I wouldn't say that 1973 was the most difficult year I ever had as a general manager," Jim Campbell was musing as he sat in the noonday sun at Dunedin, near St. Petersburg, the winter base of the Detroit Tigers' team in the Florida Instructional League. "Other seasons have been tougher for me. People tend to forget that as late as August 14 we were in first place in our division and that we had a good year for attendance [1,700,000]."
But 1974 may be something else. As he approaches a new season, Campbell is faced with a classic dilemma: his Tigers are growing old. Jim Campbell knows it and a million Detroiters know it. These old Tigers command high salaries. Thus Campbell's first recourse is to bewitch other general managers into believing that it is desirable to swap bright young cubs for costly long-toothed Tigers. Two weeks from now Campbell will make his pitch in the corridors and byways of the annual baseball meetings at Houston. "I don't think we will have to change our club completely," he says. "We aren't going to make wholesale changes just so we can say we made changes."
Spoken like a general manager. But what does Campbell have to offer? First Baseman Norm Cash is 39, the redoubtable Al Kaline 38. The only experienced second baseman has a little too much experience to be readily marketable; Tony Taylor will be 38 by April. Shortstop Ed Brinkman will soon be 32. Outfielders Willie Horton, Mickey Stanley and Jim Northrup are 30, 31 and 34, respectively. Third Baseman Aurelio Rodriguez is the kid of the club at 25. And when it comes to Detroit's four starting pitchers only Joe Coleman, at 26, is on the low side of 30. Mickey Lolich and Woodie Fryman are 33, Jim Perry 37. Catcher Bill Freehan is 32 and at a low ebb; he batted in only 29 runs last season.
What's more, Campbell goes to the meetings painfully aware that Detroit's farm system has not turned up a Rookie of the Year since Harvey Kuenn in 1953—indeed, he has been the only one in Tiger history—and that many Michiganders are still displeased about the firing of Billy Martin as manager. Ralph Houk has burned his Yankee bridges and is the new Detroit skipper. Dick Williams has burned his Bay bridges and is the Yankee manager-elect. Oakland Owner Charlie Finley, who wants some Yankee compensation for having to give up Williams, completes a triangle that is taking American League President Joe Cronin a mule's age to sort out.
Which brings us back to the question of why Campbell was in Florida watching Instructional League baseball and talking long and late with Hoot Evers, the director of player development, Ed Katalinas, the director of player procurement, Vice-President Rick Ferrell and Superscout Jack Tighe. In the spot he was in, Campbell needed a youth fix—the sight of kids with Tigers in bold letters on their uniforms belting the ball with authority.
Through the years Detroit has had good teams in the Instructional League, which makes it all the more remarkable that so few able newcomers have made it to Tiger Stadium. Heaven knows this predicament is not due to stinginess. One of the most prosperous organizations in baseball, the Tigers get it—and spend it; up to $6 million a year. Last season the team's major league payroll alone was more than $1,300,000, one of the highest in the majors if not the highest.
In view of overall expenditures, the Instructional League is something of a bargain. "It costs us between $50,000 and $60,000 to operate," says Campbell. "I feel it is the best money we spend all year."
Well, it would be if it would only produce. This fall there was real hope. Detroit's entry in the Instructional League was one of the best ever and Campbell feels that it might yield as many as five future major league players. "For many years," Campbell says, "we sent players to the Winter Leagues in Puerto Rico, Mexico or Venezuela, but it is tougher and tougher to get kids to go to those places now. There isn't that much money in it and many players feel that by the time the regular season has ended they want a chance to rest. Now we concentrate on the Florida Instructional and to my mind it is working out well for a couple of reasons.
"Above all, there is no pressure on a kid. He is not playing before big crowds, and the manager can do things in these games that he wouldn't be able to do during a season in the minors. A pitcher can stay in a game—work on different pitches, say, or change his delivery—and not worry if he is knocked around or gives up runs."
Thus the Instructional League can be an ideal device with which to develop raw talent at rock-bottom costs. The players are paid only $16 a day, from which they must pay their room, board and laundry. The season lasts from the middle of September until the middle of November and all the games are played in nice, economic sunlight.
It has been shining most brightly at Dunedin this fall on a broadbacked Californian from Laguna Beach named Danny Meyer. Youth he has. He is 21 but looks 18 and has a comely brunette wife who would be a knockout at a sock hop. Best of all, he is a promising left-handed hitter.
"You don't pay that much attention to batting averages here," Meyer said. "I keep my own batting average and figure it out every day. I'm hitting .340 now but I have tailed off a little bit in the last week or so."
Among those not so nonchalant about averages is Campbell, who knows that Meyer is one of the few batsmen in recent years to hit .400 anywhere. He did it in last year's Instructional League, and came close with a .396 for Bristol in the Appalachian League in 1972.
Fielding is another matter. "My problem," Meyer says, "is finding a position. I was signed two years ago as a second baseman but I have also played third, first and in the outfield. Next year I hope to be advanced to Detroit's Triple A team at Evansville. I have to be honest and say that this season, when I played with Lakeland in the Class A Florida State League, I had some fielding problems."
This year Meyer also had to face up to a shift, a rare experience for a young hitter. It shows unusual respect by the opposition for his bat—and may be a hint that Meyer could vault past Evansville all the way to Tiger Stadium. "I struggled and struggled against it," he said, "and kept hitting the ball right where they were playing me. But near the end of the year I started to get the ball to the opposite field. Then the hits began to come."
He paused and in all seriousness added, "I have a feeling that the Tigers are about ready for a youth movement. I very much want to be a part of it."
So, surely, does Ralph Houk, although he has been peddling the standard line that the Tiger veterans are still capable of winning. Like everyone else, he knows that Baltimore recaptured the division championship by infusing youth into an aging team, and winning means beating Baltimore.
When he quit in New York, Houk said he had gone as far as he could with the Yankee players. What he did not, and will not, say is that the new octopus ownership had perhaps stuck one tentacle too many into his handling of the team. A story persists, for example, that General Partner George Steinbrenner sent a memo to him one day saying that players X, Y and Z had hair of unseemly length and would forthwith have it cut—designating the players by the numbers on their uniforms in his apparent ignorance of their names.
As Houk takes over in Detroit his first problem will be finding players with enough hair to cut.