It was an extraordinary play. Balls do not normally bounce off Shea Stadium fences directly into the hands of outfielders, and third basemen playing shortstop do not ordinarily make cutoff throws of such exquisite precision. But this was not an ordinary game, and in the Mets' half of the inning, Hodges, himself a late-inning substitute for regular Catcher Jerry Grote, singled home the winning run. This was something of a coincidence, since the tying run had been driven in by yet another substitute catcher, Duffy Dyer, with a pinch-hit double—with two out in the ninth inning.
The first-stringer, Grote, had his innings the following evening in the 10-2 win that rousted the Pirates and hoisted the Mets up to first. Grote went 3 for 3, including a double that struck the third-base bag and bounced crazily into foul territory and a ground ball single that hit something odd on the field and hopped over the glove of Pirate Shortstop Dal Maxvill.
Miracles? Perhaps, but only the Mets' due, according to Garrett, whose red hair, freckles and amused blue eyes suggest a familiarity with leprechauns.
"When we were 12 games back [in July], I tell you, nothing went right," said he after Friday night's legerdemain. "We had one injury after another and were playing with half a team. We had no depth. You can't make the right moves without depth. The balls that are bouncing for us now were bouncing the other way then. Now we've got everybody back and things are going our way. When you're playing good the umpires give you the calls and things happen, like tonight with Grote."
Garrett made some things happen the next day by stroking a two-run homer that was decisive in Jon Matlack's 2-0 shutout over the Cardinals. This combination of timely hitting, good pitching and the occult is what the Mets are banking on to see them through the last critical games of the season.
"We won't bomb you," said the oft-injured shortstop, Harrelson, with laudable candor. "We have to get the key hits. Now we're winning the gift games, games in which the other guy makes a mistake and we do something about it. We have had both good times and bad this season, but that's all part of the game. A true professional realizes that he'll go good for a while, then bad. But when things go bad, the important thing is to stay sane and hang in there. That's professionalism."
Berra, the once-beleaguered manager, would subscribe to this homely philosophy. When his team was floundering pitifully in last place it was rumored that he would be quickly cashiered, perhaps before the end of the season. His tactics, it was said, were unimaginative, his leadership uninspired. Besides, he seemed incapable of achieving a d�tente with the team's resident immortal, the increasingly crotchety Willie Mays. Apparently Berra, who had no previous reputation for scholarship, learned much in the past two months, for now his tactics seem positively Clausewitzian, his players are performing as if possessed and Mays has tastefully, if ambivalently, retired (he has said he would like to play in the last game of the season and in the World Series). But Berra is not the sort to savor vindication out loud.
"I don't care about criticism," he said in Friday's moment of tentative triumph. "I just do the best I can. You know what they say: every manager is hired to be fired. Oh, I could feel bad if we had been losing with a full ball club. Then I'd have said there's something wrong here and maybe it's me. But we had a lot of injuries then."
He cut himself a slice of pepperoni and devoured it in concert with a hunk of Swiss cheese. Then he leaned back in his chair, adjusted the incongruous spectacles on his melancholy rock-formation face and recalled an inspired psychological ploy.
"It wasn't a team meeting or anything like that, but I did bring a newspaper story around to the players that said we'd given up. 'Look,' I told the guys, 'you stink. It says so right here in the paper. It says you guys don't wanna play no more.' I don't think anybody wants to hear that. That was about August 17. We've been 24 and 12 since then. I'm not saying that helped turn things around, but nobody wants to hear that he don't wanna play no more."