Pitcher Larry Bearnarth insists, "There's a new feeling around the Mets. Last year there was optimism, but it was all talk. This year we all feel it." That is good news indeed, but for the Met batters it will take something more than optimism to mount an offense. Second Baseman Ron Hunt, the most accomplished of all the Mets, hit a solid .303 last season, and he and Outfielder Joe Christopher (.300) are to be taken seriously at all times by opposing pitchers. Christopher, however, reported to camp a most unhappy fellow, feeling that since he led the team in almost every offensive category, he deserved more money than the management was willing to offer. If Christopher's dissatisfaction causes him to slump, the Mets will be hard put to find runs. First Baseman Ed Kranepool improved greatly last year, jumping his average from the .200 neighborhood to a promising .257, but when things go bad, Kranepool has been known to sulk.
For years such astute baseball men as Casey Stengel and Johnny Keane told Catcher Chris Cannizzaro that trying to hit home runs wasn't his style, but it took a pitcher, Frank Lary, who was Cannizzaro's roommate last year, to get the message across. Maybe the fact that Chris had never managed to hit a home run helped, too. At any rate, Cannizzaro, whose major league batting average had been a cool .243, hit a hot .311, and he is now the team's No. 1 catcher, ahead of real home run hitters like Jesse Gonder and Yogi Berra. Yogi's return to the ranks is a laugh a minute, but he isn't laughing in the batting cage. As Stengel noted, after Berra lined a pitch to right: "What if you had a man who could hit the fences? Wouldn't you want him on your club?" Yogi will not catch many full games, but it seems likely that when Casey needs a left-handed hitter late in the game the ex-Yankee manager will be the one. Gonder would seem to have the same qualifications but, despite a healthy average (.270), he I tends to hit the ball straight overhead when runners are in scoring position. The Mets offered $500,000 for anybody's superstar. They ended up trading Tracy Stallard for the Cardinals' Johnny Lewis, an unsuccessful rookie last year who will start in right. In center, rookie Cleon Jones will alternate with Billy Cowan, who came from the Cubs. Cowan once struck out six times in a game against New York, and you know the Mets couldn't resist having him. The Mets have waited three years for Jim Hickman to cut loose with his bat. Last year he hit .305 the last half of the season (.257 overall), and maybe the long wait is over. Stengel just can't believe he has a player named Danny Napoleon on his team, but there he is, complete with a minor league .351 batting average in his first season of pro ball. Napoleon is slightly less polished than a Mount Rushmore monument, but the Mets can't afford to lose him in the draft. Casey will just have to get used to him.
The Mets approach respectability in this department now that they have Warren Spahn on the staff. Despite a poor year with the Braves last season, no team with Spahn on it can be all bad. Carlton Willey proved himself quite competent two seasons ago, but a line drive shattered his jaw in spring training last year and finished him for 1964. Willey received a pay cut this season—which the Mets promised to make up if the right-hander was effective in spring training. He seemed to be. The other starters will be Al Jackson, who has won 33 games for the Mets in three seasons, Galen Cisco and Jack Fisher.
Fisher ate himself off both the Orioles and the Giants. Last winter he stuck to a diet—a typical breakfast was an appetite-appeasement pill, a dehydration pill and a glass of water—and he reported to camp weighing a hungry, eager 213. "I want to be a pitcher," he said, "not some kind of a physical specimen." Larry Bearnarth is over the sore arm that kept him from being the fine relief pitcher he was as a rookie in 1963. In spring training he was forcing batters to hit the ball in the dirt again. He and Bill Wakefield (3.60 ERA, best on the Mets) head the bullpen.
It used to be fun to see the Mets turn a routine play into a wildly exciting situation. Now Hunt and Shortstop Roy McMillan have spoiled it. They handle everything around second base in a most professional manner. Kranepool makes most of the plays at first base and Cannizzaro a lot of them behind the plate. The outfield looks good, too, but there still will be laughs there. Christopher has moved over to left, and the fans who had the time of their lives watching him try to catch fly balls in right field will no doubt move along with him. Tie Mets are trying to make a third baseman of Danny Napoleon—which may erase the legend of Marv Throneberry once and for all. As someone said when Danny flubbed one, "It's the start of the Napoleonic error." Actually, Casey probably will alternate Charlie Smith (20 HRs, tops for the Mets) and slick-fielding Bobby Klaus at third.
The Mets will go on filling Shea Stadium—especially when the battery of Spahn and Berra is announced—and if Spahn pitches back to his form the Mets may nudge the Astros out of ninth place.
In the field and at the plate, scrappy Ron Hunt has been the Mets' leader the past two seasons.