It's been a real rotten spring, baseball fans, hasn't it? Maybe the worst one ever. There was all that nonsense about Seattle and Milwaukee, the Denny McLain affair, Curt Flood's challenge of the reserve clause, who St. Louis was going to give Philadelphia for Flood, the possibility of a players' strike and the introduction of that 5-X ball, which ran scores so high that you probably didn't know whether you were reading about exhibition games or early-round results from the Azalea Open. Players who should be paid off in green stamps were holding out for $70,000. And it seemed as though every time anyone saw Bowie Kuhn during spring training the baseball commissioner was stepping out of a phone booth wrapped in a Gladstone cape, ready to make a statement on one or another of the headaches harassing his sport.
At one point the commissioner said that the game he rules was merely suffering from "winter and early-spring indigestion," but he did put his finger on something that, it must be hoped, will finally dominate his reign. "The fans," he said, "are more interested in what is going to happen on the diamond. They are wondering about the Mets, the surprise team of 1969. Can they repeat that performance? Can clubs like the Tigers and the Red Sox shorten the gap that existed between themselves and Baltimore?" Kuhn is probably right. O.K. Let's all agree that the sideshow is over, the big tent is finally up and the real circus is ready to begin.
The Mets are, indeed, defending the world championship, and Wes Parker of the Dodgers, among others, has given the matter some thought. "The fact that the Mets won," he says, "is still something that players all kind of think about. It was a great thing for baseball. But I hope that the Mets never get so good or so sophisticated that they would trade Ron Swoboda. He's my favorite Met of all time." The White Sox, contrary to many dire predictions, have not dried up and blown away. They are still there in Comiskey Park, even though they drew only 375,000 to that big stadium in 1969, and they hope to wrestle some of Chicago away from the Cubs this year. The optimistic Christmas card said, "Oh Come All Ye Faithful!" Genial Ted Williams, Manager of the Year in 1969 with his surprising Washington Senators, will try to be just as genial—and successful—this year.
Once again there is a new manager for the Oakland Athletics and although his name is McNamara we all know, don't we, that Charlie Finley is still the leader of that band. Richie Allen is bringing his bat and reputation to St. Louis, and Joe Pepitone will be playing under Roy Hofheinz' giant hairdryer in the Astrodome, though with Don Wilson now on the disabled list the view from the Dome is not as bright as it was earlier in the spring. Ted Kluszewski, outfitted in a size-50 blouse and a pair of knickers with a 48-inch waist, is back in Cincinnati as first-base coach for the Reds, and Walter Alston has yet another group of promising young Dodgers under his wing.
The San Francisco Giants have returned from a tour of Japan, wagging a record of 3-6 behind them, thus proving that they can finish second on any given continent. The Seattle Pilots finally made port in Milwaukee, towing a cargo of $82.5 million in lawsuits, and the people who once thrilled to Spahn, Burdette, Aaron and Mathews are now going to try on Brabender, Pattin, Hovley and Harper. Although the Pilots have become the Brewers, they will continue to wear those nautical Pilot caps with the scrambled eggs all over them. When things were good in Milwaukee the Braves drew more than two million spectators four years running. In Seattle's first (and only) season the team was able to draw only 678,000, and that was under the American League's very liberal method of figuring attendance by which any fan who casts a shadow counts twice.
The mound is still down and the strike zone has not been changed from last year. Spacious new stadiums will open in three National League cities—Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Cincinnati—which may widen farther the attendance gap between the two leagues; the difference was already three million last season. In Montreal a polltaker has discovered that one of every 10 residents has a red, white, and blue Expos cap (without propeller) and that the coming of major league baseball has meant $25 million to the economy of the city. In San Diego, at the other end of the expansion axis, things were not very good at all—the Padres drew only 512,970. What was that Seattle total again?
The newest thing under the sun this season is fake grass, which by July will be underfoot in the three new National League stadiums, St. Louis and San Francisco, as well as in Houston. The only American League field so endowed is Comiskey Park, where the artificial surface was installed last year, and last year the White Sox batting average jumped 19 points because a) the Sox developed some good young hitters and b) the ersatz surface helped hard-hit balls elude the fielders. Some players say the artificial turf hurts their legs. In Houston the pitchers are trucked out of the Astrodome to do their running in a nearby park, and in Philadelphia Don Seger, the trainer, has stocked 300 sponges that he intends to cut up and insert in the shoes of Phillie players to relieve some of the leg strain.
