The world champion Oakland A's adopt the rather sophisticated view that happiness is not necessarily commensurate with success. If the A's can be characterized, it would have to be as unhappy warriors. They are united only in a sort of Dickensian distrust of their owner, Charles O. Finley. No manager can instill in them a conventional sense of camaraderie. So what can it matter if their new field leader is the Bible-thumping Alvin Dark, a Finley retread? Dark can quote Scripture night and day without exorcising any demons from these wondrous ballplayers. Sanctimony is only another nuisance.
Poor Dark cannot win, even if he does. The A's have the best starting lineup in baseball, a perfect blend of power, speed, pitching and defense. To win with all this is no feat: to lose is a sin. "I feel for him," says the league's Most Valuable Player. Reggie Jackson. "He's bent over backwards to create harmony, to preserve dignity. I want him to do good."
Dark is, if anything, a do-gooder. But he, too, has a realistic vision of his new role. "I've yet to see a manager win a pennant," he said in the A's spring camp in Mesa, Ariz. "Players make a manager look good. A manager does not make players look good. If you were to get all the managers in baseball into the same room and ask them how many games they have won, they'd all say, 'I haven't won one yet.' The only thing a manager can do is keep his team from losing. You do that by playing the right people. All the right people are here."
No question about that. The A's have three 20-game winners as starters—Catfish Hunter, Ken Holtzman and Vida Blue—with John (Blue Moon) Odom and Dave Hamilton as capable backup men. The bullpen of Rollie Fingers, Dar-old Knowles, Paul Lindblad and Bob Locker is merely the best in baseball. Ray Fosse is among the finest defensive catchers, and he is backed by Gene Tenace, who prefers now to think of himself as a first baseman. Dick Green has unretired to play second base, Bert Campaneris is the shortstop and solid Sal Bando is the power-hitting third baseman. The outfield of Joe Rudi, Bill North and Jackson could scarcely be improved upon. And Finley has even hired a world's fastest human, Herb Washington, as a kind of designated pinch runner. Dark is right: if the A's do not win, it can only be the manager's fault.
The Chicago White Sox could have given the A's at least a minor run for their World Series money a year ago if they had not been the unluckiest people in baseball. A team does not lose a Dick Allen (broken leg) and a Ken Henderson (bad knee) and maintain a pennant-contending offense. Allen and Henderson are functioning this year, and with such sluggers as Bill Melton, Carlos May and the freshly acquired Ron Santo (from the neighborly Cubs), the Sox have hitting in surplus. They will still need some support for the overburdened pitchers, Wilbur Wood (48 starts) and Stan Bahnsen (42). The veteran Jim Kaat, purchased from Minnesota, and Bill (Bugs) Moran will help.
The Kansas City Royals also have acquired pitching help in starters Nelson Briles and Marty Pattin and reliever Lindy McDaniel. John Mayberry, Amos Otis and Vada Pinson lead the offense. The Royals were second to last in team earned run average and tied for last in fielding percentage, although they led the league in double plays with 192. Despite these deficiencies, they finished second in the division to the A's, principally because, in Manager Jack McKeon's words, they were smart.
"I key my spring training on the mental aspects of the game," says McKeon. "We spend more time on the mental than the physical. The players are gonna run, throw, field and hit, but if we make our club 90 feet smarter on the bases, we're ahead of the game. If you ask, 'How were you guys able to stay close with the next-to-last pitching staff in the division,' I'd have to say it was because of our mental alertness and the unselfishness of the players. We're more prepared mentally than the other clubs."
Pinson, formerly of the Angels, will not tarnish this intellectual image. In fact, he is expected to give the team the mature leadership it has somehow lacked, and as a line-drive hitter he should thrive on the American League's only all-artificial playing turf. "He should add 10 to 15 points to his batting average," says General Manager Cedric Tallis. But the Royals will need more than 10 to 15 batting average points to overtake the A's.
The Angels, however, might well profit from a few improved batting averages. "Our team is built on pitching, defense and base running," says Manager Bobby Winkles. "We're not really strong offensively." The Angels do have the finest pitching staff outside Oakland, led by 20-game winners Nolan Ryan and Bill Singer.
