"I feel like I've just gone through an art gallery on a motorcycle." -- Tug McGraw, Philadelphia Phillies.
The Philadelphia Phillies have had their night of forgiveness, their catharic evening for the washing away of bad dreams and bad blood in a bath of champagne. Some said these Phillies would never in this world reach the Series. They were right. On Sunday night, the Phillies stepped through the looking glass and found that the land of their dreams was on the other side of normal baseball reality.
It's no wonder that McGraw can't remember what has happened recently. Who can? Every baseball fan has been on that motorcycle with him, head spinning as one masterpiece of an inning after another has flown past, leaving only a blurred residue and a sensation of withering pace and building drama. Crisis has bled into crisis, and day into day.
"The pressure," said Garry Maddox, who finally got the pennant-winning hit, "you could feel it building on every pitch of every inning. Anybody who says it wasn't there is lying to himself."
"I'm totally emotionally drained," said Houston rookie Al Woods. "I'll have to stay in town three days just to get my head straight."
What the Phillies and Astros endured was a fortnight of tension that perhaps no other two teams have equaled.
It started with a unique double jeopardy situation Friday before last. Each team had to travel to the house of its nip-and-tuck foe for the final three-game weekend of the regular season. The Phils, tied with Montreal, beat the Expos back to back to win their division, eking out a 2-1 victory that was classically tense, then clinching with a 10-inning triumph that was a marvel of slapstick as Philadelphia won despite five errors and four runners trapped off base in run-downs.
That traumatic weekend in Canada was rest and relaxation compared with the odyssey that the Astros were about to begin. Maybe no other team has been put through such a pennant-race wringer as Houston in the last 10 days.
First, the Astros lost three consecutive one-run extra-inning games to Los Angeles to blow a three-game division lead and force a humiliating 163rd-game playoff. The Astros were within one loss of pulling the worst 11th-hour collapse in history. So, what did they do? Won the playoff game in a breeze.
That merely earned them six days of warfare with the Phils that made their rollercoaster ride in L.A. look tame. The Phils and Astros probably didn't put on the best-played championship series ever, but certainly no other had such sustained tension. Who ever heard of four consecutive extra-inning games to end a playoff? That gave the Astros seven overtime games in their last nine. The lazy Phillies had only six in their last nine.
Twice, in consecutive games, the Astros were six outs away from the World Series -- leading by two runs Saturday, by three Sunday as the eighth inning began. Twice the Phillies rallied against the team with the best ERA in baseball to tie, then go ahead in that ill-omened eighth -- with three runs Saturday, five Sunday (four charged to Nolan Ryan, who was gusting up to 99 miles an hour.) And twice the Astros came back to force extra innings -- with a run in the bottom of the ninth Saturday and with two in the eighth Sunday, both times against the stunned McGraw, whose ERA had been 0.59 for the previous six weeks.
"What we do best is hold leads . . . unbelievealbe," said Houston's Joe Sambito, part of baseball's best three-ace bullpen as he sat shaken before his locker with an Italian flag draped over it like a curtain to hide his grief. "We should have won yesterday and tonight, just like we have all year. It's unexplainable."
Absolutely and unequivocally, no American sport is as unpredictable as baseball when it is played under the greatest pressure. Muscle and raw talent play an ever-diminishing role, while conditioned skills, mental alertness and composure, and that indefinable ability to keep your head when those all about you are losing theirs, become ever more important.
The Phillies and Astros can talk the rest of their lives about the improbabilities that have shaken the kaleidoscope of their baseball spirits and transformed their emotional landscape in the last 10 days.
What Phillie will ever forget Greg Luzinski singling into a two-run, inning-ending double-rundown double play in Canada two Saturdays ago on a play in which every Expo except the left and right fielders touched the ball? The Phillies have hit double plays that read like telephone numbers: 8-6-5-4-3-5-2 or 9-2-1-5 (with an appeal). On the other hand, Maddox hit into what could have been a 1-3 triple play, except that the umpires settled on the first compromise double play in playoff history, basing their decision on common sense and mercy, but not the rule book.
Without question, the Phillies have established themselves as the most completely lost collection of wanderlust base runners in the game. The Phillies don't need base coaches; they need wardens. The Phils think the rule book is X-rated. They get doubled off by 90 feet and still haven't figured it out the next day.
The Astros field bouncing baseballs the way the Phils run bases. If Rafael Landestoy had picked up a hopper with two outs in the ninth that Friday in L.A., Houston could have avoided all its Dodger torment. If Bruce Bochy had dug out a perfectly respectable short-hop relay throw to the plate Saturday, Pete Rose would have been a wilted flower and the Astros would have been in the Series. And if Nolan Ryan had ignored two grounders back to the mound Sunday (one in the second, one in the eighth), both might have been made-to-order double play balls and Houston might have won, 7-0. But Ryan bobbled one and clanked the other, opening up two big innings.
