Sparky Anderson, speaking last week at one of those interminable Southern California celebrity luncheons, addressed himself to a question that has been vexing most of the civilized world for the better part of a century: What earthly good is a baseball manager?
"A baseball manager," the manager of the Cincinnati Reds said forthrightly, "is a necessary evil."
There are those—players mostly—who would cavil at the use of "necessary" in that postulate, but they would agree that old Sparky does have a point. It is just that he has not carried his reasoning to the logical extreme, for it seemed apparent during the tumultuous series between the Reds and the Dodgers last week that a baseball manager is a necessary evil because, if for no other reason, he is the purest reflection of the mood of his team. The tensions, the triumphs, the frustrations, the petty bickering—all shine through the seamed countenance of the man in charge.
The white-haired, long-faced Anderson actually looked to be the embodiment of the Reds of early August 1974—a craggy facescape, inscribed with hills and valleys, the stern jaw suggesting true grit. Even before the first game with Walter Alston's Dodgers, Anderson seemed like a man peering into an abyss.
"They got us on a cliff," he said, "and we're hanging on loosely. If we split these games [a mathematical impossibility in a three-game series; he evidently meant lose two of three], we'll have to win all six of the games we have left with them."
But like the perpetually imperiled Pauline, he could see hope in the hopelessness. "We're not out of it," he said, "but it will be an awfully hard grind if we lose here this week."
If Anderson looked like a Red, Alston was an artful Dodger. He has always appeared to be someone who is privy to classified information. The sly smile and the twinkling blue eyes in the old face seem always to say "Gotcha."
"I am more concerned about our injuries," said he, looking unconcerned, "than I am about winning these games."
In truth, Alston's team had been muddling through the past few weeks without star Pitchers Tommy John and Jim Brewer, and in this series alone three more prize athletes would be wounded. Still, the team had won seven straight games before the Reds came to town and was 6½ games in front of Cincinnati in a National League West race that had settled down to the two of them. In the nine games already played between the teams before last week, the Dodgers had won eight and, even with ranks depleted, they were leading the league in just about every batting and pitching category. Alston was in the catbird seat.
Don Gullett, the only Reds pitcher who had beaten the Dodgers up to last week, was the starter in the nationally televised opener, a game that started at 5:15 p.m. Pacific Coast Time as an accommodation for Eastern audiences. The setting California sun cast a golden light on the brown and green hills and the tall bent palms that are the stunning backdrop for beautiful Dodger Stadium. The sun also made it virtually impossible for the players to see the ball through the first six innings.
Entering the seventh, there were 10 strikeouts, three hits, three errors and only two runs scored, both by the Dodgers in the first inning when Jim Wynn homered into the left-field pavilion with Bill Russell on base. Wynn, a burgeoning folk hero in Southern California, delighted a crowd of 45,577 paid by clapping his hands as he bounced around the bases. He was rewarded with a standing ovation by his pavilion idolaters when he returned to the field.
The Reds waited until the sun had set to tie the score, George Foster stroking a two-run homer off Dodger starter Doug Rau in the seventh. But this was to be a Dodger feast, and in the home half of the seventh the Dodgers loaded the bases on an infield single by Ron Cey, a walk to Joe Ferguson and an exquisite bunt single by Tom Paciorek. This brought to bat Steve Yeager, a catcher constructed in the classic mold: square and solid. Yeager propelled a low Gullett fastball into the bullpen for a grand-slam home run, the first of his three-year big-league career. The crowd celebrated this crowning achievement for a full three minutes, an experience, said the exuberant Yeager, that gave him "goose bumps like golf balls."
The inevitable Mike Marshall finished the game for Rau, although in this, his 74th appearance of the season, he did surrender a harmless run in the eighth. The anticlimactic ninth inning was enlivened by the antics of a spotted dog that caught Frisbees in left field with much greater dexterity than major league infielders were catching baseballs in the early sun-dazzled innings. The dog was reported lost after the game. He may turn up on a Dodger farm club.
The 6-3 victory was, in a sense, Pyrrhic since Cey, in legging out his seventh-inning hit, pulled a hamstring muscle. He was not to play again in the series.
Anderson was not exactly chipper the next day, but neither was he completely dispirited. "If you lose tonight," he said, meaning we, or maybe I, "you are facing a nightmare tomorrow."
The mood in the clubhouse was hardly despairing. Pete Rose blamed fatigue for the Reds' faulty performance. "We played 23 innings in a doubleheader at San Diego the day before. We're not the kind of team to get down on ourselves."
His chum, Joe Morgan, expressed a sense of urgency about the games ahead. "We can't keep saying we'll do it tomorrow," he said. "We're gonna run out of days pretty soon."
"The Dodgers don't scare you the way some teams do," said Outfielder Merv Rettenmund, who played with the Baltimore Orioles when they were champions of the American League. "They're not like the Pirates, with all those big hoppers. You lose to the Dodgers and it seems somehow comfortable, not as if you'd really been beaten. But it's still a loss."
