Those people who love only excellence are probably Cincinnati sympathizers, inclined to agree with what Gene Mauch said last week. All three contenders in the National League East, according to the Montreal manager, "have looked exactly alike—terrible. Yet I'm afraid that any of the three could handle Cincinnati in the playoffs because of the uncertainty of the Reds' pitching, and to me that's too bad because the Reds have proved they're the best in the league."
Those people, however, who value a rich blend of human interest should prize the National League East. They should set aside the fading out of the well-balanced Cubs in Philadelphia, which at least is a good place to fade out in. Set aside, even, the falling from grace of the New York Mets, the faulty base running and fielding of Tommie Agee and the faulty pitching of Jerry Koosman and Tom Seaver. Consider instead that last weekend in Pittsburgh, as the Pirates twice beat the Mets 4-3 and once 2-1 to clinch the division title, a lot of flavorful things were going on. A large share of them, fortunately for the home club, involved Wilver Dornel (Willie) Stargell, the Pirates' 6'2�", 215-pound, left-hand-hitting big man.
On Friday, for instance, the Mets' Donn Clendenon, formerly of the Pirates, said of Stargell, "He's the big man. He and Clemente. Now that Al Oliver and Bob Robertson have been hitting so well, it's taken some of the pressure off of Stargell, but for the Pirates to move, he's got to hit. And he's got the perfect temperament for a ballplayer. The game when he hit three home runs and just missed a fourth, I was batting behind him. Every time he came around I'd shake his hand and say, 'You hit that one good,' and he'd say, 'Ehh.' Every time, he was just doing a job—and I was getting knocked down."
It was learned on Friday also that Pirate Pitcher Luke Walker, a native of De Kalb, Texas had received a phone call from his father, who told him, "The pressure's off now." The elder Walker was referring to his own release from a Houston hospital, where he had lain since falling in July from a tractor into the path of a brush sweeper, a machine that mows grass along highways.
Stargell spoke of a time when he, too, had experienced pressures greater than those of a pennant race. "My first year in the minors determined that I would stay in baseball—the fact that I got through that year without going home. That was in 1959, when segregation was part of our country and, being from California, I had never really felt it before. I was playing for Roswell, N. Mex. in towns like Odessa and Midland, Texas and Carlsbad, N. Mex. People would threaten to lynch me, tar and feather me, shoot me. I don't know whether they really would've done it or not, but I was just a kid. You'd beat their ball club with a base hit and they'd say, 'Nigger, you ain't goin' to live to beat anybody else.'
"I almost quit, but I'd call home and talk to my parents, and they'd say, 'O.K., if you want to come home, do. But sometimes you have to put up with things to get somewhere.' I was miserable, but I didn't see any point in inflicting it on somebody else. So I stuck it out, and the next year I played in North Dakota, where they'd hardly ever seen any black people before. They were better."
Stargell drove in the Pirates' second run with a ground ball to the right side, reaching first on the play to the plate. Someone in the second deck in center-field released a bunch of balloons. Someone in the third deck caught it.
Stargell took too big a lead and was picked off first by Koosman. Stargell headed for second base and was met halfway there by the Mets' Bud Harrelson with the ball. Harrelson is about half the size of Stargell. Stargell hit the ground at Harrelson's feet and rolled under the tag like a bear rolling under a rabbit, then regained his feet and reached second base. On appeal, however, the first-base umpire reversed the second-base umpire's call and ruled Stargell out. A great to-do followed.
A cloud of smoke billowed out into the field-level seats along the first-base line. Patrons began to scurry about in fear of fire. Word got around that the smoke was only built-up exhaust from the hot-dog stand beneath the seats, something that happens about once a game at Three Rivers Stadium.
The Pirates' bullpen threw gravel at the cars carrying the ground crew off after the midgame dragging of the infield.