Rarely has so much excitement attended a Mets preseason: overflow crowds at mere spring-training workouts, an Opening Day sellout, guaranteed sales of one million tickets for the season. And it was all because of the kids.
Gary Carter is one of the kids. He's 31 and has 11 seasons in the bigs, but he's always been called the Kid, partly because he still collects baseball cards. Carter was acquired from Montreal for shortstop Hubie Brooks, catcher Mike Fitzgerald and two minor-leaguers. "I hope to be a small part of a big team," he says. With Carter in the lineup, the Mets have a Murderers Row of first baseman Keith Hernandez, Carter, rightfielder Darryl Strawberry and leftfielder George Foster; together they accounted for 92 homers and 383 RBIs in '84. "There's no better three-to-six hitters in the league," says batting coach Bill Robinson. The Mets somehow finished 18 games over .500, though they were outscored by 24 runs. With the Kid at cleanup they should score more and win more.
Carter's catching could be equally productive. His commanding presence and knowledge of the hitters will steady such young pitchers as 23-year-old Ron Darling (12-9), who tends to throw high, and 27-year-old Doug Sisk (2.09 ERA), who tends to walk the first batter or two he faces. Sisk is particularly important. Through July 12 of last season he had 12 saves. Then he developed an aching shoulder and pitched poorly, which put too much strain on the bullpen stopper, Jesse Orosco. By the time Sisk went on the disabled list Aug. 9, the Mets had dropped from first to second and were 4½ games out. Sisk had only three saves after July 12, and the Mets never again seriously contended.
"When Gary calls for a certain pitch in a certain situation, there won't be any doubt," says second-year manager Dave Johnson, himself a kid among skippers at 42. "The pitchers should be able to throw more quality pitches and be more confident in the selection."
The other kid is, of course, 20-year-old Rookie of the Year Dwight Gooden (see page 28), who is already one of the game's most celebrated pitchers. Granted, Gooden now faces the expectations generated by his brilliant first-year stats: a 17-9 record, 2.60 ERA, rookie-record 276 strikeouts and baseball-record 11.39 Ks per nine innings. But don't count on Dr. K succumbing to the sophomore jinx. "I feel less pressure than last year," he says. "Then I didn't know what to expect and had to listen to what guys said to me. Now I know what to work on." This winter Gooden went to the Instructional League and developed a changeup to mix with his feared fastball and curve. In one spring game he fanned the first five men in the Red Sox order. But the Mets have no more Goodens. They do have Bruce Berenyi, who went 9-6 after coming over from Cincinnati, and Darling, but the rest of the rotation is a riddle.
The Mets also have problems on the left side of the infield, where shortstop Rafael Santana and third baseman Howard Johnson have yet to prove themselves. Johnson came from Detroit with a good hit/bad field reputation, but he proved a decent field in spring training.
Back to Carter. In Montreal, the chatty seven-time All-Star was a big media favorite and thus resented by some teammates, who believed he diverted attention from both equally deserving teammates and the team itself. The Mets, however, feel he'll divert pressure from the much-criticized Strawberry and the even more criticized Foster. The Kid, in short, will have to carry a man-sized load.