Following the most exciting race in its history, the American League now has people believing in it again. For too many years it was moribund because of the excellence of the New York Yankees and the servility of those willing to bend at the waist before them. But the league has produced pennant winners in Boston, Baltimore, Minnesota and New York during the past four years. Better, the leap by the exciting young Red Sox from ninth to first place last season did much more than stir New England. It convinced other teams that had grown accustomed to finishing deep in the standings that they, too, might rise to become contenders. Talk of a six-team race, in fact, dominated spring-training camps, but mathematics is always against anything as complicated as that and many off-season developments already have had a fateful effect on the year's prospects.
Start with Boston. The Red Sox situation became very grim last winter even before it was learned that the team's brilliant young outfielder, Tony Conigliaro, might never play big-league baseball again. Jim Lonborg, Boston's 22-game winner, broke his leg while skiing. Assuming that Lonborg can come back and pitch by June 1, what assurance is there that he will be effective? Blue-skyers conveniently remember that Bob Gibson of the Cardinals recovered after breaking his leg last season. But Gibson's break was in the right leg, Lonborg's is in the left. Get up from your chair for a moment and try to pitch right-handed. Imagine that Al Kaline is at the plate and you must strike him out pitching right-handed. Throw your best imaginary fastball. Feel a strain on the left leg? There is indeed a difference which leg you break.
Luis Aparicio, Russ Snyder and Tommy Davis have joined the Chicago White Sox, and John Roseboro, Ron Perranoski and Bob Miller are now with the Twins. The surprise team of the league could be the Cleveland Indians, who, after finishing eighth last season, their worst showing since 1914, have traded well and have also spent more than $3 million in dressing up Municipal Stadium and installing a new stadium club for regular customers. Under new Manager Alvin Dark, who likes a running club, they have also put on their running shoes.
The least changed team of all is Detroit. But time is running out on the Tigers, who nearly always get into the race and then blunder opportunities away. The saying about Detroit is: "They will find a way to lose it." Maybe not this time. Detroit tied Minnesota for second last year despite leading the league in injuries as 10 players (not including pitchers) missed a total of 202 games. Kaline handled the bat very well (.308) but not the bat rack—he broke his hand on that and missed a month of the season. Willie Horton was out for 43 games with Achilles' tendon trouble. Outfielder Gates Brown went to the plate fewer than 100 times because of a dislocated wrist, and Don Wert, the second-best third baseman in the league, missed two weeks with an injury. Dick McAuliffe, normally one of the American League's most aggressive hitters, dropped from .274 to .239.
Detroit's front-line pitching, while certainly not the equal of Chicago's, is still very good, and Mickey Lolich, considering his late showing in '67, could become one of the big winners in baseball. Lolich was called up twice by the National Guard last season, once to help defend Detroit against rioters. He went 84 days without a win, rolled up a 10-game losing streak and then came back to win nine of his last 10 games. During the second half of the year his earned run average was 1.66, and that was under real pressure.
Johnny Sain, the talented pitching coach, helped Joe Sparma regain his winning touch (his record was 16-9), but Sain's main job this spring was with Denny McLain. To the Tigers, McLain is a paradox. His record is 7-1 against the White Sox in Tiger Stadium, 1-5 against them in Comiskey Park. When he was talking about building a restaurant two years ago McLain thought of the number of homers he gives up and said, "I might just as well name it The Upper Deck." Last year his homer yield came down from 42 to 35 but his record was 17-16 and he missed the last two weeks of the season with dislocated toes. Everything seems in reasonable order now, and McLain could have a good year.
Because Boston caught the fancy of a lot of image-making Easterners last year, Earl Wilson's remarkable season (22-11) failed to receive the attention it deserved. Since going to the Tigers from the Red Sox in June of 1966, he has a record of 35-17, and he has hit nine homers in that time. Wilson, a bachelor of 32, owns some 50 suits and three dozen pairs of shoes. "I'm not a swinger," he says, "but once the season is over I move out real good." At Boston, Wilson had trouble with his temper and was instructed to throw fastballs instead of using all his pitches. "Now," he says, "my pitching is more mental than physical. I'm more concerned with each pitch, because I've learned that even if the hitter has a good idea of what pitch I'm going to use, I can still get him out if I throw it right. Today I worry before a game. It's not that I have any fear of pitching. What I have a fear of—this may just be a matter of word selection—is losing."
