The Pillsbury doughboy breathed a heavy sigh on Sunday night. "We killed again," he told reporters after his Red Sox had defeated the Texas Rangers by a score of 3-2. He was relishing in the spectacular comeback of pitcher Mike Torrez, who pitched his best outing since he faced the Yankees on June 29 in New York. And the perennial bullpen wild card, Dick Drago, made his first credible appearance in weeks. Don Zimmer has always been a nervous man. When he talks to reporters he darts his beady eyes from corner to corner, looking for approval.
And in this most peculiar pennant race, he's sitting in limbo.
It's the time of year when the baseball fan starts keeping careful track of the standings, when he notices burned leaves falling from the August trees, when he feels the night breeze in Fenway Park cool out with a spicy air. It is the season's seventh inning stretch, and fans who look at the scoreboard see the Red Sox juggernaut a full five games behind the Baltimore Orioles. The Yankees are trailing pathetically, 14 games behind Earl Weaver's quiet disciplined team.
And somehow, everything seems the same in the American League East--the spectre of Don Zimmer remains, stone-cold and poised at the steps of the dugout, a genuine study in genetic variation; the Orioles spoiling if not winning, but always getting the most out of a thin lineup; and Reggie Jackson is still dropping flies, complaining and getting thrown out of games. But the season of 1978 broke all precedents, and no one to knows what the standings mean in August 1979, and no one dares to imagine.
"Sitting in limbo," Carlton Fisk said a day before his team moved into a first place tie at the end of 1978's 162nd game. Sitting in limbo, still, it seems with closet injuries looming before the Sox as impending doom. What if Fred Lynn gets hit by a cherry bomb , if Burleson runs into a hungry boa constrictor in Texas? The Yankees always could catch up, the Red Sox could break into a strongend-of-the-season stride, and the O's could die in a plane crash. The American League East is no place for betters.
But for the Red Sox, the 1979 season--despite its feeling of one day-at-a-time caution--has the kindest offerings of any in recent history. This is the first season which hasn't taken its toll on Lynn, Hobson, and Burleson--or burned out its pitching staff-before the stretch rolls around. In fact, the team--with the important exception of Fisk--is in its best health ever. The pitching staff has not performed beyond anyone's expectations, but neither have they backed down. New faces like Steve Renko have been struggling for recognition right from February 15, and they have produced better than even Earl Weaver could have expected. Last year's pitching blanks--Bob Sprowl, John LaRose, Andy Hassler--were tossed into more pressure than even Don Zimmer's surgeon could imagine, having to face the Yankees, the Yankees, and the Yankees as the Red Sox lost a game a day for a month and Bill Lee smirked in the bullpen, reading riddles from the Baghavadgita.
There is just no comparison. 1978 was apocalypse. 1979 is a cool, professional, jackhammer-steady attack, conducted on blackboards, in doctor's officer, in meditation. No past and no future. No Sen. Edward W. Brooke (R-Mass) strutting his proud nose in the Senate and announcing to his esteemed intoxicated colleagues that "there will be no more pennant race in 1977." The next fall, Brooke watched the local newspapers proclaim the story of his divorce all over their front pages; he watched Sen. Paul Tsongas eak him out of a Senate seat, and he saw the Yankees win the World Series.
It appears that Don Zimmer has given up on the hard sell. He's played his talent rather admirably, keeping sore elbows and ankles in check. No pulled groins on this ball club, no pulled ripcords. While Zimmer insists that he is doing nothing differently this year, everyone knows it's just ego. Behind Zimmer's ego is not an ounce of superego, just a whole bunce of id. Id like the Red Sox dugout exploding onto the field after they win the 1979 American League East title; id like the Boston Globe printing a photograph of his dough-and-steel visage on their front page above a smiling Yaz: "We killed 'em," the headline quotes Zimmer; id like a city holiday and a parade to City Hall where the ecstatic young women of the town hoist the simple manager onto their shoulders. The truth is, any Boston sports fan would endure Zimmer if he was masterful enough to guide a ballclub with a shallow pitching staff, and an injured supercatcher, and a terrible psychological history to a pennant.
Bill Lee--that old gonfalon of Red Sox past--once said that Zimmer had to pass his driver's test before he could manage a professional baseball team. But gerbils just don't drive--they sniff and sneak and scurry their way out of the maze. And if the O's are demolished in a plane crash, (or if Earl Weaver sniff too much glue), then Don Zimmer's beady eyes might finally sit still at the end of the season. Besides, Zimmer is the right man for the job. In the American League East, a rodent's instincts are more reliable than a court of kings.