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This may have been a bit of tactful modesty, for Kessinger and Beckert give the Cubs great strength up the middle. Kessinger may well be the best shortstop in the majors, and it is mostly due to his own drive. When Durocher first saw him he was not impressed. But Kessinger is the sort of player who pushes himself to become better and better and better. There is a belief in baseball that a player sets his level after two or three years in the majors. Not so with Kessinger. A lean, round-shouldered boy from Forrest City, Ark., where his father was a grocer, he played baseball at Ole Miss. The Cubs signed him, and although he moved up to Chicago quickly, he was a weak hitter. But Kessinger learned how to switch-hit and he has continued to improve, and now at 26 he is hitting close to .300. By the time he is 36, he may lead the league with .350.
This season he set a record for major league shortstops by fielding in 54 games without an error. Durocher says, "He's as good as I'd want, and I would never want any better."
Beckert is cast in a similar mold. As a kid in Pittsburgh, he says, "You were brought up on the idea of winning." Undersized in high school, he went to Allegheny College, where he majored in political science and played short. He was signed by the Red Sox upon graduation, but the Cubs got him when the Red Sox had to choose between him and another shortstop, Rico Petrocelli. When Kenny Hubbs, a fine second baseman for Chicago, was killed in a private plane crash in early 1964, Beckert was rushed to a winter instructional league and taught how to make the pivot. In his first year he hit .239. Since then he has never hit less than .280 and last season he was the club leader with .294.
"When Leo came here," Beckert says, "he visualized what the club would look like three years ahead. You have to give him credit for that. In '65, my first year, it seemed that you had to hit the home run. But the big thing about Leo that I remember is that he told me I'm going to make just as much money if I don't hit home runs. He said, 'Move the runner for me. Get yourself on base before our big fellows, Santo, Banks and Williams, come up.' He said, 'I'll look after you,' and he has."
According to Pete Reiser, the oldtime Dodger hero and now a Cub coach, Beckert gives up 20 to 30 points in his batting average just to move runners along, but Durocher, informed of this, snorts, "Thirty to 50 points. Beckert, he's a double pro. Pretty hard to give anyone more of a compliment than that."
At the plate Beckert almost always manages to get a piece of the ball. For the last three years he has been the toughest hitter to strike out in the National League. In 1968 he struck out only 20 times in 643 official at bats. He was also the best-fielding second baseman in the league and he played in 155 games, a record he will not match this year because of his fractured thumb. Beckert should be back by next week.
If there is a weak spot on the Cubs, at least on paper, it is the outfield. Billy Williams is well established in left, but the centerfielder, Don Young, hit only .242 last year for Lodi in the Class A California League. Defensively he is excellent. Young is long-legged ("split high" is the expression) and he goes after a ball in what seems an effortless glide. Holland says, "He never looks like he's running hard, but he's there to get the ball." The other outfielders—Al Spangler, Jim Hickman and Willie Smith—have done a creditable job. Durocher has not hesitated to pinch-hit for any of them when the time was right. Durocher wants every run he can get. "Banks, Santo and Williams used to carry this club," says Holland. "When they didn't hit, we didn't score runs. But that's not true this year. The opposing clubs can't pitch around them."
It is pitching, though, that until the last two weeks has been a major strength of the Cubs. There is the superb bullpen and some very fine starters. Ferguson Jenkins, who has won 20 the last two years, should win 20 this year and Holtzman should win 20 for the first time. Holtzman's only difficulty is that he cannot stand prosperity. In one seven-game stretch the Cubs got him 69 runs, but he was knocked from the mound in three of those games with leads of six, five and nine runs. He apparently gets complacent when way out in front and he simply cannot get back his good stuff when he needs it. By contrast, give Holtzman only a run or two and, odds are, he'll make it stand up for nine innings. Bill Hands is a capable third starter. Rich Nye has been a disappointment, but Dick Selma, strangely not protected by the Mets last season after a nine and 10 record and a 2.75 earned run average, has been of great help.
Even when Selma is not pitching, he works. He is the bullpen cheerleader for the Left Field Bleacher Bums. At the start of every game Selma stands, raises his right arm and spirals it upward as the Bums begin a rising chorus of "Aaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!" Selma suddenly swings his arm down, the roar stops and the Bums sing, "Every time I go to town, the boys all kick my dog around. Makes no difference if he is a hound, you better stop kicking my dog around."
From then on, the clamor never lets up. Santo, whose company makes Pro Pizzas that are sold in the ball park, is greeted with cries of "Pizza Power!" Banks gets a roar of welcome. "He could be elected governor," says one of the Bums. A Confederate flag goes up for Hundley. If Jenkins sits in the bullpen, the Bums will start chanting, "Fergie, Fergie, Fergie." At the end of the inning Jenkins will run to the dugout as if to escape, whereupon the Bums will start chanting, "Leo, Leo, Leo." Durocher will send Jenkins back to the bullpen and when he arrives, the Bums shout, "Fergie!"