This nothing-to-lose attitude stems directly from Mele, who came within an embarrassment or two of being fired last October when his window-breakers stumbled back to sixth place, 20 games behind. Then one night in the last week of the season Owner Calvin Griffith's mind changed as his stomach turned during one ghastly inning. He saw errors by Don Mincher, Zoilo Versalles and Rich Rollins on successive plays. "I asked myself, 'How can I blame the manager for this?' " Griffith said, "and I gave him a new contract. This year Sam has taken over as undisputed boss." During spring training Versalles, the shortstop, rebelled against Mele and suggested he would rather play for Coach Billy Martin, Mele's loudly rumored successor. Mele fined him $300. Because of that, or in spite of that, Versalles is generally regarded around the league as the most valuable Twin this season.
"Sam has always been fair, and the players have high respect for him," Griffith said last week, "but he always tried to protect the players, no matter what. Now they know he means business. That has proved to be an important reason why we're winning."
That—and the way Mele has deployed his troops, keeping a few good hands like Jerry Kindall's in with the big bats to keep the games close. "You can't underestimate guys like Kindall and Jerry Zimmerman," slugger Harmon Killebrew says in simple summary. "We have to hit. They have to field."
And they all have to run. When Tony Oliva was put out the other day trying to score from second on an infield hit against the Red Sox, Mele gave him a positive mark for effort. "He tried to catch them asleep," the manager said, "and he was out just a bit. That play will work a lot the rest of the year." So will the hit-and-run, now that Mele has taken charge of it again. He gave that weapon to the players last year, and most of them looked at it like artillery sergeants inspecting a derringer. "The hitters were supposed to give their own signs for the hit-and-run," Mele says, "but they didn't use it enough. Now I give the signs."
So now the Twins hit and run—and err. Rich Rollins' slumping bat made it easy to take his unsure hands away from third base, but Killebrew has to play somewhere, and none of the Twins—except Versalles, Kindall and Zimmerman—handles the ball like a Globetrotter. "We're still making errors," Mele says. "I'm pretty sure we're last in the American League in fielding. But we don't seem to make them at crucial times anymore."
Mele does not talk at great length about his pitchers, most of whom do not pitch at great length. Complete games by Jim Grant gave an occasional rest to the bullpen, which carried the Twins to their midterm lead. Al Worthington was reliable, and 37-year-old Johnny Klippstein remarkable. Jim Perry, on the brink of banishment, began throwing hard again and pitched himself into the starting rotation. "It is the kind of staff." Birdie Tebbetts says, "that I would like to see under pressure." But one reason the Twins could win it all is that there may not be too much pressure. Jet-age schedules being the strange things they are, Minnesota will play 48 of its last 80 games against the soft underbelly of the American League.
That fact bothered Chicago's Pete Ward as much as his aching neck. " Boston, Washington and Kansas City have no pitching," he said. "They can't rise up like the Cubs, say, or Houston, in the National League. Boston, Washington and Kansas City hurt the race by being almost patsies."
It is Tebbetts' view that patsies no longer exist in the league, partly because the bottom three teams inflicted 14 of the Indians' first 27 defeats. And, unlike the other contending managers. Birdie refuses to worry just because the Twins have opened up a lead. "They might pull away," he says, "but can they stay there? I don't consider five games decisive this early. Any of us could open a lead and then be caught.
"Each of the top clubs has strengths that could win it for them: Chicago has its bullpen, Baltimore has that pitching, Minnesota has power. And each figures to improve in the second half. Suppose the White Sox get Juan Pizarro back or Powell starts hitting for Baltimore. Where would Detroit be if Dave Wickersham had won half his games, or if Bill Freehan hadn't been hurt? And remember that I haven't had Jack Kralick. We're all going to be stronger."
The mind boggles at the five-way playoff suggested by such a balance of power, but Tebbetts' philosophical approach is tempered by realism. "Each club," he adds, "also has a weakness. The club that will win is the one whose weakness doesn't show. They tell me Pete Ward is the world's worst third baseman, but he's never made a bad play against us. They say Killebrew hurts the Twins, but you can't prove it by me because we never seem to hit a ball to Killebrew in a key situation.