Consider baseball a garden, bursting out all over in advance of June. Almost all the hardy perennials—Willie Mays (.352), Henry Aaron (14 home runs), Juan Marichal (proving he may have lost a little off his fastball, but nothing off his pride or formidability), Carl Yastrzemski (.313 though he has seldom flourished in cool weather before), Tony Oliva (.384, Tony-O!), Willie Stargell (in the 13th against Montreal he fouls off eight straight pitches, then hits his 14th homer to win the game), Willie Davis (hovering close to .400), Ferguson Jenkins (8-3 and pitching best against the toughest hitters), Joe Torre (.338, the Cardinals' new muscle man)—are as fully in flower as anyone could ask, and more. Abloom over there in the corner are two well-known shrubs that have never before blossomed as they were expected to—Rick Reichardt and Ed Kranepool, hitting, respectively, .328 for the White Sox and .329 for the Mets. And some youngish plants are in their first year of real bloom: The Yankees' Bobby Murcer is going so well that people are remembering what New York centerfielders used to be like. Pee Wee Reese is what other New Yorkers think of when they watch the Mets' Shortstop Bud Harrelson.
And then there are all the exotic varieties. Vida Blue, going like a poppy gorged on Vita Gro—so brilliant that little attention has been paid to his Oakland teammate Catfish Hunter, unbeatable since the second week of the season. Baseball followers are fast learning to recognize such hitherto obscure flora as Harold (Gomer) Hodge of Cleveland, who has become a folk hero for his Gomer Pyle voice and his game-winning pinch hits; Francis X. Healy, whose pinch-hitting average with San Francisco is .500; bespectacled Chicago starter Tom Bradley, who has been so stingy with runs that the White Sox have trouble losing behind him; wiseacre Giant Shortstop Chris Speier, who may have the fastest non-pitcher's arm in the majors and who apologized, uncharacteristically, for throwing to first the other day when Walter Johnson's arm couldn't have made the play.
But the fastest green shoot out of the bud has been Ralph (Road Runner) Garr of the Braves, the leg hitter extraordinaire who has led the National League at around .400 for weeks—bunting safely nine times, beating out 15 infield hits, blooping one single purposely over the head of a charging Willie McCovey and spraying home runs down both foul lines. In the 10th inning with the Braves down 3-2 against New York's Tom Seaver last week, Garr came up with two outs and hit an opposite-field homer to tie the game. In the 12th he came up again with two outs and said, "Lord, I don't want to be selfish, but just let me hit one more tonight." The Lord is unselfish, and that was the ball game.
Garr is always pushing to overcome what he considers a lack of appreciation, an excuse other players have used for dull play. "People always told me I couldn't do something. They'd say you're too small or you can't throw or you don't have enough power. I was drafted way down, and when they came to sign me it was like I was some kind of leftover." Now, at 25 one of the most exciting players in the game, Garr is going head and head with crusty Atlanta General Manager Paul Richards for more than the reported $14,000 Richards grudgingly gave him to play this spring. "I'm going to get me a lawyer and let him get what I'm worth," Garr said last weekend. "The rate I'm going I think my worth will be fantastic."
Fast bloomers have been known to fade, of course, in the full summer heat. But Garr looks like a stayer, and other players who are off to racing starts this year have already proved their capacity for long-term growth. Cincinnati's Johnny Bench has his own television show, has had himself declared Johnny Bench Enterprises, Inc. and is hitting as well as he did last year when he was confirmed as a 22-year-old superstar. Rusty Staub, who as Le Grand Orange is as big in Montreal as William of Orange used to be in England, has just been recognized by the introduction of a Rusty Staub wristwatch, and although he sometimes still has to ask a teammate to slap him in the face to get him up for a game, he has been bearing great fruit reliably for his city, which has only begun to thaw out.
From all sides come cries of renewed confidence and powers. Steve Carlton is 7-2 for St. Louis after going 10-19 last year and not winning his seventh until August 30. "Before each game, my wife Beverly reminds me to 'think positively,' " Carlton says. "She has 25 Victories written on all the mirrors at our home in eyebrow pencil to remind me of my goal. I'm all concentration now."
Baltimore's Jim Palmer threw his first pitch in a game against Oakland in April and said to himself, "Boy, am I fast." Palmer has lost only to Blue (2-1 before 43,307 in Baltimore) and to Sonny Siebert (2-0 before 33,941 in Boston) this year, and, after all, no one has beaten Blue or Siebert since opening day.
Torre and Lou Brock of the Cardinals feel their hitting has been improved by sleeping on waterbeds. "You can hear the waves," says Brock, who is batting .360. "You feel you're floating on air." Other fast starters are more down to earth. In 1970 the Cubs' Billy Williams scored 137 runs, more than any major-leaguer since 1949. "If I can tie myself in runs scored," says Williams, "I'll be having a good year."
Larry Dierker of Houston, who is 7-1 but was 8-2 last May and then went two months before winning again, puts all this lush growth in perspective. "Last year, I got to thinking two or three wins in advance. Now I know better. A start doesn't make the year."
But it sure does make the first part. "It's always nice to have a good head start in case you have problems later," concedes Dierker. Garr puts it more vividly: "The thing about starting fast is it gives you something to bob and weave with for the rest of the season."