The Tigers should have won last year, but their bullpen wasted four victories in the eighth or ninth innings during the last two weeks of the season. Should the Tiger bullpen improve, the other elements, particularly the club's defense, are there. But do the Tigers want to win badly enough to make it happen?
The team with the most desire and least talent in 1967 was Chicago. How Manager Eddie Stanky got the White Sox to finish only three games out of first place is still one of the unanswered mysteries of modern times. He tilted many a windmill and kept interest up in people (outside of his pitchers) you had never heard about. The Sox made a number of off-season changes, but did not lose much of their splendid pitching. They now will play in both Milwaukee and Comiskey Park, and they will play quite well.
The most prominent change is the addition of hitters, not that anybody is going to make a dent in the walls of Comiskey Park where an exploding scoreboard in center field is in danger of falling into disuse. At one point last summer the Sox played 120 innings with a total of three homers. Once, by error, the scoreboard was shot off when a fly ball bounced into the stands for a ground-rule double. A call came from the opposing bench to Howie Roberts, the man who issues the order to detonate the board. The voice was Mel Harder's. He asked, "What the hell do you do for triples?"
The lack of the homer has not hurt Chicago as much as one might think, because the spaciousness of Comiskey Park and the excellence of the club's pitching have tranquilized the best home-run hitters in the league. During 1966-67, for instance, the league's 12 best hit 419 homers, but only 13 of them in Comiskey Park.
Chicago used close to 50 players to get through 1967. Since the team hit so poorly it was generally assumed that Chicago's strength was its defense. Not so. General Manager Ed Short's off-season efforts were aimed mainly at achieving hitting and stability. Aparicio replaces Ron Hansen at shortstop, and Stanky will use both Tim Cullen and Sandy Alomar at second. Ken Boyer, the team's top hitter in 1967 at .261, will play third and Tom McCraw first, but Pete Ward can and will fill in at both positions. His 18 homers topped last year's team, a fact Stanky is not likely to ignore. The outfield probably will have Tommy Davis, a consistent .300 National League hitter (and look what Frank Robinson did when he changed leagues), Ken Berry and the traded-for Russ Snyder, a man who hits his best with runners in scoring position. Duane Josephson and Jerry McNertney will be the catchers, and Josephson should hit better than his .238 of last year. Outfielders Buddy Bradford, Bill Voss and Walt Williams give Stanky some speed and fluidity.
"We know we will win games with our infield defense this year," Stanky said recently, "and probably lose some by our outfield defense. But our hitting has improved."
If possible, the pitching might have, too. Joe Horlen, Gary Peters and Tommy John, who was sick for part of the season, seem sharp. Their earned run averages in 1967 ranked, respectively, first, second and fourth. John could move up. Cisco Carlos (SI, March 11), the rookie who had an ERA of 0.86 in 42 innings during the stretch fight, looked very good in exhibition games. Jack Fisher, obtained from the Mets, can work 200 innings if needed. Stanky's bullpen will again be led by Bob Locker, Wilbur Wood, Don McMahon and apparently ageless Hoyt Wilhelm, whose knuckleball seems to get more untouchable with each new season.
With Aparicio and Snyder gone from the Baltimore Orioles, Manager Hank Bauer loses some lineup balance and bench strength. Even though this is no fault of Bauer's, the rumor is that he may be fired early in the season should his club fail to get off to an impressive start. There were many illusions in Baltimore as the '67 season got under way. After sweeping the Dodgers aside in the '66 World Series, the Orioles were supposed to be on the threshold of a dynasty. Events, however, did not bear out this historical preview. Before mid-September the Orioles had put together as much as a four-game winning streak only once. They sank ignominiously from world champions to a tie for sixth.
Baltimore's troubles began in spring training when the players got into an argument with management over television money and management got into a tizzy over Bauer's role in the affair. Then Mike Epstein, a rookie who felt he should stay with the team rather than be sent to the minors, rebelled. Instead of holding firm, management weakly traded him. Frank Robinson next charged the team with jealousy. Steve Barber lost a no-hitter and also jumped the club. The yearbook did not come out until August, costing the Orioles some $50,000 in revenue. Relief Pitcher Eddie Fisher was accused of hitting a house detective at 4 a.m. in a Chicago hotel. That is the kind of year Baltimore had.
