Strongest of the four divisions, the East should also be the most exciting. Detroit, Boston and Baltimore each won an American League championship in the past three seasons and with Cleveland and New York they made up the American League's first division in 1968. Only Washington, the sixth member, was weak. There was, as might be expected, no grumbling when this federation was put together. Geographically, it is perfect. As a division in which to make money, it seems just splendid.
Of last season's 15 top pitchers, 10 are in the division. Of 1968's top 17 sluggers, 12 belong to the East. There is one other factor that should add interest to this grouping: of the six teams, only Washington plays in what could be termed a new ball park. But even Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium is not like other new parks in that it is made for home-run hitters. Indeed Frank Howard led the majors last year with 44 homers.
What newness the Senators do have is Ted Williams, the rookie manager. Once Williams could hit for great distances. Now he must take over a team and an organization that seem a shambles. Still, Ted Williams plus cap, bat and ball days, should put the Senators over their alltime road attendance record of 1055,171 (they were only 30,000 short of that figure last season with Howard and cap, bat and ball days). The real problem is home attendance. It slipped to 542,052, and teams have cut and run from towns that drew many more people than that. For Williams to be considered a genuine success in the nation's capital he will have to avoid losing more than 85 games, the number the Senators lost in 1967 during the popular Gil Hodges' last year in Washington. (To Senator fans the loss column is all-important.)
Although most people tend to forget it, the Senators were in the first division as late as early May of last year. Then they fell all the way back to 10th-37½ games behind the pennant-winning Tigers. But Washington does have muscle. Howard is capable of improving on last year's output of homers. Brant Alyea, who probably will play right field, hit a total of 54 home runs while playing in Buffalo. Washington and Venezuela last season. "Frank Howard," Alyea said one day recently, "is going to have to hurry to lead this club in home runs this year."
April 14, 1969
Williams' special hitting project throughout the spring was Mike Epstein, the intellectual first baseman. Epstein got off to a bad start last season, but after a refresher trip to the minors he returned to hit .276. Third Baseman Ken McMullen is one of the most underrated players in the league and pounded out 20 homers last year. Little Del Unser, who faded from close to .300 in early June to .230 by the end of the season, will have to have another quick start to help the Senators. Williams has done some spectacular things in his career, and if he can pass on some of his hitting ability to the Senator musclemen it would help baseball tremendously.
The world-champion Tigers, not surprisingly have experienced their finest off-season sales. Always a hot baseball town, Detroit responded to the Tigers two million strong as the team won its first pennant in 23 seasons. The Tigers have the batting to make it two pennants in a row and justify the enthusiasm. But, oddly enough, they may not have the pitching, this on a club that in 1968 won 40 times when tied or trailing in the seventh inning or later.
Dennis Dale McLain enters the season as the biggest of the team's many stars—Detroit has such a plethora that the payroll may approach $900,000. He was fantastic last year with 31 wins and only six losses, but Manager Mayo Smith is realist enough to know that if he gets 18 victories out of McLain this pennant race he will be in high cotton. What Smith must also hope for is a change in the career pattern of lefthander Mickey Lolich, winner of three games in the World Series against St. Louis. Lolich has a tendency to become effective only late in the season. During the past two years he has had poor records until August. Then he has hit his stride and won 19 of 22 decisions. This year in the new divisional setup the Tigers play 20 of their first 24 games against Cleveland. Boston, Baltimore and New York. They play a spate of 31 more games against the same clubs before August and do not meet them again until September. Lolich has to get off to a good start. Earl Wilson, the third starter, suffered four different injuries last season, and his record (13-12) dropped off from 22-11 the season before.
Al Kaline, the man who lit the fire under the Tigers in the Series, has spent most of the spring debunking the theory that he will play in barely 100 games in '69. At the age of 34, he has been hitting, running, fielding and throwing just as he did when he was a rookie off the sandlots of Baltimore. Kaline does so many things so perfectly that people sometimes overlook them. It is not merely that he throws well; it is that he never seems to miss a cutoff man when a runner could be advancing. It is not that he makes wonderful catches; it is the way he can use his shoulders and head to decoy either the man who has hit the ball or the runner on base who is watching it. Last year a pitched ball broke Kaline's arm and limited him to 102 games. He was a frustrated man as he watched his team win the pennant without too much help from him. His reward was the Series, which he said this spring, "was everything I dreamed it would be." It was everything Kaline-watchers hoped for, too. Almost certainly, his special following will see a lot more of him.
