It was the best of races and yet in one curious way, the worst. Never in memory had so many baseball contenders fought so spiritedly before such wary fans. Oh, people were talking about the race all right, but when it came to buying tickets they seemed to have their pockets filled with fishhooks. There went Boston, Detroit, Baltimore and New York, scrambling madly down the base paths of September in search of a semi-pennant, the championship of the American League East. All four were interesting teams—although certainly not great ones—and each possessed a remarkable tenacity during times of pressure and frustration. The Orioles, on paper the best of the four, seemed hell-bent on working their way into the record books as "The Hitless Enigmas," while the Tigers were in and out, up and down and yet holding on the tightest at a time when everyone thought sand should be shoveled over them. New York's Sparkys—er, Yankees—were like a toy raft that disappeared in the rips and eddies of the race only to keep bobbing up again in a different place. And in Boston the Red Sox were thrashing and kicking as they had not done since their pennant summer of 1967.
But everywhere there were empty seats. A game between the Red Sox and Yankees lured only 20,187 on a delightful night in New York. In Detroit, where you could expect 45,000 for a Tiger-Oriole gang fight, 29,788 showed up. Even in Boston, usually a pesthouse of pennant fever, there were expanses of unoccupied chairs. And, as usual, the crowds in Baltimore all arrived in the same cab. Yet if the fans were not fevered, the teams were. Every week had its particular heroes. Last Week's Team was the Red Sox as Carl Yastrzemski saddled up for another Paul Revere ride, Luis Tiant threw another shutout and rookie Carlton Fisk (see cover) bashed another home run over the Great Green Wall. And time is running so short that in a few days some such Last Week's Team must be proclaimed The Team.
Interest in the race undoubtedly has been muted by confusion over the player strike and its legacy: an irregular schedule. All teams started the same day, regardless of opponents lost or varying numbers of games to be played. Slowly this bouillabaisse of inequities is coming to a boil, and in the three cities that do not get a winner there will be screams of foul.
Only two teams, Boston and New York, could tie, because each plays 155 times. Detroit plays the most games (156) and Baltimore the fewest (154). Baltimore and Detroit played 18 games against each other, while the Orioles and Yankees met only 13 times. Ultimately, the Red Sox and Tigers will have played 14 times. The concept of divisional baseball holds that games within a division are the most important ones. Sadly, in 1972 that concept was cast aside.
Somebody's got to win, though. But who? It has been suggested of the Tigers, who led the division for a total of 101 days, that if you bugged their dugout you would hear only two sounds: Manager Billy Martin screaming and a lot of arteries hardening. The Tigers are old, certainly not hitting, and were left for dead at the beginning of last week after losing three straight games to the Yankees. The Tigers had run around the tree too long, and the time had come for them to turn to butter. They did nothing of the sort. Instead, they won three magnificent games from the Orioles and went on to sweep their week and find new life.
The Yankees had a chance to go into first place early in the week only to be fourth and fading at its end when Baltimore beat them two out of three. Certainly they were not Last Week's Team.
There may be 700 million people in China and one million more in Baltimore who could not care less about the Great Race, but the Orioles themselves care, and deeply. They are merely trying to become the first non-Yankee team ever to win four consecutive American League championships. In the last two seasons they closed out proceedings by going on 11-game winning streaks. If they hit they can do it again. But will they? Will they ever hit? At .281 young Bobby Grich is the hottest stick on a team that ought to blaze at the plate. No single statistic is more revealing than this: the Orioles' marvelous pitching staff has lost 27 games in which they gave up three runs or fewer. Baltimore's four 20-game winners of last year, Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar, Pat Dobson and Dave McNally, are pitching better than they did in 1971, yet Dobson and McNally have a combined record of 28-32.
At times the race seemed like a television serial: every day a new plot twist. The Tigers went out and got massive Frank Howard from the Texas Rangers, for whom he was hitting like a featherweight, and Howard promptly blasted a Dave McNally fastball into the right-field seats to beat the Orioles. Baltimore, desperate for offense, bought Tommy Davis from the Chicago Cubs. Though Manager Earl Weaver tries to hide Davis on defense by putting him everyplace except beneath the tarpaulin, Davis hits. The Red Sox bring Luis Tiant back from oblivion. Luis reaches down through the years for a bit of his old fastball and throws four consecutive shutouts.
The Red Sox got into the race when most baseball fans were out to lunch. Until recently Boston was only "the team that traded Sparky Lyle to the Yankees." But it was more—a home run team that played its first 11 games without producing one and played its first three months in a Nantucket fog. Then just before the All-Star break the Sox had a most interesting six-game—yes, six—series in Fenway against the league's Western powerhouse, Oakland. Boston won four and suddenly a feeling developed that the team had not experienced since its last pennant. "What we are now," says Carl Yastrzemski, "began with that series. We felt together as a team probably for the first time. Oakland was supposed to be the best in the American League outside of the Orioles, and we played damn well against them. [Ultimately the Red Sox played Oakland 12 times, won nine and could easily have won two more.]
