Billy Martin looks like Minnesota Skinny, the slick pool hall hustler ready to drop the eight ball in the side pocket or douse the lights and bolt away into the darkness if he misses. Hank Bauer looks like a Marine recruiting sergeant down at the depot with hair pricklier than thumbtacks. Martin and Bauer were part of the act that used to play Yankee Stadium for Casey Stengel, and they remember the pennants and the World Series and the parties—especially Martin's 29th birthday party at the Copacabana in New York. It ended not in the sports section but on Page One, and resulted in Martin's banishment to Kansas City.
Martin and Bauer are rival managers now and on the other side of the generation gap, Martin at Minnesota for his first try at the job in the majors; Bauer at Oakland, where Owner Charlie Finley keeps office space for passing managers. There will be no Yankee-style scenes until their teams can play and win the way the Yankees used to. Martin and Bauer have ordered their players not to wear Beatle-length hair or sideburns or alpaca sweaters or turtle-neck shirts or anything else that does not conform to the image of the typical 9-to-5 businessman. Bauer's Athletics will even wear matching blazers, shirts, ties and slacks when they go on the road. So straight has Martin's lace become that he almost choked over the lame excuse one of his players offered him after missing a bed check. "The kid thought he could con a con man and lie to a liar," he said, shaking his head.
Since the Twins and the Athletics are the only decent teams in the division, it is obvious the pennant winner will be impeccably groomed and/or have the richest clubhouse treasury in baseball. Minnesota lost the 1967 pennant on the final day of the season in Boston, then collapsed miserably last year to finish seventh. So President Calvin Griffith fired Manager Cal Ermer, who was too passive and too permissive, and hired the irascible Martin to replace him. He will have in his regular lineup Harmon Killebrew, recovered from the ruptured hamstring that sidelined him the last half of 1968, Tony Oliva, Rod Carew, Cesar Tovar and new Shortstop Leo Cardenas. He also will have two of baseball's best but most petulant pitchers, Jim Kaat and Dean Chance. "We will beat any team that tries to beat us," Martin says emphatically.
Oakland will try to beat the Twins and may succeed, despite Martin's threat. In 1968 the Athletics would have won the pennant by three games if there had been a Western Division. They finished sixth though, so Finley fired Manager Bob Kennedy, whom baseball people thought had done a superlative job handling the A's young players. Kennedy was Finley's eighth manager-victim in eight years. Bauer was the second, in 1962.
Now Bauer will attempt to understand Finley once again. He will have the youngest team in the major leagues (only one player, backup Catcher Jim Pagliaroni, is in his 30s) but also one of the best. The pitching staff, led by John (Blue Moon) Odom, Jim Nash, Jim (Catfish) Hunter, Chuck Dobson and Lew Krausse, had a 2.94 earned run average in 1968. The hitters, led by Shortstop Bert Campaneris, the premier base stealer, and three Arizona State recruits, Rick Monday, Reggie Jackson and Sal Bando, had the best batting average in the league in 1968. "Sure it looks good," Bauer says, "but we still got to play the damn games. Nobody's won a pennant with their mouth."
Minnesota and Oakland can win the pennant on the field. All the other teams in the division can only dream of the '70s. The Chicago White Sox and the California Angels will battle for third place, hopefully with the same vigor they displayed last year when the aroused White Sox beat the Angels on the last day of the season to tie them for eighth place. To help prevent a repeat of that disaster, the Angels spent the winter acquiring two knuckleball relief specialists, Hoyt Wilhelm and Eddie Fisher. Chicago countered by: 1) moving in its fences; 2) installing a synthetic infield that cannot be watered down unless, as one Chicago player said, someone invents Astrowater; and 3) getting a computer to handle whatever ticket requests come in. Recently, the White Sox have been about as popular in Chicago as a Democratic convention.
The expansion Kansas City Royals and Seattle Pilots will match up for fifth and sixth places. The Royals, drafting a predominantly young team last fall, did manage to secure some quality pitchers, among them Roger Nelson, Wally Bunker and Dave Morehead. The Pilots drafted for experience, claiming veterans like Tommy Davis, who could win the batting title, Don Mincher and Gary Bell. In the end, the Royals probably will finish fifth, though, because it will be easier for their kids to maintain their incentive during August and September when 8-2 defeats will follow 5-1 defeats.
Ironically, incentive is the reason Billy Martin is managing the Twins, even though on paper Minnesota has an exceptional club. Killebrew wins the home-run championship and drives in 100 runs just about every year. Oliva usually collects the batting title, and Carew always hits around .300. Cardenas was one of the best shortstops in the National League last year. Tovar plays eight positions better than any player in baseball. And Kaat and Chance both have won 20 or more games when they have concentrated on pitching instead of letter writing and fight promoting.
Nevertheless, last season the Twins were a dull team, so dull, in fact, that home attendance in baseball-crazy Minnesota dropped almost 350,000. "We needed life, we needed a kick," said Calvin Griffith during spring training. "I never saw a team play like our club did in 1968."
