It was the home half of the sixth inning at Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, Minn. last Saturday afternoon and the second-place Twins were trailing the first-place Chicago White Sox 1-0. Zoilo Versalles, the temperamental Twin shortstop, was on first base with nobody out when Rich Rollins hit a single to short left field. Versalles, with never a hesitation, whirled past second base and bolted for third as the players on both benches jumped up. Fifteen feet from his destination Versalles put his little head down, dived on his stomach and skimmed over the hard dirt, his arms groping for the base. He was safe on a close play and a minute later tagged up and scored the tying run on a fly ball. An inning later Versalles drove in a run to put Minnesota ahead, and the Twins went on to win 4-1.
Over the past two weekends the Twins and the White Sox played seven games filled with tension, excitement and stirring individual performances. "They have been like World Series games," said Al Lopez, the White Sox manager. The Twins won four of the seven, but the most significant thing about the games was that the supposedly pitching-poor Twins were pitching very well and the White Sox, often accused of lacking power, outhomered Minnesota 9 to 5.
This week, as the American League moved into its sixth week of competition. Chicago and Minnesota and the Los Angeles Angels were controlling the pennant race, usually the prerogative of the New York Yankees. Before the season began, many people thought that the Yankees, even at full strength, would have to scramble to win a sixth straight pennant and their 15th championship in 17 seasons. But the Yankees are not at full strength. They are an unsound team, with their four major stars—Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Elston Howard and Whitey Ford—all either sidelined or severely hampered by arm and leg ailments.
Last Friday night, after the news reached Minnesota that the Yankees had lost a doubleheader to the Washington Senators and plummeted into ninth place, Bill Skowron was asked what he thought about New York's chances of winning the 1965 pennant. Skowron, for nine years a Yankee and now the Chicago White Sox first baseman, took his blue cap off and put it on his lap, raised his fist over his head and brought it down slowly with his thumb pointing directly toward the ground.
As bad as the Yankees looked, no one truly expected them to remain permanently in the second division, but the question of catching up with the new league leaders was another matter. New York had yet to play the White Sox and the dangerous Detroit Tigers but, even so, the Yankees had a weak 5-10 record against first-division contenders and they had fallen half a dozen games behind the Chicago-Minnesota-Los Angeles trio. Los Angeles might not be anything to worry about, but the other two are a different story.
Chicago reached first place early this season by getting excellent results from carefully matured but virtually unknown sources. When one thinks of White Sox pitchers one usually thinks of left-handers Gary Peters and Juan Pizarro, who won 74 games between them for the Sox over the last two seasons. Hoyt Wilhelm, the 41-year-old relief pitcher who appeared in 73 games last year, also jumps to mind. But not this year—or, at any rate, not so far this year. Gary Peters currently carries the worst earned run average among the White Sox starting pitchers. Wilhelm has been having trouble with his knuckle ball and gave up four home runs in 7‚Öì innings. Through last Sunday, Pizarro had pitched a total of one inning. "Pizarro reported late," explained General Manager Ed Short, "and he was wild in his one game. He is going to have to fight his way back into the starting rotation." But never mind Pizarro and Wilhelm and Peters. Six other White Sox pitchers with names like Howard and Horlen and Buzhardt had earned run averages ranging from 0.75 to 2.87; Eddie Fisher, who has an excellent knuckle ball, had moved to the head of the bullpen and finished seven games.
"The team I have now," Al Lopez said the other day, "is probably the most versatile I have ever had. I like my bench." Lopez should like his bench. He has sent 25 pinch hitters to the plate, and 14 have reached base. What with deep pitching and a deep bench, Chicago has been very consistent. On the White Sox statistics sheet one day last week there was an ominous note for the other American League teams. It said: "Streaks—longest winning: 5 games (twice); longest losing: 1 game."
While everyone assumed that the White Sox would be near the top of the league from the beginning of the season to the end, the Twins have been something of a surprise, overlooked in preseason predictions because of their disastrous second-division finish last year. But they are playing a brisk, lively style of baseball totally unlike Minnesota teams of the past. The Twins are running the bases with daring, and they are using the hit-and-run instead of waiting around for someone to knock the ball over the fence. Last year when they knocked 221 balls over the fence they finished in a tie for sixth. "The entire season," says Manager Sam Mele, "was a nightmare. In my mind we played the very same game against Baltimore five or six times. It would be the seventh, eighth or ninth inning and we would walk a man. Then Baltimore would bunt and one of my guys would come in, pick up the bunt and throw it away, and Baltimore would score and win. Last year we played good ball against New York and Chicago, but Baltimore! I would stand in the dugout and see the walk, and I would say to myself, 'No, it can't happen again. Yes, it can. I can see it coming. There's the bunt. Watch it get thrown away. Watch it go. There it goes. Ball game.' "
Over the winter Mele decided that the Twins were going to play a different type of ball, and in spring training he took his largely veteran team back to the dreary land of fundamentals. Before and after every workout he had the Twins practice fielding bunts, back-up plays and the cutoff. Even after the exhibition schedule began, Mele kept his team on the field and drilled it in the little things. He told his players to run. "If you feel it is a good gamble," he said, "take it. Never mind what anyone says. I'll be responsible for it." He told them to think about the hit-and-run, and when they showed that they did not really care too much for it he began to call it for them. Soon they began to like to run the bases, and they saw the advantages of the hit-and-run. All of them, of course, had seen the St. Louis Cardinals beat the Yankees in the World Series last year by running, and in the very first game this season they ran on Yankee Center Fielder Tom Tresh and won the game because of it. When they played the Yankees in New York a couple of weeks later they beat them again with running, and then with good pitching. When the Twins are batting and an opposition player misses a cutoff man on a relay or throws to the wrong base, Mele walks up and down his dugout stressing the importance of running and defense against running. At the end of their first 20 games last season the Twins had a record of 10-10, had hit 36 home runs, stolen six bases, had seven sacrifices and sacrifice flies and had hit into 16 double plays. At the end of 20 games this year Minnesota had hit into only 11 double plays, had 12 sacrifices and sacrifice flies, had stolen 10 bases, had hit only 21 home runs but had a team record of 13-7.
