NEW YORK — In the final scene of the movie, 'All Quiet on the Western Front," Lew Ayres, playing a German soldier in World War I, reaches for a butterfly on the trench's edge and is suddenly and summarily shot. For him, the war was over.
The stakes are hardly comparable--a baseball season is not a war--but the symbolic similarities were there last week when the California Angels, reaching for the butterfly of their first World Series and having it almost in their grasp, were suddenly and shockingly felled by another ironic set of circumstances.
In the meantime, in the other league, the Houston Astros, that funny little indoor team from the wide-open spaces of Texas, were busy outpitching and outplaying the street kids from New York until the fickle fates of baseball fell as heavily and as mercilessly on them.
It is the reason that today, two teams who are lucky to be here, to say nothing of undeserving, are contesting for the 1986 baseball championship of the world.
They got the butterfly. But their punishment may be that we may have the first So-What? World Series in the modern history of the game.
The drama has been drained out of it for the most part, and even the nation's most rabid fans, wrung out by the mouth-drying high-wire act of the past weeks, can no longer rise to a peak of caring whether either one of these two teams will win it--or even can.
Is this the World Series nobody wanted? Is this the most anti-climactic set of matches this side of a consolation game of a Final Four? Do we really have to care whether Boston can beat New York? Haven't they already proved whatever point they need to prove?
Why can't they just mail in these games? Do we need to go through this all over again? Can we get cranked up one more time? Or should they just flip a coin and let us get on to the rest of life?
Are you going to want to sit through 16 innings of this thing? Or even 9? Will anybody liken it to the climactic scene of a war movie if one of these teams snatches defeat from the jaws of victory? Are they really just going through the motions? Are the Mets so relieved they don't have to face Mike Scott in these test matches that they are like Elks on a picnic, little kids when school's out?
The old show-business saying is, "Carmen was announced, Carmen must be sung." The nation needs a champion. So, we suppose they will have to go through with it, try to awaken some kernel of interest from laryngitic, emotionally exhausted cadres of supporters. NBC is trying to fan viewer interest into flame by showing Baseballiana like Lou Gehrig's farewell speech, Bobby Thomson's historic playoff home run (setting up the original anti-climax World Series), Babe Ruth's goodby and Jackie Robinson breaking the color line. It's the baseball equivalent of the carnie come-on. Get 'em in the tent and their hands out of their pockets.
If they're doing it for me, they can just wrap it up now. The Mets are probably the first team in history to strike out their way into a World Series. A record 57 of them they threw into the book in the six-game playoff series, a record of ineptitude that should--one hopes--stand for all time. They got a good start on consolidating the record by throwing in another nine in the first game of the World Series Saturday night. They're in a groove.
The Red Sox, for their part, depended on other people's mistakes to put them where they are today. They didn't win the pennant, they just kind of inherited it. They were just standing there when the Angels threw it to them from a passing truck. These would be good guys to try to get a seat next to in a lifeboat. Or at a roulette table.
And what do you say about a 1-0 ballgame that's won on an error?
Call this a New York World Series, do you? Not this observer.
I'll tell you what a New York World Series is. A New York World Series is one in which the home team wins 18-4, 13-5, 13-6 and where this spindly-shanked outfielder calls his home run shot and this big, heavy-legged first-baseman keeps slugging balls off the loudspeakers in the outfield and the whole lineup ends up as outfield statues and they win World Series in four straight without breathing hard.
New York World Series have the Yankees in them, and they just bop the other teams like a guy swatting flies with a folded-up newspaper. They never won--or lost--games on bobbled-up ground balls. Bobbles got lost in the big-inning shuffle the way the Yankees played the game, and guys who hit balls that could be errored batted ninth on their clubs.
World Series had lineups called "Murderers' Row" or "Bronx Bombers." Players were called Yankee Clippers, Iron Horses, Sultans of Swat and King Kong, and their Series looked in poor light like baseball versions of train wrecks. They won, 1-0, like just once in their history, and that 1 was a home run.
The Yankees used to bat like .313 in their World Series, and you can bet they never struck out 57 times in six games. Their Series never went that long.