The sky above Memorial Stadium was pale blue and utterly empty today. Not even a cloud could get in free. The air was an ideal, invigorating autumnal 70 degrees. Scientists might call such conditions "standard temperature and pressure." Baseball fans, however, would call this fervid pennant-race afternoon one of raging high fever and almost unbearable pressure.
Occasionally, what should happen does happen.
Today in Memorial Stadium, it did.
On the penultimate day of a gloriously improbable pennant race, the Baltimore Orioles, baseball's symbol of intelligence and economy, finally caught the mighty Milwaukee Brewers, symbol of numbing slugging power.
Now, after this day's 11-3 Oriole victory over Milwaukee, the two teams with the best records in baseball, the two clubs that have battled each other for six months, find themselves breathlessly deadlocked after 161 games at 94-67. These Orioles and Brewers will meet one more time here on Sunday at 3:05 p.m..
The starting pitchers will be two gentlemen with serious claims on bronze busts in Cooperstown: Baltimore's 263-game winner Jim Palmer, who's won 13 of his last 14 decisions, and Milwaukee's Don Sutton, winner of 257 games. All this in the final regular-season game of the final season of the Orioles' manager, Earl Weaver.
To the winner goes the American League East Division championship.
If that winner be Baltimore, then the Orioles will also find a splendid place in baseball history. No club since the professional game first breathed in 1869 has ever swept a season-ending, four-game series to win a championship by one game.
To stretch the point still further, Baltimore would have gained five games in the standings in the final five contests of the season; that, too, would be a first in baseball annals.
"We've gone from extinction to a tie for first place in less than 48 hours," said a stunned Hank Peters, Baltimore's general manager, recalling how bleak the team's chances looked before they scored four last-gasp runs in the ninth inning to beat the Tigers in Detroit, 6-5, Thursday night.
More than that. When the final Brewer out this afternoon was recorded at 5:25 p.m., it meant that Baltimore had beaten Milwaukee three times in just a few minutes less than 24 hours.
To Sunday's loser will go a winter of the bitterest grief.
If that loser be the Brewers, then this exceptional team -- the club with the most staggering offensive statistics since the '52 Brooklyn Dodger Boys of Summer -- will run the risk of being remembered, and reminded forever, for having the worst late-season collapse on record.
It would be a spurious infamy -- simply the sort of star-crossed, uptight, five-game losing streak which any team can have, but one which, in this case, would come at the least propitious time imaginable. What has happened to the Brewers here has been so sudden, more like a series of natural disasters than baseball games, that somehow they hardly seem culpable.
As the Brewers left Memorial Stadium this evening, they had the look of 25 Androcles looking for the face of a friendly lion in this dizzy, deafening den.
"SWEEP, SWEEP, SWEEP," bellowed this standing crowd of 47,235 as the Brewers trudged to their quarters. Then, as usual, the chants of "O-R-I-O-L-E-S."
To say that the Brewers now face a colossal bit of soul-searching would be an understatement of the first order.
In these 24 Hours of The Oriole, the Baltimoreans have won, 8-3, 7-1 and, now, 11-3. Every time the Brewers have shown the least sign of resistance or will, the Orioles have redoubled their pummeling of the Brewers' suspect pitchers in their next at bat.
The most staggering statistic from these three games is that the Orioles have had 46 hits -- 18 of them today -- and 58 men on base in just 24 innings. Every time the Brewers look up, the bases are drunk with fowl. Sooner or later, somebody's got to score. Keep enough pressure on and accidents will happen.
Those who think such abnormalities cannot continue were not present in Fenway Park in September 1978 when, with similar stakes on the table, the New York Yankees humiliated Boston by a total score of 42-9 over four days. That was the Boston Massacre. This might be the Baltimore Bushwack.
Several unique psychological burdens hang over the Brewers' heads.
First, all evidence says that they simply play miserably against Baltimore. The Orioles have won nine of 12 meetings. Baltimore has hit .325 for the year against the Brewers while Milwaukee has batted just .238 against the Orioles. These Brewers, who dominate the lists of major league leaders in almost every statistical category, have 51 fewer base hits than Baltimore in their dozen meetings. The top five men in the Brewer order were two for 18 today.
Given all this, the Brewers, who've been in first place for the last 60 days, must ask themselves the gravest of all athletic questions between two fine teams: Given what has happened, do we really deserve to win?
At the moment, the Orioles -- who have gone 33-10, including 17 come-from-behind wins, since they began a sprint Aug 20--now have the sort of statistical aura that might bespeak superiority.
Next, the Brewers have been trying desperately to put on the skids ever since they arrived here.
"This has gone far enough," said Gorman Thomas before the game today.
"If there's such a thing as overconfidence," said Brewer General Manager Harry Dalton, "then we've pushed them to the brink."
The Brewers seem caught by the first baseball Law of Motion: over the long haul, the sport is a game of statistical norms, but, over the intense short haul of a pennant race, it's largely adrenaline, luck, momentum, unpredictability. In other words, this is the time of year for streaks, collapses, heroism. Ask the world champion Los Angeles Dodgers, who appeared to have the NL West wrapped up until they lost eight straight.
At one level, this weekend has been, and will be, just a jubilant gathering of the baseball fans and clans.
However, to the participants, it's a form of pastoral torture. Baltimore Manager Weaver, whose imminent retirement may be serving as an inspiration to his team, is so tight that you could play "Dueling Banjos" on the lines on his forehead.
Underneath all these major chords, this symphony of a final showdown has one tantalizingly bizarre leitmotif.
None of this should ever have happened.
Back in June, Milwaukee catcher Ted Simmons thought that a John Lowenstein strikeout had ended an inning, so, he casually rolled the ball back toward the mound. Before Simmons realized there were only two outs, a pair of Baltimore runners had advanced a base. The next man singled home two runs, instead of just one. The game ended in a 2-2 tie instead of a 2-1 Milwaukee victory, when rains arrived after nine innings.
But for that tie, which was replayed here as part of Friday's doubleheader, the Brewers would already be AL East champions.
Baseball historians will instantly note the similarity of the famous Merkle Boner of 1908 when Fred Merkle cost the New York Giants a midseason victory over the Chicago Cubs when he neglected to touch first base after an apparent game-winning hit. Instead of a victory, the game went down as a tie and the Giants, forced to replay the contest at season's end, lost the pennant to the Cubs by a single game.
Perhaps such plays, such baseball miracles, come along once in a lifetime.