Later, when the instant books come out, detailing the heroics
with minute-by-minute accounts, it will be helpful to know who
said it first. Bob Murphy, the club's radio announcer since
1962, said it first. On Friday, Feb. 27, 1998, at 12:18 p.m., at
Port St. Lucie, Fla., he compared the 1998 Mets with the 1969
World Series-winning Mets, using these words: "What people
forget about the '69 Mets is that all through April, you looked
in the clubhouse, you saw a bunch of nobodies. There was no
magic associated with the '69 team until after they won. This
year you have a roster filled with solid, dependable guys,
without a single marquee name among them. I think the club is
poised to do something special."

Could he be correct? Sure he could. For starters, New York is
loaded with nobodies. When you meet the players on Opening Day,
you'll think you're attending a John Doe convention. The Mets
are trying to sell a baseball team without any luminaries to New
York fans.

Over the winter the Mets did a magnificent imitation of a team
attempting to acquire name talent. November: That Gary Sheffield
would sure add punch to our lineup, eh? December: What would we
have to shell out to get that Gary Sheffield? January: Nice
player, that Gary Sheffield, but way too rich for our blood.

The guys who make the decisions, co-owner Fred Wilpon and
34-year-old general manager Steve Phillips in particular, are
plainly not ready to pull out all the stops, and you can hardly
blame them. Todd Hundley, the switch-hitting catcher who had 71
homers over the last two seasons, is likely to miss at least the
first 70 games this year, recuperating from elbow surgery. If
Independence Day comes and Hundley looks about ready to return
to the lineup, and the team hasn't played itself out of the
wild-card race, the Mets might actually do something--spend
money, part with promising talent--to import a proven starter or
a reliable slugger. The personnel game is a lot more calculated
than it was in '69, now that second place can be worth something.

Last year, bad news for the Mets came in unrelenting waves.
Righthander Paul Wilson was out all year with a shoulder injury.
Righthander Jason Isringhausen broke his hand punching a garbage
can. Lefthander Bill Pulsipher missed the entire season with
elbow problems. Righthander Pete Harnisch was disabled by
depression until August. Outfielder Carl Everett was accused of
being an abusive father, charges later dropped, though the
Everetts still haven't regained custody of their daughter,
Shawna, 6 And manager Bobby Valentine, inexplicably, picked a
public fight with Hundley over the catcher's sleeping habits.
Phillips says that had he known last April what was in store for
his club, he would have predicted a finish 30 games under .500.

Yet the collective effect of all this chaos was to make the
clubhouse peculiarly...upbeat. Valentine used 131 different
lineups, and the Mets finished 88-74--their first season over
.500 in seven years.

This spring Valentine was apologetic for his team's lack of star
power. But what makes the team special, or potentially special,
is its lack of star power, and the manager knows it. Valentine
gets practically giddy when he runs down his roster, knowing
that none of the names sparkle but anticipating better results
through good chemistry. "There are 18 guys on this team, you
could put a check next to their name and say, 'Very good major
league player,'" Valentine says. He's telling the truth.

There are the problems. The Mets are slow. They have limited
power. They play in the same division as the Braves. The farm
system is not likely to produce anybody who can make a major
contribution this year. It's not hard to make a case against
them, but there's no pleasure in that.

The Mets are not telling anybody that the magic is back, that
they're amazin', that you gotta believe. There's no hype. They
know you don't realize yet that the infield of third baseman
Edgardo Alfonzo, Gold Glove shortstop Rey Ordonez, second
baseman Carlos Baerga and first baseman John Olerud is the
best-fielding infield in baseball. They hope their unheralded
but effective starters will surprise a lot of people. And they
know their deep bullpen, led by John Franco, will nail down a
lot of wins. They're O.K. with that. When you're playing for a
wild-card spot, you want to sneak in, anyhow. That's the plan.
Slip in when nobody's looking. Capture some hearts along the
way. --M.B.

COLOR PHOTO: RONALD C. MODRA REY OF HOPE The best-fielding infield in baseball, led by shortstop Ordonez, could have Mets fans dreaming of 1969 again. [Rey Ordonez] COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON [Butch Huskey]