Ordinarily, it is Bill North's practice to pursue a rigidly anti-intellectual course when discussing the science of base stealing. As opposed to such theorists as Lou Brock and Fred Patek, who are prepared to expound on everything from meteorology to the physiognomy of lefthanders, the Oakland outfielder is of the "I just run like hell" school of thievery. Thus it was with some surprise that a recent interviewer on the subject heard North take umbrage over a matter of semantics.
"I do not steal bases," said North, the 1974 American League stolen-base champion but second on his own team at present. "Reggie Jackson steals bases. That Kansas City catcher, Healy, steals bases. With them, it's a surprise when they go down. With me, everybody in the ball park knows I'll be running, so I'm not stealing anything. I'm taking something." He paused and assumed an imperious posture. "I am a base-taker."
North did not take any bases that night, but his teammate Don Hopkins did. And since Hopkins is the latest in a succession of Oakland "designated runners," swift specialists whose only purpose in the game is to steal, there was even less surprise.
Actually, the crime rate in North's division, the American League West, is so high this year that a base theft there is as commonplace as a mugging in Central Park. If the larceny continues at its current dizzying pace, three teams in the division—California, Oakland and Kansas City—will have stolen more than 200 bases by season's end, and no team in baseball has had that many since 1918, when base stealing was the name of the game. The six teams in the AL West have stolen nearly as many bases this season as the entire National League, which trots out such swifties as Brock, Joe Morgan, Cesar Cedeno and Davey Lopes. The Angels have stolen more than a hundred bases already, which projects to nearly 300 for the season, and that would break the league record of 288 set in 1913 by the Washington Senators. Their Mickey Rivers (38 steals) and the Royals' Amos Otis (29) are well ahead of the Cardinals' Brock (25), who set a major league record of 118 last year. The Royals' Patek stole 16 straight bases this year before he was finally thrown out by Cleveland's Alan Ashby on June 5, and is now 17 for 18. Four Angels and four A's have stolen in double figures, and the A's, in the opinion of their premier thieves, Claudell Washington, North and Campy Campaneris, have not yet begun to run.
"I should have about 30 by now," says the 20-year-old Washington, who leads the team with 23, "but we're laying back and playing for the big inning. I'll still probably get about 60."
"Laying back," the A's are still second in pilfery to the Angels, whose concept of a big inning is a walk and three steals. The Angels have more than five times as many base thefts as home runs and, as the Texas Rangers' manager, Billy Martin, has observed with his usual perspicuity, "They could take batting practice in a hotel lobby and not break anything." (In support of this supposition, the Angels did take batting practice in a hotel lobby—with a Nerf ball—and did not break so much as a light bulb.)
"We have such limited power that running is a necessity with us," says Manager Dick Williams superfluously. "We have five men who run on their own. Anytime you give our team 90 feet we'll take it. We've scored men from first on a single. We've sent men from first to third on a sacrifice. We've had men score on steals of second when the catcher has thrown the ball away. I think we're playing exciting baseball."
The Angels are obliged to run to save their skins, but what of the other teams in their division which, though they have more muscle, still run as if pursued not by Angels but by demons?
Kansas City's magnificent Royals Stadium was transformed in newsprint last week to "Royal Raceway" in anticipation of the track meet between the home team and the visiting Angels. In previous games between the two, the Royals had stolen 19 times in 21 attempts and the Angels 12 in 16. Otis had stolen 11 times against the Angels without being caught, including seven in two games, which tied a league record set 63 years ago by Eddie Collins. Otis never got out of the blocks in this rain-shortened two-game series, however, and there were only five bases stolen, two by the 6'5", 210-pound Healy, two more by the Angels' second-best stealer, Jerry Remy, and one by the nearly uncatchable Patek. None of the thefts particularly influenced the games, both of which were won by Kansas City. And yet there was a consistently high level of expectation among the spectators, a sensation more common when a home-run hitter is at bat. Shouts of "Go, go, go," popularized a decade or more ago when Maury Wills was running loose, are now common in cities where the greyhound base runners are off the leash. The fans are warming to the running game.
