In Philadelphia they are advertising a patriotic pennant, with bumper stickers reading THE STAR-SPANGLED PHILLIES, a red-white-and-blue media guide and plans for an Opening Day gala featuring the completion of a Boston-to-Philadelphia horseback ride. Meanwhile, the cry on Society Hill is: the Phillies are coming, the Phillies are coming!
Can Philadelphia win its first pennant since 1950? Possibly. Last year the Phillies finished second, a respectable 6½ games behind the Pirates, despite an inordinate number of injuries. Shortstop Larry Bowa, who averaged .305, and Centerfielder Garry Maddox (.272) missed long stretches, and the pitching staff was forced to rely heavily on 21-year-old rookies Larry Christenson, who had an 11-6 record, and Tom Underwood (14-13). Now Philadelphia's pitching looks dramatically improved. Erstwhile stopper Steve Carlton (15-14) has recovered from bursitis, and the Phils have acquired two proven starters—Jim Kaat (20-14) from the White Sox and Ron Reed (13-13) from the Cardinals.
With a good year from Relievers Tug McGraw, Tom Hilgendorf and Gene Garber, the Phillies easily could lower their 3.82 ERA, the fourth worst in the league. And thanks to First Baseman Dick Allen, the team's good hitting (.269) should get better. Last year Allen held out until May, reported out of shape and batted .233. This March he was running five miles a day.
But even the Liberty Bell has cracks. The powerful (84 homers, 277 RBIs) all-right-handed heart of the batting order—Allen, Leftfielder Greg Luzinski and Third Baseman Mike Schmidt—struck out 440 times, much to the dismay of Bowa and Second Baseman Dave Cash (.305), who were frequently left on base. The worst offender, league home-run champ Schmidt, had 180 strikeouts and only one sacrifice fly to go with his 38 homers.
The Phillies also need consistency. "We spent too much time worrying about one team," says Bowa. "We would beat the Pirates, then get blown out by somebody else." Most often that someone else was Chicago, which defeated Philadelphia 12 times in 18 games. Regardless of the opposition, the Phils will get a lift and a laugh out of the league's best double-play combination, Cash and Bowa. Last season they released a record called Ting-A-Ling, Double Play. "Three-year-old kids like it," says Bowa's wife Sheena.
Philadelphia kids of any age will not relish comparisons between their team and the Pirates. For one thing, while the Phillies are loaded with former 20-game winners of possibly declining talents, the 1976 Pirates could have their first 20-victory man since Vernon Law in 1960. The most likely candidate is Lefty Jerry Reuss. In 32 starts last year he had an 18-11 record. John Candelaria (8-6), Jim Rooker (13-11) and Doc Medich (16-16 with the Yankees) also have the potential to win 20.
The Pirates believe their bullpen, which consists of righthanders Dave Giusti and Kent Tekulve and lefthander Ramon Hernandez, is underrated. In truth, all Pittsburgh pitching has been unduly maligned. Last year the Pirates gave up fewer earned runs (3.01 per game) than any team in the league except Los Angeles, and fewer homers (79) than anyone.
Pirate pitchers can blame their lack of recognition on Pirate hitters, who have been attracting most of the applause for years. Pittsburgh had four batters—Leftfielder Richie Zisk, Rightfielder Dave Parker, Third Baseman Richie Hebner and First Baseman Willie Stargell—who contributed 10 or more game-winning hits. Second Baseman Rennie Stennett set a modern major league record with seven hits in a nine-inning game, while underrated Centerfielder Al Oliver batted for power (18 homers and 84 RBIs) and Catcher Manny Sanguillen for average (.328).
Despite perennial doubts about Pittsburgh's overall quality, almost every year the Pirates win. "People say we don't run enough," says Manager Danny Murtaugh. "We don't need to. They criticize our relief pitching and defense. There have been times when our fielding has been inconsistent, but it usually all happens in one game." Indeed, Pittsburgh made seven errors in one game last season. But such rare instances of total collapse should not be enough to prevent the Pirates from finishing first—and the Phils from ending up second—once more.
And what of New York, the only club in the East to overtake Pittsburgh since 1969? The Mets were in trouble even before spring training began. First, they created a stir by trading popular Outfielder Rusty Staub, who had just driven in 105 runs and hit 19 homers, for 35-year-old Pitcher Mickey Lolich, who had just lost 18 games for Detroit. The club brass argued that .302-hitting Mike Vail would provide more speed than Staub in right field. Then Vail dislocated his foot in a basketball game, and he may not have any speed until midseason, if then. As a result, so-so fielder John Milner will take over in right. The power-hitting duties fall on Leftfielder Dave Kingman (36 homers and 88 RBIs last year, but 153 strikeouts, a .231 average and weak defense) and Milner, who averaged 20 homers between 1972 and 1974, then spent most of last season on the bench. No wonder Rookie Manager Joe Frazier—who played in 1,776 minor league games, Bicentennial fans—already has a furrowed brow.
