A TEAM THAT CAN MAKE A MAN CRY

Manager Wes Westrum knows that his Mets try—oh, how they try—but their frustrating blend of promise (right) and ineptitude, on the bases and off, sometimes moves him close to tears
June 26, 1966

He was a big pitcher with a fat earned run average and a bad mouth and he had been at the bar too long, which in his case was about 20 minutes. He had just delivered his best pitch to a lady sitting between two large gentlemen who were going to turn out to be plainclothes cops, and they were taking the floor to question his choice of words.

Suddenly the pitcher seemed to glide offstage, jerkily, like a marionette. Wesley Noreen Westrum, whose cerebral replay of the day's defeat had been interrupted by the noise, had taken him in a bear hug from behind, and the pitcher's feet didn't touch again until they hit the sidewalk outside. Baseball has seen many men strong enough to transport 220-pound pitchers. But through a revolving door?

In the years when Wes Westrum was catching and then coaching with the Giants he often allowed his valor to be the better part of discretion. During the Giants' miracle drive of 1951 he hit home runs with mashed fingers and caught doubleheaders with yards of tape corseting his cracked ribs. But a .217 hitter does not become a 10-year man without being tough, and mere pain did not bring tears to Westrum's eyes.

Managing the New York Mets does.

You can't often sec them. You hear them in his voice as he talks of what might have been in the new kind of defeat being suffered by the new kind of Mets. They are "in" the game these days, the two-touchdown humiliations behind them. They are usually close enough to victory in the late innings so that the line drive that is caught, or the ground ball that isn't, matters painfully much. The players hear the quaver in Westrum's voice in clubhouse meetings as he persuades them that they are professionals and that they don't have to do those amateurish things that bring tears to a tough manager's larynx. They still find that hard to believe, but they try. They know the emotion Westrum's voice betrays is not weakness but the fervor of a competitor. "He's a tough man to manage against," says Phillies Manager Gene Mauch. "He won't give in." So the players can't.

If West rum pretends to keep his head when all about him are running the bases as if they had lost theirs, it would be cruel to rain on his charade. Whether they actually buy Westrum's Couéisms or not doesn't matter; the posture has given them a measure of what they most desperately want: dignity.

"We're sick and tired of everything being so goddam funny," says Pitcher Jack Fisher, who lost 24 games last year. Fisher reads the standings and does not see that the Mets arc in ninth place. "We're only seven games under .500," he said at one point. "Sure, I think we can get there. Why can't we?" Well, because it strains the memory to recall a big-league pitching staff more woefully undermanned than the Mets' was as the doubleheader season began. Because the never-say-die rallies kept being killed by Kamikaze base running. Because after a couple of losing series the Mets were 12 games under .500. At a time when Major Houk's Charismatic Elixir was indicated, the medicine chest was bare.

Well into June the front office woke up and smelled the smoke. They got Bob Shaw from the Giants and Bob Friend from the Yankees. They called up Pitcher Dick Rusteck, who wasn't good enough to make the staff in spring training. To make room they "outrighted"—i.e., gave away—left-hander Gordon Richardson to Jacksonville. But, had Richardson stayed, he would have started the next night, because Westrum's finger had been pointing his way when he got to "moe."

Still, there is fire in the ashes. There is even pride. "I'm glad I'm a Met," says Ron Hunt, the all-ballplayer second baseman who is a throwback to pre-pension, gashouse days. Hunt will break up a second baseman to break up a double play ("anything is legitimate as long as you don't use your spikes") and expects the same in return. Hunt can swagger on the way back to the dugout after a strikeout, and there is arrogance in the way he takes a 3-0 pitch. "I'm going to play in a World Series with this club," he says. "Having everybody laugh at us was a pain in the butt, but that's over now."

The Mets are too old to laugh, but it doesn't hurt enough—yet—to cry. It seemed in spring training that Westrum might be funnier by accident than Casey Stengel was on purpose. Wes promulgated a "positive thinking" program that promised to be a real knee-slapper to a troop of Hessians who had lost 452 games in four years. But Casey's Amazin's became Westrum's Batmen in Florida. "We lost momentum when it rained those first three days of the season in Cincinnati," Hunt says. "If we'd gone right from spring training into the season, it might have been different."

Westrum did not lose momentum. The clichés flew but the laughs subsided. There were smiles from the SRO gathering of newspapermen in his office when he referred to "guilty culprits" after a brush-back incident with the Phils. Wes explained his retaliation thus: "It's all for one and one for all." Well, 23 skiddoo, but there were no laughs from the people in the sweatshirts. Bob Buhl of Philadelphia had hit Dick Selma on his pitching arm, so when Buhl came to bat he had to be drilled on the tail-bone. Don't tread on us. It was, Buhl agreed, a highly professional way to look at the matter.

