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Willie and Clyde, they call themselves, and they have all the West chasing them. The guys on Murderers' Row in Cincinnati seem to be closing in. The Mod Squad kids in Los Angeles, Hammerin' Hank and Phil the Knuckler in Atlanta and Jimmy the Cannon in Houston may need a little more time, but they are not far away from Willie and Clyde's place right now. "We're certainly not going to open the door for any of them," says Willie. "Darn, Willie, if all my plans had worked out right the last couple of months we wouldn't be worrying about these people trying to catch up now," says Clyde.
The team is the San Francisco Giants, and Willie is—surprise—Willie McCovey, the first baseman and at present the most feared hitter in the National League. Clyde is Clyde King, the rookie manager of the Giants. Willie's bat and Clyde's fresh psychology have the Giants in first place in the league's fratricidal Western Division. Although they led the second-place Reds by only 1½ games and the fifth-place Astros by only 4½ as of Sunday night, the Giants may prove to be more difficult to catch in the Western hinterlands during the next three weeks than Bonnie and Clyde ever were.
There are various reasons why this is so, but all of them can be summarized in one word: team. For the first time since they landed in California 11 years ago the Giants are a genuine baseball team. That is, there are 32 players in San Francisco who are now working in concert with the manager and his coaches to produce a pennant. In past seasons—particularly in the last four seasons when the Giants were always second—this was not so. Under Manager Herman Franks, the grand guru of the game, the Giants were marvelously sufficient in all the baseball departments save one: morale, Manager and management catered too much to the star syndrome at the expense of the little man, without whose contributions, it became clear, their team would never make first place.
Franks, in fact, seemed to think that he had only four players on the Giants. They were, in order, Willie Mays, Juan Marichal, McCovey and Gaylord Perry. There was an occasional experiment when Franks played around with the possibility of adding to the select four, but his heart was never in it. The other Giants, he seemed to feel, were merely dwarfs. Their function was to appear three hours before the game and disappear half an hour after it was over.
"I don't think," says Willie McCovey, "that I've ever met two men anywhere who have such opposite views about handling players. Herman was the type who hated to build a player up. Clyde, well, he's always around with the compliments to everyone. Ballplayers, like everyone else, like to get told they did something right."
Also now, for really the first time since the opening games of the season, King can field his regular team—or at least seven of the eight players he thinks of as daily performers.
The Giants have until now been baseball's Medicaid Nine. Their health insurance had its first workout when Catcher Dick Dietz' tonsils became infected. Then Jim Ray Hart, the No. 5 hitter, slammed his shoulder into a fence during opening week and developed bursitis. Not only was his throwing arm totally disabled, he was unable to use his bat. Last year he hit 23 home runs and had 78 RBIs. So far in 1969 he has hit only three homers and driven in 24 runs. Jack Hiatt, a catcher, and Bob Etheridge, the regular third baseman, both developed ulcers. Tito Fuentes and Shortstop Hal Lanier injured their ankles. Ken Henderson pulled a hamstring, and Jim Davenport displayed the usual ailments that come with old age.
Juan Marichal developed a unique injury in the Astrodome when he sneezed and simultaneously pulled a muscle in his rib cage. During the next five weeks he was able to win only one game. Second Baseman Ron Hunt, baseball's true grit, has been in and out, in and out of the lineup and the hospital, the recipient this year of 21 pitched balls on his head, his shoulders and any other place he was not too sure he should remove from the line of fire. Bobby Bonds, the brilliant young power-hitting outfielder, surveyed Hunt's black-and-blue body one day and said, "Ron, believe me, there's no advantage in turning my color." Two weeks ago Hunt was hospitalized overnight for observation after Tom Seaver skulled him with a fastball. Hunt then tried to play the next day.
But this is the story of the San Francisco Giants, and all previous stories about the San Francisco Giants have always begun and ended with Willie Mays. Not this year. Mays has not started 58 games this season because of injuries and advancing age. Last month he damaged his left knee in a home-plate crash with the Cubs' Randy Hundley, and it was not until last Saturday night in Houston that Mays was physically ready to play again. He went to the Dome in the morning for a 20-minute batting drill, then, in the game, hit a two-run triple to help the Giants beat the Astros 7-6.
"We've used eight different third basemen out of physical necessity," King says. "We've had countless outfield combinations. We've never had a regular catcher. Considering everything, our being in first place is incredible. If all those things hadn't happened, there'd be no race—we'd be up there someplace."