Donn Clendenon stood at the door of the Biltmore Hotel holding a heavy attaché case. It was loaded with books, and he was going out to the UCLA law library to beat them. That would make him one of the few Pittsburgh Pirates who would beat anything in this terrible terminal series in Los Angeles, and he knew it, knew it as well as Manager Harry Walker on a television interview two days earlier, telling of the fundamentals he would teach next spring, "if we don't make it this year." And as well as the rest of the Pirates the night before on the quiet bus ride to Dodger Stadium. They are a garrulous band normally, but the creeping realization that your campaign is hopeless is not a normal feeling. They knew the horrors that could befall them in Chavez Ravine, and the horrors befell them.
"I think we still have a pretty good chance," Clendenon said. He didn't need any more graduate work to figure out that the National League's annual chariot race—at least as far as it concerned the Pirates—had come to a whimpering end. A really analytical first baseman might have pinpointed the precise moment the Pirates' coach turned into a pumpkin: 9:25 p.m. P.D.T., on Thursday, Sept. 15, when Andre Rodgers lifted a routine fly ball to Willie Davis for the third out in the fifth inning. Never mind the inevitable, noisy, belated rush. The decision was made when the Pirates looked the Dodgers dead in the eye, and turned away.
The Dodgers" five-run first inning in the series opener had been cruel and unusual, as gory as a bullfight with dull tools. But if there was fire in the ashes of the Pirates' hopes, Rodgers had the last chance to make it flame. If Don Drysdale was going to come unglued and blow a 5-1 lead, this was the time to strike: two outs and a runner at second. Rodgers battled, hung in there, wouldn't give in and all the other clichés, going to a 2-2 count and fouling off four. But then he flied out and the party was over. The Dodgers were only two and a half games ahead and the Pirates had 16 to play, but Friday night it would be Sandy Koufax, and Saturday wouldn't matter.
A man, or a political party or an army or a baseball team, has two basic ways to accept defeat: face the fact of inferiority or make excuses. And the galling, nibbled-to-death-by-pygmies kind of defeat the Dodgers inflict on people is hard to take.
September 25, 1966
"They have a few good players," Clendenon said, "and Alston is a real good manager. But I don't know. They have to be the ungodliest luckiest team alive." Alvin O'Neal McBean, the closest thing to an angry young man on the Pirates' roster, is less charitable. "I hate to lose to them," he growled. "It's like being beaten by a Triple-A team. It really tees me off, guys like Lefebvre and Parker and Kennedy getting all that publicity about how great they are.
"Oh, brother, the publicity," McBean snarled. "All I care about in this game is money. That's what gripes me: those Ping-Pong hitters getting all that money. They aren't even big-leaguers."
"It doesn't hurt us that they feel that way," Manager Walter Alston said. "We need their mistakes to win. If they get shook up about the way we play, it might help."
The agonizing, insulting five-run ordeal Thursday night began when Dick Schofield, among the most marginal of big-leaguers, caught Vernon Law's pitch on the end of his bat and sliced a soft line drive into left field. Willie Davis, the nonwalking man, swung freely, as usual, and flied to centerfield for the second out. It seemed that the Pirates' star would remain reachable for one more inning.
But Ron Fairly, one who resents the "lucky" label, lined an even softer single to left, and Schofield went to second. Jim Lefebvre, who was going to be the only Dodger to hit a baseball hard all night, but not until the eighth inning, dropped a broken-bat single into center field for a run, and Fairly, who can't run. made third. Harry Walker trotted out to the mound and Law, the Mormon deacon, reassured him that this, too, would pass.
Lou Johnson, who had had Triple-A stamped on him until Tommy Davis broke a leg and there wasn't anybody, hit one off the end of his bat, too, a fly ball Roberto Clemente couldn't reach in the right-field corner. Two bases, 2-0, runners at second and third. In came Billy O'Dell, the veteran left-hander, to pitch carefully to John Roseboro. Very carefully, because the next hitter would be Wes Parker, he of the .246 average and the many strikeouts. Roseboro walked, but O'Dell did his job, getting Parker to pound the ball onto the grass. It was a little tough—in the hole—but Gene Alley is the best shortstop in baseball, with sure hands and a .30-06 arm that has given the Pirates' pitching staff an aura of class that it does not really have. Alley caught the ball and dropped it. Everybody safe, and it's 3-0.
