Up and down the Eastern Seaboard in large pharmaceutical houses and small neighborhood drugstores the search was pressed last week for the mysterious, elusive chemical that may cure Nolan Ryan's vast blood-blister problem. Meanwhile, he blazes on in pain for the New York Mets, his hand inadequately treated with brine drawn from the bottom of a pickle barrel located in a Jewish delicatessen in the Bronx.
The group of reporters around Jerry Koosman grows larger each day and each recruit wants it explained again how he happened to learn to pitch in the top of a hay barn near Appleton, Minn. Koosman says, "I threw to my older brother, Orville."
Huge stacks of letters keep piling up in the Shea Stadium locker of Ron Swoboda (see cover) with words of youthful faith, "I tried to trade four baseball cards for yours. You will surely go to the Hall of Fame. I hope you never die." And, when people ask Swoboda if he thinks he will break Babe Ruth's home-run record, his brown eyes blink and he smiles when he says, "No, Roger Maris'."
In the first three weeks of the 1968 National League season the St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants, naturally, drew plenty of attention, but, unnaturally, so did the New York Mets, perhaps more attention than any other team. For the first time in their seven-year history they have some positive accomplishments to their credit, and it appears that they may now be on the verge of abandoning the theater of the absurd and starting to play something that closely resembles big-league baseball. At one point last week Swoboda was tied for the major league lead in homers and runs batted in. Koosman, a 24-year-old left-handed rookie, had given up one run in 27 innings to tie for the league lead in wins (with three) and earned run average (0.33). While the Mets' present overall record of 6-9 was certainly not good enough to cause people to start computing their "magic number," the team does have the statistic (1.66) to prove that its pitching staff has the best earned run average around.
Within a period of only 10 days the New Yorkers knocked both Juan Marichal of the Giants and Don Drysdale of the Dodgers, historically two of their greatest tormentors, from the box with flurries of hits and base running seldom before exhibited by Met teams. And, wonder of wonders, there were three National League teams that made as many or more errors. Of course, there was Nolan Ryan, too. At the age of 21—and with only 11 innings pitched anywhere last season—Ryan has caused a considerable stir all by himself, striking out 26 batters in the first 19? innings he pitched.
For all these bright performances, there are reminders, some grim, some hilarious, that the days of ineptitude have not totally disappeared. Recently, when they played a 24-inning game in Houston's Astrodome, the Mets failed to score a run and allowed the Astros to get the winning one on an error, and they added to their bizarre legend when John Wayne could take neither team any longer and quit the scene after 14 innings. A week later, though, the Mets got the Astros outside, but it was the Astros who made the mistakes and the Mets who capitalized on them. Old Mets never did things like that, but these new and seemingly movin' Mets are going to do many things right before this season is over.
Once the Mets were a bad team from virtually the top of their lineup to the bottom. In 1967, however, they came up with three refreshing surprises. Tom Seaver won 16 games, Swoboda hit .281 and Shortstop Bud Harrelson developed into a fine player. Even though the Mets did finish last, these were the first hopeful signs that the franchise was trying to change an image established by an incident that occurred in 1964. A follower in Connecticut called his local paper to ask how the Mets had fared. "They got 19 runs," said the man on the desk. "Oh," asked the caller, "did they win?"
There were many who felt that once the Mets started to show any progress their fans (nine million have seen them in six seasons) would quickly abandon them for some other negative diversion. But in 1966, when the Mets rose to ninth in the standings, crowds at Shea Stadium increased by 164,304. When the team tumbled back to 10th last season attendance dropped off by 367,201 and television ratings sank.
Because they had their poorest exhibition record (9-18) ever this spring many felt, and wrote, that New York should ready itself for the worst team in its history. Underneath that record, however, was something very encouraging: Met pitchers had given up fewer runs than those of any other National League club. The only one close to them was the Los Angeles Dodgers, a team that normally has the best pitchers.
Another very important factor contributed to some of those spring losses. Gil Hodges, New York's new manager, not only was shifting over from the American League to the National, but he was totally unfamiliar with many of the Met players. "During the spring," says Johnny Murphy, the Met General Manager, "Gil had to look over the 44 players he had in camp and find out for himself what they could do. He made up his mind to watch them under game conditions, and he did it. While he certainly wanted to win as many games as he could he was concerned about seeing how the players would respond in certain situations. His opinions were shaping my opinions. One of the first things you notice about Gil, once you have been around him, is that he is a master at telling a pitcher what he should throw and being sure that it is done."