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 372 regular-season and 13 postseason games to date. The Log records the numbers. The Tales tell the stories.
7/9/99 F New York (A) 1-1 Leiter 10 81-76 W 5-2
The Matt Franco Game you know about. The Matt Franco Game requires zero explanation or elaboration. The Matt Franco Game defines itself. It’s the Matt Franco Game.
On another day, a Friday or any day (because there’s no bad day for it), the Matt Franco Game will get the attention it richly deserves in this space. But how about a little love for the night before the Matt Franco Game?
It richly deserves that. It is quite possibly the most forgotten wonderful game in Shea Stadium history, its satisfaction and drama practically obliterated as it was by the Matt Franco Game less than 24 hours later. But it happened. And it’s worth remembering.
If I can remember. I remember the Matt Franco Game so well. I remember the heat it generated that July afternoon, though it wasn’t so much the heat but the stupidity of roughly one-third of the house that Saturday afternoon. But the same heat was in abundance the Friday night before, the same invasive stupidity, too. It was the same combatants: Mets versus Yankees, Mets fans versus whoever else was in the stadium. If it wasn’t quite as sizzling as it would be Saturday, it was pretty hot Friday.
Didn’t know I’d be there ’til Friday morning. I came to work in civilian clothing. I was wearing a Liberty shirt. Laurie got word from her friend Dee who was married to Rick who worked for the Mets that he could leave us tickets if we wanted ‘em. Of course we wanted ‘em. And of course I would redress for the occasion. At lunch, I ran to the nearest Sports Authority and bought a black Mets t-shirt. I loved the Liberty in those days but not enough to wear their shield into battle at Shea.
When Rick left tickets (which was surprisingly often in those days), it was usually at Will Call. On this night, Dee waited for us by the Mets offices. She’d be sitting where most of the families of those who had important jobs with the Mets sat. That section, behind home plate, demanded a certain level of decorum. The tickets for Laurie and me were one flight up in Loge. Dee said she wished she could sit up there and act like a real fan. The three of us indulged in a quick and relatively quiet round of Yank-ees SUCK! before heading to our respective seats. Wives of guys who worked for the Mets in positions like those held by Dee’s husband Rick couldn’t or wouldn’t be caught dead enjoying themselves too much.
Laurie and I didn’t have such constraints, even if a few others in our section, Loge 15, might have. This, I learned from previous encounters with Dee & Rick generosity, is where the passes left by Mets employees for non-family wound up. Fine seats, free seats, no complaints. The demand was so great for a Mets-Yankees game that some family got bumped up here. Laurie recognized a couple of women named Niela and Militza. They were married to Met employees named Benny and Luis. The pecking order sent them from Field Level to Loge. They didn’t look at all unhappy to be here.
I was thrilled. I faced this Subway Series with only a television as far as I knew until that morning. My only experience with face-to-face intracity hatred had been the year before, the first time it came to Shea. That was dreadful as it was novel. I felt no compulsion to jump back in for 1999, to buy a six- or seven-pack, to make certain I would be there for the first year they’d do a home-and-home with the crosstown rivals. But given the opportunity, of course I said yes, of course I bought a shirt, of course I’d settle for sitting among the spouses of scrubs. As long as they didn’t mind sitting among the likes of me, I could be big about it.
When I last left the Subway Series, before the conclusion of that original NYY @ NYM affair, people were yelling back and forth with no break. It was as if a year and change hadn’t passed between June 26, 1998 and July 9, 1999. We were still yelling. Nothing was passé about this yet. Everybody still required the last word…no, the last syllable, whether that syllable was METS! or EES! or SUCK! We wore our hearts on our sleeves and made sure our sleeves were blue, orange and black.
Who should the Yankees send out to attempt to put us in what was thought of as our place at our place? Why, Roger Clemens, his first appearance at Shea as one of Them. It certainly wasn’t his first trip to Shea Stadium, however. Who could forget the blister that led him to beg out of Game Six in ’86 (he claims McNamara pulled him against his wishes, but would you really believe anything Roger Clemens has to say?). His next start was eleven years later, an Interleague oddity wherein the Toronto Blue Jays — Roger loved being a Blue Jay when they gave him the money to do so — alighted in Queens in early September. Juan Acevedo beat him and Rey Ordoñez stole his thunder by homering (albeit off Kelvim Escobar), but the fun of that night in 1997 was abusing RAAAAH-jurrrr before he departed after six having given up 7 runs and 10 hits.
He didn’t suck nearly that much in his next Shea start in ’99, but the Mets still had his number. He’d been less than a True Yankee despite a good record in his latest mercenary incarnation (anybody else remember wretching at the sight of those MSG Network ads that touted “Roger’s Ring Size”?). He didn’t lose until the Mets stopped him cold in June at Yankee Stadium. He might have been en route to the Hall of Fame, but we didn’t fear Roger Clemens. We loathed him, but we didn’t fear him.
On our side, there was Al Leiter, who was actually having a pretty horrific year, with an ERA tickling 5 through the first half. I don’t know if the Yankees feared Al, but they loathed facing him. He was a Subway Series staple; O’Neill once grumbled something to the effect of “it’s always Leiter, Leiter, Leiter” (quite a surprise that Paul O’Neill would grumble). Al indeed had it going on against his original team. It was Mets 2 Yankees 2 through six, another nailbiter, hopefully not another heartbreaker like the Friday night the year before when the gods ruled against us in the case of Rojas v. O’Neill.
