“Oh, face the facts, ducks. The chances of us getting out of here are a million to one.”
“Then there’s still a chance.”
–Exchange between Bunty and Ginger in Chicken Run, release date, late June 2000
As I watched Wednesday night’s contest become no contest — recurrent rain, empty citrus seats, yawning run gap, stifling opposing pitching (Lidle hands were the devil’s playthings), space between us and first place growing large enough to drive a fleet of Mr. Softee trucks through — I wondered how many nights like this Shea Stadium has seen.
This is the 42nd season Shea has been open for business. The Mets play 81 games a year there, maybe, what would ya say, 60% of those at night? There have been some nights lost to strikes and postponements and this season isn’t quite half over, so, if you estimate conservatively, you’d have to say…yeah, I think I got it…
By my calculations, Shea Stadium has seen a million nights like this.
That means there have been a million nights for Retrosheet to record innings such as this one from June 30, 2000:
BRAVES 3RD: Veras singled; A. Jones singled to left [Veras to second]; Jordan flied to center; Galarraga walked [Veras to third, A. Jones to second]; Lopez singled to left [Veras scored, A. Jones scored, Galarraga scored (error by Piazza), Lopez to second]; Bonilla grounded out (third to first); Hampton threw a wild pitch [Lopez to third]; T. Hubbard struck out; 3 R, 3 H, 1 E, 1 LOB. Braves 4, Mets 0.
I knew it. As usual, we were going to lose to the Braves, with Mike Hampton, as would no doubt be his custom, shrinking from the task at hand when it came to Atlanta. On this night, a Friday night five years ago, Shea was the wrong place to be for the Mets and for the 52,831 who mostly wanted to boo John Rocker and cheer fireworks.
I knew that it was the wrong night for me to be there. I was sure of it.
I was so tired. So very, very tired. I was supposed to be here the night before, Thursday night, for Rocker’s return. The villain versus the wronged and insulted. We would show him what was what, the joik. We would show all of them, from Bobby Cox on down. It was the Braves’ first appearance at Shea, first game against us since the night ol’ Dixie drove us down the previous October. (I’ll never forget how Kenny Rogers walked Andruw Jones with the bases loaded and how Rogers swore that if it took him until 2005, he’d take out his frustrations on a cameraman or two even if he had to go all the way to Texas to do it. But never mind that right now.)
Boy was I pumped for the rematch. I bought tickets in February and was determined to set out for the ballpark as early as possible. I started on my way around 2 in the afternoon. Only problem was I began my trip to Shea from Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Really, though, it was going to work out. I had a business trip, see, but I could get to the airport and hop on a 3 o’clock flight to LaGuardia and if everything went to plan, I could dump my luggage in my trunk and, depending on traffic, take a cab to Shea and come back to the airport parking lot later or, if it didn’t seem too daunting, toodle over to Shea in my Toyota myself.
Storm clouds gathered over Ontario, though. Lightning, big-time. My flight was delayed. There was the longest period during which no information was available. Don’t they have places to get to in Canada? Doesn’t anybody care that I have a game tonight? Eventually, I was told in extremely casual tones that my flight was cancelled. Everything to New York was cancelled. It had been a bad storm. Had been. Seemed nice out now. C’mon, you hosers, get a plane on the runway and get me to Shea. Drop me off by the Marina and I’ll walk the rest of the way.
No dice. The Toronto airport was a crowded, Canadian cacophony. Nobody knew anything. I tried to rebook from within the Air Canada terminal but I was told I had to go the main departure area and stand in a ticket line. This meant I had to backpedal through security which didn’t make security very happy. There was very briefly an international incident that I managed to talk myself out from under.
A ticket agent, hearing something in my pleas or seeing something in my eyes (or maybe she noticed my OLERUD 5 shirt, which I changed into after my meeting was over, Oly having been a big man in that town once), let me jump the line. She told me she could put me on a flight to LaGuardia at 7 the following morning but not a 7 train that night. Damn, damn, damn! No Rocker. No Braves. No revenge. No going home either. At this point, I’m in another country with no clean clothes for the morning and no place to stay for the night and, most importantly, no way of knowing what was going on between the Mets and their archrivals.
