Modern technology is rapidly taking over the prerogatives of the groundkeepers in the National League. Ever since baseball moved out of the cow pastures, stadium crews have curried playing fields purposefully, closely mowing the grass near home plate to take the bunt away from the opponent's swift leadoff man or leaving the turf high through the middle of the infield to compensate for the reduced range of the home team's aging second baseman. But by the end of this season ground crews in five of the league's cities may find themselves standing helplessly aside as new, ungardenable playing surfaces do nothing more for the home teams than help them lose to the Houston Astros. The new artificial infields, or "rugs," as the players call them, in San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Cincinnati could give the Astros enough extra wins to take the Western Division championship. The race in the West last season was much the closest in baseball's four divisions. On Sept. 10 the Braves, Giants, Reds, Dodgers and Astros were bunched within two games. If it turns out to be that close again, the race could be decided on the basis of a few opportune bounces, and no team is better at making the artificial hops go its way than Houston. In the four years that the Astros have played on their rug in the Astrodome they have had a 185-139 record at home; on the road they were 106 games under .500. In 1969 Houston was a glittering 52-29 under the Dome and a woeful 29-52 out of it. Obviously, the Astros need nothing more urgently than a few added victories away from home, and this year they should get them. While other teams are learning to field the high, hard bounces that grounders take on the artificial turf, the Astros can play on the road just as if they never left home. On a staff that set a major league record for strikeouts last year, only Denny Lemaster, among the starters, is more than 25 years old. Twenty-game-winner Larry Dierker, who begins his sixth big league season at 23, and 25-year-old Don Wilson, who had 16 wins and is one of the youngest pitchers ever to have two no-hitters, won only six fewer victories than the Mets' older and more famous combination of Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman. The Astro hitting should improve with the addition of Joe Pepitone, who had 27 home runs for the Yankees despite a spate of unauthorized absences. Pepitone, an excellent first baseman, may play left field for Houston to make room for 6'4", 225-pound rookie John Mayberry. Mayberry hit .303 with 21 homers in Triple A, and he and Pepitone should take some pressure off Jim Wynn, the powerful little outfielder whose 33 home runs accounted for almost a third of the team's total.
In Los Angeles this spring, two outfielders, Bill Russell and Manny Mota, a fading young veteran, Jim Lefebvre, and a rookie, Steve Garvey, were all trying to win the third-base job that seemed destined to belong to Bill Sudakis for many springs to come. Manager Walter Alston, who is in his 17th season with the Dodgers, felt Sudakis did not field as well as he should and has been trying to convert the third baseman into a catcher. The look of old times is evident at other positions, where only one member of last season's heavily publicized Mod Squad is likely to start. He is Second Baseman Ted Sizemore, Rookie of the Year, and he is destined to be there for many years to come. Maury Wills, who returned to Los Angeles after a 2½-year exile in Pittsburgh and Montreal, is 37, but he stole 40 bases, hit .297 after joining the Dodgers in June and, according to Alston, "is playing better shortstop than when he was with us before." First Baseman Wes Parker, now 30, and Centerfielder Willie Davis, who will turn 30 in two weeks, are both coming off their best seasons. Rookie Bill Buckner seems set in left field. As for pitching, the search for a replacement for Don Drysdale continues. The Dodgers, with two 20-game winners, Claude Osteen and Bill Singer, and 17-game winner Don Sutton do not need another Drysdale to have one of the league's best starting staffs, but it could turn out to be discouraging if Big D's spot in the rotation has to be filled by either Joe Moeller or Alan Foster, who are 21-34 with Los Angeles.
Retirement, specifically Henry Aaron's, was the talk of the Atlanta camp a year ago, but this spring, with the Braves fresh from a division championship, quitting could not have been farther from Aaron's mind. He signed a two-year $250,000 contract over the winter and, with those numbers settled, his favorite figure now is 44. Aaron wears uniform 44, he has hit 44 home runs in four different seasons, including last year, he needs 44 hits to become the ninth player in history to make 3,000 hits and he figures he needs 44 homers a year for the next two seasons to put him in position to catch "him." "Him" is Babe Ruth, and Aaron, who has hit 554 home runs, is openly talking about breaking Ruth's record of 714. "If I hit 44 homers this season and again the next year, I'll be in good position," he says. The suspense of watching Aaron's challenge may have to do for Atlanta fans because a weird spring-training accident cost the team 18-game winner Ron Reed until probably July. Without Reed, who broke his collarbone tripping over first base during a fielding drill, the Braves are left with only one proven starter, Phil Niekro, who won 23 games in 1969. Jim Nash, George Stone and Pat Jarvis, none of whom won more than 13 games last year, will try to cover for Reed. At other positions the Braves are aging but impressively strong. Relievers Cecil Upshaw and 46-year-old Hoyt Wilhelm had ERAs under 3.00. The outfield of Aaron, Tony Gonzalez and Rico Carty averaged .304, with 72 homers. Rookie Catcher Bob Didier did an excellent job of sparring with Niekro's and Wilhelm's knucklers and hit .256, 50 points higher than he had batted in the minors.
