The final American League game remained, the next afternoon, and it was scarcely less than what had come before. The Tigers scored in the first on a single, a pa.s.sed ball, and an infield out. The A's tied it in the second on dash and daring-a walk, a stolen base, a sacrifice, a hit batsman, a double steal. The run came at a high price, for Reggie Jackson, the Oakland slugger and leader, severely tore the hamstring muscle of his left leg in a collision at the plate and was carried from the field, finished for the year. The lead run (the winning run, it turned out) came in the fourth on an error, a sacrifice, and a single by Gene Tenace. The pitchers took it from there-Fryman for the Tigers, Blue Moon Odom and then Vida Blue for the A's. In each of the last three innings, the Tigers put the tying run on first base and could not advance him. Their difficulties-the difficulty of all baseball when it is well played-were so evident that announcer Jim Simpson murmured at one point, "This is a game that requires no description." The Detroit elders, who had come so far on so little, died at last because of their lack of speed. (They had stolen only seventeen bases all year.) They were reduced in the end to playing the game one base at a time, which is the least rewarding way to travel the 360 feet around to home. Their demise (with the Oakland players leaping and hugging all by themselves) was the hardest to watch of this hard baseball year.
The survivors, gathering in Cincinnati for the Series opener, came together in an atmosphere of almost palpable letdown. All the players, it seemed, were less aroused about the games to come than relieved about the ones just past, and as one watched the Reds cheerfully taking their cuts during pregame batting practice it was hard to discount their evident conviction that their most dangerous opponents of the year had already been buried. They looked over at the hairy young A's, in their outlandish green-and-gold-and-white costumes, with a patronizing curiosity that was perhaps shared by the great majority of baseball fans everywhere. Oakland, to be sure, was the best the AL had, but the National, by every comparable measurement, was by far the stronger of the two leagues. The Oakland pitching was good-perhaps even first-cla.s.s-but Reggie Jackson, the team's only certified slugger, was over there uncomfortably balancing on crutches, and, anyway, who had ever heard of a major-league team wearing mustaches? (Charlie Finley's ugly little scheme of paying each of his players to grow a mustache as part of a promotion stunt last June had a cheerful, unexpected result. The players-most of them, at least-liked their new and wildly variegated whiskers and long locks, and remained unshorn through the summer, and in time this eighteen-nineties look became a proud attribute of the squad. During the Series, the young and exuberant and showy A's sometimes suggested a troupe of actors in a road company of Cyrano de Bergerac, laughing backstage in their doublets or swaggering a little on the streets after the show. The Reds, by front-office decree, were as clean and barefaced as Kiwanians.) In spite of the imbalance of styles, and the imbalance of talent in the lineups which seemed so strongly to favor the Reds, both teams were equally avid for the reputation and honors that would accrue to the new champion. Over the past two decades, the fall cla.s.sic has usually offered a match between a famous champion and a new challenger-the Orioles against the Pirates, Reds, and Mets; the Cardinals against the Tigers and Red Sox; the Yankees against almost everybody. Now, relieved of this allegory, we looked at the two clubs with total surmise, wondering not only which would win but whether one of them might not also represent the game's next dynasty.
The sense of mild anticlimax persisted in Cincinnati right through the first game, which the b.u.t.tercups (or Bushwhackers, or Pale Feet) won by 32. Gene Tenace, the Oakland catcher and, on his record, a rather minor member of the A's entourage, struck a two-run homer off Gary Nolan his first time at bat. The Cincinnati rooters near my seat behind third base smiled at this accident in a rather indulgent manner: these things happen sometimes in baseball, and their catcher-slugger, of course, was named Bench. Tenace came up next in the fifth and hit another one out, thus accounting for all the Oakland runs, and this time the hometowners sprang up and cried "Aw, come onn!" in unison. Tenace was the first man in history to hit home runs on his first two World Series at-bats. Still, the fans went home in the end only a bit cast down, and the tone of the afternoon was somehow struck by two banners that had been towed over Riverfront Stadium by circling airplanes-"OAKLAND HAS WEIRD UNIFORMS" and "WOMEN'S LIB WILL DESTROY THE FAMILY." The Oakland pitchers, I noticed, had allowed only two walks and a single to those first three Red batters.
The next day (a brilliant, sun-drenched Sunday afternoon), Johnny Bench had more unwanted practice as a leadoff man, as Catfish Hunter and Rollie Fingers confined the Top Three to a lone single and one free trip to first via an error, and the Goldenrods won again, 21. Catfish Hunter, a somewhat unappreciated star (he won twenty-one games in each of the past two seasons, and is one of the few players never to have played a single game in the minor leagues), is a control pitcher of the very first rank, and must usually be scored on in the first couple of innings if he is to be scored on at all. He settled this particular game in the second inning when he struck out the side with two (and eventually three) Reds on base, and in the A's third, left fielder Joe Rudi hit the game-winning solo homer. The hometown crowd, their white-and-scarlet banners drooping, waited in polite but deepening silence for something to cheer about, and their one true yell of the day, in the bottom of the ninth, was suddenly severed when Rudi, in pursuit of a very long drive by Denis Menke, plastered himself belly-first against the left-field wall like a pinned b.u.t.terfly and somehow plucked down the ball. Later, in their clubhouse, the Reds variously attempted a statesmanlike situation report ("We're a bit flat" ... "Their offense doesn't impress me" ... "We're embarra.s.sed, you could say"), but their faces were a little stiff, a little shocked. Tony Perez used both hands to enact for Dave Concepcion a couple of Catfish Hunter's half-speed pitches dipping gently over the corners of the plate. "Nada!" he cried bitterly. "Nada!"
There was another moment on that same bright Sunday-a moment before the game, which only took on meaning a few days later. In a brief ceremony at the mound, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn presented an award to Jackie Robinson, honoring him for his work in combating drug addiction, and celebrating his arrival, twenty-five years before, as the first black man in the major leagues. Robinson responded, his thin, high voice barely reaching us over the loudspeakers. He was glad to see some of his old Brooklyn friends there-Pee Wee Reese, Joe Black, Red Barber. He introduced his family. He ended by saying that it would be nice to see a black manager standing in the third-base coach's box someday soon. There were handshakes and applause, the party walked away, the microphones were taken down. I had seen Jackie for a minute or two in the tunnel behind home plate-a frail, white-haired old man, with a black raincoat b.u.t.toned up to his chin. I remembered at that moment a baseball scene that I had witnessed more than twenty years earlier-a scene that came back to me the following week, when I read about Robinson's sudden death. It was something that had happened during an insignificant weekday game between the Giants and the Dodgers back in the nineteen-fifties. Robinson, by then an established star, was playing third base that afternoon, and during the game something happened that drove him suddenly and totally mad. I was sitting close to him, just behind third, but I had no idea what brought on the outburst. It might have been a remark from the stands or from one of the dugouts; it was nothing that happened on the field. Without warning, Robinson began shouting imprecations, obscenities, curses. His voice was piercing, his face distorted with pa.s.sion. The players on both teams looked at each other, uncomprehending. The Giants' third-base coach walked over to murmur a question, and Robinson directed his screams at him. The umpire at third did the same thing, and then turned away with a puzzled, embarra.s.sed shrug. In time, the outburst stopped and the game went on. It had been nothing, a moment's aberration, but it seemed to suggest what can happen to a man who has been used, who has been made into a symbol and a public sacrifice. The moment became an event-something to remember along with the innumerable triumphs and the joys and the sense of pride and redress that Jackie Robinson brought to us all back then. After that moment, I knew that we had asked him to do too much for us. None of it-probably not a day of it-was ever easy for him.
