Welcome to a special Tuesday edition of 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.
And fans at the Polo Grounds today will be able to tell their grandchildren — they’ll be the gassy old men leaning into the next century and trying to convince anyone willing to listen, pressing in with medicine breath, that they were here when it happened.
—Don DeLillo, “Pafko At The Wall”
There was a long drive…it was gonna be, Russ Hodges believed…
THE GIANTS WON THE PENNANT!
THE GIANTS WON THE PENNANT!
It wouldn’t be the only one. There’d be another Giants victory and a concomitant Dodgers loss with the very same prize at stake, even if they weren’t exactly the same Giants and Dodgers. There would also be a Giant defeat, a dramatic one at that, when a Hall of Fame-caliber catcher prevailed at home plate. The Giants would know tongue-dangling deprivation more than once, actually. A dream closer to home, our home, would die another time. A franchise would do the same — in a place that was familiar to them from a happier ending. And when club matters no longer mattered, the achievements of a single player could look mighty big, particularly as the years went by.
These are some tales from a most magical baseball date called October 3. There’s no particular pattern for them, just coincidence, one supposes, that…
• On October 3, 1990, a pitcher who was supposed to help pitch the New York Mets to the playoffs — but had failed twice — succeeded on a personal level to an extent that no Met since has when Frank Viola won his 20th game.
• On October 3, 1981, the Montreal Expos would clinch their first postseason berth on the next-to-last day of the second of two seasons in one year. It was their only postseason berth, we can now say with certainty.
• On October 3, 2004, the Montreal Expos would play their final game ever, inside that very same stadium where they tasted glory and, for that matter, where they first drew breath. It was an occasion marked by all kinds of finality.
• On October 3, 1985, a worthy contender charged as far uphill as it could until it could charge no longer. After winning on a Strawberry-flavored clock-clanking eleventh-inning home run on Tuesday night and a Doctor’s surgical strike on Wednesday night, the New York Mets were held off Thursday from tying the St. Louis Cardinals by a single run and an acre of frustration. Gary Carter flied out to Andy Van Slyke to essentially end one of the great races, 4-3. A forever team was sent home a tad too early.
• On October 3, 1993, two geographically diverse rivals bundled in the same misnamed division found themselves tied for first-place glory with one game remaining. At any point in the future, given the richness of their records, they’d both be playoff bound. But this was the last time 103 wins wouldn’t necessarily get you squat. Thus, it was the Braves and the Giants, each badly needing a win, or the other to lose. From Atlanta (in Eastern time, no matter that this was the Western Division), word filtered out early of an easy Braves win. Now it was all up to the Giants. Win one more game, force a playoff. Lose a game, and you might as well have lost 103 of them (as one National League team actually did in 1993). Whereas the Braves called on one of their many assured Hall of Famers to pitch them to the promised land, the Giants relied on a rookie, and an untested one at that. His name was Salomon Torres. On this final day of a season, it can be said in the most unflattering light possible that he was no Tom Gl@v!ne. The Giants went down to the Dodgers in Los Angeles, buried in part by their ancient rivals’ rookie catcher, Mike Piazza, who may not have been going to the playoffs in 1993, but had just finished a helluva year.
• On October 3, 2003*, in one of those early-round gems that tends to get lost in the shuffle of a crowded postseason, the San Francisco Giants and Florida Marlins engaged in one of the most gripping duels in the relatively brief history of the League Division Series. It was the fourth game of that NLDS, the Marlins one win from clinching. Rookie Miguel Cabrera singled in two go-ahead runs in the bottom of the eighth. Seeking three outs for advancement, Uggie Urbina met trouble right away: a Neifi Perez double and a J.T. Snow RBI single. Urbina retired two more Giants but then hit Ray Durham, sending Snow to second. Jeffrey Hammonds lined one to left. Here came Snow, son of an old Los Angeles Ram, taking his pedigree to heart. Snow was going to get to the end zone, no matter what it took. Alas, he ran straight into a block of granite named Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez, a .353 batter in the series and the Marlin who collided successfully with Giants catcher Yorvit Torrealba for the eighth-inning go-ahead run. Right here, Pudge had received a perfect one-hop throw from Jeff Conine and redefined what it meant for a receiver to stand his ground. There was a collision, but of course Snow was out. Who ever heard of Snow safely reaching the ground in Miami? It was, said Elias, the first time a postseason series in any round ended with the eliminating out made on a play at the plate.
• On October 3, 1962, at the end of the longest regular season any major league ever played, the day after what had been the longest regulation major league game ever played (nine innings, four hours, eighteen minutes), the Giants of San Francisco and the Dodgers of Los Angeles — collections of players related in some vague fashion to the actual Giants and Dodgers of New York and Brooklyn — met to decide the N.L. pennant along baseball’s new frontier. As recently as September 22, the Dodgers maintained a vigorous lead of four games, a barrier to Giant success presumably every bit as daunting as the Berlin Wall was to freedom. Entering the final weekend of the season, after 159 games, the Giants trailed the Dodgers by two games. Nobody had ever made up that kind of deficit with so little opportunity remaining. But the Giants took advantage of the expansion Houston Colt .45s, winning two of three, while the Dodgers dropped a trio of contests to the Cardinals. The two transplanted rivals would play off for first place, best of three. The Giants rolled over Sandy Koufax 8-0 at Candlestick in Game One. Then the endless 8-7 slog that went the Dodgers’ way in L.A. It all came down to a third playoff game — which the Dodgers led 4-2 entering the ninth inning. A Dodger-Yankee World Series, the first since Brooklyn was abandoned, loomed three outs away. Except Ed Roebuck, the Western Bums’ prehistoric closer, couldn’t shut the door. As coach Leo Durocher second-guessed manager Walter Alston all the way, Roebuck, with help from Stan Williams (as Koufax and Don Drysdale, both on call, went unused), allowed four Gigantic runs to end the ’62 season in its 165th game. The N.L. flag was improbably folded and flown north to San Fran.
• On October 3, 1951…
Aw, you know. That’s July 4, 1776. That’s October 12, 1492. That’s American history echoing green and eternal.
That’s the granddaddy of them all, the October 3 that made October 3 famous. That was the peak of a summer and early autumn like no other in the annals of baseball. That was the real Dodgers leading the real Giants by thirteen games on August 11 and the real Giants chipping away, bit by bit. The margin between the two intracity blood rivals evaporated by the week. Dodgers up thirteen; then ten; then six; then three. The Giants, seeing all the signs (figuratively, literally…it’s up to you), kept picking up ground. On the final day of the 154-game schedule, the unfriendly neighbors were tied. The Giants completed their 37-7 finishing kick in Boston, sweeping the Braves. In Philadelphia, the Dodgers who had been falling from ahead since the month before, roared from behind to defeat the Phillies 9-8. Armageddon came to the center of the universe, New York City. One game at Ebbets Field (Bums won the coin flip, but skipper Charlie Dressen got cute and forfeited home field advantage), claimed by the Giants 3-1. Off to the Polo Grounds for Game Two, a potential New York clincher. Except it was the Dodgers who made themselves at home uptown, jumping all over Sheldon Jones, George Spencer and Al Corwin to romp 10-0. That brought the whole thing to high tide on Wednesday, October 3, 1951.
Maybe you’ve heard of it. Maybe you’ve heard how Don Newcombe and Sal Maglie exchanged mostly zeroes for seven innings. Maybe you know it was 1-1 going to the eighth. Maybe the Giants would have carried a 2-1 lead into the late innings except for a baserunning blunder knocked them out an early rally. The blunderer’s name was Bobby Thomson.
Maybe it was the Dodgers’ turn after all. With one out in the eighth, the boys who would always be associated with summers like the one that had just passed sprang into action. A Pee Wee Reese single. A Duke Snider single, Reese to third. A wild pitch by Maglie through the crouch of Wes Westrum. The Dodgers lead. Giant manager Durocher orders Jackie Robinson walked. Big help — Andy Pafko grounds sharply to third, but the Giant third baseman can’t handle it. Snider scores on that miscue off the glove of…Bobby Thomson. As if Bobby Thomson isn’t already having the worst October 3, 1951 imaginable, he can’t flag down what becomes a Billy Cox RBI single either.
The Dodgers lead 4-1 heading to the bottom of the eighth. Newcombe’s arm is falling off from maximum use the last week, but he retires the Giants one-two-three. Larry Jansen, in for Sal the Barber, cuts down the Dodgers just as easily. Then it’s the bottom of the ninth, Brooklyn with a three-run lead, New York with three outs left in their season.
Newk never finishes the game. He allows a single to right by Alvin Dark. He allows another to Don Mueller, one Gil Hodges could have gotten to had Dressen, playing cute again, not insisted Hodges hold Dark on first with a three-run lead. First and second, nobody out. Then one out when Monte Irvin pops out. As Whitey Lockman prepares to bat, an announcement was made in the Polo Grounds press box:
Attention, press: World Series credentials for Ebbets Field can be picked up at six o’clock tonight at the Biltmore Hotel.
