Should the Mets, a last-place team in 1983 and a first-place team so far in 1984, win the National League East, they will be almost as good a story (fairy tale?) as the '69 world-champion Mets, who came off a ninth-place finish in '68. The similarities are striking: a lot of young pitchers, a bunch of hard-working unknowns filling a number of jobs, plenty of come-from-behind wins and a manager who is making a difference.
For the '69 Mets there was stern Gil Hodges, who commanded respect and fear. For the '84 Mets, who had won 21 of 24 before losing three straight to Chicago last weekend, it's Davey Johnson, who hangs quite a bit looser.
When the Phillies came to Shea for three games in late June, the Mets were just starting to convince people they were for real. They lost the first game 6-4 and played badly doing it. Was the manager worried his younger players might overreact? "Eh, we'll kick their butts tomorrow night," Johnson said blithely, "and we'll see who gets tight the next day." The Mets, who won the next two games, seem as insouciant as the manager, which is exactly the way he planned it.
Then there's the case of Ed Lynch, who started the season in long relief, earned a spot in the rotation and then lost it. Johnson knew Lynch was depressed about the demotion, so he made like Dr. Freud one day in the Cincinnati airport. "We were waiting for the plane. I went into the bathroom, and Davey followed me," Lynch says. "He told me, 'You're going to be very important for this club.' I really needed to hear that."
The next day Lynch got a win in relief. Two days later he earned a save with four shutout innings.
Last Wednesday 25-year-old Red Sox rookie Al Nipper found himself starting against Chicago's 39-year-old Tom Seaver. You might say that Nipper was thrilled. Or as he puts it: "I lived for him when I was young. He's the complete pitcher, the ultimate." Nipper, who grew up in Hazelwood, Mo., made it to Busch Stadium just about every time Seaver pitched against the Cardinals. "I saw the way he warmed up, handled himself on the field, the way he pitched in and out. I want to pitch like he does, but no one will ever have the mechanics he does."
Nipper outpitched his idol that night, but his two-run throwing error cost him a win in a game the Red Sox won in extra innings. The next night he got to meet Tom Terrific; he was too nervous to introduce himself, so Red Sox broadcaster Mike Andrews handled the formalities. "I didn't know what to say, but he was very nice," Nipper says. "He suggested we get together when we're in Chicago, and he promised to give me his new book. I can't believe I'm going to talk pitching with Tom Seaver."
Roger Clemens, the Red Sox' 22-year-old phenom, continues to learn about life in the fast lane. He was removed from the rotation recently after a couple of pastings, but last Thursday night he blew away Chicago with a four-hit, 11 strikeout shutout.
"I've heard people say he should be in Pawtucket," says Ralph Houk, "but what good would that do him? Roger's problem is that he has too much stuff. I'm serious. You watch him warm up and you say nobody will ever hit him. When he went to spring training this year and made a mistake, they hit him. He couldn't believe it. So we sent him down to Pawtucket, and as soon as he got his feet on the ground, we brought him back up. Again, I might be wrong but I think a few defeats up here will do him a world of good."
On the day before he passed Ty Cobb as the alltime singles hitter (3,053), Pete Rose lost a job, and maybe his chance at Cobb's alltime hit record (4,191). The Expos, desperate for some pop, traded for the Reds' Dan Driessen last Thursday. He's going to play first base against all righties and a few lefties. Rose, who started the season in left but had to move to first base because his 43-year-old elbow couldn't handle the throws, will pinch-hit and play first against some lefties. Rose, batting .268, is 132 short of Cobb. He may have to change teams again—if he can find work—to have a chance at the record. "I have no right to hang my head," said Rose, who was released by the Phillies after hitting .245 last year. "I don't know how to say I'm not upset."
On July 24, 1983, Tiger centerfielder Chet Lemon leaped over the fence in Anaheim Stadium to rob Rod Carew of a home run with two outs in the ninth inning. That preserved a 4-3 win for the Tigers.