The Spirit of Florida had caught on. Esprit de corps on a team like the Mets requires a tolerance that passeth all understanding, but whether because of Westrum or in spite of him they have it. There was the night Dick Stuart, who was still a Met first baseman then, mauled a grounder into submission and then conducted a 360° search for the ball while the decisive run scored. The next day, in an element-by-element appraisal of the team, Fisher made only this reference to Stuart: "For the first time we have a legitimate home-run hitter."

One night Center Fielder Cleon Jones ran into an out in a pointless dash to third base. The next night, with two out in the ninth, Johnny Lewis wheeled around third in a mad dash for one run when two were needed; Third Base Coach Whitey Herzog had to use every deterrent short of tackling him. Billy Murphy, who ought to be learning to play at Jacksonville, killed two rallies as a pinch runner. Ron Swoboda, benched for not running fast enough, rumbled into third and found Stuart waiting for him. Ed Kranepool, carrying a tying run, took a pointless lead off third instead of tagging up on a fly to an out-fielder who couldn't throw. Westrum threw his underwear against the wall and threatened fines, but Hunt maintained his deadpan aplomb and thought positive. "We have good speed in the outfield," he said. Hunt overlooked the catchers, who were hitting .231 after 50 games, and pointed out that "we have good defense behind the plate."

The positive was still being accentuated, but the negative couldn't be eliminated. The spirit endured, but the flesh was feeble. All for one, yeah, but 0 for 4. The Mets had scored one run in 25 innings, with no more than one hit in any inning. "We're due to break out," Westrum said. "In a rash." That was the best he could do. No epigrammatist he, even when the Batmen were scoring runs. Westrum knows baseball thoroughly and discusses its nuances articulately, but he would not dictate Stengelian angles for the afternoon papers even if he knew how, which he doesn't. Inadvertently he tips the fact that some players' deficiencies—Swoboda's, for one—are more evident to him than others'. But he does not coin one-liners at their expense. That would be all for one, but it wouldn't be one for all.

Part of the tremolo in Westrum's voice after losing a close one is restraint, the sublimation of the impulse to tell a questioner to get lost. "That's true," Westrum concedes, "but I think you guys feel the same way asking the questions. You want to make sure you're not misunderstood." The guys do. Cross-examining a nice guy who can't finish better than ninth can be almost as much fun as interviewing the widow after the train wreck. In a world Wes Westrum wouldn't have made, public relations is 25% of any manager's job, and he accepts that. He succeeded Casey Stengel, which is like following Sammy Davis Jr. in a vaudeville show, but he is trying. The trouble is that he has little going for him but sincerity, which in baseball is not necessarily regarded as an asset.

Westrum's deep feeling about his job is not based on self-pity. He set the terms of his ordeal himself. The logical test of a manager of a team with the nebulous capabilities of the Mets would be a three-year plan, but Westrum has no such latitude. "Nobody gave me any special instructions," he said, "but I know what I have to do. I have to develop young players and I have to win games. I have set a goal of 70 victories, and I honestly believe we can do that. If we don't win 70 games I won't feel that I have succeeded."

So Westrum has two mutually exclusive objectives and one whole year in which to accomplish them—-minus, of course, the month they left him sitting home by the telephone, wondering whether he'd be the manager or not. Visiting his mother in Minnesota and fishing killed 10 days, but he was waiting for the shoe to drop.

He was not hired until Nov. 18. In the interim a man might have phoned the general manager, if Mets President George Weiss called himself the general manager or if Weiss deigned to let his assistant, Bing Devine, act as one, to suggest the name of a player or two he might like to have. But it would be presumptuous to call when you don't know if you work there anymore.

So the manager goes with the dramatis personae he was given. During the winter the management drafted Murphy and Pitcher Bill Hepler, 20, both of whom must be kept on the roster but neither of whom is ready to play. (Though, of course, Hepler was called on six times in two weeks when it was discovered that the men could not do the boys' job.) They traded their best pitcher for Ken Boyer and they picked up Stuart from the Phillies. The latter two "name" acquisitions, reminiscent of the Mets' Ashburn-Bell-Thomas lineup in 1962, indicated that the front office is still playing to the box office more than six million customers later.

