Manager Whitey Herzog of the St.Louis Cardinals says the teams that win baseball's four second-half division races are undoubtedly going to be the ones with the best and deepest set of relief pitchers.
"Pitching has always been the biggest part of baseball, and when a manager doesn't have to think twice about lifting one of his starters and going to his bullpen, he's got a terrific edge on his opponents," Herzog explained.
"Off the top of my head, you would have to say that Houston, Los Angeles, Montreal, and of course the Cardinals in the National League all have more than one dependable relief pitcher they can go to," Whitey added. "Although I'm less familiar with the American League, Detroit wouldn't have stayed up there without Kevin Saucier, Milwaukee without Rollie Fingers, or Kansas City without Dan Quisenberry. And look what Goose Gossage always does for the Yankees."
Herzog says he has admired Fingers's consistency for so many years that he went out of his way to get him in an off-season trade with San Diego. The question is: Why didn't Whitey keep Rollie instead of dealing him off to Milwaukee?
"Fingers would still be with us if the Chicago Cubs hadn't suddenly made Bruce Sutter, who I feel is the best relief pitcher in baseball, available," Herzog said.
"I don't think you can have two relief pitchers the quality of Sutter and Fingers without having a personality clash over the workload," he continued.
"Guys like that always want the ball in any crisis. And when you are forced to pick one over the other, all you get is friction. I know it never worked that well for the Yankees when they had Gossage and Sparky Lyle, which is why Lyle was traded."
Asked how he has used Sutter this season, Herzog replied:
"My theory on Bruce is that you're wasting him if you bring him in before the eighth inning, and then only if the score is tied or you are a run or two ahead of the opposition," Herzog explained. "By pitching Bruce only two innings at a time, I get to use him five times a week if I need him. That way Sutter stays sharp and keeps his control and I know I'm going to get a quality performance almost every time."
How will Herzog approach baseball's two sets of playoffs this year? "I don't like the extra best-of-five series at all because it has watered things down and introduced the element of chance," he said.
"For example, the Cardinals might have the best team in the National League, but if the club we meet in the playoffs should get hot offensively and also get some breaks defensively, they could conceivably beat us. If this should happen again in the next set of playoffs, then you're going to have an inferior team in the World Series."
Elsewhere the old game of managerial musical chairs was in full swing. Kansas City fired Jim Frey, who led the team to last year's World Series, and replaced him with ex-New York Yankee pilot Dick Howser, whose club lost to the Royals in the 1980 AL playoffs. Then Yankee owner George Steinbrenner dropped his own bombshell by sacking Gene Michael even before the latter had completed his first year.
Michael, who led New York to the AL East first half championship, had said publicly he was tired of Steinbrenner's threats of dismissal, and that if the owner wanted to fire him he should go ahead. Steinbrenner did, then in a final irony he replaced Gene with Bob Lemon, who already knows all about the Yankee owner's fickle ways. It was Lemon who replaced Billy Martin in mid-1978 and led the team to the world championship only to be replaced in turn by Martin the next season.
Even though San Francisco manager Frank Robinson and his players find it hard to agree on anything, the team is playing well. In fact, the Giants have suddenly become NL West contenders. However, Houston probably made the biggest gain in the past few days by getting second baseman Phil Garner from Pittsburgh. Garner is a money player with World Series experience.
Dan Ford of California, a hitter with suprising power for his size, was discovered using an illegal corked bat in a game against Cleveland. The top of Ford's bat, which had been hollowed out and filled with cork, broke into two pieces as he grounded out. He was ejected from the game and could face additional punishment. . . . Mike Schmidt of Philadelphia, bidding for a fifth National League home run title, continues to take opposing pitchers over the wall with metronome consistency. . . . Johnny Bench returned to the Cincinatti lineup for the first time since May 28 and produced a home run and a single in three at-bats. . . . Bob Knepper of Houston pitched his fifth shutout of the season to put him only one behind Fernando Valenzuela of Los Angeles. . . . Incidentally, the Dodgers are now only a few admissions below the $2 million mark in attendance, a remarkable achievement in view of baseball's 50-day strike.