Very few leadoff hitters these days confine themselves to cadging walks or brushing up against inside pitches and scratching out nubby little leg hits in order to get on base. Like everyone else, they want to belt the ball into the stands. But only one of them goes after each pitch as though he were going to cold-pole it and then personally chase it out of the stadium. Only one of them has hit more home runs than any other man alive.
Willie Mays, in other words, is not the new Eddie Stanky. Since Giant Manager Clyde King appointed him this spring to the No. 1, or somehow-or-other-get-on-first-base, spot in the San Francisco lineup, Mays has not cut down appreciably on the ebullient swing and the lust for a beltable pitch that have characterized him, since 1951, in the No. 3, or bringing-'em-all-home, slot. "I don't think I'm playing any different," Mays said last week after the Giants' Opening Day loss in Atlanta. "After all these years I hope I'm not."
Seeing Mays as the leadoff man is something like watching Bill Russell play guard. But who is to say that Russell would not make a good guard if he had to? Indeed, on the evidence so far, who is to say that Mays is not the finest natural inning-opener there ever was?
In the first inning of the opening game of the exhibition season Mays led off, got on base and scored. This was the first of his 15 runs in only 59 spring at bats. In two of the first three regular-season games against the Braves he opened by singling, stealing second base and scoring. And in the fourth game, the opener with the Padres, it was, indirectly, Mays' run that Ron Hunt registered in the first. Mays walked but was forced by Hunt. In the first eight times he led off a regular-season inning, Mays reached base six times. In the first four games he scored five times and hit .353.
If, as is distinctly possible, the experiment ends soon and Mays changes places in the order with Bobby Bonds, who started the season batting third, it will not be because he has failed to satisfy King's conception of a leadoff man. It will be because the Giants need more than an early run to win, or because a proud, slowly aging and superb alltime power hitter feels miscast and does not want to do without his runs batted in.
Still, King thought the experiment had to be tried, and if the sight of Mays coming to the plate first seemed incongruous, it was no more so to old Giant watchers than seeing King, rather than Herman Franks, managing the team. Franks' standard public-relations statement was, "That is a stupid question." Generally it was spoken through a juicy chaw of tobacco. King, who has spent 25 years pitching relief for the Dodgers, coaching for the Reds, Cardinals and Pirates and managing 10 minor league teams with conspicuous success, is easy to like and to talk to.
In Atlanta last week he was noticeably attended by a handsome family and more than 200 friends from back home in Goldsboro, N.C., and one would be excused for guessing that he was an admired Sunday school superintendent. This is not to say that King is too nice a guy to finish first. For one thing, one does not get to be an admired Sunday school superintendent by being too nice. For another, what King's charges may need is to be taught the parable of the talents.
The Giants have been the most consistently gifted team in baseball since they moved to San Francisco in 1958. Their press book shows them to be leading the league in the composite 1958-68 standings by 24½ games. What the press book fails to mention is that in that 11-year period they have finished in first place only once, seven years ago. And in 1968 they did not get the kind of return on their hitting and pitching that they should have. Last year, the year-of-the-you-know-what, the Giants had the solidest pitching staff in the majors—but they won 27 and lost 29 of their pitching duels while the Cardinals won 41 and lost 26 such games. The difference about accounts for the nine games by which St. Louis claimed the pennant.
No team is likely to win the low-scoring close ones if, as the Giants did last season, it fails to take advantage of such economical devices as bunting, clever base running and the hit-and-run. Now the pitchers' duel to end them all—or at least to make one wish they all would end—was last year's All-Star Game. In that contest, as before, Mays was the National League's leadoff man. In the first inning he beat out a little single, went to second when Luis Tiant tried to pick him off, took third on Tiant's wild pitch and scored on a double-play ball. That was the only run of the day, and Mays was named Most Valuable Player.
It was an odd way for a 37-year-old big bat to win a ball game, but Mays is a uniquely mobile slugger. His first theft against the Braves last week made him the first man with 300 or more home runs (now 588, to be exact—more than anybody but Babe Ruth) to steal 300 bases.
Mays is not as fast as when he was stealing 30 bases a year, but he is still a long way from being slow and he still has the daring and the instincts to take wonderful chances and the reputation that makes them work against unnerved fielders. In San Diego, for instance, he was safe at first on a routine soft grounder when the Padres' third baseman rushed his throw and pulled the first baseman off the bag. Then, when Hunt also grounded weakly to third, Mays took second and audaciously kept on going, scoring easily on the wild throw he drew.
In that game Mays also homered and hit a long double off the Padres' over-resilient outfield wall, which tends to send line drives rifling back toward the infield. But that was against expansion-team pitching. Last year exactly two-thirds of his hits—a greater share than ever before—were singles. Perhaps that was a sign of the times. More likely it was a sign that Mays is not the overpowering extra-base hitter he once was. Of his 23 home runs in 1968, 15 came with nobody on base—when pitchers were being less careful with him. Leading off gives him fewer men to drive in, but—since it will bring him up to bat more often—more opportunities to hit solo homers.
