Until recently, baseball fans believed that the traditional signs of autumn were crispness in the air, russet leaves and the same four teams in the playoffs. But when the American and National League Championship Series began this week, New York, Kansas City and Philadelphia were missing for the first time in four years, and Los Angeles was absent for the first time in three. What's more, with the exception of the Royals, the old champs had collapsed early.
As the Yankees ended their season against Toronto last week, Lou Piniella found a measure of consolation in the fact that for the first time in the 11-year history of the playoffs, none of the divisional defenders had repeated. "I wasn't rooting against the other three, but I'm glad it turned out this way," he said. "Since none of the teams that were supposed to win won, there are plenty of other players who are as surprised and disappointed as I am."
Three of the former champions were eliminated on the same day, Sept. 16, while the fourth, Kansas City, managed to hang in until Sept. 25. New York had the best record of the four, 89-71, but the Yankees finished fourth in the American League East, 13½ games behind Baltimore. Philadelphia was the only team to spend more than two days in first, but fell from the top way back on May 27 and wound up fourth in the National League East, at 84-78, 14 behind. Kansas City, the only one of the foursome to make even a modest run at recapturing its title, finished second, three games behind California, in the American League West, with an 85-77 record. The biggest flop was Los Angeles, which was last in the National League West at the All-Star break and ended up third, 11½ behind Cincinnati. The Dodgers' 79-83 record was their worst since 1968.
The teams' failures were surprising. All four should have been at least as strong as they had been in 1978. New York and Philadelphia pulled the plums out of last winter's free-agent reentry draft—Tommy John, who won 21 games for the Yankees, and Pete Rose, who batted .331 for the Phillies. Kansas City found a star idling on its bench in Willie Wilson, who batted .315 and stole a league-leading 83 bases. Los Angeles turned up rookie Rick Sutcliffe, who won a staff-high 17 games, the same amount John had won for the Dodgers last year.
October 7, 1979
But instead of holding their lofty positions, the champs fizzled. Some of the reasons for their poor performances are reflected in the stats. The Yankees didn't hit lefthanders (34-37 vs. lefties); the Dodgers didn't hit righthanders (51-63) or pitch well against anyone (3.83 staff ERA). The Royals had trouble with their starters—the regulars in their rotation went 55-55—and the Phillies with their relievers, notably Tug McGraw, who had an ERA of 5.14. Among the most disappointing individuals were New York Third Baseman Graig Nettles (.253, 20 home runs), L.A. Pitcher Bob Welch (5-6), K.C. Pitcher Rich Gale (9-10) and Philly Leftfielder Greg Luzinski (.252, 18 homers).
And, of course, all the clubs had injuries, enough to fill a hospital ward. Among the notables who spent time on the disabled list were Yankees Goose Gossage, Ed Figueroa, Reggie Jackson and Mickey Rivers; Royals Frank White, Al Cowens and Hal McRae; Dodgers Reggie Smith, Terry Forster, Rick Monday and Doug Rau; and Phillies Dick Ruthven, Larry Christenson, Warren Brusstar, Manny Trillo and Larry Bowa.
Several of the injuries were as odd as they were disabling. In April, Reliever Gossage tore ligaments in his right thumb in a shower-room scuffle with Cliff Johnson, and by the time he got his next save three months later, the Yanks had lost 11½ games in the standings. Starting Pitcher Christenson broke his collarbone in February after falling off a bicycle, and Randy Lerch, another Phillie starter, broke a bone in his glove hand in July when he was mugged outside a restaurant. Sometimes the trouble was double. On the evening of May 8, Texas Pitcher Ed Farmer hit White and Cowens with pitches that put them out of action for five and three weeks, respectively.
As significant as all the bruises, tears, sprains and breaks may have been, the teams also suffered from another sort of malady. Each club, in its own way, proved it had been spoiled by success. The Yankees never realized the urgency of their situation until it was too late. "We were like a punch-drunk fighter who's been knocked around the ring but still thinks he's the champion," says Piniella. "We kept fooling ourselves by saying we'd get it going because we always had in the past."
The Phillies lacked zest. At least that is the opinion of Dallas Green, who succeeded Danny Ozark on Aug. 31, and a few weeks later said, "There's no juice, no life, no intensity. I get frustrated with what I see. I could change it, but I'd have to fight half the bleeping ball club, and I don't want to do that." Green implied that part of the fault lay with his predecessor, Ozark. "The manager can't be a nice guy," he said. "I think the other guy proved that. If I'm here next year, though, we're going to have to have a meeting of the minds. There ain't no way I put up with all this aggravation."
Davey Lopes, the Dodgers' captain until he resigned the position in July, feels much the same way about his team. "We lost this year because of injuries and also because of what I'd call a bad attitude," he says. "The desire to win wasn't there. Our No. 1 interest—baseball—was lost."
The undercurrents in Kansas City were less apparent because the Royals were competing in a mediocre division, but they were there just the same. "We've got a good team, but something was missing," says White. "We didn't come together like we did in the past years." The missing ingredient was particularly evident in the last two weeks of the season when the Royals made an unsuccessful surge for the title. They were 10½ games back at the All-Star break and slipped into a half-game lead on Aug. 30, but they could neither hold the advantage nor build a new one.
Clearly the results of the last three years meant absolutely nothing this season. Consequently Reggie Jackson of the Yankees received a very valuable lesson. "I learned that baseball doesn't have form," he says.
Even in defeat this was an extraordinary season for the world champions of '77 and '78. President Al Rosen quit; Lemon was pushed aside for the second coming of Billy Martin; and Captain Thurman Munson was killed in an airplane crash. Meanwhile, players were shuttled in and out of the clubhouse at a frantic rate (Rivers, Dick Tidrow, Paul Blair and Johnson are among those who left; Oscar Gamble, Bobby Murcer, George Scott and Jim Kaat among those who came in). In all, 47 different players were on New York's 25-man roster at various times. Despite the maneuvering—or, perhaps, because of it—the Yankees spent just one day in a tie for first place and never moved higher than fourth after June 14.
When Rose signed with Philadelphia, he hoped to awaken the sort of spirit that had helped Cincinnati win five division titles and get in four World Series in his last 10 seasons with the Reds. Rose was going to be the catalyst, the difference between the team's usual playoff fold-up and a world championship. It didn't work out that way, even if Rose deserves none of the blame. "Believe me, I'd trade all my personal records for a shot to be in the playoffs," he said last week. "But when I walk into Riverfront Stadium to watch the Reds, I can't be embarrassed over the year I had. I did what I was supposed to do."
Everything, that is, except put the Phillies in the Series. Among those who expected them to be there was Philadelphia reserve Catcher Dave Rader, who scheduled his wedding for November because he anticipated a busy October. Furthermore, he planned to pay for his honeymoon to the Virgin Islands with his World Series share. "I'm still planning to go," Rader says, "but I'll have to borrow the money to do it."
Maybe he can borrow it from Nettles, who says he misses October excitement more than October money. Rader can find Nettles—and all the other Yankees, Dodgers, Royals and Phillies—at home, sitting by their television sets.