When their season began, they were nobody. When it ended, they were somebody. If it’s the first Friday of the month, then we’re remembering them in this special 1997 edition of Flashback Friday at Faith and Fear in Flushing.
Ten years, seven Fridays. This is one of them.
My beloved 1997 season, the one few besides me seem able or willing to remember or acknowledge as one of the most uplifting in franchise history, was a team effort on the part of the Mets. It involved a gaggle of uniformed personnel, fronted at its most desperate moment by probably the most unlikely participant imaginable given his circumstances and the time of the season.
You could get that from the boxscores. What you couldn’t get was the presence of one other figure, someone whose role in framing the narrative of this unforgettable epic of a year for me had taken place primarily offstage. This person had one line to deliver, but that line was key. It unlocked the best moment of 1997, almost but not quite at the end.
Of course I was the only one to hear it. Maybe it’s small wonder I’m pretty much the only one who gets so enthused about that year.
The Mets entered September still within hailing distance of the Wild Card. They had picked up all their spares on the back end of Interleague play, taking their last two in Baltimore and then sweeping three from Toronto at Shea (highlight: Rey Ordoñez’s first and only home run of the year, nailing tight a victory in Roger Clemens’ first Flushing appearance in eleven years). The five-game winning streak erased to a certain extent the sting of their shaky — 13-16 — August, but it would still be a daunting task to overhaul the Marlins. We were seven games back with 24 to go. Maybe the distance was more Hail Mary than hailing, but I hadn’t given up hope.
All around me, it was apparent I was mostly alone on this count. ESPN ran these clever ads touting their LDS coverage. It featured batboys for all the contenders…all the contenders except one. No kid wearing a Mets jersey with 97 on the back appeared. And when USA Today Baseball Weekly started running possible playoff previews, the Mets somehow failed to be mentioned. Come to think of it, it wasn’t just a media conspiracy that was ignoring the Mets. Not one date in the Blue Jay series drew as many as 20,000. Was seven games really that unfathomable a margin?
A three-day trip to Chicago didn’t help. The Cubs were going nowhere and they took the Mets down with them. Our bullpen collapsed on consecutive days. Only the Marlins’ own problems kept us within seven. A getaway win at Wrigley was quickly negated by two more losses back at Shea against the atrocious Phillies, including a 1-0 heartbreaker engineered by erstwhile heartthrob Rico Brogna’s solo homer off an otherwise brilliant Dave Mlicki. Again, the Marlins were matching our lack of progress, so we stayed seven back. Not impossible, I thought, but September was melting away. With Brian Bohanon pitching into the seventh and both Butch Huskey and Alex Ochoa driving in three apiece, we salvaged the final game versus Philly (all three of which drew in the sad 13,000s) and at last picked up a length on Florida. We were six back with 18 to play, four of them head-to-head matchups in Miami.
Barely alive beat dead.
First order of business in the resuscitation of this playoff bid: a weekend quartet at home versus Montreal. Just over one year later, the 1998 Mets would play four games in the Houston Astrodome. They were each mindblowing in their closeness and their drama. With the Mets far more into the thick of a Wild Card hunt, it was instantly dubbed the greatest four-game series in memory.
Except by me. I’ll take the four we played against the Expos between September 11 and September 14, 1997. Nothing can quite hold a candle to it, not as long as I’m the one carrying the torch.
First game: Thursday
The John Olerud Show. A double in the first. A single in the third. A homer in the seventh. That meant all Oly needed was another at-bat and a triple. He got another at-bat. But a triple? John Olerud? As Gary Cohen pointed out, he was one of the slowest men in baseball.
In the eighth, Olerud got his big chance. He hit the ball toward rookie Vladimir Guerrero, just inserted in center. Guerrero was nursing a bad knee. He had to be. He not only didn’t catch what Olerud hit, he didn’t get anywhere near it. John motored, if the word can be used, into third with a triple. That indeed made it a cycle, or, as I squealed with delight into the East Rockaway night as I walked home from the station with the action ringing in my ear, CYCLE!
