Ted Sizemore, the ferocious rookie second baseman of the Los Angeles Dodgers, says the first thing he learned about pennant races was that they never begin until Sept. 15. Last month Sizemore, who stands a sizeless 5'10" at the very most, walked into a restaurant to meet Tom Haller and Ken Boyer, two Dodger teammates, for dinner. Boyer noticed that Sizemore seemed to be eating a cigarette and dancing the Funky Broadway while they waited for the ma√Ætre d'hotel to seat them.
"Runt," Boyer said, "just what's bugging you anyway?" Sizemore grimaced. "This pennant race," he answered. "It gets to you." Boyer laughed. "Runt," he said, "don't climb any walls yet. Relax. Wait until the middle of September. Then, if things are still tight, we'll all be there climbing them with you."
Last week Sizemore, Boyer and almost everybody else in the National League West started serious wall climbing as the tightest race in baseball's 100 years headed into the final days of the schedule with five teams viciously chasing one simple title. The fun of it all was that the five teams were playing almost exclusively among themselves. Nobody was off beating up the Phillies or the Expos. This was baseball roulette—Western style.
The situation in the wild, wild West flirted with chaos last Wednesday when three different clubs held sole possession of first place on the same day. The San Francisco Giants woke up in first. By late afternoon, having lost to the Houston Astros, they were out and the Los Angeles Dodgers were in, one one-hundredth of a percentage point ahead of San Francisco and the Atlanta Braves. But that night the Braves beat the Dodgers in 12 innings and they were in first place.
September 28, 1969
That is, they were and, in a sense, they were not. Although the Braves had the West's best winning percentage, they still had lost 67 games—the same number as the Giants, the Dodgers and the Cincinnati Reds. They had merely played more games, so the other three teams were, potentially, sharers of the lead.
But that is the way it has been all season long. Five teams—the Braves for 108 days, the Dodgers for 33, the Giants 31, the Reds 25 and even the expansion San Diego Padres for a day—have had or shared the lead, none of them for too long. The lead, in fact, has changed teams 30 times, 17 times since the All-Star break. Then came mid-September and Ted Sizemore's real pennant race and with it, apparently, the division's second casualty, if San Diego's rapid descent into the cellar can be considered its first. The Astros, who played the West's best baseball from May 1 to Labor Day, lost three straight to the Braves in Atlanta. Then last week they went to San Diego and lost there. They had about had it.
Cincinnati, suddenly, looked like the next dropout, which is one of the more curious developments of last week, since the Reds, only one game behind the Braves, were quite jovial when they arrived at Dodger Stadium for Tuesday's twinight doubleheader against Los Angeles. Second Baseman Tommy Helms was around sticking bubble gum on people's pants, and one player tacked a newspaper story on the wall of the dressing room in Dodger Stadium that said a computer picked the Dodgers to win the pennant. Someone else wrote over the story, "Do not fold, staple or mutilate."
The words were prophetic on this crucial night. But it was the Reds who were folded, stapled and mutilated, and the saddest victim was Gary Nolan, the 21-year-old righthander who is recovering from arm miseries. Before the game Pete Rose discussed the Reds. "We've got great harmony, just like the Dodgers always have had," he said. "We're all having good years. No one's mad at himself for not hitting or anything. When there's a runner on third base with less than two outs, somehow we always get him in. We can do those little things you must do to win a pennant."
Before the game, too, Dave Bristol, the Reds' manager, called a team meeting in the clubhouse. Bristol conducts more meetings than any other manager in the majors, a good example, his critics say, of overmanaging. "You got to communicate," Bristol says. "Some people don't like it, but I don't care. I got to tell it like it is." Like what is? "I tell them I want them to put more crooked numbers on the board than the other team."
So what happened? In the first game the Reds put one straight number—a 1—on the scoreboard in the top of the eighth inning. They had a chance to put up another straight number in the ninth, but Rose, of all people, grounded to shortstop when he should have been, by his own account, bringing a runner home safely from third. Rose ended up at second on the play and, furious with himself, kicked the base as though it were the culprit.
