Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
—FROM AN INSCRIPTION ON THE STATUE OF LIBERTY
Even in the best of times, Bill Veeck has only one leg to stand on. Veeck is the president of the Chicago White Sox, a team of modest means in a sport where huge player salaries have become a gross natural product of the free-agent system. But as baseball's spring-training camps opened in Florida, California and Arizona last week, it was obvious that Veeck, ever the wily innovator, had a system of his own. He had flung wide the gates to the major leagues and invited anyone who seemed vaguely qualified to enter.
Veeck's strategy is actually an expanded version of the tactics he used in 1977 when Chicago spent 56 days in first place, won 90 games (its most since 1965) and finished a strong third after coming in last the season before. In the process, the White Sox also set a team attendance record of 1.6 million, which nearly equaled the total of the previous two seasons. The gate receipts wiped out the club's debt, covered 1977 expenses and left a little extra to prime the pump for 1978.
This good fortune came about because Veeck rebuilt the White Sox through shrewd trades (Reliever Clay Carroll for last season's bullpen ace, Lerrin LaGrow, for example), inexpensive but risky free-agent acquisitions (sore-kneed Third Baseman Eric Soderholm, who hit .280, and sore-armed Pitcher Steve Stone, who was 15-12) and a "rent-a-star" gambit that brought Outfielders Richie Zisk and Oscar Gamble, who were playing out their options, to Chicago for one glorious season before they signed big-money contracts with other clubs.
In preparation for this year, Veeck not only made the same kinds of moves as in '77, but he also increased the player population at the Sox spring training complex in Sarasota, Fla. to a crowded 59. Forty to 45 is the usual complement, but the White Sox now have enough bodies around to keep the four diamonds and two batting cages at Allyn Field busy, while another group plays an exhibition game at Payne Park. Never have names on the backs of uniforms been more appreciated by fans and journalists, for what unfamiliar names they are: LUEBBER, CAMARGO, MOLINARO, PROLY. Twenty-five of the players were in different organizations last season and four were in a different country, Mexico. Pity poor Manager Bob Lemon, who threw up his hands in exasperation last week and said, "We've got so damn many players here I can't even think of all their names. I'm climbing the walls at night trying to remember what everybody's doing. The last time I saw this many players was when four minor league teams trained together."
Two newcomers Lemon had no trouble recognizing were Bobby Bonds and Ron Blomberg, whom the White Sox are hoping—indeed, expecting—to supply the 61 home runs and 184 RBIs that Zisk and Gamble provided last year. But unless Bonds gets the five-year contract he wants from Veeck (which seems unlikely), he could be this year's rent-a-star. And though Blomberg has signed (for four years at $600,000), he seems an even bigger risk than Soderholm was, because shoulder and knee injuries have limited him to only 35 games in his last three seasons with the Yankees.
Blomberg is only one of 15 players the Sox took from last year's free-agent pool. While other teams quit after six or seven draft choices, Roland Hemond, the Sox director of player personnel, droned on and on. When he finally passed in the 37th round, the other club executives applauded vigorously. Among the Chicago signees, only former Atlanta Third Baseman Junior Moore and ex-Minnesota Pitcher Ron Schueler were active major-leaguers in '77. The White Sox quite clearly preferred experimental but inexpensive quantity to established but high-priced quality.
Veeck believes the last hurrah will be his if only three or four of the draftees turn out to be players of big league ability. "If you're not rolling in dough, you have two choices in baseball today," he says. "You either give up and say you can't compete, or you try to figure out a way to compete without money. We had the additional problem of not being able to get help from our farm system [which was allowed to go to seed in the years before Veeck bought the Sox in 1976]. So what we did was go after players other clubs didn't want and then promise those players they'd get a fair chance to show what they could do. We're treating everyone the same. Everyone has his name on the back of his uniform, and you'd be surprised how much that means to some of them. Now we have a lot of chances for success at less cost than it takes to buy just one high-priced free agent. We'll be a better club this year, no question. And those players who don't make it will help us rebuild our farm system."
The large number of unknowns in Sarasota has forced the Sox to modify the usual regimen. Twenty-eight players were invited to an early-bird camp that began on Feb. 14, and now that all 59 are in town Veeck is trying to keep everyone busy with intrasquad games, games against college teams and an expanded exhibition schedule. "We'll play anybody who drives by," he says, "including Bingo Long and the Bad News Bears." When it looked as if rain might bring a halt to workouts shortly after the early drills began, the White Sox made inquiries about practicing in the Astrodome, the Super-dome, Puerto Rico, Mexico and Cuba. As it was, they spent two days indoors in St. Petersburg before the rain stopped.
Chicago's extended spring training has not only given the new men a chance to show off their skills, but it has also helped in the rehabilitation of several injured players, like Blomberg, Shortstop Kevin Bell and Pitchers Mike Pazik and Bruce Dal Canton, who is attempting a comeback from an arm injury in 1977. "Maybe it's because of my physical condition," says the one-legged Veeck, "but the lame, the halt and the blind seem to gravitate to us."