Ten years, seven Fridays. This is one of them.
Woven deep into the legend of the 1969 Mets is the story of 18-18. That’s the record the Mets reached after 36 games: .500, a percentage theretofore unapproached by any Mets squad. The version I’ve read many times goes something like this: Beat reporters race into the clubhouse to check out the wild celebration and find Gil Hodges’ young men quietly going about their business. Tom Seaver speaks up and says there’s nothing special about .500, we’re serious about winning. The wise old heads chuckle at the rascal’s impudence…doesn’t he know the Mets should be thrilled to have won as many games as they have lost?
The Mets go out and lose five straight. Ha-ha, indeed. But then they set a standard that three Mets teams have matched but none has ever exceeded: They win eleven consecutive games. They’re 29-23 and as the season proceeds, new and more rewarding milestones make themselves apparent. Finishing at .500, after smashing through that statistical barrier, would have seemed pretty disappointing.
1997 wasn’t 1969. It wasn’t even 1984, when the franchise, mired in futility after seven years of lean, shocked the baseball universe and rode a winning record into summer and first place throughout July. It was a giddy season — even the wave didn’t seem so bad — though not as giddy as it could have been had the Mets persevered through August and done what their ’69 forebears had done, namely shove the Cubs deep into second. Once the ’84 Mets slid out of first, runner-up status, an unimaginable high coming off the misery of 1977-1983, was a downer.
If 1969 was the Tiffany’s of surprise seasons and 1984 was a discounted, Wal*Mart version of 1969, then what was 1997? Thrift shop? Garage sale? eBay BUY IT NOW for 99 cents? What do you do with a season in which it’s obvious you’re going to be a lot better than you thought you could be but signs keep creeping in that you’re not quite as good as you’re going to need to be to fulfill your wilder dreams?
All you can do is root your ass off. You don’t even bother, while it’s in progress, with the possibility that it isn’t 1969 even though by July you have yet to fly as high in the standings as you did in 1984. The Mets were exceeding expectations left and right in 1997, but it wasn’t necessarily getting them far in tangible terms. Worse, a little slip could make all your first-half progress and your competitive currency melt right down the drain. The ’69 Mets went all the way. The ’84 Mets remained viable into September. Would the ’97 Mets, with those two blessed memories serving as franchise precedent, live up to their possibilities? Without a Tom Seaver? Without a Dwight Gooden?
With Bobby Jones as their ace?
The heights, occupied by the Braves and, in still-fresh Wild Card terms, the Marlins, eluded them but so did the depths of the Dallas Green era. When the season began, I would have been thrilled by 81 or 82 wins. By the middle of the year, I wanted so much more.
Our semi-charmed kind of life appeared in a degree of danger after the six-game winning streak that stamped us for real ended in late June. I began to dream big, really big, when we faced the Braves in a Shea series finale. We were sending bona fide All-Star Bobby Jones (12-3, 2.29) to the hill against Tom Glavine. We were not just breathing down the Marlins’ neck, but we were four out of first. Imagine sweeping Atlanta. Imagine zooming past Florida and taking on the perennial division champs. Imagine the Braves, who couldn’t do us the solid of solids the previous October and win the 1996 World Series, spiraling to obscurity at the hands of a real New York team.
But Bobby Jones let us down. Couldn’t get out of the fifth. The Braves scored in six of the first seven innings. We lost 14-7 and it wasn’t nearly that close. The Mets never came within five games of first place again in 1997.
It was off to Pittsburgh where we took two of three (though Rick Reed, who had shocked everybody for so long, looked abysmal against his old club in one of the wins) and then Detroit for what would become an infamous Interleague series. We dropped three straight in Tiger Stadium by a combined score 31-13. Mark Clark, Dave Mlicki and Jones were all slapped around mercilessly. The Mets came home to face their Wild Card competition, the Marlins for a four-game holiday set and the misery continued. Armando Reynoso couldn’t last two innings in the opener. We were down 8-0 before the second was done.
Were we done as well? The Mets were seven games over .500, 45-38, theoretical cause for celebration on some level, but suddenly five behind the Marlins for playoff positioning. We had given back everything we gained after the Subway Series.
But the 1997 Mets would not go down that easily. Three July games remained against the Marlins, critical games. Hard as it may be to believe, the Marlins were a powerhouse that year like they’ve never been in any other year (even the ’03 world champs had to sneak up on people well into September). Those Marlins were Wayne Huizenga’s grand experiment. I’ll spend a zillion bucks putting together a contender, went his reasoning, and if that draws fickle Floridians to my football stadium, then I’m onto something. If not, I’m outta here.
