What has gotten into baseball? A new season begins, and they actually play ball on Opening Day. Could it be that a blessed peace has broken out between the men in knickers and the ones with the big cigars? Consider Vida Blue. He signed his contract. In March! In Chicago they have slain the fatted calf for Richard Anthony Allen. He that was lost has been found—and rewarded with the highest salary in baseball history. Yet who among you can view the terrible swift arm of Steve Carlton (see cover) and doubt the stern reality of retribution? Who has taller tantrums than Detroit Manager Billy Martin, who jilted the Tigers last Friday, then kissed and made up on Saturday? At 7 a.m.
After a decade of flirting with disaster, baseball is up and kicking—and in the adventurous American League daring to violate the sanctity of the nine-man lineup with that radical new creature, the designated hitter. The American League has also gotten its most sumptuous new ball park in years, in Kansas City, whose citizens have accorded themselves the luxury of a stadium designed solely for baseball.
Still fresh is the memory of an exciting World Series, played on God's green grass in Oakland and Monsanto's in Cincinnati; of the fierce divisional playoffs that preceded it; and of the fire-house American League East finish that came before. Now there is an unusual sense of opportunity all across the land, a feeling that champions can be unseated, tables turned.
It is a year to contemplate records and the men who would break them: Henry Aaron closing in on Babe Ruth's 714 home runs, Lou Brock promising to surpass Ty Cobb's feat of stealing more than 50 bases in eight seasons. And so confident is baseball that it is indeed the national pastime, 15 Monday night games will be televised in prime time.
Heroes abound, and none more dazzling than Cesar Cedeno of the Houston Astros. At the tender age of 22 he is coming off a season in which he hit .320, drove in 83 runs (although he was usually second in the batting order) and stole 55 bases. Cedeno is the kind of player who could tear the roof off the Astrodome. Already he is being compared with the late Roberto Clemente as a generator of excitement. "I do not want to be the second Clemente," Cesar says. "I want to be the first Cedeno."
Should you cling to the shibboleth that today's players do not have wondrous names as in the good old days, roll this one off the tongue: Alonza B. Bumbry. He hails from Fredericksburg, Va. and plays in the outfield for the Baltimore Orioles. Buzz Busby and Crawfish Crawford add pitching promise and a dash of alliteration to the Kansas City Royals and the Astros, respectively. And the California Angels have a new wrinkle in Bobby Winkles, whom they hired from Arizona State University, which makes the Angels the first club to get itself a manager right out of college coaching since Pittsburgh chose Hugo Bezdek in 1917. Has the hiring of Winkles scared the Dodgers' Walter Alston? No. Southern California is his until proved otherwise. Alston earns quite a bit more than Winkles but prefers not to discuss the gaudy details. "I don't need much, you know," he says. "Just enough to keep me in shotgun shells."
One of the fascinations of baseball is that fans acquire more delectable worries, real and imaginary, than heroines of daytime television. Minnesota followers, for instance, believe Owner Calvin Griffith spent so much time dressed in his kilt during salary negotiations that it may adversely affect the Twins. Carlton Fisk of the Red Sox has been plagued with a sore arm; Frank Robinson of the Angels has twice been injured in training; a governor was applied to Cincinnati's Bobby Tolan to limit his running after he pulled a muscle; and the Cardinals' Scipio Spinks, a brilliant young pitcher, has had control problems while recovering from surgery on torn knee ligaments. And there is the concern that Johnny Bench of the Reds, who also underwent off-season surgery, will be hard put to maintain his strength over a long summer.
Over in the other league interest is at its strongest in years, thanks to the DH rule. Probably not since the Roman Catholic Church switched from Latin to English Masses has any break with tradition caused more vigorous argument in this country. The complicated rule, as recent returnees from Outer Mongolia may not know, permits a man to hit in place of the pitcher, thus giving American League teams the option of using a minimum of 10 players in every game while the National holds to the customary nine. When the season is about one-quarter along it will be possible to calculate just what is happening to run scoring, batting averages, RBIs and the number of complete games pitched. Certain statistics may go haywire. American League pitchers will surely have fewer strikeouts simply because they will not be throwing to opposing pitchers three or four times a game. Had the rule been in effect last season, Nolan Ryan of the Angels probably would not have been the strikeout leader. He fanned 329 batters to 310 for Carlton, but some 40 of Ryan's victims were pitchers. Stolen bases should increase because the DH man will get the leadoff hitters up more often. Spring games provided only a taste of the new era—interleague games were played without the DH—but clearly a lot of hits were being made that otherwise would not have been.
One thing is certain: Henry Aaron will not catch Babe Ruth as a DH, asterisk in hand. Wrong league. But catch him he will. It is just a matter of time, but what kind of time? Aaron needs 42 more home runs. Last year he hit 34, only 10 by June 10. He was off slowly because of the layoff caused by the players' strike. In 1971 Aaron hit 47, the year before that 38, and the year before that 44. It does not hurt that the fences have been brought in at Dodger Stadium and San Diego, and the Braves certainly have not pushed them back at their launching pad in Atlanta. Aaron also could benefit from the early 1973 schedule. In the first four weeks he should be swinging in the kind of warm weather he likes. The Braves open at home, then go to California, then to Cincinnati for but three games—two of them in daylight—and subsequently return home. That period covers 23 games. And besides warm weather, Aaron should also be drawing a good many left-handed pitchers.
