As play ended in the Florida Instructional League just the other day there were candy canes and plastic holly trees along Central Avenue in downtown St. Petersburg and Christmas carols could be heard on the warm afternoon air. To most sports fans, the concept that men were still playing professional baseball almost a month after the World Series may be reminiscent of Dick Clark's American Bandstand television shows of the late 1950s on which knots of teen-agers seemed to be constantly dancing because nobody ever bothered to tell them to stop. But the fall of 1972 was different. Never have Instructional League players looked so good or seemed so large—and over 500 of them were at work. They were assigned to either the Florida or the Arizona League to hasten their advancement to the majors, to make up for time lost either to serious injuries or service duty or to just plain learn the fundamentals of baseball.
In the last few seasons the Instructional Leagues have been sending players into the majors in large, talented clumps. Among the graduates are Ralph Garr, Bert Blyleven, Reggie Jackson, Bobby Bonds, Steve Blass, Gene Tenace, Scipio Spinks and Vida Blue. Rollie Fingers and Tom Hall, the relief stars of the World Series, have taken Instructional instruction. After his bad 1971 season, Johnny Bench got ready for 1972 by going to Tampa to correct some flaws in his batting style while getting his head screwed back on straight at the same time. You know what happened in 1972: most National League home runs and RBIs, the Most Valuable Player award.
Any assumption that the supply of baseball players has dried up because of expansion is obviously fallacious, as will be established in the next few seasons—perhaps as quickly as April 1973. What's more, some of the finest young players are going to wind up on teams that need them the most.
Detroit, for example, appears to have a truly superior prospect in a 20-year-old second baseman named Dan Meyer. In 1972 Meyer played for Bristol, Va. in the Appalachian League and hit .396. Tiger executives, having trouble believing the .396, sent Meyer off to Dunedin, Fla. to see how he could handle advanced pitching in the Instructional League. Meyer hit .409.
In June and July the Boston Red Sox were being criticized because their farm system seemed to be producing far too few big-league players. Then, led by Carlton Fisk, the young Red Sox cut loose and moved the team into contention in the American League East. The best team in the Southern Division of this year's Florida Instructional League was Boston—and half of the Red Sox pitchers in Florida were left-handed. Whenever Boston gets a winning left-handed pitcher into Fenway Park the light goes on in Old North Church.
Two of the best hitters in the majors were in Florida working at totally different objectives. Minnesota's Tony Oliva, who played only 10 games during the season, was trying to strengthen a knee from which 100 bone chips were removed in June. Young (23) Ted Simmons of St. Louis, one of only seven men to bat .300 in each of the last two years, could be found at first base rather than behind the plate. Each morning he would field between 600 and 800 ground balls as part of a program to give the Cardinals more maneuverability in the season ahead.
Neither the Florida League nor its four-team counterpart in Arizona has received a surplus of public attention; both commence operation in mid-September, when a pennant race of one form or another is afoot in the major leagues, and continue through the playoffs and World Series as well as a good part of the football schedule and the beginnings of both the pro basketball and hockey seasons. But the importance of the Instructional Leagues has increased to such a degree that omens have begun to form around them. One is that a good Instructional League season presages a banner major league campaign the following year.
Baltimore won the Florida League race in 1965 and went on to take the World Series the next fall. The Red Sox, surprise winners of the 1967 American League pennant, were the Florida champions in 1966. The "Miracle Mets" of 1969 had won in Florida the previous year.
Many baseball people feel the modest sums of money put into an Instructional League program are the best investment made during a year because the mental aspects of the game are stressed as much as the physical. The Twins have long been aggressive proponents. Says George Brophy, Minnesota's farm-team director: "When we won the American League pennant in 1965, 22 of our 25 players had been through the Instructional League program. Of the team we had in Florida in 1970, five players had already put in a full season in the major leagues. The cost to our organization has ranged from about $45,000 to $62,000 a year, and it is money we consider well spent. A player can learn things in less than two months that would normally take a year to learn in the minors."
No player has ever become wealthy in an Instructional League; in Florida each man is given $15 a day for lodging and meals. Nor is the training light; the days are long indeed. For the most part, teams report at 10 a.m. and start working on fundamentals or game strategy. At one p.m. the games begin. On some days doubleheaders are played. Most teams keep careful count to make sure that every player gets in the same number of innings and, when possible, also gets as many at bats as his fellows.
Statistics have little importance in Instructional League play and are not part of a player's career averages. Sam Mele, the former Twins manager who is now a scout and instructor for the Red Sox, says, "We feel that the pressure of a batting average or an earned-run average should be removed. Sure, good players want to do well wherever they play, but they don't have to worry here if they have a couple of 0-for-4 days in a row. The purpose is to teach the good things and remove as many of the bad ones as possible."
The team that enjoyed this year's fine performances in the biggest clusters was the St. Louis Cardinals. In the '60s the Cardinals were dread birds, but recently they have become dead birds. Now chirps are being heard again. Probably no pitching staff in recent seasons in any professional league has been as impressive as that of the 1972 Florida Instructional League Cardinals, who won 26 of their last 32 games. In 11 of the last 13 games the young Cardinal pitchers allowed a single run or none. In the other two games the Cards gave up three earned runs and two unearned runs.
Names? Ray Bare and Rich Folkers are only slightly known, and an emerging group of Bob Forsch, Greg Terlecky, Tom Mitchell and Burt Nordstrom is currently no more than caption material for photographers who shoot pictures for bubble-gum cards. The combined record of this group, however, was an amazing 23-4.
Any St. Louis team seems to produce a batting star. The new one is a San Franciscan, Keith Hernandez, who is 19 years old, bats and throws left-handed and was signed for a reported $135,000 as a combination pitcher-hitter. He hits line drives and has a fine laugh, humility and good eyes. Hernandez' father once played in the Cardinal organization.
Since Hernandez has now moved to first base, St. Louis may eventually have quite a crowd at that corner—or, more likely, the makings of some trades. Simmons has been working out there. Slugger Joe Torre is moving over from third base. Tim McCarver has been reacquired and he seems to be heading firstward. Then there is Ed Kurpiel, the Cards' first-round draft choice of 1971. St. Louis is also well stocked at catcher and third, positions where most teams are short.
In any case, Hernandez is bound to play somewhere. "Hernandez has the type of swing you don't touch," says Harry Walker, the new St. Louis batting instructor. "You just put him out there and let him play. He looks like Musial when he first came up, only he isn't quite as fast."
The Cardinals had six hitters on their Instructional League roster with batting averages over .300. Hernandez was the most impressive, and he played first base like a young master. When he injured his wrist late in the season he voluntarily spent the final days serving as the team's bat-and-ball boy. "If everything goes well for me," he says, "I believe I can get to the major leagues in two years. The Instructional League has helped me in every aspect of the game. Now the rest is up to me."