There is always a heavy splash of luck in these reversals. Luck, indeed, plays an almost predictable part in the game; we have all seen the enormous enemy clout into the bleachers that just hooks foul at the last instant, and the half-checked swing that produces a game-winning blooper over second. Everyone complains about baseball luck, but I think it adds something to the game that is nearly essential. Without it, such a rigorous and unforgiving pastime would be almost too painful to enjoy.
No one, it becomes clear, can conquer this impossible and unpredictable game. Yet every player tries, and now and again-very rarely-we see a man who seems to have met all the demands, challenged all the implacable averages, spurned the mere luck. He has defied baseball, even altered it, and for a time at least the game is truly his. One thinks of Willie Mays, in the best of his youth, batting at the Polo Grounds, his whole body seeming to leap at the ball as he swings in an explosion of exuberance. Or Mays in center field, playing in so close that he appears at times to be watching the game from over the second baseman's shoulder, and then that same joyful leap as he takes off after a long, deep drive and runs it down, running so hard and so far that the ball itself seems to stop in the air and wait for him. One thinks of Jackie Robinson in a close game-any close game-playing the infield and glaring in at the enemy hitter, hating him and daring him, refusing to be beaten. And Sandy Koufax pitching in the last summers before he was disabled, in that time when he pitched a no-hitter every year for four years. Kicking swiftly, hiding the ball until the last instant, Koufax throws in a blur of motion, coming over the top, and the fast ball, appearing suddenly in the strike zone, sometimes jumps up so immoderately that his catcher has to take it with his glove shooting upward, like an infielder stabbing at a bad-hop grounder. I remember some batter taking a strike like that and then stepping out of the box and staring back at the pitcher with a look of utter incredulity-as if Koufax had just thrown an Easter egg past him.
Joe DiMaggio batting sometimes gave the same impression-the suggestion that the old rules and dimensions of baseball no longer applied to him, and that the game had at last grown unfairly easy. I saw DiMaggio once during his famous. .h.i.tting streak in 1941; I'm not sure of the other team or the pitcher-perhaps it was the Tigers and Bobo Newsom-but I'm sure of DiMaggio pulling a line shot to left that collided preposterously with the bag at third base and ricocheted halfway out to center field. That record of hitting safely in fifty-six straight games seems as secure as any in baseball, but it does not awe me as much as the fact that DiMadge's old teammates claim they never saw him commit an error of judgment in a ball game. Thirteen years, and never a wrong throw, a cutoff man missed, an extra base pa.s.sed up. Well, there was one time when he stretched a single against the Red Sox and was called out at second, but the umpire is said to have admitted later that he blew the call.
And one more for the pantheon: Carl Yastrzemski. To be precise, Yaz in September of the 1967 season, as his team, the Red Sox, fought and clawed against the White Sox and the Twins and the Tigers in the last two weeks of the closest and most vivid pennant race of our time. The presiding memory of that late summer is of Yastrzemski approaching the plate, once again in a situation where all hope rests on him, and settling himself in the batter's box-touching his helmet, tugging at his belt, and just touching the tip of the bat to the ground, in precisely the same set of gestures-and then, in a storm of noise and pleading, swinging violently and perfectly ... and hitting. In the last two weeks of that season, Yaz batted .522-twenty-three hits for forty-four appearances: four doubles, five home runs, sixteen runs batted in. In the final two games, against the Twins, both of which the Red Sox had to win for the pennant, he went seven for eight, won the first game with a homer, and saved the second with a brilliant, rally-killing throw to second base from deep left field. (He cooled off a little in the World Series, batting only .400 for seven games and hitting three homers.) Since then, the game and the averages have caught up with Yastrzemski, and he has never again approached that kind of performance. But then, of course, neither has anyone else.
Only baseball, with its statistics and isolated fragments of time, permits so precise a reconstruction from box score and memory. Take another date-October 7, 1968, at Detroit, the fifth game of the World Series.* The fans are here, and an immense noise-a cheerful, 53,634-man vociferosity-utterly fills the green, steep, high-walled box of Tiger Stadium. This is a good baseball town, and the cries have an anxious edge, for the Tigers are facing almost sure extinction. They trail the Cardinals by three games to one, and never for a moment have they looked the equal of these defending World Champions. Denny McLain, the Tigers' thirty-one game winner, was humiliated in the opener by the Cardinal's Bob Gibson, who set an all-time Series record by striking out seventeen Detroit batters. The Tigers came back the next day, winning rather easily behind their capable left-hander Mickey Lolich, but the Cardinals demolished them in the next two games, scoring a total of seventeen runs and again brushing McLain aside; Gibson has now struck out twenty-seven Tigers, and he will be ready to pitch again in the Series if needed. Even more disheartening is Lou Brock, the Cards' left fielder, who has already lashed out eight hits in the first four games and has stolen seven bases in eight tries; Bill Freehan, the Tigers' catcher, has a sore arm. And here, in the very top of the first, Brock leads off against Lolich and doubles to left; a moment later, Curt Flood singles, and Orlando Cepeda homers into the left-field stands. The Tigers are down, 30, and the fans are wholly stilled.
In the third inning, Brock leads off with another hit-a single-and there is a bitter overtone to the home-town cheers when Freehan, on a pitchout, at last throws him out, stealing, at second. There is no way for anyone to know, of course, that this is a profound omen; Brock has done his last damage to the Tigers in this Series. Now it is the fourth, and hope and shouting return. Mickey Stanley leads off the Detroit half with a triple that lands, two inches fair, in the right-field corner. He scores on a fly. Willie Horton also triples. With two out, Jim Northrup smashes a hard grounder directly at the Cardinal second baseman, Javier, and at the last instant the ball strikes something on the infield and leaps up and over Javier's head, and Horton scores. Luck! Luck twice over, if you remember how close Stanley's drive came to falling foul. But never mind; it's 32 now, and a game again.
But Brock is up, leading off once again, and an instant later he has driven a Lolich pitch off the left-field wall for a double. Now Javier singles to left, and Brock streaks around third base toward home. Bill Freehan braces himself in front of the plate, waiting for the throw; he has had a miserable Series, going hitless in fourteen at-bats so far, and undergoing those repeated humiliations by the man who is now racing at him full speed-the man who must surely be counted, along with Gibson, as the Series hero. The throw comes in chest-high on the fly from Willie Horton in left; ball and base-runner arrive together; Brock does not slide. Brock does not slide, and his left foot, just descending on the plate, is banged away as he collides with Freehan. Umpire Doug Harvey shoots up his fist: Out! It is a great play. Nothing has changed, the score is still 32, but everything has changed; something has shifted irrevocably in this game.
