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.
When I moved into my off-campus dorm to start my freshman year of college, the first thing I did was hang up a Mets pennant. The next thing I did was hang up a second Mets pennant. Those would be my calling cards. Whoever came to see me in whatever room I lived in in that dorm would know who I was and what I cared about if they cared to take the time to get to know me at all. Over the next four years, eight different roommates had an opportunity to take note of those pennants. A few did. A few didn’t. A couple blinked and missed them.
Meet my octet of roommates, a.k.a. Eight Men In my room.
LEADING OFF: The Redhead (Fall 1981 — Spring 1982)
My favorite roommate was my first roommate, possibly because he was the only one to last two entire semesters. He was an unassuming, underachieving sophomore whose only hint of personality by day was his red hair. By night, however, he revealed himself an enthusiastic habitué of Tampa’s most famous drag club. (More famous than I realized, apparently.) Late in our year together, he stumbled in at three in the morning — which was OK, as I was usually up — fresh from dancing and “poppers,” and let me know who among our neighbors was the university’s biggest “closet case”.
“You know that ‘friend’ from high school who was staying with him last week?” the suddenly forthcoming redhead asked.
“That’s a guy he picked up at a gay bar in Orlando.”
I never knew what to do with information like that, but I have to admit I kind of got a kick out of having it.
BATTING SECOND: The Stoner (Fall 1982)
The unassuming gay dancer moved to an apartment and gave way to the good ol’ boy pot smoker/dealer. Another unassuming fellow a year older than me. I liked him a lot once I got used to his paraphernalia. He was originally from Paducah, Kentucky. Tall string bean type. Introduced me to the bong, and by that I mean I never knew such a thing existed before. He and his friends/customers once used my pen cap for a coke spoon one afternoon while I was in class. He often invited me to partake in whatever was being smoked, snorted or otherwise chemically abused — on the house — but I always graciously declined. They drilled that “drugs are bad” stuff into me in first grade and I believed every word of it.
I liked my Kentucky roommate. He’s the one who turned me on to the fact that the weather usually changes after it rains. (I had never noticed.) Was big into the outdoors. Tried to convince me duck hunting was humane. Said there was nothing better than going out on a fall Friday afternoon into the woods — or wherever ducks congregated minding their own business — and shooting them. Why a Friday? I’m not sure, but it seemed to have something to do with lighting up a joint far from civilization. Before the semester was out, he promised, we’d share one together. But we never did. I hated smoke of all kinds, and besides my throat was bothering me by then. I had come down with mono.
BATTING THIRD: The Snorer (Spring 1983)
The next roommate was a Jewish guy from Fort Lauderdale, much closer to my demographic description than his predecessors. Couldn’t stand him. Dude was constantly making protein shakes. Workin’ those guns, I guess, though as my girlfriend at the time observed, “For someone who pumps as much iron as he does, he’s not very big.” Nor was he particularly considerate. Told his girlfriend she could hide her stupid bird in its stupid cage in our room one Monday so housekeeping wouldn’t find out she had one. The stupid bird made a lot of noise and a bit of mess. Yeech. The girlfriend overstayed lights-out another time. Made more noise than the bird. Also yeech, particularly when you’re on the other side of the room trying to sleep.
And, oh, the snoring. Hand to God, I woke up one Saturday wondering why it was so important that a work crew be jackhammering the street outside on a weekend morning. It wasn’t a jackhammer. It was the snoring. I tried a trick the dancer taught me my freshman year: “If I ever snore, just clap your hands. It’ll wake me and I’ll turn over and stop snoring.” I tried it with the snorer one night.
“Hey,” he asked me in the morning as he fired up the blender for another protein shake, “were you clapping in the middle of the night? Don’t do that. It’s really annoying.”
BATTING CLEANUP: The Malcontent (Fall 1983)
Then there was the guy going into the Special Forces. Brought it up just about every day. I think it was supposed to keep me on edge. He got mad that I wouldn’t automatically loan him my car (I’ve never loaned anybody my car). Got mad if I got a phone call while he was sleeping (though to be fair, he bawled out my mother for having the nerve to call while I was sleeping). We slammed doors on each other a few times before coming to something approximating détente. The turning point came while I was watching an ABC documentary on the JFK assassination. My short-tempered roommate wondered why there was so much Kennedy coverage lately — and why nothing on Johnson?
Well, I told him, it’s November 1983, which represents a milestone anniversary where John F. Kennedy is concerned, but if you want to consider Lyndon Johnson… and then proceeded to get very erudite on him, partly to sincerely answer his question, partly to overwhelm him with information. It worked and we got along over our final weeks. We even went out together once, to the Toddle House, a hamburger joint up the road. He lectured a waitress for not properly wiping down a bottle of ketchup. Then he wiped it down himself.
Yeah, the Special Forces got themselves a winner.
BATTING FIFTH: The Phantom (Spring 1984)
As the malcontent parachuted into El Salvador or wherever, I was assigned a most considerate replacement. He moved his belongings in the day before classes started and disappeared. Just vanished. Then he reappeared one afternoon while I was in class and packed up his stuff, which included a Holy Bible and some porn (not that I snooped). Or perhaps it was all stolen. I have no idea. I didn’t have to share my room the entire term. It was bliss.
BATTING SIXTH: The Second Phantom (Summer 1984)
Another no-show. Said hi one day, said bye a few days later never having slept there. Seemed too good to be true. I didn’t think my luck could hold out the entire summer semester. It didn’t.
BATTING SEVENTH: The Nominal Doppelgänger (Summer 1984)
They gave me somebody else a few weeks into summer term. His name was Greg, he was from Long Island and he liked the Mets. You’d think we would have been close. We weren’t, but we didn’t have to be. It was 1984, and the Mets were in first place. That was all the bonding I needed.
BATTING EIGHTH: Sandy (Fall 1984)
Sandy was the first roommate I knew in advance of the actual rooming. We had met when we were freshmen. Sandy was also from Long Island, but not a Mets fan. Yet he noticed I was. It was hard not to notice. There were those pennants, there was my wardrobe, there was everything about me that screamed Mets when it wasn’t something most people mentioned in polite company.
