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New York Mets
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 somethingspend money, part with promising talentto 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 88-74their 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 Ordoñez, 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.
by Mark Bechtel
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