All around the American League, baseball gossips were discussing the reform movement on the Boston Red Sox: the playboys of Fenway Park were being disciplined by a new tough-guy manager with a deceptively bland name, Dick Williams (not related to Ted by blood or playing ability). He had fought with one of his pitchers while managing at Toronto, chased another minor league malcontent up the runway from the dugout and figuratively banished curfew violators to Vladivostok in the Siberian League. On close inspection, however, Williams turns out to be not such a stern shop foreman.
"We've got the ball club working together, yelling for each other. That's all it is," he said last week during a three-game set with the California Angels. "Just put out, put out all the time. They know if they don't hustle, they're in trouble with me. Now the team is playing like a unit, the way we did in Toronto. That was our main job, to get togetherness on the ball club."
Of course, Williams is doing much more than preaching one-for-allism. As an example, the Red Sox, like Richard Nixon, are constantly running. Last year they stole only 35 bases. Williams says, "We'll pick up that many this year just on hit-and-runs that batters miss." The Red Sox sometimes even run in the morning, in the hours once reserved for sleeping off the night before. Williams knows that when his team has a night game on the road, the home team always uses the field first for its pregame workout, and he figures that that does not leave enough time for his pitchers and second-stringers to take their stay-in-shape wind sprints. So he rounds them up and has them run relay races in the dewy outfield at 11 a.m. The only players excused are the regulars, the two long relievers (John Wyatt and Don McMahon), the previous night's pitcher and that night's pitcher. The relay runners can nap in the afternoon and be fresh again for any spot duty.
There have been other strict measures. Sore arms and excess weight draw Williams' disapproval. At one point in a recent season Boston had 12 pitchers on the staff and eight of them had arm trouble. Now those pitchers don't stay around. For example, Dave Morehead, who threw a no-hitter in 1965 but developed a sore arm last season, is down in the minors again and has "a long battle ahead of him" to get back up. It is not that Williams thinks sore-arm pitchers are malingerers. But he does feel that they should not be taking up room on his roster while they recover. Too, when contracts were sent out between seasons, Williams made weight assignments. Young Pitcher Jerry Stephenson finished the spring 10 pounds over his limit. Zap. "He's working off that extra weight in Toronto," says Williams.
The new unifier of the Red Sox won two International League playoffs in two seasons at Toronto using his methods and spirit, most of which, he says, derive from his days in the Brooklyn Dodgers organization. A Californian, he was signed out of Pasadena High School, where he had followed in the athletic footsteps of his older brother, Ellery, who later was a star end at Santa Clara and played one season for football's New York Giants. Dick played a little football, too, but his cleat-wearing days were cut short in his senior year at Pasadena when Bob Lillis, now an infielder with Houston, tackled him in a scrimmage, twisted his knee by accident and took over his starting halfback spot.
Another injury curtailed Williams' baseball career. He was a promising young outfielder with the Dodgers when he dived for a ball, fell heavily and suffered a separated shoulder. His throwing was impaired, and he was a utility man most of the rest of his playing days, which ended with Boston in 1964.
Williams' 1967 Red Sox are not radically different in personnel from the 1966 bunch that plodded dismally to a ninth-place finish. Even the disciplinary crackdown is not entirely new. Billy Herman, whom Williams replaced, began tossing fines at his players last season. But Williams hypoed the reform and renovation of the club.
Take the infield. People who remember Dick Stuart, Felix Mantilla, Eddie Bressoud and an aging Frank Malzone have in their minds an image of an infield with all the grace of a Surveyor III moon probe. But no longer. George Scott may swing inaccurately (152 strikeouts last season, a club record), but there is nothing wrong with his eyes or coordination at first base. Now that the Yankees' Joe Pepitone has shifted to the outfield, Scott probably is the league's best at his position. Rookie Mike Andrews, taller at 6'3" than most second basemen, has the potential to become a fine fielder and he isn't too bad right now. Dalton Jones, generally considered a good-hit-no-glove guy, "makes all the plays" at third base, or at least Williams says he does. But the position that really gets Dick worked up is shortstop, manned by Americo P. Petrocelli.
"Rico is a beautiful ballplayer," the manager says. "He's like a cat. He gets a real good jump on the ball. And he's a happy fellow right now."
