- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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"I was a fool to play the harmonica. Here we were 4� games out and I was playing a harmonica in the back of the bus. Yogi comes back and fines me. The next day he calls me into his office and says he is sorry he had to do it. Hell, I was the one at fault. After Yogi was fired the Yankees hired Johnny Keane and he panicked by the third week of the season. Elston Howard ruined his arm because Keane forced him into the lineup early. Mantle played before he was ready, too. Yogi knew that when Howard and Mantle said they could not play, they meant it. Keane was a good man, but I think he felt the Yankees were spoiled."
Twice last week situations came up in which Berra could have used Mays as a pinch hitter if he had cared about the "We Want Willie" chanting of the crowd. Both times Willie stayed on the bench. At one point M. Donald Grant, the Mets' board chairman, who had worked out the details of the winning of Willie, leaned over the rail of his field box and peered into the dugout, obviously hoping to see Mays heading plateward. The pinch hitter he saw instead was John Milner. Forty-four thousand people booed. Yogi had decided before the game that Milner would be his first pinch hitter against right-handed pitching. Milner, who was hitting .357, dutifully got on base—via a walk—and then scored the winning run.
The fans surely want to see Mays, but a lot of young ones may not want to see him in center field, where their own Shea Hey Kid, Tommie Agee, plays. Agee came to New York from the American League in 1968 and had a brutal adjustment period. He was booed time and again and harder and harder, but in 1969 he turned out to be the team's most popular hitter.
Then there are those other new faces vying for attention, too. Fregosi, a six-time All-Star shortstop for the California Angels, is making not only the switch from the American League to the National but from shortstop to third. He has had difficulties at third because, at times, he has tried to watch the pitcher and the hitter simultaneously, something a shortstop must do but a third baseman cannot. The ball comes off the bat to a third baseman either so hard or soft that only the hitter can be watched. "I think I will get it down finally," says Fregosi. "It's hard to adjust to a new position, and when you change leagues there is a whole new set of ball parks and pitchers to contend with. After you've been in one league for 10 seasons you know the pitchers as well as you are going to get to know them. Here I have to learn two or three new things in every game." But he is a solid addition to the team.
So is Staub, who is one of the smartest hitters the Mets have ever had. In each of his last two seasons with the Montreal Expos he drove in over 90 runs. He also possesses a magnificent throwing arm. But even Grandes Oranges have slumps. In the throes of one last week he broke his bat in disgust and threw it away—only to find it hanging over his locker after the game. It was put there by Seaver. After Staub laughed, took it down and discarded it again in a trash can, Seaver retrieved it and mounted it over Fregosi's locker. Thus are newcomers made welcome. At the time Fregosi's locker also sported the message: "To take a great weight off your mind, try discarding your halo."
Such jocularity contrasted sharply with the somber mood of the Mets when the season started, for Manager Gil Hodges had just died in West Palm Beach. Says Shortstop Bud Harrelson, "I don't think I ever saw Gil look so good or feel so relieved about things as he did this spring. We had the feeling in St. Petersburg that we were going to win. I think we will. Gil is still here. He's in the clubhouse in the things he left us with—the search for excellence, the belief that it was something special to be a Met. When Yogi was named manager it didn't surprise me at all. We wanted someone who was in the organization and knew us. Yogi is a very shrewd man, an excellent baseball man. Some people might laugh at the way he talks. We don't. Seaver figured out the other day that as a team we are at just about the right ages to have our best years. I hadn't thought about it that way, but I believe he's right."
Some 40 hours before Willie Mays was ready to appear in his first game as a Met he was having his arm rubbed by Trainer Tom McKenna. Seaver, Staub, Agee, Fregosi and Dave Marshall gathered around Mays and started chiding him. "Hey, old man," said Seaver, "you mean it takes you this long to get ready for one game? This long?"
Mays laughed and his pealing voice rose in response. "Now how can you say that?" he asked. "You ain't even made it through your first 10 years in the big leagues yet."
Mays made it into the lineup on a bleak, rain-streaked Sunday afternoon. The weather had diminished an anticipated crowd of more than 50,000 to 36,000. Berra didn't keep them waiting; he put Mays in the leadoff spot. After receiving a fine ovation, Willie drew a walk from Sam McDowell, the only winning pitcher San Francisco has. There were subsequent walks to Harrelson and Agee, and then Rusty Staub drove a grand-slam home run over the right field wall. The Mets on the bench jumped up and down and Rusty's average did a little jumping, too—to .394 against left-handed pitching.
San Francisco tied the game 4-4 in the fifth, and Mays stepped up as the leadoff batter in the bottom of the inning. The count went to 3-2 and then Willie drove the ball into the Giant bullpen. It was one of those marvelous moments in sport when a man does not merely rise to the occasion but soars above it. The ball park rocked as Mays circled the bases. Every player on the New York bench was up to greet him, none more joyfully than the man he had replaced at first base, Ed Kranepool. And, lo, Willie's homer was the winning hit, as the game ended 5-4. It looked like a beautiful season for the bed-sheet business in New York.