A Four-Letter Word For Shoo-In?

Try M-E-T-S. Their lead in the NL East widened to nine games as rivals sought a way to solve them
June 15, 1986

The New York Mets started the week with the best record in baseball, 31-13, and a six-game lead over the Montreal Expos in the National League East. They were off to the best start in the history of the franchise. Everybody in New York City, in fact everybody in baseball, expects them to win their division. The only trouble is, two-thirds of the season remains to be played. What follows is a day by day account of a week in the life of a ball club that could probably print its playoff tickets before the start of summer.

MONDAY, JUNE 2

George Foster flutters around the webbing of the batting cage in Shea Stadium like a hummingbird, hovering there for a moment in the soft afternoon sunlight, listening. The Mets' pitchers have been taking their cuts in a batting practice game overseen by pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre, who is throwing from behind a protective screen on the mound. The game has only two rules that seem to matter, and these are elucidated by reliever Randy Niemann. "If you hit one out of the park," explains Niemann, "you get to take an extra swing. If you hit Mel, you get as many swings as you want."

Foster has been at the cage for only a few seconds when he whispers something to one of the starting pitchers, then goes shimmering away again with a laugh. Rarely alighting in one place for very long, Foster is what Mets first baseman Keith Hernandez describes as a "s—— disturber," stirring things up and then disappearing. Since he came to the Mets from Cincinnati five seasons ago, walking softly and carrying his big black bat, Foster has frequently stirred up the crowds at Shea, usually by dissolving in the clutch or jogging after fly balls in left. "He's never really done the things people expected him to do here, so the fans have been on him," says outfielder and occasional replacement Danny Heep. "But nobody on the team has any quarrel with George. You can't dislike a guy just because he's not producing." For his part, Foster says, "It's hard to be a leader if nobody's following you."

Tonight all the Mets follow Foster as he crushes two home runs to lead New York to an 11-2 victory over the San Diego Padres. With Dwight Gooden pitching an ordinary four-hitter, the 11 runs seem like wretched excess.

It is the 22nd multiple home run game of Foster's career—but only his third since joining the Mets in 1982—and the crowd responds by giving him two rousing curtain calls, a standing ovation the next time he comes to bat and finally a sort of squatting ovation when he grounds out weakly to short. After not hitting a home run through May 6, suddenly nine of Foster's last 12 hits have gone out of the park.

Though he is 37 and in the final year of his contract with the Mets, Foster has indicated he wants to play another six seasons. This season will almost surely be his last in New York. "People in New York never got to know me, and they didn't want to get to know me," Foster says. "They just looked at the dollar signs and said, 'He's not really trying.' "

TUESDAY, JUNE 3

The Mets are a team of many small compulsions, one or two grand obsessions and a lot of bad habits. Third baseman Ray Knight, who has been hitting rockets all over the ballpark this year after batting .218 last season, is obsessed with his own comeback. Rookie Kevin Mitchell is so crazy about cars that he recently spent $2,000 for a custom paint job, and he wears a Mercedes-Benz hood ornament on a chain around his neck. Catcher Gary Carter is obsessed with, uh, well, himself actually. Carter's careful cultivation of his own image has made him one of the most popular players in the game, except among other players, many of whom can't abide him. "As an opponent, I hated him," says hitting coach Bill Robinson. "He's a real rah-rah, but he plays his ass off."

Hernandez is the opposite of rah-rah, brooding quietly over a cigarette, poring over a crossword puzzle or devouring a book about the Civil War, smoking, crosswords and reading being three of his compulsions. When you go into the Mets' clubhouse following this night's 5-4 loss to the Padres, the first thing you see is second baseman Wally Backman, shortstop Rafael Santana and Hernandez all with smokes dangling from their lips. Perhaps this is how Tinker to Evers to Chance got started—three guys on a match. In the Mets' case, the double play goes Winston to Marlboro to Winston or 4-6-3 if you're scoring at home.

Manager Davey Johnson has started 26 different lineups in the 46 games to date, a situation he has been forced into somewhat reluctantly by the startling strength of his bench. With Foster, Mookie Wilson and Darryl Strawberry starting in the outfield, Johnson must find spots for talented young players such as Heep (.315), Mitchell (.329) and Lenny Dykstra (.277). That may explain why Johnson's particular compulsion is popping antacid tablets to calm his churning stomach. Someone asked him recently if he had switched to the new low-sodium antacid tablets designed to reduce blood pressure, but Johnson said he had not. "If I'm gonna go, I'm gonna go all the way," he said. "I want the whole stroke, not just my left side paralyzed."

