All across the land prayers have been answered and miracles performed in this almost-Biblical baseball season. The meek have inherited first place.
"How long, O Lord? Wilt thou forget me forever?" cried the psalmists of Chicago. And lo, the the All-Star break has come to pass and the Cubs and White Sox dwell on the holy hill.
"Judge us, O Lord, according to our righteousness," implored the Baltimore Orioles, their hands clean of the fee-agent money-changing. Now behold, Earl Weaver's batting order of a few small fishes and his pitching staff of seven loaves have fed a multitude of fans and sent them away satified.
But what of the proud Reds and rich Yankees? Truly, they have sunk in the pit they made. In the net that they hid, their own foot has been caught. This is the fate of those who have foolish confidence, the end of those who are pleased with their portion.
Verily, the final revelations of this baseball season are going to have a devil of a time keeping up with their genesis.
Since the first days of spring training when the New York Yankees locker room first started sounding like the Tower of Babel and Lenny Randel came down on Frank Luochesi like a plague of boils, this season has been almost overripe with parables.
Whether it was Reggie Jackson and Thurman Munson hitting it off like Cain and Abel, or the misnamed Angles and Padres trying to buy a pennant and ending up in fifth place, it has been tempting to see this season in moral rather than athletic terms.
Money, as often as errors, has been cited as the root of defeat, and good-will among teammates regularly gets as much back-slapping credit in victory as the winning pitcher. Any day a manager should say. "We're only four behind in the all-important sin column."
Baseball thrives on the illusion that the old ballpark is just a big playground for good and evil. Box office booms when the game seems to tread a high wire of myth and barely veiled morality.
However, baseball makes its judgments over a brutally long haul. Talent and character will ultimately have their say. But it will be talent tested under pressure and near-exhaustion. And the character of spring and early summer - when mediocre players are bouyed by teammates' chatter and the stands' roar - will have to be replaced by the lonely fortitude of September when mistakes that were forgotten quickly in June will suddenly be remembered for a lifetime.
Two factors in particular bring a rich anticipation to the rest of the year. First, all four division races seem to have been set up like a handicap race arranged by a Hollywood producer.
The Goliath with the most obvious capability of trampling the David ahead of him - Cincinnati - has been given the greatest weight to overcome - 8 1/2 games. The other defending champions - New York, Kansas City and Philadelphia - are just far enough back (3, 2 1/2 and 2 games) so that even if they get hot and take the lead by a few games, they will be given a chance to fade in the stretch.
"I own a race horse that stops as soon as another horse catches up with him," said Phillie pitcher Jim Kaat, obviously hoping to unnerve the Cubs, on whom his team is gaining fast. But it is also true that Cubs that have to fight for months, as Philadelphia and Kansas City have, to make up big deficits, often find themselves drained when they reach the top and become a tame prey.
The Yanks have stayed titillatingly close to first place, just near enough so that the endless storms that surround manager Billy Martin have battered the club to the maximum. If Martin has been fired early, or if the team has jumped far ahead, New York would have saved much emotional strain. As it is, the Yanks have live through a 100 day nervous breakdown already with no end in sight.
The other factor that makes the true fan tingle with the hope of a 10-way stretch drive so taut and confusing that it is beyond compare, is the recent memory of the '69 Mets. Those amazing orphans reinformed the hot-stove wisdom that baseball teams can travel further on inspiration, fan support, teamwork and hustle than those in other sports.
To see the origins of this year's hoopla in all four divisions at once, and to guess at the future, the two best places to look may be on the mound and in the mind.
All four displaced flag winners have suffered from similar complaints - shaky pitching and the shaken morale than accompanies it.
Cincinnati, one of the most fearsome lineups for average, power, speed and defense in history, is the classic example. Though Tom Seaver (10-5), Fred Norman (9-5) and Pedro Borbon (3.01) fight on, the retirement of tough lefty Woody Fryman who quit rather than be booed in his twilight years, may have been the Reds death blow.
Just as the Reds were skittish about losing a clubhouse patriarch in Tony Perez, the Phils missed Dave Cash. But what the Blitz Kids missed far more were the 30 victories in '76 by salvaged veterans Kaat and Jim Lonborg, a pair who now total five wins. Lonborg's seven-hitter Friday looked like a way out of Egypt.
The Yankee pitching crisis, however, is just reaching a head with Cat-fish Hunter's complaint this week - "We don't have a pitching rotation" - the signal for everyone to chose up sides.
Ed Figueroa and Mike Torrez like Martin's idea of a four-man rotation from now on. Hunter, because of age, and Don Gullett, because of fragility, prefer five. Ron Guidry, 158 pounds, may become Skeleton Man working with three days rest. And Ken Holtzman has joined the Foreign Legion.
Kansas City's best hope against Minnesota and Chicago, who are running even with Cincinnati for the major league lead in runs and average, is that the Twins and Chisox will stop winning 9-8 when choke time comes.
Four fascinating chapters of the closing months will be the gospels according to Sparky, Bruce, Bill and Charlie. The four premier relief pitchers in baseball have been received like messiahs in New York, Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles this year, but some think that Sparky Lyle, Bruce Sutter, Bill Campbell and Charlie Hough will all end up being crucified. Each is a one-man bullpen.
All have worked between 85 and 88 innings already - far more than they ever have in a year before - and each has lost his aura of invincibility in a shower of hits in the last two weeks.
Already this baseball season seems to have offered more than a full year of lore.
Cheers of jubilation have rung out across the country as the suddenly awakened natives of one baseball city after another have tried to outscream each other.
The Dodgers opened the season with a string of victories that knocked the Red a dozen games behind the eight ball.It seemed to be the machine-gun fire of a new-guard revolution.
When the Chicago Cubs surpassed the Dodgers 30-10 start with a 31-10 blitz of their own, the word was out: anything could happen if the Cubs could have the best record in the game.
Boston hit 33 homers in 10 games, then immediately lost nine in a row. The Cubs found themselves 8 1/2 games ahead, then blinked twice and saw that margin cut to one. Baltimore lost six in a row, was pronounced dead, then woke up three weeks later in first place again.
The running gag throughout the years' first 90 games was the entire Yankee team. Of all the millionaires, Reggie Jackson seemed to try hardest to make himself look clownish. If he wasn't getting pelted by hot dogs in Baltimore, or being booed for his fielding in Yankee Stadium, he was refusing to shake hands with his teammates after a home run, or trying to avoid being punched by his manager.
Martin's luck ran so bad that his team's longest winning streak came when he picked the lineup out of a hat. His knack for trouble was so perfect that he even started a feud with a player on another team - Nolan Ryan - when he originally decided to leave the leading winner in the majors off the All-Star team. So what if Ryan was striking people out at a 400 pace?
Throughout baseball, among fans and players, the feeling is afoot that 1977 - the season of rabbit balls, expansion, failed free agents and overthrown champions - has some special disposition toward craziness.
Surely, somewhere in the recesses of Proverbs it must be written that the American League will win the All-Star Game and the Cubs and Orioles will meet in the World Series.