Chicago Tribune - September 26, 1980

Something lacking in National League


By Bob Verdi, Chicago Tribune Press Service


PHILADELPHIA – If the pressures of a pennant race are affecting the Montreal Expos and Houston Astros because they are young, there should be apprehension of a different sort being experienced by the Philadelphia Phillies and Los Angeles Dodgers. They are getting old. 


A season ago, you may recall, the Phillies obtained Pete Rose and were deemed odds-on favorites to win the National League East. The Dodgers, meanwhile, were considered a lock for their third straight National League West title. But both clubs tripped over their wallets and were invisible come September.


Now they are back, thanks mostly to the raging blandnesg that has curiously enveloped the National League this season. There is a temptation to root against the Phillies and Dodgers because they have been there before; both were dominant franchises during the late 1970s. Yet, there is a temptation to root for them because this may be their last hurrah. If they don't win this year, they might not win for a while. 


As the Phillies prepare for a vital three-game series against Montreal this weekend, they are being carried by a veteran starter, Steve Carlton; a veteran slugger, Mike Schmidt; and a veteran reliever, Tug McGraw. Rose remains a winner, but his bat is undeniably slower. Larry Bowa, the once-immaculate shortstop, may have lost none of his zest but he has lost range. 


GREG LUZINSKI is hiving his worst season, and while the fact that the Phillies must rely on kid pitchers such as Bob Walk and Marty Bystrom might tell you something about what they have coming up, it also may tell you something about what they don't have to fall back on. 


The Dodgers, steeped in well-heeled standbys who either can't or won't be traded, aren't much better. They have blown game after game this summer, yet after every losing streak, they seem to wake up to the California sunshine either in or near first place. An impartial scout who grinds no axes may have said it all the other day: "They've become fat." 


If the Phillies and Dodgers meet in the championship scries – and perhaps even it they don't – they should receive praise for rebounding as they have. Yet, one cannot dismiss a condition previously mentioned: the caliber of baseball in the National League this year has been strange indeed. Parity definitely must not be confused with quality. 


In 1973, when the New York Mets won the division with 82 victories and a powderpuff offense, cynics crowned them champions of the National League Least. The records in the division this year are better, but is the baseball? 


THE PIRATES, who took the East with tt victories last year, have played only .500 baseball since June 1. Yet, despite a plethora of injuries and, a threadbare pitching staff, they didn't bow out of the chase realistically until this week and still haven't cashed it in mathematically. 


The Expos, who finished 30 games over .500 a year ago, are well below that norm, but have brought Canada pennant fever despite questionable depth, and a suspect second base-shortstop combination. Not to mention their bullpen, anchored by Woodie Fryman, age 40, and Stan Bahnsen, 35. 


One normally would ascribe such a close race to more even competition. But in the East, one can't. The wayward Cubs and Mets both own records inferior to the Toronto Blue Jays. 


Though the Expos certainly loom as the team of the future in the National League – if for no other reason than their brilliant young pitching – they present numerous other problems that figure to mitigate against success. 


The club is rife with factions – some players abide by the rules of Dick Williams, the universally-despised manager, while other players flout them. As Larry Parrish says, "That breeds dissension, and the fact that we lost our only real leader [Tony Perez] doesn't help." 


MOREOVER, THE EXPOS' front office eschews the family formula by admittedly renting free-agent Ron LeFlore for a year, and acquiring much-traveled types such as Willie Montanez for the stretch run. If it doesn't work, if the Expos don't win with LeFlore, president John McHale says fine. We can finish second without him. 


Despite that shortsightedness by a team that professes to be building, despite an offseason by Parrish, and despite a streaky one by their most valuable player – Gary Carter, a .260 hitter –the Expos could win the pennant. Are they that good? Or is the National League this year just an off-track? 


In the West, perhaps justice will prevail if Houston – the league's most consistent team – triumphs. The Astros hustle and scrap and have averted the consummate pratfall despite J. R. Richard's illness and a mediocre performance by Nolan Ryan. The Astros' attack is so anemic, however, .that if they win, it probably will be by virtue of stealing home. That is, unless the Cincinnati Reds win it with mirrors for a second straight season. 


ALL OF THE ABOVE unhinges the popular theory that National League baseball is superior. I fight the idea, too, because I always believed it. But something is missing in the Senior Circuit this year. Maybe it's excellence, maybe it's electricity, maybe the contenders are saving some for these last, definitive 10 days. 


The National League is chuckling about how it has two close races while the American League has none. One wonders though, whether the chuckling will persist through the World Series, for there are only three outstanding teams in baseball right now: The New York Yankees, the Baltimore Orioles, the Kansas City Royals.