"After the All-Star break we did not win a lot of games in a row. In fact, we played some poor games, but the feeling was there that we were better than our record showed. This year's team is both different from and similar to the 1967 Sox. For one thing, this year our starting pitching is a lot deeper than it was back in '67. Another difference is that the 1967 team was made up mostly of players who had come through the Red Sox system, so we had known each other for some time. This year we've been getting acquainted with some new people, guys like Doug Griffin at second and Ben Oglivie in right and Andy Kosco in left."
But where is the hot hitter a winner almost always has? Yaz was that man the last time Boston won, getting 10 hits in his last 13 times at bat. He could be that man again, even though his overall statistics are far below the standards of excellence he has set for himself. Through last weekend he was batting only .268 and had but eight homers and 55 runs batted in. His career averages are .293 and 23 home runs and 85 RBIs.
Of Baltimore, Yastrzemski said, "Everything I read about Frank Robinson interested me. He was the guy you feared. I suppose they do miss him. The thing that might be missing most is that he helped their young players learn the game. There are a lot of things about leadership that fans don't truly understand. And you have to remember, we were pretty close to Baltimore in August of last year and then lost a tough game to them and fell away. This year two of our young pitchers, John Curtis and Lynn McGlothen, have done a fine job and Fisk has come on to be a heck of a good catcher and a good hitter. Those elements were not with us in 1971."
John Curtis is a 24-year-old lefthander with a degree in history from Clemson who spent last winter as a sportswriter in Spartanburg, S.C. How does John Curtis tell the story of the 1972 Red Sox?
"We are a team that found itself," he says. "We have discovered that if we play the way we are capable of playing we can win it all. The central figure is Yaz, and he is in a tenuous position. Everyone looks to him to be the leader, but he really isn't that kind of guy. Everyone pushed the leadership on him and Yaz did not seem to want it." He just went out and played the best he could. Then, all of a sudden, it seemed that Yaz was excited. I know that when I pitched and he started playing first, no one pulled harder for me. The other veterans got excited, too. I would read in the papers where Luis [Aparicio] said we had a chance at the pennant or that Rico [Petrocelli] said we could win it. The guys who had not been through it saw the veterans get enthused. Then we did, too. It was both a spontaneous and contagious thing."
Eddie Kasko, Boston's manager, is the Rodney Dangerfield of the Great Race. He just doesn't seem to get any respect, at least not in some parts of the Boston press. Earl Weaver, Ralph Houk and Billy Martin have signed contracts for 1973. Kasko's contract had not been renewed by the end of last week, even though his team was out ahead with only 16 games left to play.
Kasko is a quiet, scholarly man with a fondness for pistachio nuts. His handling of Fisk and Boston's other young players has been exemplary, but his best move came very late. It was on Aug. 19 that he shifted Yastrzemski from left field to first base, a position Yaz has played in the past and prefers. "When I'm playing left," he says, "I tend to bring a bad time at bat to the outfield with me and brood. At first base there isn't any time for that because you are in the game all the time." And lo, the Red Sox have won 19 of the 25 games he has played at that position.
Reggie Smith, Petrocelli and Yastrzemski are the only Red Sox remaining of the 1967 vintage. "We were so young then," Petrocelli reflected last week. "Everything seemed so good. We thought it would never end, that the good times would go on forever. They didn't even last through 1968."
In echo of Petrocelli, a small banner hung from the top deck at Fenway last Saturday: REMEMBER '67. The crowd was small (17,335) by Fenway standards, but if the Sox noticed the empty seats they did not let on, playing perhaps their finest game of the season as they beat the Indians 10-0. Tommy Harper led off the Boston first by reaching the nets above The Wall. Fisk pumped a high homer to left center in the second, and when he returned to the dugout the first man to greet him was Yaz. His cap was off and a huge smile lit his face. In the third Yastrzemski came to bat with Aparicio on first and homered into the center-field seats. Yaz produced another RBI, and another, and then Kasko sent a runner in for him so the crowd could give him an ovation as he trotted off the field. It was a nice touch that, for Boston fans have been dinning boos upon his head for months because of his so-so hitting.
Fisk's home run was his 22nd of the season, the most ever for a Boston catcher, and his arm is so strong that he may elect one day to throw a ball from Bellows Falls, Vt. to Dedham, Mass. without letting it bounce in Lowell or Keene. He is strong-willed, too, in the pattern of New England's baseball stars. In August, Fisk suggested publicly that the Red Sox would be a much better team if Yastrzemski and Smith played up to their potential and salaries instead of moping their way through the summer. Fisk said he was misquoted when he saw his words in print, but since then Boston has played close to .650 baseball. A number of players and newsmen had said much the same thing; it was not until Fisk weighed in that they were taken seriously.
Unlike most catchers, Fisk hits a lot of triples and runs the bases well. He constantly plays down his abilities as a catcher—properly so; a Johnny Bench he is not. Yet. But he has assumed one of the toughest jobs in baseball, taking over a pitching staff as a rookie. Quite successfully, too. Today, in the huge souvenir shop across from Fenway, large stacks of Fisk color photographs are positioned right next to those of Yaz.
Now Fisk and his friends have a real chore coming up. Boston ends its season on the road with three games in Baltimore followed by three more in Detroit. Historically, the Red Sox are the American League's worst road team, mostly because they have been molded to take advantage of The Wall. The season's last week may even be enough to make the fans lose their glassy stares and climb a few walls of their own.