When Tug McGraw coined the Mets' rallying cry "You gotta believe" in 1973, he was only 11 years late. Met fans have always believed, from the first day Casey Stengel sent the team onto the Polo Grounds turf in 1962. Never again will they be the Miracle Mets, perhaps, but the franchise still specializes in stretching the limits of believability.
For instance, there they were at the end of last week, 11-3, off to their best start ever. They were the winners of nine straight, including a four-game sweep of the defending National League-champion St. Louis Cardinals, and led the NL East by 4½ games. And if that wasn't enough for New York's baseball fans, the Yankees were 12-6 and on top in the American League East. It was the first time since May 8, 1976 that two New York teams had led their divisions this far into a season. With the New York Rangers' victory over Washington in the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Big Apple had a particularly nice sheen to it last week.
The Mets owed much of their success to the bat of Ray Knight. Ray Knight? The 33-year-old third baseman's bat had been nearly silent for two years. "He was once one of the toughest outs in the league," says Mets first baseman Keith Hernandez. "Last year he was awful." In 1985, Knight batted .218 with six home runs in 90 games. As a result, the Mets tried hard to trade him this spring, apparently finding no takers. Good thing.
Has life improved for Knight? You gotta believe it has, even though he and his wife, golfer Nancy Lopez, had their Manhasset, Long Island house professionally cleaned last week. While Nancy was at Shea watching the Mets beat the Pirates, burglars made off with her best gold jewelry, pearls and diamonds.
Last week Knight was hotter than his wife's jewelry. The night before the burglary, he hit two homers in a 6-5 win over Pittsburgh. The next night he hit a solo shot against the Pirates in a 7-1 victory. On Friday in St. Louis he homered twice and drove in four runs in a 9-0 win. At week's end, he was batting .317 with 12 RBIs and a .780 slugging percentage, and led the league with six homers.
Knight wasn't the only Met causing opponents to Get Mets-merized, as their soon-to-be-released rap video suggests. Catcher Gary Carter was batting .309, with a team-leading 17 hits, 13 runs and 16 RBIs, including four game-winners. And when the Mets opened up in St: Louis Thursday, the other third baseman was the star. Third base has been the Mets' own Bermuda Triangle—79 men have played the position in 25 years. Howard Johnson, the 78th, hasn't turned out to be the franchise player his name might suggest, and he began the season platooning with Knight. Thursday, filling in at shortstop, he hit a two-run homer in the ninth to tie the game at 4-4, allowing George Foster, who had made what could have been a game-losing error in the ninth, to win the game 5-4 with a 10th-inning single.
The Mets' pitching, of course, has been superb. Dwight Gooden was off to a business-as-usual 3-0 start—he's now 35-5 in his last 40 decisions—with a 1.29 ERA. Friday night he held the Cardinals to five singles and offered them an extended audience with Lord Charles (the nickname for Gooden's curveball—ordinary pitchers throw an Uncle Charlie). As Gooden raps in Get Mets-merized:
Dwight's my name
What can I say?
You know they call me Doctor K.
Slider and curve.
Step up to the plate
If ya' got the nerve.
Gooden may be Chief of Staff, but in southpaw Sid Fernandez, the Mets have another guy who can operate. On Saturday, in 90° heat, Fernandez kept his cool for eight innings. Working with a 4-1 cushion, he sailed along with a one-hitter, striking out 10, before Willie McGee opened the ninth with a single. Roger McDowell came on to replace Fernandez, and the Cards quickly rallied for two runs. Jesse Orosco, unscored upon in six outings, quelled the uprising with one pitch: With one out and two runners on, second baseman Wally Backman made a diving backhand stab of a Terry Pendleton grounder and started a double play.
Last year, Fernandez, 9-9 and overshadowed by Gooden, allowed 5.71 hits per nine innings (which is the seventh-best mark ever) and struck out 9.51 hitters per nine innings, leading the majors in both categories. This year he has struck out 20 and yielded six hits in 20‚Öì innings.
On Sunday, Bob Ojeda, acquired from Boston during the off-season, ran his record to 3-0 with a solid 5-3 win over the Cards. Ojeda gives the Mets a second lefthanded starter, but since his best pitch is a changeup, he's in the nonsmoking section of the staff. "He's a nice wrinkle to have," says manager Dave Johnson. "His changeup was giving some of those fastball hitters fits."
The New York double play combination Sunday was also quite a change. At second base was Tim Teufel, acquired from Minnesota in the off-season, and making his first major league start at shortstop was rookie Kevin (World) Mitchell. Teufel's two-run homer off John Tudor in the fifth not only proved to be decisive, but also helped to hand Tudor his first loss in Busch Stadium in more than a year—since April 22, 1985, to be exact.
Mitchell, who played third base at Triple A Tidewater last year, was in the lineup in place of the light-hitting Rafael Santana. Before the game, Mitchell chatted with the Cards' Ozzie Smith, a former resident of Mitchell's hometown, San Diego. "I didn't know you played short," said Smith. "I didn't, either," said Mitchell. Mitchell and Smith used to hit the discos together in San Diego, and on Sunday Mitchell cut the Busch Stadium rug quite nicely. In fact, he outplayed Smith, handling eight chances flawlessly and hitting his first major league homer. Smith's errant throw on a routine double-play ball in the fourth cost the Cards two runs.
Knight, meanwhile, went 0 for 8 on Saturday and Sunday, which is O.K. because if some people in the organization had had their way in spring training, he would have been 0 for the year. But manager Johnson insisted on keeping him. The manager likes scrappers, players like Knight who bust their butts. "Grinders," Johnson calls them. "You have to know Ray as an individual," says Johnson. "He's an intense competitor. Very proud. A hard worker."
Johnson also remembered that Knight had been in tough spots before. He had to replace Pete Rose at third in Cincinnati, and became an Ail-Star. He was traded to Houston for fan favorite Cesar Cedero, and hit .294 and .304 in his two full years there. In 1984 Knight went into a tailspin because of kidney stones and vertigo. He was traded in August to the Mets, but that didn't improve his health. Following the season, he had surgery on his rotator cuff and then opened the 1985 campaign by having three bone chips removed from his elbow. "I started pressing," Knight says. "I became a different ballplayer. I lost confidence. I wasn't tough mentally."
This spring Knight was still pressing, and he was a flop at the plate. Hitting coach Bill Robinson told him, "If you don't shape up or do things differently, you're going to lose your job," and suggested that Knight take a more natural stance. Knight tried it and lined a pinch-hit single that day. The next day he hit a home run into the wind.
Knight also began keeping a journal of his thoughts, and before the Mets' opener, he wrote, "Everything from here on will be positive. Relax. Enjoy this season." After he had three hits in his first appearance of the season, he jotted down, "Baseball is finally fun again. Yea."
After his two home runs Friday, Knight said, "I finally feel like I'm part of this ball club. For two years, I didn't. Everyone said I was washed up, but I knew I wasn't washed up."
Of course not. He believed, and now he and the Mets are making believers out of a lot of people.