Greg Luzinski badly wanted to take batting practice, but the sky was a threatening gray, and a bright yellow tarpaulin covered the green AstroTurf infield of Montreal's Olympic Stadium. The Philadelphia leftfielder would have to wait until the game began to get in his licks, unless, as someone suggested, he wanted to swing against the pitching machine in the batting cage beneath the stands. The cage may have been a suitable alternative for some, but not for Luzinski. The Bull gets his pleasure from menacing men, not machines, from launching balls over fences, not into nets. "I am not a cagey hitter," he said with a shrug of his massive shoulders.
Facing a live pitcher later that night, Luzinski stroked a single, drove in one run and scored another as the Phillies extended their winning streak to 13 games, a club record, strengthened their hold on first place in the National League East and improved the best record in baseball to 71-44. At the end of the week Luzinski was still bruising—he is sixth in the league in hitting, second in RBIs and third in home runs—and his team was still cruising. After taking two of three in Montreal, Philadelphia returned home to Veterans Stadium and swept three games against Houston.
With a 6½ game lead over Pittsburgh, the Phillies are the only one of the four defending division champions solidly on top in 1977. But it took an unexpectedly long time for them to get there. They lost six of their first seven games for their worst start in nine years, did not pass .500 until May 21 and did not move into first place until Aug. 5. "There were a lot of reasons for our slow start," says Manager Danny Ozark. "The main one could have been that the players expected the season to be a cheesecake." Through the malapropistic haze, Ozark's point was perfectly clear.
The cheesecakewalk finally did begin on June 26 when Philadelphia commenced to win 11 of 12 games, climbing from fourth place to second and reducing Chicago's unlikely 8½-game lead to a more believable three-game gap. The August surge has more than taken care of the rest of that margin, and a recent four-game sweep of the Cubs in Wrigley Field may have taken care of Chicago.
The most dramatic improvement in the last two months has been among the pitchers. Young Larry Christenson beat Houston 9-5 last week for his eighth straight victory, and old Jim Lonborg, who started the season on the disabled list, defeated Montreal 8-3 for his sixth win in his last seven decisions. Steve Carlton, pitching only to his designated catcher, Tim McCarver (see box), has been effective all along, especially at home, where he is 14-1. Carlton has also picked off 16 runners and is batting .270. After a shaky start the bullpen of Gene (House of David) Garber, Tug McGraw and Ron Reed has 32 saves and 20 victories. And McGraw still has as much screwball in him off the field as on. During the plane ride home from Montreal two nights after Elvis Presley died, he combed his hair in a ducktail, unbuttoned his shirt and sang a memorial medley of Presley songs. No one swooned.
Lonborg, too sophisticated for that sort of thing, was concerning himself with the rebirth of the Phillies. "We knew in spring training there was something special about this team," he said. "It took us longer than we expected, but the secret of our success is that we stayed together during a very tough period."
Actually, this may be an extra-special team, stronger and deeper than the one last year that set a club record of 101 victories. That it is more popular, too, is indicated by the average attendance of 33,778 at Veterans Stadium, an increase of 1,970 over last season's record pace. However, the players are not the only attraction. More than 46,000 showed up for a game against Houston last week, but it was Halter Top Night, one of the club's innumerable promotions.
"Philly is a fun place to play," says Richie Hebner, the former Pittsburgh third baseman who came to Philadelphia as a free agent, found Mike Schmidt in residence at third and became a first baseman. "I'm loving it here. The crowds are much better than in Pittsburgh, because the people are hungry for a winner. They go crazy."
Hebner is one of a cluster of newcomers contributing mightily to the Phils' success. After hitting .246 and .249 during his last two Pirate seasons, he has shot up to .288, and in an 8-3 win over the Expos last week he slugged the first grand-slam homer of his career.
Another new infielder is Ted Sizemore, who moved in at second when the valuable Dave Cash signed as a free agent with the Expos. A scrappy player who was the National League's 1969 Rookie of the Year, Sizemore had fallen on hard times at the plate during the last three seasons with St. Louis and Los Angeles. In 1976 he appeared in only 84 games for the Dodgers and hit .241. Now his average is .279. "He has played beyond everybody's expectations," says Garber.
The other important imports are Bake McBride and Dave Johnson. After being traded to the Phillies from St. Louis on June 15, McBride took over the lead-off spot, which nobody else seemed to want, and switched from center field to right. Swinging a 31-inch bat, the shortest in the majors, McBride has hit .333 and surprised even himself with six home runs. When regular Centerfielder Garry Maddox crashed into a wall and onto the disabled list earlier this month, McBride celebrated his return to his old position by stroking a three-run, 11th-inning homer in Chicago.
Johnson spent the last two seasons in Japan, and when he comes up to pinch-hit you can almost hear him shouting "Banzai!" In the pinch, he has a .325 average, and he was the batting star of two victories during the long winning streak. His ninth-inning, two-run homer against the Cubs on Aug. 13 set up McBride's shot in the 11th, and a two-run triple three days later against Montreal brought the team from behind in a 7-5 victory.
Despite the hefty hitting of the newcomers, Luzinski and Schmidt remain the chief demolitionists on the league's top offensive team. Schmidt has 30 home runs, 73 RBIs and a .287 batting average, which will be the highest of his career if it stays there. His 14 homers in June tied the league record for the month, and he had one incredible stretch from June 29 to July 8 when he reached base 25 times in 30 trips to the plate. These figures are very impressive compared to just about anyone's but Luzinski's. The Bull has 31 homers, 102 runs driven in and a .318 average. Only Cincinnati's George Foster seems likely to challenge him for the league's Most Valuable Player award.
