It is only right to give the devil his due, and while that may be too strong a term even for Dodger fans, it is wrong to wait any longer to allow them their proper and deserved gloat. The Giants are through.
The truth is, they've been through for well over a month now, but you know how Giant fans are. You remember 1951 and 1954. They were glorious years for the Giants, years that filled their followers forever with wild and unreasonable optimism, even in times of suffering.
To the Giant fan there has never been a better ball team than the Giants who won the World Series last fall, and not just because of Dusty Rhodes and Willie Mays. What comes to mind is the driving, relentless game played by Henry Thompson at third base, the brilliance with which Alvin Dark ran bases, the calm, almost arrogant way Johnny Antonelli pitched.
The Giants were a wonderful team last fall, sharp and decisive and knowing. And they were the same way early this spring. There was a day in March in Phoenix, before the exhibition season began, when Leo Durocher got his infield—Thompson, Dark, Williams, Lockman—out for a fielding drill. It was a routine drill with the players betting cokes on the errors but, as so often happens with Leo Durocher, things suddenly caught fire.
Six or seven hundred people were watching from the grandstand. It might be that Leo felt the desire to show off before a crowd. Perhaps it was simple pride. At any rate when the time came to bring the ball in—the windup of the drill when each infielder in turn takes five grounders in succession, moving in closer to the plate for each one, throwing the ball each time in to the catcher and running off the field as he finishes—Durocher lit the spark.
"All right," he barked in a voice that carried into the stands. "Let's bring it in. And any miss this time means a coke for me."
Lockman picked up the challenge.
"Okay," he said, "but if we go all the way around without a miss the cokes are on you."
"All right," Durocher said, as only Durocher can say "all right"—in a tone that means, "You want to play rough? All right, we'll play rough."
He began with Thompson at third base, and Thompson handled five in a row perfectly. Durocher was hitting the ball hard, to be fair to himself, but cleanly, to be fair to his infield. He hit five to Dark, and Dark handled five in a row, moving in defiantly on each ball until he was almost to the pitcher's mound. Durocher turned to hit to Williams and found the second baseman waiting on the grass next to the pitcher's mound, half crouched, hands flat down on his thighs, a little boy's grin on his face because of the joke of being too close to the plate. Durocher looked at him. Williams smacked his hands down twice on his thighs impatiently, as if to say, "Let's go!" "Move back!" Durocher ordered. Williams, still grinning, not moving, smacked his hands down again.
"All right," Durocher said. "All right."
Five times he rocketed ground balls at Williams. Five times Williams came up with the ball brilliantly. When he ran in off the field Durocher turned to watch him go, grinning after him. Then he turned to Lockman and Lockman handled his five grounders without error, racing in for the last one, scooping it up, firing it to the catcher and sprinting in off the field.
The people in the grandstand burst into spontaneous applause, and Leo Durocher walked off the field, as proud as a man can be.
Watching the drill, feeling the excitement mount, sensing the competitive sharpness, the rise to a challenge, the triumph of accomplishment, the joy, the fun, the pleasure, the supreme confidence, you could not doubt for a minute that the Giants were still the best team in baseball.
NOTHING LEFT BUT OPTIMISM
On such moments is optimism built. But later, after the season began and the hitters slumped and the fielders creaked with pulled muscles and bad backs and the pitchers lost their control and the team stumbled along, the moments were few for the Giant fan and optimism was about all he had left to nourish his spirit.
Oh, how he suffered these last several weeks as the Dodgers flew high and the Giants plummeted like wounded eagles—four straight losses and 12 of 17 in the first great collapse and then six straight and 12 of 15 in the second.
But even so, optimism prevailed, and when the Giants revived in early July to win four games in a row and six of seven, the ears of every Giant fan in the country stood erect, quivering, listening for something, anything, that sounded like '51 or '54. The Dodgers were coming into the Polo Grounds for a three-game series and though they led the league by 13½ games and were 16½ ahead of the fourth-place Giants, the Giant fan waited for them as the starving wolf waits for the frolicking lamb. This might be the time, he felt. This might be the beginning.
For instance, Arch Murray of the New York Post, a good writer and a good reporter but a Giant fan to the core, wrote seriously: "If the Giants can win two out of three, they'll be only 15½ away with almost half a season to go." And someone told Leo Durocher that the Giants would be only 13½ behind if they swept all three games. You know what he meant. You remember in 1951 when the Giants were 13½ games behind the Dodgers and...Well, so Leo, who has had a hard time this year, remembered it too. "We'd be right back in their territory again, wouldn't we?" he said, grinning.
All this is mentioned only to demonstrate how real Giant optimism was, just last Friday. Even though the team was at a bare .500, with 40 won and 40 lost, and closer to sixth place than third, Giant players and Giant fans were thinking of a pennant.
They forgot about it that night. In a game with the Dodgers that they knew they had to win, the Giants lost. More than that they lost to a patchwork Dodger team, playing without Campanella, Furillo or Robinson. They lost after running up an impressive 6-0 lead against the renowned Don Newcombe, whose record of 14-1 is the best in the majors. They lost miserably, giving up the winning runs in the eighth and ninth innings on some of the worst fielding seen this season.
The final score was 12-8, and nothing the Giants do the rest of the year—even flashes like their 10-2 and 3-2 victories in the remainder of the series—will make up for it. The Giants are not only dead, they are buried. Their season is over, and here it is only All-Star time.
"Touché! And thank you very much, sir."