For the 80 or so major league baseball players who have joined new teams since the World Series shouts and sighs died away last October in Oakland, it was a time to test the dimensions of a different parcel of space, to finger the letters of a different uniform, to see the spring sun over a different tree, and to cast a glance over the shoulder at the clubs that had cut the cord. This is how it was last week with some of the most notable travelers.
COCOA. His day's work done, Claude Os-teen showered and then selected a sunny spot in the stadium. From there the ex-Dodger pitcher watched his new Houston Astro teammates labor through a ragged eight-inning intrafamily spat. Mostly he watched the young pitchers, the big, strong kids with live fastballs and fervent hopes that some of their bullets would cross the plate somewhere. He spotted the flaws and filed them away, and later, if he could think of a tactful approach, or if he were asked, he would gently suggest a cure. When the Astros signed Osteen he decided he was going to give them more than just the winningest left arm in baseball.
Osteen watched as a youngster wound up and fired a fastball—behind the hitter. He laughed softly and said, "I was like that once: a thrower. When I threw a curve I never thought about getting it over the outside corner. I just threw it because the pitch before it was a fastball. It was just something to do. I never really thought why."
One game turned it around for him. That was in 1963, after three nothing seasons with Cincinnati and an 8-13 record with Washington the year before. The 5'11", 173-pound southpaw drew a start against the Yankees, who were still brutish. Hobie Landrith, the Washington catcher, cornered Osteen in the locker room before the game and made him map out a strategy, pitch by pitch, batter by batter, for the whole game. He had never done that before.
March 17, 1974
That season he finished with nine victories, had 15 the next, and then was off to Los Angeles, where he won 147 in nine years, including two 20-game seasons.
Last December, just before the start of the winter meetings, the Dodgers told him that he might be traded. He had expected and dreaded it. "There have been Dodgers who were better, but none loved that uniform more, or wore it with more pride," Osteen said.
Shortly thereafter Houston scooped him up for Outfielder Jimmy Wynn. Osteen said it was a pleasant surprise. "Houston has a good young team; they just seemed to lack something."
That something, he quickly discovered, was the ability to get along with Leo Durocher, who was being replaced as manager by Preston Gomez. "That was enough," Osteen said. "I didn't have to dig any deeper." His first day in camp Osteen observed the players' evident respect for Gomez, and he felt relieved. He went fishing, something he does every day, unless he is playing golf.
The intrasquad game ended and Osteen stared out at the field. "I won 21 games against this club," he said, "and I can't remember many that weren't awful close. If they had been doing then what Gomez is drilling us hard in now—bunting, running more, not waiting for the big hit—I have to believe that some of them might have gone the other way." It was a pleasant thought, and he took, it with him fishing.
YUMA. Willie McCovey took his final few powerful batting-practice swings and strolled stiff-legged to deepest right field, where in solitude he performed the painful calisthenics that help keep his arthritic knees functioning. It was the finish of a three-hour workout in the punishing Arizona sun and McCovey, a 218-pounder, was breathing heavily.
But even while grunting through knee bends, his dignity was intact. He is, above all, a presence, and no one appreciates this more than the perennially downtrodden San Diego Padres. Just having him there lends them a distinction they have woefully lacked in their five years of existence.
"They've never had a real star here," said the team's new manager, the amiable John McNamara, who, like McCovey, comes to the Padres from San Francisco, where he had been a coach the past three seasons. "Now we have one who is absolutely first class."
"I know now that the odds are good we'll get some runs," said Pitcher Bill Greif, who won 10 games last year but lost 17. "On our ball club a player like McCovey means as much psychologically as anything else. He is a winner and we have had only a losing tradition here. Lots of times, just expecting to win can make the difference."
McCovey is not the only new Padre with a winning reputation. The team has a new owner in McDonald's hamburger tycoon Ray Kroc; Manager McNamara; new coaches and new proven talent in Matty Alou, Bobby Tolan, Glenn Beckert and Jim McAndrew, all acquired in off-season trades. But even at 36 and with collapsible knees that could terminate his career suddenly, McCovey is the important figure, the presence.
In 15 seasons with the Giants he hit 413 home runs, many of them of historic distance, and batted in 1,165 runs. He has been the National League's home run champion or co-champion on three occasions, its RBI leader twice, its Most Valuable Player (1969) and its Rookie of the Year (1959).
"I had known for a long time that it would be better for me to play in a warmer climate," he said, removing his sodden yellow uniform in the Yuma clubhouse. 'The doctors told me that playing in Candlestick Park on those cold, damp nights was the worst thing possible for my knees. Still, I'd been with the Giants so long they were like a family, and it's always hard to leave a family."
