The contagion that is the New York Mets continues to spread. Throughout Florida this spring, where the Mets replaced the sun as a tourist attraction, the dramatic impact of their five-month-old World Series victory over a fine Baltimore team was still as fresh and satisfying as the orange juice. Now, with a new season ready to begin, following a year in which the Mets drew a major league high of 2,175,373 in home attendance, almost anything is possible. If the club gets off to a good start it could approach, or surpass, the major league attendance record of 2,755,184 set at Dodger Stadium in 1962.
For those who still like to believe that the Mets accomplished their championship with voodoo, fine. But it should be remembered that the Mets won 100 games while winning their division, and few bad clubs have been known to get lucky 100 times in a season. A theory exists that the Mets will emulate the famous Philadelphia Whiz Kids of 1950, who won a pennant and the next year toppled into fifth place. As we now know, anything is possible—but some things are less possible than others, and a Met collapse is in that category. The Mets can run, field and bunt, and when these factors are combined with a very deep and strong pitching staff their chances of repeating must be considered good, even if not overwhelming. By trading for Joe Foy to fill their perennial trouble spot at third base, the Mets have picked up a player who can drive in runs (71 with Kansas City last year), although there are days when Foy does not exactly resemble Brooks Robinson in the field. New York hopes to get the same sort of performance out of Leftfielder Cleon Jones and Centerfielder Tommie Agee that each produced in 1969. Jones, injured late in the year, hit .340 and scored 92 runs while driving in 75. Agee, a versatile leadoff man, hit 26 homers, had 76 RBIs and scored 97 times while batting .271. Another important man will be Second Baseman Ken Boswell, an aggressive hitter, who batted .407 down the stretch from Aug. 23 on. New York's catching is good, with Jerry Grote and Duffy Dyer, and Bud Harrelson is an excellent shortstop, one of the best in baseball. Ron Swoboda-Art Shamsky in right field and Donn Clendenon-Ed Kranepool at first base will be platooned most of the time. The Mets sneaked up on a lot of people who weren't looking; now they will be in the spotlight. Still, the pressure should be bearable. Most Met fans, thankful for last season, will forgive their team almost anything this time around, which could be a big psychological advantage for a team whose pitching should prevent any prolonged losing streaks.
There will be very little forgiving in St. Louis, however. Following back-to-back pennants, the Cardinals now face a desperate challenge. When Manager Red Schoendienst was asked if there were any long-shot players who might make what once had been a set and established team, he succinctly replied, "On this club everybody is a long shot." Even so, St. Louis is a team that should generate enough pitching and hitting to keep itself in contention all the way, though there will be days when it will look awful—mostly because of poor defense and a questionable bullpen. As Joe Torre said recently about the controversial Cards, "No matter what has happened here this spring I know we can win this thing." But there have been a tremendous number of trades and shifts in positions, and the Cardinals took a cruel blow when Third Baseman Mike Shannon was struck with a kidney ailment (nephritis) that might cause him to miss the entire season. The loss of Shannon hurt—at a time when the club still had to find someone to send to Philadelphia in compensation for Curt Flood—but with Torre, Lou Brock, Julian Javier, Carl Taylor, Jose Cardenal and Richie Allen in the lineup, St. Louis should hit more effectively than in 1969. It could not do much worse; only the Expos and the Padres, the expansion teams, scored fewer runs. And in May, 20-year-old Ted Simmons, a switch-hitting catcher who produced 205 RBIs in his two full seasons in the minors, returns from the service. Defensively, the Cardinals are strongest at short and second with Dal Maxvill and Javier, and the pitchers had the best earned run average in the National League in 1969 (2.94). The three top starters—Bob Gibson, Steve Carlton and Nelson Briles—won 52 games. Mike Torrez (10-4) won his last nine games and Chuck Taylor, the fifth starter, was 7-5. For relief, the Cardinals are counting on Sal Campisi, who had a combined 36-8 record in the minor leagues the last three years; Taylor, who will work out of the bullpen, too; and George Culver, who can also spot-start. St. Louis looks like a team capable of finishing either first or fifth but not in between.