In the seventh inning, with one out and the Tigers still one run shy, Tiger manager Mayo Smith allows Lolich to bat for himself. Mickey Lolich has. .h.i.t .114 for the season, and Smith has a pinch-hitter on the bench named Gates Brown, who hit .370. But Lolich got two hits in his other Series start, including the first homer of his ten years in baseball. Mayo, sensing something that he will not be able to defend later if he is wrong, lets Lolich bat for himself, and Mickey pops a foolish little fly to right that falls in for a single. Now there is another single. A walk loads the bases, and Al Kaline comes to the plate. The noise in the stadium is insupportable. Kaline singles, and the Tigers go ahead by a run. Norm Cash drives in another. The Tigers win this searching, turned-about, lucky, marvelous game by 53.
Two days later, back in St. Louis, form shows its other face as the Tigers rack up ten runs in the third inning and win by 131. McLain at last has his Series win. So it is Lolich against Gibson in the finale, of course. Nothing happens. Inning after inning goes by, zeros acc.u.mulate on the scoreboard, and anxiety and silence lengthen like shadows. In the sixth, Lou Brock singles. Daring Lolich, daring the Tiger infielders' nerves, openly forcing his luck, hoping perhaps to settle these enormous tensions and difficulties with one more act of bravado, he takes an excessive lead off first, draws the throw from Lolich, breaks for second, and is erased, just barely, by Cash's throw. A bit later, Curt Flood singles, and, weirdly, he too is picked off first and caught in a rundown. Still no score. Gibson and Lolich, both exhausted, pitch on. With two out in the seventh, Cash singles for the Tigers' second hit of the day. Horton is safe on a slow bouncer that just gets through the left side of the infield. Jim Northrup hits the next pitch deep and high but straight at Flood, who is the best center fielder in the National League. Flood starts in and then halts, stopping so quickly that his spikes churn up a green flap of turf; he turns and races back madly, but the ball sails over his head for a triple. Disaster. Suddenly, irreversibly, it has happened. Two runs are in, Freehan doubles in another, and, two innings later, the Tigers are Champions of the World.
I think I will always remember those two games-the fifth and the seventh-perfectly. And I remember something else about the 1968 Series when it was over-a feeling that almost everyone seemed to share: that Bob Gibson had not lost that last game, and the Cardinals had not lost the Series. Certainly no one wanted to say that the Tigers had not won it, but there seemed to be something more that remained to be said. It was something about the levels and demands of the sport we had seen-as if the baseball itself had somehow surpa.s.sed the players and the results. It was the baseball that won.
Always, it seems, there is something more to be discovered about this game. Sit quietly in the upper stand and look at the field. Half close your eyes against the sun, so that the players recede a little, and watch the movements of baseball. The pitcher, immobile on the mound, holds the inert white ball, his little lump of physics. Now, with abrupt gestures, he gives it enormous speed and direction, converting it suddenly into a line, a moving line. The batter, wielding a plane, attempts to intercept the line and acutely alter it, but he fails; the ball, a line again, is redrawn to the pitcher, in the center of this square, the diamond. Again the pitcher studies his task-the projection of his next line through the smallest possible segment of an invisible seven-sided solid (the strike zone has depth as well as height and width) sixty feet and six inches away; again the batter considers his even more difficult proposition, which is to reverse this imminent white speck, to redirect its energy not in a soft parabola or a series of diminishing squiggles but into a beautiful and dangerous new force, of perfect straightness and immense distance. In time, these and other lines are drawn on the field; the batter and the fielders are also transformed into fluidity, moving and converging, and we see now that all movement in baseball is a convergence toward fixed points-the pitched ball toward the plate, the thrown ball toward the right angles of the bases, the batted ball toward the as yet undrawn but already visible point of congruence with either the ground or a glove. Simultaneously, the fielders hasten toward that same point of meeting with the ball, and both the base-runner and the ball, now redirected, toward their encounter at the base. From our perch, we can sometimes see three or four or more such geometries appearing at the same instant on the green board below us, and, mathematicians that we are, can sense their solution even before they are fully drawn. It is neat, it is pretty, it is satisfying. Scientists speak of the profoundly moving aesthetic beauty of mathematics, and perhaps the baseball field is one of the few places where the rest of us can glimpse this mystery.
The last dimension is time. Within the ballpark, time moves differently, marked by no clock except the events of the game. This is the unique, unchangeable feature of baseball, and perhaps explains why this sport, for all the enormous changes it has undergone in the past decade or two, remains somehow rustic, unviolent, and introspective. Baseball's time is seamless and invisible, a bubble within which players move at exactly the same pace and rhythms as all their predecessors. This is the way the game was played in our youth and in our fathers' youth, and even back then-back in the country days-there must have been the same feeling that time could be stopped. Since baseball time is measured only in outs, all you have to do is succeed utterly; keep hitting, keep the rally alive, and you have defeated time. You remain forever young. Sitting in the stands, we sense this, if only dimly. The players below us-Mays, DiMaggio, Ruth, Snodgra.s.s-swim and blur in memory, the ball floats over to Terry Turner, and the end of this game may never come.
*This game and this Series are also discussed on pages 186196.
A Baseball Companion.
THE FIVE BASEBALL SEASONS just past are the most significant half-decade in the history of the game. On the field, they were notable for remarkable individual feats-by Hank Aaron, Lou Brock, and Nolan Ryan, among others-that eclipsed or threatened records previously considered entirely secure. The long pennant races and the famous doings of the playoffs and the World Series were dominated by two vivid and absolutely different champion clubs-the Oakland A's and the Cincinnati Reds; and in 1975 we were given a World Series-between the Reds and the Boston Red Sox-of unmatched intensity, brilliance, and pleasure. These sporting events, however, were almost obscured by the turmoil and bitter public wrangling that have accompanied the business side of the game in the past few years. The strikes and lockouts and other labor skirmishings of the players and owners, the bartering of franchises, the adulteration of the game by sudden gate-enhancing innovations, the deadening influence of network television, the arrival of player free-agency, the inflation of player salaries, and the purchased loyalties of most of the princ.i.p.als in the game have come as a shock to most of us, for we have begun to understand at last that baseball is most of all an enormous and cold-blooded corporate enterprise, and as such is probably a much more revelatory and disturbing part of our national psyche than we had supposed.
Like many fans, I suspect, I tried at first to ignore or make light of these distractions. I continued to write mostly about baseball as I saw it played-in spring training, during the summer campaigns, and in the noisy and cheerful October-fests-and also to pursue my private discoveries of the beauties and complications of this old sport. In the end, however, I had to think about the true meanings and ironies of contemporary big baseball, because they had begun to intrude on my feelings about the game. Most grown-ups, I believe, will find little pleasure now if they try to isolate the game-simply to sit in the stands as before and smile upon the familiar patterns and adventures on the bright lawns below. When I came to know some of the baseball people who appear in this book-three devoted fans, a long-time owner with a famous baseball name, a scout, a suddenly and mysteriously failed pitcher, and many others-I noticed that they were all affected, in different ways, by the contemporary business realities of baseball, and I saw the painful, almost excruciating effort with which each of them was attempting to sustain his lifelong attachment to the game in spite of its violent alterations. All of us who care about baseball are making this effort now.
