Up and down the Eastern Seaboard in large pharmaceutical houses and small neighborhood drugstores the search was pressed last week for the mysterious, elusive chemical that may cure Nolan Ryan's vast blood-blister problem. Meanwhile, he blazes on in pain for the New York Mets, his hand inadequately treated with brine drawn from the bottom of a pickle barrel located in a Jewish delicatessen in the Bronx.
The group of reporters around Jerry Koosman grows larger each day and each recruit wants it explained again how he happened to learn to pitch in the top of a hay barn near Appleton, Minn. Koosman says, "I threw to my older brother, Orville."
Huge stacks of letters keep piling up in the Shea Stadium locker of Ron Swoboda (see cover) with words of youthful faith, "I tried to trade four baseball cards for yours. You will surely go to the Hall of Fame. I hope you never die." And, when people ask Swoboda if he thinks he will break Babe Ruth's home-run record, his brown eyes blink and he smiles when he says, "No, Roger Maris'."
In the first three weeks of the 1968 National League season the St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants, naturally, drew plenty of attention, but, unnaturally, so did the New York Mets, perhaps more attention than any other team. For the first time in their seven-year history they have some positive accomplishments to their credit, and it appears that they may now be on the verge of abandoning the theater of the absurd and starting to play something that closely resembles big-league baseball. At one point last week Swoboda was tied for the major league lead in homers and runs batted in. Koosman, a 24-year-old left-handed rookie, had given up one run in 27 innings to tie for the league lead in wins (with three) and earned run average (0.33). While the Mets' present overall record of 6-9 was certainly not good enough to cause people to start computing their "magic number," the team does have the statistic (1.66) to prove that its pitching staff has the best earned run average around.
May 5, 1968
Within a period of only 10 days the New Yorkers knocked both Juan Marichal of the Giants and Don Drysdale of the Dodgers, historically two of their greatest tormentors, from the box with flurries of hits and base running seldom before exhibited by Met teams. And, wonder of wonders, there were three National League teams that made as many or more errors. Of course, there was Nolan Ryan, too. At the age of 21—and with only 11 innings pitched anywhere last season—Ryan has caused a considerable stir all by himself, striking out 26 batters in the first 19‚Öì innings he pitched.
For all these bright performances, there are reminders, some grim, some hilarious, that the days of ineptitude have not totally disappeared. Recently, when they played a 24-inning game in Houston's Astrodome, the Mets failed to score a run and allowed the Astros to get the winning one on an error, and they added to their bizarre legend when John Wayne could take neither team any longer and quit the scene after 14 innings. A week later, though, the Mets got the Astros outside, but it was the Astros who made the mistakes and the Mets who capitalized on them. Old Mets never did things like that, but these new and seemingly movin' Mets are going to do many things right before this season is over.
Once the Mets were a bad team from virtually the top of their lineup to the bottom. In 1967, however, they came up with three refreshing surprises. Tom Seaver won 16 games, Swoboda hit .281 and Shortstop Bud Harrelson developed into a fine player. Even though the Mets did finish last, these were the first hopeful signs that the franchise was trying to change an image established by an incident that occurred in 1964. A follower in Connecticut called his local paper to ask how the Mets had fared. "They got 19 runs," said the man on the desk. "Oh," asked the caller, "did they win?"
There were many who felt that once the Mets started to show any progress their fans (nine million have seen them in six seasons) would quickly abandon them for some other negative diversion. But in 1966, when the Mets rose to ninth in the standings, crowds at Shea Stadium increased by 164,304. When the team tumbled back to 10th last season attendance dropped off by 367,201 and television ratings sank.
Because they had their poorest exhibition record (9-18) ever this spring many felt, and wrote, that New York should ready itself for the worst team in its history. Underneath that record, however, was something very encouraging: Met pitchers had given up fewer runs than those of any other National League club. The only one close to them was the Los Angeles Dodgers, a team that normally has the best pitchers.
Another very important factor contributed to some of those spring losses. Gil Hodges, New York's new manager, not only was shifting over from the American League to the National, but he was totally unfamiliar with many of the Met players. "During the spring," says Johnny Murphy, the Met General Manager, "Gil had to look over the 44 players he had in camp and find out for himself what they could do. He made up his mind to watch them under game conditions, and he did it. While he certainly wanted to win as many games as he could he was concerned about seeing how the players would respond in certain situations. His opinions were shaping my opinions. One of the first things you notice about Gil, once you have been around him, is that he is a master at telling a pitcher what he should throw and being sure that it is done."
Even before Hodges and his Mets got to spring training, the younger Met players sensed a new attitude being born. "When some of us got together this winter," says Swoboda, "we all felt like we couldn't wait to start the season. Young guys don't know how to quit. They haven't been around enough years to have their spirit dented like some of the older ones. The Boston Red Sox and what they did last season had a large part in our thinking about this year. In other seasons when I played for the Mets you would go into the ninth inning and just know that somebody was going to come along and shoot the damn wheels right off your wagon."
