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Wanted: a race to draw some people into the ball parks. The problem: Baltimore. The league champions have a new goal, which is lo become the first team in history to win 100 games in four consecutive seasons. Trading Frank Robinson to the Dodgers may not have seemed the most logical way to begin the quest, but the Orioles are so player-rich that something had to give. Merv Rettenmund, the team's top hitter in 1970 and '71, takes Frank's right-field position, but, oh my, consider the really young players crashing in. Bobby Grich, all-everything in the International League (.336 and 32 home runs at Rochester), is the foremost of these. When Brooks Robinson had to miss a spring game because of a wrist injury, Manager Earl Weaver called on Grich, who promptly went 5 for 5. He was at third that day, but he can play any infield position.
Moving up from Rochester with Grich is Don Baylor, an outfielder who hit 20 homers and stole 25 bases while driving in 95 runs. His .329 was the best average in Puerto Rican ball. Also in from Rochester is Roric Harrison, the International League's top pitcher in 1971. He finds himself in heady company. Those 20-game winners, Dave McNally, Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar and Pat Dobson, have not retired, and Doyle Alexander has come from Los Angeles, where he had excellent control.
The starting outfield now becomes Rettenmund, Don Buford and Paul Blair. The infield remains Robinson, Short-stop Mark Belanger, Second Baseman Dave Johnson and first Baseman Boog Powell. Someday Grich probably will replace either Belanger or Johnson in the starting lineup. In the meantime, he will be worked in gradually. "I Feel that Bobby is one heck of a player," says Johnson. "The more good ones we have on our side the belter off we are. You don't go around being jealous of other people. If he's good enough to take my job away it will happen."
If so, the decision will be made by Weaver, who has managed in the minors, majors and winter ball since 1956 and finished first or second with 14 teams. Weaver has heard some sprightly spring talk about Detroit, and he says, "The Tigers did a good job last year. They really seemed to believe that stuff Billy Martin was telling them. I know he says they have a good chance of beating us this year. What else is Bills Martin going to say?"
Well, a number of things. Like "We got to within five games of them late in the season and we certainly had our share of problems earls." Indeed the Tigers did. Pitcher Joe Coleman missed the first three weeks of the season because of a concussion caused by a line drive, but he came back to win 20 games while losing nine. Les Cain had shoulder troubles and was sent to Toledo. He returned to post a 10-9 record.
Mickey Lolich, however, was no problem. Mickey was a delight. He started 45 games and was the winningest pitcher in the major leagues, with 25 victories. His 376 innings of work represented the most since Grover Cleveland Alexander pitched 388 back in 1917.
Detroit docs certain things very well to help its pitching. Although the Orioles probably are a better defensive team, the Tigers had the best fielding percentage in the league last year and also led in home runs (179), with eight players hitting homers in double figures. If Aurelio Rodriguez can duplicate his 83 RBIs of 1970 and Norm Cash has a year similar to his 1971 (32 homers, 91 RBIs), then the Tigers could do more than jus: pare down the 12 games that separated them from the Orioles at the end of the season. By platooning Dick McAuliffe and Ions Taylor at second, Martin hopes to produce more runs. Lest the point be missed, Detroit scored only 41 fewer runs than Baltimore.
Managing the Tigers demands a great deal of communication because the team is getting old and slow. The Tigers stole only 35 bases in 1971 while being thrown out 43 times. Over the last two seasons the ratio is terrible (64-73). During the same period Lou Brock stole 115 all by himself. Because of their age, the Tiger outfielders have to be rotated, and Martin does this expertly.
Al Kaline is now the Tigers' first $100,000 player. There is such a refreshing stubbornness about Kaline that he seems to come from another time. A year ago the Tigers wanted to pay him that honor but he refused to take the raise because he felt he had not had a good enough 1970 season. Last year he was the top hitter among the regulars at .294 and played errorless ball.
Centerfielder Mickey Stanley, whose streak of 500 chances and 164 games without an error ended last year, hit for the highest average of his career, .292. "I guess I quit pressing and the halls fell in," Stanley says. "You can count me as one of those who believe Baltimore can be had. They are going to miss Frank Robinson. When I looked at him I saw a guy who was really tough in the clutch. We made a run at them at the end of the season to get close, and then we tapered off and they pulled away. But we won't have that much catching up to do this time."