Mickey Lolich is a left-handed pitcher for the Detroit Tigers and, as he says, "If you're left-handed and a pitcher, then people automatically think you're flaky." Yes, they do—especially when Mickey tells them why he throws a baseball with his left hand although he does everything else with his right.
"I was about 2 years old," he says, "and the little girl next door and myself were drag racing down the walk on our tricycles. She forced me into this parked motorcycle, and the thing fell on me and broke my left collarbone. So for a few years the doctors had me using my left arm for everything in order to strengthen the collarbone, and when I started to throw a ball, I did it with my left hand." Lolich was riding a tricycle, he did crash into a motorcycle and he did crack his left collarbone at age 2, but he was not drag racing the little girl next door. "It does make a good story to tell people, though, doesn't it?" he asks.
Lolich is one of three reasons why Manager Charley Dressen thinks the Tigers can win the American League pennant. The other two are right-handed Pitchers Denny McLain and Joe Sparma. Last year Lolich, McLain and Sparma won 44 games among them. This year they figure they must win at least 55. As Dressen says, "We'll go as far as they can take us."
The three young pitchers do not attempt to conceal the confidence they have in their own abilities. "Dressen is fortunate that we're here," says Lolich, 25. "Why, just recently Larry Sherry told me, 'You three kids are the whole club.' " Dressen recalls that McLain, 22, came up to him a couple of times last year and asked to pitch against Cleveland's Sam McDowell. "He'd been reading how they all said McDowell was the best of the young pitchers, and he wanted to have his own say," Dressen recalls. Sparma, 24, sounded off when Dressen kept him out of action 11 days just to have him ready to pitch against the Yankees (whom he defeated four times in 1965). "Hell, they're not the only team I can beat," said Sparma at the time.
McLain missed nine starts last year because of a kidney infection but still won 16 games. "I started out with the White Sox organization as a fast-ball pitcher," he says, "and they never taught me another pitch. It took Charley Dressen himself just 15 minutes—that's all—to give me the only curve I've ever had, and later he taught me the changeup."
McLain, who gives organ lessons during the off season, already is the champion consumer of soft drinks in the majors. "I used to have about 25 Pepsi-Colas a day," he says, "but now I get the 16-ounce bottles and have only 15 or 20 of them a day. I'll have a couple at breakfast, four or five before and after a game, then several more at home at night. And I've never had a weight problem."
Sparma, who played quarterback at Ohio State until he realized that Woody Hayes was not going to install a passing offense just for Joe Sparma, has no drinking problem but suffers from a lack of control—which he attributes to football. "When you toss a football, you stop your arm and hold it up high," he explains. "But when you throw a baseball you must follow through. I don't do that all the time, and that's why I'm wild high so often."
Catching the three individualists is Bill Freehan, who seems to have recovered from the hand and back injuries that had him on the bench frequently last season. "You've got to keep Lolich from thinking," says Freehan. "When Mickey even starts to think, he gets himself in trouble, because then he tries to get too fine with his pitches. All he really has to do is throw the ball past the hitters. Pitching comes natural to McLain so he tends to relax a little. You've got to keep him working at it, and then he's all right. Sparma, now, must throw a strike on his first pitch, because he can't pinpoint his breaking stuff when he's behind the hitter."
Along with Lolich, McLain and Sparma, the Tigers have two other dependable starters in Bill Monbouquette, obtained from Boston, and Hank Aguirre, but the starting pitchers alone will not win a pennant for the Tigers. They need strong years from Freehan and Al Kaline, who has had his foot operated on, more consistent hitting from Willie Horton and Norm Cash, an improved defense around second base and a couple of good relief pitchers.
In 1965 Horton was batting .306 with 20 home runs and 58 runs batted in at the All-Star break. Then the pitchers learned that Willie could not hit an outside breaking pitch, and he hit only three home runs in the last seven weeks as his season's average dropped to .273. Cash, on the other hand, had a .210 average, seven home runs and only 25 runs batted in at midseason but finished with a .266 average, 30 home runs and 82 runs batted in.
The Tigers have the best offensive but worst defensive double-play combination in the league. Second Baseman Jerry Lumpe and Shortstop Dick McAuliffe both are solid hitters, but last year the Tigers were last in double plays. Lumpe seems to have slowed another half step, while McAuliffe has not increased his very limited range.
But the big problem is the bullpen, and Dressen, as usual, keeps muttering, "If I only had another Joe Black." He hopes to find one among Larry Sherry, who is seven seasons gone from the Sherry of 1959, when he won the World Series for the Dodgers, Dave Wickersham, who has been a disappointment as a starter, Fred Gladding and Terry Fox.
A relief pitcher like Stu Miller or Eddie Fisher could bring a pennant to Detroit—but the Tigers do not have a Miller or a Fisher, and so they may have nothing in October.