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As the Texas Rangers went through their pre-exhibition-game infield drill one afternoon last week, a group of players and sportswriters gathered around Kansas City Manager Whitey Herzog while he scrutinized the opposition's new kid at second base. It is a baseball ritual to give rookies a good hard look, and the last couple of springs several deserved every glance they got. Two years ago Jim Rice and Fred Lynn carried Boston to a pennant, and last season Mark (The Bird) Fidrych of Detroit filled stadiums all around the country as he blithely pitched his way to a 19-9 record and the league's ERA title.
This year's crop of newcomers seems likely to continue the trend of exceptional talent entering the majors. At Baltimore, Infielder Rich Dauer (.336 last season in Triple A) and Pitcher Dennis Martinez (14-8) will try to revive a once-mighty club depleted by free-agent defections. In San Diego, where owner Ray Kroc is attempting to buy a contender, the all-new double-play combination of Bill Almon, an Ivy Leaguer from Brown, and Mike Champion hails from an unusual source, the Padre farm system. The Tigers think they have two rookies who can soar like The Bird in Outfielder Steve Kemp (.386 in the International League) and Pitcher Dave Rozema (12-4), while Pittsburgh has handed the center-field job to speedy Omar Moreno, who batted .315 at Charleston before hitting .270 in a trial with the Pirates in '76. Atlanta will also have a rookie regular, Catcher Dale Murphy, whose rifle arm is already being compared to Johnny Bench's.
Despite the strong credentials of these and other rookies, the new kid who has attracted the most attention this spring is the one Herzog, the players and the writers watched so intently at Pompano Beach, Fla. His name is Elliott (Bump) Wills, and while he may not turn out to be the best rookie in the talented class of'77, he is certainly under the most pressure. First, he is the son of a famous father, Maury Wills. Then there was Bump's brief holdout at the start of spring training. Nowadays that tactic is almost standard procedure for veterans, but it remains a no-no for rookies. And Wills is stepping into a vital position on the Rangers, a team with a good shot at the American League West title. "Wills had better be able to do the job," Herzog said, watching him turn a snappy double play. "Or...." Herzog shrugged and turned away.
Last season Texas was a contender in June, a has-been in July. It lost 59 of 90 games during its long slump, and there is no debate about the main reason for that nose dive. The infield was awful. So this winter Toby Harrah was moved from short to third; Bert Campaneris, a free agent late of Oakland, was signed to play short; and Wills, with two outstanding minor league seasons behind him, was handed the job at second.
"I'm not going to make anyone forget Maury Wills," says the 24-year-old Bump. "We're simply different kinds of players." Not blessed with his father's base-running talents, Bump is stockier and a stronger hitter. But the younger Wills has one significant family trait: like his father, he is an expert switch hitter. "Seldom do you see kids bat equally well from both sides," says Texas Manager Frank Lucchesi. Wills does, and it helped him hit .307 and .324 at Pittsfield and Sacramento. Last season he also had 26 homers and 95 RBIs. However, he stole only 25 bases in the minors.
Maury sometimes took Bump with him to watch the Dodgers play during the 1960's. "I'd say, 'Wow, there's Moose Skowron,' " Bump recalls, "and my father would say, 'What about me?' I'd shake my head and say, 'You're just my dad.' " But it was not until Bump was at Arizona State that Maury began working with him on the nuances of the game. After his senior season, when a broken ankle drove major league offers down to almost nothing. Bump decided to play on a Mexican team managed by his father. "One time I got a little lazy on a double-play pivot and let my arm drop down," Bump says. "When I got back to the dugout, he grabbed me by the shirt, shook me and hollered, 'Don't ever do that again.' He'd never do that to any other player. He was just harder on me because I am his son.
"I realize I have a lot of pressure on me," adds Wills, who did little to reduce it by holding out for a $120,000, three-year contract before agreeing to play one season at the minimum $19,000 salary. "Sure, everyone wants to see what Maury Wills' kid looks like. But that'll die down and five years from now I hope I'll be Bump Wills, period.
"Just being a rookie is pressure enough. Who knows? I haven't played a major league game yet. It'll be months before anyone will be able to make any valid judgment on me." But for now, at least, he's looking good.