C'mon, hop on and let's go," said Paul Richards, and he drove off in a golf cart toward one of the Atlanta Braves' practice fields at their training base in West Palm Beach, Fla. Richards dropped Relief Pitcher Jay Ritchie at a pitching mound and then turned and steered the white cart toward another mound where left-hander Dick Kelley was alternately throwing batting-practice pitches and attempting amazingly deceptive pickoff throws to first base.
"That's it; now you've got that motion down pretty good," said Richards. "Keep working at it, but now do it only about one in five."
Bob Turley, the former Yankee pitcher who is helping the Braves in spring training, came over. "Paul," he said, "when Wade Blasingame was pitching today I could call almost every pitch he threw. He uses one of those open-webbed gloves, and you can see how he holds the ball when he winds up."
Richards nodded and said, "Hop on the cart, and we'll go get him straightened out right away." On the way they stopped at another practice mound where Tony Cloninger, who won only 14 games last year after winning 24 in 1965, was throwing. Richards studied Cloninger's form for a minute and then said to the right-hander, "Throw the slipper." Cloninger threw the slip pitch that Richards has taught him. "Speed up your motion," Richards said. "When you're wild, you're wild high."
March 27, 1967
Richards moved on to see Blasingame and then got in his cart again and drove to the on-deck circle near the main diamond, where Manager Billy Hitchcock was directing a workout. He seemed to shiver when First Baseman Felipe Alou fielded a ground ball and made a dipsydoodle, sidearmed flip to Pitcher Julio Navarro, who one-handed the ball as he covered first base. "Fundamentals, fundamentals," said Richards. "One hand, you see that? And did you see that throw? That's what loses ball games."
The workout was almost finished, and some of the hitters were studying the video tape of their batting swings that had been taken earlier that morning. "Where's Woody?" Richards asked. Woody Woodward, the Braves second baseman, came out of the dugout, and Richards told him to jump on the cart. He drove the young infielder out beyond left field for a private conversation. He told him that he would have to start charging slow-hit grounders. Woodward has a habit of waiting for the ball to come to him, which at times has meant an extra hit—and maybe even a ball game—for the opposing team.
Now the morning was over. Richards would spend perhaps an hour or so completing some paper work and then maybe go over to Seminole to putt a few or even to play nine holes. And at night he probably would have dinner at Chesler's in Palm Beach, most likely with Luman Harris and Clint Courtney, two of the faces that always seem to be where Richards is—Chicago, Baltimore, Houston or Atlanta.
This is the first year that Richards has been with the Braves at spring training. He joined the Atlanta organization last June and during the winter replaced John McHale as vice-president in charge of baseball operations when McHale moved up to the commissioner's office. Although he has a corporate title, Richards is, in effect, the general manager.
The Braves present a new type of team for Richards. At Chicago he survived with superb pitching, an adequate defense and hitters like Ferris Fain and Nellie Fox. At Baltimore he had to develop young pitchers, but he did it so effectively that in 1960 he had the Orioles, most of whom were not even of shaving age, fighting the Yankees for the pennant.
Then he went to Houston where he was in charge when the club signed players like Joe Morgan, Rusty Staub, Sonny Jackson and Larry Dierker. When Judge Roy Hofheinz won the power struggle with Bob Smith in 1965 he left the organization. Not even Texas was big enough for two men like Richards and Hofheinz when it came to running the same major league team.
Wherever he is, Richards must be the boss, the man to whom other people in the organization answer. And he wants his own men—people like Courtney and Harris and Harry Dorish—working with him, even if they are not always liked by some of their associates. "They do a certain job for me," Richards says, "and that's all I care about. It is not a case of blind loyalty."
Courtney, who is called "Scrap Iron" or just plain "Scraps," was with Richards one night at Chesler's when Richards looked across the table at him and said, "Scraps here wants to be a manager or a general manager in the big leagues." Courtney nodded and said, "Yeah, Richards, I've been going to school under you a long time now. I'll be ready one of these days."
Richards thought for a minute and then he said, "Well, Scraps, how would you handle a guy like—?" He named a player, not one of the Braves, who is supposed to regard himself as much more important than his manager.
"Richards, he wouldn't run my club."
"O.K., but what would you do with him?" Richards asked.
"I'd call him in my office, Richards, and we'd get everything all straightened out, one way or another," said Courtney.
"You've always got to be right, you know, Scraps. You can't go around taking other people's word for things."
"Yeah, Richards, I know. You gotta be right all the time—just like you." Richards, a slight smile on his tanned face, began to order dinner.
Richards is the boss in Atlanta, and the decisive way he runs the club is a refreshing change for the Braves players, the majority of whom suffered through Bobby Bragan and his novelties the last four years. Things are different this spring. The players talk about the controlled workouts, where they are doing something every minute. They talk about the set lineup every game. They talk about attitude. "This is the best camp we've had since I've been with the club," says Joe Torre, the catcher. "Now Billy Hitchcock or Paul will come up and give you a little pat on the back every so often. I don't care what some people think, you really don't know how much ballplayers like something like that.
"Paul told me the other day that he'll be getting together with me and Gene Oliver [the Braves' other catcher] pretty soon so that we can discuss some of the things he'd like us to do this year. The man is a teacher, and he can spot the little things. You see Cloninger now and you know he will be a better pitcher. You look at Lemaster or Blasingame, and you know that what they are doing is different from what they did last year, when they did not win. Or take us catchers. The other day a rookie didn't come up with a throw down in the dirt. Paul had Courtney take all of us out for about 25 minutes and he threw all kinds of wild pitches at us from a distance of about 20 feet. The man has a purpose about him. It has to help us this year."
The Braves, of course, do need help. They always seem to lead the National League in home runs, and they always seem to be near the top in team batting. But their defense—pitching and fielding—has been ordinary. The pitching is being worked on, and Hitchcock and Richards think that their infield will be vastly improved now that four players—Alou, Woodward, Denis Menke and Clete Boyer—will play regularly.
"We could win the pennant, sure," said Richards, though he tempered his optimism with "ifs." Then he added, "But even with the ifs, you have to depend upon the inferiority of the other teams. What if those other teams don't show inferiority?" Leaving that argument behind him, he rode off in his golf cart in search of another player to help.