THE BIG THINK
It seemed to be a good idea when the ultimate philosophers of baseball, the owners, decided to slice the two expansion-swollen major leagues into four divisions. That way, no one in either 12-team league ever would finish lower than sixth. The customers, they schemed, would thereby be tempted to watch not just two big pennant races but four little ones followed by two playoffs and the final-final.
Well, no team has been able to finish lower than sixth, although if it were possible San Diego might be considered a candidate this year. But in two years the two leagues have managed to come up with only one remotely exciting championship race out of a possible eight. In the American League, Baltimore won its division by 19 games in 1969 and by 15 in 1970. Minnesota won by nine games in each year. In the National League the Mets won by eight games in 1969 and the Pirates by five in '70. A year ago the Reds won in the West by 14�. Only in 1969, when the Braves nosed out the Giants in the West by three games, was there a semblance of suspense. And there was nothing suspenseful about the so-called "championship series" that determined the ultimate pennant winners. All of these best three-out-of-five matches have ended in clean sweeps. Die-hard skeptics felt that the races in both leagues would have been closer had there been no divisions. They would have been, too.
At midseason this year there appeared to be no sign of improvement: three of the four division races were all but locked up. Now, however, some small hopes of salvation have surfaced. The Giants, staggering since their early show of foot, are sinking closer to the Dodgers; the Pirates seem no longer invincible; and Baltimore and Boston still are playing Alphonse and Gaston. Only Oakland is out of sight.
But here's the rub; there would be even closer races this year without those divisions. In the American League, Oakland, Baltimore and Boston all would be in pennant contention. In the National, the Pirates, Giants, Cardinals, Dodgers and Cubs would be within hailing distance of each other.
But, of course, someone still would have to finish 12th.
Pro football's exhibition season was not quite two periods old for the New York Jets when that star-crossed team's hopes for a brilliant 1971-72 under the skilled hand and arm of Joe Namath were shattered. Attempting to make a tackle after a fumbled pitchout, Namath struggled up from the pileup with damaged ligaments in his left knee. At best, and it sounded like the ultimate in optimism, the Jets and Namath could only hope that Dr. James A. Nicholas, orthopedist for the team, was right when he said, "There is a possibility that Joe may be able to play by the 10th game of the season late in November."
Dick Young, columnist for New York's Daily News and long intimate with the quarterback's difficulties, even went so far as to suggest that Namath should not have been playing at all.
"This could be it for good," Young wrote. "This is what Joe Namath and Dr. Nicholas have feared right along, the time the knees would become so deteriorated that almost any kind of blow would stretch or snap a ligament. Indeed, Dr. Nicholas secretly feared that one day the leg might snap at the knee."