It is one of the rites of spring training, like holdouts and wind sprints and bus rides and intrasquad games between the Fords and the Berras or the Peskys and the Zimmers. If you want, call it the search for the next Fred Lynn—or, at least, the new Dick Wakefield. But it really should be entitled the Annual Rookie Revue, that time of high drama and low curveballs when nervous kids from Tulsa, Pawtucket and other minor league towns audition to spend the baseball season dining at Kansas City's Golden Ox or the Railhead in Houston on $23 per day. That beats filling up at the McBurgers in Toledo on $23 per week. And for a big-league club, discovering a star aborning can keep it from being turned into ground round once the season begins. "The trick is to find a guy like a Lynn who could shoot your club into the playoffs and the World Series," says Cardinal Catcher Ted Simmons.
What Simmons and his teammates hope is that the Lynn of the Rookie Class of '76 will be Hector Cruz, the American Association's Player of the Year in 1975 when he hit .306 with 29 home runs and had a remarkable 116 RBIs in just 115 games at Tulsa. "Hector will be there every day," says Manager Red Schoendienst, pointing to the position left vacant by the trade of Third Baseman Ken Reitz to San Francisco.
The first grounder hit to the 23-year-old Cruz in the Cardinals' exhibition opener last week bounced off his chest, rolled over his shoulder and dropped alongside the bag. But before Schoendienst could say Ken Reitz, Cruz calmly picked up the ball and fired it to first to beat the Detroit runner by two steps.
"That was better than my first ground ball when I came to St. Louis for a few games late last season," Cruz says. "Cliff Johnson of the Astros hit a shot at me, and when I bent down for the ball, it skipped off the fake grass and hit me right on the nose." Playing third base is still something of a novelty for Cruz, who was an outfielder in his first five minor league seasons. In fact, in one spring-training game with the Cards in 1973, Hector started in the outfield with older brothers Jose, now with the Astros, and Tommy, who is currently in the Rangers' organization. "One day last spring Kenny Boyer, the Tulsa manager, told me he was going to make a third baseman out of me," Cruz says. "I said, "O.K., Kenny,' and here I am. Kenny was one of the best third basemen who ever played in the big leagues. He tried to teach me everything he knows, but I still have plenty to learn."
April 5, 1976
That's true, and because it is, the Cardinals' decision to trade Reitz represents a considerable risk for a team expected to be a contender in its division—and puts extraordinary pressure on Cruz. Should he falter at third, St. Louis has no capable replacement. The reason for the Cards' daring is simple enough: they want Cruz' bat in their lineup, but because their outfield is flush with .300 hitters Lou Brock, Bake McBride and Reggie Smith, there is no place for him except in the infield.
Along with Cruz, or Caballo Loco (Crazy Horse) as the Cardinals call him because of his startling facial resemblance to the Lone Ranger's friend Tonto, there were numerous other rookies bidding for regular employment last week as the Grapefruit and Cactus league schedules finally got under way. So far these have been the best:
•Willie Randolph, a 21-year-old speedster at second base whom the Yankees acquired from Pittsburgh in exchange for 16-game-winner Doc Medich. Randolph hit .298 in his four minor league seasons, hardly ever strikes out, makes the double play like Bill Mazeroski and should become New York's first good second baseman since Bobby Richardson retired 10 years ago.
•Mike Norris, a 21-year-old righthander who replaced Catfish Hunter in the Oakland rotation a year ago. He started three games, pitched a three-hit shutout, allowed only six hits in 16‚Öî innings and had an 0.00 ERA before undergoing an elbow operation. Now Norris' arm appears sound again.
•Jerry Royster, an Atlanta infielder who hit .333 to win the Pacific Coast League batting title last season. Manager Dave Bristol has tried Royster at second, short and third in an attempt to find his natural position. His live bat and good speed would seem to guarantee him a spot somewhere in the Braves' lineup.
•Chet Lemon, who came to the White Sox camp as Bill Melton's successor at third base but has been moved to right field by Manager Paul Richards. Early last season when Norris hurt his elbow Oakland Owner Charles O. Finley sent Lemon to the Sox in a deal for Pitcher Stan Bahnsen. Lemon went on to hit .307 at Triple A Denver, and Finley's farm director, John Claiborne, went on to quit, because, he said, the boss was "trading away all our good prospects."
