If one is to believe the gospel according to Charles Schulz, the New York Mets have got everything backwards. In Peanuts the focus of all the other kids' exasperation is Charlie Brown on the mound. On the Mets it often seems that good old Charlie is occupying every position but pitcher. Why there has not yet appeared a book of cartoons entitled "Good Grief, Ed Kranepool and Ron Swoboda and the Rest of You Guys!" is hard to imagine.
This is not to denigrate the contributions of Neon Cleon Jones, with his .340-something batting average in the midst of a slump, nor is anyone making light of the 11-game winning streak that pushed the Mets dizzily over the .500 mark and into second—yes, second!—place. But if the Mets go on to win the National League's Eastern Division, then the Cy Young Award will have to be broken up into small pieces and spread around the entire New York pitching staff. They will all have earned it.
Last season Met pitchers had a corporate earned run average of 2.72, yet lost 16 more games than they won, thanks to the team batting average of .228. This season, what with offense going up everywhere, the statistical contrast is a little less stark. But during that 11-game streak—an alltime Met record and in fact only six short of the team record for consecutive losses—Tom Seaver (24 years old, three wins), Jerry Koosman (25, two), Gary Gentry (22, two), Tug McGraw (24, one), Jim McAndrew (25), an elderly discovery named Jack DiLauro (26) and senior citizens Don Cardwell (33, one) and Ron Taylor (31, two in relief) averaged, all together, almost nine strikeouts a game, fewer than six enemy hits and a 1.68 ERA.
Meanwhile, their supporters scored more than four runs only four times. Six of the 11 games were won by one run and two of them by two runs. In the first game of the streak Koosman went 10 innings, gave up four hits and retired with the score 0-0. DiLauro had to leave the seventh game after nine innings of two-hit ball. The old Mets may be dead, as Tommie Agee cried euphorically at one point during the spurt, but the new ones by no means offer the best support a young pitcher could ask for.
So what do these ill-supported youths, these waifs, have to look forward to, coming along from the Mets' farm teams? Surely a new crop of infielders, outfielders and pinch hitters is ripening down there? Well, no. Coming up most prominently are a bunch of fine young pitchers.
In the five years of the free-agent draft, the Mets' first choice has been a pitcher three times. In 1965 it was Les Rohr, who was born in Lowestoft, England, lives in Billings, Mont., stands 6'5" and still throws extremely hard today at the age of 23. So far his big-league record is two wins and three losses; in the minors he is only 13-23, but the Mets are still expecting him to develop. He started with a one-hitter in Memphis this year, then went into the service for 20 days and now is working back into shape (he tends to put on weight).
The 1967 draft pick, Jon Matlack, is the best prospect in the Mets' system. He is 19, was the youngest player on the Mets' roster this spring and is now perhaps the most valuable on that of Tidewater, Va., the Mets' AAA farm team, where he is 7-3. He was 13-6 at Raleigh-Durham last year with an ERA of 2.76 and 188 strikeouts in 173 innings. It is obvious he is a better prospect than the rest because he pitched seven no-hitters before going professional, whereas the others only pitched four or five.
But Joe McDonald, director of the Mets' minor league operations, says that this year's first choice, Randy Sterling of Key West, may be more advanced than Matlack was at the same age. He is about the same size, 6'3" and 195 pounds, he also signed for about $50,000 just last week, and McDonald calls him "the most advanced high school prospect in quite a few years." He will report to the Mets' Pompano Beach farm, where he may or may not maintain his senior year average of almost two strikeouts an inning and a 0.45 ERA.
Sterling almost has to do that to hold his own among the farm prospects. For instance, there is 24-year-old Jim Bib-by, who has two years in the Army behind him, stands 6'4", weighs 225 and looks and throws like Don Newcombe. The Mets do not say that he throws as hard as Newcombe, though. Why use old Dodgers as standards for comparison? They say he may well throw harder, even, than Matlack or Nolan Ryan.