A couple of hours before the beginning of the third game (which became a rainout), Charles O. Finley, resplendent in a Kelly-green double-knit blazer, got aboard a crowded elevator inside the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. When it reached the field level, he stood aside to let the rest of us out, and then turned to the young woman running the elevator. "Listen, dear," he said urgently. "I want you to stop at two on the way back up and pick up the boys with the coffee urns. You got that?" Charlie Finley is a man who must do everything by himself, even when fifty thousand paying customers are at the gates. He is a self-made millionaire, in the insurance business. He bought his ball club by himself and, almost entirely without advice, developed and traded for the players who brought him the championship. (He is also a jock satrap, owning teams in two other sports-the California Golden Seals, of the National Hockey League, and the Memphis Tams, of the American Basketball a.s.sociation-which he operates and oversees in the same shouldering style.) He designed the A's' uniforms. He designed their style of play. (This year's policy of pinch-hitting for the second baseman as early as the second inning is a Finley invention, and reflects his conviction that baseball should open itself more to pinch-hitting and pinch-running specialists.) He used up nine baseball managers in ten years, and imposes strategy upon the inc.u.mbent, d.i.c.k Williams, like a Little League daddy. He is a man who must control every situation in which he finds himself, from arranging the seating at a dinner table to personally dispensing the last five hundred World Series tickets behind the Oakland dugout (an area he refers to as "my box"). He brings his team mascot, an enormous mule named Charlie O, to all the A's' public functions, indoors or outdoors. In his relations with his players, he has a fondness for the sudden paternal gesture-an arm around the shoulder and the whispered message that the athlete's contract has just been upped by a few thousand for some deed well done. Last year, Finley tried to persuade Vida Blue to change his first name to True. Later, he publicly presented him with a new Cadillac, but this spring, when Blue held out for a very sizable increase in salary, Finley fought him with such unbridled vehemence that Blue fell into a state of embittered withdrawal that accounted in great part for his disappointing 610 record. Mr. Finley believes he enjoys excellent relations with most of his players, and would probably point to his new championship as the best evidence of their happiness. Yet considerable evidence suggests that the A's were united and matured most of all by their shared individual resistance to the Finley style and the Finley presence. During the Series, Reggie Jackson talked to me about this. "The man is insulting and meddlesome," he said. "This team found itself in the summer, but this is not the way to make a team."
Finley has already had a notable influence on baseball (scheduling the weekday Series games at night, as was done this year, is an idea he finally sold to his fellow executives), and now, with a hold on the championship, he will wield more power in the councils of the sport. His prime immediate projects for the game are the addition to the lineup of a designated hitter, who would bat for any other player (probably the pitcher) without requiring him to leave the game, and the use of a bright orange baseball in night games. I hate the first idea, and I would leave the second one up to the players to decide, but both deserve serious testing. Charlie Finley, one comes to realize, is impossible to ignore, like a mule in a ballroom.
The third game, played on a sodden turf and by Pacific Daylight Saving Time, was an austere, nearly eventless affair that finally went to the Reds by a minimal 10. The time zone was perhaps the most important element of the game. The action began at five-thirty in the afternoon, which is prime evening tube time in the East and is also the beginning of twilight in California infields in October. The pitchers-Blue Moon Odom for the A's and Jack Billingham for the Reds-were entranced with this crepuscular setting and struck out batters in helpless cl.u.s.ters. The only run of the evening (and only the second Cincinnati run in the past twenty-one innings) almost didn't get into the books, for Tony Perez, rounding third in the seventh inning, slipped on the wet turf and went sprawling-a sudden baseball bad dream-but then got up and tottered home.
The true bad dream for the Reds had been postponed only for a day. In game four, while struggling against the experienced and capable Oakland left-hander Ken Holtzman, they watched incredulously as Gene Tenace deposited another souvenir in the bleachers, in the fifth, to put them down by 10. In the top of the eighth, however, Dave Concepcion singled and was sacrificed to second. With two out, Vida Blue came on in relief to face Joe Morgan, and walked him. Bobby Tolan socked Blue's first pitch, a fastball, on a line for two bases and two runs, and Concepcion and Morgan slapped hands happily at the plate. The win would tie the Series, and everything was about to be all right after all. Later-a day or two later-Sparky Anderson remarked that he never truly expects a pinch-hitter to hit safely, so what happened next will probably remain vividly in his mind for months or years to come-a nightmare to be experienced a thousand times, always with the same far-fetched and loathsome outcome. It is the bottom of the ninth, one out. Gonzalo Marquez, an Oakland pinch-hitter, taps a single over second. With the count two and one on Gene Tenace, Anderson summons in a new pitcher, Clay Carroll, who has set an all-time major-league record for saves during the season. Tenace singles. Oakland has two men on, and Don Mincher, a large veteran left-handed swinger, now comes up to pinch-hit for the A's-not a true threat, except that Carroll gets his second pitch up a bit and Mincher eagerly whacks it into right field, tying the game and moving Tenace to third. Angel Mangual comes up to pinch-hit. Carroll's first pitch to him is perfect-a fastball in on the hands. Mangual swings, almost in self-defense, hitting the ball down on the handle and nudging a little bleeder between first and second, which Perez or Morgan cannot quite, either one of them, straining, staggering, get a glove on. The game is gone.
Q: your team is trailing, three games to one, in the World Series. It is the top of the first inning of game five, and you are the leadoff batter. What is the best thing to do?
A: Hit the first pitch into the stands for a home run.
The student who got an A on this quiz was Pete Rose, who had heretofore suffered an uncharacteristic eclipse in the Series. Rose is unmistakable on a ball field. He is ardent, entertaining, and unquenchable. He burns by day and by night. He sprints to first base on walks, dives on his belly on the base paths or chasing line drives in the outfield, and pulls in fly b.a.l.l.s in left field with a slicing, downward motion that says "There!" At plate, he is the model leadoff man-a medium-sized switch-hitter who, choking the bat and hunching over the plate, can pull the ball with real power or punch it to the opposite field; he scrutinizes every pitch, not just up to the plate but right back into the catcher's glove, and then glares into the umpire's face for the call. He is a great hitter, and only the spring strike this year kept him from his annual quota of more than two hundred hits. (The fans in the left-field bleachers in Oakland, watching Rose in person for the first time, honored him on several occasions with salvos of eggs and vegetables. One of the eggs landed unbroken on the mushy turf, and Rose brought it in as a souvenir to the Cincinnati dugout, where it was eaten by coach Ted Kluszewski.) Tom Seaver says that Pete Rose entirely alters the game when he bats, making it into a deadly personal duel with the man on the mound.
