They may regret it a couple of weeks from now, but citizens who vote the straight National League ticket are saying the playoff between Pittsburgh and Cincinnati is going to decide who's best in all baseball. Forget that American League East finish. Ignore Charlie Finley and his Oakland A's. Above all, disregard what Truman did to Dewey. The players who will be coming out on the field in Pittsburgh Saturday, say these party regulars, are just passing through town on their way to that little red building in Cooperstown.
To be sure, the same cities played for the pennant two years ago and the Reds won, but those Reds might have drawn a few don't-knows in the polls and those Pirates had yet to reveal their Maryland strategy in the 1971 World Series. Fact of the matter is, none of the previous six championship series had the quality this one promises. Consider how the Pirates and Reds warmed up last week. Roberto Clemente, he who walks on the Monongahela, slashed out the 3,000th hit of his career. Johnny Bench made it seven home runs in seven games. Steve Blass just missed becoming the first Pirate pitcher in a dozen years to win 20 games. Clay Carroll stalked out of the Cincinnati bullpen to set a major league record for saves: 36. The Reds' Pete Rose, he who slides on his tummy, was chasing after his sixth 200-hit season, and the Pirates' Al Oliver, supposedly third banana behind Clemente and Willie Stargell, was finishing out a campaign in which he will hit over .300, score nearly 90 runs and drive in another 90. Little Joe Morgan of Cincinnati was still scoring runs (121), stealing bases (56), drawing walks (112) and using that Little League glove of his to come close to the alltime record for fewest errors in a season by a second baseman (seven), held by Jackie Robinson.
All in all, the Pirates and Reds had dominated their league as no two National League teams since the start of divisional play. Everybody knows about the Pirates. They're the people with the bat rack that is constantly twitching and has to be chained down lest it become a UFO. At a time when the .275 hitter is supposedly a condemned species in the majors the Pirates have stockpiled 10 of them.
Stargell has had one of his biggest years, with a .294 batting average, 33 homers and 112 RBIs. "Willie is a better hitter with men on base than without," says Manager Bill Virdon. "When he is making contact, he is one of the best RBI men I have ever seen. He thrives when we have men in scoring position." But Willie hit his last homer on Sept. 4, and it might be a cause of concern for the Pirates that his batting average has dropped from .311 in the past few weeks.
For their part, the Reds did not get to the playoffs by sneaking past the gate guards. As the week ended they were only two victories short of Pittsburgh's total of 95—and, oh my, how they could carry on around those bases. The men at the top of the batting order, Pete Rose, Joe Morgan and Bobby Tolan, had scored 310 runs and stolen 107 bases. And the gag that goes, "Imagine how the Pirates and Reds would hit if they ever got a chance against their own pitching," is no longer valid. Pittsburgh had the second best pitching staff in the National League this season; Cincinnati's was third.
Still, it is conceivable that the Reds could come up a trifle short on the mound. Their top starter, Gary Nolan (14-5, 2.05 ERA), has recently had both an aching arm and a tooth that hurt so much it had to be pulled. But even if Nolan has not regained his form, Manager Sparky Anderson will not necessarily be morose. He can throw Lefthanders Don Gullett and Ross Grimsley at left-handed hitters like Stargell and Oliver and undoubtedly will get some starting mileage from Righthander Jack Billingham, too. Gullett, 21, recovered from hepatitis to have a rousing late season, topped by Sunday's one-hitter. Billingham, who was 4-9 at one point, won his 12th game last week.
Scouts will tell you that the two best arms in baseball may not be found on the mound, however, but in right field, where Clemente and Cesar Geronimo are employed. If it is true, as has often been suggested, that Roberto Clemente can throw a strawberry through a locomotive, then Geronimo can put one through the tender, the parlor car and two coaches.
Both Pittsburgh and Cincinnati have excellent bullpens. The Pirates' Dave Giusti has saved 22 games and Ramon Hernandez has an earned run average of 1.59. Besides Carroll, Cincinnati counts on Tom (The Blade) Hall, a lefthander small enough to ride at Latonia. His 10-1 divides out as the best pitching percentage in the land, and he has struck out 132 batters in 122 innings.
