BEGGING FOR A MIRACLE

Like Pittsburgh's Frank Taveras, players on all four of baseball's second-place teams have been driven to their knees by lopsided division races. Will they be able to get back up? It's possible
August 15, 1976

When advised by various experts and doomsayers that their baseball teams are dead and buried as pennant contenders, Pittsburgh Manager Danny Murtaugh and his Los Angeles counterpart, Walter Alston, react much as Mark Twain did upon reading his own obituary. "The report of my death," Twain protested in a cable to a New York newspaper, "was an exaggeration." So, say Murtaugh and Alston, are all those newspaper stories consigning the Pirates and the Dodgers to oblivion. The two managers are right—to a point. Their teams remain ambulatory, although the prospects for their continued survival do not appear all that favorable.

At least the Pirates and the Dodgers are in good company, because as of last weekend the divisional races in both major leagues were almost farcically uneven. In the National, Los Angeles trailed Cincinnati by 13 games in the West and Pittsburgh was 14 in arrears of Philadelphia in the East. In the American League West, Oakland was 10 back of Kansas City, and in the East, Baltimore was nine games behind New York. If the hares continue to outdistance the tortoises, September, traditionally the month of pennant fever, will be about as exciting for baseball fans as January. And without the suggestion of a pennant race, attendance, which has been up almost 10% throughout this booming season, may tail off dramatically, a matter of no small concern to club owners and league presidents.

Consider, too, how the mighty have fallen. All of the second-place teams are champions of recent vintage, while among the front-runners only the Reds, the incumbent world champions, enjoy such distinction. The Phillies have not won a pennant since the Whiz Kids of 1950, the once-dominant Yankees have not had a championship since '64 and the Royals have never finished higher than second in their seven-season history. Has the torch been passed on to a new generation? Perhaps, but those old champs, Murtaugh and Alston—and Twain, for that matter—might caution the new fellows against premature chicken-counting. There have been enough Garrison finishes in baseball history to lift the spirits of the gloomiest fatalist, let alone someone like Manager Chuck Tanner of Oakland, who subscribes to the notion championed by the much-abused Dr. Pangloss that all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.

"In baseball you count on the unpredictable," said Murtaugh last week, ruminating in his office rocking chair. "I've seen too many things happen in this game."

"It was before I got there," said Alston with a sly smile, "but I seem to recall a Brooklyn team blowing a big lead a few years ago."

He was referring, of course, to the 1951 Dodgers, who led the Giants by 13½ games as late as Aug. 11. That imposing advantage soon disintegrated, as even the most callow of fans must know, and the two teams finished the regular season in a tie. Then with the Dodgers leading 4-2 in the third and final playoff game, the Giants' Bobby Thomson batted against Ralph Branca in the bottom of the ninth with one out, Clint Hartung on third and Whitey Lockman on second. Ah, but let us summon up the words of Announcer Russ Hodges: "Branca throws. ...There's a long fly.... It's gonna be.... I believe—the Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!"

The "Miracle at Coogan's Bluff" with its "shot heard around the world" is but one moment in the game's history to bolster the faint of heart. Many years earlier, in 1914, the Miracle Braves of Manager George Stallings climbed from last place in the National League on July 18 to first, then on to a clean sweep of Connie Mack's Philadelphia A's in the World Series. The Series-winning Mets of 1969 were in third place 9½ games back as late as Aug. 13. And the National League champion Mets of 1973 were 11½ back and in last place in the Eastern Division on Aug. 5. For a classic streak in reverse, the 1964 Phillies will be hard to bottom. With only 12 games remaining on Sept. 20, they were cinch winners, 6½ games ahead of the pack. Kerplunk! They lost 10 games in succession, and the Cardinals won the pennant.

So hope should spring eternal, particularly in the National League, where almost all the miraculous finishes have occurred. But last week the Pirates and the Dodgers could only slog along behind their mercurial antagonists. Were they adjusting to the discomforts of second-place citizenship or, in defiance of the odds, holding out for miracles? Ballplayers are practical sorts, not much given to wool gathering, but pride often stands in the way of logic. The proudest of all the Pirates is Willie Stargell, the ursine first baseman whose bearded face and rumbling voice call to mind Paul Robeson as Othello.

The Shakespearean allusion is not inappropriate here, because Stargell endured what could have been a personal tragedy this year. One night early in the season he and his wife Dolores were watching television when she complained of a severe headache. After the pain grew worse, Stargell rushed her to the hospital, where she nearly died of a combination of a blood clot, an aneurysm and a stroke. Mrs. Stargell is expected to make a complete recovery, but the crisis naturally affected her husband's performance on the playing field. Stargell's totals of home runs (15) and runs batted in (50) are not what they might be, and because he is ever the professional, he is displeased with himself. Certainly no one else faults him for being somewhat distracted when he is in uniform.

