BALTIMORE — An old proverb warns, "Never wish for anything. You may get it."
Such wisdom sums up what major league contenders endure this time of the baseball season. They have worked all year for the chance to play big games in autumn. For their trouble, they face enough crises to keep their stomachs churning well into winter.
Every pitch matters. So does every at-bat. A manager can achieve infamy with any decision. Even playing fields can conspire against you, as the right-field corner at Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium did to the Mets not long ago when a ball kicked away from Darryl Strawberry, turning a double into a triple that led to the winning run.
It's no wonder St. Louis second baseman Tommy Herr recently viewed the demands of the pennant race, with its many tense games, and said, "We need a blowout. We need to either blow someone out, or get blown out."
Pennant races can wear on body and mind, and bring with them a need to relax. When the cities begin to blend together, and the slump grows from one series to one week, a player generally can react in one of two ways. He can either worry, letting his own sweat blur his vision, or he can smile at the world, enjoying an experience that may never repeat itself.
"The biggest thing I've learned is the fragility of it all," Herr said. "It's something to be cherished and should be kept in mind this is something you may never experience again."
Oakland slugger Reggie Jackson actually enjoyed placing his season at risk in one at-bat. "Hitch the wagon to my back and hop on," he used to say. Not many players embrace pressure the way Jackson did. They must learn to deal with it, and some learn better than others.
Blue Jays left fielder George Bell shows little sign of being pressured. At a recent visit to Memorial Stadium, he laughed, chattered in Spanish around the batting cage, and took some time to visit with Orioles coach Frank Robinson. He also delivered two consecutive game-winning RBI.
"He's so relaxed at the plate," teammate Jesse Barfield said of Bell. "He just lets his God-given talent take over."
"We have more than our share of good hitters, but he can do more things with a bat than anybody else," Toronto infielder Fred McGriff said. "Plus, he makes us laugh every now and then."
Time adds its own pressure. When Labor Day comes, winning teams can enjoy reaching the critical portion of the pennant race. But they also face five weeks of curiosity. In any mystery, it's only human to want to peek at the ending. Baseball teams can't. They must play each day, not knowing until the end how the mystery turns out.
"There's still a lot of games to go," Montreal Manager Buck Rodgers said recently. "There are going to be some good ones and some bad ones. The game isn't going to change just because we're in a pennant race. We're going to walk people. We're going to make errors. We'll make good plays and bad plays. I hope we make more good ones than bad ones."
Many players deal with pennant pressure by concentrating on their own game, and trying to ignore factors they can't control.
"I come to the park and try to do my job," said Mets third baseman Howard Johnson who has set a National League record for most homers by a switch-hitter with 36 by Sept. 22. "That's one reason I've been able to stay consistent. I've kept an even attitude."
Expos right-hander Charlie Lea, making a comeback from shoulder surgery, discussed responsibility to the team as he prepared for his first big-league appearance in three years.
"You can say it's no big deal," he said. "But it is a big deal. These guys are trying to win a pennant."
Managers probably feel the pressure most keenly. First of all, they can't play their anxiety away. They must sit there and look. Then there's the old saying about sea captains. When a ship goes down, it's the captain's fault.
"What the heck," Toronto Manager Jimy Williams said. "You've played all these games. You're where you want to be."
St. Louis skipper Whitey Herzog agreed.
"The worst job in managing is when you're not in a race in September," Herzog said.
Sometimes it hurts, though. After his club survived a ninth-inning jam to defeat the Pirates by one run, Mets Manager Davey Johnson appeared pale. Here's a man who has been in four pennant races and won a World Series. Asked if he ever got used to such difficult ballgames, Johnson simply shook his head no.