September?" said Tom Seaver, tucking another chaw of tobacco into his cheek. "September is tabismunferbabal," he said, turning to spit a mouthful of juice into a waste can. "Excuse me. September is the best month for baseball. If..." he paused to gaze pensively at his fellow New York Mets limbering up in the clubhouse. "If there is..." he began again, only to be drowned out by the rhythmic chants of his teammates doing jumping jacks. "If there's a pennant race!" Seaver shouted above the din.
We hear you, Tom, we hear you. Trouble was, no one seemed to be getting the message last week. It kept getting garbled or interrupted or something. September? A pennant race? Well, let's see. As of Monday morning Sept. 1, the Boston Red Sox were leading the Baltimore Orioles by six games in the American League East. Nothing too nip-and-tuck there. In the AL West there were the Oakland A's again, fooling around with a 7�-game lead over the Kansas City Royals while waiting to pick up their World Series checks. As for the National League West, forget it; 18� games in front of the hapless Los Angeles Dodgers, the Cincinnati Reds could be charged with leaving the scene of an accident.
That left only the NL East, the volatile NL East where the Pittsburgh Pirates have been performing erratically enough this season to give their four-game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals and the Philadelphia Phillies an aura of the precarious. Toss in the unpredictable Mets, just five games off the pace, and with a little imagination one could see the makings of a good old-fashioned brawl.
In fact, if any team seemed capable of proving that September is the best month for baseball it would have to be the Mets, if only because they have won the pennant twice before in miraculous fashion. "We didn't say quit when we were behind in '69 and '73," said Bud Harrelson, returning to the Met lineup last week after being out three months with an injured knee. "Those are living examples of what can happen, and we lived through them."
If lightning were to strike thrice, it would have to be sparked by a team that is substantially different from the lovable Amazins who seemed to come toddling right out of the incubator to win the 1969 World Series. Indeed, after a winter of heavy trading, the 1975 Mets could not even be mistaken for the brash upstarts who pestered the A's all the way through the seventh game of the 1973 Series.
Center field, for example, is now the province of Del Unser, a reliable hand who just may be, with the possible exception of Tommie Agee, the best of the 42 other aspirants who have tried and faltered at that position for the Mets.
And there is no overlooking 6' 6" Dave Kingman, that prodigious hitter who is the first genuine long-ball threat the Mets have had in more than a decade. "I find it hard to believe the opportunities that abound in New York," says Sky King, slightly overcome by the free-swinging bliss of it all after being unhappily shackled to the San Francisco Giants for four years. "I feel needed here."
There have been pleasant surprises, too. Ed Kranepool, who joined the original Met team as an 18-year-old wonder in 1962, is having his best half-season—he hits almost solely against right-handers—with an average that has placed him among the league leaders.
And what contender could not use a spanking new prodigy to brighten up its pennant hopes? The Mets are certain they have one in 23-year-old Mike Vail, who was brought up in mid-August when Kingman sprained a toe. Thrown into the breach in left field, Vail responded by hitting .370 the first two weeks and has yet to cool off. Vail, who was leading the International League with a .342 average when summoned, says the majors have been an eye-opening experience. "I can see!" he exclaims, sounding like a Billy Sunday convert. "They told me it was a lot easier to hit in the majors because of the great lighting. But I never dreamed you could see this well. You can see the spin on the curveball and everything."
Met fans are not sure what they are seeing these days. The new faces, the home runs, the altogether serious mien of these older guys calling themselves the Mets—it is all a bit disorienting for the faithful who doted on those improbable babes of summers past. Why, this team does not even have a rallying cry. Reliever Tug McGraw took the best one—"Ya gotta believe!"—the one that won over an entire city in 1973, with him to Philadelphia this year.