We were friendly on and off for three years, mostly from mutual acquaintanceships and our shared South Shore background. But we didn’t see each other regularly and were never best pals. Thus, it was a surprise to show up at the beginning of my senior year and find I was living with Sandy. Wow, we told each other, what a coincidence! This is gonna be great!
I rather dreaded it.
Leigh Montville once recalled an after-hours encounter with Harry Caray on the streets of Chicago:
[He] was surrounded by a group of 15, maybe 20 people who were acolytes, fans, hangers-on, bystanders. He moved down the street as if he were the Pope on a late-night mission to save late-night souls. He talked in that loud and emphatic way of his, and the acolytes talked back. There was a glow around the entire group.
I don’t know that Sandy was that magnetic exactly, but compared to me he sure was. Seemed to pick up followers wherever he went. Gregarious you’d call him. Loud, maybe. Probably also high more than I ascertained. I was wary of anybody who was going to attract a crowd and potentially to bring it to where I might be trying to sleep now and again.
Yet I couldn’t help but like him. Sandy had the right mix of superficiality and sincerity. One minute he’d be cracking me up with his John Candy impression from Stripes (“Yes! YOU’RE Mr. Vegas!”). Next minute he’d be infuriating me by conducting his side business while I was trying to nap or study or live.
It wouldn’t be fair to say it was the drugs that made Sandy popular. He definitely had a quality about him — but he also seemed to know where to get his hands on what his customers wanted. One Sunday night, for example, some chirpy girl from our floor (I referred to her and her kind as Gremlins) knocked on our door looking for Sandy and whatever joints he might have in his top drawer. He’s not here, I said.
“Do you have any sense?” she asked.
If I had any sense, I wouldn’t have answered the door.
Turned out she meant sensimilla, which was yet another marijuana term that eluded me while I was busy getting high on Jose Oquendo. I learned that from Sandy after he came out of hiding from the bathroom.
“Greg,” he said, “I depend on you to keep these idiots away from me.”
Not the job I had in mind.
Sandy was alternately a lot of fun and something of a pain to have around. He could be thoughtful in the most unexpected ways, like when we were on the same flight home for Thanksgiving and he sent me a Budweiser; or when he and his girlfriend took me out for my birthday in early January, knowing it had come while we were on holiday break in December. He could be thoughtless in the most exasperating ways, like when he brought one of his drug buddies, a dapper Tennessean who spouted racist diatribes, back to light up well after midnight. Sandy was quite amused to hear me start yelling at this SOB both for his Neanderthal views and for the smoking in the middle of the night.
I sprayed about a gallon of Lysol at both of them, which only made it worse. The room smelled like disinfected pot, and those two bastards just kept laughing.
Not unimportantly to me, and why I probably forgave a lot of his sins, was that Sandy was a big supporter of my writing in the school paper. I had a weekly column that strove to be amusing and generally delivered. He read it every week, complimented it profusely and recommended it to his clientele. Suddenly I had more fans than I’d ever imagined I might. He also suggested I’d enhance my talent even further if I’d start getting high with him.
I declined. He continued to be supportive nonetheless. It mattered to me. Somebody who attracts a crowd (pot or no pot) is drawn to you…it makes you feel like you’re not existing in a vacuum. Maybe it shouldn’t, but it does.
Sandy’s biggest favor to me was ditching the dorm for some friend’s apartment as our final semester began. He remained my roommate of record long enough so that management never successfully inflicted a ninth roommate on me.
I left college as I arrived — alone, with my two Mets pennants.
We each headed back to Long Island in the summer of ’85. Sandy remained Sandy no matter where he was. On one hand, he invited me to his engagement party, which was thoughtful Sandy. On the other hand, he stood me up when we were supposed to get together for drinks, which was thoughtless Sandy. Eventually both Sandys disappeared from my radar for a few years, until, on the morning of October 13, 1988, I got a phone call: Sandy, checking to see how I was holding up in the aftermath of the dreadful seventh-game 6-0 loss to the Dodgers in the NLCS. “You must’ve been loving Doc in relief,” he empathized.
And Sandy wasn’t even a Mets fan.
Reaching out to me after the playoffs spurred a brief Sandy renaissance in my life. I semi-credit him for helping me peel my career off the floor. It was February 1989 and I had been going nowhere in a big way. After taking part in a dead-end freelance job interview in Westbury, I remembered Sandy telling me he was working near Roosevelt Field and we should get together for lunch. I called him from a mall pay phone and said yo, I’m here, how about it? His “lunch” suggestion was really one of those Sandy empty gestures I should have recalled from college, but I caught him when he was free for 20 minutes, so we met at Burger King. We caught up a little. His engagement dissolved somewhere along the way, but he said he had quit smoking what he was smoking in college. I told him I had met a very nice girl who was still in school in Florida, but otherwise I had nothing going on.
He was surprised. “You’re such a good writer,” he said, without his previous suggestion to enhance my output with sense. Sandy wasn’t the first person to tell me I was good, but maybe he was the first person to tell me that in a while. Or maybe hearing it from Sandy, my own Harry Caray, had some sort of effect on me. Whatever it was, I emerged from the funk I’d been living in for a year-and-a-half and started a new job exactly one month later.
As Sandy was prone to do, he dropped off my radar again by 1991. We were supposed to get together. He didn’t show. I called him. He made some sort of excuse. Life went on.
It’s Tuesday morning, October 5, 1999, probably around 10:20, in Penn Station. Twelve hours earlier, I was euphoric. The New York Mets had clinched their first postseason appearance in eleven years, defeating the Cincinnati Reds 5-0 in a one-game playoff to make the actual playoffs.
Of course I was euphoric. The Mets had risen from the dead — losing eight of nine, falling two out of the Wild Card with three to play, then sweeping the Pirates before beating Cincinnati. I celebrated the 163rd-game clinching the way I planned to toast the Mets’ first postseason appearance in ten years the year before (the 1998 Wild Card berth that died on that season’s final day). I opened, as Bob Murphy once recommended, a completely thirst-quenching Rheingold Extra Dry. My beverage magazine experience turned me on to the revival of the Rheingold brand in ’98. I had attended a press luncheon celebrating its return (other guests: Tommie Agee, Ed Kranepool and — representing “Baseball,” according to the sign-in sheet — Ralph Branca). We were each given a 12-ounce can of the sponsor’s product as part of our press packet. I stuck mine in the fridge at home and waited for the proper jubilant occasion on which to open it.
