The year was 2000. I was 37.
Or was I?
I was in the fourth year of a stretch when I lived and breathed Mets baseball more than during any other period in my life. Wasn’t I supposed to get that out of the way when I was a child? Sure sounds childish. But in 2000, I wasn’t 7. I was 37. Yet it was all happening now.
Stephanie and I were taking a walk through East Rockaway one Sunday afternoon, long after the post-game edition of Mets Extra had wrapped, when I noticed, lying on the ground, a used Shea Stadium parking stub. “Wow,” I said, “that’s weird. I was just thinking about the Mets and there’s a thing from Shea.”
“What’s so weird about it?” she asked. “You’re always thinking about the Mets.”
If I had put any thought into it thirty years earlier, this would have been the adulthood I envisioned for myself: a grown-up who went to as many baseball games as he liked practically anywhere he liked. I never gave the future much thought, but this was definitely the one I would’ve angled for.
We were living in the future, right? It was the Year 2000, Y2K. Actually, it wasn’t any different from the 1900s, at least not the last few of them. Since 1997, the Bobby Valentine Mets had become my cause, my concern, my reason for being. Even more, I mean. If I had to rate the intensity of my baseball-commitment on a scale from 5 to 10 (let’s face it, it was never going to dip into low single-digits), these were the 9-10 years. The needle never saw 8.
Coming into 2000, I was stuck on 10. That was 1999′s doing. Don’t get me started on 1999 or we’ll never see much of the new millennium. Suffice it to say that the season when the Mets were merrily sailing toward the post-season until they crashed into a rock called the Atlanta Braves in late September and then almost drowned, only to pull themselves to safety, then triumph (over Pittsburgh, over Cincinnati, over Arizona) only to be swallowed up by a shark (Atlanta again) had a profound effect on me. 1999 turned out to be the greatest season I ever lived through, its final thirty days the most epic month I could ever imagine.
The seven-game losing streak that nearly sunk us…the unlikely resurrection…the wild pitch…the one-game playoff…beating Randy Johnson…Pratt…going down 0-3 to Atlanta…then Olerud…and 15 innings…and Ventura with the grand slam that was a single…and Game Six, the game I still haven’t switched off, the one we fell behind 0-5 and 3-7, led 8-7 and 9-8 and lost 9-10. That was the epitome of Mets fandom. Nothing could follow it.
But 2000 did. It had to. It was on the schedule.
It started early. Way too early. In late March. At five in the freaking morning, two games against the Cubs from Japan. The Mets lost the first one. They weren’t ready. Neither was I, I thought. There’s no way this season will be as good as the last one. Where, for example, did John Olerud go? John Olerud had been, since 1997, the clutchest and most graceful of Mets. He made me forget all about Rico Brogna, something I didn’t think was possible. Oly was quiet, wore a hard hat, had soft hands and carried a loud stick. John Olerud made the infield The Greatest Ever. He completed us.
But the Mets let him go prior to 2000. Steve Phillips, the GM, made no effort to re-sign him. There went 90-some RBIs and a hundred walks a year. There went class and dignity and that left-right-left-right balance that made the ’99 lineup a thing of beauty.
Here, instead, came Todd Zeile.
Todd Zeile? The third baseman? The third baseman who played for like eight other teams? And he’s going to play first for us? We’re replacing John Olerud with that?
I already missed the 20th century. Fuck Steve Phillips. Thanks for ruining a good thing.
On the mound that first morning in Tokyo was Mike Hampton. OK, that was a better deal. Hampton was one of those New Age baseball acquisitions that became possible because of money. The Astros didn’t want to spend much to keep him as a free agent and the Mets were willing to part with two young contributors from 1999 (Octavio Dotel and Roger Cedeño) to take that risk. It was essentially the same way we got Piazza and that paid off. Hampton was a serious lefty, 22-4 the year before. Trading for him just before Christmas took a touch of the hurt off losing Olerud in early December. We’d have a lesser first baseman but an absolute ace.
Mike Hampton looked uncomfortable on the Tokyo Dome mound that March morning. Walked nine in five innings as the Mets fell to 0-1. Hampton would come around as a Met but he’d never look particularly at ease.
