As manager of the A's, Chuck Tanner at last may have found a focus for his Panglossian view of life. Tanner is a man who sees the best in everything and everyone, including Dick Allen, whom he once more or less managed in Chicago. So what happens when he confronts something as genuinely good as the A's, winners of the American League's Western Division five years in succession and world champions from 1972 through 1974? "I have never been so excited in my life," he says, predictably.
However, Tanner might find it difficult to maintain his optimism, because undoubtedly this is the year that many forecasters will consign the A's to purgatory. They were soundly drubbed by the Red Sox in last year's league playoffs, and besides, aren't they growing old? No, they are not. With the exception of Shortstop Bert Campaneris, who is 34, most of the Oakland stars are about 30, which is supposed to be the age when ballplayers are at their peak. The A's did not hurt themselves in the age department by acquiring Pitcher Mike Torrez (20-9) and Outfielder Don Baylor (.282, 25 homers, 76 RBIs and 32 stolen bases) from Baltimore in exchange for lefty Ken Holtzman and Outfielder Reggie Jackson. At 29 and 26, respectively, Torrez and Baylor are coming off their best seasons, while 30-year-old Holtzman (18-14) and 29-year-old Jackson (36 homers but only a .253 average) are not. Baylor can also play first base, which could enable Joe Rudi to move back to left field and Claudell Washington to shift from left to right, where he is more comfortable. Torrez gives Oakland a solid right-handed starter to go along with lefty Vida Blue (22-11). Another pitcher picked up in the trade, righty Paul Mitchell, was 3-0 in a brief stint with the Orioles last season and could be a surprise asset to Oakland. Moreover, the A's can expect better years from Rudi and Campaneris, who were injured much of last year, and Third Baseman Sal Bando, who slumped to .230.
This year Tanner may have a Rookie of the Year in 21-year-old righthander Mike Norris, who has yet to allow an earned run in 16-plus innings of big-league pitching. Norris shut out the White Sox in his first start last season, set down the Royals with one hit in seven innings of his second, then hurt his arm throwing to the second batter in his third appearance. Bone chips were extracted from the injured limb, and Norris now appears ready to take up where he left off last April. Stan Bahnsen and Dick Bosman are also available as starters, and behind them are Rollie Fingers, Paul Lindblad and Jim Todd, who had 43 saves among them last season and appear to be the best relief combination in baseball. The other A's—Catcher Gene Tenace, Rudi, Campaneris, Bando and Outfielders Bill North and Washington—are the fierce and proud warriors of old, and they have an extra incentive this year that stems from the odd turns that contract "negotiations" between Owner Charles O. Finley and his players have taken over the years. With the relaxation of the reserve clause, some Oakland players are planning for this to be their last year under Fin-ley's parsimonious stewardship, a perverse situation that should inspire this unique team to work even harder than usual—just to make sure Finley misses them when they are gone. It is no longer necessary to regard Tanner's beaming countenance and inquire, "Why is this man laughing?"
Oakland's most dogged pursuers should once again be the Royals, winners of 91 games in 1975. Kansas City finished strong last season, winning 41 of its final 66 games under its newest manager, Whitey Herzog. That spurt was enough to plant a haunting suspicion among the Royals that the A's can be overtaken.
Kansas City has the pitching to give it a good try. Herzog was able to name his starting rotation of Steve Busby, Paul Splittorff, Al Fitzmorris, Dennis Leonard and Doug Bird even before the start of spring training. Busby had a fine 18-12 season in 1975, but he was bothered by a sore arm during the exhibition season. Still, he feels that he can fatten his record by making certain gastronomic adjustments. "I wasn't eating enough last year," he insists. Splittorff, as his name would suggest, had a divided season—a rotten first half and an excellent second. Pieced together they added up to a mediocre 9-10 record, which was well under his 20-win potential. Diet was not his problem, just "inconsistency," which he vows to overcome. Meet Paul Wholeorff.
