Philadelphia found diamonds in the garbage today. For seven hours in Olympic Stadium, the Phillies had the awful taste of swill in their mouths. But in the end, after Mike Schmidt's home run in the 11th inning had won them the National League East Division crown, they tasted champagne.
"So much craziness," muttered Schmidt after his 48th home run, off Stan Bahnsen, had beaten the Montreal Expos, 6-4, and clinched the flag. "I can't remember it. As I ran around the bases, my mind was blank. Just oblivion. After everything that happened today, my mind was empty."
This was a game that the Phils, had they lost, might never have forgotten. They made five errors. They had three men trapped off base. They had another runner thrown out at home plate by 30 feet. And the Expos were just as bad. Seldom has any significant baseball game been so sublimely terrible.
For the crowd of 50,794, which sat-through a 190-minute rain delay, then almost four hours of the funniest, most atrocious play imaginable, this afternoon game that ended at 9:20 p.m. was like a day in a madhouse.
But for the Phillies, it was a blessed release. "The worst thing that could have happened would have been to lose this game after the way we played," said Schmidt, bottle of Cordon Rouge in hand. "Who knows if we could have recovered and regrouped for one last game on Sunday with the whole season on the line? This sure as hell could have been one of those days when a lot of people had a field day with us."
The Phils had heroes, however, Greg Luzinski had a two-run bases-loaded single in the seventh to put the Phils ahead, 3-2. Of course, that single ended up as a double play as both Schmidt and Luzinski were trapped off base in rundowns (DP 8-6-5-4-3-5-2 for aficionados). Also, with two outs in the ninth and Montreal ahead, 4-3, catcher Bob Boone, who, like Luzinski, had been benched this week for bad hitting, poked a single to center to tie the game.
"It was a lot of weight off both of us," said Boone, "because we both knew where the blame was going to fall if we lost."
And, in the ninth, 10th and 11th, the Phils had brilliant southpaw Tug McGraw on the mound, retiring nine of 10 men for the triumph. He and Schmidt were the valiants supreme. Schmidt drove in both runs in Friday's 24 Philadelphia victory and had three hits today, while McGraw faced 16 Expos in five relief innings over two days and retired 15 of them, nine on strike-outs.
"I was nervous today," said McGraw. "I always look for one face in the crowd to concentrate on . . . to block out the noise and relax. But today, I looked behind the plate and saw this huge smile coming from behind the mask."
The grin belonged to rookie Don McCormick, who had previously caught just one major league inning in his life. But in this wild and tangled affair, he had to catch the last three innings, three times stopping potential McGraw wild pitches in the dirt in the 10th.
"This kid seemed to be having the time of his life," said McGraw, "so I started smiling back. He got me completely calm."
It is nice to think of McGraw and McCormack's calm. And of the bliss under pressure of Schmidt. "To hit well under pressure is so damn gratifying I can't explain," said Schmidt. "You ask yourself, 'How should I feel when I'm playing for all the marbles? How do you carry yourself?' Now, at least for me, I know I have to feel so loose I'm almost limp. In the fifth, I struck out with the bases loaded -- took a fast ball right down the middle -- because I was too loose," beamed Schmidt. "I walked back to the dugout smiling. It's taken me a long time to get there."
It is pleasant to think of such things, because the hallmarks of this game were the choking and blundering that inundated both teams. Both were so wierd and wild, so tightly wound after the thumb-twiddling delay, that, instead of exploding, they imploded, like a star collapsing into a black hole.
This game contained wild pickoff throws to both first and second base by Phil starter Larry Christenson, one peg into center field by catcher Keith Moreland, a drop of simple pop up by Manny Trillo and a throw into the dugout by Trillo.
At one routine grounder, the ball trickled through the legs of both the Montreal third baseman and left fielder on the same play for a rare double error. Both Rodney Scott of Montreal and Bake McBride of the Phils were cut down at the plate on foolhardy gambles. Even Pete Rose, who had three hits and a walk -- and started the rallies in the ninth and 11th as well as driving in the first Phil run in the fifth -- got trapped off second on a routine liner directly at the shortstop.
In every detail, this game was a fundamental nightmare. The Expos' Larry Parrish led a routine ground ball roll -- who knows why since it was an easy out -- only to see it stay fair for a bases-loading hit. At one stage, Expo starter Steve Rogers, in the space of 20 batters, had 13 of them reach base on 11 hits, a walk and an error. Yet, out of all that carnage, the Phillies scored only three runs. Just as bad, Expo Manager Dick Williams left Rogers in to face the 20th batter -- Luzinski -- who delivered that two-run single that became an inning-ending double play.
The Phillies sprayed champagne and talked giddily about their escape today, and about how nicely their pitching breaks if they should meet Houston on Tuesday to start the playoffs.
However, the Phils never seem to be able to totally discard the memories of their long and grim heritage.Schmidt should have had nothing more complex on his mind than the thought of his 420-foot shot on a 2-0 pitch in the 11th with Rose on first as it arched over the sign in the left field bleachers that said "Expos No. 1."
Instead, Schmidt was quiet and almost subdued. "We're celebrating now," he said, "but if we don't win the playoffs, we're the same old Phillies."
Surely, even after the mixed evidence of this interminable, blighted afternoon and night, that is too harsh a judgment.