Welcome to a special Wednesday World Series-distracting 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.
I never got mad at them for how it ended. Not for a moment did I hold it against them. To this day, even though the ending hurts, it doesn’t hurt the way other endings pain me.
Everything before it was too beautiful to allow in an emotion like anger.
GAME ONE: NYM @ ATL, 10/12/99
All I remember about Game One is frustration and ketchup. The frustration was the Mets going to Turner Field and withering at the surroundings. The ketchup was my best friend Chuck’s. We watched Game One together that Tuesday night in the office of a rather famous op-ed columnist at a rather prestigious newspaper where he worked. The columnist wasn’t there, so we were. We brought in dinner. Chuck loves ketchup. Puts it on almost everything. That drawer most people use in their desks for paper clips and such? It was filled with ketchup packets.
Alas, the Mets approached Game One with no noticeable relish. Chuck, who watches baseball like it’s football, screamed for the Mets to sack Greg Maddux. No blitz was forthcoming. Just empty ketchup packets and a 4-2 loss.
GAME TWO: NYM @ ATL, 10/13/99
All I remember about Wednesday afternoon’s Game Two is taking a personal day; marveling at Melvin Mora for choosing the playoffs to launch his first Major League homer; and cringing at Kenny Rogers giving back all our Mora-mentum. There was time for Bobby Valentine to align the rotation properly. Reed could have pitched Game Two at Turner Field. He was the only Met to win a game there in 1999. Then use Kenny in Game Four, at Shea, where he was wonderful. If/when Game Six rolls around, you have Rick, again in Atlanta, on plenty of rest, and Al for Game Seven, also not put out. Bobby forgot to ask me, however.
We were allotted three personal days apiece at my job. I used all of mine that year on day games. The Mets went 1-2 on those occasions.
GAME THREE: ATL @ NYM, 10/15/99
My first NLCS game ever. It wasn’t easy getting in. My brother-in-law had to shake down his father for the extra pair of tickets their four season seats earned them. These bonus tickets were way up in Upper Deck. His father planned to profit handsomely from them. My brother-in-law harangued him with guilt. Who deserves to go more to see this stupid team than Greg? Lots of yelling ensued, I was told, which I greatly appreciated somebody doing on my behalf (though, to be honest, if it wasn’t a playoff ticket for me, it would have been something else; they like to yell over there). Thanking him profusely, I was told “you’re on your own for the World Series.”
I should only have such problems.
One Game Three ticket from the secret stash went to me, one to a similarly deserving employee of my brother-in-law. It was, in essence, like going to the biggest game I’d ever see by myself. It was weird, but it was the National League Championship Series. I wasn’t about to question my lack of company.
Friday night, I’m riding up the escalator to the Upper Deck and I hear something.
Yes, that’s it. Each Brave, as he is introduced, is amended by the crowd. Batting leadoff, the leftfielder, Gerald Williams…SUCKS! Batting second, the second baseman, Bret Boone…SUCKS! Batting third, the third baseman…
You have to ask?
Of course Chipper Jones sucks. By now everybody’s gotten the memo that Larry Jones sucks, too. Maddux sucks. Smoltz sucks. Cox sucks. Mazzone sucks. You better believe Rocker sucks. Trainers and equipment managers are no better.
How could they be? They’re Braves.
Lots of NLCS merchandise at the concessions. I grab a pennant and a program. I pass on the t-shirt with the Mets logo and the Braves logo that promises a BATTLE FOR THE EAST. Those are the shirts from the aborted division title showdown from the last week in September. They’ve been repurposed. They’re still $18.
Gerald Williams…SUCKS! but he also walks. Then Leiter makes an error. to let Boone aboard. Larry does nothing, but the two baserunners each steal the next base ahead of them. Piazza throws the ball away and just like that it’s 1-0 Atlanta.
