Spring training would be ending in only a matter of hours for Bernie Carbo, a 22-year-old rookie outfielder with the Cincinnati Reds. He woke early on a Sunday morning in his rented apartment in Tampa and helped his wife Susan pack their Dodge Charger and the attached U-Haul trailer with clothing, some sticks of furniture and a television set for her two-day trip north to Cincinnati. Bernie would be traveling to Cincinnati on a chartered flight with the rest of the Reds later in the afternoon, after the team's final exhibition game. At 9:30, when Susan was ready to leave, Carbo kissed her goodby and gave her certain instructions.
"Drive slowly," he told his bride of 18 months, "and take your time. Chi-Chi [her sister] will be good company, but find a nice place to stop along the road and get yourself a good night's sleep. You'll have to find a place for us to live in Cincy on your own, because after the opening game tomorrow I'll be gone on a road trip for about a week. I know you'd like to see me play on Opening Day, but there will be other Opening Days."
Opening Day in Crosley Field resembles a marvelous country fair, with banners flying, boy scouts saluting, flag presentations and basket lunches. Bands oom-pah-pah over the outfield grass. The bars in the tiny, old-fashioned ball park do a tremendous business, and the wursts taste just fine. People with red ties and straw hats come from Dayton, Frankfort, Zanesville, Bellefontaine, Gallipolis, Bucyrus. It has been written that Opening Day in Cincinnati "takes on the air" of the Mummers' Parade in Philadelphia, Inauguration Day in Washington, Gasparilla Day in Tampa, the Veiled Prophet Parade in St. Louis, St. Patrick's Day in New York City and the Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and that is a considerable amount of taking.
Although his wife would not be present, Carbo knew that some of his family would drive in from his home town of Detroit to see him on Opening Day. And they did. Fifteen strong. There were aunts and uncles, grandparents and cousins and Mama and Papa. When his father, out of work for two years because of a back injury, came down to the dugout to wish him well, Bernie thought he noticed tears in the older man's eyes. When he was introduced over the public-address system he looked up into the seats behind the dugout and believed he saw his aunt pulling a handkerchief out of a purse. Carbo grounded out in his first time at bat in the second inning, and as he waited near the plate in the fourth inning to bat again he cast his eyes up toward the collected Carbos. There, seated next to his father, was Susan. She had ignored his instructions completely and had driven 28 straight hours to arrive at Crosley Field after the game had begun and without a ticket. She talked her way in, joined the Carbo family and was barely seated when her husband came to bat that second time. He promptly hit the first home run of what promises to be an exciting major league career.
After his first week Carbo was hitting .400 and was the most impressive of the impressive rookies that the Reds used to help open the season with six victories in eight games. Three days after Carbo's debut, a 21-year-old pitcher named Wayne Simpson took the mound at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. Simpson looked like another Bob Gibson. Like Gibson, he wore uniform No. 45. At bat, he put down a good bunt, singled and ran like the wind. He threw only 80 pitches as he shut out Los Angeles on two hits, and he walked nobody. Supporting Simpson beautifully with three hits and some fine plays in the field was a 21-year-old shortstop named Dave Concepcion. A fourth rookie outfielder, Hal McRae, went 2 for 4 in the first game he played during that opening streak, and a fifth, Don Gullett, turned in a glittering bit of relief pitching in a game the Reds eventually lost to the Giants. A sixth, 27-year-old Angel Bravo, yet another leftfielder, was still waiting in the wings.
The young Reds were a surprise to many people because they had not been widely ballyhooed. Yet the credentials of all of them are excellent. Carbo, a soft-spoken young man who was the first draft choice of the Reds in 1965, hit .359 at Cincinnati's top farm club in Indianapolis last year, and in his final two seasons in the minors he hit 20 and 21 homers. Simpson, the club's first draft choice in 1967, caught fire this winter in the Puerto Rican League. He tied the league record for most shutouts (seven) and completed 13 of 18 starts. Concepcion has played only two years of minor league ball and at first was thought to be a light hitter. In his first year he batted only .234, but last year he hit .294 at Asheville, and when he was pushed up the minor league ladder to Indianapolis he hit .341 in 42 games. Sparky Anderson, at 36 the youngest manager in the majors and himself a rookie, says: "Dave Concepcion can field a ground ball with a pair of pliers." McRae, 23, suffered a broken leg in 1969 but went to the Florida Instructional League this past fall and hit .369. Gullett, at 19 the youngest of the rookies, was a high school star in Kentucky a year ago and had a 7-2 record in his one minor league stint last summer. Bravo, the unused, led the Reds' hitters in spring training.
Still, when rookies arrive in the major leagues they find themselves up against more competition than they have anticipated, heavier press coverage than is given to rookies in any other sport and a playing environment that is startlingly different. Even after a youngster has had a good year in the minors people in the majors want to know "how he'll handle the double-deckers." Tommy Helms, Cincinnati's second baseman and the National League Rookie of the Year in 1966, says, "That double-deck thing struck me in a game against the Dodgers in Dodger Stadium. I slid into second base and got up and started to look at the crowd. My eyes kept going up and up until my head was tilted backward. I never saw so many people in my life. Lord, how it scares you."
