Already the Yankees are scouting Kansas City Royals
Anaheim, Calif. — You qualify for the job of a special major league scout if (1) you have ever been fired as a manager; (2) you are considered smart in the game's subtleties; or (3) you can identify, from the press box, everything the pitcher is throwing.
The man sitting next to me at Anaheim Stadium, home of the California Angels, is a winner on all three counts. Name: Bob Lemon. Recent past: winning manager in 1978 World Series. Present organization: New York Yankees. Assignment: put together an up-to-date book on all opposing American League teams.
On this particular night Lemon was concentrating on the Kansas City Royals, who finished right behind the division-winning Angels last year after winning the AL West the three previous seasons.
"Sure I like the Royals' chances," Lemon was saying. "Give them some consistent pitching, especially out of the bullpen, and I don't think anyone in their division can catch them. They've got all the hitting they'll ever need and from what I've seen they're good enough in the field."
"I also think they've got a fine manager in Jim Frey, who sure did a lot to help the Baltimore Orioles when he was coaching for Earl Weaver," Bob continued. "Technically, I suppose, Frey is a rookie manager. But Jim was has been around the big leagues so long and knows the game so well, that I just don't happen to think of him that way."
The well-above-average Kansas City hitters Lemon was talking about are mostly familiar names -- Willie Wilson, Amos Otis, George Brett, Darrell Porter, Hal McRae, Willie Mays aikens, and Frank White. But Frey has also been getting good production from U. L. Washington and Clint Hurdle.
Last year the Royals scored 851 runs while compiling a team batting average of .282. Brett, who never seems to have a slump, was runnerup to Boston's Fred Lynn for the AL batting crown, George, who hit .329 overall, also led the Royals in home runs with 23.
"No matter what kind of breaking stuff you've got, I'd hate to face that lineup if I were an opposing pitcher," said Lemon, who seven times won 20 or more games during his career with the Cleveland Indians. In fact, Bob finished with 207 major league victories.
"The trouble with those KC hitters is that they don't leave a pitcher any room for mistakes," he continued. "You have to throw strikes to beat them, only you can't make 'em too good."
A growing number of baseball people think the Royals may have the game's most exciting young player in Wilson, who leads off, hit .315 last year, and stole 83 bases. Willie, a switch-hitter, says he has been clocked going from home plate to first base in 3.3 seconds. That, of course, would be from the left side.
"I started switch-hitting in Triple-A ball because I figured it was something that was going to keep me in the lineup against both right-handed and left-handed pitching," Wilson told me. "And man, when you don't play all the time, you don't improve."
"As for stealing bases, I'm not much different than most guys who have speed and know how to run," he continued. "I get my break from watching the pitcher, although I never take enough of a lead so that I have to dive back to the bag. I wear two pads on my right leg for protection and I always slide so that I can come straight up when I reach the bag. With that kind of slide, which I think gives the impression that the runner is in control, I feel the umpire is more apt to call me safe."
The much-maligned Kansas City pitching staff, which Frey watches like a hawk, actually has three former 20-game winners in Dennis Leonard (twice), Paul Splittorff, and Jim Busby. However, Splittorff last year was under .500; Leonard a solid but unspectacular 14-2; and Busby a mere 6-6.
Rich Gale went 9-10 last year after a 14-8 rookie season, and although Larry Gura won 13 of his 33 starts, he was around only seven times at the finish. So far the bulk of the Royals' 1980 bullpen calls have been answered by Dan Quisenberry, Gary Christenson, and rookie Renie Martin, who has occasionally been used as a starter.
In summing up, rookie managers with solid credentials like Frey have, several times in the past, won pennants their first time out. And, as Lemon says, Jim doesn't exactly deserve that rookie label.