Welcome to Flashback Friday: I Saw The Decade End, a milestone-anniversary salute to the New York Mets of 1969, 1979, 1989 and 1999. Each week, we immerse ourselves in or at least touch upon something that transpired within the Metsian realm 40, 30, 20 or 10 years ago. Amazin’ or not, here it comes.
The Mets have lost three in a row. I’ll wager they’ll win a game eventually, and not just because a series with the 14-38 Washington Nationals looms; the Nationals, by the way, are chock full of fine Major League talent that is capable of coalescing to beat any team on any given day — don’t let it be said I’d ever risk tempting the wrath of the whatever from high atop the thing by acting as if the Mets are guaranteed a win against anybody. Even the godawful Nationals…who are really much better than they’ve shown.
Anyway, I know that teams hit hot streaks and cold streaks, just like players, just like people. You’ll win a few in a row, you’ll lose a few in a row, somewhere along the way the record will reflect reality. The greatest Mets team ever lost 54 games. The worst Mets team ever won 40 games. Nothing is so good or so bad that it prohibits something bad or something good from happening now and/or then.
But you couldn’t have convinced me of that ten years ago today. Ten years ago today, I was absolutely certain the New York Mets would never win another game.
At the time, the Mets were 27-28. By my calculations, they were on pace to finish 27-135, after which they would reel off consecutive seasons of 0-162 unless somebody stopped them from competing, which would be the only way to stop them from losing.
I had no proof to the contrary, not on June 5, 1999.
Occasionally mythmakers get it wrong. One myth I’ve heard is that Bobby Valentine never got his Mets off to good starts. That’s not true. Depending on how you define a start, he did fine when the bell rang as often as not. In 1998, the Mets were 9-4 by April 15. In 2000, after shaking off their Tokyo jet lag, they made it to April 25 at 14-7. Even lousy 2002 was, at one point, promising, with the Mets a robust 18-11 on May 3. So it was in 1999 that Bobby V guided the Mets to a splendid start, winning 17 of their first 26. The 17-9 stays with me because that was Jerry Koosman’s mark in 1969.
I had high hopes for those 1999 Mets. I had high hopes for the 1998 Mets, too. They fell a scooch short of fulfilling them by losing five straight at the end and missing the Wild Card — or at least a tie for it — by one game just a week after leading the league in the crucial category of best second-place standing. The Cubs and the Giants both blew by them and had their own mini-playoff on a Monday night as I sat and fumed over how the Mets lost two to the Expos and three to the Braves to disqualify themselves from participating in a potential round robin tournament. 1998 was going to be the Mets’ first trip to the playoffs in a decade, my first trip to the playoffs ever. I had a pair of tickets for Game Four of the NLDS. If the Mets could win one of three from the Astros, I’d be at Shea on Sunday October 4.
I was home Sunday October 4. The Mets didn’t play the Astros. The Mets didn’t play anybody after September 27, 1998. Their 9-4 start was an obscure memory by the time the 0-5 finish rolled around. It was the latter that ended, all at once, my interest in baseball. Or so I told myself. Sometime by the League Championship Series, I was watching baseball again, and as soon as the Mets started making moves — re-signing Piazza, signing Ventura and Henderson, trading for Benitez and Cedeño — it was as if the losing streak that ended ’98 hadn’t stung at all. We’d be back in ’99. I’d be back for sure.
There they were and there I was, per usual, as the next season got underway. Every game, as had been the case since Bobby V woke this franchise up in the spring of ’97, was the most significant event in my day, night and life. The Mets had shaken off their late 1998 doldrums and were playing baseball with enough joy and verve and poetry to satisfy the Annie Savoy in all of us. Piazza cracked the Trevor Hoffman code in the ninth inning one cold April night at Shea for a walkoff homer against the Padre closer; Rickey announced his presence with authority one night in Florida with four hits, four runs, two dingers and a walk; Matt Franco hustled from first to home on a mishandled windblown pop fly to short against the Giants, breaking an eighth-inning 0-0 tie. Lots of little victories mounted toward a great big confidence boost that rendered 1998 instantly ancient history. The fielding was superb, the hitting was timely, the baserunning was thrilling the relief was stellar, the starting pitching was more than adequate.