That would describe my approach to the Mets for much of 2000. It wasn’t 1999 and I never quite got over that. Oh, ’00 had its moments, starting with the second game that was won by Beh-NEE! Agbayani on an eleventh-inning grand slam before work (silliest question I heard when I came in toward noon: “Did you watch the Mets this morning?”). After rubbing the sleep out of their eyes, the Mets went on a nine-game winning streak in mid-April and appeared to be on their way to doing something.
Within a few weeks of Japanese Opening Day, the newly featured players — Derek Bell, Glendon Rusch, Super Joe McEwing, Hampton, Zeile even — showed themselves to be capable sorts. Edgardo Alfonzo, my favorite since 1997, was having a year comparable to the one before. Mike was hitting like he was when he was a Dodger. The pitchers behind Hampton — endlessly talkative Al Leiter and strategically tightlipped Rick Reed — were dependable. Bobby Jones, injured for the important part of ’99, was dreadful, but the pen was still above-average. Misunderstood flamethrower Armando Benitez, reluctant set-up man John Franco and the top middlemen in the business, Turk Wendell and Dennis Cook, separated us from the batch of mediocrities that had come to populate the National League in recent years. It wasn’t a bad team.
But their timing was terrible. They were following 1999 when the Mets came with one game and change of reaching the World Series. Then we had almost beaten the Braves and almost got to take on the Yankees. What was left to accomplish except beat the Braves and actually take on the Yankees? Thus, 2000 was spent mostly on edge, fearing and loathing those two obstacles to the ultimate bliss that I sensed was just around the corner.
The Braves and the Yankees — indomitable and insufferable. I forget who was which. We were the third-best team in baseball, yet there were significant chasms that couldn’t have felt much worse because we were sharing a division with our tormentor and a market and psychic space with our torturers. The Braves and the Yankees. They hovered relentlessly over our heads and were always one pitch away from ruining everything.
The Met-Brave dynamic was simple enough to understand. They were always in first place and we were always trying to get there. We had gotten to the point where we could play some marvelously close and competitive games with them but we never won nearly enough of them. Oh, a few here and there. Mostly here. A Mets-Braves game at Shea Stadium was a matchup. A Braves-Mets game at Turner Field was a beatdown.
It could be argued that our 1999 run to glory would have gotten at least one step further had we not had to play six September and October games in Atlanta. We lost all six, including three NLCS contests. The last one, the searing Game Six, slipped through our fingers in the eleventh inning when a rented stranger named Kenny Rogers walked Andruw Jones with the bases loaded to score Gerald Williams and hand the Braves the pennant. It was the greatest game I ever saw amid the greatest series I ever suffered through, rejoiced in and suffered through again at the end of a season that became the flagship of all my seasons. But we lost. Seconds after it ended, NBC flashed a graphic on the screen promoting its next game. There were three logos: the 1999 World Series’, the Braves’ and the Yankees’. They would be together. We would be left out.
First I let out a wrenched-gut moan. Then I dropped to the living room floor, curled up tight, bawled over what I just saw, picked myself up, brushed myself off and bailed on the Fall Classic. If I had to spend more than a moment pondering the Braves versus the Yankees for the championship of the world, I swear I’d disintegrate.
There was talk among Mets fans who could bear to countenance the subject over who to support in that World Series. We had just been victimized by the Atlanta Braves. Larry “Chipper” Jones earned all-time villainy at Shea for hitting home runs and urging us to go home and put on our Yankee stuff (this was before we rallied the final weekend of the season). John Rocker was honing a WWF persona and was fast coming up on Jones’ right as Public Enemy Number One with his unkind comments over our team and ourselves (this was before he mentioned his views on New York’s diverse population to Sports Illustrated). Bobby Cox was an unsympathetic figure and his pitching coach appeared to be working through some unspoken Tourette’s tick, rocking back and forth, back and forth, back and forth…Leo Mazzone rocked harder than Judas Priest in their prime. Bloodless gamers Maddux and Smoltz and Glavine received whatever signals Mazzone sent them and regularly threw eight innings of four-hit ball against us. Unassuming chipmunks like Keith Lockhart and talented studs like Brian Jordan and perennial second-stringers like Eddie Perez and just-passing-through journeymen like Walt Weiss shared a bond, that of destroying the Mets at the worst possible moment. That is who the Atlanta Braves were in 1999.