While it was the pitching that worked best in spring training, it was the work of three pitchers—Seaver, Koosman and Ryan—that impressed the most. Seaver, the pleasant and very well-organized young man who saved the All-Star Game for the National League last July, picked up where he had left off last year and pitched excellently, again in full command of what he was doing.
From the beginning Koosman was given an excellent chance to become a starter because he had led the International League in strikeouts in 1967 after a fine season the year previously at Auburn, where he compiled an ERA of 1.38 on a Met farm club that had spectacular pitching. Koosman is one of those rarities of today—a boy overlooked by the scouts and signed, finally, for a handful of change. He went to an agricultural high school in Appleton, and it did not have a baseball team. He often awoke at 5 in the morning on his father's 640-acre farm, plowed, disced and smoothed the earth and then went upstairs in a barn to throw baseballs to brother Orville in the evenings. He pitched in the "beer leagues" in Minnesota and then went into the Army at Fort Bliss, Texas. Because teams needed pitchers both on the post and off it, he worked out a pitching rotation of his own so that, despite the teams' demands, he would pitch every fourth or fifth day. The father of the boy who caught him had been an usher at the old Polo Grounds in New York and he tipped the Mets off about Koosman. The Mets signed Koosman after he had served 17 months of active duty and gave him a $1,200 bonus.
The third member of New York's young pitching corps eventually became Lynn Nolan Ryan, the youngest of six children born to a petroleum company supervisor in Alvin, Texas. In 1966 Ryan struck out 307 batters in 202 innings in the minors. You might have heard much more about him earlier had he not been called into the service for part of the 1967 season.
When Ryan did start to pitch last year, word about him spread throughout baseball. Of his first 21 outs at Jacksonville, 18 were by strikeouts. "I had to catch him in the bullpen in Rochester without lights," says Minor Leaguer Jackie Warner, "and I chased as many as I caught." All of Ryan's strikeouts for Jacksonville were on the road. When he was listed to start a home game at Wolfson Park, almost three times the normal crowd of 1,000 came out just to see what Nolan Ryan was all about. As he warmed up, Ryan felt twinges in his arm. He promptly sat down.
"It always seemed," says General Manager Murphy, "that anytime I went to see him pitch something would happen and he didn't play. There were times when people told me all about him and I began to believe that Nolan Ryan was a myth." Murphy wasn't the only Met to feel this way. Returning from a reserve hitch, young Ryan finally pitched in a "B" game and impressed everyone, but when he was scheduled to go three innings against Pittsburgh his arm tightened and he worked only one. Two weeks later Ryan pitched against the World Champion St. Louis Cardinals and fanned six of them in four innings, including Orlando Cepeda. Said Cepeda, "He is the best young pitcher I have seen since I came into the major leagues."
Good as it was, that performance was not enough to convince Hodges. He waited a week and threw Ryan back in against the Cardinals. This time the youngster gave up no earned runs and struck out five. He made the team. In his three starts this year Ryan has struck out hitters with his rising fastball and continued to get blood blisters on his index finger.
Gus Mauch, the Met trainer, has tried almost every source imaginable to find Tar Dermament, a medical preparation which helped Ryan in the past but cannot be located today. Thus, wherever Ryan goes, he carries a bottle of pickle brine to paint on his blisters. When Mauch cuts them to let the blood run out, Ryan's teammates shake their heads as he dips his fingers into the cup of brine. Their name for the resultant mixture, of course, is a "bloody Nolan."
The most interesting thing about the Mets is their youthful exuberance. Leading 4-2 in the ninth on opening day against the Giants, the Mets fell apart and lost 5-4 despite Swoboda's four runs batted in. Throughout the Met organization people felt that the team would probably leave its season right there in the swirling dust of Candlestick Park. The next night, though, Koosman pitched a four-hitter against the Dodgers and the Mets won 4-0.
This clearly was not to be the kind of club that had represented New York in the National League during recent years. New York had begun by trying to build its expansion team on sentimental ties to Brooklyn Dodger and New York Giant fans of the past. Whether it was the right or wrong course to take is still a good subject for barroom arguments. One thing is certain. Researchers of baseball in future years will look on the all-time Met roster and be baffled because some of the finest and most colorful players in the game wore Met uniforms: Richie Ashburn, Duke Snider, Yogi Berra, Clem Labine, Frank Lary, Jimmy Piersall, Warren Spahn, Gus Bell, Ken Boyer, Roy McMillan, Tommy Davis, Bob Friend, Dick Stuart, Gene Woodling and Hodges himself. Unfortunately, almost all of them were too old by the time they reached the Mets to help the cause, and the likes of Joe Hicks, Sammy Drake, Herb Moford, Rick Herrscher, Cliff Cook, Steve Dillon, Ray Daviault, Larry Foss, Jim Marshall, Al Moran, Ron Locke, Duke Carmel and Ed Bauta added only to the losing tradition.