The Mets were 17-9. Then they were a little shaky, but suitably dramatic whenever they righted themselves. They’d sweep a doubleheader from the Brewers in which Robin Ventura blasted a grand slam in each game. They’d trail the unhittable Curt Schilling 4-0 entering the ninth but grit their teeth and score five off the very same pitcher in their last ups and win 5-4. There were losses in between the heroics, but they didn’t seem fatal. They went from 17-9 to 27-20 by May 26, trailing the perpetually first-place Braves by just 1½ games. What I had forecast for 1998 — an overthrow of eternal Atlanta — would happen in 1999. I knew this was our year.
It didn’t take me two weeks to change my tune completely.
The Mets came home from Pittsburgh on the Friday of Memorial Day weekend to play the second-year Diamondbacks who, despite their infancy, bore no resemblance to the 1963 Mets. Arizona stocked up on free agents and had about the same record as us and had already taken first place in the West. A tight pitchers’ duel — Rick Reed vs. Omar Daal — went their way. The ninth inning was particularly galling as we loaded the bases off Gregg Olson but Luis Lopez looked at strike three and it ended a 2-1 loss.
Very frustrating, but we’ll get ‘em tomorrow, I said.
We didn’t. We sent Allen Watson to the hill, which was the first hint we wouldn’t be seeing another duel. Watson was gone by the fourth (and would never start for the Mets again; he’d be traded to Seattle in mid-June). Armando Reynoso, starter and loser in the first and fifth games of the decisive ’98 losing streak, came back to haunt us, if only partially. He pitched five mediocre innings, gave up five earned runs but left with an 8-5 lead as Pat Mahomes and Rigo Beltran proved no better than Watson on this Saturday afternoon. An Agbayani homer in the sixth (he was hitting lots of them since his recall) and a Henderson double in the eighth pulled us to within a run, but the ninth saw the big league debut of Byung-Hyun Kim. The scouting reports said watch out, this guy throws gas. The scouting reports were uncommonly accurate. Fonzie flied to center. Oly lined to left. Mike struck out swinging. We lost 8-7.
Very frustrating, but we’ll get ‘em tomorrow, I said.
That was wishful thinking bordering on delusional. They were pitching their premier free agent, Randy Johnson. We countered with Masato Yoshii. Yowch. Yosh’ didn’t make it out of the third. Johnson struck out ten over eight innings. Melvin Mora made his MLB debut, starting at short (Rey Ordoñez deemed incapable of facing the Big Unit), but he went 0-for-3. The Mets all looked like raw rookies in a 10-1 loss. It was the first sweep we’d suffered since the three we lost to the Braves to end the previous season.
In came Cincinnati, a few games over .500, just like us suddenly. We jumped on Brett Tomko early — he was gone in the third — but they jumped right back on Al Leiter. A 3-1 Mets lead became a 5-3 Memorial Day loss. Then May became June and the four-game losing streak became five. Another ex-Met, Pete Harnisch, was successful at the expense of his old team (and the manager he’d despised). Harnisch, whom like Watson, I never particularly liked once I learned he grew up in the New York area but not as a Mets fan, threw seven shutout innings. Orel Hershiser was ineffective across five and we lost 4-0. That put us just two over .500 and, predictably, five behind the relentless Braves.
The Mets would trot out their sixth starting pitcher in six games Wednesday night June 2. This time it was fallen Generation K idol Jason Isringhausen. With Bobby Jones out with an injury and the Subway Series looming Friday, Valentine was saving Reed for the Yankees. Thus, Izzy. Thus, an unimpressive start of four runs surrendered over 5-1/3. The good news was Reds starter Steve Avery wasn’t much better and the reliever who followed him, Danny Graves, got shelled for four in the seventh. John Franco came on in the ninth to protect our 7-6 lead and halt our five-game losing streak.