In his first turn at bat in the second game Rose was booed angrily by Dodger fans who, for reasons known only to them, have not yet forgiven him for tussling with little Bud Harrelson of the Mets in last year's National League playoffs. Dodger management apparently considered such abuse demeaning, for when Rose took the field for the Dodger half of the inning there appeared on the Stadium message board this stirring encomium: "The Los Angeles Dodgers recognize Pete Rose for what he is: a great competitor, a great All-Star ballplayer and a great guy. Let's give him a Dodger hand." And, by heaven, he got one from at least some of the 53,472 assembled.
There was no setting sun to bedevil the hitters in this second game. The Reds scored twice in the sixth on Tony Perez' two-run homer and the Dodgers got runs in the fifth and sixth, the latter on Wynn's second home run in two days, a curving liner into the lower left-field grandstand. Both teams scored in the eighth.
Don Sutton, seeking his fourth consecutive win, retired after nine innings of tie ball, unable to either win or lose. He was spelled by—who else?—Marshall, who by appearing in his 75th game broke Bob Miller's 1964 Dodger record. But this was not vintage Marshall.
Rose led off the 10th with a single to center field. Then, after Morgan lined out, Johnny Bench hit what he described as a "hanging screwball" into the left-field pavilion for all the runs that would be required. Marshall gave up another run before the inning concluded, but it was superfluous. The teams had traded 6-3 wins, and the Reds were once again 6½ games back.
The loss also resulted in a pulled ribcage muscle for Ferguson and a pulled groin muscle for Yeager, the team's ranking valetudinarian. Yeager has been hit by foul tips, Willie McCovey's bat and an assortment of flying runners this season. The groin injury, though painful, would not keep him from hobbling through the final game of the series. Yeager, like a football lineman, has learned to live with pain.
He sat out infield practice this last night, preferring to rest his aching bones in the dugout and muse philosophically.
"The basic thing we're trying to do is take these games as they come. We can't take the series all that seriously. Sometimes in important games like these there is a tendency to tighten up. We're trying to go ahead and play our game and not really think about who we're playing. We're trying to stay as relaxed as if we were playing San Diego."
The Reds would not buy that. They prefer to think of the Dodgers as fugitives anxiously glancing over their shoulders as the onrushing Big Red Machine bears down on them the way it did a year ago, when indeed they were finally run down.
"They had to be thinking about us when we were only 3½ back," said Rose. But that was on July 28. The Dodgers had moved three games forward since then.
"We can't afford to lose this series," said Jack Billingham, the pitcher Anderson assigned to win it on the final day. "There's an important difference between being 5½ back, which we will be if we win tonight, and 7½ back, which we will be if we lose. If they keep going the way they have been, we will have problems. But I look for them to fall into a slight slump. I know it can happen. It happened last year."
Billingham has the easy amiability of a screen cowboy, a sort of tall Audie Murphy but, like the movie gunslinger, he is dangerous when aroused. And in the tense, bitter third game he pitched better than he has all year—a 2-0, six-hit, 10-strikeout masterpiece before 54,038 fans, the largest Dodger crowd of the season.
The Reds' runs came in the usual way—Morgan singling and taking third on an error by Dodger Rightfielder Willie Crawford and Bench hitting a home run, his 22nd. The Dodgers' avowed cool seemed to evaporate on this balmy evening. Swinging futilely at Billingham's bewildering array of fastballs and tantalizing curves, they became increasingly edgy. Their hopes momentarily rose in the ninth when Bill Buckner led off with an infield single. Then Wynn hit what appeared to be a certain double-play bouncer at Concepcion, who flipped to Morgan, whose throw to Perez at first barely missed catching Wynn.
Morgan was fortunate to make any kind of throw. Buckner, a furious competitor of the Rose persuasion, barreled into him so forcefully that Morgan later protested he had nearly been kicked in the face. Morgan's response to this unnecessary roughness was to fling himself at his assailant. The two rolled in the infield dirt as players from both camps swarmed onto the field, most seeking only to form a more lasting peace. Rose charged in from left field and snatched up Dodger Reserve Infielder Rick Auerbach. They tugged and hauled at each other all the way to the pitcher's mound, where Auerbach was joined by half a dozen of his teammates. The unfortunate Rose was dragged to the turf. When he returned unharmed to his position, he was the object of bottle throwers. What had happened to that gracious "Dodger hand"?
The Dodgers had lost the series but they remained 5½ games ahead of their increasingly restless pursuers. A total of 153,087 fans had watched the games, sending Dodger attendance for the year past 1.8 million. The spectators are showing up in numbers that may challenge the Dodgers' own major league attendance record of 2,755,184 set in 1962, the stadium's first year.
How much did the Dodgers lose and the Reds gain in those three days? "It would be nice to say this has been a critical series," said Los Angeles' fine first baseman, Steve Garvey, "but we've got a 14-day road trip coming up. We can't let down on the road."
Alston, still the possessor of state secrets, was too busy grousing about the injuries to fret much over the loss of a series.
And Anderson did not look convinced. "We got a shot at 'em now," he said. "And that's all. If we had the same lead they have, I'd say we'd have it locked up. In fact, if we get so much as a game lead or even if we draw even with them, I'd say we'd get them. But if we stay right where we are now, we'll just have to win five of the six games we've got left with them."
But he was smiling when he said that, a smile pretty much like any you could see in the locker room where his players were quietly dressing.