Call them the AL Rest. They are the six teams below Brett & Co. in the West Division of the American League, and they stoop as a monument to mismanagement, sore arms and old shortstops. They are the stuff of a Rodney Dangerfield routine, which might go something like: [House lights up] "Just my luck that all my favorite teams are in the American League West. Why, the Angels have so many injuries that Brian De Palma is directing their highlights film. [Loosen tie] No kidding, some of the pitchers on the Twins couldn't get their fastballs arrested in a school zone. [Twitch] One guy from the Mariners refuses to bat cleanup—says he doesn't do windows. [Sweat] When the White Sox infielders do catch a ball, they cut off a piece of the hide and throw it to the crowd. The Rangers' outfielders couldn't hit a cutoff man if he was King Kong. I tell you, those teams are so bad that the umpires don't show up until the fifth inning. They don't get no respect."
No wonder. The only other team besides the Royals with a winning record is Billy Martin's Oakland A's, and with their .504 percentage they would be no better than seventh in the AL East. But these are the same Oakland A's who had a .333 percentage last year, and they couldn't have come this far without a lot of help within their division. Against the East, which has six teams over .500, the Dead End Kids are playing at a .414 pace.
As Kansas City fast disappears over the horizon, the only suspense left in the division concerns which manager will be the next to go and which owner will be the next to bail out. The Mariners made the first move three weeks ago when they sent Maury Wills in to pinch-run for Darrell Johnson. Before Seattle went into the 12-game losing streak that cost Johnson his job, the Angels—some might remember them from the playoffs last year—threatened to become the first team since the 1915 Philadelphia Athletics to go from first place to last in a single season.
The West Division has almost always been the East's doormat. Since 1969, when the American League split, the West has had only three winning seasons, and in one of those years, 1971, the winning margin was a single game. Last year the West was 259-327 (.442) against the East, and since division play began, the West has trailed the East 2,552-2,926, which means that it would have to win four out of five games for a year to catch up. The Oakland teams from 1972 to 1974 have been the only AL West representatives in the World Series. And people still wonder why the National League with its two strong divisions, wins every All-Star Game.
Perhaps the saddest thing about the division is that it never generates a decent pennant race. California won by three games last year, which is the narrowest margin ever in the West. This year the Royals are sublime, and the rest of the teams are ridiculous.
The Twins, for instance, are 17 games under .500 in a year in which Manager Gene Mauch predicted a pennant. They fell below .500 for good on May 2, and last Sunday Mauch announced his immediate resignation. The Rangers were unable to win three games in a row from April 20 to July 18. The Angels, 23-42 at home, didn't win a series in Anaheim for two months.
Statistically, five of the six worst-hitting teams in the league are in the AL Rest. Chicago has scored fewer runs than anybody, Minnesota is at the bottom in stolen bases, and Seattle has been shut out 12 times. The leading hitter on the Twins, John Castino, is batting .297, while Bob Molinaro leads the White Sox regulars at .294. (By comparison, Kansas City's team average is also .294.) The AL Rest supplies only one of the Top 10 home-run hitters (Tony Armas of Oakland) and two of the RBI leaders (Armas and Al Oliver of Texas).
What follows is an unofficial autopsy report, compiled with the help of the advance scouts from the American League East teams. The West teams will be taken in order of disappointment:
Manager Jim Fregosi suffers from diverticulitis, an intestinal ailment brought on by bad diet, nervousness or possibly his team's 43 injuries so far this season. The most damaging, of course, was to Don Baylor, who won the league MVP award last year with 36 homers, 139 RBIs and a .296 average. Baylor played the first month of the season with a fractured left wrist, then went on the disabled list for two months. He didn't hit his first home run until after the All-Star break. Catcher Brian Downing, the leading right-handed hitter in the AL at .326 last year, fractured his ankle on April 20 and may not return until September. Dan Ford, who underwent a knee operation after driving in 101 runs last year, went on the disabled list because of the knee on June 3. He took his time coming back, he says, because he figured the season was already over. The two pitchers who were expected to lead the staff, Dave Frost and Bruce Kison, had a combined record of 7-12 before injuries shelved them for the year.
Those are all good alibis. But, as Milwaukee scout Walter Shannon says, "Injuries should hurt a club, they shouldn't collapse it. It has to be more than injuries." Owner Gene Autry suspects the same thing. The Singing Cowboy finally took a hot branding iron to his team after seven weeks of having the worst record in baseball. "Some of our pitchers don't have any guts," said Autry. "Some of our players have given up. We've had all those injuries, but the problems go deeper. There are times I've felt like calling up Salt Lake City and letting the minor-leaguers finish the season. At least they would get their uniforms dirty."
The players have taken to sniping at each other. "Defensively," says Pitcher Frank Tanana, "we stink." The team even blamed some of its woes on the Angel Ape, a guy in a gorilla suit who began to show up at games early this year. "All I know is, we started losing when he arrived," said Baylor. "Why blame me?" said the Ape, Joe Badame. "I'm not on the pitching staff."