McCovey accepts his responsibilities as team leader with characteristic grace: "What I do is give 100% and hope I'm setting an example. That's why I played so often when I was hurt. I felt the others would see me out there suffering and say to themselves, 'If he can do it, so can I.' We're going to have a winning attitude on this team from now on. I can't say how far we'll go, but I don't think we'll end up last."
And in San Diego, where the team has never finished higher than last, that would be a heroic achievement, one worthy of a Willie McCovey.
SARASOTA. The question is: Who's on third? The White Sox incumbent, Bill Melton, was stretched out on the lush outfield grass, his left hand propping up his chin. "I guess I can get into it," Melton began, "by saying that if you happened to live on the North Side of Chicago in the last few years you hated Bill Melton. And if you lived on the South Side you didn't like Ron Santo at all. When I heard that the White Sox had traded for Santo I didn't know what to make of it. I had started as an outfielder and later learned to play third base, even though I didn't get as much work at it as I wanted. You start in baseball with a reputation as a bad fielder and people just won't change their opinion. I think I'm a pretty good third baseman now and that I'm getting better. If I let the fact that Ron is over here disturb me, then I guess I wouldn't have much faith in my own ability."
The Cubs and White Sox have been playing major league baseball in Chicago forever. Only once before, in 1964, had they ever engaged in a player trade with one another. Then last December the Cubs decided to trade Santo. First they tried to send him to the California Angels but Santo said no, as was his right under the new 10-year rule. So the Sox got into the picture and Santo said yes. Already the club has taken in more than $1 million in advance ticket sales—following a fifth-place finish. Obviously Santo, an All-Star for the past decade, has something to do with that.
As he finished his day's work sweat streamed down his face. "I am most aware of who Bill Melton is," he said. "When I was at home and the Sox were on the road I would watch him on television all the time. I saw what enthusiasm was doing for the Sox and how they were building an interesting team. There was no way in the world that I could ever put on a Cub uniform again, and I told that to Mr. Wrigley. People talk about loyalty but I guess I learned when it comes time to go, you get going. Yes, I have played second base. It was in a double-header a couple of years ago and I got knocked on my butt making a double play. But I made it."
The White Sox believe that Santo, with his class, ability and competitive flair, can do for them what Red Schoendienst did in 1957 when the Milwaukee Braves traded with the Giants to get him: win a pennant. And the designated hitter rule allows American League teams to send nine batters to the plate every day. Melton and Santo. Every day. In Chicago. And Dick Allen. And....
POMPANO BEACH. Ferguson Jenkins, another in the Cub exodus—his landing field, the Texas Rangers—was not in a sunny mood. "It was very depressing last year," he said. "I was giving up a lot of home runs and not winning games the way I used to, and suddenly the fans did not appreciate me anymore. They forgot about those years when I always won 20 games for the Cubs. The abuse got so bad I told my wife to stop coming to the ball park."
At the end of the season Jenkins, who had slumped to a 14-16 record after winning 20 or more for six straight years, marched into the Cub front office and asked to be traded. "All I wanted was that they trade me to Detroit or some other city close to my home in Chatham, Ontario," Jenkins said. He did not, of course, get his wish.
Jenkins has suffered from tendinitis in his right shoulder the past two seasons, but he says his arm is sound now. He also believes that the designated hitter rule and the Rangers' heavy schedule of night games will work to his advantage. "Now I won't tire myself out running around the bases, and I won't have to worry about getting down good bunts. Most of all, I'll stay in close games longer than I used to."
In Chicago Jenkins played all his home games in daylight; in Texas the Rangers play only a few day games. "Believe me, day baseball is much harder than night baseball," Jenkins said. "We had to be at the park at 10 a.m. every day in Chicago, and it was a grind. We had to live two different life-styles—one for home, the other for the road. We never could establish eating and sleeping habits. And, of course, it always was hotter at 2 p.m. than 8 p.m."
Jenkins does expect to have some trouble adjusting to the American League's "high" strike zone. "When I'm pitching well," he said, "I keep the ball way down low. In the National League they give the pitcher the low strike, but in the American League I hear they don't. And you know what happens to pitchers who get the ball up around the letters all the time."
Jenkins always was among the National League leaders in gopher balls, mostly because he had a habit of getting the ball up too high in the early innings. "You've got to remember," he said, "that pitching in Wrigley Field was like pitching in a phone booth. It was not a pitcher's ball park, that's for sure. The power alleys are deeper in Texas and the winds aren't so strong, or so I'm told."