The game, we may conclude, is worth the candle. We have no other choice if we wish to hold on to this unique attachment, this particular patch of green. Only by looking at baseball entire, I believe, will we be able to fit it into our understanding of ourselves and our times, and only that clear view will allow us to go on watching the game and to take pleasure in its scarcely diminished splendors. As for me, I am still a fan-a companion to the game and a grateful recipient of its good company.
NOTE: Since this is a running account, attention should be given to the date-line at the beginning of each chapter; a number of players and other princ.i.p.als have changed clubs, of course, since these reports were written.
On the Ball.
- Summer 1976.
IT WEIGHS JUST OVER five ounces and measures between 2.86 and 2.94 inches in diameter. It is made of a composition-cork nucleus encased in two thin layers of rubber, one black and one red, surrounded by 121 yards of tightly wrapped blue-gray wool yarn, 45 yards of white wool yarn, 53 more yards of blue-gray wool yarn, 150 yards of fine cotton yarn, a coat of rubber cement, and a cowhide (formerly horsehide) exterior, which is held together with 216 slightly raised red cotton st.i.tches. Printed certifications, endors.e.m.e.nts, and outdoor advertising spherically attest to its authenticity. Like most inst.i.tutions, it is considered inferior in its present form to its ancient archetypes, and in this case the complaint is probably justified; on occasion in recent years it has actually been known to come apart under the demands of its brief but rigorous active career. Baseb.a.l.l.s are a.s.sembled and hand-st.i.tched in Taiwan (before this year the work was done in Haiti, and before 1973 in Chicopee, Ma.s.sachusetts), and contemporary pitchers claim that there is a tangible variation in the size and feel of the b.a.l.l.s that now come into play in a single game; a true peewee is treasured by hurlers, and its departure from the premises, by fair means or foul, is secretly mourned. But never mind: any baseball is beautiful. No other small package comes as close to the ideal in design and utility. It is a perfect object for a man's hand. Pick it up and it instantly suggests its purpose; it is meant to be thrown a considerable distance-thrown hard and with precision. Its feel and heft are the beginning of the sport's critical dimensions; if it were a fraction of an inch larger or smaller, a few centigrams heavier or lighter, the game of baseball would be utterly different. Hold a baseball in your hand. As it happens, this one is not brand-new. Here, just to one side of the curved surgical welt of st.i.tches, there is a pale-green gra.s.s smudge, darkening on one edge almost to black-the mark of an old infield play, a tough grounder now lost in memory. Feel the ball, turn it over in your hand; hold it across the seam or the other way, with the seam just to the side of your middle finger. Speculation stirs. You want to get outdoors and throw this spare and sensual object to somebody or, at the very least, watch somebody else throw it. The game has begun.
Thinking about the ball and its attributes seems to refresh our appreciation of this game. A couple of years ago, I began to wonder why it was that pitchers, taken as a group, seemed to be so much livelier and more garrulous than hitters. I considered the possibility of some obscure physiological linkage (the discobologlottal syndrome) and the more obvious occupational discrepancies (pitchers have a lot more spare time than other players), but then it came to me that a pitcher is the only man in baseball who can properly look on the ball as being his instrument, his accomplice. He is the only player who is granted the privilege of making offensive plans, and once the game begins he is (in concert with his catcher) the only man on the field who knows what is meant to happen next. Everything in baseball begins with the pitch, and every other part of the game-hitting, fielding, and throwing-is reflexive and defensive. (The hitters on a ball team are referred to as the "offense," but almost three quarters of the time this is an absolute misnomer.) The batter tapping the dirt off his spikes and now stepping into the box looks sour and glum, and who can blame him, for the ball has somehow been granted in perpetuity to the wrong people. It is already an object of suspicion and hatred, and the reflex that allows him occasionally to deflect that tiny onrushing dot with his bat, and sometimes even to relaunch it violently in the opposite direction, is such a miraculous response of eye and body as to remain virtually inexplicable, even to him. There are a few dugout flannelmouths (Ted Williams, Harry Walker, Pete Rose) who can talk convincingly about the art of hitting, but, like most arts, it does not in the end seem communicable. Pitching is different. It is a craft ("the crafty portsider ...") and is thus within reach.
The smiling pitcher begins not only with the advantage of holding his fate in his own hands, or hand, but with the knowledge that every advantage of physics and psychology seems to be on his side. A great number of surprising and unpleasant things can be done to the ball as it is delivered from the grasp of a two-hundred-pound optimist, and the first of these is simply to transform it into a projectile. Most pitchers seem hesitant to say so, but if you press them a little they will admit that the prime ingredient in their intense personal struggle with the batter is probably fear. A few pitchers in the majors have thrived without a real fastball-junk men like Eddie Lopat and Mike Cuellar, superior control artists like Bobby Shantz and Randy Jones, knuckleballers like Hoyt Wilhelm and Charlie Hough-but almost everyone else has had to hump up and throw at least an occasional no-nonsense hard one, which crosses the plate at eighty-five miles per hour, or better, and thus causes the hitter to-well, to think a little. The fastball sets up all the other pitches in the hurler's repertoire-the curve, the slider, the sinker, and so on-but its other purpose is to intimidate. Great fastballers like Bob Gibson, Jim Bunning, Sandy Koufax, and Nolan Ryan have always run up high strikeout figures because their money pitch was almost untouchable, but their deeper measures of success-twenty-victory seasons and low earned-run averages-were due to the fact that none of the hitters they faced, not even the best of them, was immune to the thought of what a 90-mph missile could do to a man if it struck him. They had been ever so slightly distracted, and distraction is bad for hitting. The intention of the pitcher has almost nothing to do with this; very few pitches are delivered with intent to maim. The bad dream, however, will not go away. Walter Johnson, the greatest fireballer of them all, had almost absolute control, but he is said to have worried constantly about what might happen if one of his pitches got away from him. Good hitters know all this and resolutely don't think about it (a good hitter is a man who can keep his back foot firmly planted in the box even while the rest of him is pulling back or bailing out on an inside fastball), but even these icy customers are less settled in their minds than they would like to be, just because the man out there on the mound is hiding that cannon behind his hip. Hitters, of course, do not call this fear. The word is "respect."
