If you're Pittsburgh Pirate manager Jim Leyland, today is the first day of the rest of your life and today is the first day of the rest of your season. So while you have forsworn coffee and cigarettes, you are pounding tea from a Gatorade cup as you prepare to torch an English Corona, the utility pole you call a cigar. You're losing hair, you're losing weight, you're losing sleep. And somewhere you're probably losing ground in the National League East race.
"Ten days, four cities, at this time of year," said Leyland with a sigh through his stogie one recent morning. "We all get tired. I assume writers do, too."
Exhausted. Which is why it seemed such a good idea to hole up in Chicago's Wrigley Field last week and watch the division race come marching through.
MONDAY, SEPT. 17
September 30, 1990
The parade begins tomorrow, when the first-place Pirates arrive at Wrigley to play three straight games against the Cubs, defending champs of the National League East, now reduced to the role of spoilers. Pittsburgh will be followed into town by the second-place New York Mets, who will play a four-game set.
Of course, this is not a race in the traditional sense: Both racers, separated by half a game, are standing still, and the finish line is moving at them. The Pirates have lost five straight games as they land in Chicago. New York has just dropped two of three at home to the Philadelphia Phillies. But during seven days in the Friendly Confines, perhaps one team's hopes will ripen—and the other's will die—on the outfield vines.
TUESDAY, SEPT. 18
WELCOME TO THE NEW WRIGLEY FIELD—OUR FAVORITE TEAM, THE PITTSBURGH PIRATES. The words have been penned on the message board in the visitors' clubhouse by Otis, the tip-seeking visitors' clubhouse man. Beneath the message board, the Pirates have affixed to the wall a battered Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles poster, this season's talisman.
On a 2-5 road trip, you are happy to have brought along such keepsakes from home. Alas, you are less happy to have brought lefthander John Smiley, whom the Cubs touch for six runs in the first inning. As this one is over before it's over, the Pirates' collective unpatched eye wanders to the carnival that is the Wrigley scoreboard to see what is happening in New York, where the Mets are playing the Expos. Which isn't to say that the Pirates are scoreboard watching, a forbidden pastime among contenders.
"When it comes down to this, you've got to be looking," says Pittsburgh pitcher Doug Drabek, "but you don't want to sit and scoreboard watch or you'll be worrying about that game and not your own."
"You don't even have to look for the [Mets] score," says rightfielder Bobby Bonilla. "You'll see it soon enough. Every time you turn on the TV, it's there."
The Pirates are undressing in the clubhouse after their 8-5 loss when word reaches them that Montreal has scored a run in the ninth inning to beat the Mets 4-3. Pittsburgh still leads New York by half a game, but Montreal has crept to within 4½ games of first. Leyland has, shall we say, noticed this—not that he has been following the action elsewhere.
"There's a difference between scoreboard watching and noticing the score on the scoreboard," he is quick to point out. "If you stare up at it all day, you're in trouble. But you know what's going on up there. And anybody who says he doesn't is probably BS-ing you."
WEDNESDAY, SEPT. 19
There will be no scoreboard noticing in Chicago this afternoon: The Mets-Expos game is at night. The Pirates arrive at Wrigley in the morning to find that the names above their lockers have been changed to nicknames. There is Bucket-head (second baseman Jose Lind) and First Half (pitcher Neal Heaton, who had 10 of his 12 wins before the All-Star break) and Charlie Manson (third baseman Jeff King, whose face looks like the driver's license photo you didn't choose).
For a team that is only 9-9 in September, Pittsburgh is having a delightful time. "Sure we are," says Drabek. "This is what you play for. We'd like to have a big lead, but we don't, so...."
So they make do with small leads and small jokes. Pitcher Jerry Reuss tells an idling reporter that" 'working press' must be kind of like 'military intelligence' and 'jumbo shrimp.' "
Drabek gets his 20th win as the Pirates beat the Cubs 8-7. Leftfielder Barry Bonds, the league's leading MVP candidate, hits two home runs, the first of which gives him 30 for the season and puts him in the 30-30 club for homers and stolen bases. That's why his locker identifies Bonds as Statman and why he now talks endlessly of his accomplishments. How will he celebrate? "I'll go back to the hotel and watch Montreal and New York," says Bonds. "It's nice to sit down and watch the other guys play."
Not until Leyland returns to the Westin Hotel after dinner does he hear that New York and Montreal have been rained out. Leyland, who looks naturally gaunt and haggard, now looks unnaturally gaunt and haggard. "What the hell am I supposed to look like," he says, "the first day of spring training? When you've got all your hair, all your weight?" At his current rate of weight and hair loss, says Leyland, it won't be long before he becomes a hideous hybrid of "Don Knotts and Telly Savalas."
THURSDAY, SEPT. 20
Carlos Garcia, a September call-up and the only Pirate who has not appeared in a game, hands an Instamatic to Orlando Merced, who snaps a photo of Garcia—behind the batting cage at Wrigley Field in a pennant race. No other ballpark inspires such boyishness. "When it's 75 and sunny in Wrigley," says the Pirates' Andy Van Slyke, "all you feel like doing after the game is going for ice cream."
