Meet the Mets, meet the Mets. Step right up and greet the Mets. Bring your kiddies, bring your wife. Guaranteed to have the time of your life. Because the Mets are really sockin' the ball (crack of bat, roar of crowd), knockin' those home runs over the wa-a-a-all. East Side, West Side, everybody's comin' down, to meet the M-E-T-S Mets, of New York town.
That song was once the joyful accompaniment to Casey Stengel's beloved losers, then to the Miracle Mets of 1969 and then to the National League champions of 1973. But for the past few years Meet the Mets, even in its disco version, has been some sort of cruel joke, reminding people that not only did the Mets not sock the ball—they never really did, anyway—but also that the kiddies and the wife were having the times of their lives somewhere else, probably Yankee Stadium.
Last year the Mets had to win their last six games to avoid losing 100 for the first time since 1967. Attendance fell to an alltime low of 788,905. By season's end, Richie Hebner, the disappointed and disappointing third baseman, was trading crude gestures with the fans, who were getting the feeling that Hebner's views reflected those of the management. Minor Met celebrity Karl Ehrhardt, the leprechaun with the signs, was so disgusted he said he would never bring any of his 900 placards to Shea Stadium again. He had been a regular in the third-base boxes since 1965.
Then, on January 24, the Payson family, which had owned the Mets since their inception in 1962, sold the franchise to a group led by Nelson Doubleday, the great-great nephew of the man who didn't invent baseball. As the head of the Doubleday & Co. publishing empire, Nelson was a very large bookworm indeed, and he and his group paid a record $21.1 million for the Mets. This happened only six months after Edward Bennett Williams had bought the Baltimore Orioles, who were about to win the American League pennant and draw more than 1,600,000 people, for $12 million. The joke went that Doubleday should have waited for the Mets to come out in paperback.
Of course, Doubleday and his partners, who include Fred Wilpon, a real-estate wizard who once pitched for the same Lafayette High team in Brooklyn on which Sandy Koufax was the first baseman, were not merely buying the Mudville Nine. They were purchasing New York's National League franchise and the two million people who used to show up at Shea every year when the Yankees played second fiddle. There were other goodies, like that song and Ehrhardt's signs and Lee Mazzilli's incipient sex appeal. But Doubleday and Wilpon also bought a lot of tsuris, which is Yiddish for six errors in one game.
From the start, Doubleday Sports, Inc., the new corporate name of the Mets, made it clear that these were, in fact, the New Mets. Never mind that the ballplayers were almost all the same. New plastic seats in Anita Bryant orange were installed at field level, with blue, green and red, in ascending order, still to come. The clubhouse was spruced up. A new general manager with solid credentials, Frank Cashen, was hired. The Madison Avenue firm of Della Femina, Travisano and Partners was given $400,000 to sell the New Mets to the public. That's when the trouble started.
Jerry Della Femina took some good-natured potshots at the Yankees, particularly Reggie Jackson and Bucky Dent. George Steinbrenner had a conniption, and the Commissioner of Baseball ended up fining the Mets $5,000. All this happened because Della Femina said that Mazzilli was better looking than Dent and that Yankee Stadium was somewhat less safe to visit than Iran. Then the local newspapers took offense that the Mets were forking out $400,000 for advertising when they could be buying up flesh and blood. "You couldn't get me to play shortstop for $400,000," says Della Femina, "and I'm 43 and can't go to my left." The first fruits of the campaign turned out to be two ads centered around those renowned old Mets, Ralph Branca and Jackie Robinson, along with the motto, "The Magic Is Back."
That was a mistake, although not a very big one. "We should have said, 'The Magic Is Coming Back,' " says Della Femina. The sportswriters had fun with the magic line for awhile, particularly because attendance was lagging behind even last year's and because the Mets were playing some horrendous baseball.
On April 15, they made six errors in a 7-3 loss to Montreal. On April 19, they took a 9-1 lead into the sixth inning against the Cubs, only to lose 12-9 on a grand-slam home run by former Met Dave Kingman. On April 22, New York led Philadelphia 8-3, but lost 14-8. On the heels of that, the Mets were swept in Houston, the last defeat coming by a 4-3 score after New York had gone ahead 3-2 in the top of the 12th.
From there things got worse. On the same day that Bowie Kuhn fined the Mets for their advertising indiscretions, they fell 2-1 to the Phillies. In that game Pete Falcone gave up three hits in seven innings and tied a major league record by striking out the first six men he faced, but lost because he gave up a two-run homer to Luis Aguayo, who is now playing in Oklahoma City. Aguayo's first and only major league homer just barely cleared the outstretched glove of Left-fielder Dan Norman. Former Met Tug McGraw pitched 2‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® innings of hitless ball for the save.
Then, against San Diego, the Mets suffered three more one-run losses, 1-0, 2-1 and 4-3; in each game the winning run was unearned. Cincinnati then won two out of three extra-inning games. In one of them New York fought back from a 7-0 deficit, only to lose 12-10 in 14 innings on a broken-bat double. The Mets occasionally lost big, too, as they did on May 13 when the Reds beat them 15-4 on an eight-run fifth highlighted by Ray Knight's solo and grand-slam homers. At that point New York was 9-18, nestled comfortably in last place and not looking like $21.1 million—or two cents, for that matter.
