Not even Casey Stengel himself foresaw the day when the New York Mets really would be amazing. It was Stengel who named them the Amazin' Mets during their infancy—not because they played with amazing ability or amazing success, but because they were the most amazingly incompetent team in the history of baseball. While losing 110 to 120 games a season, they drew crowds that could only be explained by the fact that everyone loves a good horror show. The Mets were more gruesome than Frankenstein any day.
"The people laughed at us and waved banners in our faces," says Jim Hickman, a Met original who is now with the Cubs. Stengel loved the banners. "If a banner got in your way," Casey said, "you didn't mind missing a play because it was something bad happening anyway." So instead of Bat Days and Cap Days and Ball and Helmet Days, the Mets had Banner Days, the first prize for which usually was two tickets for a game against Los Angeles or San Francisco. Real major league ball clubs.
But now it is 1969, and in the fairyland of Shea Stadium the toad has turned into a prince. The Amazin' Mets have developed into...well, the Amazing Mets. They suddenly have discovered how to win games. Last week they managed to retain the magic even in the broad light of day in Chicago's Wrigley Field as they won two of three games from the Cubs. Then they went off to Montreal to take two of four games from the sputtering Expos. By the time they recessed last Sunday for the All-Star Game the Mets, who never have had a winning record, were in second place in the National League's East Division, only two games behind the Cubs in the loss column. Their record, 53 wins and 39 losses, was the fourth best in baseball, better, in fact, than the best team in the National League West. Today, so the gag goes, there is panic among New Yorkers that the Mets might follow the Dodgers and the Giants west—to compete in a weaker league.
The most amazing thing about these new Mets is that they started the season like the old Mets, winning only 18 games and losing 23 through May 27. "That was accomplished in a rash of mediocrity," says Outfielder Ron Swoboda. But since then, the Mets have been the best team in the National League. They tore off an 11-game winning streak, including a historic New York sweep of six games against the Dodgers and the Giants, and during the eight weeks between May 27 and the All-Star break, the Mets won 35 games and lost only 16, a pace that was 4½ games better than Chicago's record for the same period.
Four main reasons for the Mets' exalted station are Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Cleon Jones and Tommie Agee. Seaver, the ultra-cool righthander, generally wins every four or five days, and so does Koosman, now that the lefthander has recovered from an early-season sore shoulder. Both Seaver and Koosman were named to the All-Star team. Jones, a starting All-Star outfielder and one of the few major-leaguers in history who bats right and throws left, has been hitting around .350 all year, while Agee, the swift centerfielder who flopped so miserably last year after he was secured from the Chicago White Sox, has provided the Mets with the most lethal leadoff hitting in either league. Agee has hit 16 home runs so far, swinging at the first pitch of every game. Against the Cubs the last two weeks he led off games with 1) a first-pitch triple off Ken Holtzman, 2) a first-pitch home run off Bill Hands, and 3) a first-pitch double off Ferguson Jenkins. Instant insanity, they call Agee now.
These four players must maintain their high-octane level if the Mets are to remain contenders and not dissolve into the Eight-Week Wonders of the World. They are, after all, still behind the Cubs, who opened a strong 8½ game lead on the field while the Mets were being Mets and the favored St. Louis Cardinals were counting their money.
To go back to those early days, there was a time when it seemed that the Cubs might clinch the pennant by the Fourth of July. Then the Mets corrected their course and the Cubs started to play with consistent inconsistency, which is not hard to explain, since the Cubs are in one way much like a football team. They have 11 men who do most of the work, and 11, as that old crapshooter Leo Durocher well knows, is a good round number. The manager's 11 Cubs are the four in fielders, Ron Santo, Don Kessinger, Glenn Beckert and Ernie Banks; the catcher, Randy Hundley (all of whom made the All-Star team); the rightfielder, Billy Williams; and the five pitchers, Starters Ferguson Jenkins, Bill Hands and Ken Holtzman and Relievers Phil Regan and Ted Abernathy. Still, since the middle of June, the Cubs have played barely .500 baseball.
