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catching the A's has 'em thinking: american league west

Fairly bubbling with intellectual ferment, the managers in this precinct are not content with merely flashing bunt signs or bolstering wounded psyches with paternal pats on the behind. No, here they speak of "optometherapy" and "elastic resistance tests." And in their midst is a college-trained radical who entertains the quaint notion that the game actually can be played faster.

Baseball games are not won by scholars, of course; it is axiomatic that no matter how smart you are, you still gotta have the horses. But there are herds of horses out West. The reigning world champion Oakland A's are pawing and snorting, and numerous handicappers suggest they will win the big race once again. But out Chicago way people have been doing some powerful thinking, too—about power.

The long ball should come often in Chicago, where the White Sox have upgraded an offense that was already first-class. The league's 1971 home-run leader, Bill Melton, is back to join the 1972 home-run leader, Dick ($675,000) Allen. And on either side of them in the batting order Manager Chuck Tanner can call on Carlos May, who hit .308 last year, and Ken Henderson, who spent the last eight years with San Francisco. Henderson had 18 home runs for the Giants in what was considered to be an off-season for him. Also an outstanding defensive player, Henderson will start in center. With all these hitters surrounding him, Allen should not be walked as often as he was last year, and that could mean even more home runs.

So hitting is no problem in Chicago, but pitching could be. To get Henderson, the White Sox sent Tom Bradley, a 15-game winner in '72, to the Giants. In return they also received Steve Stone, a righthander with a major league curveball and dime-store statistics. But Stone, who won a total of 11 games the past two seasons, figures to be Tanner's third starter behind the busy knuckleballer, Wilbur Wood, and Stan Bahnsen, a starter who has trouble finishing (41 attempts, five complete games) and loses almost as often as he wins. He was 21-16 in 1972. But for all of their pitching patchwork, the White Sox should be the A's most tenacious pursuers.

Set your sights next on Kansas City, where things are looking up. The Royals will finally move into their new $35 million ball park after a year's wait. There they will find shorter fences (330 feet in both left and right) and the only playing surface in the American League that is, save for the mound, home plate and the sliding areas, completely artificial. Not even the Royals can say whether the new surface will be the making of them or simply a nuisance.

"It could cause some problems," says Shortstop Fred Patek, who at 5'4" has enough problems already. "You may get used to it and have to slow yourself down on the other fields. It's usually tougher to slow your body down than to speed it up."

The Royals tend to talk that way, for the body is the object of much experimentation in Kansas City. Pitcher Wayne Simpson, who comes to the Royals from Cincinnati, is undergoing the so-called elastic resistance tests under the supervision of his personal "doctor of physical medicine." Elastic resistance turns out to be a form of isometric exercise.

The Royals have also employed former University of Kansas Miler Wes Santee to teach them how to run and a couple of California eye men, Bill Lee and Bill Harrison, to teach them how to see. These "optometherapists" hope to train Royal hitters to quickly identify such dimly perceived objects as curves and sliders. What K.C. really needs is someone to teach the pitchers how to throw those things. Such sturdy batsmen as John Mayberry (100 RBIs, .298) and Lou Piniella (72 RBIs, .312) are not exactly blind. But when pitchers like Dick Drago (12-17) and Paul Splittorf (12-12) are the stars of your staff, you could use a flingo therapist.

In any case, new Manager Jack McKeon, a stubby ex-catcher with a degree in physical education from Elon College in North Carolina, has introduced science to the Royal training camp. McKeon is a firm believer in the learning process. "We spent more time this spring on fundamentals," he said. "It was like a classroom: repeating each problem and situation, like giving a kid long division in school. We want our club to be the most mentally prepared in the league." Prepared for third place. At least.

Bobby Winkles, the equally new manager of the California Angels, is another diamond academician. He was the baseball coach for 13 years at Arizona State University before joining the Angels a year ago as a coach under the manager he replaced, Del Rice. Now he is getting the chance to apply his college techniques to the professional game, and like McKeon he is big on basics. "The idea that a big-leaguer no longer needs training in fundamentals could not be farther from the truth," says Winkles. "We have kids up here who have played only a year in the minors. That's why we have 45 minutes of basics every day."

Winkles, in his naiveté, also sees no reason why the game cannot be played faster. He has ordered his players to "run hard" to and from their positions, Arizona State style. This includes pitchers. "Sometimes our pitchers are ready to throw to a hitter before the other team has even left the field," he says happily.

