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Last season the weak were stronger; this year the strong are weaker, so the cause of equality will again be served. Since 1973 the Dodgers and the Reds have exchanged first-and second-place finishes in a division where the rich have habitually gotten richer. But last season the beefed-up Giants were on top from May 12 to Aug. 6—except for the single day of June 7—and the ruling order was shaken. At the finish, the Dodgers were again first and the Reds second, but both were awash with foreboding. And now each has lost a previously invaluable player.
The Dodgers are best equipped to deal with adversity, because in 22-year-old righthander Bob Welch they have a ready replacement for the departed free agent, Tommy John. According to his pitching coach, Red Adams, Welch "has one of the best fast balls in the league." He also throws a wicked curve, and he is laboring to perfect a changeup. Welch, it seems, is the real article, but John won 17 games in '78 and 20 in '77 and is recognized as a nonpareil competitor. "We can't measure the loss of Tommy John until October," says Steve Garvey realistically.
Even if the kid should unaccountably fall flat on his downy cheeks, the Dodgers' pitching will remain strong. Welch joins a starting rotation of Burt Hooton, Don Sutton, Doug Rau and Andy Messersmith. Andy Messersmith? Yes, baseball's Simon Bolivar, the man who in a 1975 contract hassle with Los Angeles got the free-agent business started, is back in Dodger blue. Messersmith may have liberated his compatriots, but his own career went distinctly sour in the process. After two mediocre seasons in Atlanta, he joined the Yankees last year and separated his shoulder during spring training. The Yankees released him at the end of the season, but Messersmith, 33, was convinced that he could still pitch. He was given a tryout by the Dodgers on Jan. 25, and 13 days later he signed a two-year contract. "He is the greatest steal since the Brink's job," says his optimistic manager, Tommy Lasorda. Or maybe since the last corner grocery bubble-gum heist.
The Dodger starting lineup will be the same: Steve Yeager and Joe Ferguson alternating at catcher, Garvey at first, Davey Lopes at second, Bill Russell at short, Ron Cey at third, Dusty Baker in left, Rick Monday in center and Reggie Smith in right. Gone to Pittsburgh is versatile Lee Lacy, but Lasorda hopes another Jack-of-most-trades, Derrel Thomas, will fill the holes Lacy once plugged up in the infield and outfield. This is still a team of power, speed and pitching. Its defensive weaknesses in the infield generally have not surfaced until World Series time, and by then it has been too late for the rest of the National League. The same pattern seems likely to be repeated this season.
The Giants might inch one step closer to the top, displacing the troubled Reds in second place. Manager Joe Altobelli has virtually the same team that revived baseball in San Francisco a year ago. Only the Giants are not the same, because they are a year older and, presumably, wiser. Jack Clark, the 23-year-old budding superstar, is also about 10 pounds heavier at a still-lean 205. He approached his apparently fathomless potential in '78 by hitting .306 with 25 homers and 98 RBIs, but he looked even stronger this spring. Clark needs to polish his outfielding, which borders on the erratic, and his base running, which borders on madness, but even if he accomplishes neither of these, he could soon be a triple-crown threat.
Altobelli is convinced he has found his leadoff man and centerfielder in Bill North, late of the Dodgers and the A's, who signed this spring as a free agent. North has led the American League in stolen bases, he switch-hits, and he has played on championship teams. His influence on the young Giants, if only by example, could be a big factor.
There are problems in the infield, but one of them is of the sort managers appreciate—an overloaded position. At first base Altobelli has an aging immortal, Willie McCovey, who insists he can still play at 41, and a young slugger, Mike Ivie, who feels his time has come. Ivie hit .308 last year as a part-timer and drove in 55 runs, 20 as a pinch hitter. He reported to the Giant training camp 20 pounds lighter at 205 and announced himself ready to play full time. After a brilliant 1977 season, McCovey last year hit only .228, with 12 homers in 108 games, but he was among the league's RBI leaders until the All-Star break. A shoulder injury in August cost him much of the rest of the season. This spring McCovey reported at 215 pounds, seven fewer than a year ago and, to the consternation of many, announced himself ready to play. He can still hit, but after a succession of knee injuries, his mobility afield is so limited even his fellow infielders are complaining. Ivie will probably get the job, but McCovey's enormous popularity in San Francisco creates a problem of tact here.
A more serious, if less delicate, problem exists at shortstop, where Johnnie LeMaster and Roger Metzger are in competition. Platooning the two, even though Metzger is a switch-hitter, didn't work last year, but neither seems capable at the moment of handling the job alone. A solution is imperative, because the Giants are set at third and second with Darrell Evans, who hit 20 homers, and Bill Madlock, who batted over .300 for the fifth time in five big league seasons. The catcher is strong-armed Marc Hill, but he must improve his anemic hitting—.243 with only three homers in 117 games—if the Giants are to make a serious run at the Dodgers.
It is on the mound that San Francisco is at its best. The starting rotation of Vida Blue (18-10), Bob Knepper (17-11), Ed Halicki (9-10 but a 2.85 ERA) and John Montefusco (11-9) is potentially the equal of any, and the bullpen from which Randy Moffitt and Gary Lavelle emerge is truly a bastion. The key man is Montefusco, who had an off season. "I was just plain stupid last year," the Count acknowledges. "I went with my fastball and forgot about all the other pitches. The hitters were just sitting on my fastball. If I'd had a good year, we would've won it."
The Reds might have won it but for injuries and creeping old age among their established stars, notably Joe Morgan, Tom Seaver and Johnny Bench. Morgan is 35, but his sorry 1978 season—.236 with 13 homers and 19 stolen bases—can probably be attributed more to a stomach-muscle pull than to advancing years. He is healthy this year, but the peculiar jabbing stroke he developed while swinging with pain persists as a bad habit. Seaver, 34, concedes that "my days of striking out 16 to 18 a game are over." He was 16-14 last year, but in 15 of his 36 starts his teammates scored two runs or fewer, and a pulled calf muscle contributed to a painfully slow beginning. His ERA was 6.52 for his first six starts. Bench is only 31, but he has caught 1,500 games during the last 12 seasons. Catchers age quickly, and Bench, bothered much of last year with a bad back, may already be playing on borrowed time.