Mets better than Red Sox in Series, but are they truly great?

How good, really, are the New York Mets? How much more heartbreak must the Red Sox and the city of Boston endure? Will either or both of these teams be back next year? Of course there are no definitive answers to these questions. But after a month filled with dramatic moments and stirring comebacks, they offer some interesting food for discussion in the long winter months ahead.

The Mets are a fine team; no question about that. But were they actually the juggernaut their New York hype made them out to be, or were they something of a media myth that wound up getting a disparate share of breaks and making the propagandizers look good?

Well, for openers they won 116 games -- 108 in the regular season, 4 in the playoffs, and 4 more in the World Series. You don't rack up numbers like that without being a very good team.

The way they won also says a lot about the character of this team. Time after time in both the National League Championship Series against Houston and the World Series confrontation with Boston, the Mets were on the brink of oblivion. But each time they found a way to win.

It wasn't always pretty, and it was never easy. They certainly didn't show decisive superiority over either foe. And their success was frequently not of their own doing. A wild pitch in one key spot, an easy grounder rolling through an infielder in another, a managerial move that went awry here, a questionable umpiring call there, etc. So many little things could have made the difference -- things over which the Mets had no control.

If the Mets were indeed as superior as they and their fans insisted, one might have expected them to dominate their opposition, or at least win more decisively -- not to be in positions where they needed the breaks to win.

On the other hand, once they got in such positions, they had an uncanny knack for making things happen. They overcame a 4-0 deficit in Game 3 against Houston, fell behind again, then won it with a two-run ninth inning. They came from behind in Game 5, eventually winning in 12 innings. Then in the fantastic finale they overcame a 3-0 ninth-inning deficit and went on to win it in the 16th.

And the comebacks continued in the World Series. Facing disaster after losing the first two games, the Mets won the next two in Boston, only to fall behind again when left-hander Bruce Hurst beat them for the second time in Game 5. Then came the never-to-be forgotten sixth game. Two runs down with two out and nobody on in the 10th, the Mets were one strike away from elimination on three separate occasions. Even the scoreboard in their own ballpark inadvertently flashed ``Congratulations Red Sox'' on its screen. But the scrappy New Yorkers still refused to go down without a fight.

The images from this game that will live in World Series history are reliever Bob Stanley's wild pitch that allowed the tying run to score, and first baseman Bill Buckner's error that let in the winning tally. But it's also worth remembering that the Mets created the situation in which this could happen by coming through with three straight clutch, two-out singles just before the miscues.

``That's what this game is all about,'' New York manager Davey Johnson was to say later. ``You never take anything for granted. Strange things happen. You just keep plugging.''

They still had one more comeback left for Game 7, too, finally catching up to Hurst to overcome a 3-0 deficit in the sixth inning, going ahead in the seventh, and then holding on for the 8-5 victory that settled the issue.

``We deserve it,'' said Johnson. ``We had the best record in baseball. We deserve to be world champions.''

But the Red Sox felt that they were the ones who deserved it -- only to fail once again as so many of their predecessors have over the years. Indeed, Boston's record of playoff and World Series heartbreak seems more than any one team or city should have to bear. Since their last World Series victory in 1918, the Red Sox have appeared in the fall classic four times -- 1946, 1967, 1975, and 1986. Each time they took it to the limit, and each time they lost the seventh game, sometimes in excruciating fashion. And added to this litany, of course, are their losses in the only two regular-season playoffs in American League history -- in 1948 to Cleveland and in 1978 to the Yankees via Bucky Dent's now-legendary three-run homer.

But this year was in some ways the worst of all -- one out, one strike away from finally winning it all.

Hurst was a hero in defeat for Boston, as were second baseman Marty Barrett, who led all regulars on both teams with a .433 batting average and a record-tying 13 hits; Dave Henderson (.400); and Dwight Evans (2 homers, 9 RBIs).

The biggest of the many New York heroes turned out to be third baseman Ray Knight, who hit .391, came through in several clutch situations, scored the winning run in Game 6, hit the home run that put New York ahead for good in Game 7, and was voted the Series MVP.

If any one category spelled the difference, it was relief pitching. With No. 4 starter Sid Fernandez moving to the bullpen and pitching excellent long relief, and with Jesse Orosco coming in late to record two saves, the Mets had a big edge over a Boston relief corps that gave up 11 earned runs in 9 innings in the four games the Red Sox lost.

And what about next year? Looking at the way the multitalented Mets dominated the NL East, it's hard to see them not at least repeating their division championship. And the Red Sox, with so many fine young performers on the mound and elsewhere, should at least be in strong contention again in the AL East.

But things change so much in baseball from year to year that it's foolish even to predict division races, to say nothing of the playoffs. Just two years ago, for example, the Detroit Tigers won 104 regular-season games and looked far more impressive than the Mets in both the playoffs and the World Series -- but they haven't been back. And after last year's Kansas City triumph, people looked at that young and talented pitching staff and started talking about a dynasty -- but the Royals were watching the postseason on TV this year too. So were the other 1984-85 World Series teams, San Diego and St. Louis, as well as other recent division champions like Toronto, Los Angeles, and the Chicago Cubs.

Right now, with Gary Carter, Keith Hernandez, Ron Darling, Wade Boggs, Jim Rice, Roger Clemens and the rest fresh in our minds, it's easy to see another ``Shuttle Series'' in 1987. It would be an exciting one, too. But 24 other teams will be out there trying to see that it doesn't happen -- and judging from recent history, they have a pretty good chance of success.

Because of World Series coverage, the Red Barber column that normally runs on the last Wednesday of each month will appear Nov. 5.

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