I’ve been happily, nay ecstatically married since 1991, but let’s pretend for just a sec that eight years ago I dated 25 lovely ladies. Some I fell for badly. Some left me spurned. A few were just kind of there. Now let’s say, to continue our hypothetical, that as they scattered to the wind and out of my life, I made it my business to track them down and that every time I heard they were in the neighborhood, I just happened to pop by to see how they were doing.
That would make me a bit of a stalker, right?
Well, substitute New York Mets for lovely ladies and change dated to rooted for and the hypothetical becomes a reality.
I’m a stalker. A baseball stalker. A stalker of 1999 New York Mets.
Perhaps there’s a better clinical term, such as severe loyalist, but on this Valentine’s Day, it gets to the heart of the matter quicker to say I’ve spent the past seven seasons stalking the members of Bobby Valentine’s most memorable Mets team, the 25 fellas most responsible for my Met year of Met years.
To refresh your memory (could it be eight seasons already?), the 1999 Mets fought tooth and nail and hammer and tong and cliché and platitude with the 1999 Braves for first place, tiptoeing around potential disaster and producing mass quantities of drama from April to mid-September.
Then things got really interesting.
Just when it looked like they were poised for greatness, it was Titanic time: a seven-game losing streak, including four to Atlanta, followed by a last-gasp last week that vaulted them from two out with three to go into a one-game playoff, to a Wild Card, to a walkoff division series triumph to a suffocating 0-3 LCS deficit versus their archrivals to the best Game Four ever to the best Game Five ever to the best Game Six or game anytime ever to the toughest ending ever. And I don’t think that even begins to describe how tense and miraculous things got.
For this one fan here in millennial New York who went to more Mets games that year than any year before and who sweated out the resolution of that Mets season like no other Mets season before or since, it was truly love in the city at century’s end, to say nothing of an impossible act to follow.
The 2000 Mets went further but weren’t nearly as much fun. The 2001 Mets fell far from the standard of both playoff seasons. By 2002, the cast had mostly changed and by the finish of ’02, the team plummeted into last place. As the Mets’ cause became more and more lost across ’03 and ’04, the 1999 Mets grew in stature in my eyes. I wouldn’t feel I’d begun to get past them until a truly new and good era took hold in 2005 and it probably required a seventh game of another National League Championship Series to begin to massage 1999 into something as sedate as gauzy personal history.
But they’re still my Boys of Forever. They’ve been hard to let go. I’ve romanticized their accomplishments. I’ve fantasized over what they just missed out on achieving. I’ve yearned for them to come back en masse or, failing that, a man at a time.
It hit me this past August when I was carving the most recent and deepest notch on my stalking belt, the one marked Mike Piazza. The Other Jason and I were sitting at Shea in anticipation of Piazza’s first appearance back in front of all of us. As we chatted, I recalled this Met and that Met from the last glory years making a return trip and how I was on hand to greet them. The more we talked about it, the bigger the issue I realized I had.
I started recounting. Catchers, infielders, outfielders, starters, relievers…if a 1999 Met came home, I was almost always at the door with the moral equivalent of a big foam finger and a ready hug…whether the dude asked for it or not. By chance or eerie coincidence or the chance that there are no eerie coincidences in this life, I’ve been there for them.
Does that sound like a stalker to you? Does to me.
In anticipation of February 14 — and in honor of today’s namesake — I went through The Log and Retrosheet and Baseball Reference and discovered just how often I am in the face of the 1999 Met who shows up at Shea as something else for the first time.
How often? Practically invariably. It would be charming if it weren’t a touch creepy.
Bottom line? Twenty-five Mets comprised the 1999 postseason roster. Nineteen have played at Shea in other uniforms since then. Fifteen played their first post-1999 game as a visitor in my presence. I have surprisingly good excuses for a couple I missed and a couple more who missed me.
Enough counting. Let’s get to some serious stalking. I’ve brought along enough meticulously disturbing detail to make you think I’m not kidding.
I will not be easily jilted.