And it’s over. It shouldn’t have been. There were 26 outs to go, two of them obtained on a double play initiated by centerfielder Melvin Mora. He catches Jordan’s fly and he throws out Boone trying to tag up. Last game at Shea, against the Diamondbacks, Mora threw out a runner from left. We’re in the playoffs because Mora ignited a rally on the final scheduled day of the season. He hit his first home run the other day.
Melvin Mora can do no wrong. But no other Met can do anything particularly well against T#m Gl@v!ne (sucks). He scatters seven hits over seven innings. Leiter regains his composure, but he picked the wrong night to give up one unearned run. It’s a blowout. A 1-0 blowout.
Only pleasant thing that happens in the course of the game: John Rocker trots in to pitch the bottom of the ninth. 55,911 are on hand. 55,909 agree that RAAAH-CKER SUCKS! The only two dissenters are sitting in front of me. They’ve had approximately twelve beers and one idea, the latter of which they express plainly:
FUCK YOU ROCK-ER!
So I do my best to provide harmony to their melody.
And we get a nice little rhythm going.
FUCK YOU RAAAH-CKER!
FUCK YOU RAAAH-CKER!
FUCK YOU RAAAH-CKER!
Catchy, isn’t it?
Only sour note: Rocker doesn’t suck. He mows down the Mets in the ninth. Blown out, 1-0. Though I held out some vague hope of an eleventh-hour call for Game Four, I realize this is probably it for me at Shea in 1999. We’re down three games to none. I don’t think I want to be here for the burial. On the ramp, all I can think is “don’t get swept.”
And fuck you, Rocker.
The 7 to Woodside: My vocal partners somehow wind up in the same car as me. Nearly 56,000 here, nearly a half-hour to fight my way out of the Upper Deck and onto the subway and we’re together again. I nod at them. Minutes ago we shared a cause. They don’t recognize me. Must have been the twelve beers.
The LIRR to Jamaica: Very crowded. Have to stand. I’m wearing my black Mets cap. Somebody who’s had more than twelve beers berates me for not wearing blue. I’m not a real Mets fan.
Fuck you, too.
GAME FOUR: ATL @ NYM, 10/16/99
Saturday night, Game Four. I turn on Channel 4. Bob Costas is all but laying a red carpet for the Braves to stroll to the Fall Classic.
Down goes the sound on the television for the rest of the evening. Up come Murph and Cohen. They would talk me through this thing to the bitter end, whenever it came.
Reed is his snow plow best with Braves hitters. Efficient, efficient, efficient. Just removes them and pushes them to the side of the road. Not a lot of strikeouts like he proffered against the Pirates two Saturday nights earlier, but outs. We’ll take them. John Smoltz isn’t bad either. Nobody scores anything until Oly sends one over the wall with nobody on in the sixth. Rick has a 1-0 lead.
It lasts ’til the eighth. Then, it’s the law firm of BAM! & BAM! First Brian Jordan, then Ryan Klesko. Crap! And crap again! Three solo shots, two of them by the Braves. Reed departs after 77 mostly wonderful pitches. Turk takes care of the rest of the inning, but we’re down 2-1 and we have only six outs left to our season suddenly.
Just as suddenly, we have more. Cedeño singles off Smoltz. Rey Ordoñez, as was his wont, fails to advance him. Smoltz gives way to ex-Met Mike Remlinger (though I doubt few besides me actually remember Mike Remlinger’s 1994-95 fairly decent Met tenure). Agbayani strikes out, but then it’s Mora Time. While Melvin stands in, Roger steals second. Melvin walks. Then, with Rocker again on the mound, Mora coaxes a double-steal. Seriously, that’s what it looked like on TV. I’m almost sure he told Cedeño to get going. Roger Cedeño stole a club-record 66 bases in 1999, but I can’t imagine he thought of stealing third on his own at this moment.
Two runners in scoring position and John Olerud up make for a tantalizing scenario. Except Rocker’s a lefty and unhittable. Olerud, however, is unstoppable. It wasn’t much of a hit. There literally were, figuratively speaking, 38 hops. Roger and Melvin scampered home. They leapt and bumped and frolicked. They were Milli Vanilli sans dreadlocks.
