Friends, are you concerned with the problems tormenting the managers and general managers of the 20 major league teams as they wheel and turn and come into line for the 1963 season?
Do you—if you favor the St. Louis Cardinals—feel a cold chill race up and down your spine when you try to figure out what Johnny Keane can possibly do if young Ray Sadecki doesn't win 14 or 15 games this year, as Johnny and the Cardinals, with simple, trusting faith, assume that he will?
Do you pace back and forth with Johnny Pesky and the Boston Red Sox, wondering whether Dick Stuart and Roman Mejias can possibly hit Fenway Park's left-field wall often enough this year to make all that determined trading look good? Do you fidget and fuss with Joe L. Brown of the Pittsburgh Pirates, who traded away three-fourths of a world championship infield and a good part of his hitting power and two first-class relief pitchers in order to strengthen the Pirate defense, which didn't seem to need strengthening in the first place? Are you worried about Al Lopez and Ed Short, manager and general manager of the Chicago White Sox, who every couple of years clean out the attic and do over the kitchen and change the decor in the living room—from speed to power to pitching to fielding—and yet seem to keep sliding farther and farther from the top of the league?
Are these the ones you're fretting about, friends? Or is it Charlie Finley? Walter Alston? George Weiss? The Milwaukee Braves? The Los Angeles Angels? Is it that flat-footed firstbaseman of yours? That nonthinking center fielder? Friends, if you're following baseball this year, there's a problem somewhere that's yours—yours and the team you hold close to your bosom. If you're not sure what your worry is, read on. In the 20 specially prepared scouting reports that follow, the nagging problem gnawing at your team is spelled out, isolated, held up to the light for you to see. You can lose sleep over your team with no trouble at all. Even if you're a New York Yankee fan. (No? Well then, what about the bullpen? And are you sure Pepitone can do the job at first?)
Some people, of course, don't give an old resin bag for problems. They feel that's the manager's worry, or the general manager's. They admit that problems—and their solution or lack thereof—are part of the fun of following baseball, but they argue that it's even more fun to simply wait and see what unbelievable thing is going to happen next. They haven't the slightest idea right now what it will be this year, but they know it will be something and it will be unforgettable.
It might be as bizarre as Bo Belinsky and his big mouth and his five straight wins and his no-hit, no-run game and his ducktail haircut (not that they particularly care for ducktail haircuts, but what a refreshing sight Bo's magnificently flowing locks were after those acres and acres of flattop crew cuts). Everybody tried to stifle Bo, sit on him, shut him up, smooth him out until he was indistinguishable from the rest of the ballplayers around. But in the end the only one who could stop Belinsky was Belinsky himself, and he achieved that by losing his touch as a pitcher for a while. As long as he was winning, Bo was fine, it difficult. When he started to lose he was merely difficult.
Belinsky points up something that is a vital characteristic of baseball. He stands out because he is an individual, and baseball needs individuals. Baseball is not a team game—at least, not in the sense that football is. A football player like Terry Baker shines in a game because of his extraordinary skills, but what he is able to accomplish depends to a large degree on his team. In baseball, on the other hand, a Walter Johnson or an Ernie Banks can do almost as much with a last-place club as with a pennant winner. A football team must be drilled and trained to perfection; it must operate as a unit; it must be controlled and directed in all phases of its activity by a shrewd and dominant leader. It is like a Roman army, whereas a baseball team is more like one of the barbarian hordes that overran Rome as the empire collapsed; it is a collection of individuals banded together for a common purpose; it has a leader whom the individuals follow, but the individuals can operate effectively without the leader.
Imagine the Green Bay Packers without Vince Lombardi or his staff for an entire season. The precision and strength and winning ways of the Packers could not be maintained without the constant and attentive leadership of a forceful and brilliant head coach. Now imagine the New York Yankees without Ralph Houk and his coaches. Would you want to bet that Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris and Whitey Ford and Ralph Terry and Tom Tresh and all the rest couldn't play together without a manager? Of course, the problems of discipline and player evaluation and morale would eventually undermine even the Yankees, but in a seven-game World Series would you give odds that a Yankee team without a manager would lose?
It's the individual who makes baseball, the individual player and the individual feat, sometimes an obscure individual feat. Bill Rigney. Manager of the Year last season with the Los Angeles Angels, talked with enthusiasm recently about a play his young catcher, Bob Rodgers, made last summer. "We were playing in New York," Rigney said, "and we had them tied in extra innings. The game went 12 in all, and we did eventually get beat. But in the 11th, the Yankees had the bases loaded with one out, so we pulled the infield in to cut off the run at the plate. Bill Skowron was on second for the Yankees and as the ball was pitched he came halfway down the line behind Joe Koppe, our shortstop. Bobby Richardson was up for the Yanks, and he topped a bounder right to Koppe. Joe threw the ball to Rodgers for the force at home plate and I was thinking already—who's their next hitter?—because I knew we weren't going to double Richardson at first. And then Rodgers threw the ball to third and forced Skowron, and we were out of the inning.
"I couldn't believe it. I thought, how could he force Skowron at third when Skowron was already halfway to third when the ball was hit? Well, Skowron had stopped behind Koppe and didn't break for third until Joe fielded the ball and threw to the plate, because he didn't want Koppe to see him and tag him before he threw home. Rodgers saw Skowron stop—I think he must have been the only person in the ball park who did—and he didn't hesitate a second. He threw the ball to Eddie Yost and we had a double play, short to home to third. Yost said to me later, 'I was so surprised I caught the ball right here, at my belt buckle. I thought, what's he throwing it to me for?' " Rigney shook his head. "That's a rare thing in a young player—that instant reflex to do the right thing. Yogi Berra had it. And this kid Rodgers has it, too."