It never came. On September 27, 1998, with the Braves eliminating the Mets on the last day of that draining campaign, I removed my Rheingold, opened it, took one sip and poured it down the sink…a beer chaser for the one-game lead we had with five to play.
As 1999 rolled into one extraordinary ball of anxiety, I allowed myself no confidence that the Mets would do anything worth toasting. By thinking humbly, I would invite no ill fates. But, like a good clubhouse man, I also had to be prepared for anything. Your team might never drink it, but you had to have champagne on ice, just in case. Me, I had to have a Rheingold in the fridge the final weekend of ’99. The new Rheingold never quite took off in the marketplace the way its licensees hoped it might, so it took a little searching that final Saturday until I tracked down a bottle. It was good and chilled by Monday. Moments after Edgardo Alfonzo caught Dmitri Young’s two-out, ninth-inning liner, it was opened.
Making the playoffs again was exactly as smooth, crisp, lively and thirst-quenching as Murph had intimated.
“YO! GREG PRINCE!”
One Rheingold isn’t enough to hang one over, but I was pretty tired by Tuesday morning. The preceding weekend was a glorious grind of rooting. Monday night’s game required lots of staying up, watching highlights, listening to Joe Benigno (who played several unnecessary minutes of “L.A. Woman” just to get to MIS-ter MO! JO! RIS-in!) until I drifted off. I had already been all consumed by the Mets before they made the playoffs. Now I was about to enter a whole other dimension of rapture.
“GREG! GREG PRINCE!”
Is somebody calling my name? Who the hell would be calling my name in Penn Station at 10:20 in the morning?
I turn around and find out.
I hadn’t thought about Sandy for the bulk of the previous eight years until I turned around in Penn Station to find him.
“I knew that was you,” he said. “I could tell by your jacket.”
I was wearing my Mets jacket. Of course I was. I wore my Mets jacket in college. Different Mets jacket, same general build on me and same general blue on my jacket. Of course Sandy recognized me. Of course the first words from Sandy were about how stoked I must be with the Mets in the playoffs, isn’t this great, and his son would really like me and my jacket since he’s a Mets fan — hey, you gotta come over, we’ll barbecue.
It was good seeing Sandy. It was always good seeing Sandy, though across nearly twenty years by then, I knew there wasn’t going to be any barbecue, any meeting the family, anything beyond a pleasant random meeting in Penn Station. Indeed, we would exchange a few e-mails (in which he confessed he was “pretty burnt” for the entirety of the 1980s), lose touch again and not cross paths again until the ubiquity of Facebook brought us together again. Nobody ever gets lost on Facebook.
Odd, though. Sandy calls me when the Mets exit the playoffs in 1988. The next time he initiates contact is 1999, the day they’re about to enter them again.
Conclusion? Everything and everybody I’ve ever known revolves around the Mets.
Making the playoffs for us Mets fans in 1999 was like sex in Diner, as articulated by Daniel Stern’s character Shrevie:
When you’re dating, everything is talking about sex. Where can we do it? Why can’t we do it? Are your parents gonna be out so we can do it? Everything is always talking about getting sex, and then planning the wedding, all the details.
Shrevie’s point was once you’re married, it’s different. Maybe fans of teams whose October plans were annual could have spoken to that. But this was most definitely a time of delirious love for us. Everything was talking about the Mets and their pair of 11:07 PM EDT dates in Arizona.
When will they play?
Why can’t they play earlier?
Will I be able to stay awake?
Everything would be talking about getting the Mets through their first two Division Series games.
And then planning their home games, all the details.
Randy Johnson. Talk about your string bean types. String bean whose left arm was a rifle like my second roomy presumably shot at innocent birds. ‘Cept for Randy Johnson, it wasn’t duck season. It was Met season. Last time we were in the National League playoffs, there was Orel Hershiser with whom to contend. The time before that, there was Mike Scott. Each won a Cy Young in those years. Randy Johnson (17-9, 2.48 ERA, a staggering 364 strikeouts) would win 1999′s. They never made it easy on us, did they?
Bad enough we’d have to face the Unit at the height of his enormity. We’d have to do it late at night, as if we’d waited so long to RSVP for the postseason, they couldn’t seat us until 11 o’clock. As Wild Card, we were assigned the highest-ranking division winner who wasn’t in our division (really rolls off the tongue). Those were the Diamondbacks, nouveau riche N.L. West champs. No biggie for them playing at 11:07 Eastern, since it was simply 8:07 Mountain Standard in Phoenix. Pain in the ass for us who had been waiting since October 12, 1988 for a game this late in the year.
A week earlier, we were beggars. We had just lost our seventh in a row. We were going to have all the normal hours we could handle, it looked like. We would have given anything to be in the playoffs any time of day or night. We gave everything. They gave us 11:07 first pitch.
We chose to accept. That’s the option erstwhile beggars usually choose.
I tried to take a disco nap ahead of time, but that wasn’t going to happen. 11:07 was Christmas morning. Who’s gonna sleep, even a little, knowing the scowling mustached pitcher is going to slide down the chimney with a sack of fastballs?
In Game One of the 1986 NLCS, Mike Scott was baffling: a five-hit shutout. In Game One of the 1988 NLCS, Orel Hershiser wasn’t his sharpest but kept the Mets off the board until the ninth (when they got to him and Jay Howell for a come-from-behind win). In Game One of the 1999 NLDS, Randy Johnson was fiercer than either of them — for a while. It was the Unit’s tough luck, however, to get his intimidation on between the fifth and eighth innings. Fortunately, Randy Johnson was intermittently hittable beforehand.
