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.
There seems to be a bit of a Beatles revival underway thanks to the release of their greatest hits on Rock Band. I confess up front that I know next to nothing of this (or any) video game, but if it’s going to put the Fab Four’s catalogue in wider circulation yet again, then I’m all for it.
Speaking of fab foursomes who made their mark on the Shea Stadium infield, how about we reunite the greatest quartet in Met history? How about a reunion of a supergroup that played together briefly but incandescently? How about we take in another performance by the tightest combo this side of John, Paul, George and Ringo?
Robin, Rey, Fonzie and Oly…I loved them, yeah, yeah, yeah.
It was Infieldmania around here in 1999. We screamed at the mere sight of them. We fainted the second we heard them tune their instruments. They were the soundtrack of our generation.
Then they were broken up by the Yoko Ono of general managers, Steve Phillips.
Nothing would ever be the same again.
Say, if I blame Phillips for breaking up the lads, do I have to give him the credit for putting them together, too? Is he Brian Epstein in this story as well as Yoko Ono? Well, even a blind pig finds a third baseman once in a while, and Phillips sniffed out a great one in the offseason following 1998, signing Robin Ventura to play third base. Ventura’s presence meant Edgardo Alfonzo would shift to second base, thus rendering Carlos Baerga eternally into Pete Best status. That one move with two payoffs instantly changed the complexion of the Met infield, the Met lineup, the Met mojo.
Did that make Phillips a brilliant impresario or just lucky?
Did I care in 1999? Did any of us? We were just glad to have the greatest band of infielders ever assembled around one diamond on our diamond. They were unquestionably fabulous.
You know who formed the second-greatest infield in Mets history? Neither do I. That’s how unique the Best Infield Ever was.
Yes, ever. I’ve skipped from Mets to eternity. As each man began to vacuum his position tidily and mightily, the buzz began. None of them make errors. Every one of them makes plays. And three out of four hit like crazy. We knew we were looking at something extraordinary. Ventura was a certified multiple Gold Glove winner in the American League. Ordoñez was a magician from his first Opening Day when he emerged fully grown throwing out baserunners at home plate from his knees. Alfonzo and Olerud…have there ever been two more simply excellent Mets playing alongside one another? That’s the word for them: Excellent. They excelled at everything they did, they did it quietly and they exuded class every step of the way.
Make no mistake: This group rocked. They allowed ground balls no mercy. They made bunters sorry they didn’t swing away. They obliterated those spots that had previously been considered No Man’s Land. Hit ‘em where they ain’t? Good luck. Robin, Rey, Fonzie and Oly were everywhere.
We knew it. Pretty soon everyone else noticed. Just about the time I began to campaign (in my mind at least) for The Best Infield Ever to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated, they appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated. I had no idea I had that kind of pull.
It was a beautiful shot. Robin sat surrounded by his bandmates. They all wore their trademark black tops and black hats (black was very chic at Shea in ’99). Oly, his elbow wrapped playfully around Robin’s neck — John Olerud playful? — sported his helmet. I’ll bet he showered in that thing. Four fab players, four fab smiles, one superfluous inquiry:
The Best Infield Ever?
I assume the question mark was a typo. Everybody makes mistakes. Even The Best Infield Ever committed errors once in a while.
Once in a great while.
Once in a very great while.
Y’know what? If this were the summer of ’99 and you were putting your vacations plans on hold waiting for the unthinkable, I’d tell you you could just go ahead and take that cruise. No need to wait around for Robin, Rey, Fonzie or Oly to make an error. By the time it would take you to sail the seven seas, turn around, sail back and disembark on the West Side, you’d still be waiting.
The 1999 Mets infield didn’t make errors. They made history. Technically there might have been a drop or a wide throw. That, I suppose, would account for their combined 27 errors from April to October. Some ball might have gone unpicked in the course of the long season. Some official scorer may have had a cramp in his hand which caused an “H” to appear as an “E”. The record shows they made about one error per month per infielder.
Don’t kid yourself. They were the Best Infield Ever. They were Governor Tom Kean’s version of New Jersey and You: Perfect together. Any two playing in a contiguous manner would be delightful. You couldn’t ask for a better double play combination than Ordonez and Alfonzo; ESPN The Magazine‘s Jeff Bradley: “Omar Vizquel and Robbie Alomar could probably learn a thing or two from them.” You couldn’t have a more impenetrable let alone acrobatic left side than Ventura and Ordoñez. And I already mentioned the excellence inherent on the right side with Alfonzo and Olerud. I imagine if you could work some alignment that put Robin next to John, that would be just as fab.
And individually? Fonzie and Oly were consummate team men, taking pitches yet putting up hellacious personal offensive stats from their respective two- and three-holes. Rey, while not known for his bat…well, let’s just leave it at that, except to note that as sluggerly challenged as he was, he drove in 60 runs from the eighth spot. But Robin…Robin wore no “C”, but if the Mets ever featured a player worthy of the title “Captain” for a single season, it was Robin Ventura in 1999. As with so much about this infield, you just knew it. He came from the White Sox and very smoothly took over. He was the veteran leader. He was the spokesman. As was the case around third and batting fifth, he was pleasantly ubiquitous.
