In the good old days—like four years ago—Boog Powell would sight the baseball, take a swipe at it and, depending upon the month, pop the ball either nine feet or nine miles. During the Aprils and Mays it was usually the former. But later his hits would rattle off the fences or up in the cheap seats as Baltimore Oriole teammates scurried across the plate and the big first baseman produced another 100 RBI season.
In Baltimore you could look at your thermometer and know when Powell would start hitting. That would be when the weather was such that you would swear they had left the doors open on the huge blast furnaces down at the Bethlehem steel plant on Sparrows Point. Either way, slumping or hitting, Powell was always the same: calm almost to the point of lethargy. "I'm just up there swinging the bat," he would say. "If I hit it, good. If not, tomorrow's another day."
But now it is tomorrow and the hits aren't coming regularly anymore, not even when it is hot enough to boil crabs in Chesapeake Bay. It has been this way for a couple of years, a lot of tomorrows. And it is beginning to work on the man. "The reason I've never worried before is it didn't do any good," Boog says. "For the first time in my life I'm a little shook. I'm pressing. I look at myself and I say, 'Hey, I'm 32, I can't be all done, like I've been hearing and reading. The club shops around and...well, who the hell wants me?"
Boog looks the same as he did a decade ago, maybe a little more streamlined. The stride and swing are the same, both starting deep in the lefthanded batter's box and sweeping forward like a mighty wave about to crash onshore. But the ball just doesn't seem to do the things it used to. From career highs of 39 homers in 1964 and 121 RBIs in 1969 Powell fell to 11 and 54 last season. He did not even make the Opening Day lineup this season, breaking a string of a dozen, and all winter the club tried to unload him via trade or sale.
Powell had been through bad times before—in 1967 when he had 13 homers and 55 RBIs, as the Birds descended from the world championship to a sixth-place tie with a team that used to hang around in Washington. But that was at age 26. There was no talk of his being finished then. And he bounced back, averaging 29 homers and 103 RBIs the next four seasons, being named the American League's Most Valuable Player in 1970 and getting jobbed out of it another year.
"I think that Boog might be to the point where he has to get it into his head he's not as strong as he used to be," says teammate Brooks Robinson. "He might be, but there's a chance he isn't. The ball just doesn't seem to take off from his bat like it used to."
Says Powell, "I feel as strong as ever. But last year I began asking myself if I had lost something. I'd see a ball I should drive six miles, and I wouldn't."
True, he had a shoulder injury. "Last August I couldn't lift my arm above my shoulder," he says. "None of it was in my head. This was for real." Treatment in the off-season healed the shoulder, but this year he developed a strange pain in the right biceps and played in only half of Baltimore's first 20 games.
All along Manager Earl Weaver had been saying first base was Powell's to lose, but when he was not in the Opening Day lineup, and did not appear at all in a doubleheader two days later, it seemed Boog might lose his job the way Sonny Liston lost his heavyweight title: seated.
Maybe his injuries—to hip, to wrist, to shoulder, to wrist again, etc.—have not been viewed as seriously as they might have been, because a big guy is not supposed to get hurt. He is supposed to be able to take anything.