"I'm going to swing the bat naturally, the way I always have," Aaron says. "I'm sure not going to start trying to hit the ball to right field. Why change after all these years? I just want to hit the ball hard. I've found that home runs come when you don't go after them. I know the pitchers will work me carefully. I've just got to discipline myself to wait for nothing but good pitches."
Chances are the first Atlanta player to shake Aaron's hand whenever he hits No. 715 will be Dusty Baker, the 23-year-old who will bat fourth behind Henry. Last season Baker hit .321, the third-highest average in the majors. As Baker goes, so may Aaron.
Brock's race against Cobb lacks the glamour of Aaron's quest but is remarkable nonetheless. Beating Cobb at anything is remarkable. The book says a good runner should be safe stealing second base 66% of the time. Brock, 33 now, has made it 76% of the time. "Going after Cobb's record," he says, "doesn't thrill me as much as maybe it should, because I feel that when Maury Wills stole 104 he reached the limit of human endurance. The element of surprise is important to a man who steals 20 to 25 bases a season. In my case there is little element of surprise left."
Surprises of another sort may be in the offing, for not since divisional play began in 1969 has the game offered such possibilities for exciting races. Las Vegas oddsmakers have established Cincinnati at 6 to 5 to win the National League West and Pittsburgh even-money favorite to win the East. The latest line on the Oakland A's is 5 to 6, and the Baltimore Orioles are being sent out at 8 to 5. Many old hands who have watched each of the favorites play this spring feel that those prices are unrealistic.
Cincinnati's Big Red Machine is a steamroller only so long as all the parts function precisely. There is little surplus horsepower. Like many other teams the Reds are making a major position switch, moving Centerfielder Bobby Tolan to right, where his loss of speed will be less of a handicap, and swinging Cesar Geronimo to center. Then there is Bench. Opponents were stealing on him in spring games—something new in l√®se-majesté.
As for the Pirates, East Division winners the last three years, their spring was one of some anxiety. For the first time since 1969 they failed to play .500 ball in the Grapefruit League. Their first 19 games produced the horrendous total of 33 errors plus other defensive mistakes that went unrecorded. No matter how the Pirates try to patch up the outfield to compensate for the loss of Clemente, a good many more runs will be scored against Pittsburgh this year than in 1972.
It is Centerfielder Al Oliver more than Manny Sanguillen, who has moved into right field, who must truly replace Clemente in the Pirate lineup. Oliver will bat third—Clemente's old spot—and is acutely aware of his responsibility.
"The word superstar is probably overused in sports," Oliver says, "but Clemente was a superstar. That is the way other players looked upon him. On New Year's Eve I had been to a party. At 4:30 in the morning Willie Stargell called and asked if I had heard the news. I can't explain it, but something flashed in the back of my mind that said, 'Clemente's dead.' My legs got weak and my whole body started to tremble. We turned on the five o'clock news and heard that his plane had gone down."
As far as the hairy ones from Oakland are concerned, the pitching is still just fine, but can Charles O. Finley really give up a Mike Epstein, a Matty Alou and a Dave Duncan and never feel the loss? In the madcap East the Orioles hopefully have improved their hitting; certainly the Yankees have. But the late acquisition of Jim Perry, the 1970 Cy Young winner, strengthens the defending Tigers. In Boston one may see the most interesting designated hitter of all. Orlando Cepeda's knees are in terrible shape. The word is that an Exercycle may be put in the dugout for Cepeda to pedal between appearances at bat so that his knees will not stiffen up. But, ah, how he is hitting: nine for 26 in spring games for a .346 average.
The most encouraging aspect of baseball 1973 is that all the talk is of the game, not of labor and management or of greener pastures in Yonder City. The players were taking their jobs seriously this spring. Dick Allen could be found alone working against the Iron Mike in Sarasota at 7 a.m. In Lakeland one morning Mickey Lolich, the winner of 47 games in 703 innings of work for Detroit in the last two years, wiped sweat from his forehead and reflected on the virtues of effort. "At the Oldtimers Games," he said, "I'd watch the players run out onto the field and acknowledge the cheers. One day an old guy ran out and somebody on the bench said, 'He played for the Tigers in the '30s. Remember him?' It pained me when another guy said no. I felt sorry for the old guy and made up my mind it would never happen to me. I want people to know I've been here."
Just one spring ago Johnny Bench was saying—although without much conviction—that he was not going to tip his cap after hitting a home run because he had been booed so fiercely in Cincinnati the season before. Bench did tip his cap in 1972, though, and became the National League's Most Valuable Player for the second time in three years. Early this March Bench was standing at Al Lopez Field in Tampa looking at one particular face in a packed house. Suddenly Bench flipped his mitt to the grass and began clapping his hands. The man Bench was applauding was Lieut. Colonel Richard Keirn, an Air Force pilot who had served one week in Vietnam and 7½ years in a Hanoi POW camp. Keirn was to throw out the first ball, but before any public announcement was made the Reds and Detroit Tigers followed Bench's lead and then all the people in the ball park started applauding—to such a degree that Colonel Keirn began to cry. Keirn threw the ball, Bench caught it and ran to Keirn's box. "This is the greatest thrill I've ever had," Johnny said. "It was the finest pitch I ever caught."
Thus the baseball season commences with more things going for it than seemed possible a few months ago. The fans are alive, the players are excited and for the moment the times of trouble are forgotten.