Rose's first-pitch homer off Catfish Hunter announced that the alteration of this fifth game had begun, but it was some time before he got it completely under control. It was a crowded, disheveled sort of game, in which each team successfully employed its various specialties. There was another homer by Gene Tenace, good for three runs, in the second inning, and another pinch hit by Marquez-his twelfth in twenty-two such appearances this year. The partisans in Charlie Finley's private preserve, all green-and-yellow in the caps and banners he had provided them, sustained a continuous jubilee, like bullfrogs in a June shower. The A's led by 31 and 42, but Morgan was walked twice, and each time he whistled around the bases in dazzling style to score on a single by Tolan. It was all tied up in the ninth, then, when Geronimo singled, and was neatly sacrificed to second. An infield error now brought up Rose, this time batting left-handed against Rollie Fingers, the Oakland mound inc.u.mbent. Fingers (whose mustache aspires toward the Salvador Dali rococo ideal) had won the previous game in relief, but now he sighed disconsolately, fiddled uncharacteristically, and at last offered up the pitch, which Rose redirected smartly into right field to deliver the winning run. Score for the Top Three for the day: three runs, five hits, two walks, three stolen bases, four runs batted in. Oakland, undiscouraged as always, put on its leadoff man in the home half, and Dave Duncan (a catcher with an Oberammergau coiffure and beard) singled the pinch-runner, Odom, along to third. With one out, Campaneris fouled out to Morgan in very short right field, and after the catch Odom impulsively launched himself down the inviting ninety-foot homestretch. He negotiated eighty-nine feet and six inches of the distance before encountering Johnny Bench and the ball, and then most unhappily got up and prepared to join the rest of us on the somewhat longer journey back to Cincinnati.
The penultimate meeting was played the next afternoon, a Sat.u.r.day-also prime viewing time, which meant that the teams were not permitted the customary travel holiday. It was probably just as well, however, for in Riverfront Stadium a bone-chilling easterly suggested that this pastime had already overstayed its season. Vida Blue, given his first start of the Series because of the compressed pitching schedule, did not seem to have his hummer and kept falling behind the Red batters. Bench homered in the fourth, and the Reds sent four men to the plate in the fifth, and five men to the plate in the sixth, and (joyfully falling upon Oakland's second-line pitching) ten men to the plate in the seventh, to wrap up an 81 landslide. It was a sad end to Vida's sad year, but there was some satisfaction in watching the Reds' sluggers doing their thing at last. The Cincinnati fans were utterly transported, and with reason: this was the first World Series game to be won by the Reds at home since 1940.
The full seven, then, with a resolution that was still impossible to forecast or guess at. Strangely, no single player had emerged-in the manner of a Clemente, a Brooks Robinson, a Brock-to put his stamp and style on this Series. The closeness of the games and the continuous action on the field almost concealed the fact that the level of play had been less than distinguished. Most of the Cincinnati starting pitchers had been inadequate, both teams had suffered inordinate difficulties in executing the double play, the Oakland pitchers and catcher Gene Tenace had among them surrendered eleven stolen bases, and the teams together were hitting a desultory .203. Still, the original elements of the drama remained, now deepened to a wonderful expectancy-the Oakland pitching and woolly elan against the Reds' hitting, speed, and pride. Something would give way here today.
d.i.c.k Williams, in an attempt to bolster his. .h.i.tting and defense simultaneously, moved Tenace to first base, put Duncan behind the plate, and started Angel Mangual in center. (Tenace looked understandably edgy about his new responsibilities. "Tomorrow," he said during batting practice, "I'll probably be playing goalie.") Mangual made a difference in the very first half-inning, when he struck a long drive off Jack Billingham to straightaway center field. Bobby Tolan raced in, absolutely misjudging the play, and then made a leap for the sailing ball, which glanced off his glove and rolled to the fence, with Mangual winding up on third. (Extraordinarily, most of this game seemed to be played at the foot of that center-field fence, 404 feet away.) Gene Tenace, now batting cleanup, pulled a sharp grounder to left that struck the edge of the AstroTurf carpet at the back of the third-base dirt patch and suddenly bounded over Menke's head; and the Yellowlegs, not exactly on merit, had the first run.
Blue Moon Odom, the Oakland starter, has a splendid motion to first base (a gift he has evidently never tried to pa.s.s along to his co-workers), and he had stated the night before that no Cincinnati runners would steal on him. Now, in the fourth, Pete Rose led off with an enormous smash to center that Mangual one-handed just at the fence. A little startled, Odom walked the swift Morgan, and the crowd began a breathless nonstop shouting: "Go! Go! Go! Go! Go! Go! Go!" Odom would have none of it. Fixing Morgan with a sidewise, over-the-shoulder stare (friends who saw the game on television told me later that the closeups of Odom's face were remarkable), pausing, waiting almost interminably, he whirled and threw to his first baseman five times in succession, twice nearly erasing Morgan. He delivered a ball to Tolan, then made two more pick-off throws, then threw another pitch-a ball-as Morgan flew away to second, where he was cut down, narrowly but plainly, by Duncan's peg. The game, I was suddenly certain, had been won right there.
The Reds were far from done. Tony Perez led off the fifth with a double to the left-field corner, and two successive walks then loaded the bases with only one out. Hal McRae, pinch-hitting, struck the first delivery to him all the way (need it be added?) to the center-field wall, where Mangual made the catch. The score: 11. Rose, who had singled in the first, unloaded another rocket to precisely the same spot, and again to no avail. He had now struck two successive clouts, good for a total of more than eight hundred feet, producing two outs. Some baseball games do not yield themselves, even to a Rose.
Billingham had been given up for the pinch-hitter, and Campaneris greeted his successor, Pedro Borbon, with a single. He was sacrificed to second, and Tenace scored him with a double to deep left-and was taken out of the game, to his surprise, for a pinch-runner. (He had won the sports car, clearly, as the top player of the Series, and also became the recipient of a hug and a retroactive raise from the All-father, Charlie Finley.) The next batter, Sal Bando, hit another enormous shot to the battered center-field salient, and this ball landed untouched when Tolan fell at the warning track. The score was 31, and Cincinnati's luck had run out.
