The New York Yankees, so often slandered for their excellence, hated for their wealth of talent and their talent for wealth, now merit the unalloyed praise reserved for brave and doughty underdogs.
The Yanks, as presently constituted, are the most gloriously appealing sort of injured and indominatable team. With poise and professional character they are bludgeoning a Los Angeles Dodger club that holds a clear superiority in raw material.
A year ago, when the Yanks led the Dodgers, 3-2, in the World Series - just as they do now - they were the Bronx Bickerers. Those pocketbook champs were among the least popular winners in baseball history.
Only Reggie Jackson's four home runs on four swings transformed the season finale from indulgent, petty psycho drama to memorable theater. Even in triumph, however, the Yanks were more fascinating as an abnormal psychology case study than they were palatable as a team.
Now the New Yorkers are stealing a Series on character, beating L.A. with that one commodity Yankee dollars cannot buy.
If the Yanks and their fans think their weekend sweep of three Series games by a 21-6 score was merely some perfunctory extention of an inexorable tradition, then they are selling themselves short.
This is not primarily a confrontation between East Coast and West, smog and dirt, Beverly Hills and the Bronx. Under all that sociologist patter there is a match between two deep, powerful, experienced old rivals. It's Goliath vs. Goliath.
In that showdown, which will be resumed tonight in game six, New York's Catfish Hunter will face L.A.'s Don Sutton at 8:30, it is the Dodgers who have every advantage, while the Yankees have every ready-made excuse to lose.
These Yanks bear little resemblance to the juggernaut that caught and trampled Boston. That was the Best Team Money Could Buy.
However, the wear of that 10-week comeback with every nagging injury pushed to the limit, took its toll. The Yankees who remain, though they refuse to admit it, look like remnants of a baseball death march.
No wonder the Yankees claim they feel no pressure; it's a superficial emotion compared to complete physical and mental exhaustion.
New York has lost its second baseman, Wille Randolph, and has three other starters - Thurman Munson, Chris Chambliss and Mickey Rivers, so battered they don't know from day to day if they can play.
Chambliss probably will miss tonight's game.
Manager Bob Lemon completely trusts only one starting pitcher - Ron Guidry. The rest of his rotation consists of: a 20-game winner, Ed Figueroa, who has seven straight post-season knockouts to his debit; a great but tired veteran, Hunter, who has lost his last three crucial starts, and with a rookie, Jim Beattie, with six major league victories.
Those marvelous Yankee tree-agent pitchers of March - Don Gullett and Andy Messersmit - disappeared months ago. That incomparable fourman relief pitching is down to one man - Rich Gossage. Rowly Eastwick is gone, Sparkly Lyle is banished to the doghouse and Dick Tidrow must be saved for long relief.
Repeat world champions seldom have obvious weaknesses. The Yanks are riddled with holes. Roy White in left can't throw and Lou Piniella in right can't run. [WORD ILLEGIBLE]120:center can't throw and is hobbling.
Second sacker Brian Doyle, asked if he could imagine playing in a Series three years ago, answered, "Gee, I couldn't imagine it three weeks ago."
The Yanks offense, without Randolph or a full-speed Rivers, has little speed. The power hitting is totally unbalanced, all left-handed. No Yankee hit more than six homers right-handed this season.
But that lefty strength is drained since Graig Nettles, the glove that swallowed Los Angeles, is slumping due to dizziness from a collision and Chambliss with his sore wrist couldn't bat a ball 400 feet if he threw it up and hit it .
So, under these circumstances, it is the Dodgers who are looking under every rock for an excuse. After being clubbed for 18 hits Sunday, the Angelenos put on one of the old game's truly great cry-baby acts. They found it easier than making double plays.
"The cold weather (53 degrees) hurt us," said Reggie Smith.
"The umpires hurt us," said Manager Tommy Lasorda, still dragging up Jackson's "sacrifice thigh" from game four - a call that has almost universally been called correct.
"Only one guy gets any credit around here and everybody knows who it is," said Ron Cey, meaning Steve Garvey. "Some guys can make mistakes all the time and some guys can't make mistakes at any time... I'm tired of it ... I don't call that jealousy."
I couldn't get out of New York fast enough," said shortstop Bill Russell, who played that way. "The fans are no good, just like the weather.
"The criticism of our infield defense is unfair," added Russell, who currently has more errors than the Yankee team.
The Dodgers are falling over themselves trying to get out of a hot kitchen first. "Who were those guys batting eighth and ninth for them," snapped Lasords, speaking of Doyle and Bucky Dent, who had six hits Sunday. "They looked like the Waner brothers."
The Dodgers' Big and Little Poison, however, is within themselves. And it does no good to weep about how team president Peter O'Malley had his hotel room robbed. New York City isn't the Dodgers' problem, the Yankees are.
Like the old Oakland A's, the Yanks have a core of regulars who are, in the best sense, mean guys. Munson, Nettles, Jackson, Piniella and White are throwbacks to the dead-end kid A's.
If jackson is Mr. October, then what is Munson? Jackson may be hitting .370 and slugging .765 in his 23 career Series games, but Munson is batting .387 for his 15 games. "I keep hearing the Dodgers complain about our big left field," snorted Munson. "Well, if we'd been playing in L.A. on Sunday, I'd have gone five for five with three home runs and 10 RBI. So what? The shape of the park is part of the game."
Los Angeles may have a clear edge in game six - only the advantage of Sutton over Hunter, but the inherent advantage of anger and damaged pride.
However, if New York's whole season means anything, it show that the psychological damage of a Yankee attack lingers.
"The biggest wrd in sports is right here," said Jackson, pointing to the word "blame" taped above his locker. "Until you can accept it, live with it and then ignore it, you can't win the tough ones."