In their early days on the job with the Washington Senators, Manager Gil Hodges and General Manager George Selkirk bungled matters as badly as their players did. But both learned from their failures, and their new-found knowledge is reflected in the improvement of the club: 10th to ninth to eighth in successive seasons. Hodges started learning in his very first game as manager on May 22, 1963. " Robin Roberts was pitching against us in Baltimore, and he had us down 6-0," Hodges says. "When we came to bat in the eighth I told Sid Hudson, then our pitching coach, to warm up another pitcher. Roberts gets our first man out in the eighth, and the Baltimore fans start clapping. When he gets the second man out there's more clapping, and I start to wonder what's going on. I turn to Hudson and say, 'Is that pitcher ready to go in? He's not even warming up. Get him ready.' The last man makes out, and I'm still waiting for our new pitcher to come in. Then I suddenly realize that we had just played the top of the ninth, not the eighth, and that the game is over."
Selkirk thought he had helped the team with one of the first deals he made back in 1962 when he purchased Lou Klimchock from the Braves. It was announced that Klimchock had been asked to report to spring training early and that it was likely he would be the new third baseman. Selkirk had not thought to check on the military status of his new player. When he did, he discovered that Klimchock was in the service and could not report to spring training at all. Klimchock has since gone on to other things: the Mets.
Wiser and warier, Hodges and Selkirk no longer are susceptible to such boners and the Senators are no longer the wallydraigles of the league. After the 1964 season the manager and general manager collaborated on a highly successful trade with the Dodgers which gave Washington Left Fielder Frank Howard, Third Baseman Ken McMullen, First Baseman Dick Nen and Pitchers Phil Ortega and Pete Richert. In one sense, Hodges is still waiting for his team to come to bat again, because for the second year in a row only the Mets among the 20 major league teams had worse hitting than the Senators. But Howard (.289), McMullen (.263) and Ken Hamlin (.273) had respectable averages, and this season the offense should be more productive. Howard was hampered by injuries throughout last season and hit most of his 21 home runs more or less with one arm, but he had corrective surgery during the winter and now is swinging all the way with both arms. There is no telling how often and how far this 6-foot-6, 250-pound slugger is apt to hit the ball. Outfielder Fred Valentine, who hit impressively in training, looks like a find, and both Center Fielder Don Lock and Catcher- John Orsino, after disappointing seasons, were hitting sharply in Florida.
Ortega (12-15) was on his way to a fine season last year but went sour and lost seven of his last eight games. Richert (15-12) was on his way to a miserable season but did an about face that would have pleased a Marine drill instructor. "I can't express how much it meant to me to know that Gil was willing to stick with me," Richert says. With Richert as starting pitchers this season will be Buster Narum, Jim Duckworth and, if he gets straightened out. Ortega.
Many of the Senators attribute their relative success last year to Hodges, but if Duckworth becomes a winner much of the credit must go to Selkirk. It was Selkirk who helped Duckworth overcome his fear of flying, a fear that could have ended the pitcher's major league career. Duckworth has a live arm and needs only to develop stamina to become a solid nine-inning pitcher.
Busy Bullpenners Ron Kline (74 games) and Steve Ridzik (63 games) need help and may get it from a 6-foot-5 rookie named Casey Cox. Kline, a 13-year veteran of the majors, gives high praise to Hodges for his handling of pitchers. "He shows greater understanding of pitchers than any manager I've worked under," says Kline. "When you get a call in the bullpen to start throwing you know you're going in. That's important because it saves your arm."
Left-hander Mike McCormick (8-8) is another Senator who is effusively grateful for the way Hodges has handled him. "I had been winning as a starter, but then he began using me in relief and I got confused," McCormick says. "But he talked to me about 20 minutes one day, and he explained how he needed someone with my experience in the bullpen. He gave me a pat on the back, and it meant a lot. You're restricted in the bullpen, but as long as you're respected that's what counts."
The players regard Hodges as very fair but very firm. At the end of last season he gave each player who had a weight problem an assigned poundage at which to report this spring. He also gave them the privilege of coming in over that weight. The only condition was that they would have to pay $10 a. pound. Since this was a somewhat higher price than supermarket meat and because any such payment would not be tax-deductible, the money-minded Senators all made their prescribed weights.
Hodges holds more clubhouse meetings than most managers, usually to review strategy and to go over errors. His attention to such detail has helped the club raise its victory total from 56 in 1963 to 62 in 1964 and to 70 last season. Hodges also knows how to rouse emotional lire in his fledgling heroes. In 1964 he did just that when he reminded his players of what they have come to call the no-room-at-the-inn story. It seems that when the Senators arrived in Sarasota to play the White Sox in spring training that year they found that the hotel rooms they thought they had reserved had been taken over by the Chicagoans. In September Hodges rekindled the smoldering memory of that incident and got his ninth-placers keyed up enough to beat the White Sox four out of five times and end their pennant hopes.
It, will be some time before the Senators have pennant aspirations of their own, but now that Hodges and Selkirk have put their gaffes far behind them, Washington looks more and more like a baseball team.