Think, for a moment, in terms of billboards. Think of marquees, flyers, handbills, throwaways and full-page ads. COMMAND PERFORMANCE: THE WASHINGTON SENATORS. MOST EXCITING TEAM IN BASEBALL. MUST ENTERTAINMENT. Or, LIMITED ENGAGEMENT, THROUGH WEDNESDAY: THE WASHINGTON SENATORS. BASEBALL'S MOST FASCINATING TEAM. What's that? The moribund Washington Senators "exciting"? The last-place Senators "fascinating"? Preposterous. All right, that too.
But no longer a team ignored. All those years—generations, it seems—are past when a writer only needed to summon up a word like "inconspicuous" ("rotten" might have been better) to characterize the Washington club. The Senators are not to be ignored anymore. They virtually thrust themselves onto the daily sports page, a delightful, unlikely medley under an unorthodox, enlightened leadership.
Observe the fascinating Senators as spring training games began in Florida last week. Their owner, who has been in the baseball business only three years, does so many things wrong that the writers in Washington cannot stop writing about him. His name is Bob Short and he traded half his infield against everybody's wishes for Denny McLain, and he is so sorry about what he did that he cannot stop grinning.
McLain is the Senators' new star pitcher. He was a notorious character twice suspended from baseball last year, but before that he was a 31-game winner for Detroit in 1968. There have been years when the entire Washington team had a very hard time being a 31-game winner.
Then there is the newly enrolled star outfielder who has a lawsuit pending that challenges the structure of baseball. His name is Curt Flood and he hit .293 in 12 years as a St. Louis Cardinal. When the Cardinals traded him, Flood refused to go, flouting the reserve clause, and sat out last season to cultivate, he says, a hate for the Cardinals. He has written a book on his travail and has passed out copies to his new teammates. Flood gets almost as much attention in Florida as McLain.
The incumbent attention-getter is Frank Howard. He wears size 13 shoes and weighed 297 pounds when he reported for duty in Pompano Beach three weeks ago. Howard became so big a star in the off season that his manager has told him he cannot play the outfield unless he lets some of himself go. When Howard is asked how much he weighs, he gets a pained look, as if his shoes have shrunk.
Howard's other position is first base, which he shares with Mike Epstein. Epstein is another of the interesting cases that have infiltrated the Senators. Epstein has been told again and again what a great potential he is, and on occasions in the past he has demonstrated that this is not idle flattery. Usually, however, Epstein has given management the impression that he will set a record for sulks and dudgeons before he ever leads the league in singles and doubles. He-has started off the spring in midseason form—his face a pantomime of indifference and boredom whenever he comes to bat. Indifference happens to be the one thing the team's manager cannot stand.
The manager's name is Ted Williams. Williams always begins the spring by confessing that he would rather be someplace fishing. This is a front Williams puts up, like a duck blind, to keep writers and the team's owner from getting too used to having him around. The fact is that Williams loves being one of the best managers in baseball and he has quit forecasting his imminent retreat to the front office. It is possible that for pure pleasure Williams would prefer more than anything else to be settled behind the batting cage at home plate, pointing out the inevitable flaws in his mediocre hitters. That or needling his second-string catcher.
The second-string catcher is Jim French. Ordinarily Jim French would be a Senator to be ignored, except that he represents a kind of synthesis of the team's fresh spirit. French is not big (5'7"), but at 182 pounds neither is he lithe. He hit .211 last year and one home run and did not steal a base. He is, however, the fastest tongue on the team and is irrepressible. He considered his terrible record and asked for a raise. For a time he was even a holdout. He told Williams a man's contribution can be measured in more ways than hitting and fielding. Williams agreed with him.
Last week Williams put French in left field for an intrasquad game. French made a spectacular catch of a routine fly ball, and when he came into the dugout he said, "Just like picking cherries out there." "Yeah," said Williams in mock anger. "Out there you better keep your helmet on. It could be dangerous for you."