October 08, 1973
And It Came Up Mets
Baseball's dizziest game of chance spun five National League East contenders down to the desperate hours of the season—and three of them a day beyond—before New York settled things in Chicago
There had not been anything like it since it was decided baseballs should be round. Oddsmakers from Las Vegas to Monte Carlo will bet you that it will never happen again, and maybe it shouldn't. Twenty years from now fans in the cities of New York, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Montreal and Chicago will sit late into the night and argue the bizarre wheel of fortune that was the 1973 National League East and how it kept turning even into the Beyond.
As late as last Sunday—the scheduled closing day of a baseball season that began on April 5—there were still no fewer than 23 ways in which the race could finish, the most mind-shaking of them a five-way tie. But on Monday afternoon, in the mud of Chicago, the New York Mets, a last-place team on Aug. 31, won it all. Their victory could be dedicated, not to "the great fans of New York," as they kept saying in their clubhouse, but to Connie Mack, who years before any of the Mets were born declared that pitching is 75% of baseball. Fittingly, it was Tom Seaver, the division's best pitcher, who got the clinching victory, 6-4.
Pittsburgh had been favored to prevail—if such a division can have a favorite—but the Pirates buckled because their pitchers turned out to be some of the most incompetent ever to represent a contending team. They achieved one complete game over their last 22, nine in the last 76. The Cardinals, a club that was more gas pipe than Gas House Gang for much of September, finished honorably in second place with some late pitching performances that will not be easily forgotten. In over 45 innings the Cardinals gave up only two runs. Reggie Cleveland came within one pitch of a perfect game on Thursday, and then 40 hours later Bob Gibson limped to the mound in Busch Memorial Stadium. He had not performed since Aug. 4 because of a knee operation, but he threw the kind of stuff that causes lights to dim in Cooperstown. Said his catcher, Ted Simmons, "He'll let the kids know when he's ready to step aside."
Because they lost on Sunday, the Montreal Expos and Chicago Cubs were finally eliminated from the chase, and on Monday the Pirates were forced to play a makeup game with the San Diego Padres, who have as their emblem a priest striking out. The Pirates needed prayer as much as power. By defeating the Padres they could at best tie the Mets—if New York lost twice. The Cardinals, their own season finished, could do no better. Prayer struck out. By beating Chicago in the first game of their double-header—the second was cancelled—the Mets finally reeled in their half pennant with a winning percentage of .509, the lowest ever to win anything in baseball.
Let no one say of the Mets, however, that they backed in. Do not call them lucky or suggest that the waters parted in front of them. The Mets won on the first day of October because they took hold of the race in September, the month in which pennants are traditionally won in the murderous National League. Look at what the Mets did in September, compared with the opposition: New York 19-8, Montreal 16-13, Chicago 13-14, St. Louis 13-15, Pittsburgh 15-16.
Granted, the Pirates took some hard defeats, the most appalling last week when Pitcher Chris Zachary gave up a base hit on what was supposed to be the first ball of an intentional walk and then followed that up with a wild pitch in a 3-2 loss. Good pitching wins games, and in the last analysis the Mets had more of it than anyone else. Of their final 17 games the Mets lost only four. In two of those losses they failed to score. Chicago required but one run of its own in the 1-0 first game of Sunday's double-header, parlaying an errant throw to second and a hit into the Dave Rosello score that pushed the season into October. Not even Lawrence Peter Berra in his wisdom can find a way to win a game zero to minus one.
Now the Mets begin the National League Championship Series against the powerful Cincinnati Reds. During the year the Reds beat New York eight of 12 times. So, with one amazin' spin of the wheel behind them, the Mets need another. At least they are now a healthy team—one that can play inspired defense behind its strong pitchers: Seaver, Jon Matlack, Jerry Koosman, George Stone, Harry Parker and Tug McGraw. Overall, New York's pitching is probably better than it was in 1969 when the Mets astounded Baltimore in the World Series. But the hard-hitting Reds will test it.
By and large, the 453,000 citizens of Cincinnati did not care a hoot who won in the East. They figured the hometown brand of baseball would prevail in the playoffs against any foe. The love affair between Cincinnati and its Big Red Machine is one of the grandest in American sport, perhaps rivaled in intensity only by Green Bay's with its Packers. The Reds went over two million in home attendance, for a total of nearly seven million in the past four seasons. Red crowds come from Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky and bring with them everything red imaginable—hats, scarves, sweaters, horns, handbags.
This year's Machine has both speed (149 stolen bases) and power (137 home runs). Parked 11 games behind the Dodgers on July 1, the Reds turned on the torque, played .700 ball over the next three months and won more games (99) than any other divisional champion.