It’s good information to have. The World Series is two outs from returning to Brooklyn for the sixth time. For the fourth time since 1941, it would be Dodgers and Yankees, the Brooks still dying for their first world title.
Speaking of dying, Lockman doubles off Newcombe. Dark scores. Mueller slides into third. It’s 4-2, Dodgers. It’s also the end of Mueller for 1951. He twists an ankle, tearing tendons in the process. Durocher calls on Clint Hartung to pinch-run (6′ 4″ — big enough to effectively bowl over Brooklyn catcher Rube Walker in event of something like a wild pitch, Leo thinks). Dressen calls on Ralph Branca to relieve Newcombe. Bobby Thomson stand in, not realizing he isn’t about to face the starter. He had first been concentrating on-deck. Then he was concerned for Mueller.
Now he has to take on Branca with a season in the balance. He homered off Ralph two days earlier, but that was an eternity ago. Today is the day he tried to stretch a single into a double, unaware that second base was unoccupied. Today is the day he couldn’t make two plays that led directly to two runs. His Giants trail by two runs.
Thomson tells himself to give himself a chance to hit. Then he takes strike one from Branca.
Then he hits.
There was indeed a long drive. Giant announcer Russ Hodges’ belief was gonna be proven correct.
The Giants won the pennant. They won it many, many times, according to Russ. He was right in every one of his calls. The Giants won the pennant by rushing from thirteen out in August. The Giants won the pennant as the Dodgers played like mere mortals. The Giants won the pennant on four runs in the ninth inning, on Bobby Thomson’s second swing, on Ralph Branca’s second pitch, on a home run over the left field fence of the Polo Grounds, on October 3, 1951.
I hold dear the memory of the departed New York Giants, none of them more strongly than the edition that executed the comeback that culminated in the Shot Heard ‘Round The World.
I am fascinated that their San Francisco successors would pull off a facsimile replay of the same kind of pennant-purloining over another Dodger club on another coast eleven years later.
I had no interest other than as an unaffiliated baseball fan more than four decades later when the later Giants fell to the yet-to-be-invented Marlins, but I found myself entranced by the action.
I was just as taken — temporarily, but totally — by the bicoastal battle among the Braves, the Rockies, the Giants and the Dodgers, wherein one team was left with a ton of wins but no more games.
I was of course enmeshed in what the Mets and Cardinals were doing throughout their six-month war; its climax broke my heart.
It is baseball’s ability to lay you low when you’re going so high which has made me empathetic to those who would have no baseball, which is where the hardy fans of Montreal found themselves when their final sunny Shea Sunday was complete.
It was a long way, at the Expos’ end, from the sunny Shea Saturday when Montreal crowned themselves king of a division that was more divided than usual.
And when it can’t be about the team, sometimes it’s about an individual and a nice, round number.
All of the above was the stuff of October 3. All of it, even the outcomes that saddened me, was tinged by magic — the magic of October 3. I don’t know why it all happened then. Maybe other dates have résumés just as mystical. No other date, however, has ever resonated with me like this one. I’ve read of October 3, I’ve bore witness to October 3, I’ve been a partisan on October 3, I’ve been a bystander on October 3. It’s the date that’s done it for me.
Thing is, you have to get to October 3 before October 3 can get to you.
The Mets had been as good as dead, if dead could be said to be good. Not in our case it wasn’t.
If you need a refresher, refresh this: The Mets were rolling comfortably toward the 1999 National League playoffs, maybe even as division champion. Then they stopped hitting. They stopped hitting like crazy. Perhaps the best-hitting lineup the Mets ever produced didn’t produce. Batting averages that had been stratospheric were plummeting to Earth.
The stretch dive, 1999:
.327 on 9/21
.314 on 10/3
.310 on 9/19
.302 on 9/30
.305 on 9/19
.297 on 9/30
.315 on 9/22
.303 on 10/4
.311 on 9/15
.299 on 9/30
During the heart of the teamwide slump, when the Mets were losing seven straight to the Braves, the Phillies and the Braves again, the five batters who were usually at the top of the lineup (at least until Bobby Valentine was compelled to start experimenting; Alfonzo and Ventura were each dropped to sixth for one game apiece) hit a collective .218. The team batted .215 and never scored more than three runs in any individual contest.
On the 0-6 road trip that signaled avalanche and touched off panic, the Mets lost 2-1, 5-2, 6-3, 3-2, 4-2 and 3-2. They weren’t bashed to death, but they were being bled.
When Mets starters pitched well, Braves and Phillies starters tended to pitch a little better. Orel Hershiser gave the Mets length in Loss Two (7 IP, 3 R) but T#m Gl@v!ne went just as long and made a bit more of his effort (7 IP, 2R). Rick Reed made quality starts in Loss One (6 IP, 1 R) and Loss Five (6 IP, 3 R) but was outqualityed by John Smoltz (7 IP, 1 R) and Paul Byrd (7 IP, 2 R), respectively.
Masato Yoshii threw a gem in Philadelphia (7 IP, 1 R), but he came up against Joe Grahe on the best day of his professional life (8 IP, 2 R) before giving way to Dennis Cook to protect a one-run lead in the eighth in Loss Four. Cook gave up a walk. In came Turk Wendell for two outs. Wendell was exchanged for Armando Benitez, the Mets’ most intimidating reliever. Suddenly, a stolen base, a game-tying double and a go-ahead single made it Phillies 3 Mets 2, a score that would be protected by Scott Aldred, who recorded his first save of the 1999 season and the second and last of his major league career.
Aldred had been pitching since 1990. And Grahe would never pitch in the majors again after this season ended.
The Mets ran up the kind of roadblocks you might expect (Chipper Jones’ two home runs, lefty off Reed, righty off Cook, in Loss One) and the kind of roadblocks you’d never heard of: like Phillie second baseman David Doster leaping and grabbing Benny Agbayani liner with the tying runs on in the eighth inning of Loss Five and transforming it into a 4-6 rally-killing double play.
When the Mets would unexpectedly break through — a 2-1 lead on Greg Maddux in Loss Three — their backs would break on poor pitching, like that from Al Leiter, who would give up 5 runs on 11 hits in 5 innings of Loss Three. They would execute particularly poorly in the clutch, such as when, in that same game, down by three, they got runners to second and third with two out in the ninth and their master of the late & close at-bat, Alfonzo up in the ninth against John Rocker. Fonzie batted .291 in those situations in 1999. He got on base 38% of the time. But this time he flied to left to end it.
The worst? How about Loss Two?
In the eighth inning, down 3-2, Bobbys Valentine and Cox truly earned their money, assuming they were being paid by the managerial move.
• Piazza singled.
• Ventura singled.
• Gl@v!ne exited.
• Mike Remlinger replace Gl@v!ne.
• Agbayani pinch-hit for Melvin Mora, bunting Piazza to third, Ventura to second.
• Russ Springer replaced Remlinger
• Matt Franco pinch-hit for Shawon Dunston and was intentionally walked.
• Jay Payton pinch-ran for Franco.
• Terry Mulholland came on for Springer.
• Bobby Bonilla pinch-hit for Ordoñez and struck out.
• Todd Pratt pinch-hit for Hershiser and grounded out.
Valentine shifted among ten different Mets for five plate appearances. Cox ran through four different pitchers. Four beat ten, as the Mets scored absolutely zero.
Or how about Loss Six?
The Mets trailed 3-2 entering the ninth. With one out, against Wayne Gomes, Darryl Hamilton, Rey Ordoñez and Bobby Bonilla all walked in succession. Shane Halter was sent in to run for Bonilla. Henderson, stealingest player who ever lived — thus implying speed — came up to face reliever Steve Montgomery. He tapped a slow ground ball to Doster at second. Halter is out. But surely Henderson, who would eventually outscore every man who ever played major league baseball, would beat out the return throw from Desi Relaford. Surely the Mets would pull even, with runners on first and third and…
Henderson was out at first for a sixth straight loss. And he didn’t seem to be running particularly hard.
And, oh yeah: It was Montgomery’s first major league save. He’d get two more the last week of the season yet be out of baseball by the next year. Same as Scott Aldred. But they both outlasted David Doster, who, like the aforementioned Joe Grahe, would never see what adventures big league life held in the 21st century.
Loss Seven? That was at home, a blowout, the one the Mets were waiting for, it seemed. Hershiser didn’t make it out of the first. Cook got ejected. The Mets used eight pitchers. Nothing helped. They lost 9-3 for their seventh consecutive defeat. The division was long gone. The Mets now trailed the Astros for the Wild Card by 1½ games. The Reds had gotten so hot that they led Houston by 1 in the Central.
The Mets weren’t dead, but you wouldn’t have mistaken them for alive and well.
There’d be a reprieve on the eighth night. There would be a John Olerud blast that would pass over the right field fence with the bases loaded and a Shea-sized outburst of exhilaration to go with it. Oly’s grand slam meant the Mets would break their worst-timed seven-game losing streak ever, 9-2. Houston lost. Cincinnati won. As of Wednesday, September 29, with four games remaining, were still a game-and-a-half out, but now we were behind two teams…which maybe meant we suddenly had twice as much chance as we thought.
