Tom Seaver was enjoying a postprandial Remy Martin with some friends at the bar of the Shamrock Hilton Hotel in Houston last Friday when he was approached by an urban cowboy. For all of his renown as a pitcher and as a television personality, Seaver is affable almost to a fault, so instead of shrugging off the intruder with a deserved "Get lost," he turned politely to greet him. "I've got a bet with my friends down there," said the Texan, inclining his head toward three fellow louts at the end of the bar. "I've got a thousand-dollar bet that you ain't Tom Seaver." "You lose," said the ace of the Cincinnati pitching staff. "Lemme see some identification," said Travolta manquè. "I tell you what," replied Seaver, merrily. "I'll bet you a thousand dollars I am Tom Seaver." "Lemme see your money." Seaver extracted his wallet from his coat pocket and began peeling off bills. "Well, here's a one and there's another one. And a five. No tens." He laughed at his own insolvency as the stranger moseyed off down the bar in disgust. Tom Seaver had come up a little short.
Actually it was the second time that very evening he had come up a little short, for only hours earlier, the surging Houston Astros had beaten him and the Reds 2-0, hammering yet another nail in the coffin that will soon contain last year's champions of the National League West. "They've been burying us all year," Reds Manager John McNamara had protested before the game, "and we've always come back." But on Saturday afternoon the Astros piled another 2-0 shutout on them. Even with an 8-5 victory on Sunday, Cincinnati had so many games to make up in the "all-important" loss column—four—and so few games in which to do it—five—that it seemed safe to paraphrase the late Charlie Dressen and declare "the Reds is dead."
The Astros, however, is very much alive. And so, for the moment, is the second-place Dodgers, and the race should come down to the final three days of the season this weekend when they confront each other in Los Angeles. It will, that is, if the Dodgers can hang on that long, for their once proud ranks now seem as tattered and diminished as Napoleon's Grande Armèe was in retreat from Moscow. "You battle with whatever troops you have," said Davey Lopes, one of the Dodgers' numerous walking wounded (bruised right thigh). But there aren't many troops left. The Dodgers are fighting for the title without Reggie Smith, gone since late July with an injured shoulder, and Bill Russell, gone since Sept. 12 with a broken index finger on his throwing hand. And, if anything, matters got worse for the Dodgers last week. Thursday, playing without Ron Cey (bruised right thumb), L.A. lost to the virtually powerless Giants 3-2, as Burt Hooton, suffering his third consecutive loss, gave up homers to Terry Whitfield and Darrell Evans. Then over the weekend the last-place Padres beat the Dodgers two out of three, and Los Angeles slipped two full games behind the Astros, who were in good shape and looking better.
While L.A. faltered, Houston, peopled mostly by relative unknowns, proved itself equal to pennant pressure, pouncing hungrily on every Cincinnati mistake. And the Reds made a few. On Friday night Joe Morgan, who is playing every day in the stretch drive—for the Astros, remember, not the Reds—walked and advanced to third on two infield grounders. It appeared he would advance no farther when Jose Cruz looped a soft fly to shallow leftfield. George Foster misjudged the ball's flight, however, stopping short in the hope of avoiding an AstroTurf hop that would send the ball bounding over his head. He stood transfixed as the ball hung in the air for an embarrassingly long time and dropped 10 feet in front of him. Morgan scored the only run that winning Pitcher Vern Ruhle required.
That was an error of omission. On Saturday the Reds would be undone by an error of commission. Cincy's Mario Soto had pitched hitless ball through the first four innings and seemed to be gaining strength. Then in the fifth, with one out, the Astros' Dennis Walling beat out an infield hit, a high bouncer over second. The next hitter, Alan Ashby, lofted a fly ball to right center-field. Centerfielder Dave Collins and Rightfielder Ken Griffey, two of the fastest men in the league, converged on it. They were too fast for their own good, arriving almost simultaneously at the point where the ball would land. Ordinarily, the centerfielder has priority on such occasions, but Griffey didn't hear Collins call him off until too late. Unable to stop himself, Griffey approached his teammate just as the ball did. "I took my eyes off it for a second and you just can't do that in this park," a disconsolate Collins said, referring to the difficulty of following the flight of the ball against the Astrodome ceiling. The ball trickled off his glove just as Griffey, desperately skidding to a stop, backed into him. Walling advanced to third and Ashby to second on the error, and both scored when Craig Reynolds grounded a double down the rightfield line past a drawn-in infield. And that was all the scoring Joe Niekro, who pitched 7⅖ shutout innings, and Reliever Dave Smith, who pitched the final one and a third, needed.
