It's been a real rotten spring, baseball fans, hasn't it? Maybe the worst one ever. There was all that nonsense about Seattle and Milwaukee, the Denny McLain affair, Curt Flood's challenge of the reserve clause, who St. Louis was going to give Philadelphia for Flood, the possibility of a players' strike and the introduction of that 5-X ball, which ran scores so high that you probably didn't know whether you were reading about exhibition games or early-round results from the Azalea Open. Players who should be paid off in green stamps were holding out for $70,000. And it seemed as though every time anyone saw Bowie Kuhn during spring training the baseball commissioner was stepping out of a phone booth wrapped in a Gladstone cape, ready to make a statement on one or another of the headaches harassing his sport.
At one point the commissioner said that the game he rules was merely suffering from "winter and early-spring indigestion," but he did put his finger on something that, it must be hoped, will finally dominate his reign. "The fans," he said, "are more interested in what is going to happen on the diamond. They are wondering about the Mets, the surprise team of 1969. Can they repeat that performance? Can clubs like the Tigers and the Red Sox shorten the gap that existed between themselves and Baltimore?" Kuhn is probably right. O.K. Let's all agree that the sideshow is over, the big tent is finally up and the real circus is ready to begin.
The Mets are, indeed, defending the world championship, and Wes Parker of the Dodgers, among others, has given the matter some thought. "The fact that the Mets won," he says, "is still something that players all kind of think about. It was a great thing for baseball. But I hope that the Mets never get so good or so sophisticated that they would trade Ron Swoboda. He's my favorite Met of all time." The White Sox, contrary to many dire predictions, have not dried up and blown away. They are still there in Comiskey Park, even though they drew only 375,000 to that big stadium in 1969, and they hope to wrestle some of Chicago away from the Cubs this year. The optimistic Christmas card said, "Oh Come All Ye Faithful!" Genial Ted Williams, Manager of the Year in 1969 with his surprising Washington Senators, will try to be just as genial—and successful—this year.
Once again there is a new manager for the Oakland Athletics and although his name is McNamara we all know, don't we, that Charlie Finley is still the leader of that band. Richie Allen is bringing his bat and reputation to St. Louis, and Joe Pepitone will be playing under Roy Hofheinz' giant hairdryer in the Astrodome, though with Don Wilson now on the disabled list the view from the Dome is not as bright as it was earlier in the spring. Ted Kluszewski, outfitted in a size-50 blouse and a pair of knickers with a 48-inch waist, is back in Cincinnati as first-base coach for the Reds, and Walter Alston has yet another group of promising young Dodgers under his wing.
The San Francisco Giants have returned from a tour of Japan, wagging a record of 3-6 behind them, thus proving that they can finish second on any given continent. The Seattle Pilots finally made port in Milwaukee, towing a cargo of $82.5 million in lawsuits, and the people who once thrilled to Spahn, Burdette, Aaron and Mathews are now going to try on Brabender, Pattin, Hovley and Harper. Although the Pilots have become the Brewers, they will continue to wear those nautical Pilot caps with the scrambled eggs all over them. When things were good in Milwaukee the Braves drew more than two million spectators four years running. In Seattle's first (and only) season the team was able to draw only 678,000, and that was under the American League's very liberal method of figuring attendance by which any fan who casts a shadow counts twice.
The mound is still down and the strike zone has not been changed from last year. Spacious new stadiums will open in three National League cities—Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Cincinnati—which may widen farther the attendance gap between the two leagues; the difference was already three million last season. In Montreal a polltaker has discovered that one of every 10 residents has a red, white, and blue Expos cap (without propeller) and that the coming of major league baseball has meant $25 million to the economy of the city. In San Diego, at the other end of the expansion axis, things were not very good at all—the Padres drew only 512,970. What was that Seattle total again?
The newest thing under the sun this season is fake grass, which by July will be underfoot in the three new National League stadiums, St. Louis and San Francisco, as well as in Houston. The only American League field so endowed is Comiskey Park, where the artificial surface was installed last year, and last year the White Sox batting average jumped 19 points because a) the Sox developed some good young hitters and b) the ersatz surface helped hard-hit balls elude the fielders. Some players say the artificial turf hurts their legs. In Houston the pitchers are trucked out of the Astrodome to do their running in a nearby park, and in Philadelphia Don Seger, the trainer, has stocked 300 sponges that he intends to cut up and insert in the shoes of Phillie players to relieve some of the leg strain.
The most bizarre new surface will be on exhibit during the All-Star Game July 14 in Cincinnati. The Reds' new grass-green and dirt-brown rug covers almost the entire field, including the base paths. This is sure to bring loud growls from infielders complaining that they have no dirt to get "set" on before fielding ground balls. This year's All-Star teams will be selected by the fans for the first time in 13 years, or since Cincinnati stuffed the ballot boxes in 1957 and voted seven Reds onto the National League's starting lineup (including Gus Bell and Wally Post over Willie Mays and Henry Aaron). Commencing on May 30, fans can vote for the players they want at each position, with the exception of pitchers (and why not the starting pitcher, too?). Vote carefully, American League fans, because this year's game is big. The National League has won seven straight and 11 of 12, and it is doubtful that Denny McLain, suspended until July 1 for his relationship with bookmakers, will be ready in time to miss starting this year's game, too.
The most interesting of the many managerial shifts, and one to watch closely early in the season, is in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul, where Bill Rigney has replaced Billy Martin. Owner Calvin Griffith fired Martin last fall after the Twins had won the American League West by nine games and then lost to the Baltimore Orioles in the pennant playoff in three straight. Griffith plainly did not like the answers he got when he investigated Martin's slugging of 20-game-winner Dave Boswell outside a Detroit bar last August, and Calvin further complained that Martin did not follow orders. The firing of Martin was a spectacularly controversial issue in a fine baseball community. At one point The Minneapolis Star made a survey and found that 2% approved of Martin's firing, 72% disliked it and 26% were undecided. Before Griffith signed Rigney, caustic Martin fans were recommending all sorts of people for the job, including Sparky The Seal at the Como Zoo. "Sparky," said his sponsor, Norman Visner, "is well-trained and works for fish." A Minneapolis group called "The Basted Turkey" sang The Ballad of Billy Ballyard, the second stanza of which went:
Oh, where did you fail, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Oh, where did you fail your Uncle Calvin?
You were a whiz over on the sidelines
But you ignored Uncle Calvin's guidelines
You're a brash thing who now must leave for another.