STALKING 1999 METS IN 2000
Orel Hershiser Orel was a surprise addition to our presumptive Wild Card contenders in Spring Training 1999 and toughed out some necessary innings as a starter in the regular season and a long man in the playoffs. 2000 found him returned to his native Dodgers, who in the first of a string of lucky post-’99 scheduling breaks, were the opponent on a Friday night early the following April when my future blogging partner invited me to join him in his left field seven-pack seats (surrounded by a recurring band of Hell’s Angels, for what it’s worth). A dedicated squint and neck twist would have revealed Hershiser in the visitors’ dugout drinking water, wearing a jacket and humming a hymn, but he didn’t pitch, leaving me with an asterisk at the top of my stalking scorecard. Jace and I were due back Sunday, but it snowed. Orel retired in midseason. I see him on ESPN from time to time, but it’s not the same.
Masato Yoshii If I had to guess which ’99 Met I didn’t stalk at all, it would have been Yosh’. And I would have been right. The Game One starter against both Arizona and Atlanta faded out of the Mets’ plans over the winter and was traded to Colorado for Bobby M. Jones. Masato started at Shea on May 16, 2000, an affair won by the Rockies on a Bubba Carpenter home run in the eleventh. I would be there the next night, missing him by that much. I missed his later token appearances as well, proving that I was still learning to stalk. (And that the non-’99ness of the 2000s had yet to kick in fully.)
Bobby Bonilla Bo knew trouble in 1999, jawing with fans and his manager and hitting not a lick. He snuck back into Shea a Brave (figures) on June 29, 2000 under cover of the John Rocker contretemps. I had a ticket but I missed the game thanks to the thunderstruck Air Canada operations folks who stranded me and my fellow LaGuardia-bound passengers in Toronto. Had a Bonilla sighting the very next night, a game fortunately remembered for much better things. My pride and joy where Bobby is concerned emanates from being at his last game at Shea, as a Cardinal, in August 2001. It took me nine years of rationalization and distraction, but when he pinch-hit that Sunday, I was as BOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! as I’ve ever been.
Shawon Dunston The man who wouldn’t let the ship go down to lead off the 15th inning of Game Five against Atlanta flew in with the Redbirds on July 29, 2000 and became the first of the 15 ’99 Mets whose return I had the opportunity to applaud in action. Shawon wasn’t an overriding concern, not after Mike Bordick homered on the first pitch he saw after becoming One Of Us en route to a 4-3 Met win. But an ovation (more mine than anybody else’s) was given Dunston and a pattern was set.
Roger Cedeño A year after setting the franchise stolen base mark, Roger dashed back to New York with the Astros and speedily led off his first game home by taking Glendon Rusch deep, August 28, 2000. Laurie and I gave him a standing clap as he circled the bases. We could be charitable — the Mets would take down Houston 4-2.
STALKING 1999 METS IN 2001
Octavio Dotel In 1999, Dotel had been an amazingly inconsistent rookie starter. Great efforts alternated with terrible outings almost as if by plan. The Astros, who had acquired him with Cedeño in the Mike Hampton deal, were still trying him in the rotation on May 1, 2001, a Tuesday night when Jace and I were on a Tuesday/Friday plan (in other words, this was not an Octavio-specific pilgrimage). Not a terrible night for the kid, who went five innings and gave up two runs, outlasting the big-league debut of Dicky Gonzalez for us. I greeted Dotel politely, which is more than the Mets did for Nelson Cruz, who took the 7-5 loss. Octavio would soon become Houston’s ace closer and, for a while, one of those guys We Never Should Have Traded, but that’s another argument for another holiday.
Rickey Henderson If ever a welcome was worn out, it was Hendu’s. He was beloved as late as August ’99 when he was leading off and sparking the best offense the Mets ever had. By May ’00, we had all seen enough of his disinterest in running toward first base. He who played hearts in the Turner Field clubhouse reappeared as a Padre on May 15, 2001 and got a not altogether appreciative reception when he led off against Rick Reed. Also receiving a lukewarm shoulder was San Diego starter Bobby J. Jones, whose 1999 was cut short by injury (no playoffs) but who roared back with a one-hitter in the 2000 NLDS. As I recall the Tuesday night when both decorated Met postseason veterans returned, it was a small, apathetic crowd, right in line with the early season showing of the 2001 Mets, that evening’s 1-0 home team win notwithstanding. Regardless, I applauded both ex-Mets respectfully.
