No matter how you look at it, there is a challenge facing Jorge Rubio. Statistically, he is 22 years old and merely one of the 100 and more rookies who will be trying to force themselves into the major leagues by their performances in spring training during the next five weeks. However, Rubio, a right-hander, is totally different from the rest because the Cincinnati Reds are currently encouraging him to become ambidextrous. In all of baseball, there have been few pitchers like him.
There is no sense in laughing at the Cincinnati Reds alone. All of baseball is going crazy with its rookies, and for good reason. This spring, for the first time in many springs, there are a lot of splendid new names. There are a Nash, a Ford and a Messersmith, as well as a Moses, a Cain and a Christian. Look over the rosters of the National and American League teams. You will find rookies named Cash, Bonds, Money, Crook, Rooker and Fink. There are also some who are named Weisenberg and Scheinblum, Kelly, Duffie, Ryan and O'Brien, and there is even a Lum. A rookie Chinese outfielder with the Atlanta Braves, Mike Lum was born in Honolulu, lives in Austin, Texas, went to Brigham Young University and may still be a year away.
The best rookie of this forthcoming season, though, probably will not be a Rubio or a Money or a Lum. Most likely he will be one of the fellows pictured on this week's cover. Each of the five represents more than just youth and inexperience and hope. Take John Bench, the 21-year-old catcher for the Cincinnati Reds. He is being given one of the biggest buildups ever provided any catcher, and, if he should become the National League's Rookie of the Year, as many expect he will, he would be the first catcher in league history to do so.
Mike Torrez, the tall, handsome kid pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, is being counted on to step into a pitching rotation that already includes Bob Gibson, Nelson Briles, Steve Carlton and Dick Hughes, and that is a very high step to climb. Cisco Carlos pitched briefly for the Chicago White Sox last year and during the pennant drive compiled an earned run average of 0.86 in 42 innings. Even by White Sox standards, that is spectacular pitching. The big first-base candidate for the Detroit Tigers, Don Pepper, represents something entirely different, because to win his job he must push aside one-time batting champion Norm Cash and Eddie Mathews, the latter one of seven players ever to hit more than 500 home runs in the major leagues. Alan Foster, after only 54 games in the minor leagues, is the man Walter O' Malley hopes can help his team back into contention in Los Angeles, and when the Dodgers get high on a pitcher the National League had best look out.
There are other rookies almost as promising. The California Angels are going to start a Mexican third baseman named Aurelio Rodriguez. Although he is technically not a rookie—he came to bat 130 times last year—the Angels could not care less because he can field and busloads of Mexicans will come over the border into Anaheim to watch him. Philadelphia's seemingly old Phils have a fine young pitcher named Larry Colton, who is married to Hedy Lamarr's daughter and did not do too badly at San Diego last year for the pennant-winning Padres. Colton is expected to help fill in for Jim Bunning, the consistent game winner who was traded away for a remarkable young shortstop named Don Money. Although Money probably will not be seen too often in Connie Mack Stadium at the beginning of the year, he is still the youngster John Quinn plans to build future teams around. Do not be shocked if the boo birds get mad at the Phils early and Quinn is forced to bring Money up to the majors before he would like to.
Technically, a rookie is one who has not been on a major league roster for more than 45 days between Opening Day and August 31, been to bat more than 90 times or pitched more than 45 innings. Under these terms, two of this year's rookies came very close to not being that at all. Bench went to bat 86 times last year for the Reds at the end of the season, and, had it not been for a lacerated thumb that kept him out of the last three games of the season, he would not qualify for rookie status this year. The White Sox' Carlos was four innings short of disqualification.
As good as this year's rookies are, a pall hovers over the careers of almost every one of them. Unless there is a sudden lessening of tensions in Vietnam, some will go there to fight, others will be called to domestic duty. The trouble is that nobody knows who will go where, or when he will go, or for how long. Most of today's teams are stocked deep with players in reserve units; even without future call-ups, on some of the teams at least 40% of the talent will have to perform some sort of service duty this season. If you wondered why the St. Louis Cardinals traded for Catcher John Edwards of the Reds, the answer is very simple. Tim McCarver will be away functioning as a soldier on any number of weekends this year. There is some fear he could be lost for the entire season. It is the same everywhere. The specter of military service adds to the already heavy burden on the shoulders of the boy trying to make the majors. Aside from this new pressure, the rookie's situation today is not what most baseball people remember.
