The morning was magnificent, with the sun high in a clear Florida sky. Automobiles from faraway places filled the parking lot at Arthur Allyn Field in Sarasota. Fans sat in bleachers or leaned against wire fences, skin winter-pale. After months of tedious labor negotiation news, spring training had finally begun, and all the old magic was there again for those who genuinely enjoy the geometrical charms of baseball.
The Chicago White Sox have been training in Sarasota since 1960, but this was a special day, the beginning of a special season. Only once in 53 years have the Sox won an American League pennant; in 1973 another may be forthcoming. The White Sox have given their fans generations of geometry; now they promise drama.
Three seasons ago Chicago lost 106 times and ended up 42 games out of first place. Last year the team finished second to the World Champion Oakland A's, only 5½ games away from accomplishing a minor athletic miracle. Once the White Sox seemed to be made up of a thousand $1 nonentities. Now they have the highest-priced ballplayer ever to pull on a pair of sanitary socks. For years they went about the business of scoring a run with the grace of a barefoot man kicking cactus. Today they can rattle the fences and break the furniture in a 62-year-old stadium that has one of the largest playing areas in the major leagues.
Not 24 hours after he had signed up for three years at an estimated $225,000 a year, chief rattler Dick Allen was asked why he had wanted a contract of such length. "Well," he said, "when I was traded to the White Sox last year that made four teams in four seasons. I think we are now very close to winning a pennant. In the next three years we might win two, and I don't want to be someplace else when it happens."
Bill Melton (see cover), the handsome 27-year-old third baseman who was benched by back miseries last summer but looks fit and fine now, sees the situation this way: "The White Sox haven't gotten the attention some teams have. To many fans only five teams—Oakland, Detroit, Baltimore, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh—appear to be doing an awful lot. The other clubs just seem to be scrambling around. But we have one heck of a lineup. This year I think everybody will be watching us."
Not the least of the attention will be on Melton. Chicago had never had a home-run champion until Melton, with exquisite timing, hit three in the last two games of the 1971 season to beat out Detroit's Norm Cash and Oakland's Reggie Jackson 33 to 32. While Melton's total was among the lowest to lead the American League in years, that vast Chicago acreage made the feat a genuinely impressive one. And far from freakish—the season before Melton had set a Sox team record with another 33.
Even without Melton for the final three months of the 1972 season, the Sox made the run that put them half a game ahead of Oakland as late as Aug. 28. As the A's must have asked themselves more than once, where might the Sox have finished with Melton?
A little over a year ago Melton, trying to remove his small son from a garage roof, fell off a ladder and aggravated an old disc injury. He played until June in increasing pain. "I thought it would go away," he said last week, "but the pain kept moving further down my left leg." Finally the disc herniated and he had to come out of the lineup for treatment.
Two days before the official opening of the Sox spring camp Melton was out on one of the four diamonds at Allyn Field, beginning the climb back. He stepped into the box and swung against live pitching for the first time since June 23—and hit the first offering on a line to center field. "That's not too bad for right out of bed," he said happily. "The Back is back."
"We could have sat still over the winter and still had our fans fully behind us," says Roland Hemond, director of player personnel, "because we had Melton returning along with Pitcher Bart Johnson, who was bothered by a knee injury last season, one of the best all-round athletes in sports today. But we decided not to sit."
At the November baseball meetings in Honolulu the Sox executed one of the major off-season trades by getting Outfielder Ken Henderson from San Francisco along with Pitcher Steve Stone for Pitcher Tom Bradley, a 15-game winner in 1972. Henderson is an excellent fielder, he has fine base-running speed and he is that rarity, a switch-hitter with power. "I did not expect the Giants to give up on me," Henderson says. "I thought I fit into their plans for 1973, but when the trade came I was happy about it because I was going to a contender. If I hit in front of Allen I can use my base-running ability at times. And with Allen, Melton, Carlos May and myself in the lineup, we have a good set of bats."
"For years," says Manager Chuck Tanner, "our ball park was judged too big for a power team. Well, with the type of power we have now we've cut down the size of the park."
With Henderson hitting third and Melton fifth, Allen is the filling in an explosive sandwich. He may even better his league-leading 113 RBIs and 37 homers, because he will not be walked as often. Why walk Allen to face Melton? Allen's value has been further increased by the designated-hitter rule.
The White Sox are enjoying the new love-me, love-my-team Allen. Now beginning his 10th full season as a major-leaguer, Allen has reported for the start of a spring training for only the third time. He did it during his rookie spring with the Phillies in 1964 and again with the Dodgers in 1971. "I knew last September that I was coming to the start of our spring training," Allen explained one afternoon in Sarasota. "But every time I saw Chuck he kept telling me he didn't want me in spring training early. He said he wouldn't know what to do with me if I ever got here early."
A big smile crossed Allen's face. In the opening workouts he has been taking ground balls at second base and shortstop just for exercise and Tanner occasionally plays first base to catch Allen's throws. Tanner is also utilizing Allen's knowledge of base running to help other Chicago players. "We ran ourselves into a lot of mistakes on the bases last year," Allen said, "and those mistakes cost us some games. If I can help anybody just a little bit it will help us as a team."
When Allen was at Philadelphia, Gene Mauch, then the Phillie manager, said of him, "There are only two things you cannot get by Richie Allen. One is a high fastball and the other a fast highball." Following his fine season last year, however, Allen's image has changed remarkably. The day after his signing last week he walked over to two Chicago reporters and apologized because the story of his record salary broke first in Washington, where his adviser worked on the contract. "I'm sorry about what happened," Allen said. "It's embarrassing to me because you guys should never have been beaten on the story."
Later that day a television network man came to the White Sox training camp with a camera crew. Allen had just come from the field and was ready for a shower. His uniform was off and hanging in his locker, wrinkled and damp. "Would you put your uniform back on," the man asked, "and come out on the field? We just need a couple of minutes."
"The uniform's all wet," Dick said, "and I don't want to put it back on. I'll help you, but can't we do it in my street clothes?"
"I'm network out of New York," the TV man said.
"I'm Allen out of Pennsylvania," said Allen.
"We really need the uniform," the television man suggested.
"No matter what I'm in," said Allen, "Me is Me."
But Allen put his wet trousers back on, got into a red windbreaker and went out and did the interview.
Off in the distance the pitchers were still working: wondrous knuckleballer Wilbur Wood (24-17), the rejuvenated Bart Johnson, newcomer Steve Stone, youthful reliever Terry Forster, who in 1972 had finished 45 games and set a team record with 29 saves. He had not given up a home run in 100 innings. Notably absent: Stan Bahnsen (21-16), who had not yet signed. Inseparable from Wood & Co. was a middle-aged man with a middling chaw in his cheek: Johnny Sain, pitching coach extraordinary. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Sain and Tanner promoted Forster in 1971, after he had put in but 54 innings of minor-league pitching. Forster logged only 50 major-league innings that year. "That plus Sain's coaching was worth 200 innings in the minors," said Chuck Tanner. All in all, it seemed staff enough for a pennant race.
At third base Melton was fielding balls hit by Coach Joe Lonnett. One hopped up and struck Melton on the shoulder. "Ah! Ah!" Melton shouted, "you got me."
"Ding-a-ling-a-ling," hollered Lonnett.
The Back is back, the Me is Me, and perhaps at last the bells will be ringing on Chicago's South Side.