Amos Otis, just another Mobile, Ala. lad making good, ran his hitting streak to a welcome 12 games last week, a rate of success very nearly equaled by his Kansas City team. The Royals, in fact, became contenders in the American League West with 11 wins in 12 games while Otis' play was reminding people of such fine baseball names as Aaron (Henry), Williams (Billy), Agee (Tommie) and Jones (Cleon). They all originated around Mobile.
Although this is only Otis' second full season in the majors, there is strong evidence that no other American League centerfielder possesses his skills. There is, according to Ewing Kauffman, the Royals' imaginative owner, still stronger evidence that no other Kansas City player possesses them either. Otis, says Kauffman, is the only Royal with the speed, strength and other necessary etceteras that would qualify him for admission to KC's baseball academy (SI, Jan. 4). This speaks almost as well for what Otis has helped wrought as for the team Kauffman hopes one day to have.
With Curt Flood confining his game to Spain, Otis probably has no defensive superior in the league. Last year he led everybody in putouts, chances and double plays, and he tied in assists. He has now played 123 consecutive errorless games with a one-handed flair that stirs the crowd, teases the opposition and is the despair of Little League dads shouting "use two hands, son."
Otis sprints to first base in as little as 3.6 seconds, and last season he ranked in the top five in the three speed departments: doubles, triples and steals. An infielder will double him up about once every three weeks and, as Otis puts it, "If I'm 0 for 3 going into my last at bat somebody's gonna have to throw me out." In his season and a half with Kansas City he has never been caught stealing at second, and this year only teammate Fred Patek has more thefts.
If Otis has a shortcoming it is that he has yet to maintain a .300 average. Few doubt that he will, least of all Otis. "I might have done it last year, but I slumped at the end and finished at .284," he says. "My goal this year is to do better. If I do I'll hit .300 in no time."
No time might be the '71 season. With 22 hits in his last 61 at bats, Otis has lifted his average to .304, even while trying to give the Royals the home run they almost always lack. He contends that his homers are strictly a matter of "my getting the ball up in the air on a windy day." But he has 11, which ties him for fourth in the league and equals his output for all last season.
Because of his wide assortment of talents Otis has been compared by Cleveland Manager Al Dark to "the young Roberto Clemente." In the spring of 1969, however, he was not even a young Amos Otis. The New York Mets placed him on a seven-man "untouchable" list and hoped he would solve the team's chronic third-base dilemma. The drums rolled and the trumpets blew, but when the season began Ed Charles was at third and the publicized Otis was on the bench.
"I was crushed," he says today. "I kept to myself and was the last person at the park and the first to leave."
Eventually, the Mets gave Otis a chance, but his performance was sour and he was sent to Tidewater. There he played his natural position, center field, batted .327 and so impressed the Kansas City organization that it traded Joe Foy for Otis and Pitcher Bob Johnson. "I was so happy that I went out and bought a bottle of champagne," Otis recalls.
The transformation of Otis, no longer in the shadow of New York's out-fielding Mobilers, Agee and Jones, began immediately. By July he was named to the American League All-Star team, and he can be remembered as the man who almost threw Pete Rose out at the plate in the 12th inning. As his confidence grew and his shyness waned, Otis picked up some of the less beguiling folkways of today's stars, like loafing through spring training and pregame warmups. But beneath his cool veneer is a desire to excel—and to be rewarded accordingly. "I want to do everything," he says, "so that when The Man [Owner Kauffman] looks at me he'll want to pay me $100,000."
When that happens, Amos Otis will have made it with the Mobile set.