Training camp has been a lonely place for Jenkins, who left his car at home and depends upon teammates for rides. He has read both Serpico and The Exorcist. Now if he can exorcise that pitch up around the letters....
FORT MYERS. The coming of Nelson Briles to the Kansas City Royals is akin to a vision of Snoopy's: Here's the veteran pitcher joining the young ball club.... Here's the veteran pitcher leading it to the World Series.... Here's the veteran pitcher standing on the mound in the seventh game of the World Series, bases loaded, two out, ninth inning, one-run lead.... Here's the veteran pitcher falling off the mound.
The misfortune of Nellie Briles the veteran pitcher is that there are so many distractions: his broadcasting, his singing, his imminent movie career, his falling off the mound. "My personal record," he said, "is 13 times in one game."
Yet Briles is a pitcher of high achievement, as the Royals will let no one forget. They acquired him from Pittsburgh explicitly to knock off the mighty mustaches from Oakland. "He's a competitor," said Manager Jack McKeon. "I've talked to a lot of people about him. Joe Torre said, 'When you need a big win, give him the ball."
St. Louis and Pittsburgh gave him the ball and he won big games in the 1967 and 1971 World Series. And he can go to the bullpen if necessary. In nine years, as Royal Scout Tom Ferrick put it, he has "been through the heat."
Briles threw one pitch in his last Pittsburgh start; that time his back went out on him. "We don't want to rush it now," he said. "We want to go North sound, even if that means pitching very little down here, because we feel we have a chance to win. The team is young. They're a bunch of guys who for the first time believe in their hearts they have a chance to win. It excites them."
As does Briles. Pittsburgh parted with him after three seasons although he had led the club's starters in all major pitching categories. He had the eighth-best earned run average (2.84) in the National League last season, when his 14-13 record reflected the sub-par Pirate defense. In October Briles stood in the cold at Shea Stadium and sang the national anthem before the fourth game of the World Series. One observer cracked that it may have been the only thing a Pittsburgh pitcher finished all year.
Briles' tenor may now be heard on a Capitol record called Hey, Hank. It goes "Hey, Hank. I know you're going to do it, but please don't hit it off of me." Now Briles doesn't have to worry.
"It's a new year—new silks for the Clydesdale," said Briles. "That's me; I'm no racehorse."
DAYTONA BEACH. One day in late autumn of last year, Willie Davis walked into the plush command quarters of the Los Angeles Dodgers and announced that his bags were packed, that he had left the engine of his Cadillac running and would they please be so kind as to find him a new home in someone else's center field. "It's not that I'm unhappy here," he said, "it's just that I have decided that I would be happier someplace else. Like in Montreal. The area code is 514."
No one tried to change his mind. Davis would be 34 in a few months and he was making $100,051.51, and that is a numerical combination that brings out the peddler in Walter O'Malley. The Dodgers had wearied of waiting for Davis to grow up and be Willie Mays. They wanted the Star of India and he came up a few karats short.
Not that the club wasn't good to him. "I had a problem with money," he admitted with a grin that would melt Siberia. "I couldn't hold on to any." He has the fastest legs in the majors, but they never got him past a deck of cards. Or a racetrack. Or a roulette wheel. And his investments always turned out to be something like 100 shares in the Titanic. The club was there to bail him out. Dodger officials were torn by their affection for Willie as a person and their frustrations with him as a player.
Davis' life took a turn in 1972, when he was introduced to Nichiren Shoshu Buddhism by Jeanna, a lovely half-Chinese girl who then was his wife. Members of the sect chant for 30 minutes each morning and evening, and these are periods of extreme introspection. Unhappily, after much individual introspection, Willie and Jeanna decided to split. It was another reason why he wanted out of California.
And so the Dodgers traded him to Montreal for Relief Pitcher Mike Marshall. "Marshall saved a lot of games for us," said Montreal Manager Gene Mauch, "but Davis will save just as many with his glove, maybe more."
"Now I can just be me," said Davis happily. "When I first started I never wanted to be great, to be another Mays. I just wanted to play. But the pressure got to me. One day I would try to be Musial, to hit like him. The next day, Mays. The next, somebody else. I kept trying to be somebody else and I got the short end. Now with Buddhism I've found the real Willie Davis. In Montreal I will have a new life, a new challenge. Now I'm dredging up all my potential, getting the true value out of myself. Everything is beautiful."