Dick Williams, manager of the Oakland A's, would not discourage the other five teams from playing their 162 games, but lie is pretty certain how things will turn out in his division. "I like this ball club," he says affectionately. The A's finished 16 games ahead in the West a year ago and there is plenty to like, with or without Vida Blue, he of the epic contract dispute with Owner Charles O. Finley.
For that matter, there is much to like about Williams himself. While preaching the age-old virtues of hard work and dedication, he increasingly resembles a rock guitarist. Williams is not one to judge a man's worth by his appearance, so his team may be the most spectacularly coiffed in baseball. His own shimmering locks reach nearly to his shoulders. "My job is to get the best out of each player, no matter what he looks like," he says.
No matter how you view them, the A's look good. If Blue is available, Williams will have a four-man pitching rotation-Blue, Jim Hunter, Ken Holtzman and an avowedly rejuvenated Denny McLain—that is the equal of any save Baltimore's. Even without Blue the A's pitching staff is sound. John (Blue Moon) Odom and Chuck Dobson are both recovering from sore arms, and it is unlikely Dobson will pitch until at least a month of the season has passed, but Williams can still call on Jim Roland, Diego Segui and even his redoubtable reliever, Rollie Fingers, for starting assignments. Fingers, who pitched in 48 games last year, started eight and prefers to cast himself in that unfamiliar role, reasoning that "starting is where the money is." But Fingers, Darold Knowles and Bob Locker make for a formidable bullpen and Williams would rather keep the combination intact.
The A's have substance throughout the lineup. Mike Epstein has slimmed to 208 pounds from last year's 225 and is more determined than ever to play against both left-and right-handed pitching. Dick Green is the second baseman, Bert (Campy) Campaneris the shortstop and Sal Bando the third baseman. All are dangerous hitters. Angel Mangual beat out Rick Monday for the center-field job last year and made possible the trade with the Cubs for Holtzman, but he tore a thigh muscle this spring and opened the door to Bobby Brooks and George Hendrick. Joe Rudi in left and Reggie Jackson in right complete the outfield. The temperamental Jackson seems to be thriving on the philosophy that the team comes before the individual. "Reggie had an enjoyable season in 1971," says Williams. "He put the bat on the ball when we needed him to." Which is to say he wasn't always swinging for home runs.
Behind his team Williams picks—in order—the White Sox, Kansas City, California, Minnesota and something he calls the Washington Senators. White Sox Manager Chuck Tanner might not agree entirely with that assessment. He is the new proprietor of the peripatetic Dick (you knew him when he was Richie) Allen. The White Sox offered Allen the richest contract in the 71-year history of the team, which he promptly rejected. But as much as Allen, who has been with four teams in two leagues in four years, likes life on the open road, last week he signed for $135,000.
Allen, teamed with last year's American League home-run champion, Bill Melton, would give the Sox uncharacteristic punch. Additional power is also available from Outfielders Rick Reichardt (19 home runs), Walt Williams (.294) and Jay Johnstone (16 home runs), and from First Baseman-Outfielder Carlos May (.294, 16 game-winning RBIs).
White Sox pitching improved last year, a phenomenon baseball analysts attribute to Pitching Coach Johnny Sain. Without Sain in 1970 the staff had an earned run average of 4.54; with him the ERA was 3.12. Wilbur Wood, who won 22 games and lost 13, became Sain's 10th 20-game winner in 10 years of coaching. The arrival of Stan Bahnsen from the Yankees and the continued improvement of Tom Bradley, who went from two wins to 15 in one season, should make for an even more agreeable pitching year.
The White Sox advanced 23 games in the standings and moved from sixth to third in the division last year. They also increased their home attendance from 495,355 to 833,891. Another thing they did well was beat the A's—11 games to seven. But somebody else has to beat the A's once in a while if the Sox are to overtake them. Help just might come from the Kansas City Royals, another improving team with grand designs. The Royals finished second, though scarcely within hailing distance of the A's, but they are getting better. And they are certainly the runningest team in the game. They had 130 stolen bases last year, 101 by Outfielder Amos Otis and Shortstop Freddie Patek. Their pitching and defensive play was so improved that the Royals won 20 more games than they did in 1970 while scoring eight fewer runs.
Sometime this season the Royals will move into their new $35 million stadium, with its $2-million coat-of-arms scoreboard and $750,000 outfield fountains. The fountains will be capable of putting on a 20-minute show all by themselves. One will rise to a height of 70 feet in celebration of each Royal home run. Another will respond to the cheers of the crowd, peaking as the noise increases. The new park will also have the American League's first all-artificial turf. Only the mound, home plate and the sliding areas around the-bases will be real dirt. There is some question, of course, as to how Patek, at 5'4" the game's shortest player, will stand up to the hops he can expect on the artificial surface when he recovers from a spring stomach disorder. But if Patek is any-where near as effective as he was on the good earth, where he and Cookie Rojas helped the Royals lead the league in double plays, he will rise to the occasion.
Catcher Jerry May, through no fault of his own, is better known for falling to the occasion. Scarcely a season passes without something unkind happening to him. In 1969, for example, he crashed into a dugout while playing for Pittsburgh and the ambulance rushing him to the hospital had an accident of its own. May played in only 71 games last year, was on the disabled list twice and was sidelined with lesser injuries at least three other times.