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Roy Blount Jr.
July 21, 1969
Speaking softly and carrying a big blowtorch, Billy Martin has his fired-up Twins in first place despite wobbly pitching. They hit the ball hard and they never stop running until they cross home plate
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July 21, 1969

A Torrid Time For The Twins

Speaking softly and carrying a big blowtorch, Billy Martin has his fired-up Twins in first place despite wobbly pitching. They hit the ball hard and they never stop running until they cross home plate

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Billy Martin (see cover) says that since 1962, when he ended his career as a desperado infielder and settled down with the Minnesota Twins as a scout, "I have been an organization man."

But that is an oversimplification. During the period referred to he has punched not the organization's clock but one of its vice-presidents. He has also come up with the idea of Nuns' Day, played Pygmalion to. a one-shot Most Valuable Player, masterminded so many thieveries of home that in half a year one of his thieves tied the record, expressed public reservations about Ted Williams, won Joe Frazier's endorsement as the only man in the majors who knows how to handle his fists, threatened to drown Joe Gordon, put up a tomato crop in cans and set fire, as they say, to the Denver Bears once and the Twins, themselves, twice. Billy the Kid, in short, has not become some faceless, plastic cog.

Martin the Torch first lit up and into the Twins in 1965, when he became their third-base coach, by establishing a special relationship with Zoilo Versalles and provoking the rest of the Twins enough to earn a good deal of the credit for their comeback from sixth place to a pennant. Last year he took over the previously sodden Denver farm club and got it hot, and this year, as manager of the Twins, he has irritated his team up from a dreary seventh place finish behind even the Yankees in 1968 to a crowd-warming command over the American League's Western Division.

Of course a manager, however incendiary he may be, does not account for the whole fire. Harmon Killebrew, who was injured in 1968 and is now threatening to drive in his weight (210 pounds) in runs, started pushing the ball to right field this year for base hits and recommenced pulling it over the fence for home runs, of his own accord. Leo Cardenas has transformed the Twins from the team making the fewest double plays in the league to the one making the second most. Ron Perranoski has saved more games in relief than any other American Leaguer. And Rod Carew is hitting .356, Tony Oliva .339, Cardenas .297, Rich Reese .324 and John Roseboro .283. Martin, in fact, is the only genius in the American League who has at his disposal, among other recourses, at least eight (including Ted Uhlaender and Cesar Tovar) really good-hitting regulars.

On the other hand, he is the only first-place or even second-place manager in the majors who has no pitcher at all who can be called a stopper, and only two ( Dave Boswell, 11-8, and Jim Kaat, 9-6) who can be called regular starters. ( Dean Chance, the Twins' top pitcher, is supposed to come back after the All-Star break, so far, an arm injury has kept Chance from being of much value.)

More to Martin's credit, he was instrumental in the acquisition of Cardenas this winter from the Reds. Carew is grateful to Martin for batting tips. Selective platooning has helped improve team hitting. Furthermore, without Martin's inspired guidance the Twins would not be the exciting team they have become.

Last year—at least after they went into decline and always seemed to be too far behind to take chances—the Twins tended to sit back and hope for a game-saving homer. This year they do everything but run up and grab the ball out of the opposing pitcher's hand and fungo it somewhere. Killebrew is a convenient symbol for this new fluidity, having stolen four bases so far this year, after stealing seven between 1954 and 1968. But what goes on out there when the Twins get fancy cannot be represented by statistics. Consider the fifth and eighth innings of the Twins-White Sox game of July 1, before 7,609 souls in Chicago.

The Twins are behind 5-3 going into the fifth. Uhlaender leads off with a home run, and Carew follows with a nice triple. Now, a tremor goes through the crowd, as well it might. "I've always said home is the easiest base to steal," says Martin, "if you time it right. You can get a big lead, because you know the pitcher is taking a windup."

Martin relished stealing home himself, and under his tutelage the Denver Bears developed the stratagem into a specialty. So far. in '69 the Twins have done it eight times, which is eight more times than last year. Once it was Frank Quilici, the utility infielder, scoring from third on a special play set in motion when a runner on first allowed himself to be picked off. That was the second theft of any base in Quilici's four years in the majors. Once it was Tovar against Detroit's Mickey Lolich. On that play Carew went to sleep and stayed on second base. He atoned by stealing third and then home in the space of Lolich's next three or four pitches. Six times in all it has been Carew, who already has tied the American League season record held by Bobby Roth and Ty Cobb and is only one shy of Pistol Pete Reiser's major league mark of seven.

The time is ripest with a right-hand hitter at the plate, because he can stand in there until the last moment and block the catcher. The runner has studied and timed the pitcher's delivery, so that he knows exactly when to take off. He slides so as to catch the one exposed corner of the plate with his right foot. Carew is 6 for 6 (8 for 8 counting spring training), and in every case the run has been important, or seemed so at the time. Only once, the last time, did he go without a signal. Killebrew was at bat and fortunately heard Carew coming just in time to restrain himself from hitting him into short left field. Afterward, Martin told Carew never to choose such a situation again.

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