Fortunately I was packing enough Canadian currency to taxi back to where I was staying the night before. Somebody from the company I was visiting had mentioned that they had a good relationship with that hotel and that I could drop their name if, by some chance, my flight was cancelled by a passing shower. I got my room again, bought some underwear and socks and an ill-fitting Toronto Maple Leafs tee and left a very early wakeup call. I also got the score for the game I missed. The Mets lost. To Rocker and the Braves.
BRAVES 8TH: CAMMACK REPLACED M. FRANCO (PITCHING); Furcal struck out; JOYNER BATTED FOR MILLWOOD; Joyner walked; Veras forced Joyner (first to shortstop); Veras stole second; A. Jones walked; Jordan homered [Veras scored, A. Jones scored]; Galarraga flied to center; 3 R, 1 H, 0 E, 0 LOB. Braves 8, Mets 1.
After waking from the equivalent of a nap at 5 in the morning, I got to the airport only to experience another delay (they had to refuel, a little detail I’d figure Air Canada would’ve anticipated). Somehow, my new flight took off from Toronto and got into LaGuardia sometime after 10 AM. I took my usual circuitous route home and attempted to get a little sleep somewhere between noon and four. I wasn’t terribly successful. Tired I was and tired I remained, but another ticket I had and another ticket I wasn’t going to waste. I was going to get on a train and go to Friday night’s game against Rocker and the Braves no matter what.
Usually, I could take whatever I liked inside Shea Stadium. But security was increased because of Rocker. Every fan was suspect. I shed my usual game bag filled with plastic-bottled beverages and such and boiled myself down to my essentials, primarily my Walkman. They let me in with that much along with my future co-blogger (his wife was already at our seats) and his friend from work.
While I was happy to be at the game on a Friday night and see the gang and all that, I was tired. I think I mentioned that, but it was hard to overcome. When I travel, I get very little sleep. I got even less than usual the second night in Toronto. My mind was addled. The Braves were leading. I didn’t care about Rocker anymore. I didn’t care about fireworks if I ever did. All I knew was the Mets were losing, Hampton was hammered and I wanted to go home.
They couldn’t keep me seated in the right field mezzanine, you know. This wasn’t the Canadian Mounted Police perfectly within their rights to turn me around at security. I could get up and leave. I wanted to get up and leave. “G’night, guys. This sucks. I’m going home now.” I wanted to say it, but I didn’t. I couldn’t. It seemed wrong. Last night I couldn’t wait to get here. Tonight I couldn’t wait to get home. I’m here. May as well buy a small, overpriced diet soft drink in a blue paper cup — first one I purchased that way all season — and stay.
Just as well that we couldn’t see the scoreboard without lunging forward and craning our necks 90 degrees to the right. It was 8-1 in the middle of the eighth and hopeless. It would be over soon enough. The Mets had already gone to sleep. I took one last sip from my cup and, once emptied of its contents, clutched it mindlessly.
METS 8TH: JOYNER STAYED IN GAME (PLAYING 1B); WENGERT REPLACED GALARRAGA (PITCHING); Bell singled to center; Alfonzo flied to center; Piazza singled [Bell to third, Piazza to second (error by Furcal)]; Ventura grounded out (second to first) [Bell scored, Piazza to third];
Well, at least we’re making a very minor showing for ourselves. Couple runners on, one scores. Yippee. There are two out. Damn. I notice a few cheers for this. Fools. We’re down 8-2 in the eighth. Get real. Sometimes I wonder about these people.
Zeile singled [Piazza scored]; Payton singled to right [Zeile to second]; LIGTENBERG REPLACED WENGERT (PITCHING);
Hey, I remember Don Wengert now. In 1998, I went to a doubleheader at Wrigley Field. The Mets swept both games. Wengert started one of them for the Cubs. Don Wengert. Made me think of Don Young, the centerfielder who dropped two balls that let the Mets win in the ninth on July 8, 1969. Because he flubbed, they put Jimmy Qualls in the next night. It’s apropos of nothing, more than 30 years later, but that was Wengert and he’s coming out with us down 8-3 and two guys on.
I start to chew on my cup.
Agbayani walked [Zeile to third, Payton to second];
Bases loaded. I keep chewing.
