PITCHER Dick Vanham, on the mound for the Paris Mets had just given up his fourth consecutive home run to the U.S. military team from Heidelberg. He turned to his teammates on the bench, grinned, and with an admirable grasp of reality said: "I guess I haven't fooled 'em with the slows stuff yet."
Can't anybody play this game?
That plaintive question, first posed by the late Casey Stengel to his original New York Mets, could well be the battle whimper of their continental namesakes, described by one of their players as "the Charlie Brown all-stars of European softball."
These Mets are being chronicled by a teacher at the American School of Paris named George Packard, who has sat on the bench during games for two years, gathering material for a book. His theme, he said, will be "how these guys cope with the absurdity of their situation."
"We're a little short on numbers and talent, but we keep trying," said Herb Johnson, an American insurance agent from Plainfield, N.J., who has been in Paris nearly 30 years and is founder secretary, chief umpire and driving force of the Franco-American Softball League.
"The American sports community here is a little pathetic. I'm afraid," said Johnson. "There are 30,000 Americans in the Paris area, more than in any other foreign city except Mexico City.
"The British have only 7,000 and they have organized cricket, rugby, soccer, golf, tennis and boxing. But their people generally come here for lengthier stays - 10, 12, 20 years - and they've already seen a lot of Europe when they come here.
"Americans are assigned here by their companies for two or three years and they want to get away and see the countryside. There are some ball players, but they've got pressure from their families to do other things. It makes it difficult to promote organized, competitive amateur athletics."
Nevertheless, Johnson keeps trying and enough people respond to his weekly ad in "Paris Metro," a trendy English-language tabloid, to keep the league functioning.
It is a ragtag bunch with a revolving lineup - the Paris Mets' specialty is the designated absentee - but on any given Sunday between early March and today, which is the French holiday Bastille Day, they are out on a make-shift field in the Bois de Boulogne, filling the air with idiom that is peculiar even to English-speaking Parisians: "Can o' corn," "I got it," "run it out, baby, he'll bobble it," and a standby after those rare flashy plays: "Get the contract out, Herb."
The Bois, a massive network of parks, forests, ponds, playing fields and two race tracks on the western outskirs of the city, is a hive of recreational pursuits and leisurely inactivity on weekends.
It is a mecca for bathers, sun-worshippers, joggers, bicyclists, duck-feeders, soccer and rugby players, kite fliers, frisbee tossers, rowers, model-boat and plane enthusiasts, campers, tennis players, polo teams, walkers, artists, picnickers and men who play "boules" a French derrivative of bowling similar to the Italian "bocce."
The softball players do their thing on a field of clumpy grass, weeds and dust opposite the Parc de Bagatelle with its world famous botanical gardens.
The league, like Charlie Brown's All Stars, is a low-budget operation.
"At best we're tolerated by the French.They don't help us," said Johnson. "If we played soccer, rugby, that sort of thing, we'd get money, uniforms, equipment. But softball is not a recognized sport here. The French have a baeball federation, but its minor. What I'm doing is like trying to promote cricket in Des Moines, Iowa."
The Franco-American League, which plays Sundays at 1:30, consists of three teams: the TWA Flyers, E. F. McDonald Paris Macs and the Mets. A fourth, the embassy Marines, dropped out to play pickup baseball instead.
"The league," Johnson said with some haughtiness, "is sanctioned by the International Softball Federation of Oklahoma City, which includes 54 nations worldwide."
Each team plays on 18-game league schedule, but the real excitement comes when they consolidate into one 20-man squad, playing as the Paris Mets, which hosts visiting international teams for five-game weekends series.
Recent visitors have included the Manheim Travelers and Heidelberg Lions military teams based in Germany, Holland and the Channel Islands are annual opponents, as is a Paris-based Japanese team.
"it got pretty feverish when we had Manheim and Heidelberg in here," said Johnson. "They are among the best teams in the armed forces, fairly professional, with a lot of scholarship ball players. They play a 64-game schedule, plus international games. They brought 50 fans with them, and we had about 1,200 spectators.
"They didn't know what to expect, but they didn't want to take any chances losing to a bunch of bums from Paris. We had one moral victory, a 2-1 loss to Heidelberg. It was hotter than firecrackers. I had to eject three of my players for unsportsmanlike conduct."
In addition to the fast-pitch league there is a cooed recreational slow-pitch game. It's popular, but Johnson, a purist who considers slow-pitch an American pox on a great international game, treats it with some disdain, as evidenced by the wording in his weekly 'Metro' item: "There is also a more casual basement team that plays further down the field on Sundays at 2 p.m. Anyone can join."
Johnson - a kind of unofficial Mr. American Community in Paris, associated with everything from the American Club to a store called ANIC that sells American foods unavailable in French markets - makes it clear that the recreational stuff is all right for Milquetoasts, but he is running a sanctioned league for redblooded lads who want to fighter for the olde town team, even if the olde town happens to be Paris.
A gray-haired, clean-cut, stern father figure, Johnson knows everyone. Mention the name of any prominent American who has lived in Paris during the last three decades and he says, "Of course, he's a good friend of mine." Rumor has it hat at one time or another he has sold all of them insurance policies.
But for all his bluster he is a likable fellow, shewd and knowledgeable, the good-hearted compulsive organizer you find directing baseball or softball leagues throughout the U.S. The only thing missing is the clipboard.
He has a blue blazeer with five patches sewn on, including the official emblems of the International Softball Federation and the National Softball Hall of Fame.he wears gray slacks with suspenders and black athletic shoes and always carries a whistle.
The whistle tickles the players. "Someday, we're going to get Herb a gold-plated whistle, he loves that thing so much," said Bob Schubert, 24. "He'll be umpiring behind the plate and a Frenchman will walk across the outfield - they don't know the rules - and Herb will toot at him as if somebody ran on the field during the World Series. He's a riot, but a great guy."