Barring a gigantic sinkhole that would swallow both teams in one bite and taking into account my shellshocked obliviousness to the affair, I was rooting for those Braves in that World Series.
Because they were playing the New York Yankees.
As much as I loathed, detested and despised the Atlanta Braves with every fiber of my being, I out-and-out hated the New York Yankees. The Braves had already wrecked our season. The Yankees were constantly wrecking our lives.
And of course, they didn’t. No, the Mets had taken too much out of them in those six NLCS games. I didn’t do more than glance at the World Series, but by the results, neither did the Braves. They were gone in four. The Yankees were champions again, second straight, three of the last four.
They were dynastic.
Their fans were bombastic.
Not a few of them were plastic.
And our composite rage against them? Practically spastic.
This wasn’t what I signed up for in 1969. This was a Mets town. I was a Mets fan. And so it would be forever, forever something I hadn’t pondered much when I was six. Over the years, the Mets would decline, the Yankees would rise but that was just a hiccup. By 1984, this was a Mets town again. Even when we started falling flat in the early ’90s, the other local team wasn’t doing any better.
But then came 1996, or Nineteen Ninety Bleeping Six. It was the New York baseball equivalent of Chernobyl. It contaminated the air and the water and the cows who gave the milk that you dare not drink. 1996 poisoned the atmosphere, unleashing a toxic pinstriped cloud that had yet to dissipate by the turn of the century. The Yankees — up to and including the vile, overbearing bully George Steinbrenner for crying out loud — were hailed by an army of media bootlickers whose marching orders were to continually pump up the self-esteem of every miscreant Yankee fan on the planet. It wasn’t enough that the Yankees played baseball well. It was required by law (the mayor of New York City certainly would’ve signed such a bill) that the Yankees be adored and beloved for everything they accomplished. As such, all baseball fans within the sound of John Sterling’s voice, which echoed with inaccurate home run calls and gobs of self-promotion, were presumed Yankees fans.
If you were a Mets fan, you had to go to the Department of Sports Allegiance and apply for an exemption.
The champion Yankees were ubiquitous, circa 2000. They were everywhere. They were in commercials. They were on billboards. They were in the gossip pages. They were even on our schedule. Our schedule? Yes, somebody engineered the clever concept of making us play the Yankees several times per season. Thus, the overflow of Yankees fans who couldn’t make it into The Stadium to take their tongues to The Monuments crowded into gorgeous (by comparison) Shea Stadium to block our view of our team.
I hated those Yankees. I hated Derek Jeter for usurping the attention that should’ve been paid to our superior fielding shortstop Rey Ordoñez. Sure Rey couldn’t hit and was a shifty character (he had more wives than homers most years), but he was a gem in the field. He was positively balletic. Yet his one gift from Above, his God Glove defense, was washed away in a tsunami of Jeter publicity. Who’s Derek dating? Where’s Derek eating? What’s Derek wearing? That he scored a few runs and won a few rings — which is what it’s all about, baby! — was beside the point.
Derek Jeter was a sneering weasel who mouthed platitudes that taken as a whole were mistaken for evidence of character. I hated the way he stepped back in the box and raised his right hand as if to say, all right, now I may be pitched to. God forbid when a strike, even strike one, was called. He’d give the umpire this look of, “WHA’? DON’T YOU KNOW WHO I AM?” The sense of modern Yankee entitlement was personified by Jeter. Or weaselfied. Sneer went the weasel. But the weasel won.
I hated his manager almost as much. I once liked Joe Torre. His was the first baseball card, from 1967, that I could remember holding. He later played for and managed the Mets. I stood up for him against those who said he was washed up at one job and not ready for the other. I even followed him, in a manner of speaking, to Atlanta when he became their skipper. In college in Florida, deprived of the Mets, all I had was Braves Radio. They became (ugh) my second-favorite team while he was there. Years later, he wound up managing the Yankees, confounding all expectations and winning that first, butt-ugly World Series in 1996. By then, he was Good Old Joe. His brother needed (and received) a heart transplant. He sister was a nun. The Torres deserved a World Series, darn it. His Yankees deserved it — they had waited 18 seasons to win one.
