Even though spring training has just begun, the race between the Orioles and the Yankees in the American League East, which was so hot last September, is warming up again in Florida. Last weekend they split a pair of exhibition games, and if they play many like those when the season comes there are going to be hot times in two old towns this summer. Both games were won by one run, the first 7-6 by the Orioles in the ninth inning, the second 4-3 by the Yankees in the 10th.
Naturally, scores meant less to the teams' partisans than the performances of some ink-splashed new players, and here the Yankees came out a drop or two the better. On Saturday, Catfish Hunter, New York's new and far richer pitcher, limited Baltimore to one unearned run in three innings, and on Sunday Right-fielder Bobby Bonds got the Yanks rolling with a resounding double.
In his first effort of the year Hunter looked solid as usual. Although the Orioles went on to win the game, when Catfish ended his stint he was ahead 2-1. His new fiscal status aside—his five-year contract is worth upwards of $3 million—he is a model money pitcher, the kind Whitey Ford was in the Yankees' most recent glory days: not overpowering but sharp, smart, controlled and confidence-inspiring.
Before facing the Orioles in Fort Lauderdale he sat composedly in his New York polyesters. The Yankees switched over from wool in '73, but their double knits have shirt buttons and still look like the suits Ruth and Gehrig wore, only trimmer. The Yankees are one of the few teams that have not gone slightly garish. The Yankee cap retains its classic simplicity. Catfish looks good in it.
Hunter has a good smile, a good mustache, a full head of hair, and calls to mind a progressive country singer, such as Willie Nelson or Billy Joe Shaver ("The devil made me do it the first time, the second time I did it on my own..."), only he doesn't look like he would ever go along with the devil on anything without checking it out thoroughly first. And he wouldn't give the devil anything to hit. He said he likes training in Florida better than in Arizona, where he had spent his springs with the A's, because fishing is handier and "you sweat. In Arizona you sweat, but it dries up right away. In Florida you feel like you're doing something.
"The Yankees and Cleveland were the only teams I followed when I was a boy," he went on. "I didn't follow any of the pitching, though. I wanted to be a hitter." How did he find the Yankees as a group, compared to the turbulent A's? "The Yankees are about the same team," he said, "only a little bit crazier."
"Hoo!" cried Reliever Mike Wallace. "Wait till that goes out on the wires!"
Hunter declined to expand on his remark, so there will probably not be any headlines screaming HUNTER CALLS YANK MATES BIGGER CRAZIES THAN THE A'SIES, but as a matter of fact the Yankees do seem to be loose enough to develop more color than they have in a good while. And in Bonds, whom they got from San Francisco in exchange for Bobby Murcer, they have what they have lacked for years: a dramatic, big-swinging, fast-running offensive threat. If Hunter could be the Yankees' new Ford, Bonds could be their new Mantle.
Bonds was asked what he is going to do about the fact that American League umpires call a higher strike than the National. "If I like it," he said, "I'm going to hit it whether it's a strike or not."
This is the kind of exuberant philosophy encountered among National League swingers. Bonds strikes out more than anybody in either league—but so did Ruth—and no player has ever been as much of a threat as Bonds to hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases in a season. (He got 39 and 43 in 1973.)
Bonds failed to explode afoot or abat Saturday, but on Sunday in Miami he doubled to right center and scored the first New York run. The Orioles' new aggressors, Ken Singleton and Lee May, acquired from Montreal and Houston in off-season trades, did not get much going on Saturday, either. But the next day Singleton at least gave evidence of what he can do to augment the Orioles' noted poise. He had a pair of singles in three at bats and scored a run. The big cuts May was taking suggested Baltimore may have the kind of power Boog Powell, who was traded to Cleveland, used to provide.
Saturday's outing was as good an evocation of the spring training spirit as one could ask for. Crisp, tight, swift-moving 2-1 ball between two good teams for seven innings, and then in the eighth the field was suddenly full of people named Hut-to and Harlow and Nordbrook and Whitfield and Dineen. These are the names you are going to be reading about in the future. Or maybe not. At any rate, they are trying to make their way into the bigs, and a near-capacity nonpartisan crowd of 6,489 egged them on as heartily as they had the stars.
In the Orioles' eighth, Timothy C. Nordbrook, a 25-year-old Baltimore native, hit a single. Then Al Bumbry banged a ball off the center-field fence that he legged into an inside-the-park home run.
The Orioles go ahead. But the Yanks come back! In their half of the eighth, Terry Whitfield—an All-America just four years ago in California at Blythe High, fulfilled a bit of his promise by stroking a double. Kerry Dineen, rather a slight-looking nonroster person aged 22, singled Whitfield to third. And when Ron (The Bronx Blomber) Blomberg tapped back to the mound, Whitfield got caught in and then lithely escaped a rundown at third.
All hands safe. Bases loaded. "Who is that?" asked an Oriole.
"Whitfield," said another.
"Infield or outfield?" asked the first.
"Whitfield," said the second.
In the stands, the fans—wearing Little League caps and big straw hats and T shirts reading "Peace, yes—but with Christ!" and blue three-button suits and wraparound denim skirts and cutoff jeans, and in some cases virtually nothing—rose and whooped.
Infielder Fred Stanley, who was a business major at Rio Hondo Junior College, sells real estate and has in fact played in 187 major league games at one time or another, came through with a three-run triple. And Chris Chambliss singled Stanley home. When the next hitter popped out, Chambliss took off under the misapprehension that there were two outs and was doubled off first.
The score stands 6-3 Yankees. That ought to do it. But don't count a class team out. In the Orioles' ninth, Bob Bailor, not quite 24, singles in Jim Hutto and Larry Harlow, and the score is 6-5, two men are out, and Bumbry is back up.
Let us pause to pay tribute to the beauty of Al Bumbry's full listed name:
Say all and sumbry,
Alonza B. Bumbry
Is fast as most anything going.
He'll hit a nice soft
Grounder and off
Alonza B. Bumbry goes: boing.
But more than a leg single is required of Bumbry now, and more than that is what he produces, doubling just inches inside the left-field line. Two runs score to make it Baltimore 7, New York 6. In the bottom of the ninth, M. Wayne Garland, whom the Orioles call Pudge, retires the Yankees without a score.
The last man up for the Yankees is Dineen. "Pop his butt up, Pudge," cry the Orioles. "Let's go home."
Dineen takes a called third strike, wincing, and the game is over.
"Hey, Baltimore," says Singleton.
"Six runs in the last two innings," says Oriole Outfielder Jim Northrup.
"That will do it, almost every time," says Singleton.