Last weekend the second baseball season began. It is the one that is played in bars and hotel lobbies and all those secluded corners where baseball people gather during the long and sometimes rain-filled hours between playoff and World Series games. Wherever the show travels, there baseball's insiders are, starting rumors of grand trades that probably never will be made and examining the past year's performances in such detail that they seem at times to be exceeding even their own long-established tolerance for trivia.
Not that what they say is uninteresting. The current hot topic, for instance, is major league realignment, a subject of some substance. And high on the list of discussibles are the Most Valuable Player awards, or, rather, who will get them. In the National League, should it be Henry Aaron or Willie Stargell or Joe Torre? The baseball writers will not release their choice—the official one—until mid November, but a SPORTS ILLUSTRATED poll of some of the men who played against the three suggests the race should not be close. Joe Torre impresses his fellow athletes the most (see box).
In the American League the players are as divided as the people who hire them and talk about them. The leaders, Vida Blue and Mickey Lolich, only revive the old argument of whether a pitcher should be the MVP, considering he can also win the Cy Young award.
The players' poll offers some interesting sidelights. Under the category of Most Disappointing Player in the American League, Alex Johnson and Tony Conigliaro, both of whom started the season for the California Angels and finished it for nobody, are tied for second at 19 votes, well behind Boston's Carl Yastrzemski. Among the Angels themselves, however, Johnson received only seven votes while Conigliaro got 17.
Until late in the season there were strong opinions all around about the Rookie of the Year. The early National League favorite was Chris Speier, San Francisco's shortstop. Next Willie Montanez of Philadelphia ran a string of good games together to force himself into the picture. It is Earl Williams of Atlanta, though, who tops the ballot at season's end. He hit 33 homers while learning to catch for a team whose pitchers were not exactly polished.
The idea of another league realignment so soon after the one in 1969 is enough to send strong men to an early shower. Yet some baseball executives are advocating six four-team leagues. Instead of playing a full season for a half-pennant, as now, teams would be fighting for a third of a pennant. Another faction prefers three eight-team leagues. And there are many who believe it is time for interleague play to begin.
The recent shift of the Washington franchise to Dallas-Fort Worth would seem to suggest a realignment of the American League divisions almost automatically. Ewing Kauffman, the owner of the enterprising Kansas City Royals, feels that Dallas-Fort Worth should be put into the Western Division of the American League immediately and that either the Chicago White Sox or Milwaukee Brewers should swing over into the Eastern Division. "For one thing," says Kauffman, "that would help even up East-West attendance. I am firmly convinced that Dallas-Fort Worth will draw at least twice as many people as the Senators did in Washington. I am also convinced that when the Royals move into our new stadium next year we will become one of the biggest draws in the American League."
Dick Walsh, the beleaguered general manager of the California (some say Hell's) Angels, definitely favors realignment. He says: "I believe that if you have a realignment of four leagues of six clubs each, you will cut down your travel expenses and increase baseball interest because of close, natural rivalries."
Peter O'Malley, the young Dodger president, agrees, but he would resist interleague play. "We're proud of our league, we're progressive and I'd like to see us remain our own entity," he says.
The Baltimore Orioles demur. "It's ludicrous," says Executive Vice-President Frank Cashen, "that people have been enjoying baseball in Baltimore for 18 years and never had a chance to see Willie Mays play center field or Hank Aaron hit a home run. Ridiculous."
What the argument boils down to is money. The American League drew five million fewer people last year than the National, and the National wants no part of something that would dilute its attendance. But the American League needs help.
Even with Blue pitching often, the American League could have used the players' MVP, Joe Torre, as a part of its action. Torre's season was splendid not just because he hit .363 and knocked in 137 runs. He produced 21 game-winning hits. When runners were in scoring position, he brought in more than half of them. He led St. Louis in triples, scored 97 times and collected 230 hits. Since 1937, only three National Leaguers have had as many hits—Matty Alou as a leadoff batter in 1969, Tommy Davis in 1962 and Stan Musial in 1948. No American League hitter has even approached 230 hits since 1936, when Earl Averill had 232.
"I feel the reason I had such a good year," Torre says, "was all-out concentration. This spring my brother [Frank Torre, who played with the Milwaukee Braves and the Phillies] was talking about hitting and he said, 'I've decided that maybe the best way to describe the concentration you have to have is to believe that you are locked in a room with the pitcher.' "
Torre, at bat, locked himself into a room with four blank walls. "I seemed to be able to block everything else out of my mind, the sound and movement around me, even the lights," he says.
Torre is locked in with the Cardinals, too. They are not about to trade him, no matter how many rumors will waft up with the thick cigar smoke from all those lobbies. Now, if you should mention Richie Allen, Rico Carty, Orlando Cepeda, Billy Conigliaro, Nate Colbert, Willie Horton, Frank Howard, Sam McDowell, Andy Messersmith, Joe Pepitone, Tony Perez, Ron Santo, George Scott or Jim Wynn, well, you might make a deal for....