JOHNSON BATTED FOR CAMMACK; Johnson walked [Zeile scored, Payton to third, Agbayani to second];
The crowd noise rises. Kerry Ligtenberg has no control. Mark Johnson has a huge strike zone, but Kerry, the guy with the weird sideburns, can’t find it. I thought he was good. He’s not — not tonight. It’s 8-4. My friends and I look at one another. We lived through 1998 and 1999 together, the four of us. We want to join the cheering, but we know better. We think we do. Who wants to get too happy and pique the baseball god who had the good grace to fall asleep at the switch and let us back into this game?
I’ll just stick to my cup. Chew, chew, chew. My train home can wait.
Mora walked [Payton scored, Agbayani to third, Johnson to second]; MULHOLLAND REPLACED LIGTENBERG (PITCHING); MCEWING RAN FOR JOHNSON;
The vast majority of 52,831 have forgotten about Rocker, at least as a target (turns out his arm is bothering him and he’s unavailable to pitch or be thrown at). They’ve forgotten about fireworks for now. Hope is alive. Pandemonium is raging. There’s cheering and stomping and yelling and emotion that seemed out of place minutes ago. It’s Braves 8 Mets 5, the bases loaded and continuously reloaded.
Terry Mulholland? He’s on the Braves? I didn’t know he was still in the league. The upper portion of my cup, meanwhile, has very little rigidity left to it.
Bell walked [Agbayani scored, McEwing to third, Mora to second];
AAAGH! AAAAGH! Make that AAAAAGH! The Mets have scored FIVE RUNS in this inning! All of them have come with two out, right? The first one scored on the second out and since then there was a single and (one, two, three, four) FOUR walks! The bases are still loaded, no Brave can get the third out and our No. 3 hitter is coming up.
I can’t chew anymore. I’m wide awake and, at last, in the moment. I gotta scream like everybody else.
Alfonzo singled to left [McEwing scored, Mora scored, Bell to second];
OH MY GOD! THE METS HAVE TIED THE SCORE! FONZIE CAME THROUGH!
Well of course he did! Is there anybody else we’d rather have up in a spot like this? No! Now that he’s done his thing, is there anybody else we’d want up at least as much right now, after Fonzie? This inning can’t end in a tie. We can’t not go ahead now. Not with the Braves. I don’t know why that Cox sucker hasn’t brought in another pitcher but I still don’t trust them. They’ll find a way to beat us, to make this whole thing moot unless we can get another run home.
Who’s up? Who? WHO?
Piazza homered [Bell scored, Alfonzo scored];
There are no words for this. There are only noises but they, like The Artist Formerly Known as Prince when he was a symbol, are unpronounceable and probably untypeable. It is useless to try to describe what it felt like to watch Mike Piazza, our man, The Man, step up and swat mightily the very first pitch he saw from the luckless journeyman on the mound. He hit it straight on a line to left — high enough so that part wasn’t in doubt but, from our vantage point in the right field mezzanine, maybe not fair. No, it was fair.
After so many unfair nights against the Braves, it was totally fair.
With the home run, I tossed my cup away. Because of Rocker, extra cops were on hand to make sure nobody in the stands flung anything but by now, cops weren’t worried about cups.
Ventura grounded out (second to first); 10 R, 6 H, 1 E, 0 LOB. Braves 8, Mets 11.
When the eighth inning was over, my future co-blogger and I each turned our heads well to the right to catch a glance of the big scoreboard. He said to me just what I was thinking:
“I wanted to see what a 10-run inning looks like.”
That’s right! Not only did we just turn a seven-run deficit against the detested, despised, degenerate Braves into a three-run lead but we saw the Mets do something the Mets had only done once before. On June 12, 1979, while I was finishing, appropriately enough, 10th grade, the Mets were scoring 10 runs in the sixth inning against the Reds in this same ballpark. Doug Flynn hit a three-run inside-the-park job. Richie Hebner and Frank Taveras drove in a pair apiece. It took a great, diving stop by Cincinnati third baseman Ray Knight to rob Sergio Ferrer of his only potential base hit of the season and end the attack. I still remember Steve Albert giddily and inaccurately blurting, “even Sergio Ferrer is going to get a hit!”