When San Francisco Manager Clyde King is asked what he plans to do differently this year, he snaps, "Win the division." San Francisco has finished second five years in a row, and the Giants are tired of implications that they have the stuffings of which runners-up are made and nothing more. They are not likely to finish second again, but the shift, despite King's optimism, is more apt to be down than up. Willie Mays, who will be 39 next month, is coming off his least-productive season, hitting fewer home runs (13) and driving in fewer runs (58) than ever before, and it is the Giants' other Willie—McCovey—who frightens opposing pitchers these days. Last year, while bothered by a number of small, painful injuries that still annoyed him this spring, McCovey won the home run and RBI championships for the second successive time and was the league's Most Valuable Player. Mays' heir in center field, Bobby Bonds, who plays right field when Willie is in the lineup, set a major league record by striking out 187 times, yet had 32 homers and 90 RBIs. Bonds worked hard and successfully during spring training to cut down on his strikeouts, but both Bonds and his manager were hush-hush about what he was doing differently. "That's CIA information," said King. The San Francisco pitching staff is built around Juan Marichal, who had his sixth 20-win season and a 2.10 ERA, and 19-game winner Gaylord Perry. Mike McCormick, 11-9, and three younger pitchers who have a total of eight big league victories among them, fill out the starting rotation.
Pitching is the problem in Cincinnati, whose starters completed only 23 games. That provided plenty of work for Relievers Wayne Granger (90 appearances) and Clay Carroll (71 appearances), who won 21 and saved 31. The Reds averaged 18 points higher and hit 30 more home runs than the Braves but finished in third place, which only demonstrated once again that hitting alone is not enough to win championships. The Reds' new manager, Sparky Anderson, at 36 the youngest in the majors, took over a club that is basically the same good hit-bad pitch as last year's. Two fresh pitchers have been added, ex-Angel Jim McGlothlin and ex-Card Ray Washburn, but each won only about half as many as he lost last season. Two new left-handed hitters should fit right in with the impressive lineup of Pete Rose, Bobby Tolan, Tony Perez, Lee May and Johnny Bench. Bernie Carbo batted .359 with 21 home runs in Indianapolis and will start in left field. If he fails, the Reds can replace him with Angel Bravo, a spray hitter who averaged .342 at Tucson. Anderson, who hopes to push his team into first place by the time Cincinnati's new riverfront stadium opens on June 30, says he does not believe in managing by the book. To prove it, he has shifted batting champ Pete Rose from leadoff to the third spot and has put Tolan up first. Anderson figures Tolan can use his extraordinary bunting ability better at leadoff and that Rose, who drove in 82 runs (he had 16 homers) while batting .348, should have more than 100 RBIs in his new spot. Anderson, a self-effacing sort, has admitted the plan might not work. "If it doesn't I'll junk it right away," he says.
San Diego Manager Preston Gomez has thrown out any ideas of getting involved in the race for the championship. "We hope to win close to 70 games this year," he says of the Padres, who won 52 last season. "It takes time to build a team." It may take longer than the team can afford, if it hopes to stay in San Diego. The Padres, not the troubled Seawaukee Pilots, were the least successful expansion team. They drew only 512,970 customers, even though their stadium is one of the finest in the country and weather is no problem. On the field, things were not any better. The batters, despite good seasons from First Baseman Nate Colbert, who hit 24 home runs, and Outfielder Ollie Brown, who had 20, had an average 15 points lower than the next lowest National League team. The pitchers allowed more than four runs a game and completed only 16 starts. Of course, the Padres now have Pat Dobson, who may move in as the ace of the staff. He was all of 5-10 at Detroit. The standard line from the San Diego front office is that the city is growing and soon will have enough fans to support a big league team in the manner to which it must become accustomed. By that time, there might not be a blade of real grass, left on anyone's infield, and everyone will have learned, as the Astros already have, how to turn a rug into a magic carpet.