Lolich joins three starters—Jon Matlack (16-12) of the sneaky rising fastball, Jerry Koosman (14-13) of the annual September surge and Tom Seaver (22-9) of the three Cy Young Awards—who are still the best front-line trio in the East. Unfortunately, Koosman may be forced to the bullpen unless Tom Hall (4-3, 4.57 ERA) can supply left-handed relief. "Tommy was a total disappointment to us last year," says General Manager Joe McDonald. "On Sept. 14, the day I told him how disappointed we were, he allowed no hits and struck out three men in 2‚Öî innings. His arm is sound."
Shortstop Bud Harrelson must be no less healthy, if the Mets are to contend. The last time he played up to par was in the final six weeks of the 1973 season, the team's most recent pennant year. During the winter he worked diligently in Florida, lifting weights, jogging on the beach and running in the water to rehabilitate his damaged right knee. "I feel like I can play a full season," he says. The Mets gladly will settle for 125 games.
St. Louis may have cured its shortstop ills by acquiring ex-Cub Don Kessinger. The Cards' shortstops last year—three men took a whack at the position—committed 31 errors and an uncounted number of lesser slip ups of the sort 11-year veteran Kessinger is unlikely to make. With Mike Tyson back at second after an unsatisfactory stint at short, speculation now shifts to third and first, where 23-year-old rookie Hector Cruz and 22-year-old Keith Hernandez will start. Last year Cruz led organized baseball with 122 RBIs. However, it was his first season at third, and he still has trouble charging ground balls. Even so, the Cards were so pleased with his play at Tulsa that they traded Gold Glove winner Ken Reitz to the Giants.
Hernandez, a rookie last year, hit .203 for two months and was sent back to the minors. "He didn't get a real chance because we were supposed to contend," says Catcher Ted Simmons. "People forget that I hit .243 my first full year and got to stay up." Simmons has batted .300 in four of his five seasons since, including .332 with 100 RBIs last year. Now he must concentrate on improving his catching—he led the league with 15 errors and 28 passed balls—and leadership.
The Cardinals are satisfied with their six possible starters. Granted, John Denny (10-7), Pete Falcone (12-11), Bob Forsch (15-10), Harry Rasmussen (5-5), John Curtis (8-9) and Lynn McGlothen (15-13) average just 25 years of age, but this is a fairly solid and very deep rotation. And, St. Louis' strength is in the bullpen, where Fireman of the Year Al Hrabosky (13-3, 1.67 ERA, 22 saves) hangs out, and at the plate, where the league's best-hitting (.273) lineup is led by Outfielders Bake McBride, Reggie Smith and Lou Brock, all of whom averaged .300 or better for the second straight year. They also missed 99 games with assorted injuries. "We don't have the depth of Pittsburgh or Philadelphia, or the pitching of New York," says Brock. So in addition to strong hitting, pitching and fielding, St. Louis needs considerable good fortune.
Everybody's favorite long shots, the Cubs, are not lacking in confidence. "We have gone from rebuilding to professional awareness," says Chicago's professorial manager, Jim Marshall. "We're expecting full maturity from Rick Reuschel [11-17], Bill Bonham [13-15] and Ray Burris [15-10]. Darold Knowles should beef up our bullpen." This is no small order for a man who had a 6-9 record and a 5.83 ERA last year, but Marshall presses joyously on: "Our outfield of Jose Cardenal [.317], Rick Monday [.267] and Jerry Morales [.270] is as good as any in the league. First Baseman Andy Thornton [.293] had a good last seven weeks, and Second Baseman Manny Trillo [.248] is the best in the league at his position. At third, Bill Madlock [.354] was the league's best hitter. If we can improve another seven games, we'll be over .500 and, in our division, who can tell where that might put us?"
For the Cubs to be that much better, they will need a healthy season from right-handed Pitcher Steve Stone (12-8), who last year won his first five starts and had a 1.15 ERA before being injured. Stone is a part owner of Lettuce Entertain You, a company that operates six Chicago restaurants, including Jonathon Livingston Seafood. Recently he and his partners bought the famed Pump Room. Surely they will not rename that? "No. It still will be classy, but not as expensive as it used to be," Stone says. "People of ordinary means will be able to eat there." That is only fitting, since Stone and the Cubs, despite Marshall's lavish claims, probably will be ordinary folks, too.
Montreal has a new manager, Karl Kuehl, and plenty of instability at catcher, in center field and on the mound. Dale Murray (15-8, 3.97) is a good reliever, Woodie Fryman (9-12) and Steve Rogers (11-12) are dependable starters and Outfielder Larry Biittner (.315), Third Baseman Larry Parrish (.274), First Baseman Mike Jorgensen (.261) and Catcher-Outfielder Gary Carter (.270) have shown they can hit well enough. That leaves the Expos with plenty of holes to fill, and Kuehl admits, "I don't know how high we will go in the standings." His statement is a welcome change from past pronouncements; the Expos always have tended to promise more than they could deliver. They have never been winners, and in the Bicentennial season they seem unlikely to improve, despite the urgings of their vocal French-Canadian fans. For this year at least, it's still the U.S. pastime, tries amis.