Alfonzo did in Game One against the Diamondbacks what he did in Game 163 against the Reds. He homered the Mets to a quick lead. (Coolamundo!) Come the third, John Olerud would homer, which was a far bigger deal than what the Fonz did (aaaayyyy) because he was lefthanded and lefthanders just about never homered off the lefthanded Johnson (I knew that!). The Mets had been doing so many unlikely things for days now, it didn’t seem all that remarkable that they’d torch the usually untorchable Johnson.
Perhaps the Mets pinched themselves because they stopped torching let alone touching Johnson. There was a very long dry spell in the desert when Randy struck out just about everybody he faced. Meanwhile, Masato Yoshii…we started Masato Yoshii in a Game One? Having thrown Reed Saturday and Leiter Monday, there wasn’t any better option for Tuesday than Masato, who was dreadful for much of the year, actually about as good a starter as the Mets had the last couple of months. Oly handed him that 3-0 lead in the third. Jay Bell drove in Tony Womack to make it 3-1. Rey Ordoñez bunted Ventura home to make it 4-1 in the fourth. Erubiel Durazo got the run back with a bomb in the bottom of the inning.
Then the Unit kicked it into gear. Six up, six down in the fifth and six, four strikeouts. Randy Johnson was holding us at bay. We were done hitting him, it appeared. Our best hope was Masato Yoshii forgetting he had no business leading Randy Johnson in a playoff game.
It couldn’t last forever. It didn’t last through the sixth. Bell singled, Luis Gonzalez homered to tie it at four. Yoshii gave way to Dennis Cook, who retired the D’Backs, but the damage felt done. Johnson didn’t strike any Met out in the seventh, but he didn’t give up anything either. Cook charmed the Snakes in the bottom of the inning, but Johnson hissed the Mets into submission in the eighth.
Turk Wendell took care of Arizona after Cook left, bringing us to the ninth. The great Randy Johnson had been great for most of the night. Would he be Scott ’86, firing gas to the finish line, or Hershiser ’88, never quite getting there?
Ventura singled to start the ninth. Cedeño tried to sacrifice him to second but failed. Ordoñez singled. Melvin Mora, an earlier double-switchee, walked. The bases were loaded. Buck Showalter, who guided the Diamondbacks to a division title in their second year of existence in large part because he was supplied with free agents like Randy Johnson, pulled Randy Johnson.
Buck replaced him with Bobby Chouinard. Chouinard is not best known for teasing a fielder’s choice grounder — Ventura, at home — from Henderson for the second out. He is known for this:
An Edgardo Alfonzo grand slam. Just like that, 8-4 Mets, the eventual final.
Tuesday night in Arizona. Wednesday morning in New York. These happy days are yours and mine.
Later Wednesday morning, we are dragging and we are ecstatic. But we have to do it again tonight. You’d think after one game’s practice and throttling Mr. Johnson, we’d be on a roll. But not with Mr. Rogers in Arizona’s neighborhood. Kenny is dead and so am I in the middle innings. I nod off while Todd Stottlemyre puts the Mets lineup to sleep. We lose 7-1, our first loss after a five-game winning streak that encompassed the three games we couldn’t afford to lose to Pittsburgh, the one game we couldn’t lose in Cincinnati and the one game we’d be wise to not lose to the Big Unit.
It wasn’t the stuff of sweet dreams, but it was a game we could afford to lose. Our boys would fly home to a knotted series, one I very much hoped to be at.
When John Mellencamp was still John Cougar, he released an album called Nothin’ Matters And What If It Did. That was my Met mindset during the Diamondbacks series. Nothin’ else mattered. Nothin’. And what if it did? I wouldn’t have noticed. All I cared about was a) we had broken an eleven-year drought of not playing deep into October and b) getting myself to Shea Stadium to see all of it for myself.
I had been to a few basketball playoff games in my life. Knicks playoff games when I was a kid; they were thrilling. A USF NIT appearance in college; it was fun. The Liberty’s semifinals and finals appearances just over a month earlier; it was electric. But none of them mattered compared to the Mets. I needed to see them twice, in Game Three and Game Four. Jason and Emily worked telephone ticket lottery magic and had Stephanie and me covered for the fourth game, Saturday afternoon, which was awfully nice of them. I needed connections for the third game Friday night.
Somehow, I had them. I had them through my ten years of service to the beverage business. I was a writer and editor for a trade magazine that covered soft drinks, beer…the whole gamut of what people like to drink. I’d been covering those items since a month after Sandy gave me that inadvertent pep talk. I’d had a good run there since 1989. Sometimes, however, I wondered why I was still there.
It was for the two phone calls I was about to receive.
First call that came in, on Thursday, the off night between Games Two and Three, was from a gentleman I knew at a major soft drink franchisor. Back in July I had done him something of a favor and told him, semi-seriously, maybe he could help me out in October if the Mets made the playoffs.
He took me seriously, telling me four tickets — Field Level boxes, no less — for Game Three would be overnighted my way. I thanked him profusely.
Next morning, Friday, a gentleman I knew at a major brewer called. He had been slipping me Sheaola a few times per year since 1995. I had been graciously accepting. Every time he gave me his company’s wine & dine (or beer & pretzel) seats, the Mets won. Even if I passed them along to a co-worker because I already had tickets to the same game, they won. This time he was offering me tickets for a game to which I was going, Saturday’s. But this was no time to screw with a winning streak. Yes, I said. Yes and thank you. I knew I could find a good home for them.
The only catch was I had to pick them up at the Major League Baseball Players Association office in midtown. The brewer had some sort of tie-in with them. This wasn’t much of a catch. This was the week the Mets were in the playoffs. Of course I was going to drop everything I was doing to scoop up playoff tickets. Nothing else mattered and what if it did? Plus it’s not like I was invited to the Players Association offices every day.
I hauled ass to the MLBPA. Gave the receptionist my name and I was handed a magic envelope, not unlike the one the soft drink guy FedExed me. Mets playoff tickets everywhere. What a world.
Noticed Donald Fehr walking by. Thought about lobbying the executive director to reinstate Rick Reed into the union already yet, but figured I’d quit while I was ahead.