Girl, you know it’s true: the Mets won 3-2.
GAME FIVE: ATL @ NYM, 10/17/99
Four o’clock start Sunday. Too much down time to consider my credo or mantra or whatever you want to call it. No team has ever come back to win a postseason series when trailing three games to none, but several teams have come back to win a postseason series when trailing three games to one. And that’s us now. I’d think in those terms that afternoon, but it was too long an afternoon to sit around thinking about it.
So I left the house. I needed a distraction from my diversion. I drove to Tower Records in Carle Place to search out a CD I didn’t particularly need, but it was something to do. Of course I’m wearing a Mets shirt. On the way from my car to the store, I pass a mother and two children, both boys, one in Yankee gear.
Do I stare straight ahead? Do I exchange the slightest gesture indicating that we’re both in the playoffs and we all might be in the same Series if things go right for both of us? Do I gird for the kind of incivility to which I’ve grown accustomed from their kind since 1996?
The older kid, not even 12:
Mets! Ha! HA HA! METS! HA!
The mother laughs along. The whole bunch of them are laughing. We’re in an LCS against the Braves. They’re in an LCS against the Red Sox. Yet my team is somehow laughable.
I grumble at them. They continue to cackle.
How do we keep throwing Yoshii against Hall of Famers? He went up against Randy Johnson and we survived. He went up against Maddux and it wasn’t helpful. Here we are again, Game Five, and it’s Masato and the Mad Dog.
Masato is winning early. The skies are gray, but John Olerud isn’t gloomy. He takes Maddux deep in the first inning, with Rickey Henderson on. Mets lead the Braves 2-0. Yoshii leads Maddux 2-0.
Yeah, that’ll last.
Fourth inning: A Boone double, a Larry double, a Jordan single. Now it’s 2-2. Maddux has evened the score with Yoshii.
Hope you like pitching, defense and runners left on base. That’s all we’re going to have for quite a while.
The day game became a night game. The gray skies opened up. Somebody sitting between home and one of the dugouts covered himself with a popcorn bucket. Was it really that hard to remember to bring an umbrella?
Bobby Valentine works day or night, rain or shine. Bobby Valentine came to Shea to manage on October 17, 1999. If the Mets were going to die, it wasn’t going to be because a single button went unpushed. The evening became a blur of smartly deployed relievers and well-preserved pinch-hitters. Dennis Cook may not have enjoyed serving as little more than a scarecrow (brought in to complete an intentional walk), but the mere sight of his left arm shooed Ryan Klesko right out of the game. Bobby burned a useful pitcher between Turk Wendell and Pat Mahomes, but what he was gonna save them for — winter?
The bullpen went Hershiser to Wendell to Cook to Mahomes to Franco to Benitez to Rogers from the fourth through the twelfth. Seven relievers surrendered nothing of substance. All the Mets hitters combined to score just as much. It was a Flushing standoff. Seven relievers became eight when Octavio Dotel succeeded Kenny Rogers after The Gambler’s two scoreless frames. The Braves got to Octavio in the top of the thirteenth, but not to Melvin Mora. The man who threw out a Diamondback from left the week before and a Brave from center two nights before cut down Keith Lockhart when he tried to score from first on a Chipper Jones double with two out. Melvin’s throw beat Lockhart by a significant margin. An attempt to bowl over the aching Piazza was to no avail. The baseball game continued knotted at two.
The Mets didn’t score in their half of the thirteenth. Mike was done after that (thanks Keith). Todd Pratt nursed Dotel through the top of the fourteenth. John Rocker, who continued to suck even while pitching a perfect thirteenth, got Ventura to start the bottom of the fourteenth. Having retired Fonzie, Oly, Piazza and Robin as if they weren’t the heart of the order, he was removed in favor of rookie Kevin McGlinchy. He wasn’t scary like Rocker but he was similarly effective, giving up nothing of consequence.
