This spring's In phrase among American League East managers concerns that ancient malady that tends to affect the young and successful in sports—the sophomore jinx. Their interest in the phenomenon is at rare peak because Fred Lynn and Jim Rice of the Red Sox are both second-year players this season. Earl Weaver of the Orioles says, "Of course, I'm not suggesting that Lynn and Rice will be bothered by it but, despite what people think in Boston, they're only humans. It's always harder the second time around."
For sure, if Lynn and Rice repeat their spectacular 1975 performances, the Red Sox may be able to start printing playoff tickets during the All-Star break. But if they slump, that could be all Weaver and some other managers in the East need to overtake Boston. While Lynn, who had a terrific sophomore season but a horrendous junior year as a college player at Southern Cal, and Rice, who never has had a bad season at any level of competition, predictably prefer to avoid any discussion of the jinx, Boston Manager Darrell Johnson flat out scoffs at it. "Personally, I think their combined numbers will be even greater this season," he says.
For company in the league's best outfield, Lynn and Rice have Rightfielder Dwight Evans, a superior fielder and a .274 regular-season hitter who was the Red Sox' surprise standout against Cincinnati in the World Series. However, Boston's success will not depend entirely on those three. Red Sox pitching remains slightly questionable, despite the addition of 17-game winner Ferguson Jenkins from Texas. A gopher-ball specialist, Jenkins led the American League by throwing 37 home-run pitches last year and may top that total while pitching with Fenway Park's newly padded left-field monster looming over his shoulder. His main rival in the gopher-ball competition probably will be 19-game winner Rick Wise, who served up 34 of them in 1975. Spaceman Bill Lee (17-9) and ancient Luis Tiant (18-14), the proud owner of a new shag rug for his bald head, complete the rotation, with 21-year-old rookie Don Aase standing by.
There are other serious questions about the Sox. Will injury-plagued Catcher Carlton Fisk (.331, 10 home runs and 52 RBIs in 79 games), who irritates opponents when he "accidentally" spits tobacco juice on their shoes, finally put together a complete season? Will Third Baseman Rico Petrocelli overcome his inner-ear problems and regain his batting stroke? Will Shortstop Rick Burleson, the guts of the infield, wear out again if he has to play 158 games, as he did last year? Will the real Denny Doyle—the second baseman who batted .310 in 89 games for Boston or the second baseman who could not hold jobs in Philadelphia or California—please stand up? And will Carl Yastrzemski, who hit only .269 with 14 home runs and 60 RBIs, make a comeback at the age of 36 or lose his first-base job to Designated Hitter Cecil Cooper (.311)? If the Red Sox get the right answers to just a few of those questions and the jinx manages not to affect both Lynn and Rice, they probably will win another division title.
April 12, 1976
A last-minute trade may have put the Orioles in position to challenge the Sox. Baltimore acquired two clutch players, Pitcher Ken Holtzman and Outfielder Reggie Jackson, from Oakland, and if past Oriole deals are a guide, they should have good seasons. Last year Baltimore traded for Outfielder Ken Singleton, who then hit .300, walked 118 times and had an exceptional .413 on-base percentage, and First Baseman Lee May, who drove in 99 runs. "We made out like gangbusters in those deals," Weaver says. "The new guys helped Jim Palmer carry the club." Cy Young Award winner Palmer won 23 and lost 11, threw 10 shutouts and had 25 complete games and a 2.09 ERA. However, the only other Orioles who enjoyed solid seasons were the since-traded Don Baylor and Mike Torrez.
"We had four regulars who didn't hit at all, but we still finished only 4½ games behind Boston," Weaver says. "If they hit this year, it could be different." The four were Third Baseman Brooks Robinson (.201), Shortstop Mark Belanger (.226), Second Baseman Bobby Grich (.260 but only 57 RBIs) and Centerfielder Paul Blair (.218). Robinson—"Baltimore's only active living legend," according to Johnny Unitas—is nearly 39. "I figure I've got about 35 or 40 games to show Earl that I can still hit," he says. "If I can't do it anymore, I'll just quit."
Baltimore also lacks pitching depth behind Palmer, Holtzman and bullpen ace Dyar Miller. Mike Cuellar, who is 10 days older than Robinson, slumped to 14 victories and a 3.66 ERA last year, while Ross Grimsley dropped from 18 wins to 10.
Cleveland was the only American League team with a winning record against Boston last season. This year the Indians could be the Red Sox of 1976. Manager Frank Robinson resurrected 34-year-old First Baseman Boog Powell for 27 home runs, 86 RBIs and a .297 batting average. Second Baseman Duane Kuiper and Shortstop Frank Duffy are known only to their families and teammates, but they get the job done both in the field and at bat, while Third Baseman Buddy Bell finally seems fully recovered from his knee ailments. Centerfielder Rick Manning caught everything hit his way and batted a strong .285 after coming up from Oklahoma City. Manning is flanked by Leftfielder Charlie Spikes, who slumped to .229 with only 11 home runs a year ago, and moody Rightfielder George Hendrick, whose sullen disposition and .258 average overshadowed his 86 RBIs.
