Despite Pittsburgh's runaway victory, this division drew more paying fans last season—8,543,000—than any other. This year there could be a real race and a zillion more customers as the Pirates go after a fourth consecutive championship—the number Baltimore tripped over last year. Pittsburgh has not been a superior fielding team during its championship seasons, and now the tragic loss of the Pirates' best fielder, Roberto Clemente, will be deeply felt. True, there are those rip-roaring bats. You look at the list of the league's top 15 hitters and there always seem to be five or more Pirates. Willie Stargell, Al Oliver, Manny Sanguillen et al. have not forgotten how to swing. But batting averages alone afford an incomplete picture. For example, while the Pirates outhit the second-place Cubs .274 to .257 in 1972, they scored only six more runs. But in 1971 Pittsburgh was outhit by second-place St. Louis—yet won. And before that, in 1970, although the Pirates had much the higher average, the Cubs scored 77 more runs. So we come to pitching.
Surprisingly, the Pirates have won as much on pitching as anything else. And as long as Steve Blass, Nellie Briles, Dock Ellis, Dave Giusti and the rest are performing, this team will never be a pushover. This year they have a new pitching coach, Mel Wright, who replaces the retired Don Osborn. When Osborn returned to the team as coach in 1970 the team ERA was 3.70. In 1972 it was 2.81—down by close to a run a game during Osborn's stewardship.
It had better stay down, for no one will truly replace Clemente: his arm, his speed, his uncanny positioning in right field against the hitters, his ability to decoy base runners, the difficult catches he made look easy. Now consider the outs that will become hits, the singles that will turn into doubles. In short—more precisely, in right—the Pirates can be beaten.
But who is to do it? The Cubs? Ernie Banks, resident philosopher of Wrigley Field, maintains that the Cubs "will be mighty under Whitey" and in this day and age only Ernie could get away with a statement like that. Carroll (Whitey) Lockman took over as Chicago manager late last July and the team played .600 ball the rest of the season. But what, really, are the Cubbies made of? Will they resolve not to flinch under pressure, to butcher the big series, to get close and then back off?
Lockman's job is to find the ice and iron in the Cubs if indeed they are there. If he can't, well, Chicago won't have Leo Durocher to kick around anymore. The Cubs were beaten last year because they played only three games over .500 against teams in their own division and because the Pirates owned them, 12-3. The Cubs are getting old now and so are their excuses. But should they really want a title, they could win. Certainly the talent is present.
Billy Williams had another spectacular season in 1972 with a batting average of .333, 37 home runs and 122 RBIs. In the last three years he has averaged .319 with 115 RBIs; no one else in either league has been so steadily productive. Jose Cardenal hit 17 homers, stole a team high of 25 bases, batted .291 and drove in 70 runs while scoring 96. Ron Santo was the 10th leading hitter in the league (.302) but drove in only 74 runs, and although Rick Monday provided excellent defense in center field, he had but 42 RBIs.
Chicago's pitching was better last year than at any time since 1963, but there was concern early this spring over the arm of Ferguson Jenkins, the big righthander who has won 20 games or more in each of the past six years. The rest of the starting rotation will be Milt Pap-pas, who somehow gets better (17-7) as he ages; Burt Hooton, 11-14 with a good 2.81 ERA; and probably Rick Reuschel (10-8). What the Cubs need most is an arm behind the plate—their epitaph may be written in stolen bases. Randy Hundley's knees troubled him when he tried to throw out runners last year, though he seemed stronger this spring. Ken Rudolph has a better arm but must prove himself as a hitter.
If the New York Mets could have one wish it would be a schedule without a July. Come Independence Day and they swing like Betsy Ross. Until that awful month last year New York was playing its finest ball ever—at one time the Mets led the division by 6� games—and the pitching, defense and particularly the hitting seemed of pennant caliber. But in July, when it became clear that Rusty Staub, the most intelligent hitter the club has ever had, would be out for most of the season with a fractured right hand, there went the one man who could drive in the few runs Met pitchers needed to win. Staub's hand is functioning again and perhaps that is sufficient to keep New York in the race into July and beyond. Other hitters are few. Willie Mays was once the finest of all spring batsmen, but now the fastball leaves him standing at the plate all too often. When Manager Yogi Berra fined Willie $1,000 for being AWOL from camp, one iconoclast suggested that the fine broke down to "$100 for going and $900 for coming back." Still, a reasonable facsimile of the grandeur that was Mays would enormously benefit the Mets.
Only at shortstop, where Bud Harrelson excels, and second base, now occupied by ex-Brave Felix Millan, is New York's infield settled. Millan can turn the double play expertly and also make the hit-and-run go. The infield corners are in doubt. John Milner, potentially a power hitter, goes to first. A trimmer Jim Fregosi gets another chance at third, where he undistinguished himself last season.
Duffy Dyer and Jerry Grote are excellent catchers and the pitching staff consists of more than just Tom Seaver and his dog Slider. Jon Matlack was the NL Rookie of the Year with a record of 15-10 and a most impressive 2.32 ERA; Jim MeAndrew was 11-8 with a 2.80. But the enigma of recent seasons, Jerry Koosman (11-12), will have to have a respectable year if New York hopes to go chasing the Pirates.