During a ball game Alvin Dark of the San Francisco Giants stands erect in the front of the dugout with one foot up on the steps. He stays in that position most of the game, his eyes intent on the action, his face stern and serious. A good part of the time his arms are folded across his chest. San Francisco sports-writers say that he looks like Washington crossing the Delaware, and in their facetious comment is a cutting edge of sarcasm; they imply that Dark not only looks like Washington crossing the Delaware, he thinks he is Washington crossing the Delaware.
The sarcasm is inspired by Dark's nature, which is dedicated and intense and totally committed to success. When he became manager of the Giants after their chaotic fifth-place finish in 1960, he had had no experience whatever as a manager or even as a coach. But he took over as though the job had been waiting for him all his life. It was more than confidence, or at least more than a matter of confidence outweighing doubts. Dark had no doubts, only an eagerness to get going. Washington probably felt the same way when he assumed his first important military command.
Dark is an orthodox manager, but, like Leo Durocher (for whom he played and whose managerial methods he admires), he likes the tactical ploy, the immediate maneuver that puts the opponent on the defensive. His competitive poise gives the impression that he feels whatever he does is right, whether it actually works or not. Because of this confidence—or arrogance, if you are an anti-Dark man—his critics delight in gigging him when he is wrong. But not to his face, never to his face, for Dark can be as cold and disdainful as Charles de Gaulle when he is asked to explain why he chose to do a certain thing. Off the field Alvin is polite and considerate. On the field, in his dugout, in his clubhouse, he is the grand seigneur, an absolute ruler. He welcomes journalists, but he endures their eternal investigations of his methods and motives with thinly disguised contempt.
"The hardest thing about managing is dealing with sportswriters," he said last week. "Some of them do a hard day's work, and they report the game and they give their readers a story. But others—honestly, you'd think after watching baseball every day they'd understand more about the game. They always seem to be looking for something that isn't there. I used Willie Mays at shortstop late in one game for one inning. I used him because I had almost nobody left on the bench, and by switching Mays to short I could save a pinch hitter for the next inning. Willie fools around the infield in practice, and I knew he could handle himself there. That's all there was to it; I played Mays at short because I'd run out of players. But that was too simple. Someone wanted to know if I did it for publicity.
"The one thing you know when you're a manager is that someday you're going to be fired. It has to happen. Every man who ever managed was fired sooner or later, unless he owned part of the club. But you can't manage with that in your mind. You can't be diplomatic and worry about criticism. You have to assume that you will continue to manage. I know that someday I will be fired, but even so I don't expect to be. I expect to be a manager the rest of my working life. I like running a ball club. It's what I want to do.
"What they don't understand is that what you do in a game is governed by what your personnel can do and by what the game situation is. I've been criticized for not bunting enough. Well the reason you bunt is to try to score one run. I've got Mays and McCovey and Cepeda and Bailey and Haller and Alou. They're home run hitters. With home run hitters, you don't play for one run. Oh, late in a game you do, or against pitchers like Koufax or Drysdale. But generally you don't. I don't worry if we go two or three runs behind early in a game. A home run with a man on base closes that up fast, and home runs can give you a big inning."
Though Dark's home run hitters are the hallmark of his team, they give it an appearance of strength that is deceptive. Last year, after the Dodgers lost the pennant to the Giants in a postseason playoff, Fresco Thompson of the Dodger front office defended the collapsible Los Angeles pot by calling the San Francisco kettle just as bad. With their players, Fresco said, the Giants should have won by six games. And just last week Harry Craft of the Houston Colts said, "The Giants should be 15 games ahead. They have the best personnel in the league." Unlike Thompson and Craft, Dark holds no illusions about the Giants' overall ability. He is aware that in August his pitching staff stood fourth in the league in earned run average, fifth in runs allowed and ninth in shutouts, that his fielders were ninth in assists, 10th in double plays and sixth in fielding percentage. He was also aware that his hitters, while an overwhelming first in home runs, were 10th in triples, sixth in doubles and only third in scoring runs. Dark, who can be an adroit as well as a reluctant talker, would not be drawn into a rebuttal of Thompson and Craft, but he did say, smiling, "Maybe they've been watching us in batting practice."
Except for Juan Marichal, the best right-handed pitcher in baseball, and Billy O'Dell, San Francisco's starting pitchers have been unimpressive—and that includes Jack Sanford, a 24-game winner last year but this season a struggler trying to get his won-lost percentage over .500. There are half a dozen relievers in the San Francisco bullpen—Billy Pierce, Jim Duffalo, Don Larsen, Billy Hoeft, Jack Fisher, Bob Bolin—but quantity does not necessarily connote quality. Nowhere in the bullpen is there a Dick Radatz, a Ron Perranoski, a stopper.
The Giant infield is a shattered remnant of last year's. Only Orlando Cepeda is approximating his 1962 performance. Chuck Hiller's batting average was down from .276 to .206 as of last week. Jose Pagan was hobbled by a muscle injury and was hitting .231. Jim Davenport was down from .297 to .253. Ernie Bowman, who fills in for Pagan at short, is a .200 hitter. It is a sorry infield for a pennant contender.
Yet Dark believes he will win. He does not delude himself about his team, but neither can he conceive of losing. He is like the Yankees. Victory is his right, and defeat is an accident.
As the pennant tide rolled in and out last week, shortening the Dodger lead to three games, lengthening it to six, Dark said, "The race isn't settled by a long shot. There's a lot of time left, and you can gain or lose ground awfully fast. We have an advantage because we play most of our games at home from now on. That helps our pitching because we have only one doubleheader at Candlestick the rest of the season.
"Look. Each of the contenders has something special going for them. The Dodgers have those three big pitchers; they can shut you out three days in a row. The Cardinals have lots of hitting, the kind that keeps a rally going. The Reds have six good starters, and that's a big thing to have going down the stretch. We have Marichal and the home runs. But we have something else. We have Willie Mays. And Willie is the difference."
Dark is rapturous on the subject of Mays. "When I came to San Francisco I was determined that the first thing I would do is make people there realize how great Willie is. They didn't take to him at first. He was New York's, and they went instead for the new young players that developed in San Francisco, like Orlando Cepeda. Well, that's only natural—Orlando is great, a real bulldog, he'd play every inning every day if you'd let him—but what they didn't understand for a long time is that Willie is in a class by himself.
"They know it now. There is no one close to Mays. When he's on a hitting tear, like he's been this last month, everyone says he's the most exciting player in baseball. Well, I think he's the most exciting player even when he isn't hitting—he's still just as great in the field, he's still just as great on the bases. Willie is so much a part of every game. His reaction to any situation is instant. And he's the reason we're going to win."