The secret cannot
be kept much longer. Questions are being asked, and sooner rather than later
the New York Mets management will have to produce a statement. It may have
started unraveling in St. Petersburg, Fla. two weeks ago, on March 14, to be
exact, when Mel Stottlemyre, the Met pitching coach, walked over to the 40-odd
Met players doing their morning calisthenics at the Payson Field Complex not
far from the Gulf of Mexico, a solitary figure among the pulsation of jumping
jacks, and motioned three Mets to step out of the exercise. The three, all good
prospects, were John Christensen, a 24-year-old outfielder; Dave Cochrane, a
spare but muscular switch-hitting third baseman; and Lenny Dykstra, a swift
centerfielder who may be the Mets' lead-off man of the future.
three to collect their bats and batting helmets, Stottlemyre led the players to
the north end of the complex where a large canvas enclosure had been
constructed two weeks before. The rumor was that some irrigation machinery was
being installed in an underground pit.
the enclosure, Stottlemyre explained what he wanted. "First of all,"
the coach said, "the club's got kind of a delicate situation here, and it
would help if you kept reasonably quiet about it. O.K.?" The three nodded.
Stottlemyre said, "We've got a young pitcher we're looking at. We want to
see what he'll do with a batter standing in the box. We'll do this
alphabetically. John, go on in there, stand at the plate and give the pitcher a
target. That's all you have to do."
"Do you want
me to take a cut?" Christensen asked.
produced a dry chuckle. "You can do anything you want."
pulled aside a canvas flap and found himself inside a rectangular area about 90
feet long and 30 feet wide, open to the sky, with a home plate set in the
ground just in front of him, and down at the far end a pitcher's mound, with a
small group of Met front-office personnel standing behind it, facing home
plate. Christensen recognized Nelson Double-day, the owner of the Mets, and
Frank Cashen, wearing a long-billed fishing cap. He had never seen Doubleday at
the training facility before.
righthanded. As he stepped around the plate he nodded to Ronn Reynolds, the
stocky reserve catcher who has been with the Met organization since 1980.
Reynolds whispered up to him from his crouch, "Kid, you won't believe what
you're about to see."
A second flap
down by the pitcher's end was drawn open, and a tall, gawky player walked in
and stepped up onto the pitcher's mound. He was wearing a small, black
fielder's glove on his left hand and was holding a baseball in his right.
Christensen had never seen him before. He had blue eyes, Christensen remembers,
and a pale, youthful face, with facial muscles that were motionless, like a
mask. "You notice it," Christensen explained later, "when a
pitcher's jaw isn't working on a chaw or a piece of gum." Then to
Christensen's astonishment he saw that the pitcher, pawing at the dirt of the
mound to get it smoothed out properly and to his liking, was wearing a heavy
hiking boot on his right foot.
since been persuaded to describe that first confrontation:
in there to give this guy a target, just waving the bat once or twice out over
the plate. He starts his windup. He sways way back, like Juan Marichal, this
hiking boot comes clomping over—I thought maybe he was wearing it for balance
or something—and he suddenly rears upright like a catapult. The ball is
launched from an arm completely straight up and stiff. Before you can blink,
the ball is in the catcher's mitt. You hear it crack, and then there's this
little bleat from Reynolds."