This, on the other hand, is what Gary Cohen said 21 years later, exactly five years ago tonight:
Bell is the lead run. He’s on second. Alfonzo at first with two out. Eight to eight, bottom of the eighth. Incredible. Mulholland ready to go. The pitch to Piazza…swing and a drive deep down the left field line…toward the corner…IT’S OUTTA HERE! OUTTA HERE! Mike Piazza with a LINE DRIVE three-run homer! Just inside the left field foul pole! The Mets have tied a club record with a ten-run inning! And they’ve taken the lead…eleven…to eight! Piazza drives in a run for a thirteenth straight game, and the first time in twenty-one years the Mets have put up a ten-run inning. They’ve done it against the Atlanta Braves, they’ve come from seven runs down…here in the bottom of the eighth inning. They lead it eleven to eight. Incredible!
Incredible! indeed. The high-fiving and hugging and hollering went on for an eternity, or at least until the top of the ninth was required by law. Armando came on to get the last three outs amid a swelling chorus of “oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-OH!” Yes, chops were being served throughout Shea. If there were two dissenters, it was my friend and me. “No chopping,” he yelled. “You’re idiots!” I concurred. Why tempt fate, a commodity that had been in the Braves’ dugout for close to a decade?
Wouldn’t you know that Benitez managed to bring the tying run to the plate with two out? But he induced Wally Joyner (Wally Joyner was a Brave? Do they ever run out of players?) to fly to Jay Payton in center and, given Eric Cammack’s ineffectiveness way back in the top of the eighth, was credited with the win.
And that was that. Final at Shea: Mets 11 Braves 8.
I mean WOW! Didja ever? Not likely. Of all the nights Shea has seen, that was the only one that was exactly like that. It’s been five years, but it’s also been an eternity. Only Mike Piazza, forever The Man if no longer what he once was, still remains. And only Mike Piazza could have done what Mike Piazza did. Fonzie, too, in terms of tying it up.
Those were our guys. Those were the days.
That was a night.
My only tangible regret is the cup. I looked around for it on the ground after the home run. Couldn’t find it. I would’ve saved it if I had known. But how could’ve I known?
I wish I had allowed myself to at least conceive that it could have happened, which I never did, not really, until it was 8-6 and Edgardo Alfonzo was due up with the bases loaded. Never mind that I spent 7-1/2 innings moaning to myself about how tired I was at the end of what had been two days in two countries that had blurred into a continental drift. I couldn’t let myself enjoy the rally too much while it was building because by Friday, June 30, 2000, I was so convinced that one too many positive thoughts could trip the whole deal up. As a result, by the time the game had ended, I was a bundle of energy looking for an outlet.
Our party had no interest in fireworks. (As if the Grucci Brothers could compete with Mike and Fonzie.) I bade my companions goodbye and made a pit stop before leaving Shea. My bladder wasn’t the only thing I couldn’t contain. I wouldn’t shut up about what I just saw to any and every man who walked into the men’s room while I was in there. “Wasn’t that great? I mean, wasn’t that GREAT?” My enthusiasm echoed off the tiled walls long after I washed up and shook my hands dry.
Still excited, still looking for others to share the news with, I whipped out my cell phone as I wound my way down the left field ramp. This was my first year with the contraption I’d previously deemed superfluous. Now I saw what it was for — to go on and on to whomever I could find to tell them about how the Mets were down seven runs in the eighth and scored ten and won by three. I’m babbling and blathering and bubbling and it’s still not enough. I stick the phone to my left ear and stick my right hand up in the air desperately seeking another one. While I’m still walking and talking, a fellow I’d never seen before and, to the best of my knowledge, would never see again, comes up beside me and finds my right hand. As we’re exiting Shea Stadium, we high-five. Hard.
“NOW THAT’S THE STUFF I’M TALKING ABOUT!” he tells me.
“YEAH!” I tell him.
I calmed down enough to make my way home, listening all the while to Mets Extra. Waiting at Woodside for the LIRR eastbound, I could see colored lights erupting over Shea. “Hmmm,” I thought. “They call those fireworks?”
When the Mets scored ten runs in an inning in 1979, it was neat and all, but the Mets were already long buried in last place. By winning as they did five years ago tonight, they moved to within two of the Braves. The next afternoon, Saturday, Piazza pounded Maddux. They all did, actually. He gave up seven earned runs in two innings. The Mets won 9-1. If we could win again, on Sunday, we’d be tied for first place with only the summer and its unforetold possibilities ahead of us.