will not stop hitting. When a rookie manages to hit at a .300 or .400 clip, even in spring training, it is admirable. When he hits .500, it bears close watching. When he hits over .600, it defies reason—and Ed Spiezio is proving himself the most unreasonable rookie the Cardinals have had to contend with since that fellow with the strange crouch named Stan Musial came to camp a quarter of a century ago.
There has been, for the Cardinals, a frustrating succession of line-drive base hits in Spiezio's assortment of at bats this spring. As Cardinal General Manager Bob Howsam said the other day: "How are you going to tell a young fellow he needs to learn more about his trade when nobody can get him out?" That is why the Cardinals squirm whenever they are asked what is to become of Ed Spiezio. "He should play every day," says Manager Red Schoendienst, who, with clear logic, sees little chance of Spiezio doing that with St. Louis this year. Beyond Boyer the Cardinals have proven players in almost every position, and no hotshot rookie with a big bat is going to rock a championship boat.
If Spiezio would pop up or strike out occasionally—not consistently, but enough so that the Cardinals could justifiably send him off to Jacksonville, where he could learn to play in the outfield—there would be no problem. But Spiezio won't do that. Every time he gets to the point where he looks unready—line drive!
The least surprised of anyone at this hitting is Ed Spiezio's father. It is exactly what he had in mind 23 years ago in Joliet, Ill. when Edward Wayne Spiezio was born. A steelworker by trade and a ballplayer by inclination and semipro participation, Ed Spiezio the elder early saw to it that his son had the best glove money could buy. At an alarmingly young age the boy, protected by a catcher's mask, was placed on the edge of the infield, and the father hit grounders at him as hard as he could. But even more important was a daily two-hour session in the batting cage, where, as Ed Senior pitched to Ed Junior, a running critique would be given on style, form and determination. "Coil like a snake," his father urged, "then, when the ball is close, explode." When young Ed was not actually exploding at a ball, he was preparing to do so by lifting weights, quaffing huge quantities of Ovaltine and studying such practitioners of the art as Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio and Stan Musial. It did not seem to matter where Spiezio played—Pony League, Little League, high school or college (his father insisted that a degree was just as important as a major league contract)—he led it in hitting.
"I always had the idea I'd be a pretty good hitter," said Spiezio, and when his younger brother Gary found it impossible to throw a sock stuffed with something hard past him from close range—"and, man, he'd really throw it"—he jolly well knew he was a good hitter. Three years ago, after Spiezio was named the most valuable player in the NAIA small-college tournament in St. Joseph, Mo. where he hit .400 for Lewis College, Cardinal Scout Joe Monahan decided that the curlyheaded little rascal would look very good with a Redbird on his chest and signed him for $25,000.
As was to be expected, Spiezio was assigned to the most minor of minor league teams, in Brunswick, Ga., as a starter. In the first week he hit four home runs, and the Cardinals said, "Enough of that," and sent him to Tulsa, where he distinguished himself by striking out three times in his first game. The Tulsa front office was horrified; they did not take into account that he had driven all night from Georgia.
But Tulsa's manager, Grover Resinger, was more impressed with the snap in Spiezio's wrists than with the fact that he did not hit the ball, and the next day, when Spiezio hit a home run, the muttering in the front office stopped. Not that there were no minor flaws for Re-singer to work on. Spiezio was unsure of himself at third base, and at bat he had a great urge to pull every pitch down the third-base line. "I thought hitting to right field was cheating," Spiezio says. Eventually he got the hang of fielding his position, and Resinger convinced him that it was perfectly honorable to hit to right and, in fact, some of the very best people—Dick Groat, Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle—did it quite often.
From then on it was just a question of how high Spiezio's batting average would climb. Last year it got to the .360 level before the Cardinals told him to come on up and help with their stretch drive. Once again it was an all-night trip and, in Busch Stadium, Spiezio was about to fall sound asleep in the grandstand when Schoendienst, then a coach, spotted him and told him to suit up. Late in the game Manager Johnny Keane told the new man to grab a bat and see what he could do. "I could grab a bat, all right," says Spiezio, "but I couldn't stop my knees from knocking together." Any number of established hitters find it hard enough to hit Pirate Pitcher ElRoy Face's fork ball in the best of circumstances, so Spiezio was quite excited when he managed to drive a soft fly to center field.
It took two more tries before Spiezio's knees stopped shaking, but for the rest of the season he got four hits in nine attempts, and two of the outs were line drives.
Such fine form made it certain that Spiezio would be invited to St. Petersburg this spring, but there was no doubt what the Cardinals had in mind for him for the coming season, "SPIEZIO GOING TO JACKSONVILLE was what I kept reading in the papers," he remembers, "and I thought they were probably right. But I also thought I would make them remember me for next year. I wasn't thinking in terms of hitting .300. It was more like .600."
The first week of spring training was devoted almost exclusively to conditioning exercises, and it is hard to distinguish yourself doing sit-ups. Spiezio soothed his impatience by swinging a weighted bat in the living room of the house he rented in St. Petersburg and occasionally taking snapshots of his infant daughter, Debbie.
Eventually Spiezio got his chance to bat in an exhibition game, and what should he see but a big, fat, hanging curve. "I kept thinking, wait for it, wait for it—and I didn't. I struck out, and I thought I'd better get back to the batting cage. I don't strike out often and when I do, boy, it makes me mad."
Grover Resinger, who was helping out in the Cardinal camp, watched Spiezio take his practice swings and frowned. "Ed," he told him, "you're not crouching and exploding at the pitch the way you used to." Spiezio says, "Of course. That was it. Spring like a snake. It all came back, and I knew I was the master again. I didn't care what pitcher it was or what pitch he threw me. I was going to hit it." Dennis Ribant of the Mets threw a fast ball, and Spiezio hit it for a single. The next day the Reds' Bill Henry tried a curve, and Spiezio hit that for a single. Two days later three Pirate pitchers tried an assortment of pitches, and Spiezio tripled off the center-field fence, doubled off the right-field fence and lined a single to left. "Hey, baby," said Cardinal Out-fielder Carl Warwick, "are you really human?"
The Cardinals, by then, had some serious doubts. But last week, in the first game between the Cardinals and the Yankees since the World Series, Spiezio came to bat in the seventh inning and meekly popped up. The Cardinal brain trust let out a heartfelt sigh of relief. But the Yankees, who don't care about the Cardinals' problems, tied the score, and Spiezio got another chance in the ninth. Pity. With his weight heavily on his back foot, Spiezio waited until the last second before springing like a snake at Bill Stafford's fast ball, and oops, he did it again. The ball came back to earth well over the left-fielder's head some 430 feet away, Spiezio had a triple, and the Cardinals won the ball game. "Shee," said Red Schoendienst.