The baseball season, usually an exercise in tranquillity until Labor Day, already looks like a video-taped instant stop-action replay of all the madness that transpired during the final week of last year's wild American League race.
There were the Minnesota Twins running off with six successive victories and tenuously clutching first place. Hold it. There were the Detroit Tigers winning nine straight games and suddenly precariously resting in first place. Wait a minute. There were Carl Yastrzemski and the Boston Red Sox sneaking up from third place. And, oh yes, there were the Chicago White Sox still losing to every team they played and Manager Eddie Stanky still sermonizing to anyone who would listen.
Whew. Now throw in a few beanballs and a few knockdowns, some calculated brushbacks and a dash of personality conflicts and, gosh, it certainly seems as though the season is in the last week of September once again.
Only one aspect of this mid-April excitement had been predictable: the Twins, who played mostly Washington and New York the first two weeks of the season, were expected to start with a strong winning streak. They did. Manager Cal Ermer obviously has the Twins playing as a team, which was not exactly the situation last year, when they were wrecked by several cases of internal disorder. Bob Allison has been the most productive hitter in the league during the first two weeks, while Harmon Killebrew and a new Tony Oliva, who is married now and has settled his legal problems, both are meeting the ball the way they usually do. If there are troubles on the team, they center around Rod Carew, the second baseman and Rookie of the Year in 1967. He still has not learned to run the bases. The Twins' first loss came when Carew, representing the tying run, was picked off third base with two out in the bottom of the ninth.
"So they've won six straight games," Detroit Manager Mayo Smith said before the Twins' loss. "That doesn't mean anything yet. There is no way any team is going to spread-eagle this field so early. No way, believe me."
The Tigers, Red Sox and White Sox, to name three that weren't about to spread-eagle, spent the first two weeks playing a round robin that also included the Cleveland Indians. The complexities confronting each team seemed involved enough to insure practically even competition. "The object of the first two weeks was primarily to stay above .500 somehow," said Smith. The Tigers, after all, had a bullpen of untested kids, a team with little finesse—they murdered the ball or else—and the aura of defeat, a relic of that horrible last day of the 1967 season when they lost the pennant.
The Red Sox had a number of possible excuses themselves, among them the injuries to Pitcher Jim Lonborg and Outfielder Tony Conigliaro and a pitching staff that without Lonborg was totally suspect. The White Sox, like Detroit, also sported a defeatist image, having lost their final five games last year, and now Stanky hoped to win with hitters like Tommy Davis instead of bunters like Walter (No-Neck) Williams.
Alibis aside, what took place between these teams during the past two weeks probably will be the story for their 1968 season. The Tigers did everything they failed to do a year ago and won nine straight games, including three by a 21-year-old rookie relief pitcher, Jon Warden, who worked at Rocky Mount, N.C. last year. The Red Sox survived several dusting incidents with the White Sox and the Indians, and they also won four straight complete games, including successive shutouts by Pitchers Dick Ellsworth and Jose Santiago—in Fenway Park, of all places.
Avoiding beanballs and small talk, the Tigers have thus far concentrated solely on winning. "We seem to have a new approach going for us," said Catcher Bill Freehan, their leader. "Last year we always thought, 'maybe we can win,' and then if we didn't win a game we'd say, 'O.K., we'll try to get them tomorrow.' This year there is no maybe. The pennant is right there—ours to take—and we think only about winning today." This was dramatized in Tiger Stadium when Detroit beat the Indians 4-3 in 10 innings. Cleveland's Sam McDowell had a 2-1 lead in the bottom of the ninth, but the Tigers had the tying run at second base with two outs. Smith sent Jim Price, who plays sparingly as Freehan's substitute, to pinch-hit for Shortstop Ray Oyler. Price shortened his swing and lined a single into right center field to drive in the tying run. That sort of thing happened only rarely in 1967.