Todd Pratt, Turk Wendell & Dennis Cook In two blinks, three Mets mainstays were traded to Philadelphia in separate deals, one of which while the Phillies were at Shea. On July 23, the hero of the ’99 NLDS, Todd Pratt, was swapped for minor leaguer Gary Bennett. Four nights later, Wendell and Cook, who had been crucial to Bobby V’s bullpen manipulation, went down the Turnpike (or at least to the visitors’ clubhouse) in exchange for primarily Bruce Chen, a starter of moderate talent. On July 28, 2001, when I just happened to have a ticket, Pratt was in the lineup against a Met he owned well before they were teammates, Al Leiter. Applauded heartily, Tank steamrolled Al for three hits. The game was tied when Turk entered in the eighth. He was greeted reasonably warmly as well, but the ’99 Met who was stood for and cheered was Robin Ventura who belted a walkoff homer against our erstwhile rosin-pounder. It was great but it was also disorienting. Not called to duty by Larry Bowa that day was the third suddenly ex-Met, Dennis Cook. He pitched the next day, July 29, 2001, retiring Robin in a tough spot, but I was home, unconditionally delighting in another ninth-inning crowd-pleasing blast, this from Piazza off non-Met Rheal Cormier. Cook would make one more Shea appearance in late August on a Tuesday night, which meant I saw it in person. He gave up a double to somebody named Matt Lawton, somebody who wasn’t a Met at the moment Dennis, Turk and Tank left. But more on that in a moment.
STALKING 1999 METS IN 2002
Benny Agbayani Benny was a total cult hero in ’99 and ’00, hitting for average and surprising power both years. Had his stock fallen so low in 2001 that when he returned as a Colorado Rockie on May 11, 2002 he generated only limited applause from people who weren’t me? Such was the case in the midst of a Mets 4-3 victory most noteworthy for a Joe McEwing home run off latter-day villain Mike Hampton.
Robin Ventura Oh this one hurt. You knew the ’99 Mets were tumbling into the past on December 7, 2001 when the third baseman whose name was synonymous with Grand Slam Single was dealt to the…Yankees. Robin was the first of the marquee Mets of My Favorite Year to return home as something else, but he did so in the steel gray road togs of Evil Incorporated. Thus when Ventura was granted a thanks-for-the-memories video before the first Subway Series pitch on June 14, 2002, what should have been thunderous applause wound up as soggy as the weather. I looked past the uniform and at the man, but there was the man playing third base for the…Yankees. Needless, almost, to add that Ventura broke a 2-2 tie in the top of the tenth by homering off Satoru Komiyama. He heard some applause then, but from all the wrong people. Either way, he kept his head down and dignified. The next time I saw him at Shea was his last-ever appearance there, as a Dodger on August 29, 2004. He punished Kris Benson with a very Robinian four-run home run. What he did to Komiyama and our lagging self-esteem was immediately retroactively overshadowed by the number he pulled on Kevin McGlinchy on October 17, 1999. I and many overlooked the score and gave him a standing O.
Rick Reed Everything was wrong with this. It was wrong he was a Twin. Rick Reed was a dependable front-of-the-rotation starter not just for the ’99 Mets but for the ’01 Mets, right up to the moment he was traded in Steve Phillips’ spur-of-the-idiot fire sale that July. That’s how we got Lawton, which is who we used to secure Alomar and…oh never mind that. It was the luck of Interleague that brought Minnesota to Shea in June 2002. It was the luck of the apparently klutzy that caused Rick to cut his pitching hand on his suitcase, forcing one of the most durable arms in baseball to miss the only turn he’d ever be scheduled for at Shea again. I saw a Twins game that series (Trachsel flirted with a no-no), but had to “settle” for an off-the-field Reeder sighting in Manhattan. He went to camp with the Pirates in 2004 and I got all excited when Pittsburgh was due in that April, but Rick retired and that was that. I’ll be on my feet for him when Homecoming Weekend rolls around in ’09.
