The American League Champion White Sox and the National League East Co-Thirdsmen New York Mets don't have a ton in common except for the annoyance we and their fans must feel with the overhyped other team in our respective towns. I'd always suspected we could bond over that and felt my suspicion confirmed on my first trip into O'Hare sixteen years ago. Not that I'd judge much about a city by its airport, but I couldn't help notice that the gift shops displayed Bulls stuff and Bears stuff and Blackhawks stuff but mostly — it was summer — Cubs stuff. Cubs stuff was everywhere. They were in first place at the moment, so I guess they were hot.
White Sox stuff? Not for sale. I didn't see a single cap, a single t-shirt, a single tchotchke of any kind whatever flying the logo of a team ignored in its own city's major aerotransportation hub. Even though this was 1989 and the Mets were enjoying the autumn years of their market predominance (it's true kids, our merchandise once plastered LaGuardia), I felt for the White Sox. How could a two-town team look past half its allotment? Plus, since I already had it in for the Cubs, I figured there was an unspoken alliance among us and the Sox.
As mentioned when the post-season started, I found my way to the real Comiskey Park on that trip and it became my all-time favorite yard, more than Camden, more than Tiger, more than PNC, more than Fenway, more than Wrigley (and, oh yeah, more than Shea). Many have been the summer night when my mind has wandered back to that neglected jewel in the neglected part of town and thought how perfect it was for baseball and how I would like one more chance to wallow in its greenness and let its eighty years of Soxdom wash over me. I wish the World Series were starting in that Comiskey this Saturday night.
I'm not going to claim some deep-seated affinity for the White Sox beyond that other than to say it's nice to see a team, any team, that hasn't won anything in forever finally get to the doorstep of eternal happiness (there's an obvious exception, but it's obvious). Despite my misgivings regarding both their potential opponents, I feel that way about the Astros and I feel that way about the Cardinals. Two years ago I even suspended my lifelong animus for the Cubs to allow their fans a glimpse at the Promised Land. As it happened, I was visiting Chicago again in the middle of the 2003 NLCS between the Cubs and the Marlins. The locals were up three games to one when I landed and you could feel the pent-up celebratory juices just begging and straining to pop.
The papers were full of stories about the Cubs' impending first World Series since 1945, the first in the state of Illinois since 1959. Much was made of what it would mean to a recuperating Ron Santo to have a role of some sort in the radio broadcast, how we were going to show the rest of the country that Chicagoans know how to celebrate safely, how 1969 was finally going to be put to rest (I swear there was a mention of '69 in every special supplement I got ahold of and there were a lot of special supplements). The PBS station, WTTW, devoted its evening news show to Cubbies, Cubbies and more Cubbies. One co-anchor kidded the other about how he had tickets for the clinching game and might have to miss work.
Yessir, there was everything but a MISSION ACCOMPLISHED banner fluttering across Michigan Avenue.
That young Josh Beckett stifled the Cubs in Miami during Game 5 was seen as little more than a reign delay. It was fine. It was more than fine. This way the Cubs could do it at Wrigley. That's the way it should be, right? It so happens I have a friend who works for the company that owns the Cubs and he got his hands on tickets for Games 6 and, if necessary, 7. I told him don't worry about 7. You've got Mark Prior going against Carl Pavano. Don't worry, dude, it's gonna be fine. It's gonna be more than fine.
I flew home unaware that I had the capacity to lay the whammy on a team I had decided to like for only a few days. You can piece together from recollection what happened next. Moises Alou and Bartman and the meltdown in the eighth and the next night and the Marlins storming back on Kerry Wood and the Cubs, the team I'd hated longer than I'd hated the Yankees, collapsing in concert with the instant I wished them well.
It all worked out fine in terms of the Marlins doing the honorable thing and smacking the Skanks around, but I always felt kind of bad that my one gesture of goodwill toward our ancient enemy backfired. Not that I take credit or blame, but it was odd.
In any case, I'm glad at least one half of Chicago is getting a little something for its pennant-starved self even while disappointed that the Angels, my nominal favorite American Leaguers and our two-time Slayer of The Beast, went so quietly. I wouldn't have minded a little more baseball and I thought they deserved a better turn than the umps and their own aches gave them. On the other hand, Kelvim Escobar's eighth-inning non-tag of A.J. Pierzynski had a certain Metness to it and our parallel-universe rightfielder, Vladimir Guerrero, had a worse five games than Carlos Beltran did at any time in 2005. When the Mets played the Angels in June, Rob Emproto asked me which of the two free agent catches of the last two classes I would've rather had, all things being equal. I thought about it a minute and copped to Vlad. That was probably a mixture of Duquette regret and recall regarding what a stud he was when he was in Montreal. Well, there ain't no Montreal no more yet Vlad played like he was stuck at customs.
