Oh, it was going to be so easy. It was Aug. 8 and the Minnesota Twins were nine games ahead of the California Angels and 10 games ahead of the Oakland Athletics in the Western Division of the American League, and all Minnesota fans thought they had to do was whistle away the last seven weeks of the season and keep track of Harmon Killebrew's home runs, Jim Perry's pitching victories, Ron Perranoski's saves and Tony Oliva's batting average until the Twins met the Baltimore Orioles in the playoffs. Within the short space of seven days, through last Saturday evening in Boston, however, the Twins were visited with a plague of nine losses. It was the club's longest losing streak since its first year in Minneapolis-St. Paul back in 1961, and when the team finally won on Sunday, 9-6, it was an act of desperation. The Twins had to bring in Bert Blyleven, at 19 the youngest pitcher in the majors, to save Luis Tiant. Blyleven had started the day before. Throughout the Red Sox series the Minnesotans went chasing after balls like children out for an Easter-egg hunt, and it seemed like every line drive the team hit had someone standing right in front of it.
Manager Bill Rigney was pacing his dugout, running out on the field, gesturing wildly with his hands, putting his cap on and taking it off and in general resembling a jack-in-the-box that had been given a beaker of LSD. Obviously tired from playing on 32 consecutive days, the Twins moved into Boston's Fenway Park and had to face up to the specter of Carl Yastrzemski. Yaz did everything to them except turn on the cold showers. He hit home runs, stretched singles into doubles, walked enough times to keep the Twin pitchers on edge and, when he made an out, it seemed as if the man who caught the ball was always on his knees or back. On defense Yastrzemski, switched in June from left field to first base, was turning hits into outs by the mittful.
All around New England people are now saying that Yaz is having the kind of year he had in 1967 when he lifted the Red Sox to their first pennant in 21 seasons. But probably only Walter Mitty ever had a year like that. Still Yaz is doing things in 1970 that are almost as remarkable. As late as June 22 he was hitting .268, so far down among the American League's top hitters that he had to look uphill 108 points to see the leader. Through last Sunday Yastrzemski had been on base in 35 straight games, and his batting average had soared to a league-leading .332. His homer total, only 16 in June, had risen to 33 as he went chasing after Killebrew's leading 37.
Early this season Fenway was filled with people out to razz Yaz. Now the park is still filled, but with fans who want only to cheer him. His name is announced and the people go wild. Yaz banners have come back to the bleachers, and when he cranks his big bat up and pounds out a hit the place goes plain bananas.
Unlike the Twins, who grew strange overnight, the Red Sox have been an enigma all year. Many people had thought that they were a good enough club to challenge the Baltimore Orioles for the Eastern Division championship, but the month of May took care of that rosy notion. The other afternoon Owner Tom Yawkey stood in his team's clubhouse and summed up his feelings on the year. "I always like to say something good about my team or not say anything at all," Yawkey said, "but the pitching has hurt us at times, and the defense has been poor enough to really hurt our pitching. Carl, of course, reminds me so much of himself back in 1967 that it is incredible. He's doing everything, and he's so dedicated to his playing. It has to be difficult for him to do so well when the rest of the team has been a disappointment. His base running this year is exceptional. He has stolen 19 bases, something you seldom see the big sluggers do. He concentrated on that, made himself do it."
Yastrzemski is now in hot pursuit of his fourth American League batting championship (Ted Williams earned six), and one of the oddities of American League hitting leaders since 1960 is that, with the exception of Frank Robinson in 1966, each leader has been a left-handed hitter. When Yastrzemski first came to the majors people worried that he hit to left field too much and wondered if he would ever be able to pull the ball enough to get his home-run totals high. They would have been surprised to see the Carl Yastrzemski who early last Friday evening stepped into the batting cage and started talking to himself about his hitting. A pitch came in, and he grounded the ball hard to first base. "Yaz," he shouted at himself, "you tried to pull it too much." Another pitch came toward him and he hit it to second, and he admonished himself, "You dummy, don't try to pull everything." When he pulled a third straight grounder he swung as hard as he could and pounded the bat in frustration against the large pole at the front of the cage. He broke the bat.
For most of the last month the race for the hitting leadership in the American League has been a very close thing. At one time only 13 points separated the 10 top batters. Again and again National League fans have looked at those leaders with I-told-you-so sneers on their faces. Of the first five hitters at the end of last week, three of them—Frank Robinson, Alex Johnson and Tommy Harper—all broke in with National League clubs, leaving only Yastrzemski and Oliva as genuine American Leaguers. Fortunately the two are the most complete players in the league, now that Al Kaline of Detroit is no longer able to play every day.
