Welcome to Flashback Friday: Tales From The Log, a final-season tribute to Shea Stadium as viewed primarily through the prism of what I have seen there for myself, namely 371 regular-season and 13 postseason games to date. The Log records the numbers. The Tales tell the stories.
10/8/99: NLDS @ Shea Mets 9 Diamondbacks 2 SP-Reed
1-0 Mets lead series 2-1
I wondered one night in August of 1999, with the Mets appearing fairly secure in quest of their first playoff berth since 1988, if Shea would feel different once the postseason rolled around.
It had to be, right? But how? Would the ramps magically turn into moving walkways? Would ushers’ jackets get spiffier? Their pulse quicken? Would they expect a fiver to wipe a rag across your seat? Would you have to wait for an usher even if you knew where you were sitting?
These would be the playoffs. Shea would have to be different.
It was a mark of how well the Mets were doing and how often I was going that I dared to put these questions into play. It indicated surprising faith in a team that had blown a playoff spot the year before by losing its last five — I had tickets to what became phantom Game Four of the 1998 NLDS — and a sense that I would break through a barrier I missed the other four times the Mets reached the serious side of October: that I would get in.
I don’t know why I thought that. It wasn’t guaranteed. I wasn’t a season ticket or plan holder. I didn’t even buy a pack (six, seven, eight…I forget what they were up to by ’99). But I’d had such tremendously good luck getting into Shea all year. I went and I barely paid.
No kidding. I was Flushing’s Guest in 1999, more than happy to enjoy the hospitality of anybody and everybody who would provide me safe passage through whichever Gate would take me. Yet on the eve of the National League Division Series, I was ticketless.
That wouldn’t have been right. So the same fates that rescued the Mets from two out of the Wild Card with three to play, took care of it. One of my PR contacts in the industry I covered called me the Thursday night before the Friday night that the Mets-Diamondbacks tilt was to resume. Earlier in the season, I had jokingly (or maybe not so jokingly) asked if he could do something for me come playoff time. He went from being very good at his job to the best in the business when he told me he got his hands on his company’s box for Game Three, and he was overnighting them to me toot de suite. And it was very sweet.
Four tickets? Corporate box? I knew the seats. They were down the right field line. Orange. My first postseason Shea experience (unless we’re counting driving by on the Grand Central when nobody was inside) and it would be Field Level.
I immediately contacted Jason and Emily, who had already secured us tickets for Saturday, and asked if they were in for Friday. They were now, they said. The additional ticket went to Chuck (who seemed surprised to get the nod, given that he wasn’t quite as pure a fan as me, but he’d been talking me through streaks and slumps for fifteen years). In the rains/pours way things have of working out, I got another call Friday morning. It was another PR guy, someone who had a pair for Saturday, not very good, but did I want them? No time to think I was being a glutton. I said yeah, knowing someone else in my rapidly expanding Met circle could use them.
In what world did Mets playoff tickets just fall into my lap? Mine, I suppose. In my world, too, I spent Friday afternoon dropping off a ticket here, picking up another two there, looking ahead singlemindedly to tonight, tonight, which would be not just any night.
It was the night of my first Mets playoff game!
It was different. It was different on the LIRR in from Manhattan. Lots of people. Loads of people. It was different outside Gate E where all were milling, where WFAN was giving out enough Let’s Go Mets! placards to do Casey Stengel proud. It was different in terms of the time. Rarely did I show up much before first pitch, especially after work. Tonight I was there to make sure whatever pregame ceremonies were to be taken in would get taken in. Jason and Emily had the same thought. Nobody would have to wait to meet tonight. We had a playoff game to get to.
It was different inside, too. The physical dinginess of the concourses was still dingy, but the bunting was everywhere once you stepped into the seating bowl. The crowds were filling in from top to bottom, from left field to right. The monitor by the food court (had to have my good-luck sushi) had on not some lame closed-circuit feed of Fran Healy testing his mic, but Channel 4. There was Bob Costas setting the scene from Shea Stadium for a national audience. Costas was on the field behind me. He was on TV in front of me. This was where it was all happening in baseball. This was the playoffs.
The playoffs were an event, and as such, attracted its share of phonies. Sitting next to us in our box was a party that seemed to have climbed out of a limo en route to the China Club or whatever spot was hot in 1999. The girl in the group was in a tank top (it wasn’t cold, but it wasn’t that warm), wore a cowboy hat and was guzzling Champagne. Yes, Champagne — plastic Champagne glasses of it. Don’t know how that got by security, but security wasn’t too tight back then. Not as tight as Champagne Girl would be after a few innings.
We got our buzz on from pregame introductions. One Met after another, even the Luis Lopezes and Billy Taylors not on the playoff roster, trotted to the first base line to be cheered. Mike Piazza, announced as out of action with a bad thumb that afternoon (how would we ever get by with Todd Pratt?), was encouraged to a speedy recovery. Melvin Mora who ran to home to get us to Cincinnati the previous Sunday was roared upon. Al Leiter, who secured us this night by what he did once we got to Cincinnati, was bathed in good cheer. Alfonzo and Olerud, they who buried all manner of Snake Tuesday, were returning heroes. Kenny Rogers, outpitched in Arizona, was forgiven quickly. WHACKING DAY banners and signs, homages to the Simpsons snake-beating episode, abounded. And fireworks…fireworks! After the national anthem, an in-house fireworks display was unleashed. Not a Grucci spectacular, mind you, but some flares sent skyward from out by the apple. I’d never seen that at Shea before.
Even Chuck arrived before first pitch. I hadn’t seen that too often lately.
The Mets’ October legacy, if we could recall far enough back to the previous four occasions on which the Mets made the playoffs, was chock full of tension and drama and nailbiting. Shoot, that’s how we got into the playoffs in ’99. Their first postseason home contest in eleven years, however, was no contest. The Mets rolled, the Mets romped, the Mets whacked. A little close at first. An early 3-0 lead was endangered when Rick Reed, who’d rather give up a Grand Canyon home run than walk anybody, allowed Turner Ward to go deep in the fifth, cutting it to 3-2. But before we could so much as clear our throats in anxiety, the Mets busted out the whacking stick. Walks and singles, singles and walks…a base-by-base attack to make a mockery of Arizona relief. Once the dust cleared in the sixth, six had scored and the Mets led 9-2 and the issue was in no doubt whatsoever.
Our box was delirious. So — this was the playoffs: we show up, we’re on Field Level, fireworks go off and the Mets lead by seven. Being in the playoffs, I decided, beat the ever-livin’ snot out of not being in the playoffs.
Amazingly, the crowd began to thin in the seventh and eighth and ninth. Champagne Girl and her enablers bopped out early. We were stunned. “I’ve waited all my life for this,” Jason said. “I’m not gonna miss a minute of this.” Same here. We were there to the delightful end, when Orel Hershiser (say, didn’t he pitch the last time the playoffs were at Shea?) retired Steve Finley, Lenny Harris and Kelly Stinnett to seal the 9-2 deal.
More fireworks from beyond the outfield fence. Nothing, not a damn thing, was anticlimactic about winning 9-2 and edging to within one game of a date in the next round. If the Mets wanted to win their way to the World Series by whacking the opponent this efficiently, they could be our guests.