There will be stiff resistance from the Eastern elements, as there generally is, but this could be the year that baseball experiences the continental tilt, when the World Series will become merely an intramural exercise between teams of Californians. The game's defending champions are the inimitable Oakland A's, and the biggest obstacle in the way of a third straight Series win would seem to lie only 400-some-odd miles to the south, in Los Angeles. A sort of commuter-airline Series was a distinct possibility as the two Western stalwarts peered ahead last weekend to the league playoffs beginning this Saturday.
Neither team finished its season impressively. The A's backed into the American League West title, losing to the White Sox on the evening the tenacious Texas Rangers mathematically eliminated themselves by losing to Kansas City. And the Dodgers required the services of their season-long whipping boys, the San Diego Padres, whom they defeated Saturday night for the 16th time in 18 meetings, to clinch at least a tie for their division championship. Neither team was annihilating the opposition in the last days of the long season, but the demolition potential nonetheless exists. The major concern for the Westerners in the playoffs was that they would be confronting Eastern Division champions sharpened at the finish by far keener competition.
The A's, at least, should be equal to the challenge. They have not seemed quite as fundamentally sound, quite as alert under their God-fearing new manager, Alvin Dark, as they were in the two previous championship seasons, but they are well-fortified and, as always, sardonically entertaining. The A's deplore their Mephistophelean owner, Charles O. Finley, their drafty and mostly uninhabited ball park, their sanctimonious manager and, on occasion, even each other. But they win. Like true professionals, they set pettiness aside when they "step between the lines."
Actually, the A's are more outspoken than acerbic. Their public squabbles, even the celebrated altercation between Reggie Jackson and Bill North, can be interpreted as the manifestation of a contemporaneous fervor for uninhibited expression. Mostly they are jolly good fellows, amiable and droll, as exemplified by their captain and leading runs-batted-in producer, Sal Bando.
Asked last week which of the two contending Eastern Division teams he would prefer meeting in the American League championship series, Bando replied, "Baltimore is an experienced team, but the Yankees might come in with all that luck working for them. Frankly, I'd rather play a team of plain ballplayers than face somebody who's got an in with the Man up there."
The A's do well enough with the men they have down here. If their team batting average is not high—it is under .250—they must be the timeliest hitters in the game. Bando, for example, had only 119 hits through last week, but he had driven in 103 runs. Gene Tenace's batting average is under .220, but of his 102 hits 44 have been for extra bases. Four A's—Jackson, Joe Rudi, Bando and Tenace—have hit 20 or more home runs and three—Bando, Rudi and Jackson—have driven in more than 90 runs.
The A's are as swift as they are powerful. They have stolen more bases than the speedy Dodgers, North leading the American League with 54. Campy Campaneris, a terror in last year's World Series, has stolen 34, and Jackson, despite his usual succession of muscle pulls, has 25. Oakland also has on hand—or foot—the former world-class sprinter, Herb Washington, possessor of the most unusual statistics in baseball history. Washington, whose chores are confined to pinch running, has appeared in 90 games, been at bat not at all, scored 29 runs and stolen 28 bases in 43 attempts. When he enters a game it is for the sole purpose of stealing second base and subsequently scoring from there. That he succeeds as often as he does is a tribute to his speed and his willingness to learn at least this aspect of a game with which he had scant familiarity. Washington is a Finley creation and, like so many of that great experimenter's schemes, he seems to be working out.
Herb is only one of the A's Washingtons. The other, Outfielder Claudell, though only 20, is a somewhat more complete player. Brought up from the minors in midseason, Washington has hit over .280 much of the time and looks to be a future star. His first major league hit was a triple off Gaylord Perry, whose formidable reputation impressed him not in the least. Washington did not play baseball or much of anything else in nearby Berkeley High School, but his confidence is exceeded only by his inexperience.
With the return of Catcher Ray Fosse, who injured his neck intervening in the Jackson-North imbroglio, the A's are secure at every defensive position and better off than that in some. Rudi is generally considered to be the best defensive leftfielder in the league, perhaps in the game, and the virtually unregarded Dick Green is among the finest second basemen. Jackson is an erratic but occasionally spectacular rightfielder, and Bando and Campaneris are superb in combination on the left side of the infield.
