The question here, simply put, is who is going to get the jump? The Cincinnati Reds got it last year, winning 62 of their first 88 games. The Houston Astros, whom some had seen as a very strong dark horse (without realizing exactly how dark; the Astros had to come on strong to finish fourth), got whatever is the opposite of the jump. The grippe, maybe. And this year? It will be the Dodgers. Has to be.
All the Dodgers will be available from the outset, even pitcher Don Sutton, who will no longer have to spend the first week of the season in the reserves. They can outpitch, outrun, outfield and outyoungster the Reds. And this year—shades of Snider, Robinson, Campanella and Furillo—they will even get some extra-base hits.
The man who will produce these is Richie Allen. Nearly 45% of Allen's lifetime hits have been doubles, triples or home runs. The balls leap off his bat, and the Dodgers hope to leap with them. Two years ago Allen was in Philadelphia writing "no" in the base paths with his toe and building up a reputation as a forbidding person. Last year he was in St. Louis and doing just enough with his bat there for people to dream about platooning a statue of him with Stan Musial's outside Busch Stadium. Unfortunately, he hardly stayed the season.
This year Allen is in Los Angeles, even farther from Philadelphia, and ever more amiable. In training camp he was to be seen taking dawn batting practice, chatting with Japanese newsmen, smiling warmly at tiny old ladies down from Atlanta, being gracious to the hired man assigned to feed his pitching machine ("I'd like to hit some more balls, but I'd like you to have a chance to sit down awhile, too"), saying "Where you goin', hoss?" to obscure rookies and climbing all over the hill in left field at Vero Beach making catches. He was hitting, too. He blasted one ninth-inning fly ball so far that Willie Davis scored the winning run on it all the way from second.
Allen and Davis alone, not to mention the new Wes Parker with his 111 RBIs or Bill Grabarkewitz, mean power and speed, but the Dodgers don't lack in defense or pitching either. Last year the L.A. takeoff was hampered by the effects of hepatitis on reliever Pete Mikkelsen and starter Bill Singer. So far this year neither man has so much as broken out with a rash. Singer, Sutton and Claude Osteen give the team three solid starters. Two others, the impeccably named Sandy Vance or Doyle Alexander, could be a boyish fourth. New catcher Duke Sims, Hawk Harrelson's old friend from the Cleveland Indians, will also hit some home runs, the infield and outfield are basically young and strong, and 38-year-old Maury Wills is going around saying he has not lost any speed, "only a little acceleration."
The Reds, meanwhile, will be greeting the dawn not as the team that went 62-26 before the All-Star break last year but as the team that went 40-34 after it and was given the bird by the Orioles in the World Series. The arms of starters Jim Merritt and Wayne Simpson, which began to show signs of serious deterioration in the second half of last season, are still bad, and the Reds will again be playing in their new spacious stadium instead of the friendly Crosleys of confine field, or however the phrase went. After they moved into Riverfront Stadium in 1970 the Reds hit fewer home runs than they had in their pleasant old ball park, with its high-rise outfield and all. They are also missing Centerfielder Bobby Tolan, who hit .316, stole 57 bases and scored 112 runs last year. Tolan, one of the many frustrated basketball players on the Cincinnati baseball team, went after a loose ball while playing for the Reds' off-season and out-of-favor basketballers during the winter, and his Achilles' tendon snapped. At best he will be available for limited duty in late May.
The Reds still, of course, have Pete Rose, though he may not be widely recognized around the league because his familiar bushy crew cut has given way to a styled, combed-down look. They also have Tony Perez, who has wonderful first halves of seasons but seems to tire badly by the middle of summer, and one Johnny Bench, who by himself equals the whole bench of a lot of teams. There is a passle of young pitchers, including one brand new one, a 21-year-old lefthander named Larry (Pat) Osburn who last year had a 0.92 ERA playing NCAA ball for Florida State University. He improved that to 0.90 in the instructional league this winter. If he can get down to 0.88 or so in the National League, the Reds will get their jump back after all.
Can Roadrunner get the jump? Roadrunner is the new offensive weapon of the Atlanta Braves. Ralph Garr is his Christian name, and he has led four leagues in hitting and stolen bases. Last year at Richmond Roadrunner Garr hit .386, which was his best mark since the year he hit .568 at Grambling. That, incidentally, was the only place where Garr was ever considered "not particularly fast," as he puts it. Braves' Vice-President Paul Richards claims that two different scouts have clocked Garr going from home to first in three seconds flat. That would make Garr the fastest home-to-first ballplayer on record anywhere, and the figure should not be accepted without a public administering of the scout's oath.
This year when Garr reaches first—he hits almost nothing but singles—the Atlanta scoreboard will flash appropriate animated scenes and the calliope erected behind right field will go "beep-beep" just like the movie cartoon roadrunner. The Braves negotiated at some boring length for the exclusive big-league baseball rights to use the "beep-beep" roadrunner on their scoreboard. They could live to regret the deal as the redundant beeps ruin Garr's base-stealing surprises. But he and the beeps surely will get the fans involved.