Then there is Rich Folkers, 22, who was on the Texas League all-star team last year and is in the Army now. And Danny Frisella, 23, who spent some time with the Mets the last two years, hurt his shoulder and is now coming on strong at Tidewater. And Barry Raziano, 22, whose quality was close to Matlack's—a 1.75 ERA at Memphis last year—until he hurt his elbow, which he is now resting. And Jesse Hudson, 20, at Memphis, a star reliever.
One is tempted to believe that the Mets own the complete collection of every man under 25 who ever pitched a 17-inning shutout and maintained a won-lost percentage over .850 in American Legion or high school ball. To accumulate so many beautiful young soup-bones, says Mets General Manager Johnny Murphy, "you have to be lucky."
Murphy's own pitching career with the New York Yankees of the '30s and '40s should make Koosman (3-4, 1.81 so far this year) wonder whether the Depression wouldn't have been worth it. In 1937 Murphy was 13 and 4 with an ERA of 4.17. Altogether he won 93 games and lost 53 with a lifetime ERA of 3.50. Granted, Murphy's were hitters' years, but one would think that a man with a record like that would get his boys some batting help, if only out of personal atonement. Murphy, however, insists that the Mets' preponderance of pitching came about "not by design." For instance, the Mets were inclined to draft a nonpitcher first this year. Most teams do, he says—only seven of the 24 first-round picks were pitchers—"because they want somebody who will be out there seven days a week for them." But Sterling was just too good to pass up.
It is certainly true that the Mets' remarkable success with young pitchers is a result of something other than wise and careful scouting. Seaver, Rookie of the Year in 1967—and the man without whom nobody would ever have heard how superb the Mets' pitching staff was—came out of a hat after the Braves signed him illegally in 1966. The commissioner's office ruled that all other teams desiring to meet his contract could draw for him, and the Mets won. At 10 and 3, he actually has the only outstanding won-lost record on the club this year and his 2½-year lifetime ERA is a cool 2.46. Seaver looks more like a college fraternity president than a big-league pitching staff's senior partner, but there is no doubt that he is the Met most likely to become a 20-game winner.
Koosman, who last year had a better freshman season even than Seaver but lost out by one vote to the Reds' Johnny Bench as Rookie of the Year, was another gift. The Mets signed him out of the Army in 1964 after his service-team catcher, the son of a Shea Stadium usher, touted him to the player-development department. Gentry, this year's candidate for rookie honors with a 5-5 record, looked over at Seaver this spring as though he were Warren Spahn and said, "If I can learn to use my head the way he does, I'll have it."
Gentry is a ropy young man of 175 pounds who cocks his wrist pronouncedly and throws as hard as any of them. "You start talking about Seaver's, Koosman's and Ryan's fastballs," says Jerry Grote, their primary receiver, "and throw Gentry's in there, it's hard to choose." Gentry has been in and out this year, but he has an engaging mixture of boyishness and ill will, a sort of blend of David Eisenhower and Sal Maglie, that makes him a stayer. He is the first Met draft choice to become a regular starter. They chose him after he had turned down the Orioles, Astros and Giants, mostly because his father wanted him to continue college.
So the Mets are rich in pitchers, thanks largely to good fortune. Next year, probably, they will have to deplete their store in order to pick up some hitting strength. Then they could become a pennant contender for real, and an era would end. As it is, they are in the sort of danger that E. B. White once warned James Thurber away from. Thurber tried to improve upon his inspiredly crude cartooning style by adding such refinements as cross-hatching and perspective. "If you ever got good," White cautioned, "you'd be mediocre."
JON MATLACK, 19, IS TOP PROSPECT
RANDY STERLING, 18, MAY BE BETTER
DANNY FRISELLA, 23, IS ON WAY BACK
JIM BIBBY, 24, THROWS LIKE NEWCOMBE
LES ROHR, 23, IS REGAINING OLD FORM
JESSE HUDSON, 20, IS BEST IN RELIEF