The Mets were fighting the Astros, the Reds, the Braves and, of course, themselves. Somehow, they almost succeeded in keeping up with all of them the next night. Atlanta didn’t make it easy. Atlanta had clinched the N.L. East days earlier, having run off a decisive winning streak while we were going in the other direction. But the Braves couldn’t just tune up and leave things be. Thursday, September 30, was a replay from Turner Field: Yoshii pitched well (6.2 IP, 2 R); Millwood pitched better (7 IP, 2 R). Trailing 3-2 in the eighth, however, there was a moment of clarity: Edgardo Alfonzo launched a no-doubt home run off Mike Remlinger. It was 3-3. Shake Stadium could barely contain itself. With both the Reds and Astros idle, the Mets were one run from being one game out of the Wild Card.
Then nothing happened for a while, not if you like hitting, that is. Remlinger retired Olerud to end the eighth. Benitez mowed down the Braves in their half of the ninth. Rocker struck out Piazza, Ventura and Hamilton in our half of the ninth. Extras: Armando takes the Braves 1-2-3. Then Russ Springer takes over, striking out Dunston and flying out Ordoñez before walking Agbayani. Cox goes to Mulholland when Valentine goes to Matt Franco for Benitez — which sends Franco back to the bench in favor of Jay Payton, who grounds out.
Fourteen up, thirteen down, nothing doing on the scoreboard. Still 3-3 going to the eleventh. Octavio Dotel, the rookie who was alternately brilliant and brutal as a starter through the summer, comes on to face Brian Jordan. Jordan lifts a fly to deep right. From the right field boxes, it looks like a tough play. From a television replay later, it looks not all that challenging. From the vantage point of rightfielder Shawon Dunston, it’s an unmakeable catch. Brian Jordan steams into third with a triple. Following an intentional walk to Andruw Jones, Dotel gives up a fly ball to Ozzie Guillen. Jordan trots home from third. The Braves lead 4-3. Soon enough, the Braves win 4-3.
The Mets are two behind Houston and Cincinnati. Each team has three games remaining. Chipper Jones tells Mets fans to go home and put on their Yankee stuff.
Mets fans own no Yankee stuff, save for the stray voodoo doll. Regardless, the Mets ignore Mr. Larry’s fashion advice. Instead, we go straight to black, rending our garments for effect. It’s mourning in Metsopotamia on Friday, October 1. Mets fans had absorbed too many blows dating back to the sweep at Turner Field. Proximity sent us in large numbers to Veterans Stadium where we received another sweep for our troubled travels. It was Sunday afternoon of the living dead at whichever rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike my friend Richie pulled into on the trip home. Mets fan after Mets fans exchanged glassy-eyed stare in the parking lot, by the vending machines, in the Roy Rogers. We’d all been to Philly. We’d all heard how Pokey Reese smacked a twelfth-inning come-from-behind homer off Ricky Bottalico of the Cardinals to push Cincy ahead of us. We’d all heard and seen too much.
Yet we showed up en masse at Shea, even though the Mets had blown the division to the Braves, even though they had let the Wild Card lead slip away, even though the Mets sold $18 t-shirts hyping a BATTLE FOR THE EAST that was now statistically impossible. We showed up 43,922 strong for the seventh straight loss, 43,922 stronger for the Olerud slam and 48,364 for the ball Dunston couldn’t corral.
Friday night, we stayed away. Official attendance for the Mets and Pirates was 29,528. I had been to each Braves game and that last Phillies game besides. I wasn’t going Friday night. Physically, I was depleted. Practically, I had to work. Spiritually, I hung in there as best as I could. The Astros hosted the Dodgers. The Reds visited the Brewers. The Mets welcomed the Pirates.
The Pirates…if we couldn’t beat the Pirates, then this whole thing had really been for naught, hadn’t it?
For seven innings on my office radio, it was beautiful. Kenny Rogers, who threw the Mets’ first complete game of the season on September 6 (no wonder the bullpen was exhausted), cruised for seven innings. Jason Schmidt was pretty solid, but two solo homers (Ventura in the fourth, Piazza in the sixth) gave us a 2-0 lead. Six outs separated us from, at the very least, not being done. Remember, if the Astros and Reds each won that night while the Mets lost, it would be over.
Kenny Rogers was the good thing that couldn’t last forever. He put two largely anonymous Pirates on and surrendered an RBI single to Aramis Ramirez. Out went Kenny, in came Turk, who registered a strikeout and a walk. Out went Turk, in came Johnny Franco, allowing exactly the kind of single John Franco had been allowing since we got to know him at the beginning of the decade, one of those irritating grounders that never made it to the outfield but resulted in a run anyway.
Mets 2 Pirates 2. Oh good god.
Franco still had loaded bases with which to contend, and boy did he contend with them. Adrian Brown was up. He went three-and-two on him. Three-and-two with the freaking bases loaded. The next pitch was reported on radio and later confirmed via television as unconscionably low…yet for reasons known only to home plate umpire Mark Hirschbeck, it was called a strike. Franco and the Mets had wriggled from disaster.
Mets 2 Pirates 2. Oh good, God!
What else? The Mets loaded the bases in the bottom of the eighth on a single, a walk and error that let Bobby Bonilla reach. Normally it would take a court order to let Bobby Bonilla reach. Yet even with that gift, there was nothing doing, as Melvin Mora grounded out.
Armando Benitez struck out his three Bucs in the top of the ninth. The Mets commenced to do no damage to Scott Sauerbeck in the bottom of the ninth. Pat Mahomes faced a bit of trouble in the tenth, but escaped. The Mets continued to not bother Sauerbeck, tapping three consecutive grounders for three easy outs. Mahomes took care of Pittsburgh in the eleventh, leaving for a pinch-hitter in the home half of the inning.
Shawon Dunston solved Scott Sauerbeck. He singled to center. Mora sacrificed him to second. Fonzie was walked intentionally. An Olerud grounder moved up each runner a base. Piazza was given four balls. The bases were loaded for Robin Ventura.
I should point out that when the game began at 7:10 I was working. Somewhere along the way, working ceased and listening intensified. A sense had overtaken me that leaving the office while the Mets were in progress was a bad idea. That same sense had failed me often during the 0-6 road trip, but that was then and this was an emergency. My office was six blocks from Penn Station, but for the longest time I couldn’t risk being in transit and…
I don’t really know what I would have been risking. Loss of contact, I suppose. Maybe I’d miss the game-winning hit (or the game-losing walk). But it was getting later and later. I decided to make a break for it. Up Seventh Avenue, from 26th St. to 32nd St. — no problem. I had my Walkman radio on, I’d hear everything. The difficulty was inside Penn Station. There’s no AM reception there, unless, as I discovered, you cling to a path inches from certain walls at certain angles, particularly where there was a florist. By the florist, you could hear Bob Murphy and Gary Cohen. A little.
But you can’t waste time if you want to hear the Mets game on the train home. You have to get down to your track and onto your car when it’s called because you have to secure a window seat. A window seat, at least in the old-style cars that were prevalent in 1999, guarantees you clear reception once your train rumbles midway through the East River tunnel. You’re spit out of luck ’til then, but you can’t take any chances, thus you sacrifice a couple of minutes by the florist for the sake of the rest of the ride home.
Not that I let my knowledge of the intricacies of WFAN reception stop me from prospecting for play-by-play. I’m sitting at my window seat on the 10:29, headphones on, moving my Walkman up and down like a metal detector. I’ve done this before. My company moved into the city in the middle of the 1996 season and I’ve been doing it every spring, summer and early fall since then. Except I’ve never done it so purposefully or, perhaps, ostentatiously. For the first time in the history of my Long Island Rail Road commuting, I draw the attention of another passenger.
“Excuse me,” somebody calls out to me. “Is that the Mets game you’re listening to?”
“Trying to,” I say. “3-3 in the eleventh.”
“Yeah, I know.”
Somebody else waited for the 10:29 with purpose, apparently.
We roll out and voices become recognizable in my ear. There’s good if almost unbelievable news to pass on to my fellow Long Beach branch riders.
“Hey! Ventura singled and drove in the winning run with the bases loaded!”
Yeah, it was great. It was great that the Dodgers were downing the Astros 5-1. It got even greater in the top of the tenth when Ed Coleman relayed word from County Stadium that Marquis Grissom dove and caught an Eddie Taubensee liner that would have scored two Reds. And it was all officially good when Ronnie Belliard drove home the winner in the bottom of the inning to beat Cincinnati 4-3.
I got off my train with the Mets one game behind two teams with two to play. The LIRR never ran smoother.
Headlines the morning of Saturday, October 2, 1999:
The Post: UN-DEAD
The News: A WIN AND A PRAYER
Newsday: Some Life
The Times: Ventura Gives Life to Gasping Mets
What Friday started, Saturday continued. It was less dramatic, but no less emphatic or, per what we were living through, Amazin’. The Mets would play at night, yet the key to our happiness would be determined in daylight. Somebody from the Central would have to lose their afternoon game. Do that and the Mets — though it’s the last thing a sensible person would trust them with — would control their own destiny.
