When Jim Wohlford hit .340 in spring training no one in Kansas City was taken by surprise. Shoot, the Royals knew he came armed with an aggressive major league bat. But the problem had been: What do you do with a minor league second baseman who can hit in the big leagues? Wohlford had a glove the Royals couldn't afford to use.
"How about trying it in the outfield?" Manager Jack McKeon suggested to Wohlford last year, which would have meant going back to school in the American Association. "Or," McKeon added, "how would you like to stay up and be my designated hitter?" To most young players, the lure of any major league job would have been too overwhelming to refuse. But not to Wohlford.
"No, thanks," he said. "I think I'd rather be a complete ballplayer. I'll go back and learn to play the outfield." The next day he was on his way to Omaha
For Wohlford it was his fourth position, his first away from the infield. The Royals had signed him in 1970 as a short stop out of junior college, moved him to second after a year, gave him a brief trial at third and then moved him back to second. At best, he was mediocre. But he hit .308 at Billings, .303 at San Jose and then .291 and .309 at Omaha. The Royals knew they had to find a place somewhere for that bat. McKeon said he was the best natural hitter he had managed since Tony Oliva played for him in the Pacific Coast League in 1963.
"It was frustrating," Wohlford said last Friday while waiting to see if a heavy rainstorm would wash out an afternoon game with the Twins at Minneapolis which it did. "I felt like I was a half of a ballplayer. I always believed I could hit well enough to make the major leagues but I admit my fielding was shaky. I had visions of myself as a utility player at the age of 22, and it was scary. I've always wanted to be the complete ballplayer. Then I found a home in left field."
Wohlford began to put it together at Omaha last summer. He is a quiet, shy 23 year-old, 5'10" and 175 pounds. Determined to get back to Kansas City, he worked long hours at acquiring competence as an outfielder. He once was clocked in 6.5 for 60 yards, so speed was no problem. His arm always had been strong. All he had to do was lengthen his throws and maintain their accuracy
"At first I felt uncomfortable out there," he said, "but I never felt comfortable playing the infield, either. The hardest thing at first was getting used to turning my body away from the ball. I never had to do that before. And learning to throw to the cutoff man quickly and accurately. Now the hardest thing is low line drives, whether to try for a shoestring catch or take them on the hop. You let one of those get past you and it's an inside-the-park homer."
In the meantime his hitting became even better. He is a line-drive swinger, spraying to all fields, hitting the ball where it's pitched, and he has enough power to accumulate a modest number of home runs.
"When I'm hitting, I don't care what the pitcher is throwing," he said. "I just want them to get it somewhere over the plate. I think I can hit .300 for the Royals. I don't think much of hitters who say they'll hit only .270 or .280. After I hit .291 for Omaha I spent the whole winter teed off at myself.
"I look at major league pitching this way: the good pitchers are real good, they are tough. But how many are there? Most of the guys I see up here are the ones I hit in the minors. And even the ones I haven't seen are all the same: fastball, slider, fastball, slider. I still think that hitting in the minors is the toughest. You never know where the ball is going. It might be over the plate or it might be in your ribs."
While developing as an outfielder last season, Wohlford forgot about his speed. In his first season at Billings he stole 32 bases, but then he became lazy, he said. He did not work at it. He stole 18 the following year, 20 in 1972 and then dropped off to only eight last season.
"It's surprising what you can do on the bases if you just bust your butt," he said. "I've got to do more of that. After the first year I got the feeling I could go out and steal a base anytime I wanted. You can't. You have to think about stealing all the time or you lose it. And a man who doesn't use his speed to its fullest all the time is cheating himself and cheating his team. Like bunting for base hits. I never did that much. But I'm working on it. Last year I hit .309 at Omaha with only two bunt hits. Only two! I figure if I had added another eight or 10 I could have hit .325." Wohlford got that .309 at Omaha between return trips to Kansas City. The Royals first called him up on May 8, but he did not hit well and went back down in July. Then he was recalled in September and hit .302. In his last seven games, playing left field, he had 10 hits in 23 at bats. That convinced McKeon. Last winter the Royals traded away Lou Piniella, their regular leftfielder. The press howled. One reporter flatly predicted that Wohlford would not be good enough to replace Piniella, and Wohlford kept the clipping pasted to his refrigerator door all winter. "They still think of me as a shaky second baseman," he said primly.
During spring training Wohlford quickly proved he could play the outfield, and improved every day. "I'm no Joe Rudi," he said, "but I'm working at it." On Opening Day against Minnesota he made a leaping backhanded catch to take an extra-base hit away from Harmon Killebrew, and after four games he was hitting .438. Suddenly everyone, except perhaps Killebrew, was happy that Wohlford was in left field.
McKeon surely was happy. "What's all the fuss?" he said. "It's the same Wohlford we saw at the end of last year. I knew then he'd make it."