Paralyzed is what Wilson looks like in centerfield when Kevin McReynolds of the Padres hits a line drive in the sixth inning that starts to Wilson's right side, then abruptly veers to his left, falling for a double and allowing Tony Gwynn to score from first base. Afterward, Wilson has no theories on why the ball suddenly changed course. "I don't want to deal with that," he says. "That's physics, and I dropped that in college."

WEDNESDAY, JUNE 4

Mitchell wears two parts in the hair on the left side of his head and a portable tape player in the crotch of his uniform pants when he is warming up. The parts in his hair are there to symbolize two base hits a game—he is considering adding another one because, he says, "I'm confident." The tape player in his pants is there because he is "into music." And now music is into him.

Tied at 2-2 with San Diego in the bottom of the eighth, Mitchell is sent to the plate to bunt Knight and Foster along from first and second. Johnson reminds him that the Padres may attempt to cover the bunt by running a defensive play called "the wheel." He tells Mitchell to "hack if you see any movement." Mitchell stands at the plate praying that shortstop Garry Templeton will move, and when at the last instant he does, Mitchell slaps a double to left, and the Mets go on to win 4-2.

It has seemed at times this season that there is nothing Mitchell cannot do for the Mets, no position he can't play, and yet he didn't even start to play organized baseball until he left home to live with his grandmother at the age of 18. "I had to get out of the neighborhood because there was always trouble to get into."

Two years ago when Mitchell was playing for the Mets' Triple A team in Tidewater, he learned that his younger brother had been shot to death back in his San Diego neighborhood. "It made me so sad sometimes I'd sit out on the field and cry," Mitchell says. "He was just trying to get out of trouble, but instead he got caught in the middle."

His brother's death sent Mitchell into a tailspin that eventually began to affect his career. "After that, I didn't care about anything and I ended up having a really bad year," he says. "I would just go out there looking for revenge. Anybody said something wrong to me, I was all over him." Word of Mitchell's ugly disposition got back quickly to New York. "He just didn't have any respect for anybody," says Robinson. "I told him two years ago he had one of the worst attitudes I had ever seen."

Mitchell came to spring training this year mentally and physically stronger than he had ever been, but he struggled defensively. "We tried to hide him in spring training, but the ball always seemed to find him," says Robinson. The more it found him, the better Mitchell looked in the field and now he is utterly fearless. A natural third baseman, he played center and right for the first time this year, then made his first big league appearance at shortstop when he started opposite Ozzie Smith in St. Louis.

THURSDAY, JUNE 5

The Mets are in Pittsburgh for the first of five games with the Pirates, and the humidity in Three Rivers Stadium is so palpable that it feels as if one of the three rivers has come through the turnstiles. The Mets' wily skipper, who has been pushing all the right buttons this year, is in Florida to attend his daughter Dawn's graduation from Lake Howell High School in Winter Park. If tonight is to be looked upon as some kind of test of the Mets' ability to compensate for the loss of key personnel, the rest of the league is in trouble. Third base coach Bud Harrelson and Stottlemyre have been left in charge, but with lefthander Bob Ojeda pitching a 7-0 shutout, there is nothing for Harrelson to do. He later concludes that the most important move he made all night was getting to the bathroom behind the dugout when his queasy stomach finally got the better of him in the third inning.

Foster hits a line drive two-run homer in the second inning to give Ojeda all the support he needs, then intones thoughtfully in the clubhouse, "I think things have finally come around." It has not been a game for the archives. "I was bored to death," says reliever Niemann. "I started to spit on myself just to have some fun."

FRIDAY, JUNE 6

Bill Robinson and several of the black players from the Mets often wait to have their hair cut in Pittsburgh because they know a woman there who, according to Robinson, "kind of fluffs it out nice for you when she cuts it." The Mets will need all the fluffing they can get because tonight they are to play a doubleheader with the Pirates that begins at 6 p.m. and won't end until more than six hours later at 12:37 a.m.

Robinson, who is not only fluffy but also puffed up today because his son, Bill III, has just signed with the Mets as a 23rd round pick, is having a pleasant evening until the fifth inning of the first game. After twice telling his players to have the home plate umpire examine balls for scuffs made by Pirate pitcher Rick Rhoden, Robinson crosses paths with Rhoden as the two are walking off the field at the end of the inning. Robinson tells Rhoden he doesn't have to cheat, Rhoden swears at Robinson and finally Robinson shoves him. That precipitates a brawl that clears both benches, the second rumble for the Mets in the past 10 days.

