The fundamental difference between this season and last, the Oakland A's stoutly maintain, is that this time they will be obliged to play hard all the way to win their division. "We have a funny type of ball club," understates Manager Alvin Dark. "We really only played for 3½ months last year. When we got ahead by nine games, we played about .500 ball in August and September. This year it will take a little more a little longer."
The A's must shoulder the extra work load because of the unexpected loss of Jim Hunter, New York's newest millionaire. Hunter's defection, like that of former Manager Dick Williams before him, was yet another blow to the fragile dignity of a team that has won three consecutive world championships but appears to much of the baseball public as a roistering street gang. The A's pine for respect, but just when they seem likely to achieve it there will be a clubhouse fight or, as in the Hunter caper, some egregious indiscretion by their eccentric owner, Charles O. Finley.
Without Hunter, the A's may not be as good as they were a year ago, but they will not be all that much worse, either. Lost in the Hunter hullabaloo, for example, was the acquisition of Billy Williams, who in 16 years as a Chicago Cub amassed 2,510 hits, 392 home runs and a career batting average of .296. "This is not just some guy you pick up," the A's Reggie Jackson says, "this is a Hall of Famer." At 36, Williams will be restricted mostly to designated hitting, which should prove a boon both to the offense and the defense, since fielding, either in the outfield or at first base, has never been his strong suit.
There will be other changes. Claudell Washington, the 20-year-old who hit .285 in 73 regular-season games and .571 in the World Series, will be tried in left field. Joe Rudi, the best leftfielder in baseball, will be shifted to first base, a position for which he has little affection. "It took me eight years to win a Golden Glove as an outfielder," he says testily. "Now they move me to a new position."
Last year's first baseman, Gene Tenace, will return to catching, sharing duties behind the plate with last year's catcher, Ray Fosse. A promising rookie, Phil Garner, will be the second baseman, replacing World Series hero Dick Green, who apparently has packed it in for certain after many tentative retirements. Campy Campaneris and Captain Sal Bando will again do their stuff at short and third, and Billy North in center and Jackson in right will complete an impressive outfield.
Pitching will be a bother, though, since Ken Holtzman (19-17), Vida Blue (17-15), Glenn Abbott (5-7) and Dave Hamilton (7-4) must necessarily pick up the slack left by Hunter's defection. Of these, only Abbott is a righthander, which will give the A's an unusually unbalanced starting rotation unless John (Blue Moon) Odom emerges from the bullpen and the ignominy of last year's 1-5 record. With Rollie Fingers and Paul Lindblad at the ready, the A's have ample relief.
To hear Texas Ranger Manager Billy Martin talk, the A's with or without Hunter are no match for his youthful pretenders. "I thought we should be the team to beat even before Oakland lost Catfish," says Billy. "Now I definitely think we should be favored."
Skeptics are ill-advised to write off Martin's forecasts. Last season he boasted that his woeful tailenders would rise up to battle the A's to the wire, which is nearly what they did, finishing eight games above .500 and five games behind the division leaders. However, disbelievers may feel the Rangers played over their heads. For example, is Jeff Burroughs, who hit 25 home runs, batted .301, drove in 118 runs and won the league's Most Valuable Player award, really that good? Can Rookie of the Year Mike Hargrove, who hit .323, do it again? And has the veteran pitcher, Ferguson Jenkins (25-12), got another 20 wins left in his right arm? Yes, says Billy, to all.
Still, Martin does have problems. Aside from the redoubtable Steve Foucault, the bullpen is sparsely populated, and the Rangers are sorely in need of lefthanders, both as starters and relievers. Jim Umbarger, less than a year off the Arizona State campus, and Mike Kekich, formerly of the Dodgers, Yanks and Indians, may prove to be the southpaws they need. Kekich is at least grateful for the chance to prove himself on the field. "Billy Martin," says he, "is probably the only manager in baseball right now who is willing to look at me as a pitcher rather than as some kind of wife-swapping freak."
The two new Chicago White Sox pitchers, Reliever Cecil Upshaw and Starter-Reliever Roger Nelson, presumably will bolster a staff as short in numbers as it is long on durability. The busiest Chisox have been Fireman of the Year Terry Forster (24 saves, seven wins), Wilbur Wood (20-19), Jim Kaat (21-13) and Stan Bahnsen (12-15), all of whom, as Manager Chuck Tanner ruefully notes, were productive in both the won and the lost columns. These laborers were helped from mid-season on by Bart Johnson (10-4), who is a positive thinker of the Silva Mind Control school. "The mind is a computer," Johnson instructs. "You can program yourself for anything. I programmed myself for strikes."