O'Dell got Don Drysdale to pound the ball on the ground, too. Hard. Third Baseman Bob Bailey cut in front of Alley, leaped a foot off the ground to take the high hop and wondered, on the way down, what to do with it. He threw to second. Safe. Now it's 4-0.
With Maury Wills at bat, the veteran O'Dell began his delivery and stopped. Balk, 5-0. O'Dell ran to the plate and screamed at the umpire. Walker did not come out to scream with him. "I've given up on that," Harry said wearily. "It doesn't do any good."
On the bus ride back to the hotel the Pirates were quiet and relaxed, the way a team gets when it knows that soon the pressure will be off. A teammate asked O'Dell about the balk, and he shrugged. "The umpire reached up to adjust his mask," he said, "and I thought he was calling time out." So he stopped. Somebody must have told O'Dell when he was starting out in high school that you follow through, just in case there really isn't time out. If time has been called, it's not a pitch and nothing is lost.
Sometimes when all things are equal in a tight stretch race the team with the veterans figures to win, because veterans make fewer mistakes, but sometimes it doesn't work out that way. The rock of the evening was pulled by Bill Mazeroski, a virtuoso of second base and as professional as they get. It went unnoticed because it did not lead to a run, but Maz tried to get cute and goofed.
With Lou Johnson at first and one out, Roseboro lifted a pop fly to short right center. Maz never moved his hands from his knees. He gazed up at the ball as it went over his head. It's a bush play, but sometimes it works. You know the ball will be caught, so you con the runner into thinking it won't; maybe he'll go too far toward second and be doubled.
The charade lasted a brief part of a second, and then Mazeroski suddenly turned tail and fled frantically toward the ball dropping in the outfield. "Yeah, I was trying to fake him," he said, "but then I thought, "Maybe that ball won't be caught.' " It was caught, and Mazeroski got off the hook, but it was caught only because Matty Alou ran a sixteenth of a mile from center field and got it at his knees. Few noticed, but it was a bad play by the usually impeccable second baseman, and it was symptomatic of the way the Pirates were doing in Dodger Stadium.
Harry Walker was talking about the breaks, but Ron Fairly said, "I wish that someday we might get the credit we deserve: for being a well-balanced ball club. They say we don't hit home runs. Who the hell does in this ball park?"
The Dodgers are getting some credit. "I admire them," Pirate Catcher Jim Pagliaroni said, "for playing the only way they can win in that ball park. They had a big adjustment to make, and they made it."
"We win," said Sandy Koufax, "because we stay in the game. We get one or two runs behind, but never more than that. It's tough on a pitcher, waiting for our runs to come, but you learn to live with it. We have to keep it close so the other guys can win it."
In the ninth inning of the Thursday debacle Roberto Clemente homered and Willie Stargell hit a four-wood into the right-field bleachers to finish Drysdale. But there was no panic, because the Pirates' pitchers and fielders had let the game get out of control early. "And we have that bullpen," Koufax said. "That's a beautiful thing to have. It takes pressure off you." Phil Regan came in and threw one pitch—guess which one—and the game was over.
"That 'lucky' business bothered me awhile in '63," said Catcher John Roseboro, "but no more. We are exactly as they describe us. We are lucky, we scramble and our defense is adequate. We won't make many mistakes, and we profit by the other people's mistakes. That's being lucky, I guess. We win."
On Saturday the Dodgers made some pretty heinous mistakes, and the Pirates got some breaks, like Clendenon hitting the foul pole for a three-run homer. The pitching, the Dodgers' only unquestioned attribute, had perhaps its worst day all year. So the Pirates did salvage a game, and they were only two and a half behind again and the impossible dream was possible again. But you couldn't tell they were winners from the way they walked off the field or the way they talked in the clubhouse. The Dodgers had made some more believers.
Still, they hadn't sold McBean anything. He had pitched three innings in the lost game on Thursday night and he hummed the ball as he hasn't hummed it very often this year: one soft single in three innings. "I've been accused of bearing down only against the Dodgers," he said the next morning. "And maybe that's right, because they tee me off. But you've got to throw hard against those Punch-and-Judy hitters. You're doing them a favor if you throw them anything but hard. I knocked the bats out of their hands last night, and I'll do it again tonight if I'm needed."
He did, too. He hummed the old seed for two innings: one hit, followed by a double play that nobody but Alley and Mazeroski could have made. It was his revenge on the tormentors of Alvin O'Neal McBean, but it wasn't sweet. It was too late, and nothing was sweet anymore.