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The lights shine brighter this year at Shea Stadium, where the New York Mets play. Really. At the end of last season, the illumination at home plate measured just 94 footcandles. Only Wrigley Field had worse candlepower. Over the winter, a new $1 million lighting system was installed, so that now home plate is bathed in about 240 footcandles.
The team in Shea has been just as radiant, thanks to Bambi and Thumper, Mookie/ Hubie Brooks/Wilson (please match), infielders such as Wally (The Magic Is) Backman and pitchers that have shown much more polish, if not spit. At week's end the Mets were just 3� games out of first in the National League East.
The Mets are off to their best start since 1972, and until the Houston Astros took two of three from them last weekend, they had won five straight series. By winning 12 of 18 games from May 10 through last Sunday, the Mets took over second place. And their biggest victory last week didn't even count. That came in Yankee Stadium, of all places, in the first Mayor's Trophy Game in three years. The last one drew 13,719 fans, but Thursday's attracted 41,614, most of whom chanted "Let's go, Mets," as the Metropolitans won 4-1.
"The game may not have meant anything," said Mets Catcher John Stearns, who was batting .318 through Sunday, "but it was the most meaningful game I've ever played in. We've been the second dog in this town too long."
Actually, the Mets have the better dog because their wieners cost 37% more wholesale than the Yankees' wieners, even though they sell for only 11% more. This frank revelation comes from a Mets official who wishes to remain anonymous lest he anger the Yankees.
The New York-New York rivalry has been dormant the last few years, but all indications are that equality is coming. Attendance is up significantly in Flushing—an average of 5,983 a game through Sunday—and down slightly in the Bronx. The Mets' TV ratings are also up.
After last season New York traded for George Foster to reunite him with his old teammate from the Tri-Park Little League all-star team in Lawndale, Calif., Dave Kingman. In the past two years, the Mets have broken four rookies into the starting lineup. In fact, the only starters who remain from the days before Nelson Doubleday bought the club in 1980 are Joel Youngblood, who platoons in right, and Stearns, who was nearly traded before last season to the Angels.
General Manager Frank Cashen's best move was to hire George Bamberger as manager. Bamberger had to relinquish the helm at Milwaukee in 1980 because of a heart condition, but after bypass surgery he was able to return to managing. He has long had a reputation as a masterful pitching coach, who preaches strikes above all. "Throw the ball over the plate as many times as you can," he advises. "Location is the most overrated thing in baseball. Start trying to put the ball low and outside, and the next thing you know, the guy's walking to first base." He hates walks. He was alarmed that the Met pitchers walked 110 men in the first 28 games, and told them so. In the 19 games after his lecture, they walked just 41, and the team went 13-6.
Bambi—few men ever looked less like a deer—also has a reputation as a teacher of ball-doctoring. The spitter is sometimes called the Staten Island sinker in his honor. "I don't mind if the other teams think we're doing it," he says. "I've been accused a few times this year," says Randy Jones, off to a 6-3 start after going 1-8 in '81.
Jones isn't Bamberger's only reclamation project. Craig Swan was moved to the bullpen and has been very effective. Last week he went six innings against the Braves, giving up only two hits as the Mets came from behind to win 6-4 on Backman's three-run homer. Bamberger puts his pitchers in the bullpen not to punish them, but to let them work out their problems. He believes in a four-man rotation, and since installing one 22 games into the season, the Mets are 16-9. It also helps the pitchers that Neil Allen is there to save them—which he's done 13 times this year.