The dignity of the National Pastime seems unlikely to be enhanced by the 1973 World Series, an event that, in its opening phases at least, displayed more elements of low comedy than high drama. That the participants should be the New York Mets and the Oakland A's seemed appropriate under the circumstances for, despite their recent successes, both have long and honorable histories of buffoonery. The Mets set the tone from the very beginning by entering the Series with the worst won-loss record (82-79) of any team in history. The A's, on the other hand, are proper champions, but because of the eccentricities of their owner and their own occasionally bizarre behavior, they have had difficulty persuading the public that they should be taken seriously. Even after they whipped Cincinnati last year, not everyone was convinced they were the better team.
"I don't believe people think of us as legitimate world champions," said Team Captain Sal Bando, a fine player and fine gentleman. "We are out to prove that we are."
The Mets had even more to prove. If the A's are regarded with some disbelief, the Mets are positively incredible. They were not taken seriously as contenders for the National League championship until the last several weeks of the season, and they did not actually win their title until a day after the season officially ended. They entered the Series for the second time in five years as Cinderellas.
The A's, for their part, were not entirely comfortable in the role of favorites. They are constitutionally happier as underdogs and the puff pieces about the "poor little Mets" rankled them. The image the visitors brought to Oakland was the one the A's themselves had worn so proudly a year ago in Cincinnati. The japes directed at them then for their popinjay uniforms, their coiffures, their intramural squabbles, their mulish owner and their strategy-obsessed manager merely perpetuated a well-cultivated, if accidentally conceived, reputation. The A's are climbers, not establishmentarians.
"Last year it was kind of a bonus just being in the Series," said Reggie Jackson, the team's star slugger and unofficial spokesman. "It was easier for us to win because nobody expected us to. Anything we did was worth a pat on the back. This year we're the world champions. The pressure is on us. Now we're playing against the giant-killer."
In the opening game, which the A's somehow won 2-1, neither team slew any behemoths. Both Oakland runs were unearned, the consequence of an astonishing error by the ordinarily impeccable Met second baseman, Felix Millan, who made only nine errors during the entire regular season. Worse yet, the first run was scored by a pitcher, a species that in the American League this year has come to regard bats as something found in belfries. Nevertheless, Ken Holtzman, an Oakland pitcher who appeared at the plate exactly once during the regular season (he walked), doubled smartly to left field with two out in the third inning off Met starter Jon Matlack, striking a blow, as it were, for the liberation of hitting pitchers.
"The count was 3 and 2," recalled slugger Holtzman, "and I figured he doesn't want to walk me, so I knew I could expect a fastball in the strike zone. I just met the ball."
He met it well. Further, he even remembered in which direction batters must run and where the various bases could be located. To Matlack's considerable embarrassment, Holtzman was perched on second when Bert Campaneris, the A's swift shortstop, hit a roller at Millan, who, bewildered perhaps by the spectacle of an American League pitcher in his infield, allowed the ball to proceed unimpeded between his legs. Holtzman scored easily.
Then, by way of compensation, Matlack very nearly picked Campaneris off first. Unfortunately, Matlack's throw to John Milner was high and wide, and Campaneris sped safely into second. He scored from there moments later when Joe Rudi singled cleanly to right field. And that was the ball game offensively for Oakland. The A's did not get another hit until their last at bats in the eighth inning when Campaneris beat out a bunt by giving Milner the hip and sliding under his tag like a fly beneath a swatter.
The Mets' run in the fourth was too little and too late, but at least it was untarnished, coming on a long double by Cleon Jones and a single to center by Milner. Its almost Grecian purity was rare in a game that smacked of opéra bouffe. In addition to the Millan and Matlack misadventures, Willie Mays, closing out his luminous career, hobbled a ball in center field for an error; the A's Rudi misjudged a fly ball in left field and fell on his face in the bargain; the A's catcher, Ray Fosse, let a third strike escape him, allowing batter Don Hahn to reach first base; and the A's infielders and outfielders, eschewing the cry of "I got it," spent much of the afternoon dodging each other in pursuit of pop-ups.
Indeed, it was a poorly played game and, for a World Series, poorly attended, since only 46,021 fans showed up in the 50,000-seat stadium. But then the A's, for all of their skill, have never been box-office attractions in the East Bay. The crowd may not have been Metsian in numbers, but it was at least properly respectful of its elders. Mays, who played across the bay in San Francisco for 14 years, received the longest ovation of any player on either side when he was announced as the Met starting centerfielder, a replacement in the outfield for the injured Rusty Staub. After the game the A's manager, Dick Williams, who regards the press with all of the warm affection of, say, Richard Nixon, was asked to comment on the unpacked house. "I do not," said he tartly, "sell tickets."
Actually, he does, for his team invariably gives a good show, even, as in this opening game, when it is playing beneath its abilities. A pitcher who never bats getting a hit and scoring a run is good theater. The strain of running the bases did, however, take its toll on Holtzman, for he weakened appreciably and was removed by Williams for a pinch hitter in the fifth. Holtzman confessed afterward that the base-path trek did leave him a bit winded, but in defense of his stamina it should be noted that he had pitched 11 torrid innings four days earlier in the playoff with Baltimore. Besides, Williams can afford the luxury of removing a fatigued starter since he usually loses little by going to his bullpen. Holtzman handed the torch on to Rollie Fingers, who in turn passed it to Darold Knowles, and victory was preserved.