In his forthcoming book, My Life is Baseball (Double-day & Company, Inc., $4.95), Robinson says, "As early as June...I could see that we weren't going anywhere. Looking back, I think the worst thing that could have happened to us was when we won our first three games of the season. We beat Minnesota twice, then Kansas City. And, right away, a lot of players felt...here we go again, we'll win.... We just seemed to think that because we were the champs all we had to do was go out on the field and we'd win."
Robinson, of all the Orioles, seemed least affected by the team's malaise. He was moving along almost as well as he had the year before, when he won the Triple Crown. Then he collided with Al Weis of the White Sox. He was out for 31 days. Even when he returned to the lineup he played with his vision impaired. At that, he finished the season with 30 home runs, 94 RBIs and a .311 average. Boog Powell, the huge first baseman who seems to grow in size but not in stature, played in 125 games, four fewer than Robinson, and his numbers were awful (13, 55, .234). During one stretch of 80 at bats he failed to drive home a single run.
Powell, however, has had a good year on top of a bad one more than once, and if Baltimore is to climb he is going to have to play a big part in it. Brooks Robinson was in and out with his hitting (.269), and he probably typified the frustrations the club felt when he hit 10 straight homers with nobody on. The one bright spot was the play of Centerfielder Paul Blair, who was fifth in the league in hitting (.293). Just to keep up with the way things were going, Blair went to play winter ball and promptly broke his ankle. Blair, remarkably, is back and playing. If he is right, if Powell and the Robinsons are right, the team's hitting will be superb.
Unfortunately, because of a lot of sore arms, the Oriole pitching staff had not been right for the last two years, during which it completed only 52 games (compared to the Twins' 110). Once again this spring Jim Palmer was bothered by his arm, but Oriole spring pitching, at least statistically, was 20% better than that of any of the clubs that finished above them in '67. Roger Nelson, a 23-year-old righthander from the White Sox, could be a sleeper in the Oriole plans. Bauer will use Jim Hardin (8-3 last season), Tom Phoebus (14-9) and Dave McNally (7-7), with Bruce Howard (3-10), picked up from the White Sox, and Spot Starter Gene Brabender (6-4). Curt Blefary will get a chance to catch and probably will lead off, but Shortstop Mark Belanger, excellent fielder that he is, will have to hit better than in the past (.174 in '67). Don Buford might also help with his speed and bat.
The Orioles, who made too many mistakes last year to give any indication of their true talent, could be any kind of a team. They will be contenders if everything, for a change, goes well.
Minnesota's Twins appeared to have the pennant won with two days left last season, but then they had to field ground balls in Boston: finis. Fielding ground balls is not one of their strong points, and when they start to throw balls around, hell breaks loose. As Owner Cal Griffith said after those final losses, "We were awful and didn't deserve to win."
Once Griffith was considered a very conservative trader, but in the last two years he has dealt away Jimmie Hall, Don Mincher, Zoilo Versalles and Jim Grant. He now assesses his needs carefully and goes after what he believes he must have to keep the Twins in contention. People laughed at Griffith when he got Cesar Tovar from the Reds in 1964, but without Tovar last year Minnesota would not have been anywhere near the pennant. For Mincher and Hall he obtained the stopper the pitching staff needed in Dean Chance, a 20-game winner. It was obvious to Griffith at the end of last season that he would have to have relief pitching and an experienced catcher who could hit. So he gave Los Angeles Grant and Versalles for Catcher John Roseboro (.272 and .276 in the National League the past two seasons) and Relief Pitchers Ron Perranoski and Bob Miller. Good moves! Sadly, the left side of Minnesota's infield is a puzzlement. Richie Rollins, the most used third baseman of recent years, is just over a knee operation, and Shortstop Jackie Hernandez, a fine fielder, never stunned anyone in the minors with his bat. Little Tovar will have to play a lot of positions again this year. It is Minnesota's misfortune that he cannot play three at the same time.
