For New Yorkers, it was a week of baseball unlike any other in recent memory: a week to be savored, mulled over in a historical context, cheered and occasionally booed. Never before had both the Mets and Yankees been involved in a September pennant race, but last week there they were, locked in two-team races that by a quirk of scheduling had converged pell-mell on the Apple. The Mets and St. Louis Cardinals, the Yanks and Toronto Blue Jays—right now the four best teams in baseball—in town for seven games over six days that drew 363,616 horsehide-crazed New Yorkers. The races didn't just converge upon yon Apple last Thursday, they actually collided there when, for the first time all year, the Mets and Yankees played at home on the same day. This happenstance allowed thousands of New Yorkers to fulfill their victory-glutted fantasies by taking the subway from Shea to Yankee Stadium, awakening memories of '56, when the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Yanks squared off in the last Subway Series. And when the week was over, it mattered little that all the spent passion had done little to change the standings—the Mets were half a game behind the Cards and the Yanks were still chasing after the Blue Jays, who left the Apple with a 4½-game lead—or that there were still plenty of games ahead and a pair of pennants to be resolved. No, this week was for old times' sake, when the Grand Old Game was the talk of the town, and New York was the talk of baseball.
TUESDAY, SEPT. 10
The Mets and Cardinals, tied for first in the NL East with 82-53 records (.607 winning percentages), are opening a three-game series at Shea. It is muggy and has been drizzling most of the day, but if the weather is damp, enthusiasm isn't. On hand are a sellout crowd of 50,195 and some 250 media types, 150 more than usual and an astounding number considering that on this same night Pete Rose is seeking his 4,192nd hit in Cincinnati.
In the Mets' locker room Darryl Strawberry is conducting interviews wearing a pair of tinted granny glasses that are missing a lens. Dwight Gooden, the inimitable Dr. K, is being ribbed by Rafael Santana, the Mets' light-hitting shortstop (.258, one home run), about his failure to win a game on the Mets' most recent road trip, a triumphant 7-3 march up and down the West Coast. The clubhouse is confident and relaxed. "I think we learned something from last year's pennant race with the Cubs," says pitcher Ron Darling, who will start tonight's game. "This time I think we're going to have fun."
Darling, a 25-year-old Yale grad, has had an excellent year—14-5 overall, four victories in his last four starts to go with a 1.16 ERA—but it has gone virtually unnoticed because of Gooden's heroics. On the op-ed page of this morning's New York Times, Darling op-edited for revenge by authoring one of 10 essays suggesting ways to make New York City a better place to live. Among Darling's ideas: immediately raising the drinking age in New York to 21—a sensible plan that would leave the 20-year-old Gooden high and dry until November. Nothing like celebrating a World Series with a couple of ice-cold Moussys.
Let's Put First Things First was the title of the essay, but tonight Darling puts first things second, knocking the Cards out of first with a 5-4 win. The game isn't pretty, the key plays being an intentional pass and a fastball to the rump, but it's tense, playoff-style baseball.
With the score tied 1-1 in the bottom of the first, Strawberry bats with two out and a man on second. Cardinals starter Danny Cox (15-8) falls behind Strawberry 2 and 0, and manager Whitey Herzog orders the lefthanded-hitting Strawberry walked intentionally. "Anytime I can pitch to George Foster instead of Strawberry with a righthander, I'll do it," says Herzog later. Trouble is, when Foster (.256, 17 HRs) steps in to face Cox, he is feeling indignant and testy. A plane flies over, and Foster steps out of the box. When quiet falls, Foster deliberately shuffles in and out again. Foster has made a career out of this sort of stalling. The 6'4", 230-pound Cox stews out on the mound until Foster finally takes his stance, then he rears back and fires a fastball into George's Fosterior. Benches clear, bullpens jog in—comically—and when order is finally restored, the bases are loaded and third baseman Howard Johnson is up. "Cox just forgot what he was out there for," an angry Herzog says afterward. "If you don't like what Foster does—and I don't either—don't hit him with two men on. Then don't compound it by laying a fastball down the pipe—the only pitch Johnson can hit."
"I don't get many pitches like that," Johnson admits later. Crunch. His grand slam soars more than 400 feet into the misty night, making the score 5-1 before many fans have taken their seats. The final score is 5-4. "That first inning took the glitter off the game," says Herzog, whose Cards have been minus power-hitting Jack Clark (pulled muscles in his rib cage) since Aug. 23.
WEDNESDAY, SEPT. 11
If the glitter was off last night's game, tonight more than makes up for it. Gooden against the Cards' John Tudor—the finest pitcher in the game against the hottest pitcher in the game—righty versus lefty, power and control versus craft and control. This is a beauty.