Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
—FROM AN INSCRIPTION ON THE STATUE OF LIBERTY
Even in the best of times, Bill Veeck has only one leg to stand on. Veeck is the president of the Chicago White Sox, a team of modest means in a sport where huge player salaries have become a gross natural product of the free-agent system. But as baseball's spring-training camps opened in Florida, California and Arizona last week, it was obvious that Veeck, ever the wily innovator, had a system of his own. He had flung wide the gates to the major leagues and invited anyone who seemed vaguely qualified to enter.
Veeck's strategy is actually an expanded version of the tactics he used in 1977 when Chicago spent 56 days in first place, won 90 games (its most since 1965) and finished a strong third after coming in last the season before. In the process, the White Sox also set a team attendance record of 1.6 million, which nearly equaled the total of the previous two seasons. The gate receipts wiped out the club's debt, covered 1977 expenses and left a little extra to prime the pump for 1978.
This good fortune came about because Veeck rebuilt the White Sox through shrewd trades (Reliever Clay Carroll for last season's bullpen ace, Lerrin LaGrow, for example), inexpensive but risky free-agent acquisitions (sore-kneed Third Baseman Eric Soderholm, who hit .280, and sore-armed Pitcher Steve Stone, who was 15-12) and a "rent-a-star" gambit that brought Outfielders Richie Zisk and Oscar Gamble, who were playing out their options, to Chicago for one glorious season before they signed big-money contracts with other clubs.
March 13, 1978
In preparation for this year, Veeck not only made the same kinds of moves as in '77, but he also increased the player population at the Sox spring training complex in Sarasota, Fla. to a crowded 59. Forty to 45 is the usual complement, but the White Sox now have enough bodies around to keep the four diamonds and two batting cages at Allyn Field busy, while another group plays an exhibition game at Payne Park. Never have names on the backs of uniforms been more appreciated by fans and journalists, for what unfamiliar names they are: LUEBBER, CAMARGO, MOLINARO, PROLY. Twenty-five of the players were in different organizations last season and four were in a different country, Mexico. Pity poor Manager Bob Lemon, who threw up his hands in exasperation last week and said, "We've got so damn many players here I can't even think of all their names. I'm climbing the walls at night trying to remember what everybody's doing. The last time I saw this many players was when four minor league teams trained together."
Two newcomers Lemon had no trouble recognizing were Bobby Bonds and Ron Blomberg, whom the White Sox are hoping—indeed, expecting—to supply the 61 home runs and 184 RBIs that Zisk and Gamble provided last year. But unless Bonds gets the five-year contract he wants from Veeck (which seems unlikely), he could be this year's rent-a-star. And though Blomberg has signed (for four years at $600,000), he seems an even bigger risk than Soderholm was, because shoulder and knee injuries have limited him to only 35 games in his last three seasons with the Yankees.
Blomberg is only one of 15 players the Sox took from last year's free-agent pool. While other teams quit after six or seven draft choices, Roland Hemond, the Sox director of player personnel, droned on and on. When he finally passed in the 37th round, the other club executives applauded vigorously. Among the Chicago signees, only former Atlanta Third Baseman Junior Moore and ex-Minnesota Pitcher Ron Schueler were active major-leaguers in '77. The White Sox quite clearly preferred experimental but inexpensive quantity to established but high-priced quality.
Veeck believes the last hurrah will be his if only three or four of the draftees turn out to be players of big league ability. "If you're not rolling in dough, you have two choices in baseball today," he says. "You either give up and say you can't compete, or you try to figure out a way to compete without money. We had the additional problem of not being able to get help from our farm system [which was allowed to go to seed in the years before Veeck bought the Sox in 1976]. So what we did was go after players other clubs didn't want and then promise those players they'd get a fair chance to show what they could do. We're treating everyone the same. Everyone has his name on the back of his uniform, and you'd be surprised how much that means to some of them. Now we have a lot of chances for success at less cost than it takes to buy just one high-priced free agent. We'll be a better club this year, no question. And those players who don't make it will help us rebuild our farm system."
The large number of unknowns in Sarasota has forced the Sox to modify the usual regimen. Twenty-eight players were invited to an early-bird camp that began on Feb. 14, and now that all 59 are in town Veeck is trying to keep everyone busy with intrasquad games, games against college teams and an expanded exhibition schedule. "We'll play anybody who drives by," he says, "including Bingo Long and the Bad News Bears." When it looked as if rain might bring a halt to workouts shortly after the early drills began, the White Sox made inquiries about practicing in the Astrodome, the Super-dome, Puerto Rico, Mexico and Cuba. As it was, they spent two days indoors in St. Petersburg before the rain stopped.
Chicago's extended spring training has not only given the new men a chance to show off their skills, but it has also helped in the rehabilitation of several injured players, like Blomberg, Shortstop Kevin Bell and Pitchers Mike Pazik and Bruce Dal Canton, who is attempting a comeback from an arm injury in 1977. "Maybe it's because of my physical condition," says the one-legged Veeck, "but the lame, the halt and the blind seem to gravitate to us."
