Baseball is always looking for omens. A hitter who has gone zip for 27 knows he is going to come out of his slump today because last night his sister from Elizabeth, N.J. called and told him not to worry. The last time she did that he went on a 14-game rip. The pitcher, whose control has been so bad, puts on a teammate's sweat shirt with big holes in it, both front and back, and suddenly his "deuce" catches the black for strikes and the change-up has all the enemy hitters off stride.
There was a very good omen present for the New York Mets even before the 1969 baseball season started, but, because they were the New York Mets, few people bothered to make much of it. The augury was a very inside thing. The club that won the Florida Instructional league—where young players developed and old ones tested new tricks—was sure to be a winner the following summer. In 1965 the Baltimore Orioles won the Florida Instructional League, and the next season they became world champions. The Red Sox won the FIL in 1966 and won the American pennant in 1967 (at odds of 100 to 1) and then chased St. Louis to the seventh game of the Series. In 1967 the Detroit Tigers won, and the parent club went on in 1968 to win its first pennant in 23 years and the Series. Last fall the Met instructional-league team beat out a dozen others and, sure enough, this year the Mets won the Eastern Division of the National League, providing baseball with a warm surprise and Owner Joan Payson with one of the league's highest attendances (2,175,373) ever.
The Mets, who open the National League portion of the playoffs this week against the Braves in Atlanta or the Giants in San Francisco, are the one club with very little to lose. Their season has already been a tremendous success because few of their followers thought the team had progressed to the point, after seven years of existence, where it could beat out powerful contenders. In preseason odds St. Louis was 2 to 5 to win the title in the East, Chicago 3 to 1 and the Mets 25 to 1.
New York won because of the most obvious factors: managing, fielding, base running, desire, Koosman and Seaver. Jerry Koosman, 25, and Tom Seaver, 24, are being lumped together like Koufax and Drysdale in Los Angeles, McLain and Lolich in Detroit and, earlier, Spahn and Sain (and pray for rain) in Boston. In the bars of Queens and Long Island the cry now is, "Seav and Kooz and bring on the booze." During the two years that Koosman and Seaver have been pitching together for New York they have won 77 games and completed 65 of them. By the end of last week they had won 18 of their last 19 decisions, dispelling rumors that they were suffering with arm troubles.
Although the public is sometimes led to believe that Koosman fell out of a hayloft in Appleton, Minn. and right into the arms of the Mets as a full-blown success, and that Seaver was born in a manger in Fresno. Calif., both stories are apocryphal. Each has worked and thought hard and learned to command his own pitching talents.
Gil Hodges, the Met manager, has often been regarded as one of the nicest men in baseball, but his players know how tough he can be. If he does not like something he sees a player doing he will "sit him down" until the player has learned his lesson. The thing which Hodges himself learned the quickest as a manager was how to handle pitchers the most difficult job a manager has. Working effectively with Pitching Coach Al (Rube) Walker and delegating a lot of responsibility to him, Hodges still takes on himself the blame for any mistakes and often awards the praise to his coach. Hodges manages a lot on instinct and lets neither press nor ownership call his shots for him. He pulls his pitchers when he thinks the time is right and he is seldom proved wrong.
Eggheads and barbers, newspaper columnists and television commentators, have all offered theories as to what the Mets have meant for New York City this year. Basically, what the team did was play good National League baseball in a town that has always seemed fonder of the National League than the American. Old men put transistors to their ears on city streets to listen to the Mets, and women suddenly discovered that the game was not dying. It is impossible to tell how many listened to the Mets on radio or watched them on television, but at one point a Met game on WOR-TV pulled 40% of the viewing audience in prime time while the next-highest-rated show, the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, got only 20%. In that stretch of summer between the schools' recess in June and New York's clinching of the divisional title two weeks ago, an average of 36,221 paying customers went to Shea Stadium each day, and nearly half of New York's final 43 home dates were against the Astros, Expos, Padres or Phillies—clubs certainly not known as gate attractions.
Whether the Mets cooled off a potentially hot summer in Harlem, or heated up maternal love throughout the city, is best left for sociologists. What the Mets did do was thrill an old baseball town by diving for balls in the infield, running fearlessly after them in the outfield and. overall, comporting themselves as a young and happy team. For those who lived in Queens last winter and had snow piled up to their adenoids while arguing politicians failed to remove it, or lived in Manhattan and saw the garbage stacked to heights that would challenge the jumping ability of Fearless Dick Fosbury, or watched prices rise as high as pie in the sky while surly cab drivers mouthed their own intimate form of insult, the Mets were pure joy.
By the end of last week the race to see who would meet the Mets in the divisional playoffs had come down to the Braves and the Giants. With two games remaining for Atlanta and three for San Francisco—all, incidentally, in their home parks—the Braves led by 2½ games. Earlier in the week the Cincinnati Reds were eliminated despite a team batting average of .277, but the Red pitching had been giving up runs all year long and their team earned run average of 4.14 looked more like a hat size than a Series' cap.
Atlanta had fooled those people who all season long expected them to collapse. The Braves had occupied first place longer than any other team. Henry Aaron had an excellent season with 44 homers, the same number, until Sunday, as Willie McCovey of the Giants. McCovey raised his total to 45, thereby destroying one of those mysterious number games fans like to play. Both men, you see, wear No. 44 on their uniforms. More to the point, McCovey, the best hitter in the National League this year, knocked in 124 runs while batting .322, and Aaron drove home 96 with an average of .299.
The main differences between the Braves and the Giants, however, are their fielding and their pitching. Atlanta's infield is much stronger defensively with Orlando Cepeda at first, Felix Millan at second, Gil Garrido at short and Clete Boyer at third. On the other hand, San Francisco's pitching is considerably more reliable. The Giants got 51 complete games from Juan Marichal and Gaylord Perry, while Atlanta's total of 38 complete games was built basically on the 21 pitched by Phil Niekro. Late in the season Ron Reed came on strong for Atlanta Manager Luman Harris, but the Braves' bullpen, picked up by the addition of Hoyt Wilhelm from the California Angels late in the season, sagged badly. And for the Braves, Wilhelm—the one fresh man—is ineligible for the playoffs and the Series.
Rico Carty, he of the one-hand catch (sometimes) and the good bat (most times), has hit well for the Braves (.345), even though he barely reached 300 at bats. And Atlanta got two marvelous breaks when 20-year-old Bob Didier proved himself a splendid catcher, and Tony Gonzalez, acquired in a trade, provided key hits. Didier had played only 133 games in the minors—the rule of thumb for a catcher is 400 minor league games before moving up to the majors—with a batting average of .219. His average with the Braves was .258.
San Francisco's major plus was the arrival of young (23) Bobby Bonds, who became only the fourth player in history to hit more than 30 homers and steal more than 30 bases in the same season. Bonds broke in with the Giants in spectacular fashion last season by belting a grand-slam homer against the Los Angeles Dodgers for his first major league hit, but he also broke the alltime major league record for strikeouts in a season by easily surpassing Dave Nicholson's former record of 175.
Against the Mets this year the Braves and Giants each won only four of 12. Those games were played at points in the season when New York was not as good as it was at the end of the year, by which time it was very good. Atlanta has been on a winning streak almost as hot as the Mets'; the Giants have struggled. No matter which team faced the New Yorkers, it assuredly would have its hands full with those young, strong-armed enthusiasts.