Pete Rose, leading off for the Reds perhaps for the last time this season, began the eighth with a single off Catfish Hunter, and the despairing Reds rooters hoa.r.s.ely roused themselves once again. Holtzman, a lefty, came in to pitch to Joe Morgan, a lefty, and the last touch of baseball misfortune now descended on the Reds. Morgan cracked the ball on a low line to right-pulling it so violently, in fact, that Rose had to dodge back to avoid being struck, and then was forced to leap over Mike Hegan, the Oakland first baseman, sprawled in the dirt after his dive for the ball. The ball was in the right-field corner-a sure triple, a certain run, except for that infinitesimal accident at first; Rose came churning around third, with Morgan not far behind, but the ball was on the way in now, and third-base coach Alex Grammas threw up his hands at the last instant, stopping Rose so abruptly that his helmet came flying off. The runners retreated. (Second-guessing, I thought Grammas had made a mistake, but we would never know.) Fingers came in to pitch, and Rose eventually scored on Perez' fly, to bring it to 32, but that was all, and a few minutes later the exhausting, searching season was over.
One of the wearers of the green-and-gold in the happy Oakland clubhouse was Rick Williams, the fifteen-year-old son of the victorious manager, whom I had last seen five years ago, when his father piloted the Red Sox to their remarkable pennant. Rick looked only a little younger than most of the whooping and grinning new champions, whose hair and mustaches-now streaming with champagne-had somehow always made them look more boyish than any other big-league team I could remember. Reggie Jackson, in civvies, also had a bottle of champagne. He exchanged hugs and hand-slaps with his teammates, but he had not played in this, the only World Series of his life. In time, he limped unnoticed into another room and sat down to watch a football game on television.
The Reds' clubhouse was utterly quiet. I heard no complaining about the breaks. (Baseball luck is inescapable, and professionals know that in order to win you must dominate the game to the point where it is no longer a factor.) Bobby Tolan, ignoring the reporters, toured the locker room and apologized to every one of his teammates. "I'm sorry I let you mothers down," he murmured. The silence was so profound that three-year-old Pete Rose, Jr., who was carrying a little baseball bat and wearing a miniature version of his father's uniform, kept staring up at the men's faces all around him, trying to understand it. In time, he wandered into the deserted equipment room, where he examined a large bin filled with fresh, untouched ice cubes. Then he a.s.sumed a left-handed batting stance and swung his small bat again and again and then again, swinging at an invisible ball-perhaps the only person anywhere at that instant who was ready for more baseball.
Stories for a Rainy Afternoon
- Summer 1976 THE TARPAULIN IS DOWN, and a midafternoon rain is falling steadily. Play has been halted. The lights are on, and the wet, pale green tarp throws off wiggly, reptilian gleams. The scoreboard is lit up, too, bringing us fair-weather scores from other cities, and showing us where this game stood a few minutes ago, when the home-plate umpire threw up his hands to call time and everybody on the field ran for cover. Now the players are back in their locker rooms, and both dugouts are empty. A few fans have stayed in their seats, huddling under big, brightly colored golf umbrellas, but almost everybody else has moved back under the shelter of the upper decks, standing there quietly, behind the seats, watching the rain. The press box is deserted except for a couple of writers knocking out sidebars or an early column; a teletype operator is sitting next to his machine and reading a newspaper. The huge park, the countless rows of shiny-blue wet seats, the long emerald outfield lawns, the rain-spattered tarps-all stand silent and waiting. By the look of it, this shower may hold things up for a good half-hour or more. Time for a few baseball stories.
One story concerns another rain delay, a deluge that interrupted a night game in Baltimore, way back in the nineteen fifties. This happened only a year after the Orioles came to town, in 1954, when the American League franchise in St. Louis was shifted east and the worn-out Browns suddenly became the brand-new Orioles. For a while, everybody in Baltimore was happy about the team, but it became clear within a few weeks that the new uniforms could not alter the abilities of the players who had done so horribly in their previous incarnation. The team finished seventh in its first eastern season, losing one hundred games. A new manager, Paul Richards, came aboard the next year, and he shifted the lineup around a little and tinkered with his pitchers, while the front office put out hopeful reports about better times ahead, but the team went right on losing, and by this time it had also begun to lose its following. On this particular damp midsummer night, the Orioles were behind again (the name of the other team has been forgotten), in a game that had been held up two or three times by brief showers. By the bottom of the ninth, only a few hundred silent, pessimistic fans were still in attendance at Memorial Stadium. A light rain had started again. Unexpectedly, the Orioles rallied. A couple of runs scored, and another base hit drove out the enemy pitcher; suddenly the Orioles had the bases loaded, with the tying run at third base and the winning run at second. The reporters paused over their typewriters, where they had begun their customary irritable or apologetic lead paragraphs for further bad-news stories; a few hoa.r.s.e cries of hope came out of the stands. The next batter was Clint Courtney, probably the most reliable player on the club. Richards came out of the dugout and whispered in Courtney's ear and whacked him encouragingly on the rump. Clint stepped into the box and scowled at the pitcher through the deepening damp. The count went to two and two. Courtney fouled off a couple of pitches, then there was another ball. Three and two, and the bases loaded! There was some real yelling from the stands. Now, however, the rain suddenly became a downpour, almost hiding the outfielders from view. The umpire unwillingly called time, the players came in, and the tarps went back on the field.
It rained and rained. The perpetually gloomy Baltimore fans stared up at the sky and nodded their heads disconsolately. The thing would be called, of course, and the score would revert to the bottom of their eighth-another game gone. n.o.body went home, though; this one had to be waited out. Midnight struck, and still the rain went on. Then, wonder of wonders, it began to ease up. It lightened to a drizzle, then to a mist, and then stopped. The ground crew appeared and rolled back the tarp. The field had been flooded, and another fifteen or twenty minutes went by while the men worked with rakes and shovels, and scattered sawdust on the mound and in the batters' boxes. The umps came back on the field, and the pitcher returned to the mound and warmed up for a considerable time, as was his privilege. The teams took the field at last, more than an hour after they had left it, and the few dozen surviving fans came down to the front rows and took up a hopeful caterwauling.
The home-plate umpire checked his indicator and looked out at the scorecard. Still three and two. He pointed to the pitcher. Play ball! Courtney stood in, chomped down on his wad of tobacco, waggled his bat, and glared out at the pitcher. The fans screamed. The pitcher got his sign. He went into his stretch, paused, rocked back, and threw. The three base runners were off with his motion, running like jackrabbits. The pitch crossed the heart of the plate. Courtney looked at it, motionless. The ump threw up his hand. Strike three. Everybody went home.
That may not be a story to please every palate. I am fond of it, but I can see that as drama it wants work. Baseball-haters will complain about it for their old, dumb reason: nothing happens. But never mind. The best baseball stories are probably appreciated only by true fans, who know the possibilities for unlikelihood, letdown, and wild mischance in their game, which can swing in an instant from morality play to variety show to farce.
