Ordinarily, it is Bill North's practice to pursue a rigidly anti-intellectual course when discussing the science of base stealing. As opposed to such theorists as Lou Brock and Fred Patek, who are prepared to expound on everything from meteorology to the physiognomy of lefthanders, the Oakland outfielder is of the "I just run like hell" school of thievery. Thus it was with some surprise that a recent interviewer on the subject heard North take umbrage over a matter of semantics.
"I do not steal bases," said North, the 1974 American League stolen-base champion but second on his own team at present. " Reggie Jackson steals bases. That Kansas City catcher, Healy, steals bases. With them, it's a surprise when they go down. With me, everybody in the ball park knows I'll be running, so I'm not stealing anything. I'm taking something." He paused and assumed an imperious posture. "I am a base-taker."
North did not take any bases that night, but his teammate Don Hopkins did. And since Hopkins is the latest in a succession of Oakland "designated runners," swift specialists whose only purpose in the game is to steal, there was even less surprise.
Actually, the crime rate in North's division, the American League West, is so high this year that a base theft there is as commonplace as a mugging in Central Park. If the larceny continues at its current dizzying pace, three teams in the division—California, Oakland and Kansas City—will have stolen more than 200 bases by season's end, and no team in baseball has had that many since 1918, when base stealing was the name of the game. The six teams in the AL West have stolen nearly as many bases this season as the entire National League, which trots out such swifties as Brock, Joe Morgan, Cesar Cedeno and Davey Lopes. The Angels have stolen more than a hundred bases already, which projects to nearly 300 for the season, and that would break the league record of 288 set in 1913 by the Washington Senators. Their Mickey Rivers (38 steals) and the Royals' Amos Otis (29) are well ahead of the Cardinals' Brock (25), who set a major league record of 118 last year. The Royals' Patek stole 16 straight bases this year before he was finally thrown out by Cleveland's Alan Ashby on June 5, and is now 17 for 18. Four Angels and four A's have stolen in double figures, and the A's, in the opinion of their premier thieves, Claudell Washington, North and Campy Campaneris, have not yet begun to run.
"I should have about 30 by now," says the 20-year-old Washington, who leads the team with 23, "but we're laying back and playing for the big inning. I'll still probably get about 60."
"Laying back," the A's are still second in pilfery to the Angels, whose concept of a big inning is a walk and three steals. The Angels have more than five times as many base thefts as home runs and, as the Texas Rangers' manager, Billy Martin, has observed with his usual perspicuity, "They could take batting practice in a hotel lobby and not break anything." (In support of this supposition, the Angels did take batting practice in a hotel lobby—with a Nerf ball—and did not break so much as a light bulb.)
"We have such limited power that running is a necessity with us," says Manager Dick Williams superfluously. "We have five men who run on their own. Anytime you give our team 90 feet we'll take it. We've scored men from first on a single. We've sent men from first to third on a sacrifice. We've had men score on steals of second when the catcher has thrown the ball away. I think we're playing exciting baseball."
The Angels are obliged to run to save their skins, but what of the other teams in their division which, though they have more muscle, still run as if pursued not by Angels but by demons?
Kansas City's magnificent Royals Stadium was transformed in newsprint last week to "Royal Raceway" in anticipation of the track meet between the home team and the visiting Angels. In previous games between the two, the Royals had stolen 19 times in 21 attempts and the Angels 12 in 16. Otis had stolen 11 times against the Angels without being caught, including seven in two games, which tied a league record set 63 years ago by Eddie Collins. Otis never got out of the blocks in this rain-shortened two-game series, however, and there were only five bases stolen, two by the 6'5", 210-pound Healy, two more by the Angels' second-best stealer, Jerry Remy, and one by the nearly uncatchable Patek. None of the thefts particularly influenced the games, both of which were won by Kansas City. And yet there was a consistently high level of expectation among the spectators, a sensation more common when a home-run hitter is at bat. Shouts of "Go, go, go," popularized a decade or more ago when Maury Wills was running loose, are now common in cities where the greyhound base runners are off the leash. The fans are warming to the running game.
"Speed has become the dominating factor in other pro sports," says Jack McKeon, the observant Kansas City manager. "Football is going after track men as wide receivers. Speed has become increasingly important in basketball. Hockey looks for the fast skaters. Speed has opened up all these other games and it's opening up ours. Three, four, five years ago a ball club might have one guy who could run. Now it can have four or five. You're getting faster guys in baseball and they're changing the game. Speed eliminates a great deal of bunting, for example. You don't bunt an Otis or a Patek over too often. Why give up an out when you've got guys who can run like that? There is also more emphasis on pitchers holding runners on. Some of the older pitchers, who never had to worry much about that part of the game, are hurting now. The younger guys, who've pitched against running ball clubs in the minors, may have better moves to first than the veterans."