It's in the record book, but who's going to look at it?" Bud Harrelson was saying, and then added in the accepted manner of all good athletes, "and what good does it all do if you lose the game?"
Harrelson was sitting on a stool in the clubhouse. It was late on one of those steamy mid-August afternoons that are apt to send loving couples to the divorce court, and the World Champion New York Mets had just been whomped by a collection of whozats called the Houston Astros.
When the game began, Tom Seaver was pitching for the Mets, trying to become the second 18-game winner in the National League this year. Behind him at shortstop was Derrel McKinley Harrelson (see cover), all 5'10" and 146 pounds of him bent over, concentrating, his arms dangling loosely. Harrelson was well aware at this point that he had not made an error in nearly two months, not since the 23rd of June in Chicago. In the meantime, he had handled 219 chances (104 putouts, 115 assists), and if he completed this game intact he would tie a major league record set the previous season by Don Kessinger of the Cubs—54 consecutive games by a shortstop without an error. Such things are important to today's Mets, because their bats usually seem to be made of Styrofoam and rolled up copies of the Daily News. Harrelson was aware of the impending record only because a baseball writer in Atlanta had brought it to his attention several days earlier. "I didn't mind his telling me," said Harrelson. "It's his job." Among other things, Harrelson is noted for a generous disposition.
The first batter of the game, Jesus Alou, sent a routine grounder to Second Baseman Al Weis, who backed away uncertainly and then conducted a serious argument with the ball. Error No. 1. Seaver survived that inning undamaged and, with the Mets up, Harrelson walked and eventually scored a run on a Cleon Jones single. It still seemed like the formula that had raised the Mets from obloquy to primacy: tight pitching, Harrelson leading a consistently superb defense and helping to scrounge an occasional run.
On this afternoon the script went awry as it so often does these days with the Mets, who are vainly spinning their wheels in pursuit of stumbling Pittsburgh. Line drives whistled through the infield like cannonballs at Balaclava. The Mets treated the baseballs as dangerous enemies, and Seaver was driven from the game after the sixth inning, his earliest departure of the year. Only Harrelson remained immune to the epidemic of bootery. Once, after gracefully saving a grounder headed for left field, he forced a runner at second, then kicked the dirt in disgust. He felt that his hurried throw had been too low to permit the double play. He was the only person in the ball park to think so. "Buddy," says roommate Seaver, "sets impossible goals for himself." In the very next game Harrelson muffed an easy ground ball on the first ball hit to him in the first inning, the errorless streak ended and he was freed to focus his concentration on the more important issue of the moment: helping the Mets back into first place before the season has run its course.
As September arrived, the Mets were no longer last year's eager, straining young men with a bottle full of lightning. Yet, despite their obvious troubles, their clubhouse was a cheerful place, free of intense dedication. Last year, when the ball took miraculous bounces for them, every day was like Bob Cratchit's Christmas. Now the pop flies were falling between fielders, nobody covered the bag for the game-winning double play, six-run leads were squandered as if there were a million tomorrows. Seaver, the team leader in pitching and enthusiasm, lost five out of six games that should have put him over the 20-game mark. Harrelson, whose quiet competence unites the infield, was down to skin and bones under the double burden of summer heat and wasted opportunities.
Even with 158 pounds of springtime beef on him, Harrelson looks strangely frail in the company of professional athletes. His present peaked state is a team joke. The others kid him about having sand kicked in his face like the 98-pound weakling, and Harrelson's cheerful young face lights up with the gags. "Pretty soon," he says, "the only thing you'll be able to see is my nose."
To be sure, Harrelson has what the late Stanley Walker of the New York Herald Tribune used to consider a sign of character in a man, what he called "a bone in the face." Harrelson's is a good, well-chiseled face, full of humor and punctuated by bright blue eyes and a wide, generous mouth. The ears are prominent, and the wavy brown hair—like the owner—is neatly trimmed to fit an earlier time and a disappearing ethic. The sideburns barely reach the earlobes. As he sits naked in front of his locker, one cannot miss a vertical scar across his kneecap. It is a testament to the fearless way Harrelson makes the pivot on the double play.
The career of Harrelson, who is 26, parallels the Mets' story. He was signed as a freshman out of San Francisco State in 1963, when the Mets were only a year old and ransacking the countryside for young talent while holding the franchise together at the old Polo Grounds with Casey Stengel's wit and a lot of creaky leftovers like Frank Thomas and Gil Hodges—the latter, of course, destined to return and lead a march to glory. Harrelson was in college on a basketball scholarship, but the baseball scouts from the Yankees and Cubs and Cards were all on his scent. He chose the Mets and their modest bonus of slightly over $10,000 only because he thought it was a quicker road to the majors.
For the next few years Harrelson and a lot of other young men were being sifted through the Mets sieve in places like Salinas and Buffalo and Jacksonville, but only three of that generation of neophytes survived to become part of the New Breed that began to staff the mother club in 1965. The others were Cleon Jones and Ron Swoboda.