Spring training 2009 is finally here, but last night and tonight I found myself in another season and another year.
I'm not normally much moved by baseball rebroadcasts, much as I wish it were otherwise. No matter how improbable the comeback or triumphant the victory, knowing the end result robs the game of its tension and its drama — I wind up waiting around for the denouement instead of enjoying the story.
But for whatever reason, on Thursday night I knew what I wanted to see. It was the Essential Games of Shea, Game 5 of the 1999 National League Championship Series, Mets trailing the Braves, 3 games to 1. You know the one. The Grand Slam Single.
I can't tell you why, exactly. I wasn't consciously aware of the fact that that season is somehow now a decade old, though perhaps Greg's efforts slipped into my subconscious. It wasn't a sudden burst of affection for Robin and Fonzie and Oly and Big Mike and Tank and Turk and Bobby V., though that thrilling, exuberant team has few if any rivals in my heart. It wasn't sentiment for Shea, so soon now to be reduced to an outline in a parking lot, an apple in a museum and a scattering of souvenir parts. For whatever reason, it just felt right.
I was at the Grand Slam Single with Emily and her dad — the ticket stub says Upper Deck Section 48, Row O, Seat 11, which was high enough that the players were ants, back enough so if you leaned in the direction of Row P you were just under the lighting truss (this would prove important) and down the left-field line enough so there was no view of the DiamondVision and the speakers were all aimed away from us. There was no video to be seen and the PA exhortations were muffled thuds — I remember that during quiet moments you could hear the mumble and buzz of WFAN from handheld radios in row after row around us. Diehard territory for a diehard game, in other words.
On Thursday night Joshua wasn't exactly thrilled with this choice; around the third inning he told me solemnly and with more than faint disapproval that this wasn't very interesting to him because he didn't know these players. Stick with it, I suggested. You might change your mind. By bedtime (106 minutes into the DVD, which is shorter than it was on NBC because the commercials and pitching changes and goofing around in the on-deck circle are curtailed), Joshua was insisting that I write down where he'd had to leave so he could see the rest. As I'd expected.
Tonight I picked the game up from that point and just watched, enjoying a close-up view of a game I'd seen from afar, a warm indoor viewing of a game that had unspooled in increasingly cold and foul weather. I watched and noticed things and remembered.
Like the way the game seemed to encompass an entire autumn: It began in daylight and dry weather, with the crowd looking comfortable and relatively unbundled, then slid gradually into the dark and the cold and the wet, until in the 15th swathes of the box seats were empty (faithless weaklings!) and everybody left was huddled in whatever they brought to wear or bought from the clubhouse store.
Like Rocker and his constant police escort whether he was warming up or just sitting there waiting to do so. Rocker was this game's bomb in the suitcase; you kept waiting for him to appear and being teased by his refusal to do so. I'd forgotten a lot of his infuriating tics: the audible grunt of a released fastball, the stalking around in front of the mound, the shoulder shrugs, and most of all how his eyes (set slightly too close together) seemed to whirl like pinwheels when he'd look in for the sign. Or the way he'd stare into the crowd coming off the mound, walking on the very balls of his feet with a slight smile on his face, obviously trying to hear every last bit of the abuse, and you were never sure he wouldn't suddenly go barreling into the stands and sink his teeth into someone's throat.
Like wondering how many of these guys were on steroids. I'd bet $10,000 that several Mets and Braves (including Mets I loved and love) were juicing. Then there are the Mets and Braves whose name on some list wouldn't surprise me. Which leaves the ones whose presence on a list would surprise me, but not nearly as much as it once would have, because who can believe anything anymore? This line of thinking began to depress me, so I consciously shut it off.
Like the sheer desperation of countering Greg Maddux, that soft-as-silk killer, with Masato Yoshii. How did we ever think we'd get out of this one?
Like catching a glimpse, in the 15th inning, of Maddux and Yoshii on their respective benches. If not for those pesky rules, they probably could have gone back out there.
Like glimpses of non-roster Mets barely remembered. Hey, it's Luis Lopez! Who the hell is that? I think it's … Billy Taylor?
Like Bobby Valentine pacing in the dugout like a caged animal, his brain almost audibly whirring in an effort to extract his team from its predicament. Bobby was a storyline all to himself in this one, from the use of Dennis Cook for two pitches of an intentional walk (tactically understandable though regrettable come the wee hours) to the do-si-do with Matt Franco and Octavio Dotel and who was going to bat.
Like Orel Hershiser, standing beside Bobby for most of the game, as if he were co-managing. Come to think of it, that's a conversation I'd love to have been able to listen in on.
