YEAR OF THE PLAYER

For the past few seasons baseball has been more concerned with commissioners, rules changes and front-office deals than with what happens on the field. But now the men who play the game are back. With luck they will stay there
April 12, 1971

It is not merely that this is a new season; more to the point, even before the season began there were signs that 1971 might be everything 1970 was not. In spring training, for instance, only two exhibition games were postponed because of bad weather; as a result, with few exceptions the players began the regular season this week in the best shape of their lives. Among other good omens, Charlie Finley fathered only one silly idea, Milwaukee managed to retain a franchise for a change and Dennis Dale McLain was not suspended even once. Hopes are so high in California that people are looking upon 1971 as the year of the first "Freeway World Series"—between the Dodgers and the Angels—assuming that such minor harassments as the Baltimore Orioles, Minnesota Twins, Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates can be pushed aside.

By contrast, just a spring ago newspapers in the West were running pictures of a skeleton sitting on the mound in Seattle's abandoned ball park, scandal hovered over Detroit and the entire structure of the game resembled a $15 jalopy chugging toward a drive-in pornography store. Can it really be that baseball has at last banded together? Yes, it could be, but don't bet that baseball executives as a group have at last seen the light at the end of the tunnel. Just hope they have, and that one of these days they will all march out together.

Even with paradise yet to be regained, this promises to be a superior season. Reggie Jackson, a brooding enigma in 1970, is hitting home runs again—long home runs and lots of them. Boog Powell (see cover) will try to become the American League's Most Valuable Player for a second time; with that goal in mind he already has done an abnormal amount of running. "Tell Jim Ryun that I'm coming after him this year," Powell says. "I've been running a mile and a half every day and I'm lumbering the distance in about 12 minutes flat. In my league, that's movin' on."

The teams that trained in Arizona grew wise in the ways of the world when they played the Lotte Orions of Tokyo. "How does it feel to play against Japanese teams?" Rocky Bridges, a coach for the California Angels, was asked. "An hour after the game is over you feel like playing again," said Bridges. Even the Detroit Tigers, so stunned by injuries to pitchers that they faced the season opener with only two starters, Mickey Lolich and Joe Niekro, were talking about "Mickey and Joe and Pray for Show" (and, perhaps, taking a flyer on Dean Chance). Those Lotte Orions, according to some amazed San Francisco Giants, may have a better solution to the sore-arm problem. "They had no sore-arm pitchers," said the Giant clubhouse boss Lew Brinson. "It was magic. The trainer would tap the tender spot with a gold or silver needle as fine as a hair. He used no other medication. Apparently that was enough to relieve the pressure."

Indeed this looks like a year in which anything is possible. There is a magnificent new stadium in Philadelphia guaranteed to awaken that sleeping giant of a sports town, and a sparkling new second baseman in Boston, 23-year-old Doug Griffin, who has such fine hands he could field a ground ball with a pair of tweezers. While everyone is saying Los Angeles and Cincinnati in the West, a young Houston team is hiding in the AstroTurf ready to pull off a major surprise. Every San Diego Padre pitcher put down 2,000 bunts during training—although it is less than even money that before the season is very old they will blow the signs and start swinging away. Ron Swoboda has been traded by New York to Montreal, probably proving that the Mets have become terribly sophisticated snobs. Frank Howard, the Washington Monument, is said to have grown a little over the winter, and Shortstop Freddie Patek, at 5'4", may just turn out to be the big man involved in the offseason deal between Kansas City and Pittsburgh. Red Schoendienst and Bing Devine are trying to put their house of Cards back together in St. Louis and Red's charming daughter Colleen sang the following parody to the tune of Didn't We at a baseball writers' dinner in February: "Next time we better have the stuff again, hadn't we dad?/Next year we can't sit on our duff again, can we dad?/Twice now you've had the answers and the winning touch/But lately the other team's been too much./Next time let's get them on the run again, orders by Bing./Next time let's get in on the fun again, so Mama can sing. /Next time we'll have no lag-gin' on the climb,/Next time we'd better end that long decline,/Hadn't we better make it next time?"

Tony Conigliaro, a swinging singer, has left Boston for Anaheim, and the meter marks on the Angel mail say, "New Faces...Going Places." The Angels probably will, although Conigliaro really doesn't have to go anyplace. Already he has settled into a duplex in Newport Beach where the girl next door is Raquel Welch. This time Richie Allen has landed in Los Angeles where he will raise attendance at Dodger Stadium as well as the mutuel handle at Hollywood Park. In San Francisco it is supposed to be "The Year of the Fox" (in honor of Manager Charlie Fox), but one of the big years there could belong to a right-handed rookie pitcher named Steve Stone, who attended Kent State. The last Kent State rookie to break into the majors was the Yankees' Thurman Munson, Stone's college catcher.

The literature out of Cincinnati reads, "Right On Reds" and, despite a crippling set of pretraining and preseason injuries, the Reds are still awesome. Although he found General Manager Bob Howsam with a pocketful of fishhooks when he talked salary with him, Pete Rose is going to chase headlong after a seventh consecutive .300 year and a sixth season as a gatherer of 200 hits. (Ty Cobb holds the record for 200-hit years with nine, the last one coming in his 20th season. Rose now enters only his ninth.) Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar and Jim Palmer, Baltimore's three 20-game winners, are back to try and duplicate 1970, and should one wonder how the last three pitchers to win 20 games with the same team did the following year, he need only look up the combined 1957 records of Cleveland's Herb Score, Bob Lemon and Early Wynn. They were 22-29, compared with 60-32 in 1956.

