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Meet the Mets, meet the Mets. Step right up and greet the Mets. Bring your kiddies, bring your wife. Guaranteed to have the time of your life. Because the Mets are really sockin' the ball (crack of bat, roar of crowd), knockin' those home runs over the wa-a-a-all. East Side, West Side, everybody's comin' down, to meet the M-E-T-S Mets, of New York town.
That song was once the joyful accompaniment to Casey Stengel's beloved losers, then to the Miracle Mets of 1969 and then to the National League champions of 1973. But for the past few years Meet the Mets , even in its disco version, has been some sort of cruel joke, reminding people that not only did the Mets not sock the ball—they never really did, anyway—but also that the kiddies and the wife were having the times of their lives somewhere else, probably Yankee Stadium.
Last year the Mets had to win their last six games to avoid losing 100 for the first time since 1967. Attendance fell to an alltime low of 788,905. By season's end, Richie Hebner, the disappointed and disappointing third baseman, was trading crude gestures with the fans, who were getting the feeling that Hebner's views reflected those of the management. Minor Met celebrity Karl Ehrhardt, the leprechaun with the signs, was so disgusted he said he would never bring any of his 900 placards to Shea Stadium again. He had been a regular in the third-base boxes since 1965.
Then, on January 24, the Payson family, which had owned the Mets since their inception in 1962, sold the franchise to a group led by Nelson Doubleday, the great-great nephew of the man who didn't invent baseball. As the head of the Doubleday & Co. publishing empire, Nelson was a very large bookworm indeed, and he and his group paid a record $21.1 million for the Mets. This happened only six months after Edward Bennett Williams had bought the Baltimore Orioles, who were about to win the American League pennant and draw more than 1,600,000 people, for $12 million. The joke went that Doubleday should have waited for the Mets to come out in paperback.
Of course, Doubleday and his partners, who include Fred Wilpon, a real-estate wizard who once pitched for the same Lafayette High team in Brooklyn on which Sandy Koufax was the first baseman, were not merely buying the Mudville Nine. They were purchasing New York's National League franchise and the two million people who used to show up at Shea every year when the Yankees played second fiddle. There were other goodies, like that song and Ehrhardt's signs and Lee Mazzilli's incipient sex appeal. But Doubleday and Wilpon also bought a lot of tsuris, which is Yiddish for six errors in one game.
From the start, Doubleday Sports, Inc., the new corporate name of the Mets, made it clear that these were, in fact, the New Mets. Never mind that the ballplayers were almost all the same. New plastic seats in Anita Bryant orange were installed at field level, with blue, green and red, in ascending order, still to come. The clubhouse was spruced up. A new general manager with solid credentials, Frank Cashen, was hired. The Madison Avenue firm of Della Femina, Travisano and Partners was given $400,000 to sell the New Mets to the public. That's when the trouble started.
Jerry Della Femina took some good-natured potshots at the Yankees, particularly Reggie Jackson and Bucky Dent. George Steinbrenner had a conniption, and the Commissioner of Baseball ended up fining the Mets $5,000. All this happened because Della Femina said that Mazzilli was better looking than Dent and that Yankee Stadium was somewhat less safe to visit than Iran. Then the local newspapers took offense that the Mets were forking out $400,000 for advertising when they could be buying up flesh and blood. "You couldn't get me to play shortstop for $400,000," says Della Femina, "and I'm 43 and can't go to my left." The first fruits of the campaign turned out to be two ads centered around those renowned old Mets, Ralph Branca and Jackie Robinson, along with the motto, "The Magic Is Back."
That was a mistake, although not a very big one. "We should have said, 'The Magic Is Coming Back,' " says Della Femina. The sportswriters had fun with the magic line for awhile, particularly because attendance was lagging behind even last year's and because the Mets were playing some horrendous baseball.
On April 15, they made six errors in a 7-3 loss to Montreal. On April 19, they took a 9-1 lead into the sixth inning against the Cubs, only to lose 12-9 on a grand-slam home run by former Met Dave Kingman. On April 22, New York led Philadelphia 8-3, but lost 14-8. On the heels of that, the Mets were swept in Houston, the last defeat coming by a 4-3 score after New York had gone ahead 3-2 in the top of the 12th.
From there things got worse. On the same day that Bowie Kuhn fined the Mets for their advertising indiscretions, they fell 2-1 to the Phillies. In that game Pete Falcone gave up three hits in seven innings and tied a major league record by striking out the first six men he faced, but lost because he gave up a two-run homer to Luis Aguayo, who is now playing in Oklahoma City. Aguayo's first and only major league homer just barely cleared the outstretched glove of Left-fielder Dan Norman. Former Met Tug McGraw pitched 2? innings of hitless ball for the save.