As the penultimate episode of This Week in Baseball airs (cover the week of September 13, 1977), another playoff battle can be declared all but won. "A tight four-team race in the AL West has been busted wide open," Mel Allen proclaims, Not too long ago, Texas, Minnesota, and Chicago were hot on Kansas City's heels, but now it's all over but the shouting, as TWIB shows the Royals putting a hurt on another playoff hopeful, Baltimore. (More on them in a moment.) The Royals are coming off a stretch in which they rattled off 12 victories in a row and won 23 of 26. "Come October, they may be too hot for any team to handle," Allen supposes. Yes, but will they also be too cold to hold?
In the AL East, the Yankees are trying to pull away from the pack, but Boston still hopes to usurp them. This week, Carlton Fisk put the team on his back, as he hit over .600 for the week and drove in 17 runs, with most of the damage coming against the expansion Blue Jays. Come on, Carlton, what did Toronto ever do to you? At the moment, the Red Sox are just 2.5 behind New York in the standings, with five games between the two teams scheduled for the next week-plus (three in the Bronx, two at Fenway). Allen says these series will draw more than 250,000 to their ballparks, though he does not reveal the accounting method that led him to this figure.
The Orioles' playoff hopes are also very much alive, as they sit just three games in back of the Yankees and a half-game behind the Red Sox. One look Earl Weaver's face tells you what's at stake. Look at that determination! That pure dedication!
Baltimore's hanging in there thanks to contributions from all members. Allen informs us that longtime ace Jim Palmer is "back in the groove" after a post All Star Game swoon, and that Rudy May, who tossed a shutout and a complete game two-hitter this week, "is having his most successful season." Showing us his credentials as True SABR, Allen also talks up Ken Singleton, not for his power or batting average, but for having "the best on base percentage in baseball." Moneyball Mel! Oh, and Singleton is also hitting over .400 in last 6 weeks. Rookie switch hitter Eddie Murray gets a mention, as we see him crush a homer at Comiskey, his 21st of the year.
The Orioles' run scoring power is every bit the equal of the Yanks and Sox, as we also see contributions from the less likely sources of Doug Decinces and Terry Crowley, who belts a grand slam against the hapless Indians.. Or as Allen puts it, "You just never know which one of Earl Weaver's birds will get the worm next!" Yes, playoff hunt worms for all!
A segment on the NL East cautions us that there is "slim chance" the division-leading Phillies will lose their top spot. (They own a healthy eight-game lead at week's end.) Greg Luzinski is a big reason why, as Allen tells us. "Ole! The Bull is headed for his best home run and RBI season yet." But the second place Pirates are still playing as if they have a shot, as evidenced by a pair of weird, scrambling plays TWIB shows us. First, Mike Schmidt smokes a line drive down third base line. The Pirates third baseman snares the ball, then tries to beat a Phillie runner scurrying back to bag, to no avail. The Pirate fielder goes nuts, trying to show the umpire he beat runner to bag. The Phillie runner, befitting a man in first place, keeps his calm and strikes a pose.
We also see Pirates first baseman Bill Robinson grab hard grounder at first, stumble on his way toward the bag, and hit the deck. Unable to regain his footing, Robinson literally crawls toward the bag and gets close enough to touch it with his glove a hair before the runner. That's just how they play, these never-say-die and never-get-up-from-a-prone-position Pirates!
TWIB replays a clip from midseason, an interview with Pirate Phil Garner where the Pittsburgh infielder is asked what will make the difference in the division. "I think the team that gets the breaks injury wise...is gonna be the team that perseveres," Garner guesses. Not exactly a profound thought, but Garner does own a profound mustache.
Obvious sentiment or not, it's true that injuries have taken their toll in the NL East. Allen reminds us that Cubs closer Bruce Sutter was felled by a shoulder injury. Before that, the Cubs were in first or near it all summer, and TWIB covered their unlikely exploits every week, but once Sutter went down, Chicago crumbled. Pittsburgh has had their own boo-boo issues, as they've had to slog along without slugger Willie Stargell for most of the second half. Pittsburgh hurler John Candelaria testifies that Stargell is "the greatest man I ever met....Some of those stars are on their ego trips, but some day I hope I'm the kind of man he is." It is an endearing sentiment, made more so by Candelaria's thick Brooklyn accent that reminds me of many family members, and also the fact that he looks really, really high.
"The Candy Man has been brilliant," Allen tells us, though he too has had to deal with back issues this season. The Pirates also lost second baseman Rennie Stennett to a broken hand. Garner moved over to second to take his place, and rookie Dale Berra has been promoted to play third. Son Of Yogi is shown getting a game-winning hit against the Phils, but Allen sighs that "all the same it may have come too late in the pennant race."
