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The question here, simply put, is who is going to get the jump? The Cincinnati Reds got it last year, winning 62 of their first 88 games. The Houston Astros, whom some had seen as a very strong dark horse (without realizing exactly how dark; the Astros had to come on strong to finish fourth), got whatever is the opposite of the jump. The grippe, maybe. And this year? It will be the Dodgers. Has to be.
All the Dodgers will be available from the outset, even pitcher Don Sutton, who will no longer have to spend the first week of the season in the reserves. They can outpitch, outrun, outfield and outyoungster the Reds. And this year—shades of Snider, Robinson, Campanella and Furillo—they will even get some extra-base hits.
The man who will produce these is Richie Allen. Nearly 45% of Allen's lifetime hits have been doubles, triples or home runs. The balls leap off his bat, and the Dodgers hope to leap with them. Two years ago Allen was in Philadelphia writing "no" in the base paths with his toe and building up a reputation as a forbidding person. Last year he was in St. Louis and doing just enough with his bat there for people to dream about platooning a statue of him with Stan Musial's outside Busch Stadium. Unfortunately, he hardly stayed the season.
This year Allen is in Los Angeles, even farther from Philadelphia, and ever more amiable. In training camp he was to be seen taking dawn batting practice, chatting with Japanese newsmen, smiling warmly at tiny old ladies down from Atlanta, being gracious to the hired man assigned to feed his pitching machine ("I'd like to hit some more balls, but I'd like you to have a chance to sit down awhile, too"), saying "Where you goin', hoss?" to obscure rookies and climbing all over the hill in left field at Vero Beach making catches. He was hitting, too. He blasted one ninth-inning fly ball so far that Willie Davis scored the winning run on it all the way from second.
Allen and Davis alone, not to mention the new Wes Parker with his 111 RBIs or Bill Grabarkewitz, mean power and speed, but the Dodgers don't lack in defense or pitching either. Last year the L.A. takeoff was hampered by the effects of hepatitis on reliever Pete Mikkelsen and starter Bill Singer. So far this year neither man has so much as broken out with a rash. Singer, Sutton and Claude Osteen give the team three solid starters. Two others, the impeccably named Sandy Vance or Doyle Alexander, could be a boyish fourth. New catcher Duke Sims, Hawk Harrelson's old friend from the Cleveland Indians, will also hit some home runs, the infield and outfield are basically young and strong, and 38-year-old Maury Wills is going around saying he has not lost any speed, "only a little acceleration."
The Reds, meanwhile, will be greeting the dawn not as the team that went 62-26 before the All-Star break last year but as the team that went 40-34 after it and was given the bird by the Orioles in the World Series. The arms of starters Jim Merritt and Wayne Simpson, which began to show signs of serious deterioration in the second half of last season, are still bad, and the Reds will again be playing in their new spacious stadium instead of the friendly Crosleys of confine field, or however the phrase went. After they moved into Riverfront Stadium in 1970 the Reds hit fewer home runs than they had in their pleasant old ball park, with its high-rise outfield and all. They are also missing Centerfielder Bobby Tolan, who hit .316, stole 57 bases and scored 112 runs last year. Tolan, one of the many frustrated basketball players on the Cincinnati baseball team, went after a loose ball while playing for the Reds' off-season and out-of-favor basketballers during the winter, and his Achilles' tendon snapped. At best he will be available for limited duty in late May.
The Reds still, of course, have Pete Rose, though he may not be widely recognized around the league because his familiar bushy crew cut has given way to a styled, combed-down look. They also have Tony Perez, who has wonderful first halves of seasons but seems to tire badly by the middle of summer, and one Johnny Bench, who by himself equals the whole bench of a lot of teams. There is a passle of young pitchers, including one brand new one, a 21-year-old lefthander named Larry (Pat) Osburn who last year had a 0.92 ERA playing NCAA ball for Florida State University. He improved that to 0.90 in the instructional league this winter. If he can get down to 0.88 or so in the National League, the Reds will get their jump back after all.
Can Roadrunner get the jump? Roadrunner is the new offensive weapon of the Atlanta Braves. Ralph Garr is his Christian name, and he has led four leagues in hitting and stolen bases. Last year at Richmond Roadrunner Garr hit .386, which was his best mark since the year he hit .568 at Grambling. That, incidentally, was the only place where Garr was ever considered "not particularly fast," as he puts it. Braves' Vice-President Paul Richards claims that two different scouts have clocked Garr going from home to first in three seconds flat. That would make Garr the fastest home-to-first ballplayer on record anywhere, and the figure should not be accepted without a public administering of the scout's oath.
This year when Garr reaches first—he hits almost nothing but singles—the Atlanta scoreboard will flash appropriate animated scenes and the calliope erected behind right field will go "beep-beep" just like the movie cartoon roadrunner. The Braves negotiated at some boring length for the exclusive big-league baseball rights to use the "beep-beep" roadrunner on their scoreboard. They could live to regret the deal as the redundant beeps ruin Garr's base-stealing surprises. But he and the beeps surely will get the fans involved.