But when it was announced that Saturday's and Sunday's playoff games in Riverfront Stadium would start at 4 p.m., the Reds were concerned. The late start is an accommodation to the National Broadcasting Company, which will televise both the National League and American League games nationally on Saturday, but only the NL on Sunday. If it is a sunny day, starting at that hour guarantees eerie shadows between the mound and home plate, making the hitting of a pitched baseball a frustrating, if not dangerous, task. One game played under such conditions at Riverfront this year was the shortest of the season. In it the Reds' Jack Billingham beat Tom Seaver of the Mets 2-1 in 1:37. In another, Don Gullett of the Reds shut out Houston 1-0, and there were 18 strikeouts. In those two games the Reds, a power team, could get but 11 hits. Since hitting is their big plus, the Reds understandably are upset that NBC has taken at least some of the edge off their advantage. They can be expected to shine a little better if the sun does not.
Such are the modest concerns of teams that win division races. A mere three months ago Cincinnati Manager Sparky Anderson must have thought the sun would never shine again. At one booster luncheon he was asked, "Does the June 15 trading deadline also apply to managers?" It was about that time that a trade with San Diego for a fine little lefthander, Fred Norman, suddenly straightened out the Reds' pitching staff and very little has gone wrong since then.
"For my own satisfaction," Anderson said after the Reds clinched their third divisional title in four seasons, "this one means something. In the other two we were untested. We got out in front and stayed there. But this time we were 11 games back. We came off the pace. They can't say we weren't in a showdown. We were. I had an opportunity to prove I'm a manager. In those other two seasons we were out front by so much that no one could judge me. Now, it's done. Now they can judge."
The batting order that Anderson has been managing is an explosive one, particularly at the top with Pete Rose leading off and Joe Morgan hitting second. What, really, is there left to say about Rose, that happy warrior who slides on his belly and collects hits like bubble-gum cards. This season he has gotten 230 of them, more than any other switch hitter ever, and has also won his third batting title with a .338 average. Rose has reached such eminence in Cincinnati, which is his hometown, that he gets ovations for everything but sneezing.
Morgan is as much a part of the attack as Rose because he has tremendous power for such a small man (5'7", 155 pounds) and speed as well. Morgan spent last winter living down his failures in the '72 World Series, in which he hit .125. He will go into this year's post-season play with extra resolve. His main goal for the season was to produce 200 runs. He came close, scoring 116 times and driving in 82 runs. After Morgan the Reds send up Dan Driessen, a rookie who hit .300 after joining the team during Cincinnati's troubled days of June. Then come Johnny Bench and Tony Perez. Rat-a-tat-tat.
Bench has not had an outstanding year when measured against his '72 MVP season, but he still drove in 104 runs and was never struck out on an intentional walk (remember that, World Series fans?). And in addition to his hitting, Bench has that rifle hanging down from his right shoulder. Don't forget it. Opposing teams don't, and it influences the style of their play. Perez, who seems destined never to get the attention he deserves, was a hitting marvel during the last half of the year, particularly with runners in scoring position. He finished with 101 RBIs and a .314 average.
Of all the major league teams, only the Detroit Tigers finished with fewer errors than the Reds, but that does not mean that Cincinnati is a strong fielding team in the classical sense. Perez and Driessen will make mistakes, but. Anderson can adapt on defense, depending on the ebb and flow of the action. In last year's World Series Oakland had better supporting troops than the Reds. But now the Cincinnati bench is a strong one. The team won game after game this season when nonregulars Phil Gagliano, Larry Stahl, Hal King, Andy Kosco and Denis Menke moved in with important hits or made big plays on defense. Cincinnati is a versatile team that can win with short hits as well as long ones, and those who wait to be stepped on by elephants might do well to remember that the sting of a bee can also be deadly.
Each time the Reds get close to a playoff or Series their pitching tends to flatten out. But this Cincinnati team, at least on the surface, seems well equipped. Billingham, winner of 19 games, is a prime candidate for the Cy Young Award. Historically, Cincinnati's pitchers come equipped with ERAs that read like shoe sizes, but not this year. Don Gullett (3.51), Ross Grimsley (3.24), Billingham (3.04) and Norman (3.64), the starters, have kept those numbers down, and when they do not complete their games Anderson puts a jigger of Borbon into the Machine and off it goes again.
Pedro Borbon has come out of the bullpen 80 times this year. Since July 4 the strong righthander has won nine straight games and earned seven saves. The irrepressible Borbon once tried to throw a-baseball to the roof of the Astrodome, 208 feet up. He is a shot of juice if things get dull. All of which means the Reds' pitching staff can be surprisingly tough. It is easy to underrate. Should the starters stagger, the Reds will pour Borbon.