Most relevantly, the Angels got theirs in '02 and I was happy for them then. Our not winning in '87 or '88 (or '89 or '90 or…) wasn't made better by our winning in '86 while we were in the process of not winning, but perspectivewise, it's healthy to take turns. The Angels had theirs. The White Sox are getting theirs at last.
Besides, we got something out of them that reached fruition six years ago tonight, which is why I'm just a touch giddy on their behalf this morning.
According to Ultimate Mets, there are 67 players who have been Mets and White Sox. The first one who comes to mind is the first Met who comes to mind anytime, Tom Seaver. He had a big moment in horizontal stripes, of course, win No. 300 as a White (or gray) Sock in Yankee Stadium and showed the American League a bit of what they missed all those years before. But I don't think of Seaver as a White Sock.
Our first world championship (a mere 36 years and a day ago) was made possible by a grant from the Chicago White Sox in the form of Tommie Agee and Al Weis. They did great things for us in the 1969 World Series to say nothing of what they did to get us there. But I don't think of Agee and Weis as White Sox.
Most of our shared rosterizing has been of the accidental tourist nature. We shamelessly released Cleon Jones, they picked him up. They cleverly rid themselves of Shingo Takatsu, we picked him up. We realized, hey, we're a million games ahead of everybody and could probably continue to be so without moldy George Foster, they decided they wanted him. They didn't need Rodney McCray, we invited him over for coffee. Most of the White Met Sox were of the hello, I must be going nature.
There are a few exceptions, guys who could be claimed as Soxy Sox and Metsy Mets. One in particular is who I'm thinking of. And he shone through like a true franchise player for our side on this date at the end of the last century.
Robin Ventura, you are the South Side/Flushing Man of the Millennia. It is you who ended an endless arid spell around the hot corner for the White Sox and then manned our third like no one before you. You hit there, you hit here. You were a class act there and you were the epitome of what a good teammate is supposed to be here.
You went after Nolan Ryan there. You buried Kevin McGlinchy here. And that, if you haven't figured it out, is why we remember you fondly on October 17, 2005.
It's six years ago suddenly — October 17, 1999 — since Robin Ventura chased away the rain and left little ol' loquacious me speechless. Well, Robin and Shawon and Oly and Tank and Melvin and a whole bullpen full of their friends. It was, yes, a team effort.
Happy anniversary, Grand Slam Single. When you slipped the surly bonds of Shea to touch the face of God, you were worth four runs. You only got credit for one, but we'll always know your genuine value. Honestly, you had us at hello. With the bases loaded, the score tied and only one out, all you had to be was a sacrifice fly to accomplish your mission, which we could tell you did right off the bat. But we're willing to forget that, too.
I'm concerned that too much about the GSS and its game and the game after and the weeks preceding it have receded from institutional memory. What they say about nobody remembering who lost in the playoffs, only who won the ring, rings disturbingly accurate a half-dozen years after what was, for my money, the absolute payoff to being a Mets fan.
Yeah, we didn't win the pennant, and by extension, didn't win the Series, but as one who has lived and continually relived September and October 1999 late at night when I can't sleep (or choose not to sleep so I can relive September and October 1999), that seems almost incidental.
Pause for context:
Mets trail Atlanta by 1 game with 12 to play. Three at Turner Field. We lost them all, excruciating-style. We lose three more, equally terribly, in Philadelphia. Braves sweep Expos. Just like that, division gone. And while we're stuck in the mud, the Reds are rampaging over the Cardinals and by the next day, we trail the Wild Card race by a half-game after having that all but sewn up. Braves show up at Shea and embarrass us mightily in the first of three. We've lost seven in a row and Bobby V has already been fired seven times in the papers.
This is when it gets good. Facing Greg Maddux and certain death, we drib him and drab him and then Olerud slams him. Mets win, Mets stay alive. Next night, a classic heartbreak game. Millwood vs. Yoshii. Braves lead 3-2 in the bottom of the eighth when Fonzie strikes with two out. Tie game. It goes to eleven when Shawon Dunston, just dropping by for the stretch run, drops a Brian Jordan fly that becomes a triple. We lose 4-3. The Reds and Astros are tied in the NL Central, each two games ahead of us. We all have three left; one of us gets left out. It will take a miracle to, depending how you look at it, make the playoffs or not go down as monumental choke artists for the second straight September.
