The cruelest baseball lessons can take the most paradoxical forms. The Boston Red Sox received the worst news of all about themselves. Only they probably don't realize it yet.
As soon as the bloodied Hose drove up to Yankee Stadium yesterday with their team bus filled with "what-the-heck" laughter they won.
As soon as the Sox pointed their fingures squarely at themselves and said "We've bloen it," they discovered that the game was easy again.
As soon as the massacred Bostonians, the despair of New England, threw in the towel, gave up the ghost and tossed in the sponge, they immediately pinned the New York Yankees'ears back, 7-3, yesterday.
And that is the visceral clubhouse definition of choking. If you can't tie your shoelaces under pressure, but play like a world-beater as soon it's too late, that's worse in the dugout world than being a no-talent klutz. That is called taking the apple.
"They didn't have anything to lose today. They knew they couldn't conceivably look worse than they have the last 10 days," said New York's Reggie Jackson.
"What difference did it make if thry lost today?"
Jackson, the autumn child who lives for pressure, was not implying that the Sox - now 2 1/2 games behind with 13 to play - could not possibly win their division crown.
Jackson's dig was subtler and deeper.
The Sox collapsed, losing nine of their previous 10 games, until the precise point was reached whtn their fate no longer was under their own control.
After their victory, the Sox had to console themselves with the eternal sing-song of the defeated.
"Hopefully, it's not too late," said Mike Torrez.
"We have to depend on other teams to beat the Yanks now, and that's what hurts," said Rick Burleson. "We've lost our chance.
"I guess we're still in it, if . . . ."
Before yesterday, Boston had lost six straight games to the Yanks by a total score of 46-9 over a brutal fortnight. The Sox had been outhit , 84-29.
"It was so lopsided," said Torrez, "that you wouldn't have believed it if it had happened to the original Mets."
So, on a brilliantly sunny afternoon before 55,088, the Sox whipped the world champs as easily as they themselves had been licked.
The atmosphere of a perverse, tasteless joke hung over the proceedings, as though the baseball fates were enjoying a private laugh as they underlined the Sox failure with a sarcastic success.
George Scott, who had gone 0 for 36, had a crucial double in a three-run eighth that opened a 3-1 lead to 6-1. Scott looked awful fouling off two sacrifice bunt attempts before dumping an 0-2 pitch to right.
Butch Hobson, who for three days has had to look at a huge sign saying, "Hit it to Hobson," made two more errors yesterday, pushing his total to 42.
Hobson followed Scott's double with one of his own, a chopper off the left field foul line - as though two RBI could undue weeks of humiliation.
Carl Yastrzemski, the gutty captain whose hand injuries have plagued him with a .216 average during the Sox, 25-33 collapse, had to hobble around centerfield yesterday because Fred Lynn had a twisted ankle.
yes, humbled by a power slump of only two homers in almost three months, crashed a round-tripper in the ninth - more perverse, tainted glory.
"All the breaks the Yanks have gotten for six games, seemed to go our way today," said Carlton Fisk, listing almost a dozen plays that fell in the Boston column by inches.
"You know, it doesn't feel too damn even - six games to one," said Fisk, plaintively.
Dennis Eckersley, staff ace who his three starts, held the Yanks to one hit for six innings.
The whole game was a long succession of excellent Boston catches, opportunistic Sox clutch hits and loud Yankee outs - all the things that have not happened since July 19 when the Yanks began gaining those 17 1/2 games.
On their day of grace, the Sox had one bitter reminder. In the eighth, Hobson and Jerry Remy made back-to-back errors allowing two runs."We were beginning to wonder if it was all going to start again," said Fisk.
One Boston player - old Louis Tiant - took it on himself to pick this Sunday as the day of atonement when all Sox sins would be forgiven.
"Hey, who's that mullion (ugly) lying in the gutter?" bellowed Tiant as the bus rolled through the Bronx. "I didn't know (Dwight) Evans got hit by another pitch."
Tiant's Don Rickles-style ribaldry shattered the Sox's death-row mood. The Hose, losers of five in a row and 14 to 17, arrived at Yankee Stadium in tears of laughter.
A few hours and 11 gloriuos base hits later, the Sox were still smiling, talking about "a turn of events" and "never quitting."
The win was the Dolphins' 17th straight over the Bills,and NFL record.
Davis finished the game with 89 yards, while quarterback Don Strock had his escond straight strong performance, completing seven of 14 passes, including a six-yard touchdown pass to Andre Tillman, as Miami opened a 24-10 lead.
The Dolphins' victory overshadowed an impressive game by Buffalo quarterback Joe Ferguson. After a slow start, Ferguson moved the rebuilding Bills consistently. He completed 14 of 24 passes for 246 yards and two touchdowns, including a 92-yard scoring bomb to Frank Lewis. The touchdown play was the third longest in Bills history.