Stargell has a keen sense of metaphor, which he employs to describe his ordeal. "Life is like a train," he says. "You expect delays from time to time, but not a derailment, and a derailment's what we had. It happened so quick and without warning. It was something I had never had to deal with before. I came close to losing my wife. I haven't been producing this season—I've got to be man enough to admit that—because I've had to make myself think about doing things that I had always done naturally. The other day I dropped a ball at first base because I didn't think that ball into the mitt."

With his wife recovering, Stargell is prepared for an all-out stretch drive against the powerful Phillies. "I'm not happy about the fact we're so far behind," he says. "Nobody likes to lose, but what do you do? Do you just tuck in your tail, or is it worthwhile to grind? I know it's worthwhile to grind. When you come up short it shouldn't be because you didn't give your best. It's like a guy trapped in a mine. When he finally sees that light, does he stop digging?"

Stargell is indisputably a digger, and so are most of his teammates, notably Frank Taveras, a shortstop who hit only .212 last year. He is over .250 now and is tied for the league lead in stolen bases with 37, an accomplishment so unexpected from a member of the largely immobile Pirates that he has been awarded the nickname Pittsburgh Stealer. Other outstanding Pirates are Al Oliver, who has been among the batting leaders all season; 33-year-old Bill Robinson, who has emerged with 18 homers and a batting average near .320 after eight years of mostly warming benches; and Jim Rooker, an outspoken pitcher.

But when a team seems to be fading from contention with each passing day, the digging becomes a bit more difficult for the less resourceful players. Those few who are content merely to go through the motions infuriate a competitor as fierce as Rooker. After winning his ninth game of the season, a tidy six-hit, 2-1 effort over St. Louis one night last week, Rooker unburdened himself of a few "honest opinions."

The Phillies, he said, "are not uncatchable. And yet I've heard other players around here saying, 'The season's over, let's play for ourselves.' That's selfish, and I don't believe it's fair. It's disappointing, discouraging and frustrating—yes, all of those things—to be on a team with so much talent and be so far out. I just don't believe the Phillies are 13 games better than we are. But they're playing fundamental baseball, and we haven't been. I'll be the first to admit our pitching is not as good as it should be, but our hitting has been worse. And our defense stinks. We've never been known for defense. We're an offensive club, and this year 'offensive' can be taken two ways.

"We're still playing the old Pirate brand of baseball—wait for the big inning—but the power hasn't been there. Taveras has helped because of his running, but he's the only one doing it. The trouble is, we have the same atmosphere around here, win or lose. You never see guys at each other's throats, no hot words or any of that. We all get along well, and I like that. There are no boys on this club, only men, but I think we need to be a little more emotional. We need somebody to psych us up. That's why I admire Pete Rose so much. He gets people fired up. We could use a firebrand like that. The Reds have great team enthusiasm. We just don't have it here. I'm not saying the team is down. But there are always individuals who get down, and that attitude can be contagious. We're not out of this race yet, but we've got to start putting out 110%."

The Pirates might be able to muscle back into the race by merely getting 100% normal performances during the last two months of the season from Richie Hebner, who is hitting only .226; Rennie Stennett, who has a .266 average; Manny Sanguillen, who has driven in just 26 runs; Dave Parker, who had 25 homers last year and has seven this season; and Reliever Dave Giusti, who is just rounding into shape after being out with an injury. The other second-place teams can all produce similar lists—Dave Lopes' injuries and .231 average for Los Angeles, Vida Blue's 9-10 record for Oakland and Mike Cuellar's 5.06 ERA for Baltimore are a few examples—and they constitute a major source for hope in such dreary situations. But hope will have to be converted in happenings in the very near future, or even hope will be gone.

It might be thought that players who are enduring individually subpar seasons while playing for teams far from the lead have already given up. Murtaugh rejects any such idea. His bulldog countenance folds into a scowl at the suggestion that a player may simply be putting in his time. "I have never seen a major league player give up. I've never seen a hitter who didn't try to get a hit. I've never seen an infielder who didn't try to catch the ball. I've never seen a pitcher who didn't try to get everybody out. No club in baseball gives up the chase until it is mathematically eliminated. In the past we've been the chasee, now we're the chaser. That's the difference." The rocking chair squeaked furiously.

