Comparisons are dangerous, of course. And impractical. But also irresistible. And so when the chance to make one was set before him at the pregame luncheon in the Shea Stadium press room last Saturday, Mets general manager Frank Cashen pushed aside his hero sandwich and said a mouthful. "Yes, yes, I can see how they match up," he began. "There's Gooden and the young Palmer. And McNally and Fernandez. Dobson and Darling. And..." definitely into it now "...certainly the lefthanders Cuellar and Ojeda. Similar pitchers, no doubt about it. Ah, but this is foolish."
Perhaps, but then Cashen, who was in the Baltimore front office when Jim Palmer, Dave McNally, Pat Dobson and Mike Cuellar all won 20 games or more in 1971, is the perfect authority to compare that luminous pitching staff with the one that is now devastating the National League. The fact is, the four aces of the Mets are having the kind of year that invites comparison with the best rotations in history. And Dwight Gooden, Sid Fernandez, Ron Darling and Bob Ojeda will not be found wanting.
As a team, the Mets haven't exactly been blowing opponents out of the water since the All-Star break (18-16 through Sunday) the way they had been earlier, but don't blame that on the pitching. In fact their starters got them where they are: 16½ games in front of second-place Montreal in the NL East. Consider last week. In the first game of a Thursday doubleheader with the Cardinals, Darling went seven innings, gave up five hits and two runs and struck out eight. The Mets won it in the ninth inning (on a Kevin Mitchell single) for reliever Roger McDowell, who, because the team has lately taken to either winning or losing its games after the departure of the starter, has more decisions (12-7) than anyone in the rotation. The Mets lost the second game that night and the next two. On Friday, Fernandez went seven, gave up five hits and one run and struck out eight. And on Saturday, Gooden went eight, gave up four hits and one run and struck out two. Neither was charged with a loss. Through Sunday, Fernandez was 13-4, Gooden and Ojeda 12-4, and Darling 11-4. At their current pace the Mets could well become the fourth team in history—the 1902 Pirates, the 1915 Red Sox and the 1927 Yankees were the others—to have four pitchers finish at the top of their league in winning percentage.
And for a time at least, it appeared the Mets' gang of four would match their boss's old Orioles in 20-game winners. But the emergence of Rick Aguilera (6-5) as a reliable fifth starter, coupled with their teammates' indifferent play of recent weeks, has pretty much shattered that hope. Actually, the way things have been going, McDowell with his 12 wins in relief could become the staffs only 20-game winner. With him, the Mets are the only team in the big leagues to have five of their pitchers winning in double figures. "We'll probably all get only 32 starts this year," says Darling. "To win 20 would be asking a lot. There are bound to be some no-decisions in there [Darling leads the staff with nine]. With 40 starts, I would be confident that I could come close to 20 wins every year."
Confidence is the one ingredient all four share. They don't have much else in common except their winning percentages. Gooden is already being groomed for the Hall of Fame, though by the lofty standards set for him after his sensational 1985 record (24-4, 268 strikeouts, 1.53 ERA), he is having a mediocre season. "He hasn't been the dominating force this year, but he's still been dominating," says catcher Gary Carter. "And 12-4 is not exactly 'struggling.' " Gooden's ERA is a shameful 3.01. Fernandez is, like Gooden, a fastball-curveball pitcher, but from the left side. His fastball, while not quite as swift, may move even more than Gooden's, and his curve is disarmingly slow breaking. In one of his four losses, Fernandez, who carries a 3.27 ERA, got all of his first nine outs on strikeouts. Darling is a multiple-pitch pitcher—slider, curve, fastball, split-fingered fastball—who has cut down on his walks (56 in 167 innings) and picked up on his strikeouts (133). With any luck at all, Darling, whose ERA is 2.80, could have 17 victories already. And Ojeda (2.75 ERA) is the junk man, with, says manager Davey Johnson, "an exceptional changeup and sneaky fastball." Says Darling, "The strength of our staff is in our differences, our variety."
