It is not merely that this is a new season; more to the point, even before the season began there were signs that 1971 might be everything 1970 was not. In spring training, for instance, only two exhibition games were postponed because of bad weather; as a result, with few exceptions the players began the regular season this week in the best shape of their lives. Among other good omens, Charlie Finley fathered only one silly idea, Milwaukee managed to retain a franchise for a change and Dennis Dale McLain was not suspended even once. Hopes are so high in California that people are looking upon 1971 as the year of the first "Freeway World Series"—between the Dodgers and the Angels—assuming that such minor harassments as the Baltimore Orioles, Minnesota Twins, Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates can be pushed aside.
By contrast, just a spring ago newspapers in the West were running pictures of a skeleton sitting on the mound in Seattle's abandoned ball park, scandal hovered over Detroit and the entire structure of the game resembled a $15 jalopy chugging toward a drive-in pornography store. Can it really be that baseball has at last banded together? Yes, it could be, but don't bet that baseball executives as a group have at last seen the light at the end of the tunnel. Just hope they have, and that one of these days they will all march out together.
Even with paradise yet to be regained, this promises to be a superior season. Reggie Jackson, a brooding enigma in 1970, is hitting home runs again—long home runs and lots of them. Boog Powell (see cover) will try to become the American League's Most Valuable Player for a second time; with that goal in mind he already has done an abnormal amount of running. "Tell Jim Ryun that I'm coming after him this year," Powell says. "I've been running a mile and a half every day and I'm lumbering the distance in about 12 minutes flat. In my league, that's movin' on."
The teams that trained in Arizona grew wise in the ways of the world when they played the Lotte Orions of Tokyo. "How does it feel to play against Japanese teams?" Rocky Bridges, a coach for the California Angels, was asked. "An hour after the game is over you feel like playing again," said Bridges. Even the Detroit Tigers, so stunned by injuries to pitchers that they faced the season opener with only two starters, Mickey Lolich and Joe Niekro, were talking about "Mickey and Joe and Pray for Show" (and, perhaps, taking a flyer on Dean Chance). Those Lotte Orions, according to some amazed San Francisco Giants, may have a better solution to the sore-arm problem. "They had no sore-arm pitchers," said the Giant clubhouse boss Lew Brinson. "It was magic. The trainer would tap the tender spot with a gold or silver needle as fine as a hair. He used no other medication. Apparently that was enough to relieve the pressure."
Indeed this looks like a year in which anything is possible. There is a magnificent new stadium in Philadelphia guaranteed to awaken that sleeping giant of a sports town, and a sparkling new second baseman in Boston, 23-year-old Doug Griffin, who has such fine hands he could field a ground ball with a pair of tweezers. While everyone is saying Los Angeles and Cincinnati in the West, a young Houston team is hiding in the AstroTurf ready to pull off a major surprise. Every San Diego Padre pitcher put down 2,000 bunts during training—although it is less than even money that before the season is very old they will blow the signs and start swinging away. Ron Swoboda has been traded by New York to Montreal, probably proving that the Mets have become terribly sophisticated snobs. Frank Howard, the Washington Monument, is said to have grown a little over the winter, and Shortstop Freddie Patek, at 5'4", may just turn out to be the big man involved in the offseason deal between Kansas City and Pittsburgh. Red Schoendienst and Bing Devine are trying to put their house of Cards back together in St. Louis and Red's charming daughter Colleen sang the following parody to the tune of Didn't We at a baseball writers' dinner in February: "Next time we better have the stuff again, hadn't we dad?/Next year we can't sit on our duff again, can we dad?/Twice now you've had the answers and the winning touch/But lately the other team's been too much./Next time let's get them on the run again, orders by Bing./Next time let's get in on the fun again, so Mama can sing. /Next time we'll have no lag-gin' on the climb,/Next time we'd better end that long decline,/Hadn't we better make it next time?"
Tony Conigliaro, a swinging singer, has left Boston for Anaheim, and the meter marks on the Angel mail say, "New Faces...Going Places." The Angels probably will, although Conigliaro really doesn't have to go anyplace. Already he has settled into a duplex in Newport Beach where the girl next door is Raquel Welch. This time Richie Allen has landed in Los Angeles where he will raise attendance at Dodger Stadium as well as the mutuel handle at Hollywood Park. In San Francisco it is supposed to be "The Year of the Fox" (in honor of Manager Charlie Fox), but one of the big years there could belong to a right-handed rookie pitcher named Steve Stone, who attended Kent State. The last Kent State rookie to break into the majors was the Yankees' Thurman Munson, Stone's college catcher.
The literature out of Cincinnati reads, "Right On Reds" and, despite a crippling set of pretraining and preseason injuries, the Reds are still awesome. Although he found General Manager Bob Howsam with a pocketful of fishhooks when he talked salary with him, Pete Rose is going to chase headlong after a seventh consecutive .300 year and a sixth season as a gatherer of 200 hits. (Ty Cobb holds the record for 200-hit years with nine, the last one coming in his 20th season. Rose now enters only his ninth.) Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar and Jim Palmer, Baltimore's three 20-game winners, are back to try and duplicate 1970, and should one wonder how the last three pitchers to win 20 games with the same team did the following year, he need only look up the combined 1957 records of Cleveland's Herb Score, Bob Lemon and Early Wynn. They were 22-29, compared with 60-32 in 1956.
It seems as though every talented youngster in America is trying to play for the Dodgers, and most of them are running straight at Maury Wills' shortstop job. Ross Newhan of the Los Angeles Times caught the Wills situation this spring. He wrote: "Yes," says Maury Wills, "I know. I know they want to play. I know they think they can play. I know how it was for me." He is 38 now and he remembers the springs of his youth, of how he made himself into a player, of how he sat and waited for Pee Wee Reese to retire. Now they are at his doorstep—Bill Russell, Bobby Valentine, Tim Johnson.
"I came to this camp for seven years," says Wills, "and each spring I'd be a little more confident, I'd be sure that this would be Pee Wee's last year. But, then, the new gloves would arrive from the manufacturer's, and he would unwrap his and fondle it and say, "Well, this should last me another five years.' I'd see him look out of the corner of his eyes to make sure that I had heard, that I got the message."
Three interesting hitters return to make things more difficult for the pitchers. Rod Carew of the Minnesota Twins, who led the American League with a .332 average in 1969 and was batting .376 when a knee was injured during a base-running collision last June, is well and feisty again. So, too, is Tim McCarver of the Philadelphia Phillies, out for almost all of last year with a broken hand. "The hand has healed," McCarver says, "and I feel so good that it's scary." Hawk Harrelson rejoins the Indians completely recovered from a broken leg and, hopefully, purged of the final hairy story of the year. "When I was a kid," he said, "my hair caught on fire. The only thing they could find to put it out with was a baseball bat. I've still got the lumps on my head to prove it."