Five ribbies for Oly, three for Fonzie (who lacked only a triple himself to make double-CYCLE! history). Mets take the opener 9-5, move to within 5-1/2 of the idle Marlins.
Second game: Friday
I had a train to catch. The 8:something. But this is a good game. Maybe I’ll get the 9:something. Hey, the Mets tied it in the eighth! No point in leaving the office — the Mets could win it in the ninth. No? Well, there’s always the 10:something. Hmmm…it’s getting close to eleven o’clock. I really should get out of here.
On it went in Queens on, of all things, Paul McCartney Night (he was promoting his long-released CD Flaming Pie via recorded messages on DiamondVision, though I was sure he knew the way to good old Shea). As I listened in Manhattan and relented to make the LIRR finally, the Mets couldn’t buy themselves a run.
Into the eleventh, the twelfth, the thirteenth…maybe I’m amazed, with Lidle, McMichael and Rojas throwing seven shutout innings, it’s still 2-2 in the fourteenth.
But in the fifteenth, Rondell White explodes with a mighty crash: a home run off Joe Crawford. Montreal leads 3-2.
On the walk from the train, I can’t let it be: Baerga singles off Uggie Urbina. Huskey strikes out but Pratt singles. First and second. We’re coming up — like the flowers! Don’t say good night tonight!
Alas, Carl Everett flies out and Luis Lopez strikes out. You’d think this Mets fan had had enough of silly ballgames. But the Marlins are shut out in Miami. We still have hope of deliverance at 5-1/2 back. But losing 3-2 in fifteen…ooh baby, you couldn’t have done a worse thing to me if you had taken an arrow and run it right through me.
Third game: Saturday
This is the 147th game of the season. It might as well be the last one ever. In the middle of the sixth inning, not only are we losing 5-0, we are being no-hit by Dustin Hermanson. Callup Carlos Mendoza leads off the home half with a ball that falls in in left, off Brad Fullmer’s glove. Maybe it should have been caught. Maybe not. It’s ruled a hit. For the balance of the sixth, the seventh and eighth, Fran Healy mulls whether it should be ruled an error. The Mets haven’t gotten any more hits. Healy suggests Red Foley could change the scoring after the fact. Howie Rose scoffs that what are you gonna do, have Dustin Hermanson come out of the clubhouse and run on the field and celebrate?
That’s what this almost miraculous 1997 season has come down to: Dustin Hermanson trying to complete a one-hitter. After a Montreal tack-on run, the Mets are behind 6-0 with three outs left in the competitive portion of their year. The Mets lost 91 games last year. Now they have won 79 with two weeks to go. It’s been a remarkable turnaround. It’s nothing to feel ashamed of. It was really over last night when they couldn’t score one lousy run between the ninth and the fifteenth. What do you want from them…an actual miracle?
Hermanson retires pinch-hitter Jason Hartdke on a fly to right for the first out.
Goddamn it. So close. So goddamn close. Why did the start in April have to be so ragged? Why couldn’t we get going before we were almost buried at 8-14?
Huskey manages an infield single.
I swear. I swear I could feel it beginning to happen in May, that Saturday afternoon with Laurie in the almost completely empty orange seats when we beat the Cardinals and everything just felt different about this year as opposed to all the years before this one. That Sunday when the Rockies walked everybody in sight. That Monday right after when Olerud rescued a blown lead. It was so much more than I could have imagined.
Baerga singles to right.
And that Subway Series? Did anybody see that coming? Boy Mlicki could be maddening, yet did he ever get the job done that night. What a waste that we couldn’t win that third game in the Bronx.
McRae flies to center for the second out, Huskey tags and moves to third.
How about when they swept the Pirates after that? Four crazy games, four crazy wins.
With Roberto Petagine up, Baerga takes second on defensive indifference.
Then the Braves come in and Reed beats Smoltz one night and Baerga skewers Wohlers the next. I honestly thought we had a shot at the division, not just the Wild Card. So close, yet so far.