Onto the fifteenth inning of October 17, 1999, the inning everybody remembers. Comparatively few remember the top of it, but it’s worth noting that it nearly killed the Mets’ season right then and there.
The Mets had had a postseason date with Walt Weiss, but they stood him up. That was in October 1988. Weiss was the pending American League Rookie of the Year on the powerhouse Oakland Athletics. He was their shortstop, playing alongside Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire and Rickey Henderson. The Suffern High School graduate was part of a team that was going to meet its literal match in the powerhouse New York Mets of 1988. It was going to be a clash of titans, the most hotly anticipated World Series of the 1980s. The only thing that could prevent the Mets and the A’s from meeting would be forgetfulness. Sure enough, the ’88 Mets forgot to win the National League Championship Series, letting it slip to the Dodgers instead. Walt Weiss’s first World Series, thus, would come against Los Angeles, not New York. Being there wouldn’t work out any better for the A’s than missing it had for the Mets.
Had Weiss held a grudge from 1988 to 1999 against the Mets for keeping family and friends from attending a convenient October affair? Was he still feeling a pinch from the airfare it must have cost to fly them out to the West Coast instead of telling them to drive down to Queens from Rockland? Was Walt Weiss planning on getting even one of these days with those inconsiderate Mets?
Or was he just incidentally screwing them by leading off the fifteenth by singling and then stealing second?
The Braves had left fifteen runners on base since the fourth. Had Mets relievers been any less successful, their season would have been over by now. The guy with the popcorn bucket on his head could have grabbed a towel or something. But nine pitchers conspired to keep him wet. It would be a shame for him to dry off now.
Keith Lockhart must have noticed the man and taken perverse pity. He lashed a two-out triple to center, scoring local boy Weiss and making it Braves 3 Mets 2. Dotel, an alternately brilliant and disastrous starter during the season, had proven the first Met reliever to crack. To his credit, he repaired his fissure, striking out Jordan after an intentional walk to Jones.
Nice recovery. And completely worthless if the bottom of the fifteenth didn’t hold something better in store.
Shawon Dunston, the centerfielder who had no prayer on Weiss’s triple, had a couple of things in common with Walt. First, he was local. Shawon was from Brooklyn. Also, he was an old shortstop. Difference was Weiss was still a shortstop. Dunston had once gunned throws from the hole to first like nobody could. But that was a long time ago by 1999. Now he was mostly an outfielder when he played. Another thing he didn’t have in common with Walt Weiss was postseason experience. Walt Weiss was a rookie in 1988 and played on three World Series clubs his first three years, winning the one in the middle. Dunston came up to the Cubs in 1985 and had made only one playoff appearance, on the losing end of the ’89 NLCS.
It was ten years later. Dunston had been around, far from Brooklyn, far from his favorite childhood team, the Mets. He wasn’t particularly choked up when Steve Phillips acquired him from St. Louis in July. He liked St. Louis. He had just bought a house there. Every ballplayer likes St. Louis and every ballplayer who buys a house is soon traded. Or so it seems. Dunston found himself dabbling in more real estate than he wanted in the summer of ’99. Now, in the suddenly very late fall, he was trying to get something started at home.
The Mets made Walt Weiss wait eleven years and fourteen innings for a postseason moment near where he was from. Now Shawon Dunston would make everybody wait almost as long for same. He would not walk (he literally never did as a Met). He would not make out. He would just work Kevin McGlinchy until he could get the pitch he could convert into a single.
We could wait…
They don’t play doubleheaders in the postseason, but you couldn’t have told that from the talk entering the sixth game of the 1986 National League Championship Series. The Mets led the Astros three games to two, having won two dramatic games at Shea. They flew to Houston one win away from a pennant. Yet it was said the pressure was on the Mets. They lose Game Six, they lose Game Seven: it was a daily double. The Mets couldn’t win Game Seven because it would be started by the evil Mike Scott, he who scuffed baseballs and made them dip, dart and dance so Mets batters — not even 1986 Mets batters — could hope to touch them.