When the Yankees beat the Braves the first time, I could hear yelps of satisfaction from outside our window in East Rockaway, Long Island — nominally Met territory. I cursed and muttered and cursed some more. Stephanie, a good New Yorker at heart, knew they weren’t my team, but gave me just a bit of a look that said, “Can’t you be happy for them?” I gave her more of a look that said, “Absolutely not. You’ll see.”
What good New Yorker would dare deprive swell guys like Joe and his pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre and his third base coach Willie Randolph and his bench coach Don Zimmer and his reformed veteran leaders David Cone and Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden a ring…baby?
Holy cripes. Every one of those 1996 Yankee was a Met at one time or another, some more Met than others. Coney? Darryl? Doc? You’re a Yankee, Doc? You would do this to us? You would pitch for them? You would pitch a no-hitter for them after never pitching one for us? You would do that to us after being my and my mother’s favorite player? Even after we stuck with you through the first drug suspension?
Not only did I hate the Yankees for being Yankees. I hated the Yankees for being ex-Mets. They took our heroes and then they took our city. By 2000, I was still with the same beverage magazine that I joined for just a short while in 1989. (It had been bought by a bigger publisher in 1995 and was then swallowed hole by a gargantuan one in 1999. The company got bigger. I felt smaller.) In the years immediately preceding 2000, I was surrounded at work by Yankees fans every day. It didn’t matter that their knowledge of the game, let alone their team, had some obvious holes in it. Never mind that with few exceptions I didn’t hear a lot about life before 1996 from them. They were, as I said, ubiquitous.
I hated their fans more than I disliked any individual player or manager or owner. Kenneth Lay didn’t have such a sense of entitlement. Their championships had longer GOOD UNTIL dates than anybody else’s. Some other team won last year? They were old news this year. The Yankees win last year? They’re the champs, baby! They fancied themselves, as well, the fun police of baseball. Beat them 9-8 when your final pinch-hitter singled in the winning runs against their allegedly impenetrable closer? “Who’s got the rings? You’re in second place. You haven’t won anything. Yankees BABY!” They knew no humility and less shame. Why any of us bothered to enmesh ourselves in any cult but theirs was beyond them.
Stephanie saw it. She understood not long after ’96 what I meant by “you’ll see.” She saw how the team her husband bled for got ignored in the city they played in and how she herself had to take grief for modeling that team’s regalia. It wasn’t Braves fans invading New York who were making our lives unmerry. It was Yankees fans and their amen corner. Stephanie didn’t listen to WFAN but she saw every suck-up local anchorman and anchorwoman spout the pinstriped party line. She took a job in lower Manhattan in 1999 and had to put up with wave upon wave of obnoxious Yankee reveler descending on City Hall for yet another parade of arrogance. She didn’t like the Yankees either. Mostly she felt bad that both of us had to put up with their fans.
So we had the Braves on the field and the Yankees lurking in the foreground every time we tried to get a little something for ourselves in 2000. We — the few, the proud, the Mets fans — could enjoy baseball but not without those twin specters just waiting to have our way with us. I don’t think any other team’s fans had two bullies kicking sand in their faces. Getting to October became paramount because we had to assert ourselves against of both of them the way we hadn’t or didn’t get the chance to in 1999. I almost didn’t want to bother with the 2000 regular season.
But that would’ve been a mistake. A baseball season, even the feyest among them, is too good to wish away. I didn’t get up at five in the morning in March to not watch my team and I wasn’t planning on going to bed until late October.
Screw the Braves!
Screw the Yankees!
Let’s Go Mets!
I was living the life of my childhood fantasies. I made it to 25 games (19-6) at Shea Stadium in 2000. During all of the 1970s, I only got to go to 11. There was nobody to stop me and were plenty to encourage and accompany me. Just the year before, Major League Baseball went milestone-happy and took votes on an All-Century Team. It made me think of who I would choose if I were putting together a lineup of my own for any given afternoon or evening in Flushing.