Petagine singles home Huskey and Baerga. 6-2 Montreal.
We went into the break hot, taking three from the Marlins. Then we came out of it hot, taking three of four at Turner Field.
Shutout gone, Hermanson’s day is over. Shayne Bennett comes on to preserve the victory.
At the end of July, our refrigerator stopped working on a Monday night, but I didn’t care because the Marlins lost and that meant we were all alone in first place for the Wild Card. Who needs cold milk when you’ve got your hands on a playoff position?
Then we were so good there on the West Coast for a while before that trip really kicked in. Still, Hundley and that extra-inning win in Houston…such good stuff. I thought we’d build on it. I really did.
Urbina, the untouchable closer, replaces Bennett.
Why couldn’t have we taken two of three from the Cubs and the Phillies instead of losing two of three to both of them?
Matt Franco singles to load the bases.
And that whole business with Carl Everett didn’t help.
Carl Everett’s up.
Hey! Carl Everett’s up! And the bases are loaded! We’re down 6-2! If he…yeah, right.
There were many contributors to the dream that was the 1997 season. Alfonzo and Olerud and Huskey were knights with shining lumber. Though he’s often dismissed for having just one big season, the year before, Todd Hundley in the cleanup slot kept hitting homers until he physically couldn’t play anymore. He had 30 of them, including a dramatic three-run job with two out off Trevor Hoffman in August to tie a game in the ninth that the Mets would win in eleven. Bobby Jones tailed off in the second half but had one of the best first halves any Met pitcher ever put together. Rick Reed was a godsend. Though John Franco drove the masses to distraction, he was still John Franco, collecting 36 saves. Bobby Valentine stitched together a roster of never-weres — Luis Lopez, Matt Franco, Jason Hartdke, the ridiculously improbable Steve Bieser — and made this team a contender. They and their teammates were guys you just couldn’t help rooting for.
Yet somehow, here on the thirteenth of September, the 1997 Mets came down to Carl Everett, the least lovable man in town.
Everett had been having a relatively excellent year through July. His role was that of fourth outfielder, but with Lance Johnson and Bernard Gilkey not what they had been in ’96 and Brian McRae fairly limited once he came over from the Cubs and Butch Huskey no sure thing with the glove and Alex Ochoa never cashing in on his five-tool promise, Carl Everett may have been the MVO on this club. He was certainly the top defender — and though his numbers dropped throughout August, it seemed almost all of his homers and RBI were delivered in clutch situations.
But nobody cared about that by September. Carl Everett was no longer identified by his statistics. He was known as the Met whose kids were allegedly abused in the family room at Shea. Abused by his wife. Unpleasant stories floated up that she was not a great mom or stepmom. What kind of dad was Carl? I honestly don’t remember how far the allegations against him personally went in 1997, but the kids were taken away for a pretty long time by the authorities. It was tough to root for Carl Everett anymore.
Yet, because we are fans of the team first and the individuals later, it was easy to root for Carl Everett at this moment because there he was, at bat, three on, Mets down by four, two out, last chance. Season on the line. Mets lose and the Mets trail by six pending the night’s Marlin result from San Francisco. It was admittedly a long shot, but it was the only one we had.
But suddenly there was another one. Carl Everett got into an Urbina pitch and ripped it to right…
Could it be? Was it possible?
Foul ball. A long shot. A long strike. Carl Everett almost did it. Carl Everett, whatever his personal shortcomings, almost delivered the Mets from their date with demise. But he couldn’t do it. The count was two-and-two. We had one strike left. And everybody knows you don’t get two long shots in the same at-bat when the first one is foul.
Well, one person watching the game didn’t know that. And while I moped and prepared to surrender to the obvious oblivion at hand, that one person delivered her key line with innocence and sincerity and heart.
“You gotta believe!”