It was the end of the road that got Chicago's Cubs in serious trouble last year, and the cantankerous Leo Durocher is on a very hot seat. At one point in the middle of August the Cubbies were 9½ games ahead of the Mets, yet Chicago finished up eight games behind. Durocher contends that his team got tired, a valid but certainly not original conclusion, and that now he is planning to give his regulars a rest from time to time. His regulars are very good, but even with three of them—Ernie Banks, 39 this year, Ron Santo and Billy Williams—combining for 324 RBIs Chicago did not win, and the question remains: Can they repeat those outstanding years? John Callison, a good rightfielder picked up from Philadelphia, knocked in more than 100 runs for the Phillies back in 1964 and 1965, and he has always hit well in Wrigley Field. Center field is still a problem; seven men were tried there in spring training. Glenn Beckert (.291) and Don Kessinger (.273) are excellent at second and short, and the catching is in the strong hands of Randy Hundley. Bill Hands (20-14), Ferguson Jenkins (21-15) and Ken Holtzman (17-13) are impressive starters, but the Cubs need at least one more. Chicago's bullpen twins, Ted Abernathy and Phil Regan, who were so effective early in 1969, were part of the late collapse. If the Cubs can shuck off the gloom left over from their disaster, they could make another solid run for the pennant. They may do it. After all, the season will be six weeks old before they have to go to Shea Stadium to face the Mets.
A favorite dark horse is Pittsburgh, which finished third ahead of the Cards last year. The Pirate hitters continue to be excellent—they outhit even powerful Cincinnati, .2767 to .2765—and there is depth, too: the pinch hitters batted .317. On May 29 the Pirates leave ancient Forbes Field for new Three Rivers Stadium, and that should give Willie Stargell a chance to have a decent home-run year; Forbes Field is a difficult place for a left-handed hitter like Stargell. That Roberto Clemente is hepped up about this year's club is another very good sign. Roberto has won four batting championships and three of them came under Danny Murtaugh, who returns as manager. Clemente missed his fifth title last year by only three points (.345 to Pete Rose's .348), and the Pirates also have Matty Alou (.331), Rich Hebner, the rookie third baseman (.301), and Stargell (.307). However, the bullpen is questionable and, unhappily, so are the starting pitchers. The big men—Bob Veale, Bob Moose and Steve Blass—combined for only 43 wins, not enough for a club with designs on a pennant. Still, the Pirates improved late in the season, and a lot of people like them. Now it is a question of how much the Pirates, a confused team of late, really like themselves.
At the other end of Pennsylvania the fans are being asked to get ready for the era of the thoroughly modern Phillies. Philadelphia, too, is getting a new ball park, Veterans Stadium, which hopefully will be ready in July, though the modern ball park won't be the only new thing in Philadelphia. Rich Allen has departed, with his muttonchops and big bat, and Curt Flood, in a law court instead of center field, has not arrived. New uniforms will be worn by the players, and usherettes, called Fillies, will work the stands in white miniskirts and Orion turtleneck pullovers. And a new manager has been brought in. Frank Lucchesi, who was given a two-year contract with the Phils after 19 years in the minors, has made a sharp impression since his appointment to the post just before the end of the 1969 season. "I didn't ask for the job," Lucchesi says. "I had been in the Philadelphia organization for 14 years, and they knew where to reach me. Now there is this thing about my name. You've got your Earl Weavers and your Sparky Andersons and your John McNamaras, and guys can pronounce their names. Me, they know from nothin'. They call me 'Lou-cheesy' and 'Lou-chessy' and even 'Luck-a-see.' I've got to be the top nobody in the big leagues." The name is pronounced "Lou-casey," and if the attitude the new manager seemed to develop on his club this spring is sustained, the Phillies could be the most improved team in the division. Jim Bunning and Chris Short, both trying to make comebacks as effective starting pitchers, join Rick Wise (15-13), Woody Fryman (12-15) and Grant Jackson (14-18). There is a young double-play combination in Larry Bowa, 24, at shortstop and Denny Doyle, 26, at second. Don Money moves from short to third, and Deron Johnson will be the first baseman. Aggressive Tim McCarver is Philadelphia's new catcher, and Joe Hoerner, another ex-Cardinal, will help in the bullpen. In the scrambled outfield Larry Hisle, still only 22, might be ready to burst into stardom. It should be noted that the Phillie farm teams were among the best in baseball last year.
In Montreal, Rusty Staub is Le Grande Orange, and the Expos have done fine in their charming city despite all kinds of dire predictions about the weather. Montreal drew 1,212,608 fans in its first year, a figure that could improve, even though Jarry Park's capacity is only 28,456. As for Staub, he hit 29 homers—something he was never able to do in the Houston Astrodome—batted .302 and was walked 110 times. The Expos lost 110 games—including an interminable 20-game losing streak—but they should be a better team this year. The hitting is good at times, the fielding bad a lot of the time and the pitching totally questionable. But the Expos are the sort of team that can add a little spice to what shapes up as a lively divisional race.