I love this anecdote from Tom Verducci in SI:
On a hot day in June, for instance, Ventura noticed that the Mets seemed lethargic. At the end of one inning, he walked slowly off the diamond, allowing his teammates to pass him on their way back to the cool shade of the dugout. Suddenly, Ventura burst into a spring and made a hard slide just outside the dugout, showering the bench with dust and dirt. “Wake up!” he yelled. “Let’s go get ‘em!”
“I don’t even remember if we won the game,” pinch hitter Matt Franco says, “but I remember it worked. He picked everybody up.”
Picking up baseballs, picking up teammates, picking up RBIs…is it any wonder that in his eternal quest for elevation Robin Ventura picked up on something Amazin’ in the Doors’ “L.A. Woman”? What the hell did a thirty-year old rock band number have to do with the Mets? Everything, once Robin installed its most memorable refrain — MIS-ter MO JO RIIII zinnnn… — as the clubhouse battle cry. Of course he did. Bradley in ESPN :
After a Mets win, everyone on the club, from the salsa aficionados and hip-hop fans to the country-western boys and metalheads, becomes an instant Classic Rock devotee, if only for the loud refrain. “The only thing it has to do with is having fun,” says Ventura. “Playing baseball is supposed to be fun.”
Baseball was at its most fun when Robin without a cape, our captain without a “C,” levitated Mojo. Robin, Rey, Fonzie and Oly…they played every day, they made every play, they created beautiful music together.
Then there was silence.
The band was broken up seven weeks after their last gig in Atlanta. Phillips undid his best move ever by engineering maybe his worst move of them all. The man who signed Ventura was content to let Olerud fly (or walk — he wasn’t the fleetest afoot). The Mets had assembled maybe their most ideal batting order, the heart of which was Oly, batting left between Fonzie and Mike Piazza. Piazza preceded Ventura. Alfonzo succeeded Rickey Henderson. They were all on base all the time. It’s no wonder Rey Ordoñez drove in 60 runners. Some Met somewhere was perpetually in scoring position.
But that didn’t mean anything to Phillips (creep). Yeah, John Olerud was from Washington state, and yeah he had an infant, and yeah family was out there…I don’t buy it, I’ve never bought it. Money talks, nobody walks, not even the perfect No. 3 hitter who drew 125 bases on balls in 1999. The Mets made no effort to keep Oly here. None. A little love might have given him and this unmatchable unit a little more life for us all to exult in.
Nope. Instead, it was Todd Zeile playing first and the band never sounding so good again. Ordoñez was off key in 2000. He erred enough to be human. Then he was injured. Before we knew it, we had Todd Zeile at first and Mike Bordick at shortstop. A year after that, Robin Ventura was dispatched (where I can’t remember). The symphony was already well over by then. The Robin of ’00 and ’01 had his moments. The Robin of ’99 had a year of them. And Fonzie? Consummate team man that he was, he deferred to the mistakenly acquired Roberto Alomar in 2002 and shifted back to third, which he played pretty well when he was younger, healthier and arguably more trim. Fonzie at third the second time around wasn’t quite as special as Fonzie at third the first time — and didn’t hold a candle to Fonzie at second.
Alfonzo left after ’02, as did Ordoñez, who was never as magical in the new century as he was in the old. Olerud carved out a nice American League career for himself through 2005. Ventura, after a wayward stint in the junior circuit, resurfaced for a pre-retirement cameo in the N.L., helping the Dodgers make the playoffs in 2004. He returned to Shea with L.A. that August, starting at first base and launching a grand slam.
Did I mention he did that with the Mets pretty regularly?
I was there that Sunday afternoon, a day when the Mets were going to lose regardless of who the opposing team’s first baseman was. So when he took Kris Benson deep, drove in four runs on one swing and conducted his customary trip around the bases, I did what I did daily in 1999.
I stood and I applauded Robin Ventura. I wasn’t the only one either.
Before December 8, 1980, it was continually wondered if the Beatles would ever get back together. Lorne Michaels made great comedic hay offering them $3,200 on the new NBC Saturday Night to reunite on his show (they could split it any way they liked; they could give Ringo less, Lorne suggested). The four gentlemen who had formed the group that changed everything turned down entreaties far more bountiful than that one. They were all off doing their own thing after their breakup. It was never going to happen. Or if it was, Mark David Chapman made certain we’d never see it.
But the Beatles live on, as evidenced by this Rock Band thing, by all the reissues that have been greeted so enthusiastically, by the remasters and the anthologies and the way their music never, ever goes away or completely out of style. They’ll always be the Beatles.
In other words, they’ll always be the 1999 Mets infield of rock ‘n’ roll.
Relive 1999 and lesser Met seasons 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. Hey, there’s even a new review of it, from Panorama of the Mountains.
Then go play this AT ONCE.