IN SEPTEMBER, THE GENIE THAT GIVES THE GAME ITS MAGIC ESCAPES FROM THE BOTTLE
THE MYTHS OF AUTUMN
All the ingredients essential to the game were in play. The roof on the ball park was open to the starlight, and it was nearly tomorrow, the bottom of the 13th inning in a sport that is supposed to last nine. The bases were loaded, there were two out, the other team was a run ahead. A slender 25-year-old player from Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic stepped to the plate. He took a strike, then another and fouled a ball into the stands. Then, he caught a breaking curve with a smooth swing of his bat. The ball sailed towards the cushioned wall in right field as 49,352 fans in the stadium followed its arc. The ball thudded into the blue padding a moment ahead of—and inches above—the outstretched arm of the running right fielder. Two runs scored—and the Toronto Blue Jays beat the Boston Red Sox 6-5.
Genie: The hero was Nelson Liriano, a second baseman who on another evening might well have struck out or popped up. Which is what usually happens in baseball. But it was not ordinary baseball that night in Toronto’s SkyDome stadium. It was September baseball, when the genie that gives the game its magic escapes from the bottle. Pennant fever is what most people call it, that mysterious intoxication that takes hold when baseball’s languid summer pace suddenly quickens into autumn’s last, frantic drive. The 162-game regular season, played out in arenas as futuristic as Toronto’s new retractable-roof stadium and as venerable as Boston’s 77-year-old Fenway Park, winds down into the
IN SEPTEMBER, THE GENIE THAT GIVES THE GAME ITS MAGIC ESCAPES FROM THE BOTTLE
NEVER IN 150 YEARS HAS THE GAME BEEN SO POPULAR-OR SO LUCRATIVE
final few outings. And this last week in Septem ber will determine team standings in the sum mer-long game.
Almost every contest is critical during the month, as much for those teams still in conten tion as for the also-rans attempting to salvage a modicum of pride. The two major leagues' 26 teams, rosters expanded to 40 players from 24 apiece for September, strive to determine the finalists in four divisions, two each in the National and American leagues. The ultimate goal for two league champions is the so-called shot at the ring, the coveted band of gold jewelry that goes to each member of the team that triumphs in October's World Series.
Doubt: It can be an exhilarating month for players and fans alike. Every bunt, bobbled ball and wild pitch acquires a heightened impor tance. A single swing of the bat can turn an average player like Toronto's Liriano into the idol of adoring crowds. But, it can also be a cruel month, a time when an entire team like Montreal's Expos, which led its division for 41 consecutive days injune and July, disintegrates into recrimination and bitter self-doubt. Sep tember is the month when all the skill and grace of baseball are refined into a concentrat ed essence that can, and often does, approach something akin to poetry. As Blue Jays third baseman Kelly Gruber says, "It is what the game is all about."
Millions of fans across North America clearly
agree. Never has the game, which some baseball historians say was first played on the grassy fields of sedate gentlemen's clubs in New York state and Massachusetts more than 150 years ago, been as popular. Nor as lucrative (page 51). The ball parks of top teams have been sold out
for weeks. In the National League, Wrigley Field, the home of the Chicago Cubs, and the St. Louis Cardinals' Busch Stadium are regularly filled to capacity. And in the Baltimore Orioles' Memori al Stadium and Toronto's SkyDome, there are no seats available for the final few games of American League play. Records: The situation has been the same through out the 1980s. Eleven of the 12 teams to draw three mil lion fans in a season did so in the current decade. Both the American and National leagues have broken all-time attendance records during the past five years-and the same thing is likely to hap pen again this year, despite several well-publicized con troversies. They included a
lengthy investigation by thencommissioner Bart Giamatti, who imposed a lifetime ban on Cincinnati Reds manager Pete Rose for betting on baseball, and sensational disclosures of out-of-town sex involving Bos ton Red Sox hitter Wade Boggs. Those revelations came from Margo Adams, a woman who disclosed her lengthy liaison with the mar ried Boggs after the player refused to pay her a settle ment for the time that she had invested in their affair. But those seamy clisclo sures have not affected crowds in the majors-or the minor leagues. The American Association and the Interna tional League, both Class AAA leagues and one rung below the majors, set new highs this year, as did the Class A Call fornia, Florida State, Mid-
fornia, Florida State, Mid west and Northwest leagues. No fewer than eight of the continent's 17 minor leagues and 33 of the 170 clubs broke records. In all, a total of 23,103,593 people went to a ball park somewhere in North America to watch a mi nor-league baseball game in 1989. And al though major-league figures are not yet avail able, they will likely exceed last year's mark of 53 million.
Danger: Baseball, which a decade ago was losing money and stood in danger of being overtaken in popularity by professional foot ball, is enjoying a stunning and, to some, unex pected resurgence. Precisely why the game has reclaimed fans' affections is a more difficult
issue, generating almost as many answers as there are ball fans. "There is an art to it," said actor Bruno Gerussi, a Jays supporter. "It's not just a bunch of beer-bellied men standing around in a field. It's a microcosm of life." Another Jays follower, Toronto writer Rick Salutin, says that it has something to do with the slow, chess-like pace of the game. Added Sa lutin: "You have a large amount of cerebration under way on the field. It is an in credibly heady game that re pays attention." For Ontario New Democratic Party Lead er Robert Rae, a fan since he was 8, the beauty of the game itself is appealing. Said Rae: "Every pitch has a different potential. You can feel the momentum building and sag ging. To me, it is poetry."
And there are some fans whose sentiments verge on the metaphysical. Actor Donald Sutherland, for one, says that he cannot bring himself to discuss the reasons why he is such a loyal fan of the Montreal Expos. “It is very private,” he said. “It is magical—it would somehow sully it if I talked about it with journalists.”
