Strongest of the four divisions, the East should also be the most exciting. Detroit, Boston and Baltimore each won an American League championship in the past three seasons and with Cleveland and New York they made up the American League's first division in 1968. Only Washington, the sixth member, was weak. There was, as might be expected, no grumbling when this federation was put together. Geographically, it is perfect. As a division in which to make money, it seems just splendid.
Of last season's 15 top pitchers, 10 are in the division. Of 1968's top 17 sluggers, 12 belong to the East. There is one other factor that should add interest to this grouping: of the six teams, only Washington plays in what could be termed a new ball park. But even Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium is not like other new parks in that it is made for home-run hitters. Indeed Frank Howard led the majors last year with 44 homers.
What newness the Senators do have is Ted Williams, the rookie manager. Once Williams could hit for great distances. Now he must take over a team and an organization that seem a shambles. Still, Ted Williams plus cap, bat and ball days, should put the Senators over their alltime road attendance record of 1055,171 (they were only 30,000 short of that figure last season with Howard and cap, bat and ball days). The real problem is home attendance. It slipped to 542,052, and teams have cut and run from towns that drew many more people than that. For Williams to be considered a genuine success in the nation's capital he will have to avoid losing more than 85 games, the number the Senators lost in 1967 during the popular Gil Hodges' last year in Washington. (To Senator fans the loss column is all-important.)
Although most people tend to forget it, the Senators were in the first division as late as early May of last year. Then they fell all the way back to 10th-37� games behind the pennant-winning Tigers. But Washington does have muscle. Howard is capable of improving on last year's output of homers. Brant Alyea, who probably will play right field, hit a total of 54 home runs while playing in Buffalo. Washington and Venezuela last season. " Frank Howard," Alyea said one day recently, "is going to have to hurry to lead this club in home runs this year."
Williams' special hitting project throughout the spring was Mike Epstein, the intellectual first baseman. Epstein got off to a bad start last season, but after a refresher trip to the minors he returned to hit .276. Third Baseman Ken McMullen is one of the most underrated players in the league and pounded out 20 homers last year. Little Del Unser, who faded from close to .300 in early June to .230 by the end of the season, will have to have another quick start to help the Senators. Williams has done some spectacular things in his career, and if he can pass on some of his hitting ability to the Senator musclemen it would help baseball tremendously.
The world-champion Tigers, not surprisingly have experienced their finest off-season sales. Always a hot baseball town, Detroit responded to the Tigers two million strong as the team won its first pennant in 23 seasons. The Tigers have the batting to make it two pennants in a row and justify the enthusiasm. But, oddly enough, they may not have the pitching, this on a club that in 1968 won 40 times when tied or trailing in the seventh inning or later.
Dennis Dale McLain enters the season as the biggest of the team's many stars—Detroit has such a plethora that the payroll may approach $900,000. He was fantastic last year with 31 wins and only six losses, but Manager Mayo Smith is realist enough to know that if he gets 18 victories out of McLain this pennant race he will be in high cotton. What Smith must also hope for is a change in the career pattern of lefthander Mickey Lolich, winner of three games in the World Series against St. Louis. Lolich has a tendency to become effective only late in the season. During the past two years he has had poor records until August. Then he has hit his stride and won 19 of 22 decisions. This year in the new divisional setup the Tigers play 20 of their first 24 games against Cleveland. Boston, Baltimore and New York. They play a spate of 31 more games against the same clubs before August and do not meet them again until September. Lolich has to get off to a good start. Earl Wilson, the third starter, suffered four different injuries last season, and his record (13-12) dropped off from 22-11 the season before.
Al Kaline, the man who lit the fire under the Tigers in the Series, has spent most of the spring debunking the theory that he will play in barely 100 games in '69. At the age of 34, he has been hitting, running, fielding and throwing just as he did when he was a rookie off the sandlots of Baltimore. Kaline does so many things so perfectly that people sometimes overlook them. It is not merely that he throws well; it is that he never seems to miss a cutoff man when a runner could be advancing. It is not that he makes wonderful catches; it is the way he can use his shoulders and head to decoy either the man who has hit the ball or the runner on base who is watching it. Last year a pitched ball broke Kaline's arm and limited him to 102 games. He was a frustrated man as he watched his team win the pennant without too much help from him. His reward was the Series, which he said this spring, "was everything I dreamed it would be." It was everything Kaline-watchers hoped for, too. Almost certainly, his special following will see a lot more of him.
Once Smith was considered a very conservative manager. When he put Mickey Stanley at shortstop in the Series, however, that reputation evaporated. Smith has gambled extensively in his two seasons in Detroit, and he has also been the manager of a team which has won 194 games during that time. He may have to shuffle his lineup several times, depending upon the shortstop position. For now, since Tom Matchick did not hit this spring, Stanley will start at the position. With Jim (Grand Slam) Northrup, Willie Horton, Norm Cash, Dick McAuliffe, Bill Freehan, Gates Brown and Kaline, the Tigers have plenty of long-ball power. Freehan, hit by 24 pitches to establish an American League record last year, suffered a broken nose in Florida. If he continues to be bombarded and cannot catch most of the schedule for the Tigers, the team will be in trouble.
The Boston Red Sox also have a catching problem but, seemingly, very few others. Without Jim Lonborg at the start of last season, Jose Santiago from early July and Tony Conigliaro for the entire year, the Sox still finished in fourth place and drew a record 1,940,788 to tiny (capacity 33,375) Fenway Park. Now enter Ted Williams in the uniform of the Washington Senators, the first time at Fenway on April 23, the next in the Fourth of July weekend and the last during the first weekend in September. The old park might just burst at the seams.