Not even Casey Stengel himself foresaw the day when the New York Mets really would be amazing. It was Stengel who named them the Amazin' Mets during their infancy—not because they played with amazing ability or amazing success, but because they were the most amazingly incompetent team in the history of baseball. While losing 110 to 120 games a season, they drew crowds that could only be explained by the fact that everyone loves a good horror show. The Mets were more gruesome than Frankenstein any day.
"The people laughed at us and waved banners in our faces," says Jim Hickman, a Met original who is now with the Cubs. Stengel loved the banners. "If a banner got in your way," Casey said, "you didn't mind missing a play because it was something bad happening anyway." So instead of Bat Days and Cap Days and Ball and Helmet Days, the Mets had Banner Days, the first prize for which usually was two tickets for a game against Los Angeles or San Francisco. Real major league ball clubs.
But now it is 1969, and in the fairyland of Shea Stadium the toad has turned into a prince. The Amazin' Mets have developed into...well, the Amazing Mets. They suddenly have discovered how to win games. Last week they managed to retain the magic even in the broad light of day in Chicago's Wrigley Field as they won two of three games from the Cubs. Then they went off to Montreal to take two of four games from the sputtering Expos. By the time they recessed last Sunday for the All-Star Game the Mets, who never have had a winning record, were in second place in the National League's East Division, only two games behind the Cubs in the loss column. Their record, 53 wins and 39 losses, was the fourth best in baseball, better, in fact, than the best team in the National League West. Today, so the gag goes, there is panic among New Yorkers that the Mets might follow the Dodgers and the Giants west—to compete in a weaker league.
The most amazing thing about these new Mets is that they started the season like the old Mets, winning only 18 games and losing 23 through May 27. "That was accomplished in a rash of mediocrity," says Outfielder Ron Swoboda. But since then, the Mets have been the best team in the National League. They tore off an 11-game winning streak, including a historic New York sweep of six games against the Dodgers and the Giants, and during the eight weeks between May 27 and the All-Star break, the Mets won 35 games and lost only 16, a pace that was 4� games better than Chicago's record for the same period.
Four main reasons for the Mets' exalted station are Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Cleon Jones and Tommie Agee. Seaver, the ultra-cool righthander, generally wins every four or five days, and so does Koosman, now that the lefthander has recovered from an early-season sore shoulder. Both Seaver and Koosman were named to the All-Star team. Jones, a starting All-Star outfielder and one of the few major-leaguers in history who bats right and throws left, has been hitting around .350 all year, while Agee, the swift centerfielder who flopped so miserably last year after he was secured from the Chicago White Sox, has provided the Mets with the most lethal leadoff hitting in either league. Agee has hit 16 home runs so far, swinging at the first pitch of every game. Against the Cubs the last two weeks he led off games with 1) a first-pitch triple off Ken Holtzman, 2) a first-pitch home run off Bill Hands, and 3) a first-pitch double off Ferguson Jenkins. Instant insanity, they call Agee now.
These four players must maintain their high-octane level if the Mets are to remain contenders and not dissolve into the Eight-Week Wonders of the World. They are, after all, still behind the Cubs, who opened a strong 8� game lead on the field while the Mets were being Mets and the favored St. Louis Cardinals were counting their money.
To go back to those early days, there was a time when it seemed that the Cubs might clinch the pennant by the Fourth of July. Then the Mets corrected their course and the Cubs started to play with consistent inconsistency, which is not hard to explain, since the Cubs are in one way much like a football team. They have 11 men who do most of the work, and 11, as that old crapshooter Leo Durocher well knows, is a good round number. The manager's 11 Cubs are the four in fielders, Ron Santo, Don Kessinger, Glenn Beckert and Ernie Banks; the catcher, Randy Hundley (all of whom made the All-Star team); the rightfielder, Billy Williams; and the five pitchers, Starters Ferguson Jenkins, Bill Hands and Ken Holtzman and Relievers Phil Regan and Ted Abernathy. Still, since the middle of June, the Cubs have played barely .500 baseball.
The Cubs might well return to their earlier hot pace at any moment, however, and there is always St. Louis, which played dead until Independence Day. Then, as though startled by a firecracker, the Cardinals suddenly realized they were 15� games behind the first-place Cubs and said they would give it a try, although no team has ever rallied from such depths to win a pennant. The Cards won 12 of their next 14 games to cut 6� games from their deficit. "For the first time all year the fluke hits are dropping our way," said Card Batting Coach Dick Sisler.
The Cardinals, though, are a minor conversational item compared with the abrupt emergence of the Mets as a 100-to-1 team that conceivably could win a pennant. There is recent precedent for such an accomplishment. The Boston Red Sox won the 1967 American League pennant against 100-to-l odds, and the New York Jets, who share Shea Stadium with the Mets, beat the Baltimore Colts in the 1969 Super Bowl. "All I will say, at least for the present, is that a team in our circumstances has won the pennant before," says Manager Gil Hodges, who, incidentally, does not plan to trade for Ken Harrelson (SI, July 14) this winter. "I think we'd all retire ourselves if Harrelson somehow came to the Mets," said one New York player, still seething over the Hawk's attack on Hodges' reputation.
Despite the Mets' improved performance during the month of June (19 wins and nine losses), no one really took them seriously until Tuesday afternoon, July 8, when they opened a three-game series with the Cubs at Shea Stadium. Second-place New York was five games behind the Cubs, and the city, starved for baseball excitement, treated the series like a pennant playoff. More than 55,000 sat glumly for eight innings that afternoon while Jenkins stifled New York on one hit. Then, in the ninth, the Mets scored three runs, thanks mostly to a pair of fielding misplays by Cub Centerfielder Don Young, and they won the game 4-3.