Burt Hooton staggered off the mound in Philadelphia a week ago. He had just walked three straight men with the bases loaded in a playoff game.
In the Los Angeles Dodger dugout Hooton looked his manager Tommy Lasorda in the eye and said pleadingly. "Skip, this is the first time this has ever happened to me."
Lasorda, an old pitcher, told his hurler that that was what John Dillinger had said when he was dying.
Already in this baseball postseason a great many major leaguers have had the sensation that they were dying. Others have felt positively exalted, as though they had found extra strength. The reason in both cases is: pressure.
"Pressure is the reason you see so many great plays in the playoffs and World Series," said the New York Yankees veteran Roy White. "Your concentration is deeper, your effort is total.
"But," he paused for an uncharateristic snicker, "that's also the reason you see so many unbelievably awful plays."
Baseball is really two sports - the summer game and the October game.
During the regular season ballplayers refuse to discuss the word pressure. It is taboo. "What's pressure? Something in your own head," they say. "Pressure is something you do to yourself."
We say there is always tomorrow," White said, smiling. "And that's true most of the time. Usually there are 50 tomorrows."
But this is the month when players must face up to a new vocabulary. Mike Torrez was asked after his third game victory over the Dodgers if his seven-hitter had been a "must" game.
Torrez looked at his interrogator with amazement. "This is the World Series." he said. "There's nothing but 'must' games left."
This year's half-finished Series, and the playoffs before them, have seemed riveting because the unexpected has happened constantly.
In the eight-through-12th innings of the World Series opener, the Yankee butchered five consecutive sacrific bunt attempts - the simplest of fensive play in baseball.
"We couldn't believe it," said Paul Blair, a superb bunter who failed to get a ball down in four lunges. "Even though I got the game-winning hit after the bunt sign was off. I still fell like I failed. I didn't do my job."
That strange, haunting mixture of emotion usually occurs only in a World Series. Blair should have felt jubilation: instead he was disturbed. He had failed in his assigned objective. Pressure had, in some sense won.
"The only way I can explain it," said Blair, "is that at this time of year emotions seems to take over. You can almost tell what's going to happen before it happens."
In the last inning of the fifth AL playoff game. Blair, a notoriously awful hitter against fast-balling righthanders, put together a magnificently determined at-bat against Kansas City's 20-game winner. Dennis Leopard, and ended up with a handle-hit single.
"Even though it was just a leadoff hit and we were a run behind," said Blair, "when I got to first base (coach) Bobby Cox hugged me and practically lifted me up.
"You just won it for us, he told me, and he was right."
For ever Blair, there is a Hooton who can barely believe what was befallen him.
"It was a nightmare I was out of control.The crowd got to me and I lost my poise," said Hooton, a candid Texan, who appreciated Lasorda's mild chewing out.
"I kept saying, 'Lordy, just let me get an easy out and get out of this inning and I'll be all right.'"
However, Hooton learned his lesson. In his Series start in Game 2 he got an early lead and challenged the entire Yankee order with his knuckle curves. The plate never danced. The strike zone did not shrink. The umpire's face behind the mask did not begin to look like a leering sadist.
But if the bases are ever loaded again and the count reaches three bails, can he ever forget?
Ironically, the good, the bad and the ugly can be combined in one play. The single outstanding gem of this postseason is probably the diving stop of a Cnris Chambliss grounder made by Kansas City's Frank White in the eighth inning of the fifth playoff game.
If the run-saving play had secured a 3-2 Kansas City victory, it would now be known as the $8 million Force Out, since White is the only product of the $8 million Royals' baseball academy playing for the Royals.
"It's probably the best play he ever made in his life," said one Yankee.
Yet White stood, practically paralyzed, on the same play. He held the ball so long to be sure of his 30-foot throw to second that Reggie Jackson almost beat the play and ended up spiking Fred Patek.
Aside from the mound, perhaps the most illustrative pressure point on the diamond is third base. It's called the hot corner because things happen fast there and thinking is generally dangerous to one's health.
Four of baseball's best have taken their gloves to third this October and each has been burned. The Yank's Graig Nettles has played two routine grounders so cautiously that less than blazing runners have beaten his throws to first.
KC's George Brett let a bases-loaded grounder go between his feet for two runs; then, in the last inning of the Royals' season, he overthrew first by close to 100 feet, letting a vital Yankee insurance run score.
LA's Ron Cey, whose problem has always been low throws, pegged one a mile over first in the playoffs, then dropped an important grounder in Series Game 3. "It just couldn't reach that ball." said Cey of Friday's muff. Many a player's arm shrinks in the fall.
Perhaps the most fascinating pressure play so far was the triple-jeopardy ground ball that could have ended the Phils-Dodgers third game and might have swung the playoffs to the Phils.
Mike Schmidt, reputedly the NL's best third baseman, played Dave Lopes' two-out, ninth-inning ground smash as though he were a fire hydrant. The ball ricocheted into the shortstop hole. Larry Bowa short-hopped the ball barehanded (think about that), and made a one-motion peg to first that only desperation and adrenelian could create. The play was too good to believe.
And the first-base umpire didn't.
Replays showed Lopez was out by 2.765 inches. The Phils should have won. But Lopes was called safe, a most forgivable error on a play so close. "The ump couldn't believe I did it," moaned Bowa. "He called the play before it was over. It was an impossible play, so he already had Lopes safe in his mind."
"We all know that the key to these games is aggressiveness." said Dodger Johnny Oates. "You can let a bad team beat itself. But between great teams, the one that gets the initiative will usually win. So everybody is jacking everybody else up to take an extra base, make a great play, strike out the side.
"But when you're that fired up, you're right on the edge of falling on your face.
'I'm sure if baseball had a way to run off tackle, or kill the clock, or be conservative, like they always seem to do in the Super Bowl, we'd fall into it. It's human nature to be cautious.
"But there's really no way to do that in baseball. We all know that the only way to win is to take it to the other guy."
So the great and the god-awful go gloriously together. Dusty Baker gets trapped off base, but turns himself, inside out to avoid Chris Chambliss tag and get back safely. Chambliss, who may not have left a base path unguarded since Little League, is left with a ball he wishes he could eat.
Pitchers are the worst. Both Tommy John of LA and Torrez agree they were knocked out of their first postseason start just because it was their first time with a new experience.
"Basebal is a game of acquired skills and finesse," explained White. "The rush of strength you sometimes feel isn't always good. You find yourself over swinging or pitching out of control."
So in October 60 million fans get to watch the horrified Phillies in the ninth; or Hooton in a jam; or the Royal's Larry Gura in over his head, or the Yanks messing up those five sacrifice bunts.
But pressure also gives us Mickey Rivers climbing a fence, White sprawled in the dust behind second. John throwing strike after knee-high strike in the rain. Blair fouling two-strike fast balls, or Torrez punching his way out of a knockout corner with fast balls and sliders.
The summer game is grand. But sometimes the October game is just a little bit better.