When a team is the chaser and a trifle down on its luck (Murtaugh also thinks luck is overemphasized), strange and unpleasant things frequently happen to it. In a recent game against Montreal, Stargell hit a ninth-inning line drive that seemed certain to bounce between the outfielders for a double. Instead, it hit Umpire Billy Williams and ricocheted into the glove of the second baseman, who threw Stargell out at first. The next batter got the hit that would have tied the game. The Pirates ended up losing 7-6.

The Dodgers were not without frustrations of their own last week. Trailing by nine, they met Cincinnati in a four-game series at Dodger Stadium. A Los Angeles sweep would have put the team within reach of the top. Instead, the Dodgers lost all four and found themselves looking up from a still deeper hole. Even Righthander Rick Rhoden, who was unbeaten after nine decisions, lost 7-4 to the Reds. "The minimum we wanted was three wins," said Lopes after the Reds had won the first two games. "You have to beat the team you're chasing. It's that simple."

"I hate to see the importance of these games magnified so early," said First Baseman Steve Garvey. "It's a little hard to start your finishing kick in August, but we have to put some pressure on the Reds. As professionals we can't allow ourselves to get too discouraged. We know exactly what we have to do and that we have to do it ourselves. We'll just have to make this thing as exciting as possible."

"You know why this series became so important?" said Pitcher Don Sutton. "Because we screwed up earlier. I really object to placing so much value on one four-game series. The games you win and lose in April are as important as those in September. But a lot of things can happen with 50 or so games to play. It's not time for us to pack up and plan our winter vacations yet. We're paid well to do a job. Where we are in the standings shouldn't make any difference in how we play. That doesn't change my job one bit. My sole purpose is to make it as tough as possible for the opposition to score. My self-interest and the team's interests are synonymous. That's true of any pitcher. I sometimes think it would be easier if none of us knew where we were in the standings. Maybe they could just tell us at the end of the year."

Though they insist they are not scoreboard-watchers, the Dodgers and the Pirates, the Orioles and the A's cannot help but lift their gaze to the increasingly confident fellows on the next rung up the ladder. The pressure is now on the second-place clubs to improve their station. Time is not an ally.

"If we can play .750 baseball and the Phillies play .500, we can catch them," says Giusti. That seems a fairly accurate calculation. The Miracle Braves won 34 of 44 games during one span in their climb from last to first. And it may not be necessary for any of this season's challengers to get quite that hot—at least not until some crucial games in September. It is a baseball axiom that, unless the team ahead of you collapses, the best you can do by improving your own play is gain one game in the standings per week. With eight weeks to go in the regular season, the four second-place clubs are all out of time according to that schedule—but not by much. And each of them has five or six games against its division leader next month. If the Pirates, Dodgers, A's and Orioles can chip away at the games-behind column in the four weeks ahead, then those September series will offer them an opportunity to win their divisions in head-to-head battles. Just that sort of thing has happened four times in the past 12 seasons. After all, it does not matter who is in first until the last day of the season. The fold-up Phillies of 1964 were in the lead for a total of 134 days; the pennant-winning Cardinals were there for six. The 1969 Cubs were first for 154 consecutive days, but they were not there at the finish.

What seems to be indicated for all the contenders are a few more games like the one the Pirates played against the Cardinals last week. Behind 1-0 with two outs in the ninth, Pittsburgh tied the game on Bob Robertson's broken-bat single that scored Robinson, who had led off the inning with a hit. Giusti, a loser the night before, snuffed out a Cardinal rally in the top of the 12th, then led off the bottom of the inning by drawing a walk from St. Louis Pitcher Mike Wallace. Stennett's attempted sacrifice forced Giusti, but he atoned for the gaffe by stealing second to keep the scoring possibility alive. He advanced to third as Tommy Helms rolled a single into short left. When Parker grounded sharply to Shortstop Don Kessinger, who was drawn in to cut off the run, Stennett broke for the plate. Kessinger's throw to Catcher Joe Ferguson was at eye level, and Stennett slid under the tag for the winning run.

The modest crowd of 8,426 cheered robustly. Their Pirates, their not-always-beloved Bucs, had gotten through another day without losing more ground to the Phillies. They had scored only six runs in their last five games, but they had won two of them. The once-feared Lumber Company seemed now to be in the business of manufacturing toothpicks.

Murtaugh rocked away in his office after the fine extra-inning effort. He was savoring it, possibly commending himself for his tactical genius in the face of increasing odds. But he still seemed troubled by the pregame suggestion that some of his players already might have set this season aside and begun playing for next year's salary increase. He rocked back and forth, the chair's squeaks the only sound in the room. "Now there," he finally said, "is precisely the kind of game I had in mind. You could see we haven't given up. That kind of game tells you everything." Indeed, reports of the Pirates' death had been exaggerated, at least for the moment.