Still, the game—and, for the Reds, perhaps the season—was not lost until the bottom of the ninth. The Dodgers loaded the bases with one out, and when Nolan went to three balls and one strike on Willie Crawford, Bristol strolled to the mound for some communicating. He decided to remove Nolan and called in Wayne Granger for the seventh straight game. Granger threw ball four to Crawford on his first pitch. However, he got Jim Lefebvre, the next batter, to force pinch runner Von Joshua at the plate. But here the Reds began to join Houston and San Diego as also-rans. Catcher Johnny Bench thought he had a chance to double Lefebvre at first, so he fired down to Chico Ruiz, who had just been inserted for defensive purposes. It was a good throw, but the ball struck Ruiz' glove, caromed off his leg and rolled 20 feet away. Wes Parker scored from third base, and the Dodgers had earned a victory that Gary Nolan found stunning. After the game he sat alone for 20 minutes on the end of the Reds' bench, communicating with his own private hell.
The second game, played to the scoreboard accompaniment of the Giants-Braves doings some 400 miles north in San Francisco (the Giants won 2-0), was practically a video-taped replay of the first. The Reds led 2-1 in the fifth, and they had the bases loaded with only one out. Walter Alston, the Dodger manager, summoned Pete Mikkelsen from the bullpen to face the third and fourth hitters in the Reds' lineup. Mikkelsen struck out Alex Johnson and Tony Perez, and the Dodgers were alive. They tied the game on Wes Parker's double in the sixth, then won it on Parker's single in the 12th inning.
"If we weren't in the race," Parker said, "I'd be tired now. I am tired, really, but I don't notice it. It's harder to sleep these nights, and I don't eat as well as I usually do. That's what the race does to you."
In the Cincinnati clubhouse the Reds were packing for a bus trip to San Diego. "We got to get off the floor," Bristol said. "We go to San Diego and win two, then we'll be all right. I wish it was game time again right now. Right now."
The next afternoon San Francisco lost to Houston (one is tempted to say "naturally," since that is the way things seemed to be going in the upside-down race), and Atlanta took Los Angeles that night. The latter was a sloppy contest for nine innings, with both teams missing bunt attempts, misplaying fly balls and, well, playing mostly like pretenders—not contenders. They went into extra innings, and in the top of the 12th Walter Alston brought in a rookie right-handed pitcher named Ray Lamb.
Potter Palmer, one of the Braves' owners, studied Lamb when he was warming up in the bullpen and concluded, after one practice pitch flew out of the bullpen and over the head of the Dodger leftfielder, that he was wild. He suggested that it might be a good idea if Henry Aaron, the next batter, waited him out. Aaron was thinking the same thing before he saw the third fastball in a row whizzing up to the plate. Never again will Ray Lamb throw three straight fastballs to Henry Aaron. The ball disappeared behind the Dodger bullpen, about 425 feet from the plate, and the Braves were back in first. The Dodgers, though, were not dead.
Maury Wills arrived late in the Dodger clubhouse for Thursday's game against the Braves. For Wills, it has been a long season. He started the year with the Montreal Expos and played so poorly that he decided to quit. He had not been a happy man since Walter O'Malley ordered Buzzie Bavasi to trade him someplace, anyplace, before the start of the 1967 season.
Now the Dodgers had had second thoughts. Al Campanis, who succeeded Bavasi as general manager, and Manager Walter Alston studied their team's young lineup and agreed that they could make a serious challenge for the pennant if they had a leader in the infield, somebody remarkably like Maury Wills. Campanis approached O'Malley and asked him for permission to negotiate for Wills. "I thought it would be prudent to ask him," Campanis said, "because of the way things happened before." O'Malley agreed that Wills could help provide a pennant in a year that originally was scheduled for experience.
Campanis went to Montreal to scout Wills. "I didn't look at him at bat," he said. "I didn't look at him in the field. I just wanted to see if Maury could run. If he could run, then he could do everything else." Wills' legs were not the legs that stole 104 bases in 1962 but they were better than most. A few days later Campanis traded Ron Fairly and Paul Popovich to get Wills and Outfielder Manny Mota from the Expos.
