The ball hung over Chicago's Comiskey Park like an apple on a string. Left Fielder Leon Wagner and Center Fielder Vic Davalillo of the Cleveland Indians gazed alternately at the ball and each other. With two out, the two White Sox base runners ran perfunctorily and Cleveland Pitcher Jack Kralick hitched his pants in the manner of a painter backing off to admire his mural.
A second later the 150-pound Davalillo was on the ground. So was the 5-ounce baseball, with the 195-pound Wagner searching for it. A minute later the White Sox had three runs, enough for a 3-2 victory over the Indians to even up the first "crucial" series of the first complex pennant race the American League has seen in 17 years.
All such outfield collisions being theoretically avoidable, they usually divide the object of a manager's gall into three parts: the two outfielders and the first reporter who asks which one goofed. Cleveland Manager Birdie Tebbetts kept the latch on his clubhouse door for a few minutes after the game, but when it opened there was this new kind of Tebbetts in this new kind of race in this new kind of American League.
"I can't in good conscience blame anyone," Tebbetts said placidly. "What happened was not of major consequence, but when it happens twice [later in the game Wagner scared Davalillo off another fly ball] you should review your policy. There could be bad feeling between two men, but if you talk it over there's no problem. You have to have a basic this-is-it. That's what we were talking about when the door was closed."
Unless you had a bad high school coach you know the basic this-is-it is that the center fielder catches everything he can reach; he is the most reliable, or he wouldn't be the center fielder. "I know who is to blame," Tebbetts conceded, "but that may have been the best thing that could happen to us. It's good to have a refresher course."
Good and expensive. The Indians had the White Sox in deep trouble, on the brink of a three-out-of-four disaster, and let them off the hook. Birdie's peace would pass the understanding of all but those who had suffered heart attacks and beat the rap, as he did last year. In this relatively Yankeeless American League, however, all the contending managers are playing it cool, regarding each other's teams with an almost amiable interest.
White Sox Manager Al Lopez, appearing as late as possible for a day game after an excruciating twi-night defeat by the Indians, was set upon by an elderly acquaintance who infiltrated the clubhouse as Lopez was putting his pants on. "Good to see you," Lopez said, and then was interrupted. "Why don't you stop in more often?" he added pleasantly. The interruption had been Trainer Ed Froelich informing Lopez that Third Baseman Pete Ward, the light-hitting Sox' ultimate weapon, had swung his bat too hard again and was off to the hospital to have his neck placed in traction.
In his fine script Baltimore Manager Hank Bauer wrote the names of Boog Powell and Sam Bowens on his lineup card despite their composite average of .190. "We aren't going anywhere without them." he said, and added an ex-Yankee's view of the positive: "I have only five games left with New York."
In Detroit, Tiger Manager Charley Dressen employed three members of his suddenly impotent bullpen to get the last three outs against the Yankees, then joked with Pitching Coach Stubby Over-mire. "Nobody can pull away," Dressen said confidently as the Tigers slipped six games behind. "Oughta be five teams in it right to the end."
Near the shores of Gitche-Gumee, however, sat the coolest manager of them all. Sam Mele's league-leading Minnesota Twins weren't bashing in as many heads as they were supposed to, and their defense was as porous as ever. But they were winning close games with, of all things, speed. "They're not embarrassed any more," Mele explained. "They run without worrying about what happens."
This nothing-to-lose attitude stems directly from Mele, who came within an embarrassment or two of being fired last October when his window-breakers stumbled back to sixth place, 20 games behind. Then one night in the last week of the season Owner Calvin Griffith's mind changed as his stomach turned during one ghastly inning. He saw errors by Don Mincher, Zoilo Versalles and Rich Rollins on successive plays. "I asked myself, 'How can I blame the manager for this?' " Griffith said, "and I gave him a new contract. This year Sam has taken over as undisputed boss." During spring training Versalles, the shortstop, rebelled against Mele and suggested he would rather play for Coach Billy Martin, Mele's loudly rumored successor. Mele fined him $300. Because of that, or in spite of that, Versalles is generally regarded around the league as the most valuable Twin this season.
"Sam has always been fair, and the players have high respect for him," Griffith said last week, "but he always tried to protect the players, no matter what. Now they know he means business. That has proved to be an important reason why we're winning."
