The race—if it may so be dignified—in the American League West calls to mind the waggish forecast of Chicago sportswriter Warren Brown for the 1945 World Series between those wartime casualties, the Detroit Tigers and the Chicago Cubs: "I don't think either team can win." The division's four leading contenders—if such they may be called—engaged each other in a 14-game round-robin tournament in California last week, and when it was completed, the conclusion that none of them wanted to win it seemed inescapable. Whenever one or the other of these reluctant adversaries gained a purchase on the top rung, he would generously pause for a rest, thereby allowing the nearest pursuer time to catch up.
By week's end, even the callow Oakland A's, losers of 11 straight during one recent stretch, were back in the thick of the battle. It is significant, perhaps, that Richard Nixon should have selected one of last week's games in the West, the Angels against Kansas City at Anaheim, to make his first appearance at a baseball game since he departed the White House four long seasons ago. Nixon's home team, the Angels, rose to the occasion, getting shut out 4-0.
The Angels at that point seemed perilously close to dropping out of the competition entirely, which at least would have helped to resolve some of the confusion. They had not been hitting, pitching, fielding or winning. Entering the game of June 27, the Angels had been shut out three times in a row, and four times in their last five games. Among their batters, only Ron Jackson at .316, Lyman Bostock at .286 and Don Baylor with 18 homers and 46 RBIs had been notably productive. Joe Rudi, the Angels' costly catch from the 1976 free-agent market, was hitting .193 and reclining on the bench, and their celebrated righthanded pitcher, Nolan Ryan, was on the disabled list with a hamstring pull. The flamethrower had not been so hot even when he had been healthy; after 13 starts, his record read three wins, six losses and an earned run average of 4.05. California's heralded Big Two, Ryan and Frank Tanana, who was 11-5, had been reduced to a Big One.
Then, the day after Nixon's visit, Rudi socked a pinch-hit grand-slam homer in the seventh inning to knock the Kansas City Royals from the top spot they then shared with Texas. Thus inspired, the Angels set off on a four-game winning streak that put them in a tie with Texas for the lead by Saturday. Meanwhile, the Royals were losing their next five games, a descent that under ordinary circumstances would have left them threatening only fifth-place Chicago in the standings. But not in the American League West. For the Rangers, whose two wins early in the week had run their victory string to seven and had put them atop this undulating heap, lost their next three and stood still. On Sunday the Royals were only 1½ games back. If they had been in the league's Eastern Division, they would have been in fifth place, 13½ behind Boston.
And unbelievably, right there with the Royals were the A's. They began the season with a cast of mystery guests who, because no one had ever seen them before, confounded the league. By May 3 Oakland was 18-5 and leading the division by 3½ games. Then, in the middle of May, the A's began playing with the big fellows, and as skeptics predicted, they dropped like a stone through the standings. From their May 3 apex to the beginning of last week, they were 16-32. On May 23 Manager Bobby Winkles quit with scarcely a word of explanation, save that provided by team owner Charles O. Finley, who said, "Maybe my phone calls were driving him to the nuthouse."
Winkles was replaced by Jack McKeon, whom Finley had fired last season. The seven-for-one trade of Vida Blue to the San Francisco Giants was given as the main reason for the A's early surge, but by last week, because of more trades and Finley-style attrition, only three of the former Giants—Pitchers John Henry Johnson and Dave Heaverlo and Shortstop Mario Guerrero—remained on the roster. Finley had unloaded two home-run threats, Gary Thomasson and Gary Alexander, and replaced them with the likes of Joe Wallis, Mickey Klutts and Dell Alston. The A's have the fewest fans in the majors and the lowest team batting average in the league. Predictably, they have scored the fewest runs, too. At one time they had two 18-year-olds fresh from high school in their pitching rotation. Oakland's 55% rate of success in stolen-base attempts made stealing a crime, even in Finley's larcenous eyes. And yet the A's closed to within 1½ games of the lead by taking consecutive extra-inning games from the Rangers—2-1 in 15 on Wednesday and 8-7 in 10 on Thursday—and edging the Royals 2-1 and 4-2 on Friday and Saturday, before splitting a doubleheader with K.C. on Sunday.