His evil scheme worked on the field, more or less. Though the Fish couldn’t stay with the Braves, they were clearly the class of the Wild Card division: Gary Sheffield, Moises Alou, a not altogether decrepit Bobby Bonilla led the offense; Charles Johnson was a state-of-the-art catcher; young Edgar Renteria was a phenom; the pitching, led by Kevin Brown, Al Leiter and closer Robb Nen, was hot stuff. This was a Marlin team built to win now, not yet slated to be torn apart five minutes later. The Mets? The Mets were still a mélange of yesterday’s heroes, last-chancers and unknown quantities. We were the underdogs in this race. The Marlins — the Marlins! — were the decided overcats.
But the 1997 Marlins were knocked for a loop by the 1997 Mets, living up to our heightened expectations after hinting they’d be returning to Earth any minute now. The Mets of ’97 weren’t the rag-armed bunch that was banged around for 14 (yes, 14) Tiger dingers in Detroit. Instead, they were a team that wasn’t about to say die to something as synthetically nouveau-riche as the Florida Marlins.
Friday night, July 4: Another Bobby Valentine special materializes. Todd Pratt, an obscure backup catcher who had left baseball to manage a Domino’s, delivered in 30 minutes or less, homering in his first Met plate appearance. His two-run job off Leiter tied matters at two. Reed did the rest, gutting the Fish and Jim Leyland, the manager who never gave him much of a chance in Pittsburgh. Lidle and McMichael complete the 6-2 Met win.
Saturday afternoon, July 5: Workaday Mark Clark and three relievers defeat another shiny Marlin free agent, Alex Fernandez. Alfonzo homers. Baerga homers. Mets win 5-3.
Sunday afternoon, July 6: Stephanie and I are at this game, the last one before the All-Star break. I’m not sure if the Marlins know this was a showdown, but we do. Car parked under the Northern Boulevard overpass for the only time I can remember (no ticket) and heads fortified by giveaway Kansas City Monarchs caps on yet another Jackie Robinson appreciation day, we grow tense as Jones and Pat Rapp battle into the seventh. Jones allows Charles Johnson an RBI double to make it 2-1 Marlins. But Alfonzo (we have begun calling him Fonzie) doubles home Lance Johnson in the bottom of the inning. The game moves into extras, into the twelfth. Dave Rosenbaum, in If They Don’t Win, It’s A Shame: The Year the Marlins Bought the World Series, picks up the action as the Mets come to bat:
First, Gary Sheffield lost the ball in the sun. He twisted and turned his body, trying to make the sun go away, but it wouldn’t, and Alex Ochoa’s popup struck the heel of his glove and fell to ground. Ochoa ended up at second. The next batter [Carl Everett] grounded a single into rightfield. Sheffield approached the ball with slightly more speed than he had recently mustered in jogging out infield grounders, which wasn’t much. His one concession to expediency was bending over to pick up the ball bare-handed, but that didn’t work, either. The ball dropped out of his right hand, and by the time he bent over to pick it up again, Ochoa was only thirty feet from home plate and closing fast with the winning run.
Sheffield knew there was no use throwing. He completed a day in which he had gone hitless in five at-bats by dropping his shoulders and trudging off the field. The Marlins had lost, 3-2, in twelve innings, their third straight defeat by the Mets, and no player was more at fault than Sheffield.
Indeed, I remember the play unfolding in slow motion, pinching myself a little to realize Alex Ochoa was going to score the winning run in a big game, to realize the recently stumbling Mets had righted themselves quickly and taken three consecutive decisions from the mighty Marlins, to realize that a little more than nine months since finishing a season 71-91 we were entering the 1997 All-Star break a mere 2 GAMES from the Wild Card spot. One year earlier, a great closing rush in the first half had put the 1996 Mets five games under and eight behind the Expos for second — an Ochoa throw of a prayer from contention — and I was delirious by dint of that much. So for a Mets team to actually compete for the playoffs…
I mean we were 2 GAMES out!
The All-Star Game in Cleveland flew by. Todd Hundley begged off with an injury, but Jones made us proud by striking out Seattle’s Griffey and Oakland’s McGwire, both challenging Roger Maris’ unbreakable home run record. The A.L. won for the first time since 1993, Sandy Alomar the MVP, but I was just counting the hours ’til Thursday and the excitement of an impending four-game rematch with the Braves in their new home, Turner Field.
On their inaugural trip in, the Ted would treat the Mets well.
In 1997, it doesn’t seem strange. Even as the Braves have resurrected themselves from their ’80s malaise and the Mets have been, well, the Mets, we are 20-18 versus them since 1994. We have no reason to fear this stadium.
