Very few leadoff hitters these days confine themselves to cadging walks or brushing up against inside pitches and scratching out nubby little leg hits in order to get on base. Like everyone else, they want to belt the ball into the stands. But only one of them goes after each pitch as though he were going to cold-pole it and then personally chase it out of the stadium. Only one of them has hit more home runs than any other man alive.
Willie Mays, in other words, is not the new Eddie Stanky. Since Giant Manager Clyde King appointed him this spring to the No. 1, or somehow-or-other-get-on-first-base, spot in the San Francisco lineup, Mays has not cut down appreciably on the ebullient swing and the lust for a beltable pitch that have characterized him, since 1951, in the No. 3, or bringing-'em-all-home, slot. "I don't think I'm playing any different," Mays said last week after the Giants' Opening Day loss in Atlanta. "After all these years I hope I'm not."
Seeing Mays as the leadoff man is something like watching Bill Russell play guard. But who is to say that Russell would not make a good guard if he had to? Indeed, on the evidence so far, who is to say that Mays is not the finest natural inning-opener there ever was?
In the first inning of the opening game of the exhibition season Mays led off, got on base and scored. This was the first of his 15 runs in only 59 spring at bats. In two of the first three regular-season games against the Braves he opened by singling, stealing second base and scoring. And in the fourth game, the opener with the Padres, it was, indirectly, Mays' run that Ron Hunt registered in the first. Mays walked but was forced by Hunt. In the first eight times he led off a regular-season inning, Mays reached base six times. In the first four games he scored five times and hit .353.
If, as is distinctly possible, the experiment ends soon and Mays changes places in the order with Bobby Bonds, who started the season batting third, it will not be because he has failed to satisfy King's conception of a leadoff man. It will be because the Giants need more than an early run to win, or because a proud, slowly aging and superb alltime power hitter feels miscast and does not want to do without his runs batted in.
Still, King thought the experiment had to be tried, and if the sight of Mays coming to the plate first seemed incongruous, it was no more so to old Giant watchers than seeing King, rather than Herman Franks, managing the team. Franks' standard public-relations statement was, "That is a stupid question." Generally it was spoken through a juicy chaw of tobacco. King, who has spent 25 years pitching relief for the Dodgers, coaching for the Reds, Cardinals and Pirates and managing 10 minor league teams with conspicuous success, is easy to like and to talk to.
In Atlanta last week he was noticeably attended by a handsome family and more than 200 friends from back home in Goldsboro, N.C., and one would be excused for guessing that he was an admired Sunday school superintendent. This is not to say that King is too nice a guy to finish first. For one thing, one does not get to be an admired Sunday school superintendent by being too nice. For another, what King's charges may need is to be taught the parable of the talents.
The Giants have been the most consistently gifted team in baseball since they moved to San Francisco in 1958. Their press book shows them to be leading the league in the composite 1958-68 standings by 24� games. What the press book fails to mention is that in that 11-year period they have finished in first place only once, seven years ago. And in 1968 they did not get the kind of return on their hitting and pitching that they should have. Last year, the year-of-the-you-know-what, the Giants had the solidest pitching staff in the majors—but they won 27 and lost 29 of their pitching duels while the Cardinals won 41 and lost 26 such games. The difference about accounts for the nine games by which St. Louis claimed the pennant.
No team is likely to win the low-scoring close ones if, as the Giants did last season, it fails to take advantage of such economical devices as bunting, clever base running and the hit-and-run. Now the pitchers' duel to end them all—or at least to make one wish they all would end—was last year's All-Star Game. In that contest, as before, Mays was the National League's leadoff man. In the first inning he beat out a little single, went to second when Luis Tiant tried to pick him off, took third on Tiant's wild pitch and scored on a double-play ball. That was the only run of the day, and Mays was named Most Valuable Player.
It was an odd way for a 37-year-old big bat to win a ball game, but Mays is a uniquely mobile slugger. His first theft against the Braves last week made him the first man with 300 or more home runs (now 588, to be exact—more than anybody but Babe Ruth) to steal 300 bases.