A miracle you say? In Milwaukee, Marquis Grissom makes a diving catch in center and robs the Reds. In Flushing, John Franco strands three Pirates late on a really close pitch. Robin singles in the winner in eleven. We're one back. The next afternoon, the hapless Brewers find hap and pound the Reds again. The Astros no longer matter — we have our in. All we have to do is win tonight and we control our own destiny. Rick Reed strikes out 12 Bucs. We are tied for the Wild Card, we've got control. In this season of Mr. Mojo Risin', we got our mojo back. And on Sunday afternoon, the Mets do the most wonderful thing they've ever done for me, for you, for us.
They come through. They come through when it was obvious that they wouldn't, that they'd fritter away this last, best chance to see the heart of October. They come through because some kid who's shuttled between Norfolk and the bench comes up with one out in the ninth and the game tied and singles — Melvin Mora singles and goes to third when Fonzie singles. Olerud is walked, Mike steps up, Brad Clontz delivers…a wild pitch. It's a wild pitch! Mora scores! We're in…not the playoffs, because the Reds are in a seven-hour rain delay in old County Stadium. We won't know until much, much later whether we are in the playoffs or, more likely, a playoff for the playoffs in Cincinnati. But that's almost a detail. I woke up this morning, October 3, 1999, facing a do-or-die for my team and all I could do is root and fret and sweat and it's paid off. This whole year, this whole three-year climb under Bobby V, this whole lifetime devoted to twinning my fate with this silly franchise has been worth it.
We came through.
What happened thereafter is hardly gravy. We did play the Reds the next night and Al Leiter did throw a two-hitter and we were in the actual playoffs. We did go to Arizona and John Olerud did homer off Randy Johnson, lefty off lefty. Fonzie did hit a grand slam (four-run variety) off some dupe named Bobby Chouinard. And after a loss, we came home and cruised Game 3 over the Diamondbacks and then Todd Pratt did his not inconsiderable thing in Game 4 and we won a playoff series and were going to face our archnemesis the Braves for the pennant.
Which we did, which didn't go nearly as well. At first. Game 1 we lost. Game 2 same thing. And Game 3 was brutal. We lost 1-0 and we were never in it. It was a one-nothing blowout.
Just don't get swept, I whispered Saturday night, without much conviction. Ah, maybe it would be best to get this over with. But Olerud had other ideas. He broke a tie in the eighth and the Mets won 3-2. The Mets are still alive. Nobody's come back from down three games to none in baseball history, but a few have come back from three games to one. And now, I told myself, we're down three games to one.
All of which brings us to today six years ago and the endless, endless, endless afternoon turned into evening turned into night that the Mets and Braves played in the chill rain of Queens. The first fourteen innings were foreplay: necessary, stimulating, excruciatingly pleasant (or pleasantly excruciating, depending how you take it), but five hours of prelude. Olerud — funny how his name keeps coming up — homers off Maddux for two in the first, but that guy settles down. Masato Yoshii, a figure of much stress for two years and some redemption in the last two months (he will be traded for an extra Bobby Jones and be completely erased from memory) allows the Braves to tie and doesn't make it out of the fourth.
And that's where it stands forever. Every pitcher the Mets have or have ever had trots in from the bullpen between the fourth and the thirteenth. First Orel Hershiser, who cleans up Masato's mess. Then Turk for one batter in the seventh, a strikeout of Chipper/Larry. Then, in Bobby V gamesmanship that worked, a Cook cameo to force Ryan Klesko out of the game. Then Pat Mahomes. Remember Pat Mahomes? Pat Mahomes was an unsung hero all through 1999, back when we could use words like “hero” to describe ballplayers playing ball and not feel shallow about it. It took four pitchers — Hershiser, Wendell, Cook, Mahomes — but the Braves didn't score in the seventh.
Oh by the way, we didn't score either. There was lots of not scoring. As the middle relievers gave way to the closers, nobody scored. Franco gave an inning and a third. Benitez a shutout inning. On the other side, Rocker, fast becoming notorious, shut his door. In the eleventh, we had Kenny Rogers out there. Kenny Rogers was perfect at Shea since coming over in August. And Kenny Rogers was perfect as he had to be that night, with two scoreless innings. Kenny Rogers won huge games down the stretch in 1999. (I'm just saying.)