Sure enough, Thursday night in Atlanta tilts New York’s way as we dent John Smoltz and destroy Bobby Cox’s bullpen. Three ninth-inning runs, keyed by the suddenly undisabled Manny Alexander’s triple, secures a 10-7 triumph.
Friday night is similar. The Mets persevere against Tom Glavine, erasing a 5-1 deficit with four in the sixth and four more in the eighth. Todd Pratt scores three runs but wins few friends when his bat flies out of his sweaty hands and into the Turner crowd once too often. Manny Alexander collects two more hits and three RBI. Manny had been injured, now he’s fine. Manny, to paraphrase Shawn Colvin’s ubiquitous FM phrasing, came home with a vengeance. Mets win 9-7.
Saturday the Mets jump out to a 3-0 lead on Greg Maddux (Gilkey and Ordoñez with RBI singles, Eddie Perez with an error) but Mark Clark can’t hold it. Mets eventually lose 7-4, but the New Yorkers have just hung tough with three Cy Young award winners. Their reward is a date on Sunday Night Baseball and the alleged soft spot in the Atlanta rotation, Denny Neagle.
A nationwide audience must wonder what the fuss is over Bobby Jones. He cracks for six earned runs in the first. But y’know what? Valentine leaves him in and Jones rewards him and us with six shutout innings. In the meantime, Butch Huskey nails Neagle for a two-run, then a three-run homer. Neagle would grumble about retaliation afterwards, but forget about him. Suddenly, the Mets are back in it. It’s 6-5 in the fourth. In the fifth, an Alexander double and an error on a John Olerud ground ball make it 6-6. It stays that way through regulation. In the tenth, Ochoa, fifth outfielder on the resurgent Mets, takes Mike Bielecki deep, very deep, with two out. John Franco works around a leadoff single to Andruw Jones, a wild pitch and a walk to save it for ex-Brave Greg McMichael.
The Mets have marched into Georgia and taken over Turner Field. It’s apparent love at first sight, three of four in the new ballpark. Maybe we’ll hold a whammy over them there. The Mets are 51-39 at the end of the night, 1-1/2 behind Florida. It’s no wonder that when Joe Benigno begins his overnight show on WFAN after Mets Extra, he declares the Mets are bound for postseason baseball in 1997. I don’t call in, but I don’t rhetorically argue either.
Of course it’s not that easy. It never is. After taking the measure of their statistical betters, six of seven against the Marlins and Braves, the Mets piss away three straight against the pitiful Pirates and crappy Cubs. They nearly blow a fourth until Huskey singles home Alfonzo to pull out a 4-3 win in the tenth over Chicago at Shea. Gilkey contributes a sixth-inning homer but his batting average continues to dial Manhattan. It is .212. “What’s wrong with Gilkey?” is as much a question surrounding this team as “how about them Mets?”
Another weekend is at hand. Another four-game set. The last-place Reds are in. It rains a lot Friday night, but with the schedule already rather wonky (there are more two-game series this year than in any other, reportedly an excuse for Bud Selig to execute league-blurring realignment), all concerned wait. A ferocious thunderstorm clears the field after two. Joe Crawford, yet another Valentine discovery from nowhere, takes over for Jones in the third and goes four-and-a-third for his first win.
Saturday is sunny and bright, especially for Rick Reed who homers off Pete Schourek and retires the Reds with relative ease for eight innings. Gilkey, calling friends and family in Philly (.215), settles matters with a three-run shot in the eighth.
Sunday is a laugher: 10-1. Two homers for Hundley. Another for Bernard, who leaves traditional area code territory behind at last, his average up to a hard-earned .221. Lance Johnson, like Hundley and Gilkey, a shining light from the dim year before, re-emerges with two hits. Dave Mlicki, seven strong, gives way to Takashi Kashiwada and Cory Lidle. The final is 10-1. My friend Joe, next to me in the field boxes, is angry the Mets couldn’t give him a shutout to ink in his everpresent scorebook. In a rare moment of candor between us, I giggle at his ire: You only root at one speed, don’t you? Joe returns the chuckle. He likes that description of himself.
On the other side of the ledger, our old hero Ray Knight is in trouble as Cincy’s manager. He’ll be fired within the week. His leftfielder Deion Sanders, booed all weekend for being Deion Sanders, takes a moment out of packing for Cowboy training camp to play the piety card. He says he’s going to pray for us Mets fans and our troubled souls. He calls Shea a sad place.
