SI Vault
William Leggett
September 24, 1973
In the National League's daffy East Division Pittsburgh lurched into first place, but close behind were the Expos, the Cardinals and the Mets
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September 24, 1973

Churned By The Gut-grinder

In the National League's daffy East Division Pittsburgh lurched into first place, but close behind were the Expos, the Cardinals and the Mets

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The day had been long, hot and perilous for Danny Murtaugh (see cover), manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates. His team had taken an early 3-0 lead over the St. Louis Cardinals and stretched it to 7-1 by the middle of the seventh inning. But then the Cardinals started collecting base hits. Murtaugh called for his long man, he called for his short man and seemed ready to call for his fiddlers three. St. Louis fought back until the score was 7-4 with the bases loaded and two out in the bottom of the ninth. A home run, of course, would beat the Pirates and any kind of extra-base hit would tie them. Murtaugh summoned Ramon Hernandez from the bullpen, and Hernandez obligingly brought the final out with him.

The game should have been easy, a laugher, one to tie a nice red bow on early and forget about. But like most games played in the National League East this month, it was a gut-grinder. As Murtaugh sat back in a rocking chair afterward, beads of perspiration streaked his chest and the strain could be seen in his hound-dog eyes.

"Do they have to go down to the last out all the time?" he asked. Seemingly so. "This is tough," he said. Indeed. "The race will probably go to the last three days of the season," he added. Or maybe beyond.

Over the years the National League has given baseball some memorable Septembers, in which groups of teams have fought over every inch of ground. Fast-balls get thrown at men's heads, spikes are aimed chest high and umpires are vilified on nearly every pitch. But now the National has outdone itself. In the East Division the Pirates have a chance to win the championship and so do the Cardinals. Which is logical. The Mets have a right to think they can win. That's amazin'. But the Expos think the same way. That's wondrous—and un-American. Even the Cubs still have hopes. "There are two things of importance in the United States still undecided," says Steve Blass, the Pirates' World Series pitching hero of 1971. "The race in the National League East and the Pillsbury Bake-off."

It has been said of a future society that "everyone will be a hero for 15 minutes." Well, that's the National League East already. One day it is Willie Stargell's turn and the next it is Lou Brock's. Ken Singleton has a good outing and then along comes John Milner. And if any team goes on a winning streak, drums pound and the other clubs haul out the Gatling guns and mow them down.

Although any team that tops .500 is arrested for speeding, the fans by no means have lost interest. In Montreal you can't get a snail fork between the customers in tiny Jarry Park, a place of 28,456 seats that more or less accommodated 34,331 souls last Saturday as the Expos defeated the Phillies in a frenetic extra-inning game that saw, among other drama, two Phillie runners thrown out at the plate in the ninth. "The Expos," said Manager Gene Mauch, "are just a bunch of kids having fun out there."

Some fun. Because its eventual champion is going to wind up with an embarrassingly low winning percentage, the East Division is being called " National League Least" or "The Subtraction Division." As Sunday's dust settled the Pirates were leading the Expos by all of a half game with a percentage of .507. Since 1900 the lowest winning percentage for a pennant winner has been the .549 of the 1970 Pirates. In the American League the 1967 Red Sox slipped in with a .568. As recently as 1962 the Pirates were 25 games above .500—and that year they finished fourth.

Well, what about the Pirates? Can one man put them over? Is that man Danny Murtaugh? Two weeks ago Murtaugh came back to manage the team, having retired after the 1971 season. Joe Brown, the Pittsburgh general manager, had just fired Bill Virdon for reasons yet to be fully explained. At the time the Pirates had lost three games in a row to the Cardinals, who were then in first place and looking golden. The Cardinal series had generated an inordinate number of disputes on the field, but they were marvelous games and most people were shocked at Virdon's firing. Just a year ago as a rookie manager he had led the Pirates to the best winning percentage in the big leagues before losing the playoffs to Cincinnati on a wild pitch in the ninth inning of the fifth and final game.

Virdon had been Murtaugh's own selection to succeed him, and Murtaugh has returned for what is his fourth stint as the team's manager only out of loyalty to the Pittsburgh organization, which he first joined 26 years ago.

Since the Pirates won their 1971 championship, Murtaugh has been the team superscout. He admits candidly, "Over the past two years I haven't seen more than 10 or 12 National League games." What he hasn't seen obviously hasn't hurt him. Of his first 10 games since returning as manager, his team has won seven.

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