The Astros, by beating the Dodgers 3-0 (Lima over Park, Wagner with the save), were no help to us whatsoever. Just think: if Grissom reasonably misses Taubensee’s liner and Hirschbeck reasonably calls Franco’s pitch to Brown a ball, and the Astros win as they did Saturday afternoon, we are eliminated before we play Saturday night. These were literally games of inches. But the Reds, who came so close to winning the night before, were no longer rolling as they had while we were floundering. Milwaukee put the best kind of spot on the board in the third: a seven-spot. Leading 7-1 after three and 9-4 after four en route to a 10-6 win, the Brewers set us free. Every crazy scenario involving a three-way tango with the Astros and Reds was no longer necessary. The Mets were a half-game out of the Wild Card. Win tonight, win tomorrow and, at worst, they are permitted to play the day after in a one-game playoff to make the playoffs.
Win tonight? Oh yeah, we still have to do that. And, naturally, something horrible was developing out at Shea in front of 36,878 still-believers (not counting me; I was home watching in my County Stadium t-shirt — thank you again Brewers!). The Mets did nothing against Francisco Cordova. Nothing. Well, they did load the bases in the bottom of the second, but they left them loaded. Yes, that kind of nothing, the kind of nothing that had been killing us for two weeks now.
But alongside the something horrible was something wonderful. It was another quality start from Rick Reed…unsurpassed quality, that is. We knew Reed was good from the time he unassumingly stepped into the starting rotation in 1997 and threw one sound game after another. Sometimes you’d notice him, as Jim Leyland did in 1998 when he named him an All-Star. Mostly you’d just depend on him for six, seven pretty to very good innings. Few walks. Put the ball in play, but that’s what he had fielders for. Occasionally he’d give up a home run, but it didn’t often get in the way. Sometimes he’d lose. Rarely would he get beaten.
On Saturday night, October 2, 1999, the penultimate game of the ultimate season, Rick Reed shoved the Mets toward their destiny. A one-out double in the first, but then two strikeouts. Two foul pops and a strikeout in the second. Three K’s to three batters in the third. A single to lead off the fourth, but then a flyout and two groundouts. Then a grounder, a strikeout and a popup in the fifth. A called strikeout, a popup and another called strikeout to end the top of the sixth.
Rick Reed was pitching the game of everybody’s life. It would be criminal for the Mets to not meet him at least halfway. Finally, the offense did its part. It took two Pirate errors, but the Mets scored two runs with only one hit. Two runs would be insurmountable the way Reed was going (the seventh: strikeout, strikeout, groundout; the eighth: grounder to short, two popups to first), but why take chances? A Roger Cedeño single and a Rey Ordoñez double set the stage for the only Met you really felt you could trust by now: Rick Reed, who singled them both home. Later in the bottom of the eighth, Olerud would drive in Reed and Piazza would homer and it was 7-0.
The top of the ninth: Adrian Brown singles, the third hit of the night for Pittsburgh. But Al Martin grounds into a 6-4-3 double play and Abraham Nuñez stares at strike three.
Final: Mets 7 Pirates 0.
Reed: Complete game, three-hit shutout, twelve strikeouts, no walks.
The Wild Card: The Mets and Reds are tied at 95 wins and 66 losses apiece.
Headlines the morning of Sunday, October 3, 1999:
The Post: DOWN TO THE WIRE
The News: DREAM ON!
The Times: On the Brink of Jubilation
This felt familiar, to a point. There had been a do-or-die 162nd game the season before. I tuned in to WFAN when the Mets were in Atlanta trying to hold onto their Wild Card chances, one behind two team, on September 27, 1998. Bob Murphy summed up what I was thinking.
“There are days in your life. And this is one of them.”
Alas, it was one of those days. The Braves, with nothing more pressing on their calendar then hanging the bunting for the playoff games they’d be hosting, stuck it to the Mets at Turner Field as they had done every damn time the Mets were fool enough to alight there in 1998. Bobby Cox let Greg Maddux tune up and then some for six innings. Bobby Valentine started Armando Reynoso, who was money earlier in the season, bankrupt down the stretch. They all were, everybody but Olerud and Piazza. The Mets had lost four in a row the final week of ’98, giving up a one-game Wild Card lead in the process. The Cubs had passed them. The Giants emerged from just about nowhere and passed them. Now we needed both of them to lose and the Mets to stop sucking.
Bobby Valentine’s bright idea was asking (asking) Hideo Nomo to start instead of Reynoso. Nomo had gone down in flames by early September and had disappeared from sight as the Mets flailed. But Nomo had, historically, been successful against the Braves. How about it, Hideo? How about taking the ball for this one must game against the one team on whom you apparently hold some spell.
With nineteen days of rust, Nomo declined. So Bobby went with Reynoso and the Mets were gone with the wind in Atlanta. Armando didn’t make it out of the second inning, leaving the Mets behind by five humongous runs. Nomo was kind enough to join us from the bullpen in the third and shut the Braves out for the next four innings. An Atlanta radio station reported sighting a cow on I-75 that afternoon.
It had already left the barn, you see.
Anyway, the Cubs lost and the Giants lost, but the Mets, who could have forged an unfathomable three-way playoff, lost 7-2. The Mets lost five in a row. The Mets lost their best chance at the postseason since they were in them in 1988. Back then, the Mets lost the seventh game of the National League Championship Series to the Dodgers and Orel Hershiser.
It’s eleven years later. Orel Hershiser is no longer the angel of death. As our starting pitcher in the 162nd game of the 1999 season, with everything as every bit on the line as in 1998, he’s our last best hope for redemption. Our latest best hope, at any rate. Given the respective exploits of Hirschbeck, Ventura, Reed, Grissom and a whole barrel of Brewers, we weren’t exactly lacking for a salvation army.
All the Mets had to do on this final Sunday is do what they didn’t do the previous final Sunday: win. It would be nice if Milwaukee would keep grilling the Reds like so many brats, but it wouldn’t strictly be necessary. We had destiny, remember? Win today and they have to let us play tomorrow. Win tomorrow and we’re a playoff team for the first time in eleven years, for the first time since Orel Hershiser was our last worst reality.
Could the Mets really do this? They looked so good for the bulk of their first 150 games. Then they formed a circular firing squad. Except for one inning against Maddux (a seven-run fourth on Wednesday) and one inning against Mike Williams (a five-run eighth on Saturday), the Mets’ bats kept to themselves, never scoring more than two runs in any of their other 99 innings since September 21 — and they only scored two runs in five of those innings.
Hershiser might pitch like the vintage Bulldog, but would the Mets be awake against promising rookie Kris Benson? Had that five-run eighth in support of Reed (partly generated by Reed) awoken them at last. Benson had faced the Mets once before, on July 27. Orel started against Kris, then, too. The Mets dressed as Mercury Mets per a Major League Baseball promotion that encouraged teams to wear uniforms that allegedly arrived from the future. But it was Benson pitched as if from out of this world, a complete six-hit 5-1 victory.
The hell with Mercury. The future was now.
Take mass transit to Shea, they always said, and I always listened, particularly since the late winter of 1995 and the driving problems that attached themselves to me like barnacles. Anxiety attacks, panic attacks…I don’t know what to call them, but they never fully went away, thus I almost never drove on a highway. I couldn’t get my speed up to the pace set by traffic, I reflexively tapped the brake, I just wanted to stop the road and get off. Yet somehow, on October 3, 1999, I convinced myself it would be a fine idea to take the car. The Mets were facing their biggest challenge of this decade, I reasoned, I should face mine.
I forgot that traffic feeding into the Grand Central from the Whitestone Expressway could be heavy for a ballgame. It would have helped had I left the house sooner. And then there was parking, which hadn’t been a concern very often the previous five seasons. Stephanie and I wound up by the Marina, the game already started. We met Richie and his son outside sun-splashed Gate D and rushed inside to our last-row seats in Loge, the Mets already down 1-0 on a Kevin Young RBI single.
We missed the first run, but we didn’t miss the tension. Boy, was it tense. It was full (50,111) and it was clearly hopeful, but it was tense. My friend Chuck, then dabbling in some radio project, had a bright idea for an NPR-style story. He was going to stand on the 7 extension with the onlookers who tended to collect there to watch part of a baseball game for the price of a $1.50 Metrocard swipe. The story didn’t pan out, but he did go home with an observation from well over the right field fence: “Man, it was dead in there, wasn’t it?”
No, I told him, it wasn’t dead. It was just tense. One false move and the season — pending the outcome in Milwaukee — was over. Hard to get loud when your mind echoes with worry.
It would be inaccurate to say nothing happened as the afternoon unfurled. It’s baseball. Something always happens, no matter how quietly. In the case of the Mets and Pirates, it was Hershiser and Benson. The grizzled veteran and the talented phenom took command. Fonzie and Oly got on in the first, but Benson retired Mike and Robin. Orel righted himself against the Pirates’ usual conglomeration of What’s My Line? contestants. The only baserunner from the top of the second until the bottom of the fourth was erased on a double play. Nobody scored, nobody was left on base.
