"Anything," the Swede said as tremendous spiders came after him in the Ingmar Bergman movie, "can happen." During its first two unstimulating seasons, even giant tarantulas would have had a hairy time stirring up interest in the American League West. Now, suddenly, something might happen. Consider the possibilities:
1) A team that 12 months ago looked like the perfect neighbor for Disneyland—the California Angels—has acquired major league bite. It could be the most interesting team in the division—or even the best.
2) If California bites, the bitten will be the Minnesota Twins, who have never before had to cope with such a possibility.
3) Charles O. Finley—owner of the Oakland A's—could finally have a team as aggressive as he is.
On the hazardous premise that the most interesting bet is the best one, take the Angels first. Andy Messersmith, who looks like Ryan O'Neal of Love Story but chews tobacco, says, "I'd like to do it up big, if you know what I mean. I would like to see it come down to the last day of the season, me pitching, and we win it 3-2. We certainly look good on paper, don't we? But there are a lot of intangibles involved."
The first intangible is Messersmith. Last year he had arm trouble, rib cage trouble and minimal rapport with Manager Lefty Phillips. When Messersmith was right he was unhittable. Unfortunately, he was hittable far more often than he was right. Still, he has as heady a load of stuff as was ever intercepted on the Mexican border, and if he is fully functional this season he should give the Angels another intangible, one that new Angel Tony Conigliaro alludes to when he says: "We have talent, but I've been on talented teams before. You need something more—like the spirit we had in 1967 when Boston won the pennant. Guys were on their feet in the dugout, cheering every batter."
Last year, with Phillips exercising nonelectrifying leadership and Alex Johnson, the league's leading hitter, behaving so unaffably that his wife apologized to the wives of the other players for his behavior toward their husbands, the Angels were hardly fraternal. But then they were not all that strong either, and muscle, the organization keeps telling itself, can lead to brotherhood. With Conigliaro and Ken Berry joining Johnson, the team should have significantly more offense in the outfield. It should have significantly more defense, too, if the fleet Berry in center is not worn to a nub ranging to his left and right covering for the other two.
Jim Fregosi, who batted in 82 runs in 1970 and had 22 homers, Ken McMullen, Sandy Alomar and Jim Spencer remain a good infield. The starting pitchers—Messersmith, Rudy May, Tom Murphy, Jim Maloney and last year's 22-victory surprise, Clyde Wright—are the deepest group in the division. The lone area of concern there is Maloney, whose injured Achilles' tendon kept him from winning a game for Cincinnati last year. Maloney is neither as strong nor as fast as he used to be, but he is making up for the few infirmities of advancing middle age (he will be 31 this June) with guile. The California bullpen is not as strong as it was, however, with the departure of Ken Tatum.
Minnesota has three starters of note—Jim Perry, the Cy Young Award winner, Ricalbert Blyleven and Tommy Hall, who ranks No. 1 on the Sister scale (page 73), an astounding 307 points higher than the American League's second most effective pitcher. But after those three comes the deluge—or rather the Twins had better pray for a deluge every fourth day. "Perry, Blyleven, Hall and let the rain fall" does not scan as well as that old Spahn-Sain thing. but it may add up to more wins because the Twins have two of the best short relievers in the business, Ron Perranoski and Stan Williams.
Although they seem venerable in spots, the rest of the Twins look formidable, too. Rotund Harmon Killebrew, 34. doubtlessly has more 40-homer seasons tucked away, Leo Cardenas is ready to prove that his 32 years are the blush of youth, and Tony Oliva and Cesar Tovar are in their playing primes. Manager Bill Rigney says the Twins will run more this year, which is what they did in their pennant years of '65 and '69 and forgot to do in '70 when Rod Carew, who is mended now and ready to take up where he left off last season with a .366 average, broke his leg. But the Twins will have to be improved if they want to outdo the Angels.
For three years Oakland has been promises, promises. The A's still are promising, but the assets they will draw on are real—and sometimes unreal. They have, for example, an honest pitcher in Chuck Dobson, who has admitted that he takes greenies (when he has to pitch with the flu) but thinks his pill-popping has been blown up way out of proportion, a redeemed moving man in Second Baseman Dick Green (he announced in the winter that he was going to quit baseball forever and remain in Rapid City, S. Dak. and devote his time to his trucking business) and established talents in Sal Bando, Rick Monday, Felipe Alou and Campy Campaneris. In addition, Oakland has a happy Reggie Jackson. Last year Jackson developed such strained relations with his employer that while scoring after one of his rare (23) home runs he looked at Finley in the stands and shouted an alarming suggestion. This spring Jackson chucked the heavy-handed repartee, reported to camp on time after tending to his real estate business in Tempe, Ariz. and started hitting home runs as soon as the exhibition schedule began. One reason for this was his choice of winter bosses. Jackson played in the Puerto Rican league, and Frank Robinson was his manager.
