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Davey Johnson Tries to Keep Mets Off the Rocks

United Press International

Even after he had been informed the ship had struck an iceberg, the captain of the Titanic never let on to his crew all the anguish he felt inside. That just isn’t done at sea. It would go against the maritime code.

This is as good a place as any to set the record straight about that captain. He wasn’t out getting ice at the time.

Nor is Davey Johnson, the skipper of the Mets, who’s trying to to keep them from going under and the Cardinals from waving goodby to them in the NL East. It ain’t easy. The Mets are still in considerable distress even though Dwight Gooden helped them stay afloat last Thursday by beating the Cubs, 3-0, for his 23rd victory.

Johnson isn’t giving any orders for the life jackets yet.

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“I still think it’ll go right down to the wire,” he says.

On the outside, he’s so calm and collected, you’d think he was idly browsing through a book in a library. On the inside, it’s a different story with him. If you knew how to work one of those X-ray machines, you’d be able to see a whole lot of instant replays.

In that respect, Davey Johnson is pretty much like all managers past and present. When he was managing, Bob Lemon liked to say he never took a game home with him because he’d leave it at a neighborhood bar.

He was putting people on. Underneath it all, Bob Lemon was one of the most intense competitors you ever saw. He didn’t wash away any defeat just like that. Either as a player or a manager. If you want personal confirmation, ask him about the time he was pitching for the Indians and Phil Rizzuto beat him, 1-0, by bunting Joe DiMaggio home from third base.

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Davey Johnson can also tell you about some losses. Recent ones, too, that ultimately can make the difference whether he and the Mets get a chance to be in the World Series four weeks from now or merely watch it on TV.

The manner in which the Mets have lost several of their games lately, such as the extra-inning one they dropped to the Pirates last week or that one they handed the Cubs Wednesday by blowing a late-inning three-run lead, would bring tears to the eyes of a hobby horse.

Even had they been playing well, the Mets wouldn’t have had much chance to catch the machine-like Cardinals, winners in 12 of their last 13 before they met the Phillies Thursday night. But the Mets all but gave away several of the contests they lost and those were the games that worked hell on Johnson’s cardiovascular and digestive systems.

He isn’t letting it show, though. He can’t. How would it look if the crew could sense their captain was about to order them to man the lifeboats?

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“I’m coming to grips with things better than I did the year before and earlier this year,” says Johnson, who guided the Mets home in second place, 6 1/2 games behind the Cubs in his first year as their manager in 1983. “You tell yourself you’re not gonna let it bother you, you’re not gonna let it get to you. But no matter what you do, some of it always stays with you when you lose.

“You start the race back in April for only one purpose and that’s to win. If you don’t win, it isn’t the fact that you did well and finished second so much as that you lost. To me, there’s only one place to finish. That’s first. Second has no appeal.”

The Mets don’t have much time left to catch the Cardinals. They cut the margin between themselves and the Cardinals to 3 1/2 games with Thursday’s win over the Cubs but with nine more games to play, and only three of those at home, their chances aren’t very good. They hope when they come in to St. Louis for a three-game series with the division leaders Tuesday they won’t be more than three games out, but they’d still need a sweep to draw even after which it would still be uphill for them since they’d have three more games to play with the Expos while the Cards would be meeting the weaker Cubs in their final three.

At least, this is nothing really new to Johnson.

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“I’ve been there before,” he says, having played on four pennant winners with the Orioles.


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