Anything can happen in baseball, but it may almost be taken as a rule that the most appalling accidents happen to the worst teams. It was the Mets-the early Mets, of course-who were involved in a play one day at Wrigley Field in which an errant heave from one of their outfielders wound up in the Cubs' ball bag. And it was the Cubs themselves-a similarly gentle and innocuous club-who once were caught up in a calamity undreamed of even in the Metsungsaga. On an afternoon in 1959, the Cardinals were the visitors at Wrigley Field, and the batter was Stan Musial. n.o.body on base. With the count at three and one, Musial almost offered at the next pitch but checked his swing, and the ball somehow skipped by the Chicago catcher, Sammy Taylor, and went all the way back to the screen. The umpire, Vic Delmore, called ball four, and Musial, unaware of the misplay, trotted toward first. Taylor whirled on Delmore and shouted that the ball had been foul-tipped, and Cub manager Bob Scheffing ran out to back him up. The ball, meantime, was picked up by a ball boy and handed to the Cubs' field announcer, who in those days sat in a chair near the home dugout. Two other Cubs-pitcher Bob Anderson and third baseman Alvin Dark-now made their entrances in the plot, each sprinting in to retrieve the ball. Musial, becoming aware at last of these disturbances, rounded first at full speed and set sail for second. The announcer, horrified to observe that he was somehow an active partic.i.p.ant in the National League pennant race, hastily dropped the ball on the ground, where it was seized simultaneously by Anderson and Dark, with Alvin finally winning possession.
Meantime, in another part of the forest-back at home plate-Ump Delmore, frazzled by the importunings of Taylor and Scheffing, suddenly and inexplicably extracted a fresh ball-hereinafter to be known as Ball No. 2-and plopped it into Taylor's glove. Taylor, spotting Musial on the base path, threw the new pill down to second, a bare instant after Alvin Dark had made the same peg, from well behind him, with Ball No. 1. Musial, sliding into second, saw an unmistakable baseball (it was No. 2) sail untouched past his ear and on into center field. He scrambled up and turned happily toward third, only to be tagged after two or three steps by Ernie Banks, the shortstop, with Ball No. 1. Ball No. 2 was chased down in the outfield by the Cubs' Bobby Thomson, who now threw it wildly past third base. But here, at last, both baseb.a.l.l.s may be allowed to make their exit, for at this juncture the chief umpire, Al Barlick, who had been working at second base, mercifully threw up his hands, calling time. The ensuing confabulations and plea-bargainings need not be explicated. Barlick's next ruling, which caused the game to be played under official protest by the Cardinals, was that Musial was out at second, because he, Barlick, had seen the tag made there with the ball-or with a ball. The game went back a step, then resumed, eventually being won by the Cards, and the sport, once again, survived.
For continuous baseball melodrama, there probably never was a better theater than the Phillies' shabby little park, Baker Bowl, which was finally abandoned in 1938. The field was better suited for a smaller, narrower game-croquet, perhaps-and its very short right-field wall, a bare 270 feet from home, was detested by every pitcher and outfielder in the league. One afternoon in 1934, the starting hurler for the visiting Brooklyn Dodgers was Walter (Boom-Boom) Beck-the nickname was onomatopoetic-and the dangerous starboard garden was being defended by Hack Wilson. Always a robust slugger, Wilson unfortunately got to spend far less time at the plate than he had to put in afield, where he was, to put the matter kindly, less than adequate. Hack was also known to spend an occasional evening at his local tavern, pondering this injustice. On this day, he had experienced a particularly trying afternoon in pursuit of a.s.sorted line drives and scorching grounders rifled in his direction off Boom-Boom's deliveries-often getting extra practice as he spun around and tried to field the caroms and ricochets, off that extremely adjacent wall, of the same hits he had missed outward-bound.
The Dodger manager, Casey Stengel, even then accustomed to severe adversity, watched several innings of this before he called time and made his familiar journey to the mound, where he suggested to Beck that he take the rest of the afternoon off. Beck's performance had been perfectly within his genre, but for some reason he was enraged at this derricking, and instead of handing the ball over to Stengel he suddenly turned and heaved it away in a pa.s.sion. Fate, of course, sent the ball arching out into right field, where Hack Wilson, with his head down and his hands on his knees, was quietly reflecting on last night's excesses and this day's indignities. Boom-Boom's throw struck the turf a few feet away from Wilson, who, although badly startled, whirled and chased manfully after the ball, fielded the carom off the wall, and got off a terrific, knee-high peg to second base-his best fielding play, Casey always said, of the entire summer.
A more recent epochal disorder came in a game played in the Florida Instructional League last year. This time, things began with an outfielder's peg to a rookie catcher (all the players in the Instructional League are rookies), who grabbed the ball and made a swipe at an inrushing, sliding base runner at the plate. As sometimes happens, the catcher missed the tag and the base runner missed the plate. The runner jumped up, dusted himself off, and trotted to his dugout, convinced that he had scored. The umpire made no call either way, which is the prescribed response, and after a moment or two the pitcher and the infielders, a.n.a.lyzing the situation, hurried in and implored the catcher to make the tag.
"What?" said the catcher. "Tag who?"
"The runner, the runner!" they cried, severally. "You missed him. He didn't score. Go tag him!"
"Ah," said the young receiver, the light bulb over his head at last clicking on. Still holding the ball, he ran eagerly toward the enemy dugout, with the umpire close behind. When the catcher got there, however, he gazed up and down the line of seated fresh-faced rookies without recognizing anyone who looked like a recent pa.s.serby. He frowned, then went to one end of the bench and tagged the first two or three men sitting in line. He looked around at the umpire, who was watching with folded arms. The umpire made no sign. The catcher tagged four more players. The ump shook his head almost imperceptibly: nothing doing. Now the erstwhile base runner, seeing the catcher inexorably working up the line toward him, suddenly leaped onto the field and made a dash for the plate. The pitcher, who had been standing bemused near home, screamed for the ball, and he and catcher executed a rundown, more or less in the style of stadium attendants collecting a loose dog on the field, and tagged the man out in the on-deck circle.
I have dismissed the Mets too quickly-the progenitors of so many legendary baseball disasters. Some of the legends were true. During the early stages of their terrible first summer, in 1962, their center fielder, Richie Ashburn, suffered a series of frightful surprises while going after short fly b.a.l.l.s, because he was repeatedly run over by the shortstop, the enthusiastic but modestly talented Elio Chacon. After several of these encounters, Ashburn took Chacon aside and carefully explained that, by ancient custom, center fielders were allowed full freedom to catch all flies they could get to and signal for. The collisions and near-collisions and dropped fly b.a.l.l.s continued exactly as before, and Ashburn eventually concluded that Chacon, who spoke very little English, simply didn't understand what it meant when he saw his center fielder waving his arms and yelling "Mine! Mine! I got it!" Richie thought this over and then went to Joe Christopher, a bilingual teammate on the Mets, and asked for help.
