The message board at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles is among the chattiest in all of baseball. It reads a little like a Hollywood three-dot gossip column, shamelessly dropping names, celebrating noteworthy birthdays, identifying visiting celebrities, nattering on remorselessly for nine innings—a kind of electronic Rona Barrett. And should a game enter extra innings, as did the concluding contest in last week's tense Dodger-Reds series, the message board grows positively ecstatic over the prospect of gushing even more.
In the 10th inning of last Thursday's game it exulted, "How do you like the Reds-Dodgers series so far?...Six games...Three wins each...And now extra innings in the seventh game...." And in the 11th it advised the fans, "Four of six decided by one run...It's a wild West again...." "West," in this instance, referred to the Western Division of the National League, which for the past two seasons has been the exclusive province of these two superb teams. In 1973 the Reds won the division championship, and the Dodgers, though winning 95 games, finished second. In 1974 the Dodgers won it, and the Reds, though winning 98 games, were second.
There are, to be sure, four other teams in the division but, competitively, they are in another league. So the message board knew what it was talking about. The West is wild only when these rivals have at one another. Even in the first two weeks of the season, long before they had time to put distance between themselves and the rest of the pack, their games were as taut and pressure-packed as any played in a championship series.
"I don't think there's a rivalry like ours in either league," says Reds Manager Sparky Anderson. "The Giants are supposed to be the Dodgers' natural rivals, but I don't think the feeling is there anymore. It's not there the way it is with us and the Dodgers."
"And we have the two best attendance records in baseball," adds Reds star Pete Rose. "Any time you have the fans participating in games the way they do in ours, you've got a good rivalry going."
Rose should know something about fan participation in Los Angeles. For the past two seasons—and for reasons still not entirely clear to him—he has been verbally abused as well as having fruit and vegetables heaped upon him by the rowdies who inhabit the left-field pavilion in Dodger Stadium. Last week was no exception. Rose was struck on the leg by the same baseball he had tossed to a fan after it had gone foul, a conciliatory gesture obviously lost on the ingrate.
The Dodgers and the Reds were in the middle of the standings last week for the single reason that they had done little this season but play each other. Of their first 10 games, seven were between themselves. They opened the season together in Cincinnati, the Reds sweeping the series with three one-run victories. After a three-game pause they resumed play in Dodger Stadium. This time it was the Dodgers who did the sweeping, winning four games by scores of 5-2, 3-1, 7-6 and 5-4. The last two were as consistently exciting as any likely to be played all season.
On Wednesday night, Juan Marichal, a Dodger nemesis for 14 years when he was a San Francisco Giant, made what was simultaneously his regular-season home debut and his swan song in a Los Angeles uniform. This was to be his final try at recovering what remained of the magic that had enabled him to win 243 games and almost certain admission to the Hall of Fame.
But he survived only two and two-thirds innings and was succeeded by Rick Rhoden, who will replace him in the starting rotation, and inevitably, Mike Marshall. The Reds entered the seventh inning with a surprisingly comfortable 6-2 lead. Then they came a cropper. With two out, two men on and two balls and no strikes on Bill Buckner, Anderson replaced his tiny lefthander, Fred Norman, with fastballer Pat Darcy. Darcy walked Buckner to load the bases and bring to bat Jim Wynn, who is, in the eyes of the pavilion residents, Errol Flynn to Rose's Basil Rathbone. Wynn responded to the fans' entreaties by hitting a game-tying grand-slam home run. It was the fourth straight game in which he had hit a homer and the first Dodger grand slam since Wynn himself hit one last Sept. 15 against—who else?—the Reds.
The crowd of 36,578 responded to his feat with a frenzied celebration that included firecrackers, half-a-dozen fist-fights and the obligatory tossing of oranges at the suddenly forlorn Rose.
There was another hysterical demonstration when the dour Marshall came on to pitch the eighth. Iron Mike worked that inning with his customary one-two-three dispatch, but he was in trouble in the ninth when Rose hit a line-drive single to left that Buckner misplayed into a two-base error. With Rose on third, Marshall was due to face Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench and Tony Perez. But to pavilion chants of "Iron Mike, Iron Mike," Marshall subdued them on three ground-ball outs.
In the L.A. ninth Wynn got a chance for further derring-do when he came to bat with the bases loaded again. A sacrifice fly would win the game, but Wynn did not rise to this occasion. Doug Flynn, a baby-faced rookie third baseman, did, catching Wynn's foul pop-up after bouncing down the steps into the Dodger dugout. "I wasn't even sure it was legal to catch a ball in there," said Flynn.
When Wynn does not win games for the Dodgers, First Baseman Steve Garvey does. He won this one with a single to center that scored Rick Auerbach.
After Marichal was taken out he asked his old friend, Dodger pinch hitter Manny Mota, to chat with him while he removed his uniform. He had decided to retire, he told Mota, because, at 36 and with his once whistling fastball a fading memory, "I cannot help this team." The two dined afterward at Tonitas, a Los Angeles restaurant frequented by Latin athletes. "There is a picture of me on the wall there that was taken in 1960," Marichal said. "I looked so thin, so good, so young." The next morning he advised the Dodger front office of his decision and said goodby to his teammates.
"He was the best pitcher I ever faced," said Pete Rose.
Marichal's melancholy departure coincided with the happy return of Cincinnati Pitcher Gary Nolan, who had missed nearly all of the last two seasons with a sore right shoulder. He had a calcium spur removed from the shoulder last May, and had carefully and, it seems, successfully nurtured the sore arm.
"With Nolan back, we are a stronger team than last year," said Second Baseman Morgan. "The Dodgers are a weaker one because they don't have Tommy John for even part of a season."
John's comeback from surgery was not as successful as Nolan's, and he is still on the sidelines. The Dodgers were not only without John but they also had lost for varying periods Shortstop Bill Russell (broken hand) and Catcher Steve Yeager (massive charley horse).
Nolan's comeback was proceeding nicely until he was removed for a pinch hitter in the eighth inning of Thursday's game. He had given up seven hits and two runs and was trailing 2-1 when he departed. Rose singled in the tying run in the eighth, but the score would be tied twice more, the last time by a clutch Garvey single with two out in the ninth. The game was finally won with two out in the 11th when Wynn and Garvey singled (Garvey's fifth hit of the day) and Willie Crawford hit a sharp ground ball that went through the legs of substitute First Baseman Dan Driessen for an error. Wynn scored the winning run from second.
It was the fifth one-run win of the seven games the Reds and Dodgers played, and it was the second straight game the Dodgers had rescued when all seemed lost. "It was just another Dodger win," said the irrepressible Garvey.
Attendance for the four games was 141,578, a figure that enhances the Dodgers' hopes of becoming the first baseball team to draw three million spectators in a season. Those hopes should be nearer realization when the Reds next come to Los Angeles on Aug. 1. By then the two teams should be running pretty much by themselves in the race for the division championship. Dodger fans, spoiled rotten already, may be in for still more thrills.