Matt Franco For aesthetics, there’s been no bigger Met hit than the one that beat Mariano Rivera 9-8 on July 10, 1999. It was a pinch-single in the bottom of the ninth with the bases loaded and two out and the Mets down by two and it was delivered by Matt Franco. His finest hour and, to that point, mine inside of Shea. Sorry to say I missed his return with the Braves on June 24, 2002. Well, not that sorry since it was a Braves win and it was 2002, but you know what I mean. I’d catch him at the end of the season and again the next season but like Billy Joel says about stalking these fellows, get it right the first time.
STALKING 1999 METS IN 2003
John Olerud This was where paying tribute to a team rapidly fading from popular memory and contemporary relevance became frustrating. If John Olerud — he of the unforgettable mastery over Curt Schilling and Greg Maddux and John Rocker in the most crucial of 1999 spots — had shown his face in Flushing in 2000, he would have been welcomed as a conquering, inanely dismissed hero. By June 6, 2003, what few Mets fans who remained to watch a dismal cellar-dweller were too far down in the dumps to acknowledge anything the least bit subtle. So it was on the Mariners’ first-ever trip in that John Olerud came up to bat versus Jae Seo and maybe a quarter of the crowd got out of its seats and put its hands together. I was aghast. This was John Freaking Olerud! I didn’t care that four years had passed since his last Met appearance. He still held the record for best batting average in a season. He was still the first ace whose removal from the house of cards undermined the foundation of the entire structure. He was John Olerud! Damn, I think I’m going to get up and applaud again. (Never mind that I wasn’t altogether remorseful when he struck out as the potential go-ahead run to end a 3-2 Mets win. Hey, we gotta eat, too.)
Edgardo Alfonzo Now this is what I call stalking. Many of my post-1999 ’99-Met sightings were on the accidental side. Olerud’s wasn’t. This wasn’t. I was making damn sure I’d be at Shea on August 12, 2003 to see the return of my favorite Valentine-era Met with the San Francisco Giants, the departure of whom still had me freshly roiled. It would be Fonzie’s fate to get lost in the tumult of the at-bat that preceded his, that of Barry Bonds. Bonds was mostly booed, but partially cheered when he loomed as Aaron Heilman’s ticket back to the Tides. Art Howe, on this occasion no dummy, ordered an intentional walk with a runner on second and two out. Of course the crowd was buzzing and booing. Bonds, even before HGH became his middle initials, was Public Enemy No. 1 throughout the baseball nation. This was his first trip into Shea in ’03, so anything he did was an event. Take four balls? That alone was enough to suck up loads of oxygen and create enough ill will for the opponent, even if the opponent’s next hitter was the man who excelled across 1999, earning a Silver Slugger and a Gold Glove (even if he wasn’t voted the latter). When he came to bat, many didn’t particularly notice or care that it was Edgardo Alfonzo. I sure as hell did. My party leapt to its feet. We were not joined by tens of thousands of others. It was one of the precious few times I yelled at total strangers to ask them what the hell was their problem (bad manners can incite me). Fonzie worked out a walk, which was the best possible short-term result. He didn’t make out and he didn’t drive in a run. Heilman retired Benito Santiago and the Mets would survive Bonds’ inevitable assault (three hits, two homers, three ribbies) for a 5-4 win. I’m still disgusted by the response.
