In most seasons it is not until the period around the Fourth of July, the divide between the earnestness of spring and the finality of fall, that baseball weaves itself into our tapestry of life. Up to then the days seem long and damp, and if the game is not far away it is not immediate, urgently calling out for attention. One can leave it—glance casually at the box scores, go occasionally to a ball yard to keep in physical touch. Then at the time of the Fourth, people light a match to their interest, begin to discern, to plunge into the seeming infinity of the hunt. So for the tracker of baseball from a distance, it was time to take another sip of a cooling drink, warn the kids not to go too far into the water, and look around and decide, ah, yes—the American East.
For the people who still go to ball parks, the place to be last week, if you could make it, was either Baltimore or Boston, where two old waterfront rowdies brawled for high ground in a division that belongs to nobody. The matchup was there, all right: here was Boston, long the edgy, dark neurotic of baseball, clinging by whitening fingers to first place while many waited patiently for its falling scream; here was Baltimore, the most dependable club of the last decade, its once solid facade now suddenly cracking into red-raw pieces from internal unrest and dwindling attendance figures, yet a team which, if allowed to stay on the pace, will kill you in September.
A five-game series is a montage, with elements as essential as the players: the towns, the fans, the ball parks. And when it is over the parts melt into the whole; nothing is too small not to belong. That, of course, is the trouble, for when you try to explore one facet, tableaus drift in and stay: the open mouth of Boston's third base coach, Don Zimmer, as he sore tries the patience of an umpire; the cold insouciance of Zimmer after an egregious blunder by Bernie Carbo; the Oriole second baseman, Bobby Grich, with a runner on first and the pitch on its way, frozen like a pointer; the glove of Pitcher Dave McNally in the air after his foot has dispatched it; a frieze of faces young and old flooding into the two parks. The Fourth and the big series bring something to the air near a major league stadium. It is something felt, as if people are out to reclaim baseball, or as if they are going to see if an old national monument is still there where it should always be. This was true even in Baltimore, where the gate is 60,000 off last year's, where the franchise may be in danger, where each season the pressure to make the playoffs so the club can maybe break even becomes more intense; it's a tough town with a dollar.
As it was, 31,000 turned out for the first two games against Boston. It was a respectable figure for Baltimore, a town where the Orioles' principal competitor is Callinectes sapidus, the blue crab, unmercifully masticated and gorged in leisure time in backyards and on shore fronts. Crabs are expensive, and in a working-class town you can't indulge that fancy and go to the park, too. An incident illustrates Baltimore's attendance situation. One night streaking made its debut at the park. The streaker finally was grounded by the police and his fate was in the hands of Frank Cashen, the Oriole general manager. "Give him $50," Cashen told the police, "and tell him to come back tomorrow night."
The night is soggy as the Orioles lead with Doyle Alexander against Bill Lee. Alexander has never been the pitcher he thinks he is, nor is he as consistent as the Orioles had hoped he would be. Lee has not been going well, either. Even so, the Boston fans are fond of him, of his craziness. "Are you pleased to make the All-Star team?" someone asked him last year. "I don't like the Giants' announcer," he replied. Neither pitcher will be around at the end, but the Red Sox win 6-4. Boston needs every game now, for it came out of Cleveland in serious trouble: its pitching is in near-ruin and injuries have steadily followed the club, the most recent being the torn knee of its splendid catcher, Carlton Fisk.
The loss of Fisk has been jarring, but for the moment the Red Sox do not reel. Quite the opposite, they are on the attack, mainly on the efforts of Pitcher Ross Grimsley and Catcher Earl Williams. Williams can't throw and Grimsley sometimes hits bats better than anybody else in the league; he has given up 19 home runs. Hits are sprayed all over and the clubs go into the ninth of the second game tied at 5-5. After several players and Don Zimmer are thrown out by the umpires, the Red Sox break it open in their half of the ninth, using two double steals and a ball lost in the lights by Left-fielder Don Baylor to make it two in a row. Adventurous and lively, these are the words for the front half of the series. And the Orioles are in trouble, now 4½ games behind the Red Sox.
"We went at it," says Oriole Manager Earl Weaver, "like it was for a pennant in September. We're exhausted and spent, but that's the way you got to play."
One thing becomes strikingly clear as the two clubs head for Boston. These are not the same Red Sox who had always been poison for managers as well as unfailingly self-destructive, not the same club that seemed to look upon a stolen base as a felony rather than a weapon, a team so bad at times that purists did not know whether to laugh or cringe. Their new manager, Darrell Johnson, is a silent, clever man. His favorite word is fundamentals. He does not panic. The atmosphere is easy, the clubhouse air free of the conspiracy and small hates that previously had cut the heart out of the team. Reggie Smith is gone to St. Louis (and hitting a happy .347). His partner in revolt, Carl Yastrzemski, appears docile now. And the brooding Rico Petrocelli, who has always suffered from severe ego problems, has found evangelism.