For baseball, it is probably just as well that Philadelphia, not Houston, is hosting the World Series, starting at 8:15 tonight (WRC-TV-4). Nobly as the Astros have struggled, they are a battered club that might have crumbled in the Series under the strain of facing a Royals team that is almost made to order to have eaten them alive.
Without J.R. Richard, without Cesar Cedeno, and with a hobbled Joe Morgan, plus two catchers who probably ought to be resting in a hospital instead of crouching behind the plate, Houston deserved better than to embarrass itself against a K.C. team that was loaded with all the ingredients the Astros fear: left-handed starters (two), team speed (185 steals) and a slap-hitting style of turf hitting that might have been helped more than hurt by the Astrodome's huge outfield.
"We played our butts off. We really did," said Houston's Joe Niekro.
"You can't convince me which is the better team," said Sambito. "I'm proud to be an Astro."
"This playoff had no loser," said Philadelphia's Larry Bowa.
For Houston, that proud final high point in defeat in the proper ending.
Anyway, the Phils are a far better foe for the Royals. With luck, we could be in for a Series that does not disgrace the fine shenanigans that have preceded it. The mood of "experts" at the moment is to view the Royals as a juggernaut after their destruction of the Yankees, while the Phillies, until their two stirring weekend comebacks, didn't play with enough gumption to intimidate a decimated and exhausted Astro team that they owned (nine of 12) in the regular season.
That may be largely illusion. The Royals and Phils have enormous similarities. Most important, both clubs will enter this Series with a sense of emotional release from bondage. Each lost consecutive playoffs in 1976, '77 and '78. Each faded in the aftermath of those failures, even straining the faith of their fans. Each fired a tainted-with-defeat manager after the '79 season. And each had a skeleton in the closet. The Royals couldn't beat the Yankees. And the Phillies couldn't keep from beating themselves. Now, both those canards have been eradicated.
On paper, the Royals and Phils have great parallels statistically. The Royals led the majors in hitting (.286), but had only 115 homers and, thus, were only third in runs scored. The Phils were second in the NL in average (.270), hit 117 homers and were second in scoring. Once the Phils add Lonnie Smith (.339) at designated hitter in the Series, where he cannot endanger any fly balls or try to throw the ball to the plate and hit himself in the foot, the two offenses are near numerical equals. Slight edge to the Royals.
On the mound, each team is thin after its third starter, has one dependable reliever (McGraw vs. Dan Quisenberry) and is counting on a hot starting ace: Dennis Leonard (20-11) of K.C. in the first, fourth and perhaps seventh games as opposed to Steve Carlton (24-9) in the second and fifth games. Again, minus the DH factor, the staffs -- Kansas City has a team 3.83 ERA, Philadelphia a 3.43 -- are roughly even. Edge to Philly. Maybe. The Yanks weren't impressed with Royal pitching until they tried to hit it.
Lastly, both teams are fast on the bases and good at ground-gobbling defense. The Royals steal batter (185 to 140) while the Phils have five Gold Gloves to the Royals' two. In this first-ever all-phony-grass World Series, we have two fleet, turf-loving teams.
The difference in these teams, however, is not on paper, but on the field. The Phillies are half way to playing like a team. They no longer are conspicuously lackadaisical and selfish. Manager Dallas Green's tirades about "we, not I" have not been competely in vain. The Phils now blend their large, hugely paid talents with a dash of occasional teamwork, enthusiasm and fundamental soundness. In fact, all the abominable Phillie base running of late has, in part, been caused by a new injection of hustle; the Phils just haven't competely acclimated themselves to giving honest effort yet.
The Royals have been giving full value all along. The Phils have come together more in the last five weeks. The Royals have been gutting it out for five years.
The Phils have made their fortunes. And now, thanks to Pete Rose, who hit .400 in the playoffs and gave the Phils a breathing example of what it means not to quit, their reputations are safe as well.
Many a Royal, as yet, has neither fame nor fortune. Perhaps the perfect symbol of their quiet, but intense, hunger is second baseman Frank White, who was the MVP of the AL championship series. During a division-clinching celebration last month, Royals owner Ewing Kauffman approached White and, trying to make pleasant conversation, asked, "Frank, were you with us for the other three (playoffs)?" This was a minor oversight on Kauffman's part, since White averaged 146 games a year for those Royals of '76-'77-'78.
"Yes," White replied without rancor, "I was here."
Immediately, White went on a hitting tear that has not stopped yet. Was it just a coincidence, he was asked?
"No," White said quietly, "I want to make sure that this time he remembers me."