It was not even the middle of June and the baseball schedule showed two-thirds of the season still to be played. But last weekend there were the Mets—and the Mets' owner Joan Payson and the Mets' fans, all of them—going at things just as if every inning might be the most important of their lives. Since the season began in a snowstorm at Shea Stadium back in April, New York has turned each outing into what the team's former manager, Wes Westrum, once called "cliff dwellers." Of their first 40 games, nine went into extra innings and the Mets lost only one. By Sunday they had been beaten in 22 other games, too, but in none of those losses were they hopelessly out of things. One more fielding gem by Bud Harrelson, a line drive hit by ever-improving Catcher Jerry Grote (see cover), a take-out slide by Tommie Agee and they might have been right back into one of those games they usually do win, cliff dwellers.
Usually is the word, because it would be no fun if you won them all, as last weekend's uproarious three-game series against the San Francisco Giants proved. In the first game of the series New York tied things up in the bottom of the ninth inning on a two-out, two-strike, opposite-field pinch-hit home run by former Giant Dave Marshall, but then lost the game in the 10th. Following a long rain delay the Mets lost the second game of the series, but then on Sunday, after three more rain delays, Ken Singleton produced a sacrifice fly that brought Harrelson in with the winning run through the mud and mist. It was another epic performance in the growing Met legend of 1971.
New York, of course, is not the only source of excitement in the National League East. From the beginning the Mets had been locked in a fight for first place with Willie Stargell and the pitcher-rich Pirates and those hitting wonders, the Cards of Lou Brock, Joe Torre and Matty Alou. If the pressure sometimes caused havoc in queasy stomachs, it was a boon to the box office in New York, if not in skeptical St. Louis or (for no discernible reason) in Pittsburgh. The Mets recorded extraordinarily high television ratings and the team's home attendance already is marching toward the million mark. A total of 153,414 packed Shea just for the three games against the Giants. Those who said the Mets would lose their glow once they had attained respectability either did not know the Mets' followers or did not know the Mets.
Bookmakers knew their expansion Mets. They used to make them two-run underdogs. Today they sometimes make them two-run favorites, but not consistently, and that is the way with the Mets. They are never quite believed. Their unpredictability, in fact, has a great deal to do with their ability to draw crowds. There are days when the Mets hit the ball long distances and there are other days when they never seem even to scuff it, but somehow they manage to get something going that keeps hope burning in the throats of the faithful. In other words, the Mets of 1971 do not in the least resemble the Yankees of the 1950s or early '60s. They are more like the Los Angeles Dodgers of 1965-66, a club that pecked and scratched its way to consecutive pennants while driving the opposition crazy. Every time it seemed certain the Dodgers had gone under for the third time they would surface and spit little arcs of water at the reports of their demise.
The Mets have something of the sort in mind for this season. No doubt their attitude will not go down well in Pittsburgh, but they have dedicated the year to proving that 1970 was just one long mistake. And for all their troubles with the Giants, the Mets are still off to their best start ever.
When he signed his contract last winter, Tug McGraw, the spirited left-handed relief pitcher, explained the difference a year could make. "We had a chance to go everywhere after we won in 1969," McGraw said. "In 1970 about the only place I was invited to was the George Gobel Open."
The new season was only nine games old when their followers got an inkling of what this year's Mets were about. The team had just come off an emotion-packed four-game series in which it split with the Pirates. Beginning a 12-game road trip in Cincinnati, the Mets carried a 2-1 lead into the bottom of the eighth inning behind a strong pitching performance by Ray Sadecki. Danny Frisella, the good relief man, was brought in to protect the lead. But Frisella gave up a homer to Johnny Bench with one on, and in the ninth New York failed to score after putting two men on base with none out.
"It is way too early in the season to talk about turning points," says Ken Boswell, the second baseman, "but that loss could have hurt us so badly that we never would have recovered."
Recover the Mets did, however, and in spectacular fashion. They won eight of their next 11 games and demolished the Cardinals. They won all four games at Busch Memorial Stadium and out-scored the Cards by 30-4. That bombardment can be significant. Although the Cardinals held on to first place for 15 days this year, they were hardly world beaters against their main competition, Pittsburgh and New York. In 13 meetings with the two, St. Louis has won only one game. The Cards could score only 30 runs while giving up 88.
The Mets move along. But if New York should win the Eastern title again, it most likely will be the pitching that is responsible rather than the hitting. The most any opposing team reasonably can expect if it gives up three runs to the Mets is a tie. These Mets have fewer big winners than the world championship team of 1969, but there is far greater depth to their staff. Tom Seaver still is the best pitcher, and the next three starters in the rotation—Jerry Koosman, Gary Gentry and Nolan Ryan—are excellent at times but not consistent. By the end of last week Koosman, suffering with arm problems, Gentry and Ryan had started 32 games and completed only five. Seaver had started 13 and finished seven. The team record, though, was 33-23, which speaks well for the men who follow the starters.
One reason for New York's pitching success is the pride, patience and persistence the team puts into the art. At each home game the Mets have a camera located behind home plate recording every pitch thrown. When a pitcher has finished his game he can review each pitch, his motion, his moves toward the bases, and he can make whatever adjustments are necessary for his next appearance. Hodges, Pitching Coach Rube Walker and several of the other players also look at the pitching films the next day and try to pick up whatever additional information they can. The equipment cost the Mets $18,000. The only other major league teams doing the same thing regularly are Kansas City, a surprising second in the American League West, St. Louis and Cincinnati.