It is 75 and sunny at game time. Van Slyke homers in the first, and Pittsburgh leads 4-0 after two innings. New York, meanwhile, has taken a 4-2 lead over Montreal through seven innings of the first game of their doubleheader at Shea Stadium. But at 2:35 Central Daylight Time, a large 4 is hung in the square representing the Expo half of the eighth in New York on the hand-operated Wrigley scoreboard. Fourteen thousand nine hundred and twenty-six fans applaud for 20 seconds. "I didn't realize that everybody hated the Mets in Chicago, too," Van Slyke says later.
In the eighth inning of what will be an 11-2 Pittsburgh win, Garcia pinch-hits for Lind and lines the first major league pitch ever thrown to him sharply into right-field for a single. He is given the baseball and, God willing, will later get a Polaroid of the swing.
The Mets will be shut out 2-0 in the second game of their doubleheader by a rookie named Chris Nabholz. The Bucs don't know this yet, but they will lead New York by 2½ games when they go in sleep tonight.
"Let's go," shouts Otis, the visitors' clubhouse man as the Pirates prepare to leave for the airport. "We've got half an hour till our favorite team pulls out and our least favorite team pulls in."
FRIDAY, SEPT. 21
WELCOME TO THE NEW WRIGLEY FIELD—OUR FAVORITE TEAM, THE NEW YORK METS. Otis has made a minor revision of his message-board handiwork. "We love you guys, we love you guys," he says as the Mets file in.
"Sure you do, Otis," says New York pitcher Bob Ojeda.
Cub manager Don Zimmer has selected someone from his bullpen named Steve Wilson to start today. Wilson's primary qualification for the assignment is that he was born with an arm on the left side of his body, a trait the Mets frequently find baffling. "Any lefthander looks like Cy Young against us," says Mets manager Bud Harrelson. "Was Cy Young lefthanded? No? Any lefthander looks like Sandy Koufax against us."
At precisely 1:20, the game's scheduled starting time, white smoke billows from the New York dugout. Either the Mets have just elected a new Pope, or Harrelson has set off another string of firecrackers to, as he puts it, "get the bats going." New York gets four hits, with the wind blowing out, and loses 4-3 to Wilson.
"What can I say?" says the Mets' Darryl Strawberry. "I don't understand it. It's very confusing this season."
SATURDAY, SEPT. 22
The pregame show for CBS's national telecast of the Pittsburgh-St. Louis game comes on the two TVs in the New York clubhouse, and Strawberry turns the volume way up. This, dear diary, could be quite entertaining. Studio host Pat O'Brien says Pittsburgh has "taken command" in the division. No reaction from the audience of Mets. O'Brien asks Van Slyke via satellite what has been the "glue" holding the Pirates together through their losing stretch. "I would have to say the Mets," says Van Slyke. Nothing. Tim McCarver comes on and concedes the division to Pittsburgh while mentioning that the Mets have a "magical number of their own—a five-game losing streak."
"Tim McCarver: 'The Mets are done,' " says shortstop Howard Johnson. "Thanks, Tim," comes another voice. By the time CBS shows a tape of Pirate fans purchasing playoff and World Series tickets, a small chorus of raspberries can be heard in the clubhouse. CBS then rolls a tape of Bonds stealing his 50th base on Friday night, which made him the second alltime member (along with Cincinnati's Eric Davis) of the 30-50 club. Bonds is shown uprooting second base in midgame and sauntering off the field with it. The Statmonger does not go over big here. "Wonder if he'll keep a base today when he joins the 30-51 club," says one Met.
Harrelson forsakes the fireworks today, and so do the Mets until the fifth inning, when they score six runs to take an 8-2 lead. This is shortly after they see that Pittsburgh had lost 3-2 to the Cardinals and, according to Strawberry, someone on the bench announced. "It's time to go to work." New York goes on to win 11-5 and cut the Pirates' lead to 2½ games. Strawberry, who hit his 36th homer in the fifth inning, says afterward, "We're going to win it." Then, after a pause: "I'm not going to tell you we're going to lose, that's for damn sure."
Strawberry is right: It's very confusing this season.
SUNDAY, SEPT. 23
If you hadn't spent the last six days in Friendly Confinement, you might think the Mets, who hammered the Cubs 7-3 today, were the Mets of old. Dwight Gooden struck out nine and won his 18th game. Strawberry hit his 37th homer to take a share of the league lead and break a scoreless tie in the sixth, and six more runs quickly followed. "Ever since I've been here, even when we had [Gary] Carter and [Keith] Hernandez, if Straw hits, everybody feeds off him," says Gooden.
But Pittsburgh put a 7-2 pasting on its opponent, St. Louis, to remain 2½ games in front. On Monday, in the series finale, the Mets will leave nine runners stranded in the last four innings, and lose to the Cubs 4-3, to drop three behind the Bucs.
"All I know," says Chicago first baseman Mark Grace, "is one of 'em is taking our title away. They both laid some pretty good whippings on us. They both look pretty good tome."
Yet with nine games to play, these Mets of old are not even the Mets of a week ago, when their deficit was a mere half game. "You've got to think positive," says Gooden as a very confusing season nears its conclusion. "I'd like to be in the Pirates' position, though."