Rick Reed and the Mets didn’t quit. They surged ahead Friday night and they pounded the Diamondbacks like the Snakes they were. “Whacking Day” banners dotted Shea Stadium. Everybody must have been a Simpsons fan.
Everybody in “my” box — me, Jace, Emily and dear friend fan Chuck — was a Reeder fan (six strong innings), an Olerud fan (three RBI), a Rickey fan (three hits and a sixth stolen base, a Division Series record). I was a playoff fan, to be sure. Shea was decked out as I had never seen it. It was like Opening Day but more so. More festivities, more introductions, more bunting hung everywhere…and fireworks! They set off fireworks beyond center field to welcome the 1999 playoffs to Shea Stadium. It was ooh and aah all around. An easy 9-2 win resulted. They set off more fireworks in celebration. We were one game from clinching the series. It was my 173rd Mets game at Shea Stadium. It was the first that merited starting a special page in my Log.
The only cloud looming over us was the lack of Mike Piazza and his 40 home runs. He was out with a bad elbow. Todd Pratt started in his place and walked twice. No harm done, but we’d be without Piazza Saturday, too.
Oh, another cloud: Bobby Valentine had just been quoted in Sports Illustrated putting down his team. “You’re not dealing with real professionals in the clubhouse,” the manager told S.L. Price. “You’re not dealing with real intelligent guys for the most part…there’s about five guys in there right now who basically are losers.” Bobby V meant that in terms of dragging the other guys down into being pissed off at Bobby V. But it’s not the sort of thing you want to read from your skipper in the middle of your team’s first playoff run in eleven years.
I handed the article to Chuck while we stood on the jam-packed 7 train after the game. Chuck shook his head in disgust at Valentine’s quote. We — and everybody on board — shook their heads at the stream of announcements explaining we were stuck at 111th Street because of illness in one of the head cars. Another cloud (more for the sick passenger than us, but we were New Yorkers, after all, and our playoff goodwill was dissolving into commuter testiness). It got later and later, the train sat and sat. When it finally rolled, dozens of giddy Mets fans were challenged by one sullen Yankee jerk who demanded none of us enjoy our first playoff home win since 1988. Yankees fans are walking clouds. And clods.
I didn’t get home until after two in the morning. Stephanie and I would have to be up early to drive my sister and her husband to JFK, then turn around, go home and jump on a series of trains that would bring us to Flushing. Normally I’d be exhausted.
But Game Four and a chance to clinch loomed just over the horizon. Nothing but blue skies did I see.
When the sun fell on September 10, 1999, it marked the beginning of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. At sundown on September 19, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, began. Yet it was on Saturday morning, October 9, I felt like I was headed for High Holy Day services at Temple Beth-Shea.
I was high on the Mets. The occasion seemed holy. Oh what a day.
Our first stop was Gate D and the Richies. Richie Sr. and Richie Jr., my companions for so many great moments in ’99, right up to the Sunday before when Melvin Mora scored on the wild pitch that made this Saturday necessary. They were my good home for the beer tickets. It was familiar meeting them at Gate D. It was strange sending them to other seats, but it was October. The idea is for there to be a ballgame and to be at it. Everything else is up for grabs.
Stephanie and I were in the Mezzanine with Jason and Emily in a little while. Like the night before, there were festivities and fireworks — daytime fireworks! — and anticipation. Yeah, there was no Piazza, but that hadn’t stopped us the night before and we hoped it wouldn’t stop us again.
Al Leiter, who mowed down the Reds Monday night, was automatically awesome again. No hits over four innings. Fonzie, who battered Unit and Chouinard for homers in Game One similarly whacked Brian Anderson. It was a 1-0 lead after four. Was it too soon to start counting down innings?
It was. Leiter, who had given up no runs in his past 17 innings, and had surrendered only three more hits (four) than he himself had registered (one) over that most mustest stretch of baseball, was touched for a home run by Greg Colbrunn with one out in the fifth. Tie game. No problem from there, though, as Leiter stayed sharp. Henderson and Olerud strung together singles in the sixth, with cleanup batter Benny Agbayani doubling Rickey in the go-ahead score. It was tense, but it was 2-1 Mets after six, and then after seven.
Was it too soon now to start counting off outs? Of course it was. These were the 1999 Mets. They didn’t take reservations. They merely generated them. Al lasted into the eighth. Two outs. Then a walk to pinch-hitter Turner Ward and a single to pesky shortstop Tony Womack. That meant the end of Leiter for Game Four. Valentine brought in Armando Benitez for the third out of the eighth and, presumably, the three that would follow in the ninth.
Armando Benitez came to the Mets from the Orioles with a multilayered reputation. Boy, was he big. Boy, could he throw hard. But boy, something wasn’t right with him. There was that notorious ball he threw at Tino Martinez the year before that even a Yankees hater couldn’t endorse, not when Armando made this “let’s go” gesture in Martinez’s direction. Worse yet, there was his inability to retire batters out of the Baltimore bullpen when it really, really counted. In twelve and one-third innings pitched in four postseasons series in ’96 and ’97, Benitez gave up six home runs. The most damaging of them was the last one, Game Six, ALCS two years earlier. The O’s and the Indians were locked in a 0-0 duel in the eleventh at Camden Yards. Ex-Met Tony Fernandez took him deep, swatting the winning home run that would send the Tribe to the World Series and the Orioles to obscurity.
Baltimore had seen enough and made him available following 1998. We got him as part of the three-team trade with L.A. that also netted us Roger Cedeño. Armando was nothing but good news throughout the regular season. Nearly fifteen strikeouts for every nine innings pitched. More than three strikeouts for every walk permitted. Only six of thirty runners he inherited scored, only two in his final 57 appearances. Opponents batted all of .148 against Armando Benitez during the 1999 regular season, a year in which he transitioned from “eighth wonder” setup man to nearly impenetrable closer once John Franco hurt his finger in early July. After a decade of Franco’s nibbling, Armando’s high-nineties heat was a welcome sensation in ’99′s ninth innings.
The sight of Armando Benitez was a welcome one for those of us at Shea that Saturday. It was comforting. Armando would finish off Arizona. I was so flush with relief that I ran to the men’s room while Armando took his warmups.