1B: Joe — Funny story about Joe. On the Thursday in 1990 that I got a call at work from my father telling me that I should come home immediately, that my mother was taking the turn for the worse, Joe got fired from the beverage magazine. Actually, there’s nothing funny about that at all for either one of us, except a few weeks later, I called Joe to see how he was doing. From that, we became friends for the next decade, based almost entirely on a mutual and generational fondness for the Mets. Joe’s the one who keeps score and tells me about it. If Pete Rose could calculate his batting average on his way to first base, Joe could tell you how many of his hits had come while he was scoring Pete Rose at-bats (if Pete Rose had been a Met). So Joe belongs at first. He zones in on the task at hand like nobody I’ve ever known. One Sunday he verbally and vocally undressed Takashi Kashiwada and Cory Lidle because they were turning a 10-0 romp into a 10-1 thrashing. I was satisfied with a nine-run victory but he wasn’t. Joe wanted to score a shutout and Joe only rooted at one speed…Joe’s.
2B: Richie — In terms of instant impact and subsequent elevation, Richie was my Gregg Jefferies. I had barely met him via AOL when I decided there was practically nobody I was better off knowing or going to games with. Almost every dramatic moment that broke out in 1999 happened on our watch: the comeback against Wells and Toronto; Matt Franco vs. Mariano Rivera ; Game 162 when Melvin Mora scored on Brad Clontz’s wild pitch to extend the season. A week earlier, he and I, along with his son traveled to Philadelphia to view the Mets’ freefall in progress. When Rickey Henderson grounded into the last outs, I never felt lower…until I got a look at Richie. I practically had to peel him off the Veterans Stadium concrete. A week after that, once Mora duckwalked across home plate, he grabbed me, hugged me and whispered “they didn’t choke” into my previously disbelieving ears. I’d never particularly wanted a big brother before then. Now I had one.
SS: Laurie — Like Richie, Laurie provides strength up the middle. Nothing gets by her. The only person I ever knew who could root with a straight face for the Mets and the Braves when there wasn’t an inch of common ground between the two. But Laurie had her own code of ethics, not giving up on players and teams until she absolutely had to. I called her a promiscuous fan. She threw the Braves overboard at last in the ’99 playoffs. By then, she had introduced me to the only Major League baseball player I ever got to know, even a little, as well as his wife. That was entrée into another world whose sights I won’t ever forget. One night late in the ’98 season, I got to join this player’s “entourage,” lingering among Met family and friends outside the clubhouse while our boy got himself showered and dressed. I don’t feel comfortable dropping the guy’s name because I was just a hanger-on in all of this, but let’s just say he was a player for whom it would be hard to find a replacement.
3B: Chuck — The Mets were always converting somebody who played something else to third base, so I’m giving the job to my best friend, somebody who knew just enough Mets to engage me in hours-long conversations about them. The first game I ever went with him to was ended when Dave Magadan hit a eleventh-inning home run against the Pirates. Chuck, who had about a thousand percent less emotional capital invested in the outcome than me, was the only one among the two of us to shout, “FUCK YOU PIRATES! FUCK YOU!” Later, he admitted he had no idea where that came from, but we could never discuss the Pirates after that without calling them by their full name.
LF: Joel — He was this team’s first pick, way back in eighth grade. We once waited out a field trip by playing Met Hangman. His clues involved the roof Shea was never going to get and the thumb whose ligaments Dave Kingman tore diving in the general direction of a fly ball. That was in left, so Joel’s in left. To compound matters, he moved toward the Left Coast in 1993, coming thisclose to raising his son a Diamondbacks fan before fate sent him from Phoenix to Northern California. Not New York, but far from conversion temptation.
