Since George Brunet made his first appearance in professional baseball in 1953 his travelogue reads like a commercial for the nation's feeder airlines. As the sun sets slowly over lovely Shelby, N.C., we find Brunet wending his way to Alexandria, La., Seminole, Okla., Hot Springs, Ark., Crowley, La., etc. Eventually the sun was to set on George Brunet in 16 different minor league spas all the way to Vancouver and Hawaii, not to mention the seven major league franchises he visited—four of which either changed their names or left town. George Brunet has been around.
Yet last Saturday afternoon in Shea Stadium in New York, Brunet threw what may well prove to be the most important pitch of his nomadic career. The Pirates were leading the Mets 2-1 in the eighth inning of the second game of their critical weekend series when Manager Danny Murtaugh called Brunet in from the bullpen with a runner on second base and one out. As he stood on the mound talking to Brunet and Catcher Manny Sanguillen, Murtaugh somehow became a caricature, a synthesis of all three beleaguered managers in this tense, frustrating, often comical race for the championship of the National League's Eastern Division. A pack of chewing tobacco protruded slightly from the left rear pocket of Murtaugh's pants and he scratched the back of his neck as he probed at the ground with his spikes. He needed an out—now. So he explained carefully to Brunet how to get it, how to pitch to the Mets' Art Shamsky, who was hitting .306. Then he walked back to his dugout, arms dangling at his side, the normally smile-wrinkled Irish face now set hard in the bright September sunshine.
Brunet threw one pitch and Shamsky popped it up to the perfect spot, to Gene Alley at shortstop, where it would give the straining Pirates the least trouble. Murtaugh came up out of his dugout again, relieved Brunet and gave him a slap on the back. A few minutes later a double play ended the game with the score still 2-1. Only in a pennant race such as this one in 1970 could a 2-1 game involve seven different pitchers.
A year from now, 10 years from now, there will be those who remember this race—but how? "The pennant nobody wants," the news services are calling it, but that is what they seem to say every fall. "The year of the second guess" might be better, if not a great deal more original. With the Pirates, Cubs and Mets locked together like a troika since early July, second-guessing Managers Murtaugh, Leo Durocher and Gil Hodges (see cover) has become so contagious that the three are probably second-guessing themselves. They also are showing the pressure in other ways. Hodges, for example, has resumed smoking after a two-year layoff. Durocher occasionally abandons his ulcer-quieting milk for a good belt of the old snakebite remedy. The other evening in New York, as Murtaugh fought to get a piece of pizza pie into his mouth, his hands were trembling. And all three mumble to themselves. The sacred statistics of baseball actually indicate that none of the three teams can win. While the Pirates led the second-place Cubs by two games and third-place New York by 3½, their winning percentage was only .539, and no baseball team has ever won anything with a figure as low as that. The previous worst finishes were the accomplishments of the 1959 Los Angeles Dodgers, who won in the National League by playing .564 ball, and the Boston Red Sox, American League winners in 1967 with a .568 average. This season the longest winning streak put together by any of the three contenders since the All-Star break was five by the Pirates. The Cubs and Mets each won four in a row. Hooray.
The longest winning streak of the year in the Eastern Division of the National League, in fact, was compiled back in April. Then the Cubs won all their games during a 10-day home stand, added another victory in the first game on the road—and have since lost one game for each game they have won. The streak alone has kept Chicago in the race.
At times it seemed that no matter how poorly the Cubs or Pirates or Mets performed, they could not play themselves out of contention. Of course they could not play their way beyond contention, either. Over the past two weeks there were some eerie games. Pittsburgh won 5-4 in Chicago with two ninth-inning home runs and a botched bunt by the Cubs. The game the next day, the last meeting of the season between the two, should have been crucial. It was not. At the time Pittsburgh held a half-game lead over New York and was two games ahead of Chicago. A win probably would have sent the Cubs into hibernation for the winter. The Pirates took a 2-1 lead into the bottom of the ninth inning and had two outs with nobody on when Willie Smith hit a fly ball to center field. The ball game. But no. A strong wind pushed the ball back toward the infield, and Centerfielder Matty Alou, when he finally caught up to it, dropped it, thus bringing up the first three men in the Cub batting order. They hit consecutive singles to send the Pirates on to Philadelphia in shock. Surely they would not come out soon. They did, immediately. They won twice before reverting to their previous comatose state and losing the third game to a squeeze bunt. Their own tying run was thrown out at the plate in the ninth inning. Horrors—except at the same time the Cubs were losing two out of three to the Cards, the Mets two out of three to the Expos.
For all its ups and downs, there is a certain consistency to Pittsburgh's record. Since July 11 the Pirates have been out of first place for only two days and, according to Murtaugh, "The main reason we are in first place is Dave Giusti." Willie Stargell, who at one point in early May was hitting in the .100s and is now up around .270, agrees with Murtaugh and adds: "We had an awful lot of problems with our pitching during spring training. Three of our starters were hurt and I know that all the pitchers just got together and dedicated themselves to erasing their reputation as a bad staff. They took pride in their work and we pitch a lot better than some people are willing to give us credit for."
Giusti, with a master's degree in education from Syracuse University, admits, "I was awful during the exhibition games. I went to spring training hoping to be a starter but I couldn't get anybody out. I was so bad it was unbelievable. When the season started I was going to be the long relief man and try to work myself out of the bullpen."