The players already know what Martin the manager will be like. He was loud and cantankerous at Denver last summer when he managed only 115 games but got tossed out of eight. Griffith, however, will be a surprise. He feels that his players took great advantage of him when they threatened to boycott the national pastime this season. For years he has been one of the game's most considerate owners. When players wanted a loan to open a business or buy a home, Griffith gave it to them and charged no interest. When players needed medical care for their families, they went to the Twins' doctors and Griffith paid the bills. When players encountered legal problems, Griffith always had a team of lawyers ready to defend them. "But I learned this year that I cannot treat players that way anymore," he says. "There will be a new atmosphere in Minnesota as far as I am concerned."
Last year Oakland, after more than a decade of frustration in Kansas City, matured into an outstanding team. If the Athletics do not win the pennant in 1969, they certainly will win more than their share of championships in the '70s.
"We still lack two things," said Jim Nash, the pitcher. "We don't have experience—we haven't been in a pennant race—and we don't have a real leader yet. But they both will come." When? "I wish I knew," Bauer says.
Their starting pitchers and their hitters could carry them this year. Odom, Nash, Hunter, Dobson and Krausse, all of whom are 26 or under, won 64 games among them last year, and both Odom and Nash had earned run averages under 2.50. Unfortunately, the young pitchers will have little help from the bullpen in 1969. Finley, in a fit of pique, permitted Jack Aker, a good reliever, to disappear in the expansion draft, then lost his No. 2 reliever, Diego Segui, the same way.
Offensively, the A's have plenty of punch, perhaps more than enough to offset their weak bullpen. Campaneris was the most offensive shortstop in baseball last year (a .276 batting average with 62 stolen bases), while Danny Cater, the first baseman, hit a solid .290. Monday, a demon in center field, hit .274, Bando, an improving third baseman, hit .251; and Jackson, a rightfielder whose throwing arm is matched only by Boston's Reggie Smith, hit .250 with 29 home runs and 74 runs batted in. One problem: Monday struck out 142 times while Jackson fanned 171 times.
"I have light-tower power, I know that," Jackson says. "So it would be acceptable if I could cut my strikeouts down to about 115."
Pitcher Gary Peters and Chicago wish they had a Jackson in their lineup. Last season the White Sox, who dropped out of the race when they lost their first 10 games, lost 44 games by one run, scored two or fewer runs in 92 games and were shut out in 23. Their leading run producers, Pete Ward and Tommy Davis, drove in only 50 apiece, and their leading hitter, Davis (.268), was lost in expansion. Surprisingly, Chicago did not make a move to correct the obvious deficiencies in its lineup. Instead, it is being hoped that Peters, who was a bad 4-13 in 1968, can recover from his sore elbow, Joe Horlen can get lucky for a change and Tommy John can simply pitch. Still, not even a healthy big three will be enough to save the White Sox from another losing season.
In California, Manager Bill Rigney, who is a bullpen man, will start four faceless kids whose last names begin with M and veteran George Brunet, then at the first sign of trouble he will call for Wilhelm or Fisher or Minnie Rojas. Rigney will operate with more authority this year now that Fred Haney has been retired as general manager. He said last winter that he would trade any one of his players, and Shortstop Jim Fregosi joked, "They wouldn't trade me because they couldn't get the whole Kansas City and Seattle franchises in return." Rigney did not trade Fregosi, but the shortstop took a salary cut. He also lost 18 pounds on a crash diet, but as he said this spring, "I'm still a strong Italian." A strong Italian and a bullpen full of knuckleballers will not be good enough this year. The Angels, who led the league with 1,080 strikeouts in 1968, need some hitters. When Rigney noticed a television man taping the sound of a ball hitting a bat, he said to him, "Save that. I might want to hear it sometime this year."
One of the expansion teams will have the privilege of being the most successful expansion franchise in 1969. Kansas City probably will be it. Manager Joe Gordon seems to have a way with young talent, and in Kansas City that really is all that he has. "We have them playing a lot of pepper and trying to learn bat control," Gordon said. "The ground-keepers don't like it because it chews up the grass. They want to grow grass instead of ballplayers. I want to grow ballplayers."
Ewing Kauffman, the Royals' president, has promised the people in Kansas City a square deal, something they felt was missing during the years of Finley. Fifth place would be a square deal.
The Seattle Pilots and their manager, Joe Schultz, expect to finish third, ahead of the White Sox, the Angels and the Royals. Most likely they will finish behind all three. Schultz must be basing his optimism on the fact that he spent the last six years coaching for St. Louis.
"I've got guys who can run," he says. (Schultz is talking about the Tommy Harpers, not the Lou Brocks.) "I've got guys who can hit," he says. (Schultz is talking about the Tommy Davises and Don Minchers and Rich Rollinses, not the Roger Marises and Orlando Cepedas and Tim McCarvers.) "I've got guys who can pitch," he says. (Schultz is talking about the Gary Bells, not the Bob Gibsons.)
Yes, it will be a long year in Seattle. "Why did I ever leave the Cardinals?" Schultz asks. "Well, if you're going to get fired, you might as well get fired doing it yourself." Schultz will not do it himself. His players will do it to him.