It doesn’t sound legal, but it was.
Scott’s warmup act, Bob Knepper, was exactly all the Astros needed. He shushed the Mets for eight excruciating innings, taking an early 3-0 lead and maintaining it clear to the top of the ninth. Knepper had been tough noogies on the Mets all year, long before Scott emerged as resourceful and suffocatingly effective. The Mets — even the 1986 Mets — had all kinds of problems against very good lefties.
To lead off the visitors’ ninth, Davey Johnson sent up Lenny Dykstra to pinch-hit for Rick Aguilera. It wasn’t a percentage move. It was a lefty versus a lefty. But it worked. Dykstra stroked one to center, over the head of Billy Hatcher. Lenny rolled into third with a leadoff triple. It was still 3-0 Houston and we were about to play eight more innings, but I knew…I mean I knew the Mets would never have to look at Mike Scott again in 1986. They were going to win this game.
Sometimes a leadoff hit tells you everything.
On the twelfth pitch of the first at-bat of the bottom of the fifteenth inning, Shawon Dunston matched Walt Weiss and singled. He became the tying run at first. It was the first time the entire game the Mets had needed one of those.
Three months before, I wasn’t nearly as confident about a Met victory. I wanted to be, because we were playing the Yankees. For a few minutes here and there that Saturday afternoon at Shea, I was supremely confident, never more so than when Mike Piazza just absolutely walloped the bejeesus out of a Ramiro Mendoza delivery, sending it far over the left field wall and on to the roof of the Picnic Area tent. That made the score Mets 7 Yankees 6 in the seventh, and I couldn’t resist.
“YEAH! THAT’S RIGHT! YEAH! YOU!”
I don’t know exactly what I was yelling or who specifically I was yelling it at, but I was telling off every obnoxious Yankees fan in my section of the upper Upper Deck. When one of them made eye contact, I only pumped up my volume.
“YEAH! I’M TALKING TO YOU! YEAH!”
And all I could think was oh no, what have I done? It wasn’t pissing off Yankees fans that worried me (it was quite cathartic, actually), it was pissing off the baseball gods. That wasn’t a walkoff home run. This was the seventh inning. There were two very long frames remaining and the Yankees had already hit five home runs. What were the chances they wouldn’t hit a sixth?
I didn’t have time to calculate the odds. With one on and one out in the top of the eighth, the other team’s catcher, Jorge Posada, hit his second home run of the day. Now it was the obnoxious Yankees fans (also known as the Yankees fans) who were braying, squawking, woofing, whatever animal noise they make. We were losing 8-7, and they still had Mariano Rivera waiting around.
They didn’t score any more in the eighth, but neither did we. Somehow, they were held at bay in the ninth, which was nice, but here came the bottom of the ninth and here came Rivera and the likelihood that this was going to be the worst day I’d ever experience inside Shea Stadium.
Brian McRae grounds out to start the inning. Big surprise. But then Rickey Henderson, on base four times already, walks. Fonzie, so often the man in ’99, hits a fly ball that those not in Row T of Section 36 are pretty sure will be caught by Gold Glove centerfielder Bernie Williams. Except that’s fool’s gold down there. We hear a roar and we see baserunners: Henderson’s on third, Alfonzo’s on second. Williams, it seems, couldn’t handle a fairly simple deep fly ball (my favorite WFAN call of the year: the Yankee fan that week who insisted Bernie was defenseless having to play such an unfamiliar outfield, what with its grass, warning track and fence).
Olerud was up next, and I assumed he’d win it the same way he won it against Curt Schilling seven weeks earlier at Shea. How odd that he didn’t. He grounded out. I was genuinely surprised. But then I was confident because Mike was up and…oh, right, they’ll walk him.
