The dignity of the National Pastime seems unlikely to be enhanced by the 1973 World Series, an event that, in its opening phases at least, displayed more elements of low comedy than high drama. That the participants should be the New York Mets and the Oakland A's seemed appropriate under the circumstances for, despite their recent successes, both have long and honorable histories of buffoonery. The Mets set the tone from the very beginning by entering the Series with the worst won-loss record (82-79) of any team in history. The A's, on the other hand, are proper champions, but because of the eccentricities of their owner and their own occasionally bizarre behavior, they have had difficulty persuading the public that they should be taken seriously. Even after they whipped Cincinnati last year, not everyone was convinced they were the better team.
"I don't believe people think of us as legitimate world champions," said Team Captain Sal Bando, a fine player and fine gentleman. "We are out to prove that we are."
The Mets had even more to prove. If the A's are regarded with some disbelief, the Mets are positively incredible. They were not taken seriously as contenders for the National League championship until the last several weeks of the season, and they did not actually win their title until a day after the season officially ended. They entered the Series for the second time in five years as Cinderellas.
The A's, for their part, were not entirely comfortable in the role of favorites. They are constitutionally happier as underdogs and the puff pieces about the "poor little Mets" rankled them. The image the visitors brought to Oakland was the one the A's themselves had worn so proudly a year ago in Cincinnati. The japes directed at them then for their popinjay uniforms, their coiffures, their intramural squabbles, their mulish owner and their strategy-obsessed manager merely perpetuated a well-cultivated, if accidentally conceived, reputation. The A's are climbers, not establishmentarians.
"Last year it was kind of a bonus just being in the Series," said Reggie Jackson, the team's star slugger and unofficial spokesman. "It was easier for us to win because nobody expected us to. Anything we did was worth a pat on the back. This year we're the world champions. The pressure is on us. Now we're playing against the giant-killer."
In the opening game, which the A's somehow won 2-1, neither team slew any behemoths. Both Oakland runs were unearned, the consequence of an astonishing error by the ordinarily impeccable Met second baseman, Felix Millan, who made only nine errors during the entire regular season. Worse yet, the first run was scored by a pitcher, a species that in the American League this year has come to regard bats as something found in belfries. Nevertheless, Ken Holtzman, an Oakland pitcher who appeared at the plate exactly once during the regular season (he walked), doubled smartly to left field with two out in the third inning off Met starter Jon Matlack, striking a blow, as it were, for the liberation of hitting pitchers.
"The count was 3 and 2," recalled slugger Holtzman, "and I figured he doesn't want to walk me, so I knew I could expect a fastball in the strike zone. I just met the ball."
He met it well. Further, he even remembered in which direction batters must run and where the various bases could be located. To Matlack's considerable embarrassment, Holtzman was perched on second when Bert Campaneris, the A's swift shortstop, hit a roller at Millan, who, bewildered perhaps by the spectacle of an American League pitcher in his infield, allowed the ball to proceed unimpeded between his legs. Holtzman scored easily.
Then, by way of compensation, Matlack very nearly picked Campaneris off first. Unfortunately, Matlack's throw to John Milner was high and wide, and Campaneris sped safely into second. He scored from there moments later when Joe Rudi singled cleanly to right field. And that was the ball game offensively for Oakland. The A's did not get another hit until their last at bats in the eighth inning when Campaneris beat out a bunt by giving Milner the hip and sliding under his tag like a fly beneath a swatter.
The Mets' run in the fourth was too little and too late, but at least it was untarnished, coming on a long double by Cleon Jones and a single to center by Milner. Its almost Grecian purity was rare in a game that smacked of op�ra bouffe. In addition to the Millan and Matlack misadventures, Willie Mays, closing out his luminous career, hobbled a ball in center field for an error; the A's Rudi misjudged a fly ball in left field and fell on his face in the bargain; the A's catcher, Ray Fosse, let a third strike escape him, allowing batter Don Hahn to reach first base; and the A's infielders and outfielders, eschewing the cry of "I got it," spent much of the afternoon dodging each other in pursuit of pop-ups.