Squat, bald and 34; bottom-heavy, thick across the midsection and chronically aggravated by an old soreness in his right knee, he is a picture of the American spectator spreading idly into middle age. He should be at home, sprawled in an overstuffed chair, wearing a fleshed-out T shirt and watching ball games on the tube. Instead, Harmon Killebrew of the Minnesota Twins, his short, wispy sideburns showing flecks of gray where they creep out from under his batting helmet, has matured into the most dangerous all-round hitter in the American League.
Killebrew is no stronger than he was when he had most of his hair, weighed 20 pounds less and hit 42 home runs in his first season as a regular for the old Washington Senators 11 years ago. Since early in his career he has been second only to Babe Ruth as the most consistent slugger in baseball history, and while the years have taken most of the deliberate speed Killebrew once had, they have added a vintage sophistication to his batting. Last year he led the major leagues in home runs and RBIs and was the American League's Most Valuable Player. This season he is easily in range of his first 50-home-run season and, after averaging .262 for his career, he has batted well over .300 all this year.
While Killebrew's hitting has been hotter, the climate around the Twins has cooled off. Billy Martin, the swarthy, sharp-featured man with the piercing dark eyes and rocket temperament, managed Minnesota to the division title last year and added plenty of excitement along the way. Some of the high spirits even occurred on the field. Off the diamond, Martin slugged it out with one of his pitchers outside a Detroit bar one night. His abrasive style failed to endear Martin to some of his players and all of his bosses, but the fans adored him and hooted in dismay when he was fired after losing the playoffs.
Martin's replacement is his antithesis. Bill Rigney's fair skin is burned cherry red and his face has a warm roundness. In 14 years of managing the Giants and Angels he gained the reputation of a man who keeps his cool. Because he replaced Martin, the fans have occasionally been as chilly as December on Hennepin Avenue toward him. "It's like they feel no one should be the manager here now," Rig says.
In the spring it appeared as if the Twins hardly needed a manager. The team was a set piece with very promising young players apparently ready to take over where needed. It has not worked out that way. Moreover, Second Baseman Rod Carew, last year's batting champion, has played in only half of the Twins' games because of injuries, the latest of which will bench him at least until Sept. 15, and only one of last year's starting pitchers, Jim Perry, who has won 15 games, has been consistent. Rigney, nicknamed Captain Hook in California for the way he pirated starters off the mound, has thus once again had to rely heavily on his bullpen. But if Minnesota's five-game lead over the Angels stands up for the rest of the season Bill Zepp, who won only seven games in four years of college pitching, and 19-year-old Ricalbert Blyleven could end up with much of the credit.
Zepp has a master's degree from the University of Michigan only because nobody offered him a contract. "Most of the way through college I realistically had to think I wouldn't play pro ball," he said. "I wanted to attempt it, but nobody even tried to sign me, so I just stayed in school." The Twins finally asked Zepp to sign for less than $1,000 when they saw him pitching for a semipro team at the end of his year in graduate business school. Thirteen months later, after developing several off-speed pitches, he compiled an 18-4 record in only part of a minor-league season and promptly joined the Twins. Promoted to a starting spot in early July, Zepp ran his record to 5-0 before suffering his first loss.
Bert Blyleven's progress was a little faster. When he was called up to the Twins in June, he had been out of high school in Garden Grove, Calif. for less than a year. Blyleven, who was born in Zeist, Holland and emigrated to California via Saskatoon when he was 6, has a shy grin and narrowly spaced eyes that make him look scared, something he certainly is not. "I first started thinking about coming to the majors this soon when I was 8-0 last fall in the Florida Instructional League," he says. "I wondered if I'd be ready, but now that I've been here and pitched I'm not worried about it anymore." Blyleven's high school catcher taught him how to throw a curve about 18 months ago and that pitch is now a wonderment in the American League. It also almost caused an abrupt end to Blyleven's rapid progress.
"Everyone kept telling me I had a good curve, so when I got here I figured that's what I should throw. I was throwing it about 50% of the time, and after my sixth start or so my elbow began bothering me," he says. "The doctor told me my arm's still growing and the curve hurts it. So now I'll use it only about 30% of the time."
Last week Blyleven concentrated on his fastball against Detroit, defeating the Tigers 2-1 on four hits. After the Twins put him ahead in the bottom of the seventh, he used only 20 pitches, 19 of them strikes, to set Detroit down in the final two innings. The win brought his record to 4-3 and lowered his ERA to 2.58, best among the Twins' starters.
Blyleven, who until last summer had not been out of California since his family moved there, lives by himself in an apartment and rarely sees his teammates. "They all go home to their families at night and I can't get into the places where the other single guys go because I'm not old enough," he explains. He also travels in a distinctly different social set. He usually goes out with girls who have just finished their junior year in high school.