The Cubs might well return to their earlier hot pace at any moment, however, and there is always St. Louis, which played dead until Independence Day. Then, as though startled by a firecracker, the Cardinals suddenly realized they were 15½ games behind the first-place Cubs and said they would give it a try, although no team has ever rallied from such depths to win a pennant. The Cards won 12 of their next 14 games to cut 6½ games from their deficit. "For the first time all year the fluke hits are dropping our way," said Card Batting Coach Dick Sisler.
The Cardinals, though, are a minor conversational item compared with the abrupt emergence of the Mets as a 100-to-1 team that conceivably could win a pennant. There is recent precedent for such an accomplishment. The Boston Red Sox won the 1967 American League pennant against 100-to-l odds, and the New York Jets, who share Shea Stadium with the Mets, beat the Baltimore Colts in the 1969 Super Bowl. "All I will say, at least for the present, is that a team in our circumstances has won the pennant before," says Manager Gil Hodges, who, incidentally, does not plan to trade for Ken Harrelson (SI, July 14) this winter. "I think we'd all retire ourselves if Harrelson somehow came to the Mets," said one New York player, still seething over the Hawk's attack on Hodges' reputation.
Despite the Mets' improved performance during the month of June (19 wins and nine losses), no one really took them seriously until Tuesday afternoon, July 8, when they opened a three-game series with the Cubs at Shea Stadium. Second-place New York was five games behind the Cubs, and the city, starved for baseball excitement, treated the series like a pennant playoff. More than 55,000 sat glumly for eight innings that afternoon while Jenkins stifled New York on one hit. Then, in the ninth, the Mets scored three runs, thanks mostly to a pair of fielding misplays by Cub Centerfielder Don Young, and they won the game 4-3.
The Cubs, it developed after that game, had an internal problem. Third Baseman Ron Santo, their ringleader, said, "[Young] took us down to defeat because he was brooding about his hitting. When he hits it's a dividend, but when he fails on defense he's lost. I don't know who Leo has in mind to play center field, but I hope to sell him on Hickman; any ball Jim reaches, you can bet your money he'll hold onto."
Santo realized the next day that his remarks were ill timed. He apologized privately to Young, then called a team meeting to apologize again, publicly. "I say a lot of things I don't mean," he said. "Unfortunately, I say them at the wrong time."
Young was on the bench the next night when the Cubs faced Seaver before almost 60,000, most of whom were too involved in becoming winners to waste time waving banners. In his position was a rookie named Jimmy Quails, who had spent most of the season at Tacoma. For eight innings Seaver pitched perfect baseball, but with one out in the ninth Quails singled to left center to spoil Seaver's no-hitter and to take the edge off his 4-0 win.
The Cubs did not lose their confidence. "If Seaver had pitched a perfect game," Santo said, "we'd have been really down. I think Quails' hit will work for us." Sure enough, the Cubs won the final game of the series 6-2 as Hands pitched a fine game.
Last Monday the Mets and the Cubs resumed their rivalry in Wrigley Field. After the series at Shea Stadium, Santo said, "Wait until we get the Mets back home before the Bleacher Bums." He also reportedly said, "I wouldn't put the Met infield in Tacoma." So the Mets developed instant hate for Ron Santo.
The Bleacher Bums were in their left-field bleacher seats by 10 a.m. Monday, 3½ hours before game time. There were more than 40,000—standing-room capacity in Wrigley Field—inside the park an hour before Hands threw the first pitch. The game was superb, and Hands, with last-inning help from Phil Regan, won 1-0 over Seaver.
After the game Santo turned from third base and started to run for the Cubs' clubhouse. En route he leaped high and kicked out his right foot. "That's my thing," he said. "I'm kicking the habit. The losing habit. It's my salute to the Bleacher Bums. I'm working on a double kick for the World Series."
Ron Swoboda was not impressed. "I don't go for that," he said, suffering with the other Mets over the fact that their best pitcher had lost. "In the old days," Swoboda said, "there were always 10 or 15 reasons why we lost a game, so there was never any sense brooding over it. Now, when we are so close, it is tougher to lose. We can look back at an incident and say, if we had done this we could have won."