The mention of Berra serves as a segue for a look at this year's freshman class, with an eye toward identifying rookie of the year candidates. In the National League, we start with Atlanta outfielder Barry Bonnell, who is seen making a great catch to rob a home run (we've seen this play before). However, Allen deems Bonnell a ROY candidate because "he's hitting close to .300!" Horseshoes and hand grenades, Mel. San Diego's Gene Richards gets a nod because this speedster will likely steal 50 bases this season. Steve Henderson of the Mets is also mentioned for his base stealing ability and for hitting over .300 since coming over in the Tom Seaver trade. "Right now the Mets are basing their future on Steve Henderson," Allen says, which tells you all you need to know about how the Mets were run circa 1977. The Expos have two candidates in their outfield, Warren Cromartie and Andre Dawson. According to Allen, the latter "can do everything."
In the American League, Bump Wills of the Rangers impresses TWIB with speed reminiscent of his dad. Eddie Murray of the Orioles is mentioned for his power, which has kept Baltimore in the pennant race, though Allen curbs his enthusiasm because Murray is "not yet a .300 hitter." But you said Bonnell made the cut because he was hitting "close to .300"! I smell a double standard!
Bob Bailor of the baby Blue Jays is proclaimed "a keystone in future pennant hopes in Toronto." No pressure, Bob! He is also praised for his "consistency." That's a hard thing to quantify, but I can testify that he has impressive chaw-intake abilities. Look at the wad in his mouth in this shot; that's a veteran-sized lump of Skoal!
Bailor's expansion mate, Rupert Jones of Seattle, "combines speed and power," according to Allen. Jones has belted 23 homers, and we get an encore presentation of him hitting an inside-the-parker when one of his hits takes a fortunate bounce off wall. Oakland's Mitchell Page is also praised for his combo of speed and power. "The A's built one dynasty around a guy named Reggie Jackson, and they hope build another around Mitchell Page," Allen says, because yes, those two players are exactly the same. A year after producing rookie sensation Mark "The Bird" Fidrych, Detroit has two more newcomers of note in Steve Kemp, with 80 RBIs under his belt, and pitcher winner Dave Rozema, winner of 15 games. It sure will be tough to pick ROYs out of this class, but one thing's for certain: Every single one of these rookies will go on to Hall of Fame careers, no question.
After a break, we move on to the weird plays of the week, starting with fans taking "showers" under a pull-chain faucet in the bleachers of an unnamed stadium. If anyone knows what ballpark this is, please let me know. And if anyone out there took advantage of these facilities, I'd love to know what this was like, and what diseases you walked away with.
We begin with a shot of the Orioles bullpen rocking out, air-guitar-ing and lip syncing to an unidentified song. "Rick Dempsey, ladies and gentlemen, on lead bat," Allen quips. This is what the 70s were like all the time: Guys like this doin stuff like this. Oh, and Watergate and gas lines and stuff.
It was a good week for gettin' down at the ballpark, as we see White Sox announcer Harry Caray shaking his groove thing in the broadcast booth. It's hard to tell in this still picture, of course, but Caray was frugging up storm. Man, you shoulda been there.
Meanwhile, Boston's Fred Lynn and Bernie Carbo do a dance of sorts when they converge on a fly ball and nearly collide in center field. Carbo hangs onto ball. Allen tells us that "Fred Lynn and Bernie Carbo do the Boston Bump!" which I don't think is a real dance, or at least not one that ever caught. Based on this pic, it looks a little too ballet-ish for the disco era.
More tricky steps come in a Kansas City-Baltimore tilt. A Royals runner charging down the line crashes into the Orioles' first baseman. Said first baseman gets knocked for a loop, stumbles wildly, and knocks over the first base umpire. "Call it a precision collision!" Allen rhymes. "What a combination shot!" See, it's funny because people almost got really hurt.
The Orioles find themselves in the middle of more weirdness in the field during a game against the White Sox. With a runner at third, a Baltimore batter hits a comebacker. The pitcher goes home with his throw, and the White Sox catcher runs toward third, looking to trap the runner. The Orioles runner throws a wrench in this plan; instead of running back toward third, he comes to a dead stop, perhaps hoping he can trip the catcher as he goes barreling past. (This is called the Bugs Bunny Play.) The catcher leaps to avoid colliding with the runner, then throws ball to his third baseman, even though there is no runner at the bag. The third baseman catches the ball while looking supremely confused. "Okay, whaddya want me to do with this thing?"