Octavio Dotel, rookie righty, alternately glorious and atrocious since his callup, came in in the thirteenth inning. Octavio Dotel, a child, a starter, asked to hold the fort in what is making a bid for greatest game in Mets history, Son of Astrodome at the very least. Bobby V has used everybody else within reason. The only pitchers left are last night's starter, Rick (seven very sharp, very economical innings) and Al from Friday night and, with Divine Providence, this Tuesday night. It's all on Dotel.
Keith Lockhart, one of an assembly line of Braves gnats, singles with two outs. Chipper/Larry, bane of our collective existence that fall, doubles to right. Lockhart is about to score the go-ahead run and bury, once for all, our dream of National League pre-eminence.
Except Melvin Mora, the guy from nowhere, is in right and throws Lockhart out by ten feet. Mora across this post-season has thrown out runners from left and center and now right. In Game 4, he instigated a double-steal that set up the winning runs. And now he's saved the season again. I predict good things for this fella.
Dotel gets through the fourteenth. The Mets don't score. In the fifteenth, you can only ask so much out of one rookie, no matter how talented, only so much out of one ballclub, no matter how big its heart. We've got heart, they've got Lockhart and he triples home Walt Weiss. Braves lead 3-2 going to the bottom of the fifteenth. It's raining and it may as well be snowing. Though to this point I've been worrying about one game, this game, the score reminds me that if we don't tie, the series and the season are over.
But a game like this isn't over until the visitors collect 45 outs.
Shawon Dunston wasn't going to help that countdown. Shawon Dunston didn't want to be here. Shawon Dunston, the dictionary picture of a journeyman, was comfortable at last in St. Louis. They all love being in St. Louis, these ballplayers, and Dunston was no exception. He had just bought a house there. As seems to happen to every baseball player who dabbles in real estate, he got traded. To us. He was supposed to be happy. He was from Brooklyn, grew up a Mets fan. They assigned him No. 12 and he immediately recognized it as Ken Boswell's digits. Yet he never copped to being thrilled to be here.
But now it was all on Shawon Dunston's head. He led off the fifteenth. And he, like this game, wouldn't stop. He just kept leading it off. He worked the count. He got to three balls and two strikes and decided walking was not the better part of valor. So he kept swinging and kept fouling them off. He did everything but jump out of the way of a pitch at his legs that would allow Kevin Mitchell to score from third. Except for that, it was the greatest at-bat in Mets history. Mookie forgive me, it probably was the greatest at-bat in Mets history.
On the twelfth pitch of the greatest at-bat in Mets history, Shawon Dunston singled off Kevin McGlinchy. The tying run was on first, with nobody out. The rain continued to fall. The snow disappeared. Winter would have to wait.
With Moneyball more than three years from publication, Shawon Dunston immediately stole second. In the time it might have taken to point out what a dangerous play this was, he accomplished it. The rest was textbook execution. Matt Franco, who set as obscure a record as one could that season, for pinch-hit walks, walked as a pinch-hitter for Dotel. How has Bobby V gone through every pitcher yet still have his ace pinch-hitter available? And while you're wondering that, will you look in the Mets' bullpen? The righty warming up is Rick Reed, the lefty is Al Leiter. The two starters from the last two nights and maybe the next two nights. There is no tomorrow if there's going to be a tomorrow, as the Ol' Perfesser probably said from his perch that night.
Fonzie, the best all-around, everyday player the franchise ever produced to date, Fonzie, who posted 27 homers and 108 RBIs in 1999 including one and three of each, respectively, in the one-game playoff against the Reds, Fonzie who turned in a 6-for-6, 3 HR game in Houston at the end of August, put down a bunt. He moved the runners over, Dunston to third, Franco to second. That's how you get to be the best all-around, everyday player the franchise ever produced to date.
Second and third, one out. The Braves — it's still McGlinchy even though Millwood, Glavine and Smoltz are theoretically available to Bobby Cox — intentionally walk John Olerud. The bases are loaded, nobody's out, the Braves are still winning, the rain is still pouring, summer's coming back to life.