Out of the shadows of the 1997 season stepped up my MVP, my wife, my love. Since the first of April when she came home from work to find me fretting on the couch at how we were getting whacked in San Diego on Opening Day to that moment on September 13 when I was all but waving the white flag, she had stood by me in this, the first truly meaningful Mets year of our marriage. We had been married since 1991, mind you.
She was used to the grumbling that accompanied the losing and was happy for me that I was again experiencing the winning that was the backdrop of our courtship and our engagement and our initial cohabitation.
She accompanied me to Detroit on ostensible business to see the Mets get blown out at Tiger Stadium.
She agreed our vacation should be in no town but Cooperstown.
She didn’t disturb the beauty of that short-lived Wild Card lead in late July by making too big a deal about the fridge not working.
She didn’t mind that I kept one ear on WFAN during her grad school commencement ceremony because the Mets were playing…
…or that I shook off spending any additional time with her visiting college friends because the Mets were playing…
…or that I decreed we couldn’t attend a Liberty game if the Mets were playing…
…or that I broke away from our visit to her grandma in Wichita because the La Quinta had WGN and as luck would have it, the Mets were playing the Cubs…
You get the point. She didn’t just indulge me and the Mets. She didn’t just “put up” with it. She honored it. And here, in the last gasp of the season she knew I had been waiting seven years to live through, she breathed into it once last burst of magic.
“You gotta believe!”
Stephanie had never said that before.
Carl Everett took a pitch in the dirt for ball three. Then he drove the next one from Urbina over the right-centerfield wall.
It was a grand slam.
It was 6-6.
It wasn’t over.
Not by a long shot.
I believed the Mets would win after that. Bernard Gilkey made it so in the eleventh with a three-run jack. The Marlins won at Candlestick. So what? I still believed. I believed we weren’t dead. I believed we’d win the Wild Card. I believed we’d win everything there was to win.
You heard my wife. You gotta believe!
Fourth game: Sunday
There is nothing in the universe that wouldn’t have been anticlimactic after the six-run ninth and the second-shot grand slam that tied it and the eleventh-inning homer that won it. But the finale did its best to stand on its own.
Two years before anyone ever heard of the Mercury Mets, it was Saturn Day at Shea. No, you didn’t have to be from Saturn, you just had to have bought one recently, which my friend Joe did. He got two free tickets and a handful of tchotchkes that he was kind enough to share with me. Thanks to the car company buying up an enormous block of tickets, 43,000 were on hand for the induction of Keith Hernandez into the Mets Hall of Fame. They played a load of Seinfeld clips on DiamondVision, but the best tribute he got was from Lopez, wearing No. 17 and homering (his first of the year) in the fifth off Carlos Perez.
Mlicki carried that 1-0 lead into the ninth. With one out, former Met David Segui slid home probably safe but was called out by Larry Vanover after Todd Pratt did some pretty fancy handiwork with or without the ball. The Expos were furious. Even their trainer was ejected for arguing. But their lengthy protest sputtered, and Greg McMichael — John Franco got the win the day before but ached too much to appear again the rest of the year — to nail down the final out.
The Mets had taken three of the four greatest games I’d ever heard or seen them play against one opponent in one series. Florida? They won again. We were still 5-1/2 out. But I could overlook that. I mean what a series! A shocking cycle…a valiant marathon…a certifiable miracle courtesy of Carl Everett and the person in the world least like Carl Everett…and the sneakiest of squeakers.
We got knocked down. But we got up again.
The Mets record was 81-67. Monday night in Philadelphia brought with it a doubleheader. With a win in the first game (thanks to a five-run surge in the top of the tenth), the Mets increased their record to 82-67.
Take a close look at that: 82 wins. That’s a winning season.
That was unimaginable in March. It was reality in September. I was so moved that I took out my copy of Total Mets and made a list of the 102 Mets who had played with the Mets since their last winning season in 1990 but had left before 1997. They were the Mets who sustained me through the bad times until I could taste these, the better times.
