All it was supposed to be was a short bus trip for the Oakland Athletics from Mitchell Field on the outskirts of Milwaukee to the Pfister Hotel downtown, but it ended up as quite a ride. The A's had opened the season like a gang of busters, total busts that is, nobodies going no place. They seemed resigned to spending their season fumbling ground balls, striking out with runners in scoring position and feeling terribly sorry for themselves because some pitching arms had been injured.
Coming from a team that was supposed to be filled with promise, the alibis were almost as upsetting to Oakland fans as the A's being shut out on opening day in Washington, the first such Senator win since 1962, and the improbable loss of their own home opener, or openers, namely a doubleheader with the Chicago White Sox. The year before, the Sox had played 21 doubleheaders and swept exactly one of them. So bad were things in Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum that Harvey, the annoying mechanical rabbit that faithfully dispensed balls from his subterranean lair behind home plate, expired. He was laid to rest beneath the stands with lilies spread on his chest.
Four days later the Athletics flew into Milwaukee with a 2-4 record and a wise guy aboard the plane who thought it would be fun to take a battery-operated megaphone off the plane with him. That did it. Before the bus moved, Dick Williams, the team's 11th manager since Charles O. Finley became its owner in 1960, stood up in the front of the vehicle, stuck his hands into his raincoat pocket and delivered to his troops a sermon the likes of which only Dick Williams can deliver. "Gentlemen," he said, although he did not use precisely that word, "some of you think you can be awful. Well, I can be worse than any of you. I've been mild up to now. There will be no booze served on our airplanes this trip. I have no small fines. I suggest that you stay in your rooms the entire trip. And if any of you want to phone Charlie, I have three numbers where he can be reached."
The megaphone magically returned to its rightful spot, the team rode off in a blaze of silence and by the end of last week the Oakland Athletics had won 12 of 13 post-blast games. In the process they rose to the top of the American League West and defeated the division's only other real challengers, California's Angels and Minnesota's Twins, five games to none. By Sunday, Oakland had won as many times as the San Francisco Giants, and, like their cross-bridge counterparts, had a handsome lead.
May 2, 1971
The winning A's were displaying some varied talents, such as: the hottest young pitcher in baseball, 21-year-old Vida (The Blue Blazer) Blue with a record of 4-1 and 40 strikeouts in 34‚Öî innings; the most impressive young catcher in the American League, Dave Duncan (see cover); the league's second best homerun hitter, Sal Bando with five; Reggie Jackson and Dick Green delivering big hits; and, best and most surprising of all, a pitching staff that had run off 10 complete games. Not bad for a bunch of guys with sore arms. The Twins, with only four complete games, and the Angels with two, could use a few Oakland-type sore arms.
"You can hardly judge a season-long pennant race at this point," says Williams, "but we hope that we will be quite a few games out in front of it at the close. The Angels have a real good ball club, everyone knows that. It could be a close race, but I hope not. The Twins are going to be better than they've shown. That is their history."
Minnesota's history, in fact, is the history of the American League West. The Twins have won the division's only two pennants, both times by nine games. Alas, they have also lost six straight times to the Orioles in the playoffs, doing absolutely nothing for either their own image or the division's. But maybe that is all done with now. Definitely there is more competition in the West. Already this year each of the six teams has been in first place, and Minnesota's shaky start is not the only reason.
There are some who believe that the Twins stood too pat during the off season while both the Athletics and California Angels strengthened themselves. Such points are always debatable. When a team suddenly loses three potential starting pitchers, there is no doubt in anybody's mind that it would have been better off acquiring more starting pitchers. But who expects to lose—all in the spring—former 20-game winners Luis Tiant and Dave Boswell and a fine youngster, Bill Zepp. Tiant and Boswell developed real sore arms and were released, and Zepp decided that he would not play anywhere except in Detroit, so Minnesota was forced to trade him to the Tigers.
Oakland's biggest move was getting Dick Williams. According to Duncan, "He instills confidence in you. That's why I think we are 75% better than last year. It's a great feeling. Everyone on the team knows we have it and we're all putting out."
Before all that putting-out began, the team noted most often as Minnesota's likeliest successor was California, the most changed club in the division if not in all baseball. Of the nine players in the Angels' opening-day lineup in 1969 only one, Jim Fregosi (see cover), remains. The Angels now have a colorful club that has pitched well (ERA 2.96) but has batted abominably (.207). "Our hitting hasn't got here yet," says Manager Lefty Phillips, "but it will arrive. Even without it, we won seven games in a row on the road. When you win like that without hitting it is a sign of a good ball club. The bats will come around eventually. We've got them, I know that, and they'll get going."
"The race in the West," said Fregosi after last week's three disheartening losses to the A's, one a 4-2 affair in 13 innings, "will be close all year. No one is going to run away with it. We have fine spirit, the best in all my years here. We all think we can win it. Sure, we have to go out and do it."
The average age of the Angel team is 26, and the man who assembled it, 45-year-old General Manager Dick Walsh, will come out either charmer or curt curmudgeon (take your pick, everybody else does) no matter how the season goes. Walsh, who has been called, among other things. The Smiling Python, used to be with the Los Angeles Dodgers. As their director of stadium operations, he helped make Dodger Stadium one of the finest, cleanest and best-run arenas in the world. In 1966 he became commissioner of the United Soccer Association, but returned to baseball when Owners Bob Reynolds and Gene Autry offered him the general managership of the Angels two years ago.
"When I was general manager of the Dodgers," says Buzzie Bavasi, "I used to let Dick negotiate some of our player contracts and he was involved in some of the discussions we had about trades. He learned baseball from the ground up in the Dodger farm system and was very good on details. He is a stable, honest man and he has made some good trades for the Angels. I wrote him last season to tell him I thought he and Lefty Phillips had done the best job in baseball. If Dick ever made a mistake when he was working for the Dodgers, it was this: he would say the thing everybody knew was correct, but that nobody wanted to hear."
By adding Ken Berry, Tony Conigliaro and Catcher Jerry Moses to the Angels over the winter, Walsh has fielded a team with only one front-line player, other than pitchers, who was developed in the California farm system. (Seven of Oakland's regulars are homegrown, as are five of the Twins'.)
But for all the newness at Anaheim, the freshest development in the West is Oakland's lefthander, Vida Blue. Called up late last season, Blue hit a home run in his first start, pitched a one-hitter in his second and a no-hitter against Minnesota in his fourth. Blue, who is from Mansfield, La., is a baseball rarity, a pitcher who has taken the time to learn to switch-hit, a talent that will keep him in games when other pitchers are being lifted for pinch hitters. He is also cool. Following a postgame television show last week he was congratulated on how well he had performed before the cameras. "Well, I'm not Sidney Poitier yet," he said. One thing he just might be, although it is absurdly early to make such predictions, is something of a black Koufax. Like Sandy Koufax, he strikes out lots of batters when he pops his fastball.
According to the observant Bando, "Vida has unlimited potential. He's the best lefthander in the league right now outside of Sam McDowell. He can throw the ball past good hitters. And he has a good curveball that he should throw more often. And he has an excellent attitude. He listens!"
Oakland's quick break from the gate has stirred interest throughout the American League. And the new, new California Angels, who won over Baltimore on Saturday night with a grand-slam homer by Roger Repoz, are drawing pleasantly large crowds to Anaheim. Now only Oakland fans have to be convinced. Maybe Dick Williams should talk to them. He gets action.