The White Sox' positive approach will likely be improved by the departure of negative Dick Allen, but the team will lament the passing of his bat, which produced a .301 average and a league-leading 32 home runs. Still, sock should be provided by Ken Henderson, who batted in 95 runs, and Bill Melton and Carlos May, who suffered subpar seasons. Melton's average dropped 34 points from 1973, May's dropped 19.
The Kansas City Royals saved their slump for the end of the season, but when it came, it was a beauty. On Aug. 25 they were in second place, 10 games over .500 and only four games behind Oakland. There followed in succession a 2-11 home stand and a 1-8 road trip. The Royals eventually tumbled to fifth place, the lowest finish in the club's six-year history.
So in the off season they looked for more pitching and catching and for help in the infield. They came up with a 38-year-old designated hitter, Harmon Killebrew, who, though fifth on the all time homer list, hit only 13 last year. Hal McRae, last year's DH, will go to left, pushing last year's leftfielder, Jim Wohlford, into a contest for right field with Vada Pinson and Al Cowens. Amos Otis is in center, John Mayberry on first, Cookie Rojas on second, Fred Patek at short, George Brett on third and Fran Healy behind the plate.
"It was not necessarily by design that we didn't make more changes," says Manager Jack McKeon. "We just couldn't afford to give up the players other teams wanted. We feel this club can win with the players we already have. Our problem is a lack of depth. The important thing is that Mayberry [.234], Otis [.284, 73 RBIs] and Pitcher Paul Splittorff [19 losses] come back strong."
Although there are enough young Royals, Killebrew will be pleased to find himself among such contemporaries as Lindy McDaniel, 39, Rojas and Pinson, both 36. "I don't even know what to say to these guys," says Brett, a callow 21.
This will be the Twins' 15th season in Minnesota and their first without Killebrew. It will also be a critical one, since attendance has declined in three of the last four years and the team's lease on Metropolitan Stadium expires at the end of the season. There has been talk of a franchise shift, much of it tied to a drive for a new stadium. But a winning season might prove a balm. And the Twins have reason to believe they are ready. They have improving young players in Catcher Glen Borgmann and First Baseman Craig Kusick and stabilizing older ones in the perennial league batting champion, Rod Carew, at second base and the former league batting champion, Tony Oliva, at designated hitter. Carew may be moved from second to third in the batting order this year with Shortstop Danny Thompson, who is adept at advancing base runners, hitting ahead of him. The Twins had 21 pitchers in their spring camp, but only three—Bert Blyleven (17-17), Joe Decker (16-14) and Dave Goltz (10-10)—are considered sure starters. Bill Campbell, Tom Burgmeier and Tom Johnson are in the bullpen.
The Twins finished strong last season, winning 47 of their last 81 games. Like the A's above them, they will be forced to go hard all the way, however, to improve on last year's third-place finish.
The California Angels, who were dead last in the division, have no place to go but up. And that, says their ever-confident manager, Dick Williams, is exactly where they are going. Williams does not have much clout to support that argument, but he does have the arms and legs. The arms belong to Frank Tanana (14-19), Andy Hassler (7-11), a rejuvenated Bill Singer (7-4) and the incomparable Nolan Ryan (22-16). Ryan led the majors in innings pitched (332‚Öî) and, naturally, in strikeouts (367). He also pitched his third career no-hitter and had one of his legendary fastballs timed at 100.9 mph, which makes him the fastest-throwing officially timed pitcher in history. And at 28, he should be approaching his peak.
Williams expects the customary miracles from Ryan, but having Singer return after back surgery constitutes a miracle in itself. Singer won 20 games for California two years ago, and if he can approach that eminence this year, hope of moving up would be enhanced.
Afoot, they are blessed with the fastest outfield in the league when Mickey Rivers, Morris Nettles and Tommy Harper are in the lineup at the same time. Williams believes these three are capable of stealing 150 bases among them. What the Angels do not do well is hit the ball, although First Baseman Bruce Bochte, a .355 hitter at Salt Lake City last year, certainly has potential.
Another plus is the meticulous, hard-driving Williams, a man whom Coach Grover Resinger describes as "that rare thing, a winner. He's the kind of a guy I'd like to have on my side if I got lost in the jungle." Or maybe in last place.
Ripsnorting Texas Manager Martin says the time is ripe to hook the A's.