The best thing we did during the winter was strengthen ourselves through the middle.... Now we have the best bench we ever had, and that's going to come in mighty handy, because we seem to get ourselves involved in an awful lot of those one-run games.... If I had to put my finger on the thing we need most I would say it is a left-handed relief pitcher.... This year we are not going to sit around and wait for the long ball as much as we have in the past.... He's got the position until he plays himself out of it.... The trades we made during the winter will help us to handle our own ball park better.... The one thing I know for sure is that for some of these players the honeymoon is over...Listen, I've been in a lot of towns, but our fans are as good as any, and this season we are going to give them the type of club they will like.
For the past seven weeks the words—the familiar old words—have been pouring out of 20 major league managers readying their teams for another season, with all its attendant excitement, desolation, feuds, gallantry, nonsense, excellence and ritual. This week belatedly, in deference to the memory of Martin Luther King, baseball started again, and by the time the dust clears from six months and 1,620 games more than 25 million people will have gone to old ball parks and new ones to watch the game that still remains closer to the American ken than any other.
Kansas City is out, Oakland is in and Milwaukee somehow is suspended in limbo. Gussie Busch has wiped the egg off his face, put it back in his beer and welcomed Bing Devine back to Camelot in St. Louis. Maury Wills is going to wear track shoes while running the bases for a handsome new Pittsburgh manager named Larry Shepard, who sings like a bird and is expected to return harmony to a team that lost it somewhere in 1967. The California Angels will continue to be the only expansion team to be a contender, and that old Cincinnati balloon has been blown up once again. Nobody seems to give the Red Sox a chance, except the Red Sox themselves. Walter O'Malley is talking so much about baseball in Japan that some feel he may be about to kiss Los Angeles sayonara. Nearly 35 coaches have shifted around since last October, and the New York Mets got themselves a fine young manager—Gil Hodges—by trading a fine young pitcher—Bill Denehy—and money to the Washington Senators.
The favorites to win the National and American League pennants are the St. Louis Cardinals and the Detroit Tigers but, as Hank Bauer of the Baltimore Orioles says, "The men who make odds don't play baseball." Willie is back and so are Mickey and Yaz. Tony O. seems well again, and maybe some of Bauer's pitchers are, too. Everyone is suspicious of the Dodgers; they should also suspect the Cleveland Indians, who may have a team, finally, that will lure people from the barbecue pits of Shaker Heights. Roberto Clemente will be swinging for his fifth batting title. If he gets it he joins Honus Wagner, Rogers Hornsby and Stan Musial as the only National Leaguers ever to do so. Henry Aaron needs just 19 homers to reach 500, and sometime during the season 44-year-old Hoyt Wilhelm will come out of the White Sox bullpen to make his 900th appearance in a major league game.
People are wondering what gives with the Phillies. After deep investigation only one logical conclusion may be drawn: who knows? The Mets could move up in the standings, and there are strong rumors throughout baseball that the Yankees are for sale. (They probably will be sold secretly at 3 a.m. and by wire to AT&T.) Somehow baseball will be played again in Fenway Park, even though Lou Brock stole all the bases there last fall.
Those lovable elves, Eddie Stanky and Leo Durocher, will work in Chicago once more, and the White Sox will have drawn 300,000 fans in Milwaukee by the time they have played the last of their 10 dates there. Long before Bob Gibson of St. Louis threw his first pitch of the season this week a spectacular advance sale put more than $1,700,000 in a bank not far from the Cardinals' ball park. A team as well paid as the Cards demands a good advance sale. Consider the salaries of their probable starting lineup
Franchise watchers in 1968 will be looking carefully to see if an attendance battle is joined between the San Francisco Giants and the peripatetic A's, now residing in Oakland. The A's first interesting home stand is against the Twins and White Sox in early May, but it comes on the heels of a Giant stay at Candlestick that includes games with Los Angeles, Atlanta, Cincinnati and St. Louis. Charlie Finley may have to get off his donkey and do quite a bit of work to mine gold in the Bay Area. And how long will he and Joe DiMaggio form a battery?
Baseball is going to change after 1968. This season will probably be the last in which the pennant-winning club will have to beat out only nine others to earn a championship. The American League is expanding to 12 teams in 1969, and the National League is expected to make the same decision soon. Both leagues will then split into two divisions of six clubs each, and division winners will meet to decide which team represents its league in the World Series. Hopefully, baseball will be bright enough not to name its divided leagues Coastal, Capital, Century and Central. The 12-team setup most likely will cut down on the number of games to be played, because baseball really does not need 162 games to decide which is the best team.
During spring training an attempt was made to eliminate the dominance of the pitcher by enforcing a ban on the spitball. Any pitcher who put his hand to his mouth twice would first be warned and then disqualified. The National and American Leagues characteristically approached the problem in different ways, the American choosing to disqualify players and the more sophisticated National deciding that, since the purpose of spring training was to train, nobody would be thrown out until the season began. Finally Commissioner William Eckert and the rules committee changed the rule to penalize the pitcher rather than disqualify him, and thus the season is ready to begin with nobody really knowing what is going on.