Older players invariably remember the details of their rookie experience. Ted Kluszewski, now a coach with the Reds, says of his in 1948, "Johnny Sain was the first pitcher I faced. He threw one pitch sidearm, one three-quarters and the third overhand—Ooomph! Ooomph! Ooomph!—and I was out of there. I never moved the bat off my shoulder. I came up to the Reds from Memphis, where I led the league with a .377 average. I hit .274 as a rookie with Cincinnati, but I know that I hit the ball better than I had with Memphis. The difference was in the fielding in the majors and the excellent way the parks were kept. Most of the minor league parks were hard in the infields and balls got through. It was frustrating. You have to go through it yourself to appreciate what a rookie faces."
Wes Parker, who came up to Los Angeles in 1965, says, "Bob Sadowski of Milwaukee threw three pitches right by me, and I had to walk those hundred miles back to the dugout. I felt insecure almost all the time. It's a shock to be a rookie because you're playing with and against guys you have held as heroes for years. You can play baseball in your own backyard and make all the major league fielding plays that anybody can make—diving stops, long runs, leaping catches. A lot of people can hit ground balls and line drives that are not any more difficult to field than the ones you field in the majors. But nobody ever walks into your backyard and says, 'Get a bat, I'm a major league pitcher.' There is another factor that has something to do with the struggle. Players believe the mystique about big-league baseball probably more than kids or fans do. It's those two words that are not applied to any other sport—big league."
Pete Rose, now going for a third consecutive batting title, was Rookie of the Year in 1963. Rose appears outwardly to be the type of person who would be unaffected by rookie jitters. He is very sure of himself and works constantly to better his skills, although he does many things on instinct. Recently, for example, he had a long talk with Ted Williams about the art of hitting. "He told me about hips and wrists and eyes," Rose says, "and I was stopping my swing so he could look some more. Boy, is he enthusiastic. And he knows hitting. He had me backed up against a wall in Tampa. I couldn't do all that thinking with him. I said, 'Ted, damn, if I played for you and had to listen to all this stuff you'd make a .200 hitter out of me.' "
Rose broke in in 1963. "I was known," he says, "as a guy who ran out walks and hit triples. The first time I went to bat Earl Francis of the Pirates threw four straight balls, and it was a good thing for me that he did. I ran like the devil to first base. My first hit in the majors was a triple, but after going 3 for 23 I was benched. I was too excited, just plain too excited."
Lefthander Claude Osteen, a 20-game winner for the Dodgers in 1969, says, "I never did realize for sure which was my rookie year. I came up to the Reds three different times and only got to start three times. In 1961 I pitched one-third of an inning. It's hard for a kid to sit on the bench because the pitchers and coaches will tell you things like, 'To win in this game, son, all you have to do is throw strikes.' That's pretty hard to do when you don't get a chance to pitch. When you are young and wild not many catchers really want to work with you. They want the ball right where they want it, and when you can't give it to them they have had enough of you. I suppose my rookie year was really 1962 when I was with Washington. I learned how to pitch in one game because of a catcher named Hobie Landrith. We were playing the Yankees, and before the game he sat with me and discussed what we would be trying to do. Concentration is a huge part of pitching; if you don't concentrate on every pitch you will make a mistake that is like throwing a lit match on kerosene. As each Yankee hitter came up, Landrith would stand at the plate and look at the hitter, forcing me to do the same thing."
Maury Wills of the Dodgers says, "My rookie year was tough. After being in the minors for 8½ years I thought I knew how to play the game, but I didn't know the pressures of playing mental baseball on a contending team. There weren't too many people to console me, either. I caught hell more often than I had anyone patting me on the back. I was alternating with Don Zimmer, and that hurt my pride. Even though I was in the major leagues, sitting on the bench part of the time wasn't good enough for me. I went to Walt Alston, the most fantastic man in baseball, and asked him to ship me back to Spokane, where I would play every day. Now that was real smart, wasn't it? Alston said some nice things to me and told me not to worry. If he had given me my way during my rookie year I probably never would have made it to the big leagues again."
Bernie Carbo slept barely at all before his first game, and after each game ended he sat quietly by himself, not interfering in anyone's conversations or seeking praise. But the other players on the team came over to him and shook his hand. He talked more about the team than himself. "I know this team can pitch," he said after the fourth victory. "I know we might even have great pitching despite what everyone has said. And we'll hit."
Simpson seemed baffled by his own control in his two-hitter. "I woke up and ate breakfast at 7 in the morning," he said, as though that might explain it. "I just can't seem to eat when I pitch. I guess I was nervous. Kept going to the bathroom before the game. I never pitched a game before in my life that I can remember not walking anybody."
Nerves or not, the rookies are making the National League West aware of the Red menace. Cincinnati's big bats have been sabotaged by bad pitching the past few years, but look out this time, Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco. This time the menace seems real.