Only 20 years ago there were some 300 minor league teams functioning in this country. In 1967 there were fewer than 130. The combination of greed on the part of the owners and television's ability to send major league games throughout the land caused that breakdown. Today's rookie must learn things quicker with less instruction than in the past. Two of the three outstanding rookies in the National League last year, Tom Seaver of the New York Mets and Gary Nolan of the Reds, got to the majors after appearing in only 34 and 12 games, respectively, in the minors. Rod Carew of Minnesota and Reggie Smith of Boston, the two best rookies in the American League, played only 274 and 443 minor league games.
But that was last year. Baseball legislation has made it more difficult for the rookie to make his team in 1968. Big-league clubs now must start the season with 25 men instead of 28. Since most managers prefer to keep experienced players around, the rookies of this spring will have to perform at a higher level of ability if they are to stick it out with the majors.
For all their problems, the best of the rookies will be written and talked about often. Some, like the Cards' Torrez, will deserve the publicity. The other morning he talked about his problems in the team's clubhouse at Al Lang Field in St. Petersburg. The weather had been horrible for a week, but during that week Torrez had to do his reserve duty with the Marine Corps. "I'm lucky to be in the reserves," he said. "For so many kids my age, the service is a part of our time and, although it confuses us, I think we understand that aspect of it."
Torrez began putting on his Cardinal uniform. "I remember when I pitched for the first time in the majors last season. Somehow, we had blown a lead, and the call went to the bullpen for me to start throwing. I came in with runners at first and second and two out and struck out Donn Clendenon of the Pirates. The way it happened, it was the best thing for me, because I didn't have too much time to think. But later on when I was told that I was going to start a game it was totally different. I had time to think about what could happen to me and I got nervous. You look around, and all of a sudden you are in the major leagues. They were all there—Cepeda, Maris, Flood, Brock, and I know they were yelling for me. But you feel so alone."
In that first start Torrez got into trouble in the first inning against the Atlanta Braves by giving up two singles and a walk, but he got out of serious trouble when Joe Torre hit into a double play as one run came in. In the next four innings Torrez gave up but one hit and was taken out in the bottom of the fifth inning, still losing 0-1. The Cardinals eventually won the game in 12 innings, but Manager Red Schoendienst liked what he had seen, and Torrez began to figure quite high in his plans for the future.
Bench, who is part Irish, English, Dutch and American Indian and comes from Oklahoma, is a slugger and a marvelous young catcher who seems to believe that catchers should throw. In one game he tried to pick a runner off first, threw the ball away and the runner got to third base. On the next pitch he picked him off. Probably on opening day in Cincinnati he will catch 19-year-old Gary Nolan, and thus, at the age of 20, he will help to form the youngest battery in the major leagues. His minor league averages have been respectable yet not high. His homer totals, however, are excellent—22 and 23 in fewer than 100 games at both Peninsula of the Carolina League and Buffalo of the International. When he left Peninsula the people gave him a parade and his uniform was retired. Although he has served five months in the service, the Reds still have to count on his being gone several times during the season for reserve duty. During this spring-training season he must prove that he is capable of handling a very good pitching staff, and no one seems to doubt that he will.
When Alan Foster was called into a big-league game for the first time by Manager Walter Alston in April of last year, the Dodgers were already far behind and the first hitter he had to pitch to was Henry Aaron of the Braves. Foster, a strikingly handsome 22-year-old from California, sat on the bench the other day and recalled his debut as a major leaguer.
"I thought to myself," he said, "that Aaron is looking out at me and saying, 'Oh, oh, another one of those crazy, wild kids. I better just play it loose.' "
Foster smiled as he recalled his first pitch to Aaron. "I was going to try to show him that I was not just another wild kid. I was going to fool him and get him out of there. Well, the first pitch went right over his head and the second one wasn't much better, and now I'm two balls behind to Henry Aaron. Finally, I got him after a real struggle. He bounced out to shortstop on a bad pitch, and I admired the way he hung in. Today I don't even recall the names of the other batters in the inning, but I remember Henry Aaron."
Appearing in only four games for Los Angeles in 1967, Foster struck out 15 batters in 17 innings and walked just three. He came out of the service last spring but not in time to get to training. The Dodgers paid $90,000 in bonus money for Foster.
