Let's start the baseball season.
It's about time.
For those who think baseball is defined by the great pennant race, the big pressure series, the crisis game, then the 1984 season has been a virtual void.
Yes, this year has given us wonderful ongoing tales, like the redemption of the Chicago Cubs, who finished on top for the first time since World War II, and the historic 35-5 start by the Detroit Tigers, who eventually won 104 games.
Sure, this season gave us heroes as improbable as Joe Hardy and Roy Hobbs in fiction. Let's see if Rick Sutcliffe (16-1 as a Cub) and Willie Hernandez (32-1 in save situations) evaporate in puffs of Mephistophelean smoke after their last pitches of the season. They may have bartered their souls.
Okay, we've had shocks and collapses and trends and individual heroism. We've seen as many new stars in one year as we sometimes do in several seasons: Dwight Gooden, Ryne Sandberg, Don Mattingly, Tony Gwynn, Mark Langston, Alvin Davis, Juan Samuel, Bud Black, Ron Darling, Tom Brunansky and Frank Viola.
But, out of the 2,104 contests that were played this year, have we had one real season-in-the-balance, pressure baseball game yet?
The Cubs and Mets had a couple of nice battles a few weeks ago. The pathetic American League West has produced a dozen interesting games in its "race" in the last two weeks. And Mike Witt of California pitched a perfect game yesterday.
However, by the elevated standards of the past few years, this season has been bereft of intense drama.
That problem should be solved come Tuesday.
Nothing in baseball and perhaps nothing in American pro sports has the heartstopping craps game excitement of that supremely capricious and brutally pressurized crucible of torments known as the playoffs.
In few seasons have these league championship series had such clearly defined plots.
The National League theme is elementary. Can the lowdown and ornery San Diego Padres spoil America's fun by keeping the anointed Cubbies out of the World Series? When did a team run face-first into as much sentimental pablum as the Padres? The president, for heaven's sake, used to broadcast the Cubs' games. National political columnists have to draw numbers, like customers in a meat market, to see who gets to write the next paean to the Cubs on the editorial page.
How dare the upstart Padres, who didn't even exist until 1969 (when the Cub faithful had already gone a quarter-century without a pennant), stand in the way of the nation's collective amusement. How can a team with a pitching rotation that includes three proselytizing members of the John Birch Society, plus a manager who admits that he ordered three pitchers to throw at the same hitter a half-dozen times in one game, be allowed to thwart the Cubs?
Pardon me while I take exception. I kinda like the Padres, too.
If the Cubs have a Big Brain in trader Dallas Green, don't the Padres have his match in Trader Jack McKeon? If the Cubs have a manager trying to prove they done him wrong at his last stop (Jim Frey, fired in Kansas City), don't the Padres have a parallel skipper in Dick Williams (fired in Montreal)?
If the Cubs have old men proving they're not washed up in Ron Cey, Gary Matthews and Larry Bowa, don't the Padres have the same sort of people in Steve Garvey, Graig Nettles and Goose Gossage? If the Cubs have emerging stars in Leon (Bull) Durham, Jody Davis and Sandberg, don't the Padres offer the same in Craig McReynolds, Gwynn and Game 1 starter Eric Show?
If the Cubs won 96 games, didn't the Padres win 92? And didn't the two teams split the season series, six games apiece?
Anyone who hopes desperately for the Cubs to bring daylight to Friday's Game 3 in the World Series better pay close attention to the playoff opener at 2:25 p.m. on Tuesday in Wrigley. The matchup between Sutcliffe, who thinks he's unbeatable, and Show, who's won only once in a month, may be decisive. If Sutcliffe wins, the Cubs' confidence, knowing he can start again in Game 5, would be enormous. If he loses, a lot of both tangible and intangible chips will slide to the Padres' side of the table.
The theme of the American League playoffs is, likewise, indisputable: Can the Tigers blow it?
Yes, that's the question and it's just as loaded and unfair as "How Dare the Padres Win!"
The Tigers won more games this year than any team in baseball since Sparky Anderson's mighty Cincinnati Reds of 1976 won 108. Meanwhile, only one team in baseball history ever got into postseason play with a worse record than the Kansas City Royals' humble 84-78 mark. The only worse club was the 1973 New York Mets, who were 82-79. 'Tis of more than passing interest that those '73 Mets made it to the World Series by beating a powerful team in the playoffs that had won 99 games that season. The losing playoff team? Cincinnati.
Scenarios in which the Tigers humiliate the Royals are all too easy to concoct. The Tigers, the highest-scoring team in baseball, outscored the Royals this season by 150 runs. They also had a better pitching staff -- 40 points lower in team ERA and led by three imposing starters, Jack Morris (19-11), Dan Petry (18-8) and Milt Wilcox (17-8). The Tigers even have two superb relievers (Hernandez and 10-1 Aurelio Lopez) to the Royals' one marvelous Dan Quisenberry (50 wins-plus-saves).
So, Detroit, with its gorgeous old park, will be waiting in the Series as the perfect Midwestern counterpoint to the Cubs, right?
Not necessarily. The Tigers have one Achilles' heel -- they're merely good, not great, against left-handed pitchers. And the Royals have southpaw Black (17-12) slated for games 1 and 5; Black's record against the Tigers this year: 3-0. If he beats Morris on Tuesday night, the spooky music will start.
The baseball consensus may be that the Tigers and Cubs, with the two best records in the game and two of the oldest and loveliest parks, would be the perfect partners for the Fall Classic dance. Worthy of the stage.
The Padres, who've played poorly for weeks, and the poor-relative Royals, who've been the hottest team in the game since July, have a certain scruffiness about them.
Neither team would win any national popularity poll this week. Ask the public, "Whom would you vote for to be in the World Series?" and San Diego and Kansas City would be further behind in the polls than Mondale and Ferraro.
But then, who says a baseball team must have a mandate before it can be king?