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Pepi struts out again

Back at work, the Cubs' vagrant first baseman is pepping things up

A few weeks ago, on the kind of sunny afternoon Chicago fans enjoy spending in Philip K. Wrigley's ball park, Joe Pepitone was watching the Cubs. His once and future team was playing the Pirates. As Roberto Clemente came to the plate Pepitone said, "Notice how nothing moves when Roberto hits except his arms and hips." Then Pepitone hesitated for a second and tagged his line the way he might a hanging curve, "That's just the way I want to hit when I grow up."

At the age of 31 Pepitone has yet to convince his critics that he ever will grow up. His latest exploit, a two-month retirement that ended June 30, cost him some $20,000, and while he says he misses the money he maintains it was the price of discovering how he truly feels about baseball. "I had a good spring and I looked forward to the season. But the strike layoff ruined my timing, and though I've had slumps before, this one was different. I hated coming to the ball park. Before this I had always loved baseball. I felt it just wasn't fair to take Mr. Wrigley's money."

Now Pepitone is on the payroll again. In return, he is breaking a sweat on the practice field, is batting .315 and has hit four home runs. Playing almost every game at first, he has not made an error. "Players who came into my bar in Chicago told me I didn't have to love baseball," Pepitone says. "They said it was just a job. But I have to be interested to play the game. I went to the ball park a few times and I found myself thinking about strategy. That's when I decided to come back."

Pepitone had one publicized walkout when he was with the Yankees and another when he suddenly deserted that giant hair dryer in Houston two years ago. Those, he says, were precipitated by domestic problems and did not involve the fundamental issue of his love for the game. "As a player, at least, Joe has matured," says Cub Pitcher Steve Hamilton, who had been a Yankee teammate of Pepitone's. "He knows what he can do." And that is plenty. Pepitone's .307 season in 1971 is an example. It included a 19-game hitting streak and 16 home runs.

Joe Torre of the Cardinals, who once played sandlot ball against Pepitone in Brooklyn, believes the Yankee experience was not to Pepitone's benefit. "He got a lot of publicity when he hit .260," Torre says. "If he played anywhere else he would have had to hit 30 or 40 points higher to get all that attention. And he probably would have hit .300." Torre, who played sandlot for something called the Brooklyn Cadets, remembers big league scouts talking about Pepitone's spectacular play for the Nathan's Famous team 15 years ago. "They said he could run, field and hit," Torre recalls, "and they were right." But he had some other attributes, too. On the field for Nathan's, he was a hot dog. And off it, he had more than his share of pain.

Pepitone was 16 and recuperating from a bullet wound in the stomach (he was the innocent victim of a zip-gun shooting in a high school corridor) when his father died suddenly, at 39, of a heart attack. "If my father were alive," Pepitone says, "I never would have married twice. I probably would not have married at all. I would never have had my financial problems. With him as my personal manager, I would have had it all: a boat, a Lear jet, everything." Apparently William Pepitone, a construction supervisor, could handle his son—something no baseball manager has claimed. "If my father told me to be home at nine o'clock," Joe says, "I would be in at 8:45. God forbid if I came in one minute after nine."

Leo Durocher and Pepitone have coexisted more or less peacefully for two seasons, and while Durocher recognizes his first baseman's ability to hit and field, he does not pretend to understand him. When asked to comment on his recent leave-taking, Durocher growled, "What can I say? I can't open the man's head."

He probably wishes he could, for Durocher needs Pepitone if the Cubs are to be more serious contenders in their division. In the final two months of the 1970 season Pepitone hit safely 57 times in 56 games, had 12 homers and drove in 44 runs. If he could approach that performance again, the Cubs would have something to say to the Pirates and Mets.

Hit or miss, Pepitone is a figure to be reckoned with. He still struts to the plate with his head canted just so—the kind of walk a New Yorker cultivates when he is the biggest stickball hitter on the block. And his tongue is as fast as ever. During one batting practice a rookie pitcher threw him a scuffed baseball. "It's dirty!" Pepitone shouted at him. "Is that any kind of a ball to throw to a former Yankee great?"