"Our pitching is going to be good," says King. "If we can score a run in the first inning we ought to be able to hold the lead and the other team will have to catch up." Hunt, who led off most of last year, got on base more often than any other Giant. But, once there, he did not advance very fluently, because he is not swift. It was Mays who led the team, as usual, in runs scored.
"I consider Hunt one of the best bat-control men in the league," says King, explaining Hunt's switch to the second spot. "He's the best in the business at protecting the runner." That means that Hunt, though not as adept at plopping out brief base hits as, say, Matty Alou, can be relied upon for either a base hit to right, which should advance a hit-and-runner two bases, or a ground ball away from second base, which should advance him one; or a foul, which will save him from being gunned down by the catcher. But Mays is so good at going from first to third that Hunt need not force an inside pitch into right field; he can pull it naturally to left and Mays can still get into third. And whenever the count is 3 and 2 to Hunt, Mays can go with the pitch, because Hunt strikes out so seldom.
King likes his hit-and-run so much that he is trying to set up a second combination at the other end of the batting order, with fast young Third Baseman Bobby Etheridge in front of Hal Lanier, another good man at controlling the bat. If Lanier fails to move Etheridge, the pitcher will be expected to advance him. King says, "I hired a special batting-practice pitcher to throw to our pitchers this spring. The first time in the history of the game. Last year the whole staff got five extra-base hits. They ought to be getting that many apiece."
So Juan Marichal and Gaylord Perry will be cracking out doubles, maybe, and Willie Mays will be hitting in a spot generally associated with Stanky, Phil Rizzuto, Richie Ashburn, Eddie Yost, Harvey Kuenn and PeeWee Reese. It all sounds topsy-turvy, but then it is possible that the day of the old-fashioned leadoff man who hit for a respectable average by means of cunning and speed is obsolete.
"The way pitchers are now," says Atlanta's Felipe Alou, "you got to be aggressive. You can't wait around and let the umpire maybe take your bat away from you."
Felipe, Matty and Jesus Alou, the brothers from the Dominican Republic who once played in the Giants' outfield together, now lead off for three different teams. By traditional standards, Felipe is almost as unusual a No. 1 batter as Mays. A power hitter who almost never walks, he had hit fourth or fifth for the Giants before Bobby Bragan moved him up with the Braves. Like Mays, he prefers to go after the first pitch, and is even noted for striking at bad balls. Alou may be speaking only for himself when he says that a good hitter cannot depend on cuteness anymore, but the fact remains that among the notable leadoff men today, Maury Wills is about the only one who can be said to belong to the old school. Most of them—Reggie Smith, Lou Brock, Dick McAuliffe, Jose Cardenal—come up looking for something to hit, and can hit it for considerable distances. Certainly Pete Rose, for all his celebrated allegiance to the single, is an assertive batter, not a finagler. "A leadoff man has to do two things," says the present Atlanta manager, Luman Harris. "Get on base and run the bases. It doesn't matter how he gets on."
Well and good. But to conserve offensive oomph, singles and walks and other small change should be bunched in front of home runs and doubles, not behind. It is the player who comes along with those big hits and scores the men ahead of him who is going to feel the most potent and earn the most pay. And if the Giants' pitchers continue to do as poorly as they did against the Braves, giving up 19 runs in losing three straight, then getting the one run early will not be so important. And if Bonds and Jim Ray Hart do not start taking up the slugging slack from Mays, he will have to go back to driving in runs.
There is no doubt that Willie would gladly bat third again, although he does not say that in so many words. Since King consulted him about the change and he agreed to it, Mays has not been about to go around complaining. "But," King says, "I'm sure he would rather hit third. I told him that if at any time he thought it was bothering his hitting or changing his batting style, we'll change back right away."
"I don't think it's going to last very long," says Felipe Alou. "Not the kind of hitter Willie is. I'm no Willie Mays, and I've gotten used to leading off, but it still bothers me some times. It's tiring. You get up more and you get tireder than any other hitter. To have a good year, you've got to get two hits every night. And you're hitting behind the pitcher. You hit a ground ball on the grass that should be a hit, and the pitcher is forced at second. Or you hit a tweener that ought to give you an RBI, and the pitcher holds up at third. Or the pitcher makes the second out. He's on his way back to the dugout and you can't hit the first pitch because you've got to give him a chance to rest."
Mays is not the kind of player who steps up and flails away at the ball without regard to what the situation requires. He is the team captain and seems to feel responsible for the score. Last year, as usual, he led the Giants in game-winning hits. "There's no way I'm going to drive in much more than 50 runs this year," he said pointedly the other day. "That's where ball games are won, RBIs, in the late innings...." Then his voice trailed off. The time-honored truism contradicted his newly assigned mission. That is the puzzle. If Willie Mays remains leadoff man he might make everybody forget Eddie Stanky—and even RBIs. But how many big runs might he have produced in the No. 3 spot? If only he could bat in both places.