As The Hitter settles into his stance in i the batting cage, both the Chicago Cubs and the players in the opposition dugout concentrate on his coiled figure with the intensity men reserve for strange noises in the night. The Hitter holds the bat straight up, his arms out away from his lean body, the forearm tendons taut with expectation. As he swings, his right foot minces forward, the bat blurs, there is a sharp, cracking sound, and the ball shoots out into the field as surely as if it had been thrown there. The line drives rattle from the cage like hailstones stinging a car roof, the batting-practice pitcher crouching behind his protective netting. Billy Williams is playing his song, the hot sun his spotlight, perspiration his makeup, the batting cage his stage. The bat and ball are his tympani, and the music is sweet, as rich and pure as any in baseball.
" Billy Williams can hit," says Cub Coach Ernie Banks in his lilting manner, his voice rising for emphasis at the end of the sentence, the words dramatizing the tableau and giving it an aura of church and preacher. "Yes. Yes. Billy Williams can hit. Yes. That's right. He's going to lead us to The Promised Land. And you know why? You know why, don't you? Because he can hit the good pitches. Yeah. For home runs. All of us can hit the had pitches. The mistakes. But Bill Williams can hit the good pitches. For home runs. Yeah. Billy Williams is going to lead us to The Promised Land." You almost expect the surrounding ballplayers to break into murmurs of Amen. Yeah. Amen.
For 12� seasons Billy Williams' left-handed swing has reminded National League pitchers of the fallibility of their out-pitches. In his last three years he has hit .322, .301 and .333, winning the major league batting title last season, a year in which he knocked in 122 runs and hit 37 homers. Someday in the future he may surpass 3,000 hits, which only 11 other players have managed. But as for The Promised Land, it has remained way over yonder.
Chicago has not won a pennant since 1945. The Cubs came closest with Billy in left field in 1969, when they led for most of the season only to collapse before the onrush of the New York Mets. That was the year Manager Leo Durocher took off in the middle of the pennant race and visited the son of his new bride for a weekend at Camp Ojibway in Wisconsin. From Sept. 4 to 23 the Cubs went from five games ahead to six behind, with the worst record in the majors. It is a stain on their hands that they want to cleanse, but no matter how hard they rub, like Lady Macbeths in spiked shoes, the traces linger. "That year," says Williams, "we played three-quarters of a season and forgot about the other quarter. The year 1969 is something you'd like to forget. I know I don't hear anybody talking about it around the clubhouse."
Now the Cubs are out in front again, this time with a new manager, Whitey Lockman, and a new style. Lockman is a leader who gives his regulars a rest now and then—Durocher's attitude was play, play, play—and Lockman has assembled a strong bench in men like Gene Hiser, Carmen Fanzone, Paul Popovich, Ken Rudolph and Adrian Garrett. The rested regulars are responding, and the Cubs have displayed late-inning punch, the mark of pennant winners. During one seven-game stretch in late June they scored the winning run in five games after the sixth inning.
Rightfielder Jose Cardenal, traded away by five other major league teams, is having a phenomenal year. The Wrigley Field organist plays chords from Jesus Christ Superstar whenever Jose lopes to the plate, and it is apt if irreverent music, for Cardenal leads the Cubs in game-winning hits. Third Baseman Ron Santo, happy to be out from under Durocher's yoke, is having one of his best seasons, and Centerfielder Rick Monday already has hit more home runs than he ever did before in a full major league season.
But those are things that bring teams only to the border of The Promised Land. The crossing is strewn with obstacles. Last week the Cubs were on a road trip that pitted them against two of the stronger teams in the Western Division. In San Francisco, and then Los Angeles, the phlegmatic Williams found himself searching for the elusive catalyst that triggers his surges of batting excellence.
There were moments that suggested he had found the answer to the mystery that had deprived him of an RBI in 21 days. Against the Giants he stroked two base hits Tuesday night, the second a line drive that caromed off the right-field fence with such force that he was held at first base with a 375-foot single. The next day came a home run that broke the RBI drought, but he went hitless Friday night in the opener of the Dodger series. "It seems like I'm swinging the bat the same," he said, "but I'm not hitting the ball good. From day to day I can't find the groove. One day I feel good, the next I don't."
By Sunday night the siege was over. A split against the Giants and three straight losses to the Dodgers, but three more RBIs for Williams, whose average was steady at near .290. One more week had ended with the Cubs in first.
Many more weeks may end the same, but it all depends on how Williams hits. Don't mention this, however, because Williams is Chicago's secret. "Billy is the best left-handed hitter I ever saw," says Willie Stargell of the Pirates, no mean lefty himself, "but for all you hear about him you'd think he was playing in the dark. Can he hit the ball hard? I remember one time I was playing first base and he stung one through my legs before I could even move my glove. Bam. It was gone. I always keep my eyes open when Billy is batting. He could hurt you, know what I mean?"