It should not be inferred, of course, that major-league pitchers are wholly averse to hitting batters, or almost hitting batters. A fastball up around the Adam's apple not only is a first-cla.s.s distracter, as noted, but also discourages a hitter from habitually leaning forward in order to put more of his bat on a dipping curve or a slider over the outer rim of the plate. The truth of the matter is that pitchers and batters are engaged in a permanent private duel over their property rights to the plate, and a tough, proud hurler who senses that the man now in the batter's box has recently had the better of things will often respond in the most direct manner possible, with a hummer to the ribs. Allie Reynolds, Sal Maglie, Don Drysdale, Early Wynn, and Bob Gibson were cold-eyed lawmen of this stripe, and the practice has by no means vanished, in spite of strictures and deplorings from the high chambers of baseball. Early this year, Lynn McGlothen, of the Cards, routinely plunked the Mets' Del Unser, who had lately been feasting on his pitches, and then violated the ancient protocol in these matters by admitting intent. Dock Ellis, now a Yankee but then a Pirate, decided early in the 1974 season that the Cincinnati Reds had somehow established dominance over his club, and he determined to set things right in his own way. (This incident is described at length in a lively new baseball book, Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball, by Donald Hall.) The first Cincinnati batter of the game was Pete Rose, and the first pitch from Ellis was at his head-"not actually to hit him," Ellis said later, but as a "message to let him know that he was going to be hit." He then hit Rose in the side. The next pitch hit the next Red batter, Joe Morgan, in the kidney. The third batter was Dan Driessen, who took Ellis's second pitch in the back. With the bases loaded, Dock now threw four pitches at Tony Perez (one behind his back), but missed with all of them, walking in a run. He then missed Johnny Bench (and the plate) twice, whereupon Pirate manager Danny Murtaugh came out to the mound, stared at Ellis with silent surmise, and beckoned for a new pitcher.
Hitters can accept this sort of fugue, even if they don't exactly enjoy it, but what they do admittedly detest is a young and scatter-armed smoke-thrower, the true wild man. One famous aborigine was Steve Dalkowski, an Oriole farmhand of the late nineteen fifties and early sixties who set records for strikeouts and jumpy batters wherever he played. In one typical stay with a Cla.s.s D league, he threw 121 strikeouts and gave up 129 walks and 39 wild pitches, all in the span of 62 innings. Dalkowski never made it to the majors, but, being a legend, he is secure for the ages. "Once I saw him work a game in the Appalachian League," a gravel-voiced retired coach said to me not long ago, "and nothing was. .h.i.t forward for seven innings-not even a foul ball." An attempt was once made to clock Dalkowski on a recording device, but his eventual mark of 93.5 mph was discounted, since he threw for forty minutes before steering a pitch into the machine's recording zone.
Better-known names in these annals of anxiety are Rex Barney, a briefly flaring Brooklyn nova of the nineteen forties, who once threw a no-hit game but eventually walked and wild-pitched his way out of baseball; Ryne Duren, the extremely fast and extremely nearsighted reliever for the Yankees and other American League clubs in the fifties and sixties, whose traditional initial warm-up pitch on his being summoned to the mound was a twelve-foot-high fastball to the foul screen; and a pair of rookies named Sandy Koufax and Bob Feller. Koufax, to be sure, eventually became a superb control artist, but it took him seven years before he got his great stuff entirely together, and there were times when it seemed certain that he would be known only as another Rex Barney. Sandy recalls that when he first brought his boyish a.s.sortment of fiery sailers and bouncing rockets to spring-training camp he had difficulty getting in any mound work, because whenever he picked up his glove all the available catchers would suddenly remember pressing appointments in some distant part of the compound. Feller had almost a career-long struggle with his control, and four times managed to lead his league simultaneously in walks and in strikeouts. His first appearance against another major-league club came in an exhibition game against the Cardinals in the summer of 1936, when he was seventeen years old; he entered the game in the fourth inning, and eventually struck out eight batters in three innings, but when his searing fastball missed the plate it had the batters jumping around in the box like roasting popcorn. Frank Frisch, the St. Louis player-manager, carefully observed Feller's first three or four deliveries and then walked down to the end of the dugout, picked up a pencil, and removed himself from the Cardinal lineup.
The chronically depressed outlook of major-league batters was pushed to the edge of paranoia in the nineteen fifties by the sudden and utterly unexpected arrival of the slider, or the Pitcher's Friend. The slider is an easy pitch to throw and a hard one to hit. It is delivered with the same motion as the fastball, but with the pitcher's wrist rotated approximately ninety degrees (to the right for a right-hander, to the left for a southpaw), which has the effect of placing the delivering forefinger and middle finger slightly off center on the ball. The positions of hand, wrist, and arm are almost identical with those that produce a good spiral forward pa.s.s with a football. The result is an apparent three-quarter-speed fastball that suddenly changes its mind and direction. It doesn't break much-in its early days it was slightingly known as the "nickel curve"-but a couple of inches of lateral movement at the plateward end of the ball's brief sixty-foot-six-inch journey can make for an epidemic of pop-ups, foul b.a.l.l.s, and harmless grounders. "Epidemic" is not an exaggeration. The slider was the prime agent responsible for the sickening and decline of major-league batting averages in the two decades after the Second World War, which culminated in a combined average of .237 for the two leagues in 1968. A subsequent crash program of immunization and prevention by the authorities produced from the laboratory a smaller strike zone and a lowering of the pitcher's mound by five inches, but the hitters, while saved from extermination, have never regained their state of rosy-cheeked, pre-slider good health.
For me, the true mystery of the slider is not its flight path but the circ.u.mstances of its discovery. Professional baseball got under way in the eighteen-seventies, and during all the ensuing summers uncounted thousands of young would-be Mathewsons and Seavers spent their afternoons flinging the ball in every conceivable fashion as they searched for magic fadeaways and flutter b.a.l.l.s that would take them to Cooperstown. Why did eighty years pa.s.s before anybody noticed that a slight c.o.c.king of the wrist would be sufficient to usher in the pitchers' Golden Age? Where were Tom Swift and Frank Merriwell? What happened to American Know-How? This is almost a national disgrace. The mystery is deepened by the fact that-to my knowledge, at least-no particular pitcher or pitching coach is given credit for the discovery and propagation of the slider. Bob Lemon, who may be the first man to have pitched his way into the Hall of Fame with a slider, says he learned the pitch from Mel Harder, who was an elder mound statesman with the Indians when Lemon came up to that club, in 1946. I have also heard some old-timers say that George Blaeholder was throwing a pretty fair slider for the St. Louis Browns way back in the nineteen-twenties. But none of these worthies ever claimed to be the Johnny Appleseed of the pitch. The thing seemed to generate itself-a weed in the bullpen which overran the field.
The slider has made baseball more difficult for the fan as well as for the batter. Since its action is late and minimal, and since its delivery does not require the easily recognizable arm-snap by the pitcher that heralds the true curve, the slider can be spotted only by an attentive spectator seated very close to home plate. A curve thrown by famous old pretzel-benders like Tommy Bridges and Sal Maglie really used to curve; you could see the thing break even if you were way out in the top deck of Section 31. Most fans, however, do not admit the loss. The contemporary bleacher critic, having watched a doll-size distant slugger swing mightily and tap the ball down to second on four bounces, smiles and enters the out in his scorecard. "Slider," he announces, and everybody nods wisely in agreement.
