SI Vault
Ron Fimrite
April 13, 1981
The Kansas Royals, runaway winners of the division and league championships, aren't standing pat. Indeed, profound changes are in the works. U.L. Washington, for example, is removing his toothpick. "I got tired of answering questions about it," he explained in answer to questions about its absence. For the same reason, he added, "I might even change my name." A Kansas City infield without Washington's toothpick won't be the same, but the outfield will be even more noticeably transformed. Willie Wilson will move from left to center and Amos Otis, a three-time Gold Glove centerfielder, will shift to left. This is no reflection on Otis' abilities, says Manager Jim Frey. It's merely an attempt to make fuller use of Wilson's extraordinary speed, particularly on artificial surfaces such as Kansas City's. Otis, who will be 34 on April 26, was displeased with the move at first, but later he accepted it philosophically. "You can't fight City Hall," he said, coining a phrase. "I'll just try to be the best leftfielder in baseball now." Clint Hurdle, who was platooned in rightfield last year, will play there fulltime now, which to him is a welcome change.
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April 13, 1981

The West

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Unlike their Chicago counterparts, Texas' pitchers, with two notable exceptions, run to age. Ferguson Jenkins is 37, Doc Medich 32 and Jon Matlack 31. The team also traded away four young pitchers to Seattle as part of the deal that brought 26-year-old Rick Honeycutt, who was 10-17 last year. But the Rangers' most promising youngster is 25-year-old Danny Darwin, who was 13-4 in '80 with a 2.63 ERA and 104 strikeouts in 110 innings. Darwin worked in short relief last year after Jim Kern, once the scourge of the league, went steadily to ruin. Darwin will be a starter this year, an assignment he welcomes. He will bring to it a whistling fastball and some recently developed off-speed and breaking pitches. As happy as he is to be in the starting rotation, Darwin doesn't regret his time in the bullpen. "I learned a discipline there I never had before," he says. "I learned not to make mistakes. Now I'm working on a change and a curve, which I'll need as a starter."

But the key to the Rangers' season is still Kern, who fell to 3-11 last year with a 4.83 ERA and only two saves from 13-5, 1.57 and 29 the previous season. Kern was a marked man in 1980. He injured his pitching elbow, then hurt his neck while throwing in pain. Finally, on Aug. 9, he was hit in the mouth by a catcher's return toss in the bullpen while he was watching a foul ball sail into the stands. "My knees didn't even buckle," he says. "I fell straight back like a tree. I remembered nothing—not even leaving the house to go to the ball park—until I woke up the next morning."

Kern worked out three hours a day six days a week in the off-season, running, exercising, lifting weights, and reported to camp carrying 17 extra pounds of muscle. "I'm in the best shape I've been in since I was with the Marine Corps at Parris Island in '69," he says.

New Manager Don Zimmer seems to feel the Rangers have solved their most nagging deficiency of a year ago, at shortstop, with the addition of Mario Mendoza, who came to Texas in the trade with Seattle for Richie Zisk and the young pitchers. Mendoza learned to field on the rocky grounds of his native Mexico and now delights in even the coarsest major league infield. If Mendoza can hit well enough to stay in the lineup, the Rangers will be strong up the middle with Gold Glove catcher Jim Sundberg, Second Baseman Bump Wills and Centerfielder Mickey Rivers. Buddy Bell, who hit .329 in '80 and led the league's third basemen in fielding, and Pat Putnam, a .263 hitter, complete the infield. Al Oliver, baseball's most celebrated unsung player, hit .319 with 117 RBIs, but he's starting the season as the DH because of tendinitis in his right shoulder. With Oliver hurting, Billy Sample will be in left. Rivers (.333) returns to center, but right is up for grabs.

After years of diligent parsimony, the Griffiths of Minnesota opened the family vault last winter and started spreading the largess. Shortstop Roy Smalley signed a $2.4 million contract for four years and Catcher Butch Wynegar signed for $2 million over five seasons. John Castino, the brilliant third baseman, Jerry Koosman, the 37-year-old pitcher, and Ron Jackson, the sometime first baseman, are all reportedly earning more than $200,000 a year, slave wages in New York or Anaheim but rampant inflation in Minneapolis-St. Paul. Smalley, understandably enough, considers the new profligacy "a move in the right direction. It indicates Calvin [Griffith] is either willing to spend money or sell the club. We should be a contender in two or three years." But definitely not this year.

The Twins' infield of Jackson, Rob Wilfong at second, Smalley and Castino is pretty fair. Smalley doesn't have great range, but Castino, who hit .302 last season, is one of the quickest and most daring of third basemen. The outfield has rookies Gary Ward and Greg Johnston and third-year man Hosken Powell. Ah, youth. Koosman, Al Williams, Pete Redfern and Roger Erickson figure to be four of Manager John Goryl's five starting pitchers. The Twins' bullpen is bulwarked by the rookie flash, Doug Corbett, who won eight games, saved 23 and had an ERA of 1.99. Nevertheless, the Twins already seem to be looking ahead to next year. Last week they traded Centerfielder Ken Landreaux to the Dodgers for Mickey Hatcher and a couple of minor-leaguers. After riding the bench for L.A., Hatcher will appear often at first and in the outfield.

One would expect an old base thief like Maury Wills to build his team around speed. Not so. Wills, starting his first full season as manager of the Seattle Mariners, spent the winter looking for power, and he thinks he's found it in Richie Zisk and Jeff Burroughs. "Everybody thinks I'd like to have a running club," says Wills. "Well, if I'd had the option, I'd have been a home-run hitter. I'd have broken Babe Ruth's [single-season major league] record, not Ty Cobb's. I didn't have a choice then. I do now. In the Kingdome [with its 357-foot power alleys], you have to score four, five, six runs to win. You need sock there. That's why we went out and got Zisk and Burroughs. We still have some base-stealers." Julio Cruz, the fancy-fielding second baseman, is one. He stole 45 bases, not exactly Willsian but productive, and Kim Allen, a rookie outfielder, stole 84 last year in Spokane.

Ideally, Wills would prefer a balance of speed and power. Zisk and Burroughs have no speed and some power. Burroughs spent last season on the Atlanta Braves' "Guillotine Squad," a group of condemned men who, for one reason or another, were cut off from the starting lineup. "Bob Horner was on it early and Jerry Royster later on," Burroughs says. "We had a lot of fun with it. We had T shirts made up. But it was a sad type of humor." Burroughs batted .301 as recently as 1978, hit 41 homers the previous year and was the league's Most Valuable Player in '74. But he had a painful 1980 season, playing in only 99 games and hitting .263 with 13 homers and 51 RBIs. To get Burroughs, the Mariners had to assume a $400,000 home loan the Braves were carrying for him. Burroughs will eventually pay them back, in the bank if not necessarily on the field.

Zisk, who went to Seattle from Texas with Infielder Rick Auerbach and Pitchers Brian Allard, Ken Clay, Steve Finch and Jerry Don Gleaton, hit 19 homers last year for the Rangers. The kid pitchers in the trade were minor-leaguers who will get their big chance in Seattle.

"We're much stronger than last year with all these new faces," says Wills. But not strong enough.

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