It is one of the rites of spring training, like holdouts and wind sprints and bus rides and intrasquad games between the Fords and the Berras or the Peskys and the Zimmers. If you want, call it the search for the next Fred Lynn—or, at least, the new Dick Wakefield. But it really should be entitled the Annual Rookie Revue, that time of high drama and low curveballs when nervous kids from Tulsa, Pawtucket and other minor league towns audition to spend the baseball season dining at Kansas City's Golden Ox or the Railhead in Houston on $23 per day. That beats filling up at the McBurgers in Toledo on $23 per week. And for a big-league club, discovering a star aborning can keep it from being turned into ground round once the season begins. "The trick is to find a guy like a Lynn who could shoot your club into the playoffs and the World Series," says Cardinal Catcher Ted Simmons.
What Simmons and his teammates hope is that the Lynn of the Rookie Class of '76 will be Hector Cruz, the American Association's Player of the Year in 1975 when he hit .306 with 29 home runs and had a remarkable 116 RBIs in just 115 games at Tulsa. "Hector will be there every day," says Manager Red Schoendienst, pointing to the position left vacant by the trade of Third Baseman Ken Reitz to San Francisco.
The first grounder hit to the 23-year-old Cruz in the Cardinals' exhibition opener last week bounced off his chest, rolled over his shoulder and dropped alongside the bag. But before Schoendienst could say Ken Reitz, Cruz calmly picked up the ball and fired it to first to beat the Detroit runner by two steps.
"That was better than my first ground ball when I came to St. Louis for a few games late last season," Cruz says. " Cliff Johnson of the Astros hit a shot at me, and when I bent down for the ball, it skipped off the fake grass and hit me right on the nose." Playing third base is still something of a novelty for Cruz, who was an outfielder in his first five minor league seasons. In fact, in one spring-training game with the Cards in 1973, Hector started in the outfield with older brothers Jose, now with the Astros, and Tommy, who is currently in the Rangers' organization. "One day last spring Kenny Boyer, the Tulsa manager, told me he was going to make a third baseman out of me," Cruz says. "I said, "O.K., Kenny,' and here I am. Kenny was one of the best third basemen who ever played in the big leagues. He tried to teach me everything he knows, but I still have plenty to learn."
That's true, and because it is, the Cardinals' decision to trade Reitz represents a considerable risk for a team expected to be a contender in its division—and puts extraordinary pressure on Cruz. Should he falter at third, St. Louis has no capable replacement. The reason for the Cards' daring is simple enough: they want Cruz' bat in their lineup, but because their outfield is flush with .300 hitters Lou Brock, Bake McBride and Reggie Smith, there is no place for him except in the infield.
Along with Cruz, or Caballo Loco ( Crazy Horse) as the Cardinals call him because of his startling facial resemblance to the Lone Ranger's friend Tonto, there were numerous other rookies bidding for regular employment last week as the Grapefruit and Cactus league schedules finally got under way. So far these have been the best:
? Willie Randolph, a 21-year-old speedster at second base whom the Yankees acquired from Pittsburgh in exchange for 16-game-winner Doc Medich. Randolph hit .298 in his four minor league seasons, hardly ever strikes out, makes the double play like Bill Mazeroski and should become New York's first good second baseman since Bobby Richardson retired 10 years ago.
? Mike Norris, a 21-year-old righthander who replaced Catfish Hunter in the Oakland rotation a year ago. He started three games, pitched a three-hit shutout, allowed only six hits in 16? innings and had an 0.00 ERA before undergoing an elbow operation. Now Norris' arm appears sound again.
? Jerry Royster, an Atlanta infielder who hit .333 to win the Pacific Coast League batting title last season. Manager Dave Bristol has tried Royster at second, short and third in an attempt to find his natural position. His live bat and good speed would seem to guarantee him a spot somewhere in the Braves' lineup.
? Chet Lemon, who came to the White Sox camp as Bill Melton's successor at third base but has been moved to right field by Manager Paul Richards. Early last season when Norris hurt his elbow Oakland Owner Charles O. Finley sent Lemon to the Sox in a deal for Pitcher Stan Bahnsen. Lemon went on to hit .307 at Triple A Denver, and Finley's farm director, John Claiborne, went on to quit, because, he said, the boss was "trading away all our good prospects."