The World Champion New York Mets have this small image problem: No one outside the city's five boroughs can stomach them. O.K., O.K., so that's a little strong; transplanted Mets fans are, like crime, everywhere. But the essential fact remains: The Mets are the most loathed team in baseball.
Not just by the fans, either. Opposing ballplayers, put off by the Mets' perceived arrogance on and off the field, openly disparage them. "They aren't the most likable bunch," said Tommy Herr of the Cardinals before last year's playoffs. "They act so superior, from the manager on down. They seem to antagonize everybody they play."
After the New Yorkers concluded a series with Cincinnati last July, Dave Parker, whose Reds brawled with the Mets, said, "It's time to show them there are tough guys everywhere.... I'm sorry our series is over with them."
"The way they acted, they'll find every game this season will be like the seventh game of the World Series," Philadelphia's Mike Schmidt said recently. His team finished a distant second in the NL East, 21½ games behind the Mets. That margin notwithstanding, while the Phillies trained this spring at their minor league complex, someone posted a color picture of the world champion Mets on a bulletin board, a question scrawled across their grinning faces: "Can you beat these ass——?"
No World Series winner in either league has successfully defended a divisional title since 1978. Free agency, injuries, complacency, luck and revenge have all conspired against the defending champs. In the Mets' case, the revenge factor must be figured in exponentially. Seems as if every NL team would like to shove fistfuls of crow down their gullets.
But why? Is it right to hate a team because Lenny (Nails) Dykstra smirks instead of smiles, because Darryl Strawberry shuffles I'm-so-cool-ly around the bases whenever he homers? Is it fair to begrudge Gary Carter his schoolgirlish histrionics each time he hits one out, or to blame Ron Darling for having a pretty name and a beautiful wife? Is it the Shea Stadium curtain calls that are the most grating, or the between-innings specter of Carter on Diamond Vision singing LET'S GO, METS GO! with his arm around a life-sized cardboard cutout of himself? Is it the on-field brawls with other clubs—the Mets had four of them last season—or the off-field scuffles with police, girlfriends and wives that make the bile rise? Is it New York itself? Mets fans? Davey Johnson? Will somebody please explain why the thought of the Mets falling flat on their collective faces makes every team in baseball drool?
"I think a lot of it is envy," says new Met Kevin McReynolds, the leftfielder whose righthanded bat makes New York's lineup even more impressive than it was last year, when the Mets led the league in batting average, slugging percentage and runs. "The same thing happened to us in San Diego after we won our division. Teams treat you differently when you're on top."
Sorry, Kevin. Not buying. When the Royals won the World Series in 1985, no one longed for them to hunker down with a large piece of humble pie. They were appealing champs. Not the Mets, who, despite being friendly and likable as individuals, assume a pompous air as a team. Before last season even began, they were predicting that they would terrorize the NL East. "Don't we get a bye into the playoffs?" said second baseman Wally Backman jokingly. He later miffed the Expos by writing them off at the All-Star break, when New York's lead stood at 13 games over Montreal.
The Mets are good and they know it. They sass you with success: 90 wins in '84, 98 in '85, 108 in '86, the most since the 1975 Big Red Machine. "I think just about everybody in the world hopes Houston wins," said Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog on the eve of last year's NL playoffs, a brilliantly played series marred only by the Mets' graceless accusation that Astro ace Mike Scott had scuffed the baseball in Houston's two victories. That allegation added "poor losers" to the Mets' repertoire of alleged shortcomings. The Mets seemed to believe that the only way they could lose was if the other team cheated.
"All that arrogant talk got started because everyone was p—— off about the way we dominated the National League," says Dykstra, who has been accused of diving theatrically in pursuit of routine flies. "Nobody likes to get beat night after night. When we take the field, we believe we're going to win, and we try to have fun doing it."