In just a moment the 1972 World Series would surely end. All the Oakland A's had to do last Sunday afternoon at Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati was get the 186th out, and then they could wrap their trembling fingers around those bottles of Paul Masson California brut they had been toting for three days and 2,500 miles. Rollie Fingers, Oakland's top relief pitcher and, on the whole, most elegant mustache, looked in at pinch hitter Darrel Chaney, who stood at the plate with a count of 0 and 1 and a World Series batting average of .000-0 for 7. So Fingers hit Chaney on the left shinbone to put the tying run at first base in a 3-2 game. Inexplicably, the A's were allowing the Series to start up again after they seemed to have it finally stopped.
The largest crowd ever to attend a baseball game in Cincinnati, 56,040 souls, got up roaring to beg for a unique gift—i.e., for the Reds to become the first team ever to win a World Series after losing the first two games at home. As Fingers hit Chaney, Dick Williams was on his feet, too, and the manager of the A's hurried to the mound for the 55th time since the whole thing began eight days before. When Williams reached Fingers he found Catcher Dave Duncan standing alongside. It is not the world's best-kept secret that Duncan has spent more time in the doghouse this year than Ch. Chino's Adamant James, or that he was catching because Gene Tenace—that gorgeously improbable Ohioan who was a cinch to be the Series' most valuable player unless the A's now fainted dead away—had encountered horrendous difficulties when he tried to throw out Cincinnati's base stealers. The next hitter somebody or other had to pitch to, like it or not, was Pete Rose, and Williams' intention when he walked to the mound was to pull Fingers and bring on Vida Blue from the bullpen.
"But he's throwing good," Duncan said. "He's throwing the ball real good and I've got all the confidence in the world in him." Williams junked his own thinking—and Rose hit a long drive to left center. At first it looked like it might fall in, tie the game and extend the baseball season until half-past Halloween. But Joe Rudi chased the ball down to make the A's—decided underdogs at the start of the Series—the first team on either side of the immortal 1969 Oakland Oaks to claim a professional sports championship for the Bay Area.
Never has a Series winner had to fight as hard as the A's. Maybe never has anyone had to. Six of the seven games played were decided by one run, and records show that the closest thing to that happened in 1924 when the Washington Senators won their only title while playing four "one-runners" against the New York Giants. The A's won without their best player, Reggie Jackson. They won with only eight pitchers, and none of those pitched a complete game. They won because for most of the way their pitching muffled Pete Rose, Joe Morgan and Bobby Tolan—the first three hitters in the Cincinnati batting order—and because the A's decided that if anyone was going to beat them it was definitely not going to be Johnny Bench. During the regular season Rose, Morgan and Tolan got on base 43% of the time. In the Series that shrunk to 29% and Bench produced only one RBI.
Ah, well, anytime the Reds get into a Series National League rooters know enough to hand their betting money to their wives. Two years ago Cincinnati kept getting ahead of Baltimore only to end up getting behind. Eleven years ago the Yankees brushed the Reds aside four games to one, and in 1939 Cincinnati could not beat the Yanks even once. In fact the last Series the Reds won was in 1919, and taking into account that Black Sox thing and all it has been hinted that Cincinnati cannot win a Series without the help of Arnold Rothstein.
This year Cincinnati's losses in the first two games were by a total of two runs, but they were frustrating defeats for a heavily favored team to endure. However, the Reds had breezed to their division title by compiling the best road record in the majors (53-25); for them to lose at home (where they were 42-34) was certainly no oddity. So as they flew into Charles O. Finley land for Game Three early last week they were not quite as spiritless as a 2-0 deficit would indicate. During the flight Bench stood in the aisle and led the players, their wives and Cincinnati officials in a song dedicated to the club: "The whole town's batty/About Cincinnati/What a team/ What a team/What a team!"
Oakland welcomed its own team home in a fashion the players were totally unaccustomed to. Instead of just the baggage truck awaiting them at the airport, there were 10,000 fans, all gussied up in gold and green. "This is marvelous," said Captain Sal Bando. "I can't believe we're in Oakland." People criticize the city because the A's have drawn fewer than a million spectators in each of their five seasons there, but Finley maintains he made $1.3 million in 1971 and will do much better when the receipts are counted for this year.
The 1972 Series was scheduled so that the three games in the American League city would begin at twilight, the rationale being that more people could see the midweek games on television. That concept, of course, was first advanced by Finley. Baseball adopted it so it could fire a few rounds in the Nielsen rating wars. But as any fan knows, baseball is played most artistically in daylight; nobody except television executives truly believed that interest in a World Series would fall off badly if it did not serve up Bench and Tenace and all the rest in "prime time."
As any fan also knows, baseball is at its worst when played in twilight. Hitters have difficulty picking up the flight of the ball as it comes off the mound. A low, fading sun and intermittent islands of light and shadow in the background bewilder a batter. "The pitcher is in the light and the batter in the dark," as Cincinnati's Joe Morgan said. Five years ago the All-Star Game was begun in Anaheim, Calif. at twilight. It lasted 15 innings and produced 30 strikeouts.
