There is no longer any doubt that the Mets wanna play. "Every day when I wake up in the morning," says young Hodges, "I think about how I can't wait to get to the ball park." But if they are to win the division championship, they will do it with pitching. And here, with starters Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, George Stone and Matlack, they have a clear advantage over their four rivals.
"The season is so cotton-picking long," said Seaver, issuing a fraternity-beer-bust guffaw, "that anything can happen if the pitching stays strong. The number of runs you get should have no effect on your pitching. The pitcher's philosophy is to do the best he can every time out. This is a good division with a lot of good clubs that have played poorly all year long. Now it's getting exciting. I'm just glad I'm in my seventh year, not my first, so I can keep my feet on the ground." He laughed again, a good old USC undergraduate laugh.
On Friday Seaver pitched before the biggest crowd of the Mets' season, 51,381 paid, and the "We're No. 1" chants, the paper airplane tossing, the dancing on the dugout roof, the relentless din were all reminiscent of the Mets' first miracle four years ago when, as Seaver put it, "It was like this every day." The fans, at least, were rounding into pennant-winning form.
But the Met fans were not alone. There was the same frenzy in, of all places, Montreal, before the Expos staggered last week into what may finally prove to be a fatal seven-game losing streak. Like the Mets ahead of them, the Expos did not so much surge forward as hold their place in the race as the front-runners fell back. Then when they were within a game of the lead, they fell prey to the successes that is epidemic in the NL East. Unlike the Cubs, the Cardinals and the Pirates, they did not even wait until they got on top before starting their descent. Fortunately, their losing streak before the weekend coincided nicely with the rout of the Pirates, so theirs was more of a missed opportunity than a bona fide disaster. Anyway, losing is no disgrace in this division.
Montreal's devoted fans have been more than generous with losing baseball teams. The Expos have never drawn fewer than a million fans in their five years in Canada, despite two last-place, two fifth-place and who-knows-what-place-this-year finishes. And they play in the major league's smallest stadium, 28,000-seat Jarry Park.
"It's a good feeling hearing the fans cheer their heads off," says Ron Fairly, the Expo leftfielder who, at 35 and with 16 years of major league experience, might be expected to rise above rah-rah. "Anyone who has ever been in front of a large audience will certainly have a reaction. When you come to Jarry Park, there's not much to look at. Other cities have these huge multipurpose stadiums. Here there is no double deck, the seats are aluminum and there is no protection from the weather. But it's a fun little park and it's filled with the best fans in baseball."
The fans were credited with actually winning one game last week for the home team when a pop fly with two out in the last of the ninth fell untouched by the Cardinal infielders. "Nobody called for it," said Fairly, "or if they called, nobody could hear above the crowd noise."
If the Expos had been merely received with Gallic courtesy in the past, this year they have been embraced with Gallic passion. There was honest mourning throughout the city, particularly in taverns such as Toe Blake's and the Rymark, when the team faltered last week. Hockey may be a religion in French Canada, but baseball there has a long and honored tradition. Montreal had a franchise in the International League before the turn of the century, and in the post-war 1940s some of the finest minor league baseball teams in history played there. Jackie Robinson made his debut in organized baseball with the Montreal Royals, then a Brooklyn Dodger Triple A farm team, on April 18, 1946. He hit a home run and three singles in five at bats.
Many of the Dodger stars of the late '40s and early '50s—Duke Snider, Carl Erskine, Don Newcombe and Roy Campanula—played for the Royals. Sparky Anderson also played in Montreal and Walter Alston managed there. "This has always been a great baseball town," says Phil Seguin, a sportswriter for the French-language
Montreal-Matin who has covered the game there for 35 years. "It still is."
True enough, but will it not be too chilly to play night games there in mid-October should the Expos muddle through to the World Series? Not at all, says Expos Manager Gene Mauch. "Sometimes you get an Indian summer here that time of year. The weather could be a lot better than it might be in places like Detroit and Minnesota." The weather question seemed somehow academic, however, after the Expos' stumble. And yet anything is possible in a division that may send a team with a losing record into the National League playoffs and—who knows?—the World Series itself.