"It was great to have him back," said Wes Parker. "Maybe not everybody missed Maury, but I did and Jeff Torborg did and Jimmy Lefebvre did. I don't know if we could have maintained our spirit and drive if he had not rejoined the team."
Now Wills sat in the Hollywood director's chair outside his locker. "I feel I'm doing a good job," he said. "I'm pleased with what has happened here. These guys here are psyching me. Joe Moeller says I'm bouncing around like a 25-year-old. But I feel like 2,000." Wills planned to sit out the final game against the Braves, but after a long pregame conference with Alston he decided to play. "I don't think I could bear to sit on the bench and watch them play," he said. "I'd be thinking to myself that I could make the difference. Every time I play I should be good for one run somehow."
Wills has played in 97 games for the Dodgers, and he has scored 55 runs and driven in 37—a total of 92. He has hit .337 during the September stretch run, too. More important, he has charged the Dodgers with his reckless spirit and motivated them with his leadership. Says Sizemore, who moved from shortstop to second base when Wills came home, "The man's amazing. He's helping me to smooth my rough edges. Like my footwork. And my pivots. He talks to me about the speed of runners. He told me I don't have to hurry things when a slow man hits the ball. One time before he came I went into the hole for a ball hit by Joe Torre, rushed my throw and threw it away. I did not have to rush it that time."
That night Sizemore beat the Braves when he hit a bases-loaded triple with two out in the bottom of the sixth inning. Wills made two spectacular fielding plays to help save the victory. The Giants also won on Thursday, and they replaced the Braves in first place. Now the Dodgers and Braves were tied for second place, half a game behind, while the Reds, who lost at San Diego and were decidedly not all right, were two games behind in fourth.
On Friday the Dodgers flew to San Francisco in their private propjet—Kay-O by name. The Dodgers and the Giants represent opposite extremes of baseball methods. The Dodgers hunt and peck for runs, then rely on their superior pitching and defense to steal games. The Giants prefer to maul their opponents with long balls from Willie McCovey, Willie Mays and Bobby Bonds, then hope their pitching and defense do not collapse totally. The Dodgers, who would travel to Cincinnati after the Giant series, had to win two games in San Francisco if they were to stay in the race. Among other things the Giants had going for them were six more games with the pallid Padres.
Los Angeles lost Friday night when Mike McCormick stymied the Dodgers on five hits while Bonds, Mays, McCovey and friends played smash ball against Claude Osteen. McCovey hit a 390-foot single into the wind and the fog one time at bat, while Bonds had a home run and a double.
The Braves won at San Diego to keep pace with the Giants, but down in Houston the Reds continued their disastrous slide when a rookie named Keith Lampard, batting for the fourth time this year, hit a two-run pinch-hit home run in the bottom of the ninth to give Houston a 3-2 victory. It was the third time in four days that Cincinnati lost in the last inning. Scratch, for all practical purposes, Cincinnati.
Confronted with a "must" game on Saturday, the Dodgers lost again, this time to Juan Marichal. There is bad blood between Marichal and the Dodgers that goes back years. This July, Marichal did not add to the amity between the clubs when he skulled the Dodgers' Willie Davis with a fastball. On Saturday, Dodger Relief Pitcher Jim Brewer came close to Marichal with one of his pitches, and the incident provoked Marichal to say, "The Dodgers are dummies if they thought I threw at Davis. And it's not smart of Davis to say I tried to hit him on purpose."
Walter Alston answered Marichal. "I can name you a dozen hitters who bear Marichal's scars. He stuck the ball in Willie Davis' ear, and he did it on purpose. He is pretty insensitive if he thinks he can throw at people and not be thrown at in return."
All of which did not matter. Davis did hit a home run against Marichal, but the Giants won 5-4. The following day Los Angeles came close again, but the result was the same—a sad loss. The Dodgers, who were in first place for about six hours on Wednesday, now were in third place—3½ games behind the Giants. They were almost as far out of it all as the Reds.
Ted Sizemore learned the hard way. Pennant races begin on Sept. 15. The Giants and the Braves obviously knew that all along.