Like all the strands of baseball history you can trace backwards and forwards from the Grand Slam Single. Hershiser, who'd brought the Mets' expected dynasty to a decidedly premature end in 1988, now pitching to keep 1999 alive. Terry Mulholland and Mike Piazza would meet again memorably. So would Brian Jordan and Armando Benitez. We still haven't heard the last of Chipper Jones. A fossilized Gerald Williams would later clutter up a Met roster for an interminable period, an object lesson in how paleolithic baseball front offices can be. Jorge Fabregas would be a Met for about a week. Brett Boone and Andres Galarraga would walk away from baseball during or after Met spring trainings. Five Mets from that '99 team would become Yankees in later years — Ventura, Olerud, Benitez, Dotel and Pratt would all test our affections by donning the Raiment of the Beast, though Tank had the good grace to be cut in spring training. Four of those Mets — Pratt, Dotel, Matt Franco and the despicable Bobby Bo — would return to try and do us harm as Braves.
Like Bobby Bo's pinch-hitting appearance, with the disgust of Shea palpable at his appearance, followed by reluctant and then defiantly reluctant cheering. I suddenly, vividly remembered lecturing myself in the upper deck that if Bobby Bo hit a home run to win the game that was not a bad thing. He struck out.
By the way, thanks to his deferred contract, Bobby Bo is still being paid by the Mets. Assuming the Mets have 26 pay periods a year and Bobby's in the top tax bracket, he just got a check for somewhere around $20,000 for 14 days of doing absolutely nothing. He'll get another one before it's March. Why doesn't Dennis Kucinich badger someone about that? (Update: This is wrong. See the comments.)
Like the cruelty of the game being slammed onto the unready backs of Dotel and Kevin McGlinchey, two rookies pitching amid steady rain and a howling mob with the whole world watching. Dotel was just 25. McGlinchey was 22, though he looked 52 by the time Ventura connected. McGlinchey was out of the big leagues at 23.
Like the unlikely heroics of Hershiser and Kenny Rogers. Rogers will always be reviled for throwing ball four in Game 6, with his able pitching in Game 5 remembered only by those watching the DVD as I did. I can feel myself forgetting already.
Like thinking that Bobby Cox looks really young. I never thought of Bobby Cox as ever being young — I figured he came out of the womb looking like a smaller, equally grumpy version of his current self. But go look.
Like the utter, unfathomable uselessness of Rey Ordonez with a bat in his hands. In retrospect, it's amazing how we twisted ourselves into knots trying to convince each other that his bat didn't matter.
Like the terror that I still felt seeing Keith Lockhart barreling around third and Melvin Mora's throw from right take a hard, flat bounce as it skipped home — the kind of throw that all too often winds up tipping over the catcher's mitt and going to the backstop. Piazza snared it, intercepted Lockhart and he was out and we were safe. Whew!
Like the sleepy, sad face of Shawon Dunston, at the plate in the rain wearing Ken Boswell's number. That would be 12, as in the number of pitches Shawn saw from McGlinchey, dragging the Shea fans up the ladder from resignation to rote defiance to admiration to hope to enthusiasm to pandemonium. By the end of his at-bat I was up and stalking around the living room, never mind that earlier stuff about denouement and story.
Like remembering how frightened I was, back in 1999, that Pratt — our burly, beloved, ridiculous and improbable Tank — would hit into a double play, an all-too-possible horror that I was achingly sure would leave me to slump into the soaked upper deck and stay there until around January 2000.
Like how instead Tank walked and flipped his bat in glee, so hard that it went over the stands and is rumored to have come down knob-first in the windshield of an illegally parked 1988 Ford Escort. OK, I made that last part up. But I didn't see it come down. I think it's up there somewhere with Jesse's glove.
Like the final release of ecstacy and astonishment and farce of Robin hitting McGlinchey's pitch “back to Georgia” — with Brian Jordan dugout-bound before it even touched down. Looking back, I love how Ventura tries to remain the cool, collected field general amid the tumult, pointing Roger Cedeno to home (if any '99 Met could have peeled off early or been distracted by, say, a shiny penny or an ice cream, it was Roger) and only giving up once Pratt had him three feet off the ground. God bless you, Robin Ventura, whereever you may be.
Like the fact that there will be another Game 5. Not another one quite like that, goodness knows — that particular mold is broken — but another game that takes you from the bleakest despair to the wildest glee and makes you tuck the ticket stub away and shout YEAH! and YES! like an idiot and cover your eyes and kick your feet and just breathe it all in and you're left exhausted but knowing you'll be up until 4 replaying video and listening to the FAN anyway, just soaking in it. You know, one of those.
I can't tell you when it'll be, just that it's getting closer all the time. And we'll love it and talk about it and get really excited the first time it's on SNY and get somewhat less excited the 41st time it's on SNY and wait for it on DVD and show it to our kids and before we're quite ready we'll be amazed that it's 10 years ago. Amazed, but glad we were there, and glad that we'll always remember.