September?" said Tom Seaver, tucking another chaw of tobacco into his cheek. "September is tabismunferbabal," he said, turning to spit a mouthful of juice into a waste can. "Excuse me. September is the best month for baseball. If..." he paused to gaze pensively at his fellow New York Mets limbering up in the clubhouse. "If there is..." he began again, only to be drowned out by the rhythmic chants of his teammates doing jumping jacks. "If there's a pennant race!" Seaver shouted above the din.
We hear you, Tom, we hear you. Trouble was, no one seemed to be getting the message last week. It kept getting garbled or interrupted or something. September? A pennant race? Well, let's see. As of Monday morning Sept. 1, the Boston Red Sox were leading the Baltimore Orioles by six games in the American League East. Nothing too nip-and-tuck there. In the AL West there were the Oakland A's again, fooling around with a 7½-game lead over the Kansas City Royals while waiting to pick up their World Series checks. As for the National League West, forget it; 18½ games in front of the hapless Los Angeles Dodgers, the Cincinnati Reds could be charged with leaving the scene of an accident.
That left only the NL East, the volatile NL East where the Pittsburgh Pirates have been performing erratically enough this season to give their four-game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals and the Philadelphia Phillies an aura of the precarious. Toss in the unpredictable Mets, just five games off the pace, and with a little imagination one could see the makings of a good old-fashioned brawl.
In fact, if any team seemed capable of proving that September is the best month for baseball it would have to be the Mets, if only because they have won the pennant twice before in miraculous fashion. "We didn't say quit when we were behind in '69 and '73," said Bud Harrelson, returning to the Met lineup last week after being out three months with an injured knee. "Those are living examples of what can happen, and we lived through them."
If lightning were to strike thrice, it would have to be sparked by a team that is substantially different from the lovable Amazins who seemed to come toddling right out of the incubator to win the 1969 World Series. Indeed, after a winter of heavy trading, the 1975 Mets could not even be mistaken for the brash upstarts who pestered the A's all the way through the seventh game of the 1973 Series.
Center field, for example, is now the province of Del Unser, a reliable hand who just may be, with the possible exception of Tommie Agee, the best of the 42 other aspirants who have tried and faltered at that position for the Mets.
And there is no overlooking 6' 6" Dave Kingman, that prodigious hitter who is the first genuine long-ball threat the Mets have had in more than a decade. "I find it hard to believe the opportunities that abound in New York," says Sky King, slightly overcome by the free-swinging bliss of it all after being unhappily shackled to the San Francisco Giants for four years. "I feel needed here."
There have been pleasant surprises, too. Ed Kranepool, who joined the original Met team as an 18-year-old wonder in 1962, is having his best half-season—he hits almost solely against right-handers—with an average that has placed him among the league leaders.
And what contender could not use a spanking new prodigy to brighten up its pennant hopes? The Mets are certain they have one in 23-year-old Mike Vail, who was brought up in mid-August when Kingman sprained a toe. Thrown into the breach in left field, Vail responded by hitting .370 the first two weeks and has yet to cool off. Vail, who was leading the International League with a .342 average when summoned, says the majors have been an eye-opening experience. "I can see!" he exclaims, sounding like a Billy Sunday convert. "They told me it was a lot easier to hit in the majors because of the great lighting. But I never dreamed you could see this well. You can see the spin on the curveball and everything."
Met fans are not sure what they are seeing these days. The new faces, the home runs, the altogether serious mien of these older guys calling themselves the Mets—it is all a bit disorienting for the faithful who doted on those improbable babes of summers past. Why, this team does not even have a rallying cry. Reliever Tug McGraw took the best one—"Ya gotta believe!"—the one that won over an entire city in 1973, with him to Philadelphia this year.
"There's really not that much you can yell and scream about," says Rusty Staub, who can afford to sound grown up now that he is fourth in the league with 93 runs batted in. "Tug was good print but one or two guys yelling is not what the Mets are all about. We are professionals." "It's true," says Seaver, sounding very much like the 30-year-old, nine-year veteran that he is. "Tug had a certain kind of boyish enthusiasm, but that same approach when you lost was irritating. Back in '69 we had the talent without the experience. Now we have both and there is no clowning around, just more of an overall professional effort."
Somehow an executive in spikes is not quite as endearing an image as the toddler with an oversized bat that is still used to depict the Mets by cartoonists. "Nobody laughs much about the Mets now," says The New York Times' Dave Anderson. "As a teenager, the franchise is sophisticated, spoiled and smug, the way some rich kids are." That is a bit strong, but there is no denying that Met attendance has dwindled from a high of 2.7 million in the heady aftermath of 1969 to a projected 1.8 million this season.
That was perhaps as inevitable as last month's dismissal of Manager Yogi Berra. While he lasted, Yogi was always good for a snappy quote or two, like his deathless, "You're never out of it until you're out of it."
