Back in the spring, if you had said the only two teams left in contention by August in the National League West would be the Giants and the Astros, somebody might have answered you, "Yeah, right. And Kevin Mitchell will drive in 150 runs, a catcher will be batting leadoff, and Roger Craig and Art Howe will have pompadours."
Well, Mitchell is only slightly off a 150-RBI pace, Astros catcher Craig Biggio is in the leadoff spot, and as for the bald pates of the two teams' respective managers, the sudden presence of hair atop their heads would be only slightly more surprising than the presence of their teams atop the standings. Who would have guessed in April that their three-game series in San Francisco beginning last Friday would be labeled a "crucial" one?
The Astros came into Candlestick one game behind the Giants in the standings, although both teams were smarting. The Giants were coming off a 5-9 road trip on which they lost two more starting pitchers to the disabled list, bringing the season total to six. The Astros arrived fresh from an 18-2 drubbing at the hands of the Cincinnati Reds the day before. Actually, the score of that game was 14-0 after one inning, so the Astros had ample opportunity to laugh it off. "We had to go to our passing game much earlier than we expected," said pitcher Jim Deshaies. "Of course, a couple of turnovers and we would have been right back in the game."
Houston coach Yogi Berra, who's sort of the patron saint of pennant races, having been in so many of them, gave his unique perspective on the series at hand. "This time of year, five games back is nothin'," said Yogi. "So, one game back is even better." Not a Yogi classic, perhaps, but still not bad on the Berra-meter.
One might think Yogi would be blasé about just another pennant race, but he's excited because he has something special at stake. His 21 World Series appearances in uniform are two short of the record held by former Yankee in-fielder and longtime coach Frankie Crosetti. "I see him every once in a while," said Yogi. "He lives in Stockston [sic]. He told me last year I was never going to catch him. And now I just might."
How is it that the Astros, a team that finished fifth in the division last year, are giving Yogi such a prime opportunity? In part, the answer is first-year manager Howe. The team has responded well to his patient, respectful approach. Former manager Hal Lanier cracked the whip several times too often last year and put too much pressure on some of the younger players. At one point late last season, after losing a game to the lowly Atlanta Braves, Lanier came into the clubhouse and announced, "I ought to shoot you——." To which center-fielder Gerald Young replied, out of earshot of Lanier, "I'd like to read that in the 'Transactions' tomorrow."
The other major difference between the '88 club and this one is the blossoming of Biggio and third baseman Ken Caminiti, who are collectively 27 years younger than last year's catcher and third baseman, Alan Ashby and Buddy Bell. Says Deshaies, "I think last year if a psychologist played a word association game with you and gave you 'Astros,' your answer would probably be 'old.' Now it might be 'young.' " Two weeks ago, Biggio became the first catcher since who knows when to bat leadoff on a regular basis—because he was getting on base (.349) and then stealing them (16 of 17 as of Sunday). Since Biggio is so willing to grovel behind the plate and on the base paths, his uniform is often a mess and just as often an inspiration.
Yogi, too, has been an inspiration, even to the older players. "He's more than just a good-luck charm," says veteran relief pitcher Larry Andersen. "He works hard, and he's a genius when it comes to baseball. You may not understand his words, but you always understand his meaning. The other day, I had a bad outing, and Yogi came up to me, tapped me on the shoulder and said, "Mmmm mmmm mmmm.' And you know, I really appreciated him saying that."
The Astros and the Giants took slightly different approaches to the big series. First baseman Glenn Davis, the big man in the Houston lineup with 24 homers, passed out blue T-shirts that had WHO'S GONNA BE THE BIG MAN? On the front and a big question mark on the back, but for the most part, the Astros tried to low-key it. Howe gave a perfunctory address before Friday's game. "The gist of it was, 'Go get 'em, guys,' " said Howe.
Craig, on the other hand, pulled out all the stops. Over a doorway in the clubhouse, he hung a banner—a gift from a couple in Los Gatos, Calif.—that read, NEVER LOOK PAST TODAY'S GAME. THE TEAM YOU FACE TODAY IS YOUR WORLD SERIES OPPONENT. Before the game, he gave the Giants a hellfire-and-brimstone speech. "My A material," said Craig afterward. Said pitcher Mike Krukow, "He would have done Knute Rockne proud." At the end of the speech, Craig threw it over to Krukow, one of the Giants' hurting starters, and asked him. "If this was the last game you were ever going to pitch, what would you do?" And Krukow answered, "I would do it for my teammates. I would pitch it so well that when my teammates walked off the field, they would say it was the greatest game they had ever seen me pitch."