WASHINGTON — If 1984 was the baseball season when nothing memorable--either good or bad--happened, then 1985 will be remembered as the year when everything--both wonderful and lousy--transpired at once.
If the meatiest chunk of the season--the playoffs and World Series--lives up to its prologue, then these three weeks should be baseball nirvana.
How fitting that this season should end last Sunday with Phil Niekro dominating the stage. Not only did he win his 300th game, but, at 46, he became the oldest man in history to pitch a shutout.
Above all, this season will be remembered as the year when 44-year-old Pete Rose finally passed Ty Cobb in career hits. If Tom Seaver could win his 300th game on the same day that Rod Carew got his 3,000th hit, then why shouldn't Niekro tie a ribbon around the whole old-folks celebration on the final day?
Although Rose's accomplishment will endure, it is probable that the two most overblown stories of this season will prove to be The Strike and The Scandal.
After six months of anticipation and fretting, after millions of words had been wasted in underscoring how pointless and destructive a long labor stoppage would be, baseball's big strike lasted one day. Both sides finished in a dead heat racing back to the bargaining table to see which could say "I surrender" the fastest.
In time, baseball's Pittsburgh Seven cocaine trial may seem a far smaller topic than it does at present. Both professional football and basketball have already been through similar drug scares in the '80s, and neither suffered significantly. The public, it seems, hardly is shocked to discover that pro athletes have the sames appetites and vices as the rest of the population and in roughly the same proportions.
Perhaps it's just baseball's traditional knack for dumb luck in the clutch, but this has been a season that would take almost any fan's mind off courtroom transcripts.
Never in history have three division races been undecided on the final Saturday of the season. With all four New York and Los Angeles-based teams either in first or second place, the game has become a demographer's dream.
Seldom has baseball had more amazing individual performances in one season than it had this year.
Dwight Gooden's 24-4 record must play second fiddle to his 1.53 ERA--the second-lowest figure since 1920.
Wade Boggs finished with 240 hits, a .368 average and a growing reputation as the greatest pure hitter since Ted Williams. If he ever hits 20 homers . . .
With 145 RBIs, Don Mattingly has emerged as a Yankee of mythical pin-stripe potential. Who's to say he won't reach the Mantle, DiMaggio, Gehrig level?
Although Mattingly would be a fitting MVP, perhaps George Brett of the Kansas City Royals deserves the prize even more. He has received an all-time record number of intentional walks, yet still finished with 112 RBIs. Mattingly had a fabulous offense around him and played in a good park for his style. Brett had the league's second-worst offense around him and hit 30 homers in a huge stadium.
The game dazzled us with youngsters such as Vince Coleman, who stole 110 bases; Tom Browning, the first rookie to win 20 games in more than 30 years, and Bret Saberhagen, 21, who has established himself as one of the top pitchers in the AL. And we were scratching our heads in amazement as Darrell Evans, 38, became the oldest home run champion ever, as well as the first man to hit 40 homers in both leagues. Did catcher Carlton Fisk really hit 37 homers at 37?
Before this season, who would have imagined a 20-1 streak for a journeyman pitcher such as John Tudor, or a 19-3 record for someone named Orel Hershiser?
Now the sport's showcase days are under way.
Those who longed for a Subway Series with Yankees and Mets, or a Freeway Series with Dodgers and Angels may be in mourning. But no one else should be.
Any statistical analysis comes to the clear conclusion that the St. Louis Cardinals and the Toronto Blue Jays were, top to bottom, the game's strongest teams. Both led their leagues in wins--with 101 and 99--and, almost as important--outscored the league by the widest margins.
As though to handicap the playoffs perfectly, each of these genuinely excellent teams has been pitted against a flawed foe who is, ironically, perfectly suited to create an upset.
The Blue Jays and Cardinals appear to be ideal World Series opponents. Both have squared the compass of the game's four basic strengths--pitching, hitting, defense and speed. Both are, in fact, even better suited to the post-season than the regular season because both have three trusted starting pitchers--and no more. Those October off-days make them both stronger.
On the other hand, the Kansas City Royals can't hit a lick, and the Los Angeles Dodgers finished near the middle of the offensive pack in the weak-hitting National League. Neither the Royals nor Dodgers are noted for better-than-average defense.