The mystery of the knuckleball is ancient and honored. Its pract.i.tioners cheerfully admit that they do not understand why the pitch behaves the way it does; nor do they know, or care much, which particular lepidopteran path it will follow on its way past the batter's infuriated swipe. They merely prop the ball on their fingertips (not, in actual fact, on the knuckles) and launch it more or less in the fashion of a paper airplane, and then, most of the time, finish the delivery with a faceward motion of the glove, thus hiding a grin. Now science has confirmed the phenomenon. Writing in The American Journal of Physics, Eric Sawyer and Robert G. Watts, of Tulane University, recently reported that wind-tunnel tests showed that a slowly spinning baseball is subject to forces capable of making it swerve a foot or more between the pitcher's mound and the plate. The secret, they say, appears to be the raised seams of the ball, which cause a "roughness pattern" and an uneven flow of air, resulting in a "nonsymmetric lateral force distribution and ... a net force in one direction or another."
Like many other backyard baseball stars, I have taught myself to throw a knuckleball that moves with so little rotation that one can almost pick out the signature of Charles S. Feeney in midair; the pitch, however, has shown disappointingly few symptoms of last-minute fluttering and has so far proved to be wonderfully catchable or hittable, mostly by my wife. Now, at last, I understand the problem. In their researches, Sawyer and Watts learned that an entirely spinless knuckler is not subject to varying forces, and thus does not dive or veer. The ideal knuckler, they say, completes about a quarter of a revolution on its way to the plate. The speed of the pitch, moreover, is not critical, because "the magnitude of the lateral force increases approximately as the square of the velocity," which means that the total lateral movement is "independent of the speed of the pitch."
All this has been perfectly understood (if less politely defined) by any catcher who has been the battery mate of a star knuckleballer, and has thus spent six or seven innings groveling in the dirt in imitation of a bulldog cornering a nest of field mice. Modern catchers have the a.s.sistance of outsized gloves (which lately have begun to approach the diameter of tea trays), and so enjoy a considerable advantage over some of their ancient predecessors in capturing the knuckler. In the middle nineteen-forties, the receivers for the Washington Senators had to deal with a pitching staff that included four knuckleball specialists-Dutch Leonard, Johnny Niggeling, Mickey Haefner, and Roger Wolff. Among the ill-equipped Washington catchers who tried to fend off almost daily mid-afternoon clouds of deranged b.u.t.terflies were Rick Ferrell and Jake Early, Early eventually was called up to serve in the armed forces-perhaps the most willing inductee of his day.
The spitball was once again officially outlawed from baseball in 1974, and maybe this time the prohibition will work. This was the third, and by far the most severe, edict directed at the unsanitary and extremely effective delivery, for it permits an umpire to call an instantaneous ball on any pitch that even looks like a spitter as it crosses the plate. No evidence is required; no appeal by the pitcher to higher powers is permissible. A subsequent spitball or imitation thereof results in the expulsion of the pitcher from the premises, instanter, and an ensuing fine. Harsh measures indeed, but surely sufficient, we may suppose, to keep this repellent and unfair practice out of baseball's shining mansion forever. Surely, and yet ... Professional pitchers have an abiding fondness for any down-breaking delivery, legal or illegal, that will get the job done, and nothing, they tell me, does the job more effectively or more entertainingly than a dollop of saliva or slippery-elm juice, or a little bitty dab of lubricating jelly, applied to the pitching fingers. The ball, which is sent off half wet and half dry, like a dilatory schoolboy, hurries innocently toward the gate and its grim-faced guardians, and at the last second darts under the turnstile. Pitchers, moreover, have before them the inspiring recent example of g.a.y.l.o.r.d Perry, whose rumored but unverified f.a.ginesque machinations with K-Y Jelly won him a Cy Young Award in 1972 and led inevitably to the demand for harsher methods of law enforcement. Rumor has similarly indicted other highly successful performers, like Don Drysdale, Whitey Ford, and Bill Singer. Preacher Roe, upon retiring from the Dodgers, in 1954, after an extended useful tenure on the mound at Ebbets Field, published a splendidly unrepentant confession, in which he gave away a number of trade secrets. His favorite undryer, as I recall, was a full pack of Juicy Fruit gum, and he loaded up by straightening the bill of his cap between pitches and pa.s.sing his fingers momentarily in front of his face-now also illegal, alas.
It may be perceived that my sympathies, which lately seemed to lie so rightly on the side of the poor overmatched hitters, have unaccountably swung the other way. I admit this indefensible lapse simply because I find the spitter so enjoyable for its deviousness and skulking disrespect. I don't suppose we should again make it a fully legal pitch (it was first placed outside the pale in 1920), but I would enjoy a return to the era when the spitter was treated simply as a misdemeanor and we could all laugh ourselves silly at the sight of a large, outraged umpire suddenly calling in a suspected wetback for inspection (and the pitcher, of course, rolling the ball to him across the gra.s.s) and then glaring impotently out at the innocent ("Who-me?") perpetrator on the mound. Baseball is a hard, rules-dominated game, and it should have more room in it for a little cheerful cheating.
All these speculations, and we have not yet taken the ball out of the hands of its first friend, the pitcher. And yet there is always something more. We might suddenly realize, for instance, that baseball is the only team sport in which the scoring is not done with the ball. In hockey, football, soccer, basketball, lacrosse, and the rest of them, the ball or its equivalent actually scores or is responsible for the points that determine the winner. In baseball, the score is made by the base runner-by the man down there, just crossing the plate-while the ball, in most cases, is a long way off, doing something quite different. It's a strange business, this unique double life going on in front of us, and it tells us a lot about this unique game. A few years ago, there was a suddenly popular thesis put forward in some sports columns and light-heavyweight editorial pages which proposed that the immense recent popularity of professional football could be explained by the fact that the computerlike complexity of its plays, the clotted and anonymous ma.s.ses of its players, and the intense violence of its action const.i.tuted a perfect Sunday parable of contemporary urban society. It is a pretty argument, and perhaps even true, especially since it is hard not to notice that so many professional football games, in spite of their noise and chaos, are deadeningly repet.i.tious, predictable, and ba.n.a.l. I prefer the emotions and suggestions to be found in the other sport. I don't think anyone can watch many baseball games without becoming aware of the fact that the ball, for all its immense energy and unpredictability, very rarely escapes the control of the players. It is released again and again-pitched and caught, struck along the ground or sent high in the air-but almost always, almost instantly, it is recaptured and returned to control and safety and harmlessness. Nothing is altered, nothing has been allowed to happen. This orderliness and constraint are among the prime attractions of the sport; a handful of men, we discover, can police a great green country, forestalling unimaginable disasters. A slovenly, error-filled game can sometimes be exciting, but it never seems serious, and is thus never truly satisfying, for the metaphor of safety-of danger subdued by skill and courage-has been lost. Too much civilization, however, is deadly-in this game, a deadly bore. A deeper need is stifled. The ball looks impetuous and dangerous, but we perceive that in fact it lives in a slow, guarded world of order, vigilance, and rules. Nothing can ever happen here. And then once again the ball is pitched-sent on its quick, planned errand. The bat flashes, there is a new, louder sound, and suddenly we see the ball streaking wild through the air and then bounding along distant and untouched in the sweet green gra.s.s. We leap up, thousands of us, and shout for its joyful flight-free, set free, free at last.