That calliope was constructed in Antwerp, Belgium in 1890 to replace an orchestra in a French skating rink. Last year the Braves could have used it to replace a 25-piece ball club. This season should be different. The Braves not only have Roadrunner, they also have pitchers Cecil Upshaw and Ron Reed back at last. Upshaw jumped when he should not have early last year while showing friends how to dunk a basketball and snagged his finger on an awning. The showoff bit cost him the whole season. Reed, who won 18 games for the Braves in 1969, was out with a broken collarbone early last year. He ended with a 7-10 record and a barely respectable 4.40 ERA.
The Braves may have found a good shortstop. He is Marty Perez, acquired from the Angels' organization. Last season the Braves were an easy last in the league in double plays with 118. Perez claims to have been in on 69 double plays in 40 minor league games last year, and the man he created this magic with was not a second baseman at all, but a misplaced first baseman. Batting champion Rico Carty, who broke his knee fielding a ball in winter ball, will not be back until June at the earliest, but what Bad Henry Aaron does with a bat is still as bad as can be done to a pitcher, and the Braves' gains should offset the early loss of Carty.
Choosing between the Giants and the Astros is difficult. "If the Astros get the kind of start the Reds got last year," says San Diego Manager Preston Gomez, "they could go all the way." "If anybody gets that kind of start," says Giant Manager Charlie Fox, "it could be us." Both teams outplayed the Reds in the stretch. After losing eight straight in April and standing 37-51 at the All-Star break, Houston closed with a 42-32 push. San Francisco came on strongly in the last six weeks. And this year Juan Marichal will not be sidelined early by a near fatal reaction to penicillin, which is what happened to him early last season. In fact, nobody at the Giants' Casa Grande camp in southern Arizona looked to be in better shape than Marichal or, for that matter, worked harder at keeping himself in condition.
Again the Giants will have Willie Mays, who at almost 40 is still more May than September; Bobby Bonds, who last year surpassed his own alltime major league strikeout record with 189 but who also hit .302 with 200 hits and 26 home runs and says, "Striking out bothers other people more than it does me"; Ken Henderson, who hit .294 in 1970 and gives every indication of doing at least as well in the coming season; Gaylord Perry, who won 23 games last year with or without the aid of a foreign substance; Dick Dietz, who hit .300; reliever Don McMahon, who was a high school classmate of Oakland Raiders' general managing partner Al Davis in Brooklyn and off whom lefthanders got slightly more than a hit for every 10 tries at bat; and the colossus, Willie McCovey, baseball's premier slugger. But they also have an infield that is understandably uneasy after making 122 errors last year, and aside from Marichal and Perry the pitching is all but anonymous.
The Astros, like the Giants, have a number of pluses. They have such an outfield—Jim Wynn, the Toy Cannon, in right, the 20-year-old sensation, Cesar Cedeno, in center and Bob Watson in left—that Jesus Alou, who led all the Alous in hitting last year with .306, has to sit on the bench. They have a good infield with rough and red-headed Doug Rader at third, swift Joe Morgan at second, Roger Metzger, a new acquisition, at short and Dennis Menke, who played six positions last year, at first base, a position from which he will find it hard to make the All-Star team, since the ballot lists him as a shortstop. The Astros had the good nature this spring to let Jim Bouton suit out with them for the sake of his TV program—after his other former teammates, the Yankees, indicated they preferred he take his mike and tape elsewhere. And they have earned the gratification of name enthusiasts everywhere by signing Scipio Spinks and Cesar Geronimo. Spinks, who last year declared that "with my name I will have to be either a flake or one of the game's greatest pitchers, and I'm not flakey," appears to be a year away from being even a major-leaguer, but Geronimo, a reserve outfielder, may have arrived, and not necessarily by parachute. If a team can't get a jump with a man named Geronimo it will never get a jump.
The San Diego Padres are last partly as a matter of tradition but they are not the kind of people who like living in a basement. Says that original Padre, Downtown Ollie Brown: "In 1969, our first year, you could tell the other clubs were overlooking us because they would use their second-line pitchers. But last year we got the long ball and we got respect." And presumably tougher pitching. Despite that, Brown hit 23 homers and .292; Clarence Gaston 29 and .318; Nate Colbert 38 and .259. The Padres were third in the league in team home runs. However, they were slow and pitching-poor, and they are still not pitching-rich. Tom Phoebus takes Pat Dobson's place as a result of a trade with the Orioles, and the Padres still have Clay Kirby, who in 1970 earned some kind of place in the annals of sports pathos by being lifted for a pinch hitter after eight no-hit innings. San Diego gave a look this spring to Darcy Fast, a reliever from the Cubs' organization, and why not. The Reds, as if Bench wasn't enough, tried a catcher named Plummer and the Yankees looked at a Look. But what's in a name?
The Padres do have more speed this year. They have Don Mason from the Giants to play second. At third, Ed Spiezio caused a minor stir by not signing as readily as the Padres would have liked, but then he was coming off a fairly decent season. So was Enzo Hernandez, with Rochester in the minors. The Padres picked him up from the Orioles, who hated to see him go. He is Venezuelan, his idol is Luis Aparicio, and he has been referred to as Roadrunner. Names, names, names.