Just a year ago the Baltimore Orioles seemed almost human. They had lost a World Series to the New York Mets and the possibility existed that the defeat would so shatter their confidence that Detroit or Boston or New York would walk all over them, in spikes.
No way. The Orioles became truly inhuman in 1970. They wore the spikes; everybody else fled in sneakers. At least that is the way it must have felt all season long to the other teams in the American League and then to Cincinnati in the Series. The Orioles clinched the divisional championship on Sept. 17, rubbing it in by finishing the year with an 11-game winning streak and leaving New York, the second-place team, 15 games back. Then they removed Minnesota in three straight before humbling the Reds in five games. Now Las Vegas has them favored by 1 to 3 to win their division and start it all over again. Somehow, the odds don't seem terribly short.
A better bet is that Earl Weaver once again will not be named the league's Manager of the Year. An excellent tactician who also happens to be colorful and cooperative and able to keep his pitching in order and his athletes orderly. Weaver obviously has not impressed all those old Yankee fans who think their mothers could manage the Orioles. Well, maybe their mothers could.
On his lineup card Weaver normally lists Boog Powell at first, Dave Johnson at second, Mark Belanger at short and Brooks Robinson at third. The outfield has Don Bu-ford in left, Paul Blair in center and Frank Robinson in right. And behind the fielders is something called a Merv Rettenmund. It hit .322 and 18 homers in 106 games last season and had the other teams swearing in envy and the Baltimore outfield regulars sweating to stay that way.
Since the pitching is hardly so impressive—only Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar and Jim Palmer were able to win 20 games or more in 1970—the Orioles traded for Pat Dobson and his San Diego teammate Tom Dukes as insurance. Well, maybe the catching is the real problem. Elrod Hendricks, Andy Etchebarren and Clay Dalrymple, who share the receiving, collectively did only a little more on offense than either Thurman Munson of the Yankees, Ray Fosse of the Indians or Bill Freehan of the Tigers. All right, let's face it. The team's one flaw could be the ages of its stars. Frank Robinson is 35, Brooks Robinson and Cuellar soon will reach 34. Feel better, fellows?
The most improved team in the division should be Detroit, which finished 29 games behind the Orioles but has too much talent to finish 29 games behind any team again. As late as July 19 the Tigers were only three games behind Baltimore; then it happened or—to put it more accurately—then it didn't happen. The club won only 27 of its last 72 games. "It was embarrassing to watch them," says Jim Campbell, Detroit general manager. "There were darned few arguments over contracts this winter. They didn't have anything to argue about."
Now Denny McLain is gone, Mayo Smith is gone and new Manager Billy Martin is there to build fires. He may set the first one under Pitcher Mickey Lolich, who lost 19 games in 1970 while pressing to become both himself and McLain. It may require more than Martin's fire to ease the shoulder problems of Les Cain, Detroit's best pitcher last year, who was particularly effective in tough Tiger Stadium. Which is too unfortunate because sore-armed pitchers are what Martin does not need, especially in the early going when Detroit meets Baltimore six times in its first 13 games. Martin is counting on Joe Niekro, who got off quickly in 1970 but decelerated at the finish, and he may have a find in Joe Coleman Jr., the ex-Senator, if he can recover from the fractured skull he suffered in spring training. Ted Williams could not figure Coleman out, although he was sure that the 24-year-old, who had a 43-50 record with bad teams, was a man of vast potential.
Two other escapees from Washington, Aurelio Rodriguez at third and Eddie Brinkman at shortstop, now form the best defensive left side of the infield Tiger fans have seen in generations, Rodriguez led the American League in assists, total chances and double plays in 1970 and also batted in 83 runs. Brinkman led the shortstops in putouts, assists, chances and double plays and Martin intends to bat him eighth in the order, hoping he can move the ball around and produce some runs from the bottom of the card. "I learned from Williams that if I could just make contact with the ball and stop trying to hit home runs I could become a better player," says Brinkman. In 1966 he struck out 105 times; last year the number dropped to 41.
Detroit's outfield, with Willie Horton, Mickey Stanley, Jim Northrup and Al Kaline, is excellent and versatile. Northrup, who led the Tigers in RBIs with 80 and homers with 24 and hit the eighth grand-slam home run of his career, says, "We're going to beat Baltimore. We had so many injuries you couldn't believe it. Willie Horton was going great [.305, 17 homers and 69 RBIs] when he was injured, Bill Freehan had to have his back operated on and I was out for a month. We're different this season. We won't sit around and wait for the homer. Billy Martin will have us doing things to score."
Healthy once more, Freehan was hitting the ball sharply this spring. Nobody expects Dick McAuliffe to bat .234 again, either, and he is building a remarkable statistic for himself: he has hit into only five double plays during the last four seasons. And for those who are wondering, McLain's return to Detroit will come on the weekend of May 21-23. Might sell a few tickets. Detroit, in fact, might sell a lot of tickets all year.
