Here they come again—Detroit, Boston, Baltimore and New York-promising another merry brawl for the division title. Detroit won in 1972 on the next to last day of the season. Can the Tigers repeat? Why not? They play excellent defense and have as much experience as any team in the majors. But is there not a formula: experience=age? Or Boston, dear Boston. The Sox would surely win if they decide that April, May and June are on the schedule, just like July, August and September. Baltimore's Orioles, the former unbeatables, refused to hit in April, May, June, July, August and September. That isn't reasonable. Can the Birds come back? Absolutely. And the Yankees, the Sultans of Swap, isn't their candidacy worth more than a bawdy joke? You bet.
Every Middlesex village and farm has the word: the Red Sox are coming. You say the same alarum resounds every year? Well, Carl Yastrzemski is attacking the ball once more, causing legitimate visions of 1967 to dance in New England heads. Catcher Carlton Fisk is behaving like a leader, and the double-play combination of Doug Griffin and Luis Aparicio seems healthy again. What is more, Manager Eddie Kasko now has a two-year contract and thus a firmer hand.
Boston squandered its chances for the East title in '72 because it did not climb above .500 until July 12. Once the team straightened away it played very well and finished the year only half a game behind the consistent Tigers. The margin was especially painful because the Sox lost one more playing date to the strike than the Tigers did.
Boston's front-line pitching improved dramatically once Luis Tiant (15-6 and a 1.91 ERA) commenced doing his exotic pirouettes and Marty Pattin (2-8 on June 20 and then 15-4 as a starter thereafter) began to get some breaks. Those two are sound again, but the rest of the pitching order will have to be worked out in the early weeks of the season. Sonny Siebert looked sharp in the spring, and the young arms of John Curtis, Lynn McGlothen and Mike Garman were alive. When they falter, solid relievers like Bob Veale and Bill Lee are available. The Red Sox' designated hitters will be Orlando Cepeda (right-handed) and "Gentle Ben" Oglivie (left-handed). Cepeda's knees are a source of concern again; he is having trouble gaining confidence in them. But confidence otherwise abounds in Boston.
In Detroit, Manager Billy Martin has a staunch faith in the league's oldest knees—and so do the fans. The Tigers, who had the second-largest attendance in the majors last season (1,890,000), never fell more than 2� games out of first. "We won even though we didn't hit much," says Al Kaline with perfect truth, since the Tigers were eighth in the league in team batting at .237. "This season we should hit more than that; everybody is not going to have a bad year again. We now have Frank Howard for the entire season, and the designated-hitter rule is going to help us. Remember, too, that we didn't get Woody Fryman until late in the year and he did a heck of a job for us."
Indeed he did. Fryman moved over to the Tigers from Philadelphia on Aug. 2 and won 10 games while losing only three. With the resilient Mickey Lolich (47 victories and 703 innings of work during the last two seasons) and Joe Coleman (39 wins over the same period) the Tigers have three solid starters.
Although they opposed the DH movement, the Tigers would appear to profit from it more than any other American League team. Look at the possibles: Gates Brown, Frank Howard, Norm Cash, Jim Northrup, Bill Freehan, Duke Sims, Willie Horton. So it looks like an improved offense to go with a steady defense. The left side of the infield is particularly strong with Aurelio Rodriguez at third and Ed Brinkman at shortstop. In the outfield Kaline, Mickey Stanley and Northrup are as sure-handed as any threesome in the league.
Faith in the verities was sadly shaken in Baltimore last year when Oriole bats fell as silent as a Chesapeake mist. Thanks to an excellent defense and superior pitching (a 2.53 team ERA) the Orioles hung on in the race until the very end, but it was a wonder, for the team batting average plunged to .229, a full 10 points lower than the league average. Now a winning Oriole season depends primarily upon the success of a winter deal with Atlanta.
Baltimore gave Atlanta four good players for Catcher Earl Williams, plus a minor-leaguer. Williams was that desirable because he could hit home runs and collect RBIs (61 HRs and 174 RBls in 1971-72). After last season the Oriole management drew up a list of players it thought could help the team score more—Billy Williams, Jimmy Wynn, Greg Luzinski and Nate Colbert were also included—and a familiar Baltimore pattern emerged. Just as they did in the cases of Frank Robinson and 20-game winners Mike Cuellar and Pat Dobson in the past, the Orioles went to the National League for assistance. Dobson was one of the players sent to Atlanta, as were Second Baseman Dave Johnson, Catcher Johnny Oates and a promising young pitcher, Roric Harrison. Many think the price was too high to pay for a catcher who at times does not seem to appreciate his job. Admits Williams: "You take a guy who's been catching two years—he can't be as good as someone who has been catching all his life. And by choice."
Moving Johnson out of the Oriole lineup puts Bobby Grich into it permanently at second. As a hardworking swing man in his first full season, the 24-year-old Grich was among Baltimore's top three players in eight offensive categories.