Neither team is timid about forcing the issue—going for the extra base, running to unsettle the defense, sliding hard to break up double plays. "The Reds," says Steve Blass, "know all about how well we hit and they are not intimidated. They beat us five of the last six times we played them—but then Clemente missed the five we lost. Clemente, in my opinion, is the most electrifying player in baseball. We are not the same team without him. He never seems to waste his hits; he makes them add up to something. But when we played the Reds—remember, we won only four of 12 on the season—we made mistakes we can't afford now. When you pitch against them you can't wait to get yourself into a groove. You have to be prepared physically and mentally to face those first three hitters."
In the Reds-Pirates playoff of 1970, Cincinnati swept Pittsburgh despite getting only nine runs and 22 hits in three games. Everyone had assumed it would be a hitter's playoff because the Reds had a team batting average of .2703, the Pirates .2700. Pittsburgh squandered opportunities by leaving 29 men on base against a Cincinnati pitching staff beset with physical problems. Says Anderson, "I think that we both played cautiously because it was the first time in a playoff for both of us. I don't anticipate that this time."
The Pirates, of course, have now won three consecutive East Division championships, and they have a chance to become the first National League team in half a century to take back-to-back World Series.
An informal poll of baseball men turned up few who could discern a significant edge for one team or the other. Atlanta's Henry Aaron says the Pirates are the best-hitting team he has seen in 19 years in the National League, but he also likes Cincinnati's left-handed pitching. Walt Alston, senior manager in the majors, calls the match-up "just about even. The Pirates may have a little edge in their bench. Everybody can do just about as well as the nine out there at the start.
"But," Alston warns, "in a short series the bench isn't as vital as it is over a full season. Both are teams with fine speed, power, hitting for average and pitching. A lot will depend on what kind of shape Roberto Clemente is in, how he's hitting and how he's throwing. Willie Stargell is another vital man. If he's in a hot streak, look out. If he's in a slump, he's another batter. Almost any player on the Pirates—Richie Hebner, for example—can take you out of the ball game. And Pittsburgh's pitching is underrated. They proved that last year in the Series. But the Reds have power and speed and they got a great year from Johnny Bench. He can always hurt you. At times he can ruin you. Any way you look at it, it's a toss-up."
Billy Williams of the Cubs, one of the leading candidates for the Most Valuable Player award, says, "This could be the best playoff yet. You have two teams quite different in style and talent but both make the best of what they have. The Pirates are basically a hit-and-run team. They get lots of little hits and run like crazy to make them count. They're a real smart team, too. Bobby Tolan has got to be one of the best players around. The Reds often have men on base when he comes to bat and he can hit the ball out. Everything is open for Tolan. With men on he has the added advantage of seeing fastballs, and he's a darned good fastball hitter. It comes down to an aggressive Pittsburgh team and a Cincinnati powerhouse."
Two quality performers who have seen a lot of the Pirates and Reds are Lou Brock and Bob Gibson of the Cardinals. "I believe," says Gibson, "that Pittsburgh has a steadier pitching staff than Cincinnati. Cincy has plenty of pitchers with good stuff, but you don't know from one day to another if they are really going to be ready to throw."
Brock has a different view. "Speed," he says, "should make the difference in a short series and the Reds are the faster team. I don't think there's another club in the majors with such speed from the one-two-three batters." Brock saw enough of that this year: the Reds beat the Cardinals 10 times in 12 games. The two St. Louis victories were won by a total of just three runs.
Brock also saw something of a bat swinger named Johnny Bench. On the shelf of Bench's locker at Riverfront Stadium is a bewildered-looking ceramic doll in an elevator car. Beneath it the lettering reads, "Some days you have your ups and downs...other days you get the shaft." Last season was the year of the downs and the shaft for Johnny Bench, but this year he has been on an up car all the way. His closing rush put him at the top in both home runs and RBIs. Despite a truly bad 1971 season, Bench has 112 homers and 332 RBIs over the past three years. He's not a poor catcher, either.