It was from the runway where I paused before returning to my seat that I saw relief was at a premium. I watched Armando give up a two-run double to Jay Bell. The Diamondbacks suddenly led 3-2 in the eighth. Armando Benitez was not impenetrable, it turned out. We were the ones in danger of being whacked. We were losing. If we lost, we’d be on a plane to Phoenix that night. It would be a Game One rematch late Sunday afternoon, Yoshii vs. Johnson with weird shadows filtering through the pretentious windows of otherwise hermetically sealed Bank One Ballpark.
All at once, we were no lock. If anything, I could feel the whole thing slipping away. Yes, these were the Mets who nearly gave away the Wild Card. These were the Mets who inspired SI to profile Bobby Valentine. Valentine and the Mets were in the middle of a meltdown when Price was collecting those damning quotes. Five losers in the clubhouse? Only five?
Oh crap, oh crap, oh crap.
Armando Benitez wasn’t done. After issuing an intentional pass to Luis Gonzalez, MVP candidate Matt Williams stroked a base hit to left. Here came Jay Bell with the third run of the eighth…but he’s out! He’s out! Bobby V, never a division champion but never to be mistaken for a loser, exercised foresight for the ages when the inning began. This was before taking out Leiter. This was when he inserted last Sunday’s hero, Mora, in left field for Henderson. Rickey wouldn’t like it, but would have Rickey thrown out Bell? I don’t know, but Melvin Mora sure did, and by doing so he kept us viable for a comeback.
On to the bottom of the eighth, needing one run. We could use more, but we needed one. It looked promising when Fonzie walked to lead off. It looked less so when Oly lofted a fly ball to right. If it wasn’t a can of corn, it didn’t look particularly harmful from Mezzanine. But none of us was trying to catch it. Tony Womack was. Tony had one thing in common with us Mezz dwellers, however: he hadn’t spent any time standing in right field all day either. As part of Buck Showalter’s irrepressible managerial wizardry, he sent Hanley Frias to short to start the eighth, shifting Womack to right in place of former Met Bernard Gilkey. Womack had been a rightfielder frequently in 1999, but on this sunny Saturday at Shea, he had been one for about two minutes when Olerud’s fly found him.
Womack didn’t find the fly. He dropped the ball.
HE DROPPED THE BALL!
Life! Precious life! Womack’s error moved Fonzie to third and placed Oly on second. Cedeño, who had replaced Agbayani for defense in the seventh, would lift a sac fly to center a moment later and we got our run. Tie game again, 3-3. Olerud, ever diligent, ran to third.
After an intentional walk to Ventura, Showalter made another move. He brought in Matt Mantei, a fireballer of Benitezian velocity. And with an eye on the long term, he double-switched him in for Matt Williams. There went 35 home runs, 142 runs batted in, a .303 batting average and four Gold Gloves from of the Arizona lineup all so Showalter could stretch his closer. (Gee, thanks Buck!)
It worked to the Diamondbacks’ advantage, eventually. Pratt bounced to Mantei, who nailed the slow Olerud at home. Mantei walked Hamilton, loading ‘em up for Ordoñez. Rey O hit one down the left field line that looked a lot like a tiebreaking double. Third base coach Cookie Rojas thought so. He ranted and raved so vehemently to left field ump Charlie Williams that he got himself tossed. On the radio, Bob Murphy and Gary Cohen agreed the replays showed it was definitely foul. Bruce Benedict jogged in to coach third for the duration. Rey Ordoñez struck out.
Benitez would redeem himself neatly in the ninth, setting down Colbrunn, Finley and Frias. We had a good shot at winning in walkoff fashion in the bottom of the inning when Mantei walked pinch-hitter Matt Franco. Mora, who had yet to do anything wrong when it mattered, sacrificed Franco to second. Shawon Dunston came into run. Alfonzo was up next, and it was hard to imagine him not winning this thing right here. But he didn’t. Mantei popped him up. It was hard to imagine Olerud not coming through now, but he didn’t get the chance, as Showalter ordered him walked. Now it was first and second and Roger Cedeño. Cedeño I didn’t have any particular default imagined outcome for. He grounded to second and it was still tied.
We were going to extra innings.
Once he came back from his injury, John Franco had to get used to setting up Armando Benitez. Now, with Benitez out of the game for Matt Franco in the ninth, it was Armando giving way to Johnny, our pitcher for the tenth. Nobody was comforted. Nobody could be. Nothing against Johnny and all those saves he recorded dating back to 1990. There was always something with him. There was always a ball that just missed a corner. There was always one too many bounces through the infield. There was always a grounder that would let itself get picked up. John Franco was not a rabbit’s foot.
His first batter was his erstwhile batterymate Kelly Stinnett. Struck him out. Next was another old teammate, Reds and Mets, Lenny Harris. Harris, who had replaced Williams at third, barely got a bat on the ball, but that was going to be enough, as it headed into no man’s land just beyond the grasp of Franco as he followed through. But sonofagun, Franco grasped it and threw Harris out at first. Maybe Johnny, loser of his ten previous decisions encompassing the previous seasons (last win: the Carl Everett grand slam game, 9/13/97), was going to see his luck change. Bad luck now belonged to Tony Womack, whose muff in right was the main reason we were in a tenth inning; he became the third out when he grounded to Ventura.
Bottom of the tenth. Matt Mantei’s still pitching. He’s about to start his third inning of relief. In thirty appearances since he came over from Florida in July in exchange for Brad Penny, Mantei’s never been asked to go more than one inning. But Buck Showalter gamed it this way. Removed Matt Williams so he could have more Matt Mantei. Mantei had had a good season. His 32 saves as a Marlin and Diamondback placed him eighth in the league. The 26-year-old righty projected as one of baseball’s top closers for years to come.
The first batter he’d face in the tenth, his ninth in the game, was Robin Ventura, who flied to right, Womack caught it, first out.
Up stepped Todd Pratt.
What do you ask of a backup catcher anyway? You ask that he not make you regret that he’s playing. You expect, or at least hope, that he catches well, that the pitchers don’t noticeably let down because he’s in there. You wouldn’t think that would be the case since backup catchers tend to be retained for their defense. If they can hit, they start or they are deployed elsewhere.