"All you have to do is say it in Spanish," Christopher said. "Yell out 'Yo la tengo!' and Elio will pull up. I'll explain it to him, too-OK? You won't have any more trouble out there."
"Yo la tengo?" Ashburn said.
"That's it," Christopher said.
Before the next game, Ashburn saw Chacon in the clubhouse. "Yo la tengo?" Richie said tentatively.
"S, s! Yo la tengo! Yo la tengo!" Chacon said, smiling and nodding his head.
"Yo la tengo!" Ashburn said. They shook hands.
In the second or third inning that night, an enemy batter lifted a short fly to center. Ashburn sprinted in for the ball. Chacon thundered out after it. "Yo la tengo! Yo la tengo!" Richie shouted.
Chacon jammed on the brakes and stopped, happily gesturing for Ashburn to help himself. Richie reached up to make the easy catch-and was knocked flat by Frank Thomas, the Mets' left fielder.
Interesting baseball happenings sometimes take place away from the field. Consider, for example, the memorable and uplifting public-relations outing made in the mid-sixties by Cy Tatum (this is not his real name). Cy was a remarkable hitter, and he had the good fortune to play for a big-league team in a city close to the town where he had grown up. Like some other players in the majors, he had run into trouble with the law when young, and he had served a few semesters at a state trade school for wayward boys. He mended his ways, went into baseball, and became a great local favorite. One summer when his team was in the process of winning a pennant, its first in many years, somebody in the front office realized what a dynamite PR event it would be if Cy were invited to come back to the trade school and address the boys there. The date was quickly arranged, and Tatum turned up at the appointed time and was introduced by the princ.i.p.al of the school to the full, enraptured student body. Cy spoke eloquently, praising the virtues of the straight-and-narrow path and a level swing at the ball, and sat down, to wild applause.
"Thank you, Cy!" said the princ.i.p.al, coming to the center of the stage. "That was splendid. Now, I know the boys want to ask you a lot of questions, and I wonder if you could give us a few more minutes out of your busy day?"
Cy nodded graciously.
"Fine, fine," said the princ.i.p.al. "Perhaps I could just start things off with a question of my own. I think the boys would be really interested to know what you took when you were at school here. Can you recall, Cy?"
Tatum looked faintly surprised, but he recovered himself quickly. "Mostly," he said, "it was overcoats."
Tom LaSorda's story also begins in boyhood. LaSorda, of course, is the long-term third-base coach for the Los Angeles Dodgers who recently was named the successor to Walter Alston as the Dodger manager, after Alston's twenty-third season on the job. LaSorda, it can be proved, is a patient sort of man. He grew up in Morristown, Pennsylvania, and became a serious baseball fan at an early age. When he was twelve or thirteen, he volunteered for duty as a crossing guard at his parochial school because he knew that the reward for this service was a free trip to a big-league ball game-an event he had yet to witness. The great day came at last, the sun shone, and the party of nuns and junior fuzz repaired to Shibe Park, where the Phillies were playing the Giants. Young Tom LaSorda had a wonderful afternoon, and just before the game ended he and some of his colleagues forehandedly stationed themselves beside a runway under the stands, where they could collect autographs from the players coming off the field. The game ended, the Giants came clattering by, and Tom extended his scorecard to the first hulking, bespiked hero to come in out of the sunshine.
"C'n I have your autograph, please, mister?" he said.
"Outta my way, kid," the Giant said, brushing past the boy.
When Tom LaSorda tells the story now, the shock of this moment is still visible on his face. "I couldn't believe it," he says. "Here was the first big-league player I'd ever seen up close-the first one I ever dared speak to-and what he did was shove me up against the wall. I think tears came to my eyes. I watched the guy as he went away toward the clubhouse and I noticed the number on his back-you know, like taking the license of a hit-and-run car. Later on, I looked at my program and got his name. It was Buster Maynard, who was an outfielder with the Giants then. I never forgot it."
Seven or eight years went swiftly by (as they do in instructive, moral tales), during which time Tom LaSorda grew up to become a promising young pitcher in the Dodger organization. In the spring of 1949, he was a star with the Dodger farm team in Greenville, North Carolina, in the Sally League, and took the mound for the opening game of the season at Augusta, Georgia, facing the Augusta Yankees. Tom retired the first two batters, and then studied the third, a beefy right-handed veteran, as he stepped up to the box.
The park loudspeaker made the introduction: "Now coming up to bat for the Yankees, Buster May-narrd, right field!"
LaSorda was transfixed. "I looked in," he says, "and it was the same man!"
The first pitch to Maynard nearly removed the b.u.t.ton from the top of his cap. The second, behind his knees, inspired a beautiful sudden entrechat. The third, under his Adam's apple, confirmed the message, and Maynard threw away his bat and charged the mound like a fighting bull entering the plaza in Seville. The squads spilled out onto the field and separated the two men, and only after a lengthy and disorderly interval was baseball resumed.
After the game, LaSorda was dressing in the visitors' locker room when he was told that he had a caller at the door. It was Buster Maynard, who wore a peaceable but puzzled expression. "Listen, kid," he said to LaSorda, "did I ever meet you before?"
"Not exactly," Tom said.
"Did I bat against you someplace, maybe?"
"Well, why were you tryin' to take my head off out there?"
LaSorda spread his hands wide. "You didn't give me your autograph," he said.
Tom LaSorda tells this story each spring to the new young players who make the Dodger club. "Always give an autograph when somebody asks you," he says gravely. "You never can tell. In baseball, anything can happen."
- July 1973 ONCE A PASTIME, BASEBALL is becoming another national anomaly-an inst.i.tution that is less and less recognizable as it grows in age and familiarity. The executives of the game, displaying their customary blend of irresolution, impulsiveness, and inflexibility, failed this year even to agree on the basic rules, presenting us with one league of teams playing ten men on a side and another offering the more customary nine. Thus inspired, the leagues have responded with three months of stimulating but inexplicable compet.i.tion, which has been reflected in team standings of unmatched dis...o...b..bulation. At times this spring, even the most resilient fan must have felt his grip on things begin to loosen when he opened his morning paper and turned to the good old standings. In mid-May, a full month into the campaign, the six teams in the American League East were separated by the span of a single game. Splendid, total compet.i.tion, one could conclude, and especially heartening for the supporters of the downtrodden Cleveland Indians and Milwaukee Brewers-until one noticed that every one of the six clubs had lost more games than it had won, and that the race in fact const.i.tuted nothing more than a flabby bulge below the waistline of .500 ball. A month later, the American League East and West had reached parallel levels of irresolution, having sorted out one clear loser in each division-Cleveland (East) and Texas (West)-and ten other clubs so closely bunched that the standings could be absolutely reversed in the s.p.a.ce of a single weekend. Milwaukee, Boston, New York, and Detroit had all taken turns at the top of the East, which most resembled a diorama of heaving stegosauri in a tar pit. Just recently, almost halfway through the long season, the AL East has discovered one club apparently capable of a sustained upright posture-the Yankees, of all people, whose sudden recent successes have brought back unexpected visions of the kind of quiet, well-ordered Yankee summers we all grew up on.
