It is with studied gravity that Chicago's Dick Allen stalks this slender Oakland rookie who has come, in the eighth inning of a cold night game in spring, to run the bases for Sal Bando. "Lord," says the moody, intimidating White Sox first baseman, squinting in sober admiration. "They say you can absolutely fly."
Herb Washington, recently of the WJIM radio sports report in Lansing, Mich., has not played baseball since his junior year in high school, seven years past. He takes a small lead. "Eff...ell...wye," he says softly, staring at the damp, sandy earth of the base path. "Fly. And I can."
Allen speaks sharply, his urgency overdone. "Gonna go? Gonna go?" But Washington reacts to the pitcher's foot leaving the rubber and gets back to the bag before the pick-off throw. Alien leans close and slides a hand down the back of Washington's left leg, from the lower hamstring to the curve of the ankle where the Achilles tendon is attached to the muscles of the calf. "I have some experience with racehorses and I know thoroughbreds," he murmurs and goes to visit with the pitcher.
Back in position behind the bag, Allen asks once more, "Goin'?"
"Bye-bye," says Washington as the pitcher begins his delivery, and suddenly he is sprinting for second. His slide is headfirst but controlled and clearly beats the catcher's throw. He rises upon the bag, slapping dirt from his uniform, and turns toward first. Allen, shaking his head, gives him the power sign. It is Herb Washington's first major league stolen base.
It must be mentioned at this point that Washington is distinguished from your local sportscaster by his world indoor records for the 50- and 60-yard dashes (5.0 and 5.8). Yet, because the best athletes in one sport are usually spectators in others, Washington's current employment as a pinch runner for the world champion A's ought to engage the sympathies of everyone who has dreamed of uprooting one life and undertaking another.
"Taking a lead and getting a jump on a pitcher isn't really like the start of a dash in track, because trickiness is rewarded here," Washington says. "It's kind of frowned on at the AAU meet. But you've got to read pitchers just like starters. Give you an example: You're on your marks. Now if the starter rolls the next command, like 'Sehhh...t,' that gun is going to come quick. But if he gives you a sharp, cut off 'set,' he's going to hold you for a second and make sure everyone is still. Bill North and Campy Campaneris are helping me make a book on American League pitchers. Like that slow-talking starter, there are some who put most of the emphasis on throwing to the batter and not on holding the runner close. They figure, 'If he steals, he steals....' "
The primary difference between the springtime disciplines is baseball's situational, cerebral nature. "Absolutely," says Washington. "I have a world of reactions I've got to hone down to where they're instinctive." These responses, he believes, will come easily to his sprinter's consciousness. "But unlike raw sprinting, now I've got to adjust my behavior to what's happening around me. If there's a pitchout and I'm coming into second at the same time as the ball, I dive away from the bag's outside corner and reach in with my left arm so there is more of a swing for the second baseman to make; but if it's a sacrifice or a ground ball I bear straight into the man." Sometimes Washington pauses in these earnest self-instructionals and an expression of wonderment passes across his face. "I haven't dreamed about running bases yet as I have about close sprint finishes," he says, "but if I do it will probably be about charging home when the catcher is blocking the plate. I weigh 165. I've asked myself, 'What are you going to do, Herb?' You sure don't slide headfirst into those shin guards and knees. If you're going to be out you might as well try to run him over.... It'd be nice if I did that...and it worked." The imagined predicament is still distant, dreamy. Washington has not become accustomed to every aspect of his transition.
But then it only began this past March, when, switching off the microphone after a noon sports report, he was handed a message to phone Charles O. Finley. Sure it was a studio jest, he returned the call. "When he told me what he had in mind I could not have been more surprised," Washington says. "Not if the Milwaukee Bucks wanted me for their fast break."
Washington had all but signed a football contract, the more conventional professional route for track men, with a WFL team, but flew to Chicago to discuss Finley's idea. "I admit I was uncertain, given what I'd heard about the man, yet I came away impressed. He said he thought my speed could be instrumental in winning five to 10 games over the course of a season."