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The morning was magnificent, with the sun high in a clear Florida sky. Automobiles from faraway places filled the parking lot at Arthur Allyn Field in Sarasota. Fans sat in bleachers or leaned against wire fences, skin winter-pale. After months of tedious labor negotiation news, spring training had finally begun, and all the old magic was there again for those who genuinely enjoy the geometrical charms of baseball.
The Chicago White Sox have been training in Sarasota since 1960, but this was a special day, the beginning of a special season. Only once in 53 years have the Sox won an American League pennant; in 1973 another may be forthcoming. The White Sox have given their fans generations of geometry; now they promise drama.
Three seasons ago Chicago lost 106 times and ended up 42 games out of first place. Last year the team finished second to the World Champion Oakland A's, only 5� games away from accomplishing a minor athletic miracle. Once the White Sox seemed to be made up of a thousand $1 nonentities. Now they have the highest-priced ballplayer ever to pull on a pair of sanitary socks. For years they went about the business of scoring a run with the grace of a barefoot man kicking cactus. Today they can rattle the fences and break the furniture in a 62-year-old stadium that has one of the largest playing areas in the major leagues.
Not 24 hours after he had signed up for three years at an estimated $225,000 a year, chief rattler Dick Allen was asked why he had wanted a contract of such length. "Well," he said, "when I was traded to the White Sox last year that made four teams in four seasons. I think we are now very close to winning a pennant. In the next three years we might win two, and I don't want to be someplace else when it happens."
Bill Melton (see cover), the handsome 27-year-old third baseman who was benched by back miseries last summer but looks fit and fine now, sees the situation this way: "The White Sox haven't gotten the attention some teams have. To many fans only five teams—Oakland, Detroit, Baltimore, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh—appear to be doing an awful lot. The other clubs just seem to be scrambling around. But we have one heck of a lineup. This year I think everybody will be watching us."
Not the least of the attention will be on Melton. Chicago had never had a home-run champion until Melton, with exquisite timing, hit three in the last two games of the 1971 season to beat out Detroit's Norm Cash and Oakland's Reggie Jackson 33 to 32. While Melton's total was among the lowest to lead the American League in years, that vast Chicago acreage made the feat a genuinely impressive one. And far from freakish—the season before Melton had set a Sox team record with another 33.
Even without Melton for the final three months of the 1972 season, the Sox made the run that put them half a game ahead of Oakland as late as Aug. 28. As the A's must have asked themselves more than once, where might the Sox have finished with Melton?
A little over a year ago Melton, trying to remove his small son from a garage roof, fell off a ladder and aggravated an old disc injury. He played until June in increasing pain. "I thought it would go away," he said last week, "but the pain kept moving further down my left leg." Finally the disc herniated and he had to come out of the lineup for treatment.
Two days before the official opening of the Sox spring camp Melton was out on one of the four diamonds at Allyn Field, beginning the climb back. He stepped into the box and swung against live pitching for the first time since June 23—and hit the first offering on a line to center field. "That's not too bad for right out of bed," he said happily. "The Back is back."
"We could have sat still over the winter and still had our fans fully behind us," says Roland Hemond, director of player personnel, "because we had Melton returning along with Pitcher Bart Johnson, who was bothered by a knee injury last season, one of the best all-round athletes in sports today. But we decided not to sit."