The Astros have also had their share of ills this season, most notably the stroke that disabled their best pitcher, J.R. Richard. His near-tragedy had a profound effect on his teammates, and they fell into a slump. On Aug. 14, after the Astros had lost three in a row to the Giants, Morgan reluctantly asserted himself and presided over a players-only meeting. "We got some things straightened out," Morgan says, dismissing the impact of his own contribution. Others said Morgan half-apologized for his own mediocre season to that point and urged his teammates to forget the past and play like champions. They promptly did, winning their next 10 games.
The Astros may also be reaping the benefits of last year's division race. Out of the running for much of their 18-year history, they challenged the Reds to the tape, finishing a game and a half behind. It was a heady experience for a team unaccustomed to late-season tension. "Last year we walked around in awe of ourselves," says Niekro. "This year we started out knowing we could win it." Morgan, a star on the mighty Cincy clubs of the mid-'70s, has given his new teammates even more pennant-race savoir faire. He struggled through the first two-thirds of the season, hitting in the low .200s and sharing second base with the incumbent, Rafael Landestoy. But he was at the ready with his poise and passion when Manager Bill Virdon called on him for the late going. Through Sunday, he had hit in 25 of his last 33 games, and his .300 average over that span had helped Houston to a 22-9 record. His on-base percentage since becoming a fixture in the leadoff slot on Aug. 11—following a treacherous trial in the middle of the order—has been .402.
Virdon, meanwhile, has done a skillful job of juggling a roster of players of nearly equal ability. Through Sunday the team's three middle in-fielders, Landestoy, Morgan and Reynolds, had appeared in approximately the same number of games—Landestoy 142, Morgan 134 and Reynolds 130. With Morgan playing regularly, however, Landestoy's recent contributions have been largely confined to late-inning defensive relief. In the Virdon system, only Cruz in left, Cesar Cedeno in center and Enos Cabell at third are regulars in the conventional sense.
The Astros are deepest of all in their pitching. Relievers Smith, Joe Sambito and Frank LaCorte have appeared in more than 50 games apiece, and each has an ERA of less than three. Sambito has 17 saves, and Smith and LaCorte 10 each. The millionaire starter, Nolan Ryan, has won only 10 games against nine losses, but Virdon insists he has "kept us in every game he has started." The team's record in games Ryan has worked is 21-12. Niekro won his 18th last Saturday, and Ruhle, who had pitched a three-hitter against the Giants in his previous start, won his 11th last Friday. Ruhle had back surgery as recently as last season, but this year he is pitching without pain, except to opposing batsmen. Ruhle is a control artist who has walked only 28 batters in 148‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® innings. He is so consistently around the plate, in fact, that even the most prudent of hitters are tempted to swing at his first offering. The first three Reds to face him—Collins, Griffey and Dave Concepcion—were first-pitch outs. Says Ruhle, "I believe a hitter is either on or out in three pitches."
Ruhle is quick to admit that he is no substitute for Richard, whose place he has taken in the rotation. "I could never fill his shoes," he says. "When J.R. left, we had to start pulling together. We had to play aggressive defense. We knew we couldn't just sit back and watch that man throw the ball, getting his 15 strikeouts."
Richard didn't throw the ball on Saturday, but he did appear in the Dome for the first time since he was stricken. After nearly two months, he is out of the hospital, recuperating at home. On Saturday he stepped out of the Astros' dugout to tumultuous cheering from a crowd of 40,305 and carried the team's lineup card to home plate, walking slowly but without a noticeable limp. His eyes were downcast as he addressed the fans from a field microphone. "I'm very glad to be here. I'd rather be in no other place than Houston, Texas at this time.... I'll be back for the World Series."
It should come as no surprise that the Astros won on that day.