But one-liners are no longer the style. Reflecting the new tight-lipped approach, rookie General Manager Joe McDonald appointed Met Coach Roy McMillan as the rookie interim manager, explaining that "I prefer the strong, silent type, a man who creates respect." McMillan, a sober-sided Texan and former shortstop for the Reds as well as the Mets, "doesn't say much," says 34-year-old Third Baseman Joe Torre, late of the Cardinals, "but he knows baseball. There's more going on in his mind than comes out."
What came out last week was the straight if obvious truth: "How well we do in September depends on how well the big three does." Indeed, wizened teen-agers or not, the Mets still retain what has always been their single most distinguishing trait, overpowering good pitching. That is why McMillan shuffled the rotation so that he would lead off the crucial first week, which pitted the Mets against the Pirates and the Cardinals in a pair of three-game series, with his three premier starters—Seaver, Jerry Koosman and Jon Matlack—hurling two games apiece.
Going into September the trio seemed more indomitable than ever. Seaver was working on a five-game winning streak and was, according to McMillan, "throwing better than he ever has." Matlack, 16-11, had not lost a game in six weeks. And Koosman, 11-11, held the promise that he would repeat as the best stretch pitcher the Mets have had in their pennant years. In 1969, when the Mets began their dramatic drive in mid-August, Koosman was 9-8 and then went 8-1 the rest of the way. In 1973, when the Mets leaped from last place to first in September, Koosman was 8-14 at the start and 6-1 the rest of the way. A cool-weather pitcher, Koosman allowed that all he had to do was "get the adrenaline flowing right away."
The week began auspiciously for the Mets. Mike Vail celebrated his first time at bat in Shea Stadium by hitting a home run off the Pirates' John Candelaria in the first inning. As Vail toured the bases, Koosman turned to Seaver in the dugout and said, "Well, there's your run."
Although the Mets added two more, Seaver needed none but the first as he held the Pirates to four hits to win 3-0 and become the league's first 20-game winner. Along the way he established another first—the special kind "that you step out of the game for a minute and let yourself appreciate." It came in the seventh inning when Seaver blew three fast-balls by Manny Sanguillen and then walked off the mound to the standing ovation of a crowd of 45,991.
The scoreboard said it all: TOM SEAVER NOW HAS 200 STRIKEOUTS FOR THE SEASON AND HE'S NOW FIRST PITCHER IN BASEBALL HISTORY TO FAN 200 OR MORE EIGHT STRAIGHT YEARS.
Well, almost all. Reflecting on the record that had stood since the heydays of Rube Waddell and Walter Johnson, the man they call the Franchise allowed that "considering everything, this might be my biggest day—the 20th game, the 200 strikeouts and shutting out the Pirates in a pennant race." Then, hoisting a champagne toast with Catcher Jerry Grote, Seaver said, "To Cincinnati in October."
Those bright hopes evaporated as fast as the bubbly. The next night Koosman's adrenaline was flowing but so was the Pirates' as they routed the Met lefthander after 3‚Öî innings to win 8-4. "Honest, I swear to God," an exasperated Koosman said, "I went out there for the second time in my career with great stuff and got ripped. The first time was in 1968 against the Reds."
Pittsburgh's Bill Robinson, a recent emigré from the Phillies who hit a long home run off Koosman, reiterated the Pirate philosophy: "On this club," he said, "you just go up there and swing as hard as you want as often as you want. Just go up and screw that helmet on and swing from the behind."
Swing he did, connecting for a home run off Matlack the next night to lead Pittsburgh to a 3-1 victory. "When I came up in the seventh I told Jim Rooker I was going to boogie," said Robinson. "That means I knew I was going to hit that homer." The only thing Matlack knew was that the loss dropped the Mets six games behind the Pirates. "How black is black?" he said.
But then came St. Louis and there went Seaver again, pitching with three days' rest, striking out seven to pick up his 21st win with a big assist from Bob Apodaca, who relieved in the seventh to preserve a 5-2 Met victory. Poling his second homer in three games, Kingman became the first Met to hit 30 homers in a season since Frank Thomas did it for the original 1962 team.
Vail also hit his second home run of the week, a two-run drive that boosted his average to .379 and marked the 12th straight game in which he had hit safely. For Vail the homer was also a retaliatory back-of-the-hand for the five years he languished in the Cardinal farm system. "That homer was really gratifying," he said. "A special feeling. When I was in the Cardinal system, I hit well but they still wouldn't even invite me to spring training. It was disheartening. I never got the chance I knew I should have gotten."
Koosman got his chance with the Cardinals and he wished he hadn't. In a disastrous first inning that was marred by walks, a wild pitch and errors—one of the most costly committed by Vail, who seems as alien to left field as he is at home at the plate—the Cardinals scored four runs and went on to win 6-3. On Sunday, Matlack, exploring deeper shades of black, was routed by the Cards 12-4.
And so on the last day of the first week of the best month in baseball, Pittsburgh was still firmly in command, with St. Louis trailing by 5½ games, Philadelphia by 7 and New York by 7½. With only 21 games remaining the Mets as well as the other contenders would have to get cracking or this would be one of those rare Septembers without a pennant race. Or as Yogi might say, you can't be out of it until you're in it.