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.