But in a short series, such as those in prospect in the A's immediate future, hitting and fielding are, as even Jackson concedes, "a poor second and third to pitching." And in pitching the A's have an advantage over all their prospective foes, even the Dodgers.
Foremost on a staff that compiled an overall earned run average of 2.96 is Jim (Catfish) Hunter, who won 25 games (against 12 losses) so expeditiously that scarcely anyone noticed. Hunter is not a strikeout man—he fanned only 139 batters in 315‚Öì innings—but he is also not a bases-on-balls man, yielding only 46 walks. What Hunter does is pitch the ball over the plate and let somebody hit it, usually on the ground or straight up in the air. He has been described as "a pitcher's pitcher," a craftsman who throws the ball only where he intends it to go. He has won 106 games in the last five years.
"There's nothing mysterious about him," says Baltimore Manager Earl Weaver, a grudging admirer. "He's got his pitches and he just throws them over the plate and keeps challenging the hitters."
Because he walks hardly anyone, never wastes a pitch and rarely falls behind a hitter, the games Hunter pitches seldom last much longer than two hours. He works with efficiency and dispatch, if little flair, and he wins and wins. The other A's starters are Ken Holtzman (19-16) and Vida Blue (17-15). They have estimable bullpen support from the right-handed Rollie Fingers and the left-handed Paul Lindblad.
The Yankees could not hope to challenge such talent without assistance from the Almighty. But playing under Bill Virdon, the manager who was an embarrassingly well-publicized second choice to former A's boss Dick Williams, and in an alien ball park, Shea Stadium, they must have been liked by Somebody Up There to have come as far as they did.
The Yankee situation was further muddied by an equally embarrassing and well-publicized position shift that sent Bobby Murcer, the heir to DiMaggio and Mantle, from center field to right. Murcer, grumbling all the way to his new post, nevertheless set about leading the league's outfielders in assists with 20, and his center-field successor, Elliott Maddox, was among the league's top 10 hitters. Murcer has hit .274 and driven in 87 runs despite a virtually powerless season at the plate. After averaging more than 25 homers in his previous five seasons as a regular, Murcer hit only 10 this year. And scarcely anyone else filled the power vacancy, although Lou Piniella reemerged as a .300 hitter after a .250 year at Kansas City.
The Yankees did benefit from good pitching by medical student George (Doc) Medich (19-14), former Oriole Pat Dobson (18-15) and, occasionally, from Rudy May (7-5), Larry Gura (5-1) and the renowned reliever, Sparky Lyle (9-3). But their catcher, Thurman Munson, had 22 errors, a statistic to gladden the likes of North, Campaneris and the Washingtons.
Despite Sal Bando's concern, Baltimore was much more feared by the A's, primarily because, as North has observed, "They're more like us." The Orioles can run and field and even hit a little bit. And they can pitch, particularly since Jim Palmer recuperated from an elbow injury that kept him on the disabled list for 54 days and Dave McNally recovered from whatever was ailing him.
Palmer and McNally, both of whom enjoyed four successive 20-game seasons in the past, seemed useless at the start of the year. McNally was only 8-8 by July 25, but he has won eight of 10 since then, with eight complete games and three shutouts. Palmer went 4-4 after emerging from oblivion and was impressive in the late-season rush. Junk-pitch practitioner Mike Cuellar (22-10) had his fourth 20-game season, and fireballing Ross Grimsley, obtained in a trade with Cincinnati, won 18 and lost 13, Grimsley, like Cuellar a lefthander, also had a perfect record (3-0) against Oakland this year.
Weaver still favors platooning his catchers, outfielders and first basemen, but he leaves well enough alone at second, third and shortstop, where Bobby Grich, Brooks Robinson and Mark Belanger had capital seasons. The Orioles extended the A's to five games in the playoffs last year and beat them three years ago. All things considered, the A's preferred the Yankees.
"If we have any weakness,"says Dodger Manager Walter Alston, "it's on defense. Our strength is that we are well-balanced."