The most bizarre new surface will be on exhibit during the All-Star Game July 14 in Cincinnati. The Reds' new grass-green and dirt-brown rug covers almost the entire field, including the base paths. This is sure to bring loud growls from infielders complaining that they have no dirt to get "set" on before fielding ground balls. This year's All-Star teams will be selected by the fans for the first time in 13 years, or since Cincinnati stuffed the ballot boxes in 1957 and voted seven Reds onto the National League's starting lineup (including Gus Bell and Wally Post over Willie Mays and Henry Aaron). Commencing on May 30, fans can vote for the players they want at each position, with the exception of pitchers (and why not the starting pitcher, too?). Vote carefully, American League fans, because this year's game is big. The National League has won seven straight and 11 of 12, and it is doubtful that Denny McLain, suspended until July 1 for his relationship with bookmakers, will be ready in time to miss starting this year's game, too.
The most interesting of the many managerial shifts, and one to watch closely early in the season, is in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul, where Bill Rigney has replaced Billy Martin. Owner Calvin Griffith fired Martin last fall after the Twins had won the American League West by nine games and then lost to the Baltimore Orioles in the pennant playoff in three straight. Griffith plainly did not like the answers he got when he investigated Martin's slugging of 20-game-winner Dave Boswell outside a Detroit bar last August, and Calvin further complained that Martin did not follow orders. The firing of Martin was a spectacularly controversial issue in a fine baseball community. At one point The Minneapolis Star made a survey and found that 2% approved of Martin's firing, 72% disliked it and 26% were undecided. Before Griffith signed Rigney, caustic Martin fans were recommending all sorts of people for the job, including Sparky The Seal at the Como Zoo. "Sparky," said his sponsor, Norman Visner, "is well-trained and works for fish." A Minneapolis group called "The Basted Turkey" sang The Ballad of Billy Ballyard, the second stanza of which went:
Oh, where did you fail, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Oh, where did you fail your Uncle Calvin?
You were a whiz over on the sidelines
But you ignored Uncle Calvin's guidelines
You're a brash thing who now must leave for another.
Things quieted down during the winter, but when the Twins lost 14 of their first 15 games in spring training the situation grew sticky again, and if Minnesota fails to get off to a good start it will get worse. Forgotten will be the fact that Martin himself got off to a four-game losing streak last season and that the Twins were in last place in the middle of April.
But despite all the turmoil the promise of this season is fresh and green. Some of the game's most revered stars are closing in on extraordinary career achievements. Billy Williams of the Cubs needs only 18 appearances to extend his National League consecutive-game streak to 1,000. Sometime late in May or early in June, Hoyt Wilhelm of the Atlanta Braves will come out of the bullpen to appear in his 1,000th game as a pitcher. Born in 1923, the same year that old-age-pension laws were enacted in Montana and Nevada, Wilhelm fought in World War II (he still carries his head slightly tilted to one side from an injury incurred during the Battle of the Bulge) and last year, at 46, helped lift the Braves to the National League West championship. Wilhelm hit a home run his first time up in the big leagues and hasn't hit one since, through 18 seasons.
Two of baseball's most popular performers, Henry Aaron and Willie Mays, are also approaching a very special plateau. Aaron needs 44 hits to reach 3,000; Mays needs 74. Henry should reach his milestone sometime in May and Willie, who doesn't play as often nowadays, in midsummer. More than 10,000 men have played major league baseball and only eight have made 3,000 hits. They were such exceptional players that they are readily identified by only their last names: Cobb, Musial, Speaker, Wagner, Collins, Lajoie, Waner, Anson. Add Aaron. Add Mays.
The Kansas City Royals, winningest of the four expansion teams last year, have a forceful new manager in Charlie Metro, who brings along a stormy past and a 14-year-old Willie Mays-model glove which he uses as a security blanket. Charlie has this thing about his old glove and he takes it with him wherever he goes. He puts it on the bench and sits on it because he considers it "the greatest psychological tension reliever ever invented." If someone sits on Charlie's glove, Charlie sits on his. When the trainer of one of Charlie's teams sat on the glove, Charlie sat on the trainer's supply box. Charlie lost his glove once, but several days later found it in the outfield. "Grass was growing through the fingers," he says, "but what a relief it was to get it back." Metro has more than the glove going for him. He is one of those highly respected baseball men who seem to spend their careers just offstage. In the spring of 1967, when he was a scout for the Reds, Metro picked the 100-to-1 shot Red Sox to win the American League pennant. He played at places like Pennington Gap and Palestine and managed in Bisbee, but in 14 of the first 15 seasons he managed in the bushes his teams finished in the first division. In 1962 Metro was one of the battalion of coaches who served Phil Wrigley and the Chicago Cubs in that silly "rotating-manager" system, and he ended up handling the Cubs for nearly two-thirds of the season. He should have fun with the Royals' ripening young team.
