Those beady-eyed seers of Las Vegas—the ones who study chicken entrails on the eve of battle—noted with justifiable alarm last winter that the lovable, laughable, awful New York Mets, the team that has managed to keep its devotees in a continuous state of happy agitation by finishing 10th for four straight years and losing 452 games in the process, have suddenly taken on a most uncharacteristic look. There is pure professional, if slightly oldish, competency on the left side of the infield, young raw power in the outfield, a catcher with a future and a pitching staff that may get through the season collectively on a single stainless-steel razor blade.
Confronted with such a situation, one of the gents who make the winter book suggested that the Mets have one chance in one hundred of winning the National League pennant, and if that seems like a long shot, don't knock it. Last year the Mets roared off at 200 to 1. "I'm mad about them," says their deposed king, Casey Stengel. His successor, Wes Westrum, regent last year but manager in his own right this time around, has the haunted look of a man who is expected to win as many as 70 games—all in one season. And yet he says: "Why not?"
Why not, indeed? There stands Ken Boyer at third base, at this time last year the league's reigning Most Valuable Player. The St. Louis Cardinals may have said piffle to his .260 batting average and 75 RBIs in 1965, but for a team that has had far less glory than the Cardinals, those figures are downright Ruthian. The Met executive types will take smooth, experienced fielders who can hit with power any time they appear on the open market.
The fact that Boyer is 34 years old is only slightly disconcerting to the Mets, who had promised their doting fans bigger and better things by stressing the young and the eager. In fact, the Mets are not even embarrassed by using Roy McMillan at shortstop, and Roy is a year older than Boyer. Both of them know what to do before, during and after a ball is hit. Moreover, they do it well—which is pretty heady stuff for Met fans who remember infielders throwing the ball in completely improbable directions, like to Marv Throneberry, even.
The Mets struck another blow for the Social Security set by dealing for 33-year-old Dick Stuart, an appealing conversationalist who is good for all kinds of laughs and whose approach to fielding a ball at first base is downright bizarre but who is also capable of hitting 40 home runs a year.
It was, no doubt, this elderly look that cut the Vegas odds in half, but for those who still yearn for the wildly unpredictable, the fun and frolic and pure excitement that comes with untamed youth, well, the Mets have plenty of that, too. Ed Kranepool is 21, and he started off last year in such grand style he was named to the All-Star squad. Then his average began to plunge. Ah, youth. Kranepool is still quite a good first baseman, but Stuart seems to have made a platooning outfielder of him. Ron Swoboda, 21, hit more home runs (19) than any other Met rookie ever has—which was gratifying—and in the field often ran directly to where the ball wasn't quite which was hilarious.
For pitching, the Mets' youth-on-parade includes the likes of Frank McGraw, known affectionately as Tug, who won't be 22 until August. This does not keep him from being considered the best left-hander on the roster. Another pitcher short on years but long on talent is Dick Selma, 22. And there are Bob Gardner, 21, Larry Bearnarth, 24, and other splendid young men who do amazing things. Even the Mets' veteran starter Jack Fisher is only 27.
If all this seems a trifle hair-raising, hang on. The Mets hope that their No. 1 catcher someday soon will turn out to be a stocky fellow with blond curly hair named Greg Goossen—and he can't vote, either. The unlikely situation of a 20-year-old kid catching regularly for a major league team had its origin when Westrum, then a Met coach, spied Goossen romping for a Los Angeles Dodgers' rookie team. When the Dodgers failed to protect Goossen from the player draft, the Mets grabbed him. A year at Auburn, N.Y. is not much of an apprenticeship, but when the young catcher hit .305 there with 24 home runs, the temptation to rush him along was irresistible, for if there is one thing the Mets need most, it's a catcher. Unfortunately, Goossen showed little this spring and the Mets still need help behind the plate.
One thing the Mets do not need is a second baseman. In Ron Hunt, they have one of the best in the business. Hunt's only real weakness is his complete disdain for speeding base runners. That disdain cost him last May, when he came out of a collision with a dislocated shoulder and was sidelined most of the year. The wound has mended, but Hunt's inclination to step aside from suicidal encounters has not thawed in the slightest. Still, Westrum is perfectly willing to take Hunt on his own terms. "A few more like him," the manager says, "and the ol' Mets could beat anybody."
Brighter, much brighter. The Mets may be the most improved team in the majors. Keep in mind, though, they have to improve 15 full games before they can catch even the ninth-place Astros.