The differences extend beyond pitching style to personality. Gooden, at 21, is the wunderkind, the Natural. Fernandez, 23, is a Hawaiian of Portuguese and Irish descent who is as unhurried and jovial as residents of that island state are purported to be. Indeed, he wears Hawaiian shirts into the clubhouse, and his mother sends Polynesian delicacies to him and his teammates on the road. "When he first signed with us his mother wondered if he'd need a sweater," says Mets public relations director Jay Horwitz. Darling, 26 this week, is a Yale man, a student of French culture and Southeast Asian history, who, after he completes his B.A., can "envision myself as a professor." His hankering for the groves of academe is not, however, all-consuming. "I have a real interest in the Harlem of the '30s and '40s," he says. "I suppose there are certain events in history each of us would like to have been involved in. Me, I'd like to find myself sipping a beer in some smoke-filled room listening to Billie Holiday sing." Ojeda, 28, wants to be a trout farmer in the hills of Northern California. "Actually," he says, "I always wanted to be a forest ranger. I never thought I'd get to the big leagues. I thought I was through after junior college." Ojeda learned his craft in that crucible of pitching, Fenway Park. After five full seasons with the Red Sox, he says, "I learned the value of a good pitch and the price you pay for a bad one."
Three of the Mets' starters wound up in New York through Cashen's shrewd dealing. Ojeda, a 44-39 pitcher in his Fenway years, came to the Mets this year in a multiplayer trade that, according to Darling, "solidified the staff." Fernandez came east from the Dodgers in 1983, and says, "I didn't feel very good about it at the time because I'd done some good things in that organization." Darling came over from the Texas Rangers (for Lee Mazzilli) in 1982. Each of the three had a strong father to prod him in the formative years. Ojeda's became "something of a pain" to his coaches when he was growing up because he wouldn't allow his son to pitch more than once a week, and then only for six innings at a time. "He had me playing the outfield the rest of the time. What he was doing was protecting my career, and he's one of the reasons I'm where I am today." Darling's dad was an orphan who was trundled from one foster home to another. His mother, who is part Chinese, was also an orphan, an unusual circumstance that, says Darling, "could have made my parents either antichildren or loving. Fortunately for my three brothers and me, they were the latter."
Together, these divergent personalities form a cohesive and tantalizingly young unit. "Here you've got a staff," says Carter, "where the ace is 21 and the oldest is only 28." Carter is a grizzled 32, and Ojeda, who is new to the National League, and Fernandez, in his first full season, particularly rely on his wisdom. The catcher is also leading the league in RBIs with 87. But on Saturday, while taking a day off from the rigors of catching to play first base, he tore a ligament slightly in the thumb of his left hand while diving at a ground ball and was placed on the 15-day disabled list.
Carter's mishap was a major cause for concern during an eventful weekend series with the Cardinals that saw the Mets lose four of the six games. Reliever Jesse Orosco cost Darling a victory in the first game of Thursday's doubleheader, although New York went on to win that game, and he cost the Mets altogether in Friday's 4-2 loss in 10 innings. On Saturday, Gooden accidentally beaned former teammate Clint Hurdle, breaking his helmet and knocking him to the ground. But Hurdle, dazed and bloodied, got up and is expected to be all right. On Sunday the Mets lost both Aguilera and returning hero Mazzilli with minor injuries in a first-game defeat. Fortunately for Mets fans, the weekend ended on a high note with a 9-2 win.
Though the season has been mostly harmonious, there have been a few other sour notes for the Mets. The team has been in four on-field brawls, two in the month of July alone. The Mets blame the unpleasantness on their opponents' jealousy and frustration; the opponents blame it on the Mets' arrogance and exhibitionism. "We do make all these curtain calls for the fans, and we do get all this media attention," says Darling. "But that's New York. Athletes are proud people, and when you're 15, 16 games ahead, as we are, some frustration sets in. I know that if I were pitching against us, I wouldn't be too happy, either."
