The most memorable things about the 1981 World Series so far are its ''Keystone Kops'' baserunning and some of the most comical-looking defensive play this side of a Marx Brothers movie.
Casual fans probably figure that the strike lasted all season, after which somebody pulled these guys in off the beaches and golf courses and said, ''Oh well, let's play a World Series anyway.''
Meanwhile, more serious followers of the game must be wondering just what it is the ballplayers do for six weeks every spring when they're supposed to be working on the ''fundamentals.''
Both teams have been guilty at times, but without question it's the New York Yankees - those supposed paragons of machinelike, ''never beat yourself,'' play down through the years - who have been the chief offenders. They paid the price , too, blowing a pair of one-run games over the weekend in which they made enough mental and physical errors to last most clubs a month or more.
To be sure, there have been outstanding plays too. Yankee third baseman Graig Nettles replayed his 1978 World Series heroics with some brilliant stops to help save one game, and his Los Angeles Dodger counterpart Ron Cey made a diving grab of a bunt to start a rally-killing double play in another. But so far such efforts have been the exception.
At first base one sees a recurring image of Steve Garvey and Bob Watson leaping to snare errant throws, then diving desperately in an attempt to make the tag. There have been Alphonse-Gaston acts by pitchers and infielders on bunts. The oft-maligned Dodger infield has lived up (or should we say down?) to its reputation, with shortstop Bill Russell and second baseman Davey Lopes making damaging errors that led to runs. And although a tough sun was the culprit to some extent, the way Yankee outfielders played two fly balls in Game 4 looked more like a parody of a softball game at the company picnic than the so-called fall classic.
And then there were all the baserunning blunders.
In Game 1 Cey, leading off the seventh inning with his team trailing 5-1, got thrown out at second trying to stretch a basehit into a double. It may be true that out of the 56,470 fans at Yankee Stadium plus the millions of people watching endless TV replays, only one man thought Cey was out, but all that is irrelevant because the lone dissenter happened to be the second base umpire. And even if he did blow the call, that doesn't really exonerate Cey. They start out in Little League teaching kids not to take any chances when their team is behind by three or four runs - not to run if there's going to be any sort of play at the next base at all.
In Game 2 the Dodgers' Garvey committed what is supposed to be a cardinal baserunning error - trying to go from second to third on a ground ball to the left side of the infield - but he got away with it when shortstop Larry Milbourne's throw ticked off the runner and eluded Nettles at third.
When the scene shifted to Los Angeles for Game 3, however, it was the Yankees who suddenly seemed to forget all those spring training drills. Down 5-4 in the eighth, New York had a great chance with men on first and second and none out. But on a sacrifice attempt, Larry Milbourne wandered too far off first base and was easily doubled up when Cey made his great catch of Bobby Murcer's bunt attempt in foul territory (which of course made Milbourne's mental error even that much more inexcusable). The Yankees still had a man on second with two out (Aurelio Rodriguez), but he promptly erased himself with the second mistake of the inning, running into an easy out at third base on a slow hopper on which Cey might well have had no play at first.
But all of this was just a dress rehearsal for Game 4, which turned out to be such a comedy of errors that surely it belonged on one of the nearby movie studio lots in Hollywood rather than Dodger Stadium.
''It wasn't your basic Picasso,'' commented Dodger outfielder Rick Monday of the fiasco, while Yankee third baseman Aurelio Rodriguez was a bit more blunt. ''I guess it was one of the worst World Series games ever played,'' he said.
It was also one of the more exciting ones, with Los Angeles overcoming a four-run deficit to eke out an 8-7 victory that squared the Series at two games apiece. But indeed the result was more a question of what the Yankees gave than of what the Dodgers took.
In the top of the fourth, already leading 4-2 and with a chance to break the game open, the Yankees had a hit, two walks, a sacrifice, and a fielder's choice yet failed to score - largely because of a baserunning goof by Willie Randolph. The New York leadoff man was on second with one out when he elected to go to third on a hard grounder to shortstop, only to run into a ridiculously easy out.
In the sixth inning Jackson lost a routine fly ball in the sun, giving Los Angeles a chance to tie the game. In the top of the seventh, with the score 6-6 , Rodriguez was an easy out trying to stretch a leadoff single into a double. Then in the bottom of the same inning, center fielder Bobby Brown misplayed a routine line drive into a double to open the gates for the winning Dodger rally.
Through all of these events, Bob Lemon's managing for the Yankees also got called into question many times. In Game 3, which the Yankees eventually lost 5 -4, he twice let his pitcher bat with two on and two out and only a one-run lead. It was early in the game, to be sure, but the pitchers in question weren't Goose Gossage or Ron Guidry - it was a rookie who had been ineffective (Dave Righetti) and a middle-relief man (George Frazier).And of course it's only second-guessing, but the moves looked doubly bad when each pitcher struck out to end the threat, then failed to get anybody out before needing relief in the bottom of the inning. Some also questioned why Jackson, on the bench with a leg injury, didn't get a chance to play his ''Mr. October'' role somewhere along the way in a pinch-hitting appearance.
But it was in Game 4 that Lem really gave the second-guessers a field day. Why was the often-erratic-fielding Jackson still in the game in the sixth inning with a three-run lead? Although regular centerfielder Jerry Mumphrey had apparently been benched for poor hitting, why wasn't it he, rather than the seldom used Brown, who was inserted for defensive purposes in the eighth? Why was relief ace Gossage held out of such a close game? And even if it meant going against the so called lefty-righty ''percentages,'' wasn't there a better pinch-hitting prospect on the bench in the ninth inning than utility catcher Barry Foote, who wound up striking out feebly on three pitches?
Now this week the Series moves back to New York for its conclusion - and hopefully a better example than we've had so far of how the champions of each league play the game.