Once Smith was considered a very conservative manager. When he put Mickey Stanley at shortstop in the Series, however, that reputation evaporated. Smith has gambled extensively in his two seasons in Detroit, and he has also been the manager of a team which has won 194 games during that time. He may have to shuffle his lineup several times, depending upon the shortstop position. For now, since Tom Matchick did not hit this spring, Stanley will start at the position. With Jim (Grand Slam) Northrup, Willie Horton, Norm Cash, Dick McAuliffe, Bill Freehan, Gates Brown and Kaline, the Tigers have plenty of long-ball power. Freehan, hit by 24 pitches to establish an American League record last year, suffered a broken nose in Florida. If he continues to be bombarded and cannot catch most of the schedule for the Tigers, the team will be in trouble.
The Boston Red Sox also have a catching problem but, seemingly, very few others. Without Jim Lonborg at the start of last season, Jose Santiago from early July and Tony Conigliaro for the entire year, the Sox still finished in fourth place and drew a record 1,940,788 to tiny (capacity 33,375) Fenway Park. Now enter Ted Williams in the uniform of the Washington Senators, the first time at Fenway on April 23, the next in the Fourth of July weekend and the last during the first weekend in September. The old park might just burst at the seams.
Boston is both an exciting and young team. If Tony Conigliaro is able to come back, it will make for one of the truly remarkable stories in baseball history. His eyesight seemed good in spring training but the real test of his ability to hit will come during the regular season. If he cannot hit, his younger brother, Billy—also an outfielder—could be brought in to take his place. Carl Yastrzemski, the winner of two straight batting titles who has shown no signs of letting up, is the leftfielder, and Reggie Smith will be in center. Smith, an excellent centerfielder and base runner, might just be ready to achieve stardom in his third year in the league.
Ken Harrelson, who batted in 109 runs and hit 35 homers in '68, has always been ready for stardom. If Conigliaro plays right field, Harrelson will be at first base. The former first baseman, George Scott, is now at third after a terrible season at bat (.171 as compared to .303 the previous year). Assuming that Scott's hitting improves, the Red Sox are going to be a menace to pitch against. Their own pitching may not be of the caliber of some teams, but with Lonborg, Ray Culp and Dick Ellsworth, as well as rookie Ken Brett, it is not as bad as some have been saying.
But the solidest pitching in the league belongs to Baltimore. Virtually everything seemed to go right for the Oriole pitching staff this spring after two years of arm injuries. Marcelino Lopez, an often-disabled lefthander, was suddenly looking good again. Jim Palmer, a 15-game winner in 1966, continued to throw as well as he had in the winter league in Puerto Rico. If both can be added to Mike Cuellar, acquired from Houston in a trade, 22-game winner Dave McNally, 18-game winner Jim Hardin and 15-game winner Tom Phoebus, Baltimore should win this division.
Frank Robinson has looked like the Robinson of three springs ago when the Orioles won the pennant. The catching is strong with Clay Dalrymple and Andy Etchebarren, and John (Boog) Powell seems to have his weight under control. Powell was the leading RBI man on the team last season with 85. Brooks Robinson was 10 below him, and Frank, because of injuries, was 23 below Brooks. Paul Blair (.211 following an ankle injury) will probably improve that average considerably. Don Buford, who hit .282 last season, can play infield or outfield, while Merv Rettenmund (.297 in 64 at bats) has a good minor league record. He could play quite a bit. Last year the Orioles found themselves too far behind at the All-Star break to do much catching up on Detroit. If Baltimore starts well, watch out.
The New York Yankees and Cleveland Indians both fall into the category of playable long shots, but each appears short of hitting. Alvin Dark, who was given a five-year contract with an attendance clause, has excellent pitching at Cleveland with Luis Tiant (21-9 and a 1.60 ERA), Sam McDowell (15-14 and 1.81), Stan Williams (13-10) and Steve Hargan. Dark utilizes an exciting running game, and he could improve on the Indians' third-place finish if Zoilo Versalles, back with the American League, regains the form that made him the MVP in 1965 at Minnesota. Max Alvis, Tony Horton, Jose Cardenal and Duke Sims are the team's best experienced hitters.
New York, minus Mickey Mantle, is now into its rebuilding program in earnest, and the future seems brighter than it has in recent seasons. Manager Ralph Houk did an excellent job last year as the Yankees finished in fifth place, and his pitching seems good enough to make the team tough. The main concern is whether the new-style running attack will produce enough runs to support that pitching. Twenty-one-game winner Mel Stottlemyre leads the staff, but Stan Bahnsen (17-12) and Fritz Peterson (12-11, 2.63 ERA) came through excellently in 1968. Joe Pepitone will play first, and nobody ever knows what that might mean except that the reactions from the crowds will be tumultuous. The Yankees are banking heavily on young Bobby Murcer, who was tremendously exciting during spring training. Bill Robinson and Roy White will also help in the running attack, but Tom Tresh will have to hit more than .195 for New York to continue to improve.
If Caliente had a spring line on this division, the place to put your money would be in your pocket.