The Mets had a pretty decent tradition of solid backup catchers. We had Duffy Dyer for a very long time. He didn’t hit much, but you didn’t notice it much because if he was playing, he was filling in for Jerry Grote, and Grote wasn’t much of a hitter when Dyer was around. Later we had Ron Hodges. Ron Hodges couldn’t hit at all, so one assumed he was quite the backstop. Alex Treviño caught and hit just enough to be traded for George Foster in 1982, though that was more about Foster’s salary than Treviño’s value. We loved Ed Hearn when he backed up Gary Carter. The Mets were twenty games in front when Hearn was called on to fill in. We would have loved an amiable elephant in 1986, but Hearn was better than that.
Todd Pratt made none of us unhappy when he was forced into action for Mike Piazza during the regular season. “Forced” is the correct term because, let’s face it, why would you ever not play Mike Piazza if you had any choice in the matter? Mike Piazza was the best-hitting catcher ever. Ever. There are seven everyday positions where being the best ever translates to probably 155 games out of 162 started. More maybe. Catcher isn’t one of those positions. Mike was not impervious to injury. He missed time early in ’99 and Pratt was more than adequate to the task of replacing him. While Piazza spent two April weeks disabled, Pratt hit well over .300. Rapped three homers even. Then Mike came back and played as much as possible. Todd — Tank to us — got the odd day game after night game and, if Valentine’s roster tolerated it, some pinch-hitting appearances. His average fell below .300 without regular work but rallied late to a strong .293. He didn’t hit a homer after April 22, however.
Whatever we asked of Todd Pratt over the course of 1999, we got. Not that we asked much.
We sure as hell didn’t ask for what we were about to receive.
I have to confess I’m always a little surprised when a Met hits a home run. The Mets teams I grew up on, the ones before Dave Kingman, never homered. Literally almost never. From the time I became an everyday spring-to-fall fan in 1970 through 1974, I never experienced a Met hitting as many as 25 home runs in a single season. All over baseball, sluggers slugged. Johnny Bench slugged in Cincinnati and the Reds won a lot. Willie Stargell slugged in Pittsburgh and the Pirates won a lot. Nate Colbert slugged in distant San Diego where the Padres lost a lot but at least they had Nate Colbert homering. When it came to slugging, the Mets were slugs. They were nowhere.
Then came Dave Kingman swatting home runs in unimaginable volume — 36! 37! He struck out when he wasn’t homering, but oh, when he homered, you knew what you had been missing. It’s not acid rain that created the hole in the ozone layer. It was Dave Kingman in 1975 and 1976.
So of course he had to go.
Later we’d have more regularity in the home run department. Gary Carter hit 32. Howard Johnson hit 38. Darryl Strawberry hit 39. It still felt like a foreign concept. It still felt like we were borrowing somebody else’s statistic. It was no wonder we had to wait 35 seasons for somebody, the unlikely Todd Hundley, to hit a 40th home run. By 1999 we were deep into the power era; some would say the power was enhanced with a little juice. Is that what helped Hundley get to 41 in ’96? Or Piazza to almost match him in ’99? It’s all conjecture, of course, but if it did, let’s face it: We were no better at ‘roiding up than we were smacking them out. Other teams had guys hitting more than 60, more than 50. Forty wasn’t a magical barrier for other franchises. The Diamondbacks had been around all of two seasons and Matt Williams had already blasted 42 in one of them.
Home runs flew all over baseball in the late 1990s. They seemed to fly demonstrably less at Shea. Piazza had his 40, Ventura had 32, Alfonzo had 27, but they still felt like exceptions to the Met rule.
Todd Pratt, three home runs in April and not a blessed one since…that was the rule I was used to abiding by. But maybe he could walk or something.
Pratt tags a pitch from Mantei. You can tell it’s deep. You can even convince your disbelieving self that it might…might be going out. You can until you see who stands between the ball and that space on the other side of the fence that would make it a home run.
It’s Steve Finley.
Of all the center fields in all the ballparks in all the majors, he has to materialize in ours.
It’s not that he’s a Gold Glove centerfielder, though he is. In 1999, Steve Finley would be voted the third Gold Glove of his career. It was where Finley earned his Gold Gloves that was bothering me as Pratt’s fly ball headed his way. Steve Finley won attention for his fielding because of what he did at centerfield walls. Out in San Diego, where nobody generally paid attention to anybody who wasn’t Tony Gwynn, baseball people noticed Steve Finley leaping. Leaping and catching. Leaping and catching and robbing opposing players of home runs.
Robbing Mets of home runs, mostly. That was my impression. The Mets would go to the West Coast twice a year in the mid-1990s and every time they visited Jack Murphy Stadium, Steve Finley would make me sorry I stayed up late. Steve Finley would leap, catch and rob some poor, unsuspecting Met of a home run, as if we had the home runs to spare. I don’t have a statistic to prove my assertion, I just know he did it at least once per road trip.
Now we were home. Now Pratt was making a bid at ending a playoff series in our favor. Now Finley, a Padre thief in Snake garb, was preparing to pounce.
It’s a cliché, I know, but everything unfolded in slow motion. That ball wasn’t making its mind up quickly. Neither was Pratt. Pratt knew he got enough of it to be gone, but he couldn’t tell if it would make it, so didn’t waste his energy on running past first base; he determined he’d either trot to the plate a hero or trudge to the bench a second out (why he didn’t consider his ball might have bounced off the wall or something, I have no idea). Finley was in midair for an eternity, I’m certain. No other centerfielder in the National League would have worried me as much. Andruw Jones wouldn’t have worried me as much. Willie Mays wouldn’t have worried me as much. Steve Finley?
C’mon ball. Carry. CARRY!
We were all waiting an eternity.
Richie later told me he saw it first. Those beer seats were in the last section of right field in the Upper Deck. From there he couldn’t see everything great but he had a phenomenal view of Steve Finley jumping and missing. He could tell a second before those of us on the first base side of Mezzanine that a baseball had just left Shea Stadium.