As for batting futility, we are treated to a pair of Yankees flailing wildly. First, backup backstop Cliff Johnson takes huge swing, stumbles, and crashes to ground. "Don't worry about it, baby, you still got two more rounds," Allen jokes. But Johnson's corkscrew pales in comparison to his teammate, Lou PIniella, who swing so wildly he loses his balance, then careens toward the on deck circle. "Psychologists will never divine man's inner thoughts at moment's like this," Allen opines. That's deep, Mel.
Another Yankee, Graig Nettles, goes running for a foul ball and start to slide to make get there faster. Then he sees his slide will send him headfirst the dugout. So he changes his mind midstream and pops up from his slide, essentially abandoning the ball. (Which is just as well, since the ball lands several rows deep in the stands.) Nettles is a wizard with the glove, but this was not his week, as we see him in another game calling for a popup, then suddenly realize has no idea where it is. "Even the cameraman isn't sure." Turns out the shortstop had a bead on it the whole time, so no harm done, but the look of horror on Nettles' face has a fantastic Horrified Michigan Punter cast to it.
In a game at Comiskey Park, a visiting batter hits a high pop up near the pitcher's mound. The pitcher does not move an inch, so ChiSox first baseman Jim Spencer is forced to run and dive for the ball. He gets a glove on it but can't quite come up with the ball. The Chicago catcher, late to the party, tries to snag the ball with his mask when Spencer's snare fails and is no more successful. "There's no masking an error like that!" Allen chuckles, though he fails to mention that the "error" was precipitated by the fact that the pitcher could have caught this ball if he'd dared to move a foot to his left. Teamwork!
In other mental lapses this week, Dan Ford of the Twins thinks about going first to third on a long fly ball, then sees the ball is caught. So he scurries back to first but neglects to retouch second base on his return trip. After he's called out, Ford looks confused and turns to teammate Rod Carew to explain the situation.
Other teams are more forgiving, as we see Gary Maddox receive a free trip around the bases with the token purchase of a bouncer to the shortstop. The subsequent throw to first base sails down the right field line, allowing Maddox to run all the way to third. The ball is eventually tracked down by the right fielder, whose relay throw goes home. This is unforutnate for the outfielder, since none of his teammates are standing anywhere near home to catch it. Maddox says "thank you" and walks right on home. Next time he'll get the other team something nice.
In a Royals-Orioles game, with Darrel Porter the runner at first, KC's Freddie Patek tries to bunt his way on because that's so Patek. When the bunt is popped up near the pitcher's mound, Baltimore pitcher Jim Palmer tries to be crafty and lets the ball drop, hoping this will lead to an easy double play. Thing is, Palmer throws to first base first, and the first baseman then tags Porter, but Porter is called safe. Why? Because Porter didn't stray too far from the bag, waited until Patek was called out on force, and then went quickly put his foot back on the bag before he could be tagged. The Orioles complain to the umpire, but they were clearly outfoxed. And all the while Porter stands a foot away, thinking to himself, "Yup, I did that. Pretty much."
This week's good plays are mostly of the diving variety: yet another diving stop from Cleveland's Duane Kuiper, a sliding grab by Carl Yastrzemski, and another diving catch by the Twins' Lyman Bostock, which is too much for Mel Allen to resist as he spits out, "Good timin', Lyman!" The Angels' Don Baylor makes his own sliding catch that prompts Allen to exclaim "Wow! That deserves a round of applause!", a reaction that seems way oversized for the quality of the play involved. One could argue that all other "good plays" of the week were just as good, if not better. I guess Mel Allen is like a shark, but instead of constantly moving forward, he has to periodically get really excited about something, whether it merits the reaction or not.
Despite Allen's oversized opinion of Baylor, this week's Gillette Special goes to Toronto's Roy Howell, who was a one-man wrecking crew for a day. Howell drove in nine runs in a 19-3 drubbing of the Yankees in the Bronx (where stands appear curiously empty for team fighting for the playoffs). According to Allen this was the "worst clobbering at the stadium since 1925."
The expansion Blue Jays shouldn't be able to destroy the defending AL champs so thoroughly, but as Allen says, "that's life in the game of baseball, where all you can expect is the unexpected." Yes, but if you expect the unexpected, it's no longer unexpected is it? Riddle me that one, Mel. As for you, gentle reader, you can expect exactly one more TWIB '77 recap, as the 17th episode will be the last of the series' inaugural season. What lies in store in the series finale? I can't say, because that would spoil the fun, and also I haven't watched it yet.