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If, as they say, it takes one to know one, then Frank Robinson should certainly be able to recognize a Most Valuable Player when he sees one. "What you look for," says Robinson, the only man to win an MVP award in each league, "is this: Is the player steady? Does he drive in the important runs? And is he the guy you'd like to see at the plate for you with two outs in the ninth and the winning run on base?" Such a paragon, suggests Robinson, who is now a Baltimore coach, may be found in the person of Oriole Outfielder Ken Singleton.
"He's been the big guy for us offensively all year," says Robinson. "Right now it has to be between him and Don Baylor for MVP in our league." Probably, but not necessarily, because strong arguments may be made in behalf of Kansas City's George Brett, who at week's end led the league in hits and triples, was tied for the lead in runs scored and tied for third in batting average; and Boston's Fred Lynn and Jim Rice, who are enjoying virtually identical magnificent seasons. But Singleton and the California Angels' Baylor are playing for potential division champions, and the members of the Baseball Writers Association of America, who determine that MVP recipient, habitually favor front-runners.
It is not that Singleton and Baylor lack credentials to support their candidacies. Baylor had hit 34 homers, was leading the majors with 134 runs batted in and was tied for the major league lead in runs scored with 112. Singleton also had 34 homers, had driven in 109 runs and, with his 103 walks, had an impressive on-base percentage of .419. Both were hitting over .300. Numbers aside, these two 10-year veterans have much that is good—and bad—in common. Neither is particularly famous, despite his obvious ability; each has played in every one of his team's games; both have been afflicted with sore throwing arms; both are indebted to Robinson—Baylor for Robby's advice on hitting, Singleton for his sage words on fielding—and each is the sort of good guy who deserves to finish first.
And yet they are dissimilar players. Baylor bats right; Singleton is a switch hitter. Baylor is that rarity, a power hitter who seldom walks or strikes out. He had struck out only 47 times and walked 67 times. As he sees it, his role is to get the bat on the ball and "keep it in play." Singleton had 107 strikeouts to go with his walks, but he is acknowledged to be one of the most intelligent hitters in the game, a lusty swinger who, in the tradition of Ted Williams, would rather accept a base on balls than take one of his hefty cuts at a bad pitch. "It's incredible how many times he'll get hits off 3-1, 3-2 pitches," says Oriole Pitcher Steve Stone. "He either walks or gets a pitch he can hit. He won't swing at that breaking ball below the knees or the sneaky fastball away from the plate. He won't get himself out. He puts the pressure on the pitcher." Baltimore Manager Earl Weaver concurs, saying, "Ken refuses to swing at the pitcher's pitches."
Baylor, who at 6'1" and 195 is built like a heavyweight contender, is a swift and canny base runner who has stolen as many as 52 bases in a season. Singleton, 6'4" and 211 pounds, has stolen two bases in the last three years and is sorely deficient in what Robinson, somewhat redundantly, calls "foot speed."
Last year, neither Baylor nor Singleton could throw a baseball through a spider's web. Baylor's arm has always been considered as useful as adenoids. Indeed, he has not been able to throw authoritatively since he separated his right shoulder making a tackle in a high school football game in his native Austin, Texas. No one has questioned his ability to catch a baseball or, with his speed, to catch up with one, but his arm encourages, rather than deters, base runners. As a result, he had been obliged until this year to work mostly as a designated hitter. In only 56 of the 158 games he appeared in last season did he play defense—39 in the outfield, 17 at first base. Baylor has never been satisfied being half a player, and he has worked mightily to overcome his throwing weakness. He concludes, however, that "once you get a reputation, it's hard to get rid of it."
Every spring, he says, his manager of the moment will cordially assure him that he will see more service in the field. But when the season starts, his glove remains in his locker. That has changed somewhat this year. He has proved a useful fill-in for regular outfielders Joe Rudi and Dan Ford, when those worthies have been injured, and of late he has played leftfield when the opposing pitcher is righthanded and has usually been the DH only against lefties. Under this arrangement—which Manager Jim Fregosi uses to get the bat of lefty DH Willie Aikens into the lineup—Baylor has been out there hand in glove about half the time. He has worked regularly with a Nautilus "pullover" device to strengthen his throwing arm, and the results have been encouraging.
"He is throwing better this year than he has in the last 12," says teammate Bobby Grich, who should know, because he and Baylor began their professional careers together a dozen years ago in Bluefield, W. Va. Baylor argues—a bit defensively—that throwing from the outfield may be an overrated talent, anyway. "I try to get rid of the ball to the cutoff man as quickly as possible," he says. "Guys with the good arms are not always accurate."
Until two years ago there were few complaints about Singleton's throwing. Despite his slowness afoot, he was regarded as a competent outfielder who could gun down a gambling runner with the best of them. Then in 1977 his right arm began to hurt. "I reached the point where I had one good throw a game in me," he recalls. "It got worse and worse. My fingers would be asleep. I was losing power in the grip of my right hand." The trouble was diagnosed as a bone chip in his right elbow, an errant particle that might have been afloat, it developed, since he had pitched in the Little League back home in Mount Vernon, N. Y. The chip was removed and his ulnar nerve shifted by surgery in December of 1977. He was advised that he would not fully recover the use of his arm for a year, a prognosis that proved depressingly accurate.
"Last year," Singleton says, "I couldn't throw a ball from here to there," despite painstaking 20-minute warmups before every game. In 141 appearances as an outfielder he had only one assist, and that, he confesses, was a fluke. "I dropped a fly ball and threw to second for a force." The sore arm also affected his righthanded hitting. He batted only .233 from the right side, as opposed to .313 from the left, and hit only four home runs in 150 times at bat as a righty. Singleton occasionally worked on a Nautilus machine in the off-season, and this year he feels he is throwing as well as he ever did. And, he says, Robinson has taught him to be more aggressive in chasing fly balls. "Last year," says Robinson, "he spent a lot of time looking for the centerfielder"—an approach made necessary, Singleton protests, "because I couldn't throw." With a good arm, he has also hit 10 righthanded homers this year, more than he has ever had in a full season, and his total of 34 is 10 more than in any previous year.