For major league baseball clubs this is the happy season. Old bone chips lie abandoned on the operating-room floor; old jaws are firm with determination to lay off bad pitches; heretofore unknown team spirit has owners, managers and clubhouse boys aquiver with anticipation. But the biggest reason of all for this cockeyed optimism—the kind that makes anything seem possible—can be found in the rookies.
Take, for instance, the young man on the opposite page, who has just unloaded on some poor, unsuspecting pitcher's fast ball. The sportswriters have already decided that he is going to be the 1966 Rookie of the Year, and he has the Cincinnati Reds in such a happy state that they have revamped their infield to fit him into the lineup. Tommy Helms is his name, and he was a shortstop in the minors but the Reds have moved him to second base. Pretty big move. They pushed last year's All-Star second baseman, Pete Rose, to third and made an outfielder-first baseman of last year's third baseman, Deron Johnson, who led the National League in runs batted in. Helms, 25 next month, hit a solid .319 for San Diego last year and, while he does not yet remind you of Bill Mazeroski in the field, he will scratch, brawl, crawl and, if need be, bleed from the eyes to make the play.
As for the young man throwing in the picture below, he is a New York Yankee. In past epochs, when the Yankees needed a new hero, someone would push a button and out would pop a DiMaggio or a Mantle or a Ford, and that pretty well took care of the pennant. Of course, that was before baseball adopted a share-the-wealth policy that undid the Yankee monopoly, but there's life in the old button yet. Bobby Murcer may not be the finished product the Yankees used to get from their farms, but at 19 he is good enough to make Phil Rizzuto, best of all Yankee shortstops, say, "I'm glad he wasn't around when I came up." Another year in the minors would be good for Murcer, but what are you going to do with a boy who hits near .300 in spring training and protects vast areas on the left side of the infield? "I guess you play him," says Manager Johnny Keane.
These are not the only exciting rookies. Consider Houston's Sonny Jackson. He is 21, although he would have a hard time convincing a bartender of that, and it may take Astro fans a while to realize that the baby-faced kid with the glasses is the shortstop, not the bat boy. Sonny is not a hitter of power, but the Pacific Coast League pitchers who faced him last season felt as though they were being bludgeoned to death with feathers. His .330 average at Oklahoma City came on 193 hits, most of them singles; since Jackson stole 52 bases, they were singles with a sting, a Maury Wills sting.
April 11, 1966
Then there is Larry Jaster, a left-handed pitcher who came up to the sagging St. Louis Cardinals last September, started three games and finished three games and won three games, which is somewhat more than is expected of a 21-year-old. Now Manager Red Schoendienst goes around muttering something about 20 wins this year.
The Boston Red Sox, trying to force-feed themselves into a new era, stated emphatically that Joe Foy, big and agile and Minor-League Player of the Year in 1965, was going to be their third baseman. Then along came George Scott, a big and possibly more agile third baseman, who led the Eastern League in about everything last year. Scott complicated things, but it's the sort of complication the Red Sox haven't had in years, and they like it. A similar situation exists in the California Angels' outfield, where three youngsters—Ed Kirkpatrick, Rick Reichardt and Jackie Warner—are trying to force their way into the lineup.
Three new faces in the same outfield? Not even Anaheim is ready for that. Still, spring is spring, and hope is hope.