CF: Jace — The first of many non-axe murderers to enter my life via a technology I didn’t understand, Jason quickly moved beyond the virtual realm after we started e-mailing in 1994. By 2000, we were each other’s go-to game companions. He even brought his own late-innings substitute, wife Emily, to Shea to make for the most enjoyable centerfield platoon since Mark Carreon and Daryl Boston. (Wait, that didn’t come out right.) Jason was a brilliant writer, a devastating observer, a hilarious storyteller and, best of all, as fucked up as any Mets fan I knew. That did come out right; I can offer no higher praise. His mission was to collect every baseball card that any Met had ever appeared on, or perhaps a baseball card for every Met who had every played. It was hard to follow and it was way harder to actually do, seeing as how there have been plenty of Mets who didn’t earn traditional cardboard. One night in September 2000, I slipped him three 1975 Tidewater Tides. I doubt the actual Jay Kleven, Randy Sterling and Brock Pemberton ever made their significant others as happy as their images intoxicated Jace.
RF: Rob — I always liked the way Lindsey Nelson would give the lineups, ending with “and around in right, Rusty Staub”. Rob is around in right because he’s almost always around being right. From the time we found ourselves working together in 1992, he made only sense, left behind only good ideas. Rob could channel Bill James without the standard dose of making you feel like an idiot for not having known what he was telling you in advance. As one whose mantra is that old chestnut about never looking as good as you do when you win and never looking as bad as you do when you lose, Rob was a calming influence during those jumpy Bobby V years when there were actually days when I had to get away from the Mets. I needed a distraction from what was supposed to be my diversion. That’s what rooting for the Mets was like then.
There were others I counted myself fortunate to know, but this was my starting lineup, the people I’d go to war or games with if I needed to pencil in names.
No, I haven’t forgotten the battery. I get to pitch. It’s my conceit, I’m the pitcher. And that means I get a personal catcher. That job goes to my wife. Nobody else could handle my stuff nearly as well.
I loved bringing Stephanie to Mets games. She liked being brought. Every now and then. More then than now. Keep her out of the sun. And the cold. And extra innings. Yeah, I may be exaggerating her fondness for going to Mets games but she was always up for a newish experience. In 2000, somebody she worked with got us into a Diamond View Suite. That she could deal with. Better yet, she didn’t at all mind our midsummer sojourns to medium-sized Midwestern cities whose sole attraction was their baseball team. Outsiders assumed she kicked and screamed when I mapped out our itinerary but it wasn’t like that. Ballparks, she believed, were kind of like museums and any museum was worth going to once.
I liked my museums on a daily basis and never came closer to achieving that ideal than I did as July turned into August in 2000. I went to a game against the Cardinals on Saturday with Joe. The Mets won (newly acquired Mike Bordick — Ordoñez was out for the year and Mora, sadly, wasn’t cutting it at short — homered to lead off my hundredth win). I went the next day with Jason and Emily. The Mets won (announcing their Ten Greatest Moments and bringing back everybody from Willie Mays to Rafael Santana). Two nights later, I went with folks from work and saw the Mets beat the Reds. The next afternoon, I was joined by an out-of-town friend. The Mets beat the Reds again. I went to four Mets games in five days and the Mets won each game. Could it get any better?
It could. The day after all that, Stephanie and I flew to Cleveland. America’s North Coast. Home of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. But mostly Jacobs Field. Friday night, thanks to an Ohio-bred co-worker’s season-ticketed parents, we were treated to really great seats at the Jake. The Indians won a back-and-forth affair against the Angels when Jim Thome homered in the bottom of the ninth. The crowd went nuts, but not as much as I did when Roberto Alomar banged a foul bunt off the press box window and it bounced to Stephanie’s feet. My wife scooped up a foul ball. We had invited along a Cleveland couple I knew. The husband shook his head. He’d been going to Tribe games all his life and had never sniffed a foul.
We flew home to New York and the following Thursday Stephanie accompanied me to fulfill a lifelong dream. We took the D train to 155th Street and stood on the site of the Polo Grounds, her snapping pictures of me looking solemn in front of a plaque, and me soaking up as much of Bobby Thomson’s aura as was available.
For two weeks, my existence was explicitly about baseball and almost only baseball. My wife was my enabler and my partner. My friends were perfect company when she opted to stay home in the air conditioning. We even bought a jar of B&G Pickles because, for that one season, B&G Pickles were the official pickles of the New York Mets. This was high summer, 2000. Life didn’t get any better.
Due to the length of our season, the story of 2000 is presented in three parts. Part II follows in a separate post.