That Rico was unhappy last year was no secret. He was fined once by Herman for leaving the ballpark in the middle of a game (his wife was ill, he explained later), and he was bothered by an internal abscess that the club, for a while, did not believe existed. That's all in the past. Now Rico is happy and healthy, and if he has matured so has his batting average. Last Saturday he was hitting .319, sixth in the league, and had a shot at improving on his 1966 homer total of 18.
Rico, like Scott, Andrews and Jones, is only 23. Outfielders Tony Conigliaro and Carl Yastrzemski, with nine years of experience between them, are 22 and 27. Rookie Center Fielder Reggie Smith is 22. The old man in the starting lineup is a 28-year-old rookie catcher, Russ Gibson from Fall River, Mass. Gibson spent 10 years in the minors and was never under a major league contract until this year. He handles pitchers well his first game was rookie Bill Rohr's one-hitter against New York; his second was an eighteen-inning marathon), throws well (he nailed three base-stealers in one game and twice threw out Kansas City's speedy Bert Campaneris) and, until three hitless games in Anaheim last week, he was batting .300.
But Boston's strong hitting and—for the most part—surprisingly good fielding have not surprised the league as much as the pitching. Dennis Bennett, a prime candidate for Williams' censure in both the sore-arm and avoirdupois departments, had an operation on his left shoulder a year ago to remove a "huge hunk of calcium, about three-fourths of an inch in diameter." It had been cutting into a tendon. Further, Bennett, who weighed 225 pounds, is now down to 206 and is aiming at an even 200. Last week against the Angels he went a full nine innings, allowed no runs and six hits and helped himself by hitting a three-run homer.
Bennett's shutout was both pleasing and painful to the Boston press corps. In 1965 Bennett copied the late Tony Lema and threw a champagne party for the newsmen on the occasion of his first complete game with the Red Sox. He was promised a reciprocal champagne bash when he got his first shutout. The one against California was it, but Bennett was merciful. He said he would settle for domestic stuff as a patriotic gesture.
Another encouraging left-hander is Rohr, only 21, who came so close to a no-hit game in his first major league appearance. He has a deceptive motion, a fast ball, a curve and a changeup off both the fast ball and the curve. A third young pitcher, 24-year-old Jim Lonborg, who has a degree in biology from Stanford and who once wanted to be a surgeon, had a 2-1 record that could easily have been 5-0. Williams says Lonborg twice blew three-run leads by "coasting," but then, against Kansas City, "he did just what we wanted him to, go hard all the way. He shut out the Athletics and struck out 13 guys."
Lonborg was almost that effective against the Angels in his next start, but with unhappier results. All that California got in the first six innings was a walk. Jim Fregosi broke up no-hit thoughts with a sharp single in the seventh, but Lonborg still had a 1-0 lead as he went to the mound in the bottom of the ninth. Fregosi got his, and the Angels', second hit of the game, a slashing single to right. Two ground-ball hits followed that scored the tying run, and an intentional walk left the bases loaded with two out. Then came a play that all the togetherness and morning running could do nothing to prevent.
Lonborg bounced a wild pitch in front of the plate and off Gibson's leg. The catcher lost track of the ball and whirled around in frantic haste to find it. But the ball rolled back out toward the mound. Lonborg raced in and picked it up, but Gibson was still searching and there was no one to take the toss. Jay Johnstone raced in from third to score the winning run. It was Boston's fifth one-run loss of the season, and as Lonborg and Gibson trudged off the field together the ball sat undisturbed near home plate, right where the chagrined Lonborg had dropped it.
Still, the Red Sox generally have looked sharp and the idea lingers that this is a different sort of Boston team and one that might attain Williams' goal of "winning more games than we lose," a revolutionary idea for Boston (it hasn't happened since 1958).
"The pitching will be the story," agreed California Manager Bill Rigney. "I don't even want to talk about those guys in the corners—Yastrzemski in left field, Conigliaro in right. Yaz beats the heck out of our club. And that shortstop—Petrocelli—he always has been good when he wants to be."
Jimmy Piersall of the Angels, who was with Boston for eight seasons, made a statement that should raise the spirits of Red Sox fans from Swampscott to Fall River.
"I haven't seen enough of them yet, I admit, but right now they look better than any Red Sox team in the last 10 years."