ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Sitting at his locker in the training camp of the New York Mets, Keith Hernandez relaxed with a cigarette, ignoring the warning of the surgeon general.
Suddenly, as he worked on a crossword puzzle, the cigarette exploded. Hernandez recoiled, recovered, smiled, shook his head and said, "Not again."
Oh, those Mets! Can they have fun?
Is this a team riding an exhilarating and joyful high in the wake of its World Series championship and 108 regular-season victories?
Or are exploding cigarettes symbolic of its time-bomb image in the wake of all those winter headlines about competitiveness off the field?
--There were the bitter contract negotiations with third baseman Ray Knight and the eventual departure of the Most Valuable Player in the World Series.
--There were the incidents related to or involving Dwight Gooden, including a scrap with Tampa police in which he was charged with resisting an officer and with violence and battery on an officer.
--There was Darryl Strawberry's wife suing for divorce, claiming that Strawberry physically abused her.
--There were continuing stories dealing with last year's ruckus between Houston police and Ron Darling, Tim Teufel, Bob Ojeda and Rick Aguilera in a bar there.
Now, in preparing for their attempt to become the first team since the New York Yankees of 1977 and '78 to repeat as World Series champions, the Mets say that they have put the extracurricular stuff behind them and profited from it.
"Times have changed," Hernandez said. "There are a lot of frustrated athletes out there. There are a lot of guys looking to get athletes. We've become targets because of the money we make. We get a lot of abuse from Joe Blows who didn't make it.
"A time bomb? I don't think we're a time bomb at all. We've all learned a lesson, particularly our young guys. We have to avoid trouble at all costs. We can't let pride take over. We have to swallow it and move away. Forget it and move on."
Said Darling: "We live life in a fishbowl. You can be bitter about it or deal with it and grow from it. I've tried to use my experience of last year as something from which I can grow. I'd be disappointed with myself if I ever let it happen again."
Actually, the Mets are not supposed to be talking about all this. General Manager Frank Cashen asked them on the first day of spring training to direct any inquiries regarding off-the-field incidents to him.
In the clubhouse, however, the Mets seem to want to put their perspective on them. They talk, and even laugh, about them.
Strawberry, for example, arrived in camp, found his locker next to Gooden's and said: "Look at that. They've put assault and battery next to each other."
And Hernandez told reporters that he was going to ask Cashen "if we can wear black, 10-gallon hats this year. You know, get to town, rob the bank and get out before the posse catches us."
The black-hat image should be reinforced by a poster that the five starting pitchers--Ojeda, Aguilera, Gooden, Darling and Sid Fernandez--have made. They are posed aggressively on motorcycles, wearing jeans and no shirts. There are baseballs and broken bats strewn at their feet.
The poster does not carry the Mets' logo or approval.
Manager Davey Johnson, whose Mets have won 90, 98 and 108 games in his three years, sees no value in perpetuating that image.
"It was a very busy winter," he said. "We have some young and very competitive players who have to be less competitive off the field.
"I want that to be water over the dam. It's done. It's history."
The Mets, of course, do not have to be off the field to generate hard feelings. The lead on a Times' story last August pointed out that they were both hailed and hated.
"It's all part of winning and being from New York," Hernandez said. "People think New York is a jungle. They don't even like to recognize it as part of the United States. They love to hate New York."
Part of it, too, is how the Mets won.
"We led the league in self-congratulations," Darling acknowledged. "And we probably get more endorsements than anyone else. It's the New York syndrome. There's a lot of envy involved."
So it's winning the National League's East Division by 21 1/2 games and being from the city people love to loathe. It's curtain calls after home runs and a combative arrogance or cockiness that contributed to four field fights last year and biting criticism from players throughout the league.
Mike Schmidt, the Philadelphia Phillies' third baseman and the league's MVP, couldn't wait to talk about it again this year. On his first day in camp, asked about the Mets, he told the Tampa Tribune: "They weren't what you necessarily call class winners last year. They made a lot of enemies. . . . They flaunted their success.