Mets play managerial musical chairs - and is Weaver next?

The New York Mets were such a frustration to manager George Bamberger this season that he resigned rather than surrender his peace of mind and his reputation as a winner. Bamberger was not asked to vacate his post; he simply preferred an easier life than the prospect of spending the entire summer in last place in the National League East.

''When George first told us what he was planning to do, we all urged him to change his mind,'' said Frank Howard, who was promoted from the third base coaching position to replace Bamberger, and whose statement was meant to include the other coaches.

''But I guess he'd had enough,'' Howard continued. ''Still, if George had been winning, I don't think he would have considered getting out at this time.''

The popular Howard, who never got anywhere in his first managerial assignment in 1981 with the San Diego Padres, was fired at the end of that season with his team in last place. Most baseball people think that Mets' General Manager Frank Cashen views Howard as a fill-in while he begins a behind-the-scenes campaign to lure former Baltimore manager Earl Weaver out of retirement.

Cashen was executive vice-president of the Orioles in the late 1960s and early '70s when Baltimore won three pennants and was almost always a contender with Weaver ranting and raving in its dugout. Even out-of-town writers bought Earl's vaudeville show, which always included plenty of quotable quotes.

So it doesn't take an Einstein to figure what Cashen is thinking right now, and in fact, has probably already sold to the team's owners as the way to go in 1984. The problem will be getting Weaver to give up all that new freedom, plus the easy-come television money he gets from analyzing network baseball games, to get back on the managerial hot seat again with a team that is currently going nowhere.

The Mets, with either Yankee owner George Steinbrenner or manager Billy Martin commanding some part of the New York press almost every day, are in a tough market when it comes to selling tickets. Right now they are fighting an attendance war with the superior-talented Yankees and losing. Where are you Casey Stengel, Joe Foy, and Marvelous Marv Throneberry?

That is why Cashen signed free-agent slugger George Foster to a multi-year, multi-million dollar contract in time for the 1982 season - to try to give the Mets some instant credibility as a contender. Foster, who had blasted 52 home runs for Cincinnati in 1977 and was considered among the 10 best players in baseball, struck out 123 times last year while hitting only 13 homers for the Mets.

''I'm guessing when I say this - because how can one man know what another is thinking? - but my opinion is that Foster tried too hard to carry the Mets all by himself last year,'' Bamberger told me in the visitors' clubhouse at Dodger Stadium only an hour after he'd resigned.

''I think all that money and all that media attention and all that pressure that comes with playing in New York got to George,'' he added. ''But this year, he's more relaxed, more like himself, more like he was with the Reds; and his batting average and RBI totals are beginning to reflect that situation.

''Coming out of spring training this year, I thought the Mets would be a much better team than they have been so far.We've got a fine farm system and some kid pitchers both up here and in the minors who are going to be big winners some day in the National League. Even at their present stage of development, I thought they'd give us eight or 10 more victories than we have so far. But I was wrong. The thing is, you can't put a timetable on this team because of the kids. There's just no way of knowing how fast they are going to develop.''

The Mets do have some young players on their roster with tremendous potential - like outfielder Darryl Strawberry, second baseman Brian Giles, and shortstop Jose Oquendo. In fact, Oquendo's range in the field can legitimately be compared with that of the Cardinals' Ozzie Smith and, since he stopped switch-hitting and went to a right-handed stance all the way, Jose has swung the bat far better than expected.

Strawberry, who started the season in the minors and may have been rushed to the majors more with an eye toward helping sagging attendance than the team itself, has occasionally shown outstanding power at the plate. But until Darryl learns the strike zone and the habits of National League pitchers, his batting average isn't apt to impress anyone.

The man in the middle, of course, is Howard, who has inherited a basically impossible situation in terms of winning - at least this year.

''I'm not kidding myself that there are any short cuts in this business,'' Frank told me the same night he took over the Mets in Los Angeles. ''While we've got some great kids on this team, we know they're going to get their noses busted a few times before they discover what it's all about. But I think I can promise New York fans that every kid here has a big league future.''

Only a few yards away, Bamberger was telling a television crew with a mini camera that he was going fishing.

But even as George was preparing to leave and Frank was taking over, most of the speculation still centered around Weaver and the part he may eventually play in this whole drama.

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