Like an outfielder who uses his speed to outrun his mistakes, the Angels for years have been using money to cover up bad judgment. Last spring Nolan Ryan asked for a $2.2 million contract, but General Manager Buzzie Bavasi and Autry decided to wait him out. After Ryan took $4.5 million from the Astros, Bavasi had to go out and buy Kison for $2.5 million. He laughed off Ryan's defection by saying, "All I have to do is get two 8-7 pitchers." Chuckle. So far this year, the most wins by any Angel starter is seven. California could use Ryan's 280-innings-a-year durability, not to mention his 9-8 Astro record.
Take the California shortstops, please. Freddie Patek was given a three-year contract for $555,000. He looked like a million in one game against Boston, hitting three homers and driving in seven runs, but as of August the 35-year-old shortstop had been replaced by 38-year-old Bert Campaneris. Together they've made 26 errors, a lot considering their diminished range. In the past two years the Angels have traded away three young shortstops, Todd Cruz, Jim Anderson and Rance Mulliniks. Mulliniks went to Kansas City along with Willie Mays Aikens for Al Cowens. The Angels traded Aikens because they already had a left-handed-hitting first baseman in Rod Carew, and Baylor's best position is DH. But after two months they gave up on Cowens and traded him to Detroit for, you guessed it, a lefthanded-hitting first baseman, Jason Thompson.
Manager Pat Corrales was sitting at his desk in the visiting clubhouse at Yankee Stadium not long ago, trying to make sense out of a 2-1 loss to New York's Rudy May. "I don't get it," he said. "We score eight runs off Tommy John one night, then get beat by a spot starter tonight. I can't figure out this whole season." At one point in his soliloquy, Corrales stopped to chide his son, Jason, a team bat boy, for putting on a sweat sock that had almost as many holes as his team. "Fregosi and I are close friends, but we haven't talked about this season yet," Corrales said. "He's got his problems and I've got mine. At least I don't have a bad stomach."
The Rangers' biggest problem has been the bullpen, where Jim Kern has gone from 13-5 last season to 3-11 and the disabled list this year. Sparky Lyle was unable to take up the slack, and Corrales has only recently begun to rely on Danny Darwin and John Henry Johnson. His aged starters have been adequate, but none has been a stopper.
Like the Angels, the Rangers have a quaint shortstop, Bud Harrelson, 36. They lured him out of retirement when Nelson Norman couldn't cut it, and Harrelson gave them inspired play until he got hurt. The job then fell to Pepe Frias, with Catcher Dave Roberts as his backup. Frias distinguished himself against California on May 28 by spiking the ball on what he thought was the third out. In fact, it was the second out, and his mistake let the winning run score. Obviously, not a positive situation. The Rangers are constantly reminded they once traded away Roy Smalley.
In fact, Brad Corbett, the former owner, traded away a lot of good young players. In 1975 he sent Smalley and Pitcher Jim Gideon to Minnesota for Bert Blyleven. It was bad enough giving up Smalley, but the trade haunted the Rangers for years because every time his front-office people tried to talk Corbett out of trading away a prospect, he would say, "You told me not to trade Gideon, too, and he's out of baseball now." As a result, the Rangers let go young pitching prospects like Len Barker, Dave Righetti, Mike Griffin and Paul Mirabella.
But there are very few signs that things have changed under new president Eddie Chiles. The Rangers decided to take the names off the backs of the players' uniforms because that would save $7,000. This kind of thinking will surely doom Texas to mediocrity. And sooner or later, probably sooner, the Rangers will give up on Corrales. "It happens to all of us," Corrales was saying that night at Yankee Stadium. Left open on his desk was a popular spy novel that Pitcher Doc Medich had recommended to him. "This whole season's been a mystery," the manager said.
Two weeks ago Maury Wills became major league baseball's third black manager, the Mariners' second of any kind, and the first in history to manage against his son. He also became the 1,723rd manager hired merely for appearances. Although the Mariners had a lot of problems at the time, Johnson wasn't one of them. Before he was canned, he was highly rated by most scouts. A few days before the ax fell, Baltimore's advance man, Jim Russo, said, "Johnson has them playing heads-up baseball. He hates mistakes, he hates to lose."
What difference Wills will make remains to be seen, but in his first three games Seattle blew three leads and extended its losing streak to 12, the longest in the league in three years. At week's end his record was 5-14. Wills sees another Maury Wills in Second Baseman Julio Cruz, but he also sees Cruz' .213 batting average, and that's a problem. Wills is saddled with some truly horrendous catching and bad outfield defense. He has no real third baseman or shortstop, and his designated hitter, Ancient Mariner Willie Horton, 38, is going to have to hit 24 more homers to match his 1979 total of 29. The Mariners' two best pitchers from last year, Mike Parrott (before being sent to Spokane) and Rick Honeycutt, have lost 25 of their last 27 starts, and Jim Beattie, who came from the Yankees in the Ruppert Jones deal, is 4-11 with a 4.97 ERA.