The Indians, however, scored in the top of the 10th inning, and with Eddie Fisher throwing his knuckleball, it appeared that the Tigers had just delayed the inevitable. Fisher quickly got Mickey Stanley, who has been hitting well, and Dick McAuliffe on routine flies to the outfield in the bottom of the 10th but then he walked Al Kaline. Willie Horton was the next hitter. Fisher soon had the count at one ball and two strikes. "When a pitcher's got you like that, you expect his best pitch, so I was looking for a knuckleball," said Horton. "The thing is, I didn't really know what I was going to do with it."
The knuckler—a good one, bouncing around almost weightlessly—came over the plate, and Horton swung. The ball took off like a Jack Nicklaus two-iron and landed in the lower deck in left field. "That was my best knuckler," said Fisher. "No other right-handed hitter ever has hit my knuckler like that before." The Tigers won the game 4-3.
"If Willie stays healthy all year we could win this pretty easily," said Pitcher Earl Wilson. Staying healthy, though, has not been easy for Horton. He has been troubled constantly by injuries to his huge legs, which may look indestructible but apparently are anything but. Last season, for instance, he missed 43 games because of an injury to his Achilles' tendon. That was corrected by surgery, and now Horton says he is ready for his best year.
But it was not Horton's injury last year or even the one to Kaline, who missed a month of the season with a broken finger, that ruined the Tigers. It was Detroit's bullpen, the least effective one of any contender. Manager Smith has released or traded most of the old relievers who failed so frequently, and now the bullpen is manned by five young kids—Warden, Fred Lasher, Daryl Patterson, Les Cain and Pat Dobson. "At least they can throw the ball past the hitter and strike him out," said Smith. "The others always needed pinpoint control, and when they did not have it they got hit hard. I don't want to go through that again this year."
Unlike their more persistent rivals, the Tigers are basically a group of conservatives. They are an altogether quiet gang. They never steal bases. They rarely play hit-and-run. They beat you with the home run from Horton and Kaline and Freehan and sometimes from Jim Northrup and Norm Cash. The Red Sox, by contrast, are loud, but that is not all their own doing. The team has been embroiled in several feuds over alleged beanballs and knockdown pitches—weapons designed to intimidate hitters. Last year, admittedly, Lonborg was a leading exponent of the brushback when he won 22 games for the Red Sox and led the major leagues in hit batsmen. But on August 18, Tony Conigliaro, the Red Sox rightfielder, was hit near the temple on the left side of his face with a fastball. Only 23, he probably will never play baseball again. This lives with the other Red Sox.
At least six players were hit by a pitched ball in five of the team's first eight games this year. Yastrzemski has been a particular target. He was knocked down three times in Cleveland one day. Gary Peters of the White Sox hit him on the shoulder in one game last week, and Sonny Siebert of the Indians knocked him down in another. Four different players were hit in the Red Sox-Indians game on Friday. Siebert caught Reggie Smith on the elbow, and a few moments later Boston Pitcher Gary Waslewski retaliated by hitting Siebert. The next incident seemed to be accidental, as Waslewski hit Duke Sims on the foot. However, in the following inning, one Red Sox batter was hit by a pitch after being brushed back and the next batter also was brushed from the plate.
Despite all this the Red Sox, who were supposed to be lame-duck candidates this season, were challenging the Tigers and the Twins. Their pitching particularly has been good—better, perhaps, than even Dick Williams had dreamed. Ellsworth, who was rejected by the National League, has been able to keep his pitches down below the waist and, as Tommy Davis said last week, "If Ellsworth is down, they won't hit him." And now Lonborg, who has started to pitch batting practice, is expected to return before the middle of May.
Yastrzemski, naturally, has been subjected to total war by opposing pitchers. "Let's look at it like this," said Catcher Freehan of the Tigers. "Without Conigliaro batting behind Yastrzemski, it is less mandatory for us to pitch to him whenever the situation is tight. The word around the league is to have some other Red Sox hitter beat you."
Last week Yastrzemski hit a home run in the first inning against Cisco Carlos of the White Sox, and then Stanky ordered Carlos to walk Yaz intentionally the rest of the game. One time Carlos even walked him with runners at first and third.
