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Jim Murray

What the Mets Need Is a Big Helping of Some Old-Fashioned Power

October 21, 1986|JIM MURRAY

BOSTON — Don't look now but I think this is where I came in. I think I've seen this movie before.

You see, many years ago when I was a young baseball fan, World Series were as one-sided as floods. Outcomes were foregone conclusions. The American League won them.

The only suspense was whether it would take four games or five. Seven games was considered a moral victory for the National League, no matter who won. As a matter of fact, five games were.

Do you realize that in the 30 World Series between 1927 and 1956, the American League won 23 of them?

The reasons were all too apparent. The National League of the era used to concentrate on the historical imperatives of the grand old game--speed, pitching, fielding. The nuance game.

The American League couldn't be bothered. It played the bludgeon game, the big-inning game. They didn't even bother to time their athletes. Managers just handed them bats and purred, "Go in there and hit a three-run homer. Wake me if you need me." And they'd go catch up on their rest in a corner of the dugout.

Babe Ruth pioneered this new concept of the game. Before Ruth, John McGraw was the patron saint of baseball. Little Napoleon, the disciple of the bunt, the hit-behind-the-runner style--what they call Little Ball these days.

Babe Ruth didn't even know how to bunt. The teams he played for used to go out and hire the biggest, strongest athletes they could find and point them toward the fence. Before the Babe, players used to brag that they "hit 'em where they ain't." Ruth used to brag he'd hit 'em where they'll never be. Twenty rows up.

The National League would field these pesky little hunt-and-peck hitters guys who'd scratch and hustle and paste together runs like a guy filling a scrapbook. Then, the American League would come along and fill in one of the patented Yankee big innings and the National would look like a bunch of gnats trying to stem a tidal wave.

The Babe revolutionized the game. Little Ball was Nothing Ball. Between 1928 and 1939, the Yankees were in six World Series--and they won four of them in four straight games. One of them went as far as five games and the other went six.

They weren't contests, they were executions. The balls got wound tighter, the bats got better, the players got bigger, the ball parks smaller--and the National League looked like a bunch of guys trying to win in a jet age with horse-and-buggy baseball.

The late Branch Rickey, in one master stroke, restored parity. He reached into the stockpile of the Negro leagues, destroyed Jim Crow, and beat the American League to the last remaining virgin stand of enormous baseball talent. He helped himself to the best talent before the American

League could even bring itself to the hunt.

The Yankees still beat the Dodgers--but not by four straight. Not by very much at all, to tell the truth.

Then, the ballparks got bigger, more antiseptic, more symmetrical and carpeted in rubberized synthetics. They seemed to redirect the emphasis back toward John McGraw--speed, fielding, resourcefulness.

The odds makers reflected the change in emphasis. So did the World Series results. Gloves and shoes replaced bats as the symbols of the new baseball.

Not even the Yankees were invincible anymore. In fact, in 1963, the ultimate indignity overtook them. They got beat in four straight. The Dodgers outmaneuvered them with the small skills, the old-time religion of baseball, if you will.

In the years between 1960 and 1982, the National League won 13 World Series.

But a new silhouette--or rather an old one--has begun to appear again in American League uniforms. The American League has won the last three World Series--two of them in one-sided, five-game fashion. And the American League winners have done it with bludgeon baseball, with Eddie Murray, Kirk Gibson, George Brett.

Last year, the St. Louis Cardinals had the prototypical National League team--blazing speed, deft bat handling, stingy defense. They disdained the home run as beneath them. They had trouble as a team getting as many home runs in a season as Babe Ruth or Roger Maris.

As Heywood Broun, the journalist once wrote, "The Ruth is mighty and shall prevail." And so did Ruthian baseball.

It appears to be in ascendancy once again. A National League team, a bunch of speedy, downy-cheeked kids named Lenny and Wally, a couple of whip-armed kids from the Ivy League and Florida, and some stingy fielders is in the lists, looking for all the world like a John McGraw or Bill Terry Giants team from the 20s or 30s, trying to take on a big bunch of brawn on the other side of the field.

The Boston Red Sox look more like the Yankee teams of yore. Big, powerful guys who can destroy you with one swipe of the bat after you have painstaking built up a one-run lead and are trying to smuggle it into the clubhouse.

The Red Sox watch, bemused, and then, Pow! Outta the lot! "Here, sonny, field this, if you can. You'll need a ticket to go get this ball."

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