Then, almost by instinct, I turned them into a poem, a verse of which follows:
Bob MacDonald had no break in his day
Brent, in the Mayne, was soon on his way
Schourek sure didn’t have much fun
And no one pitched older than Anthony Young
Meanwhile, at Joe Robbie turned Pro Player, the Rockies were spanking the Fish. We were suddenly if temporarily 4-1/2 back, actual striking distance considering the four that awaited us in Miami over the weekend. And if we beat the Phillies in the nightcap…
It wasn’t to be. We were put down by someone named Darrin Winston in the second game. The margin for the Wild Card was five. The next night we were put down by someone named Curt Schilling while Bobby Fucking Bonilla of all people hit a ten-pitch, two-out walkoff grand slam off Jerry Fucking DiPoto of all people. The margin for the Wild Card was six.
From Philly, it was off to Atlanta where the legendary curse of Turner Field materialized for the very first time: Staked to a 1-0 lead against Greg Maddux, Bobby Jones faced eight Braves batters in the first. He retired none of them. Later he said the ball was too dry. Or perhaps his hands were too moist. Either way he couldn’t get a grip. Neither could we. Braves scored nine in the first and won 10-2. Laurie told me she missed the bulk of the first inning while taking a shower. When she came out and saw it was 9-1, she said it reminded her of Victoria Principal finding Patrick Duffy in the shower at the end of that season of Dallas that was supposedly only a dream. But this — and Florida winning — was really happening. The margin for the Wild Card was seven.
No soap the next night either. Jason Isringhausen lasted three and gave up seven. We lost 11-4. Florida won. The margin for the Wild Card was eight.
I felt a sense of peace coming on. Still, there remained a last stop on this road trip, Florida itself. My thinnest strand of a hair of a hope was we go into whatever their stadium was called and we sweep four games. If we did that, we’d be four back with a week to go. We’d be on an unstoppable roll and would finish 91-71. The reeling Fish would be depressed, flop into freefall and go no better than 90-72. The Dodgers or Giants, whoever didn’t win the West yet was unhelpfully hanging around on the fringes of this “race” every bit as much as us, would cooperate and just go away. It wasn’t much of a plan, but it was all I had.
My plan was flawed.
Behind Dave Mlicki and with help from Cory Lidle, the Mets fell five in arrears after eight. In the ninth, they managed to score two runs and bring up Hundley as the tying run with two out. But at this point, even my ability to conjure belief was strained. Todd popped up. The margin for the Wild Card was nine.
With our fifth consecutive loss, I found peace. To my surprise, it obliterated my disappointment. The Mets had made, like Ed Wynn’s weary pitchman in The Twilight Zone, their pitch for the angels. They had staved off the inevitable as long as they could. Now it was time to go.
We wouldn’t win the Wild Card. It would have to be enough that we had stayed in contention until the final week; that we would finish up with more wins than losses for the first time since 1990; and that Carl Everett hit a season-saving grand slam two pitches after Stephanie channeled Tug McGraw.
It would be enough. It would be plenty.
The magic number for the Marlins to clinch was one. With three more against the Mets, all they had to do was win a single game and Florida could celebrate at home against us, the team that chased and chased and chased but couldn’t catch them. Small solace yet solace nonetheless that it didn’t happen that way. The Mets won on Saturday and Sunday (Mel Rojas retiring Moises Alou as the potential winning run for the last out) and Monday. For what it was worth, Florida was forced to clinch in Montreal on Tuesday night. It wasn’t worth much in the scheme of things, but it was worth something to me.
Statistically eliminated from playoff consideration, the Mets came home, split two with the Pirates and split two more with the Braves, the second of them in typical 1997 style: tied at one in the bottom of the ninth, Luis Lopez singled and stole second and Alberto Castillo doubled him home. With that, the Mets had played 161 games and their record was a handsome 87-74 heading into their season finale versus Atlanta on September 28.
That final Sunday? That’s the seventh Friday of this series, the first Friday of next month. The only thing 1997 couldn’t give me ten years ago was October. This year it will.
Next Friday: Missed opportunities everywhere you looked.