The Mets’ first break came when Olerud led off the fourth by grounding to second. Warren Morris threw a ball Kevin Young couldn’t handle. Oly landed on second. Piazza’s deep fly to right (viewable from the 7 extension, presumably) placed him on third and, one Ventura out later, Darryl Hamilton drove home the first Mets run of the game.
Mets 1 Pirates 1. And thus it would stay for the longest time.
When did 1999 become 1999, exactly? When did it become the kind of season you couldn’t bear to have end after 162 games? I was keyed in it on from Opening Day, which I wouldn’t have predicted the previous Closing Day when I sort of swore off the Mets and baseball for, I decided, the rest of my life out of disgust with the five-game losing streak (and when we lost in Miami to start ’99, I was horrified to consider the Mets had lost six straight — and hadn’t won in more than six months). Having come so close in ’98 on the heels of having improved so much in ’97 made me very hungry for a playoff team.
This was going to be my playoff team. This was the one that couldn’t miss. I mean couldn’t miss in that it would have killed me. You can’t keep missing the playoffs and ask me to come back for more, not when you came so close one year and not when you made getting close the next year so damn much fun.
The Best Infield Ever was fun. The supersized offensive stat sheet (however it was fueled) was fun. The bullpen’s uncommon reliability, from the long man Mahomes through the lefty-righty exploits of Cook and Wendell and the set-up/closer combos of Benitez/Franco and Franco/Benitez, was fun. The bench full of guys you didn’t necessarily see coming — Pratt the able fill-in catcher, M. Franco the deluxe p. hitter, Benny from the minors, Shawon from the Cardinals was fun. Cedeño running wild under the influence of Rickey was fun. Piazza still a Met (I’m still amazed that we got him) was fun. Bobby Valentine’s managerial performance art was fun. Except maybe for Bobby Bonilla, nobody wasn’t fun.
And the games. The games were such fun. Games won early. Games won late. Games that you couldn’t turn away from. Games decided on windblown popups and doubleheaders salted away by a surfeit of grand slams. Games that kept you out of the shower…
When I think of 1999, if I think about it long enough, I think about a Sunday afternoon in May. I’m home alone with our cats Bernie and Casey. Stephanie’s gone to the ballet. Of course I’m going to watch the game, versus the Phillies at Shea, but there’s a rain delay, and I meander about my business, reading the papers, waiting for the tarp to be lifted. It starts about two hours later, and nothing good comes of it. Reed is hit more than usual and Schilling as usual gives up nothing. This isn’t going anywhere, I think. I should just go take a shower, listen to the rest on the radio in there. But, you know, it’s kind of sailing along, might as well just wait for the ninth inning to be over. Stephanie’ll be home soon, so I’ll just get ready for the shower and jump in as soon as the last out is made, as soon as we lose.
Without a full explanation of what getting ready for the shower entails regarding what one is (or isn’t) wearing, I’m standing by the television, ready for this grimness to go final. Piazza singles, which is nice, but it’s 4-0 and it’s Schilling. Ventura homers (to the Mets’ bullpen, “off the snow fence,” Fran Healy says for some Fran Healy reason) and it’s 4-2. That’s nice, too, but my instinct is Ventura just killed the rally. Now Schilling can straighten up and get this over with. Indeed, he gets Brian McRae to ground to second.
But Matt Franco, who started in left, singles. Luis Lopez, who started at short, is hit by a pitch. It has become apparent that Schilling is no longer in command yet Terry Francona will not remove his ace. And I will not take my shower until the Mets clean Curt’s clock.
Bobby sends up pinch-hitter Jermaine Allensworth — quick, how many of you remember Jermaine Allensworth? — and he puts one between short and third, scoring Franco, with Lopez going to third. Cedeño hits into a fielder’s choice that forces Allensworth, so it’s first and third. Roger, not held on, runs to second. Then Schilling hits Fonzie.
Holy crap! The bases are loaded, we’re down by a run and John Olerud is up. Can you imagine John Olerud, the ninth man to bat in this inning, not getting a hit? But could you imagine Curt Schilling still being in the game after four hits and two hit batsmen on top of eight innings? Oly swung at the very first pitch and it landed in left. Luis scored easily and I thought Roger would, too, but Ron Gant grabbed it and threw it home and very nearly beat Cedeño to the plate…nearly. Cedeño slid ahead of Mike Lieberthal’s tag, punching the air about a dozen times for emphasis when he was called safe.
Mets 5 Phillies 4, a rather modestly clad (which is to say not at all) 36-year-old Mets fan on Long Island running around the living room screaming, hooting, scaring the bejeesus out of his bewildered cats and declaring to the screen when the camera finds the dejected Schilling, “GOOD! GOOD! I HATE THAT GUY!” I kept all that up for a while, fumbling for and then finding a blank audio cassette so I could record Mets Extra and have Gary Cohen’s call for all of posterity. I was still celebrating when my wife came home from the ballet. Before she could ask why I was galloping about in what they used to call the altogether, I volunteered.
“I was about to go into the shower, but then Ventura homered! And Franco got on! And Schilling hit Lopez! Wait, they’re gonna show Olerud again — look! LOOK!”
How often does an unclothed person implore his spouse to LOOK! and mean at Roger Cedeño sliding?
After that, the 1999 Mets became, for me anyway, The 1999 Mets. No way they could miss the playoffs. They couldn’t. They just couldn’t.
Orel retired the Pirates in order in the fifth. Benson gave up a double to Ordoñez to lead off our half. Rey-Rey then stole third as Hershiser tried and failed to bunt him over. Rickey lined out to short, but Fonzie walked. John Olerud, however, lined to second.
In the sixth, Al Martin doubled with one out. Bobby pulled Hershiser (huge ovation) for Cook. Dennis did his job at first, striking out Nuñez, but he then walked Adrian Brown. Mahomes came in and struck out Kevin Young.
Two half-innings, two men left on base twice. The Mets would up that ante in the sixth. Two singles and a walk loaded ’em up for Matt Franco, hitting for Mahomes. Franco was so big that year. Everybody remembers what he did off Mariano Rivera in July. A total stranger hugged the stuffing out of me when Franco drove in the winning runs that Saturday (and I’ve got plenty of stuffing). He was a worthy successor to Kranepool, Staub and Mazzilli in the Mets’ pinch-hitting pantheon. He also had this secret weapon of walking. Matt pinch-walked twenty times in 1999 to set a record. Who knew there was such a record?
A pinch-walk would have been exquisite at that moment. Instead he fouled out. It remained 1-1.
Our fourth pitcher, Turk Wendell, came on in the seventh. Down went the Bucs 1-2-3. After we sang “Take Me Out To The Ball Game” for conceivably the final time in 1999 if somebody didn’t do something to this Kris Benson character, Rickey singled to lead off the bottom of the seventh and trots to the dugout, replaced by the younger and presumably faster Melvin Mora. It is presumed because we haven’t seen all that much of Melvin. The upper heart of the order was due, really due. But nothing doing. Fonzie flies to right. Oly flies to left. Piazza strikes out.
Is this any way to make the playoffs for the first time in eleven years?
The out-of-town scoreboard bears watching like never before. In the Astrodome’s last regular-season game ever, the Dodgers prove useless. Houston scores four in the bottom of the first and Mike Hampton is putting L.A. away for his 22nd win of the season. In Milwaukee, they could use that roof they’re planning for the new ballpark. County Stadium is open on top and it is getting rained on.
Not that it matters, but the Braves are raining runs on the Marlins; they’ll win 18-0 (showoffs).
Not that we have any idea or interest, but in Cleveland, Brian McRae is pinch-hitting for the Blue Jays. McRae was our starting centerfielder when this year began. When he was traded, he scrawled a good luck note in the visitors clubhouse at Wrigley. He was pulling for the Mets to make the playoffs that day. On this day, he is ending his major league career with a walk and a run.
Others who would never play a big league regular-season game after October 3, 1999: Chili Davis, who was one of the few hitters to own Doc Gooden when it was Doc who owned all of baseball; Willie McGee, 1985 N.L. MVP when it really should have gone to Doc; and Darryl Strawberry, friend, teammate and tabloid headline link to the man we used to call Doctor K.
At Shea Stadium, Turk Wendell strikes out Joe Oliver to start the eighth. He gets Dale Sveum to fly to Mora, then Al Martin to fly to Hamilton. That’s pretty good news. What’s even better news is Benson is finally gone. Sveum (in his major league swan song) had been batting for the pitcher. Our new mound opponent is Jason Christiansen. Kris to Christiansen, the effect’s about the same. Except for a walk to Agbayani, he goes unscathed.
Turk’s still in there hunting down Pirate outs and collecting them like they were the big game teeth he wears on his necklace in the ninth. Well, it is a big game today, so Turk takes another two bites out of Pittsburgh. Nuñez grounds to Fonzie. So does Brown. Turk Wendell has routinely set down eight consecutive Pirates. Kevin Young, however, shoots back with a single to left. Out goes Turk (another ovation), in comes Armando. Young steals second, Morris is ordered put on first to set up a force. But it’s unnecessary, as Benitez strikes out Ramirez.