Harmon Killebrew hit 44 homers and would have hit more had he not been struck by a pitch in August. Because of bone fragments in his knee, Tony Oliva was never sound last year, but he was hitting at the close of the season—15 for 21 at one point—and ended up at .289.
The most disturbing news as far as Twin followers are concerned is that Jim Kaat, their best lefthander, will open the season on the disabled list with an elbow problem that he encountered in the next-to-last game of 1967. The rest of the Twins' pitching is good, but once that defense starts to throw the ball around, ugh!
If there is one thing on which American League managers are going to be in accord this season it is Carl Yastrzemski. Although the boos will fill the streets outside of Fenway Park, where the largest advance sale in Red Sox history has already been accomplished (close to $1 million), Yaz is not going to get too much to hit at. He was not a lucky Triple Crown winner in 1967. Everyone, in fact, respected his accomplishments, so much so that it now seems agreed that the best method of avoiding defeat by Boston may be to pitch around Yaz and work on whomever Manager Dick Williams can come up with to hit behind him.
The Red Sox had hopes that Conigliaro would be able to make a successful comeback after being hit by a Jack Hamilton pitch in August. Last week, after striking out eight times in 10 at bats in Florida, Conigliaro returned to Boston to undergo further eye tests. It was disclosed that his eyesight had deteriorated. His vision is now distorted, and he has "poor or no depth perception."
Basically, Boston's lineup is solid and young. Manager Dick Williams has a huge doghouse approach to managing, but his methods proved worthy enough last season. (A wooden doghouse board has been made for Williams this year, and every player has a tag with his name on it. But if Yaz's tag goes on it, boys, Williams might get run out of town.) The Boston catching and pitching are weak, however, and an operation on Russ Gibson's appendix during spring training has not helped matters much. He will be late getting into shape. Gene Oliver and aging Elston Howard must be ready to handle a long schedule.
Conigliaro's recovery might have been the key to Boston's success or failure this year. After losing time and his touch doing temporary military duty in 1967, he still had 20 homers, 67 RBIs and was batting .281 when he was injured with 46 games to go. Now Williams must try to replace him, perhaps with Joe LaHoud, a 19-year-old outfielder with only 161 games of minor league experience, or José Tartabull, a good fielder with only two homers in six major league seasons. Both bat left-handed. Ken Harrelson can hit homers but is a poor fielder.
If Conigliaro's courage alone could win a pennant, then this Boston team would have no problems, for it took valor on his part to try a comeback so quickly after the experience he had last summer. "My vision isn't perfect yet," he said early this spring before exhibition games started. "I've got one blind spot, and I'm standing a little farther from the plate now. Look, I'll never forget last August 18, but baseball is my life. If I'm gun shy I'm through."
Back home in Boston, Conigliaro tried his best to encourage his teammates and followers about his future. "I want all my friends to know that I'm not going to quit and that somehow, some way, there will be good days again," he said. If there are for Conigliaro in baseball, they probably will not occur this season. Thus, with Lonborg a very doubtful commodity himself, Boston's pitching will have to be just this side of wonderful if the team is to stay afloat until the two return to form or, highly unlikely, comparable replacements are found for both injured players. Williams' five starters will be Ray Culp, Dick Ellsworth, Jose Santiago, Jerry Stephenson and Gary Waslewski, and their combined records last year added up to 31-25. The easiest thing to say of the Red Sox is no way. There was no way last year, either.
Taped to the top of Mike Epstein's locker at the Washington Senators' spring training camp was a piece of paper with these words printed in red ink: "As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he." Having dieted away 23 pounds and seemingly rediscovered the batting stance that enabled him to become the International League's MVP two seasons back, Epstein is an exciting player again. If he remains so the league as a whole and the Senators in particular will profit greatly.
Epstein, 25, is bright enough to believe he knows what happened to him in his first try at the majors. "After a while," he says, "I think the players wanted to see me as much as the fans did. It became a show-me attitude on the part of the players and the fans—now show me you can do it. It's all part of the game. The more they gave me that show-me attitude, the worse I got."
