The baseball season, usually an exercise in tranquillity until Labor Day, already looks like a video-taped instant stop-action replay of all the madness that transpired during the final week of last year's wild American League race.
There were the Minnesota Twins running off with six successive victories and tenuously clutching first place. Hold it. There were the Detroit Tigers winning nine straight games and suddenly precariously resting in first place. Wait a minute. There were Carl Yastrzemski and the Boston Red Sox sneaking up from third place. And, oh yes, there were the Chicago White Sox still losing to every team they played and Manager Eddie Stanky still sermonizing to anyone who would listen.
Whew. Now throw in a few beanballs and a few knockdowns, some calculated brushbacks and a dash of personality conflicts and, gosh, it certainly seems as though the season is in the last week of September once again.
Only one aspect of this mid-April excitement had been predictable: the Twins, who played mostly Washington and New York the first two weeks of the season, were expected to start with a strong winning streak. They did. Manager Cal Ermer obviously has the Twins playing as a team, which was not exactly the situation last year, when they were wrecked by several cases of internal disorder. Bob Allison has been the most productive hitter in the league during the first two weeks, while Harmon Killebrew and a new Tony Oliva, who is married now and has settled his legal problems, both are meeting the ball the way they usually do. If there are troubles on the team, they center around Rod Carew, the second baseman and Rookie of the Year in 1967. He still has not learned to run the bases. The Twins' first loss came when Carew, representing the tying run, was picked off third base with two out in the bottom of the ninth.
"So they've won six straight games," Detroit Manager Mayo Smith said before the Twins' loss. "That doesn't mean anything yet. There is no way any team is going to spread-eagle this field so early. No way, believe me."
The Tigers, Red Sox and White Sox, to name three that weren't about to spread-eagle, spent the first two weeks playing a round robin that also included the Cleveland Indians. The complexities confronting each team seemed involved enough to insure practically even competition. "The object of the first two weeks was primarily to stay above .500 somehow," said Smith. The Tigers, after all, had a bullpen of untested kids, a team with little finesse—they murdered the ball or else—and the aura of defeat, a relic of that horrible last day of the 1967 season when they lost the pennant.
The Red Sox had a number of possible excuses themselves, among them the injuries to Pitcher Jim Lonborg and Outfielder Tony Conigliaro and a pitching staff that without Lonborg was totally suspect. The White Sox, like Detroit, also sported a defeatist image, having lost their final five games last year, and now Stanky hoped to win with hitters like Tommy Davis instead of bunters like Walter (No-Neck) Williams.
Alibis aside, what took place between these teams during the past two weeks probably will be the story for their 1968 season. The Tigers did everything they failed to do a year ago and won nine straight games, including three by a 21-year-old rookie relief pitcher, Jon Warden, who worked at Rocky Mount, N.C. last year. The Red Sox survived several dusting incidents with the White Sox and the Indians, and they also won four straight complete games, including successive shutouts by Pitchers Dick Ellsworth and Jose Santiago—in Fenway Park, of all places.
Avoiding beanballs and small talk, the Tigers have thus far concentrated solely on winning. "We seem to have a new approach going for us," said Catcher Bill Freehan, their leader. "Last year we always thought, 'maybe we can win,' and then if we didn't win a game we'd say, 'O.K., we'll try to get them tomorrow.' This year there is no maybe. The pennant is right there—ours to take—and we think only about winning today." This was dramatized in Tiger Stadium when Detroit beat the Indians 4-3 in 10 innings. Cleveland's Sam McDowell had a 2-1 lead in the bottom of the ninth, but the Tigers had the tying run at second base with two outs. Smith sent Jim Price, who plays sparingly as Freehan's substitute, to pinch-hit for Shortstop Ray Oyler. Price shortened his swing and lined a single into right center field to drive in the tying run. That sort of thing happened only rarely in 1967.
The Indians, however, scored in the top of the 10th inning, and with Eddie Fisher throwing his knuckleball, it appeared that the Tigers had just delayed the inevitable. Fisher quickly got Mickey Stanley, who has been hitting well, and Dick McAuliffe on routine flies to the outfield in the bottom of the 10th but then he walked Al Kaline. Willie Horton was the next hitter. Fisher soon had the count at one ball and two strikes. "When a pitcher's got you like that, you expect his best pitch, so I was looking for a knuckleball," said Horton. "The thing is, I didn't really know what I was going to do with it."