In the mysterious National League East, where avoiding the pit is synonymous with scaling the heights and where winning half the time represents the pinnacle of human achievement, the victor examines his spoils tentatively. "Well, that certainly looks like first place, doesn't it? I wonder if it will bite."
This wariness of success would seem to explain the bemused expression on Manager Yogi Berra's granitic countenance when his New York Mets reached both first place in the NL East and a .500 winning percentage on one enchanted evening last week in Shea Stadium. He looked for all the world like a man awakening in a strange boudoir.
It was no time, obviously, to preen for those skeptics who had his team dead and him buried by midseason, nor could he afford the luxury of hobnobbing with new fair-weather friends. Berra simply was not all that sure where he was or how, for that matter, he got there.
"It's been a long, hard struggle," he conceded uncertainly, "but we won't know until it's all over."
We certainly will not, for Berra's team is in a race that falls not so much to the swiftest as to the one who keeps his feet. First place is not all that precious in the NL East; it is worth no more than about fourth place in the NL West. But those competing for it have had an inordinately hard time getting to it and even more trouble hanging on to it.
Melodramatically, this would have been a perfectly rewarding season if, for example, the Cardinals, abject losers at the start, gallant comeback kids in the middle, had been able to stay on top once they finally got there. But vertigo set in and they tottered over the side. It might even have been acceptable if the Pirates, monotonously consistent winners though they have been, had overcome their dreadful pitching handicap and stayed upstairs. But they, too, tumbled down. And it will be fine if the Mets, recalling for incurably nostalgic New Yorkers the good old days of 1969, can hold the high ground. But they may also prove acrophobic.
The Mets do have one attribute the others seem to lack: they believe in miracles. And well they should, for they had their share of them last week in winning four straight games from the Pirates and supplanting them as the ephemeral league leaders.
On Thursday night, in a game that may have surpassed any played this season for prolonged suspense, the Pirates appeared to be a winner in the 13th inning when, with two out and their Richie Zisk on first base, Dave Augustine hit a drive deep toward the left-field bullpen.
Zisk, running with the pitch, looked certain to score as the ball struck the edge of a wooden plank that serves as the very top of the eight-foot fence. It hit so high, in fact, that there seemed every possibility it would bounce over and out and give the Pirates a 5-3 lead and almost surely the game.
But the ball not only stayed in the park, it caromed off the top of the fence and plopped, as if tossed there by unseen hands, into the glove of an astonished Cleon Jones. Barely pausing to see if it was indeed a ball he had there or perhaps a beer cup pitched from the upper deck, Jones wheeled and threw to cutoff man Wayne Garrett. Third base is Garrett's position, but he had moved to shortstop in the late innings as a replacement for Bud Harrelson. By his own postgame admission, cutoff throws are as foreign to him this year as, say, placekicks, but the one he delivered this night was true and on the bounce to Catcher Ron Hodges, and Zisk was clearly out.