Six months have passed since the zany 1973 divisional windup and people who should be able to define what happened are still as bewildered as they were when New York, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Montreal and Chicago came down the stretch on a zigzag course to the wire. If confused, the division can at least be proud of the Mets: they won 20 games and lost only eight in the final month, beat Cincinnati in the playoffs and extended the Oakland A's to the final out of the seventh game of the World Series before succumbing. But the Mets were the only team in the division to finish the season above .500.
During the winter, five of the six teams made major deals to get ready for this year. New York was the one that did not. Oh, the Mets dabbled in the power market, angling for Joe Torre and Jimmy Wynn, but the asking price—Pitchers Jon Matlack and Jerry Koosman—was too high. New York could indeed use a right-handed power hitter. The Mets were better than only the San Diego Padres in all the majors with a .246 team batting average and they were next to last in home runs, runs batted in and stolen bases. But pitching is the Mets' strength, and they do not want to distribute it throughout baseball. New York is now what the Dodgers were in the mid-'60s, a team built on pitching and defense.
Manager Yogi Berra seems to have titles chasing him around. He has managed for only three seasons—one with the Yankees and two with the Mets—and has won two pennants. Having Tom Seaver aboard does not hurt. Seaver is baseball's best pitcher—twice a Cy Young Award winner and an All-Star in each of his seven big-league seasons. Richest, too, with a new $172,000 contract. "Watching him pitch is something like a struggling artist watching Michelangelo paint," says Pittsburgh's Jerry Reuss. Seaver (19-10, 2.08 ERA), Matlack, Koosman and George Stone, the basic starting staff, won 59 of New York's 82 victories. Rookie righthander Craig Swan (2.34 ERA at Tidewater) will probably join the rotation. As for relievers, it is almost enough to say that Tug McGraw's ERA from Aug. 8 through Oct. 1 was 0.88. Harry Parker (8-4) and Ray Sadecki (5-4) can relieve or spot-start.
Rightfielder Rusty Staub has been hurting this spring but surely he deserves a season uninterrupted by injuries. Second Baseman Felix Millan and Shortstop Bud Harrelson give the Mets a lot of double plays and Catcher Jerry Grote is sound again, so New York is stand-pat strong. But the teams to beat have all been strengthened, and one of them, St. Louis, is radically changed after finishing second by only 1� games.
The Cardinals seem to be recast as the Boston Red Sox West. Their hitting constantly frustrated by their own park, where they had only 27 homers in 1973, the Cards are now emphasizing pitching, defense and speed. And they do have speed. Veteran Lou Brock, young Bake McBride and former Red Soxer Reggie Smith compose, from left to right, an outfield rivaling San Francisco's in that department. McBride should be the best centerfielder the team has had since Curt Flood in 1969, and Smith, who batted .303 with Boston, fills a desperate need for an outfielder who can hit righthanded.
For the Cardinals to win, two things must happen. First, Torre must prove that an inflamed right shoulder joint no longer restricts his normal free-flowing swing. "I feel no pain, compared to what it was like last season," he says. "Now it is a matter of getting my timing back."
The second necessity is that the pitching staff must prove better on the mound than it looks on paper. In trading Rick Wise and Reggie Cleveland to Boston the Cardinals lost two stalwarts in a rotation that helped give St. Louis the second-best ERA in the league (3.25 to Los Angeles' 3.00). Bob Gibson's knee injury last August was a heavy blow. Because Gibson's condition was still somewhat uncertain in spring training, Alan Foster (13-9) had to be considered the No. I right-handed starter, with John Curtis (13-13 with the Red Sox) the top lefty. Mike Thompson and Lynn McGlothen (also in from Boston) have been in competition for other starting spots.
No matter how strongly the Cards believe in their chances, the Pirates probably must be considered favorites again. They have dealt away some young talent to get two left-handed starting pitchers. Reuss from Houston and Ken Brett from the Phillies, and Danny Murtaugh, the only Pittsburgh manager to win pennants in a quarter of a century, will be handling the team for the entire season after replacing the scuttled Bill Virdon last September.
This spring Murtaugh was sitting in the dugout before a game against the Reds when he saw his opposite number, Sparky Anderson, take off his cap and exhibit a head of hair turned white. "How can a man who manages a team like the Reds grow old?" mused Murtaugh. A lack of pitching will cause it. So will poor defensive play. And those are two things that also may plague the Pirates.
Already the possessor of a fine fastball and curve, Reuss. 24, spent six months developing a slider that he is no longer afraid to throw. If it hums, Reuss could be one of the best assets the Pirates ever banked. Last season was only the third winning one in eight years of professional ball for Brett, 25. He attained fame with the Phillies when he hit home runs in four consecutive games and also handled 52 fielding chances without an error. But the important thing is that Brett can pitch.