That—and the way Mele has deployed his troops, keeping a few good hands like Jerry Kindall's in with the big bats to keep the games close. "You can't underestimate guys like Kindall and Jerry Zimmerman," slugger Harmon Killebrew says in simple summary. "We have to hit. They have to field."
And they all have to run. When Tony Oliva was put out the other day trying to score from second on an infield hit against the Red Sox, Mele gave him a positive mark for effort. "He tried to catch them asleep," the manager said, "and he was out just a bit. That play will work a lot the rest of the year." So will the hit-and-run, now that Mele has taken charge of it again. He gave that weapon to the players last year, and most of them looked at it like artillery sergeants inspecting a derringer. "The hitters were supposed to give their own signs for the hit-and-run," Mele says, "but they didn't use it enough. Now I give the signs."
So now the Twins hit and run—and err. Rich Rollins' slumping bat made it easy to take his unsure hands away from third base, but Killebrew has to play somewhere, and none of the Twins—except Versalles, Kindall and Zimmerman—handles the ball like a Globetrotter. "We're still making errors," Mele says. "I'm pretty sure we're last in the American League in fielding. But we don't seem to make them at crucial times anymore."
Mele does not talk at great length about his pitchers, most of whom do not pitch at great length. Complete games by Jim Grant gave an occasional rest to the bullpen, which carried the Twins to their midterm lead. Al Worthington was reliable, and 37-year-old Johnny Klippstein remarkable. Jim Perry, on the brink of banishment, began throwing hard again and pitched himself into the starting rotation. "It is the kind of staff." Birdie Tebbetts says, "that I would like to see under pressure." But one reason the Twins could win it all is that there may not be too much pressure. Jet-age schedules being the strange things they are, Minnesota will play 48 of its last 80 games against the soft underbelly of the American League.
That fact bothered Chicago's Pete Ward as much as his aching neck. "Boston, Washington and Kansas City have no pitching," he said. "They can't rise up like the Cubs, say, or Houston, in the National League. Boston, Washington and Kansas City hurt the race by being almost patsies."
It is Tebbetts' view that patsies no longer exist in the league, partly because the bottom three teams inflicted 14 of the Indians' first 27 defeats. And, unlike the other contending managers. Birdie refuses to worry just because the Twins have opened up a lead. "They might pull away," he says, "but can they stay there? I don't consider five games decisive this early. Any of us could open a lead and then be caught.
"Each of the top clubs has strengths that could win it for them: Chicago has its bullpen, Baltimore has that pitching, Minnesota has power. And each figures to improve in the second half. Suppose the White Sox get Juan Pizarro back or Powell starts hitting for Baltimore. Where would Detroit be if Dave Wickersham had won half his games, or if Bill Freehan hadn't been hurt? And remember that I haven't had Jack Kralick. We're all going to be stronger."
The mind boggles at the five-way playoff suggested by such a balance of power, but Tebbetts' philosophical approach is tempered by realism. "Each club," he adds, "also has a weakness. The club that will win is the one whose weakness doesn't show. They tell me Pete Ward is the world's worst third baseman, but he's never made a bad play against us. They say Killebrew hurts the Twins, but you can't prove it by me because we never seem to hit a ball to Killebrew in a key situation.
"But I am not paid," Tebbetts says, "to point out other teams' weaknesses. I 'm waiting to see how smart these American League writers are. For the first time in years they have to pick a pennant race instead of just putting the Yankees on top and writing something funny about Lopez finishing second. Nobody picked us, so I assume we have no chance. But I notice they're coming around asking questions now instead of telling people what's going to happen. That's good, but I just worry about my own team."
Tebbetts didn't seem worried as the Indians streaked (23 for 30) through June, then stretched 11 runs in four games into a 2-2 split with the White Sox. They were doing almost everything right, and so, it seemed, was Tebbetts.
They were scoring runs—not a ton, but enough. Max Alvis, in a hospital with meningitis a year ago, was making the middle of the Cleveland batting order as menacing as Minnesota's or anybody's. Ahead of him, peppering the ball to all fields, was little Vic Davalillo. Behind him, home again in Cleveland after exile to Detroit and Kansas City and happier than he has been in six years, was Rocky Colavito, pulling enough home runs to lead the league but punching the ball to right field enough to make Mele, at least, stop shifting his infield to the left side. "He's their silent leader," says Mele. "He concedes his power to help the team. That's the right attitude." Colavito was asked whether he had adjusted to Tebbetts' style of play. "I just go with the pitch," said Rocky, who never went with the pitch before. "Your style of play," says Tebbetts, "is determined by your talent. 'My kind of ball club' only means a ball club with versatility."
