Considering all that had gone on in this strangest of all baseball playoffs, it was only fitting that the National League pennant should be won in a rainstorm by a California team before a record crowd that was not entirely there. Technically, the Philadelphia Phillies' pennant bubble burst with the clouds last Saturday night when the Los Angeles Dodgers soundly beat them 4-1 in the fourth playoff game. But it may well be that they lost the flag the day before in the course of a single inning so catastrophic, so maddening, so demoralizing that they were unable to shake the memory of it. It was an odd business, this conflict between a team that boasts, not without cause, of an alliance with the Almighty and another doomed, it would appear, to perdition.
The Championship Series began with ground crews removing dirt from one diamond and ended with them dumping dirt on another. The ultimate heroes were former cripples and old men. The two teams played abominably in perfect conditions, superbly in the worst baseball weather imaginable. A shortstop was detected missing second base on one of those phantom double-play attempts. Balks were called on two pitchers in the same game. Grand-slam homers were hit in successive games by the same team. A crowd drove a pitcher to distraction. And a comedian whose forte is vilification gave a pep talk that preceded a victory. How else could such an affair end but in a Philadelphia downpour?
It started under a Southern California sun. Actually, under a sunset, because network television dictated that the West Coast games should begin at 5:15 so that East Coast audiences might see them in prime time. Fortunately, the sun, which ordinarily shines blindingly over the rim of Dodger Stadium at that hour, was intercepted by roving high clouds. In the past, when such games have been scheduled, players have been unable to catch the ball because they have not seen it. In the opening game the players could see it but still could not catch it. Even before they were given the opportunity, there was dirty work afoot. During batting practice, the umpires determined that there was an excess of dirt in front of home plate. The umps and the Phillies suspected that some topsoil had been sprinkled around for tactical purposes. The Dodgers' opening pitcher was Tommy John, whose specialty is a sinker that hitters tend to chop straight down into the dirt in front of home plate. The extra loose dirt would deaden any lively grounders the Phillies might hit.
The excess was shoveled away, but it did not seem to make much difference to John, who could induce the Phillies to hit grounders but could not control what happened afterward. In the first inning mighty Mike Schmidt bounced one at Shortstop Bill Russell, who threw high to Steve Garvey at first. Greg Luzinski, the linebacker-sized leftfielder, then hit a ball high into the clouds and well beyond the center-field fence for a two-run homer. Another Russell error led to two more runs in the fifth when, with a man on first, Larry Bowa hit a ball to Second Baseman Dave Lopes' left, which he fielded and fired to Russell to begin what seemed like a certain double play. But Russell, tardily going into his DP glide, caught the ball when he was off base, an oversight detected by Umpire Harry Wendelstedt. Both runners were safe, and Dave Johnson subsequently singled home two runs that precipitated John's departure. John watched the remainder of the game on a television set in Manager Tom Lasorda's swank office and observed some things about Phillie hitters he hoped he might put to use should he be given a second start. To the Phillies' eventual grief, he got that chance.
The first game, a 7-5 Dodger loss, was further distinguished by a Ron Cey grand slam and by fine detective work by the umpires, who caught both Phillie starter Steve Carlton and Dodger reliever Elias Sosa in the act of balking. Sosa's sent Bowa home with the Phillies' insurance run in the ninth. Moments earlier Schmidt had singled home the go-ahead run. It was to be his last hit in the series, a circumstance that had much to do with the Philadelphia defeat.
The Dodgers had hoped to win both games at home, so they would need but one victory in Veterans Stadium, where the Phillies had won almost 75% of the time this season. If they were downcast-after the opening loss, which was Philadelphia's first win in postseason play since the 1915 World Series, the Dodgers' mood was not reflected in their effervescent manager. Lasorda appeared before Game 2 with Don Rickles, who was in good—which is to say, bad—form in the clubhouse. "Don't worry, Billy," he said to the error-plagued Russell. "What do they [the fans] know? Just say to yourself, 'Bag, bag, bag. Step on the bag.' Davey," he called out to the swarthy Lopes, "I spoke to my neighborhood. You move in next week." Then in a serious tone he told the Dodgers. "I love you guys from the bottom of my heart." "Shove it," cried out the starting pitcher for the day, Don Sutton. Los Angeles was ready to play. Sutton scattered nine hits in an easy 7-1 win, and Leftfielder Dusty Baker hit the team's second playoff grand slam.