The next day, with Yastrzemski at bat in the eighth inning, Stanky came out to talk with Peters at the mound. He returned to the dugout, and then Peters—on his first pitch—hit Yastrzemski.
Tony Cuccinello, who coached under Stanky at Chicago in 1966 and now coaches for the Tigers, turned grim when he read an account of the Chicago-Boston imbroglio. "Stanky orders his pitchers to hit someone whenever he thinks the time is right," Cuccinello said. "The time in Boston was right, because, hell, the White Sox had not won or scored or done anything.
"I remember in 1966 Stanky fined one of his pitchers, Bruce Howard, $25 because he would not hit Joe Sparma with a pitch. Later Stanky told Johnny Buzhardt to hit Jim Perry, the Twins' pitcher. Sure enough, Perry was hit. Well, that night someone told Sam Mele, who was managing the Twins (he's my nephew, you know), about Howard and Buzhardt, and Stanky found out about it. He blamed me, for obvious reasons, but I hadn't said anything to Sam. Stanky called a clubhouse meeting back in Chicago and called everyone a Benedict Arnold. He got so mad he punched a blackboard, knocked it over and bruised his knuckles."
This year Chicago pitchers have hit seven different batters: Dick McAuliffe of the Tigers after he had singled; Freehan, who happens always to be in the way; Sims of the Indians, who had earlier hit two home runs; Vic Davalillo of the Indians after he had tripled; Ellsworth of the Red Sox after he had hit Carlos; Yastrzemski, because he was there; and on Sunday, Detroit's Northrup.
Still, no matter what he has tried the last few weeks, Stanky has not been able to excite his White Sox. Now he even is reading Combat Karate and Air Force Major Kenneth H. Cooper's book called Aerobics, which claims that the secret to health and longevity lies in regular exercise, measured by an intricate point system. After another Chicago loss last week, Stanky must have scored 10 points by walking around center field for 18 minutes and swinging a fungo bat at rocks in the ground.
There is reason, of course, for this frustration. Every move Stanky has made this year has backfired, and the people in Comiskey Park—the 2,000 or so that actually show up, not the 4,000 that are announced—now are booing him with inning-by-inning regularity. Last Saturday, when the White Sox and Tigers were involved in a scoreless tie after eight innings, Stanley led off the Detroit ninth with a single, but then Tommy John, who had pitched brilliantly, got McAuliffe on a routine fly.
Now Stanky appeared, and players started to move. Bob Locker relieved John, Ken Boyer came into the game to play third base and Pete Ward moved from third to first. In a matter of moments the Tigers were ahead 1-0 on Freehan's double. Chicago managed to tie the game—typically, with an unearned run—but in the top of the 10th, Stanky moved No-Neck Williams to left field and put Russ Snyder in right—moves that seemed quite logical. Almost immediately, Williams pounded his glove once, twice, three times, under an easy fly and, surprise, the ball dropped 10 feet behind him. With one out, Snyder moved back under another easy fly, and suddenly he was running furiously toward the wall. The ball bounced down for a hit. Detroit scored three runs that inning to win the game 4-1.
"I'm not quitting," Stanky said later. "I still sleep every night without pills. I'm still eating well. I don't drink, though I take a beer. Because of the training and breeding by my parents, I still answer the phone to my friends and critics alike: 'Good morning, how are you?' I'm not bending. If you can't stand the heat, then don't work in the kitchen—and, after all, I'm the chef. I turn my cheeks and they're both red—from slapping, not embarrassment. The cellar is dark. I like brightfulness, cheerfulness. I've never been associated with last place...it is not my personality. Perhaps they think I took dumb pills during the winter."
Everyone, of course, has advice for Stanky these days, even the Tigers. One spotted a bus with a long sign along its side, THE SOX HAVE TRADED FOR APARICIO, DAVIS AND CHANNEL 32, the placard read. "Hmmm," said the Detroit critic. "Maybe Stanky should play that Channel 32. Its got to hit better than the people he's playing now."