Rise: There are other factors in baseball’s rise. Sociologist Richard Gruneau, who teaches a media and popular culture course in communications at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., says that the current “big love affair” with baseball has thrived because the sport has become a “highbrow form of entertainment,” fostered by baseball’s rich tradition— and the fact that it has attracted the interest of both writers and movie directors. As a result, such movies as Bull Durham and filmed adaptations of novels including Bernard Malamud’s The Natural and W. P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe—released on the screen as Field of Dreams—have helped to widen the sport’s appeal into the urban middle class beyond a largely blue-collar following.
Those who have mined the sport for its literary value claim that baseball is conducive to good writing. Said Kinsella: “With baseball, there are no time limits, and the foul lines diverge forever. This makes for larger-thanlife characters.” Salutin, meanwhile, says that he sees a moral quality in the game, maintaining that “merit is more or less rewarded. You cannot fake it. No matter how much you be-
have like a superstar, sooner or later you have to put something on the scoreboard.” Struggle: The 1989 pennant stretch has been especially thrilling. In the American League’s East Division, the Blue Jays and the Baltimore Orioles have been locked in a life-anddeath struggle during the last half of the season. That race could continue to a classic closing when the Jays and the Orioles meet on Friday for the first of three games at the Sky Dome.
Then, if the championship is still unsettled, a coin toss between team representatives has determined that there will be a single-game sudden-death playoff in Baltimore on Oct. 2.
Over in the National League’s East Division, the race to the wire is almost as compelling. But Montreal, the team that led the division for more than one month, stalled in August. As the Expos fade, the Chicago Cubs, a team that has not won a World Series since 1908, are fending
off a late charge by the St.
Drama: The pennant drives in the western divisions of both leagues are calmer, but they still hold the potential for drama as the season draws to a close. The Oakland Athletics, with the best record in baseball this year, are favored to retain the American League pennant that they won in 1988. Last year, they swept through the league only to lose to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series. In 1989, they are trying to hold off the dogged California Angels and the Kansas City Royals. Oakland will close the season with a three-day series at home against the Royals.
Charges: Across the bay from Oakland, the San Francisco Giants appeared to have locked up the National League West division title.
Behind them, the San Diego Padres have mounted sporadic charges but appear unlikely
to catch the Giants. Both teams meet in San Diego on the weekend to finish the season.
In Canada, meanwhile, the Expos’ collapse has been a major disappointment. Many disillusioned supporters have branded them as a team of talented underachievers, and this year’s failure has been particularly hard to grasp. The team faded after a blockbuster trade that saw fireballing pitcher Mark Lang-
ston arrive from the Seattle Mariners.
But even he could not lift the Expos into contention on his own. “Something is missing,” admitted dejected general manager David Dombrowski after yet another loss last week.
Left fielder Tim Raines, who signed a $6-million, three-year contract this year, was supposed to supply some of that missing offence. But with a .286 batting average, his bat was frequently silent—and fellow outfielder Hubie Brooks also displayed a power shortage. Brooks’s teammate third baseman Tim Wallach told Maclean’s that Brooks may have been preoccupied by the suicide of his cousin, California Angels pitcher Donny Moore, who shot himself earlier in the season. Said Wallach: “I don’t know if that was what was bothering him, but I know they were pretty close.”
By contrast, Toronto’s Blue Jays have been flying ever since batting coach Clarence (Cito) Gaston stepped in to replace manager Jimy Williams on May 15. Under Williams, the Jays, who were preseason co-favorites to take the division, started badly. At the
time of his dismissal, the team had won only 12 games while losing 24. Then, the 45-yearold Gaston, baseball’s fourth black manager, turned the season right around. A former player who spent 10 years in the major leagues, Gaston achieved that second-half surge through a trademark laid-back style. “Nothing bothers Cito,” said Jay left fielder George Bell, whose relationship with
Williams was frosty at the best of times. Bell, whose short fuse on and off the field is legendary, rebelled when Williams tried to remove him from a fielding position and turn him into a designated hitter in 1988. But Gaston has used Bell periodically in that role without any complaint from the team’s most consistent hitter.
Assist: Gaston received a powerful late-season assist when general manager Pat Gillick acquired 34-yearold outfielder William Wilson from the New York Mets in August. Better known by his nickname, Mookie, the affable, plain-speaking veteran has added zest to the Jays, on the field and in the clubhouse. Said Gaston: “No doubt about it, Mookie has made a real contribution. He only knows one way to play the game—hard.” With Wilson’s spirit and Gaston’s cool hand, Toronto has remained in the forefront of the
battle for the division title.
Grab: If they can manage to shake manager Frank Robinson’s pesky Baltimore Orioles on the weekend—a team that most observers ticketed for last place before the season began—then the Blue Jays may be in a position to grab a league championship that has eluded them in the past. In 1985, they won the division but then squandered a 3-to-l game lead
over Kansas City in the playoffs. And in 1987, they lost two key players to injuries—shortstop Tony Fernandez and catcher Ernie Whitt—and yielded the divisional title to the Detroit Tigers.
Fever: Both of those calamities weigh on the current Jays team. But both manager and players bridle at any suggestion that the Jays have a tendency to fold under pressure. Said Gaston: “I would like to play those 1987 games over again with Fernandez and Whitt in the lineup.” Last week, Gaston—and Jays fans— received a reminder of 1987's wounds when they learned that George Bell had to play the remaining games with a slightly strained right elbow. Still, that is what makes baseball in September, when pennant fever is in the air, such an exhilarating time. It may be frightening. It is never dull.
BARRY CAME with DEREK WOLFF in Vancouver, JOHN HOWSE in Calgary, DAVID TODD in Toronto, GRACE WONG in Montreal and DAVID LINDORFF in New York City
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