During the winter, Robinson acquired righthander Pat Dobson, and all Cleveland is braced for the first clash between the manager and his new pitcher, who plays Hollywood star whenever he is removed from games, something that happened 23 times last year in New York. With Dave LaRoche in the bullpen (94 strikeouts in 82 innings), Dobson ought to exit gracefully. But for the Indians to challenge, LaRoche must not be called on too frequently to bail out the staff's aces, Dennis Eckersley and Fritz Peterson. They are Cleveland's biggest question marks, and even Robinson must be wondering if whippy-armed righthander Eckersley, who won 13 games and had a strong 2.60 ERA as a rookie, and old hand Peterson, who ran off 10 straight victories in the middle of the season, are the real, live things or just hot flashes.
The Yankees return to the House that Ruth Built, but any similarity between the old Bronx Bombers and the present Bronx Pingers begins and ends with the length of the players' hair. Responding to an edict from Owner George M. Steinbrenner III, the Yankees now have the coiffures of West Point cadets; one of them, Outfielder Oscar Gamble, had to have 10 inches cut from his Afro before Manager Billy Martin let him practice.
With Bobby Bonds and his 32 home runs now in California, Thurman Munson is the only right-handed power hitter in the Yankee lineup—but despite his .318 average he had just 12 home runs in 1975. Third Baseman Graig Nettles (21 homers) provides adequate clout from the left side. So the Yankees have replaced sock with speed. Mickey Rivers, acquired in the Bonds deal, hit .284 and stole 70 bases last year; he will lead off and have a green light to steal often. Fast rookie Willie Randolph, who was obtained from Pittsburgh in exchange for Pitcher Doc Medich, has been touted as the new Joe Morgan and takes second base by default. "I've read all the reports on Randolph," said Martin before spring training. "They're all positive." That is more than could be said about any Yankee second baseman since Bobby Richardson.
No amount of speed will compensate for Martin's other problems. Fred Stanley is not Phil Rizzuto in disguise at shortstop, Leftfielder Roy White has a weak arm and Right-fielder Elliott Maddox is recovering from knee surgery while trying to forget all the nasty things Martin said about him when he got rid of Maddox in Texas. Catfish Hunter (23-14 with a 2.58 ERA) leads the pitching staff. However, Hunter lost to Boston three times last year, so the Yankees acquired a Red Sox beater—Ed Figueroa—from California. Figueroa was 13-13 against 10 teams and 3-0 vs. Boston. The rest of the staff seems deep—deep with questions, such as Ken Brett's bad arm, Dock Ellis' attitude and Sparky Lyle's temperament.
Manager Alex Grammas inherits a troubled team in Milwaukee. Aside from First Baseman George (Long Tater) Scott, who led the league with 109 RBIs, tied for the home-run lead with 36 and hit .285, the Brewers are shaky almost everywhere. Second Baseman Pedro Garcia was at the center of the disciplinary trouble that resulted in the firing of former Manager Del Crandall; Shortstop Robin Yount made 44 errors; Third Baseman Don Money was often injured; Rightfielder Gorman Thomas once struck out eight straight times; and Designated Hitter Henry Aaron hit .234 with 12 home runs.
But the worst news for Grammas is that the Milwaukee pitching staff needs a massive arm transplant. Ed Sprague, Billy Champion, Kevin Kobel, Jim Colborn, Ed Rodriguez and Tom Murphy spent all or part of the 1975 season on the disabled list. In fact, Milwaukee's only semihealthy pitchers were Pete Broberg, who won 14 games, including four against Boston, and Jim Slaton, who had an 11-18 record. "We've got a rebuilding job to do here," says Grammas with commendable understatement.
Baseball's worst team in 1975, the Tigers, may have improved their attack with the off-season acquisitions of Rusty Staub from the Mets, Catcher Milt May from the Astros and Alex Johnson from the retired list. However, if Ron LeFlore, who aged four years this winter when a check of his prison records showed him to be 28, not 24, retains the centerfield job, Johnson and Staub will make him feel as if he is 128 by running him all over the outfield in pursuit of the balls they miss. To get Staub, the Tigers traded ace Pitcher Mickey Lolich. Now Detroit's top starter is righthander Joe Coleman, who won 10 games, lost 18 and had a 5.55 ERA last season. "John Hiller lost all his hair this winter when he thought about all the games he'll be working in," cracks one Tiger. In fact, ace reliever Hiller intentionally shaved his head one night while watching Kojak. Maybe the Tigers will trade him to the Yankees, who presumably appreciate baldness.