Pat Mahomes A lifesaver out of the bullpen and once in a while as a batter, Pat Mahomes went from long man deluxe in ’99 to shaky mop-up man in 2000, disintegrating to such a degree that he didn’t make the pennant-winners’ postseason roster. He presumably returned to Shea with the 2002 Cubs and the 2003 Pirates, but he never pitched against us. I have no memory of noticing him at the one game I saw versus either of those clubs, the finale of the ’03 campaign versus Pittsburgh. I have a good excuse for the oversight. It was Bob Murphy Night and, no disrespect to Pat Mahomes, I wasn’t focused on much of anything else — not even Mike Glavine’s unnecessary start at first or Piazza’s bizarre finish there. Mahomes was the first October ’99 Met to take a shot at coming back as a Met after leaving the organization, alighting in St. Lucie two springs ago (Fonzie became the second in ’06). Pat got close to Shea, in a manner of speaking, last summer when he pitched for the Long Island Ducks. I can’t say I know what he’s up to currently.
STALKING 1999 METS IN 2004
Armando Benitez I held my tongue as long as I could. The Paul O’Neill business? Forgotten for the bulk of 2001. After the Brian Jordan debacle of September 23, 2001, I held my tongue. He trotted in on Opening Day 2002, I applauded. He blew the ninth inning of the aforementioned Ventura return that June, I didn’t utter for public consumption a discouraging word. But now that he was a Florida Marlin, my tongue was free to make way for my larynx. On June 4, 2004, Armando Benitez’s first appearance on a Shea mound since his trade the previous July, I did not see the right arm that kept the ’99 Mets afloat in dozens of eighth and ninth innings. I saw what I tried to avoid for so long. I saw O’Neill. I saw Jordan. I saw J.T. Snow. I saw…ah hell, you saw it. In teal, there was no need to be fair to Benitez. He got Bonillaed by me and, I’d say, everybody in attendance. Same thing the next day. Didn’t matter. Marlins won both games. Benitez got both saves. And that didn’t matter. My tongue felt liberated.
STALKING 1999 METS IN 2005
John Franco John Franco no longer a Met? These must have been the new Mets. The old ones would never have let him go, especially after he morphed from battered closer to mythic figure when he finally made the postseason in ’99. When he did leave — sent off a little ambiguously the previous October when it wasn’t explicitly spelled out that he wouldn’t be invited back for ’05 — he signed with Houston and wouldn’t it figure that the Astros were the Home Opener opponent on April 11, 2005? The yearning to do away with the recent bad old days was palpable, so much so that John Franco, who won the first Met postseason clincher in 13 years, was welcomed less than unanimously, certainly with less warmth than his 15-season tenure and captaincy (remember that?) would seem to merit. Then again, John Franco was never an across-the-board peepul’s cherce. I was happy to see him, happier still when he got nicked by Cliff Floyd as part of the Mets’ five-run rally in the eighth, setting up our boisterous 8-4 victory.
Al Leiter The 2005 Mets were putting the past behind them fast. Five days after Franco’s return as an Astro came Al Leiter’s as a Marlin. He left on less than grand terms over the winter, so he heard fewer cheers than one would have figured and definitely more boos than could have been imagined when he was mowing down Braves and Diamondbacks in successive Shea starts in death-defying 1999 starts (sandwiching a Wild Card-clinching two-hitter at Cincinnati in between). I gave him a hand, but he was not the story on April 16, 2005, for this was Pedro Martinez’s home Met debut. They both pitched well, but afterwards it was Mets fans who were shouting toward the 7, walking off with a 4-3 win.
STALKING 1999 METS IN 2006
Melvin Mora The one who got away. Melvin Mora was a find in 1999. He found ways to help the Mets win, pinch-running, defensive-replacing, key-hitting. In July 2000 he was traded for Bordick, a spectacularly shortsighted move as it would turn out. Mora became an All-Star in Baltimore, eluding our up-close appreciation for six years until an Interleague series dropped from the sky on June 16, 2006. Indicative that mood dictates all, Mora seemed to get a friendlier ovation in 2006, a first-place Mets season, than Oly or Fonzie (bigger deals in their time) received amid the misery of 2003. I was thrilled to see him, more thrilled that the Mets had just come off maybe their greatest road trip ever, not so thrilled that he helped the Orioles beat us 6-3.
