The rich and powerful Dodgers and Phillies, runaway champions of their National League divisions a year ago, were front-runners again last week—but they were having trouble running away from anyone. In fact, they couldn't even escape their own problems.
Supposedly these are teams that not only have fame and fortune but contentment as well. Were not the Phillies pioneers in the use of Transcendental Meditation as a means of achieving Nirvana in the clubhouse? And are not the Dodgers the original happiness boys of baseball, watched over by a personal Deity and led into combat by a thinker so positive as to make Dr. Pangloss and Norman Vincent Peale seem positively Kierkegaardian?
Well, these two aristocrats of the National League seemed more like poor little rich boys last week as they transformed Los Angeles' Chavez Ravine into a slough of despair. The Phillies, who are merely muddling through in the NL East, are in trouble with their increasingly frustrated fans and they are warring openly with their increasingly critical press. The Dodgers, fairly bursting with camaraderie on the surface, revealed in a single ugly incident that underneath they are about as close to being one big happy family as the Yankees of Billy Martin. Nevertheless in four games in Dodger Stadium, which they split, the combatants proved themselves to be seasoned professionals who can play with pain—physical and emotional.
Any series that begins with a tearful press conference has to be a downer. Two hours before Thursday's opening game, Dodger Pitcher Don Sutton stood damp-eyed before radio and television microphones in the clubhouse to apologize for his part in a furious eye-gouging wrestling match with teammate Steve Garvey the Sunday before. He did not necessarily apologize to Garvey, to whom he was still not speaking, but to God, the Dodgers and his own affronted sense of right and wrong.
September 3, 1978
"For the last few days," Sutton began, "I have thought of nothing else and I've tried over and over to figure out why this all had to happen. The only possible reason I can find is that my life isn't being lived according to what I know, as a human being and a Christian, to be right. If it were, then there would not have been an article in which I would offend any of my teammates."
The article to which Sutton referred appeared originally in The Washington Post and was excerpted in the Los Angeles Times. In it, Sutton was quoted—accurately, he acknowledges—as comparing Garvey unfavorably with another teammate, Reggie Smith, not only as a player but as a person. "All you hear about on our team is Steve Garvey, the All-American boy," Sutton told the Post reporter, Tom Boswell. "Well, the best player on this team for the last two years—and we all know it—is Reggie Smith.... Reggie doesn't go out and publicize himself. He doesn't smile at the right people or say the right things.... Reggie's not a facade or a Madison Avenue image. He's a real person."
Garvey, usually unflappable, was understandably miffed, and when he approached Sutton about the story before a Sunday game in New York, an argument ensued in which Garvey's wife Cyndy was apparently ungallantly mentioned. In a trice, the two men—both intelligent, both usually mature—were tangling on the clubhouse floor like youngsters on a playground. According to one eyewitness, it took teammates and a team official a full two minutes to separate them. Fortunately, neither was seriously injured. Both had facial scratches and bruises, and Garvey had a bloodshot eye where a Sutton finger or thumb had been inserted.
Smith, the inadvertent man in the middle, has been especially embarrassed. "I want to let Don and Garv know I haven't taken sides," he said. "I just hope they can become friends again." As of last week, that seemed improbable.
The Phillies' basic problem is that they are not playing up to their capabilities, an oversight recognized both by their volatile fans, who boo them mercilessly, and by the press, which gives them unfavorable notices. Chafing under criticism, Shortstop Larry Bowa reportedly threatened and then took a swing at one reporter. Since that unseemly episode, an uneasy truce has existed between press and players, a truce that Relief Pitcher Tug McGraw, for one, finds awkward. Tug writes a weekly column, "Tug's Locker," which appears in 23 papers in the Delaware Valley. He found himself under fire when he wrote that the designated-hitter system used in the American League might work for the Phils since it would permit both Greg (The Bull) Luzinski, the power hitter who fields poorly, and Jerry Martin, a skilled outfielder and good hitter, to be in the lineup on the same day. "Some people seemed to think I was ripping the Bull," McGraw said.
The anxious Phillies—afflicted with the season-long slumps of star hitters Luzinski (28 home runs but only a .266 batting average), Mike Schmidt (.249 and 16 homers), Garry Maddox (.271) and Bake McBride (.277)—quickly blew early leads to the anguished Dodgers in the Thursday and Friday games. On Thursday, pinch hitter Manny Mota drove home the winning run in the eighth inning of a 5-4 game by bouncing a single off Schmidt's leg at third base. Normally one of the finest at his position, Schmidt had a dreadful night on the Dodger Stadium infield. In addition to the Mota blow, he dropped a Garvey bouncer in the first for an error and was handcuffed by a hard drive by Dusty Baker in the third that was originally scored as an error, then changed to a double.
On Friday Sutton pitched and, ironically, the first ball hit was to Garvey, who flipped to Sutton for the out. Sutton went eight innings, leaving a 5-4 loser but getting off the hook when the Dodgers scored two in the last of the ninth. Garvey, who hit .250 for the week, helped bail Sutton out with a home run and three runs batted in.
The Dodgers, who had whipped the Phils seven straight times to that point, finally ran out of Garrison finishes on Saturday night, when, before 50,194, they lost 3-1 to Randy Lerch, a stringy, bearded lefthander, who held them to four hits. The win, said Lerch, was "the high point of my career, the biggest game I've ever pitched, no doubt about it." It was big, for it at least temporarily halted the Dodgers' strange dominance and it kept the Cubs, winners earlier in the day over the Reds, 2½ games out of first. The loss was significant for the Dodgers, too. The Giants, who defeated the Expos 4-1 that afternoon, moved back again to within a game of the lead they relinquished only the previous week. Sunday the Phillies won in a breeze, 9-2, looking better than they have in weeks, while the Dodgers could only be thankful the Giants had split a doubleheader and were still a half game behind.
The four-game series drew 188,871 and brought the Dodgers' season attendance to 2,600,169 for 61 home dates. It seems certain now that, given the close pennant race, they will draw the three million spectators they missed by only 44,913 last year—the equivalent, by Dodger standards, of a good Thursday night crowd. The Phillies, who have attracted 2,186,163 in 64 dates, are not exactly repelling their sometimes acerbic audience.
"This has been a strange summer," said columnist-reliever McGraw. "The fans in Philadelphia haven't had a pennant winner since 1950. They expect a lot from us after what we've done the past two years and they've gotten frustrated. We know we should be playing better. Hopefully, we'll win it this time and then look back on a strange summer as an exciting summer."
Stranger things have happened.