During the season Roberto Clemente, the National League's batting champion (.339), likes to take a little nip before each game—from ajar of honey he keeps in his locker. The honey is part of Clemente's almost fanatical concern with his health, and his teammates have kidded him about it for years. Now, though, his health is a genuine concern for the Pirates because Clemente had a snakebit winter. First, he was struck high on the thigh by a stone that kicked up off the blade of a power mower, and the resulting injury required surgery. Then he was stricken with a malarial fever that left him wan and weak and 20 pounds underweight. By the time he was able to report to spring training toward the end of March he had gained back 10 of the pounds, but he was still a long way from being in top playing shape. It will take time before Clemente will be his old self again. It's a good thing, therefore, that the Pirates' new manager, Harry Walker, has a reputation for being an expert batting instructor, for with Clemente out, or subpar, someone else must pick up the slack. Walker supplements his advice to the players by having them listen to tapes he has made of some of the game's best hitters. "Lots of times a boy doesn't want hitting advice from you because you're too close to him," Walker says. "I've made tapes with some of the best hitters—Ted Williams, Mays, 25 of them. That gives every boy a chance to listen to someone he has confidence in, and believing in somebody is important."
During the past three seasons no Pirate—not even Clemente—has had as many as 90 RBIs, and only Houston and Washington can match that statement. This year Willie Stargell, stronger and faster as the result of a knee operation and an off-season diet, may well be the big RBI man the club has lacked. He missed 45 games last year but had 78 RBIs and 21 home runs, the most home runs for a Pirate in three seasons. Donn Clendenon (.282) must continue to curb his strikeouts (he cut down from 136 to 96 last year). Manny Mota (.277) could be the leadoff man the Pirates need if he learns to finagle a few walks. Jerry Lynch and Gene Freese are streaky at the plate but are valuable pinch hitters. Two other Pirates were among the most improved batters in the league last year: Jim Pagliaroni (up 65 points to .295) and Bob Bailey (up 53 points to .281). Bailey was on the verge of an even better year but, he says, "I dropped from .304 in the last few weeks because of lack of concentration. I let my mind wander. You know, I'd find myself wondering about things like dinner after the game or thinking about home. I have to give myself speeches all the time to help me concentrate."
Left-hander Bob Veale (18-12, 2.73 ERA) has a fast ball that leaves a vapor trail, but all too often the trajectory leaves something to be desired. He led the majors in strikeouts with 250, but he also led in walks (124) and was second in wild pitches (18). Vernon Law (12-13) gets by on grit, control and an excellent slider. The slider makes him particularly effective at night, when batters have difficulty picking it up. During the past decade Bob Friend (13-18) pitched more innings than anyone else in the majors (2,583) except Warren Spahn—and allowed more hits (2,633). For added starters there are Joe Gibbon, Steve Blass, Don Cardwell and Don Schwall. All were impressive in Florida.
In the bullpen the Pirates have Al McBean, a Virgin Islander who wears flashy clothes and who likes to refer to himself as Ol' Black Magic. McBean was the league's best reliever last year, garnishing his 8-3 record with 18 saves and a 1.90 ERA. He will have to be equally effective this season unless the once-great ElRoy Face (5.18 ERA) can snap back and carry some of the load.
Bill Mazeroski, the superb second baseman, broke a bone in his foot in Florida and will be sidelined until early May. The absence of Maz will hurt, because his double-play skill (the Pirates led the majors in DPs with 179) is a tremendous help to Pirate pitching. Filling in for him will be Gene Alley, a steady fielder but an inconsistent hitter (.211 compared to Mazeroski's .268, 10 homers and 64 RBIs). Except for Maz, the Pirate infield is so-so. Neither Dick Schofield nor Andre Rodgers is an outstanding shortstop. Bailey, at third, and Clendenon, at first, are below-average fielders. Clendenon appears acrobatic, but he slaps at balls, and Bailey is frequently off balance—which keeps him from getting a jump on grounders and line drives. The outfield is much better. Clemente is an excellent right fielder with a powerful arm, and Stargell has speed and a good arm in left. Mota, a frisky player with a good glove, is taking over from Bill Virdon in center, though Virdon, one of the best fielders in the game, will see a lot of action before Clemente returns to the Pirate lineup. With Del Crandall now on hand to back up Jim Pagliaroni, the catching is strong. But, overall, the Pirate defense—which had 177 errors, most in the majors, to go with all those double plays—puts too much of a strain on the pitching staff.
The traffic is pretty heavy in the first division, and the sixth-place Pirates will do very well indeed if they can move up one notch.