Despite Pittsburgh's runaway victory, this division drew more paying fans last season—8,543,000—than any other. This year there could be a real race and a zillion more customers as the Pirates go after a fourth consecutive championship—the number Baltimore tripped over last year. Pittsburgh has not been a superior fielding team during its championship seasons, and now the tragic loss of the Pirates' best fielder, Roberto Clemente, will be deeply felt. True, there are those rip-roaring bats. You look at the list of the league's top 15 hitters and there always seem to be five or more Pirates. Willie Stargell, Al Oliver, Manny Sanguillen et al. have not forgotten how to swing. But batting averages alone afford an incomplete picture. For example, while the Pirates outhit the second-place Cubs .274 to .257 in 1972, they scored only six more runs. But in 1971 Pittsburgh was outhit by second-place St. Louis—yet won. And before that, in 1970, although the Pirates had much the higher average, the Cubs scored 77 more runs. So we come to pitching.
Surprisingly, the Pirates have won as much on pitching as anything else. And as long as Steve Blass, Nellie Briles, Dock Ellis, Dave Giusti and the rest are performing, this team will never be a pushover. This year they have a new pitching coach, Mel Wright, who replaces the retired Don Osborn. When Osborn returned to the team as coach in 1970 the team ERA was 3.70. In 1972 it was 2.81—down by close to a run a game during Osborn's stewardship.
It had better stay down, for no one will truly replace Clemente: his arm, his speed, his uncanny positioning in right field against the hitters, his ability to decoy base runners, the difficult catches he made look easy. Now consider the outs that will become hits, the singles that will turn into doubles. In short—more precisely, in right—the Pirates can be beaten.
But who is to do it? The Cubs? Ernie Banks, resident philosopher of Wrigley Field, maintains that the Cubs "will be mighty under Whitey" and in this day and age only Ernie could get away with a statement like that. Carroll (Whitey) Lockman took over as Chicago manager late last July and the team played .600 ball the rest of the season. But what, really, are the Cubbies made of? Will they resolve not to flinch under pressure, to butcher the big series, to get close and then back off?
Lockman's job is to find the ice and iron in the Cubs if indeed they are there. If he can't, well, Chicago won't have Leo Durocher to kick around anymore. The Cubs were beaten last year because they played only three games over .500 against teams in their own division and because the Pirates owned them, 12-3. The Cubs are getting old now and so are their excuses. But should they really want a title, they could win. Certainly the talent is present.
Billy Williams had another spectacular season in 1972 with a batting average of .333, 37 home runs and 122 RBIs. In the last three years he has averaged .319 with 115 RBIs; no one else in either league has been so steadily productive. Jose Cardenal hit 17 homers, stole a team high of 25 bases, batted .291 and drove in 70 runs while scoring 96. Ron Santo was the 10th leading hitter in the league (.302) but drove in only 74 runs, and although Rick Monday provided excellent defense in center field, he had but 42 RBIs.
Chicago's pitching was better last year than at any time since 1963, but there was concern early this spring over the arm of Ferguson Jenkins, the big righthander who has won 20 games or more in each of the past six years. The rest of the starting rotation will be Milt Pap-pas, who somehow gets better (17-7) as he ages; Burt Hooton, 11-14 with a good 2.81 ERA; and probably Rick Reuschel (10-8). What the Cubs need most is an arm behind the plate—their epitaph may be written in stolen bases. Randy Hundley's knees troubled him when he tried to throw out runners last year, though he seemed stronger this spring. Ken Rudolph has a better arm but must prove himself as a hitter.
If the New York Mets could have one wish it would be a schedule without a July. Come Independence Day and they swing like Betsy Ross. Until that awful month last year New York was playing its finest ball ever—at one time the Mets led the division by 6½ games—and the pitching, defense and particularly the hitting seemed of pennant caliber. But in July, when it became clear that Rusty Staub, the most intelligent hitter the club has ever had, would be out for most of the season with a fractured right hand, there went the one man who could drive in the few runs Met pitchers needed to win. Staub's hand is functioning again and perhaps that is sufficient to keep New York in the race into July and beyond. Other hitters are few. Willie Mays was once the finest of all spring batsmen, but now the fastball leaves him standing at the plate all too often. When Manager Yogi Berra fined Willie $1,000 for being AWOL from camp, one iconoclast suggested that the fine broke down to "$100 for going and $900 for coming back." Still, a reasonable facsimile of the grandeur that was Mays would enormously benefit the Mets.
Only at shortstop, where Bud Harrelson excels, and second base, now occupied by ex-Brave Felix Millan, is New York's infield settled. Millan can turn the double play expertly and also make the hit-and-run go. The infield corners are in doubt. John Milner, potentially a power hitter, goes to first. A trimmer Jim Fregosi gets another chance at third, where he undistinguished himself last season.
