It was not even the middle of June and the baseball schedule showed two-thirds of the season still to be played. But last weekend there were the Mets—and the Mets' owner Joan Payson and the Mets' fans, all of them—going at things just as if every inning might be the most important of their lives. Since the season began in a snowstorm at Shea Stadium back in April, New York has turned each outing into what the team's former manager, Wes Westrum, once called "cliff dwellers." Of their first 40 games, nine went into extra innings and the Mets lost only one. By Sunday they had been beaten in 22 other games, too, but in none of those losses were they hopelessly out of things. One more fielding gem by Bud Harrelson, a line drive hit by ever-improving Catcher Jerry Grote (see cover), a take-out slide by Tommie Agee and they might have been right back into one of those games they usually do win, cliff dwellers.
Usually is the word, because it would be no fun if you won them all, as last weekend's uproarious three-game series against the San Francisco Giants proved. In the first game of the series New York tied things up in the bottom of the ninth inning on a two-out, two-strike, opposite-field pinch-hit home run by former Giant Dave Marshall, but then lost the game in the 10th. Following a long rain delay the Mets lost the second game of the series, but then on Sunday, after three more rain delays, Ken Singleton produced a sacrifice fly that brought Harrelson in with the winning run through the mud and mist. It was another epic performance in the growing Met legend of 1971.
New York, of course, is not the only source of excitement in the National League East. From the beginning the Mets had been locked in a fight for first place with Willie Stargell and the pitcher-rich Pirates and those hitting wonders, the Cards of Lou Brock, Joe Torre and Matty Alou. If the pressure sometimes caused havoc in queasy stomachs, it was a boon to the box office in New York, if not in skeptical St. Louis or (for no discernible reason) in Pittsburgh. The Mets recorded extraordinarily high television ratings and the team's home attendance already is marching toward the million mark. A total of 153,414 packed Shea just for the three games against the Giants. Those who said the Mets would lose their glow once they had attained respectability either did not know the Mets' followers or did not know the Mets.
Bookmakers knew their expansion Mets. They used to make them two-run underdogs. Today they sometimes make them two-run favorites, but not consistently, and that is the way with the Mets. They are never quite believed. Their unpredictability, in fact, has a great deal to do with their ability to draw crowds. There are days when the Mets hit the ball long distances and there are other days when they never seem even to scuff it, but somehow they manage to get something going that keeps hope burning in the throats of the faithful. In other words, the Mets of 1971 do not in the least resemble the Yankees of the 1950s or early '60s. They are more like the Los Angeles Dodgers of 1965-66, a club that pecked and scratched its way to consecutive pennants while driving the opposition crazy. Every time it seemed certain the Dodgers had gone under for the third time they would surface and spit little arcs of water at the reports of their demise.
The Mets have something of the sort in mind for this season. No doubt their attitude will not go down well in Pittsburgh, but they have dedicated the year to proving that 1970 was just one long mistake. And for all their troubles with the Giants, the Mets are still off to their best start ever.
When he signed his contract last winter, Tug McGraw, the spirited left-handed relief pitcher, explained the difference a year could make. "We had a chance to go everywhere after we won in 1969," McGraw said. "In 1970 about the only place I was invited to was the George Gobel Open."
The new season was only nine games old when their followers got an inkling of what this year's Mets were about. The team had just come off an emotion-packed four-game series in which it split with the Pirates. Beginning a 12-game road trip in Cincinnati, the Mets carried a 2-1 lead into the bottom of the eighth inning behind a strong pitching performance by Ray Sadecki. Danny Frisella, the good relief man, was brought in to protect the lead. But Frisella gave up a homer to Johnny Bench with one on, and in the ninth New York failed to score after putting two men on base with none out.
"It is way too early in the season to talk about turning points," says Ken Boswell, the second baseman, "but that loss could have hurt us so badly that we never would have recovered."
Recover the Mets did, however, and in spectacular fashion. They won eight of their next 11 games and demolished the Cardinals. They won all four games at Busch Memorial Stadium and out-scored the Cards by 30-4. That bombardment can be significant. Although the Cardinals held on to first place for 15 days this year, they were hardly world beaters against their main competition, Pittsburgh and New York. In 13 meetings with the two, St. Louis has won only one game. The Cards could score only 30 runs while giving up 88.
The Mets move along. But if New York should win the Eastern title again, it most likely will be the pitching that is responsible rather than the hitting. The most any opposing team reasonably can expect if it gives up three runs to the Mets is a tie. These Mets have fewer big winners than the world championship team of 1969, but there is far greater depth to their staff. Tom Seaver still is the best pitcher, and the next three starters in the rotation—Jerry Koosman, Gary Gentry and Nolan Ryan—are excellent at times but not consistent. By the end of last week Koosman, suffering with arm problems, Gentry and Ryan had started 32 games and completed only five. Seaver had started 13 and finished seven. The team record, though, was 33-23, which speaks well for the men who follow the starters.