Between chaws on his wad of gum and violent tugs on the visor of his scarlet cap, Manager Dave Bristol of the Cincinnati Reds can spout the longest stream of vintage bromides in baseball. "A win in April," he said only the other day with what seemed unassailable logic, "is just as important as a win in September." True enough, if this were 1968, or any earlier season. But it is 1969, and a Cincinnati win in this April of the new schedule will be more important than a win in this September. The Reds play nine of their first 11 games against the Giants and the Braves, their principal challengers. Come September and there may not be too many important games left for the Reds.
Fortunately for Bristol, his team seems primed for its best pennant run since 1964, when the Reds lost out to the St. Louis Cardinals on the final day of the season. Jim Maloney, their top pitcher who was unable to pitch in rotation until the first week of May last year, reported on time for a change and will be ready for Opening Day. Pete Rose, best batter in either league last season, says that another hitting title and a divisional championship will earn him a raise greater than the $15,000 increase he needs to become the first singles hitter to sign a $100,000 contract, and adds, "I'll get it, don't you worry."
Finally, Catcher Johnny Bench provides Cincinnati with superiority at perhaps the most important position on the field. When Luman Harris, the manager of catcherless Atlanta, was asked, "How good is Bench?" he could not answer. Instead, he gazed longingly out across the baseball diamond, dreaming, maybe, that Bench was a Brave.
Despite the Reds' advantages on paper, they certainly will not laugh their way to the pennant in this tougher division of the National League. San Francisco, the perennial Avis of baseball (four successive second-place finishes), has a new manager, pitching specialist Clyde King, who says he will not wait for home-run happenings. Instead, he will attempt to manufacture single runs whenever possible. His idea is that the little numbers will add up to a big No. 1 finish.
Atlanta needed a leader on the field, so Paul Richards, the general manager, acquired First Baseman Orlando Cepeda from the Cardinals. But to get Cepeda he had to strip himself of his catcher, Joe Torre. In recent years only the Baltimore Orioles have won a pennant without an established catcher. And now Cepeda may not be able to lead the Braves. It seems that Manager Harris not only dislikes stereo music in his clubhouse, he will not allow it. Cepeda had an extra locker stall to store the musical equipment that blared noisily at the Cardinals. Without his sounds in Atlanta, he may not qualify as a leader.
While the Reds, Giants and Braves quarrel among themselves, the Los Angeles Dodgers will sit cozily along the perimeter, ready to invade the big three at the first sign of weakness. Last year, when the Dodgers finished in a tie for seventh place, they called their season "Operation Bounceback." Presumably 1969 will be "Son of Bounceback."
The Houston Astros can only hope that the expansion San Diego Padres show proper respect for their elders and not attempt anything absurd, like finishing in fifth place, one step ahead of the Astros.
No matter which team wins in the division, its rewards may be thin if the pennant race is not tight. A repeat of last year, when St. Louis won the pennant by nine games, could be disastrous financially. The established teams in the West all have suffered severe decreases in home attendance the last few years. Cincinnati, for instance, was down to 733,354 paying customers in 1968 and had only four crowds over 20,000. In Los Angeles, the Dodgers' attendance for 1968 was off by more than one million from the pennant year of 1966. And in Houston, as one Astros player said this spring, "People have stopped coming just to see the Dome. Now they want to see baseball."
Attendance problems aside, Cincinnati will be the team to beat. A year ago the Reds dropped out of the pennant race on April 16, five games into the schedule, when it was time to begin the pitching rotation again. Their attack, led by Rose, was the most awesome in baseball, with six regulars hitting over .275. Their pitching staff, unled, was the worst in the National League. If Rose had been able to hit against his own pitchers in 18 games a privilege afforded each of his rivals, he might have hit .400—not just .335.
This year the Reds again have more than enough bats in their lineup, although General Manager Bob Howsam did dilute the attack by trading away Outfielder Vada Pinson and Shortstop Leo Cardenas. Rose, a centerfielder now, Bench, Infielders Tommy Helms, Lee May and Tony Perez and Outfielders Alex Johnson and Bobby Tolan not only are outstanding hitters, they all can run.
More importantly, Cincinnati has a pitching staff that does not need a group arm transplant. Having opened last season with only one starting pitcher in good working order, the Reds now have at least seven experienced starters ready to pitch whenever Manager Bristol calls. Righthanders Maloney and Gary Nolan, strikeout pitchers who developed shoulder injuries in 1968, are particularly ready. Maloney's soreness was the sort of thing he experiences every spring. He needs at least six weeks to work his shoulder into shape, the length of his annual holdout. When he did get into condition last year, he went on to win 16 games, including shutout victories in his last three starts.
