The best listener in baseball is Charlie O., the mule, and that is, no doubt, why Charlie O. Finley, the owner, sent him south to Florida this spring with his Kansas City Athletics. Now, when General Manager Ed Lopat talks of his dashing players who are expected to run their way into the hearts of Kansas City fans and out of last place in the American League, he is at least assured of an audience of one. "Why, we may be the fastest team in the league," says Lopat, and Charlie O., the mule, nods in agreement. "Oh, I'll admit the White Sox may have a step on us," says Lopat, to which Charlie O. nods affirmation. "But the rest of the league will have to reckon with our speed." With that, Charlie O. goes into an absolute spasm of head bowing. What more could a general manager ask of a mule?
The fact is, the A's had better be fast. Finley, who has been realigning Municipal Stadium in startling and utterly incomprehensible bursts of enthusiasm for the last three years, has now turned his playing area into something large enough to test the endurance of a flock of migrating geese. Finley started creating his vast wasteland last season, but to make things really outlandish this year he has put a fence on top of his fence. That means the drives of right-handed hitters—after traveling 370 feet down the left-field line—will have to clear a 22-foot barrier to get out of the park. The center-field fence is on the other side of the state from home plate (421 feet), and as for those who once took comfort in being left-handed—well, Finley has settled their hash by tearing out his famed "pennant porch," only 325 feet away, and building a 30-foot-high fence from right to center. Obviously Finley, like everyone else, was smitten with the way the pennant-winning Twins and Dodgers went at the game of baseball—with speed, stealth and audacity.
The most important player in Kansas City thus becomes, by default, Dagoberto Campaneris. Last year Finley got it in his head that Campaneris was a movable feast and accordingly played him at all nine positions in one game, for no particularly good reason other than it had never been done before—and because it would draw a good crowd. Campy also stole 51 bases—which is more to the point. "I feel like run," was Campy's explanation, which pretty well exhausts his command of the English language. And this year? Campy rolls his eyes, apparently to indicate that he feels like run again. Certainly he has the blessing of Alvin Dark, latest in the long line (nine in 12 years) of Kansas City managers. To supplement Campy's quickness, Dark has established Jose Tartabull in center field for the simple reason that he, too, has the gift of running very fast and spraying hits to all fields (Jose hit .312 after being recalled from Vancouver last year). Tartabull—like Campaneris, a Cuban by birth—speaks better English than Campy and has more sheer speed, though not the base-stealing finesse. It would be most encouraging for those who think of ninth place as a step upward, as K.C. fans must, if the A's could unleash several more who could run like the two Cubanos. Unfortunately, that is the end of the superspeed (unless rookie Ron Stone can make it in left field).
There are others who can move out with fair dispatch. Dick Green, who might be the best second baseman in the league if he could stop hurting himself at the most inopportune moments, is not slow. Nor is Third Baseman Ed Charles, nor Outfielders Mike Hershberger and Larry Stahl. They aren't likely to force opposing catchers into early retirement, but they do add a spunky note on the base paths.
Where that leaves the A's two sluggers, First Baseman Ken Harrelson and Catcher Bill Bryan (who has genuine left-handed power), is strictly open for debate. "Are you' part of the speed team?" a reporter asked Harrelson this spring.
"Definitely," answered the Hawk.
"Definitely not," said Dark. Since the manager has a reputation for meaning what he says, it appears that Harrelson will be given the frustrating task of hitting the long ball in the long ball park. Harrelson consoles himself by noting, "You have to love talent, baby, and I have nothing but talent. Why, I amaze myself."
There are other requisites for winning games in a big stadium besides speed. A sound defense helps, and so does good pitching. Green and Hershberger are genuine craftsmen in the field, and, not including Bryan, the other positions will be handled fairly stylishly. But the pitching—well. The Athletics did not yield as many runs as the Red Sox did last year, but the staff's earned run average was just as bad—4.24, worst in the major leagues. Some of the more inept starters were ruled off in midseason, and with Jim (Catfish) Hunter, John O'Donoghue, Roland Sheldon and Fred Talbot doing most of the starting the rest of the season, the situation improved, though not spectacularly.
Hunter, the youngest at 20 and one of the most talented right-handers the A's have ever had, was sent to Venezuela last winter for more polish. The plan had merit, but when Lopat was informed during the winter that his young prize had his arm in a sling, the general manager nearly leaped out his office window. "What in the world has been going on down there?" asked Lopat. Nothing much, really. The Venezuelan team had been using the prodigy four times a week, is all, both starting and relieving. "You catch the next plane home," Lopat told Hunter, and on his return to Kansas City, Catfish was whisked off for a thorough examination. The team physician announced that the only thing wrong with Hunter's arm was a slight muscle tear, and the sigh of relief nearly started a stampede in the Kansas City stockyards.
Meanwhile Dark is advising his players that he is not interested in winning games five years hence. "The time is now," he says. Accordingly, Alvin has asked the batters to learn the art of hitting behind the runner, the fielders to throw to the correct bases and all the players to run rapidly at all times. He puts it as a request, but it is really an order.
"He talks soft," says Harrelson, "but we listen hard." And Charlie O does a lot of nodding.
With an attentive mule and a new manager who wants to win some ball games this season, the A's have an excellent chance to vacate the cellar.