Atlanta was reveling in Padrecide last Thursday night. The fans in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium insisted that Centerfielder Dale Murphy come out of the dugout after his second homer of the game put the Braves up 5-1 in the fifth. Brother Francis fived owner Ted Turner atop the dugout of America's Team, as Turner's cable SuperStation trumpets the Braves—with no apologies to the Dallas Cowboys. And after Atlanta scored another run in the sixth, insuring its four-game sweep of second-place San Diego, the message board proclaimed: WE'RE WORLD SERIOUS.
The phone rang in the press box. Public Relations Director Wayne Minshew picked it up and heard the voice of Trainer Dave Pursley: "Joe says to shove 'World Serious....' "
Joe, of course, is Manager Joe Torre. Joe knows hubris when he sees it. Hubris is the classical Greek term for printing World Series tickets in July. "It's too early for that stuff," said Torre. "I don't want to see it again until we make the playoffs."
While most everybody in Atlanta was counting his San Diego Chickens before they hatched, the Los Angeles Dodgers were unpacking for a four-game series with the Braves. The world champions had been sleepwalking through most of the season in third place in the NL West, and they arrived in Atlanta 10½ games behind the Braves. They left town on Sunday only six and a half games back, a half game behind the Padres, who rebounded in Cincinnati by taking three of four from the Reds.
Ah, baseball. It's a funny game, a game of inches, a humbling game, a game of peaks and valleys, a game of 162 games. One indication that the Braves' games against San Diego and Los Angeles were important was the opening salvo of pennant race clichés. Said the Dodgers' Steve Garvey, who was off his game until last week, "The hunt is on." Garvey said that one day after The Atlanta Constitution announced, "The rout is on in the National League West."
As the week began, Atlanta was five games up on the Padres and eight on the Dodgers, with 16 of its next 22 games against those two teams. The Braves were in the throes of a terrible hitting slump though, having scored in only one of their last 40 innings. Murphy had gone nine games without a homer and had only one RBI in his last seven games.
So Atlanta swept Tuesday's double-header against the Padres to reduce its magic number to 59, with only 66 games remaining. The 6'5" Murphy had an entire career in one night. He went 5 for 8 with two homers and four RBIs and saved the second game by making a wonderful catch to rob Ruppert Jones of a two-run homer in the top of the 10th. In the 9-2 first-game victory, Bob Walk pitched a five-hitter as Murphy homered, doubled and singled. In the second game, the Braves came back from a 5-1 deficit, thanks largely to two-run homers from Murphy and Chris Chambliss, and sent the game into extra innings. In the top of the 10th, Murphy leaped high over the right centerfield fence to catch Jones's ball, and in the bottom of the inning Second Baseman Glenn Hubbard hit a two-run homer off Gary Lucas to win the game 8-6. The 5'8" Hubbard, who's called Yosemite Sam because he looks like a miniature mountain man, had pulled a muscle in the first game but talked Torre into starting him anyway in the second game.
Tuesday was also the day that a new book hit the stands, entitled The Amazing Braves, America's Team. The book sells for $3.95 and wins a prize for chutzpah, which is Yiddish for hubris.
On Wednesday, Phil Niekro won his 250th game, 8-6, to give the Braves an eight-game lead over the Padres. Niekro, who pitched for the '64 Milwaukee Braves, is still the ace of the staff with a 10-3 record, bless his 43-year-old knuckleball. Third Baseman Bob Horner, who was eclipsed by Murphy this year, also reminded the Padres he was still around with two homers, Nos. 19 and 20, both after brushback pitches from Andy Hawkins.
Wednesday was also the last day for the tepee of Chief Noc-A-Homa, or Chief Noc-A-Homeless as he's now known. The Braves' management decided to dismantle the mascot's home in left-field in order to make room for 250 additional seats. "Those are good seats, and we need them," said Minshew. The Chief must now content himself with doing a prayer dance before every game, circulating through the crowd and sharing top-of-the-dugout time with unofficial mascot Brother Francis, a sort of Friar Yuk, who in real life is Bob Kelly, owner of the Pew & Brew in suburban Marietta. Rumor has it that the Chief and the Monk don't get along, but on a winner those little things are quickly forgotten. Noc-A-Homa's alter ego is Levi Walker Jr., a 40-year-old part-Chippewa, part-Ottawa Indian from Michigan. He wasn't put out by his eviction. "Any sacrifice I can make for the World Series is O.K. by me," he said. Asked where he would go now, Walker deadpanned, "I don't have any reservations anywhere."
Murphy's 27th homer in the third inning Thursday night gave the Braves a 2-1 lead, and his 28th in the fifth drove Bravesmania to new heights. The gentle giant reluctantly answered the crowd's cheers with a tip of the cap.
In the meantime, Turner was sitting behind the dugout, feet propped up on the roof. "Alice in Wonderland," he said. "That's what this feels like. I'm a 9-year-old on his first trip to Disneyland." Turner missed some of the excitement last month when he was on the Amazon with Jacques Cousteau. The expedition aboard the Calypso was for a series the Turner Broadcasting System has partially underwritten to the tune of $4 million. "They had a satellite phone on board," said Turner, "so I called in every night to find out how the Braves did."
