It was the day after his Minnesota Twins had lost the seventh game of the World Series. Sam Mele was worrying about his wife and their overdue baby during the flight to his home near Boston, but something else was bothering him, too. Almost abruptly he said, "You know, next year the rest of the league probably will run all over the place and take chances and try to beat us the exact same way we beat them this year."
The thought obviously lingered with Mele all winter, for in the Twins' first exhibition game last month they not only stole four bases and tried an unsuccessful double steal but they also attempted five pick-off plays at second base and two at third and threw out two base runners from the outfield. A few games later they introduced a new pick-off maneuver, which they tried only against National League teams—security precautions apparently being in effect.
"That is just the beginning," said Mele. "We're going to be even more aggressive in our thinking than we were last year, because the other clubs are going to bunt and steal and hit-and-run on us. We proved you can't sit around and wait for a home run to win a ball game and a pennant."
The Twins did just about everything right last year when they won their first American League pennant. Mele was voted the Major League Manager of the Year and now, for the first time since he was named manager in 1961, is not too concerned about job security. Shortstop Zoilo Versalles was the American League's Most Valuable Player, Mudcat Grant its best pitcher and Tony Oliva its batting champion. The pennant had its tangible rewards—the $7,000 World Series share, the lucrative speaking engagements, the song-and-dance act for Mudcat and his Kittens and healthy raises all around. This year eight Twins (Killebrew, Pascual, Kaat, Allison, Battey, Versalles, Oliva and Grant) are being paid $33,000 and up by Owner Calvin Griffith, with promises of even more for another pennant.
Whether the Twins win again depends to a great degree on Versalles. Grant could win 21 games again. Kaat could win 17 or 18. Camilo Pascual, who seems over his shoulder problems, could win 20, too. Harmon Killebrew could hit 40 home runs, Bob Allison 30, Don Mincher and Jimmie Hall 25. And Oliva could win his third batting championship in his third year in the league. But the player they need to win the pennant again is Versalles.
Zoilo is not particularly the ideal lead-off man, because he struck out 122 times and walked only 41 times last year. And he made nine more errors than any other shortstop in the major leagues. But Versalles gives the Twins an identity they never had until he showed that the smallest man on a team of big men can be the leader.
If Versalles is aware of his special status with the Twins, he does not let it affect him. He does joke more with his teammates than in previous years, and he still talks about "making a lot of money," because there are four little ones "runnin" round at home." But he also has a serious and appealing approach to baseball that most of his contemporaries somehow lack.
"Last year means nothing now," Versalles says. "In this game, you know, it's easy come, easy go. We got a season to play, and we don't win thinking about last year. We still got to run—that is the name of the game—and we still got to win."
Versalles attributes an clement of luck to everything he does in baseball, and he wonders why people misinterpret his notions on the meaning of luck. "In the World Series I say I'm lucky when I get that bat around and get a hit, or when I make a good play, or when I steal a base...and people like to hear that. But when I say the Dodgers are lucky to win the Series because of that play [Jim Gilliam's stop of Versalles' ball in the seventh game], then people didn't like that. We won last year because we were lucky. We were just lucky."
No matter how lucky the Twins are this season, they will have trouble winning the pennant again. Mele hopes to develop a regular second baseman from Jerry Kindall, Bernie Allen and Chuck Schilling, who was not good enough to help the Red Sox. Catcher Earl Battey suffers from a thyroid condition and cannot play every day because of his weight. His replacement the last four years, Jerry Zimmerman, just cannot hit. "Getting someone to back up Battey is our No. 1 problem," Mele said in Florida. Getting Russ Nixon from the Red Sox won't do much to solve that problem.
Sam wants to discard the platoon system he used late last season and start Allison in left, Hall in center and Mincher at first base on a full-time basis. "If they show they can't handle the job, we'll platoon again with Sandy Valdespino, Joe Nossek or Andy Kosco in the outfield. And if necessary, we'll move Killebrew to first against lefthanders and play Rich Rollins at third."
The pitching appears strong with Grant, Kaat, Pascual and Jim Perry, Jim Merritt or Dave Boswell as the starters, and Al Worthington, Johnny Klippstein and rookie Pete Cimino as key men in the bullpen.
As for Oliva, the right fielder had the injured knuckle on the middle finger of his throwing hand operated on last winter, and that should improve his hitting—if further improvement is possible. Most people just hope it stops his bat throwing.
"Oh, yeah," Oliva said one day in Orlando. "I no throw the bat this year." Thirty minutes later he swung at a pitch, and his flying bat nearly decapitated the first baseman. "It slip," said Oliva, apologetically. Things with the Twins haven't changed much this year.
With catching questionable and a solid second baseman nonexistent, the Twins will need luck—Zoilo's kind or any other brand available—to repeat as pennant winners.