"I was here the day they signed the players agreement," Maloney said in training camp. "I don't want anything to go wrong this year. We all are thinking about the World Series."
For Nolan, who still is only 20 years old, the shoulder injury was a new and fearful experience. After winning 14 games as a rookie in 1967, he suddenly found himself back in the minor leagues last spring. Just as suddenly, when the condition improved, he was back in Cincinnati, finishing the season with nine victories and only four losses. "I have not had any real trouble with my shoulder since then," Nolan says.
As difficult as the Reds appear to be, the Giants are conceding nothing to them. Although King knows pitching, his heaviest task will not be with the Giants' starters. Last year San Francisco had the astounding total of 77 complete games, or one almost every other day. Juan Marichal, with 30 of these and 26 victories, was the perfect stopper. In 1968 the Giants lost three successive games on six occasions; Marichal stopped the losing streaks five times.
A truer picture of the Giants' chances is contained in these statistics: last year San Francisco had more errors, more passed balls and fewer double plays than any other team in the National League. Three regulars led their positions in errors. Offensively, the Giants were so weak that Gaylord Perry lost 11 games when his team scored two runs or fewer. Ray Sadecki was shut out eight times and was provided with only one working run on seven other occasions.
This spring, seeking to alter matters, King moved Willie Mays from third in the batting order to leadoff. "I know he will get me some early runs for the pitchers," he says. In spring games the 37-year-old Mays went from first base to third on everything, even line-drive singles to left field by Ron Hunt, batting second. If Mays acts like a schoolboy all season he will add a new dimension—offense—to the Giants' lineup.
Previously, as Mays says, they were "big shooters" ready to play "long ball." Willie McCovey can play long ball with anyone, but Jim Ray Hart and the Mays of today play it only in streaks.
Down in Atlanta, which is west of Savannah but not many other places, Paul Richards has developed another group of young starting pitchers to replace the group of young starting pitchers (the Cloningers, Lemasters and Blasingames) he traded away. The best of the new ones are Pat Jarvis, who won 16 games last year, and knuckleballer Phil Niekro, who won 14. With Cepeda, Hank Aaron, Felipe Alou, Rico Carty and Felix Millan behind them, these pitchers should get plenty of runs. They will need them. The Braves play defense like a Radcliffe touch-football team. When Shortstop Sonny Jackson picks up a grounder—which he does not always do—the throw to first base is as likely as not to wind up in the dugout or the grandstand. Hopefully, the Braves will find a catcher with a talent big enough to catch Niekro's knuckleball and back up first.
A leader in the new rehabilitation of the Dodgers will be Third Baseman Bill Sudakis. Last year he hit .276 during the final weeks of the season. So what? Well, he played all that time with his contact lenses in the wrong eyes. Sudakis will be the 36th third baseman the Dodgers have tried since they moved to Los Angeles in 1958.
A few other names to file away are Bill Grabarkewitz, a shortstop, Bill Russell, a rightfielder, and Ted Sizemore, a catcher, shortstop, second baseman and outfielder. Someday they will be the big Dodgers. Right now, though, they are rookies. The big Dodgers still are Don Drysdale and Claude Osteen, Willie Davis and Tom Haller. This year the fans who do come out to Chavez Ravine should see more home runs, not because the Dodgers have moved their fences in but because they have moved home plate 10 feet out. They do things differently in California.
The original Astros all have left Houston. However, the product has not changed much from that first year when the then Colt .45s beat out the Mets for ninth place. Two pitchers, Don Wilson and Larry Dierker, and three hitters, Jim Wynn, Joe Morgan and Jesus Alou, represent the Astros' only real hope for this race and the future. Manager Harry Walker, who loves to teach hitting, should be very happy. He has about 25 players who need special instruction.
Buzzie Bavasi is running the expansion San Diego team, which means the Padres will be respectable. Their most exciting player may be a rookie named Clarence Gaston, a centerfielder with speed and power whom they selected from Atlanta on the 30th round of the expansion draft. Manager Preston Gomez promises that "I'm not going to sit with my arms folded and my legs crossed. I'm going to try to do things."
Bavasi's roughest problems so far have not been related to the playing field. For two months the Padres could not cut a mail slot in their stadium offices because of a technicality in their contract with the city. The telephone company needed more than a month to issue a number for the Padres' switchboard, and the truck carrying the only copy of the final proofs of home-game tickets turned over and burned. Finally, there was the night a club official answered questions from the audience at a banquet. One San Diegan asked, "Does baseball have any plans for something like a Super Bowl at the end of the year?"
Yes, they call it the World Series, but San Diego need not worry about that this year. As Manager Bristol of the Reds says himself, "I like my ball club." Cincinnati probably will be there in October, playing them one at a time.