A physician might call it insomnia, a psychiatrist could say it was acute anxiety, but in layman's terms what kept the Cubs' Ernie Banks (see cover) up late watching television one night last week was nothing more than a sudden severe outbreak of an old baseball trauma, the close pennant race. Since his Eastern Division-leading team had lost its fourth consecutive game that afternoon, Banks was not about to be humored by Johnny Carson, Joey Bishop, Merv Griffin or Randolph Scott in Carson City on Chicago's Channel 9. He wanted the West Coast scores and he was not getting them. Finally, he impatiently phoned the press box in San Diego, where New York was playing, and asked for a report.
The news was bad and couldn't have done much for Banks' slumbers the rest of that night. The Mets were on the way to their 12th win in their last 13 games. In a remarkable 14-day stretch, while the Cubs were losing nine games, they moved from 9� games out of first place to two and revived a race in what had been the quiescent—but by no means quiet—division of the National League. Fans in five towns of the Western Division—Atlanta, Cincinnati, Houston, Los Angeles and San Francisco—had long since acclimated themselves to sleeplessness. In their division the first five teams had not been separated by more than 4� games for over a month and each, except for the Astros, had spent some time in first place.
When the baseball owners decided to move to divisional play this season, their announced reason was that it would give the fans two races to fret over instead of one. What was not proclaimed was that there was a lot of money to be made playing it this way. In the National League at least, the owners have scored well on both counts. Attendance is up in six of the seven contending cities. Never has there been anything as close as the Western Division struggle, and games at Chicago's Wrigley Field and New York's Shea Stadium were reminiscent of the old Brooklyn Dodger and New York Giant days. Consistently near-capacity crowds rivaled only each other in the extremes of their lunacy.
The tossing and turning is not apt to stop in any of the seven towns until late September because each of the contenders has shown that it has strengths which can keep it close to the top, yet none has been powerful enough to indicate that it can pull away to a safe lead.
In the East, New York looked finished on Aug. 13 when it fell out of second place for the first time in 71 days. Then the Mets' pitchers, who had been very effective in the first half of the season but suffered a slump in the month following the All-Star Game, flipped on their good sides again. They allowed only two runs a game during New York's drive, and Manager Gil Hodges' staff now looks deeper and tougher than ever. To go along with Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman and Gary Gentry, who have been reliable most of the year, the Mets have received impressive pitching from veteran Don Cardwell and 25-year-old Jim McAndrew. Bothered by injuries until recently, McAndrew picked up three wins during the streak, allowing just 10 hits and tying the team record for consecutive scoreless innings at 23.
With a strong, not seriously overworked bullpen to go with his five starters, Hodges must hope that his two-man offense of Tommie Agee and Cleon Jones remains intact. Jones has matured into a .350 hitter and Agee has come back strongly from a .217 year in 1968. Between the two of them, they have scored or driven in well over half of New York's runs.
The imponderable for the Mets is Hodges himself. Hawk Harrelson notwithstanding, Hodges has proved, first in Washington and now in New York, that he is an extraordinary teacher and driver of young players. If Hodges can impart to his team some of the steadiness under pressure that he gained in seven pennant drives with the Dodgers, the Mets—who have only one more loss than Chicago—could win.
But the Cubs remain the favorite. The simple fact is that their pitching is better than it has looked lately. Chicago's hitting during the slump also dropped off slightly, but the top six men in the lineup, Don Kessinger, Glenn Beckert, Billy Williams, Ron Santo, Banks and Randy Hundley, are all strong offensively and defensively. Recently the Cubs have found another slugger in Outfielder Jim Hickman, who averaged .300 with 10 home runs during August.
Surprisingly on a Leo Durocher-managed team, complacency seems to be the Cubs' biggest problem. Since mid-June they have played only seven games over .500 and last week no one, including Durocher, had the energy to go argue when an umpire obviously missed a call, ruling that a ball that would have given Chicago a single had been caught instead of trapped by a Cincinnati outfielder.
Despite Banks' call to San Diego, a ban on photographers in the clubhouse and a run-in between Santo and a paper-cup dispenser, the Chicago players insist that panic has not settled in. "We haven't choked," said Kessinger last week. But, said a Chicago reporter and Cub fan, "There's a lot of whistling in the dark going on around here."