Starting to Belong.
- June 1972.
JUNE IS WHEN BASEBALL REALLY begins. Now partisanship deepens, and we come to the time when the good weather and the sights and sounds of the game are no longer quite enough. In June, even casual semi-fans begin to watch the standings, and true believers-adherents of free silver and the Expos and similar causes-secretly put aside some of their wild April hopes as they see that this season, like the others, will be mostly pain and misadventure, and that part of their attention must now be given to the leaders and the other princ.i.p.als in the long pennant drama. For me, at least, all this has been slow to happen this year. Part of that is attributable to the bitter, unprecedented strike called by the Players a.s.sociation at the end of March, which wiped out the first two weeks of the season and did away with most of the antic.i.p.ation and good cheer of baseball's spring. But I have begun to notice I am more hesitant than I once was to give my full attention to the games and adventures of the early season, and more inclined to linger on the one that is just past. This year, April and May seemed to deepen my recollection of last October, when the Pirates and Orioles played that brilliant and breathless turnabout seven-game World Series, which was won in the end by the hitting and throwing and the burning will of Pittsburgh's Roberto Clemente. It was a Series especially worth thinking about and putting to memory, but I suspect that many fans may suffer from a similar nostalgia every spring. We are afraid to commit ourselves too quickly or eagerly to the time at hand. We hold back a bit, remembering the pa.s.sions and rewards of the season just past, remembering how we cared, and wondering if this new season can matter as much to us. It's almost like being in school-being back in college again. Can this term be as good as the last one? Who will my friends be? Will I fall in love again? Will these new courses be any good? Waiting, we watch and take notes.
Scorecard: Early June. July and midseason creeping up, yet baseball year still at loose ends. Distracting sort of campaign, suggesting no-score ball game in which 15 base runners stranded in first 4 innings; eventful yet forgettable. To date: Hank Aaron wafts 1 doz. homers, pa.s.sing W. Mays and running maybe 1l/2 seasons short of the Babe's 714. Willie probably relieved. Willie also rejuvenated & rejoicing as new Met, out from under heavy 20-yr. burden as Giants' deity & leader, plays occasional 1B or OF for Metsies, signs autogs., runs bases like a 10-speed bike, wins games. Maysless Giants (also McCoveyless, thanks to broken McC. wing) plummet to NL West cellar. Similar early fatuity for a while afflicts Baltimore, perennial AL Ozymandias (now down to 1 Robinson, after winter trade of F. Robby to Dodgers), whose grizzled vets rarely hit ball beyond infield, let alone into stands. Total early Oriole departure from race prevented only by lack of consist. or zing among other AL East clubs. Cleveland like a mayfly-takes early wing, expires on same afternoon. Tigers like bullfrog escaping a well-jumps up three feet, slips back two. Yankees ... Yankees like nothing in nature. Most sedative BB team in memory, so uninspired as to suggest bestowal of new sobriquet: Bronx Sashweights? CBS Plastercasts? Red Sox, diminished by tradeoff of dissidents & gripers, lose injured Yastrzemski for early going; Yaz previously heavily booed at Fenway, has not hit much for almost 1 yr. Mystery.
Unhappy celebs also include Giants' Juan Marichal, in bed with aching back after early 1 win8 loss record, and Cards' Bob Gibson, now back on track after early zip5 mark. But prime addition this yr. to annals' human fatuity is to be seen in utter inability to retire major-league hitters (and later, in and around bushes of Birmingham, Ala., minor-league hitters) displ. by once colorful, now pathetic Denny McLain. Denny's extinguishment nearly accompanied by similar disapp. of Vida Blue, last year's Lochinvar & this year's toilet-fixture exec., who took new employment during long salary holdout vs. Oakland boss Charles O. Finley (chance here to use word "ineffable")-the ineffable Charles O. Finley, whose difficulties with help are legend. All BB owners' difficulties with help now legend. Owners mostly, almost wholly, respons. for players' strike. (Chance here to use other descript. adjectives. Resist impulse.) Strike wipes out 1st 2 weeks of play, gets season off to unstart that prob. still casts aforesaid sense of distraction & foolishness over entire BB scene.
(Historical note, proving game no longer hobbled by h.o.a.ry traditions, superst.i.tions: Phillies, in midst of terrible losing streak, refuse to fire manager. Fire general manager instead. Go on losing.) The strike: There will be no attempt here to recapitulate all the issues in that painful and tedious dispute, but it does seem essential to recall that the Players a.s.sociation from the beginning offered to compromise or submit to arbitration its ultimate point of difference with the owners-the use of acc.u.mulated funds in the players' pension plan to increase the benefits currently being paid out. The owners declared any accommodation to be an absolute impossibility until a total of eighty-six games and several million dollars in revenue had drained away, whereupon they compromised, exactly as they could have done before the deadlock set in. A last-minute modic.u.m of patience on both sides might have averted the whole thing, but not everyone wanted peace. It is clear that some of the more dedicated Cro-Magnons among the owners (including the Cardinals' Gussie Busch, the Reds' Frank Dale, the Mets' Donald Grant, and the Royals' Ewing Kauffman) saw the strike as a precious opportunity to strain, and perhaps crack, the labor union of their upstart, ungrateful young employees and, above all, to discredit its executive director, Marvin Miller. Most of the owners, to be sure, would deny such an intention, but the unchanging and apparently unchangeable characteristic of their fraternity is its total distaste for self-discipline-a flaw that anarchizes the entire body and repeatedly renders it victim to its loudest and least responsible minority. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, who has been criticized for not playing a stronger hand in settling the strike, does not in fact have any power over the owners in such a crucial situation; these businessmen, in contrast to the players, chose to remain undirected and largely unadvised throughout the crisis.