No, actually it’s quite joyous, and its mood only improves in the finale Monday afternoon. Everett’s eighth-inning homer with Olerud aboard gives the Mets a 5-3 lead. John Franco — brace yourself — pitches a 1-2-3 ninth. The Mets sweep. They have climbed to a season-high 14 games over .500. They haven’t been this many above the break-even point since July 1991, just before they fell apart for the balance of the decade. They’re a silly millimeter behind the Marlins for that gleaming Wild Card, just a half-game’s difference between us.
With Cincinnati swept, I was more than jubilant. I was reflective. On that July 21, with the Mets 56-42, I wrote something that I posted to an AOL Mets board I then frequented. I printed it out and I saved it. It went something like this:
I hereby interrupt the wild card chase to get Met-aphysical.
The year is 2005 or 2010 or 2020. Maybe the Mets aren’t doing so well in Conference “A”. Maybe they’ve just lost a doubleheader to Charlotte or Monterrey. Maybe Edgardo Alfonzo is breaking Paul Molitor’s hit record in another uniform. Or Todd Hundley has just gotten another player’s name wrong in the booth. Whatever. I guarantee that each and every one of you, if you’re anything like me when it comes to this team, will be warmed by the thought of the 1997 Mets.
Depending on your age, you know what the mere mention of “1969” or “1986” and maybe another year or two you hold dear do to you. 1997 will do the same.
Seasons of love. They are rare.
You will feel goosebumps the next time a down-in-the-dumps franchise you root for, trashed by arrogance, bad drafting and shortsighted trades, makes its turnaround. You will feel this way because you’ll remember the summer of 1997 when a team picked to do absolutely nothing won game after game after game in astounding fashion, picking off the league bullies and taking care of the doormats.
Treasure this season, gang. They don’t come along very often. ’69. ’84. ’97. Three times in 36 years have we (or, perhaps, our slightly older siblings) gotten the feeling that there is justice, there is fairness, there is relief for those who live and mostly die with a bad baseball team.
In typical worrisome fashion, I’m already slightly dreading 1998. No matter what happens this year, next year can’t possibly top it for the element of pleasant surprise. I don’t know if the next 64 games can keep pace with the previous 86 (the season truly started on Jackie Robinson Night).
Having shown up just in time to figure out why we were the Miracle Mets, I looked at all those 50-112 seasons in the team history section of my “World Champions” baseball card and, as a kid, I just figured that would never happen again. Imagine my shock when 1977-1983 came along.
Then, all at once, they started playing well in 1984, better in 1985, the best in 1986. The malaise was over for good. Imagine my shock when 1991-1996 came along.
History is giving us a third chance. I don’t know if we’ll cash in this October, or two Octobers from now or any October. But I damn sure want to savor every line drive and backhanded catch and improbable bleeping win.
Is this a great time or what?
Time didn’t prove me much of a prophet. I sense I’m mostly alone in treasuring that season, in holding 1997 up to 1969 and 1984 and seeing a spiritual triplet. I don’t know if anybody else gathers goosebumps at the mention of the names and games I’ve dug up here. I don’t know how many others who have been live-and-die Mets fans since they were old enough to know better can reach back and feel what I felt then and feel still. I may have been wrong that 1997 would stand forever as an iconic Met season, but I stand by the emotion of every word of what I wrote 10 years ago this month.
For giving me back my team as a serious entity, for making me care every night for six months, for granting me a baseball rebirth at the age of 34, for competing with the best of them, and for finally, finally, finally putting measurably more wins than losses next to our name in the standings, 1997 was, more than any other, I believe, my season of pure, unadulterated Met love. It wasn’t the last year in which nothing was expected of the Mets, but I think it was the last time shaping up as nothing special seemed not a crime in this market. We were just so used to it. That the Mets would go out and shatter all their low expectations and establish themselves as a legitimate contender for that year and the years to follow…
…that was awfully nice of them.
A killer road trip to all three California outposts plus Houston awaited, a challenge the Mets tackled with élan, at least for a while. On a Friday night in the middle of it, we rose to 16 above .500, as high as we’d get in 1997. The next afternoon, the Marlins would lose to the Cardinals, dropping them 15 above. For several hours, before playing the Padres on Saturday night July 26, we led the Wild Card race. I happened to be over at my sister’s just after learning the Florida score. I was as thrilled as she was clueless.
“If the season ended right now,” I explained to Suzan, “the Mets would be in the playoffs.”
“Oh,” she said, trying to be empathetic or sympathetic or something other than apathetic. “Then I wish the season would end right now.”
I didn’t. Even knowing what I know, I still don’t.
Next Friday: First-time, long-time.
And don’t go anywhere during the break. While some Mets go to San Francisco and others go home, Faith and Fear stays true to its mission, giving you baseball to read about on those treacherous off-days…because that’s what we do.