Murtaugh takes no credit at all for Giusti's emergence as one of the season's top relief pitchers. "To tell the truth," he says, "what happened was a case of plain old luck. We got in a jam one night and I needed a short man and called Dave in from the bullpen to do a job. He did it and the following night he did it again."
Last weekend Giusti did the job three times against New York, saving the first two games and winning the fourth. He all but permanently throttled the Mets who, with nine games to go, were 3½ games behind Pittsburgh and 1½ games behind Chicago. New York's one last chance to save its world championship comes this weekend, when it meets the Pirates—and Giusti—again. The odds do not favor the Mets. Giusti has finished 46 of the first 152 games the Pirates have played. His won-lost record is 9-3 and he has saved 25 games. "The demanding aspect of the job," he says, "is self-confidence in your own ability. I didn't know if I was going to like it when I started relieving, but I gave it quite a bit of thought and realized that with a club like ours, which can score runs, the advantages were mine. I try to prepare myself by being aware of the situation at all times and concentrating on the hitters."
Chicago is generally considered to be the best balanced of the three, and this is only partly because the Cubs have eliminated some of the clubhouse problems that contributed so heavily to last season's traumatic collapse. This year the Cubs are at once more serious and more relaxed. Like both Pittsburgh and New York, they have swung major deals during the pennant drive—if that indeed is the correct term—to strengthen their lineup. First the Cubs acquired Joe Pepitone, who had become disenchanted while playing for the Astros under Judge Roy Hofheinz's huge hair dryer. He jumped the team in July, claiming he would retire, but had a remarkable change of heart when Chicago bought him. Now Pepitone seemingly has found a home. He goes to work in a limousine driven by a man named "Fabulous Howard," and dons, according to his mood, assorted wigs to play in, showing partiality to one hairpiece that he calls "my gamer." He has added to the easy feeling around the club and has drawn unaccustomed praise from Durocher. "He is a better ballplayer than I thought he was," says Leo. "From what I've seen he's one helluva player!"
Last week the Cubs added Tommy Davis, who promptly responded with a clutch pinch single as Chicago won the first three of four games against Montreal. In one of the wins Durocher, strapped for starting pitchers, was talked into using three pitchers for two innings each and one for three by two of his coaches, Joe Becker and Herman Franks. He agreed, but then at the end of nine innings found himself in a tie with the Expos and had to bring in a starter, Bill Hands, to finish up. It was a large gamble, but one that paid off. On Sunday a similar gamble, this time with 20-game winner Ferguson Jenkins, was unable to save Chicago, and the second-guessers were at their old pastime again. Maybe even Leo was having a go at it.
While the Cubs were picking up Davis from the Oakland Athletics, the Pirates were acquiring Jim (Mudcat) Grant from the same club and the Mets were getting Dean Chance from Cleveland. The Grant deal was odd. One of the top three relief men in baseball with 24 saves for the A's and a 1.81 earned run average, he was traded away despite the fact that his team was still in its own pennant chase. Obviously a further payment, possibly with a star player, is due the A's. Chance, the 1964 Cy Young Award winner, went for a price that well could approach six figures. Neither Davis, Grant nor Chance will be eligible for either the league playoffs or the World Series, but each of the three teams will be only too happy to cross that bridge when—and if—it appears. Like, say, on Oct. 2, the day after the season is supposed to end.
The Mets, so strong on pitching, defense and base running last season, have been a disappointment to their fans this year, particularly over the last two weeks. One day Hodges sat in his office after a hard win against St. Louis and said, "I think it is coming around; I think it is coming around." He meant a winning streak. New York promptly lost six of the next eight. But few defeats have hurt the Mets as much as the one they suffered at the hands of Brunet and four other pitchers last Saturday. The game pushed them four games behind in the lost column. What was worse, time and again they got the leadoff runner on base only to lose him, which indicates how easily they could have won. Their only run came as the result of a double play with the bases loaded.
When the Mets won the Eastern Division title last year their young pitchers threw 28 shutouts. This year that supposedly matured staff has had only 10. Just as significantly, three of New York's starters—Jerry Koosman, Gary Gentry and Nolan Ryan—have totaled only 14 complete games, while Tom Seaver, although he has completed 19 games by himself, has experienced a very rough second half. Recently he has won only one of his last seven decisions.
Never mind. Except for the Cubs' Jenkins and Hands, no other pitchers in the race have fared particularly well. Pittsburgh, which can serve up a dinner menu of throwers named Moose, Lamb and Veale, eats some crow when it points to the combined record of its five busiest starters. It is 54-52.
Pirate Murtaugh probably best summed up the situation for everybody one day last week as he sat with his feet up on his desk and ate two pieces of boiled ham between crackers. "Tough games," he said. "We've been playing some real tough games. Grinders! There doesn't seem to be any letup. Everyplace I go people ask me about my health. I feel fine. If anyone has trouble with his heart, just let him manage in the big leagues."
"Sure," said Ken Holtzman, the Chicago starting pitcher, "everybody's acting loose. It looks that way, doesn't it? But, what the hell, deep down we're all nervous. Anyone who says he isn't nervous is a liar."