The Indians have perhaps the finest array of young pitchers ever assembled. "Overpowering young pitching," Tebbetts says, "with Ralph Terry as the stabilizer." Terry, cast off by the Yankees, is Chairman of the Board at 29, the interlocutor between the manager and callow youth, like sideburned Sam McDowell. "Terry shows them the difference between pitching and throwing," Tebbetts says. "Watching him pitch has speeded their development."
When the kids' underdevelopment begins to show during a game, Tebbetts will step into the hot sun and signal to Pitching Coach Early Wynn. Grumbling salty phrases over the white towel Tebbetts insists he wear around his neck ("so I can see him"), Wynn and his bullpen take over. "Gary Bell and Don McMahon are professional relief pitchers," Tebbetts said last week. "Bell certainly should make the All-Star team." Bell didn't, and Lopez may hear the piping voice of his good friend Birdie some balmy evening when Bell is driving the final nails into the White Sox coffin.
The Indians also have speed, previously a Chicago exclusive in the American League. "If I play Chuck Hinton at first," Tebbetts says, "there's not a faster club in the country."
So what do you give the man who has everything? "We have a weakness, too" Tebbetts admits. "There is no one weak defensive position, but overall this is not an outstanding defensive club, like the Yankees—who are outstanding in the field in every position. I like to play Larry Brown at shortstop because there's not a better infielder in the league. But Dick Howser is a good offensive player. He gets on base and he runs, and we have to run.
"What we need most," Tebbetts says, "is to get accustomed to winning. It's an attitude. Did you read what Elston Howard said the other day? That if the Yankees don't win it they'll have a lot to say about who does? You know what that means? That means the best player on the Yankees now has a losing attitude. That's significant."
Tebbetts deprecates the role of manager by saying things like "luck" to summarize a double defeat of the White Sox, but he manages. In Boston he gave Davalillo a sign to sacrifice. Leading the league at the time, Davalillo bunted—but for a base hit. Tebbetts yanked him, and there was a little review of policy at a closed meeting after the game. "That No. 1," Davalillo says, "keeps me in my place."
No. 1 manages by omission, too. Against Chicago, he developed another starting pitcher with an act of faith that was awe-inspiring to the White Sox pitchers, who labor under the shadow of Lopez' quick hook. Lee Stange is one of those pitchers who can't do anything, except get batters out. "You like to hit against him," says the Orioles' Boog Powell. "His fast ball is straight, and his breaking pitch isn't much." The night before, Stange had shut out the Orioles on four hits, none of them by Powell.
Five nights later in Chicago, Stange had a three-hitter in the ninth, but the score was 1-1. Singles put runners at first and third, with no one out. Wynn showed his white towel from the bullpen, but he sat down as Stange walked Ward intentionally to fill the bases. Everybody in the bullpen sat down because, with Bill Skowron at bat and Smoky Burgess looking for a bat, it was an either-or situation.
With that slider that doesn't do much, Stange struck Skowron out on three pitches low and away. Stange, a right-hander, listened to Tebbetts as Burgess, baseball's premier left-handed pinch hitter, waddled to the plate. "He told me not to try to throw the fast ball by him, because you can't," Stange said after the game. Burgess rapped the slider on one hop to Pedro Gonzalez for a double play. The Indians were out of a jam, and they won for Stange in the 11th.
"I thought the kid had gone far enough and done well enough," Tebbetts explained, "that he deserved a chance to lose it himself. Besides, with the bases loaded and none out, you can stick, the percentages in your eye. Either the man hits right at somebody or you go home.
"I don't feel any sorrier for Al Lopez than he would for me," Tebbetts added, '"but that was a tough way to lose."
It was even tougher on White Sox Coach Tony Cuccinello. "I did the same thing in Kansas City when Al was sick," Cuccinello said. "I wasn't even looking for the double play. I wanted the force at home. So the pitcher hit the batter with the first pitch, and we lost.
"The Chicago Tribune" Tony recalled, "was quite critical about it. I wonder what they're going to say about Birdie."