Never have more gimmicks been employed than will be in evidence at the start of this season. The Houston Astros are going to fasten Exergenies, weight-pulling devices, to the walls of the Astrodome and use them before the start of games. Before games in Cincinnati the Reds will once again use calisthenics. The Twins have been swinging a six-pound red-and-blue magnesium bat in the on-deck circle, and some of them will use a bat this year called the "Oregon Slammer." Harmon Killebrew is the man behind the Slammer. He maintains that it does not chip as easily as ash because it is made from tan oak wood, found only in southern Oregon and northern California.
Yet to make its appearance but expected soon is another bat, the "Watts Walloper." It is being manufactured in Watts, Calif., and, hopefully, its use will be restricted to baseball. Lou Johnson, that fine, free spirit traded from the Dodgers to the Chicago Cubs, is one of the men who will be pushing to get the Watts Walloper used throughout the major leagues. "There are about 25 people employed in the bat factory in Watts," Johnson says. "Most of them have police records and can't get jobs anywhere else, but they still want to work. I figure if I can get a few players to use their bats I'll be making jobs for these people. I'll show off my bats this summer and see if I can get a few contracts from players."
Among the first things that the fans will see this season are colored doughnuts. They are made of hard rubber and are slipped over the bats to add weight to them, thus eliminating the need for leaded bats in the on-deck circle. They are preferred by the players, who like the idea of loosening up with the bat they will be taking to the plate.
Perhaps two of the more surprising developments of the spring had to do with running. The San Francisco Giants were doing a lot of it at their camp in Casa Grande, Ariz., and so were the Twins at Orlando, Fla. When the Twins won the pennant in 1965, they displayed a great deal of daring on the bases. So they hired George Washington Case, the famous former base-stealer for the Washington Senators, to help them get off and running again. For the Giants, however, running is a complete departure. Over the past two seasons the entire team stole a total of only 51 bases. Lou Brock over that same period stole 126.
Certainly the most modern approach to change was made this spring at Fort Myers, Fla., where the Pirates train. Dr. Thomas A. Tutko, a psychologist who has dealt with thousands of athletes to discover what motivates them, gave the Pirates a series of questions to find out what their hang-ups might be. Favored to win the National League pennant last season. Pittsburgh finished a dismal sixth and even managed to lose one game when its hitters batted out of turn against the Mets. Dr. Tutko has worked previously with four professional football teams—New Orleans, Los Angeles, Dallas and San Francisco—and if you credit the success of the Rams and the Cowboys to him, then he is batting two for four, which is considered very good in baseball.
Tutko says of the Pirates, "They are the most cooperative group I have ever worked with. The front office has put no restrictions on me. I suppose that some people will think that I have been called in to work with them because of all their recent troubles. The truth is that if there were lots of troubles, they would never have called me in. People don't want to expose the dirt in their closet."
All the mechanical devices, new managers and psychologists will play a part in this season, but baseball is still a superior game because of the quality of its stars and its continuity. One good baseball team seems capable of doing more for the pride of a city than six political conventions. Last year Boston and St. Louis were marvelous, alive with hope and concern for teams that had come from ninth and sixth places to win. Indeed, Boston's "impossible dream" and St. Louis' El Birdos took baseball back in time to a period when nobody questioned what really was the national game.
The four-team American League pennant race was not decided until 7:15 p.m. on the final Sunday of the season and, when Dick McAuliffe bounced into a double play to end Detroit's chances of a tie, it brought to light a remarkable statistic. It was only the second double play McAuliffe had grounded into all year. (His ration was one double play for every 278 at bats.) Just the year before, with three teams fighting it out, the National League pennant was not clinched until 7 p.m. on the final day.
These wonderful races were made to order for the true baseball fan, who is never happy unless he has plenty to worry about. In the forthcoming season, happily, there is a lot to concern him. What about Yaz, and can anyone ever do what he did again? Will Eddie Stanky change, as so many want him to? (Let's hope not.) How bad are Gene Alley's arm and Jim Kaat's elbow? What about Mays and Marichal; Allen and White? Will the Cincinnati Reds play to their potential after a winter and spring of haggling with management over salaries? Can Boog Powell, at the age of 26, win the "Comeback Player of the Year" award for the second time in three years and lead Baltimore to the pennant? Can Detroit shuck off its reputation for losing when it should win? Will the young Cardinal pitching staff be as strong as it was last year? There are 162 glorious days in which to find out.
Lou Brock (LF)
Curt Flood (CF)
Roger Maris (RF)
Orlando Cepeda (1B)
Tim McCarver (C)
Mike Shannon (3B)
Julian Javier (2B)
Dal Maxvill (SS)
Bob Gibson (P)