The Baltimore Orioles won more games than any other team in the American League during the 1960s, and they are expected to win more games than anybody else this year. But after the Orioles lost to the Mets in the World Series the other clubs in the AL East, particularly the potent Boston Red Sox, began to feel that maybe they could take Baltimore, too. They remember that the Dodgers fell to eighth place in 1967 after losing four straight in the World Series the autumn before and that after the Cardinals blew the 1968 Series to the Detroit Tigers they sagged to fourth in a six-team division. So the dream is there. On the other hand, Baltimore finished first by a vast 19 games—its closest pursuer then, Detroit, is a shaken team now—and Boston, potent or not, lost just as many ball games as it won from July 1 to the end of the season.
Baltimore plays a set lineup that is beautiful both offensively and defensively. Six of the Oriole regulars hit home runs in double figures, and five of the six had more than 60 runs batted in. Paul Blair, the center-fielder, hit .285 after a late slump cost him the .300 average he had sustained for most of the year. Don Buford, the leftfielder, is the best leadoff man in Oriole history; over one span he managed to get on base in 52 of 53 games. Frank Robinson, the rightfielder, will be 35 in August, but he is certainly capable of another .300, 32-homer, 100-RBI year. Brooks Robinson, the third baseman, had his worst season (.234) but still drove in 84 runs and had 23 homers. As always, Brooks is a realist. "We put everything together right off the bat last year," he says. "We really played well in Florida and then got even better when the season began. We aren't that much better than anyone else. It was our great start that kept everybody else in trouble right from the beginning. But I'm not worried about the team letting down this year, because Earl Weaver gets into it a little more than most managers. He gets upset if we lose. He'll shake you." Robinson, Mark Belanger at shortstop, Dave Johnson at second and Boog Powell at first give a fine defensive lift to a pitching staff that had the best earned run average (2.83) in the major leagues. Dave McNally and Mike Cuellar won 43 games. After not pitching at all for the Orioles in 1968 because of injuries, Jim Palmer ran up a splendid 16-4 record and had a no-hitter The bullpen was excellent, but then bull-pens often have trouble putting two good seasons together. Oriole fans, not the greatest ticket buyers in the world, also have trouble putting two good years together, but they really ought to give their ballclub the attendance its excellence deserves. Last year, winning 109 games, a divisional title and the pennant, Baltimore drew barely a million fans.
In Boston the Red Sox might easily have reached two million had the club been able to work its way into contention. As it was, 1,833,000 New Englanders packed little Fenway Park and hoped against hope. Mostly they hoped that Boston's pitching wasn't as bad as it looked—but it was. Now it seems to be much better. The new hope is that lefthander Gary Peters, from the White Sox, can do as well as he used to in Chicago. He won only 14 games over the past two seasons but has had arm trouble that appears to be cured. Ray Culp won 17 games despite elbow trouble, and Mike Nagy, only 22, had a rookie record of 12-2. Jim Lonborg, Cy Young Award winner (22-9) in the 1937 pennant-winning season, was out with injuries much of 1968 and 1969. Give the Sox comebacks by Lonborg and Peters, strong seasons again from Culp and Nagy and they might surprise the Orioles. For Boston can hit and Boston can field. Little Luis Alvarado, the Most Valuable Player in the International League at shortstop, takes over at third base, and the only reason he is not playing shortstop is because of Rico Petrocelli, who batted .297, hit 40 homers and tied Phil Rizzuto's record for fewest errors by a shortstop in a season (14). Carl Yastrzemski had 40 homers and 111 RBIs, but he batted only .255; now he will probably go less for the long ball and more for average. Reggie Smith, who gets better and better, moved up to .309, with 25 homers and 93 RBIs. George Scott picked up 82 points to raise his batting average to an acceptable .253. Catching is still a concern, and the team will probably be a month into the season before new manager Eddie Kasko makes a final decision on who will get the most work. There are still plenty of problems with the Red Sox, but the talent is there. If Baltimore's pitching sags and Boston's comes through, the Red Sox could win this division.
