Were he not a man of philosophical bent, Tug McGraw, the Phillies' relief pitcher, might have had cause for alarm last Thursday evening when he confronted Cincinnati slugger Tony Perez with the bases loaded in the 12th inning of a 4-4 game. As it was, McGraw simply invoked the Frozen Snowball Theory before tossing up a pitch that Perez lofted mildly to center field to end the perilous inning and open the way for Philadelphia's 5-4 victory in the 13th.
The Frozen Snowball Theory? Dr. McGraw explicates, "Science has proved that in 50 billion years the sun will burn itself out and the earth will become nothing more than a frozen snowball floating through space. When that day comes, who, I ask you, will give a damn what happened to me and Perez?"
If one accepts at face value the protestations of the Phillies and the Reds during their otherwise tumultuous four-game series in Cincinnati last weekend, the world has already become a frozen snowball. The future playoff antagonists seemed to attach no more importance to their encounter than they would to a round of pepper. "Oh, this series might mean something to them," said the usually ebullient Reds manager, Sparky Anderson, impersonating Clifton Webb. "It might give them confidence in the playoffs." Not so, retorted the normally harried Phillies manager, Danny Ozark, playing Noel Coward. "What happens here has no bearing on the playoffs."
Ho hum. So how did these bored sophisticates play against one another? Well, with no more fervor than if they were locked in mortal combat in the playoffs, which, barring the apocalypse or the Dodgers, they soon will be. For last week's series, played before howling mobs totaling 190,382 at Riverfront Stadium, was hardly the meaningless charade that its contestants would have us believe it was. In fact, it served as a showcase for the multiple strengths and miniscule weaknesses of the two teams that may be the best in the game today. And in one important—but heretofore unapparent—way, it demonstrated a slight advantage the Reds have that could be decisive in October's best-of-five championship series. With two teams this evenly matched, the Reds' Joe Morgan says, "It will take the little things to win, and we can do the little things." Consider some of the minute moves that were made during the weekend:
September 5, 1976
•In the first inning Friday the Reds scored in textbook fashion with leadoff hitter Rose doubling and advancing to third when Ken Griffey "gave himself up" by bouncing out to the right side of the infield. Rose then came home on Morgan's sacrifice fly. This may not sound like much of an accomplishment, yet seldom do little things fall so neatly into place. Hitters speak piously of giving themselves up to advance the runner, but how many of them do it selflessly, particularly if they are batters like Griffey, a .332 hitter in search of a batting championship? And there was Morgan, a contender for both the batting and home-run titles. He said he was attempting only to make contact with the ball. To do this, he concentrated on hitting it up the middle, instead of trying to pull it into home-run territory and risking a strikeout or a popup. The run scored on perfect execution.
•Also on Friday, Morgan was on second and Johnny Bench on first with two out and Perez at bat in the fifth inning. Morgan broke for third and Bench for second. Double steal. Phillie Catcher Bob Boone threw to second, but Bench slid in ahead of the tag. Morgan, meanwhile, did not pause when he arrived at third; he slid home under the belated return throw to Boone. A run was scored without the ball being hit. A big little thing.
•In the seventh inning Friday, Rose hit what appeared to be a routine single to center. But observing that Centerfielder Garry Maddox had to run toward right field to retrieve the ball, Rose kept going. His spectacular belly slide put him safely on second. A single became a double. Rose later scored on Morgan's bloop single to left for the final run in a 4-1 Cincinnati win. A little thing requiring a lot of daring and cunning.
•On Saturday the Phillies rallied dramatically from a 6-2 disadvantage. The Reds trailed 7-6 going into their half of the ninth. It was a situation that would have demoralized many teams: a substantial lead had been dissipated and only three outs remained. Undismayed, Bench and Perez hit successive singles. On Perez' hit, Rightfielder Jay Johnstone foolishly threw to third in an attempt to cut down Ed Armbrister, who was pinch-running for Bench. Armbrister easily beat the throw, and Perez took advantage of Johnstone's miscalculation to lumber into second. Instead of the Reds having the tying run at second, the combination of Armbrister's aggressive running and Johnstone's throw put the winning run there. Concepcion promptly drove both runners home with a single. The Phillies made a little mistake; the Reds turned it into a big one.
