Last week while the New York Mets were in Los Angeles to play the Dodgers, Manager Dave Johnson gave an interview in which he discussed slumps and said running a ball club is like getting a car ready for a long trip.
Actually, Johnson simply agreed that, except for injuries to several key players at the same time, nobody really knows what causes a slump or ends one. Reminded that his Mets in early August had somehow managed to blow a 41/2-game lead in the National League East, Dave said he wasn't sure that what happened was really a slump.
''Every team in baseball hits a valley or two sometime during the regular season,'' Johnson explained. ''Teams can play well and still not win, and basically I think that's what happened to us. Anyway, we're a team that can get it back. We know we have to play well in September to stay in the pennant race. We also know we have to get Doug Sisk (who with Jesse Orosco gives the Mets a super bullpen) back off the disabled list ready to go.''
Asked about that comparison of a baseball team to an automobile, Johnson replied: ''Coming out of spring training, every team has the same number of regular season games (162) ahead of it. So you get your team ready the same way you would a car that's going on a long journey. You do the obvious things. You tune the engine. You check the tires. You make sure you've got enough gas and oil and that your brakes are sound.
''Well, it's the same thing with a baseball team. If you've got decent personnel, and you get the fundamentals down pat in spring training, you know that team is going to win a lot of games. After that I try to take each day and each situation as it comes; not getting too up when we win or too down when we lose. If the manager doesn't panic when things go wrong, chances are his ballplayers won't either.''
Last year, if you remember, the Mets had the worst record (68-94) of any team in the National League. Manager George Bamberger quit part way into the season because he couldn't take it any more. Coach Frank Howard was promoted to fill in , but he finished up like a substitute teacher who didn't expect to be back the next day.
However, not everything was negative. Outfielder Darryl Strawberry, a 22 -year-old who didn't join the Mets until May, became National League Rookie of the Year on the strength of 26 homers and 74 runs batted in. First baseman Keith Hernandez, after coming over in a trade with the St. Louis Cardinals, gave the club a dependable No. 3 hitter.
But the biggest improvement was in the bullpen where left-hander Orosco won 13 games while saving 17 others, and where right-hander Sisk put the lock on 11 more.
Bamberger may have left early, but the one thing he did find time to do was teach Orosco the proper way to throw a big league slider. Now, along with a 90 -mile-an-hour fastball, Jesse has a second ''out pitch'' that has the added advantage of throwing the hitter off stride.
Although most fans may remember only that Philadelphia's John Denny was the 1983 National League Cy Young Award winner and Cincinnati's Mario Soto the runnerup, the No. 3 vote-getter was Orosco, whose 1.47 earned run average did not go unnoticed.
Jesse has been the big man out of the bullpen again this year, with 8 wins and 25 saves at last count. Meanwhile Sisk, whose sinkerball dips like a rollercoaster, was also having another terrific year until he injured his shoulder in July. He was placed on the 15-day disabled list Aug. 9, and is eligible to come off Friday, but when he'll actually be ready to pitch again with full effectiveness is not known for sure - and of course this could be a key factor in the stretch drive.
The amazing thing about the two relief aces (Orosco is only slightly noisier than a pillow; Sisk, the brass section in a July 4th parade), is that they rent a house together!
Getting back to ex-second baseman Johnson, whose credits include seven yaers with those powerhouse Baltimore Oriole teams of the late '60s and early '70s, 43 home runs in 1973 with the Atlanta Braves, and a mathematics degree from Trinity College in Texas, this is no first-year manager who got lucky.
While Dave may be into computers and percentages on the surface, he has never forgotten the human equation, and has done wonders with a young pitching staff that includes at least one member (All-Star Dwight Gooden) who isn't old enough to vote. He knows how to motivate, and he also knows enough not to ask certain players to do things beyond their talents.
Johnson's only visible problem this year has been Strawberry, who loves to hit, but whose attention span on defense begins to waver about the time he passes first base en route to right field. The workings of the alarm clock also appear to be a mystery to Darryl, whose tardiness on occasion has resulted in several father and son - make that teacher and pupil - talks in Dave's office.
If Dick Williams wins his division with the San Diego Padres and Johnson doesn't quite win his with the Mets, look for Williams to be named National League Manager of the Year. But for a rookie pilot, Dave has done a super job no matter what happens in September.