One certainly wouldn't want to bet that the Detroit Tigers could. Detroit's case is the one of the big man who isn't there, Denny McLain. McLain is a great pitcher, and his absence virtually dooms a pitching staff that led the league in strikeouts. Lefthander Mickey Lolich (36 wins in two years) becomes the No. 1 starter, followed by lefthander Mike Kilkenny, a fast finisher last year, and Earl Wilson, who completed five of his 35 starts. Beyond the damage that McLain's departure has done to the pitching is the general effect it has had on the morale of the team, particularly since Catcher Bill Freehan's disclosure (SI, March 2) of the special treatment McLain received from the Tiger management. Freehan's story chafed the Tiger brass and particularly Manager Mayo Smith, who believes Freehan violated the confidence of the clubhouse. The Tigers have won 284 games under Smith in the past three seasons, the highest three-year total in the club's history. Despite the presence of such fine players as Lolich, Freehan, Al Kaline, Willie Horton, Jim Northrup, Dick McAuliffe, Norm Cash and Mickey Stanley, Smith will be hard pressed to maintain that pace.
There seems to be nothing but happiness in Washington, where Ted Williams' enthusiastic approach to managing helped restore pride to the Senators. Washington improved by 21 games in Williams' first season, but his second is not going to be as much fun; the Senators simply do not have enough pitching to be a serious threat for a divisional title. But under Teddy Ballgame's tutelage Washington should have another good time at the plate. Frank Howard hit 48 homers last year, Mike Epstein, the erudite slugger, hit 30 and drove in 85 runs, and Ken McMullen had 19 and 87 RBIs. With these three anchoring the batting order, the Senators have enough punch to give anyone trouble.
Three weeks before the new season began, the Cleveland Indians, who dropped 15 of their first 16 games in 1969, lost Ken Harrelson with a broken ankle. Harrelson's absence is going to hurt on the field and at the box office; the Indians drew only 620,000 last year. The Hawk was a vital man in Manager Alvin Dark's plans for reviving the Indians. Now the outlook is bleak. Popular Tony Horton, who had 27 homers and 93 RBIs, was a bitter holdout after a winter of reading that he was going to be traded. Dean Chance, 20-game-winner-turned-fight-promoter, moved from the Twins to the Indians in the winter but had trouble throwing in spring training. Ted Uhlaender, Graig (not Craig) Nettles and Bob Miller also came to Cleveland in exchange for Luis Tiant and Stan Williams. Outfielder Vada Pinson is another new face, but the Indians are facing the same old story. It would surprise nobody if the franchise were moved—probably to Dallas—after another bad season.
The New York Yankees are in the fourth year of General Manager Lee MacPhail's "five-year program," and there could be a big improvement in evidence. The pitching is excellent, and the hitting should be greatly advanced. The defense, though, still doesn't approach the standards set by the superb Yankee teams of the past, and that deficiency might negate any big move toward the top. But the Yankees are moving. Danny Cater, who came from Kansas City and Oakland, will not belt many homers in Yankee Stadium, but he should be able to hit for a good average. Joe Pepitone was traded away for Curt Blefary of Houston, and Blefary should pull quite a few homers into the right field seats. Bobby Murcer (26 homers) and Roy White (.290, 74 RBIs) are excellent ballplayers, and young Thurman Munson may be the catcher the Yankees have been looking for since Elston Howard started to wane. Pete Ward, from the White Sox, is an outstanding pinch hitter. The big pitchers are Mel Stottlemyre, who had his third 20-game season in 1969, and Fritz Peterson, who won 17. The special reclamation project for Manager Ralph Houk is Joe Verbanic, who spent 1969 on the disabled list. If Verbanic and Stan Bahnsen, a 17-game winner two years ago who fell to 9-16 in 1969, come back to top form the Yankees might have a delightful season.