The National League has so far managed a more commonplace arrangement of leaders, contenders, and stragglers, although its certified powers, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, have been out of the sunshine this spring; the Pirates (who were badly shaken by the death of their great star, Roberto Clemente, in a plane crash last winter) appear to have lost the mysterious group energy that vitalizes winning clubs. The true aristocracy of baseball at present is probably represented by the National League West, which is topped by the Dodgers, with their enormous margin (at this writing) of twenty-one games over the .500 level. The most interesting journey to date has to be that of the Cardinals, who fell into a well by losing twenty of their first twenty-five games, and then instantly resurfaced, looking barely damp, after winning sixteen of their next eighteen.
Back in the AL, the world champion Oakland A's have pushed to the fore after a notoriously languid start; their surprising opposition in the West has come from the Kansas City Royals, a newly muscled entrant that scores runs and gives up runs in thick, juicy cl.u.s.ters. The Royals' main man, John Mayberry, is an entertaining new slugger whose style at the plate features a forward-spinning airplane-propeller windup with the bat just before the pitch arrives-a perfect replica of Willie Stargell's countdown procedures. If Mayberry has in fact decided to model himself on Willie Stargell, he has picked a superior model. Stargell, I sometimes think, may be one of the last baseball men in whom we can still glimpse the hero. He not only hits the ball often and for great distances-he is currently leading both leagues in home runs-but comports himself in all days and weathers with immense style. I remember watching Stargell in October of 1971, when he was suffering an epochal slump at the plate, brought on in part by painful injuries to both knees. He went hitless through all four games of the playoffs and did scarcely better in the famous World Series against the Orioles, batting in only one run in the seven games. Stargell had led his league in homers that year and had knocked in 125 runs, and he was accustomed to playing a large, even triumphant, part in Pirate affairs, and yet he endured those repeated humiliations at the plate with total composure, trudging back to the dugout after still another strikeout or pop-up without the smallest gesture of distress or despair. I remember coming up to him in the clubhouse after one of those empty afternoons and asking him how it was possible for a proud, intensely compet.i.tive man to put up with that kind of disappointment without giving way to anger or explanation. Stargell's four-year-old son, Wilver, Jr., was playing on the floor of his cubicle, and Stargell made a gesture toward him and said, "There's a time in life when a man has to decide if he's going to be a man." Later, I realized that this was probably a true h.e.l.lenic answer: one couldn't say whether one most admired the principle or the philosopher's way of expounding it.
A few traditions, thank heaven, remain fixed in the summer state of things-the June collapse of the Giants, g.a.y.l.o.r.d Perry throwing (or not throwing) spitb.a.l.l.s, Hank Aaron hitting homers, and the commissioner ... well, commissioning. The Giants, after leading the National League West from the very beginning of the season, lost fourteen games out of twenty-seven in the month of June-a pattern as predictable as the spring ascension of Ursa Major. Pitching, as usual, was the problem, and the San Francisco manager, Charlie Fox, confessed, "Our earned-run average looks like the national debt." g.a.y.l.o.r.d Perry, who formerly did not (or did) throw wet pitches for Charlie Fox, now performs similarly for the Indians, eliciting from American League batters the same howls of outrage that he used to inspire in the National. Bobby Murcer complained so vehemently about the umpires' failure to prosecute Perry for the illegal pitch that he was called in and fined two hundred and fifty dollars by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. Murcer paid up-and struck a game-winning homer off Perry that night, while the sporting press speculated like Peter Wimseys about the nature of Perry's glop (K-Y Jelly is the leading suspect) and its hiding place (inside the neckband, perhaps) on Perry's person. Perry has professed innocence, but retains his familiar mannerisms-viz.: right fingers to the bill of the cap, to the side of the cap, to the back of the cap, to the right sideburn, to the hair above the right ear, to the hair behind the right ear, to the neck-before delivering each pitch to each quivering batter. Is Perry throwing the spitter? Did the Commissioner's fine const.i.tute an unfair incentive to Bobby Murcer-and if so, should not each slugger on every contending team be similarly docked before going out to face the horrid Perry predilection? Does g.a.y.l.o.r.d Perry have a tiny vial of water from the Dead Sea concealed inside his eustachian tube? The Supreme Court is expected to rule on these burning issues before their summer recess.
Hank Aaron, now thirty-nine years old, is batting only .221 but has perfected an admirable habit of conservation, since almost half of his. .h.i.ts this year have been homers. His total of 23 to date has brought his lifetime to 696, which means that he is within striking distance this season of Babe Ruth's all-hallowed lifetime mark of 714-a possibility that excites everybody but his fellow townspeople. The Braves' attendance so far strongly suggests that if Hank should waft the record-breaker during a home game the deed will be witnessed by more mediapersons than Atlantans. National League pitchers have already begun to speculate about which one of them will be the victim of No. 715, and thus be propelled into the history books in the manner of a Balaclava cavalryman or a Joe Louis knockee. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, on hearing of this bullpen chatter, issued a stern warning that he would fine any pitcher guilty of not trying his best to get Aaron out on the historic day. The commissioner has been in splendid moral fettle this year. During spring training, when the news came out that two Yankee pitchers, Fritz Peterson and Mike Kekich, were terminating their marriages in order to make new domestic arrangements with each other's wives, Mr. Kuhn issued an advisory opinion on the matter-not marital counseling, it turned out, but an expression of concern for the image of the game. Fritz Peterson promised the commissioner he would try not to do it again.
The coming eminence of the Yankees was not detectable during my early calls at the Stadium, where I found the customary acres of empty blue grandstand seats and the customary earnest but unavailing competence on the field. In four of my first seven Yankee games this year, the Bronxites scored no runs at all. This jinx has nothing to do with the Stadium, because I have also seen the Yanks lose just as convincingly on the road. (Cf. against Mickey Lolich in Detroit, May 24: Tigers 4, Yankees 0.) On my first call at Yankee Stadium, the beneficiaries of my whammy were the White Sox, who bashed out thirteen hits and three homers in the course of demolishing Fritz Peterson, 84. The day also provided my first look at the American League's new designated hitters-the tenth man in the lineup, who bats in place of the pitcher. The inc.u.mbents-Mike Andrews for the White Sox and Jim Ray Hart for the Yanks-bopped two doubles, two singles, and some line-drive outs, thus running their early DH averages to .429 and .529, respectively, and blunting my moldy-fig objections to the innovations, at least for a time. The other true first, for me and perhaps for everyone there, was the moment in the eighth inning when Yankee catcher Thurman Munson and third baseman Graig Nettles, converging on a bunt by Jorge Orta, made simultaneous bare-handed grabs at the ball and came up holding hands.