Pitching is also the Mets' long suit. "I think all seven games will be tough," said Williams, prophesying longevity at least. "We have great respect for all their pitchers." And to underscore this observation, he addressed them as "Mr. Seaver," "Mr. McGraw," "Mr. Stone" and so on.
It was difficult to isolate a hero of any sort in the monstrous second game, won finally by the Mets 10-7 after 12 innings and four hours and 13 minutes. It was the longest and quite likely the sloppiest game in World Series history. The A's alone made five errors, two of them by substitute Second Baseman Mike Andrews in what was to prove a fatal 12th inning. The game was won or lost perhaps half a dozen times by both teams on errors and misjudged fly balls. In fairness to the harried outfielders, however, the midday sun in the Oakland Coliseum makes blind men of everyone playing to the left of second base. Mays, who can still catch the ball at 42, himself miscalculated on two drives to center field during his tenure there from the ninth through the 12th innings.
Mays did prove that he can still hit a bit when he singled home Bud Harrelson with what at least seemed to be the winning run in the 12th. Then Andrews let in three more with his consecutive errors, and the Mets appeared to be home free with a 10-6 lead. But the A's rallied gamely in their half of the inning when Mays lost Reggie Jackson's deep fly in center and Jesus Alou singled him home from third base. This brought in George Stone in relief of the valorous Tug McGraw, who had gone six innings—as long as he had pitched in a game all year. Stone's appearance tied still another Series record: Most Pitchers Used By Two Teams—11. Campaneris finally ended the seemingly interminable affair when he bounced out with the bases loaded.
This game assumed comedic proportions shortly after Bob Hope—who else?—tossed out the first ball. In the very first inning, after Campaneris had grounded out, Joe Rudi lofted a high fly into the no-man's-land of left field. Cleon Jones backed up against the fence as if to make a dramatic leap and rob Rudi of an extra-base hit, perhaps a homer. He was thus braced when the ball landed about two feet to his left on the warning track. It very nearly skulled him, and it set the tone for the entire contest.
The A's, on the strength of some sturdy extra-base hitting—two triples and two doubles in the first two innings—were leading 3-2 entering a bizarre sixth inning that did little to advance the reputation of their relief staff.
Horacio Pina, the immediate successor to starter Vida Blue, hit Jerry Grote with his first pitch to load the bases. A tantalizing roller by Don Hahn between Pina and Bando brought Cleon Jones home with the tying run, and Harrelson's single to right scored John Milner with the go-ahead run. Darold Knowles was quickly inserted in Pina's stead. Pinch-hitter Jim Beauchamp promptly hit the ball back to him. Knowles, sensing an inning-ending double play, fielded it cleanly on the mound. Then, while rather mysteriously beginning to fall down, he threw what may well have been a low inside slider to Catcher Ray Fosse. The ball bounced to the backstop and two more runs scored.
Six runs seemed reasonably safe for the Mets entering the ninth inning with McGraw pitching and the A's trailing by two. Ah, but this was a different kind of game. Deron Johnson, pinch-hitting for Reliever John (Blue Moon) Odom, hit a fly to center that Mays first lost track of, then fell down while chasing. Allan Lewis, a Finley pet who does nothing for the A's but pinch-run, entered the game in that capacity for Johnson. Bando drew a walk. Jackson, who had four straight hits after a strikeout and a ground out in the first two innings, singled Lewis home and Gene Tenace singled Bando in to put the game into extra innings.
The Mets might have won in the 10th had it not been for a questionable call at home plate by Umpire Augie Donatelli. With Harrelson on third base, Felix Millan hit a fly ball to left field that Joe Rudi not only saw but caught. Rudi's throw to home plate was well ahead of Harrelson, who had tagged up on the catch. But Donatelli, like most everyone else on this strange day, apparently had difficulty keeping his feet. He was spread-eagled just back of Fosse when Harrelson sped past them both. Fosse lunged at Bud with the ball, and Donatelli signaled that he had made the tag to end the inning. Willie Mays, who was crouched near Donatelli and actually had a much better view of the play, disagreed. So did most of a national TV audience, who saw the play rerun at least three times. It could have been a costly and endlessly controversial decision, but the odd happenings later made such discussion academic.
For all of the wackiness on the field, the games in Oakland were played in curiously drab surroundings. At its flashiest the Coliseum is not an architectural beauty, and for the Series Finley neglected to decorate it with the flags and bunting that are traditional to such events. This seemed especially unusual, since the A's owner is a great believer in lily-gilding. The only diversions he provided his spectators on these days—besides anthem singers Jim Nabors and Tennessee Ernie Ford—were Charlie O., the mule, and Cricket, the world's smallest registered horse.
When asked about the bunting, the A's public-relations man, Robert (Steamboat) Fulton, explained that it had all been stolen during the playoffs.