In the hours, days, and weeks when Red Sox fans bided the time in expectation, the experts kept talking about experience, as in “they’ve been here before.”
But when it was all over, when the last ream of newspaper copy had been stuffed under a seal in section 23, what had happened was this: The Oakland A’s, the people wearing the “Experience Counts” buttons left over from an old Nixon-Lodge campaign, became unstrung on the October stage.
El Conquistador, Luis Tiant, danced in his best marionette style to a magnificent three-hitter and all around him the A’s went bump in the night as 35,578 watched Boston take a 1-0 lead in the American league playoff, 7-1.
That Tiant should have done what he did comes as no surprise. What was surprising was that the A’s in general, and Claudell Washington in particular, performed a re-enactment of a chain-reaction accident on the Southeast Expressway.
The key to the Red Sox win probably occurred in the first inning, when Oakland made three errors on two plays and gave El Tiante a two-run lead to defend. Then, later while frustrated loser Ken Holtzman was looking skyward with pleas of “why me?,” the game got out of hand in a five-run seventh with a chapter from Carlos Paula’s autobiography. The four errors for the game is an AL playoff record; the seven runs the most Oakland’s ever allowed in the playoffs. Another surprise. This is the third consecutive year Oakland has lost the playoff opener.
So Tiant, basking in his first opportunity to pitch in the October sun, was given what he needed. “When he’s throwing like that,” catcher Carlton Fisk said afterwards, “there’s no one better.” There was no talk of his back, as his fastball was jiggling so much that no only did he have eight strikeouts, but their also wasn’t a fair ground ball hit off him until the eight. At which time it was 7-0.
“The way he has been these last few starts,” said Fisk, “give him a couple of runs, and that’s it.” And the runs were given. Immediately.
That El Tiante had it was obvious. He struck out two of the first inning’s three batters. In the bottom of the inning, Holtzman got two outs, but on the first of them there was a hint of what was to come. Washington reacted to one of Juan Beniquez’s three drives as if it were a phone ringing at 4:25 a.m.
Carl Yastrzemski singled up the middle, then Fisk banged a hard chopper towards Sal Bando at third. Bando misplayed it, backing up as the ball went past him. The unwinding had begun. Washington, in left, got a late start on the ball, had trouble getting to it, so third base coach Don Zimmer waved Yaz around. He could have been thrown out quite easily. Washington said his first problem was that the cutoff man he was supposed to hit, Bert Campaneris, was out way too deep. So he threw towards Bando, only the ball went off his glove as Yaz chugged home and Fisk took second.
The Fred Lynn hit a grounder to second baseman Phil Garner made a fine kick save, but Charles Oscar Finely has sold the golden seals and he wasn’t impressed as Fisk slid in to make it 2-0. The two holes in the A’s defense had been found. And all the A’s running game, their steal-a-run-if-they-can hopes were stuffed under the seat with the paper.
Between then and when the tension disintegrated in the seventh, Tiant had to squirm from a little danger. He had two (walks) on in the third, but Washington field to Yaz. Joe Rudi’s single, the first hit, off Luis’s glove led off the fifth. Rudi remained there. In the seventh, Reggie Jackson singled and went to second leading the inning, but died at third as Yaz jumped against The Wall for Billy William’s fly. “The first thing I did when I was going to left was to walk off the distance from the warning track to the fence,” Yaz said. “I know where I can go, how far. If you have to think about the wall, you’re in trouble.”
Poor Claudell. Between the sun and the fence in left, he was trapped in an elevator all afternoon. After Dwight Evans doubled to his corner to open the seventh, and was bunted to third by Cecil Cooper, Rick Burleson rammed a double inside the bag and through the pulled-in infield. Make it 3-0. So much for Holtzman, bring on the bullpen. Jim Todd threw two pitches, the second of which was lined by Beniquez through the middle for his second hit. Make it 4-0. Paul Lindblad came in and did get balls to go to fielder’s gloves, they just didn’t stay there. Beniquez stole second and third and scored on a Denny Doyle fly that Billy North dropped. After a Fisk single, Lynn lofted a high fly double off the wall. Problem is, it hit three feet from the bottom as Claudell took the carom.
But Boston had its moments, too, helping to make it a seven-error day. Shocked by the first two grounders of the day, Burleson and Cooper made errors in the eight to set up the Oakland run. But Luis had his victory.
At times Tiant got up with is fastball, so much so that the Dick Drago-Jim Burton team warmed up a couple of times, but it was his show. He struck out Rudi on a pitch on which he bowed to the East not five, but six times, and afterwards he soaked his arm in ice as his proud father looked on.
There were chants of “Lou-Eee, Lou-Eee.” He got standing ovations when he strolled to the bullpen, when he jogged to the leftfield corner before warming up, when he walked in to start the game, when he drove his car out of the parking lot after the deed was done. But this was not the Italian wedding crowd of the Baltimore night; when the playoffs and series come, the people in the seats aren’t the same. Heck, people in the bleachers wore ties and smoked brand name cigarettes.
Still someone played taps at 3:17 and Felix Szekoff of Ware stood, outside the Sox clubhouse screaming, “The Circus Clowns from Oakland are dead,” long after it was over. This is only one day, one of a necessary three, but it belonged to the man who may be on of the most beloved Boston athletes of his generation.