NEW YORK -- Above Ron Darling's locker is a book called "The Day They Scrambled My Brains at The Funny Factory." It wasn't part of his required reading at Yale, but it comes in handy as a New York Met.

That title ought to remind us, as it does Darling, that statistics should not be confused with the men who create them. Baseball isn't a table-top game, and players aren't numbers. Sometimes, they're guys whose brains get scrambled at the funny factory. Who knows why?

Some players oversleep and miss games. Some cut a rap record at noon but develop a headache by game time and miss a tough southpaw. Some cuss the manager or throw a firecracker at reporters. Some back-stab teammates and threaten to settle differences with a punch. Some have wives who sue for divorce, claiming battery, and girlfriends who walk through airport metal detectors while packing pistols.

Every season, baseball tries to teach us this lesson -- that the game is human. And richer for it. Yet, each year we insist the game should be less messy than the world around it. We pretend potential is a hairsbreadth from performance, and that what's been done in the past should be readily duplicable on demand in the future.

The more we judge teams on paper, the more the sport insists results be forged on the field by actual people. The game is a system in such flux that expectations are smashed to flinders. It drives some people batty.

"Stats are important," says Davey Johnson of the Mets, the only manager with a degree in mathematics. "But the mind still rules the individual, and chemistry rules the whole team's mood."

Or, as Darling puts it, "With computers, we think we know everything. What a guy hits with men on base on Tuesdays before Lent. But the stats couldn't tell me why I went from April 22nd until July {7th} without a win."

Human frailty, fluke injury, lost confidence and the unseen maze of the psyche cause the stats by which baseball lives and breathes to come into being. Not the other way 'round.

The Mets wish they didn't prove the point so well. This spring, they looked invincible with a rotation that'd gone 18-5, 17-6, 16-6, 15-6 and 10-7 in a world title year. So, Bobby Ojeda, Dwight Gooden, Sid Fernandez, Ron Darling and Rick Aguilera posed for a beefcake poster on motorcycles in leather jackets over bare chests. Title: Kings of the Hill.

So far this season, none of these kings has been hijacked by terrorists or subpoenaed in Contragate or fallen down a manhole. That just about covers it. Everything else has befallen 'em.

Gooden spent April in drug rehabilitation. Trying to pick up the slack, Ojeda pitched three times with a sore elbow and blew out his hinge for the season. Aguilera and Dave Cone went on the disabled list in May and are not back yet. With his team in need, Darling went 75 days between victories. Now, Terry Leach, who's 8-0, will find out Friday if he needs a knee arthroscopy.

Nothing wrong with the champs that a good doctor couldn't cure. If he's part witch doctor. If you're Fernandez, the only starter still intact, wouldn't you wear a hard hat and flak jacket?

In their disarray, the Mets show how synchronism -- and imbalance -- can turn baseball's nice numbers on their heads. One man's drug problem can aggravate another man's sore elbow, which can strain a third chap's self-esteem, which can make the right fielder grouchy, which can get the second baseman a knuckle sandwich if he isn't careful.

Before Darryl Strawberry (who wears yellow Day-glo pajamas and wrap-around sequined funkadelic sunglasses as his day-game-after-a- night-game garb) can say, "My teammates rip me, and they can't even hold my jock," you find yourself in third place, 10 games behind the St. Louis Cardinals. Amazing what a little thing, like losing five of your best seven pitchers, will do to a team.

"The psychological tone of a club is set by its starting pitching. It's a security blanket for everybody on the team, including the manager. That's fact," says Johnson. "If you'd told me that we'd have John Mitchell, Don Schulze and Bob Gibson in our rotation now, I wouldn't have believed it."

If pitching defines a team's mental health, it's no wonder the Mets are a nervous breakdown in public. A decimated rotation "changes the whole system," says Johnson. "This sport is confidence. When a team has it, you exceed expected performance and win games you have no business winning. Last year, I could've done almost anything and it would've worked."

This year? Johnson has needed a whistle, whip and chair just to keep his mutinous, mischievous Mets (51-43) from falling out of sight.

"Whether we win or not, we have to have some fun and enjoy each other and the game," says Johnson in the managerial equivalent of wait-until-next-year. "Let's not let one tough half of a season spoil the team we've built and the feelings among us. We're still a happy club with chemistry. We've been through the worst."

Let Darling, who's been through the worst of the worst, stand for them all. "Maybe the top 10 players in the game never lose their confidence," he says. "The rest of us are like anybody else. In fact, we probably lose our confidence more than most people. I've seen Keith Hernandez lose his after an 0 for eight.

"You get in the bottom of a hole. The press and fans remind you every day. It's hard to block out. You forget how to win. Then you make too many drastic changes . . . At the time, it seemed as bad as it could ever be. I took a lot of abuse; I was a logical scapegoat -- the healthy pitcher who's not performing. Why couldn't I just take the reins and go?"

Was it his new wife, new baby, new restaurant? One night, as Darling put his infant to bed after a 14th straight winless start, his wife asked, "Honey, are you all right?"

"For a second, I was so happy with the baby that I didn't even know what she meant," says Darling. "Then I said, 'Oh, yeah, I guess I am.' " The cycle of self-pity was broken.

Next, Tom Seaver gave Darling a final clue. "He told me, 'Ronnie, you think you're a million miles away from the answer when you're probably an inch. Let it flow.' "

For Darling, the answer was Rule 1 in Pitching. "Throw strikes. That's all it was. So simple," he says, like a man who's searched his whole house to find the missing key that's in his pocket.

Last season, the Mets' slogan was "Baseball like it oughta be." This year, they are reacquainting themselves with baseball as it really is.