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Then, against San Diego, the Mets suffered three more one-run losses, 1-0, 2-1 and 4-3; in each game the winning run was unearned. Cincinnati then won two out of three extra-inning games. In one of them New York fought back from a 7-0 deficit, only to lose 12-10 in 14 innings on a broken-bat double. The Mets occasionally lost big, too, as they did on May 13 when the Reds beat them 15-4 on an eight-run fifth highlighted by Ray Knight's solo and grand-slam homers. At that point New York was 9-18, nestled comfortably in last place and not looking like $21.1 million—or two cents, for that matter.
The next night against the Reds the Mets blew a 6-2 lead in the ninth but came back to win 7-6 in 10 innings. That was a turning point, although how big a turning point remains to be seen. Beginning with that game, New York had gone 7-3 through the end of last week and had moved up to—lo and behold—fifth place. Last weekend they swept three games from Atlanta, and their fans went wild. Both of them. Actually, a total of 28,709 saw the series, not very much for a holiday weekend with fine weather, but the ancient chant of "Let's go, Mets" could again be heard. Maybe the magic is coming back.
Of New Yorks' 21 losses, 11 have been by one or two runs, which is a good sign. Neil Allen, who is second in the league in saves with eight, is rapidly blossoming into a valuable relief pitcher. The starting pitching generally has been excellent. Two of the more pleasant surprises have been Falcone and Ray Burris, two journeymen who seem to have found religion and the plate at about the same time. Falcone, a Brooklynite, has been brilliant on occasion, reviving the comparisons, heard early in his career, to that other Brooklyn pitcher, Fred Wilp, er, rather, Sandy Koufax. Burris has an ERA of 2.29, and he should be 6-2 instead of 3-3. Both Burris and Falcone say the Lord is their pitching coach. "Whatever it is," says Manager Joe Torre, "it's a force bigger than mine."
If and when New York's putative aces, Craig Swan and Pat Zachry, start winning regularly, the Mets could have a fine pitching staff, although nothing like the one they traded away: Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Jon Matlack, Nolan Ryan, McGraw et al. The sins of former board chairman M. Donald Grant and his advisers have been visited upon the new owners. Almost everybody with the club says it is only one or two players or one or two years away. The Mets sure could use Kingman or John Milner or Rusty Staub or even Jim Dwyer now. "I've seen a lot of good men come and go," says Reserve Catcher Ron Hodges, who's been with the Mets since 1973.
Because the team was sold so close to the start of the season and because the threat of a strike paralyzed everybody in baseball, Cashen has yet to make a deal. He came from the commissioner's office to the Mets but, more important, he came to the commissioner's office from Baltimore, where he has been given a lot of the credit for building the Oriole juggernauts of the late '60s and early '70s. "No trades, zero, nothing," he says. "Believe me, I've been trying, but it's been very frustrating." Consequently, New York's lineup is filled with guys playing out of position. One centerfielder, Mazzilli, is playing first base, and another, Elliott Maddox, is playing third. In centerfield is an excellent first baseman, Mike Jorgensen. John Stearns is a very good ballplayer, but some people think he shouldn't be catching. Basically, the Mets have a strong bench. Unfortunately, it's starting. And not hitting. But then the Cardinals are hitting, .285 as a team, and last Sunday they were three games behind the Mets. "I said before the season started that we'd have trouble scoring runs," says Torre. "I'm sorry I was right." As a team the Mets are batting .253, which wouldn't be so bad if they had more than eight home runs among them, four fewer than Greg Luzinski of the Phils.
Ehrhardt the Signman, who in real life is an art director for a food company, is strictly an unofficial spokesman for the Mets, so he can't be fined for tampering. He says, "What we need is lefthanded power and a third baseman. George Brett would be nice." Wilpon, the president and the owner most active in the operations of the club, pledges to carry a big bankroll to the free-agent auction, but the Mets will have to wait two years before Brett becomes available. Third base has always been the Mets' bugaboo, 65 guys having auditioned for the position. Even though Maddox says he's uncomfortable there, he has been playing third very well. In fact, it's not stretching things to say he's the greatest third baseman in Mets history. It certainly wouldn't take much.
Joe Pignatano, first-base coach and team gardener, has been with the Mets for 13 years. "This club is going some-place," he says. "Really. It feels like '68. All we need is another Donn Clendenon and another lefthanded reliever. Out in the bullpen I grow cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, squash and string beans. But no lefthanders."
One way the Mets could start winning is to get Doubleday—Nelson not Abner—to attend more games. He has the best record on the club, with four wins in four appearances. "They're not permitted to lose when I'm out there," he says. "Actually, I think the team has already benefited from the new management. It was in disarray when we got it. There hadn't been a budget done in 19 years. We just need time. When we said The Magic Is Back, not in our wildest dreams did we think we could win. But we just wanted people to know it was fun to go out to Shea."
"Do you want to know the difference between the old owners and the new ones?" says Ehrhardt. "For 16 years I came out here and it didn't cost them a dime, but I never really felt like they wanted me even when they were winning. Last September I quit. Then just a few days before the season started, Wilpon calls me and asks me to come back. He offers to give me a box seat, a parking spot and a place to change. I never had that." Ehrhardt then holds up a sign that says "Hellllp" after Atlanta's Gary Matthews homers off Zachry in the first inning of Saturday's game.
Hellllp arrives. The Mets rally to win 5-4 on Maddox' single in the 10th. After the game Stearns watches another New York team, the Islanders, win their game on TV, also by a score of 5-4, also in overtime. Pointing to the bedlam in the Nassau Coliseum, he says, "We could have that here at Shea. Only we could have 50,000 screaming idiots instead of 15,000." Anything seems possible when you're in fifth place. After all, the '68 Mets finished next to last.