Three weeks ago Joe Sparma, a 25-year-old pitcher for the Detroit Tigers, stood on the mound at Tinker Field in Orlando, Fla. and got ready to throw his first pitch of the spring exhibition schedule. A good year from Joe Sparma—who won only two games last season after winning 13 in 1965—can mean an awful lot toward bringing the Tigers their first American League pennant in 22 long, frustrating seasons, and Detroit's new manager, Mayo Smith, was not the only member of the team waiting to see what would happen. Sparma looked in, took his sign from the catcher and threw. What happened, in Joe's words, "is what Harmon Killebrew gets paid $70,000 a year to do and I get paid $15,000 a year to try to stop."
After that homer Sparma settled down, and last week he turned in his third excellent performance in four tries, making the world-champion Baltimore Orioles look inept by holding them to two hits in five innings. To Tiger fans, it was a sign to strike up the band.
Detroit was involved in none of the many major trades in the off season, yet few teams in recent years have changed as drastically from spring training to spring training. Besides Mayo Smith, there is a complete new set of coaches, all experienced specialists. To correct some recent, grievous infield problems, there is Tony Cuccinello, an infield coach in the majors for 18 straight seasons, 14 of them under Al Lopez. Lopez' infielders might have made errors, but they seldom made dumb plays that gave games away. To solve the pitching problems, Johnny Sain came riding into camp on his big white horse, and Sain is the man who erased similar problems with the Minnesota Twins, helping them to first- and second-place finishes the two years he was there. Sain brought with him Hal Naragon, an ex-catcher with a good baseball mind. In 1965, when Twin Manager Sam Mele was suspended and everyone assumed that Billy Martin would be appointed acting manager, Mele merely pointed at Naragon and said, "You." Hitting is one area in which the Tigers have excelled, but Mayo Smith brought Wally Moses with him, anyway. Moses has the reputation of being the best man in the game at getting hitters out of slumps, some of which had extended over a period of years.
What the Tigers are doing, of course, is brain-trusting. They seem to have everything else. In May of last year it looked as if Detroit might prove to be the strong team of the American League, or at the very least a real challenge to Baltimore's drive for the championship. But Manager Charley Dressen suffered a heart attack, left the team in May and died in August. His replacement, sad-eyed Bob Swift, became ill and had to leave the team in July; he died of cancer after the season was over. Swift was replaced by Frank Skaff, and on the next-to-the-last day of the season the floundering Tigers lost second place. "As a team," says Pitcher Hank Aguirre, "we were like a boat with a good wind behind us but no sail. Each of the managers ran the team his own way, which is natural, but we could never get accustomed to anything. And Charley's death and Swift's illness got to us emotionally. We were bewildered." Even so, Detroit managed to win 88 games.
This spring the Tigers' attitude and their devotion to work is extraordinary. Dick McAuliffe, the All Star shortstop who is being shifted to second base to tighten the defense, says, "I've been with Detroit for six seasons, and for the first time everything is absolute business." Yet the change in approach has not produced a cold bureaucracy. The coaches dress with the players: Sain with the pitchers, Cuccinello with the infielders, Naragon with the catchers, and Moses walks about talking to anyone who looks as if he might want to pick up a bat. Often the players find themselves showing up for special instruction at 8:30 in the morning, surprisingly enough at their own request. One morning, with the dew still heavy on the grass, Al Kaline was in the batting nets getting help from Moses. Asked why, Kaline smiled. "I've been in the majors for 14 years," he said, "and I want to know what it's like to play in a World Series."
But the key coach in the new Tiger setup is Sain. "What I try to do," Sain explains, "is look at a pitcher and wonder how I can work with him. I ask myself 'How could I improve if I were that fellow?' I try to sell him on finding a method of improving by using both his ideas and mine. The thing to do is encourage pitchers to discuss pitching all the time among themselves and with hitters. I'm proud that pitchers like Jim Bouton, Al Downing, Whitey Ford, Jim Grant, Jim Perry and Jim Kaat have said that I helped them a great deal, but I have learned more from them than they have from me.'
Sain keeps a notebook on his pitchers, with a grading system of poor, fair, good and excellent. "If you don't keep looking at the book," he says, "over a period of time you will remember only the excellent performances, and you will be unfair to the staff as a whole. Their positions change all the time as to who is the best starting pitcher at the moment, or who is the best stopper now when he is needed. Many times after a pitcher works I will ask him to grade himself or have the pitchers grade each other. Then I will tell them how I graded them. That way each individual is working to be No. 1."
Probably the best example of the success of Sain's grading system was the case of Jim Perry of Minnesota in 1965. Perry was ranked 11th on the Twin staff, but as Sain kept working with him his position in the order steadily rose. He became No. 1 just at the time Camilo Pascual, Minnesota's ace, was sidelined with a shoulder ailment, and Perry won seven games and lost only one in this most desperate situation. As much as anything else, Perry—and Sain—helped the Twins sail serenely away with the American League championship.
Sain's first job as a pitching coach lasted less than a full season. He quit the Kansas City Athletics in August of 1959 and returned to his home in Walnut Ridge, Ark., where he has a Chevrolet agency, an auto-parts store and a farm. When Ralph Houk was named manager of the Yankees in 1961 Sain came back into baseball as Houk's pitching coach. In their three years together New York won 309 games, three pennants and two World Series.
After Yogi Berra was named to replace Houk as manager, Sain left the Yankees. He says now, "I considered Yogi a friend and I still do, but I could not foresee him as a manager. I priced myself out of business by demanding a two-year contract at a big salary, which I knew that the Yankees would not meet." Following a year's layoff, he signed on at Minnesota. The Twins and Sain parted company last fall. "There was a lack of communication between Mele and myself," Sain says. "We withdrew from each other. I didn't understand Sam, and he didn't understand me. I like to level with the pitchers and let them know that I am for them, but this was not possible for me under Mele." During certain periods in the 1966 season Sain and Mele communicated only by notes carried by Naragon. When Sain and Naragon left and were signed by the Tigers, Jim Kaat, Minnesota's 25-game winner, blasted both Owner Calvin Griffith and Mele in an open letter to Twin fans.
There are those who maintain that Sain is too independent, too protective of his pitchers. Sain flies his own airplane, and cynics say that John eventually wants his own air force, made up entirely of pitchers. Yet the record that the Minnesota staff compiled under Sain is ample evidence of his ability to teach. He does have that knack of taking over a staff and getting the utmost in performance and loyalty from it. Early in January he had a talk with Aguirre, whose record of 14-10 in 1965 slid to 3-9 last season. "He's got me doing things with a ball that I never did before," Aguirre says. "To me, the remarkable thing is that he will go out to the mound and actually throw, so that you see right there that what he is teaching works."
Many of the Tiger pitchers have already picked up Sain's hard curve. "I didn't know if I could learn it or not," Joe Sparma said. "I met Sain in Puerto Rico, where I was pitching winter ball, and he said, 'I've got a pitch I'd like you to think about. You don't have to use it. It's up to you.' " Sparma used it, and over the last 49 innings in winter ball he gave up only two earned runs. After his impressive performance last week against Baltimore, Sparma tried to explain what pitching for Sain was like and how it felt to have the Sain hard curve work so successfully.
"Just imagine," he said, "that you were in college and you noticed day after day that one of your professors gave a special look to girls in class. When it came time to write the term paper you'd sure enough try to get something about love in it, wouldn't you? You'd know he was interested in that, and so are you. It's the same way with Sain and that pitch. We are watching this professor." Smith, Sain, Cuccinello, Moses, Naragon and that little bit of love may just make the American League go round this year.