Both are picture hitters, and what made their brushup in Boston exciting was the possibility that one might be able to draw away from the other during the four games by putting on a big display. As everybody knew, they were capable of spraying the ball around, using up all the measurements of charming Fenway. They staged a marvelous show, with Yastrzemski getting six hits in 13 at bats and Oliva, who is chasing his third batting title, getting six hits in 17 times up, including a couple of sizzling outs. Yastrzemski hit two homers and two doubles, Oliva one home run and a pair of doubles. Although the applause was much louder for Yaz, the fans sat in awe each time Oliva came to bat and readied himself in his usual methodical way. His feet must be in the proper place before he even looks out at the pitcher and points his bat slowly toward him.
Yastrzemski's swing—although so ferocious at times that it causes him to lose his batting helmet and cap and to go down on his knees—is a thing of delicate balance. He takes a little dirt and rubs it on his hands before he steps into the batter's box. Then he reaches the bat out over the plate to touch the dirt on the other side so that he knows he has full coverage of the corners and his stance is correct and comfortable.
"I have the type of swing," he says, "that if I am even a little off in my balance I will be awful. I'm a streaky hitter, but when I feel good in my swing I know things will be all right. Now that I've been around for a while I've come to believe that some years the luck really goes with you and other years it just doesn't. You can go out there one day and feel great physically and think you should have a good day and nothing happens. Other times you feel rotten and still get two or three hits. I believe that moving to first base has made me a better hitter. I'm in the game more and have a lot to think about. I welcomed the chance to play first because it was something different. In the outfield your reflexes will carry you through a lot, but at first you have to worry about holding the runners on, fielding bunts, being in the right place to cut off throws from the outfield. I certainly haven't mastered those things yet as much as I want to, but I think I am improving."
According to TV ratings, 56 million people got to see Yastrzemski's versatility in this year's All-Star Game in Cincinnati's new Riverfront Stadium. For his four hits and his play, both at first base and in center field on the fast Astro Turf surface, he was chosen the game's Most Valuable Player. Estimates on Yaz' salary range as high as $130,000, and this year he is on the final season of a two-year contract. "I have never used a batting championship as a wedge in bargaining with the ball club," he says. "I feel I know how much I have done, and there is seldom a problem. This year I want to hit for a higher average than I have reached before [.326 in 1967] and want to get up around .340 by the end of the season. My stolen bases are up this year, because I have been concentrating on the moves of the pitchers more and more. I believe that it takes just as much concentration to be a good base stealer as it does to be a good hitter."
Minnesota's losing streak has been the shock of the season in the American League, coming as it did after the Twins had spun so far into orbit. Minnesota has taken a crushing number of injuries, and maybe now those will put a further burden on the club. Rod Carew, 1969's American League batting champion with a .332 average, was lost from May at least into September, and Dave Boswell, a 20-game winner, has only three wins, seven losses and a lot of problems. With a splendid 7-0 record, Tiant went on the disabled list and has only recently returned. Even so, the Twins had not lost more than three games in a row before their nose dive sent them staggering into Boston.
In a period of only a little more than 24 hours every pitcher on the staff except two was thrown in against the Red Sox, and one of those, Tiant, had to be the starting pitcher on Sunday. Although the Twins had built the best earned run average of any American League team this year, they did that with only 16 complete games from their starting pitchers, eight by Perry. Baltimore, the Eastern Division leader, has had 42 complete games.
The way the Twins lost last Saturday night in Boston should have caused the team to sit down and compose a group letter of apology to the game's founding fathers. Although Ken Brett of the Red Sox threw 94 pitches in the first 3‚Öì innings, the Twins could not do enough damage to him to put the game out of sight. Carrying a 7-3 lead into the bottom of the fifth inning, they did some remarkable things, fielding easy-out balls like so many live hand grenades. The Sox manhandled Minnesota's relief pitching, and when a ball was not reaching that great, green wall in left field it was knocking the Twin pitcher down. Cesar Tovar dived for a shoestring catch in center field only to discover that there was no ball in his glove when he got up. Third Baseman Rick Renick came running in for a dribbling grounder only to run right past it when the thing took a weird bounce. Screaming from the dugout on a pitch to George Thomas that the Twins thought should have been called strike three, Minnesota watched in horror as the next pitch went sailing into the nets for a homer, and a ground ball jumped up over Killebrew's glove after he stretched out and dived to try to cut it off.
It was at Fenway in 1967 that the Twins—seemingly home free with two games to go—had to contend with Carl Yastrzemski and their own inability to glove anything that moved. It was at home in Minnesota that the Twins, after losing two fine playoff games at Baltimore, threw in a clinker of classic proportions that had the people in Metropolitan Stadium hooting and booing. This week they return to "The Met" and will hope to regroup for what is now anything but a Cakewalk. They still have 13 games to play against Oakland and third-place California. But, thankfully, they have only three more scheduled against the Boston Yastrzemskis.
WALTER IOOSS JR.
Lashing out a hit or charging around base, Yastrzemski enthralled early-season Yaz razzers, who suddenly recalled impossible '67.
WALTER IOOSS JR.
Battling bravely to lead his teammates out of their deep slump, Tony Oliva, who upped his batting average to .319, races home with a run.