Which meant it was about to be the bottom of the ninth on October 3, 1999. Fans at Shea Stadium that day would be leaning into next century and trying to convince anyone willing to listen that they were here when it happened.
1999 had been on high alert since that Schilling game nineteen buck-naked Sundays earlier. 1999 had been both joyride and tightrope. The 0-7 descent to Atlanta, Philly and hell had made it a torture chamber. The relentless slump that had limited the Mets to seven clutchless hits and one unearned run kept nibbling around our plate, threatening to swallow our playoff chances whole. We’d known…I’d known this was supposed to be our year. It had been our year in every way but accomplishment. The Mets hadn’t accomplished more than entertainment and drama. Marvelous entertainment. High drama. But no playoffs, not yet.
And who would step into the breach to save us from our date with futility but the one 1999 Mets who was no fun?
Of all the games I ever attended at Shea Stadium — or anywhere — I have one game I hold above all the rest in esteem. It is this one. It is this one because of everything that is about to happen as the bottom of the ninth commences. Everything.
That encompasses the leadoff pinch-hitting appearance of Bobby Bonilla, least loved 1999 Met, quite possibly the most despised Met of the 1990s. Certainly right down there with Vince Coleman among anybody with a decent-sized Met memory.
Bobby Bonilla was an incredibly popular Met between the time he accepted a load of money to be a Met and the time he technically began to earn it. In that offseason interregnum of 1991-92, Bobby Bonilla absolutely ruled our land. He was the savior of Metsopotamia. He was the human page-turner. The bottom had fallen out of the Mets over the 45% of the ’91 season. According to Elias, the Mets’ collapse, from 52-38 to 77-84 was very nearly unprecedented: “No team in this century with that good a record through the first 90 games had ever finished so badly.”
Thus came change, all of it welcomed Journey-style, with open arms. Al Harazin would take over for Frank Cashen. Jeff Torborg would replace Bud Harrelson and Mike Cubbage. The new first baseman would be Eddie Murray. The new second baseman would be Willie Randolph. The new stud starter would be Bret Saberhagen. And they would all revolve around the proven slugger who was going to man right field for the next five presumably happy years, Bobby Bonilla.
In signing the one known as Bobby Bo, Elias analyzed, the Mets added a player who had “demonstrated remarkable durability,” averaging 160 games over the previous four seasons. He was a “certified run producer,” in the mold of Murray. The Mets, said Elias, became only the fourth team since such statistics were kept to add two 90+ run producers from the season before to their fold. Even better, Bonilla and Murray were switch-hitters, same as Howard Johnson. The implication was these guys would be impossible to pitch to. And it would be impossible for Bobby Bonilla’s Mets to fail.
But they failed. They failed at baseball in 1992 (72-90) even worse than they did in 1991. And they failed as people. No Mets team was ever so reviled in its own ballpark by its own fans as the 1992 Mets. No Met was ever so disdained, given the height of his profile and the width of his contract, as Bobby Bonilla in 1992. George Foster may have been booed, but that was the booing of letdown and mystification. George Foster simply sucked in 1982. It was nothing personal. Doug Sisk may have been booed, but that was situational booing. Sisk put runners on and let runners score. It was nothing personal.
It was all personal with Bonilla. He made it so. He came to New York, promised nothing could possibly knock that Bronx-born smile off his happily compensated face and proceeded to scowl for the next 3½ years. It wasn’t the scowling of intimidation either. This wasn’t Big Bad Bobby Bo scaring opposing pitchers. This was Bobby Bonilla, the walking persecution complex. This was Bobby Bonilla plunging into the Mets’ perennial clubhouse leadership void and spearheading a media boycott in spring in response to the tabloids’ coverage of rape allegations made against three Mets (eventually dropped). This was Bobby Bonilla who misplayed a fly ball in a dismal first inning and rushing into the dugout to demand the official scorer not charge him with an error. This was Bobby Bonilla, who had been so charming on Kiner’s Korner the previous September, as a Pirate recalling his Mets fan youth, jamming plugs in his ears to drown out Mets fans’ catcalls. This was Bobby Bonilla blaming the press, blaming the crowd, blaming the fates for his not living up to his five-year, $29 million contract.
The durable Bobby Bonilla played in 128 games in 1992. The productive Bobby Bonilla knocked in 70 runs in 1992. The switch-hitting .Bobby Bonilla batted .256 from the right side, .238 from the left side, .249 overall. The actions of all of those Bobby Bonillas and his teammates were chronicled in a book that came out the following April, The Worst Team Money Could Buy. When he heard he didn’t come off well in it, he cornered one of its co-authors, Daily News Mets beat writer Bob Klapisch, and threatened (with, to his credit, one of the most memorable phrases any Met ever uttered) to show him the Bronx.
Bobby Bonilla didn’t show anybody much of anything while he was a Met. He was named a National League All-Star twice, in ’93 and ’95, but that was more a commentary on the starpower of the Mets in those years than Bonilla’s glitter. He ran through third base coach Cubbage’s stop sign one day in 1995 to get thrown out at the plate. And then he ran out of town, mercifully sent to Baltimore near that July’s trading deadline, for Alex Ochoa and Damon Buford. The merciful component regarded us. We were free at last of having to root for Bobby Bonilla.
Compared to what would follow, Bobby Bonilla’s first term as a Met was actually pretty good.
Bonilla I was a disaster, but a disaster with 91 home runs in 1,660 at-bats, if nothing else. Bonilla II didn’t come close to yielding that much, and there was no reason to think it might. Yet there we went again, in November 1998, reacquiring (in a mutual contract dump with L.A. that rid us of bullpen pox Mel Rojas) a soon-to-be 37-year-old Bobby Bonilla. Bonilla I came to Queens a big star. Bonilla II showed up merely bloated. There was some delusional talk early that he’d be the starting right fielder, which was muted once it became apparent Bonilla in right and Henderson in left was going to be the death of McRae in center. His average dropped below .200 on April 16 and it never saw Mendoza again. He was disabled twice, the second time probably to save him from himself. By then he was snarling and sulking at his manager for not playing him more. The low point of Bonilla II came in early July when he started arguing with a fan…at Shea…while in the on-deck circle.
Maybe it was us. Bonilla was considered one of the game’s best hitters while he and Barry Bonds were leading the Pirates to consecutive division titles in 1990 and ’91. He was a key part of the Orioles’ Wild Card team in 1996 and hit a turning-point home run in the seventh game of the 1997 World Series for the Marlins. Make him a Met, though, and it was always ugly. He knew it. We knew it. We wanted nothing to do with him.
Yet there we were, together, at the outset of the bottom of the ninth inning on October 3, 1999, us dying for one run and him our first best hope to generate it. Thus, when the expanded-roster chain of events unfurled the way it did — a Valentine’s day platter of double-switches had Shane Halter scheduled to lead off against new Pirate pitcher Greg Hansell — Bobby Bonilla was called on to pinch-hit.
With word from public address announcer Del DeMontreaux that No. 25 would now bat, we did the only sensible thing that 50,111 people who collectively loathed the man in that uniform could do. We stood, and we applauded, and we cheered. You could say we reacted out of self-interest, for the uniform and not the man. Bobby Bonilla was a Met with a bat, and his bat, on some level, could meet a baseball and it could go far, as far as Monday. I’m sure that’s what it was, at its base.
But there was something else about it, I’m also sure. It was an acknowledgement of how we could leave no man behind on this day, not even the one who was no fun, not even the one who walked to the plate batting .161. Bobby Bonilla was a Met. He was a Mets fan, from the Bronx, from going on with Ralph and remembering rooting for Lenny Randle when he was fourteen. He was a 1999 Met, for goodness sake. He could be the 1999 Met who extended 1999. Of course we stood and we applauded and we cheered.
Batting lefty, Bonilla got one good swing off Hansell. It went foul. After working the count to 2-1, he grounded out to Kevin Young at first. One out.
And y’know what? We stood again and we applauded again, warmly. It was an audible pat on the back. Bobby Bonilla had not advanced our cause one bit. His average fell to .160. But nobody booed. Nobody. Bobby Bonilla had been booed regularly and resoundingly since April. Today, October 3, nothing but appreciation for trying on our behalf. He tried and we tried, together.
How could we not win after that?
I knew we’d be all right once Melvin Mora singled, as much as one can know those things. I don’t know that I knew Mora would single after Bonilla grounded out, but I had a good feeling about this guy. He had been, as Howie Rose called him, the Mayor of Port St. Lucie, burning up the Grapefruit League seven months before. It didn’t earn him a spot on the Opening Day roster, but he came back in late May and stayed until early August before getting demoted in the wake of the acquisition of Dunston. Since coming back September 1, the minor league lifer who revived his major league chances with a hitch in Taiwan the year before with the Mercuries Tigers, hadn’t hit much — 0-for-13 out of the box — but I saw him make a very nice catch against the Marlins in June. I’d been kind of living on that catch, and the Spring Training numbers (.421 in 26 games), where Melvin was concerned.