"We have excellent pitching," says Jerry Grote, the 28-year-old catcher who handles it. "This spring there was no doubt that we were a more dedicated club than we were when we got to St. Petersburg the year before. When the pitchers and catchers arrived in camp we really went at things and there was a closeness that had to help us. We were thinking together about the job we had to do."
Grote does not mention his own part in the performance of the pitchers, but Gil Hodges will. "I hesitate to imagine where the New York Mets would have been the last few years without Jerry," Hodges says. "He is invaluable to us. He is intent and intense and he fights to get everything he can. He is durable and not afraid to play with injuries. Because of that he allows us to carry two catchers instead of three. When I came to the Mets I got a run-through on the players, and I did not like some of the things I heard about Jerry. He had a habit of getting into too many arguments with umpires and getting on some of the older players on the club."
Hodges called Grote into his office and told him what he did not like and what he would expect. "Jerry has improved 100%," Hodges says.
There are still times when Grote's temper will flare, but that is true of most good catchers. In a game early this year with Philadelphia, Phillie Catcher Tim McCarver and Grote began yelling at one another. "When the game was over," a mellowed Grote recalled last week, "some people asked me what was going on. It was just a case of two Dutch catchers hollering at each other."
Grote's throwing arm is one of the best in baseball. Probably it developed that way in San Antonio, where as a youngster he was a pitcher (as well as a cross-country runner). The Mets acquired Grote from the Houston Astros in 1965, a move Grote never regretted.
"One of the advantages of playing for New York," Grote says, "is that the big crowds at Shea Stadium help you tremendously. They make you want to give 115% all the time In other places it cannot be the same for the players. Like in Houston, nobody seems to applaud unless the hands on the scoreboard start to clap. Once those hands stop, so do all the others. Real enthusiasm."
"Jerry is an excellent catcher now," says Seaver. "In his earlier days his temper used to get away from him and he sometimes forgot that his primary job was to call a good game and become a catcher we could respect. In addition, he has reached that point where he gets the big hit when it's needed."
Grote's temper tantrums may have cooled, but there are other hot personalities on the team that may cause Hodges some sleepless nights before the season ends. The gifted Gentry has excellent potential, but if glove throwing ever becomes an Olympic sport he is a certain medal winner. And there is the-youngest Met, 20-year-old Infielder Tim Foli, who spent almost as much time in conversations last year with International League President George Sisler Jr. as he did in the batter's box. Called "Crazy Horse" by his teammates, Foli has the makings of one of the game's most colorful players.
In Hodges, according to Grote, New York has the perfect manager to handle a pitching staff. "Gil and Rube sit on the bench," says Grote, "and watch our pitchers closely. When Gil comes out to the mound he doesn't ask for an awful lot of advice from me. He knows what he has seen."
Although Koosman and Gentry have not been as effective as expected, Ryan, who is among the hardest throwers in the game, may at last be becoming the pitcher baseball people had predicted he would be His name was mentioned often in trade discussions, but New York decided to be patient and not to give up on him. "Nolie has been my roommate for three years," says Grote, "and he seemed to realize this spring that this was a critical season for him."
Even among Met players Ryan is a legend. In a recent game against San Diego he struck out 16 Padres—15 of them on swinging third strikes. When he was asked later why he had thrown so many fastballs and so few breaking pitches, Ryan said, "I had the real good fastball and I just wanted to air it out." Boswell, who comes from Austin, 170 miles from Ryan's home in Alvin, Texas, is a collector of Ryan stories. "I was at a party one night in Austin," Boswell recalls, "and this guy was there who had played against Nolie in high school. He had met Nolie's wife Ruth when they were going together before being married. This fellow took Ruth out, and the next time they played, Nolie hit him with a fastball on his first time at bat. The guy told his coach he was through for the day. He also said he wasn't ever going back to Alvin."
In 1970 the Mets tried to get through a good deal of the early going with Joe Foy as their third baseman, and it never worked out. This year, because Wayne Garrett was taken into the service for a six-month hitch that ends in July, New York picked up Bob Aspromonte from the Atlanta Braves. He has played exceptionally well, which has not surprised Boswell. "In 1962," Boswell says, "I went to see the Yankees in an exhibition game in Houston. When Mickey Mantle walked out on the field I thought he had a halo of gold around him. But I was rooting for Houston's Roman Mejias and old Red Neck Aspromonte."
There has been one other major change that makes the 1971 Mets different. In a trade that shocked few but Met fans, an unhappy Ron Swoboda was sent to Montreal for someone named Don Hahn. On the surface the Expos seemed to have stolen Swoboda. In 149 times at bat Hahn had never hit anything longer than a double. However, General Manager Bob Scheffing and Hodges knew that they had to have a backup centerfielder who could catch fly balls just in case something happened to Agee, whose bad knee had been hurting again. Something did happen, and last Friday Agee was put on the 15-day disabled list. But by then Hahn had done so much more than was expected of him that he was being ranked among the best centerfielders extant and was batting .282. Swoboda, meanwhile, was learning French, and had driven in only five runs as an Expo.
Teams built on pitching, defense and speed, as the Dodgers have shown, alternately drive their partisans to great joy and deep depression, but also to the ticket windows. Ron Fairly, speaking of the 1965-66 Los Angeles teams, once said, "We were like a child's rubber raft. Every time you pushed it down in one place, it bobbed up in another." Which is the way the Mets think things will be this year. If you don't believe them, don't go near the water. You might get wet.