In the mysterious National League East, where avoiding the pit is synonymous with scaling the heights and where winning half the time represents the pinnacle of human achievement, the victor examines his spoils tentatively. "Well, that certainly looks like first place, doesn't it? I wonder if it will bite."
This wariness of success would seem to explain the bemused expression on Manager Yogi Berra's granitic countenance when his New York Mets reached both first place in the NL East and a .500 winning percentage on one enchanted evening last week in Shea Stadium. He looked for all the world like a man awakening in a strange boudoir.
It was no time, obviously, to preen for those skeptics who had his team dead and him buried by midseason, nor could he afford the luxury of hobnobbing with new fair-weather friends. Berra simply was not all that sure where he was or how, for that matter, he got there.
"It's been a long, hard struggle," he conceded uncertainly, "but we won't know until it's all over."
We certainly will not, for Berra's team is in a race that falls not so much to the swiftest as to the one who keeps his feet. First place is not all that precious in the NL East; it is worth no more than about fourth place in the NL West. But those competing for it have had an inordinately hard time getting to it and even more trouble hanging on to it.
Melodramatically, this would have been a perfectly rewarding season if, for example, the Cardinals, abject losers at the start, gallant comeback kids in the middle, had been able to stay on top once they finally got there. But vertigo set in and they tottered over the side. It might even have been acceptable if the Pirates, monotonously consistent winners though they have been, had overcome their dreadful pitching handicap and stayed upstairs. But they, too, tumbled down. And it will be fine if the Mets, recalling for incurably nostalgic New Yorkers the good old days of 1969, can hold the high ground. But they may also prove acrophobic.
The Mets do have one attribute the others seem to lack: they believe in miracles. And well they should, for they had their share of them last week in winning four straight games from the Pirates and supplanting them as the ephemeral league leaders.
On Thursday night, in a game that may have surpassed any played this season for prolonged suspense, the Pirates appeared to be a winner in the 13th inning when, with two out and their Richie Zisk on first base, Dave Augustine hit a drive deep toward the left-field bullpen.
Zisk, running with the pitch, looked certain to score as the ball struck the edge of a wooden plank that serves as the very top of the eight-foot fence. It hit so high, in fact, that there seemed every possibility it would bounce over and out and give the Pirates a 5-3 lead and almost surely the game.
But the ball not only stayed in the park, it caromed off the top of the fence and plopped, as if tossed there by unseen hands, into the glove of an astonished Cleon Jones. Barely pausing to see if it was indeed a ball he had there or perhaps a beer cup pitched from the upper deck, Jones wheeled and threw to cutoff man Wayne Garrett. Third base is Garrett's position, but he had moved to shortstop in the late innings as a replacement for Bud Harrelson. By his own postgame admission, cutoff throws are as foreign to him this year as, say, placekicks, but the one he delivered this night was true and on the bounce to Catcher Ron Hodges, and Zisk was clearly out.
It was an extraordinary play. Balls do not normally bounce off Shea Stadium fences directly into the hands of outfielders, and third basemen playing shortstop do not ordinarily make cutoff throws of such exquisite precision. But this was not an ordinary game, and in the Mets' half of the inning, Hodges, himself a late-inning substitute for regular Catcher Jerry Grote, singled home the winning run. This was something of a coincidence, since the tying run had been driven in by yet another substitute catcher, Duffy Dyer, with a pinch-hit double—with two out in the ninth inning.
The first-stringer, Grote, had his innings the following evening in the 10-2 win that rousted the Pirates and hoisted the Mets up to first. Grote went 3 for 3, including a double that struck the third-base bag and bounced crazily into foul territory and a ground ball single that hit something odd on the field and hopped over the glove of Pirate Shortstop Dal Maxvill.
Miracles? Perhaps, but only the Mets' due, according to Garrett, whose red hair, freckles and amused blue eyes suggest a familiarity with leprechauns.
"When we were 12 games back [in July], I tell you, nothing went right," said he after Friday night's legerdemain. "We had one injury after another and were playing with half a team. We had no depth. You can't make the right moves without depth. The balls that are bouncing for us now were bouncing the other way then. Now we've got everybody back and things are going our way. When you're playing good the umpires give you the calls and things happen, like tonight with Grote."
Garrett made some things happen the next day by stroking a two-run homer that was decisive in Jon Matlack's 2-0 shutout over the Cardinals. This combination of timely hitting, good pitching and the occult is what the Mets are banking on to see them through the last critical games of the season.
"We won't bomb you," said the oft-injured shortstop, Harrelson, with laudable candor. "We have to get the key hits. Now we're winning the gift games, games in which the other guy makes a mistake and we do something about it. We have had both good times and bad this season, but that's all part of the game. A true professional realizes that he'll go good for a while, then bad. But when things go bad, the important thing is to stay sane and hang in there. That's professionalism."
Berra, the once-beleaguered manager, would subscribe to this homely philosophy. When his team was floundering pitifully in last place it was rumored that he would be quickly cashiered, perhaps before the end of the season. His tactics, it was said, were unimaginative, his leadership uninspired. Besides, he seemed incapable of achieving a détente with the team's resident immortal, the increasingly crotchety Willie Mays. Apparently Berra, who had no previous reputation for scholarship, learned much in the past two months, for now his tactics seem positively Clausewitzian, his players are performing as if possessed and Mays has tastefully, if ambivalently, retired (he has said he would like to play in the last game of the season and in the World Series). But Berra is not the sort to savor vindication out loud.
