Hoping . . . and Waiting : Times Have Been Easier for Rookie John Christensen, Who Is in an Awkward Position as Mets' Fifth Outfielder

Times Staff Writer

They showed up again Wednesday at Dodger Stadium, the fat guy in the visor and the scrawny guy with the cigarette, both demonstrating particular interest in New York Mets outfielder John Christensen.

When they started hollering insults from the upper seats, Christensen recognized their voices immediately. The same two guys had harassed him at the Mets' previous games of the trip in San Diego and San Francisco.

What were they yelling?

"Get your tickets to see Christensen in Tidewater," Christensen recalled with a mock grimace at the reference to the Mets' Triple-A team in Virginia.

For the 24-year-old rookie from Fullerton, this was one of the less enjoyable aspects of his baptism in the major leagues. But Christensen has been characterized by an old-beyond-his-years attitude since his Little League days. So he just rolled his eyes as if to imply the critics will eat their words someday, and returned to batting practice.

In Christensen's position, where the right psychology becomes almost as vital as any physical skills, survival may depend on an ability to dwell on the positive and keep the negative at least a bat-length away.

As the Mets' fifth and newest outfielder, Christensen is encountering his first real dose of adversity in nearly 20 years of playing baseball. A second-team All-American as a junior at Cal State Fullerton and a top player on three minor league teams, Christensen says he has not experienced anything like a .120 batting average since his sophomore year at Troy High School.

The people who are confident that he will rise above his current circumstances--everyone from his mother to teammate Gary Carter to his college coach, Augie Garrido--are not the types to hang over the railing and bellow their conviction to the stadium at large.

But his best friend on the Mets, rookie pitcher Roger McDowell, did feel obligated to defend him by yelling back at the two boo-birds Wednesday.

"They're just jealous because they work 9-to-5," he told Christensen.

By joining the Mets this season after a good spring training, Christensen has already achieved the near-impossible career goal that he, like almost every other schoolyard athlete, once set for himself: to play in the majors. In the process, he has virtually become the most famous product of Troy since Helen.

As far as his team goes, Christensen could hardly have done better; he is a member of one of baseball's most promising new dynasties, the National League East leaders. The phrase "World Series" is bandied around by Met players as if their appearance is a foregone conclusion.

Furthermore, Christensen is beginning his big league tenure under the guidance of nice-guy manager, Davey Johnson, who is trying to shield the rookie from pressure as much as possible. The impossible task is protecting Christensen from the main source of the pressure--which originates from within his own perfectionistic nature.

When McDowell and Christensen roomed together in the minors, whole meals would pass without a word being spoken after games in which John didn't get a hit.

"Everyone deals with these things differently," McDowell said. "John takes each one hard."

Said Christensen: "I am happy to be here but my confidence level is down. When I go to the plate, I want to do so well that I do just the opposite."

Regardless of what the two guys in the upper deck might believe, however, Johnson says the thought of sending Christensen back to the minors for further playing time "has not crossed my mind."

Nowadays, when Christensen returns to Los Angeles, as he did for this week's Mets-Dodgers series, there's no standing in line at Dodger Stadium. All he has to do is request a block of 16 prime seats for his family and friends. Now if only playing time were half so easy to order.

But some privileges come with the job, part-time or no.

Before Tuesday's game, Vin Scully approached him, addressed him warmly by his first name, and inquired at length about his welfare. A sense of awe and pleasure momentarily hit Christensen as Scully thanked him and walked away.

"I felt like a little kid," Christensen said, grinning.

In another game, he got on base and realized with an inner jolt who was wearing the Cincinnati uniform on the other side of the bag.

"What other kind of dream would you have than to be standing on first base next to Pete Rose?" Christensen said. "It was really something to be there talking to him . . . as a player."

The trouble is, there is not much Christensen can say to Scully, Rose or anyone else right now, without touching on the negative aspects of his situation. He is a rookie and a "role player," in a role that seems to require a lot of waiting and hoping . . . hoping and waiting.

For someone who could never stand to watch more than two innings of baseball at a time on TV--preferring to play it instead--Christensen must do a lot of observing these days. He is using the time to figure out the nuances of big league pitching. But he knows the batter's box makes a much better vantage point than the bench.

Carter, another Orange County native, said he tries to encourage Christensen.

"Being the type of player John is, he's very competitive and wants to be in the game at all times," Carter said. "Being a platoon player is not his first choice."

Christensen said, "I'm a mental type player. I think that's almost the whole thing in baseball. I'm trying to sort things out. I have to make the adjustment and it's just difficult right now.

"I went golfing with my brother and he asked me if everything was OK because when I'm not doing very well, I get a little more quiet. I said that I haven't gotten off to this bad a start since I could remember."

He has played in only 10 complete games, and although he has always had a pattern of slow starts, glaciers may be advancing faster than his batting average this season. Last year at Tidewater, he hit only .256 before June 6, and then streaked along at .344 the rest of the year.

But this time, the prospects for improving his average through regular play are not great. Right field is the toughest row to hoe as a prospect for the Mets.

When Christensen imagined himself in the majors, he could not have envisioned coming up deep in the 6-foot 6-inch shadow of Darryl Strawberry.

So Christensen finally arrived--only to discover that his lifelong position had been leased out and renamed Strawberry Fields Forever in honor of the 1983 Rookie of the Year, a fellow two years younger than he.

"The outfield we have is just about set with two of us who are going to be around for a while," Strawberry said of himself and 29-year-old center fielder Mookie Wilson. "Then George (Foster) is an established veteran. It's a tough situation for him (Christensen).

"Looking at the situation, he's going to have to be patient and not try to overdo it when he does get his chances. Of course, it's tough for me to discuss, because I've never been in that position. But he has a good attitude about the game, and that's the main thing."

Said Christensen: "I know he's got the job and he's going to be out there for a long time, but if I let that affect me, it will only hurt me."

Strawberry's injury, torn thumb ligaments, has provided Christensen more opportunities to play in May and June. Before the Dodger series, he was platooning in right field with fourth-year player Danny Heep. Christensen was starting against left-handed pitchers.

But the platoon disintegrated as Heep has enjoyed an offensive surge this week. Johnson started Heep in place of Christensen on Tuesday against left-hander Fernando Valenzuela, and Heep responded by hitting two doubles and driving in the winning run with a sacrifice fly.

Johnson said he would be playing Heep more frequently as a consequence, while Christensen will now face "certain left-handers," until Strawberry's return in three weeks.

"I could understand Davey's decision to go ahead and play the guy who's hitting the ball good right now, and Danny definitely is," Christensen said.

"I'm doing a new job and I've got to take the time to adjust and learn to be patient so when I do get a chance, I'm not too anxious."

Said Garrido: "The thing that's risky about this is that you can destroy a player's confidence, but John is not that kind of person. He has risen up to the top on every team he's been on.

"This is a valuable experience for him to go through, even if he does wind up going back to the minors for a while. Sometimes our greatest successes come right on the heels of our biggest problems. When he finds the solution to this, he'll return to hitting the ball as well as ever."

'I am happy to be here but my confidence level is down. When I go to the plate, I want to do so well that I do just the opposite.'

--John Christensen

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