The incident in the first Chicago game occurred in the eighth inning. Ken Boswell, the Mets' second baseman, led off with a hit sliced down the third-base line. He watched the ball, then ran for first. The ball pancaked on the third-base bag and rolled into foul territory. Boswell raced around first and charged for second. Santo recovered and threw Boswell out by 20 feet. It was a beautiful play by Santo. "It was a mistake by Boswell," Hodges said later.
But these are the new Mets, remember, and they did not quit. They won Tuesday's game 5-4 on a three-run homer by Reserve Shortstop Al Weis, who had hit only four home runs in his seven-year major league career but knew a home-run pitch when he saw it.
After the game Durocher lacerated Dick Selma, the former Met who had thrown Weis a waist-high fastball on a one-ball and two-strike count. "Weis couldn't hit a curveball with that," Leo said, pointing to the conference table in his office. "It's no second guess. Selma's got to think better." Then Durocher, perhaps symbolically, covered his head with a wet towel.
Jenkins, a 20-game winner the last two years and already a 13-game winner this one, was upset because he was not selected to the National League's All-Star team. "I'm as good as any other pitcher in the league," he said, "but if Red Schoendienst doesn't want to pick me, well, that's his right." Jenkins started the final game, and Agee, the instant insanity man, led off with his double to left. Boswell singled Agee home, then Jones singled Boswell to third and stole second as Art Shamsky struck out. Jenkins purposely walked Wayne Garrett to load the bases. Ed Kranepool, who looks like an advertisement for Inertia, Inc., singled for one more run, and J. C. Martin singled for two more. When Agee led off the second inning with a home run, Jenkins was gone and, so far as the Mets were concerned, Schoendienst was right.
The Cubs closed to 6-5 after three innings, but Weis, a slugger now, hit another home run in the fifth, and Shamsky, who is about to open a New York bar in partnership with Phil Linz (presumably under the watchful eye of Commissioner Bowie Kuhn), hit a two-run homer to assure victory.
"Who saw Santo's victory dance today?" Seaver asked. There was a raucous response, and Coach Joe Pignatano gave a poor imitation of Santo's kick.
"Let's hear it for Leo!" Seaver said.
"Let's hear it for Cheerleader Selma!" Ed Kranepool said.
"Let's hear it for the Bleacher Bums!" Shamsky said.
"Let's hear it for the FBI!" Pignatano said. No response. "Yeah, the FBI. Full-Blooded Italians." Coach Yogi Berra joined the second raucous response.
The Mets dressed slowly. "Until this year we never knew if our feet were on the ground or what," Seaver said. "We were pretty infantile. Now we know about ourselves, about the manager and about what he wants. He's more than fair." Swoboda said, "Each victory broadens our base. We're solid, we're not high and flighty."
In the first game against the Expos in Montreal, Jones was thrown out of the game after a fight with Catcher Ron Brand. It was the best sports fight Montreal had seen since John Ferguson's last war for the Canadiens, and it reinforced the notion that the Mets will not quit.
New York finishes its season in Chicago, playing two games against the Cubs. "My ambition," said Ed Kranepool, "is to come into Wrigley Field with a three-game lead. Then I'm going to go over and stand on the steps of the Cub dugout and wait for that smiling Ernie Banks to come out. Then I'll start singing, 'What a beautiful day to play baseball.' "
Ah, those beautiful and truly Amazin' Mets.
Happiness is a putout at second, where once the Mets dropped the ball. Al Weis shows pleasure, Cub Jim Qualls registers dismay.
Gary Gentry, who may become another Met Rookie of Year, beat Cubs with strong game.
Al Weis, the sudden slugger, got the skin treatment from happy, hardly believing Mets.
Tom Seaver, sponging off in Chicago heat, was Met hero though he lost a 1-0 thriller.
Yogi Berra, quiet and all-but-forgotten first-base coach for Mets, saw fire after close call.