Centerfielder Amos Otis also had a food problem. "I couldn't eat," he says, describing his predicament after an attack of tonsillitis. Going into last season, Otis had a .292 career batting average in the American League, but he lost 20 pounds from an already slender physique and finished with a sickly .247. He has since gained 35 pounds and hopes to add at least that many points to his batting average. If Otis is as whole as Splittorrf plans to be, the Royals' pursuit of the A's could produce real fireworks. At 26, First Baseman John Mayberry (34 homers, 106 RBIs and a second place in the Most Valuable Player voting) is approaching his power peak, and in Outfielder Hal McRae (.306) and Third Baseman George Brett (.308 with a league-leading 195 hits), Kansas City has proven hitters. Brett firmly established last year that he is a better batter than his pitcher-brother, Ken. The question remains: Can he hit Ken's pitching? With Ken traded by Pittsburgh to the Yankees, George will at least have the opportunity to try. "Ken says the first time he sees me, he's going to stick me in the ribs," says George. "I think he means it." Ken may be planning to do that once the season opens, but when the two met in a spring game—during which Ken set down the nine other Royals he faced—Pitcher Brett fed Hitter Brett a fat fastball. George turned it into a home run.
The most improved team in the division should be the Angels, whose only virtue a year ago was speed. Roadrunners Mickey Rivers and Morris Nettles have been traded, so California is unlikely to steal 220 bases again. The Angels have replaced thievery with thumpery in Bobby Bonds and Bill Melton. Together they hit only eight fewer home runs (47) than the entire California team did a year ago. And Bonds is no slowpoke. With a game leg, he still stole 30 bases for the Yankees in 1975. Bonds' leg is well again and, more important, so is Nolan Ryan's arm. After he pitched his fourth no-hitter early last season, Ryan's Express went off the track. Four bone chips were removed from his elbow, and this spring he was throwing as hard as ever. According to scientific devices, that is harder than anyone has ever thrown. Ryan's distinction as the league's strikeout leader was assumed last year by his left-handed teammate, Frank Tanana, who won 16 games, had a 2.62 ERA and fanned 9.42 batters for every nine innings he pitched. If Ryan is indeed healthy, the Angels will have the two hardest-throwing starters in baseball. After them, however, there isn't much. Manager Dick Williams is planning on a five-man rotation, the third, fourth and fifth starters to be selected from a long list of candidates. Look for Don Kirkwood, a tall righthander, to win one job.
Williams also has three-fourths of an infield with Dave Chalk at third, Jerry Remy at second and Bruce Bochte at first. At short he has Orlando Ramirez, Mike Miley and Billy Smith, in order of their appearance a year ago. Ramirez is the early-line favorite for the position, although he hit only .240 and committed 16 errors in his 40 appearances. In the outfield Bonds will be in right, Lee Stanton in center or left, swift Dave Collins in left or on the bench and Rusty Torres in whatever is left over. Melton will be the designated hitter or, if no shortstop comes through, the third baseman, with Chalk moving to short. Though he once managed the A's, Williams is no Tanner when it comes to optimism. Nevertheless, he says, "We think we've helped ourselves more than anyone."
Help is what the three remaining teams in the division will need. Minnesota has a new manager in Gene Mauch and, quite possibly, a new first baseman in Rod Carew, last year's second baseman. As usual, Carew was the league's batting champion with a .359 average, and no matter where he plays he is a solid bet to succeed himself. The Twins can hit. Outfielders Larry Hisle (.314), Steve Braun (.302) and Dan Ford (.280 with 15 homers) are all solid knockers, but they lack home-run power. And Minnesota is weak defensively, particularly where it counts—at second and short. Shortstop Danny Thompson wrote a book during the off season, which he appropriately entitled E-6. Despite the title, Thompson was not as critical of his own notable shortcomings as those of Carew. If Carew remains at second, the Twins will have the least congenial keystone combination since Johnny Evers stopped speaking to Joe Tinker. Minnesota does have three reliable starters in Bert Blyleven (15-10), Dave Goltz (14-14) and Jim Hughes (16-14 as a rookie), but an unsettled infield and a singles-hitting offense will cost them.
Pitching is the Rangers' shortcoming, particularly since the departure to Boston of Ferguson Jenkins. Manager Frank Lucchesi is counting, perhaps foolishly, on a return to prominence of Bill Singer and Nelson Briles, both of whom had dismal 1975 seasons with other teams. Singer was 7-15 with a 4.98 ERA at California, and Briles was 6-6 with a 4.26 ERA at Kansas City. Gaylord Perry (18-17) may anoint enough sinkers to help some, but he is a rusting 37, while David Clyde, who spent most of last year compiling a 12-8 record in the Eastern League, is finally achieving his majority after a celebrated adolescence. Now all that remains for him to do is prove that he is a major league pitcher.