If 1970 were just a normal baseball year fans would be wondering whether Pete Rose can gain a third straight batting title, whether Harmon Killebrew, Frank Howard, Willie McCovey or Reggie Jackson might hit 60 home runs, whether Bob Gibson will become the first pitcher in the illustrious history of the Cardinals to have five 20-win seasons. In a normal season fans would concern themselves with trying to figure out just how good 24-year-old Bobby Bonds of the Giants might become, after a crazy season in which he cracked 32 homers, tied for the league lead in runs scored with 120, stole 45 bases in 49 attempts and also established a major league record with 186 strikeouts. But this is not a normal year; there are the Mets to think of.
Until last year, baseball's observers looked upon the Mets as a comic enterprise, an amusing experiment in futility. After the New York World's Fair of 1964-65 closed the Mets were supposed to tail off in attendance. When that did not happen, it was predicted that the Mets would stop drawing crowds when they moved from spectacular ineptitude to mundane mediocrity. But the Mets never allowed the second thing to happen. They bypassed mediocrity, rocketing from ninth place one year to the championship of the entire blinking universe the next and, of course, the critics said, "They saved baseball." Just as they said Carl Yastrzemski had saved it in 1967 and Mickey Lolich had saved it again in 1968.
Still, the question rings: How real are the Mets? Was 1969 a happy aberration, a glorious fluke? Or are the Mets valid, a championship team that can stand on the top rung as confidently as a World Series victor should? Casey Stengel, the original Pied Piper of Metsville, summed it up best even before the Mets beat the Orioles in the World Series. "The people," said Casey, "are getting to know their names." When a team has a hitter like Cleon Jones, who batted .340, a breath-taking centerfielder like Tommy Agee, a superb shortstop like Bud Harrelson and a farm system brimming over with talent, it is obvious that it will not easily slide down to the mediocrity it avoided on the way up.
Beyond all this the Mets are built on the firmest of all winning foundations—pitching. In the last two seasons Met pitchers worked 151 games in which they gave up two runs or less. At one point the youthful Met pitchers went through 221 innings without giving up a home run, and the National League has quite a few men who make their living hitting home runs off young pitchers. That is pitching excellence, pitching consistency, pitching depth.
Casual followers of baseball think the Mets' pitching consists of Tom Seaver and a lot of other fellows. Seaver is a gifted athlete and a determined competitor who deserves all the accolades he has received. But his sun tends to dim the brilliance of his left-handed partner, Jerry Koosman (see cover). In two seasons in the majors, Koosman has won 36 games (Seaver won 32 his first two seasons) and pitched 13 shutouts. In the World Series—the film of which Baltimore superscout Frank Lane says should be rated X—Koosman beat the Orioles twice. He held them hitless through six innings in his first victory and gave up only one hit after the third inning in his second, the final game of the Series. Koosman is a pleasant-looking country boy from Minnesota with a sense of humor reminiscent of comedian Herb Shriner's. "When I was 16," he says, "I made myself a goal to pitch a no-hitter in the World Series and get a hit every time at bat. I knew I was going to make it to pro ball and I wanted to have a difficult goal so it wouldn't come too easy."
He almost got his World Series no-hitter, but his batting was something else (though his .143 Series average was a good deal higher than his regular season .048). This spring he went to St. Petersburg with the idea in mind of improving his hitting. He may come around. Koosman tends to develop his talents rather than suddenly appear fully armed. The Mets originally offered him only $1,600 to sign with them and, of course, he refused. "They kept coming back," he says, "and every time they did they dropped the offer down a hundred dollars. I finally signed for $1,200 because the way things were going it looked like I would wind up owing them money." The skill and the big money came along later.
Jerry Koosman's best pieces of equipment as a pitcher are a fine fastball and an excellent curve. He also is a fast worker, the same as Seaver, because he feels that when a pitcher takes too long on the mound the fielders behind him start to lose their concentration. Much of Koosman's charm lies in his method of handling life—his sudden climb to success is tempered by his humor and his basic, grass-roots values. Although he has soared quickly into the high tax brackets—his 1970 salary is around $50,000—he still prefers to live in a small town in Minnesota among the friends he grew up with. After the Mets' riotous victory celebration in the Diamond Club at Shea Stadium last year, Koosman took the elevator down and walked out onto the field to get some of the hallowed sod to take back to his friends. This winter, after signing his contract, he explained how he felt about life: "I'm from the farm and we never had much money. I worked for a dollar an hour. But even when I didn't have money I was happy. How much money do you need to be happy anyway? I've got a fishing pole and a job and a family. I'm home."
And so the great six-month circus begins anew with Koosman and Seaver and the Mets leading the parade. There will be noise and laughter, nostalgia and fights, and some delightful nonsense before the next World Series spins around. The players and the nature of the game itself will make the fans forget the strife and turmoil and the sins of the dark spring. They always do.