Los Angeles — The competition for baseball's entertainment dollar in New York is tough, an attendance race the Mets are constantly fighting to win from their crosstown rivals, the Yankees.
But while the big-name Yankees appeared against Los Angeles in last year's World Series, the Mets had losing records in both halves of the split season and finished with the next to last overall record in the National League East.
So the Mets got themselves a new manager (George Bamberger), signed free-agent George Foster (who has driven in more runs in the past six years than anyone in baseball), and decided to do the rest with a rapidly improving farm system.
''Sure we paid Foster a lot of money (a reported $10 million for five years), but sometimes you reach a point where you can't ask your fans to wait any longer , and our fans have been patient for a long time,'' said general manager Frank Cashen during the team's recent West Coast swing.
''We wanted Bamberger because he's always been so good with young pitchers,'' Cashen added. ''I don't know where we'll finish, but we'll be improved. And with the kids we've got coming up in our farm system, we're not that far away from being a contender.''
When Bamberger was Baltimore's pitching coach for so many years under Orioles' manager Earl Weaver, he was known as the best and the highest paid in the business. George is an open, uncomplicated man, whose simple approach to pitching is summed up in two words: throw strikes.
''The one thing a pitcher can't afford to be is defensive,'' Bamberger explained. ''He can't stand out there on the mound and nibble at the corners of the plate with the ball and hope that the umpire calls everything a strike.
''If a pitcher has good stuff, he can afford to throw the ball over the plate , and most of the time he won't get hurt,'' George continued. ''Of course if he doesn't have good stuff, it won't make any difference what he does.
''I look for pitchers with the potential to throw the breaking ball well, because when a good hitter is up there with runners on base, that's what you have to feed him to get him out. There are a few great fastball pitchers out there who can get away with speed in a situation like that. They can get away with it, because at that speed their ball is going to have a little tail on it anyway. But for average pitchers their only insurance is the breaking ball.''
Asked what makes a manager great, other than having the right players around him, Bamberger, who previously managed in Milwaukee, replied:
''The answer to that one is the same as it's always been - managers with great players win and managers without them finish in the second division. You can tell a player what to do, but if he can't execute, you haven't accomplished a thing.
''Basically a manager fails when the talent is there and he settles for less than he should from certain players. Maybe it's because the emotional job of pulling it out of them is too tough. But the everyday mechanics of managing, like when to bunt or hit behind the runner, can be practiced by anyone.''
From what he's seen so far, Bamberger says the Mets' chief strengths are probably their hitting and bullpen.
''To win in major league baseball, you need three hitters in the middle of your lineup that the other team can't afford to pitch around,'' George said. ''With us, you pitch around Foster (who bats third) and you've got to face Dave Kingman.
''Now some fans are going to get on Kingman because he doesn't have a high average and because he strikes out a lot. But Dave is a .300 hitter when he comes up with men on base, and don't think that the rest of the National League doesn't know this.
''After Kingman, I've got either Ellis Valentine or Joel Youngblood, both of whom can drive in runs for me, plus several good contact hitters like John Stearns and Hubie Brooks.
''So far our bullpen has been outstanding, especially Neil Allen, and should be all year. But our starting rotation is questionable at this point because of its youth and may require some patience, although the talent seems to be there.''
The one Met you never take your eyes off if you are a New York fan is center fielder Mookie Wilson, a contact hitter whose tremendous speed is constantly buying him infield hits.
Wilson is also capable of maybe someday averaging 50 stolen bases a year. And the way he simply outruns most fly balls hit into outfield alleys will save the Mets a pile of runs over a season.
So far the Mets' only major disappointment has been Foster, who hasn't hit the way everybody knows he can. But over the past six years only one National League slugger, Mike Schmidt of the Phillies, has collected more home runs than George (221 to 198).