I’m still working on Flashback Friday as regards the final game of the season ten years ago, but I thought it would be interesting in the interim to provide some emotion-free context for 1997.
Twenty-four men became New York Mets for the first time in 1997. Four of them — John Olerud, Rick Reed, Todd Pratt and Turk Wendell — would become mainstays of the Mets club that broke the franchise playoff drought in 1999. A few of them — the balk-magnet Steve Bieser, the first Met Japanese pitcher Takashi Kashiwada, human gas can Mel Rojas — gained a degree of triviality or infamy during their short stays. One — Cory Lidle — is no longer with us.
Most simply came and went. It would take a hardcore collector of data or baseball cards to recall with much depth the Met tenures of Yorkis Perez or Gary Thurman or Carlos Mendoza or Barry Manuel or Shawn Gilbert or one-game wonder (one inning at third) Kevin Morgan. Half of the 24 new Mets of 1997 never played with the Mets again.
Forty-five men in all were Mets in 1997, 21 of whom had previous Met experience. Five of those holdovers — John Franco, Edgardo Alfonzo, Bobby Jones, Matt Franco and Rey Ordoñez — would see postseason action with the club in ’99 and/or 2000. Nine of them, including the traded Lance Johnson and the caustic Carl Everett, would not be Mets beyond ’97. John Franco, who predated all his 1997 teammates in Queens, remained a Met the longest, through 2004. While Alfonzo and Everett were Long Island Ducks this past summer, Jason Isringhausen is the only player from that ’97 team to finish 2007 on a big league roster.
Roberto Petagine was the only Doubleday Award Winner to be recalled to the majors in September. The only future Mets to be recognized as top minor leaguers in the farm system that season were Grant Roberts (Capital City) and Endy Chavez (Gulf Coast). The top pick in the amateur draft that June was lefty pitcher Geoff Goetz. The most notable selection to eventually play for the Mets was Jason Phillips, chosen in the 24th round.
Snow white uniforms were introduced as “Sunday-only” togs, but eventually supplanted the pinstripes as the de facto primary uniform of the sartorially confused Mets over the next decade (black was added to the wardrobe in ’98). The white “ice cream” caps with blue bills intended to accompany them faded quickly, however, disappearing from player’s heads by June. Uniform number 42 went up on the left field wall April 15, as Jackie Robinson’s entry into the major leagues was honored first and foremost at Shea Stadium by the pioneer’s widow, the commissioner of baseball and the president of the United States. Every team, including the Mets, wore a right-sleeve patch commemorating the 50th anniversary of Robinson’s breaking the sport’s color line.
On the promotional front, 1997 introduced us to International Week, postgame Merengue concerts, Kids Opening Day and a one-off sunglasses giveaway sponsored by American Sports Classics, a Cablevision-planned rival to Classic Sports Network (now ESPN Classic) that never got off the ground. Fans of legal drinking age were presented on August 10 with a narrow “cooler bag” designed to accommodate several cans of beer; it looked more like a belt than a bag.
Interleague play provided the most substantial alteration for 1997. Of course National vs. American meant the first Subway Series and the attendant legend of Dave Mlicki, who shut out the Yankees 6-0 in the first crosstown meeting at Yankee Stadium on June 16. Overall, the Mets compiled a 7-8 record versus the American League East, which then included Detroit, where the Mets visited Tiger Stadium for the first and only time. Their initial Interleague game was against the Red Sox at Shea. The Mets’ competition for the Wild Card, the Marlins, went 12-3 against A.L. Teams, meaning the Mets actually owned a better record in intraleague play than the team that beat them out of a playoff spot.
Mets games were cablecast on SportsChannel for the final time in 1997; the outlet’s name would change to Fox Sports New York a year later. It was also the final season Coca-Cola would be poured at Shea Stadium and the final year before the addition of Milwaukee and Arizona to what had been the fourteen-team N.L. The Mets would lose Lidle (Diamondbacks) and Mendoza (Devil Rays) in the November expansion draft.
In Bobby Valentine’s first full season as manager — Steve Phillips succeeded Joe McIlvaine as GM on July 16 — 1997’s record represented an improvement of 17 games over 1996, the third-best one-year improvement in Mets history, following only those generated in 1969 (27 games) and 1984 (22 games). Bobby Jones and Todd Hundley represented the Mets as All-Stars, though Hundley was injured and did not make the trip to Jacobs Field. Hundley, who graced the 1997 yearbook cover in a holographic rendering of his record-setting home run from the September before (most by a catcher), led the team in homers again with 30. Butch Huskey was second with 24. The other catcher named Todd, Pratt, homered in his first Met at-bat, off the Marlins’ Al Leiter in early July. Olerud cracked the 100-RBI mark on the final day of the year, finishing with 102. He also hit for the cycle on September 11. Alfonzo, graduating from utilityman to everyday third baseman (no Met had played the position more in one season since Hubie Brooks in 1983) was the team’s leading hitter at .315, good for eighth overall in the senior circuit; he was also the only Met to gain MVP votes, finishing 13th in the balloting. Ordoñez’s acrobatics earned him his first Gold Glove at short.
Jones, who struck out the two most prominent sluggers of the year (Mark McGwire and Ken Griffey) in the All-Star Game, led the pitching staff with 15 wins, while Reed, enjoying one of the great surprise seasons in Mets history, pitched to the lowest ERA on the team at 2.89 — sixth best in the National League. Reed, Mark Clark and Armando Reynoso each homered, making it the only season in which three different Met pitchers went deep. John Franco saved 36 games, fourth-most in the N.L. Greg McMichael was the workhorse with 73 appearances. Pete Harnisch started Opening Day in San Diego, though did not finish the year as a Met, sharing that unusual footnote with Mike Torrez (1984).
The season opener at Jack Murphy Stadium was the Mets’ first in California since 1968. After nine mostly ragged games out west, the Mets took the unusual step of slating their Home Opener for a Saturday in deference to the Yankees raising their first World Series flag in 18 years one day earlier, but rain pushed the Mets into opening up with a downbeat Sunday doubleheader attended by fewer than 22,000 fans, the lowest total since 1981. The season’s attendance of almost 1.77 million was the Mets’ best in four years and the last time, presumably, that the Mets would fail to draw 2 million to Shea. One scheduling quirk unique to 1997 was the playing of 17 separate two-game series (squeezed in to accommodate Interleague and disliked by all concerned) and five “wraparound” Friday-Monday four-game sets. It was all laid out in pocket schedules whose covers were graced by Gilkey or, later, Hundley.
No team in the majors came from behind more often to win than the Mets, who did it 47 times. Ten of the Mets’ victories were of the walkoff variety, including three on home runs (Olerud, Everett and Bernard Gilkey). The come-from-behind vibe echoed the Mets’ performance in general, as their 80-60 record from April 27 to the end of the season was second only to the Braves in all of the National League over that five-month span. The final 140 games erased the season’s unpleasant 8-14 start, even if it wasn’t quite enough to lift the Mets past Florida and into their first Wild Card.