Fleet feet the major league vogue
| Los Angeles
Most managers say it's almost impossible to be competitive in major league baseball today without emphasizing speed and running ability. Unless a team has two or three rabbits in its starting lineup, it has almost no chance to harvest any of that World Series lettuce.
Concerning this theory, there aren't many detractors left, the principal opponent probably being Baltimore Manager Earl Weaver, who still prefers the big inning. And back in the late 1970s, the New York Yankees, with their power bats, played in three consecutive World Series without forcing much on the bases.
But generally the word is out for scouts to watch for players with exceptional running ability, like Oakland's Rickey Henderson; Montreal's Tim Raines; Pittsburgh's Omar Moreno; Kansas City's Willie Wilson; and Seattle's Jose Cruz.
''The thing that has forced all ball clubs to look for more speed is the size of today's parks,'' explained St. Louis Manager Whitey Herzog. ''Most of them are huge, with foul lines that often run back 360 feet, plus tall outfield fences. In my opinion, particularly with the heavy air that often comes with night baseball, it isn't that easy to hit home runs anymore. So managers have to look for alternate ways to get their base runners into scoring position.
''The other thing you have to take into consideration is the speed, anticipation, and jumping ability of today's young outfielders,'' Herzog continued. ''It isn't that unusual anymore to see some fleet-footed kid race into either power alley and cut off a ball that was headed for extra bases. There are also a lot of outfielders around with the ability to go to the wall for a deep drive, time their leap perfectly, and glove a ball that had actually cleared the fence. So speed isn't just offense.''
The Pittsburgh Pirates, once known as the Pittsburgh Lumber Company because of all the long ball hitters up and down their lineup, have made almost a 180 -degree turn in the power department, according to manager Chuck Tanner.
''Even though we still have some hitters left who can put the ball in the stands, we're more apt to win now with our speed and aggressiveness than with our power,'' Tanner said. ''I think the key today is aggressiveness, because what you're really trying to do is put as much pressure on the opposition as you can. First you force the mistake; then you take advantage of it.
''For example, any time you get a speedster like Moreno on first base, you've started a war of nerves,'' Chuck continued. ''Right away you've divided the pitcher's attention between the hitter and Moreno, who he knows is probably going to steal, only on what pitch?
''But it doesn't stop there, because now you've got the infielder, whose job it is to cover second base if there is a throw, wondering if he can get there on time. Maybe, if he's really concerned, he'll cheat a little by moving a step or two closer to second base. Sure, he's protected himself on the throw, but he's also left a bigger hole for the hitter.''
That controversial surface known as artificial turf has also contributed greatly to baseball's preoccupation with speed and running ability.
Balls hit into a natural grass infield have a tendency to slow up, giving the runner on first a chance to get to second base in time to break up the double play.
But that same ball gets to an infielder so much quicker on artificial turf that he often doesn't have to be concerned about being knocked down. He can take his time and still get both runners. That is, unless the hitting team has a rabbit on the bases who can take away some of that edge.
Asked what it does to a team's morale when a steal, gone wrong, takes it out of a promising inning, Tanner replied:
''It's going to happen some times. But you handle it the same way you do when your best hitter strikes out on a bad pitch with the bases loaded. If you've got good people who are aggressive and believe in what they are doing, then it's not going to happen that often.''
It is doubtful if any base stealer, past or present, ever upset an entire team more than Jackie Robinson, when he played for the old Brooklyn Dodgers.
''What allowed Robinson to get such a great jump on the pitcher and never get picked off base was his balance,'' chirped in Cardinal coach Red Schoendienst, who had become part of the conversation.
''Because Robinson was always active and moving away from the bag, you never knew when he was going to takeoff,'' Schoendienst added. ''Yet Jackie never got caught leaning the wrong way, which was unusual for a guy who stole as much as he did. Today's kids may have higher totals, but I never saw anyone more exciting on the bases than Robinson.''