Among the artifacts in the clubhouse locker of New York Met Outfielder Ronald Alan Swoboda are three buttons which proclaim WE'RE # UN, I AM LOVED, and WE'VE COME A LONG WAY BABY. Last Saturday evening Swoboda, one of the authentic folk heroes of modern-day baseball, walked up to home plate at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh with the bases loaded and the score tied 1-1 in the eighth inning. At that point in his career Swoboda was being looked upon with something less than adoration by even the most dedicated of his fans. In 11 previous at bats against Pittsburgh he had failed to hit the ball beyond the infield nine times. One time when Swoboda did hit it out of the infield he lost sight of the ball and stayed in the batter's box long enough to turn a double into a single. But the way the Mets were playing last week at home and away only one thing could happen with the bases loaded in the eighth inning of a tie game. And it did. Oh, did it ever.
Swoboda drove a pitch thrown by Twiggy Hartenstein so far and so high toward left-center field that Pirate Outfielders Willie Stargell and Matty Alou merely turned around, folded their arms and looked at it, just as if it were a piece of fine art hanging in a gallery. Which, in a way, it was. Young Mets and old Mets, good Mets and bad Mets, smart Mets and dumb Mets jumped to their feet in the dugout to welcome Swoboda home and thank him for yet another miracle in one of the more singular finishing drives ever launched in pursuit of a championship.
On the 15th of August the Mets were 9½ games behind the Chicago Cubs in the Eastern Division of the National League; by the end of last week, thanks to a 10-game winning streak and a recent record of 26-7, New York was out in front by 3½ games and playing with a professional excellence so un-Metlike as to be uncanny. They were touched with magic and those gloves that once went clank in the night were being worn by players on other teams. The Mets had become so good, in fact, that outside of Forbes Field last Saturday a hippie sat on the sidewalk with a sign on her lap that read MET BRUTALITY.
The Cubs, the club New York pulled down from behind, were playing bad baseball. In losing 10 of 11 games, Chicago began to resemble the Pholdin' Philadelphia Phillies of 1964, and the fingernails of panic began to dig deep into the back of Cub Manager Leo Durocher. "You can wait until the snow comes over the bleeping clubhouse door and I won't have anything to say," said Durocher at one point in the decline. "No comment," he kept repeating. "No bleeping comment."
What it looked like was that Leo had bleeped up his own team. Since that weekend in July when Durocher jumped his own club to visit his stepson's summer camp, the Cubbies have played like a team with the blind staggers, winning only eight of 20 home games. They kept leaving the door wide-open, but the logical contenders, St. Louis, and up until the start of last week the Pirates themselves, could never cross the threshold.
Chicago did not get into real trouble, however, until a week ago Monday at Shea Stadium. In retrospect, the first pitch from Cub Pitcher Bill Hands to Met lead-off batter Tommie Agee probably decided the entire course of events for the Mets during the next seven days. Hands drove Agee away from the plate and into the dirt with a high, tight fastball. It was an intimidating pitch, a pitch that can work in either of two ways: demoralize the opponent or make a biter out of the sleeping dog. The Mets decided to bite. New York Pitcher Jerry Koosman retaliated by hitting Ron Santo hard as the fine Cub third baseman led off the second inning. And in his next two at bats, Agee hit a two-run homer and a double, later scoring on a close play at home. Those were all the runs needed to beat Chicago.
The following night Pitcher Tom Seaver was the Cubs' b√™te noire. He held Chicago at bay while New York scored seven runs, and as early as the sixth inning the 58,000 fans were caroling "Goodbye Leo" to Durocher and waving their handkerchiefs at him. Durocher sat alone on the bench shrouded in silence, the famous lip flapping no more. Chicago's once-proud 9½-game lead was down to a lonely half.
At 8:43 the next evening the Mets, by virtue of having won a 12-inning game from the Montreal Expos in the first half of a twi-night doubleheader, moved into first place on percentage points. Joan Payson, the Mets' owner, stepped down from her box next to the team's dugout and walked toward home plate wiping tears from her eyes. When New York won the second game while Chicago was losing in Philadelphia, the Mets were on top and not going to be very easy to catch.
