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No matter how you look at it, there is a challenge facing Jorge Rubio. Statistically, he is 22 years old and merely one of the 100 and more rookies who will be trying to force themselves into the major leagues by their performances in spring training during the next five weeks. However, Rubio, a right-hander, is totally different from the rest because the Cincinnati Reds are currently encouraging him to become ambidextrous. In all of baseball, there have been few pitchers like him.
There is no sense in laughing at the Cincinnati Reds alone. All of baseball is going crazy with its rookies, and for good reason. This spring, for the first time in many springs, there are a lot of splendid new names. There are a Nash, a Ford and a Messersmith, as well as a Moses, a Cain and a Christian. Look over the rosters of the National and American League teams. You will find rookies named Cash, Bonds, Money, Crook, Rooker and Fink. There are also some who are named Weisenberg and Scheinblum, Kelly, Duffie, Ryan and O'Brien, and there is even a Lum. A rookie Chinese outfielder with the Atlanta Braves, Mike Lum was born in Honolulu, lives in Austin, Texas, went to Brigham Young University and may still be a year away.
The best rookie of this forthcoming season, though, probably will not be a Rubio or a Money or a Lum. Most likely he will be one of the fellows pictured on this week's cover. Each of the five represents more than just youth and inexperience and hope. Take John Bench, the 21-year-old catcher for the Cincinnati Reds. He is being given one of the biggest buildups ever provided any catcher, and, if he should become the National League's Rookie of the Year, as many expect he will, he would be the first catcher in league history to do so.
Mike Torrez, the tall, handsome kid pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, is being counted on to step into a pitching rotation that already includes Bob Gibson, Nelson Briles, Steve Carlton and Dick Hughes, and that is a very high step to climb. Cisco Carlos pitched briefly for the Chicago White Sox last year and during the pennant drive compiled an earned run average of 0.86 in 42 innings. Even by White Sox standards, that is spectacular pitching. The big first-base candidate for the Detroit Tigers, Don Pepper, represents something entirely different, because to win his job he must push aside one-time batting champion Norm Cash and Eddie Mathews, the latter one of seven players ever to hit more than 500 home runs in the major leagues. Alan Foster, after only 54 games in the minor leagues, is the man Walter O' Malley hopes can help his team back into contention in Los Angeles, and when the Dodgers get high on a pitcher the National League had best look out.
There are other rookies almost as promising. The California Angels are going to start a Mexican third baseman named Aurelio Rodriguez. Although he is technically not a rookie—he came to bat 130 times last year—the Angels could not care less because he can field and busloads of Mexicans will come over the border into Anaheim to watch him. Philadelphia's seemingly old Phils have a fine young pitcher named Larry Colton, who is married to Hedy Lamarr's daughter and did not do too badly at San Diego last year for the pennant-winning Padres. Colton is expected to help fill in for Jim Bunning, the consistent game winner who was traded away for a remarkable young shortstop named Don Money. Although Money probably will not be seen too often in Connie Mack Stadium at the beginning of the year, he is still the youngster John Quinn plans to build future teams around. Do not be shocked if the boo birds get mad at the Phils early and Quinn is forced to bring Money up to the majors before he would like to.
Technically, a rookie is one who has not been on a major league roster for more than 45 days between Opening Day and August 31, been to bat more than 90 times or pitched more than 45 innings. Under these terms, two of this year's rookies came very close to not being that at all. Bench went to bat 86 times last year for the Reds at the end of the season, and, had it not been for a lacerated thumb that kept him out of the last three games of the season, he would not qualify for rookie status this year. The White Sox' Carlos was four innings short of disqualification.
As good as this year's rookies are, a pall hovers over the careers of almost every one of them. Unless there is a sudden lessening of tensions in Vietnam, some will go there to fight, others will be called to domestic duty. The trouble is that nobody knows who will go where, or when he will go, or for how long. Most of today's teams are stocked deep with players in reserve units; even without future call-ups, on some of the teams at least 40% of the talent will have to perform some sort of service duty this season. If you wondered why the St. Louis Cardinals traded for Catcher John Edwards of the Reds, the answer is very simple. Tim McCarver will be away functioning as a soldier on any number of weekends this year. There is some fear he could be lost for the entire season. It is the same everywhere. The specter of military service adds to the already heavy burden on the shoulders of the boy trying to make the majors. Aside from this new pressure, the rookie's situation today is not what most baseball people remember.
Only 20 years ago there were some 300 minor league teams functioning in this country. In 1967 there were fewer than 130. The combination of greed on the part of the owners and television's ability to send major league games throughout the land caused that breakdown. Today's rookie must learn things quicker with less instruction than in the past. Two of the three outstanding rookies in the National League last year, Tom Seaver of the New York Mets and Gary Nolan of the Reds, got to the majors after appearing in only 34 and 12 games, respectively, in the minors. Rod Carew of Minnesota and Reggie Smith of Boston, the two best rookies in the American League, played only 274 and 443 minor league games.
But that was last year. Baseball legislation has made it more difficult for the rookie to make his team in 1968. Big-league clubs now must start the season with 25 men instead of 28. Since most managers prefer to keep experienced players around, the rookies of this spring will have to perform at a higher level of ability if they are to stick it out with the majors.
For all their problems, the best of the rookies will be written and talked about often. Some, like the Cards' Torrez, will deserve the publicity. The other morning he talked about his problems in the team's clubhouse at Al Lang Field in St. Petersburg. The weather had been horrible for a week, but during that week Torrez had to do his reserve duty with the Marine Corps. "I'm lucky to be in the reserves," he said. "For so many kids my age, the service is a part of our time and, although it confuses us, I think we understand that aspect of it."