I went back the next afternoon and saw the Yankees shut out again, but I cannot take all the credit for the 30 loss, since the White Sox pitcher was Wilbur Wood, the knuckleballer, who had unmanned the Yankees on his five most recent outings against them; he beat them four times last year, allowing just two earned runs in thirty-six innings. At the time of this first 1973 visit to the Bronx, the Sox were batting over .300 as a team, and with Wood flipping up his flighty, sailing, fingertip junk, the eventual 30 margin looked like a mismatch. Everything about Wilbur Wood is disarming. On the mound, he displays a comfortable expanse of turn and the stiffish-looking knees of a confirmed indoorsman, and thus resembles a left-handed accountant or pastry chef on a Sunday outing. Even the knuckler-which he throws, sensibly, on nearly every pitch-looks almost modest, for it does not leap and quiver like Hoyt Wilhelm's old hooked trout. Like all knuckle-bailers, Wood works with little strain, and, at the age of thirty-one, he may be just approaching his best years. He pitched 377 innings last year. The Yankee shutout came after Wood had rested for only two days-a frequent custom of his, inaugurated by the iconoclastic Chicago pitching coach, Johnny Sain. After the game, Wood sat comfortably in the corner of the clubhouse and drank several beers and smoked several cigarettes while he talked cheerfully to the reporters in a mild Bahst'n accent (he is from Cambridge), explaining that the only difficult part of his difficult pitch is learning to throw it softer, rather than harder, when he is in trouble. "He has the perfect disposition for the knuckleball," Sain said, looking on with evident affection. "He's always like this. He has as fine a control over himself as any athlete I've ever seen."
A few nights later, the visitors to the Bronx were the Orioles, and the two teams-both partic.i.p.ants in the stately quadrille then being enacted by the American League East, in which each dancer ascended by degrees to the head of the room and then gracefully gave way to another-played a nearly noiseless encounter: four hits and three runs for the O's, to two hits and guess how many runs for the Yankees. Jim Palmer did not allow any pinstripes to reach second base. The winning blow was a shallow fly-ball home run to the right-field unused-furniture display, and was struck by the Baltimore catcher, Elrod Hendricks, who was up to bat for the second time this season. Hendricks got into the game only because the regular Oriole receiver, Earl Williams, got caught in traffic and was late getting to the ball park. Earl Weaver, the Baltimore manager, said, "He moves in mysterious ways"-apparently not a reference to either catcher. The Orioles, at that point batting .174 for their previous eight games, had apparently resumed the near-total batting slump that afflicted them all last season.
Real spring had come when I next dropped in on the Yanks; the visiting team was the Milwaukee Brewers, who, as it happened, were currently enjoying their turn in first place. It was a lovely, mild night, with several kites aloft in the still-bright Bronxian empyrean, and in the third inning I caught sight of a long, wavery pencil-line of migrating Canada geese far overhead. I pointed out this nonurban marvel to my neighbors in the press box, thus causing them to miss another wonder-a successful pick-off throw to third base by Thurman Munson. Luckily, the Yanks had other entertainments in store for us-four hits in the fourth, a nifty hit-and-run shot by Gene Michael that scored a man all the way from first, and a noisy, cheerful six-run outburst in the sixth. When Yankee starter Steve Kline suffered some arm twinges, Sparky Lyle came in and awed the Milwaukee hitters, at one point striking out five of them in succession with his downer. Munson wound up with a single, a double, a homer, and four runs batted in; the Yanks won by 114, and the Brewers gently took up a lower place in the dance.
Unburdened of my jinx, I tried manfully to deepen my appreciation of the Yankees, an experienced if less than dazzling team that had enriched its portfolio over the winter with the acquisition of a pair of tested regulars, Matty Alou and Graig Nettles. I wanted to care about the Yanks-I really did. There is more fan than critic in me, and I take far more pleasure in a game where I can yell for the good guys. I am also a confirmed front-runner, whose loyalty is hardly more selective than that of a Bide-a-Wee puppy. Still, I can't quite attach myself to these Yankees, and to judge by the team's home attendance this year, a lot of other people have been having the same difficulty. I think the problem is ghosts. As every fan knows, one of the strange particularities of our game is the vivid private image we retain of certain players we have seen, players we have watched with intensity. Hours or days after a game-sometimes years after-we recall a name, and in the same instant we see the man in perfect midafternoon memory. He doesn't have to be a star or even a regular; all that is required is that we have watched him often enough or with sufficient emotion to make him our own. I can bring back Ed Charles, of the 1969 Mets, as precisely as Ted Williams; I can see Don Mueller or Tommy Byrne as readily as Stan Musial or Warren Spahn. Almost none of the Yankee stalwarts this year (and, to tell the truth, for several years) seem to have this spectral dimension. Bobby Murcer, Roy White, Mel Stottlemyre, Ron Blomberg, Sparky Lyle-I watch them with admiration, but when I come home from the Stadium and go to bed, what I see before sleep is Phil Rizzuto laying down a drag bunt, suddenly dipping the bat down by his belt buckle to tap the ball, and then whirring away down the line; Johnny Mize (a red, melonlike, country-farmer face) hulking over the plate; Yogi Berra lashing a bad outside pitch to the distant left-field corner; Allie Reynolds, in heavy trouble, glaring down at the hitter; or Joe DiMaggio motionless in the sunlight in center field, with his hands on his knees. Among the contemporary Yankees, only Thurman Munson has impinged on my picture show: stubborn, solid, dust-smeared, he straddles the plate, awaiting the arriving peg and an on-rushing enemy base runner, with his meaty arms and fat glove still casually at rest at his side-the catcher in a cla.s.sic att.i.tude, just before battle. This year's Yankees have good power (Munson, Nettles, Murcer, Blomberg), fair defense, pretty good starting pitchers (Peterson, Stottlemyre, Doc Medich), firm direction (Ralph Houk), and irresolute compet.i.tion (Detroit, Milwaukee, et al.); all they need now is an exorcist.
American league attendance is actually up a trifle, which is happy news indeed, and it is almost a certainty that the AL den leaders will claim that the designated-hitter innovation is responsible. I doubt this-partly because the only significant AL gate increases are in Milwaukee, California, Kansas City, and Chicago, where the local teams have only lately sprung into contention, and partly because I cannot imagine many hundreds of new fans suddenly cl.u.s.tering in to watch a .230 or .240 hitter strut his stuff. The truth is that, taken together, the anointed new men in the lineups have not been able to hit the ball any better than the eight other regulars-which is to say not well at all. They have outhit the pitchers-c.u.m-pinch-hitters they replaced by a margin of .237 to .169. The real gain has been in home runs; the designees have hit out 107 so far, as against a full season's total of 48 by the 1972 pitchers and pinch-hitters.
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