On the night of June 21, Met Board Chairman M. Donald Grant made his first Shea Stadium appearance since his celebrated Midnight Massacre, which six days earlier had resulted in St. Thomas Seaver being sent to Cincinnati. Behind the chairman's box some kids unfurled a banner that read GRANT'S TOMB. Around him people yelled loud reminders of how Seaver had pitched a shutout in his Reds' debut, of how deeply imbedded the Mets were in the cellar and of how Grant was New York City's biggest tightwad since Gerald Ford's "Drop Dead" days.
It was then that the Lord, obviously a Mets sympathizer since he first saw Choo Choo Coleman catch, gave Grant and his team what they most needed—a miracle. In the 11th inning one of the unknowns Grant had acquired for Seaver—24-year-old Steve Henderson—hit his first major league homer for a 5-2 Met victory. Eight weeks later the young left-fielder, who a year ago was playing Double A ball in Trois Rivi√®res, Quebec, has become the Apple's newest celebrity and is known in the headlines and at P. J. Clarke's as Stevie Wonder. With Henderson leading the way, the Mets have been transformed from a dismal team, which Manager Joe Torre admits "had passed the point of having any future," to one that in recent weeks has made a practice of scrambling from behind to win. At the end of last week New York had won eight of its most recent 12 games. In four of those victories the Mets trailed one or more times.
In the wake of all this, papers have run charts on the comparative accomplishments of Stevie Wonder and Tom Terrific, the Daily News has received letters from numerous fans who claim to have been the only ones on their blocks who were for the deal and, most incredible, from the day of the trade, June 15, through last weekend, the Mets' record (20-27) has been almost as good as Cincinnati's (23-27).
During that 47-game stretch Henderson hit .295, slugged .526, knocked in 22 runs in one 15-game span and is now third on the team in RBIs with 32 and game-winning hits with four. Six of his seven homers have either tied a game or put New York ahead; three of them were game-winners and two others tied games that were won in extra innings. One of his game-breakers came off Bruce Sutter, the Cubs' ace reliever; on another occasion he won a game with a homer off the Pirates' big stopper, Rich Gossage. "That pitch by Gossage should have been unhittable," Torre says. "One guy [Montreal's Joe Kerrigan] knocked Steve down, but he got up and hammered the next pitch out to tie a game. We went on to win that one and break a nine-game losing streak. Against the Dodgers and Don Sutton, Steve tripled in the first inning, then homered to bring us even at 6-6. We won 8-7 in extra innings. I'm not sure I believe him myself."
Henderson admits that he was wary of coming to New York. "I was just one of four players from the Reds," he says, "but I heard people say, 'He's the guy they got for Tom Seaver.' It could have been really tough, but I was lucky. I got off to a good start." He got help from Torre, who worked Henderson into the lineup slowly, at first using him only against pitchers who were least likely to embarrass him. As soon as Henderson showed up in the New York clubhouse, Pitcher Jerry Koosman promised him that every time he got two hits, Kooz would serve him his postgame meal in the locker room. "It was kind of a gimmick to keep him thinking that baseball's a game, not solely a business," says Koosman. "Steve has exceptional talent, but he was also walking into a very difficult situation."
With Henderson an instant success and Seaver 4-2 in nine starts for Cincinnati, Torre's main difficulty now is fitting batting practice around Henderson's interviews. "This team was crying for this kind of young player," says Torre. "He can run [44 stolen bases last season]. He's big [6'1", 185 pounds]. And strong? On that homer off Gossage, he fought off a pitch in on his fists and drove it over the right center-field fence. He's got 25-homer power. He has such quick strong hands that he's one of the few guys who can start and stop his swing. And best of all is his attitude. People compare him to Willie Mays, not because he's as good as Willie, but because of his enthusiasm."
Torre points to Henderson's willingness to work on his shortcomings. He is still an unsure outfielder with a below average arm. "When he messed up a fly ball the other night, he immediately said, 'I screwed up,' and listened," says Torre. "He's going to the instructional league in the fall to work on his defense and his throwing, and I'll guarantee you that he'll develop into a more than adequate outfielder."
Fans see a different aspect of Henderson's enthusiasm. He is always on the move—bouncing toward home plate from the on-deck circle, sprinting full tilt on every batted ball, scurrying to back up every throw to third base. The Reds' farm director, Chief Bender, once compared him to Pete Rose. "I guess it's because I enjoy playing so much," says Henderson. "I wouldn't be here if I didn't."
Stevie Wonder grew up in non-baseball country—Houston's impoverished Third Ward. "There wasn't any organized ball there," he says. "The sports were football and basketball. I was about the only kid around who liked baseball, so I played wherever I could catch a game—with a boys club and on a sand-lot team with my father. I didn't get drafted when I came out of high school and was fortunate to get an athletic scholarship to Prairie View. But, heck, it's not a school known for baseball. I think the only reason Cincinnati looked at me was that I was the second best college hitter in 1973 with a .488 average."
The Reds have a way of finding players who can run, hit and play like the original Red Stockings, and once he was drafted in 1974, Henderson quickly showed he fit that mold. He hit .312 last summer and .353 in the instructional league last fall and was batting .376 for Cincinnati's Triple A farm in Indianapolis shortly before he left for New York. "With the Reds' outfield, I had figured that it would be at least two more seasons before I'd be in the majors," says Henderson. "But I wasn't discouraged. I've never been down playing baseball. I like it too much.
"Still, I can hardly believe I'm here, and I realize I'm lucky to be in New York, not Indianapolis. This whole thing's a dream come true."
And it has ended a nightmare for Grant. Even though they are still in last place, Stevie Wonder and his band have gotten New York fans off the Met chairman's case. In fact, with Doug Flynn starting at shortstop, Pat Zachry taking a regular turn in the rotation and the other unknown in the deal, Outfielder Dan Norman, showing some promise in Triple A, Met officials have even begun to claim that they did not really mean it when they said in June they did not want to trade Seaver. Last week New York announcer Lindsey Nelson even called the Reds "hapless." General Manager Joe McDonald said, "There's no way I'd now trade Henderson for Seaver." And, at least for the instant, neither would anyone else.