Even with Epstein going bad last summer, Senator fans went out in greater numbers (770,868) than at any time in 20 years as Washington tied the Orioles for sixth place. Their record against first-division teams was 46-44 and that, topped by a fine exhibition season, should encourage people. Jim Lemon, hired to replace the popular Gil Hodges as manager, is going to try to get the Senators to show a little more daring on the bases.
Blessed with good relief pitching, a fine catcher in Paul Casanova and hitters such as the traded-for Sam Bowens and Ron Hansen to help Frank Howard (36 homers), now the highest paid Senator ever, and Epstein, Washington has good power. The pitching will probably line up with Camilo Pascual, Frank Bertaina, Dick Bosman, Barry Moore, Phil Ortega and Bill Denehey. Epstein, though, is the team bellwether.
Any true race needs long shots with winning potential, and the two this year are assuredly the California Angels and the Cleveland Indians. Manager Bill Rigney believes that his Angels matured during the last week of 1967 when they knocked Detroit and Minnesota around while finishing fifth. The Angels have an excellent double-play combination in Shortstop Jim Fregosi (.290) and Bobby Knoop (.245), both Gold Glove winners. Don Mincher hit 25 homers, Jimmy Hall 16 and Rick Reichardt, the boy everybody is waiting on, hit over .300 during the last two months and ended up with 17 homers. California's catching will be taken care of with more than ordinary aplomb by Bob Rodgers, but this spring Aurelio Rodriguez, the Mexican third baseman, did not hit the way the Angels had hoped he would.
California got only 19 complete games out of its pitchers last year, so Rig, the master manipulator, may have to be in top form again. One man he had counted on as a potential starter, Sammy Ellis, acquired from the Reds, had a poor exhibition season. Jim McGlothlin and Rickey Clark are capable but young. Minnie Rojas, who appeared in 72 games in relief, will have to have another good year for the Angels to reach the station many think them capable of attaining—first place.
Cleveland's reach this year could exceed its grasp, but some people, Chicago's Stanky included, consider the Indians a team to beware of. According to General Manager Gabe Paul, Sam McDowell, the controversial and often confused lefthander, "has reached the maturity that should raise him to greatness." If McDowell truly has matured at 25, then the Indians, with Sonny Siebert, Steve Hargan, Luis Tiant and Stan Williams going for them, too, have formidable front-line pitching. And behind them is Eddie Fisher, who has had many a good year bringing his knuckleball out of bullpens in Chicago and Baltimore.
Cleveland's catching is better than adequate, its infield suspect and the outfield made up of elements of speed and power that Manager Dark can juggle around to suit the situation. That strong pitching, though, will be Cleveland's principal forte.
Last season things were too messed up throughout the entire Kansas City structure to call the Athletics a major league team. There are a lot of good new people in Charlie Finley's freshly settled Oakland organization, so messing around is a thing of the past, right, or have you forgotten Finley? Manager Bob Kennedy has a two-year contract. Should he make it to the end, he will be the first man ever to have accomplished that feat with Finley.
The A's have excellent young talent, and it is not all concentrated in their pitching (Blue Moon Odom, Tony Pierce, Jim Nash, Chuck Dobson, Lew Krausse). Rick Monday (.251 and 14 homers) is an exciting outfielder who should hit for more power in the Oakland Stadium. Sal Bando and Reggie Jackson probably will blossom. All three attended Arizona State University, where excellent players are developed, thanks to a schedule some 70 games long.
The New York Yankees finished ninth last season, so what's it all about, Ralphie? Their 1967 road record was the way Yankee-haters in other years always wanted it to be, 29-52, but New York is headed in the right direction even though the fruits of the work probably will not be seen for a couple of seasons. The tip-off on what kind of year the 1967 Yanks had lies in the fact that Mickey Mantle played in more games (144) than any other Yankee. His batting average was only .245, but he did have 22 homers, 19 of them, however, corning before August.
Manager Ralph Houk's pitching was the fourth best in the league, and any hopes for 1968 center on its being as good again. Jim Bouton had an encouraging spring. He will join Mel Stottlemyre, Bill Monboquette, Al Downing and Stan Bahnsen. Dooley Womack and Steve Hamilton provide a good bullpen, but the club was 10th in the league in fielding last year, and did you ever believe you would see that? Or read about the Yankees last in a scouting report?