After the first five games this season, during which New York won two and lost three on the road, potential spectators might have been excused if they had decided to delay their spectating another year. Enough, however, had seen a quality in the new Mets that prompted them to forget the Hickses, Daviaults and Carmels and to place their faith in the present. The advance sale for opening day at Shea Stadium was about 30,000, but the promise of the young pitchers, Swoboda's early start along with that of Outfielders Art Shamsky and Tommie Agee, plus never-before-seen daring on the bases, brought 22,000 more people out to see the game with San Francisco. Before that huge and unexpected crowd the Giants promptly loaded the bases in the first inning with nobody out and sent Willie Mays to bat. Koosman struck out Mays and escaped the inning without having a ball hit out of the infield. He ended with a 3-0 victory, the first opening game victory of any kind, home or road, in the Mets' history.
The impact of New York's improved play was visible again on their first home weekend of the season. With the Dodgers as the opposition they won on a three-run homer by Swoboda and the fine pitching of Seaver. The Met-Dodger game on television drew a rating more than three times that of NBC's Major League Baseball Game of the Week in New York, and the next day, despite weather reports indicating showers, 22,000 extras walked in again to swell the crowd to 45,000. New York, however, reverted to form and looked like the Mets of old, losing both games.
There are few bigger gambles in sport than using young pitchers in the major leagues. For many managers and general managers it is safer and causes less criticism if older, more experienced hands are pitched merely because "they have been around." But in 1967 there were three outstanding examples of teams within the National League that proved the exception to the rule. The Cardinals, Reds and Cubs all used pitchers who had little or no major league starting experience. Nelson Briles, Steve Carlton and Dick Hughes had only 32 previous starts for the Cardinals; Mel Queen and Garry Nolan had none for the Reds until last year; and Ferguson Jenkins, Rich Nye and Ken Holtzman were almost totally inexperienced with the Cubs.
"Now, for the first time," Swoboda said last week while stretching out on the rug of the Met clubhouse in his cowboy boots and dude-ranch clothing, "we know when we go out to play that youth is taking over and we have pitchers who can hold the other guy off. It isn't like other years when a lot of guys were just putting in their time and adding to their pension plans—get it over and let's get the paycheck. Seaver showed a lot of people that a young guy could win with the Mets because he thought everything over so well and you could tell that losing tore him up. It went down the line to the rest of the young guys like myself. Now we have Koosman, and he works fast. That helps you a hell of a lot on defense because you don't have time to worry about making a mistake. There are few people anywhere who can hit Nolan Ryan. The only criterion we have is Boston."
At the age of only 23, Swoboda has had three seasons with the Mets and some of those have been marked by quick starts. He is an animated conversationalist who last week described a yacht trip he had taken on an off day by saying, "It was a friend's boat and if I told you how large it was it would sound like I was bragging. But do you know who got on before me? Two goats, two zebras, two elephants." Although he is sometimes overanxious at the plate, he explains his current high position in homers and runs batted in with a smile. "Let's not get too excited about this thing. What I have to do is drive in those big runs—the gamers—the ones that decide the outcome. I want to be the type of hitter who sees the run in scoring position and picks it up. There are players who you just have to admire because you know they are tougher hitters with runners on."
Once Swoboda was a poor fielder but he has worked extremely hard to become a good one. "I'm one of those guys who has to work," he said. "Things don't come easy to me and maybe the fans identify with me because they know I have to work. How many successes in any profession that a man takes pride in really come easily to him?" Born in Baltimore, he has a Chinese step-grandfather. He knows what ultimate success can mean to him in money. "I do quite a bit of speaking," he says, "and I enjoy it. You have to be running all the time between New York, New Jersey and Connecticut but you can make $2,000 in a month during the off season if you want to run. I know, I've done it, and I don't mind running."
Seaver, who is as ambitious as Swoboda, sat in his dressing cubicle the other afternoon and looked around at the young Mets. "I had a feeling last year," he said, "that when I pitched they played better ball because they realized that I wanted to win so much. Now it has been multiplied."
Perhaps the best explanation of the Mets' hopes of rising came from Jerry Grote, the fine catcher with one of the best arms in baseball. "Our bench is alive now with guys pulling for one another. Last year I would look over at the bench of the St. Louis Cardinals and see how much fun they were having because they were winning, how proud they were to be what they were. Now we want to work ourselves to the point where we can get that same feeling and we are going to do it."
Because they are so young, of course, every once in a while somebody is going to come along and indeed shoot the wheels right off the Mets' wagon. But after six desperate seasons that wagon finally seems to be headed in the right direction.