Well, yes, but how then to account for the trouble July 19 at Cooter's bar in Houston, where Darling, Ojeda, Aguilera and second baseman Tim Teufel were celebrating the birth two days earlier of Teufel's son and somehow got into a beef with off-duty police officers? Teufel and Darling were charged with aggravated assault on a police officer and Ojeda and Aguilera with interfering with an arrest. Insiders say that of all the players on the team these four were the least likely to get into a barroom brawl. But there it is.
There is also the adversarial relationship between Darling and manager Johnson—reminiscent of the one Palmer had with Earl Weaver. Johnson bristled over remarks Darling made in an interview in the August issue of GQ magazine. Darling was quoted as saying that Johnson does not communicate with his pitchers, preferring to deal directly only with position players, because that's what he was. Darling now pleads that his comments were taken out of context. It is, he says, "a reality" that managers communicate with pitchers primarily through the pitching coach, and Johnson agrees. "I have nothing but respect for Davey," Darling says. "He's really a pitcher's manager. In '84, when both Dwight and I were breaking in, he brought us along slowly, limited our innings, giving us confidence."
Johnson himself is inclined to laugh off the supposed disagreement. Pitchers, he says, are a breed apart. "I know when I was playing in Baltimore I would say to McNally and Palmer, 'How come I can lose or win a game for you, but you can't do a thing for me?' That went over like a lead balloon. But think about it. The game is perceived—and rightly so—to have pitching as its most important ingredient. But pitchers don't play every day. I always figure [and Johnson has a degree in mathematics] that a pitcher has to be four times better than I am to be paid the same because I'm playing four times more often. Palmer and McNally did not agree."
Palmer and McNally. Ah, those names again. Now that he has brought it up, can Johnson compare his current staff with the Orioles' 20-game quartet of 15 years ago? "I think comparisons are complex," he says. "You have to consider a lot more than just statistics. You have to take into account such things as run production, defense, ballparks, the bullpen, AstroTurf, the DH, all of that. On that Baltimore club we had four Gold Gloves—[Mark] Belanger and Brooks [Robinson] and myself and [Paul] Blair. We had three guys, Brooks, Frank Robinson, Boog [Powell], who could drive in a hundred runs. On defense I'd have to say that club was a little better than this one. And we could score runs. What we didn't have then was a Gary Carter. But mostly, all of this is just apples and oranges."
Johnson's pitching coach, Mel Stottlemyre, a Yankee in the '60s and early '70s, is less cautious in his appraisal. "This is the best staff I've been around, and that includes the staffs I've been on. I think it has the prospect of being one people will be talking about for some time. I say this because of their ages and the fact that all of them are fundamentally and mechanically sound."
Johnson and Cashen are right. It's foolish to compare this staff with the '71 Orioles or, say, the '54 Indians or the '34 Tigers. The young Mets have a ways to go. Still, as the eloquent Darling put it, "We have an opportunity here. A pitcher is supposed to reach his peak at 27 or 28. That's the age when head, heart and stomach are all under one roof with the arm. We're getting there. We've got a chance to put some fantastic seasons together."
Give them this: They're off to a pretty fair start.
Gooden isn't the Dwight Lightning he was year ago, but his record is a solid 12-4.
Ojeda's junk has been 14-karat gold to the Mets.
WALTER IOOSS JR.
Fernandez wears No. 50 for a reason: He's a gift to New York from our 50th state.
Darling, the club's resident Renaissance man, calls Johnson a "pitcher's manager."
Stottlemyre (foreground) and Johnson look over their charges with both pride and care.
McDowell, tagging Cardinal Vince Coleman, has 12 wins.
RONALD C. MODRA
One that got away: Ed Hearn administered to Hurdle, who was beaned by Gooden on Saturday.
The Mets' four winning hands, Darling, Gooden, Ojeda and Fernandez, are a combined 48-16, with an earned run average of 2.96.