Bases loaded, two out, we’re down a run. Everybody is screaming. Everybody but some effete prig in Row S who’s quietly reading the Times. I’m yelling and disturbing him, apparently, because he turns around and gives me this “what’s wrong with you?” look that would be appropriate in a Christian Science reading room perhaps, but not here. I’m at an 8-7 Subway Series ballgame, you’re reading the Times and I’m crazy, mister? I divined he was there at the behest of his Yankee fan children.
Oh how I hate them.
Anyway, the bases are loaded and my confidence is brimming until I look at the scoreboard because in my hysteria I’ve actually forgotten. Benny Agbayani started in right and hit fifth, but Bobby took him out for defense once Mike hit the go-ahead homer. But now we’re behind and his replacement is Melvin Mora. This is not the awesome Melvin Mora of October. This is the .067-hitting Melvin Mora of July, going up against Mariano Fucking Rivera, who we already know is going to the Hall of Fame. We don’t know anything about Melvin Mora except that he makes this a very poor matchup and it’s going to suck so much leaving Section 36 among all these fucking Yankees fans who are just going to have their empty existences validated in a matter of moments.
That’s when Del DeMontreux announces batting for Melvin Mora, No. 15, Matt Franco.
Ohimigod! Bobby Valentine is an absolute freaking genius! How did we get to the bottom of the ninth of a game in which seventeen different Mets have participated and still have our best pinch-hitter available? How has Matt Franco not been used yet? What was Bobby saving him for?
For this, of course. For facing the best reliever on the planet. For a 1-2 count (ball one considered strike three in some cynical circles) at which point one of the great Rivera’s cutters is lined into right field, easily scoring Henderson and, by a hair or two on Paul O’Neill’s strong throw, plating Edgardo Alfonzo.
The signature contest of the 1999 season goes down as Mets 9 Yankees 8. Matt Franco is awesome. Bobby Valentine is no slouch himself. And all of us who deserve to feel wonderful are beyond happy.
Hey, whaddaya know? It’s the fifteenth inning of the literal do-or-die fifth game of the NLCS and look who Bobby Valentine has saved for just this moment: It’s Matt Franco, batting for Dotel.
Again, I’m surprised. I shouldn’t be, but I am.
Franco stepped in. Dunston took off. He stole second.
There. Just like that.
No Met baserunner had gotten as far as second since the sixth. Practically an entire regulation baseball game had passed since a Met was in scoring position. By my reckoning, however, Dunston was home. I got the same feeling from his leadoff single that I got from Dykstra’s leadoff triple thirteen years earlier. Now it was essentially a leadoff double and we had Matt Franco up. Bobby had saved him all these innings precisely because there had been no great reason to use him before. Don’t waste Matt if there’s no runner in scoring position. We finally have one.
Franco walked twenty times as a pinch-hitter in 1999. It was a record. He walks here. It’s not surprising, nor is it particularly bad news. Would have been neater had he driven in Dunston, but he took what McGlinchy gave him. Matt Franco was the master of taking.
Twenty-seven home runs. One-hundred eight runs batted in. A batting average of .304. And with two on and none out, he is asked to bunt.
So Edgardo Alfonzo bunts. He can do it all and do it well. Fonzie sacrifices himself for the greater good. As a result, Shawon Dunston is on third and Matt Franco is on second.
How I loved that man.
Bobby Cox attempts strategy. He orders Olerud walked. He sticks with McGlinchy, even though he can theoretically end this series if he can escape this inning unscathed. Cox used Smoltz to finish out Game Two even though Smoltz would be his Game Four starter. Kevin Millwood, the Game Two and potential Game Six starter, could have come in here. So could have Gl@v!ne, who pitched Friday night and wouldn’t see action again until Wednesday at the earliest, if at all. They weren’t relievers but they weren’t McGlinchy either. Pennant on the line, Kevin McGlinchy’s not necessarily your best option if you have others.