He couldn’t do it. Just as he could never do it (which isn’t true, but it sure felt that way), John Franco blew the save. He got the first two Reds out, but then walked Greg Vaughn and allowed a single to Barry Larkin. They executed a double steal. Dmitri Young then walked. Mike Cameron came up and singled home Vaughn and Larkin to put the Reds up 8-7. In the bottom of the ninth, Rickey Henderson walked and stole second with two out, but Luis Lopez — how often can the same man be your last hope? — struck out.
The losing streak was six. The record was 27-26. The distance from first place was six games. The next opponent was the Yankees. The venue would be Yankee Stadium. And so all of that could sink in, there was an off day Thursday.
By Friday, I was a baseball wreck. I knew, just knew we were better than this. We were recently 17-9 and 27-20, weren’t we? We’d had all those exciting wins, hadn’t we? Weren’t we the team of superb fielding, timely hitting, thrilling baserunning, stellar relief and more than adequate starting pitching?
Not for a week we hadn’t been. The interceding homestand blotted out all the good the first seven-plus weeks had yielded, or so it seemed. Maybe it wouldn’t have felt that way had the Mets gone off to Montreal or Miami, but no. This was Subway Series weekend. This was when the hype for that contrivance was fresh and suffocating. This was when the Yankees could do no wrong in the media’s eyes and the Mets conveniently forgot to do anything right. Thus Thursday and Friday was one big special preview section, all of it reflecting badly on us. None of that should matter in the boxscore of games yet to be played, but gads it was depressing. One column sticks in my mind from that Friday: Wally Matthews, then with the Post, reached and reached until he could reach no more before coming up with a comparison between the Mets 25th man, Bobby Bonilla, and the Yankees’ 25th man, Joe Girardi. Girardi was a great team-first guy beloved by all; Bonilla was Bonilla. And they each wore No. 25. Conclusion: the Yankees are awesome, the Mets are loathsome.
Something like that.
Despite Bobby V saving Rick for the Yankees — and despite Stephanie and I being relieved that our cat Casey had made it through a procedure to remove a bump from his back with no report of it being cancerous (that would come a couple of years later) — it wasn’t a pleasant Friday night. Reeder pitched less than characteristically well, walking four and giving up four runs before exiting in the seventh. The Mets stayed maddeningly close only to have Mariano Rivera shut the door on them 4-3. It was our fourth one-run loss of the now seven-game losing streak. It was also the third loss at the hands of a team whose starting pitcher was an ex-Met. First Reynoso, then Harnisch, now David Cone. Injury to insult was the protective collar Casey had to wear so he wouldn’t attack his stitches.
Christ, I thought, even my cat is a conehead tonight.
Saturday June 5 was a big deal in New York by everybody’s reckoning. There was the Mets-Yankees game in the Bronx. There was the third game of the NBA Eastern Conference finals at the Garden between the Knicks and the Pacers. There was the Belmont Stakes, where Charismatic was attempting to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed 21 years earlier. Huge stuff. It made the suddenly fading Mets seem only a small piece of the Big Apple puzzle. Fox carried the game and focused on Spike Lee who was plugging his movie Summer of Sam by dressing himself in Yankeewear (he was a Mets fan in 1986; funny how that worked). The script worked beautifully for everybody’s purposes but ours. A record crowd at Belmont, even if the main horse lost. The Knicks won in a thriller to take a series lead (which gave me no joy since Spike Lee was their superfan). And in baseball, it was more of the same: Yankees 6 Mets 3. This was the game in which El Duque threw his glove, with the ball tucked in it, to first to retire Rey Ordoñez. The Mets actually led 3-0 at one point, but how are you going to compete with those kinds of special effects?
Eight losses in a row. Under .500. Third place, behind the Phillies. That’s it, I thought. We’re doomed. We’re not just not making the playoffs this year. We’re not winning another game. I don’t mean against the Yankees. I mean ever.
