Whatever hopes the Dodgers still entertain of overtaking the Giants in the Western Division race would seem to rest with their 38-year-old shortstop's quaint notion that on baseball diamonds in September "strange things" happen to the undeserving.
Not that Maury Wills is a devotee of the occult; his manner is rather more that of the middle-aged businessman he has become after 20 years of chasing ground balls. The Wills rhetoric, in fact, would do credit to a corporate prose stylist.
"You can be objective or negative," he said last week in discussing his team's pennant chances. "My way is to be objective. Of course, some people interpret objectivity as rationalization."
Free of this weighty disclaimer, he narrowed his eyes, lowered his voice and advanced his theory on "things" and how they happen.
"My contention is that if we can go into September five games out, we'll win. There is a definite something about the month of September. Things begin to happen to people then that just don't happen in August. Pressure is just one of them. But other things happen. Errors that might be overlooked any other month get magnified. Tempers flare. Things happen between teammates, things happen to managers. Everyone is tense and edgy. These things will happen to a losing team on the first day of the season. Everything will go wrong. But in September they happen to the best of teams. That's what I mean about September."
What he also means is that, in his opinion, the Dodgers are safer than most from such misfortune because they have the necessary camaraderie.
"We probably have better harmony than any team in baseball," Wills said earnestly. "I'm not saying the Giants don't have it, just that we do. Nobody can ask you to love him, but you can give mutual respect. If there are any hard feelings on this team, they're never shown. That's all you can ask of a professional athlete."
The Dodgers will need all the harmony they can muster in September, for the Giants appear to have every other advantage. Three times this year the Dodgers have been only 3½ games from first place and each time they have, in the words of First Baseman Wes Parker, "regrouped and fallen back." Their opportunities for a fall offensive are rapidly diminishing, and the Giants now seem strong enough to withstand the charge.
"Physically, we are in good shape," says San Francisco Manager Charlie Fox, who is something of a harmonizer himself. "And we're playing good ball."
Fox has coaxed some surprisingly good ball out of players who hardly seemed of championship timber. He has stayed the entire season with a rookie shortstop, just turned 21, and a second baseman whose past gave little hint of his present. But Chris Speier and Tito Fuentes have provided the Giants with one of the finest double-play combinations in the game. Fuentes is also hitting 30 points above his lifetime average, and Speier, who has leveled off at .240, has produced seven game-winning hits. Alan Gallagher, with his bat, and Hal Lanier, with his glove, give the team depth at third base. Willie Mays is old, and Willie McCovey, hobbling on bad knees, is infirm, but both have been enormously important to the team in areas where Wills might claim a Dodger monopoly.
Most of the Giants run well, and four of them—Bobby Bonds, Mays, Fuentes and Ken Henderson—have stolen 10 or more bases; Mays, at age 40, has stolen 16. Bonds and Henderson are two of the ablest outfielders in the game, and for insurance in both the outfield and at first base Fox has called up Dave Kingman from the Phoenix farm team. Kingman, who is 22 and stands 6'6", is simply "the next great home run hitter in baseball," according to his exuberant manager. The Giants also have depth at catcher with Dick Dietz (14 home runs), Fran Healy (.329) and defensive specialist Russ Gibson.
Pitching alone is questionable. There was a midseason stretch when neither Juan Marichal nor Gaylord Perry could win a game. Perry went from May 30 to July 10 and Marichal from June 23 to Aug. 10 without victory. But both seem now to have regained their form. Fox thinks their failings were more mental than physical.
"They were throwing the ball well," he explained, "but I think people got to where they could guess what they'd throw in certain situations. We've corrected that now."
Then there is the home field advantage, which is for the Dodgers no advantage. In commodious Dodger Stadium they have won exactly as often as they have lost—33 times—whereas the Giants have won nearly 65% of their games in Candlestick Park. The Giants have 11 home games in September, two with Los Angeles. The Dodgers play 14 in their stadium, three with the Giants. They have beaten the Giants in only two of six games at home while winning five of seven at Candlestick.
"We're a much looser ball club on the road," said Bill Grabarkewitz, the injured Dodger third baseman. "I think we just like to bat first. The national anthem seems to do something to our pitchers. I don't know how many runs have been scored off us in the first inning at home, but we always seem to be coming to bat four runs behind. And in this park that's a lot."
"There are two things you can say about this stadium," said Parker. "It's the most beautiful in baseball and it's the toughest to hit in. It's big and the grass is high. You get on one of those AstroTurf fields and the ball just seems to fly off the bat. There you approach the game with an entirely different attitude. It's hard not to let this park get to you."
Although they get their money's worth only half the time, Dodger fans continue to show up in abundance. The attendance is approaching two million for the eighth time since the move west from Brooklyn in 1958. By the end of this season more than 50 million souls will have seen the Los Angeles Dodgers play baseball at home and on the road. Attendance has always been news in Los Angeles; in San Francisco, where the Giants will at least draw more than a million this year, it is discussed only negatively. With some justification, Dodger followers regard their Bay Area counterparts with contempt. It is an attitude shared by some Dodger players.
"It would be a shame if the Giants won the pennant," said Grabarkewitz. "They don't have any fans."
Moving into the season's climactic month, these two teams offer an interesting contrast in virtues and defects: the Dodgers, unable to win at home but drawing well; the Giants losing on the road, where they are one of the best draws in the game. The Giants, even with Mays and McCovey shuttling in and out of the lineup, are now pretty much a set team; the Dodgers rarely field the same lineup two games in succession. The Giants, traditionally a power team, run better and more often on the bases than the Dodgers, traditionally a running team. The Giants have two outstanding starting pitchers; the Dodgers, with Claude Osteen, Al Downing, Don Sutton and Bill Singer, have four good ones. And finally there is the issue of harmony and all those "things" that can happen without it.
Richie Allen, the gifted but scarcely harmonious power hitter who was a problem athlete in both St. Louis and Philadelphia, has been knocking himself out for the Dodgers, according to Manager Walter Alston. Is he happier with the spirited Dodgers, Allen was asked, than he was with the Cardinals and Phillies? He looked up from the business of studying the locker room floor. There was the faintest suggestion of a smile on his Mephistophelian countenance.
"Now," he said slowly, "does that really matter?"
Richie Allen, meet Maury Wills.