Just before the scheduled start of Tuesday's third game, a huge cloud floated in above Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum and dumped enough hail and rain to force a postponement. On Wednesday the weather turned fine, but the grounds remained soggy. The starting pitchers were John (Blue Moon) Odom and Jack Billingham. Odom, 27, is a handsome man who has problems sleeping before a start, while Billingham, 29, is capable of sleeping in a scalding shower. "I think," says Odom, "that I pitch better without sleep. My wife Perrie stays up and talks with me some nights before I pitch. One night when I was thinking about throwing a fastball I pushed her out of bed."
Billingham is always being kidded about his ability to snooze. "Often I'll fall asleep on the ride from the hotel to the ball park," he says. "I rode a lot of buses in my seven years in the minors and learned how to fall asleep instead of watching things out of the windows. The guys think I sleep 15 hours a day and some of them call me Rip. Oh, I can sleep, all right, but some of the stories they tell about me are a little wild." Cincinnati Manager Sparky Anderson thought Billingham was sufficiently awake to be his Opening Day pitcher this season. Jack lost and by May 20 found himself with a 1-6 record, but he is a versatile worker who can start or relieve both long and short.
Once Odom and Billingham began throwing in the Oakland twilight the hitters behaved as if they were swinging at Nytol tablets. In the regular season the two pitching opponents had averaged roughly one strikeout every two innings; in their first Series match-up they combined for 17 strikeouts over the first six innings. Oakland gathered only three infield singles off Billingham, and the Reds built a couple of mild threats on walks, an error and two stolen bases.
In the seventh inning Tony Perez singled to left and was sacrificed to second. Cesar Geronimo singled to center and the ball died in the muddy outfield as Perez started for the plate. Third Base Coach Alex Grammas waved Tony in and looked away to see if Geronimo could advance to second. As Perez rounded third he skidded on the wet grass and fell, the leading character in a ballplayer's nightmare. There he was on his face, carrying what was just about certain to be the only run of the game. But the A's infield never got the ball to the plate and Perez scrambled in without drawing a throw. "I was going crazy," Perez said later. "I thought I would never get there."
Bench, who threw out just about every Oakland runner moving off first base throughout the Series, had a frightful night. He rolled out his first time up and then looked at two third strikes. In the sixth inning he picked up a bunt that would have been better left to Third Baseman Denis Menke and threw off line to first to put runners at first and second with no outs. As Bench then ran across the infield to argue with the first-base umpire—without time having been called—Joe Morgan threw wild to second. Morgan and Bench, superior defensive men, had both made errors on the same play, and Cincinnati was in desperate shape. But Billingham got three outs without giving up a run.
Bench came to bat in the eighth with a chance to produce at least one insurance run. Runners were at second and third with one out when Williams raced to the mound to talk to Fingers, in there relieving again. Well briefed, Tenace held his arm out at shoulder level to fake a call for a fourth ball, but then ducked back in behind Bench, and Fingers threw a strike right past the best home run and RBI man in all the major leagues.
Despite the apparent dullness of their game the Reds had finally begun to develop a plan they felt would produce: running on Tenace as well as the A's pitchers. "We are going to take it to them now," said Anderson. "We know that after the first two games Vida Blue said beating us seemed as easy as beating the Texas Rangers. We're going to run on them every chance we get. And we're going to get our chances."
With Game Four the Series became scintillating as well as desperate, providing moments of grand baseball. It was a superior match, won by the A's in the bottom of the ninth inning with three pinch hits. Before the game began, Mike Epstein, Oakland's big (and hitless) first baseman, analyzed the park.' 'Balls don't carry here," he said. "It's a very tough place for hitters, particularly at night. The air is heavy and it's cold. The infield grass is deep; you have to be strong to drive a ball through it. I really don't know how we led the league in home runs." Epstein pointed out toward left and added, "The ball will carry if you hit it down the line or out as far as those steps [about 90 feet in toward left center]."
Tenace soon proved Epstein's point. He lashed a ball to left in the fifth inning that seemed to jump at the last instant to clear the fence, It was Series Homer No. 3 for Tenace and that run stood up until the Cincinnati eighth, when an infield hit, a bunt and a walk brought Bobby Tolan to the plate against Vida Blue. The crowd was tense, its waving pennants stilled by apprehension. Tolan doubled. Suddenly the Reds were ahead 2-1 and just about certain to tie the Series at two games each.
Just about. Oakland's ninth started with nothing more than another fine defensive play by Denis Menke. One out. But Gonzalo Marquez, pinch-hit a single up the middle—he was pinch-hitting singles up the middle all week—and Allan Lewis, "The Panamanian Express," went in to run for him. Tenace followed with a single. Don Mincher then drove a pinch single to center, bringing home Lewis, with Tenace moving to third as Tolan fell on the wet going in the outfield. And so Angel Mangual came to the plate and poked a grounder into right field to drive in the winning run. A's 3, Reds 2.
