The day had been long, hot and perilous for Danny Murtaugh (see cover), manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates. His team had taken an early 3-0 lead over the St. Louis Cardinals and stretched it to 7-1 by the middle of the seventh inning. But then the Cardinals started collecting base hits. Murtaugh called for his long man, he called for his short man and seemed ready to call for his fiddlers three. St. Louis fought back until the score was 7-4 with the bases loaded and two out in the bottom of the ninth. A home run, of course, would beat the Pirates and any kind of extra-base hit would tie them. Murtaugh summoned Ramon Hernandez from the bullpen, and Hernandez obligingly brought the final out with him.
The game should have been easy, a laugher, one to tie a nice red bow on early and forget about. But like most games played in the National League East this month, it was a gut-grinder. As Murtaugh sat back in a rocking chair afterward, beads of perspiration streaked his chest and the strain could be seen in his hound-dog eyes.
"Do they have to go down to the last out all the time?" he asked. Seemingly so. "This is tough," he said. Indeed. "The race will probably go to the last three days of the season," he added. Or maybe beyond.
Over the years the National League has given baseball some memorable Septembers, in which groups of teams have fought over every inch of ground. Fast-balls get thrown at men's heads, spikes are aimed chest high and umpires are vilified on nearly every pitch. But now the National has outdone itself. In the East Division the Pirates have a chance to win the championship and so do the Cardinals. Which is logical. The Mets have a right to think they can win. That's amazin'. But the Expos think the same way. That's wondrous—and un-American. Even the Cubs still have hopes. "There are two things of importance in the United States still undecided," says Steve Blass, the Pirates' World Series pitching hero of 1971. "The race in the National League East and the Pillsbury Bake-off."
September 23, 1973
It has been said of a future society that "everyone will be a hero for 15 minutes." Well, that's the National League East already. One day it is Willie Stargell's turn and the next it is Lou Brock's. Ken Singleton has a good outing and then along comes John Milner. And if any team goes on a winning streak, drums pound and the other clubs haul out the Gatling guns and mow them down.
Although any team that tops .500 is arrested for speeding, the fans by no means have lost interest. In Montreal you can't get a snail fork between the customers in tiny Jarry Park, a place of 28,456 seats that more or less accommodated 34,331 souls last Saturday as the Expos defeated the Phillies in a frenetic extra-inning game that saw, among other drama, two Phillie runners thrown out at the plate in the ninth. "The Expos," said Manager Gene Mauch, "are just a bunch of kids having fun out there."
Some fun. Because its eventual champion is going to wind up with an embarrassingly low winning percentage, the East Division is being called "National League Least" or "The Subtraction Division." As Sunday's dust settled the Pirates were leading the Expos by all of a half game with a percentage of .507. Since 1900 the lowest winning percentage for a pennant winner has been the .549 of the 1970 Pirates. In the American League the 1967 Red Sox slipped in with a .568. As recently as 1962 the Pirates were 25 games above .500—and that year they finished fourth.
Well, what about the Pirates? Can one man put them over? Is that man Danny Murtaugh? Two weeks ago Murtaugh came back to manage the team, having retired after the 1971 season. Joe Brown, the Pittsburgh general manager, had just fired Bill Virdon for reasons yet to be fully explained. At the time the Pirates had lost three games in a row to the Cardinals, who were then in first place and looking golden. The Cardinal series had generated an inordinate number of disputes on the field, but they were marvelous games and most people were shocked at Virdon's firing. Just a year ago as a rookie manager he had led the Pirates to the best winning percentage in the big leagues before losing the playoffs to Cincinnati on a wild pitch in the ninth inning of the fifth and final game.
Virdon had been Murtaugh's own selection to succeed him, and Murtaugh has returned for what is his fourth stint as the team's manager only out of loyalty to the Pittsburgh organization, which he first joined 26 years ago.
Since the Pirates won their 1971 championship, Murtaugh has been the team superscout. He admits candidly, "Over the past two years I haven't seen more than 10 or 12 National League games." What he hasn't seen obviously hasn't hurt him. Of his first 10 games since returning as manager, his team has won seven.
Last Friday in St. Louis, Virdon sat with Murtaugh behind a closed door and the two men talked. Afterward, because he had had no chance since his dismissal to talk to the Pirate players, Virdon addressed them. "I thanked them for the wonderful years they gave me," he reported. "I told them I hoped that they would win the division, the pennant and the World Series. I couldn't leave them without that. That clubhouse is filled with some mighty fine men." Of his firing, Virdon said, "It's just one of those things, like so many others, that you learn to live with." That night Virdon sat in a box next to the Pirates' dugout and watched the team beat St. Louis 3-1 in yet another game filled with arguments, rugged body contact and fearfully close plays.
So Murtaugh was back in charge—but of a team that had neither the overpowering hitting nor dependable pitching of his last Series club. The only Pirate belting the ball consistently was Willie Stargell, who has not gone hitless in more than two consecutive games all season, has a .301 average and has been batting .360 this month.
The case of Steve Blass suggested the level of the pitching problems. Blass won 19 games for the 1972 Pirates. When he was returned to the starting rotation by Murtaugh last week after an inexplicably disastrous 1973, he was 3-7 with an ERA over 10.00. "I had a good spring," said Blass, "and then everything went wrong. My body was all out of whack. There was no physical hurt. The last three months have been an emotional horror. But I had a feeling that when Danny came back he might take a shot with me." Murtaugh did and Blass pitched well, giving up only two runs in five innings, and if in the next two weeks he could....