The next night against the Reds the Mets blew a 6-2 lead in the ninth but came back to win 7-6 in 10 innings. That was a turning point, although how big a turning point remains to be seen. Beginning with that game, New York had gone 7-3 through the end of last week and had moved up to—lo and behold—fifth place. Last weekend they swept three games from Atlanta, and their fans went wild. Both of them. Actually, a total of 28,709 saw the series, not very much for a holiday weekend with fine weather, but the ancient chant of "Let's go, Mets" could again be heard. Maybe the magic is coming back.
Of New Yorks' 21 losses, 11 have been by one or two runs, which is a good sign. Neil Allen, who is second in the league in saves with eight, is rapidly blossoming into a valuable relief pitcher. The starting pitching generally has been excellent. Two of the more pleasant surprises have been Falcone and Ray Burris, two journeymen who seem to have found religion and the plate at about the same time. Falcone, a Brooklynite, has been brilliant on occasion, reviving the comparisons, heard early in his career, to that other Brooklyn pitcher, Fred Wilp, er, rather, Sandy Koufax. Burris has an ERA of 2.29, and he should be 6-2 instead of 3-3. Both Burris and Falcone say the Lord is their pitching coach. "Whatever it is," says Manager Joe Torre, "it's a force bigger than mine."
If and when New York's putative aces, Craig Swan and Pat Zachry, start winning regularly, the Mets could have a fine pitching staff, although nothing like the one they traded away: Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Jon Matlack, Nolan Ryan, McGraw et al. The sins of former board chairman M. Donald Grant and his advisers have been visited upon the new owners. Almost everybody with the club says it is only one or two players or one or two years away. The Mets sure could use Kingman or John Milner or Rusty Staub or even Jim Dwyer now. "I've seen a lot of good men come and go," says Reserve Catcher Ron Hodges, who's been with the Mets since 1973.
Because the team was sold so close to the start of the season and because the threat of a strike paralyzed everybody in baseball, Cashen has yet to make a deal. He came from the commissioner's office to the Mets but, more important, he came to the commissioner's office from Baltimore, where he has been given a lot of the credit for building the Oriole juggernauts of the late '60s and early '70s. "No trades, zero, nothing," he says. "Believe me, I've been trying, but it's been very frustrating." Consequently, New York's lineup is filled with guys playing out of position. One centerfielder, Mazzilli, is playing first base, and another, Elliott Maddox, is playing third. In centerfield is an excellent first baseman, Mike Jorgensen. John Stearns is a very good ballplayer, but some people think he shouldn't be catching. Basically, the Mets have a strong bench. Unfortunately, it's starting. And not hitting. But then the Cardinals are hitting, .285 as a team, and last Sunday they were three games behind the Mets. "I said before the season started that we'd have trouble scoring runs," says Torre. "I'm sorry I was right." As a team the Mets are batting .253, which wouldn't be so bad if they had more than eight home runs among them, four fewer than Greg Luzinski of the Phils.
Ehrhardt the Signman, who in real life is an art director for a food company, is strictly an unofficial spokesman for the Mets, so he can't be fined for tampering. He says, "What we need is lefthanded power and a third baseman. George Brett would be nice." Wilpon, the president and the owner most active in the operations of the club, pledges to carry a big bankroll to the free-agent auction, but the Mets will have to wait two years before Brett becomes available. Third base has always been the Mets' bugaboo, 65 guys having auditioned for the position. Even though Maddox says he's uncomfortable there, he has been playing third very well. In fact, it's not stretching things to say he's the greatest third baseman in Mets history. It certainly wouldn't take much.
Joe Pignatano, first-base coach and team gardener, has been with the Mets for 13 years. "This club is going some-place," he says. "Really. It feels like '68. All we need is another Donn Clendenon and another lefthanded reliever. Out in the bullpen I grow cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, squash and string beans. But no lefthanders."
One way the Mets could start winning is to get Doubleday—Nelson not Abner—to attend more games. He has the best record on the club, with four wins in four appearances. "They're not permitted to lose when I'm out there," he says. "Actually, I think the team has already benefited from the new management. It was in disarray when we got it. There hadn't been a budget done in 19 years. We just need time. When we said The Magic Is Back, not in our wildest dreams did we think we could win. But we just wanted people to know it was fun to go out to Shea."
"Do you want to know the difference between the old owners and the new ones?" says Ehrhardt. "For 16 years I came out here and it didn't cost them a dime, but I never really felt like they wanted me even when they were winning. Last September I quit. Then just a few days before the season started, Wilpon calls me and asks me to come back. He offers to give me a box seat, a parking spot and a place to change. I never had that." Ehrhardt then holds up a sign that says "Hellllp" after Atlanta's Gary Matthews homers off Zachry in the first inning of Saturday's game.
Hellllp arrives. The Mets rally to win 5-4 on Maddox' single in the 10th. After the game Stearns watches another New York team, the Islanders, win their game on TV, also by a score of 5-4, also in overtime. Pointing to the bedlam in the Nassau Coliseum, he says, "We could have that here at Shea. Only we could have 50,000 screaming idiots instead of 15,000." Anything seems possible when you're in fifth place. After all, the '68 Mets finished next to last.
Bowed but not bloodied, Manager Torre ponders, well, what? Why the Mets can't score? When they will win more than they lose? Why he took the job?
President and minority owner Wilpon knows that if he can build the Mets into a winner, he won't have any trouble filling all those empty seats around him.
Allen offers relief for a strong starting rotation.
Whether Mazzilli is really better looking than the Yanks' Dent is the $5,000 question in New York.