In most seasons it is not until the period around the Fourth of July, the divide between the earnestness of spring and the finality of fall, that baseball weaves itself into our tapestry of life. Up to then the days seem long and damp, and if the game is not far away it is not immediate, urgently calling out for attention. One can leave it—glance casually at the box scores, go occasionally to a ball yard to keep in physical touch. Then at the time of the Fourth, people light a match to their interest, begin to discern, to plunge into the seeming infinity of the hunt. So for the tracker of baseball from a distance, it was time to take another sip of a cooling drink, warn the kids not to go too far into the water, and look around and decide, ah, yes—the American East.
For the people who still go to ball parks, the place to be last week, if you could make it, was either Baltimore or Boston, where two old waterfront rowdies brawled for high ground in a division that belongs to nobody. The matchup was there, all right: here was Boston, long the edgy, dark neurotic of baseball, clinging by whitening fingers to first place while many waited patiently for its falling scream; here was Baltimore, the most dependable club of the last decade, its once solid facade now suddenly cracking into red-raw pieces from internal unrest and dwindling attendance figures, yet a team which, if allowed to stay on the pace, will kill you in September.
A five-game series is a montage, with elements as essential as the players: the towns, the fans, the ball parks. And when it is over the parts melt into the whole; nothing is too small not to belong. That, of course, is the trouble, for when you try to explore one facet, tableaus drift in and stay: the open mouth of Boston's third base coach, Don Zimmer, as he sore tries the patience of an umpire; the cold insouciance of Zimmer after an egregious blunder by Bernie Carbo; the Oriole second baseman, Bobby Grich, with a runner on first and the pitch on its way, frozen like a pointer; the glove of Pitcher Dave McNally in the air after his foot has dispatched it; a frieze of faces young and old flooding into the two parks. The Fourth and the big series bring something to the air near a major league stadium. It is something felt, as if people are out to reclaim baseball, or as if they are going to see if an old national monument is still there where it should always be. This was true even in Baltimore, where the gate is 60,000 off last year's, where the franchise may be in danger, where each season the pressure to make the playoffs so the club can maybe break even becomes more intense; it's a tough town with a dollar.
As it was, 31,000 turned out for the first two games against Boston. It was a respectable figure for Baltimore, a town where the Orioles' principal competitor is Callinectes sapidus, the blue crab, unmercifully masticated and gorged in leisure time in backyards and on shore fronts. Crabs are expensive, and in a working-class town you can't indulge that fancy and go to the park, too. An incident illustrates Baltimore's attendance situation. One night streaking made its debut at the park. The streaker finally was grounded by the police and his fate was in the hands of Frank Cashen, the Oriole general manager. "Give him $50," Cashen told the police, "and tell him to come back tomorrow night."
The night is soggy as the Orioles lead with Doyle Alexander against Bill Lee. Alexander has never been the pitcher he thinks he is, nor is he as consistent as the Orioles had hoped he would be. Lee has not been going well, either. Even so, the Boston fans are fond of him, of his craziness. "Are you pleased to make the All-Star team?" someone asked him last year. "I don't like the Giants' announcer," he replied. Neither pitcher will be around at the end, but the Red Sox win 6-4. Boston needs every game now, for it came out of Cleveland in serious trouble: its pitching is in near-ruin and injuries have steadily followed the club, the most recent being the torn knee of its splendid catcher, Carlton Fisk.
The loss of Fisk has been jarring, but for the moment the Red Sox do not reel. Quite the opposite, they are on the attack, mainly on the efforts of Pitcher Ross Grimsley and Catcher Earl Williams. Williams can't throw and Grimsley sometimes hits bats better than anybody else in the league; he has given up 19 home runs. Hits are sprayed all over and the clubs go into the ninth of the second game tied at 5-5. After several players and Don Zimmer are thrown out by the umpires, the Red Sox break it open in their half of the ninth, using two double steals and a ball lost in the lights by Left-fielder Don Baylor to make it two in a row. Adventurous and lively, these are the words for the front half of the series. And the Orioles are in trouble, now 4� games behind the Red Sox.
"We went at it," says Oriole Manager Earl Weaver, "like it was for a pennant in September. We're exhausted and spent, but that's the way you got to play."
One thing becomes strikingly clear as the two clubs head for Boston. These are not the same Red Sox who had always been poison for managers as well as unfailingly self-destructive, not the same club that seemed to look upon a stolen base as a felony rather than a weapon, a team so bad at times that purists did not know whether to laugh or cringe. Their new manager, Darrell Johnson, is a silent, clever man. His favorite word is fundamentals. He does not panic. The atmosphere is easy, the clubhouse air free of the conspiracy and small hates that previously had cut the heart out of the team. Reggie Smith is gone to St. Louis (and hitting a happy .347). His partner in revolt, Carl Yastrzemski, appears docile now. And the brooding Rico Petrocelli, who has always suffered from severe ego problems, has found evangelism.
The Orioles present a different picture. The pressure from the anemic gate, the bitterness from contract arbitrations, have eaten at the spirit of the team. Earl Williams does not want to catch, does not like the town or the fans, and he has fought with Weaver. The players have become cynical, and more than once have cast a critical eye at the manager. Weaver's position has been weakened somewhat by his off-field behavior, which is abrasive. He is trying to soften his manners. But the old used-car salesman is still in command, and that is an edge for any club when the battle gets hot.
On the field Baltimore is not chiseled out of cold steel as it once was. Its big pitcher, Jim Palmer, who won games and lured fans, is on the disabled list with a sore arm. Its defense has been porous, and that includes the smoothest glove of any age, Brooks Robinson. With the exception of Paul Blair in center, the outfield regulars cannot throw, and when they must it is all too often to the wrong place. Weak bats have grounded Al Bumbry and Rich Coggins, the two who enabled the Orioles to win their division title last season—goodby speed. Dave McNally, his confidence torn, is no longer certain he can win. And Boog Powell's cannon emits the sounds of a cap gun.