The best news in 1999 was Mel Rojas was, like O’Neill’s homer the year before, long gone. Steve Phillips couldn’t bear to simply eat and swallow his contract so he traded him to L.A. for their headache Bobby Bonilla. Bobby Bo II promptly became our head and stomachache. God, he was huge. Also a huge a-hole, sniping at Bobby Valentine for not playing him and his .159 average more often. Just before hitting the DL in early July, he got into it with a fan. When Bobby Bo gets back on the deferred payment gravy train in 2011 (why can’t we just bite a bullet like a normal franchise?), he’ll no doubt be assigned to customer relations. Anyway, no Rojas in sight. Leiter stayed in and stared the Yankees down. Clemens did his part, too, pitching competently through five.
Ah, but then the sixth:
Mike Piazza stepped up.
I mean he stepped up. He stepped up and stepped on Roger Clemens’ throat, just as he did in the Bronx in June, just as he would one June later after which Clemens figured out the only way to keep Piazza at bay was to knock him out of action. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The whole point of recalling July 9, 1999 today is that it gets overlooked in the wake of what followed on July 10. On July 9, Piazza, himself having a lousy time of it with runners on for several weeks, nearly burst out of his home pinstripes and ripped a Rocket pitch to left. It took off. This wasn’t a moonshot like he launched off Ramiro Mendoza the next afternoon. This was a laser beam. This was 5-2 Mets.
“In terms of importance, velocity and quickness leaving the park,” Bobby V said later, Piazza’s pow “rates right up there with the best of them. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t think it would get high enough to get out. It was very, very impressive.”
As, I must add, were we, the Mets fans among the 53,920. RAAAAH-jurrrr returned. YANK-EES SUCK blew through the crowd. And, because we are at heart a positive tribe, LET’S GO METS carried the night.
In his followthrough, Mike’s bat dangled like a drill off a workman’s tool belt. He had put in a good day on the job. He had drilled a homer. He had drilled a hole in Clemens’ psyche. Had drilled it into our heads that this was our house and ours alone, that this was our town as much as anybody else’s. Dave Mlicki may have drawn up the plans for the Subway Series in 1997, but Mike Piazza drilled into its rumpus room every last bit of excitement we could imagine.
Unlike a year earlier, Al stayed healthy and stayed in through eight. Bobby V then handed the ball to new closer Armando Benitez, promoted by happenstance when John Franco’s thumb sidelined him. We loved Armando then. He was the eighth-inning guy everyone just knew would get the ninth inning sooner or later. Let it be sooner. This guy could blaze. Why’d the Orioles ever give him up?
Brosius doubled. After two outs, Chad Curtis walked. Then a wild pitch advanced them to second and third.
Oh, that’s why.
Typical Armando up to that moment was Benitez blowing away the opposition, so AB putting runners on seemed aberrant. But the Yankees making our lives difficult didn’t. All that separated him and us from disaster was Chili Davis pinch-hitting.
Chili Davis owned Doc Gooden when Doc Gooden was Doctor K for real. Chili Davis making our lives difficult seemed all too familiar.
Armando punched him out anyway and then jabbed the air several times for emphasis. Mets win! Yankees lose! Loge 15 goes wild! Niela and Militza and everyone else with a soul is celebrating. And amusingly, I hear on the way home from Suzyn Waldman that the Yankees were grumbling in the visitors’ clubhouse that Armando Benitez celebrated a little too heartily for their tastes, that he was lucky that it was Chili Davis up there. Funny, I thought, I’d been hearing all season how Chili Davis was a godsend at DH for them, what a great guy he was to have in the clubhouse, what a difference he was making for them at the plate. Now Chili Davis, like Roger Clemens, wasn’t True Yankee enough for them.
Maybe we’d see what the Yankees really had the next afternoon. But I should have supposed that even if we’d go out and win perhaps the most thrilling back-and-forth 9-8 game ever played in front of a packed and divided house of snarling partisans — culminating in a most unlikely pinch-hit two-RBI single and play at the plate wherein a journeyman bench player upstages the premier reliever in the sport — that all that would prove is that we got lucky again. But on Friday night, I couldn’t presuppose anything about the next afternoon and its as-yet-unknowable mammoth tilt between good and evil. I didn’t even know that I’d be going to that game, too. On Friday night, all I could know was I had just witnessed on a player’s comps a small classic, Leiter and Benitez and Piazza over Clemens and the rest of them. Yes, I knew that then and I know that now.
Dave Anderson in Sunday’s Times would perfectly capture the sum total of Friday night and what transpired directly on its heels as “the best 24 hours” in Mets history. Bobby V the next afternoon, before the next afternoon became the Matt Franco Game, said of the night before, “I couldn’t sit. I was walking along the dugout, telling guys: ‘This is exciting. This is exciting.'”
Yes, it was. Yes it was. I’m grateful I haven’t completely forgotten about it.
Whether recovering from tonight or prepping for tomorrow, tune in to Mets Weekly on SNY at noon Saturday for a Shea Subway Series retrospective that includes some thoughts on games that aren’t this one from yours truly.