"We had it won," said a dejected Pete Rose. "It was ours and it got away. Our backs have been to the wall so much my shoulders hurt. We are in real tough territory now."
Early the next afternoon Rose stood by the batting cage and said, "Within a week I've learned everything about baseball that you have to know. One week ago I was the happiest I had ever been when Johnny Bench hit that home run and we beat Pittsburgh to win the National League pennant. I never felt so rotten, so low as I did after losing the game last night. Wait a minute. What the hell, the Yankees were down to Milwaukee three games to one in 1958 and won, didn't they?"
After the Reds completed batting practice, they walked into the clubhouse and started throwing things around. They threw garbage pails, ashtrays, cans, clothes, sand, mud, gloves. But they still had to hit Catfish Hunter, now ready for Game Live after winning Game Two, and Hunter doesn't throw anything as large as a garbage pail.
Still, Rose hit Hunter's first pitch of the game over the fence in right field. Of such things are leaders made. But in the second the implausible Tenace got Homer No. 4. He lifted it to the carry-out area in left with two on to give the A's all the runs they should have needed with Hunter pitching—not to mention a niche in history for Tenace beside immortals with names like Ruth and Gehrig. No one has ever hit more than four Series home runs. Menke found virtually the same spot in the fourth inning for Cincinnati and somehow, after failing to produce a single homer in 127 times at bat, Cincinnati now had two in four innings. Hunter was struggling. He made a terrible mistake by walking Joe Morgan in the fifth. Although the Reds were behind 4-2, Morgan lit off for second on the next pitch and Tolan's single brought him all the way home with the third Red run.
Morgan was walked again to start the eighth inning. He stole second and scored on a hit by Tolan to tie the game. It was in the ninth that Rose singled in what was to be the winning run. Up came the A's, trailing 5-4 and not at all eager to go back to Cincinnati. Tenace walked, and Odom, a speedball, went in to run for him. After a bunt failed, Dave Duncan singled to left and the A's had the tying run at third base. Bert Campaneris lifted a foul fly ball behind first and Morgan raced over to catch it, pivoting for an angle to throw home should Odom be foolish enough to tag up and go. Odom was. Bench extended his left leg to block the plate as Odom slid hard. Not hard enough. End of game. Hello again, Cincinnati.
Why was a travel day used to go West but not when the teams were coming East? Silly question. Television, of course, is the answer to that one. And so baseball was put in a position of delivering tired players to a crucial game in the sport's premier event. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn shed no visible tear. Is there any doubt who pulleth Bowie's strings?
And forthwith the world's swiftest sleepwalkers began rattling around Riverfront Stadium like a relay team, as Gary Nolan hooked up with Vida Blue in Game Six. The giant scoreboard in center flashed the words as the fans sang, 'The whole town's batty about Cincinnati...."
Bench, the man who had sung it best, got a homer and his only RBI simultaneously in the fourth inning to put the Reds ahead 1-0. Hal McRae, in the lineup because he hits fastballs well—the kind Blue serves—cracked a tremendous double high off the center-field wall in the fifth inning and eventually scored on a sacrifice fly by Dave Concepcion. And then the Reds hit and ran and stole and in general drove the A's crazy, eventually winning 8-1.
As in previous games there was some contentiousness on both sides. The A's did not like the way the Reds were taking liberties with their pitchers and catchers. Sal Bando slapped a hard tag on Tolan at one point, and Bobby heard familiar noises coming from the Oakland bench. When Williams was asked if a great deal of bench-jockeying had been going on, he answered, "Not really. It has been a pretty peaceful Series—up until tomorrow."
Once again the sleeping man, Billingham, woke up to face Odom, the one who does not sleep, in Sunday's decider. Both pitched well but Oakland got a strange run in the first inning when Tolan misplayed a line drive into a three-base error, and Tenace—playing first now—bounced to third only to have the ball leap off the edge of the artificial infield for a run-scoring single. Tenace also drove home Oakland's second run in the sixth inning, tying the score 2-2, and was removed for pinch runner Lewis. "I couldn't believe I was coming out," said Tenace later. Neither could most of the rest of the nation. Bye-bye any chance for Homer No. 5.
But by now home runs were of less importance than getting somebody home with the particular run. Lewis scored it on a double beyond Tolan by Sal Bando, and not even one final Red rally could bring Cincinnati even.
"If you go out in the street tomorrow and ask the fans which is the best baseball team," said a subdued Sparky Anderson, "they will tell you Oakland. The way they played against us and we played against them, I would agree. We didn't hit and they pitched as well as a team could. Although we pitched a little bit better than I thought we might."
Except, of course, to that man Gene Tenace.