Baseball keeps eye on ball for a change

American baseball fans celebrate their annual rites of spring this week as the 1982 season opens with all its usual pageantry, but this time for a welcome change it's the game itself that is getting most of the attention.

Over the last several years, as we all know, there was a lot more talk about salaries, free agent compensation, and strikes than about hits, runs, and errors. But now that free agency is no longer a novelty, and with a new player-management agreement taking away the strike threat for a while, the focus has happily returned to the field of play.

Of course a great deal of interest still revolves around those players wearing new uniforms, but this was always true -- whether in the days when it was done by trades and sales, or in the modern era when the athletes have more freedom to call their own shots. And of course the New York Yankees are in the middle of it all, but that's nothing new either - going back to 1919 when they picked up one George Herman Ruth from Boston.

This year, though, it's a player who left New York -- Reggie Jackson -- who got most of the attention. Not only is there no longer any Reggie bar (the candy company discontinued it), but after five years in the Bronx, during which the Yankees won four division titles, three pennants, and two World Series, the 35-year-old slugger has moved on to the California Angels. Yankee owner George Steinbrenner has had his checkbook open as usual too, however, and new faces in pinstripes include pitcher Doyle Alexander, obtained just last week from San Francisco, and outfielders Ken Griffey and Dave Collins, who came over earlier from Cincinnati.

These moves indicated that, like several other successful teams of the '80s, the Yankees are trying to get more speed into the lineup -- even at the expense of some power. Steinbrenner even brought former Olympic gold medalist Harrison Dillard to training camp for a week as a running coach. He might have put more speed on the field, too, had his bid to acquire Al Oliver succeeded, but the deal fell through and the fleet Texas outfielder wound up in Montreal in one of the last major pre-season trades.

Also in new quarters is George Foster, who like ex-Cincinnati outfield mates Griffey and Collins will do his slugging in the Big Apple this season -- but for the Mets rather than the Yankees. He is being counted on to help his team narrow the gap in its uphill struggle for success on the field as well as in the hearts and pocketbooks of New York fans.

Davey Lopes, who played second base for the world champion Los Angeles Dodgers last season, is at Oakland; Vida Blue, who starred for the A's in the early '70s and later for the Giants, returns to the American League at Kansas City; a trade of shortstops sends Garry Templeton to San Diego and Ozzie Smith to St. Louis; and a swap of outfielders puts Chet Lemon in Detroit and Steve Kemp with the Chicago White Sox.

Usually it is lesser teams who go all-out in the trade mart, but even fans of the 1980 world champion Philadelphia Phillies may have difficulty recognizing their 1982 heroes without a scorecard. Greg Luzinski was dealt away a year ago and now also gone are outfielders Bake McBride (to Cleveland) and Lonnie Smith (to St. Louis), catcher Bob Boone (to California), and shortstop Larry Bowa, catcher-infielder Keith Moreland, and pitcher Dickie Noles (all to the Chicago Cubs).

This year's rookie crop has several familiar-sounding names. There's Montreal outfielder Terry Francona, whose father, Tito, hit .363 for Cleveland in 1959 and spent 15 years in the big leagues. There's Baltimore third baseman Cal Ripkin, Jr., whose father played in the minors and is now an Oriole coach. There's Cleveland catcher Chris Bando, younger brother of ex-Oakland and Milwaukee star Sal. And every team has a youngster it is hoping will be this year's Jim Rice, Fred Lynn, or Fernando Valenzuela, to name three relatively recent rookies who arrived with spectacular performances that helped put their teams into the World Series.

Valenzuela, of course, made his debut last year as the Mexican folk hero who took the country by storm. It is perhaps a measure of the game's loss of innocence, therefore, that few were surprised when that chubby, lovable rookie of 1981, who seemed to be enjoying himself so much that he'd have played for nothing, decided he'd like it even better this year if he got $850,000 instead of the measly $350,000 the Dodgers were offering.

Fernando finally ended his holdout in time to pitch in a couple of exhibition games, but he obviously isn't ready for regular duty yet as the curtain goes up on the 1982 campaign.

Actually, only four teams swing into action today, with Cincinnati playing its traditional host role in the National League opener vs. Chicago while Kansas City plays at Baltimore to launch the American league campaign.

President Reagan, who had been scheduled to throw out the first ball last year until the assassination attempt which occurred shortly before the start of the season, has declined this time for security reasons, according to a Baltimore spokesman. Instead, Baltimore mayor William D. Schaefer will handle the job in that city, while in Cincinnati the honors will be done by astronauts Joe Engle and Richard Truly, who flew the Columbia space shuttle last November and who will use a baseball that they took with them on that journey of nearly a million miles.

The rest of the teams swing into action Tuesday, with the Dodgers at home against San Francisco and the American League champion Yankees also opening at home against Texas. Later, of course, there is another round of home openers for those teams which began on the road - and this doesn't end until April 16, when Seattle plays host to Oakland in the final 1982 curtain-raiser.

As for the races, Montreal and Philadelphia look like a tossup in the NL East , with St. Louis a dark horse. Oakland has many challengers in the AL West, including Texas, Kansas City, Chicago, and California. The Yankees look awesome, but the AL East is a strong division in which Milwaukee and Baltimore also have good shots. And the Dodgers face their annual NL West dogfight with 1980 champion Houston and '79 winner Cincinnati.

Individually, Mike Schmidt goes for an unprecedented third consecutive MVP award; Nolan Ryan needs 260 strikeouts to surpass Walter Johnson's major league career high of 3,508; Pete Rose needs 75 hits to pass Hank Aaron's total of 3, 771 and move into second place behind Ty Cobb; and Gaylord Perry is three wins away from becoming the 15th big league pitcher, and the first since Early Wynn in 1963, to reach the 300-victory plateau.

In the annual game of managerial musical chairs, six pilots are brand new with their teams (Joe Torre at Atlanta, Lee Elia with the Chicago Cubs, George Bamberger with the New York Mets, Pat Corrales at Philadelphia, Dick Williams at San Diego, and Bobby Cox at Toronto); six are getting their first full years with their clubs after taking over during 1981 (Jim Fanning at Montreal; Gene Mauch with California; Dick Howser at Kansas City; Billy Gardner at Minnesota; Bob Lemon with the New York Yankees, and Rene Lachemann at Seattle); and 14 are holdovers from this time a year ago.

And if there's any such thing as a sure prediction as the 162-game season begins, it is that not all of these 26 individuals will be holding down these posts on Oct. 3 when it ends.

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