Should the Mets, a last-place team in 1983 and a first-place team so far in 1984, win the National League East, they will be almost as good a story (fairy tale?) as the '69 world-champion Mets, who came off a ninth-place finish in '68. The similarities are striking: a lot of young pitchers, a bunch of hard-working unknowns filling a number of jobs, plenty of come-from-behind wins and a manager who is making a difference.
For the '69 Mets there was stern Gil Hodges, who commanded respect and fear. For the '84 Mets, who had won 21 of 24 before losing three straight to Chicago last weekend, it's Davey Johnson, who hangs quite a bit looser.
When the Phillies came to Shea for three games in late June, the Mets were just starting to convince people they were for real. They lost the first game 6-4 and played badly doing it. Was the manager worried his younger players might overreact? "Eh, we'll kick their butts tomorrow night," Johnson said blithely, "and we'll see who gets tight the next day." The Mets, who won the next two games, seem as insouciant as the manager, which is exactly the way he planned it.
Then there's the case of Ed Lynch, who started the season in long relief, earned a spot in the rotation and then lost it. Johnson knew Lynch was depressed about the demotion, so he made like Dr. Freud one day in the Cincinnati airport. "We were waiting for the plane. I went into the bathroom, and Davey followed me," Lynch says. "He told me, 'You're going to be very important for this club.' I really needed to hear that."
The next day Lynch got a win in relief. Two days later he earned a save with four shutout innings.
Last Wednesday 25-year-old Red Sox rookie Al Nipper found himself starting against Chicago's 39-year-old Tom Seaver. You might say that Nipper was thrilled. Or as he puts it: "I lived for him when I was young. He's the complete pitcher, the ultimate." Nipper, who grew up in Hazelwood, Mo., made it to Busch Stadium just about every time Seaver pitched against the Cardinals. "I saw the way he warmed up, handled himself on the field, the way he pitched in and out. I want to pitch like he does, but no one will ever have the mechanics he does."
Nipper outpitched his idol that night, but his two-run throwing error cost him a win in a game the Red Sox won in extra innings. The next night he got to meet Tom Terrific; he was too nervous to introduce himself, so Red Sox broadcaster Mike Andrews handled the formalities. "I didn't know what to say, but he was very nice," Nipper says. "He suggested we get together when we're in Chicago, and he promised to give me his new book. I can't believe I'm going to talk pitching with Tom Seaver."
Roger Clemens, the Red Sox' 22-year-old phenom, continues to learn about life in the fast lane. He was removed from the rotation recently after a couple of pastings, but last Thursday night he blew away Chicago with a four-hit, 11 strikeout shutout.
"I've heard people say he should be in Pawtucket," says Ralph Houk, "but what good would that do him? Roger's problem is that he has too much stuff. I'm serious. You watch him warm up and you say nobody will ever hit him. When he went to spring training this year and made a mistake, they hit him. He couldn't believe it. So we sent him down to Pawtucket, and as soon as he got his feet on the ground, we brought him back up. Again, I might be wrong but I think a few defeats up here will do him a world of good."
On the day before he passed Ty Cobb as the alltime singles hitter (3,053), Pete Rose lost a job, and maybe his chance at Cobb's alltime hit record (4,191). The Expos, desperate for some pop, traded for the Reds' Dan Driessen last Thursday. He's going to play first base against all righties and a few lefties. Rose, who started the season in left but had to move to first base because his 43-year-old elbow couldn't handle the throws, will pinch-hit and play first against some lefties. Rose, batting .268, is 132 short of Cobb. He may have to change teams again—if he can find work—to have a chance at the record. "I have no right to hang my head," said Rose, who was released by the Phillies after hitting .245 last year. "I don't know how to say I'm not upset."