"Speed has become the dominating factor in other pro sports," says Jack McKeon, the observant Kansas City manager. "Football is going after track men as wide receivers. Speed has become increasingly important in basketball. Hockey looks for the fast skaters. Speed has opened up all these other games and it's opening up ours. Three, four, five years ago a ball club might have one guy who could run. Now it can have four or five. You're getting faster guys in baseball and they're changing the game. Speed eliminates a great deal of bunting, for example. You don't bunt an Otis or a Patek over too often. Why give up an out when you've got guys who can run like that? There is also more emphasis on pitchers holding runners on. Some of the older pitchers, who never had to worry much about that part of the game, are hurting now. The younger guys, who've pitched against running ball clubs in the minors, may have better moves to first than the veterans."
It is generally conceded, even by pitchers, that bases are stolen on pitchers, not catchers, although Healy gallantly suggests that "we catchers would be kidding ourselves if we put all the blame on the pitchers. Sure it's the pitcher's fault if a runner gets a big jump, but sometimes a guy will steal without the jump and that's our fault." Holding the runner on is the second most important weapon a pitcher has against a known base thief. The first is keeping him off base by getting him out.
Some pitchers compensate for inadequate moves to first with what in Patek's opinion amounts to the "balk move." Patek studied under the learned Wills when both were with Pittsburgh seven years ago. He mastered his lessons well and is himself now considered to be something of an expert on the nuances of pitching moves. A raised foot here, a dipped shoulder there, even a furrowed brow or the suggestion of a smile, will give the tiny Patek his stop-and-go signals, and knowing when to run is as important in base thievery as the big lead and raw speed. It distresses Patek, then, when pitchers cheat in the cat-and-mouse game and throw to first when they have clearly made a move toward home—a balk, he laments, that is rarely, if ever, called by umpires. But he can sympathize with his opponents on a detached philosophical level. "If I were a pitcher," he admits, "I'd do it, too."
The advantage, in fact, seems to be with the runner, a circumstance that delights Patek's whippetlike teammate, Otis. "All I have to do is run and slide," says he. "The pitcher has to throw the ball, the catcher has to catch it and throw it and the infielder has to catch it and make the tag."
Otis has stolen as many as 52 bases in a season. He had only 18 last year, the unhappy result, he feels, of a temporary delusion that he was a power hitter. He has dismissed such grandiose thoughts now and is running better than ever. He has had three games this season in which he has stolen three bases and one in which he has stolen four. He has been thrown out stealing only four times and picked off first twice in 35 attempts. Being picked off bothers him not at all; the big lead he invariably wangles is worth the risk. Otis is particularly adept at recognizing the pitchout, a ruse in which the pitcher purposely throws high and wide to the plate so his catcher can throw quickly and unhindered by the batter on steal attempts. "They've pitched out 22 times on me this year," he says contentedly, "and I've only gone once. The pitcher always speeds up his motion, so you can spot it easily."
A pitcher who scrupulously avoids such detection is the Royals' Steve Busby, who at the tender age of 25 is considered by many to have the finest moves to all three bases of any pitcher. "The first thing the base runner will do is get his lead," says Busby. "I will oblige him. I want to see how far he will go. Then I'll throw over there to cut that lead down. The more you throw the less chance you will have of a pickoff, but it's important to shorten that lead. If the runner is quick enough to keep his lead and still get back to first ahead of the throw, I'll just have to concede him his jump. There is no defense against a good base runner with speed."
The A's had a world-class sprinter on their roster last year in Herb Washington, who was not all that good as a base runner. Nevertheless, Owner Charlie Finley and Manager Alvin Dark thought enough of the "designated runner" scheme to try it again. At the beginning of the season they had three such specialists, but Washington was finally released and Matt (the Scat) Alexander, who had stolen 10 bases in 11 attempts, was injured during batting practice. Hopkins, who can also play the outfield and hit a little, is the survivor. He has appeared in about two-thirds of the A's games and has stolen 12 bases in 19 attempts, a percentage he hopes to improve upon as his knowledge of the pitchers increases.
Last Friday was a typically chilly night in the Oakland Coliseum as the A's opened a four-game series with Kansas City. Hopkins spent the early innings doing laps around the A's gold-carpeted clubhouse, awaiting his call. It came in the seventh when, with two outs and the A's leading 3-1, Designated Hitter Billy Williams walked. Hopkins debouched from the dugout to replace him. And though, as North would have it, everybody in the ball park knew he would be running, he set out on the second pitch and slid smartly into second ahead of Healy's throw.
In the record books it will be recorded as a steal. But as North and, by now, Hopkins know, it was not that at all. It was a "take," the kind that is adding an exciting dimension to play this year and, in the bargain, giving the customers what can only be described as a real run for their money.