The Orioles present a different picture. The pressure from the anemic gate, the bitterness from contract arbitrations, have eaten at the spirit of the team. Earl Williams does not want to catch, does not like the town or the fans, and he has fought with Weaver. The players have become cynical, and more than once have cast a critical eye at the manager. Weaver's position has been weakened somewhat by his off-field behavior, which is abrasive. He is trying to soften his manners. But the old used-car salesman is still in command, and that is an edge for any club when the battle gets hot.
On the field Baltimore is not chiseled out of cold steel as it once was. Its big pitcher, Jim Palmer, who won games and lured fans, is on the disabled list with a sore arm. Its defense has been porous, and that includes the smoothest glove of any age, Brooks Robinson. With the exception of Paul Blair in center, the outfield regulars cannot throw, and when they must it is all too often to the wrong place. Weak bats have grounded Al Bumbry and Rich Coggins, the two who enabled the Orioles to win their division title last season—goodby speed. Dave McNally, his confidence torn, is no longer certain he can win. And Boog Powell's cannon emits the sounds of a cap gun.
That was the profile of the two clubs before the series, and that is the way it still looks as the Orioles move into Fenway Park for three games in two days. The heat travels up the coast and drops on Fenway like a wet sponge, but nearly 28,000 push and shove their way into this misshapen slattern of a stadium. McNally starts the first game of the double-header for the Orioles, opposed by Dick Drago. Right away the action flares. While he tries to contain the lead of Tommy Harper, who opened the game with a single, McNally commits a balk. Weaver argues. Three hitters later McNally again balks. Weaver goes into a 10-minute rage, assisted by McNally.
McNally is thrown out of the game and Alexander is summoned. This time he stops the Red Sox. Baltimore's pitching tightens a little; Boston's unravels completely. The Oriole bats obliterate Drago, and then go on to bust up Reggie Cleveland in the second game. The offense is fearsome: Bumbry and Coggins hit and are in high gear; Powell's bat is more than a menacing shadow; every ball hit finds a hole. And the defense shores up. Boston drops two games, 9-2, 6-4. The fans move out of the park quietly.
The next afternoon—the Fourth of July itself—is brutally hot. Nothing stirs in downtown Boston, dreamlike catamarans move up and down the Charles River, the Common is crowded with dogs sleeping in the shade of trees, old men fanning themselves with their hats: life almost at full stop. But out at Fenway the organ bounces along patriotically and 13,622 fans are beside themselves with optimism. And why not? They have Luis Tiant, who has been artfully brilliant, going against someone named Jesse Jefferson, who had not started for the Orioles all year. Tiant loves the heat and he surely will halt the reviving Orioles. His record against them for the Red Sox is 10-1. But Luis does not have his touch. That lack, combined with intense Baltimore firepower that never seems to end, gives the Orioles a 10-6 victory and drops Boston to just half a game ahead of suddenly dangerous Cleveland.
After it is over, this is evident: the series has been one of the more sadistic prosecutions of pitching seen in a while. The two teams collected 119 hits (including 11 home runs; an abacus is needed to record the other extra-base hits) and 62 runs. Working 5‚Öî innings of the series, Oriole Reliever Bob Reynolds has given up 15 hits and 6 runs, ruining his fine ERA of 2.18. After his final appearance he rips off his uniform, throws it into a clubhouse trash can filled with tobacco juice and shakes the can violently.
Yet this has been a series that, if not of classic quality, certainly has had a character of its own. It has been wide-open baseball, the kind of baseball that provokes talk and emotion. "Let 'em boo," said Weaver after Baylor had trouble with the lights. "He doesn't deserve it, but I'd rather have 'em booing than home kickin' their television sets." The action around second base has been furious, so much so that even a balletomane would have appreciated the body control of Bobby Grich. The players have put up what they had, and nobody can ask for more.
Dumb and less than competent baseball has also infected the series: Bernie Carbo in a vital situation running right past Coach Zimmer at third, heading for home while Mark Belanger, holding the ball in deep short, looks again to make sure his eyes are not betraying him, and then throws Carbo out as if he were swatting a fly; Cecil Cooper taking a ground ball at first base and then stupidly chasing Grich back to home as a runner advances; the throwing to second of Catcher Williams—usually on two bounces—who could not stop Sydney Greenstreet on a steal.
No significant ground is won or lost after the series closes, but the Orioles have demonstrated once more their ability to break a good club in half like a twig, that despite their problems they may yet again slowly ride the hot summer wind successfully.
Fenway is empty and in its ancient bowels the managers talk. Johnson says he's going back to fundamentals, Weaver says he's going on to Oakland, and both of them, as they push on, would agree with Eliot's Prufrock: And time yet for a hundred indecisions,/And for a hundred visions and revisions,/Before the taking of a toast and tea.