On July 24, 1984, Seattle centerfielder Dave Henderson reached over the same fence at the Big A to rob Doug DeCinces of a home run with two out in the ninth inning. Final score: Mariners 4, Angels 3, Déj√† vu 1.
Is it possible that Padre manager Dick Williams, he of the short temper, sharp tongue and grumpy personality, is mellowing? A couple of weeks ago a photographer caught him being hugged by Steve Garvey after Garvey hit a home run in Chicago. The picture immediately went up on the wall of the visiting clubhouse in Wrigley Field because Garvey is not supposed to be Williams's biggest fan.
"I'm as obnoxious as ever," Williams says. "I purposely stay away from the players. I don't want to get too close to any of them in case I have to get on them about something." And the hug? "I was as surprised as everyone else. Steve hugged me when he came back to the dugout, and I hugged him back."
This is how serious Cub G.M. Dallas Green is about winning this year. Four of his starters—Scott Sanderson, Rick Sutcliffe, Dennis Eckersley and Steve Trout—are eligible for free agency at the end of the season, and he traded for three of them in the last eight months.... Ozzie Smith is the only Cardinal regular hitting above his lifetime average, and Smith is on the DL.... When the Astros hit three home runs in one inning against the Giants last week, it was a franchise first. "That was a dream inning," said manager Bob Lillis, who ought to know. He's been in the organization since Day One.... Before last Sunday's 5-1 loss to the Cardinals, Pittsburgh's John Candelaria had 13 straight wins in July dating back to 1982. 'if I knew why, I'd bottle it," he says.... San Francisco center-fielder Dan Gladden has been a revelation since his June 26 promotion from Triple A, hitting .378 and giving the Giants a desperately needed leadoff hitter. But Frank Robinson thinks Gladden should have been a Giant long before this season. "We told him two years ago to choke up, but he didn't do it until after we sent him out this spring," he says.... The Padres continue to complain about the way the city maintains their field. Last week Bobby Brown dove for a ball in the outfield, and when he got up he had green paint on his pants. The green, green grass of home.
How about Dick Howser for AL Manager of the Year? He held the Royals together until George Brett (knee injury) and Willie Wilson (suspension for drugs) returned, and he somehow has them within sight of first in the AL West.... How about Willie Hernandez for AL MVP? He has undoubtedly been Detroit's MVP. What if both MVPs are named Hernandez? The Mets' Keith certainly has a shot.... Beware of walking a member of the Red Sox intentionally. Since July 4, seven have gotten intentional freebies, and the guys the opposition preferred to pitch to have hit three grand slams and three RBI singles.... When Angel righty Mike Witt. 24, struck out 16 Mariners last week, it was the most by an AL pitcher in a nine-inning game since Ron Guidry struck out 18 Angels in '78.
Howe is proud of his polished pate, but May decided doffing his cap wasn't hirsutable.
When the Twins were in New York for Old-Timers' Day recently, outfielder Darrell Brown tracked down Joe DiMaggio in the depths of Yankee Stadium and used this pitch to get him to autograph a pair of baseballs. "I said, 'Clipper, I could be the guy who's going to break your record. If you sign this, I'll stop at 55.' "
BALD PARR FIGURES
THE ALL-NO-HAIR-TO-SPARE TEAM
C—Milt May, Pirates; 1B—Cecil Cooper, Brewers; 2B—Art Howe, Cardinals; SS—Rob Picciolo, Angels; 3B—Toby Harrah, Yankees; OF—Jerry Hairston, White Sox; Ruppert Jones, Tigers; Dan Ford, Orioles; P—Phil Niekro, Yankees; Manager—Joe Altobelli, Orioles; Team Mascot—Bald eagle; Team Motto—"God made a few perfect heads, and He put hair on all the rest."
PLAYER OF THE WEEK
LEN MATUSZEK: Returning after missing 42 games with a broken finger, the Phils' lefthanded batter pinch-hit homers that beat the Cubs and Expos; he ended the week with a slugging average of .818.
"Instead of going to nightclubs," says the Cubs' Gary Matthews on the adjustments he's had to make to day ball at Wrigley Field, "you go to happy hour."