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THE WORLD SERIES : OAKLAND ATHLETICS vs. LOS ANGELES DODGERS : Once Again, Tudor Had Right Idea

It was a one-swing ballgame. Just when you were beginning to wonder what was so great about the Oakland Athletics, as you were about to ask “Jose Canseco, where are you?” or say “Mark McGwire, call your office,” Mark McGwire checked in.

Three hours and 21 minutes into a boring game, well into his 10th at-bat and on the threshold of his third strikeout of the game, McGwire did what the Athletics are supposed to do--hit it out of the lot.

Before that, it had been like watching a silent movie. TV with the sound down. It had been a great game if you’re crazy about fouls to the backstop and pickoff throws to first base.

It took Oakland all night to eke out a 1-run victory over a team that shouldn’t have gotten out of bed. One more injury and the Dodgers have to finish this thing at the Mayo Clinic.

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So, Oakland gets back in this tournament against a fabulous invalid. If the Humane Society doesn’t step in, the Athletics may have a clear track. The Dodgers had 3 men on and nobody out in the 6th inning of a tie game, but the ballclub was in the critical ward by then. Nobody got a ball out of the infield. Dueling banjos would have been more effective.

It all began Tuesday night with John Tudor.

John is a strange star-crossed character. I can relate to John Tudor, know where he’s coming from.

John is this kind of a guy: tomorrow will be worse. The next card will be a deuce. The next hole will be a bogey. The next ball will go out of bounds. The sky might fall, the creeks rise. The Germans will get to Paris. The plane will be late. The check will bounce. The sink will stop up. The roof will leak. The car won’t start.

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The breaks will go against you. Whatever can go wrong probably will. Luck has it in for you. In other words, why me, Lord?

It’s not that John Tudor is a pessimist. What he is, is a New Englander.

New England, you must remember, is a place founded by the Puritans. It’s where they burned witches. It’s where you pay for your sins. John Kennedy, who said, “Life isn’t fair,” came from New England. New England is where Eugene O’Neill wrote all those gloomy plays. It’s the land of the chilly classics. Ethan Frome. It’s where they made Hester Prynne wear that scarlet letter. New England is Cotton Mather. Calvin Coolidge. It’s where you check your smile at the border and pick it up on the way out. If you laugh too loud, God might hear you. Lizzie Borden came from here.

John Tudor grew up here. They let him stay a left-hander, which is already a kind of departure for New England, but they instilled a strong sense of right and wrong in him. The firm notion that life is no beach. Whatever you get in life, you pay interest on. As Coolidge used to say of tapped out creditors, “They hired the money, didn’t they?” It’s vintage New England. Expect the worst. Hard times are coming. It comes of trying to grow crops in rock.

John Tudor knows that, when he lets go of a baseball, several things can happen, not all of them good. He knows for example that, when he throws to Jose Canseco, Jose has all the best of it. Jose gets three shots at it. He can make two mistakes. John makes just one and it may be all over. These are the kinds of malicious mischief that gave those Salem judges such long faces, such a sour outlook on life.

John knows not to ask too much, too. Which is why he said so dourly when the Dodgers traded for him this year after they lost Fernando Valenzuela: “I’m no savior.” John doesn’t like anybody to expect too much. In New England, you insulate yourself against failure because you know it’s coming. Like the elm blight.

It isn’t as if John had a Koufax fastball, a Carl Hubbell screwball. John has to get these 230-pound brutes out with guile and grits. John is like a guy who has to get through the German lines with a flashlight and a screwdriver.

But not even John was ready for what would happen to him on Tuesday night.

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For John Tudor, a World Series is like a scream in the night, a stateroom on the Titanic. It lies in wait for him.

World Series are for some big laughing hillbillies with 100-m.p.h. fastballs, a curve that can go around corners and the self-confidence and optimism of a gold prospector. World Series are for a Dizzy Dean. Some guy who could look at that Oakland lineup and see a lot of suckers for his breaking ball.

John Tudor is about as far from Dean as anyone you could find. Dour, dyspeptic, suspicious, he looks more like a guy who has been asked to go down in a mine cave-in than onto a mound in a mere sporting event.

John Tudor is a very gutsy pitcher. He’d have to be, with the stuff he takes to the hill with him. Anyone can win a hand with aces. It takes courage to win it with treys back-to-back. It’s not that Tudor lacks confidence. It’s just that he never underestimates the challenge.

And the World Series saves its best moves for him. John won 3 World Series games with some patented, polished pitching. But, each time, he kept waiting for the shoe to drop. It happened in Game 7 in 1985 when John ended up punching an electric fan in frustration after giving up 5 runs and 4 walks and a home run in 2 innings. Two years later, coming back from a broken leg, he had a chance to close out the ’87 World Series in Game 6 but lost a 5-2 lead to an 11-hit attack, 2 home runs and 6 runs.

Tuesday night, the Series struck again. Tudor was breezing along. He had just retired 4 batters in a row, the last a strikeout of Mark McGwire. But he was doing it with an elbow that made a curveball seem as if he had just stuck it in a buzz saw. For John Tudor, a World Series is “Nightmare on Elm Street.”

New England would understand perfectly. So would Schopenhauer. (“Life is a useless interruption of an otherwise peaceful nonexistence.”) Murphy was right: If it can go wrong, bet on it.

As for the Dodgers, with Tudor, Mike Marshall and Kirk Gibson in the orthopedic ward, they may have to petition the league to let them bring up Albuquerque. The Oakland A’s would seem to be the first team in history to be leading a World Series, 1 game to 2.

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