"All of our pitchers are about 6'5" and they can fire the ball," says Mike Epstein, the first baseman who is attempting a comeback from a dismal 1973 season. "If everybody lives up to his ability, we can become serious contenders. Of course I've said that about every club I've ever been on."
The Angels' super pitchers will at least be throwing to a highly professional catcher this year in Ellie Rodriguez, obtained from the Milwaukee Brewers. "We've helped ourselves tremendously behind the plate," says Winkles. "Rodriguez is more of a leader than we've ever had."
Besides Singer and strikeout king Ryan, Winkles plans to start Frank Tanana and either Rudy May or Andy Hassler or both. Ryan is the stopper. He may not strike out 383 batters again, but he does plan to improve on his 21-16 record. "I felt I had to prove something last year," he says. "I wanted to show everyone I was no fluke. But that's behind me now. When you concentrate on records, it takes away from the real reason you're out there, which is winning games. That's what I'm going to concentrate on this year. I want to pitch my 300 innings or more and win more games than last year."
"I've never seen Nolan so relaxed," says Winkles, who, in his second season as a big-league manager, is himself considerably more at ease. He would be even happier, though, if he could count on a bit more hitting. Frank Robinson is reconciled to being the team's designated hitter, which is a plus, but he and Third Baseman Bob Oliver were the Angels' offense a year ago. If Epstein can regain the form he exhibited with the A's two years ago and Bobby Valentine can come back from a broken leg, the team at least will have added two important bats to a fragile offense. But the Angels will need even more than that to stay in contention.
The Minnesota Twins had no trouble with the A's last year. They won 14 of 18 games against the champs, which is the good news. The bad news is that they lost 27 of 39 one-run games during the year and finished seven games under .500 at home. The Twins are no less enigmatic than their owner, Calvin Griffith, who cannot fairly be described as a morale builder. Griffith threatened to trade the three players—Larry Hisle, Steve Braun and Dick Woodson—who won out in the salary arbitration hearings and he had the temerity to suggest that Harmon Killebrew, temporarily disabled with a dislocated right shoulder, retire to coaching. Griffith did cut Killebrew's salary to under $100,000 and he also reduced Designated Hitter Tony Oliva's paycheck. DH's, said Cal, are only half-players.
Griffith did not, however, ding league batting champion Rod Carew or star Pitcher Bert Blyleven, who has won 63 major league games at age 22. Blyleven led the majors in shutouts with nine and was second to Ryan in American League strikeouts with 258. He walked only 67 men in 325 innings and is just now approaching his potential.
Potential is a popular word around the Texas Rangers' camp, but according to Shortstop Toby Harrah, it is just that: a word. "I'm sick and tired of hearing about potential," says feisty Toby. "I'd rather have an average player who puts out than one with potential who doesn't. I've seen too many of those. Talk, talk, talk, talk, that's all baseball is." That may well be, but the Rangers' manager, Billy Margin, is also a man of action. "There's no excuse for happy losers," Billy advised his troops. "We want a contender."
Ferguson Jenkins, picked up from the Cubs, should help realize the potential. Last year was Jenkins' first in seven as a non-20-game winner (he won 14). He will join a pitching staff that is far from seasoned. Jim Bibby and 19-year-old David Clyde are prodigies, as Peter Broberg and Steve Dunning have been, unfortunately, for several seasons.
In Harrah and Second Baseman Dave Nelson the Rangers do have two solid infielders. Nelson hit .286 and stole 43 bases while making only 11 errors last year. Outfielder Jeff Burroughs, in his first full big-league season, hit .279 with 30 home runs and 85 runs batted in. His muscle led to a remodeling of the team's ball park, where the power alleys were shortened from 380 to 370 feet.
And then there is Martin himself. "Billy has always been an optimist," says Coach Frank Lucchesi. "He's probably as big an optimist as General Custer. I say this because Custer's got 500 troops and he's against 5,000 Indians and he's saying, 'Take no prisoners.' That's optimism. Maybe some of this will rub off on the players."
Maybe, but Custer could not even beat the Indians. What would he have done against the A's?