Managers believe you should be able to steal two of every three bases you go for. The Reds themselves have done it, with 136 in 190 attempts. But how does the rest of the league do against Cincinnati? Far worse than one might imagine. At the end of last week only 59 attempts had been made. No fewer than 35 were unsuccessful. The reason: Bench and his mighty arm. Bench makes plays that are caviar to the connoisseur. He can snap up low throws from the outfield with one hand like a first baseman. He climbs up the screen behind the plate and scrambles into box seats to grab foul balls for precious outs.
Before the season began Johnny said he wanted to find out which was the real Bench—the one who tore baseball apart in 1970 or the one who fell flat on his phiz and heard booing in 1971. "I think I've learned this year," Bench says, "that some people are going to boo you because they don't want to see anyone do well. I guess if you could look into my mind you would find the scars from last year still there someplace. But I don't live and die with it anymore. We all had a lot of nice things happen to us this season and they were brought about in part by the fact that we were shaping up at the end of last season. Over the winter Mr. Howsam [the general manager] made the big trade with Houston. It went down hard with a lot of our fans because we gave up Lee May, Tommy Helms and Jimmy Stewart to get Joe Morgan, Jack Billingham, Denis Menke and Cesar Geronimo. I was at a banquet with Mr. Howsam, and when he was introduced he was booed. That stung. I followed him at the mike and told the fans to get ready to watch Morgan have a heck of a year for the Reds. I said if Bobby Tolan could play like Bobby Tolan they'd just better get ready to watch Cincinnati win the division. Not many people thought Bobby could come back after two Achilles' tendon tears."
It was Tolan, the No. 3 hitter, who hit .417 in the 1970 playoffs. In games against Pittsburgh this season he drove in more runs than any other Red. After his latest injury, early in 1971, Tolan had maintained steadfastly that he would open the 1972 season in center field for Cincinnati. It seemed a foolish prediction, but Sparky Anderson did not publicly air his doubts.
"I truly did not think any athlete could do what Bobby Tolan has done," says Anderson. "How many players have come back after one Achilles' tendon, let alone two? We went to Tampa for spring training and Tolan was there champing at the bit. The doctor said Bobby could do nothing for the first 10 days except walk—and be darned careful where he walked. I went into the trainer's room to talk to Bobby and, boy, was he mad. 'Why have I wasted the whole winter working out?' he said. 'Did the doctor see something in the X rays that you people are holding back from me?' I told Bobby to try and settle himself down and, no, there was nothing that indicated he was through as a player but doctor's orders were to walk, not run. I said, 'Bobby, let's find a nice place to walk.'
"Later we went to Venezuela for three exhibition games against the Pirates and I put Bobby in the lineup, but when we took a walk in the outfield we saw so many holes I had to scratch him. We played him in Caracas and had no problem. Back in Florida for an exhibition game, we got a real scare. Bobby had to slide into third base. Everybody on the bench just sat there waiting to see if he would get up. When we saw he was O.K., the whole bench applauded.
"He was coming back, all right, but we still had to wonder just how far he could come. Joe Morgan was talking to Bobby all along, telling him that a situation was going to come up where he might attempt to steal and that he should only attempt it, not worry about making it. The important thing was the try. Even when the season started we didn't know how many bases he might be able to steal. If somebody had told me 20 I would have gladly settled for that. Well, he stole 41, and some of those were big ones. Bobby Tolan is a remarkable man."
Which brings us back to Rose and Morgan. Take a Cincinnati box score, says Anderson, and cover everything but the line for the leadoff trio, and you should be able to detect the winning team. "If Rose, Morgan and Tolan have five hits among them," he says, "you should find us coming out ahead."
Welcome back, Pete, Joe, Bobby, Johnny. Same to you, Roberto, Willie, Steve, Al. Maybe those National League crazies are right. Maybe there will be two World Series. This one, and the one with that other league.