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 387 regular-season and 13 postseason games to date. The Log records the numbers. The Tales tell the stories.
9/5/98 Sa Atlanta 5-7 Jones 14 70-69 W 5-4
Before there was Melvin Mora scoring on a wild pitch, before there was Todd Pratt outlasting Steve Finley, before there was Benny Agbayani letting the dogs out, before there was Bobby Jones flirting with two helpings of history, before there was a pennant clinched on my watch, there was hope and there were dreams. Hope that I would be at Shea for a great and important game. Dreams that it would resonate across a lifetime of rooting and caring.
In 1999 and 2000, I cashed in that hope and those dreams and witnessed some of the greatest baseball drama that could be scripted if only someone had dared. I experienced highs that time will never diminish. I can still feel the air, smell the breeze, taste the intensity from those moments. When I think of Shea Stadium in the inevitable past tense, I will remember those years and those Octobers and those who gave me a boxed set of genuine thrills with unsurpassed depth and fondness.
While I was waiting for all that, I got by with Tony Phillips. Tony Phillips was a here today, gone tomorrow Met outfielder of mostly last resort. I barely remember Tony Phillips, to be honest. But he did give me the kind of moment — if not exactly the moment — I’d been waiting forever for.
For these purposes, I define forever as 139 games across 26 seasons. Until September 5, 1998, I’d experienced nothing like it. In the years that followed, much, much bigger and indisputably better moments would unfold and the work of Tony Phillips on one sunny Saturday would be overshadowed. But you can’t know what’s coming later. You can only appreciate what you’ve got once you get it for the first time.
This was the first time I received the opportunity to partake of the ideal Met scenario.
• The Mets play some blood foe of theirs in a showdown in September with a lot on the line.
• The Mets win, of course.
• Barring it being the first no-hitter in Mets history, it should be a tight game and hinge on some great, dramatic swing by a Met in the late innings. A home run would be nice.
• It takes place at Shea, the weather is wonderful, the crowd is big and, of course, I’m there, preferably in good seats with somebody I’m close to.
• And the Mets win, of course. Did I mention that?
It took me 139 games across 26 seasons to execute this scenario. But it did happen. I got a game that meant something and I got to be there to witness it. Winning may be everything, but the window dressing fell into place as well. That’s what it made it fit the parameters of ideal.
The blue-skied, Saturday afternoon opponent was Atlanta, rapidly becoming our archrival. Unfortunately, they were surrogates in this battle. The Braves were en route to their umpteenth consecutive division title, the last eleventy-twelve of which were won in the National League East, where they clearly had no business. This left us fighting for a Wild Card against other ambitious second-place teams, mostly at this point, the Cubs. We had no more games against the Cubs, so every game against everybody counted. Games against the Braves tended to count even more.
This was a Stephanie game, her third of 1998. She always did better at the beginning of them than at the end. She’d kind of hit a wall once the novelty would wear off and the baseball would set in. But I always considered bringing the two loves of my life together an accomplishment. Before I figured out she does better in the shade than in the sun, we basked in what I called the brother-in-law seats, first row of mezzanine boxes aligned with third base. My brother-in-law’s brother bought them on the heels of the unexpected excitement of 1997. He and their parents were the ones who wanted them and used most of them, but they insisted on sticking my non-fan brother-in-law’s company on the box’s identifying nameplate.
Shea’s print shop, it shouldn’t surprise you, spelled the company name wrong.
Occasionally two of the four seats fell into my hands. This was one of those occasions. The other half of the box went to one of my sister’s husband’s business associates, Michael, considered a “crazy” Mets fan like me (as if that’s a bad thing), and his friend. Michael and I had shared the box enough to have developed a nodding acquaintance through 1998. Nice enough guy, though not so nice when a freebie was up for grabs. A Pepsi Party Patrol cannon, then a new feature, shot a t-shirt to the approximate location of my neck. Everybody around me lunged. Michael brought his left elbow down hard on my right shoulder. He’s competing. I’m groaning.
I could live with the bruise. I wasn’t too sure we could survive Bobby Jones, who had been in a shame spiral since the ’97 All-Star Game. Hadn’t been the same since somebody noticed he was good. But Bobby matched Kevin Millwood zero for zero for four innings. This was a duel. This was September baseball. This was also the September of Mark McGwire. In the middle of the first inning, our attention was directed to DiamondVision. Big Mac had a moment earlier swatted No. 60. Forty-three thousand cheered. Nice moment in context.
Not nice: The Braves took a lead in the fifth, 1-0. The Mets got two in the bottom of the frame on a John Olerud home run. Then Bobby Jones did whatever it is Bobby Jones didn’t used to do and the Braves took a 4-2 lead in the top of the sixth. He was aided and abetted by Tony Phillips, our stopgap left fielder who couldn’t handle a fly ball that allowed two runs to score. Damn. In the bottom of the sixth, Phillips left the bases loaded by flying out. Damn more!
In a tight spot, the Mets brought in Turk Wendell who was pitching lights out for a month. This was a big moment. Stephanie acknowledged it by deciding this would be a good time for us to go get ice cream. I love ice cream, but not with runners on base. But she was oblivious to Turk and his rosin bag act. She sat there all day and now she wanted and, arguably, deserved dessert. I dragged her there, I couldn’t say very well say No Turking Way to my wife. I grabbed my headphones and followed the action to a short concession line. We got ice cream. Turk got out of it.
After we stretched and I took the elbow to the shoulder (Michael didn’t actually get the shirt, so my pain was really in vain), Brian McRae drove home a run in the bottom of the seventh to make it 4-3. Still, the Braves were a tough mountain to climb. We didn’t touch their rookie reliever John Rocker and we faced Rudy Seanez in the bottom of the eighth.
But there was hope. Matt Franco walked. Ralph Milliard pinch-ran. And up came…Tony Phillips. We were in a playoff race, a Wild Card race, a pennant race if you could call it that. And we had Tony Phillips, he of the misplayed fly and the LOB coming up.
Tony Phillips hit a two-run homer. Tony Phillips! Tony Phillips fulfilled my mini-fantasy. We were up 5-4 in the eighth. We were behind the Braves and now we were ahead of the Braves. Ice cream polished off, Stephanie and I high-fived. Michael the shirt guy joined in as did his friend. Everybody was ecstatic.
John Franco came in and didn’t blow it. The Mets hung on, 5-4. They kept pace with the Cubs in the Wild Card stakes. The Shea P.A. blared “Wild Boys” by Duran Duran. Who knew the Wild Card had a theme? In the parking lot, we noticed North Shore Animal League had set up its adoption van. Who knew you could get a kitten here? Better to settle for ice cream and Tony Phillips.
Big game. Mets win. I’m there. Was that so much to ask for?