Robin Ventura is a player of impeccable timing. The New York Mets could be playoff-bound for the first time in 11 years largely because Ventura, in his first season with them after coming aboard as a free agent, has brought a knack for delivering a hit or a comical line at precisely the right moment. "He's probably the best signing in the history of the franchise," says Mets reliever John Franco.
Fans at Shea Stadium staged their own Iowa straw poll last week, casting their postseason ballots a month early. "MVP! MVP!" they chanted after Ventura broke open a scoreless game against the Houston Astros with a two-out, two-run single. While Ventura will be hard-pressed to beat out the front-runner, Astros first baseman Jeff Bagwell, if he does he'll be in select company. Only two players signed as free agents have won the MVP while leading their new team into the postseason: Kirk Gibson of the 1988 Los Angeles Dodgers and Terry Pendleton of the '91 Atlanta Braves.
Ventura has had a similar sudden impact, only with better production already than Gibson and Pendleton had their entire seasons. At 32 Ventura is having a career year: He was batting .306 through Sunday with 28 home runs, 104 RBIs and a .344 average with runners in scoring position. Just as important, Ventura, a five-time Gold Glove winner, has turned what was a solid New York infield into one that may rank among the best ever (box, page 60).
Through Sunday the Mets held a three-game cushion over the Cincinnati Reds for the National League wild-card berth and had become one of the few teams to cause the East Division-leading Braves to perspire as the season headed into September. Even after winning 10 straight games, Atlanta was only 3½ in front of New York. That the Mets could be in that position with pedestrian starting pitching is a tribute to infield defense that's tighter than a mason jar.
Ventura's signing allowed heady Edgardo Alfonzo to gladly move from third base to second, where he replaced the underwhelming Carlos Baerga. With shortstop Rey Ordoñez showing more reliability to complement his gymnastic flair for the spectacular and first baseman John Olerud providing his usual steady play, New York gives away almost no runs. With an infield that makes up in agility and surehandedness what it lacks in speed, New York had allowed only 17 unearned runs, all but assuring that it will break the season record for fewest unearned runs allowed, 31, set by the Baltimore Orioles last year.
Alfonzo (four errors), Ordoñez (four), Ventura (seven) and Olerud (eight) had combined for as many errors as Ventura's replacement with the Chicago White Sox, Greg Norton. Including reserves, Mets infielders had been charged with 24 errors, which put them on track to dethrone the 1964 Orioles, who committed just 45, as the surest fielding infield in history.
"What's really impressive about them is that they don't even play on a great field at Shea," San Francisco Giants first baseman J.T. Snow, a Gold Glover himself, says of New York's uneven home turf. "That makes what they're doing even more remarkable. Imagine if they were playing in Florida or Oakland. Ordonez and Alfonzo stand out up the middle, but Ventura has five Gold Gloves, and Olerud gets the job done. They exemplify the saying that strength up the middle wins championships. It's hard to get four guys like that on one infield, and that's why they're going to make the playoffs. Their defense won't break down."
There are no greater aficionados of the Mets' infield artistry than the New York pitchers. While pocketing a team-high 12 wins, ground ball specialist Orel Hershiser has suffered only one unearned run in his 146⅓ innings. Kenny Rogers, acquired from the Oakland A's on July 23, won his third game without a loss on Aug. 25 by feeding grounders to his infielders like herring to seals. It was the first time in seven years that none of the New York outfielders made a putout.
"You play this game a number of years, and you visualize certain things happening when the ball comes off the bat because they always happen," lefthander Al Leiter says, using as an example a ball hit up the middle with a runner at second. "You see the ball off the bat and you think, One run in, time to bear down. You visualized a run-scoring single, but Rey has knocked the ball down. Now it's runners on first and third. Then you get a 6-4-3 double play two pitches later. Inning over. The visual runs that don't score can't be counted or evaluated in any stats."
On the left side of the infield Ordoñez and Ventura cover the most ground since Lewis and Clark. After the Mets beat the Arizona Diamondbacks 6-3 last Friday, Arizona manager Buck Showalter said, "In the ninth inning Jay Bell hit a single through the left side, and I said, 'Wow. We got one through.' Those guys are so good, you're surprised when anything on the ground gets into the outfield."