Only the manager must play the present against the future. The overlap was epitomized by a pop foul which had nothing to do with a 3-1 defeat by the Pirates. Third Baseman Boyer, veteran of 1,700 big-league games, and Catcher John Stephenson, veteran of little more than 100, met under the ball as it descended near the Pirates' dugout.

Patently the third baseman, with the more dexterous finger glove, should have made the play. "Usually," Boyer said, "but not necessarily. The pitcher should call the play."

"I called Boyer," Pitcher Dennis Ribant said, "and when I yell they know I'm out there."

"I heard him," Boyer said. "I didn't hear anything," Stephenson said, "so at the last minute I yelled, 'I got it.' " Nobody got it. Nobody did anything terribly wrong, either, except exhibit the Mets' cross-purposes. A team plays a 25-year-old Johnny Stephenson in the hope of developing a young player. It plays a 35-year-old Ken Boyer in the hope of winning, or at least not looking too bad. When it combines them and gets nowhere the compromise is called "balance."

A team focusing on the future might, for example, play Ron Swoboda, who will not be 22 until June 30. He is the symbolic Met in that he is the most potent of their potentials. The only player the Metropolitan Baseball Club, Inc. can be absolutely sure it would like to have on its payroll in 1969—which should be first-division time—is Ron Hunt. If Hunt is not joined in that distant World Series by Swoboda and Cleon Jones and some of the Gardner-Ribant-Selma-Rusteck-Hepler-McGraw kiddie corps, he's never going to get there. The future is in them, or there is no foreseeable future.

"He's so strong," is about all that is heard about Swoboda, because of his impressive musculature and because he has occasionally hit balls "over everything." Actually, he probably has the reflexes and bat control to be a good hitter, but he isn't sure. He isn't sure of anything.

"As soon as I get started," he said, "I have to stop."

It was natural that Westrum's dual dedication and Swoboda's singular determination would conflict, and they have—quietly, but continually. "If a man is hitting," Westrum says, "I'll play him. When he stops I give him a rest. Sure, there are complaints: I wouldn't have a man who didn't want to play. But you just have to ignore the complaints."

In one doubleheader, against right-handed pitching, Swoboda went 4 for 7. The next day he was 0 for 3, and he got a three-day sabbatical. "You got to be fantastic, I guess," Swoboda said. "I wasn't fantastic. I was just hitting."

"He gets down on himself when he stops hitting," Westrum said. "Then he goes real bad."

"There is a guy in this organization," Swoboda said, "who says that when I get down on myself I crawl in a little hole somewhere and curl up and die. They ought to know there's a difference between looking bad and going bad.

"Last year I didn't even belong here," Swoboda said. Off a .276 year at Williamsport, he played 135 games with the Mets and hit some balls over everything. But he also batted .228, and his fielding was one of the funny things about the Mets. "But I was here, and I went through all that. The newspapers had a field day with me. Now I think I do belong here. I still make mistakes in the field, but I'm better. Whitey Herzog talked to me the first day of spring training. 'You're not a good fielder," he said, and he showed me a new way to approach a ground ball. I'm not good, but I'm better."

"Guys have to sacrifice," Westrum said. "They have to play when they're hurt, for the good of the team, the way Boyer and Hunt did on the last trip. And sometimes they have to sit down for the good of the team. It's all for one and one for all."

One night Johnny Lewis was called back to the dugout and Stuart sent up to hit for him. Lewis flung his bat in ostentatious chagrin. "That's all right," Westrum said. "I want them to want to play. Above all, I want them to be mad when they lose."

So it may be a mad, mad, mad, mad team by the ides of August, which may make a weird, weird, weird, weird scene in Shea Stadium. The flaky legions of New Breed fans have been showing signs of becoming tranquilized. if not downright dignified. One memorable night, early in June, there was not a single banner in evidence. Among 11,785 patrons, not a used bed sheet screamed for the return of Elio Chacon. It was eerie.

Certainly, with the kids out of school, there will be more banners. The Rod Kanehl Fan Club will be heard from. They can't all turn their backs on Marvelous Marv so soon. But that night they acted almost like people who had come to see a baseball game.

They seemed, in a word, to be taking the Mets seriously. That's fine with the Mets, who are taking themselves seriously. Like Pagliacci, they are tired of laughing while being pushed around.

La commedia è finita. The current attraction at Shea Stadium is Prometheus Bound, a tragedy in one act starring Wes Westrum. Prometheus could have carried a whole pitching staff through a revolving door, but the management fixed it so that he couldn't. The tears in the larnyx will be very good for the curtain line: "How I am wronged, ye see."

FOUR PHOTOS

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)