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In the bottom of the ninth last Thursday night, with the bases loaded, no one out and the score tied 1-1, George Frazier, a 25-year-old relief pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, strolled back of the Shea Stadium mound and contemplated the damage of the last few minutes as 7,202 Mets fans, unaccustomed to the luxury of seeing an opponent in such circumstances, sent him raspberries, collect.
Yes, the Cardinals were in a jam again. It was a jam they had brought on themselves, and it echoed a theme of failure they had been playing all season. True, St. Louis had recently reversed its form—from being a team that couldn't pitch to being one that couldn't hit—but not its penchant for losing. In fact, the only thing that would really change last week would be that Manager Ken Boyer, the old St. Louis hero, would, on Sunday, lose his job.
Boyer got canned because of the sort of things that occurred on Thursday. The Cards' starter, Bob Sykes, had allowed only five hits in seven innings, but the St. Louis hitters had got only four hits themselves. Boyer had gone to the bullpen not because the starting pitcher needed help but because his league-leading hitters did. And he pinch-hit for Sykes knowing full well that the St. Louis bullpen has hardly been the place to turn for succor this season.
Frazier had loaded the bases by giving up a hit to Steve Henderson, by walking Joel Youngblood and by failing to field Alex Trevino's bunt. So there he was, alone and with trouble all around him, as if briefly embodying the fortunes of his entire team.
Setting himself, Frazier reached back and fired a slider to Pinch Hitter Mike Jorgensen. Inside, ball one. Frazier let fly again, this time a fastball. Low, ball two. The crowd was stomping and whistling now. A bit unnerved, Frazier fired another fastball. Outside, ball three. The crowd erupted, and Catcher Ted Simmons came to the mound.
"Throw it over," Simmons said. "He hits it to somebody and we still might get out of this."
Frazier walked behind the mound, leaned back and stretched. "Take a deep breath," he said to himself. "Think positive. Get him out." Then he came down the pipe with the obligatory 3-0 fastball, which Jorgensen took. There was only one thing to do now, and Jorgensen was waiting for it. The ball came down the middle again, and Jorgensen stroked it neatly on the screws. The ball jumped off his bat and rose in a line over the head of Rightfielder George Hendrick, who froze in a crouch as the ball sailed past, not turning to watch it go by, not moving at all. The ball hit near the warning track and bounced off the wall. And Henderson trotted in to score the winning run.
So it has been going for a team that was supposed to be a contender in the National League East this year. That the Cardinals aren't remotely close to contending is the reason Boyer was fired between games of a doubleheader on Sunday in Montreal, which, sure enough, the Expos swept, 9-4 and 6-4. Boyer's successor is Whitey Herzog, who won three consecutive division titles with Kansas City before finishing second in 1979 and being fired himself after the season. Herzog inherits a team that has lost 22 of its last 27 games for a stunning 18-33 record, the worst in the majors.
What makes the plight of the Cardinals so curious—and Herzog's new job so frustrating—is their reputation as the best-hitting team in baseball. Four of their starters—Ken Reitz, Keith Hernandez, Simmons and Hendrick—were each hitting around .300 at the end of last week. Garry Templeton has been there much of the year, and Bobby Bonds will doubtless come close before the season ends. As of last Saturday Reitz was leading the league in batting average with .344. Hernandez, the defending champion, was right behind him at .342. Hendrick was among the league leaders in home runs (11) and runs batted in (39). The team led the league in hitting, with an average of .277 and was second only to Philadelphia in runs scored. Yet there they were, trailing the Mets in the East, the Giants in the West. In fact, every team in every division.
The reasons for the collapse may seem as easy to find as the baseball stats in the morning newspaper. The pitching staffs earned run average was the highest in the National League, a lofty 4.20. The Cardinals had given up more runs (239) than anyone else, and their bullpen had just six saves and had been chiefly responsible for opponents winning 11 games in their last at bat.