Mike Piazza Ah, the mother of all 1999 curtain calls, even if the best was saved for apparently last. There were no mixed emotions in the pregame exercises and first inning of August 8, 2006. It was a romance befitting the Hall of Fame catcher’s stellar 1999 (40 HRs) and his entire highlight-jammed eight-season Met stay. It wouldn’t take much more than 24 hours for Piazza’s revivified bat to ignite debates over whether we wanted him to keep hitting against us like he used to hit for us, but it was love at first sight on that first Tuesday night (a most incidental 3-2 Mets win, the eleventh in fourteen official stalker games). We had all become stalkers.
1999 METS WHO HAVE ENABLED NO STALKING, NOT EVEN A LITTLE
Darryl Hamilton After ably sharing center with Dunston in August and September ’99, Darryl was hurt a lot in 2000 and 2001, so when he started complaining to Valentine about his lack of playing time, it didn’t carry much weight. He had already lost a lot of popular support (mine anyway), when he hitched an All-Star break ride to Houston on Roger Clemens’ plane when Clemens was very much the Antichrist. Following a blowup in Atlanta (so many good things happened there), D-Ham was released on a Wednesday in July 2001, signed by the Rockies to a minor league deal the next Wednesday and released by them the Wednesday after that. On no Wednesday or any day did Darryl Hamilton play again at Shea, thus giving me nothing to stalk about.
Rey Ordoñez If Rey-Rey had flung his platinum glove into the stands after the ’99 season, if he’d been traded or retired, he’d be cherished in the rear view mirror as the greatest fielder this team ever saw. Instead he’s mostly remembered as a guy who never hit, couldn’t bunt, didn’t pay child support and told us all to go eff ourselves. After being sent packing following his corrosive 2002, he wandered through the Devil Rays and Cubs, neither of whom played at Shea during his respective and brief tenures. He’s been signed to a minor league deal by the Mariners who are not due in Queens in 2007. We may have to wait for an Old Timers salute to the Valentiners to decide how we respond when think when we think Rey Ordoñez. Barring felony, I’ll be in the way-to-go camp, but I’m mostly easy.
Kenny Rogers The only established Major Leaguer among ’99 Mets who has not returned and who is certain to be playing in ’07 has made himself scarce in Flushing since the night the lights went out in Georgia. That fourth ball Rogers threw Andruw Jones after midnight on October 20, 1999 ended the most scintillating thirty days of Mets baseball I ever experienced, let alone the most breathtaking eleven innings of any game I could ever fathom. For years as he toiled in the obscure precincts of the American League, never crossing paths with us, I gave Kenny the benefit of the doubt based on the outstanding work he gave us down that regular season’s stretch. I tilted to the prevailing sentiment of all-time villainy once he started playing the jerk card as a Ranger. But then he went out and pitched some wonderful baseball against the Yankees last October and I can’t stay mad at somebody who does that. I get the feeling that barring a pitching rotation that can’t be adjusted, we’ll never see Kenny Rogers at Shea Stadium (or Citi Field) again.
Bobby Valentine Oh yeah, him, the man for whom we raise a fuss every February 14, the man who pushed the buttons, pulled the levers, grabbed the strings, rowed the boat, did whatever it took to push a flailing team into contention in June of ’99 and a desperate team out of the abyss in October of ’99. He has his enemies, that’s for sure, but it’s impossible to consider anybody else helming the 1999 Mets. It was impossible then to believe anybody would ever take his place, but that’s what I thought about Gil Hodges and Davey Johnson in their day. Bobby would be axed at the end of 2002. He would interview for his old job after ’04 (Art Howe having proven as not the answer as a manager could be), but the future belonged to Willie Randolph, and there’s little evidence that he wasn’t the right choice. A successful skipper in Japan, it would be gratifying to see Bobby V cross a Flushing foul line one more time in any capacity, especially in the current building. To the best of my knowledge, he’s only been to one game at Shea since his firing, a charity-related cameo on July 9, 2003. He was ushered into a Diamond View Suite, which would be neither here nor there except the night before I was unexpectedly somebody’s extremely grateful guest in a Diamond View Suite. I missed bumping into Bobby Valentine by one day.
See what happens when you don’t hone your stalking to a fine edge?