It was the precise moment last Saturday afternoon when Ron Turcotte was trying to urge Tom Rolfe past the pack at the eighth pole at Pimlico. In Municipal Stadium in Phoenix, Ariz., a 21-year-old left-handed pitcher from the University of Arizona named Gary Deak was trying to throw a baseball past a 19-year-old left-handed batter from Arizona State named Rick Monday. Tom Rolfe made it.
Monday adjusted his Duke Snider swing for the outside pitch and hit a 400-foot line drive up the left-center alley—a hit that would have been a home run in all but a couple of big league parks but was only a triple in the miniature airport the city of Phoenix built a few years ago to make sure the San Francisco Giants continued to take their spring exercises in the Valley of the Sun.
"The pheenom is rippin'," said Catcher Tony Alesci, the most audible member of the raucous group-admiration society that is the Arizona State bench.
And the Sun Devils—Phoenicians actually call them that—were ripping the University of Arizona in their showdown series for the baseball championship of the southern division of the Western Athletic Conference. Such Sun Devilment could well lead them to the NCAA's college world series at Omaha next month, which Phoenicians would applaud, but there is a deeper, more parochial significance to any ASU victory over the U. of A. Arizona State has come so far onward and upward since the days when it was Tempe Normal that its playing-field status is second to very few institutions of higher learning. Yet years of clobbering by U. of A. teams from downstate Tucson imposed a sort of provincial inferiority complex on Phoenicians that is still felt in the valley, even unto the highest echelons of ASU. "We're like Avis," Arizona State Athletic Director Clyde Smith said the other day, in the course of explaining his school's athletic ascendancy over the past decade. "We try harder."
With an enrollment of 17,000, plus the climate and the scholarships to attract muscles from coast to coast, Arizona State is equipped to play any game with almost any school. The development has been too rapid—too much, too soon—for the valley folk to really believe it, but they savor any evidence that it is true. For example, sounds of pride will echo from Camelback Mountain to Superstition Mountain next month when it is announced that Rick Monday has signed to play with the Kansas City Athletics, for a bonus of at least $100,000. "Well, I hope it's that much," Monday said after living up to his nickname, The Hatchet, in Arizona State's 6-0, 13-5 rippings of Arizona in the first two games of the climactic series that rounded out 50-game seasons in the sun for both schools.
A peanut tossed at random into the grandstand would have hit a big league scout watching The Hatchet last weekend, but only the solicitor from Kansas City appeared confident. In baseball's new free-agent draft the worst team has the first pick, and they don't come any worse than Kansas City. That's all right with Rick Monday. Kansas City's $100,000 looks as good as anybody else's to Rick. He is only a sophomore, only 19, only 6 feet 3, only 195 pounds and only a .396 hitter in his first—and last—varsity season.
Even though he turns professional, he would like to complete his work toward a physical education degree so that later—much later—he can "work with kids," as he was worked with in Little League, Pony League and high school in Santa Monica, Calif. He would, "I think," go back to the books between baseball seasons.
Suppose, he was asked, Kansas City claimed him but offered a paltry $50,000 or so. "I'd be reluctant to sign," he said. So he'd stay in school? "Well, my name would go in the pool draft six months later." It was remotely possible that Kansas City would find a player they prefer and leave Monday to the Mets. "That would be all right with me," Rick said. "I want to play professional baseball. I guess you could say I first thought about it when I was 9, in Little League. I thought about it a long time, but I don't think I really believed I could make it until the scouts started talking to me this year. About 10 of them, so far. No, they're not allowed to talk about money until after the draft."
Monday bats left with power. In the first game of the showdown series against Arizona's John Fouse, college baseball's winningest pitcher (12-2), every pitch to him was outside but the last one. After singling and tripling outside pitches to left, he pulled the inside pitch to right for his third hit, a single. This evident ability to go with a pitch would seem to make him adaptable to any stadium. Monday is also that relative rarity, a low-ball hitter, and a temporary problem with high pitches seems to have been resolved by the counsel of the Red Sox' Bobby Doerr during a nonpro season in Alaska last summer. His ultrawide stance, resulting in what would be an overstride for an ordinary hitter, disturbs neither the scouts nor his coach, Bobby Winkles. "Somebody will try to change him," Winkles said, "but not me. He's not an ordinary hitter."
Monday runs with less than the rhythmic grace of ASU's Olympic champion, Henry Carr, but he moves in great strides that get him there very quickly. This compensates for the fact that his hands as a center fielder are not the surest, particularly on ground balls. He also throws, left-handed, with a power and accuracy that minimize liberties by opposing base runners.