From the beginning, it was apparent this would be no ordinary baseball season—particularly since it did not even begin at the beginning. The players' strike, which delayed opening day by more than a week, was only the first surprise of many in a topsy-turvy year that has seen the mighty falter and the weak inherit the AstroTurf.
Some verities do, of course, persist—Leo Durocher's irascibility, Billy Martin's pugnacity, Roberto Clemente's hypochondria, Willie McCovey's fragility, Joe Pepitone's absenteeism, Hoyt Wilhelm's venerability, Mickey Lolich's portliness—but there is a general feeling of disorientation, a sense that people and places simply are not where they are supposed to be. Willie Mays, for one, is no longer a Giant but a Met, and the Giants are in last place, not first. The Washington Senators are no more, and in their reincarnation as the Texas Rangers they are not, for some reason, entirely hopeless. Rusty Staub is not in Canada, Jim Fregosi is not in California, Frank Robinson is not in Baltimore, Sam McDowell is not in Cleveland, Gaylord Perry is not in San Francisco and Alex Johnson is not in trouble. Nomadic and nonchalant Dick Allen (see cover), who could be almost anywhere, is now in Chicago, and, surprise of surprises, he seems to like it there, hitting game-winning homers and receiving homage as the White Sox leader. Vida Blue was nowhere for a while, and now he has started his season later than the rest.
It is hard enough just finding people, harder still to recognize them after they are tracked down. Winners and losers seem to be exchanging identities at a bewildering clip. Baltimore's four 20-game winners have been floundering around like 20-game losers. And that surely can't be Bob Gibson over there. Or Juan Marichal. They both look a little like the new Denny McLain, wherever he may be. And who are all these new people? What, for example, is a LaRoche? Or a Kingman? Where is Maury Wills? And whatever happened to Frank Howard? Tony Oliva? Boog? Yaz? Maz? Why does the Dodger infield look like a junior high school playground at recess? Who let Bobby Tolan out of the intensive-care unit?
The season is yet young, order may soon be restored and, as La Rochefoucauld has advised, "The only thing that ought to occasion us surprise is that we still retain our power of being surprised."
Everything changes, nothing changes. Still, at this odd point in time, it may be well to look thoughtfully on the extraordinary. On these pages are some of the performers who, by fair ball or foul, have indeed occasioned surprise.
Dave Kingman, who leads the majors in homers and RBIs, is one Giant who has been getting in his licks. But teammate Juan Marichal, usually a big winner, has been pleading a losing cause. After an opening day shutout, he lost eight straight before winning again. Similarly, the Cardinals' once-awesome superstar. Bob Gibson, lost his first five starts before discovering the victory smile again.
Minnesota's Dave LaRoche has had some troubles lately, but he pitched 16 beautiful innings in relief before allowing an earned run. He and righthander Wayne Granger are the Twins' top bullpen workhorses.
Bobby Murcer, the star centerfielder of a year ago, was a damned Yankee this season until a recent outburst restored his average to the near-respectability of the middle .200s. The Yankees sure needed something.
Bobby Tolan, who missed last season because of a torn Achilles' tendon, was supposed to be only a shadow of his old self. Instead, his hitting, base stealing and fielding have revitalized the onrushing Reds.
Maury Wills, the Dodgers' unquestioned team leader for so many years, is a forlorn figure in the batting cage these days. Wills has lost his Job to Bill Russell, 16 years his Junior—and the team is flying.
The cries of "Boooog" this man is accustomed to hearing when he steps up to bat in Baltimore are sounding more like just plain "Boo" this year as Powell's batting average, never high in the spring, hovers near .160.
Is that just another home run soaring overhead or is Denny McLain really watching his career passing by? The onetime 31-game winner is now in Birmingham, where the Oakland A's sent him after repeated shellings.