"Poor, hell," says Johnson. "I heard all that and people asked me why I named him my third baseman. I told them to go ask Earl Weaver who his third baseman is and I'll bet he says Brooks Robinson. And nobody will ask him why. Well, Rico had a better year than Robinson. Off his record he was the third best third baseman in the American League."
Johnson shakes his head, then grins. "Rico's arm is fit and if he gives me just an average year, I'll be happy. Let's see, that would be 20 to 25 home runs. I'm just glad I've got him."
When O'Connell commenced wheeling and dealing, pitchers arrived by the long ton. First came Dick Drago (12-14) from Kansas City. Then Rick Wise (16-12), from St. Louis. Not satisfied, O'Connell went back to St. Louis and exchanged three young pitchers for Reggie Cleveland (14-10) and Reliever Diego Segui (17 saves). And finally, O'Connell capped his winter's work by sending $100,000 of Yawkey's $297 million to San Francisco for Marichal (11-15). All in all, the Red Sox have nine veterans who won 113 games last season, and they have not even begun to tap the wealth Johnson expects to be coming up from Pawtucket. It is going to be fun seeing how Johnson handles all those pitchers, to say nothing about Carl Yastrzemski and the rest.
"After working on different combinations," Johnson says, "I found I was leaning toward the young players, the ones I had with me in the minors, and I decided it wasn't fair to the others. We'll just have to let them fight it out among themselves."
Johnson is not quite sure what he is going to do with Yaz or with Tommy Harper, the league base-stealing champion, except that they will play every day, somewhere. Cecil Cooper is up for his third trial at first, and Johnson is convinced he can make it. If he does, Yastrzemski will play left field and Harper, who cannot throw strongly, might come in and replace Orlando Cepeda as the designated hitter. Cepeda hit .289 with 20 home runs last year, but he cannot give Johnson one thing he wants, which is speed.
Even though Luis Aparicio will turn 40 on April 29, the slight shortstop is not going to give up his job without a battle. Each year he loses a little more range, but after 18 seasons in the big leagues he has learned to play the hitters with his head instead of the old quickness. "I'm not about to embarrass myself," Aparicio says. "If I find I can't do the job, I'll quit, and I'll be happy to do so. Maybe in a couple of years." Aparicio is being pushed by Mario Guerrero, his understudy last season, and by Rick Burleson, a sweet glove up from Pawtucket and almost certainly the Red Sox shortstop of the future, if not on April 5 in Milwaukee. After 15 spring games Burleson was hitting .409, Guerrero .321 and Aparicio .316.
Competition? "I love it," says Johnson. "We may go right down to the last day before we can pick the team we'll take north. One thing is for sure, though, if we take any of those young kids with us, they'll go as starters. I told them all that. If Burleson isn't the No. 1 shortstop, down he goes. The kids are our future. We won't waste any of them on a bench."