PHOTO PHOTOPirate surrender? Not a chance, claims Murtaugh. PHOTOStargell's life and season were almost derailed. PHOTOReggie Smith evinces Dodger disgust over defeat. PHOTORhoden was 9-0 till Cincy beat him last week. PHOTOAlston's source for optimism? Dodgers' '51 fold. PHOTOGarvey: "We have to put pressure on the Reds."

HOW FAR BEHIND IS TOO FAR BEHIND?

History shows that this season's second-place teams still have a chance of winning, though each would need a comeback equal to baseball's most dramatic to do it. The most extraordinary pennant drive was pulled off by the 1914 Miracle Braves, who rallied from eighth and last place, 15 games behind, on July 4. It should be a source of encouragement in Baltimore, Los Angeles, Oakland and Pittsburgh that the seven other most startling comebacks began in August and that miracle finishes have occurred most often in recent seasons. In fact, four have happened in the past 12 years.

1938 Cubs trailed the Pirates by eight games on Aug. 20. Chicago then won 30 of 42 while Pittsburgh went 20-24. The Cubs were still second when they opened a season-ending series with the Pirates at Wrigley Field. Chicago won all three games. In the second victory, which gave the Cubs the league lead, Player-Manager Gabby Hartnett hit his two-out, ninth-inning Homer in the Gloamin' to clinch a 6-5 win. During the surge Stan Hack batted .358 and Pitchers Bill Lee and Clay Bryant won 16 of 19 decisions.

1942 Cardinals, 9½ behind the Dodgers on Aug. 15, ran off a 37-6 streak to take the pennant, though Brooklyn won 25 of its last 42. The Cards' most dramatic victory came on Sept. 17 in Boston. Down 3-1 with two on in the ninth, Billy Southworth had decided to pinch-hit with Ken O'Dea when Johnny Hopp, the runner on second, waved his manager onto the field and advised him to use Ray Sanders instead. Sanders singled in a run, O'Dea followed with an RBI bunt and Enos Slaughter drove in the winner with a single.

1951 Giants were 13½ back of the Dodgers after Brooklyn's win in the opener of an Aug. 11 doubleheader. Then, led by Monte Irvin (35 RBIs) and Bobby Thomson (.386, 10 homers, 30 RBIs), New York went on a 39-8 tear—Brooklyn was 27-24—and tied for first at the season's end. The teams split the first two playoff games, and the Dodgers led 4-1 going into the last of the ninth of the deciding contest. The Giants got a run on Whitey Lockman's double before Thomson hit Ralph Branca's pitch for a three-run, pennant-winning homer.

1964 Cardinals stood fourth, 11 games behind Philadelphia, on Aug. 24. St. Louis won 28 of 39 thereafter, but the race really was decided in the final two weeks when the Phils lost 10 in a row. Three of the defeats came on Sept. 28-30 in St. Louis when the Cards took the lead. The irony of St. Louis' win was the August firing of G.M. Bing Devine, who shortly before had traded for Lou Brock and called up Reliever Barney Schultz. Brock hit .348 as a Card, and Schultz pitched in seven of the last nine games, allowing no runs.

1969 Mets trailed the Cubs by 9½ on Aug. 13, then took 38 of 49 to win by an astounding eight games. New York all but clinched the title by beating Chicago (19-27 down the stretch) two straight in September, but three other victories better demonstrated the Mets' invincibility. On Sept. 15 Cardinal Steve Carlton set a record by fanning 19 Mets and still lost as Ron Swoboda hit two two-run homers. Later the Mets swept a doubleheader when Pitchers Don Cardwell and Jerry Koosman helped themselves to 1-0 wins by driving in the only runs.

1973 Mets, 11½ out on Aug. 5 and last as late as Aug. 30, won 34 of their final 53. During a key September series with the Pirates, New York took four of five. In the first win, the Mets scored five runs in the ninth to overcome a 4-1 deficit. Two nights later, the teams were tied when Pittsburgh put two on with two out. Dave Augustine's drive to left hit on top of the wall, but instead of bouncing over for a homer, kicked back to Cleon Jones. He threw to Wayne Garrett, whose relay cut down Richie Zisk at the plate.

1974 Orioles were eight back of Boston on Aug. 29 when they began a 27-6 run and the Sox started a 12-21 slump. Included in the Birds' surge was a 10-game win string, during which their pitchers had five shut-outs, and a three-game, mid-September sweep in New York, after the Yanks had moved 2½ in front. Thereafter, Baltimore held on with almost daily heroics. Paul Blair's back-to-the-plate catch in center ended one win, Boog Powell's single capped a 17-inning victory and Bob Oliver's squibber drove in the only run in another 17-inning affair.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)