PHILADELPHIA — They are the National League's runaway leaders in the Win and Loathe columns. They are hailed and hated.
Do the New York Mets care?
"What do we care," second baseman Wally Backman said during last week's series here.
"A lot of it is just jealousy and envy. The bottom line is that we want to win, and if people don't like you for winning, we can live with that because winning is our goal."
The Mets have been doing an impressive job of achieving it in a Silver Anniversary season that has turned golden.
They have led the Eastern Division since April 23, a span of 117 days. A lead that has been as many as 19 games and no fewer than 10 since July 1 prompted a demoralized Whitey Herzog, who manages the league's defending champions, the St. Louis Cardinals, to concede by early June--or was it early May? And in defeating the Phillies, 8-4, here last Monday, the relentless Mets soared 40 games over .500, a club record.
Going into tonight's 5 p.m. nationally televised game with the Dodgers (Channels 7 and 10), the Mets are 77-41, 36 games over .500, after losing four of six games to St. Louis.
"It's impossible for us to lose now," Backman said, alluding to the division race, "but the intensity is still there. Now we're at the point where we want to see how many games we can win and how many games we can win it by."
That's all part of Manager Davey Johnson's "accelerator to the floor" philosophy, "taking nothing for granted" while maintaining the same competitive level through the dog days of a race they have already won.
"I want them to keep grinding," Johnson said, having said it so often in his three years as the manager that he now believes the message is clear.
"Do we look like a team that needs a lot of motivation?" he asked on the night the Mets went 40 over .500, which led him to say that he wanted to be 50 over, that "when you work hard to get what you've got, you don't want to give it up."
Of that, he no longer seems worried. "You've got to know the type of individuals we have on this club," he said. "We've got a lot of gamers, guys who don't like to lose. Last year, we won 98 games and got nothing. We've got guys here who are still hungry."
Hail the Mets for their drive, their intensity, their obvious talent--but a hatred has developed among some people and some teams in response to the Mets' style. They are being called cocky, arrogant and demonstrative to the point that even Ron Darling, who pitches for the Mets, recently said:
"I'd hate to pitch against the Mets. Too many demonstrations. Down the road, somebody's going to remember that we showed them up."
Somebody, perhaps, like David Palmer of the Atlanta Braves. Palmer yielded a home run to Gary Carter July 11 at Shea Stadium and watched as Carter responded to the crowd's cheers by emerging from the dugout to shake a raised right fist in what is his patented gesture. Palmer then hit Darryl Strawberry with his next pitch, initiating a bench-clearing brawl.
"They act as though they won the seventh game of the World Series," Palmer said of the Mets.
"I don't care how many home runs you hit, but don't show me up."
Cardinal shortstop Ozzie Smith put it another way. "We know they're good, but they act like they have to remind everyone all the time," Smith said.
Some of the hatred is normal. New York teams seem to generate it even when they're losing. The Mets have won with such consistency, frustrating and demoralizing their division and league, that they have compounded that basic distaste for New York athletes.
Said Johnson, a former infielder with the Baltimore Orioles: "I came up at a time when the Yankees were no longer the power they had once been, but there was still a special feeling when we beat them."
The perception of the Mets, however, is that they rub it in, that they flaunt their success. The curtain calls for Shea Stadium homers, even the most meaningless, are part of it. Said a writer who covers the club regularly: "The Mets lead the league in self-congratulations and a lot of it is bush."
There are high fives, low fives and the pumping fist of Carter, who establishes much of the tone, leaving no doubt as to why he is called The Kid. He has also been called Camera Carter because he always seems to be facing one. Johnson compared Carter to Frank Robinson. "There are some players who generate both like and dislike," the manager said. "Gary is the same as Frank. You hate him when he's on another team and love him when he's a teammate."
Now on the 15-day disabled list with a partially torn ligament in his left thumb, an injury that is not expected to sideline him for more than two to three weeks, Carter leads the league in runs batted in. He soon may be called an MVP rather than Kid or Camera.