Gene Mauch, the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, sat on the dugout steps at Connie Mack Stadium one evening last week looking like a man who had spent considerable time climbing the hills of hell. For Mauch, whose team has never fulfilled the expectations he had for it in the spring, this has been a frustrating season, but somehow Philadelphia is still one of six National League teams fighting it out in the most bewildering pennant race in baseball history.
He gathered a fistful of dirt and sifted it through his fingers. Within a week the Phils had lost four games, because 1) a catcher let a ball get past him on the first pitch of an intentional walk, 2) a pitcher threw a wild pitch on a third strike, 3) one relief pitcher picked up a bunt and threw it into the left-field bullpen and 4) another relief pitcher picked up another bunt and threw it into the right-field bullpen. "There should be a new way to record the standings in this league," said Mauch. "One column for wins, one for losses and one for gifts—games given away. Last year we didn't give five games away all season. This year we have given away 25 by my count. What about the rest of the season? Well, if nothing has been figured out at the end of 130 games, then any man who can figure out the final 30 is smart enough to be doing something else."
Within the past three weeks it has been possible for National League teams to go to bed in first place and wake up in third, and even to lose games and gain ground. Although the players believe that the Cincinnati Reds will ultimately win the pennant (see box), it is hard for the average fan to agree since the Reds, like the other five contenders, have suffered from a league-wide disease of being consistently inconsistent. The cause of the disease is simple to detect: each contender has at least one particular defect piled on top of a universal one.
The Los Angeles Dodgers, for example, have three strong starting pitchers, but the team itself cannot hit. Willie Mays hit more home runs in the month of August (17) than any one Dodger is going to hit all year. Cincinnati, San Francisco, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia all seem able to hit, but none has three strong starting pitchers. And all six lack the one classical commodity that championship teams always seem to possess—a reliable bullpen. Since the beginning of August, 40% of the losses suffered by the six have been charged to relief pitchers.
The managers have tried desperately to alleviate this condition, but nothing has helped. Dick Sisler of the Reds used starter Sammy Ellis to protect a seven-run lead against the Houston Astros, of all people. Walt Alston of the Dodgers called on Sandy Koufax, the best starting pitcher in baseball, for relief work and, because his bullpen was sagging, he had to let Don Drysdale pitch when Drysdale was really not Drysdale at all. Harry Walker of the Pirates watched his best relief pitcher, Al McBean, get credit for saving three games while giving up nine hits, three walks and five runs in six innings. The Braves became so desperate last week they bought 39-year-old Harvey Haddix from the Baltimore Orioles to help the bullpen, but Harvey felt neither able nor willing and decided to retire. Each team brought up young pitchers from the minors and threw them right into the middle of the scramble, usually in relief. Mauch tried this last week with 22-year-old Grant Jackson, just up from Arkansas. Jackson promptly gave up a three-run homer, and the rest of the bullpen allowed eight more runs before the game was over.
The weak bullpens, generally sloppy defensive play and an unusual number of mental lapses have given the tense race a rather shabby look. Perhaps this has been caused by the pressures of the scramble itself, but it could well be a result of baseball's expansion four years ago, which diluted the game by allowing 25% more players into the major leagues while lengthening the schedule and traveling distances. Recently the Dodgers concluded a bitter series with the Giants in San Francisco, the one that ended with the famous Juan Marichal bat incident. The Dodgers, who had played 83 innings of hard baseball in eight days, then flew overnight to New York. They lost three of four games to the Mets and played their worst ball of the year.
Bobby Bragan of the Braves said last week, "The season is much too long. The 162-game schedule with all its travel and doubleheaders has hurt the caliber of baseball. The schedule should be reduced to 140 games, maybe fewer. You could have Mondays and Thursdays open and play no doubleheaders. Good players would last longer, and you would not have to take stars like Willie Mays out of the lineup to rest them."
Mays and the San Francisco Giants will end up this season playing almost 200 games, counting spring-training exhibitions, but few could be more dramatic than the one they played last Thursday in Philadelphia when Marichal returned after his suspension for hitting John Roseboro with a bat.
The biggest weekday crowd in the history of Philadelphia baseball showed up to see Marichal and to boo him. A telegram hung on the bulletin board in the Giant clubhouse saying, PAY NO ATTENTION TO FANS JUAN. YOU CAN DO IT. It was signed STAUNCH GIANT FANS. A Giant player saw it and said, "Now don't you just know that Horace Stoneham sent that?" There were other telegrams in the Phillie clubhouse, several of them suggesting it would be unwise for the Phillies to provoke Marichal.
"The last thing in the world I would do would be to provoke Juan Marichal," said Mauch. Asked if he thought the reactions to the Marichal incident would have an effect on Juan, Mauch said, "You see a lot of scars in baseball. On the face and the chin and the cheeks. On the legs and arms sometimes. We don't know about this scar. This one might be someplace where you can't see it." He drew a cross over his heart.