I honestly sort of believed that. I’m sure I had a logic mechanism deep down that was supposed to tell me, no, don’t be silly, losing streaks end. But the mechanism failed to kick in. Logic was overwhelmed by the immense futility of the situation. Not only were the Mets 0-8 in the previous nine days, but everybody everywhere I turned confirmed they were hopeless. There were the Mets being the Mets. There were the Mets losing every day to National League opponents and, just to drive the point home, losing now to the exalted defending world champions. The Yankees were still great. The Knicks were now great. Some horse named Lemon Drop Kid was great. Everybody was great except us. We were doomed. Doomed! We would never win another game.
The wait to make it nine straight losses was interminable, Sunday’s game being an ESPN affair. There was nothing to do but stew all day, until the Mets were kind enough to put on a show to fill the void. They made it clear they agreed with the prevailing wisdom that they were no good, that the 0-8 streak trumped the 27-20 start, that 27-28 wasn’t more or less a break-even milepost but the undeniable start of something much worse unless something drastic was done.
This was June 6, the day they fired three coaches. The Mets replaced Bob Apodaca with Dave Wallace, Randy Niemann with Al Jackson and Tom Robson with Mickey Brantley. New pitching coach. New bullpen coach. New hitting coach.
Same manager. Same manager without the coaches he had chosen. Apodaca had been with Valentine when he came up from Norfolk in 1996. He was literally in the car when they drove to Shea from Pawtucket. Bob Apodaca had been in the Mets’ organization since 1971. Tom Robson was standing by Bobby Valentine since Opening Day 1997. Robson was the hitting coach that season when the Mets emerged into contenders. Niemann was ostensibly in charge of the bullpen, an area that until very recently was perhaps the team’s strongest suit.
Same manager. Barely. Steve Phillips (with ownership’s blessing, presumably) was sending a message. Charismatic’s head on Bobby Valentine’s pillow would have been more subtle. What made the whole episode particularly chilling was it was announced at Yankee Stadium. Phillips and Valentine spoke into a microphone branded with the vertical swastika. Somebody compared it to a hostage tape.
The Mets were never going to win another game and now they were being blindfolded and paraded through the streets of Tehran. The next game, the nationally cablecast game, would have us facing Roger Clemens who was 5-0 in ’99 and hadn’t lost a decision in more than a year. It couldn’t get any lower. Why even play the season?
Because it was 1999 and these were the 1999 Mets. We’d find out anew what that meant starting that Sunday night at Yankee Stadium when Al Leiter — a former member of the other team instead of the other way around — threw seven strong innings while Bobby Bonilla (!) and Benny Agbayani led the charge against Clemens. By the third, when Mike Piazza tagged him for a two-run homer, Roger was teetering. When Benny drove home Robin to make it 7-0, it was Roger and out. He’d leave and he’d lose. The Yankees would lose. More importantly, the Mets would win.
The Mets won. The endless eight-game losing streak was over. The Mets were back to .500 after 56 games. Bobby V had said if the second 55 games produced a record as unsatisfactory as the first 55, he deserved to be gone. But that wasn’t going to happen, he insisted. Valentine suggested the Mets could very easily win 40 of those next 55. As of June 6, they were 1-0 in pursuit of that goal.
And come August 6, a Friday night when Octavio Dotel beat Chan Ho Park by the same 2-1 score that began the troubles in late May, the Mets — now the 67-43 first-place Mets — had won exactly 40 of 55. They did it without being particularly streaky either. The most wins they reeled off in a row in that critical two-month span were six. Tellingly, however, that 40-15 stretch encompassed two runs of 15-3. Amazing how stuff like that can add up, just as it’s astounding that practically a quarter of the Mets’ 66 losses in 1999 (22.7%) were compiled as products of two nearly lethal losing streaks. There were the eight consecutive losses to the Diamondbacks, Reds and Yankees; and there were seven more yet to come, far off in the distance when 40-15 was achieved and everything was coming up roses.
I didn’t think that second losing streak would ever end either. My logic mechanism was clearly on the fritz in 1999.
It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how soon you get your copy of Faith and Fear in Flushing: An Intense Personal History of the New York Mets, available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble or a bookstore near you. Keep in touch and join the discussion on Facebook.