Oh, that New York, New York hyperbole. Ever since the Mets picked up George Foster in February, they've been claiming to be a contender. A dismal spring training did little to stem the enthusiasm, and even habitual cynics have been swept up in the hype. Over the past six seasons in Cincinnati, Foster homered more often than anyone but Mike Schmidt (198 to 221) and drove in more runs (671) than anyone. He'll team with First Baseman Dave Kingman and Rightfielder Ellis Valentine to create the Mets' first genuine Murderers' Row.
Starters Pat Zachry, former league ERA champ Craig Swan and onetime Cy Young Award winner Randy Jones are a healthy threesome for the first time as Mets. The arrival of an excellent coaching staff and a can-do manager, George Bamberger, further heightens expectations. "If you have goals, you're at 80 percent efficiency," says Foster. "If you don't, you're at 20 percent."
Unfortunately, Murderers' Row will shoot blanks at times. Valentine overswung trying to prove himself last year and hit .208, Kingman has had one outstanding season in 11 and even Foster has critics. They maintain that George plays merely for himself and that only an all-around performer can lift a weak team. "When you talk about the past, 90 percent of the time you're talking negatively," says Foster, who obviously believes in the percentages. "When you're talking about the future, 90 percent of the time you're talking positively." Sorry, George, but the pitching staffs past could be prologue. Swan is throwing without pain for the first time in 20 months, but he developed so many bad habits that Pitching Coach Bill Monbouquette had to "break him down"—i.e., reteach him fundamentals in Florida.
Jones had a major adjustment of his own to make. By throwing too hard last year, the sinkerballer got his pitches up and had the first unfavorable strikeout-walk ratio in his career. Zachry has a history of getting hurt after pitching well in April, starter Mike Scott is just another challenger and Pete Falcone must pick up a slider to be effective. No wonder General Manager Frank Cashen spent the spring seeking pitching. His failure shifts the focus to Bamberger's teaching ability—spitters?—and to Catcher John Stearns. Although he's an engaging fellow with all the tools, Stearns's football-bred intensity has prevented him from stroking pitchers' egos. "I'm working on sidling up to them," he says. Yet another problem: Having traded Shortstop Frank Taveras and Second Baseman Doug Flynn, the Mets are left with fallible infielders Tom Veryzer and Wally Backman (good hitters who lack range), Ron Gardenhire (good fielder, unproved hitter) and Bob Bailor (most valuable coming off the bench).
Nonetheless, the Mets should finish higher than fifth for the first full season since 1976. Neil Allen is a fine relief pitcher, Centerfielder Mookie Wilson and Third Baseman Hubie Brooks became fixtures as freshmen, and Joel Youngblood (.350 last season) and Rusty Staub (.317) come off the bench.
In their 20-year history the Mets' batting average has never equaled the overall league average. Their 1969 and '73 pennant winners hit eight points below the average. The Mets' average team has hit 13 points below the league standard; by comparison only Toronto and Minnesota in the AL and the Cubs in the NL hit as many as 13 points below their respective league averages in 1981.