In that bottom of the ninth against Rivera, in July, when we had the bases loaded and two out, down a run to the Yankees, I shuddered when I realized Melvin Mora was coming up. I had lost track of Matt Franco. Bobby V hadn’t, of course, and sent him up to pinch-hit in Melvin’s stead, and the rest was stuffing-hugging history. I was a little scared to send Mora up against baseball’s best closer in July. I had no hesitation about his facing Greg Hansell on October 3.
Mora rewarded my faith with a line drive single to right. We had a runner on. Alfonzo was up next. I always had faith in Alfonzo. Alfonzo was in the middle of that rally against Rivera. He was in the middle of that rally against Schilling. In 1999, Edgardo Alfonzo was in the middle of everything. Of course Fonzie singled, to right.
What shocked me was Mora running to third. A runner on third! We hadn’t had one of those in ages! Or at least since the sixth! But it happened, one Venezuelan Met moving another Venezuelan Met up a massive 180 feet. Now sunny Shea was bursting with noise and optimism. First and third, one out, the great John Olerud about to win it for us. Except Pirate manager Gene Lamont intentionally walked John Olerud.
To get to Mike Piazza?
There were three ways to look at this:
1. You want a play at any base: advantage Pirates.
2. Mike Piazza grounded into 27 double plays in 1999, most in the National League, attributable to his catcher’s legs and the molasses-like Olerud often on base ahead of him (Oly himself grounded into 22 DPs): advantage Pirates.
3. He was Mike Fucking Piazza: advantage Mets.
While Lamont swapped out Hansell for Brad Clontz, I did the math. Piazza had driven in 124 runs this season. He set a club record. He was The Man, besides. Heart of hearts, I’d rather have let Olerud hit — or had Fonzie up in a situation like this — but c’mon. You walked somebody to get to Mike Fucking Piazza? Mike Fucking Piazza and his 124 RBI?
You gotta be kidding me.
We roared. We rumbled. We worried, too, but we shoved the anxieties as far down in the pit of our stomachs as we could. If we couldn’t beat the Pittsburgh Pirates with the bases loaded and one out when we had Mike Piazza at the plate and everything in the world to play for, then, honestly, what the hell was the point of being here? Of doing this? Of my having come to Shea a personal-record 29 times in 1999? Of running around the house like a child who refuses to get into the bathtub until Curt Schilling goes away? Of hugging strangers in the Upper Deck like it’s New Year’s Eve in July because Matt Franco has driven in two off Mariano Rivera? Of any of the hundreds of tics a fan willfully indulges across a very long and very wonderful season?
There had to be some payoff after all this. There just had to be.
On WFAN, Gary Cohen reported the Mets would play again in 1999. On Fox Sports Net New York, Howie Rose said they’d be participating in some semblance of postseason play. They were both right. It’s all we could have asked for.
At 4:47 P.M. on October 3, 1999, with the weight of our world on Mike Piazza’s shoulders, Brad Clontz — whose two-game tenure as a Met in 1998 included not a single appearance on the suddenly mysterious Shea Stadium mound — bounced a pitch far from the reach of his catcher Joe Oliver. The ball skittered to Oliver’s right, bound for the blue backstop. Third base coach Cookie Rojas saw it and sent his baserunner, Melvin Mora, who couldn’t help but see it. We all saw it. Even Piazza, stepping back from the box, seemingly dazed that he would not have an immediate chance at setting an even higher standard for Met runs batted in in one season, saw it.
Mike Piazza, the most famous 1999 Met, gave way to Melvin Mora, the Met with the best timing.
Oliver had no chance to retrieve the ball. Clontz dashed toward home to accept an assist that would never come. Mora, no doubt the only human being to have worn the uniforms of both the Mercuries Tigers and the Mercury Mets in game action, sprinted about 87-90ths of the way to the plate. He knew he was going to make it. He knew he had made it after persevering for six years as an Astro minor leaguer, after the sojourn to Taiwan, after being cut just before Opening Day, after being sent down in August. He was Melvin Mora, about to score perhaps the most gargantuan run any Met had scored since a ground ball trickled and got by Bill Buckner, and Ray Knight rounded third in the early hours of October 26, 1986.
Melvin had made it. So he stopped running those last few feet and went into a Chuck Berry-style duckwalk as he crossed home plate. I don’t know if Mora, a 27-year-old graduate of Libertado High School in Valencia, Venezuela, had any idea who Chuck Berry was, but I can tell you that we were really rockin’ in Flushing — and thanking our lucky stars for Brad Clontz of Pittsburgh, Pa.
We would play again in 1999. That much we knew when Melvin B. Goode touched home and Ventura, Ordoñez, Hamilton and the rest of the reception committee converged to greet him. It was Mets 2 Pirates 1, a final. The Mets were 96-66. The Astros had clinched the Central with a record of 97-65. The Reds, still being poured on in Milwaukee, were 95-66. If they were to lose (assuming they were ever going to play), we would be the National League Wild Card, slated to fly to Phoenix for our first playoff game since 1988 on Tuesday. If they won, then it would be off to Cincinnati tomorrow for one more regular-season game to settle that last berth. You could call it a one-game playoff. You could call it a play-in game. Whatever it was, it was some semblance of postseason play. After where we were the previous two weeks, some semblance was better than no semblance.
Headlines the morning of October 4, 1999:
The Post: JUST WILD!
The News: WILD ONE!
The Times: Wild Pitch, Wild Victory, Wild Wait
“They didn’t choke.”
That’s what Richie whisper-yelled in my ear — over the din of Mister Mojo and all his redemptive’ Risin’ — when we embraced in Loge the way dozens of Mets embraced around Mora, the way thousands at seats like ours were doing with each other. My e-mails as recently as Friday morning had highlighted the c-word, the word you’re not supposed to use where athletes are concerned. I didn’t want to use it. I didn’t want to believe it. I loved the Mets, particularly these Mets. How could they let me down as they had seemed so set on doing? How could they lose eight of nine down the stretch a year after losing their last five? How could they blow this playoff spot after blowing that playoff spot? How?
They didn’t hit (they still weren’t hitting…two lousy runs today), but they worked their way around it. They began to pitch and, Pirates or not, they kept pitching. Rogers, Reed and Hershiser were close to flawless as starters this weekend. The relievers were spotless, Sunday in particular; didn’t even need a friendly strike zone to help us out. And the Mojo? The Robin Ventura-ordered theme that encompassed all of our intangibles, all that 1999 stuff you couldn’t help but want to wrap 50,111 pairs of arms around? Yes, it did rise. It never fell, not even when I thought there was something stuck in the Mets’ throat.
Richie was right. They didn’t choke. Boy, did they not choke.
We hung around, all of us, for a long time afterwards and listened to the music. The Doors were succeeded over the loudspeakers by Duran Duran, who reminded us that the Mets were now one win or Red loss from officially becoming Wild Boys (Wild Boys!). Gary Glitter was next, and there’d be much emotional HEY! made as the Mets jogged around the field and communed with us. I couldn’t take my eyes off John Franco at first. Franco had been in the bigs since 1984, on the Mets since 1990. He’d gone longer than anybody active without seeing the playoffs from the inside, although he was actually at the last playoff series played at Shea, in 1988, in the stands, the night Scioscia took Gooden deep and catapulted the Dodgers toward the pennant. Franco was here because, for all his ninth-inning hijinks, he was a Mets fan, even when he was a Red. John Franco was from Bensonhurst. Just as we cheered for Bonilla of the Bronx, we were elated for Franco of Brooklyn.
We were elated for all of them. We were elated for all of us. No, we hadn’t clinched anything. Theoretically, we still might not clinch anything. The Reds might win in Milwaukee and they might beat us in Cincinnati. But that didn’t register as Gary Glitter gave way to Tina Turner (the Mets were simply the best) and Rod Stewart (we had faith of the heart). Johnny A. Franco and the rest of the Mets didn’t have a playoff spot locked up, but they had something, though. They had a lead of a half-game. They had a magic number.
There are days in your life, and October 3, 1999, was one of them. I can’t help but think, however, that there were other days that shared at least a little something with it besides month and date.
On October 3, 1990, Frank Viola won his twentieth game of the season, against the Pirates. He was a former Cy Young Award winner playing out the string. I never much liked Viola, and it seemed a cruel footnote that he who had come up so small that September would have the privilege of calling himself a 20-game winner (while Doc, after carrying us down the stretch, lost his final start to finish a valiant 19-7). As former Cy Young Award winners on the last day of the season go, Viola didn’t hold a candle to the no-decisioned starter on October 3, 1999, Orel Hershiser.
On October 3, 1981, the Montreal Expos clinched their only postseason berth, a second-half Eastern Division title. History would reveal half-division titles were flags that didn’t carry much honor because few would remember much about that split season, a byproduct of the players strike everybody wanted to immediately forget. The Expos only sort of won a division title at Shea Stadium. They’d have to defeat the first-half winner, the Phillies, in something called a division series to make that flag really fly, to really call themselves division champions, to play for the pennant. But they weren’t thinking about that when they beat the Mets on the second-to-last day of 1981. When I saw Jeff Reardon and Gary Carter embrace at Shea on the news that night (I was away at college), I knew they had won something very important. Just the way the Mets who swarmed each other on October 3, 1999 knew the same.