Duffy Dyer and Jerry Grote are excellent catchers and the pitching staff consists of more than just Tom Seaver and his dog Slider. Jon Matlack was the NL Rookie of the Year with a record of 15-10 and a most impressive 2.32 ERA; Jim MeAndrew was 11-8 with a 2.80. But the enigma of recent seasons, Jerry Koosman (11-12), will have to have a respectable year if New York hopes to go chasing the Pirates.
Gussie Busch loves his St. Louis Cardinals again, and that is good news for Birdland. St. Louis was the first team to sign all its players this year and that old Cardinal flair of the late 1960s seems to have reappeared. The Cards should hit and the Cards should pitch, but many times the Card gloves will go clank in the night. Also in the daytime. Among new faces are Ray Busse at shortstop and Ken Reitz at third. Joe Torre will be platooned at third with Reitz and at first with Tim McCarver, who returns to St. Louis along with Wayne Granger. The latter can be a fine relief pitcher. Good thing, too, because the bullpen was the club's most serious deficiency last year, with only 13 saves compared to Pittsburgh's 48 and New York's 41.
Ted Simmons had finer first two seasons at bat for the Cardinals, averaging .304 and .303 in 71 and 72, than any catcher in the last four decades, and that is going some. Simmons has meanwhile matured as a receiver, one who can handle with poise the veteran staff of Bob Gibson (19-11), Rick Wise (a deceptive 16-16; the bullpen never saved a game for him) and Reggie Cleveland (14-15 after once being 11-4).Scipio Spinks, the 25-year-old righthander who lugs around a large stuffed gorilla named Mighty Joe Young, was injured in a collision at the plate with Johnny Bench on July 4 after St. Louis had won 22 of 27 games. Spinks had pitched well during this stretch but after he was hurt the team fell back and finished a distant fourth. Needless to say, Manager Red Schoendienst was not displeased to welcome a healthy Scipio this spring.
Sometime this year Lou Brock will steal the 600th base of an amazing 11-year career in which he has been thrown out only 24% of the time. The makeup of the 73 Cards is such that if Brock can get on base as often as he usually does—an average of 198 hits a season over the last four years—he will score many a run. And from left-center to right-center the fences have been moved in 10 feet to help the attack. Fanciers of interesting long shots might do worse than St. Loo.
One worse long shot would be the Philadelphia Carl-tons. Steve won 27 games last year; if he had won only 38 more the team would have been at .500. The Phils have a new manager in Danny Ozark and a lot of new pitchers. Jim Lonborg comes in from Milwaukee, where he was a winner (14-12) on a bad team. Ken Brett comes along with Lonborg. Another newcomer, little Cesar Tovar, is a hustler who can hit. Among the holdovers, Willie Montanez is a moody but talented batsman, and Greg Luzinski (.281, 18 HRs, 68 RBIs) is on the brink of becoming a star. Even with Carlton around, that is not enough.
And pity the poor Montreal Expos. They are in a rut. In 1970 they won 73 games, in 1971 they won 71 and last season 70. Alas, they are undermanned again. They have little to operate with and less to trade. The Expos made only two off-season moves, getting Outfielder Jorge Roque from St. Louis for Tim McCarver and sending Carl Morton to Atlanta for Pitcher Pat Jarvis. They finished ahead of the Phillies last season but will have a struggle to attain even such modest stature again. "If I'm not going to get offense," says Manager Gene Mauch bravely, "I'm going to get exceptional defense. I think it's reasonable to assume that our young players will show improvement, and our pitchers have never reached their potential. Mike Torrez won 16 games even though he didn't get a start the first two weeks of the season. Baylor Moore struck out 161 men in 148 innings and there is no limit on what he can do. And Bill Stoneman has never pitched as well as he can."
In Mike Marshall the Expos also have one of baseball's prime relievers. "Marshall is the most complete relief pitcher I've ever seen," says Mauch. "He has weapons for every hitter." Unfortunately, the arms Montreal needs are burp guns.
But it would be uncharitable to leave Montreal—and this lively division—on a hint of gloom. For one thing, the Expos possess at least one champion—Ron Hunt—the man whose pelt has been pinked by more pitchers than any other in baseball history. Montreal chroniclers have at their fingertips every sacrificial appearance by Hunt last season. It was on July 23 at San Diego that he broke Minnie Minoso's record by getting zonked by a Mark Schaeffer pitch. That was No. 192. He finished out the season at 203, and now is said to be rounding into top stick-it-in-my-ear form for '73.
It should also be noted that Montreal continues to support its lovable losers at the gate. Despite the trade of Rusty Staub, Montreal's one big name and the toast of the city, the Expos drew 1,142,145 customers, with an average attendance of 15,863 in 28,000-seat Jarry Park. Le Bon Dieu knows where they will put the people when the Expos become winners.