"Anything," the Swede said as tremendous spiders came after him in the Ingmar Bergman movie, "can happen." During its first two unstimulating seasons, even giant tarantulas would have had a hairy time stirring up interest in the American League West. Now, suddenly, something might happen. Consider the possibilities:
1) A team that 12 months ago looked like the perfect neighbor for Disneyland—the California Angels—has acquired major league bite. It could be the most interesting team in the division—or even the best.
2) If California bites, the bitten will be the Minnesota Twins, who have never before had to cope with such a possibility.
3) Charles O. Finley—owner of the Oakland A's—could finally have a team as aggressive as he is.
On the hazardous premise that the most interesting bet is the best one, take the Angels first. Andy Messersmith, who looks like Ryan O'Neal of Love Story but chews tobacco, says, "I'd like to do it up big, if you know what I mean. I would like to see it come down to the last day of the season, me pitching, and we win it 3-2. We certainly look good on paper, don't we? But there are a lot of intangibles involved."
The first intangible is Messersmith. Last year he had arm trouble, rib cage trouble and minimal rapport with Manager Lefty Phillips. When Messersmith was right he was unhittable. Unfortunately, he was hittable far more often than he was right. Still, he has as heady a load of stuff as was ever intercepted on the Mexican border, and if he is fully functional this season he should give the Angels another intangible, one that new Angel Tony Conigliaro alludes to when he says: "We have talent, but I've been on talented teams before. You need something more—like the spirit we had in 1967 when Boston won the pennant. Guys were on their feet in the dugout, cheering every batter."
Last year, with Phillips exercising nonelectrifying leadership and Alex Johnson, the league's leading hitter, behaving so unaffably that his wife apologized to the wives of the other players for his behavior toward their husbands, the Angels were hardly fraternal. But then they were not all that strong either, and muscle, the organization keeps telling itself, can lead to brotherhood. With Conigliaro and Ken Berry joining Johnson, the team should have significantly more offense in the outfield. It should have significantly more defense, too, if the fleet Berry in center is not worn to a nub ranging to his left and right covering for the other two.
Jim Fregosi, who batted in 82 runs in 1970 and had 22 homers, Ken McMullen, Sandy Alomar and Jim Spencer remain a good infield. The starting pitchers—Messersmith, Rudy May, Tom Murphy, Jim Maloney and last year's 22-victory surprise, Clyde Wright—are the deepest group in the division. The lone area of concern there is Maloney, whose injured Achilles' tendon kept him from winning a game for Cincinnati last year. Maloney is neither as strong nor as fast as he used to be, but he is making up for the few infirmities of advancing middle age (he will be 31 this June) with guile. The California bullpen is not as strong as it was, however, with the departure of Ken Tatum.
Minnesota has three starters of note—Jim Perry, the Cy Young Award winner, Ricalbert Blyleven and Tommy Hall, who ranks No. 1 on the Sister scale (page 73), an astounding 307 points higher than the American League's second most effective pitcher. But after those three comes the deluge—or rather the Twins had better pray for a deluge every fourth day. "Perry, Blyleven, Hall and let the rain fall" does not scan as well as that old Spahn-Sain thing. but it may add up to more wins because the Twins have two of the best short relievers in the business, Ron Perranoski and Stan Williams.