By baseball standards Luzinski is an imposing creature. He stands 6'1" and weighs 225 tightly packed pounds. His legs are massive pillars, his arms like limbs on a mature oak, and you could hang a Rembrandt on his back. These physical attributes may be common among defensive tackles and Sumo wrestlers, but it is rare that a man of such bulk succeeds in a sport that favors the sleek and nimble. Before facing Luzinski for the first time this year, former teammate Tom Underwood of St. Louis said with not a little anxiety, "He's so big, and now he's on the other team." Underwood pitched to the Bull twice during that game. Both times his pitches landed in the upper deck. Olé!
Luzinski is a thoughtful, serious player and, fortunately for the tranquillity of the game, he is also a man of even temperament who tends to downplay both his successes and failures. Sizemore says, "Even when Greg looks bad striking out, he'll come back to the dugout saying, 'I only missed it a little.' But at the same time he has to really crush a ball before he feels that he hit it as well as he could."
Luzinski is well paid for his contributions to the Phillies, although he does not make as much as Schmidt, a superlative third baseman and three-time home-run champion whose six-year contract, worth roughly $3.5 million, probably makes him the highest-paid player in baseball. All the Phillie regulars, in fact, have long-term deals, but Luzinski is the only one who is giving part of his earnings back to the team. This spring he laid out $20,243 for season tickets to a 126-seat section in the fifth level of the left-field stands that has become known as the Bull Ring. The seats are donated to a different group for each game—the YMCA of Columbia, Pa., Catholic Social Services of Chester, Pa. and the Fish-town Recreational Association are among those who have occupied them—and, as a fillip, Luzinski contributes $100 to the favorite charity of a player who reaches those seats with a home run. Because the Bull Ring is 420 feet from home plate, Luzinski is not about to go broke. Of the 137 homers that have been hit at Veterans Stadium this season, only one landed in that area. Luzinski hit it himself. He gave the $100 to the Big Brothers Association of Bucks County.
Charity cases are not the only ones making money off the Phillies this year. The Philadelphia Daily News has awarded $31,000 to readers in a home-run payoff contest, $16,000 on blasts by Hebner. The Phillies will probably cost the paper a lot more before they are through for '77. They have already hit 145 homers, only eight short of the 48-year-old club record.
Luzinski could probably hit that many by himself, and he wouldn't even need his bat to do it. He could just roll up his sleeves and smack the ball into the Bull Ring with one of his forearms. Another victory for Philly, and another $100 to your favorite charity.
ODD COUPLE, BUT WINNING COMBINATION
They are baseball's Odd Couple, the grizzled, garrulous catcher and the lanky, aloof pitcher, but together Tim McCarver and Steve Carlton have been prime movers in Philadelphia's surge to the top of the National League East.
The arrangement began on an experimental basis in July 1975 after McCarver had been released by Boston. The well-traveled catcher called the Phillies about a broadcasting job; instead, he was signed as a player. Since then, Carlton's record has been 42-15 with McCarver and 4-6 without him. This season Carlton is 18-7 while working exclusively with his personal catcher, and McCarver is batting a team-high .339. Show business obviously will have to wait.
Carlton's preference for McCarver has put regular Catcher Bob Boone in the boondocks every fifth game. "I may not like it," Boone says, "but I can see it's helping the team, and that's what counts. When I caught Steve, I always felt that he was fighting me, that he didn't trust my calls. Because of his negative thoughts, he would throw poorly."
McCarver's success with Carlton goes back to their days on the Cardinals, when the pitcher was just breaking in and the catcher was an established star and World Series hero. "The first time I ever caught him was in spring training of 1965," McCarver recalls. "He was hit pretty hard, and after the game he came up to me and said I hadn't called enough breaking balls. Coming from a rookie, that ticked me off, and I got really mad. I backed him up against a wall and started screaming at him. We laugh about it now."
Five years together in St. Louis, a half season in Philadelphia in 1972 and autumn elk-hunting trips to Montana have solidified their friendship. When McCarver rejoined the Phillies two years ago, Manager Danny Ozark talked to him for three hours to get a better understanding of his star pitcher. Like most people, Ozark has never been able to get close to Carlton, and he knew the towering lefthander was unhappy pitching to Boone. So, borrowing a trick from former Dodger Manager Walter Alston, who sometimes teamed Sandy Koufax with substitute receiver Jeff Torborg, Ozark reunited Carlton and McCarver.
"Steve is a very complex person," says McCarver. "I don't claim to have him figured out completely, but I do get along with him. That has a relaxing effect on him. Maybe we're close because he enjoys my candor. I've always been extremely honest with him. I also understand that he hates to be mentored. The more he hears, the more he rebels."
Because the pairing has been so successful, McCarver's teammates call him Carlton's baby-sitter. During spring training, Carlton saw Boone doing sit-ups and said, "I don't care how many of those you do, Booney, you're still not catching me." When McCarver saw Carlton talking to the team's third catcher, Barry Foote, one day recently, he yelled across the locker room, "Dammit, I don't want you even looking at another catcher. I'll take your house and your Mercedes and leave you with nothing but a case of beer and a room at the Holiday Inn."
There is no way that McCarver, 35, is about to file for divorce. The role of designated catcher has extended his career—which otherwise might have ended by now because of his weakened throwing arm—and assured his place in the hereafter. "When Steve and I die," McCarver said early in the season, "we'll be buried in the same cemetery, 60'6" apart."