While he was talking, Turner was signing autographs (one on the back of somebody's eye patch), asking people, "You get the cable?" and telling his secretary, Rachel Styles, "I want a letter sent to Ruppert Jones, thanking him for the fine sportsmanship he displayed not running over Phil Niekro at first base last night." Jones leaped over a diving Niekro, injuring his own right foot, and spent the rest of the week on crutches.
When the game was over, the score was 6-2, the Padres were whimpering and the Braves were whooping. "This was the high point of my career," said Jerry Royster, who had two hits, one a two-run triple, and made several fine plays in a rare start at shortstop. The low point? "That's easy. The night in 1977 when we lost our 17th in a row and had that manager for one night." The manager, you may recall, was Ted Turner.
Said Torre, "That 13-game winning streak we had to open the season was like a guy telling everybody he is going on a diet. He has to do it. Why suffer for a month if you're going to eat like a horse for the next two months?" Torre celebrated Thursday's victory by ordering a half mushroom, half sausage-and-mush-room medium pizza from the Sons of Italy II for himself and Pitching Coach Bob Gibson. Call it 'Shroom At The Top.
Friday night's twi-night doubleheader with the Dodgers was the earliest sellout in Atlanta history. After 53 dates, they have drawn 1.28 million fans and will easily surpass the Atlanta record of 1,539,801 set in 1966, their first year down South. They're shooting for 2 million. A parking-lot survey on July 4 found fans from 22 different states. The ticket-sales department began the year with three telephone lines, and now 16 aren't enough to handle the requests.
Blake Cullen, the National League's administrator, was in town Friday to scout out the logistics for the playoff crunch. The Braves have reserved rooms all over town for October. Seated with Turner on Friday night were Jimmy Carter, wife Rosalynn and Miss Lillian.
The Braves went up 6-1 after four, thanks to two homers by lightly used First Baseman Bob Watson. Like Murphy the night before, Watson took a bow. Starter Rick Mahler was breezing along. Even after the Dodgers scored two runs in the fifth, the Braves answered with two in the bottom half of the inning. What a glorious night this was going to be in Atlanta. After all, the Dodgers had a 3-37 record in games in which they were trailing after the sixth inning.
In the sixth the Dodgers narrowed the gap to 8-5, but Steve Bedrosian was on the mound for Atlanta, and the rookie hadn't allowed a run in his last 27 innings. In the seventh, though, Bedrosian gave up a two-run homer to Ken Landreaux (the centerfielder's second for the night) and ended up being charged with five runs as Los Angeles took a 10-8 lead. In the ninth, the Braves scored once and had men on first and third when pinch hitter Claudell Washington grounded to second to end the game. The nightcap prolonged the nightmare for Atlanta as Bob Welch pitched a six-hitter and Ron Cey and Garvey drove in three runs apiece in an 8-2 L.A. victory.
The doubleheader sweep reminded Garvey of a July 1 doubleheader in 1973. Then, the young Dodgers were playing the role of the Braves, and the Reds were the Dodgers. "This was a little déj√† vu. Hal King hit a three-run pinch homer in the bottom of the ninth to beat us in the first game, they won the second, and in a matter of time they eliminated our 11-game lead and won the division. If there's such a thing as justice, hopefully it will happen again."
Dodger pitchers held Murphy and Horner hitless in both games. Afterward, some of the Braves were sitting around the clubhouse, talkin' Greek tragedy. "The gods would get angry if you were too good," said John Holland, the assistant equipment manager. "Ever hear of hubris, Dale?" Murphy shook his head.
On Saturday, before 46,694 fans, almost none of whom came to see Fernando Valenzuela pitch, the Dodgers won 3-0. Valenzuela gave up only six hits in his best game of the season. The Braves looked as if they were swinging the little giveaway bats on this Bat Day. It was also Family Day for the players, and as the little people in Murphy, Horner, Hubbard and Washington uniforms ran around, the impression was that the Braves were a very young team.
The mood was a touch somber in the Braves clubhouse after the loss. "If we're nine games [actually seven] ahead and lose, and feel bad about it, there's something wrong," said Torre. "Everybody's making too big a deal about this," said Horner. "We sweep the Padres, and they were writing off the other teams. We lose three, and they're trying to write us off. They have to go a ways to get us."
Maybe so, but it was less of a ways after Sunday's game. The Braves got off to a spectacular start with First Baseman Chris Chambliss' grand-slam homer in the first off Joe Beckwith, but Los Angeles pecked away against Niekro, tying the score 4-4 in the fifth. Then Dusty Baker and Pedro Guerrero hit back-to-back homers off Carlos Diaz, the Mad Hawaiian, to lead off the seventh. Baker added a two-run homer in the eighth, the 30th hit in the eight games at the stadium last week. L.A. won 9-4.
If the Dodgers do catch the Braves, and they play them four times this week in L.A., Sunday's game might serve as a microcosm of the season. The day did underscore the weakness of the Braves' pitching staff and the importance of Murphy and Horner to the offense. Dodger pitchers held them to three singles in 30 at bats in the series; Murphy, however, still led the league with 28 home runs and 74 RBIs, and was batting .298. So great was the woe that the Braves' broadcaster, Skip Caray, said on WTBS, "Paranoia is running rampant here." And to think that just the other day a radio interviewer was asking Torre to analyze the possibility of an Atlanta-Milwaukee World Series. In 48 hours, the Braves had gone from Mount Olympus to Hades.
"I don't think we can find a silver lining in this," said Murphy. "We've got to come back and create one. There's still a lot of baseball left."