The explosive trade that sent Tony Conigliaro from the Red Sox to the California Angels stirred Boston as much as the deal that delivered Ken Harrelson, his valet and his wardrobe, to Cleveland in 1969. Conigliaro's 116 RBIs placed him second in the league behind Frank Howard, his 36 homers fourth behind Howard, Harmon Killebrew and Carl Yastrzemski, Boston's money man who came within .0003 of taking his fourth batting title. But getting runs was not Boston's trouble; giving them was. The Sox were terrible down the middle. They think they have sewn things up snugly with Doug Griffin and Luis Aparicio at second and short and young Billy Conigliaro (.271 and 18 homers in 1970) in center field, while Reggie Smith (.303) moves to right.
Griffin is a superior defensive second baseman who hit .326 with Hawaii and stole 35 bases in 139 games. Aparicio, who will be 37 not long after the season starts, brings his best average in 15 seasons (.313) and has been working hard with Griffin during the spring. Aparicio's arrival pushed Rico Petrocelli (29 home runs, 103 RBIs) to third. With George Scott at first, Boston now has the kind of infield that can both score runs and prevent them from being scored.
Boston's management insisted during the winter that the defense hurt the pitching so much that people got the wrong opinion of starters Ray Culp, Sonny Siebert, Gary Peters and Mike Nagy. Nobody got anything wrong about the bullpen. It was awful. But as part of the Conigliaro deal Ken Tatum came from the Angels, where during the past two seasons he won 14 games and saved 39. He is expected to do something.
Anyone mad enough to attempt an assessment of the New York Yankees deserves whatever he gets. The idea that they could win 100 games has occurred to almost nobody but optimists in the Bronx. And yet New York won 93 games in 1970 and only the Orioles, Reds and Twins won more. During the off season the CBS Yankees did not trade Walter Cronkite for Frank Robinson, but earlier they did let Relief Pitcher Steve Hamilton and his folly-floater go, thus depriving themselves of their most endearing quality. The Yankees scratch, though, and they hustle and run and pitch and bunt and holler and one of these days they may become faces.
The most interesting of them are Bobby Murcer, Fritz Peterson, Thurman Munson and Roy White. If Murcer can hit 30 or more homers—he had 23 last season—he may have New Yorkers switching channels from that other show in town. Munson, the AL's Rookie of the Year, who had a grand finish to reach .302, threw out 40 stealers and says, "They called me everything—squatty, body, tubby, turtle, thermostat—you name it, but I got in." Munson has the personality and talent to become an old-fashioned Yankee star. He is also the kind of bedrock player a team can be built around.
Shortstop Gene Michael fields but does not hit and Second Baseman Horace Clarke hits but does not field, a somewhat dolorous situation. Danny Cater is not exactly Babe Ruth or even Mickey Mantle (one homer per 97 at bats in 1970) but he had a fine .301 season and contributed key hits as New York moved into second place from way down nowhere.
A superior bullpen—Lindy McDaniel and Jack Aker went forward a total of 103 times and were credited with 45 saves—kept the Yankees in many games. The chief concern among the starters is Mel Stottlemyre, 15-13 after consecutive 20-win seasons. But Peterson became a 20-game winner for the first time and Stan Bahnsen won 14. Not to be overlooked was the improvement in Mike Kekich and Steve Kline's ERA over his last nine starts. It was 2.25. Maybe 100 isn't outtasight, after all.
Alvin Dark has reached the top of the stairs in Cleveland, and it's still pretty dark up there. He functions now as manager and general manager of the club, and this spring he had difficulty signing his Indians to contracts, possibly because he did not want to spoil them with too much money. In the most severe of the major league austerity campaigns, the Indians dropped a flood of scouts from the payroll and Coach Bobby Hofman is doubling as road secretary. Not even board-of-directors member Bob Hope seems able to find much humor in this situation.
Tony Horton is expected to be lost for the year and Ken Harrelson, out for most of last season with a broken leg, will play first. In case anyone any longer cares about the length of an athlete's hair, Harrelson looks like a plucked chicken hawk this spring and is promising all sorts of things like 50 homers and an .850 batting average plus 279 RBIs. Go get 'em, Hawk.
Cleveland's pitching could be its strong point. Sam McDowell is aiming for his second straight 20-victory season. After early-year arm troubles, Steve Hargan wound up 1970 with a strong 11-3 record, and the sudden development of Ray Fosse (.307) as a catcher enabled Cleveland to trade Duke Sims for promising righthander Alan Foster (10-13). Vada Pinson (24 home runs, 82 RBIs), Roy Foster (23 home runs) and Graig Nettles (26 home runs) will fit their big hitting around Harrelson's.
Enough noise has come out of Washington during the off season to make one wonder if owner Bob Short is running a baseball club or The Last Chance Saloon. Denny McLain, who did not have a very good year in 1970, has not had a very good spring. Curt Flood was not hitting well in his comeback and Third Baseman Joe Foy has just about run out of towns. The Senators have lease problems, money problems, radio-TV problems, left-side-of-the-infield problems, too-many-men-who-can-play-first-base-and-not-the-outfield problems and pitching problems. They do have Frank Howard, who probably will have more RBIs than last year (126) if Flood hits in front of him, and Pitcher Dick Bosman and Reliever Darold Knowles. What they could really use is a handful of the Baltimore Orioles' excess. Better, the Senators might latch on to Baltimore's front office, the men behind the men who should make another shambles of the division race.