See that little mound of dirt out there with the rubber in the middle?" said Eddie Stanky. "That's my concern. I don't have any problems, just concerns. And that's my big concern, right out there."
Just a couple of days before, four of Stanky's St. Louis Cardinal recruits had insulted the New York Yankees with one hit. "And it was a pretty cheap hit, too," he snarled.
The next day, two more apprentices and Tom Poholsky, restrained the Yankees to one run. This should be enough to give the dandy little manager the right to be cheerful.
"I can barely crack a smile now," he said. "Come back next week. If I'm grinning from ear to ear, I've found the pitching I'm looking for."
The other day some mathematician figured that Stanky's Cardinals lost "about 30 games" after the seventh inning last season. In the end, the Cards finished sixth, which wasn't in line with administration policy at Anheuser-Busch. Hurriedly the Cardinals then hit off a deal with Cincinnati, surrendered third baseman Ray Jablonski, a 100-RBI man, and Gerry Staley, a fallen pitching angel, for Frank Smith. Smith's specialty is saving ball games that appear to be in quivering hands. He's big, strong and comes equipped with one of those rubber arms. Among National League relief pitchers, he's ranked only by Hoyt Wilhelm of the Giants.
"We had to give up a lot to get what we needed," Stanky said, "but I look at it this way: if Jablonski hits .350 and Staley wins 15 games for Cincinnati and we win the pennant, we're ahead on the deal. Any time you give up a player like Jablonski, you're strengthening another team, but that's a risk we had to take."
The truth of the matter is, this is right smart of a critical season for Stanky. He finished third his first two spins with the Cardinals. The drop to sixth last season was totally unexpected. Thus the season of '55 is approached with clenched fists and gritted teeth, for another second-division race could leave Gussie Busch and the stockholders extremely unhappy.
A stranger named Floyd Wooldridge damaged the Yankees severely in that opening-day one-hitter. Sixteen months ago Wooldridge was seriously injured in an automobile crash. They said he'd never walk again, and it's true that he can't cover first as he should with his game leg. But from what they've seen of him, Wooldridge is a major league pitcher. They like, too, Luis Arroyo, the squat Puerto Rican with whom Atlanta became acquainted in the Dixie Series, Larry Jackson, 12-6 at Rochester, Herb Moford, 17-14 at Columbus, Ohio, and two relief prospects, Bobby Tiefenauer, a Houston graduate, and 29-year-old Barney Schultz, 11 years reaching the majors.
WHO YOU GOT TO BEAT?
"Figure this as my nucleus," Stanky said, "Harvey Haddix, Brooks Lawrence, Gordon Jones and Tom Poholsky as starters, and Frank Smith in the bull pen. Now, suppose I get some other reliefers from Bobby Tiefenauer, Barney Schultz, Joe Presko, Herb Moford or Tony Jacobs. That Jacobs, you can't forget him. He won 25 games in two seasons at Rochester, all in relief. I'm figuring on Wooldridge or Jackson as possible starters.
"Figure it that way and we're not a pushover. Who you got to beat? Brooklyn, the Giants and Milwaukee. We're in the same boat with Cincinnati. It's up to our pitching."
Gordon Jones is a sports-page sleeper. The Cards imported him from Omaha last season and he finished 4-4. With Stanky he rates kudos. "I like the kid. He's a control specialist. He walked just 19 men in 81 innings last year. He's on the varsity."
A year ago, tourists visiting with the Cardinals came to look at Tom Alston, the 6-foot-5 Negro first baseman who cost $10,000, and Wally Moon, who showed up without an invitation. Moon became the rookie of the year and Alston became the first baseman at Rochester.
Alston is back now and in a bloody hassle with Joe Cunningham about first base. Cunningham hits like a blacksmith, but he also owns a reputation for fielding like one. Alston, now, rates with Stanky as "one of the greatest glove men I ever saw." It doesn't make a heap of difference who wins, so long as he hits .350 and drives in 120 runs.
Moon, after one year, enjoys the rating as a fixture. This hatchet-faced Arkansan regards his spectacular break-in year as no particular phenomenon, but he does speak with pride of driving in 76 runs as a leadoff man.
Ken Boyer, appointed to succeed Jablonski, has been working at shortstop. This is to allow some inspection of kids Ronnie Plaza and Gerry Thomas at third. Boyer will be the third baseman and smooth Alex Grammas, the Birmingham candyman, is the shortstop. Stanky subscribes heavily to him in the field.
Two outfielders who led leagues in hitting showed up this spring wearing glasses, Harry Elliott, in from San Diego, and Bill Virdon, up from Rochester. Musial, who has the steadiest job in the National League ("It'll take a real emergency for me to bring him in to first base"), Moon and Rip Repulski now run the outfield. Joe Frazier pinch-hit .323 last season, better than Dusty Rhodes.
But Elliott, once a Minnesota football star, has them fascinated with his bat. Virdon is a big leaguer now defensively. Both are acting as if they belong in the majors, which incited Stanky to observe:
"I never thought of this before, but maybe I ought to put glasses on my pitchers."