Todd Pratt up. Todd Pratt's been doing some serious caddying this month. Mike's aching elbow has limited his effectiveness, his mere utility. In the game that will now define the fortunes of the New York Mets, what 1999 was, what the future will be, Bobby V took Mike out to start the fourteenth and inserted Todd Pratt, the only other actual catcher on the team. Matt Franco is considered the emergency catcher, but he is now pinch-run for at second by Roger Cedeño, the last bench player, otherwise out with a bad back. The Mets, physically and numerically, are unraveling. They have gone through everybody. Of a 25-man roster, 23 have now played. The other two are warming up. This isn't an All-Star game, it's as close to life or death as a baseball contest will allow us to get. And at this very moment, though death is ahead on the scoreboard, I wouldn't bet against life.
Todd Pratt, he of the Finley-veiled shot to center last Saturday — 411 feet, just out of the reach of the gold glove that's been snatching Met home runs from their rightful destination on late night West Coast broadcasts since 1995 — is an icon. Todd Pratt was a backup catcher until last Saturday. Now he's Tank, the guy who went all Mazeroski on Matt Mantei, ending the Division Series with one swing. Todd Pratt, it is now official, can do anything he wants.
Todd Pratt walks. Shawon Dunston trots home. Cedeño to third, Olerud to second, Pratt to first. It's Braves 3 Mets 3.
Up steps Robin Ventura. And he needs a sac fly. That's all. A sac fly will do very nicely. A base hit or a walk or an error or a wild pitch or a passed ball that bounces far enough away will all do the trick, but all we really need is a fly ball hit long enough to allow speedy Cedeño to tag up and run 90 feet. If Robin Ventura, who's had an MVP season (32-120-.301, Best Infield Ever anchor, the one who came up with Mojo Risin') but a bone-chipped month of misery, can do that, he will be Tank times ten.
He will be Tanks a lot.
Here's one of the funniest things I've ever read. It's from Retrosheet.org's original play-by-play description of what happened when Robin connected off McGlinchy in the bottom of the fifteenth inning on October 17, 1999:
Ventura singled to center [Cedeño scored, Olerud to third, Pratt to second]; 2 R, 2 H, 0 E, 3 LOB. Braves 3, Mets 4.
Oh. That's all. The record did not (until a reader — I'm not saying who — contacted them and they graciously fixed it) officially acknowledge that Robin Ventura's single to center soared over and beyond the right-centerfield fence and the rain ceased and the sun came out and husbands watching on TV were so beside themselves that they surprised their wives by jumping on them right in the middle of the living room just the way Tank accosted Robin. For while I was processing what had just happened — that's more than a sac fly! that's a grand slam! — Robin Ventura's teammates, led by Todd Pratt, decided en masse that the rules didn't apply to them. Lawful Robin wanted to circle the bases. Territorial Tank said, sorry fella, game-ending homers are my department. You take a single and we'll take the win.
Todd Pratt, it is now truly official, can do anything he wants.
In retrospect, I'm surprised Cedeño remembered to run home.
That as we all know but I fear others have forgotten was the Grand Slam Single. Robin Ventura hit a home run that didn't count because his jubilant teammates wouldn't let him round the bases. This should be talked about in the same vein as mythical feats from another even more distant age. The Called Shot. The Homer In The Gloamin'. The Grand Slam Single. Robin Ventura's face should be on a stamp, even if he's only retired and not dead.
That was five hours and forty-six minutes, six years ago today. I mentioned a while back being left speechless by this game. I was. For the only time in my life, I think, I didn't know what to say about the Mets. Leaping atop Stephanie as if we were on our own pitcher's mound — Grote to her Koosman, Gary to her Jesse, Tank, come to think of it, to her Robin — was the only reaction I could express with any clarity. Our phone rang and it was Chuck. “I'll call ya back, I can't talk,” I said. I wasn't kidding. There were no words. Except, perhaps, they come through for me. Again.
When my head cleared, I looked less at what had just occurred and more at what might happen next. Nobody had come back from down three games to none in baseball history, and a few had come back from three games to one. But a whole bunch of teams had come back from three games to two, and that's who we were now. We weren't making history. We were playing a sixth game, Tuesday night, in Atlanta. If we won that, we'd just be another team tied at three, playing a seventh game. And if we won that, we'd be playing the Yankees in the World Series.
I hope the real and timetested fans of the team that was thoughtful enough not to re-sign Robin Ventura so he could sign with us are as happy right now as Robin Ventura made me six years ago tonight. I hope they're so happy that they can't get the words out.