Wills' biggest problem, though, may be in the executive suite. The Seattle owners used to be known as the Silly Six. That's before one of them dropped out and they became the Foolish Five. They are currently suing King County, which built the Kingdome, for, among other things, not telling them that the stadium would be conducive to hitting home runs. The Mariners allege that they went out and built a team on speed when they should have been building one on power. Nobody is quite sure who's in charge of the team, President Daniel O'Brien or General Manager Lou Gorman. But it was O'Brien who personally hired Wills, because, O'Brien said, "He's a natural teacher." That's good, because the Mariners have a lot to learn.
Until he resigned last Sunday, Gene Mauch was within reach of one of baseball's granite records. If he had managed to manage one more year without winning the division, he would have surpassed Jimmy Dykes' mark of 21 seasons without a pennant. Says one scout harshly, "People remember Gene for blowing the '64 pennant with the Phillies, but what he did with the '77 Twins proved to me he could never win." In 1977 the Twins had Rod Carew (.388, 100 RBIs), Larry Hisle (.302, 28 HRs and 119 RBIs), Lyman Bostock (.336, 90 RBIs), Glenn Adams (.338), Dave Goltz (20-11) and the division lead in mid-August. They finished 17½ games back in fourth place.
But it's hardly Mauch's fault that the Twins haven't won their division since 1970. Owner Calvin Griffith will neither bid for free agents nor pay his own players what it takes to keep them from becoming free agents. His philosophy has cost him such players as Hisle, Bostock, Carew, Goltz, Bill Campbell and Tom Burgmeier. Somehow the Twins keep producing quality ballplayers, though, like Third Baseman Castino, and they occasionally make a good trade. Smalley, Ken Landreaux and Jerry Koosman are three of their better acquisitions, although each of them is performing well below his 1979 standard. Somewhere hidden in Griffith's tight fist is a good front office. But until Ebenezer gets a visit from the Ghosts of Pennants Past, the Twins will be a .500 ball club.
Manager Tony LaRussa has a law degree from the University of South Florida, so he should know a faulty defense when he sees one, which is every day. The White Sox have made 140 errors already this season, and they threaten to break the division record of 192 set by the first-year Angels in 1961. Even the scoreboard operator has gotten into the act, exploding the home-run fireworks after a ground-rule double by Greg Pryor.
But even with a bad defense, Chicago is a team on the verge. The left-leaning pitching staff is the envy of many clubs. Clyde King, one of the Yankees' major league scouts, thinks that all Chicago needs is patience. "That's one team I'd leave on the vine," he says. "Make sure they get plenty of rain and plenty of sunshine, and they'll grow up healthy and strong." Thirteen of the White Sox have less than two years' experience, and only two have more than five. King feels the White Sox have two excellent baseball men in LaRussa and G.M. Roland Hemond, and that once they get a catcher and a double-play combination—he'd move Second Baseman Jim Morrison to third—Chicago might be a contender.
If it happens, President Bill Veeck won't be around to enjoy it, because the team's board of directors agreed last Friday to sell the Sox to Edward J. DeBartolo Sr. and his daughter for $20 million. Ever since Veeck and his group bought 80% of the club in 1975 from the late John Allyn for $8 million, they have had money problems that prevented them from investing in high-quality free agents. DeBartolo, who also owns the Pittsburgh Penguins of the NHL and a thoroughbred track in Louisiana, would do well to keep the organization intact. While many of the AL West teams use poverty as an excuse, the White Sox truly have suffered from a lack of funds.
They laughed when Charlie Finley hired Billy Martin. They laughed even louder when Martin said he could make the A's a winner. Funny, they're not laughing now. Martin has succeeded in turning the moribund A's around, and he deserves full credit for their rags-to-middle-class story. He has brought them respectability without a quality second baseman or shortstop and without a bullpen. In fact, his starters already have pitched 72 complete games, only five short of the 162-game-schedule record set by the 1968 Giants. Of his best reliever, Bob Lacey, Martin says, "I don't want to see him anymore."
Dan Carnevale, who does Cleveland's advance work, says, "Martin maneuvers his players and always is looking ahead. Give him nine guys and he'll fight you to the finish even if the talent is mediocre." Martin's commando style has produced 13 double steals, one triple steal, seven steals of home in 13 attempts, and 13 suicide squeezes in 19 tries. His outfield of Rickey Henderson (.302, 63 stolen bases), Tony Armas (26 HRs, 81 RBIs) and Dwayne Murphy (.276, 54 RBIs) has blossomed nicely. Pitchers Mike Norris, Matt Keough and Rick Langford deserve a collective Cy Young Award.
Finley thinks he got what he deserved last week when he sold the team for $12.7 million, more than three times what he paid for it in 1960.
From his perch as Detroit's chief scout, Rick Ferrell looks over to the West and says, "It's disturbing the way the league is lined up. There's some talk about Milwaukee going into that division and Chicago coming into our division. It's not a good situation." A better suggestion might be to relocate the front-office talent. Obviously, some of the West teams don't know what to do with good players even when they have them. Their problems won't be solved until they admit that the fault is not in their stars, but in themselves.