•In the ninth inning Sunday the Reds trailed 4-3 and Rose was on second when George Foster swung and missed at a 3-2 delivery. But, shades of Mickey Owen, Boone also missed it, and Rose, who had been running on the pitch, took two bases on the passed ball and scored. In the 13th the Phillies went ahead 5-4, but again Cincy tied the score on some alert base running. With men on first and second and one out, Rose grounded to Larry Bowa. While the Phils narrowly failed to double up Rose at first, Concepcion wheeled home from second. The Reds won in the 15th when Griffey got an infield hit with men on second and third and two out. Even by Cincinnati's standards, that was a lot of little things for one day.
The Phillies did win the first game of the series on Maddox' 13th-inning double, and they finished ahead of the Reds in regular-season competition, seven games to five. Because they lead the Eastern Division by 12 games, they may also be forgiven an occasional lapse in a series they tended to pooh-pooh. But were they really so unconcerned?
Bowa, the effervescent shortstop, may have dropped his guard when he said, "The Reds are the best team in baseball, the world champions. Naturally, we play extra hard against them. But I can't say we've dominated them." In fact, five of the Phillie wins have been by one run and one by two runs. The Reds had their own reasons for wanting to give the Phillies what-for. They needed to provide their playoff foes with a taste of what the champions can do.
Of all the little advantages the Reds have, 5'7" Morgan is the biggest. He is enjoying an even more productive season than he had in 1975, when he was named the National League's Most Valuable Player. By week's end Morgan was hitting .336 and had scored 101 runs, batted in 96, hit 26 homers and stolen 48 bases. In the view of Anderson, he is "the best offensive player in baseball." And he is no knockabout second baseman. In a losing cause on Thursday, he hit two doubles and scored a run. On Friday he scored two of the Reds' four runs and batted in the others. And he made two outstanding plays in the field, taking a hit away from Boone on a ball that rebounded off Pitcher Pedro Borbon's glove and another from Maddox on a shot up the middle. On Saturday he hit a two-run homer and a single.
Morgan was only one of a swarm of potential batting champions at Riverfront last weekend. Of the league's top hitters, four are Reds—Morgan, Griffey, Foster (.312) and Rose (.323)—and three are Phils—Johnstone (.345), Maddox (.326) and Greg Luzinski (.306). In keeping with the affected nonchalance of the occasion, scarcely any professed interest in winning the title.
Johnstone, nominally the league leader, may not even get a chance to. A left-handed hitter, he starts only against right-handed pitching. Ollie Brown plays right field against lefties. As a result, Johnstone figures to fall slightly shy of the necessary 502 plate appearances required of a batting champion. An otherwise irrepressible man, Johnstone is uncharacteristically modest when it comes to his hitting. "Why should I worry about the batting title," he says. "In order to get enough at bats, Brown would have to sit down. We've gotten this far doing it the way we have. It would be unfair to Ollie and to the team for me to play just so I can win an individual honor."
Ozark is also forced to do considerable maneuvering at first base, involving Bobby Tolan, Tommy Hutton, Johnstone and Tim McCarver, because of the prolonged absence of Dick Allen. Allen has not played since July 25, when he more or less absented himself from the premises. He was suspended briefly, then placed on the disabled list because of tendon damage to his right shoulder. Ozark predicts Allen will be fit for the playoffs.
With or without Allen, the Phillies seem destined for the playoffs, an event familiar to few of them. "I'm sure there's a certain atmosphere there," says Bowa, "but then I wouldn't know about it."
Anderson is counting on the Phils' un-familiarity with postseason play to provide his team with another advantage. After all, as he said, placing himself in the pantheon of baseball grammarians, "The playoffs is a nightmare."