The corporate masochism of baseball scarcely ranks as news, and neither labor relations nor the size of players' pensions is the end of the game's problems. Among the other hovering anxieties is the deepening disparity in quality and attendance between the two major leagues. Last year's record total attendance did not conceal the fact that the National League outdrew the American by nearly five and a half million customers-17,324,857 to 11,858,560. The gap is widening this year, with the NL running ahead of last season's comparable attendance figures, and the AL behind. The difference between the leagues in quality and attractiveness of play is harder to prove, but it can be suggested: so far this spring, National League batters have hit over one hundred more home runs than their American League counterparts. New ball parks attract new customers: the American League has four modern parks (counting the stadium to be opened next year in Kansas City), but with the exception of Wrigley Field, every park in the National League is less than fifteen years old. I am not attracted to this means of rebalancing, however, because I detest the appearance and flavor of most modern ball parks, which seem to have sprung from the same architectural tradition that brought us the shopping mall. I also believe that fans would respond with pleasure and alacrity to a more challenging but far less expensive solution to the American League's problems-better ball teams.*
One lively, long-range proposal to increase attendance is a suggested future realignment of all twenty-four major-league clubs into new leagues-possibly a regional lineup of three eight-team leagues: Eastern, Central, and Southern-Western. A further, accompanying alteration would be the introduction of a limited number of interleague games during the regular season, arranged so that every big-league ballplayer could be seen by fans in every big-league city within the span of two seasons. The plan is startling and perhaps imperfect, but it is surely worth hopeful scrutiny at the top levels of baseball. I am convinced, however, that traditionalists need have no fear that it will be adopted. Any amalgamation would require all the owners to subdue their differences, to delegate real authority, to accept change, and to admit that they share an equal responsibility for everything that happens to their game. And that, to judge by their past record and by their performance in the strike, is exactly what they will never do.
Most recently, the Supreme Court's refusal to consider the ant.i.trust implications of baseball's reserve clause, which was challenged in Curt Flood's suit, means without a doubt that this difficult and inflammatory issue will now be thrown down between the owners and the Players a.s.sociation. It will form a central area of contention when the overall players' agreement, governing every aspect of their profession, comes up for renegotiation this winter. Congress is holding a number of hearings on the monopolistic aspects of professional sports, but few congressmen in an election year are anxious to shiver the foundations of a national inst.i.tution like baseball. Next winter could be another long one, and coming seasons are already clouded with foreboding.
Home stand: Shea Stadium was instant compensation for the emptiness of early April. I first got there for an afternoon game with the Cubs that matched up Tom Seaver and a junior right-hander named Burt Hooton, who in his previous start had startled the nation's news-famished fans by pitching an opening-day no-hitter against the Phillies. Any statistical anxiety he may have brought with him because of this feat was dispersed by Bud Harrelson, who hit his third pitch of the game to left field for a double. Hooton throws an anomaly called the knuckle curve-a unique private invention that causes the pitched ball to drop into the catcher's glove like a coin into a pay telephone-and he now began retiring Mets in cl.u.s.ters. Seaver responded with plain but honest All-American fastb.a.l.l.s, and in one stretch twenty-one successive Mets and Cubs (both clubs, admittedly, devout pract.i.tioners of nonviolence at the plate) between them managed two outfield flies before Eddie Kranepool finally singled in the fifth and came around to score the first run in Seaver's 20, four-hit win. There were some new faces in the Mets' lineup, and one painfully missed figure in the dugout: Manager Gil Hodges, who had collapsed and died two days after the end of spring training. There must be very few of us who exulted through the Mets' triumphant campaign of 1969 who do not retain some common permanent portrait of Gil Hodges-enormous hands thrust inside the pockets of his blue windbreaker; his heavy, determinedly expressionless face under the long-billed cap; and his pale, intelligent gaze that presided over that turbulent summer and somehow made it come right for his young team and for us all.
Two stimulating comeback wins over the Dodgers and the Giants in the same week in May began to suggest to me the resourcefulness of this particular Met team, already surprisingly settled into first place in its division. On a frigid leftover-winter night, the Los Angelenos surprised the Mets' rookie starter, Jon Matlack, with eight hits and four runs in the first four innings, one score coming on a home run by Frank Robinson, the famous ex-Oriole. It was a Robby Special-a first-pitch line drive jerked to left with the loud and terminal "whock!" that causes sensitive pitchers instantly to avert their gaze, as if from a grade-crossing accident. In the fourth, however, the Mets executed a dandy outfield peg and relay-Agee to Martinez to Grote-that wiped out a Dodger runner at the plate, and Matlack, thus heartened, pitched obdurately while his teammates caught up. The tying run came on Rusty Staub's homer in the eighth inning, and the winning run-deep in the stilly night, hours after the last hot coffee had run out at Shea-came in the fourteenth, on a tiny two-out infield poke by Teddy Martinez, who outran the peg to first while Harrelson scored from third.
Two nights later, with the Giants at Shea, everyone in the park took out his pencil and put a circle around Willie Mays' name on the left-hand, San Francisco side of the scorecard and then drew a long line and an arrow that moved it over to the right-hand roster. Willie had been signed up by the Mets the day before, and was on the field as a non-Giant for the first time in his life. It was a strange feeling; something fixed in our baseball universe had been taken down. He did not play that night, but the subtraction of Mays and the injured McCovey from the Giants' lineup gave that team an entirely new aspect; they were suddenly a young, fast, largely unknown club, far from contention now but full of new promise. The Mays deal, one sensed, had been right for them, too. Their next star was well in evidence. He is Dave Kingman, an angular, six-foot-six, uppercutting power hitter with a reputation for frequent bad strikeouts and occasional moon-shot home runs; showing us some speed on the bases as well, he rapped out a double and two singles.
The Mets, I could see, had been considerably altered by the addition of two names this season-Staub and Jim Fregosi, the latter a useful and experienced All-Star infielder acquired from the Angels.** For the first time in recent memory, the Mets' batting order seemed to have both a top and a bottom. Its middle-the No. 4 man-is Staub, late of the Montreal Expos, a large, marmalade-colored right fielder, who invariably plays bare-armed, catches fly b.a.l.l.s one-handed, and hits against left- and right-handed pitchers in the same fashion-that is, with consistency, adequate power, and a burning, almost exultant concentration. He should be a sporting deity in New York for years to come.
In that Giant game, the Mets were shy a run in the bottom of the eighth when the pitcher was due to bat, and enormous cries of "We want Willie!" now rose in the night air. Manager Yogi Berra, however, resisted the invitation and sent up a left-handed hitter, John Milner, who walked and was duly moved up and neatly scored. In the ninth, the bottom of the order finished it off-walk to Jones, single by Fregosi, and the game-winning hit up the middle by Grote. The Mets, winning by 21, were on their way to what eventually became an eleven-game victory streak. Two days later, Willie Mays made his debut as a Met, playing against his old team. Displaying his customary sense of occasion, always as close to perfect as that of Mme. Perle Mesta, he smashed a fifth-inning home run that won the game.
