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The banner draped over the second deck in the left-field stands at New York's Shea Stadium last Saturday afternoon was a fine piece of bed-sheet art. It utilized many bright colors. There were yellow jackets flying between the words of its message, which was, "There's a New Bee-U-tiful Sound Buzzin'." The history of the New York Mets has been written best on bed sheets and banners: some clever, others loving or angry or stupid or even metaphysical, like one displayed during the summer of 1971: "Should reincarnation exist, this bed sheet would like the opportunity to return merely as a bed sheet." The sheet with the bees was a tribute to Buzz Capra, a 24-year-old right-handed pitcher making his first Shea Stadium start against the San Francisco Giants, before 35,780 people.
The job Buzz Capra did on the Giants may have been overlooked by many during a zany, emotional, publicity-rich week in which the Mets picked up Willie Mays (see cover), a man 30 years older than the franchise itself. Although Willie was getting most of the ink, it was players like Capra, Jon Matlack, Jim Fregosi, Rusty Staub, Teddy Martinez and John Milner who were responsible for the most impressive start in Met history, pushing the team into a lead of three games over second-place Philadelphia and 5� over world champion Pittsburgh in the East Division of the National League. By acquiring Mays the Mets were buying some insurance for the pennant they devoutly believe they will win. It was costly insurance, since Mays is being paid $140,000 to spend most of his time on the bench, wages even the Supreme Court doesn't get. But viewed another way, Willie is a bargain. In Mays-mad New York he sells seats.
Mays is 41 now, and fastballs he once was able to hit with his eyes shut go by him more often than he wants to admit. At the time the Mets got him, Willie, normally a superior spring hitter, was batting .184, had no home runs and only three runs batted in. But he had some pretty good company in the lower averages of the major leagues: Boog Powell, Willie Stargell, Reggie Jackson, Ted Sizemore, Maury Wills, Ken Henderson. Willie Horton and Carl Yastrzemski. And could they do with gloves or legs what Mays can still do with his?
To be sure, the Mets have never been able to do with their legs or gloves—or bats—what they are doing this year. They can score a run after two men are out. Hit doubles. Use the hit-and-run to set up a big inning. Met fans are now asking themselves an unusual question: Is our pitching good enough?
Over the last three weeks the Mets have done some remarkable things with both hitting and pitching, winning 16 of 21 games—and all eight games that were decided by one run. Matlack and Capra, the new pitchers added to the starting rotation, won five times and lost once. Tom Seaver, while not pitching well according to his own exalted standards, was good enough to be 5-1.
Tug McGraw, the animated relief specialist, came out of the bullpen to strike out 22 batters in 22 innings, win two games and save five others. Two weeks ago New York was losing 6-0 to the San Diego Padres in the bottom of the eighth inning, yet rallied to win. A few days later Rusty Staub homered in the eighth to tie a game with Los Angeles. Speed won that one for the Mets via an infield single by Martinez in the 14th. Last Friday a perfect hit-and-run single in the ninth by Fregosi set up the winning run against the Giants. The next day Capra allowed just three hits in eight innings and singled in the only run lie needed. In New York's first 17 victories the game-winning hits were provided by 12 different men.
The Mets getting Mays was the crowning touch to what has been a most bewildering season. Nobody truly believed that Horace Stoneham, owner of the Giants, would ever trade Willie, his most important object of art. Joan Payson, owner of the Mets, had long coveted Mays but was rebuffed each time she went acourting Stoneham. During spring training this year, however, the Mets began to get different soundings from Stoneham. Although the Giants had won the West Division in 1971, they had done so by pulling ahead early, then just surviving the Dodgers' closing sprint while winning only 40 games and losing 43 from July through September. Attendance at Candlestick Park totaled 1,106,043, paltry when compared with the 1,989,704 the Giants played to on the road and the 2,064,594 drawn by the Dodgers in Los Angeles.
The Giants opened this season with two victories over the Astros in Houston and then proceeded to lose 11 of 13 games at Candlestick during the team's longest home stand. With Willie McCovey injured and out for at least three months, the Giants finally decided to trade Mays and build for the future. Willie's future, too. The Met package adds up to $400,000, including the assurance of a job with the club for three years when Mays retires from the field.
Baseball people wonder all kinds of things about Mays becoming a Met. One of the most frequently discussed matters is how Yogi Berra will handle him. More precisely, if he can handle him. In San Francisco, Mays virtually wrote his name in the lineup when he wanted to. During a meeting in New York before the transaction was completed, Berra and Mays got together. Yogi made it plain that he was boss. Yogi would make out the lineup card. Yogi would play Mays at first base at certain times and in the outfield at others, times of Yogi's choosing.
When the Yankees fired Berra after losing the seventh game of the 1964 World Series, they let word seep out that he could not handle his players. Proof was supposed to be the Phil Linz harmonica affair. Remember? Linz was playing a tune on the team bus after the Yanks had lost a four-game series to the White Sox in late August. Linz remembers, all right—Yogi with respect and the mouth organ with regret. "I think the Mets will win the pennant with Yogi," he says today. "He is a good strategist and an excellent judge of pitchers and he does not panic. The Yankees were already in bad shape and aging the year before Yogi took over as manager. Mickey Mantle was hurt and Whitey Ford's arm bothered him. But somehow we won the pennant that year and the next, when Yogi took over. I think no one could have done a better job than Yogi with that team.