Among Winkles' hustlers is 37-year-old Frank Robinson, who will join his former Cincinnati teammate and McClymonds High School of Oakland chum, Vada Pinson, in the Angel outfield. Robinson suffered the season's most humiliating injury to date—fracturing a toe while climbing out of the press box—but by the end of training he was running well again. Robinson will not be content to be just another designated hitter. "He enjoys the game more if he plays both offense and defense," says Winkles. Robinson came to the Angels along with Pitchers Bill Singer and Mike Strahler and Infielders Bobby Valentine and Bill Grabarkewitz in the trade with the Dodgers for Andy Messersmith and Ken McMullen. Winkles hopes Valentine, who has "a go-go charm," will be a "motivating force" at shortstop. Grabarkewitz, who has had a shoulder problem, could play either third or second. Singer will join Clyde Wright, Rudy May and the major league strikeout king, Nolan Ryan, on a pitching staff that is second only to Oakland's.

Minnesota, third in the league last year in earned run average, also has fine pitching with Jim Kaat, Bert Blyleven and newcomer Bill Hands. Kaat needs only 21 more wins to reach 200 and Blyleven, who will turn 22 on Opening Day, was 17-17 a year ago. Elsewhere the Twins face double trouble. Among other things, their 26-year-old shortstop, Danny Thompson, a fine fielder and a .276 hitter a year ago, has an unusual ailment, granulocytic leukemia, but he expects to play.

"Some people live into their 90s with it," Thompson says. "I'm not receiving treatments now. The doctors told me that they are close to developing a vaccine for it which would be similar to the polio vaccine. I'm sure they'll have one by the time this starts affecting me, if it ever does." Though they are short-handed at many spots, the Twins do have two well-known potential DH figures in sore-legged Tony Oliva and aging (36) Harmon Killebrew.

The Texas Rangers have a more noteworthy sore-but-super-sometimes candidate in Rico Carty. One trouble is that Carty wants to play regularly in the outfield, a role that has to date defeated him. But with the Rangers Carty and his .317 lifetime batting average might not look all that bad, for with the exceptions of Carty, First Baseman Mike Epstein, Outfielder Alex Johnson and All-Star Shortstop Toby Harrah, they are, regrettably, a team of nonentities. When you are that bad no amount of deepthink is going to help.

Especially if you are bumping brains with Oakland Manager Dick Williams, a savant who spent much of last year preaching the virtues of mental alertness and who, in practicing what he preached, shattered all major league records for conferences on the mound.

Forty-seven men played for the A's in 1972, and Williams found something for all of them to do—especially play second base. Eleven A's, not all of them infielders, manned that position. Williams even had Gene Tenace, then a catcher and now a first baseman-catcher, on second for a time. But for all of his cerebral high jinks, Williams knows enough not to tamper too much with a winner, and that is what the A's appear to be.

Consider their pitching. For starters, Williams anticipates having 21-game winner Jim (Catfish) Hunter, 19-game winner Ken Holtzman, 15-game winner John (Blue Moon) Odom and onetime 24-game winner Vida Blue, who slumped to a 6-10 record after his protracted contract hassle with Owner Charles O. Finley resulted in a disastrously late start. This spring Blue and Finley sparred again. In the bullpen the A's are even better than they were last year—and they were last year's best. Now they have veterans Paul Lindblad and Horacio Pina, both acquired from the Texas Rangers, to go with World Series hero Rollie Fingers and Darold Knowles. It is a dream pitching staff—two right-handed starters (Hunter and Odom), two left-handed starters (Holtzman and Blue), two right-handed relievers (Fingers and Pina) and two left-handed relievers (Knowles and Lindblad). To catch them the A's recently acquired Ray Fosse in a trade with Cleveland, giving up Dave Duncan.

Elsewhere in the lineup there are some niggling problems. Despite his World Series achievements, Tenace is unproved both as a first baseman and as a hitter, and the A's still have not found a centerfielder. They could be looking for one among Billy Conigliaro, Angel Mangual and Bill North well into the season. And premier slugger Reggie Jackson has gimpy legs. He hurt the left one in the final playoff game with Detroit, then developed tendinitis in the right one while favoring the left. Even hobbled, Jackson should prove a formidable threat as a designated hitter, a game Williams should enjoy. Already he is saying that any of his players may turn up as DH as long as he is someone who can get the bat on the ball. And his mind on a pennant.