- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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What has gotten into baseball? A new season begins, and they actually play ball on Opening Day. Could it be that a blessed peace has broken out between the men in knickers and the ones with the big cigars? Consider Vida Blue. He signed his contract. In March! In Chicago they have slain the fatted calf for Richard Anthony Allen. He that was lost has been found—and rewarded with the highest salary in baseball history. Yet who among you can view the terrible swift arm of Steve Carlton (see cover) and doubt the stern reality of retribution? Who has taller tantrums than Detroit Manager Billy Martin, who jilted the Tigers last Friday, then kissed and made up on Saturday? At 7 a.m.
After a decade of flirting with disaster, baseball is up and kicking—and in the adventurous American League daring to violate the sanctity of the nine-man lineup with that radical new creature, the designated hitter. The American League has also gotten its most sumptuous new ball park in years, in Kansas City, whose citizens have accorded themselves the luxury of a stadium designed solely for baseball.
Still fresh is the memory of an exciting World Series, played on God's green grass in Oakland and Monsanto's in Cincinnati; of the fierce divisional playoffs that preceded it; and of the fire-house American League East finish that came before. Now there is an unusual sense of opportunity all across the land, a feeling that champions can be unseated, tables turned.
It is a year to contemplate records and the men who would break them: Henry Aaron closing in on Babe Ruth's 714 home runs, Lou Brock promising to surpass Ty Cobb's feat of stealing more than 50 bases in eight seasons. And so confident is baseball that it is indeed the national pastime, 15 Monday night games will be televised in prime time.
Heroes abound, and none more dazzling than Cesar Cedeno of the Houston Astros. At the tender age of 22 he is coming off a season in which he hit .320, drove in 83 runs (although he was usually second in the batting order) and stole 55 bases. Cedeno is the kind of player who could tear the roof off the Astrodome. Already he is being compared with the late Roberto Clemente as a generator of excitement. "I do not want to be the second Clemente," Cesar says. "I want to be the first Cedeno."
Should you cling to the shibboleth that today's players do not have wondrous names as in the good old days, roll this one off the tongue: Alonza B. Bumbry. He hails from Fredericksburg, Va. and plays in the outfield for the Baltimore Orioles. Buzz Busby and Crawfish Crawford add pitching promise and a dash of alliteration to the Kansas City Royals and the Astros, respectively. And the California Angels have a new wrinkle in Bobby Winkles, whom they hired from Arizona State University, which makes the Angels the first club to get itself a manager right out of college coaching since Pittsburgh chose Hugo Bezdek in 1917. Has the hiring of Winkles scared the Dodgers' Walter Alston? No. Southern California is his until proved otherwise. Alston earns quite a bit more than Winkles but prefers not to discuss the gaudy details. "I don't need much, you know," he says. "Just enough to keep me in shotgun shells."
One of the fascinations of baseball is that fans acquire more delectable worries, real and imaginary, than heroines of daytime television. Minnesota followers, for instance, believe Owner Calvin Griffith spent so much time dressed in his kilt during salary negotiations that it may adversely affect the Twins. Carlton Fisk of the Red Sox has been plagued with a sore arm; Frank Robinson of the Angels has twice been injured in training; a governor was applied to Cincinnati's Bobby Tolan to limit his running after he pulled a muscle; and the Cardinals' Scipio Spinks, a brilliant young pitcher, has had control problems while recovering from surgery on torn knee ligaments. And there is the concern that Johnny Bench of the Reds, who also underwent off-season surgery, will be hard put to maintain his strength over a long summer.
Over in the other league interest is at its strongest in years, thanks to the DH rule. Probably not since the Roman Catholic Church switched from Latin to English Masses has any break with tradition caused more vigorous argument in this country. The complicated rule, as recent returnees from Outer Mongolia may not know, permits a man to hit in place of the pitcher, thus giving American League teams the option of using a minimum of 10 players in every game while the National holds to the customary nine. When the season is about one-quarter along it will be possible to calculate just what is happening to run scoring, batting averages, RBIs and the number of complete games pitched. Certain statistics may go haywire. American League pitchers will surely have fewer strikeouts simply because they will not be throwing to opposing pitchers three or four times a game. Had the rule been in effect last season, Nolan Ryan of the Angels probably would not have been the strikeout leader. He fanned 329 batters to 310 for Carlton, but some 40 of Ryan's victims were pitchers. Stolen bases should increase because the DH man will get the leadoff hitters up more often. Spring games provided only a taste of the new era—interleague games were played without the DH—but clearly a lot of hits were being made that otherwise would not have been.
One thing is certain: Henry Aaron will not catch Babe Ruth as a DH, asterisk in hand. Wrong league. But catch him he will. It is just a matter of time, but what kind of time? Aaron needs 42 more home runs. Last year he hit 34, only 10 by June 10. He was off slowly because of the layoff caused by the players' strike. In 1971 Aaron hit 47, the year before that 38, and the year before that 44. It does not hurt that the fences have been brought in at Dodger Stadium and San Diego, and the Braves certainly have not pushed them back at their launching pad in Atlanta. Aaron also could benefit from the early 1973 schedule. In the first four weeks he should be swinging in the kind of warm weather he likes. The Braves open at home, then go to California, then to Cincinnati for but three games—two of them in daylight—and subsequently return home. That period covers 23 games. And besides warm weather, Aaron should also be drawing a good many left-handed pitchers.
"I'm going to swing the bat naturally, the way I always have," Aaron says. "I'm sure not going to start trying to hit the ball to right field. Why change after all these years? I just want to hit the ball hard. I've found that home runs come when you don't go after them. I know the pitchers will work me carefully. I've just got to discipline myself to wait for nothing but good pitches."