"I don't care about criticism," he said in Friday's moment of tentative triumph. "I just do the best I can. You know what they say: every manager is hired to be fired. Oh, I could feel bad if we had been losing with a full ball club. Then I'd have said there's something wrong here and maybe it's me. But we had a lot of injuries then."
He cut himself a slice of pepperoni and devoured it in concert with a hunk of Swiss cheese. Then he leaned back in his chair, adjusted the incongruous spectacles on his melancholy rock-formation face and recalled an inspired psychological ploy.
"It wasn't a team meeting or anything like that, but I did bring a newspaper story around to the players that said we'd given up. 'Look,' I told the guys, 'you stink. It says so right here in the paper. It says you guys don't wanna play no more.' I don't think anybody wants to hear that. That was about August 17. We've been 24 and 12 since then. I'm not saying that helped turn things around, but nobody wants to hear that he don't wanna play no more."
There is no longer any doubt that the Mets wanna play. "Every day when I wake up in the morning," says young Hodges, "I think about how I can't wait to get to the ball park." But if they are to win the division championship, they will do it with pitching. And here, with starters Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, George Stone and Matlack, they have a clear advantage over their four rivals.
"The season is so cotton-picking long," said Seaver, issuing a fraternity-beer-bust guffaw, "that anything can happen if the pitching stays strong. The number of runs you get should have no effect on your pitching. The pitcher's philosophy is to do the best he can every time out. This is a good division with a lot of good clubs that have played poorly all year long. Now it's getting exciting. I'm just glad I'm in my seventh year, not my first, so I can keep my feet on the ground." He laughed again, a good old USC undergraduate laugh.
On Friday Seaver pitched before the biggest crowd of the Mets' season, 51,381 paid, and the "We're No. 1" chants, the paper airplane tossing, the dancing on the dugout roof, the relentless din were all reminiscent of the Mets' first miracle four years ago when, as Seaver put it, "It was like this every day." The fans, at least, were rounding into pennant-winning form.
But the Met fans were not alone. There was the same frenzy in, of all places, Montreal, before the Expos staggered last week into what may finally prove to be a fatal seven-game losing streak. Like the Mets ahead of them, the Expos did not so much surge forward as hold their place in the race as the front-runners fell back. Then when they were within a game of the lead, they fell prey to the successes that is epidemic in the NL East. Unlike the Cubs, the Cardinals and the Pirates, they did not even wait until they got on top before starting their descent. Fortunately, their losing streak before the weekend coincided nicely with the rout of the Pirates, so theirs was more of a missed opportunity than a bona fide disaster. Anyway, losing is no disgrace in this division.
Montreal's devoted fans have been more than generous with losing baseball teams. The Expos have never drawn fewer than a million fans in their five years in Canada, despite two last-place, two fifth-place and who-knows-what-place-this-year finishes. And they play in the major league's smallest stadium, 28,000-seat Jarry Park.
"It's a good feeling hearing the fans cheer their heads off," says Ron Fairly, the Expo leftfielder who, at 35 and with 16 years of major league experience, might be expected to rise above rah-rah. "Anyone who has ever been in front of a large audience will certainly have a reaction. When you come to Jarry Park, there's not much to look at. Other cities have these huge multipurpose stadiums. Here there is no double deck, the seats are aluminum and there is no protection from the weather. But it's a fun little park and it's filled with the best fans in baseball."
The fans were credited with actually winning one game last week for the home team when a pop fly with two out in the last of the ninth fell untouched by the Cardinal infielders. "Nobody called for it," said Fairly, "or if they called, nobody could hear above the crowd noise."
If the Expos had been merely received with Gallic courtesy in the past, this year they have been embraced with Gallic passion. There was honest mourning throughout the city, particularly in taverns such as Toe Blake's and the Rymark, when the team faltered last week. Hockey may be a religion in French Canada, but baseball there has a long and honored tradition. Montreal had a franchise in the International League before the turn of the century, and in the post-war 1940s some of the finest minor league baseball teams in history played there. Jackie Robinson made his debut in organized baseball with the Montreal Royals, then a Brooklyn Dodger Triple A farm team, on April 18, 1946. He hit a home run and three singles in five at bats.
Many of the Dodger stars of the late '40s and early '50s—Duke Snider, Carl Erskine, Don Newcombe and Roy Campanula—played for the Royals. Sparky Anderson also played in Montreal and Walter Alston managed there. "This has always been a great baseball town," says Phil Seguin, a sportswriter for the French-language Montreal-Matin who has covered the game there for 35 years. "It still is."
True enough, but will it not be too chilly to play night games there in mid-October should the Expos muddle through to the World Series? Not at all, says Expos Manager Gene Mauch. "Sometimes you get an Indian summer here that time of year. The weather could be a lot better than it might be in places like Detroit and Minnesota." The weather question seemed somehow academic, however, after the Expos' stumble. And yet anything is possible in a division that may send a team with a losing record into the National League playoffs and—who knows?—the World Series itself.
The intrepid managers of the NL East are not even remotely agitated by the prospect of leading a loser into combat with the American League champion. Getting there is the thing.
"I would not be embarrassed," said Mauch, speaking for his fellows, "even if I had to take the field with no clothes on."
Now that is putting admirable faith not only in his players but, most especially, in those Indian summers.