Professional baseball had endured for 92 years before the New York Mets first got their hands on it back in the spring of 1962. While they couldn't quite kill the game, they certainly brought it to one knee. Doing things that had never even been imagined before, they drove their fans into one of the oddest diversions ever developed: writing on bed-sheets. While it was long believed that the simple act of putting on a Yankee uniform caused players to perform better, a Met uniform suddenly turned some previously gifted players into clowns. In their first seven years of existence the Mets finished a total of 288½ games out of first place and built their all-important loss column to 737.
But in the spring of 1967 Tom Seaver joined the team and the franchise had a young player of outstanding quality. The Mets had thought enough of Seaver in his first year of baseball to have him pitch for their Triple A farm team at Jacksonville, and he led the league in games started while splitting 24 decisions. Then Seaver was advanced to the majors, and he was amazed at what he found out about the Mets. "There was an aura of defeatism," he said last week, "and I refused to accept it. Maybe some of the others started to feel how I felt because I noticed that the team seemed to play better behind me than it did for any other pitcher."
In his first two seasons Seaver won 32 games for New York and was twice selected to pitch in the All-Star Game. Anyone who came in contact with him quickly realized that he was not only an exceptional pitcher but an exceptional young man. Bing Devine, who worked for the Mets for three years before returning to the Cardinals as general manager, once said of Seaver, "In every aspect of his life and career, Tom Seaver is well organized. You don't meet many like him; they just aren't around."
Other fine pitchers followed Seaver to the Mets, and in 1968 that pitching staff impressed anyone who watched baseball. Koosman won 19 games. Jim McAndrew came out of Lost Nation, Iowa with a degree in psychology and enough ability to forge a 2.28 earned run average. Nolan Ryan, a 22-year-old who had once struck out 387 hitters in 261 minor league innings, came to the majors and had blister and arm problems but now seems to have recovered from both. Gary Gentry arrived from Arizona State with a one-year college record of 17-1. Tug McGraw, only 25, moved into the bullpen and pitched very well. With the experience, advice and know-how of three veterans—Don Card-well, Ron Taylor and Cal Koonce—the Met staff was working and learning at the same time. By last Sunday evening they had not given up a single home run in 181 innings covering 18 games, and they were facing clubs with good power—San Francisco, Philadelphia, Chicago, Montreal and Pittsburgh.
The team also had some hitting at last. Cleon Jones, despite two recent injuries, was the league's leading batter. Tommie Agee had hit 26 homers and knocked in 73 runs and was on his way to the National League's comeback of the year award following a 1968 season in which he hit five homers and drove in only 17 runs. Second Baseman Ken Boswell, a youngster who should eventually become one of the better hitters in the league, batted .473 during an 18-game stretch before leaving the team last weekend for his regular turn of military duty. Obviously, too, the Mets had the manager of the year in Gil Hodges, who has fitted his players together so well that everyone feels he is a part of the team.
When New York arrived in Pittsburgh last week Hodges was without Jones, Boswell and Art Shamsky, a .303 hitter who observed the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah. But the Mets won three of four anyway. Sitting on a table in the New York clubhouse after beating the Pirates by virtue of Swoboda's home run, Tom Seaver said, "I've always read that in September baseball comes down to pitching, and that it is harder to play once you are in first place and not trying to catch up. I really haven't had the time to think about that because everything has happened so quickly. It has all been so fantastic. On Friday we won both games of a doubleheader 1-0 when the pitcher drove in the winning run in each game. Has that ever happened before?"
Nobody has come up with the answer to that yet. And probably nobody will. By the time this season is over, though, the Mets—despite playing six fewer games at Shea against the Giants and Dodgers because of divisional play—will go over two million in home attendance. The explanation is simple enough. First, they are loved—which is not really anything new. The difference is that, entering the final two weeks of the season, they are undeniably # UN too. They have, baby, come a long, long way.
Gil Hodges is a bemused manager as Cubs' Randy Hundley rages over call at plate.
Durocher stares darkly at a losing cause while Joan Payson enjoys her new Mets.