The Pirates used to be spooked by the Mets. But whatever hold New York had over Pittsburgh was broken last week when the Bucs swept a three-game series from the Mets at Three Rivers Stadium to take a 3½-game lead in the National League East. "We've developed a sixth sense on this club," says Pittsburgh center-fielder Andy Van Slyke. "It's not made of fear or intimidation, as it was a couple of years ago."
Pirate manager Jim Leyland has a more down-to-earth explanation for his team's atrocious, 36-72 record against the Mets from 1984 through '89. "They were just a lot better than us," says Leyland. "If we played our best game, and they played theirs, they'd win. If we won, it would be a freak thing."
Now Pittsburgh is clearly the better team. Which Mets could start every day for the Pirates? You would have to find spots for outfielder Darryl Strawberry and infielder Howard Johnson. But first baseman Dave Magadan would probably play against righthanders. Infielder Gregg Jefferies would be only a part-timer, because he is inferior defensively to second baseman Jose Lind and third baseman Jeff King. King has established himself as a key part of the Pirate attack, hitting .251 with 13 homers and 51 RBIs through Sunday. "If he keeps playing like this," says Van Slyke, "they'll carve his face on [Pittsburgh's] Mount Washington."
Managerial savvy? Leyland, now in his fifth year, will probably win the National League's Manager of the Year award. His counterpart on the Mets, Bud Harrelson, is a rookie and sometimes shows it. Bench strength? "Pittsburgh has really improved [in that area]," says New York pitcher Ron Darling, pointing to veterans like Wally Back-man, Gary Redus, Sid Bream and Carmelo Martinez.
The Mets' starting rotation is obviously superior to Pittsburgh's, which is why New York cannot be discounted down the stretch. The Mets also have a better bullpen, led by closer John Franco. Nonetheless, it was the Pirates' pitching—mostly lefthanded—that did in New York last week. Southpaw Zane Smith's one-hit, 1-0 masterpiece in the Sept. 5 series opener was one of the best-pitched games in the big leagues this season. Smith has a 49-66 career record, but he has a 2.34 ERA versus the Mets and is 3-0 against them this year. And he's not the only lefty who has New York's number. At week's end, the Mets were only 22-27 against lefthanders.
On Sept. 5 southpaw Neal Heaton—with relief help from another lefty, Bob Kipper, and righthander Ted Power—won the second part of the double-header 3-1. That win improved Pittsburgh's record in twin bills this year to 10-0. The next night, another lefthander, Randy Tomlin, up from Double A, stopped New York on three hits in a 7-1 win.
Joe McIlvaine, the Mets' vice-president of baseball operations, seemed unshaken by his team's poor showing. "We play 162 games—these were three bad ones," he said. "We'll bounce back."
They probably will. If they [do, the division race may still be undecided when the Mets return to Pittsburgh in the final week of the season. The Pirates won't be intimidated. "We've had the Mets shoved down our throats all year," says pitching coach Ray Miller. "We're tired of hearing Mets, Mets, Mets. Not enough people notice what we do."
Now they do.
THE WRONG STUFF
The Mets have missed shortstop Kevin Elster,' who is out for the season after undergoing surgery on his right shoulder on Sept. 4. When he rejoined the team two days later, his left shoulder had the word WRONG printed on it. Why? "So the doctors wouldn't cut the wrong one," said Elster. "Really. Now I have a right shoulder and a wrong one."
On Sept. 7 the Red Sox held a press conference on the status of pitcher Roger Clemens's sore right shoulder. No sooner had the reporters dispersed than the news spread through Fenway Park. Recalls Seattle second baseman Harold Reynolds, who was stretching on the field at the time, "One usher yelled to another, 'He'll only be out two weeks,' and that usher yelled to another, and they all relayed the message. I thought, Who is this, Paul Revere?"
No. In Boston, Clemens is bigger. That's why the Red Sox and their fans are worried about their ace righthander. He doesn't have rotator cuff damage, but the extent of the problem is unclear. He could miss the rest of the season, or he might be back in a couple of weeks. One visiting player said that if Boston were to lose Clemens for the remainder of the year and not win the American League East title, "the fans would probably blow up Fenway Park."
Clemens admits that "sometimes I am senseless" when it comes to pushing himself physically, but he and the Red Sox should be looking beyond this year. A brilliant career could be at stake. You can bet Clemens's agents, Alan and Randy Hendricks, will advise their client to be cautious. He can become a free agent after the 1991 season and, if healthy, will be likely to command offers in the $20- to $25-million range, even though his arm has broken down five times in the last seven years. Still, with all he has done for Boston, the Red Sox will have to take the risk and sign him.
League presidents used to have a lot of authority, but their power has been usurped to the point that they are at times only slightly more than figureheads. That's one reason why National League president Bill White is reportedly considering resigning with more than two years left on his four-year contract.
White's discontent stems mainly from two controversies last month involving National League umpire Joe West. In the first, West slammed Phillie pitcher Dennis Cook to the ground during a brawl with the Mets. Cook, along with several other players from both teams, was ejected from the game. In the other, West tossed out Philadelphia outfielder Von Hayes from a game against the Dodgers for a remark Hayes made about another umpire to the Phillies' first base coach.
White met with West and Richie Phillips, the leader of the umpires' union, to discuss both cases. Soon afterwards West revealed to reporters what White had said in the meeting, but White disagreed with West's rendition of the facts. At that point, Phillips asked commissioner Fay Vincent to intervene. Vincent did, and that was a mistake. He should not have met with Phillips because all on-field discipline comes under the jurisdiction of the league presidents. By taking charge and working out an agreement between White and the umpires' union, Vincent made White feel as if he weren't getting support from the commissioner.
Not to be overlooked in this controversy is the growing strength of the umpires' union. This is the last year of the umpires' contract with baseball, which means that the umps could strike at the start of next season. When the umpires struck during the 1984 playoffs, then commissioner Peter Ueberroth settled the strike, but not without giving the umpires almost everything they were demanding. Because of that, the umpires' union feels it can go to the commissioner with any problem. Just because Vincent heard the umps' case won't necessarily do anything to smooth labor relations in the future, but it did serve to further enfeeble the leagues' presidents.
How's this for a debut? In a Sept. 6 game against Cleveland, outfielder Milt Cuyler of the Tigers entered his first major league game, as a defensive replacement for John Shelby in the sixth inning. But before the inning could begin, the game was called on account of rain. Cuyler's name appeared in the box score even though no pitches were thrown while he was on the field....
The collapse of Milwaukee centerfielder Robin Yount, last year's American League MVP, is befuddling, especially because he hasn't been injured. As of Sunday, he was hitting .229—the lowest average in the league for a player with 500 or more at bats. Excluding pitchers, the lowest average by an American League MVP the year after he won the award is .226 by Jeff Burroughs of the Rangers in 1975. Yount has never had a sub-.250 season in his 16 years in the majors....
Look for San Diego to make some big changes in the off-season. Few Padres appear to be safe, including general manager Jack McKeon and third base coach Sandy Alomar. Manager Greg Riddoch will be back, and the Padres front office says it wants to re-sign first baseman Jack Clark, who, with pending collusion damages, could be a second-look free agent at the end of the season. However, Clark blasted the club's ownership last week for making what he called ah insulting offer: $2.5 million for one year. "That's like Roseanne Barr singing the national anthem," said Clark. "It doesn't make any sense. It's disgusting. You wonder if they're serious about doing something for this team, or if they think it is just a toy."
JONATHAN DANIEL/ALLSPORT USA
King is having a monumental season for Pittsburgh at bat and in the field.
Elster's docs made sure they could distinguish between right and wrong.