The lights shine brighter this year at Shea Stadium, where the New York Mets play. Really. At the end of last season, the illumination at home plate measured just 94 footcandles. Only Wrigley Field had worse candlepower. Over the winter, a new $1 million lighting system was installed, so that now home plate is bathed in about 240 footcandles.
The team in Shea has been just as radiant, thanks to Bambi and Thumper, Mookie/Hubie Brooks/Wilson (please match), infielders such as Wally (The Magic Is) Backman and pitchers that have shown much more polish, if not spit. At week's end the Mets were just 3½ games out of first in the National League East.
The Mets are off to their best start since 1972, and until the Houston Astros took two of three from them last weekend, they had won five straight series. By winning 12 of 18 games from May 10 through last Sunday, the Mets took over second place. And their biggest victory last week didn't even count. That came in Yankee Stadium, of all places, in the first Mayor's Trophy Game in three years. The last one drew 13,719 fans, but Thursday's attracted 41,614, most of whom chanted "Let's go, Mets," as the Metropolitans won 4-1.
"The game may not have meant anything," said Mets Catcher John Stearns, who was batting .318 through Sunday, "but it was the most meaningful game I've ever played in. We've been the second dog in this town too long."
Actually, the Mets have the better dog because their wieners cost 37% more wholesale than the Yankees' wieners, even though they sell for only 11% more. This frank revelation comes from a Mets official who wishes to remain anonymous lest he anger the Yankees.
The New York-New York rivalry has been dormant the last few years, but all indications are that equality is coming. Attendance is up significantly in Flushing—an average of 5,983 a game through Sunday—and down slightly in the Bronx. The Mets' TV ratings are also up.
After last season New York traded for George Foster to reunite him with his old teammate from the Tri-Park Little League all-star team in Lawndale, Calif., Dave Kingman. In the past two years, the Mets have broken four rookies into the starting lineup. In fact, the only starters who remain from the days before Nelson Doubleday bought the club in 1980 are Joel Youngblood, who platoons in right, and Stearns, who was nearly traded before last season to the Angels.
General Manager Frank Cashen's best move was to hire George Bamberger as manager. Bamberger had to relinquish the helm at Milwaukee in 1980 because of a heart condition, but after bypass surgery he was able to return to managing. He has long had a reputation as a masterful pitching coach, who preaches strikes above all. "Throw the ball over the plate as many times as you can," he advises. "Location is the most overrated thing in baseball. Start trying to put the ball low and outside, and the next thing you know, the guy's walking to first base." He hates walks. He was alarmed that the Met pitchers walked 110 men in the first 28 games, and told them so. In the 19 games after his lecture, they walked just 41, and the team went 13-6.
Bambi—few men ever looked less like a deer—also has a reputation as a teacher of ball-doctoring. The spitter is sometimes called the Staten Island sinker in his honor. "I don't mind if the other teams think we're doing it," he says. "I've been accused a few times this year," says Randy Jones, off to a 6-3 start after going 1-8 in '81.
Jones isn't Bamberger's only reclamation project. Craig Swan was moved to the bullpen and has been very effective. Last week he went six innings against the Braves, giving up only two hits as the Mets came from behind to win 6-4 on Backman's three-run homer. Bamberger puts his pitchers in the bullpen not to punish them, but to let them work out their problems. He believes in a four-man rotation, and since installing one 22 games into the season, the Mets are 16-9. It also helps the pitchers that Neil Allen is there to save them—which he's done 13 times this year.
One of the hoariest clichés in baseball is the one about having to use all 25 men. But Bamberger really does. "Everybody checks the lineup card every day," says Bob Bailor, who has been used at second, short, third and in the outfield and was even asked one night in extra innings if he could catch.
Another reason for the Mets' success is the longball, which is where Thumper comes in. Kingman has 14 home runs, to share the lead for both leagues, and 38 RBIs. Kong can be spectacular even in failure, as he proved last Friday night in an 8-3 loss to the Astros in which he spelled Kingman with five K's, tying a major league record.
The most remarkable thing about the Mets' surge is that they've done it without Foster, although, as Bailor points out, "Just having him in the lineup made us confident." Last Sunday at Shea Foster put one out in left center as the Mets beat the Astros 9-5.
At the end of the week the Mets' ballyhooed trio of Foster, Kingman and Ellis Valentine was batting .235, but second basemen Backman and Bailor and Shortstop Tom Veryzer were hitting .336 together. Bailor and Veryzer also spell Ron Gardenhire at short, and Bamberger has been juggling them well all year. Back-man's fast start—he was batting .317 through Sunday—is particularly gratifying because at this time last year he was popping off at the Mets management for sending him down to Tidewater.
Perhaps the most valuable Met has been Mookie Wilson, the centerfielder and leadoff man. He's batting .306 with 19 stolen bases and 22 RBIs, and he has been on base in 43 of 45 games this year. Wilson hails from Bamberg, S.C., which, of course, makes him a Bamberger. He had a good rookie year in '81, hitting .271, and before spring training he got some tips from Harry (The Hat) Walker in Birmingham, Ala. The results speak for themselves.
Mookie is always being mixed up with Third Baseman Hubie Brooks. "It makes me laugh," says Wilson. "People come up to me and say, 'Hey, Mookie, great play at third.' " One night on Kiner's Korner, Ralph Kiner's postgame TV interview show, the host kept calling Hubie "Mookie." "I kind of like it," says Hubie, "because when Hubie gets in trouble, Mookie can get blamed for it. And since Mookie never gets in trouble, Hubie never has anything to worry about."
Bamberger has a knack for knowing when to play certain men, explaining, "I have my statistics to go by—I know how each hitter hits against each pitcher—but I also have my hunches. I'll be driving to the ball park and suddenly think that this guy should be in the lineup tonight."
Bamberger has another hunch. "I think this will be an excellent team," he says, "and that by 1984, two million people will be coming through these gates, maybe more." As we said, the outlook at Shea couldn't be brighter.