It seems as though every talented youngster in America is trying to play for the Dodgers, and most of them are running straight at Maury Wills' shortstop job. Ross Newhan of the Los Angeles Times caught the Wills situation this spring. He wrote: "Yes," says Maury Wills, "I know. I know they want to play. I know they think they can play. I know how it was for me." He is 38 now and he remembers the springs of his youth, of how he made himself into a player, of how he sat and waited for Pee Wee Reese to retire. Now they are at his doorstep—Bill Russell, Bobby Valentine, Tim Johnson.

"I came to this camp for seven years," says Wills, "and each spring I'd be a little more confident, I'd be sure that this would be Pee Wee's last year. But, then, the new gloves would arrive from the manufacturer's, and he would unwrap his and fondle it and say, "Well, this should last me another five years.' I'd see him look out of the corner of his eyes to make sure that I had heard, that I got the message."

Three interesting hitters return to make things more difficult for the pitchers. Rod Carew of the Minnesota Twins, who led the American League with a .332 average in 1969 and was batting .376 when a knee was injured during a base-running collision last June, is well and feisty again. So, too, is Tim McCarver of the Philadelphia Phillies, out for almost all of last year with a broken hand. "The hand has healed," McCarver says, "and I feel so good that it's scary." Hawk Harrelson rejoins the Indians completely recovered from a broken leg and, hopefully, purged of the final hairy story of the year. "When I was a kid," he said, "my hair caught on fire. The only thing they could find to put it out with was a baseball bat. I've still got the lumps on my head to prove it."

A vast change, finally, has taken place with the groping Chicago White Sox. They wear red socks now to better match their aggressive, happy personalities—or so management hopes.

The two biggest hitters not present when the season opened were Rico Carty of the Atlanta Braves and Bobby Tolan of Cincinnati. Carty, who led the majors last year with a .366 average, broke his left leg in winter baseball while Tolan suffered a torn Achilles' tendon playing basketball. The Reds can ill afford such a loss—Tolan hit .316 and led the majors in stolen bases with 57—which is compounded by the knee injury suffered by Lee May and the injuries to 20-game winner Jim Merritt and 14-game winner Wayne Simpson. Perhaps shell-shocked, the Reds decided, finally, that they should take no chances with their latest pitching sensation, 21-year-old Pat Osburn, and sent him out for more seasoning.

Not until last week did Brooks Robinson take that World Series glove out of his locker. It has had time to get warm enough to turn doubles into outs and start those magnificent double plays that yank Oriole pitchers out of bad innings. Now three years old, the glove gets interviewed almost as much as Robinson does. It does everything and the Orioles are supposed to, too. They also are supposed to be a mortal lock to win another American League championship. But history holds hope for Detroit, Boston and the Yankees in the American League East. No American League team except the Yankees has won three consecutive pennants since Detroit in 1909.

But in the end that most fragile of balances—the one between pitching and hitting—will decide, as it always does, just who wins what. Most pitchers believe that lowering the mound in 1969, plus squeezing the strike zone and adding "hyped-up" balls, made it almost impossible to pitch a shutout. The mound was lowered five inches following 1968 when 339 shutouts were thrown—far too many. During the 1969 season the number dropped to 300, and in 1970 it fell to 234, the lowest total in eight years. Teams like the Chicago White Sox, which had relied primarily on pitching, were no place.

During spring training this year several no-windup pitchers of the past were suddenly winding up again. Nelson Briles of the Pirates, one of those most bothered by the lower mound, said: "I'm not big enough to get a lot of push off the lower mound. I think the full windup will give me more momentum." The Giants' Juan Marichal was another hampered by the change. "I found it much harder to keep the ball low," he says, "particularly in the final three innings when I begin to tire." Ferguson Jenkins of the Cubs says, "I was overstriding and landing on my heel instead of the ball of the foot. I used to get my added momentum from the depth of the mound."

Bob Gibson of the Cards, who enters the season needing 10 wins to join Jim Bunning (219) and Marichal (203) as the only active pitchers with 200 (Jim Kaat of Minnesota stands fourth with 156), says, "I have had baseballs in my hands in the last two years that felt like golf balls. In 1968 almost all my sliders were down. Now my good sliders are up in the hitter's eyes. It takes more effort to throw everything: you feel like you are pushing uphill all the time.

"But all the pitches are up. Heck, I hit .303 last year and I'm not a .300 hitter. When I hear fans talk I don't hear them getting too excited about those 8-7 things. Last year I pitched against Tom Seaver in New York and there was a lot of publicity about it and a lot of people showed up [50,555]. I wonder how many would have come out if it had been publicized as a 12-11 game?"

At the time the lower-the-mound rule and the pinched strike zone went into effect, only Houston's Astrodome had an artificial surface to help hurry ground balls past fielders. This season starts with seven. If the runs begin to rise and the shutouts start to fall there will be some quick and loud reactions, and some surprising teams will be leading.

In baseball things have a way of changing swiftly and not always for the best. The promise of spring, however, seems fresh and green everywhere. Maybe, at last, this will be the year the fans have hoped for—one that belongs to the players. The game can use a respite from the affairs of management.

ILLUSTRATION

For a geometric view of baseball, followed by scouting reports by William Leggett, Roy Blount Jr. and Don Delliquanti, a new rating system for pitchers and a look at the game's most successful operation.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)