One of the nicest things about baseball is that you really don't know who's going to win.
Take the National League East. In recent years, we've observed the St. Louis Cardinals, Philadelphia Phillies and Montreal Expos in the bright light of September pennant races and October playoffs. Every true fan knows their personnel and their managers thoroughly. No mysteries here.
But, when the forehead kneading is done, do we really have the slightest idea which of the three will win this division, or even if the Pittsburgh Pirates might sneak past all three? It's just too close, too tangled, to call.
Sure, the Cardinals are the world champions. But St. Louis still has an emaciated starting rotation and a total absence of home run power. Just like the past three World Series winners--Pirates, Phillies and Dodgers--the stand-pat Cardinals look like sitting birds just waiting to be knocked off.
First, the Cardinals lost Steve Mura (12-11) in the free agent pool. Whitey Herzog says, "Big deal." He wasn't so high on Mura, anyway. But who replaces him? John Fulgham, Andy Rincon, Eric Rasmussen?
Then, John Stuper and Dave LaPoint, those two rookie Series starters, looked like a couple of run-of-the-mill .500 pitchers at camp in St. Petersburg; the sophomore jinx is based in fact, not fantasy--given time, big leaguers will figure out your act. Third, the league has a book on phenom Willie McGee (.296)--junk and more junk.
On the other hand, the Cardinals are one of those clubs whose excellence is subtle and hard to grasp. They manufacture daring speed runs better than anybody else and they can peck away for three or four runs against the very best of pitchers. Their blazing outfielders and greatest-living-shortstop Ozzie Smith make any pitcher look better.
In fundamentals, they're the NL's tightest ship. Bruce Sutter anchors a great, deep bullpen and Herzog may have the best head in baseball. As a bonus, outfielder David Green, 22, could soon be a star.
The Cardinals are probably baseball's best close-game, late-inning team. Get 'em down by three runs early or else hold onto your hats.
If the Cardinals lack charisma and are easy to underrate, then the aged Phillies, with their collection of Hall of Famers, are easy to like and overrate. A lineup with Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Gary Matthews, Mike Schmidt, Von Hayes (82 RBI), Bo Diaz (85), Ivan DeJesus and Garry Maddox may have more presence than punch. After all, the Phillies were 19th in runs scored in '82. Their offense has to improve to be mediocre.
Behind Steve Carlton, the rotation keeps looking thinner every year. With Dick Ruthven in Pat Corrales' doghouse, with Marty Bystrom and Larry Christenson getting hurt every time they breathe deeply, with John Denny (6-13) in a perennial funk, who knows which direction this makeshift staff will go?
If 90 victories are enough, then people like Rose, Morgan, Schmidt, Perez, Carlton and Tug McGraw will find a way to win, just on will. However, if a talented team like Montreal explodes for close to 100 wins, the Phillies can't follow.
Every spring a masked gunman breaks into my house, ties me to my den chair and forces me to pick the Expos to win the NL East. This year, Les Chokes may well win the world title, but they'll have to do it without my blessing.
Talent takes you only so far. And it's not to the World Series, unless you've also got a manager with brains and a club with discipline. Last season, Montreal had neither. For several years, the Expos have been a testimony to disunity--proof that, in baseball, morale and fellow-feeling isn't just pap. Every year, they're the team to beat on paper and, every year, somebody with more gumption beats them.
This season, the Expos have everybody back. The pitchers who look askance at the regulars. The so-so-in-the-clutch hitters who have more moods than a salamander. The infielders who can't turn a double play or reach anything except their paychecks. Fundamentals give this team a rash.
And whatever happened to Chuck Tanner and the Pirates? These fellows led the league in hitting and slugging and were second in runs, yet, after falling 11 games off the pace early, were never part of the '82 race. The Pirates had the NL's best record for the last four months as the club ERA, which was 4.96 on June 1, plummeted to 3.37 thereafter.
With free agent Omar (The Out Maker) Moreno replaced by Lee Mazzilli, the Pirates have an atrocious outfield defense with Mike (Hit Man) Easler in left and Dave (Fat Man) Parker in right; somebody please keep Parker away from the hot dog vendors in the bleachers when there's a pitching change. Nonetheless, with a couple of pitching breaks, the Pirates could join the party all year.
The Cubs, loaded with potential six-game winners, are bad. With luck, the Mets could be truly terrible.