Even though spring training has just begun, the race between the Orioles and the Yankees in the American League East, which was so hot last September, is warming up again in Florida. Last weekend they split a pair of exhibition games, and if they play many like those when the season comes there are going to be hot times in two old towns this summer. Both games were won by one run, the first 7-6 by the Orioles in the ninth inning, the second 4-3 by the Yankees in the 10th.
Naturally, scores meant less to the teams' partisans than the performances of some ink-splashed new players, and here the Yankees came out a drop or two the better. On Saturday, Catfish Hunter, New York's new and far richer pitcher, limited Baltimore to one unearned run in three innings, and on Sunday Right-fielder Bobby Bonds got the Yanks rolling with a resounding double.
In his first effort of the year Hunter looked solid as usual. Although the Orioles went on to win the game, when Catfish ended his stint he was ahead 2-1. His new fiscal status aside—his five-year contract is worth upwards of $3 million—he is a model money pitcher, the kind Whitey Ford was in the Yankees' most recent glory days: not overpowering but sharp, smart, controlled and confidence-inspiring.
Before facing the Orioles in Fort Lauderdale he sat composedly in his New York polyesters. The Yankees switched over from wool in '73, but their double knits have shirt buttons and still look like the suits Ruth and Gehrig wore, only trimmer. The Yankees are one of the few teams that have not gone slightly garish. The Yankee cap retains its classic simplicity. Catfish looks good in it.
Hunter has a good smile, a good mustache, a full head of hair, and calls to mind a progressive country singer, such as Willie Nelson or Billy Joe Shaver ("The devil made me do it the first time, the second time I did it on my own..."), only he doesn't look like he would ever go along with the devil on anything without checking it out thoroughly first. And he wouldn't give the devil anything to hit. He said he likes training in Florida better than in Arizona, where he had spent his springs with the A's, because fishing is handier and "you sweat. In Arizona you sweat, but it dries up right away. In Florida you feel like you're doing something.
"The Yankees and Cleveland were the only teams I followed when I was a boy," he went on. "I didn't follow any of the pitching, though. I wanted to be a hitter." How did he find the Yankees as a group, compared to the turbulent A's? "The Yankees are about the same team," he said, "only a little bit crazier."
"Hoo!" cried Reliever Mike Wallace. "Wait till that goes out on the wires!"
Hunter declined to expand on his remark, so there will probably not be any headlines screaming HUNTER CALLS YANK MATES BIGGER CRAZIES THAN THE A'SIES, but as a matter of fact the Yankees do seem to be loose enough to develop more color than they have in a good while. And in Bonds, whom they got from San Francisco in exchange for Bobby Murcer, they have what they have lacked for years: a dramatic, big-swinging, fast-running offensive threat. If Hunter could be the Yankees' new Ford, Bonds could be their new Mantle.
Bonds was asked what he is going to do about the fact that American League umpires call a higher strike than the National. "If I like it," he said, "I'm going to hit it whether it's a strike or not."
This is the kind of exuberant philosophy encountered among National League swingers. Bonds strikes out more than anybody in either league—but so did Ruth—and no player has ever been as much of a threat as Bonds to hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases in a season. (He got 39 and 43 in 1973.)