Among the artifacts in the clubhouse locker of New York Met Outfielder Ronald Alan Swoboda are three buttons which proclaim WE'RE # UN, I AM LOVED, and WE'VE COME A LONG WAY BABY. Last Saturday evening Swoboda, one of the authentic folk heroes of modern-day baseball, walked up to home plate at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh with the bases loaded and the score tied 1-1 in the eighth inning. At that point in his career Swoboda was being looked upon with something less than adoration by even the most dedicated of his fans. In 11 previous at bats against Pittsburgh he had failed to hit the ball beyond the infield nine times. One time when Swoboda did hit it out of the infield he lost sight of the ball and stayed in the batter's box long enough to turn a double into a single. But the way the Mets were playing last week at home and away only one thing could happen with the bases loaded in the eighth inning of a tie game. And it did. Oh, did it ever.
Swoboda drove a pitch thrown by Twiggy Hartenstein so far and so high toward left-center field that Pirate Outfielders Willie Stargell and Matty Alou merely turned around, folded their arms and looked at it, just as if it were a piece of fine art hanging in a gallery. Which, in a way, it was. Young Mets and old Mets, good Mets and bad Mets, smart Mets and dumb Mets jumped to their feet in the dugout to welcome Swoboda home and thank him for yet another miracle in one of the more singular finishing drives ever launched in pursuit of a championship.
On the 15th of August the Mets were 9� games behind the Chicago Cubs in the Eastern Division of the National League; by the end of last week, thanks to a 10-game winning streak and a recent record of 26-7, New York was out in front by 3� games and playing with a professional excellence so un-Metlike as to be uncanny. They were touched with magic and those gloves that once went clank in the night were being worn by players on other teams. The Mets had become so good, in fact, that outside of Forbes Field last Saturday a hippie sat on the sidewalk with a sign on her lap that read MET BRUTALITY.
The Cubs, the club New York pulled down from behind, were playing bad baseball. In losing 10 of 11 games, Chicago began to resemble the Pholdin' Philadelphia Phillies of 1964, and the fingernails of panic began to dig deep into the back of Cub Manager Leo Durocher. "You can wait until the snow comes over the bleeping clubhouse door and I won't have anything to say," said Durocher at one point in the decline. "No comment," he kept repeating. "No bleeping comment."
What it looked like was that Leo had bleeped up his own team. Since that weekend in July when Durocher jumped his own club to visit his stepson's summer camp, the Cubbies have played like a team with the blind staggers, winning only eight of 20 home games. They kept leaving the door wide-open, but the logical contenders, St. Louis, and up until the start of last week the Pirates themselves, could never cross the threshold.
Chicago did not get into real trouble, however, until a week ago Monday at Shea Stadium. In retrospect, the first pitch from Cub Pitcher Bill Hands to Met lead-off batter Tommie Agee probably decided the entire course of events for the Mets during the next seven days. Hands drove Agee away from the plate and into the dirt with a high, tight fastball. It was an intimidating pitch, a pitch that can work in either of two ways: demoralize the opponent or make a biter out of the sleeping dog. The Mets decided to bite. New York Pitcher Jerry Koosman retaliated by hitting Ron Santo hard as the fine Cub third baseman led off the second inning. And in his next two at bats, Agee hit a two-run homer and a double, later scoring on a close play at home. Those were all the runs needed to beat Chicago.
The following night Pitcher Tom Seaver was the Cubs' b�te noire. He held Chicago at bay while New York scored seven runs, and as early as the sixth inning the 58,000 fans were caroling "Goodbye Leo" to Durocher and waving their handkerchiefs at him. Durocher sat alone on the bench shrouded in silence, the famous lip flapping no more. Chicago's once-proud 9�-game lead was down to a lonely half.
At 8:43 the next evening the Mets, by virtue of having won a 12-inning game from the Montreal Expos in the first half of a twi-night doubleheader, moved into first place on percentage points. Joan Payson, the Mets' owner, stepped down from her box next to the team's dugout and walked toward home plate wiping tears from her eyes. When New York won the second game while Chicago was losing in Philadelphia, the Mets were on top and not going to be very easy to catch.
Professional baseball had endured for 92 years before the New York Mets first got their hands on it back in the spring of 1962. While they couldn't quite kill the game, they certainly brought it to one knee. Doing things that had never even been imagined before, they drove their fans into one of the oddest diversions ever developed: writing on bed-sheets. While it was long believed that the simple act of putting on a Yankee uniform caused players to perform better, a Met uniform suddenly turned some previously gifted players into clowns. In their first seven years of existence the Mets finished a total of 288� games out of first place and built their all-important loss column to 737.
But in the spring of 1967 Tom Seaver joined the team and the franchise had a young player of outstanding quality. The Mets had thought enough of Seaver in his first year of baseball to have him pitch for their Triple A farm team at Jacksonville, and he led the league in games started while splitting 24 decisions. Then Seaver was advanced to the majors, and he was amazed at what he found out about the Mets. "There was an aura of defeatism," he said last week, "and I refused to accept it. Maybe some of the others started to feel how I felt because I noticed that the team seemed to play better behind me than it did for any other pitcher."