He was a big pitcher with a fat earned run average and a bad mouth and he had been at the bar too long, which in his case was about 20 minutes. He had just delivered his best pitch to a lady sitting between two large gentlemen who were going to turn out to be plainclothes cops, and they were taking the floor to question his choice of words.
Suddenly the pitcher seemed to glide offstage, jerkily, like a marionette. Wesley Noreen Westrum, whose cerebral replay of the day's defeat had been interrupted by the noise, had taken him in a bear hug from behind, and the pitcher's feet didn't touch again until they hit the sidewalk outside. Baseball has seen many men strong enough to transport 220-pound pitchers. But through a revolving door?
In the years when Wes Westrum was catching and then coaching with the Giants he often allowed his valor to be the better part of discretion. During the Giants' miracle drive of 1951 he hit home runs with mashed fingers and caught doubleheaders with yards of tape corseting his cracked ribs. But a .217 hitter does not become a 10-year man without being tough, and mere pain did not bring tears to Westrum's eyes.
Managing the New York Mets does.
You can't often sec them. You hear them in his voice as he talks of what might have been in the new kind of defeat being suffered by the new kind of Mets. They are "in" the game these days, the two-touchdown humiliations behind them. They are usually close enough to victory in the late innings so that the line drive that is caught, or the ground ball that isn't, matters painfully much. The players hear the quaver in Westrum's voice in clubhouse meetings as he persuades them that they are professionals and that they don't have to do those amateurish things that bring tears to a tough manager's larynx. They still find that hard to believe, but they try. They know the emotion Westrum's voice betrays is not weakness but the fervor of a competitor. "He's a tough man to manage against," says Phillies Manager Gene Mauch. "He won't give in." So the players can't.
If West rum pretends to keep his head when all about him are running the bases as if they had lost theirs, it would be cruel to rain on his charade. Whether they actually buy Westrum's Cou�isms or not doesn't matter; the posture has given them a measure of what they most desperately want: dignity.
"We're sick and tired of everything being so goddam funny," says Pitcher Jack Fisher, who lost 24 games last year. Fisher reads the standings and does not see that the Mets arc in ninth place. "We're only seven games under .500," he said at one point. "Sure, I think we can get there. Why can't we?" Well, because it strains the memory to recall a big-league pitching staff more woefully undermanned than the Mets' was as the doubleheader season began. Because the never-say-die rallies kept being killed by Kamikaze base running. Because after a couple of losing series the Mets were 12 games under .500. At a time when Major Houk's Charismatic Elixir was indicated, the medicine chest was bare.
Well into June the front office woke up and smelled the smoke. They got Bob Shaw from the Giants and Bob Friend from the Yankees. They called up Pitcher Dick Rusteck, who wasn't good enough to make the staff in spring training. To make room they "outrighted"—i.e., gave away—left-hander Gordon Richardson to Jacksonville. But, had Richardson stayed, he would have started the next night, because Westrum's finger had been pointing his way when he got to "moe."
Still, there is fire in the ashes. There is even pride. "I'm glad I'm a Met," says Ron Hunt, the all-ballplayer second baseman who is a throwback to pre-pension, gashouse days. Hunt will break up a second baseman to break up a double play ("anything is legitimate as long as you don't use your spikes") and expects the same in return. Hunt can swagger on the way back to the dugout after a strikeout, and there is arrogance in the way he takes a 3-0 pitch. "I'm going to play in a World Series with this club," he says. "Having everybody laugh at us was a pain in the butt, but that's over now."
The Mets are too old to laugh, but it doesn't hurt enough—yet—to cry. It seemed in spring training that Westrum might be funnier by accident than Casey Stengel was on purpose. Wes promulgated a "positive thinking" program that promised to be a real knee-slapper to a troop of Hessians who had lost 452 games in four years. But Casey's Amazin's became Westrum's Batmen in Florida. "We lost momentum when it rained those first three days of the season in Cincinnati," Hunt says. "If we'd gone right from spring training into the season, it might have been different."