And if he did, he would break every Gallic heart in Montreal, not to mention those of the Anglos. For up there in second place, up beyond the Cardinals, up there with their funny caps and all (no, they do not come with spinners) were the astonishing Expos. With autumn's icy breath whistling in, wags could assert that visiting teams would need goalies, not pitchers, if the Expos made it into the playoffs and Series, but for the moment at least a couple of Montreal pitchers were frostproof. Mike Marshall was a marvel of a reliever, and Steve Rogers, just 23, had started 13 games for the Expos and posted an earned run average of a nice round one. Kid pitchers do not do that in the major leagues, not even in John R. Tunis novels. "He's like Will Rogers," says Coach Dave Bristol. "He never saw a ground ball he didn't like." Rogers does not strike out many, but he does not grant many walks. He has given up only three homers in more than 100 innings. He throws the ball low and confusingly.
"My father used to catch me back home in Jefferson City, Mo.," he says. "The ball kept sinking. It would bounce in front of him. So he bought a pair of shin guards. It bounced a little higher, so he bought a chest protector. When it got to the point where he had to have a mask, he stopped catching me."
Overall, Rogers is 9-3, but against teams in the East he is 7-0. "Forget that he's a rookie," says Manager Mauch. "Just tell me who else of any age had an ERA of one in the National League after 13 starts?" And no need to tell the Mets about Ken Singleton, the strong young outfielder that New York traded north. He is batting over .300 and will finish the season with more than 100 runs both scored and batted in. He already has 105 walks.
Dizzying feats, these, but for a case of vertigo unmatched since Hitchcock put Jimmy Stewart out on a ledge one must look to St. Louis. Remember, the Cardinals are the folks who lost 20 of their first 25 games. And won 19 of their next 25. And have won exactly five games in September. And Bob Gibson is hurt. The Cardinals' loss to Pittsburgh Saturday was their seventh in a row. Their record against left-handed pitchers is 21-32, and Pirate rookie Dave Parker wore them out by hitting .571 against them. (On Saturday Parker doubled in the three-run Pirate first inning and hit a home run with two on in the seventh. Said Cardinal Manager Red Schoendienst: "The pitcher threw him a forkball that didn't fork." Parker ate it up.)
Yes, and Matty Alou took the full 72 hours allotted him before reporting after his purchase from the Yankees. He might have helped St. Louis in two close games in Chicago if he had arrived promptly. In a span of eight days the Cards went from three games on top to two behind. There were bright spots—Lou Brock had hit safely in 29 of his last 32 games and the club had gone over the 1.4-million attendance mark for the eighth time but the troubles accumulated; while losing their seven in a row the Cardinals scored only 14 runs, three times filling the bases with nobody out and failing to score. Yet after losing Friday and Saturday to Pittsburgh the Cards turned around and defeated the Pirates on Sunday, the go-ahead run a 440-foot pinch home run by ex-Astro Tommie Agee. In this strange and wonderful season only a fool would count the Cardinals out.
Or the Mets, those believers in—and needers of—miracles. The oracle of the East, sort of, is Manager Yogi Berra. In the spring Berra said 85 victories might be enough to win in the East. People laughed. In August, at a time when his crippled team was playing poorly, he predicted that the Mets would be in the pennant race. Folks guffawed. But last week everybody was paying strict and sober attention as Berra reached into his pitching bag and brought out victory after victory. Such was the performance of Tom Seaver, Jon Matlack, Jerry Koosman, Tug McGraw et al. that Met fans became incorrigible brooders over their team's inability to score runs, repeating at the drop of a bunt that, "You can't win when the other teams keep shutting you out."
It wasn't quite that bad. The Mets have been shut out 15 times this season, but the Pirates have gone scoreless 12. O.K., so they beat the Cubs by only 4-3 Sunday. So they had to do it with a bunt single. You're not a New Yorker if you don't gripe. And the fact is Reliever McGraw had saved another Met victory in the first game of Saturday's doubleheader—his sixth save in 11 days—and Rusty Staub, for whom the Mets had traded much precious cargo to Montreal, including Singleton, was hitting again after a bad slump.
If Chicago's chances as the week ended seemed minute, it was perhaps only the mood of the hour. The Cubs had lost three of four to the Pirates and two of three to the Mets.
But to those who view the Cubs, pennantless since 1945, as a team laboring under an evil spell, the situation was indeed grim. The Cubs are old. They are tired. In June they led the East by eight games. People said nice things about them. They have experience. Pretty solid infield. Power, which helps when you play in a shooting gallery like Wrigley Field. Didn't Durocher have them all messed up? Wouldn't it be great if the Cubs could win a pennant?
But it will never happen, according to those who see yellow eyes and cloven hooves in Pirate black and gold, as long as the Cubs have to play Pittsburgh. At the sight of Pirates, the Cubs twitch all over. In 1972 Pittsburgh played the Cubs 15 times and won 12. This season the two have met 18 times and Pittsburgh has won 12. If the Cubs had taken the Pirate series last week, Phil Wrigley could have started making serious plans for the playoffs. But it wasn't the Pirates who gummed up.
Of all the contenders, Pittsburgh seems to have the hottest fires burning within. Take Friday's game in St. Louis. In the first inning, with the score already 3-0 in the Pirates' favor, Third Baseman Richie Hebner came sliding home beneath the Cardinals' doughty catcher, Ted Simmons, who did a forward one-and-a-half in the pike position in an effort to tag Richie, and in so doing kicked him in the head. Displeased by this and Umpire Satch Davidson's out call, Hebner directed a stream of warm brown tobacco juice at the ump and made a dark brown remark or two to indicate his deep dissatisfaction. All the while he was being held back by Willie Stargell like a bronco straining against a lariat. In the daffy National League East race few things can be said with certainty, but this is surely so: the Pirates want the pennant.
If they come close, students of suspense should be aware that, because of an earlier rainout, Pittsburgh might have to play San Diego of the West Division the day after the season ends. In this league, it would figure.