Last week, Pete Rose said the New York Mets had a chance to be the best team for one year that he had ever seen.
That shocked many baseball people, because the 1976 Cincinnati Reds, for whom Rose played, often are cited as the equal of the 1927 New York Yankees in the eternal debate over Greatest Team Ever.
But Rose was right.
The Mets (60-26) are playing at a 114-win pace -- the best percentage since 1954 -- and the reason is not quite what most fans would suspect.
Everybody knows the Mets' Magnificent Seven: Dwight Gooden, Gary Carter, Keith Hernandez, Darryl Strawberry, George Foster, Ron Darling and Jesse Orosco.
They are the core of the batting order and the heart of the pitching staff. They made the Mets very good last year and probably will make them excellent again next year. But they are not what makes the 1986 Mets a great and perhaps historic team.
The Other Seven do that.
Their names are Len Dykstra, Wally Backman, Kevin Mitchell, Bob Ojeda, Sid Fernandez, Roger McDowell and Ray Knight. They're loved in Queens and feared by foes from Pittsburgh to San Diego. But for the most part, they are still baseball's most potent secret.
As a group, The Other Seven are playing over their heads. Astronomically over their heads. That is, unless you think that Fernandez, Ojeda and McDowell are fabulous enough to merit their 30-6 record. Unless you believe that Dykstra, Backman, Mitchell and Knight can amass a collective batting average of .331 every season.
Let's be honest. These gentlemen, even the best of them, have been caught up in the whirlwind and taken to Oz. They have no idea how well they are playing, nor how unlikely it is that they ever will revisit such a planet. It's also probable, however, that they will remain magically touched with confidence until the season ends.
On Thursday night here, the Mets played a game that was a summary of their whole season. On the surface, their 13-2 destruction of the Astros might seem like an inevitability. But peel back the game's skin, and we see the anatomy of a dream season.
Ojeda, who began this year with a humble 44-39 career record, took the mound against Nolan Ryan, who has struck out more men and pitched more no-hitters than anybody. It should have been a mismatch, especially since Ryan said he had his best stuff in years. Freed From Fenway
But this is 1986. Ojeda is a man recently freed from ghosts and monsters. The ghosts, that is, of southpaws who have been devoured by the Green Monster in Fenway Park.
"We asked him if he had The Wall in the back of his mind when he pitched in Boston," said Foster. "He said, 'No. It was in the front of my mind.' "
"In Ojeda's first four starts for us, he said he gave up seven balls that would have been homers in Fenway. They were all outs in Shea," said Hernandez. "I'd hear him say, 'Damn,' as the ball left the bat. Then I'd come to the mound laughing and tell him, 'Relax, you're safe now.' A bigger park is especially important to a change-up pitcher like Ojeda because he counts on fly outs."
So on Thursday, Ojeda allowed only one unearned run in six innings, lowered his National League-leading ERA to 2.07 and left for a pinch hitter with the Mets trailing, 1-0.
The instant after Ojeda left the game, the Mets loaded the bases on three walks by Ryan after two men were out. The stage was set. Not for Carter and Co., but for Dykstra and Backman, a pair of 5-foot-9, 160-pound scrappers who scramble around in center field and at second base like scuttling crabs. At bat, they bunt, slap, peck, walk and love the hit-and-run. On base, they steal when you fall asleep. All in all, they're perfect pests.
Neither has a full-time job. The bench is their mailing address against left-handers. Yet Backman is hitting .333 and Dykstra .348 after a 10-day binge of .600 hitting that has made him the NL's reigning player of the week.
"Those little guys are the ones who have made us a team," said Manager Davey Johnson. "Success breeds confidence, and confidence breeds success. Right now, we've got a lot of cocky guys having career years. We're not apologizing for that. The Cubs and Cards did the same thing to us the last two years."
"Backman and Dykstra," Hernandez said, "are our Scrap Iron and Roger Ramjet."
Dykstra knocked Ryan out of the game with a two-run hit. Then Backman greeted Ryan's successor, Frank DiPino, with another two-run hit. Suddenly, a pitchers' duel was headed toward a rout. Before the night was over, Dykstra and Backman had eight RBI, and Houston was reduced to using shortstop Craig Reynolds as a pitcher.
For Backman, the five-RBI game -- the biggest of his career -- was doubly tasty. For the first time in the majors, he had almost missed a game. "I got up at 5 a.m. in Portland Ore., his home and spent the whole day at the airport watching flights get canceled," he said. "I was panicked. I finally got here about 45 minutes before the game. I haven't felt butterflies like that since my first game in the big leagues."
Johnson forgave Backman, simply cracking: "Guess they must only have one plane a day out of Portland."
Then there is Mitchell. At 5-11, 210 pounds, he looks as if he should be stuffing the short-yardage dive plays for some blood-and-dust Big Ten football team. "He's from a rough neighborhood in San Diego," Johnson said. "His brother got killed a couple of years ago. But Kevin's a battler. He'll play any position. I've used him at six spots, including 18 games at shortstop. But third is his natural position. Look at his stroke. You think .260, but he's hitting .340. He won't give in to anybody, and I want to get him all the playing time I can."
That's hard to do, because Knight, another old-school dirty-uniform guy, is hitting .290 and playing all the third base you need. After two bad years in which he was hurt, a lot of people wrote off Mr. Nancy Lopez. Now he's back at the near-star plateau he maintained for years in Cincinnati and Houston.
Of The Other Seven, perhaps no two are as vital as Fernandez and McDowell. Although few outside New York know it, they're the aces of the starting and relief staffs.
McDowell might be the most graceful all-around athlete on the squad. Fernandez, Mr. Wide Body, is probably the most unlikely-looking, and most difficult to hit, pitcher in baseball.
Orosco was the Mets' bullpen star two years before McDowell arrived last season, but, now, McDowell has eclipsed him. Johnson manages to get both an almost equal number of wins and saves, but McDowell (7-2, 2.10 ERA) works more innings, gets the tougher situations and can get out both kinds of hitters. Orosco is erratic and must be spotted against left-handers.
"McDowell's got a nasty sinker, is a great athlete on the mound and can throw 90. Is that about enough?" said Johnson. "Believe it or not, he's probably my best defensive outfielder, too."
Nobody ever will put Fernandez in the outfield. On the other hand, when he pitches, you hardly need outfielders. In the last two years, he has allowed only 182 hits in 288 innings, which is better than any such career ratio in the history of baseball. He also has struck out 283 in that time. 'Jumps Out at You'
"The gun says he throws 89 mph," said Johnson, "but his motion is so unusual a sidearm sling that the ball just jumps out at you."
"He has the best speed differential between his heat and his curve of anybody in the league," said Hernandez. "That 64-mph hook just freezes 'em. It floats up there, then somebody pulls a string."
"He needs a slider," said Foster.
To be utterly unhittable. As is, he is 12-2 to Ojeda's 11-2.
Perhaps most important, Fernandez has stopped worrying about walks. "If you walk 'em on four, hey, so what? You can't give in," said the Hawaiian, pulling on his cowboy boots to go with a flowered shirt.
"We got the perfect blend of veterans along with young guys trying to make their niche," said Hernandez, gazing around the Mets clubhouse at The Others. "Look at 'em. A bunch of puppy dogs."
Who have given an already good team a great bite.