It was often said years ago that a ballplayer who changed from conventional baseball apparel into the pinstripe flannels of the New York Yankees automatically underwent a metamorphosis comparable to that regularly experienced by Clark Kent in the telephone booth. Mild-mannered banjo hitters were suddenly transformed into sluggers more powerful than a locomotive, cracker-armed has-beens discovered they could throw a pitch faster than a speeding bullet, palsied veterans were able to leap tall buildings at a single bound. Such were the magical properties of the old Yankee raiment.
Alas, in recent years the enchanted regalia has done little more for its wearers than rags off the rack at the local discount store. The repugnant green and gold ensemble of the world champions from Oakland is more enhancing. But the Yankees under their tradition-conscious president, Gabe Paul, are anxious to restore the legend of the uniforms, and so it was that when the team's new right-fielder, Bobby Bonds, slipped on the pinstripes last Friday for the first time before a regular-season home game, an expectant hush fell over the Shea Stadium clubhouse. The fit was just right—a little snug about the shoulders, perhaps—and the garment pleasantly emphasized the wearer's lean muscularity. Bonds examined himself in a mirror as others awaited his opinion.
"I look funny," he said finally. "I don't look like a Yankee at all. Some people look like Yankees, and some don't. Elston Howard over there does," he said, gesturing toward the former All-Star catcher, now a coach. "Even Alex Johnson does. But Walt Williams looks like a Chicago White Sock and I still look like a San Francisco Giant. I know Willie Mays never looked like a Met. This uniform looks funny on me."
As if to compound the blasphemy, Bonds proceeded that afternoon to strike out with the bases full of potential winning runs. And his even more celebrated fellow San Francisco Bay Area refugee, Jim (Catfish) Hunter, fresh out of the clown suits favored by his previous employer, threw two home-run pitches and lost his first start as a Yankee. The pinstripes proved as beneficial to Hunter and Bonds as sackcloth.
But even after their opening loss to Cleveland and the home-opener defeat by Detroit, both by 5-3 scores, and yet another loss to Detroit on Saturday, the Yankees remained the glamour team of the season's first week. The acquisition of Hunter from the A's, at a cost of $3.75 million, and Bonds from the Giants, at the cost of Bobby Murcer, were the two most spectacular player transactions of the off season. And it is yet possible the two Bay Area migrants will lead the Yankees to a division, league or even World Series championship.
The Yankees have not achieved a championship of any sort since 1964. But Bonds gives them the speed and power they have lacked since the decline and eventual departure of Mickey Mantle, and Hunter, last year's American League Cy Young Award winner, is a pitcher reminiscent of Ruffing, Chandler, Reynolds, Raschi and Ford.
So amid heavy competition for publicity, the Yankees occupied center stage as the curtain went up. That they were upstaged by Frank Robinson's dramatic debut as the first black manager and by Hank Aaron's sentimental return to Milwaukee, or even by Tony Conigliaro's somewhat less affecting return to Boston was incidental. Besides, the Yankees at least had a hand in Robinson's history-making, and they were peripherally involved in two other significant developments of the week: the A's discovery of a possible successor to Hunter in 20-year-old Mike Norris, a shutout winner in his first start, and Murcer's slam-bang beginning as a Giant—six hits, four for extra bases, in his first three games.
Bonds, uncomfortable though he may have been in his new clothes, remained supremely confident. On the cold morning of Opening Day in Cleveland, he stood at the batting cage musing on his prospects. Bonds did not, for him, have a good season in 1974 and he did not have a good spring. He regarded neither circumstance as foreboding.
"I don't feel I'm in a pressure situation," he said, massaging his bat. "I felt more pressure in spring training than I do now. People in Florida, my teammates especially, expected me to show a lot of power, and I suppose I went out there trying to prove to them that I could hit the ball out of the park. I tried to impress everybody down there. I was pressing. I was tight. Look, I was traded for a good ballplayer, somebody they respected here. I wanted to earn that kind of respect. I couldn't relax. Then I finally realized that I didn't have to prove anything. It's all there in the record. I've hit 186 home runs and I've stolen 263 bases in seven seasons. All I have to do is use the ability God gave me. So I finally relaxed. And that's the way I feel now that the season's starting."
And he stepped into the batter's box and hit a ball over the left-field fence. He looked back, smiling, saying wordlessly, "See what I mean?"