Even today there are rookies who get to the majors only after tremendous struggles and years in the minors. Pepper of the Tigers and Carlos of the White Sox spent six and seven years in the bushes waiting for a chance. Carlos has had some good years in the minors and some bad ones as well, but once he joined the White Sox he seemed in command of things and won the respect of Manager Eddie Stanky for his grit under the demands of pitching for a team that had trouble scoring runs.
Pepper has worked hard all his life on a turkey farm (45,000 birds) owned by his family just outside Saratoga Springs, N.Y. During the spring of 1967 he was on Detroit's roster, but his father died in his mid 40s and Don was confused and confronted with the choice of giving baseball another try or working the farm. After deciding to stick with baseball, he went to Toledo and got off to a poor start. Later on, though, he caught fire and helped to lift the club from deep in the standings to the playoffs. Husky at 6'4", 215 pounds, Pepper is highly regarded by Batting Coach Wally Moses, and something has to crack in the Detroit situation between Pepper, Cash and Mathews, because no team really wants to carry three left-handed hitting first basemen. Pepper is working extremely hard to make the Tigers, and he will force Manager Mayo Smith into making a very tough decision. Do you keep Cash and Mathews and run for the pennant with experience and age even though Detroit partisans have grown more than restless with Cash, or do you open the season with Pepper and see what happens, knowing full well that you did not win last year with both of the veterans?
There are other rookies who are being relied upon heavily. The Atlanta Braves, for example, have been troubled by internal turmoil in recent seasons. They have also been desperate for pitching. "We can go as far as our pitching carries us," Aaron said recently, "and last year it carried us right to seventh place." Two of the pitchers who are supposed to get the Braves out of seventh place this year were on the International League's pennant-winning team at Richmond last season under new Brave Manager Lum Harris. Ron Reed pitched more innings and more complete games (222 and 17) than any pitcher in the league, and Reed, only 25, has already spent two years in the National Basketball Association with the Detroit Pistons, where he averaged eight points a game.
The other, Jim Britton, is also a righthander. He had the second best earned run average in the league (2.20). Britton was chosen by Harris to pitch the International League's playoff game against Rochester last September and, according to Harris, "There probably was never anything in baseball like it. Jim's father suffered a fatal stroke in the eighth inning in the stands. We finally won 2-0, but if that had happened in the majors they would still be writing about it and the game would never be forgotten."
Once upon a time, of course, there was a good team in a very provincial eastern city, and—against early odds of 75 to 1—it won a pennant that will not soon be forgotten. It had a marvelous hitter named Carl Yastrzemski and a bright and intellectual young pitcher named Jim Lonborg. During the World Series, the team (Lonborg and Yastrzemski) won three games to tie with the St. Louis Cardinals with one game remaining and the dear, dear Globe wrote, NOW CINDERELLA TRIES ON THE SLIPPER. The movie version of this story would be great right up to there, but then it sags a little because not only did the slipper not fit but this winter a ski boot did. Lonborg, unfortunately, was wearing it at Lake Tahoe, and the "impossible dream" of 1967 has become a desperate one for 1968. Lonborg currently is recovering from a knee injury.
The Red Sox do have some good rookies, and one of them, Fred Wenz, is a tall (6'3") short-relief man who struck out 76 hitters in 60 innings of relief at Toronto in 1967. Shades of Dick Radatz? Boston's other standout rookie is a 19-year-old left-handed pitcher named Ken Brett. A left-handed pitcher in Fenway? Hmm. Jorge Rubio pitching left-and right-handed in Crosley Field? Hmm, twice. Such excellent dreams are sometimes hard to remember, but there is hope in Boston and Cincinnati and a lot of other cities this year. The rookies seem to hold so much promise.
SWIRLING IN A HULA HOOP, LA'S FOSTER TRAINS AT VERO BEACH
HIGH-STEPPING THROUGH TIRES, REDS' BENCH (NO. 5) PLOWS AHEAD AT TAMPA
DETROIT'S big Don Pepper must push out two veteran first basemen, Cash and Mathews.
CHICAGO'S Cisco Carlos gave up less than a run a game during last year's pennant drive.
ST. LOUIS' Mike Torrez survived a shaky start in 1967, is counted on this season.