Okay, everybody up from the bottom of the pool. Put your sand shovels back in the cutlery drawer. The only way to face urban life after Labor Day -- back to work and back to school -- is with pennant races. Real ones. The kind they have in the National League where blood feuds and brushbacks aren't endangered species and DH stands for doubleheader.
Sure, end of vacation; right now you feel lower than whale furniture. (Whales come up for air. Their furniture? Never.) There's a cure. Catch up on the summer game in time for an autumn cardiac. Go on, confess. You've lapsed.
The last time you really studied the stats Mark McGwire still had a shot at 62 home runs, the St. Louis Cardinals looked like a playoff lock and Paul Molitor was on the All-Disappointment team. You probably think Dennis Martinez is washed up and that Dave Stewart is just another 30-year-old traded-traded-released failure. August does it to the best of us. Forgive us, baseball, for we've sinned. Some of us didn't even know three-game winner David Cone is coming back to the Mets' rotation for September. That could be crucial.
Actually, anything could be crucial this season because nobody has figured out the first thing about 1987 so far. Call it Mystery Year I. Who thought the best player on the world champion New York Mets would be Howard Johnson? If they named one candy bar after Reggie Jackson when he played in New York, then the way Johnson's going, they might name 57 kinds of ice cream after him. Someday we'll probably have to explain to our grandchildren why an airport metal detector is called a Hojo.
If you can figure out what's afoot in the NL, you get some kind of special award. The American League? Oh, that's easy. Three pretty good teams in the East; one of 'em that's not owned by someone named George will win. The West? Four pretty bad dull teams (or is it six?); who cares if any of them win.
But the NL, now that's different. Pete Rose could manage a team into the playoffs. That's big magic. The New York Mets could be humbled twice in one season -- in April and September; that's too good to believe. A team from the Astrodome could make the playoffs two years in a row; that's too depressing to believe. And look at Les Montreal Expos -- the most overlooked team since, let's see, the '86 Red Sox. They could set up an all-Canada World Series, eh.
Yes, this NL business requires our attention. Could be a job for Mighty Mouse. First of all, it's necessary to the nation's biorhythmic balance and gastrointestinal peace that the Cincinnati Reds, having come this far, be allowed to pursue their October destiny. Give us Eric (The Red) Davis, the only 50-homer, 50-steal hope of mankind -- a true classic in the Classic, like the young Willie Mays in '54. How can anyone root against a team whose four top starters have a collective ERA over 5.00? This could be the worst pitching staff ever seen in postseason play. Every game, 10-9.
Also, the Expos merit our prayers and ministrations. After all, don't you want to see something called Andres Galarraga without getting in an airplane to fly over its peaks? Just imagine. Neal Heaton, 39-56 during his career as an Indian, clinches the pennant. Then, Dennis Martinez, 29-42 the last four years and released by Baltimore, starts the Series opener. As for the man who may well lead the major leagues in RBI -- that's Tim (Not Eli) Wallach -- we'd have to learn what position he plays.
Just as the Reds and Expos are consummations devoutly to be wished, so the Mets and Astros, who did so nicely by us in the memory department last fall, would please us just as well to stay home this time around. Mike Scott has had about enough success, thank you very much; please pass the sandpaper. Do we want to spend October watching a team that thinks a 2-0 count is a rally? As for the Mets, what can we say about them that they haven't already said about themselves. Maybe rap star Darryl Strawberry can get a headache for the final weekend series in St. Louis.
In pennant races, as in jumping out of airplanes, it's always nice to have a backup chute. Usually, we're lucky to have two choices; last year the final fortnight was a yawn with no choices at all. This time, however, we have viable alternatives in both divisions.
After all they've endured this season, it would be small-minded to begrudge the Cardinals some glory. What we have here is one of the most exciting lineups ever constructed without benefit of significant home run power. They're another '34 Gas House Gang.
See Jack Clark hitting a home run and think of Rip Collins. See Willie McGee driving in runs, think Ducky Medwick. See Tommy Herr, Ozzie Smith and Terry Pendleton gloving everything; think of Frankie Frisch, Leo Durocher and Pepper Martin. Listen to Joe Magrane talk about how he's reading a new book -- "JFK: The Man and the Airport" -- and think Dizzy Dean. See Vince Coleman and, well, don't think of anybody; he has more stolen bases already than the whole '34 Cardinals team.
If the Cardinals are choice, then the San Francisco Giants would be novel. Can anyone east of the Mississippi imitate the batting stances of the four core Giant hitters -- Will Clark, Chili Davis, Candy Maldonado and Jeffrey Leonard? They are the secret by the Bay. Also, if Manager Roger Craig got to the Series, who's to say he wouldn't meet his old striped friends from Detroit.
Now, for the key elements to watch as these races develop:
There aren't any.
None of the contenders in the West can play a lick. The Reds can't pitch, the Astros can't hit and the Giants fall on their faces every time they sweep somebody and look like they're about to take charge. Anybody who wins 85 games could be a runaway in a division that, collectively, may finish 50 games under .500. After that 12-42 start, the Padres might be the division's crispest team. So, root for cheap Marge Schott to open her purse and get Rose a pitcher for the stretch run. (What about Mike Flanagan in red?) He sure needs one now that the Giants have traded for Rick Reuschel. Baseball needs a manager whose philosophy is to "try to get the players to see that baseball isn't a job."
Back in the East, the teams are better, but nobody really seems primed to win there either. The Mets played wonderfully a year ago before their private lives started looking like outtakes from "The People's Court." The Cardinals played quite nicely before the All-Star Game, but, ever since, have looked exhausted and ready for picking. Unless comeback-southpaw John Tudor hits top form fast, the Cardinals will need luck and outside help to win. As for the Expos, except for Tim Raines, they're almost a no-name team. Okay, so Floyd Youmans and Bob (Ice Station) Sebra are good names; almost a match for Rags Faircloth of deadball days. However, the altitude of a pennant race could easily bring vertigo to Montreal's children.
Cold common sense says that the Mets and Astros are rolling back to the top, with experience and fairly healthy pitching. However, no NL division champion has repeated in this decade. And, if we're lucky, none will again.