A semanticist might detect a contradiction there, though none really exists. The Dodgers are not particularly adept fielders. Shortstop Bill Russell committed 39 errors and Second Baseman Davey Lopes had 24, while Centerfielder Jim Wynn had a bum throwing arm most of the season. But Los Angeles pitching and a rare talent for the spectacular afield compensated handsomely for the odd boo-boo in an otherwise impeccable 100-win season.
There can be no faulting the Dodger offense, even if it tailed off slightly at the end. Like their neighbors to the north, the Dodgers are loaded with clutch hitters. First Baseman Steve Garvey, who describes his season as "full of plusses," was leading the team as of Sunday with 110 RBIs, Wynn had 108 and Ron Cey 97. These three, plus Lopes, also scored 85 to 105 runs.
All Los Angeles Dodgers teams have been running teams. Lopes had 57 steals and Leftfielder Bill Buckner, a reckless player of the Pete Rose persuasion, had 31. Garvey and Buckner were among the league's top hitters. The Dodgers simply are hard to hold off.
The loss of a quality pitcher like Tommy John, who was 13-3 before he injured his elbow in midseason, might have crippled a less resourceful team, but the Dodgers found John's absence merely inconvenient. With him they might have won 110 games. Don Sutton, curiously ineffective earlier in the season, has come on to win 18 while losing nine. And Andy Messersmith became the National League's first 20-game winner when he defeated San Diego last Saturday night. He had lost only six. The third starter—and three will do in the playoffs and World Series—is the promising Doug Rau (13-10).
In support of these dependables is the ubiquitous Mike Marshall, who can only be regarded as unbelievable. Marshall, the off-season physiologist, set relief records for appearances (105), consecutive games pitched (13), innings pitched (206‚Öì) and games finished (83) through last week. Only Marshall himself appears capable of surpassing such extraordinary achievements. If he is not fatigued he could be devastating in postseason play.
Although they are a comparatively inexperienced team—Garvey, Cey and Lopes played only their second complete major league seasons as regulars—the Dodgers showed considerable poise under almost continuous attack from the high-powered Cincinnati Reds. The A's boast of the incalculable value of playoff and Series experience, but Alston dismisses such talk as cant. "Writers write more about pressure," he says, "than players feel it." Garvey, hardly the flippant type, joshes, "We have a date with destiny, as they say. An appointment in the fall classic."
Those who hoped to cancel that appointment were the St. Louis Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Pirates, furious antagonists to the very end. While the A's had much in common with the Orioles and the Dodgers, the Cardinals and the Pirates were entirely dissimilar.
The Cardinals had only average starting pitchers but excellent relievers. The Pirates had surprisingly effective starters, but their bullpen, even with the esteemed Dave Giusti, was undependable. The Cardinal offense consisted primarily of getting Lou Brock on base, having Ted Sizemore wait out enough pitches for Brock to steal, then having Reggie Smith, Ted Simmons or Joe Torre drive him home. The Pirate offense consisted of having Rennie Stennett, Manny Sanguillen, Al Oliver, Willie Stargell, Richie Zisk and Richie Hebner pound the stuffing out of the ball.
The Pirates were plainly the best-hitting team in baseball, and they swung at everything thrown in their direction, eschewing the base on balls as the coward's way to first base. Only Stargell accepted walks, and many of his were intentional, a tribute to his home-run power. The A's as a team walked nearly 60 times more than the Pirates this season.
Pittsburgh lost Pitcher Dock Ellis to a broken hand last month, but in his stead the team had such capable starters as Jerry Reuss, Jim Rooker, Ken Brett and Bruce Kison. The Cardinals had to make do with Lynn McGlothen, the elderly Bob Gibson, rookie Bob Forsch and the inconsistent lefty, John Curtis. In relief, however, they had the triumvirate of Al Hrabosky, Mike Garman and Rich Folkers, whose combined won-lost record was 21-5.
Unexpected heroes, surprising performances, even upsets can emerge from such a mélange as this. The Eastern teams, freshly exhilarated from divisional combat, could overcome what appears to be superior talent. And Lord knows, they will be ready.
But chances are the full madness will be confined to the frenzied shore of California. That, one supposes, represents progress.