Say what you will about checkbook baseball. There's only one team in the game that acts larger than life, that dons a mantle of myth and has the potential to be a club of legend -- the New York Yankees.
This baseball repertory company, with its score of leading men and the bare minimum of spear carriers, performed a passion play of heaters and homers this afternoon, dazzling the Milwaukee Brewers, 3-0, to take an intimidating, almost prohibitive, two-games-to-none lead in the American League East playoffs.
When it comes to characters writ large, classic talents, mother wit and love of center stage, the Yankees are in a league of their own. All these New York hams are crowding into the spotlight at once.
Dave Righetti, the probable rookie of the year, struck out 10 Brewers in his six innings of victorious four-hit ball. The only run he and the Yankees needed was a homer into the bleachers in left in the fourth by old last-minute-starter Lou Piniella, the pinstripe war horse who loves the autumn.
"Righetti's as good as Vida (Blue) was when he came up in '71," pronounced Mr. October, Reggie Jackson, who iced matters with a 430-foot, two-run homer in the ninth off why-is-he-still-in-there starter Mike Caldwell.
Ace relief pitcher Goose Gossage entered in the seventh inning after his alter ego, Ron (Gander) Davis, had loaded the bases with one out. Gossage got out Robin Yount and Cecil Cooper to end the inning, then finished the show by striking out four men in his 2 2/3-inning save.
In all, 14 Brewers struck out on this shadowy, chilly, hitter's nightmare of a day in half-empty County Stadium. A dozen more struck out on Wednesday night.
"Their hitters are boggled," said Jackson succinctly. "Things don't look good for the home team (Milwaukee)."
Within 18 hours, the blue-chip Milwaukee Murderers' Row of Paul Molitor, Yount, Cooper, Ted Simmons, Gorman Thomas and Ben Oglivie -- every one an All-Star -- has seen more than 200 fast balls, nearly all of them in excess of 90 miles per hour and some close to 100. The only four pitchers the Brewers have seen so far -- Ron Guidry, Righetti, Davis and Gossage -- are all fast ball dragons.
"All I'm doing is hanging down one finger (for fast balls)," says Yankee catcher Rick Cerone. "Today I had trouble seeing those guys' pitches well enough to catch 'em, so I know they're not going to hit 'em."
"I almost pitied the Brewers," said Graig Nettles. "The light's so bad in these lousy afternoon games in October that the ball looks black. You ask the ump to check the ball and it's always white."
To date, Thomas and Oglivie -- both former AL home run champs -- have gone zero for 15. They have 11 strikeouts, six by Oglivie.
"My upper body and arms are exhausted from trying to key myself up to get the bat around on all those fast balls," said Molitor, who has struck out only four times. "There aren't five other guys in the whole league who throw harder as a group than the four we've seen."
To what, pray tell, would Molitor compare this two-day experience of groping for fast balls that look like marbles shot from a bazooka?
"I don't know," said Molitor. "As a kid, I was never hit by a truck."
Righetti, 22, introduced himself like an 18-wheeler, striking out five Brewers in two innings. "Those first two innings were the key," he said. "I wanted them to think, 'Hey, the kid's not nervous, not scared.' "
In fact, Milwaukee looked nervous and scared. Of the first six Brewers to face Righetti with men in scoring position, five struck out and the sixth surrendered by popping up a pathetic bunt.
Meanwhile, Milwaukee left-hander Caldwell, an emergency starter after Brewer ace Pete Vuckovich reported with a 103-degree fever and symptoms of tonsillitis this morning, tried to get by with junk.
"The shadows helped Caldwell and his spitter was good," said Nettles. "Most guys only load one up in a tough spot, but with Caldwell it's random selection."
It's a fair guess that Piniella's homer was on one of those loaded pitches that didn't break. Caldwell called the gopher ball a "palm ball," his standard euphemism for the career-saving funny pitch that George Bamberger taught him.
That homer by Piniella, five rows into the bleachers, hardly seemed safe heading to the ninth.
"Let's get some runs," implored Gossage of his bench in the ninth.
"Hell, you already got one," answered Jackson.
After Dave Winfield (three for four) doubled off the left field fence, Jackson unloaded an inside-the-foul-pole beaut.
Graig Nettles, overhearing Jackson talk about the homer later, pointed to his label pin -- a nickel-sized cheeseburger.
"Some of us on this team are hot dogs," said Nettles. "So I guess that makes the rest of us cheeseburgers. Like the song (by Jimmy Buffet) says, 'I'm just a cheeseburger in paradise.' "
The Yankees are, indeed, a team of flamboyant, extroverted hot dogs -- like Jackson, Winfield and Gossage -- balanced against a core of laid-back, dependable spotlight-dodging cheeseburgers like Nettles, Cerone and Piniella.
That mixture has often led to internal Yankee stomachaches. Now it's blending so well that a Yankee team that was widely maligned for its second-half sleepwalk is raising a chill along the spine of baseball veterans. The Yankees suddenly look loose, sassy and dangerous.
Nettles surveyed the scene: Jackson and owner George Steinbrenner jousting; Piniella taking his last bows at 38; Righetti taking his first curtain calls at 22; Winfield, slightly perplexed, perhaps even slightly envious, watching all the Big Apple veterans basking in the glory glow.
"Buffet's kind of a friend of mine," said Nettles. "He'll be my guest at the Stadium when we get back to New York. He's got a lyric for all this.
" 'I took off for a weekend last month just to try and recall the whole year,' " quoted Nettles. " 'Good times and riches and son of a bitches, I've seen more than I can recall.' "
And with that, all the hot dogs and cheeseburgers headed back to New York.