If everybody loves a three-ring, September pennant-race circus, then what about a 13-ring four-division mad-house?
Ever since baseball switched to four division in 1969, one giddly, lucrative thought has danced at the edge of baseball's collective consciousness: What if all four divisions went berserk at once?
What if virtually every September game on the entire calender had a hearing on one race or another?
What if each morning's paper brought a multitude of box scores, each worthy of minute dissection?
Baseball may finally have it's fall dream of nonstop nuttiness. Never have so many teams been tangled in such marvelous congestion so late in a season:
Seven teams are either in first place or within two games of the lead.
Two other clubs - the sentimental favorite Chicago Cubs and the world champion New York Yankees - are within five games of first with excellent prospects for advancement.
Three more power-hitting teams - Cincinnati, Milwaukee and Texas - are within 7 1/2 games of first with head-to-head meetings with the leaders that still allow them to dream of miracle slugging finishes.
Only once before in baseball history - in 1974 - did all four division races stay reasonably close to the end, with all four eventual champs winning by five games or less.
Nevertheless, this season's prospects for mayhem are unsurpassed.
Almost every conceivable scenario is being offered simultaneously.
The best team in baseball - the Boston Red Sox (.625) - are threatened by collapse - riddled by injuries to their potent hitters and worn thin in starting pitching.
The old world champs from New York, rid of their albatross manager, have won 23 of 41 games under Bob Lemon and are in perfect health and spirits.
Can the Yanks overcome what was once a 14-game deficit? Will New England be deflowered again?
"Sure, Boston's got a world of problems," said Baltimore veteran Mark Belanger yesterday, "but they've also got a five-game lead and that's a lot more than it seems like.
"The Yanks have to play great and Boston's got to play flat-out awful to blow it," said Belanger. "September's only got 30 days. Every time Boston thinks, 'Maybe we're gonna choke it,' something will come along to help them - a fluke win, a Yankee loss they don't expect. Almost everything's in their favor."
Don't tell that to the silent Sox whose spikes drag along the locker-room floor these days like chains in a dungeon. Just to help the Sox unravel, Yankee stopper Ron Guidry (20-2) said yesterday, "Now that the cooler weather is here I may start more often . . . I won't always need four days rest."
The Yankees, who have a slight edge over Boston in schedule difficulty, may need a less-than-rested Guidry to keep the likes of Jim Beattie and Dick Tidrow out of the starting retation. Guidry is even slated to start is Fenway Park this weekend, that hill-hole for southpaws that he usually avoids.
This year's Baseball Theater of the Absurd cries out for one total El Foldo. The team that figured to win its division most easily, Phildephia, is trying hard to oblige.
The Phil's 11 1/2 game lead over the speedy, weak-hitting Pittsburgh Pirates has dwindled to one game as the Biles have managed to win 21 of their last 24 games-a phenomenal streak from a team that seems a brick shy of a pad in most every category.
The Phils have dawdled at 500 all season waiting for someone to scare them to death. Sone finally is. Phil Manager Danny Ozark has pushed every available panic button-batting slugger Mike Schmidt at leadoff, getting in an argument last week with Gary Maddox over the center-fielder's refusal to play hurt and cooking up one bizarre batting order after another.
Ozark tears his hair when he thinks of his mutinous pitching. After watching Jim Longborg win his first game since June 28 Monday, Ozark said, "He did as well as I expected . . . Don't ask me when I'm going to start him again." Wouldn't Ozark love Bert Blyleven and Jon Candelaria.?
The Pirates' ace in the holes is the final series of the season-the Phils must come to Pittsburgh for the last three games.
"I'm betting on Pittsburgh," said St. Louis manager Ken Boyer.
If the Cubbies ever had an invitation to steal a pennat, this is the year. Chicago has 10 games left with the Phils and Pirates, but the other 15 are all with losing teams. Split with the contenders; whup the bums. It's a tested formula.
For humor and dramatic contrast, the Dodgers-vs-Giants war in the NL West is the best race. The hug-each other Los Angeles chaps can't stop arguing. Manager Tom Lasorda and injured catcher Steve Yeager reportedly had a rift Sunday.
Lasorda asked Yeager to relieve starter Joe Ferguson in midgame, but Yeager allegedly refused and Lasorda made him leave the dugout. After a closed clubhouse meeting, Johnny Oates was used as Ferguson's backup Monday. Naughty, naugty. Were the Dodgefs overexposed to the Yanks last October?
San Francisco by contrast remains loosey-goosey. "We're supposed to be 30 games behind by how," said Giant star Jack Clark. "What do we have to worry about?"
The Giants have a gentle schedule and a hidden weapon-Cincinnati Manager Sparky Anderson.
Cincinnati has 11 games left with L. A. and San Francisco. Reds don't like the Dodgers. Managers have swung pennat races before with their suble pitching selections. Who gets to see Tom Seaver twice down the stretch? Bet it's the Dodgers, not the Giants.
Baseball's ugly-duckling race is the AL West. How can anybody in good conscience care about Kansas City and California?
Five teams in the AL East have had better records almost all season than any club in the West. It's enough to make quality East teams like Milwaukee, Baltimore and Detroit scream. "Where's the wild care in this deal?"
The Royals will probably finish with the fifth or sixth best record in the AL and yet make the playoffs. California has just started a brutal 15-game-in-15 day collision with K. C. and Texas.
While California butts heads with the Royals-then-Rangers-then-Royals-then-Rangers, the Kansas Citians will use the days in between to fatten up on Seattle and Oakland.
The Angeld desperately need a comback from the injured Nolan Ryan. Otherwise, they could be the first team to bow out of this long-awaited and perhaps unparalleled September.