What should have encouraged Finley most about this mini-resurgence was a concurrent revival of the team's time-honored tradition of dissension in the ranks. Credit this to Bob Lacey, a Lincolnesque relief pitcher who, at age 24 and with all of one major league season behind him, is considered a grizzled veteran on a team where Clearasil is more prevalent in the clubhouse than Gillette Foamy. A skirmish Lacey had two weeks ago in Kansas City with the Royals' Darrell Porter seemed to loosen his tongue. Porter, he told reporters, was "kind of ugly," and Royals' Reliever Al Hrabosky was "no day at the beach, either." Hal McRae was simply "the dirtiest guy in the league."
Properly warmed up, last week Lacey turned the heat on his own team. Starting teen-agers Mike Morgan and Tim Conroy—both of whom have since been dispatched to the minors—in five games was tantamount, Lacey said, to informing the rest of the division that "we don't want it," it being the championship. Besides, the A's are not properly motivated by the manager and his coaches. These layabouts, Lacey said, never argue with umpires, never support the players when they need it and do nothing to "pump up" the youngsters on the team. The A's bunt too much, which takes the bats out of the hands of some free swingers who need to take their cuts. "You can't take aggression away from young guys," said Lacey.
Furthermore, he maintained, there are too many late-inning lineup changes for pinch hitters, pinch runners and defensive specialists. As a result, players "get labeled as bad hitters, bad base runners and bad fielders," and labels are hard to live down. Lacey does not miss Winkles, who, he said, "had it in for me," but McKeon, too, must go. "We need a new philosophy and a new manager," Lacey declared. When reminded that Finley himself calls all the shots, Lacey smiled and cited a suggestion made by Oakland Tribune Columnist Ron Bergman that McKeon be called "Jack O. McFinley."
This diatribe followed a thrilling 8-7 A's win in which Lacey stifled a Texas rally by getting the side out with the bases loaded and nobody out. Ah, shades of Reggie Jackson, Rollie Fingers, Billy North and the other wonderful malcontents of championship seasons. "This could get me in a lot of trouble," Lacey concluded. Nonsense. It merely makes him an A of the old stripe.
Despite Lacey's loudmouthing and an impressive young pitching staff—Lacey, Johnson, Haverlo, Matt Keough and Rick Langford all have ages of 27 or less and ERAs of 3.13 or less—the A's do not appear to be a serious threat to win the division. "By the end of the season, the A's will be back in the pack," Kansas City's George Brett advised after one of the K.C. losses to Oakland. With a .304 batting average, Brett is one of the few Royals playing up to par, so he may speak freely of the opposition's deficiencies. "The Angels have potential," he said, "but they are too tight. They're pressing too hard." And he reminded critics that the Royals' record last week was eerily close to what it was last season at the same time. After 74 games in 1977, the team was 39-35, and after 74 games this season it was 38-36. Then the '77 Royals ran off winning streaks of 10 games in August and 16 in September, and went on to achieve a 102-60 record, the best in the majors.
But this year's team is not hitting with last year's power. John Mayberry and his 23 'taters have been traded to Toronto, and Al Cowens, who went on the disabled list last week with a pulled knee ligament and a .249 average, has hit only two homers, far off his pace of a year ago when he had 23 home runs, batted .312 and finished second in the MVP balloting. Rookie Clint Hurdle, the 20-year-old slugger who was supposed to step in for Mayberry, has hit only three homers. In its first 75 games, Kansas City had only 43 home runs, 49 fewer than league-leading Boston. Among the Royals, only batters Brett, Amos Otis (.289) and Darrell Porter (.284) and Pitchers Paul Splittorff (9-7) and Rich Gale, a 6'7" rookie righthander who is 7-3, could be said to be playing up to or above expectations.
Texas has added sluggers Al Oliver, Richie Zisk and Bobby Bonds to a team that hit .270 in 1977, but by the end of last week the Rangers were batting less than .250—mainly because three starting infielders, Bump Wills, Bert Campaneris and Toby Harrah, had a cumulative average of .215, and Oliver, who was hitting .288 with 39 RBIs, was on the disabled list with a pulled muscle in his rib cage. Though Zisk, a plow horse in the outfield, was batting .286 with 13 homers, and Bonds, just coming around after a dismal start in Chicago, was hitting .256 with 11 homers, nine of them since he joined the Royals May 18, the Rangers got to the top last week on pitching, particularly by veterans Ferguson Jenkins (8-3, 2.89 ERA) and Dock Ellis (7-3, 3.44). The team ERA was 3.26, second lowest in the league to Oakland's 2.96.