What apparently bothers Johnson later is not that Rhoden was doctoring the ball, but that he was insulting Johnson's intelligence by doing it so openly. "If he would do it where everybody couldn't see him," Johnson says, "it would be less aggravating."

Johnson does not like to have his intelligence insulted or taken for granted or, for that matter, surpassed. There is a feeling among the Mets that the feud between the manager and Ron Darling, the Mets' No. 2 pitcher, whom Johnson has criticized publicly on several occasions this year, stems not so much from any real grievance Johnson might have about Darling's pitching, but rather from the fact that Darling attended Yale and is bright in his own right. Darling, who gives a lackluster performance and is beaten 7-1 in the opener tonight, thinks that Johnson has simply become so enamored of Gooden that he expects everyone to pitch as effectively. "I think maybe Davey has been spoiled by this Dwight thing," Darling says. "You know—blowing people away every five days."

New York gets a split by winning the nightcap 10-4. The unlikely hitting star is starting pitcher Rick Aguilera, who clubs a two-run homer in a six-run fourth. Aguilera, however, is not the pitching star, failing to last through the fifth. Aguilera has been something of a mystery this year, as has Strawberry, who is struggling with a sprained thumb. In the second game, he hits his first homer since May 7. The most amazing thing about the Mets' season is that they have yet to fire on all cylinders.

SATURDAY, JUNE 7

Barry Bonds, son of Bobby Bonds and now a talented Pirates prospect, is quoted in Thursday's Pittsburgh Press to the effect that it is not he who should be worried about facing Gooden tonight, but Gooden who "has to face me." Bonds has chosen the occasion of the end of his first full week in the majors to issue this challenge and it is readily accepted by the Mets' fireballer, who admits later that the quote from Bonds "got me up for the game." It may have actually gotten him a little too up, because in his eagerness to throw smoke past Bonds, Gooden is overthrowing the ball and winds up walking his nemesis twice. He also allows him to steal second twice on the high leg kick that makes Gooden sometimes appear to be eating his own foot. Gooden eventually settles down and gets the 6-4 win, bringing his record to 8-2, striking out five in seven innings. Jesse Orosco, the Mets' savior, gets out of a ninth inning jam by striking out Bonds.

Trying to become what he calls a "smart pitcher" who gets a lot of ground-ball outs, Gooden no longer seems as overwhelming as he was during his first two seasons in the big leagues, but Johnson says that Gooden is still "learning about himself," and that he will hit a hot streak again soon. He had better hurry. It is June 7, and the Mets are clinging to a nine-game lead in the NL East.

SUNDAY, JUNE 8

Sid Fernandez beats the Pirates 4-3 with a little help from Orosco and a lot of help from Mitchell, who has an RBI single, a double and a two-run homer. Every Met may be wearing his tape player in his pants soon.

Fernandez is only 23—midway between Darling's seasoned 25 and Gooden's frightening 21—and there will be more days like this before he settles down and establishes himself as one of the top lefthanders in the game. The Mets lead the league in guys born in Hawaii (Fernandez and Darling), not to mention guys who come from places that sound Hawaiian (Wally Backman attended Aloha High School in Aloha, Ore.), but Fernandez is actually of Portugese-Irish background.

It wasn't his background so much as his foreground that caused him problems during three seasons with the Dodger organization. The Dodgers gave up on him because "they thought I was going to eat my way out of the game," Fernandez says, and after he was traded to New York he ballooned even further, up to 246 pounds. "I was an El Blimpo," he says. "It was hard for me to be very mobile. When you have a big belly, it puts a strain on you."

Fernandez is down to a stocky 208 pounds now, and holding there on a diet of chicken and fish. Actually, he's been eating up opposing hitters. And the New York Mets are feasting on the National League East. Their lead is still nine games. The magic number is 102.

PHOTORONALD C. MODRAHernandez is a crossword devotee. So when a pitch came across, he went down. PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMON[See caption above.] PHOTORONALD C. MODRAThe Mets are reputed to have a swinging clubhouse, and Strawberry demonstrates why. PHOTORONALD C. MODRAIt's safe to say that Strawberry beat the tag of Pittsburgh third baseman Jim Morrison. PHOTORONALD C. MODRAMitchell and his music are not easily parted. PHOTORONALD C. MODRAThe rookie utility man was the Mets' hitting hero in two of the team's wins last week. PHOTORONALD C. MODRACarter, who's used to taking a lot of heat, gets some more of it in the whirlpool. PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMONOn the field, though, the catcher is a cool customer.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)