The fascination of the baseball playoffs and World Series is how the spotlight of pressure singes some fine players and inspires others. Or why did Red Sox fans ache for Carlton Fisk to get one more crack at Goose Gossage and Phillies fans pray for anyone but Mike Schmidt to bet in a critical situation? And Dusty Baker and Davey Lopes seem destined to power the Dodgers to victory last night?
Football and basketball offer their own postseason pressures, but an honest gauge is difficult because each performance is so closely tied to another. If some blocker has an ordinary game, that causes an O.J. Simpson or Fran Tarkenton to appear less heroic than he is.
Similarly, a basketball player who lives to perform in the playoffs might well find his significant numbers diminish because the opposition gives him special attention and his teammates are unable to cope with it.
But baseball is the most individual-oriented of all the major team sports; it provides the best chance to separate the players from the prayers, especially for those whose teams consistently join its Octoberfest.
Last night saw two more players for whim postseason games are a joy. One of them, Baker, has been a consistent pressure player all along but rarely got any attention. The other, Lopes, is suddenly hitting everything in sight out of sight after two rather ordinary Octobers.
Baker hit the home run that started the Dodgers toward their victory and with it alerted the world to some staggering playoff numbers. A year ago, he hit 357, with two homers and eight runs batted, in the National League playoffs and hit 399 against the Yankees in the Series.
This season, he set an NL playoff record by hitting .466 (seven for 15). Before his homer and single his first three at-bats last night. Baker was 19 for 53 in the playoffs and Series.
Lopes entered this season's playoffs and Series with career averages of .250 and .143 respectively. So he hit two homers, a double and triple against the Phils and drove in five runs with second- and fourth-inning homers last night.
The playoffs and World Series ought to be a maturing process, where players use the experience of early failure to bring them future success. The recent playoffs with the Yanks and Red Sox, the Yanks and Royals and the Dodgers and Phillies offer classic examples of the best of worst of athletic pressure.
The Red Sox were trying to overcome at least a generation of expected failure in addition to Ron Guidry's swift sliders. The Yanks were in exactly the opposite situation. They expect a Bucky Dent to provide a key hit now and then: the Sox and their fickle faithful almost expect Yaz to pop up.
This Red Sox attitude might well be more difficult to overcome than anything the Yanks or Orioles or anyone else offers in the future. It might take a manager of Billy Martin's arrogance or a pitcher like the youthful Catfish Hunter to reverse the annual fall fall.
Fisk might have done it in that Fenway playoff with one swing, the sort of game-winning blow that pricks the notion victory is to be anticipated rather than hoped for . His strength as a batter - hitting a fastball - matched Gossage's. The harder Gossage threw the more likely Fisk was to deliver.
Naturally, he was left in the ondeck circle.
A similar sort of match-up foiled the Phillies against Tommy John. His corner-grabbing sinkers were exactly what the Phils feared most. Lesser pitchers than John had worked that angle successfully during the season. John retired 21 of 28 Phils on ground outs.
The Phils entered the playoffs for the third straight year with just the sort of blend of experience and talent to finally win. They talked a much better game than they played: like the Red Sox, their embarassment to the Dodgers was in large part mental.
Kansas City had the Yanks at a huge disadvantage, with Guildry pitching just once. But for the first time in three years, the Yanks won the series with a game to spare, with Whitey Herzog pinch-hitting for the cleanup hitter in an all-too-familiar ninth-inning ending.
Still, Herzog was correct when he said the Yanks with Gossage, bought themselves into superior position this playoff. They had no Willie Randolph. Guildry for only one start and Mickey Rivers active but injured. But when Reggie Jackson struck out three straight times in game four, Roy White hit a home run.
The Royals might want Herzog to return, but Herzog might not want to, given the spending imbalance between his ownership and that of others within his division and the entire league. What will the Yanks be like, for instance, when Don Gullett returns to good health?
With this in mind, the Dodgers ought to win this World Series. They have nearly every tangible advantage one can imagine - and the memory of Jim Gilliam for added fuel. They were in a position to pitch Tommy John last night and have him rested for Yankee Stadium, where good lefthanded pitching can be pivotal.
If Bob Lemon chooses to use Guidry in game two here tonight instead of allowing him proper rest, it would be the sort of panic the Dodgers might seize on and turn an expected close series into a rout. Probably, Lemon will keep his wits.
"Baseball," he is fond of saying, "was made for kids. Grownups only screw it up."
One Yankee disadvantage is the designated hitter being used this World Series. Ironically, the Yanks won a year ago without it and lost the year before with it, when the Reds dh, Dan Driessen, hit .357.
And the Yanks have that Yankee mystique.
"If the pressure is what the World Series is all about, then we've got plenty of training," said Graig Nettles. "You name it, and we've been through it this season."