A continuing theme played by both the Rangers and the Royals goes, "We're too good to be playing this badly." But, in truth, both teams feel fortunate to be huddled at the top. "I'm just grateful the whole division is struggling," says Texas Manager Billy Hunter. "We're saying that we haven't played well," says that masterful fielder, Texas Catcher Jim Sundberg, who, with a .318 average, is playing well. "And California's saying it hasn't played well and Kansas City's saying they haven't played well, and the records prove it." That they do, and so do some unusual instances of absent-minded and amateurish play that enlivened last week.
During Wednesday's game at Oakland, in which the Rangers lost 2-1 to the A's, Bonds committed gaffes that would embarrass a Snodgrass or a Merkle. With the score tied and one out in the sixth inning, Bonds tried to steal third base with lefthanded John Lowenstein at bat. Oakland Catcher Jeff Newman, his view of third unobstructed, easily threw Bonds out. In the eighth inning of the same game, Bonds was doubled off first base when he unaccountably ran on Lowenstein's fly to centerfield. In the bottom half of that inning, he played Miguel Dilone's routine single into a double by approaching the ball as if it were ticking.
In the fourth inning the next day, Bonds dropped a fly ball, but he was not the only Ranger to lose his way. Later in the game that day, Mitchell Page of the A's was caught flat-footed between first and second on a perfectly executed pitchout. In the subsequent rundown, Texas First Baseman Mike Hargrove threw the ball into leftfield, and Page reached third. He scored from there on Taylor Duncan's single.
Boners abounded in both Northern and Southern California on Friday. In the second inning of that night's game in Oakland, Kansas City's Fred Patek would have been cleanly picked off second by the A's Keough had not Keough thrown the ball into centerfield. Thus Patek advanced to third, and Keough got him the rest of the way home with a two-out wild pitch. Consider also the base-path odyssey of Texas' Bobby Thompson that night in Anaheim. He lined a one-bouncer to the base of the leftfield wall in the sixth inning for a sure double. But, whoa! Instead of digging for second after making his turn, Thompson headed back to first, having missed the bag his first time around. No sweat. Baylor, assuming Thompson's hit was at least a double, retrieved the ball in left and threw it to Shortstop Dave Chalk, the cutoff man. Chalk wheeled and tossed it to third, where to his considerable surprise there was no one to receive it. Third Baseman Dave Machemer, observing that second base was unprotected, was hurrying there when Chalk cut loose. The throw to third rolled harmfully away, and Thompson now advanced all the way from first to third. It is a measure of the Rangers' hitting weakness that, though there were no outs at the time of this farce, Thompson did not score.
Kansas City's Willie Wilson had a somewhat smoother, if no less eventful, passage in the Saturday afternoon game at Oakland. With his team trailing 4-1 in the eighth inning, Wilson led off with an infield single. He then stole second, running his league-leading total of swipes to 29, and moved to third on Newman's passed ball. He scored on Johnson's wild pitch. That is the new Kansas City offense—an infield hit, a stolen base, a passed ball and a wild pitch. Bingo, big inning!
That evening in Anaheim, the Angels' Ron Fairly converted a fairly routine play into a Fairly comic routine. On first with one out in the eighth and his team trailing 6-3, Fairly was doubled up when Bobby Grich lined to Harrah at third, who threw to first before Fairly could get back. In his belated effort to reverse directions, Fairly fell on his face on the base path. But that is not the funny part. He lay there for a moment reflecting on how a 20-year veteran could so carelessly take his team out of a rally in a losing game. Then, in disgust, he grabbed a handful of dirt and, while still prone, flipped it back over his head. The dirt caught First Base Umpire Terry Cooney on the head and shoulders, and as he brushed it away with one hand, Cooney thumbed Fairly out of the game with the other. Afterward, Fairly was seen examining a book entitled How to Get Through Your Struggles by Oral Roberts.
And so, by the end of the week there had been a lot of laughs but little done to clear away the divisional clutter. Like the four Marx Brothers in the famous stateroom scene in A Night at the Opera, the contenders seemed intent on cramming themselves into the tightest space possible. Other obvious similarities to the Marxes—Groucho (Texas), Chico (California), Zeppo (Kansas City) and Harpo (Oakland)—should be charitably disregarded. In time, it may be assumed, the American League West will cut the comedy and get down to the serious business of producing a champion.
"I look at it as a horse race," the Rangers' Harrah says. "It's not how you start. It's how you finish." Or, the way things have been going, if you finish.