This sudden improvement and change of style by the Twins has impressed the rest of the American League. Birdie Tebbetts, manager of the Cleveland Indians, was amazed to see Minnesota running with home run hitters like Harmon Killebrew and Bob Allison at the plate. "Mele is smart," says Tebbetts. "You can't wait for homers. It's smart to use the speed with those hitters up. The Twins have the talent, and if they get good pitching in the summer, when you have to use all your pitchers, they can be in the race all the way."
There is no doubt that Minnesota could use some pitching help, but the Twins' pitching is generally underrated. When Owner-General Manager Calvin Griffith coaxed Johnny Sain, the former Yankee pitching coach, out of retirement he had to pay the highest salary any American League team has ever paid a coach ($25,000). But Sain went right to work with Minnesota's pitching staff. "One of the first things he did," says left-hander Jim Kaat, "was to get us into a four-day rotation. If there are rain-outs you still take your turn every fourth day."
On Opening Day Kaat started against the Yankees and pitched a five-hitter over nine innings, though he did not get the win because the game went into extra innings. With two postponements and a day off, Kaat came back and won in the team's third game of the season, and he was back again in the sixth game and beat the Yankees on a five-hitter. Camilo Pascual, Minnesota's ace, has always been an accomplished and gritty pitcher, but Sain has made an impressive change in Jim (Mudcat) Grant, the comical right-hander who sings in the off season with his own combo, called The Jim Grant Five. Grant says, "I was always a herky-jerky pitcher, but Johnny Sain took two jerks out and still left me three." Sain also taught him a fast curve ball. Mudcat had a 5-16 lifetime record against the White Sox through 1964, but this season he has beaten Chicago twice and has given up only one run in 18 innings. Last Saturday he used only 92 pitches in beating them, and afterward he said, with a nod in Sain's direction, "Over the years I have been averaging about 130 pitches a game. This year in my three winning games it has been 115, 109 and 92. Some man, that man!"
But much of Minnesota's good early showing can be traced to Versalles. During spring training he defied Mele in a celebrated case of childishness. (Mele thought that Zoilo gave a halfhearted effort on a ground ball and took him out of an exhibition game. Versalles said he didn't want to play for Mele, and Mele promptly bumped him with a $300 fine.) Since then Versalles has been playing the best ball of his life, hitting, running and fielding. Last Sunday he was leading the Twins in runs scored (16), doubles (8) and triples (3) as well as fines (1). "He is playing to get his $300 back," said Mele the other day, "and he may just get $8,000 for a World Series share. He is playing great baseball, and he is making defensive plays the likes of which you seldom see." Versalles says, "I've had trouble with managers before. I get disgusted when I think I am right. Maybe I had it coming to me. Now I think the Twins have a chance to win the pennant."
If they do, they will have to beat Chicago. Sam Mele's estimate of the White Sox is simple: "They have everything. Great pitching, and with Bill Skowron, Pete Ward, John Romano and Ron Hansen they have four proven clutch hitters. Kids like Danny Cater and Don Buford are coming through for them, and so are Tom McCraw and Al Weis. Floyd Robinson always seems to hit .300. They are the team to beat, and they have been right along. But if we do things right and just get picked up here and there and our defense goes back to three years ago, when it was the second best in the league, we'll be tough. A home run is a great thing but, boy, a well-hit single at the right time is just what you need. Two years ago there were only 10 hitters in the entire league with 100 or more strikeouts and we had three of them [Harmon Killebrew, Jimmie Hall and Bob Allison] in our outfield. Last year, when there were 14 in the league. Hall and Killebrew had more than 100 strikeouts and Allison struck out 99 times, even though he missed a month of the season. This year I think our guys are catching on. I think we have a different attitude. Everyone remembers last year, when even with 221 homers we finished sixth."
Both Minnesota and Chicago have gotten off to good starts, and everyone is wondering about them. But Mele and Lopez are wondering about the other teams. One evening last week the two managers had dinner together, and the subject of the third-place Los Angeles Angels came up. "That club," said Lopez, "sure has improved itself." "It looks to me like the whole league has," said Mele. "What about the Yankees?" someone asked. They called for the check.