SI Vault
Jim Kaplan
April 13, 1981
Welcome to the Mary Poppins division, where everything seems to be up in the air. Defending champion Houston gave up its soul. The Dodgers lost their most consistent winner, yet claim to be improved. Cincinnati made a couple of seemingly minor transactions but, in fact, substantially altered itself. Atlanta owner Ted Turner outraged both his peers and his players—no small feat, that. San Francisco acquired character when what it really needed was talent. The only club to forswear the West's fly-away logic, San Diego, gave up and started over.
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
April 13, 1981

The West

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3

Rightfield belongs to Smith if he can throw, and Guerrero or Law if he can't. In the DH-less National League, of course, an outfielder who doesn't throw doesn't play regularly, and during most of spring training. Smith was reduced to the demeaning—and irrelevant—job of designated hitter when the opponent was from the American League. "I have to reach the point where I can throw 200 feet on a line," says Smith, once the possessor of a cannonlike arm. "I still have to break the adhesions and rebuild the throwing process." Lasorda underscores Smith's importance thusly: "Would you rather wear blue jeans or a $200 suit?" If Smith is torn and tattered at 36, so are the aging wonderboys of Elysian Park.

By acquiring Mike Vail (.292 career average) and Larry Biittner (.272), the Reds improved their bench but not their Bench. After 13 consecutive seasons of catching 100 or more games, Johnny Bench will ease his tired and bruised body behind the plate just twice a week. Last season, largely because Bench was ailing, Cincinnati was particularly vulnerable 10 the steal. With Joe Nolan or Mike O'Berry behind the plate, the Reds just aren't the same. To compound the problem, Bench hopes to play semi-regularly at another position, probably first, third or right-field, Needless to say, the occupants of those spots—Dan. Driessen at first, Ray Knight at third and Dave Collins in right—aren't overjoyed by the prospect. But the dilemma extends beyond bruised feelings. When Bench isn't playing, the club will miss his power (24 homers). When he replaces Driessen, Knight or Collins, the league's best defense (106 errors) will suffer.

In other respects, however, the Reds should be improved. George Foster, who had, for him, a subpar season (.285, 25 homers. 93 RBIs), is healthier and happier, and there's no reason Ken Griffey (.294) can't edge back over .300. The double-play combination of Dave Concepcion at short and Ron Oester at second should be even better now that Concepcion has had calcium deposits removed from his right elbow.

"We figure we're a better team this year because of what we went through last year," says Manager John McNamara. What the Reds endured was traumatic: pitchers Tom Seaver (10-8) and Frank Pastore (13-7) were lost for more than a month apiece. Still, Cincinnati finished only 3½ games back because such youngsters as Joe Price, Mike LaCoss and Paul Moskau pitched well in their colleagues' absence, and Tom Hume had another fine year in the bullpen, with 25 saves. To avoid a further bout of tendinitis, Seaver threw daily over the winter, for the first time.

But it could take a 20-win season from either Pas-tore or Mario Soto (10-8) for the 1979 divisional champs to win. Pastore is the more likely candidate. At 23 he already has an excellent fastball, a good changeup and breaking ball and such pinpoint control that he walked only 42 batters in 185 innings. Soto, who was 9-5, with four saves and a 2.29 ERA after the All-Star break, has pitched in every capacity—long and short relief, spot starting—except that of a full time starter. Now he's got a front-line job. And no wonder: thanks to an excellent changeup, his ratio of strikeouts to innings pitched (182-190) led the league last year.

Atlanta had lost nine of its first 10 games when owner Turner tried unsuccessfully to demote Third Baseman Bob Horner (page 25) to the minors. Then Turner left town to get ready to compete in the America's Cup Trials, and the Braves set sail toward their best record (81-80) since 1974. Unfortunately, Turner returned. Over the winter he signed inconsistent Outfielder Claudell Washington to a whopping, five-year, $3.5 million contract. Then Turner refused to grant his redoubtable rightfielder, Gary Matthews, a deal similar to Washington's and traded him to Philadelphia for Pitcher Bob Walk. Matthews' punch—75 RBIs in '80—will be missed.

Nonetheless, the Braves' mood is generally upbeat. They can afford to be optimistic because they improved themselves dramatically up the middle. Bruce Benedict took over the catcher's job in midseason, hit .253, ended the longstanding Brave tradition of generosity toward base stealers and handled everything thrown his way, including Phil Niekro's dancing knuckler. Shortstop Rafael Ramirez hit .267 in 50 games. When Glenn Hubbard took over second from Jerry Royster, and Dale Murphy ended his pilgrimage—from first to catcher to left to right to center—the Braves had themselves a ball team. They were just six games out with three weeks to go.

The 6'5" Murphy is the first Brave to arrive at practice and the last to leave; he hits for points (.281) and power (33 homers, 89 RBIs) and races around the outfield like a cheetah. Playing his second straight partial season, Horner had 35 homers and 89 RBIs in just 124 games. Washington could contribute 25 or so stolen bases, a big boost to a club that was last in the league with 73, and give Atlanta another lefthanded bat to go with that of First Baseman Chris Chambliss.

Are the Braves contenders or pretenders? Consider the pitching. Niekro (15-18) and Gaylord Perry (10-13 with Texas and New York) are Hall of Fame candidates, to be sure, but they total 84 years between them. Perry admits that he's lost his-"hummer" altogether, and, of course, the knuckling Niekro never had one. Then there's John (The Count) Montefusco, who was 4-8 in a troubled season with San Francisco. Nonetheless, the Braves thought enough of his potential to trade Doyle Alexander (14-11) for him. The bullpen has Rick Camp (6-4, 1.92, 22 saves). Says Niekro, "I can't remember when I felt so good about this club." The Braves are probably no more than pretenders, but at least they're enthusiastic ones.

San Francisco once again has a harmonious clubhouse. The new manager succeeding Dave Bristol is Frank Robinson, and the Giants' most talented player, Rightfielder Jack Clark, is delighted with the change. Though Clark batted .284, with 22 homers and 82 RBIs, he earned a reputation for "playing dumb" by running unwisely and forgetting the number of outs on more than one occasion. He's expected to pay closer attention under Robinson.

Continue Story
1 2 3