Fortunately, Bonds arrived in camp without any physical problems, although a few weeks ago he was nabbed by Riverside, Calif. cops for allegedly driving while drunk. In fact, a month of working out with some of the Giants at Candlestick Park has sharpened his batting eye. "I've never done that before," he says, "but I just felt like I wanted to hit." There may lie the secret to the success of the rent-a-star system. Veeck thinks—and the fence-busting performances of Zisk and Gamble last season would seem to prove him right—that an accomplished player in the final year of his contract will want to hit and field and run more vigorously than ever, because he knows he will be rewarded with big bucks and other long-term goodies when he signs his new contract.
Bonds' biggest difficulty in Sarasota was adjusting to his new uniform. He has played with three other teams the last four years, but neither San Francisco, New York nor California had anything like the loose-fitting, wide-collared ensemble that the White Sox wear. "I'll give it one thing, it's different," he says, "but I hope none of my friends come to see me in it."
Bonds is worth watching no matter what he wears. Excluding the 1976 season, when he injured his right hand and missed 63 games, he has averaged 31 home runs, 90 RBIs and 40 stolen bases in eight complete seasons. He has also won three Gold Gloves. In fact, it was Bonds' defensive excellence that prompted several Chicago pitchers to thank Veeck after the trade (Bonds, Pitcher Dick Dotson and Outfielder Thad Bosley for Catcher Brian Downing and Pitchers Chris Knapp and Dave Frost) in December. Committing 159 errors, the Sox were 12th in the league in fielding in 1977. Another asset Bonds will bring to Chicago is speed; his 41 steals last season were one less than the White Sox team total.
Bonds was accompanied to Florida by his agent-lawyer, Rod Wright. "I'd like to be able to sign a long-term contract so I won't have to move around anymore," Bonds says. Veeck will probably be unwilling to pay Bonds' price—$2 million—but Veeck did score some points that may pay off when negotiations begin by giving Bonds a good-faith raise over the $178,000 he made last season instead of cutting him the 20% an owner is allowed to dock an unsigned player. "If he had cut me, I wouldn't have reported," Bonds says. "I'm glad he didn't do that. DiMaggio and Mays both spoke very highly of him, and from what I've seen so far, I'd have to agree."
Once the season begins, Bonds will concentrate on baseball and his four favorite soap operas and leave the negotiations to his agent. "He knows what I want, and I don't want him to call me unless it's time for me to sign," Bonds says.
Although Blomberg has signed, no one can guess how much he will return on the dollar. Because of injuries, he did not play last year and appeared in only one game in 1976 and 34 in 1975, when he and Bonds were teammates with the Yankees. He built his $600,000 reputation by batting better than .300 in 1971, '73 and '74, but his speed, power and defense are average, if that. Only six teams even drafted the 29-year-old outfielder-first baseman, and Blomberg says he accepted the White Sox offer "because of Veeck's sincerity."
As Blomberg worked out last week it was obvious he has not fully recovered from the knee surgery he underwent last April. He limped when he ran, and his timing was off at the plate. "The others are ahead of me now, but I think I'll be ready," he says. "If I wasn't hurt, there aren't many who could outdo me. The only thing I want is an injury-free year."
Blomberg might have it if he follows the example—and advice—of Soderholm, who recovered from a knee injury to win the 1977 Comeback Player of the Year Award. Soderholm, who has a book coming out in August entitled Conditioning for Baseball, believes Blomberg should be pushing himself harder. "I want to get you on those Nautilus machines," Soderholm told him during a downpour that forced cancellation of last Friday's practice. "I'm going to work your tail off. If you're going to lead us to the pennant, you've got to be in shape."
While Blomberg labors to get in condition, others in Sarasota are working to gain a spot on the 25-man major league roster. Competition is fierce, making the White Sox camp one of the busiest enterprises in Florida. Twenty-six pitchers are seeking to fill nine or 10 jobs, and 22 of them have major league experience. One is former Cub Reliever Ken Frailing, who lives in Sarasota and dropped by the Sox camp, though he had not pitched in two seasons. "I told him to, come on in," says Veeck. "One more didn't matter."
Among the other players, seven batted .300 or better in the minors last year. "The competition is bringing out the best in everybody," says Cleo Smith, a candidate for an outfield spot. "Guys are walking around with positive attitudes because they think they've got a shot."
A shot is what all of them always wanted, but not all of them got. "Sometimes a player gets lost inside an organization." Veeck explains, "but even I'm surprised by some of the players we have here. Their minor league records are very impressive." Among the hopefuls are In-fielder Mike Eden, who has hit better than .300 in five of six minor league seasons but got only eight at bats in the majors with Atlanta; Outfielder Henry Cruz, who was waived by Los Angeles last season after batting .353 at Albuquerque; and First Baseman Frank Ortenzio, who was sold to the White Sox by Montreal despite hitting .311, with 40 homers and 126 runs driven in, at Denver.
The man the players want to impress most, Lemon, was not about to make any firm judgments last week. "You can't fall in love on the basis of batting practice," he said. "The jobs don't really go on the line until the exhibition schedule starts on March 10. You can't convince me by what you do in an intrasquad game."
The biggest test of all does not come until Opening Day on April 7. That is when Veeck will start to find out just how well his innovations have worked. "Two years ago we were just looking to put a team on the field," he says, "and then last season we proved we could be competitive. Now you hope that some strange discovery, some piece of luck, can take us from third to first."
For Veeck, strange discoveries are a regular part of the game.