That set up the decisive events of Friday's game, one of the sloppiest and most exciting in playoff history. Umpire Wendelstedt, an apparent ally earlier in the week, became a Phillie anathema when he called Garvey safe at home after the smoking Baker doubled in the Dodgers' two-run second inning. The L.A. lead disintegrated in the Phillies' half of the inning when a howling Vet crowd of 63,719 set upon Dodger starter Burt Hooton. With the bases loaded and Phillie Pitcher Larry Christenson at bat, Hooton began missing. Before each pitch the fans leaped to their feet, screaming and waving at the beleaguered Los Angeles pitcher. Hooton lost his composure, although it was said afterward that some of Wendelstedt's calls unnerved him fully as much as the din. He gave up a base on balls on a 3-2 pitch to Christenson and walked two other batters to give the Phillies a 3-2 lead. Baker singled in yet another Dodger run in the fourth to tie the score, and so it remained until the eighth when the Phillies—abetted by the throwing errors of Cey and Rightfielder Reggie Smith—rallied for two runs.
After two were out in the top of the ninth, the Phillies seemed certain winners, but two aged Latino pinch hitters did them in. With the count no balls and a strike against him, Vic Davalillo, a 38-year-old (he says) Venezuelan resurrected two months ago after three seasons in the Mexican League, noticed that the Phillies' first and second basemen were playing him deep. He dragged a perfect bunt down the right side of the infield and beat it out. No big deal. Gene Garber, the bearded reliever who winds up as if he is afraid he is being followed, quickly got two strikes on Manny Mota, a 39-year-old (he says) Dominican who is the second most productive pinch hitter in baseball history. The next pitch was perfect for the situation—a change-up low and outside. Mota somehow stroked it deep to left field over the head of Luzinski, who reached for it at the fence. The ball popped out of his glove, struck the fence and popped back in again. Because it hit the fence between pops, it was no catch. A fleeter outfielder, such as Luzinski's usual late-inning defensive replacement Jerry Martin, might have caught the ball easily, and Manager Danny Ozark was criticized in the Philadelphia newspapers the next day for failing to use Martin.
Luzinski's return throw to the infield escaped Second Baseman Ted Sizemore for an error, allowing Davalillo to score and Mota to puff into third. Lopes then hit a shot that caromed off Schmidt's glove hand and into Shortstop Bowa's bare one. His throw to first was late, in the opinion of Umpire Bruce Froemming. The Phillies disputed wildly, but got no relief. Mota had scored the tying run. Then Lopes reached second when Garber's pickoff throw got by First Baseman Richie Hebner. Russell now had a chance to redeem himself. He slapped a game-winning single up the middle. The Phillies were stunned—they failed to score in the bottom of the ninth—and they would not recover. They had been one strike away from a vital win. Now they were in deep trouble.
The next day was appropriately Gothic for the fierce Phillie fans. The rain began in late afternoon, and there was considerable doubt that a game would be played. There remains considerable doubt that it should have been. National League President Chub Feeney, who sat bareheaded throughout the downpour, said that weather reports called for the clouds to lift at about 8:30 p.m. When, at 8:32, only a light drizzle was falling, it was determined to press on.
For all intents, the game and the series ended in the second inning when Baker lined a two-run homer into the black drapery—shrouds?—beyond the left-field fence. The runs batted in gave him a National League playoff record of eight. When the rain would not let up as it was supposed to, Froemming ordered the players off the premises after the Phillie half of the second and strolled through the puddles to Feeney's box. The players did not want to quit, Froemming told Feeney, and the field was in good shape. It was just that it would not stop raining. Continue, said Feeney. However, many of the fans were not prepared to stay, so that when it was announced in the sixth inning that the crowd of 64,924 was the largest ever to see a baseball game in Pennsylvania, there were thousands of empty, wet seats.
The defectors missed the only errorless game of the series. With sand frequently being sprinkled on the dirt portions of the diamond, John, who had learned from his TV watching to throw more fastballs, pitched an orderly seven-hitter. Both he and series MVP Baker are survivors of crippling injuries. John missed all of the 1975 season after complicated arm surgery and was not supposed to pitch again. Baker is still bothered by a left knee that was operated on last year. But they were the undisputed stars of this playoff.
"In this one," said Lasorda, "the script was written by God."