Joe Torre, the St. Louis Cardinals' normally imperturbable first baseman, approached the conference on the pitcher's mound one night last week feeling every bit as welcome as the dinner guest who sat on the hostess' Siamese cat. Torre had just muffed a pop-up that would have been the third out in what would then have been a signal 2-1, 13-inning victory for the Cardinals over the Pittsburgh Pirates, their relentless opponents in the battle for the National League East.
There before Torre on the hillock stood his teammates, Catcher Ted Simmons, Third Baseman Ken Reitz and, most ominously, Pitcher Al Hrabosky, each, he thought, prepared to bellow, "J'accuse!"
But as Torre drew closer to those he had so grievously betrayed, he observed that their manner was hardly accusatory. Reitz seemed to be restraining a fit of the giggles. Hrabosky, whom Torre addresses as "The Mad Hungarian" or, simply, "Hungo," was uncharacteristically serene, and Simmons, nine years Torre's junior, called to mind images of old Judge Hardy beckoning a recalcitrant Andy into his chambers for a "man-to-man" colloquy. It was Simmons who finally spoke: "Aw, c'mon, Joe, lemme see you smile."
Joe did, ending the conference. And Hrabosky promptly struck out the dangerous Richie Hebner to finally win the game.
With such buoyancy do the Cardinals face crises, and though they dropped two of the three games in last week's series with the Pirates in Pittsburgh, they emerged with their confidence and good humor intact.
If the Cardinals are the happiness boys of their division, the Pirates perhaps more accurately reflect the bitterness of the conflict. Theirs is a burden of adversity, for in this single season they have gone from rags to riches to rags to riches to Lord knows where. A magnificent streak had carried them from 14 games under .500 in July to first place by the beginning of September. Then, inexplicably, they lost six games in succession, including the extra-inning squeaker to Hrabosky and the chirping Cardinals. But the Pirates charge when they are wounded, and they shot down the first-place Birds 4-1 and 8-6 in the remaining games of the series to pull within half a game of them. By taking two of three in the subsequent series with Chicago while the Pirates won but once from the Mets, St. Louis went up by 1½ as the week ended.
The two teams are studies in contrast. The Cardinals are as healthy as they are happy; the Pirates are bloody if unbowed. Dock Ellis, whose own midseason comeback coincided with his team's, was lost for the Cardinal series—and probably the remainder of the season—with his pitching hand broken by a batted ball on Sept. 11. Dave Giusti, the star reliever who likewise came back from a dismal start, succumbed two days earlier to a muscle strain in his lower back and had not pitched in 12 days until the final inning and one-third of the Cardinal series. Willie Stargell, the team's premier home run man, was sniffling all week with a bad cold. And Richie Zisk, the runs-batted-in leader, was so weakened by a recurrence of strep throat that he missed the middle game.
Zisk was far from healthy for the final game. He sat huddled in his warmup jacket on the bench after batting practice, infirm but grimly determined. "I don't know why this couldn't have happened to me in April," he said, bemoaning his ill-timed illness. "It first hit me two weeks ago in Montreal, where the weather had already turned cold. Then it cropped up again this week. They've got me pumped up with all sorts of things, but I still have no strength and my throat is sore. I don't care how I feel. We've struggled as a unit this far, and I'm sure as hell not gonna let the others down now."
Zisk banged out a hit, was walked intentionally twice and scored two runs in the Pirates' 8-6 win—a productive evening for someone who less than an hour before game time looked about as robust as Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
Giusti was another who rolled out of the sick bed to plague the Birds. Many of the 19,844 fans who attended the final game muttered apprehensively as Giusti strode in from the bullpen with two out in the eighth inning, a runner on second base and the score 8-6 in his favor. The first man he faced, Pinch Hitter Richie Scheinblum, got an infield hit, putting the tying run on base. But Giusti himself threw out Jack Heidemann to retire the side.
Giusti was in trouble again in the ninth. Lou Brock, who by stealing four bases in the series became the second most prolific base thief in history (only Ty Cobb is ahead of him), singled to open the inning. Then Ted Sizemore, who has sacrificed many points of his own batting average to give Brock time to run, bunted for another hit. Giusti was now confronted with Reggie Smith, Simmons and Torre, the Cardinals' leading run producers. He struck out Smith on three pitches. And Simmons on four. Then, after throwing three balls to Torre, he whipped three straight strikes by him. Victory was preserved.
In the clubhouse Giusti, a swarthy, blocky man with a soft voice, confided that he "put the back injury out of my mind." He seemed more heartened by his team's recovery from the first Cardinal defeat than by his own recuperation.
"This team is amazing that way," he said. "We don't give up. It dates back to the '71 World Series when we were two down to Baltimore and came back to win it all. When we're playing baseball—doing all the fundamental things—we can beat anybody. When we're not, it seems anybody can beat us."
The principal victim of this Pirate win was Hrabosky, who surrendered three runs in only a third of an inning. This was the same Mad Hungarian who two nights earlier had shut out the Pirates for four innings, striking out six of them and enlivening the proceedings with his eccentric behavior on the diamond. It is Hrabosky's custom to commune with himself between pitches at a site just off the mound. After receiving the ball from his catcher, he will turn his back on the hitter, amble off to his spot and, with head bowed, soliloquize on his own worthiness. Then, having convinced himself of his preparedness for combat, he will wheel about and stride to the rubber with a rolling, listing gait reminiscent of Groucho bearing down on the perennially nubile Margaret Dumont. His pitching motion is frantic and contorted. He looks for all the world like a man who has just stubbed his toe, but his fastball, when it is working, is as speedy as any in the National League.
In repose, Hrabosky is hardly the madman he appears to be on the mound. Those little conversations with himself are important, he insists, because it is absolutely necessary for him to psych himself up during a game. Otherwise his mind tends to wander, as it did earlier in the season, when his ERA was above five. It was 2.49 entering the third game with the Pirates and until then he had allowed only one earned run in his previous 41‚Öì innings.
"What I do out there is sort of like self-hypnosis," he says. "In order to accomplish anything physically, you have to visualize it mentally. I'm out there talking to myself about the importance of every pitch. What I'm doing is putting pressure on myself. When I turn around after one of those talks, I'm saying to myself, 'This hitter better be ready because I'm comin' after him.' "
And yet, for all of this applied pressure, Hrabosky, like most of his carefree teammates, neither rants nor broods in defeat. It is a team "without negative vibes," says Simmons, its resident philosopher. "We just say, in essence, 'We got 'em, baby.' "
Although humiliation followed triumph in last week's arduous series, Hrabosky was apparently untouched by either. Reclining in the clubhouse he was as merry as a Disneyland attendant, which, in his junior college days, he was.
"Why should this clubhouse be solemn?" he inquired cheerfully. "We're going home in first place and we started this road trip 3½ back. Why let this affect us? We battled when we were behind. We didn't lie down and die."
He was reminded of the importance of the occasion.
"Yes, indeed," he replied, "this was the biggest game of my life and I was lousy. But then tomorrow will also be the biggest game of my life."
And, as a less optimistic chap once put it, "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow."