For New Yorkers, it was a week of baseball unlike any other in recent memory: a week to be savored, mulled over in a historical context, cheered and occasionally booed. Never before had both the Mets and Yankees been involved in a September pennant race, but last week there they were, locked in two-team races that by a quirk of scheduling had converged pell-mell on the Apple. The Mets and St. Louis Cardinals, the Yanks and Toronto Blue Jays—right now the four best teams in baseball—in town for seven games over six days that drew 363,616 horsehide-crazed New Yorkers. The races didn't just converge upon yon Apple last Thursday, they actually collided there when, for the first time all year, the Mets and Yankees played at home on the same day. This happenstance allowed thousands of New Yorkers to fulfill their victory-glutted fantasies by taking the subway from Shea to Yankee Stadium, awakening memories of '56, when the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Yanks squared off in the last Subway Series. And when the week was over, it mattered little that all the spent passion had done little to change the standings—the Mets were half a game behind the Cards and the Yanks were still chasing after the Blue Jays, who left the Apple with a 4½-game lead—or that there were still plenty of games ahead and a pair of pennants to be resolved. No, this week was for old times' sake, when the Grand Old Game was the talk of the town, and New York was the talk of baseball.
TUESDAY, SEPT. 10
The Mets and Cardinals, tied for first in the NL East with 82-53 records (.607 winning percentages), are opening a three-game series at Shea. It is muggy and has been drizzling most of the day, but if the weather is damp, enthusiasm isn't. On hand are a sellout crowd of 50,195 and some 250 media types, 150 more than usual and an astounding number considering that on this same night Pete Rose is seeking his 4,192nd hit in Cincinnati.
In the Mets' locker room Darryl Strawberry is conducting interviews wearing a pair of tinted granny glasses that are missing a lens. Dwight Gooden, the inimitable Dr. K, is being ribbed by Rafael Santana, the Mets' light-hitting shortstop (.258, one home run), about his failure to win a game on the Mets' most recent road trip, a triumphant 7-3 march up and down the West Coast. The clubhouse is confident and relaxed. "I think we learned something from last year's pennant race with the Cubs," says pitcher Ron Darling, who will start tonight's game. "This time I think we're going to have fun."
Darling, a 25-year-old Yale grad, has had an excellent year—14-5 overall, four victories in his last four starts to go with a 1.16 ERA—but it has gone virtually unnoticed because of Gooden's heroics. On the op-ed page of this morning's New York Times, Darling op-edited for revenge by authoring one of 10 essays suggesting ways to make New York City a better place to live. Among Darling's ideas: immediately raising the drinking age in New York to 21—a sensible plan that would leave the 20-year-old Gooden high and dry until November. Nothing like celebrating a World Series with a couple of ice-cold Moussys.
Let's Put First Things First was the title of the essay, but tonight Darling puts first things second, knocking the Cards out of first with a 5-4 win. The game isn't pretty, the key plays being an intentional pass and a fastball to the rump, but it's tense, playoff-style baseball.
With the score tied 1-1 in the bottom of the first, Strawberry bats with two out and a man on second. Cardinals starter Danny Cox (15-8) falls behind Strawberry 2 and 0, and manager Whitey Herzog orders the lefthanded-hitting Strawberry walked intentionally. "Anytime I can pitch to George Foster instead of Strawberry with a righthander, I'll do it," says Herzog later. Trouble is, when Foster (.256, 17 HRs) steps in to face Cox, he is feeling indignant and testy. A plane flies over, and Foster steps out of the box. When quiet falls, Foster deliberately shuffles in and out again. Foster has made a career out of this sort of stalling. The 6'4", 230-pound Cox stews out on the mound until Foster finally takes his stance, then he rears back and fires a fastball into George's Fosterior. Benches clear, bullpens jog in—comically—and when order is finally restored, the bases are loaded and third baseman Howard Johnson is up. "Cox just forgot what he was out there for," an angry Herzog says afterward. "If you don't like what Foster does—and I don't either—don't hit him with two men on. Then don't compound it by laying a fastball down the pipe—the only pitch Johnson can hit."
"I don't get many pitches like that," Johnson admits later. Crunch. His grand slam soars more than 400 feet into the misty night, making the score 5-1 before many fans have taken their seats. The final score is 5-4. "That first inning took the glitter off the game," says Herzog, whose Cards have been minus power-hitting Jack Clark (pulled muscles in his rib cage) since Aug. 23.
WEDNESDAY, SEPT. 11
If the glitter was off last night's game, tonight more than makes up for it. Gooden against the Cards' John Tudor—the finest pitcher in the game against the hottest pitcher in the game—righty versus lefty, power and control versus craft and control. This is a beauty.
Tudor's record on June 3 was 1-7. Since then he has gone 16-1, throwing eight shutouts and lowering his ERA from 3.73 to 1.87. A native New Engender (from Peabody, Mass.), he's what you might call aggressively reticent. He had a 52-50 career record (mostly with the Red Sox) before his phenomenal surge, which has helped him keep success in perspective. "This is a Cinderella year," Tudor says. He teases hitters with breaking balls, changeups and un-overpowering fastballs that never arrive quite when and where the hitter expects them. "You can't even guess with him," says the Mets' Gary Carter.
Tudor doesn't allow a hit until the sixth—a single by Santana, whom Tudor promptly picks off. Altogether, Tudor gives up just three hits in 10 innings, faces two batters over the minimum and never allows a Mets runner to reach second. "We were overmatched tonight," says Strawberry after striking out on a high fastball to end the 10-inning, 1-0 Mets loss. "He had our number."
Gooden matched Tudor zero for zero, striking out seven through nine scoreless innings before being lifted for a pinch hitter. He gave up five hits and three walks—all the free passes coming in the eighth inning when, with the bases full, he got Tom Herr to foul out. It marked the second straight outing in which Gooden pitched nine shutout innings but came away empty. "He has given up two runs in his last 24 innings and is 0-1," said Mets manager Dave Johnson. "It's tough." But Tudor hasn't given up a run in 28 innings. Asked why he didn't leave Gooden in, Johnson pointed to the 136 pitches the kid had thrown. "At this stage of his career, when he's thrown 130-140 pitches he's coming out. I don't care if it's the last game of the season. He'll be winning games here long after I'm gone, and I'm not taking any chances." Then Johnson grinned. "Well, maybe if it's the last day of the year."
Gooden's replacement, Jesse Orosco, gave up a home run to the first batter he faced, pinch hitter Cesar Cedeno, who had struck out in his five previous appearances against the Mets' lefty. In 10 games since coming to the Cards from Cincinnati on Aug. 29, Cedeno has hit .438 with three homers and seven RBIs. "I've got new blood running down my veins," Cedeno says by way of explanation.
Ozzie Smith, the Cards' slick-fielding shortstop, put the night in perspective. "When you try to tell people about pitching and the way baseball should be played, just put on a tape of this game and say, 'Hey, fellas, this is it.' "
THURSDAY, SEPT. 12 1:35 P.M.—QUEENS
This is the day the baseball junkies have been waiting for—Mets-Cards at 1:35, Yanks-Jays at 8 p.m.—and it has arrived in a bright blue bottle with a crispness that foretells the coming fall.
The Cardinals start the day badly by losing the 1 p.m. coin flip for home-field advantage in the event the regular season ends as it now stands—dead even. The playoff would be held Monday, Oct. 7 at Shea. Before long, things get worse. In the first inning the Mets shell Joaquin Andujar (20-9), once Herzog's stopper, as Strawberry, Danny Heep and HoJo Johnson all tee off for two-out, wall-bending, RBI doubles. Rightfielder Andy Van Slyke looks like he's playing a game of handball.
Down 6-0 after two innings, the Cards battle back against Mets starter Ed Lynch, picking up three in the third and two more in the fourth. Meanwhile three Cardinal relievers hold the Mets in check; so the game is 6-5 with one out in the ninth when Willie McGee ties it with a towering 400-foot shot off Orosco. It's the fifth hit of the series by the NL's leading hitter and marks the third outing in a row that Orosco has blown a save opportunity by giving up a homer.
Six-all from six-zip. Gag city. Still, the Mets show their mettle by winning in the bottom of the ninth on an infield hit by Mookie Wilson, a sacrifice by Wally Backman and Keith Hernandez's sliced single to left off reliever Ken Dayley. Hernandez's 22nd game-winning RBI of the season set an NL record.
Davey Johnson is all aglow because his Mets are back in first place by a game. "I like pennant races," he says. "This is exciting. I wish the Yankees luck in theirs. I only hope they come out of here with a little easier time of it than we had."
8 P.M.—THE BRONX
The rumors that circulated all week about the Yankees' plucking Tom Seaver from the White Sox have finally been laid to rest. Chicago's asking price—believed to be catcher Ron Hassey and a minor league pitcher—is deemed too high by Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, so the Sox withdraw Seaver from the waiver list. Seaver could certainly help the Pinstripes. Except for Ron Guidry (18-5, 3.01 ERA), who pitches tonight, the Yankee starters have been raked all over the lot, as the ERAs of Phil Niekro (4.10), Ed Whitson (4.86) and Marty Bystrom (5.71) will attest. Whatever happened to Connie Mack's theory that pitching is 90% of baseball? "Connie Mack lied," says manager Billy Martin.
For the year, though, the Yankees lead the majors with 741 runs—an average of 5.4 a game. Since falling 9½ games behind the Blue Jays on Aug. 4, the Yanks have won 29 of 35 and moved within 2½ games of Toronto, whose 88-51 record remains the best in baseball. Having won 17 of their last 18 at the Stadium, and 50 of 66 there overall, the Yankees are thinking sweep.
More than 52,000 are on hand, many wearing Mets paraphernalia. When this city had three baseball teams, New Yorkers could be characterized according to the team they favored. Giants fans were discriminating, possibly effete. Dodger fans were liberal, creative. Yankee fans were dumb. Plain dumb. Today there is less distinction between supporters of the Mets and Yankees, though there's a subtle difference in the atmosphere at their parks. A Shea Stadium crowd can be pleasant, almost giddy. At Yankee Stadium everyone prefers to snarl: ushers, security men, vendors. The owner. The manager. Grrr. We're the Yankees.
So it comes as little surprise that, when the two teams line up for the national anthems, it takes just two words—"O Canada!"—to bring forth a chorus of boos. "Class act," remarks one Toronto native. "They're booing 25 Americans and three Dominicans," he says, referring to the Blue Jays' roster.
Just warming up. Blue Jay starter Dave Stieb walks Rickey Henderson and throws over to first. Boo. Home plate umpire Dan Morrison calls a strike. Booo. Toronto catcher Ernie Whitt hits a two-run homer off Guidry. Boooo!
The Blue Jays, meanwhile, have chipped away at Guidry for two more runs and lead 4-1 in the seventh. Then they make two mistakes. The first is by Cliff Johnson, the designated hitter Toronto reacquired from Texas for the stretch drive. With two out and two on he steps in to face Guidry and proceeds to pull a George Foster. In again, out again, dreamily gazing at Guidry, who patiently straddles the rubber, waiting for this absurd stalling to cease. "On the bench we were saying, 'Don't do it. Cliff, don't make them mad,' " says Toronto's third baseman, Garth Iorg, later. To no avail. When Johnson steps back in, Guidry simply strikes him out with a hard slider on the hands.
In the Yanks' half of the seventh, with Willie Randolph on first, Bobby Meacham hits a one-out chopper to short that should end the inning. Blue Jay shortstop Tony Fernandez fields the ball cleanly about seven feet from second base, starts toward the bag, hesitates, then flips it—to no one. Second baseman Damaso Garcia has already cleared out so Fernandez can make the play himself. When Stieb, working on a two-hitter, walks the next man, Henderson, it marks his seventh base on balls. Shower time.
The next thing the Blue Jays know, the score is tied 4-4 and Dennis Lamp is pitching to Hassey. The panda-shaped catcher, a notorious low-ball hitter, then golfs a Lamp sinker into the third deck—a Ruthian three-run blast that gives Hassey six homers and 21 RBIs, including three game-winners, in his last 16 games. The Yanks have scored six runs on three hits in the inning. "All week I've been hearing rumors Hassey might be traded for Seaver," says Martin afterward. "He ain't going nowhere."
The 7-5 loss reduces the Blue Jays' lead to a game and a half. In the Blue Jays' locker room Fernandez, a Dominican, shouts, "¬°No hablo inglés!" when asked about the botched double play. He happens to speak English very well. What we have here is what he and Garcia had out there: a failure to communicate.
FRIDAY, SEPT. 13
Before tonight's anthems the Yankees attempt to civilize their fans by reminding them that Canada is an American ally that lent considerable help during the Iranian hostage crisis a few years ago. A few Pinstripe diehards remember back that far and applaud politely. But most of the crowd isn't buying. "O Canada!" Boooo!
That's when the booing should have started. On the night Phil Niekro is seeking his 300th win—a milestone that seems all the greater because of the game's importance to both teams—the shabbiest baseball of the week is played. Toronto wins 3-2, and all three runs are unearned. The first two score on a rare error by first baseman Don Mattingly—only his fourth this year—a walk and a single to left that Ken Griffey misplays into a triple. The winning run comes around as the result of a dropped third strike, a stolen base with a throwing error tagged on and a bloop single. On top of everything else, the game slogs along for three hours and 13 minutes.
The only highlights are Niekro—who guttily hangs in for nine innings—and Toronto reliever Tom Henke, who strikes out three in the final 1‚Öî innings to pick up his 12th save since being recalled from Syracuse on July 28. Early in the year he was pitching before 500 people in the International League. Tonight he mowed them down at Yankee Stadium, cool as a Missouri mule, before a crowd of 53,303. Henke, 27, was plucked from the Texas Rangers organization last winter as compensation for Texas's signing of Cliff Johnson, and he has been the top man out of the Blue Jays' high-priced bullpen (Lamp, Gary Lavelle, Bill Caudill) for the last month and a half. Tonight is also his fifth anniversary. He figures his wife, Kathy, watched the game back home in Taos, Mo. (pop. 759). The folks in Taos will be able to read all about it in a few days. A bulletin board outside Eikens' general store provides TOM-HENKE NEWS. Henke sends his wife his newspaper clippings, and she tacks them up so the whole town can share in his success.
SATURDAY, SEPT. 14
This anthem business is really getting to be an adventure. Tonight, after another patriotic speech by the public address announcer urging respect for U.S. allies, someone named Mary O'Dowd steps to the microphone, purses her lips, and begins to belt out O Canada in some strange tune that vaguely resembles America the Beautiful She then forgets the words. Stopping, O'Dowd apologizes to the Great White North and starts over—this time with a crib sheet. The melody, unfortunately, continues to elude her. This could mean war.
With the score tied 2-2 in the sixth, Iorg flares a one-out pop to right that glances off the heel of second baseman Rex Hudler's glove as he dives. Base hit, the first that reliever Rich Bordi has allowed since being called into the game with one out in the fifth. From the dugout pops Martin. Three of the next four Blue Jays are lefties, so Martin calls for his southpaw stopper, Dave Righetti, for the 69th time this year. "Bordi has trouble with lefthanders," an embattled Martin says afterward. "I'd do the same thing in that situation 100 times."
It doesn't work because Righetti can't find the plate at first, throwing six straight balls. When he finally does get the range, Toronto hammers him for a double and two singles. Arm weary? Martin, never known to have a light touch with his pitching staff, has been getting Righetti up as early as the fifth or sixth inning for weeks. The pitcher looks exhausted. Brian Fisher, taking over, surrenders a two-run single to Cliff Johnson that caps the five-run inning, and the Blue Jays coast to a 7-4 win, getting nine strong innings from 24-year-old Jim Key. Their lead is now 3½ games.
An evening that started off on a sour note could hardly end otherwise. Steinbrenner spends much of the ninth inning ripping his team to the press, accusing the Yanks of choking under the pressure and being "out-played, out-front-officed, out-managed and out-ownered." He's particularly miffed that Martin brought Righetti into the game so early. Turning his wrath on Winfield, who has gone 1 for 8, including a double play, in the back-to-back Yankee losses, Steinbrenner says: "Where's Reggie Jackson? We need a Mr. October or a Mr. September. Dave Winfield is Mr. May." Finally, the inevitable pronouncement: "Furthermore, from now on no one except Robert Merrill sings the national anthem here without my permission."
SUNDAY, SEPT. 15
Newsflash: Merrill sings Canadian anthem without incident. Can-Am relations normalized.
But that is more than can be said for Yankee-Steinbrenner relations. Baylor, upset at being platooned, approached general manager Clyde King yesterday and asked to be traded. Winfield's feelings are hurt. He doesn't like being called Mr. May. "I can't help it if they're annoyed," says Steinbrenner as game time approaches. "I get annoyed when I have to sign their big fat paychecks. I pay Winfield $1.2 million to play this game. I pay Baylor $1.1 million. That's big money for big games. I'll tell you what Mattingly's problem has been in this series. They've been pitching around him to get to Winfield. I'm not mad at anyone."
The Blue Jays score six third-inning runs on five singles and two doubles, the final and eventual winning run trotting home from second when shortstop Meacham launches a moonshot relay into the third row of the lower boxes. The Yankees' pitching is bad, the fielding awful, the coaching inept. With one out in the fourth, Toronto up 6-0, Yankee third-base traffic cop Gene Michael waves home Mattingly, who's thrown out by 10 feet. And, finally, their hitting is virtually nonexistent until the game is out of reach. Doyle Alexander (16-8), who is now 40-20 since getting his unconditional release from the Yanks in June 1983, shuts out his former teammates on three hits through seven innings until he tires. Henke mops up the 8-5 game.
"Letting him go was a mistake," says Steinbrenner, "and so was letting Reggie go. We don't have the clutch hitters we had in '78. That's the biggest difference."
No, it's not. Winfield's got 101 RBIs. Mattingly has 125. Baylor 83. That's enough clutch hitting for any team with pitching, which the Yankees don't have. After the game the Yanks announced the acquisition of Phil Niekro's brother, 40-year-old Joe, from the Houston Astros. Though Joe should help the situation, the three straight losses have left the Yanks 4½ back and reeling in disharmony. How long ago that 29-5 stretch seems.
In the Toronto dressing room, the mood is quietly buoyant. Before the largest four-game homestand in AL history—214,510—the young Blue Jays had taken the House that Ruth Built and made it their own, bouncing back from Stieb's loss in the opening game. "We've got a lot of aces," manager Bobby Cox says. "We've always been able to bounce back from a tough loss because we've got good players and good pitching."
Superb pitching—pitching that made a shambles of the loud bats down the hall. One thing's for sure. Connie Mack never told a lie.