"Frank and I spent seven weeks together," says Jackson. "We were very close, always talking baseball, sometimes as many as five solid hours. Let me tell you that Frank understands baseball and he understands people. And he just has to win. When I went to play for him, I was down and we both knew it. But he was very patient and helpful with me. He talked to me and taught me a few things, too. Then one day I hit a pitch that was on the outside corner over the left-center-field fence and I knew I was back. Frank told me, 'You have nothing to do now but go up.' "
The A's pitching staff could go down. It has some lovable names on it—Blue Moon Odom, Catfish Hunter, Vida Blue and Rollie Fingers—but only Blue is improving. Blue Moon has been temporarily reduced to a crescent by an operation to remove a bone chip from his elbow and Fingers has lost his touch. Hunter has been winning but his ERA has been rising.
One of Oakland's unmeasurable quantities is its new manager, Dick Williams, who guided the '67 Red Sox cited by Conigliaro. Finley says he finally has a manager "who can stand up and be counted." That is an odd way to put it, because people have been counting Finley's managers—11 so far—since he bought the A's. Maybe Bando puts it better than Finley: "We need a guy to kick us in the rear now and then." Williams, who is no shrinking violet, will surely oblige.
What remains is the Western Division's second division. Nobody knows what is going on down there. The Kansas City Royals, to begin with, are an enigma. They have a widely admired front office, and widely respected front-line pitching. But the pitchers are high-potential youngsters, not proven quantities, and strange things happen to youthful arms. Behind the pitching are Amos Otis, the former Met who has become a fine centerfielder and a good hitter. Bob Oliver and Lou Piniella who add power (they had most of the team's RBIs last year), and Freddie Patek, who the Royals picked up from the Pirates after last season. Patek is not only the smallest man in the majors but a good shortstop; at least he is as long as the ball doesn't take a high hop.
If the Royals have modest hopes, so do the Milwaukee Brewers, what with not having to change names and home towns this spring as they did last, when they were the Seattle Pilots, then the Sewaukee Piwers and finally the team that, under Dave Bristol, rose from the cellar to a winning percentage of over .400 (.401 to be exact). The Brewers have Tommy Harper, who had nearly as good a set of statistics last year as the league's MVP, Boog Powell; Marty Pattin, who won 14 games and did not lose that many; reliever Ken Sanders, who is all but unknown but whose 1.76 ERA last season should earn him some notoriety; and Outfielder Dave May, who is noteworthy for being one of the six players named May in the majors. The Brewers also have a new general manager, Frank Lane, whose most recent stop was with Baltimore. Within a month after assuming office, trader Lane made four deals. One of them landed Outfielder Bill Voss. "This gives us the novelty," said Lane, "of having somebody in right field who can catch a fly ball." Another trade brought Catcher Ellie Rodriguez from Kansas City. But Lane is still in the market for a shortstop to go along with steady Ted Kubiak, his second baseman.
And last come the Chicago White Sox who, in an attempt to kindle interest, will wear red socks this season and be represented on Midwest (but not Chicago) radio by a controversial voice: "It might be...it could be...it is..." Harry Caray.
This is a critical year for the Sox, who drew only 495,355 customers in 1970, compared to the Cubs' 1,642,705, and are nearing the end of a five-year, $5 million TV contract. John Allyn bought the team from his brother, Arthur, in late 1969 and the Sox rewarded him with more losses (106) than any Chicago team ever. By Aug. 17 this year the White Sox will have had T-shirt day, batting-glove day, bat day, helmet day, banner day, cushion day, four photo-mug nights, poster night, a father-son game and an oldtimers' game. Occasionally, they may even have a baseball day.
On the field the Sox are going back to pitching, speed and defense, the only things that will work in spacious White Sox Park. One exception to speed and patty-cake is Carlos May, who has moved his hands down on his bat for more power after choking up last year; at that he hit a remarkable .285 following the removal of most of his thumb by an Army-camp mortar round. Another is Lee Maye, the team's ace pinch hitter, who describes himself as "a Smoky Burgess with soul." A Willie McCovey is more what the White Sox need. And Mike Andrews, a second baseman acquired from the Red Sox, can hit even if his fielding is slightly suspect.
In one game last year there were two men out—White Sox innings all seem to start with two men out—a runner was on base and a fly ball was hit to the outfield. Coach Luke Appling began to windmill his arms vigorously, urging the runner to go as far as possible in case the ball was dropped. As the ball descended, Appling realized that the opposing bench was laughing at him. His runner had already wandered off to get his glove. Under new Manager Chuck Tanner, who last year led the Hawaii Islanders of the Pacific Coast League to a .671 winning percentage, base runners will probably run. And under new pitching Coach Johnny Sain, the worst staff in the league should improve. In his first year at both Minnesota and Detroit Sain taught the art of pitching well" enough to lower each team's ERA roughly half a run. This spring Sain told the White Sox pitchers to hold the ball as though it were an egg and, at a certain point in the delivery, to crush it. If they crush it, maybe the hitters won't.