The rest of us chumps had to wait for Steve Finley to land on his feet disappointed, for Bruce Froemming to twirl an index finger, for Todd Pratt to definitively infer that his travel itinerary would be taking him nonstop from first to home…and from there to eternal Met glory.
Finley jumped and he missed it. Todd Pratt had just hit the home run that won the National League Division Series.
There were fireworks like from before the game, but more of them. More and better. There was confetti. I don’t know where it came from, but it was appropriate. There were two hoists of human beings for which I was personally responsible. First I picked up Stephanie in a bear hug and lifted her off the ground. Then I turned and did the same for Jason, a larger individual. We had won the game, we had won the series. I think I could have wrapped my arms around Bobby Bonilla and picked him up in one clean motion if he had been nearby.
Maybe not, but who or what could get in our way now? We won the NLDS! We won the NLDS! Not the most lyric rallying cry, I’ll grant you. No kid stands in his backyard pretending he just hit the home run that clinched the Division Series, but that’s what it was, and it was beautiful. It was the first time the Mets had won any kind of playoff series since 1986, a good year for that sort of thing. We’d hear later that when it came to series-ending home runs, there was Bill Mazeroski, there was Chris Chambliss, there was Joe Carter and now, on October 9, 1999, there was Todd Pratt.
It had been six days since Mora. We knew how to do what came next. We were recent old hands at postgame reveling. We had our Mojo Rise. We had Part 2 of our Rock ‘n’ Roll. We had the players pointing at us and us pointing at the players. We remembered to remember John Franco. A week earlier he’d been without any postseason experience. Now he was the winning pitcher in a playoff game at the park he came to as much as he could when he was a kid from Brooklyn. Shea was now Metstock. It was nothing but love, love, love.
Until it was time to hate, hate, hate, but in the best, best, best way possible. Not that we gave it more than the most passing glance on the out-of-town scoreboard, but the Braves had just won their Division Series in Houston. There, on the same scoreboard, was the announcement of the matchup that was due to start in a matter of days: Mets vs. Braves in the National League Championship Series.
Oh my lord, I thought. We get to play for the right to be league champions. We get another shot at the Braves.
Most of 56,177 absolutely knew what to do next. Right arm, bent at the elbow, turned sideways and…
WOH! WOH-OH! WOH! WOH-OH-OH-OH!
The Tomahawk Chop and the Tomahawk Chant, when delivered tauntingly, had never produced anything but bad luck for us when directed at the Braves. But the Braves weren’t here yet. We couldn’t not chop, we couldn’t not chant. We couldn’t not tempt the fate that was going to throw us down against our nemeses. We couldn’t beat them before. But that was before.
We couldn’t wait. Mets and Braves, playing for the pennant. We’d had three pennants in 37 years. That was only one more than I hung in my dorm room throughout college. I couldn’t wait for us to go to Atlanta and start working on a fourth.
After parting ways with Jason and Emily, I waited around in the Mezzanine concourse while Stephanie used the ladies room. Plugged into Ed Coleman on Mets Extra, I learned a fascinating tidbit. Orel Hershiser related that Chipper Jones hates to be called by his given name, Larry. Yet Mike Piazza persisted in addressing him exactly that way. “I’m not calling a grown man ‘Chipper,’” Mike Piazza told wise old Orel. Eddie suggested that if “Larry” isn’t something Mr. Jones enjoys, maybe Mets fans should take that into account once the Braves return to Shea for Game Three of the NLCS.
Our route home was one I’d taken many times in 1999 and 1998 and 1997, the years when my hunger for a playoff berth, never mind a playoff triumph, became palpable. Take the 7 to Woodside, trundle down the staircase to the LIRR portion and, more often than not, stand around until the Long Beach train came. I didn’t mind waiting. It gave me a chance to process what I just saw at Shea and whether it was going to get us closer to our ultimate goal of winning something. There wasn’t much to process this Saturday afternoon. We finally won something. I didn’t have to process. I simply got to enjoy — that and position Stephanie and me to get on toward the front of the train so we’d have the most optimal walk home from the East Rockaway station.
See, usually I’d get on and then get off somewhere in the middle. It would leave me by the Pathmark parking lot that I’d walk through to get to the corner of Atlantic and Ocean avenues. But if I managed to be in one of the head cars, I could jump off and cross Atlantic in front of the lowered railroad crossing gates and thus not have to wait for traffic to pass. It was a small detail, and an insignificant one after night games when nobody was around.
This was a day game, and, when our train pulled in to East Rockaway, we got off from where we’d boarded at Woodside, up front. We crossed Atlantic in front of automobiles that waited for the train to pass. Nothing terribly unusual about that. I’d done this dozens of times alone and with Stephanie. We were always, on such occasions, in some combination of black, blue, orange and anonymity.
But for the only time I can recall, somebody called out from one of the waiting cars as the train we’d just departed rolled toward Oceanside.
“HEY! HEY! WERE YOU AT THE METS GAME TODAY?”
Yeah, I said. We were.
Somebody else called out from another car.
“METS! YEAH! ALL RIGHT!”
We smiled and waved. Not a few other motorists honked their horns at us and waved back.
“LET’S GO METS!” I heard. Not a chant, but an affirmation. Todd Pratt touched off an impromptu celebration between those who were lucky enough to be at Shea that day and those who wished they had been. No ticker tape, no trophy, but for a moment there, I felt like Harry Caray in Leigh Montville’s remembrance:
We became part of the group. People joined. People left. We were Harry’s happy late-night congregation. Cabdrivers honked their horns at Harry, at us. People waved and shouted. Harry shouted back.
The Mets’ date with the Diamondbacks began, in essence, after I got off a train at Penn Station and my roommate from fifteen falls before recognized me in my Mets stuff. The series ended not with Pratt’s homer and its attendant Shea Stadium flair but with another exit from another train and more Mets stuff. I had spent much of my life looking for the Mets to return to the playoffs. Maybe these 1999 playoffs had been out there the whole time looking for me.
Read about some other noteworthy Mets home runs here, at Mets Walkoffs.