(Miniquiz: Willie Mays had always worn No. 24 on his uniform. The same number was worn this spring by a reserve outfielder for the Mets named Jim Beauchamp. Q: When Willie became a Met, which of them was asked to change his uniform number? Answer next week.) On the road: I began my first road trip one day too late. The night before I arrived in Los Angeles, the Houston Astros had beaten the Dodgers with a three-run catch-up homer struck with two out in the ninth by Astro third baseman Doug Rader, and then a bases-loaded squeeze bunt by Tommy Helms in the eleventh. I saw the same teams in three taut, edgy pitchers' duels-the Dodgers winning the first two by 21 and 30, to recapture a fractional lead in their division, which they then lost right back to the visitors in the last game, 21. Excellent baseball, I had to admit, if a bit austere. And not all that austere, either, since Dodger manager Walt Alston was trying out an infield-third baseman Steve Garvey, shortstop Bill Russell, second baseman Bobby Valentine, and first baseman Bill Buckner-that averages twenty-two and a half years old and plays electrifying, in more than one sense of the word, ball. Buckner won the first game with a two-run double, making up for a run flung away by Garvey; Valentine and Garvey drove in two of the three runs the next day, atoning for an egregious bobble and an embarra.s.sing wild heave by Russell. The Dodger pitchers in those games, Claude Osteen and Al Downing, threw a lot of sinker b.a.l.l.s, which the Astro batters helpfully hammered into the dirt, thus giving the home-team kiddies plenty of infield practice.
That second game, on Sat.u.r.day, was actually settled on Houston hurler Dave Roberts' first pitch of the evening, which Bobby Valentine hit over the center-field fence. Everybody was swinging at first pitches, it turned out, and the game went by so quickly that there was scarcely time for a visiting Easterner to appreciate the soft, late sunshine gilding the nearby San Gabriel Mountains, or for the Dodger promotion corps to get all its messages up on the scoreboard: "HAPPY ANNIVERSARY NO. 1 TO THE KEITH GUSTAVSONS." ... "HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO BRUCE GERSON, SPENDING HIS 8TH STRAIGHT BIRTHDAY AT A DODGER GAME." ... "WELCOME TO DORITH ZACHAIM, SEEING THE DODGERS SHE READ ABOUT IN HAIFA, ISRAEL." Downing whizzed through the Astro lineup, giving up but two singles, and the game was over in exactly ninety minutes, a new Dodger Stadium record ("I don't think we ought to get paid for that one," Wes Parker said) and probably the quickest game of baseball that Bruce Gerson or any of the rest of us there will see in our lifetimes.
The Houston infield, though less winsome than the Los Angeles youth movement, is splendidly accomplished. It is half home-grown-Doug Rader and a redoubtable shortstop named Roger Metzger-and half imported-Tommy Helms at second and the dangerous Lee May at first, the latter two having arrived from Cincinnati last winter in a trade that has vivified the lackadaisical Houstons. Whatever the adventures of the Astros this summer, none of them will immediately forget the ending of the final Dodger game. Walter Alston, with his club down by a run in the bottom of the ninth, now began to make use of his varsity. Wes Parker (who had played the entire game at first) led off with a single-only the fifth hit off Astro starter Jerry Reuss. Maury Wills, pinch-hitting, sacrificed Parker to second. Jim Lefebvre, pinch-hitting, ripped a scorching grounder past Doug Rader at third base. It was past, between Rader and the bag, but Rader dived full-length to his right, flinging out his glove cross-handed as he skidded in the dirt, and came up with the ball. He sprang up, losing his cap, and managed a colliding tag of the astonished Wes Parker, who was on his way in from second with the sure tying run. The game ended a minute later, and afterward Walt Alston, now in his nineteenth year at the Dodger helm, said, "That may be the greatest infield play I've ever seen." Doug Rader, a sharp-faced young man, burnished with freckles, said, "Ah, I made one just as good back with Durham in '65." Joke. Rader had also hit that two-out homer in the first game of the series, and now he said, "Everything is so d.a.m.ned different when you're with a club up on top. It's great, isn't it? Isn't it great? Oh, I hope it's like this all year."*** I hung up the Rader catch in my gallery-in the small inner room, between an early Clete Boyer and a couple of Brooks Robinsons.
Motown: you never can tell. Approaching Detroit, my next stop, I told myself that a couple of upcoming mismatches between the Tigers and the cellar-dwelling Milwaukee Brewers, a club then batting .184, would at least offer a chance to watch such celebrated veteran Detroit sluggers as Al Kaline, Norm Cash, and Jim Northrup strut their stuff. The only stuff on view the first night, it turned out, was some marvelous pitching by the Brewers' Jim Lonborg, the erstwhile Boston ace, who entirely dominated the evening. It was a warm late-May night, summer having finally caught up with baseball, and the smallish crowd, having nothing much to cheer about, fell into a soft, languid murmuration. Tiger Stadium is an old-style city ball park, an ancient green chamber, and the sounds of baseball enclosed there seemed to come out of the past-the click of the news ticker in the rooftop press box, an infielder's whistle, a brief little burst of clapping from somewhere down the third-base line, and then some laughter in the stands following a mighty strike call ("Streuahh!") by the home-plate ump. The baseball writers were eating ice cream. In time, a cool evening breeze sprang up, and the Brewers scored a pair of runs in the seventh, and Lonborg, with his sinking fastball reminding us of his great summer of 1967, wrapped up his four-hit shutout. Just another baseball evening, but in Detroit there is a dreadful hovering possibility that evenings like this may not continue. I heard much talk there that within three or four years the Tigers will give up their park (formerly known as Briggs Stadium, Navin Field, and-way back-Bennett Park), where they have always played ball, and move into a new enclosed stadium on Detroit's waterfront. A domed palace, however, may be almost beyond the city's economic reach, and we may hope, with the utmost selfishness and good sense, that a continuation of the current business recession and dollar inflation may ensure another decade or two of life for the Tigers' gra.s.sy old boathouse.
The Tigers won the next night, but not in style. In the sixth, their starter, Les Cain, was sailing along, still untouched, when he suddenly lost all poise and control, walked the bases full, and was yanked, shockingly, while still working on a no-hitter. There were other causes for dismay-errors by the Brewer infield and unfervent play by the Tiger outfield-before Detroit came from behind for a 53 win.
The quiet I observed in the stands during this two-game set was not wholly attributable to the torpid play. Now and then, an evening zephyr brought me unmistakable emanations of Acapulco and other sunny climes, and when I inquired about it, a Tiger front-office man smiled and said yes, the bleacher crowds did now include large numbers of young fans from Wayne State and other nearby centers of learning who seemed to be heightening their worship of the G.o.d Kaline with certain holy substances. "We leave 'em alone," he told me. "To tell you the truth, we have a lot more trouble with the beer-drinkers from the auto plants."
Bal'more: one possible cure for the American League's attendance problems might be some form of ma.s.sive group therapy for baseball fans in Baltimore. Although the Orioles are the cla.s.s of t
« Previous My Bookmarks Chapters Next»