Old sluggers and young pitchers
Strong points: Potential power and the incomparable Casey Stengel. Gil Hodges, Frank Thomas, Gus Bell, Second Baseman Charlie Neal and Third Baseman Don Zimmer can all reach the cozy right- and left-field seats of the Polo Grounds with ease, if they haven't forgotten how. Manager Stengel, bubbling with enthusiasm, carries an "I'll show 'em" attitude back to the Yankees' hometown. Says the veteran Richie Ashburn of his new boss: "I never knew a man could know so much about the game."
Weak spots: Old age and shallow pitching could hurt the most. Of the regulars, only the shortstop candidates—Elio Chacon and Felix Mantilla—are under 30. The outfield, especially in the roomy Polo Grounds, will be porous, if Bell (33) is in right, a slowed-down Ashburn (35) is in center and Thomas (32) is in left. Reserves Joe Christopher and John DeMerit can run but their hitting is questionable. Gil Hodges, at 38, will need frequent help at first. Except for Thomas, who had a big year in 1961 (27 HRs), none of the home run hitters have reached many fences in the last few years. Catcher Hobie Landrith (32) is a good receiver but a light hitter. At short, Chacon is an exciting but undependable fielder, and Mantilla has some glove talent but little with the bat (.215 BA). Roger Craig, with five wins last year for the Dodgers, is the Mets' "ace" pitcher. After him, there is a plethora of inexperience.
The big ifs: The fate of the Mets depends on how young the oldtimers act and how fast the young pitchers develop. Jay Hook (25), Craig Anderson (23), Ken MacKenzie (28), Bob Miller (23) and Sherm Jones (26) all have promise. Herb Moford (33) will start and Clem Labine (35) will relieve if his arm holds out. This spring the pitching was surprisingly sharp. It could turn out to be the strongest part of the Mets.
Rookies and new faces: Rookie Pitchers Al Jackson, Ray Daviault and Bob Moorhead looked good this spring, could make the team. Jim Hickman, a muscular young outfielder, might play a lot in center. Rod Kanehl will be an outfield spare.
THE OUTLOOK: If the Mets don't get off the ground in a hurry, look for General Manager George Weiss to trade, buy or steal a parcel of new players who can "execute" for Manager Stengel. Seventh place is not a remote possibility.
Painful days for Casey
Casey Stengel looks about the same as he did during his last year with the Yankees. The name on the front of his uniform is still New York, the style is still pinstripe, the number on his back is the familiar 37, and when he speaks it is as no other man can—or would—speak. "I would say that we have three men who can move in the outfield," he said during spring training. "Put these names down—Christopher, Hickman, DeMerit. They can run and two of them are tall so I don't know why they don't have power. They're fast enough to play on any ball club—Hickman should hit the ball hard—if we can develop them enough in baseball ways. They all say we never got to play. DeMerit—how many games has he played? Only 79. His extra-base power wouldn't show up in that many games. Now if someone takes an interest in them we could strengthen our club."
It is grand to hear him, grand to have him back, because baseball is cluttered with people who give only name, rank and serial number. But it is sad, too. You can sense the man straining, trying too hard to be Casey Stengel, the attraction. That, of course, is why he was hired—to create interest in a team that cannot possibly finish higher than seventh. But to hear the man ramble on about his plans for some borderline players and to see the group of reporters around him depart one by one until he is left alone on the bench is painful.
This spring every ball hit into the air in batting practice by the New York Mets was judged as a home run or an out according to the peculiar dimensions of the Polo Grounds, with its short foul lines and vast center-field area. Thus, when Hobie Landrith would pop one up behind first base, the familiar cry was "home run in the Polo Grounds." When Frank Thomas drove a ball deep to left center, it was "just an out in the Polo Grounds." Sometimes there was considerable disagreement among the players and among the reporters covering the team whether certain fly balls were home runs or outs in the Polo Grounds. One day a disputed ball led to the question of the exact distance of the two foul lines. Ralph Branca, the old Dodger pitcher, who will be handling the Mets pre-game radio show, supplied the answer: 279 feet in left, 257 in right. He said it automatically, like a man reciting his Army serial number. Such discussions of Polo Grounds home runs must be hard on Branca, the man who gave up the home run heard round the world to Bobby Thomson.
"I feel fine," said Gilbert Ray Hodges, the 38-year-old first baseman of the New York Mets. "Physically I'm in good shape and I'm happy to be back playing in New York."
As he stood in front of the batting cage waiting for his cuts, Hodges conceded that the game was more work and less fun. "Each year," he said in his gentle voice, "it's harder to get loose. Your muscles don't respond as well. I can remember when I was ready in a couple of days. Not anymore. At my age your body just slows down a little. I know I'll be physically able to play at least 100 games." Then he paused a little and the creases of his face deepened as he smiled. "I just hope I'm good enough."