On October 3, 2004, the Expos returned to Shea for the final time. They met the Mets just as they did when they first materialized in 1969, just as they did when they first clinched the only regular-season thing they would ever clinch. Now they were disappearing. MLB announced the Montreal Expos would, at the end of the day, morph into the Washington Nationals. There was finality for the Mets, too, as we knew we were seeing the last of the Met tenures of Art Howe, Todd Zeile and John Franco. But the Expo translation of finality trumped anything I’d ever seen. It was a franchise literally and figuratively going south. I’d have next year as a Mets fan. I could come back here to Shea. My Expo counterpart, whoever he was, would have nothing. And if the Mets lost on October 3, 1999, I’d technically have 2000, yet the void that would open up — considering the end of ’98, considering how we arrived on the cusp of both heartbreak and exhilaration on this 162nd game — might have swallowed my passion for good. I kind of doubt I would have gone the way of the Expos fan if the Mets hadn’t beaten the Pirates, but I wouldn’t rule out the extinction of my own commitment to this team. How often can a team choke and ask its supporters to perform a Heimlich on them?
On October 3, 1985, the Mets fought as they had been fighting since April 9. I never loved a Mets team before 1985 the way I would come to love the 1985 Mets. That team oozed personality and talent and heart. They won in ninth innings and they won in nineteenth innings. They also were imperfect at their edges, just enough so that a speedy outfit like the St. Louis Cardinals — led by National League MVP Willie McGee — could race by them and hold them toward the finish line. The Mets trailed the Cards by three games to six play as they landed in St. Louis for a series they had to sweep. They came damn close, but they fell just short. Keith Hernandez had five hits. Darryl Strawberry had two. It came down to one fly ball, however: Carter to Van Slyke. I thought it might go out. It didn’t. The Mets were two out with four to play. It was too much of a deficit to overcome, but still, they remained the 1985 Mets, my favorite Mets team ever for years beyond ’85 for the way they gave it their all. I never loved a Mets team after 1985 the way I loved the 1985 Mets…until October 3, 1999, when the ’99 Mets went that extra inch and slipped a toe into the promised land. When Melvin Mora stepped on home, I had a new favorite Mets team ever. And I still have it.
On October 3, 1993, I was entranced by the finale of what some have, rather ostentatiously, called the last pennant race, the one between the 103-58 Giants and the 103-58 Braves. The Giants once led the Braves by ten games, in July. They were up by nine as late as August 11. But they never let up, taking a lead of four on September 17. Four up with fourteen to play. Yet here came the Giants again, now from behind, now chasing down the Braves and tying them after 161 games. There was no Wild Card. That was a year away. There was only the N.L. West, and it could only go to one team. I was in Las Vegas that final Sunday, on business. I found the time to watch the Braves beat the Rockies in the morning (I was on Pacific time) on TBS and then sought out the Giants and Dodgers. They were on ESPN, but that was blacked out in Vegas because this was, by some ancient MLB reckoning, local Dodger territory. After wandering aimlessly through a football-engulfed sports book — and getting word that the Mets had beaten the Marlins to finish 59-103 — I had a brainstorm. If this is considered the Dodgers’ home market (!), then maybe they have a radio affiliate. Natch, I did what any 30-year-old red-blooded American male would do in Las Vegas: I ran back to my hotel room and fiddled with my clock radio. Yes! Vin Scully! That’s where I heard the so-called last pennant race settled, with the Dodgers burying the Giants, with young Piazza homering twice (Scully was so happy about that) and with no other option for San Francisco than to book a flight home while Atlanta prepared to play the Phillies in the NLCS. For those purists who would dismiss the Wild Card and the extra round of playoffs it necessitates, I will counter by noting that if you love baseball, you have to love what took place at Shea Stadium on October 3, 1999; that a team that wins 96 or more games in a 162-game season isn’t getting into anything on scholarship; and that what the Mets were striving toward that Sunday was no consolation prize.
On October 3, 2003*, I sat on my couch medicated and fascinated. After holding off acknowledgement of acute bronchitis as long as I could for work reasons, I went to the doctor and he told me what I had and prescribed me a bunch of stuff for it. The best medicine was the NLDS game that engrossed me, the Giants and the Marlins. It had been the Pudge Rodriguez show the whole series, and he topped it off in Hall of Fame style, scoring the tying run home in the bottom of the eighth and withstanding a potentially tying runner to emphatically end matters in the top of the ninth. Quite a play at the plate involving one of the game’s all-time great catchers…though I’ll always take October 3, 1999, Rodriguez’s peer Piazza stepping aside in deference to a wild pitch and a much less messy conclusion at home. Crossing one’s fingers that no findings reveal anything that will keep them out of Cooperstown, I’d like to imagine some summer weekend in Upstate New York, Michael and Ivan gathered to welcome in the next class of immortals, two catchers talking over old times. “Hey, Mike did I ever tell you about the time J.T. Snow tried to run me over in the ninth inning of this big playoff game?” “Why, no, Pudge, but I’ve got one that will top it — I got out of the way of a charging baserunner with everything on the line once…”
On October 3, 1962, the San Francisco Giants defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers to win the pennant in a best-of-three playoff series that became mandatory once the Giants overcame a deficit of two games with three to play entering that season’s final weekend. On October 3, 1999, the New York Mets were trying desperately to become the only team other than the 1962 San Francisco Giants to overcome such long statistical odds in such a short period. Incidentally, the 1962 Mets, who began their life by losing nine straight and managing to be 9½ out, finished their schedule on September 30, a cool sixty games behind both the Giants and Dodgers. Then L.A. and San Fran, whose possession of former New York ballclubs was the primary reason the Mets came to exist at all, played off in what counted as regular-season contests. It meant the pennant for the Giants. What it meant for the Mets was that even as they dispersed in the wake of their 40-120 maiden campaign, they lost more ground and finished 60½ games out of first — because 60 games out wasn’t nearly enough. Descended from the 1962 Mets, is it any wonder it came down, at the end, to utter desperation, to .160-hitting Bobby Bonilla, .161-hitting Melvin Mora, a 124-RBI All-Star standing dumbfounded and a wild pitch from a guy named Clontz, originally acquired by the Mets for Greg McMichael, who the Mets wound up acquiring right back five weeks later? If it wasn’t Harry Chiti being traded for himself, it was close enough. Let’s just say that where our team is concerned, the Met apple never falls very far from the Throneberry tree.
On October 3, 1951, speaking of Met lineage, the New York Giants beat the Brooklyn Dodgers 5-4 to end the most stupendous, most exciting and, yes, most amazin’ pennant race in baseball history. The hero was Bobby Thomson, who hit the home run that captured the flag. The goat, to use baseball’s peculiar parlance, was Ralph Branca. Branca was pretty depressed afterwards, but a priest, a relative of his fiancée, gave him some words of encouragement as to why it had to be him who surrendered The Shot Heard ‘Round The World: “The reason God picked you to throw that pitch was because He knew that your faith was strong enough to withstand the agonies that would follow. That you would know it was His will and you had done your best and no one could ask more of any man.” His spirit strengthened, Branca got on with his life. That October, with no World Series in which to pitch, he married his fiancée, Ann Mulvey. They would have a daughter, Mary. Mary, like her mom, would marry a ballplayer: Bobby Valentine. Bobby would become a manager, first for the Texas Rangers, then for the New York Mets. He was considered a good manager by many, but through 1998, especially 1998, he had never won anything. Now here he was, trying to push another team over the top, or at least into a tie for best second-place record in the National League. Amidst the Mets’ decline in fortunes toward the end of 1999, Valentine blurted out that he ought to be fired if he didn’t guide these Mets to the playoffs. As of the late afternoon of October 3, 1999, he still hadn’t. But look how far they had come after scraping the brink of elimination just days earlier. Clinching a Wild Card tie, if such a thing could be said to have been clinched, was good enough for Bobby’s father-in-law that day. “Win or lose,” Ralph Branca said from the manager’s office after the game, “I wanted to be here. I was saying October 3 owes this family one and I was hoping I was right.”
For the record, the headlines the morning of October 5, 1999, after the Reds beat the Brewers, after the Mets flew to Cincinnati, after Rickey Henderson led off with a single, after Edgardo Alfonzo followed with a homer, after Al Leiter spun a two-hit shutout, after the 1999 Mets won 5-0 to finish their season 97-66, qualifying them as the Wild Card entry in the National League playoffs:
The Post: YES!
The News: AMAZIN’!
Newsday: Believe It!
The Times: After 11 Years, a Real Mets Celebration
*BLOGGER’S NOTE FROM MONTHS LATER
On October 3, 2003, the Marlins and Giants indeed played a great game. Except it was Game Three of their National League Division Series, an eleven-inning thriller in which San Francisco took a 4-3 lead in the top of the eleventh, only to see Pudge Rodriguez drive in the tying and winning runs in the bottom of the inning. That put Florida ahead 2-1 in the series, setting up epic Game Four, the one described in this piece. But that took place on October 4. I regret the error because stuff like that annoys me no end, but I stand by October 3 being fairly magical — and totally magical in 1999.
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