•Don Aase, a 21-year-old Red Sox righthander who pitched two no-hitters in the Florida Instructional League this winter. In his first exhibition appearance, he induced five-time American League batting champ Rod Carew to hit into a triple play. Aase may start the season at Pawtucket, but Red Sox Manager Darrell Johnson expects him to be in Boston's rotation by June.
•Bob McClure, who should provide Kansas City with what it needs most: dependable short relief work. Lefthander McClure struck out a batter an inning for the Royals and had an 0.00 ERA in a late-season tryout. That left Manager Whitey Herzog thinking that McClure might be this year's Rawley Eastwick or Will McEnaney—or both.
•Butch Wynegar, a 20-year-old Minnesota catcher who could turn out to be the 1976 spring pheenom. A switch-hitter who drew 142 bases on balls and had 112 RBIs last year at Class A Reno, Wynegar started the Twins' first three exhibitions and had four hits in 11 at bats. "He's not bad for a kid who's not even on our roster yet," Manager Gene Mauch says.
•Jim Gideon, a 6'4" righthander who signed with the Rangers last June after leading the University of Texas to the NCAA title with a 19-0 record. Gideon pitched shutouts in his only two appearances with Class A Sarasota, then moved up to Triple A Spokane where he won six of his 11 starts.
None of these rookies is being relied on as heavily as Cruz. Yet despite his impressive credentials, the Cardinals have shied away from making outlandish claims about his abilities. "We did that with First Baseman Keith Hernandez last spring," says St. Louis Public Relations Director Jerry Lovelace. "I was a real flack for Hernandez. I gave him the big treatment. Keith liked it, too, but when things started off badly for him, he was pretty much lost." Hernandez eventually was sent back to Tulsa to rejoin his longtime roommate Cruz; now they are together as starters in St. Louis.
"What happened to me won't happen to Hector," Hernandez says. "I wasn't mature enough to handle it. Hector has been mature since the first day I met him four years ago."
Harry Walker, the Cardinals' director of player development, says that Cruz is "the nearest thing to a Joe Medwick-type hitter I've seen. He's very unorthodox at bat. He gets his body going in different directions—and his swing is not very smooth—but he has very good hand reaction. You wouldn't teach a kid to swing like Hector, but then you wouldn't take a talent like Hector and make him change his swing."
Told what Walker had said about the similarities between his batting style and that of the late Medwick, a .324 career hitter, Cruz scratched his head and said, "Joe who? I don't know this Medwick. I hit like nobody. I hit like me. They tell me that I swing at too many pitches, like Manny Sanguillen of the Pirates. But you tell me: How do you get hits without swinging the bat? If they think I swung at too many pitches in the minors, wait until they see me in St. Louis. My brothers tell me that it's easier to be a good hitter in the majors, because the pitchers are always around the plate."
Cruz, a native of Arroyo, Puerto Rico and the youngest of 13 children, has spent most of this spring working at third base under the guidance of Boyer, who still manages the Cardinal farm club at Tulsa, Schoendienst and Coach Preston Gomez. Each morning he takes at least 100 ground balls from Gomez before joining the other Cardinal regulars for a standard pre-exhibition game workout. After the game he and Gomez return to the practice diamond for another session of 100 grounders.
Boyer suggested Cruz' switch from the outfield to third after watching him fool around in the Tulsa infield in 1974. "I could see that he had great natural reactions," Boyer says. "He also had the one thing third basemen must have—soft hands." Remembering the successful shift of Mike Shannon from right field to third in the 1960s, the Cardinals readily approved Boyer's suggestion.
"After his first week at third base, I never thought Hector would make it," Boyer says. "He didn't do anything right." Last season Boyer hit hundreds of ground balls to Cruz each day and also worked with him on the mental aspects of third-base play.
"Kenny and I talked about each play I had to make in a game," Cruz says. "He'd ask me why I did something, and I'd tell him. Then he'd tell me what I should've done. He taught me that I should protect the line in the late innings of close games, showed me how and when to get up on my toes and explained to me that I should check with the shortstop on each pitch to find out if our guy will be throwing a pitch that the batter might pull my way. I never knew how tough third base was. For me, the toughest play is the short-hop bouncer with a man on third. I have to scoop up the ball, probably with my bare hand, and hum it to first for the last out of the inning. Those plays make you old."
St. Louis hopes they have made Cruz old enough to become a third baseman in the National League.