Bobby Valentine has none anymore, not where the bullpen is concerned. He is warming up his last two pitchers: Rick Reed and Al Leiter. They’re both starters. One went in the last game. One is going in the next game if such a thing exists. As if to emphasize the point, he replaces leadfooted Franco at second with normally speedy Cedeño. Roger’s been sitting with a bad back. It’s all Mets on deck now. He’s the last position player Valentine has. His last two pitchers are throwing.
Leave no Met behind.
McGlinchy stays in to face Pratt, who came in for Piazza when Mike could go on no further. There was a time when that would have seemed risky, but that was before Todd Pratt made himself a Met legend by ending the NLDS with a home run eight days ago. It was also before the fifteenth inning and its prevailing anything-goes ethic. If Bobby could have snuck a Mets uniform onto the popcorn bucket guy, he might have sent him up to hit.
And I would have had all the confidence in the world in him.
When Mookie Wilson dodged an inside pitch from Bob Stanley in Game Six in the 1986 World Series, millions of Mets fans exhaled. We couldn’t lose in the tenth inning as it appeared we would. Kevin Mitchell raced home and made it Mets 5 Red Sox 5. That was the burden lifted right there. We’d keep playing, at least a little longer. We were no longer down to our last out, our last strike.
It’s one of those facts that’s known but not widely acknowledged because of what happened next. What is remembered much better is how the Mets won Game Six. Of course it’s worth remembering, what with the ground ball trickling and the first baseman not fielding it and Ray Knight racing home and pandemonium overtaking Shea. But it was tied. All hope was not lost before the ball went through Bill Buckner’s legs.
Tying a game is important. What Todd Pratt did, drawing a walk, was important. By accepting ball four from Kevin McGlinchy, he ensured that the Mets season was not over in the fifteenth inning. We had inched back from the brink.
It’s one of those facts that’s known but not widely acknowledged because of what happened next.
Dean Palmer had a fine 1999 with the Detroit Tigers. Maybe he would have had a fine 1999 with the New York Mets. In the offseason between ’98 and ’99, there was a local baseball columnist — Tom Keegan in the Post — who insisted in that way tabloid columnists have of hammering points into submission that Palmer was exactly the free agent third baseman the Mets needed to get over the hump. Look at those numbers: 34 homers and 119 ribbies for Kansas City. Think of how perfectly that righthanded power would fit behind Mike Piazza. The Mets must get Dean Palmer!
The Mets had another idea, another free agent third baseman. Third base wasn’t actually a problem for them. Alfonzo did a more than representative job there for two seasons. It was second that was a mess. Carlos Baerga was nothing close to what he had been in Cleveland. He’d be gone after ’98. Fonzie was versatile. What the Mets decided to do was tap that versatility and shift him to second. It would make third base a hole again, however. That was an old Met story.
The new Met solution? Not Dean Palmer of the Royals, but Robin Ventura of the White Sox. His power numbers were lesser, but he was a lefty (allowing Bobby Valentine to mix up his batting order to confound opposing managers: Fonzie the righty preceding Oly the lefty, who was ahead of righty Mike who would then be followed by lefthanded Ventura). And he was a Gold Glove third baseman. The Mets had never had one of those. Fonzie deserved one in ’97, but Robin Ventura was supposed to be state-of-the-art.
I say “supposed to be,” because who the hell knew what went on in the American League? I didn’t. I knew Ventura was a hot prospect once, fought with Nolan Ryan once and was presumably a good hitter, though everybody in the American League had eye-popping stats. It didn’t seem like a bad idea bringing in Robin Ventura.
I had no conception, however, what a great idea it was.
Steve Phillips, reasonably maligned general manager of those Mets, made one indisputably awesome move as team architect when he signed Ventura. He transformed the infield, transformed the batting order and transformed the clubhouse with one stroke. Robin was everywhere in 1999. He was out front as no Met had been since Keith Hernandez. Not the same type of personality from what we could tell but he seemed to fit the mold of guy who came in and led the team by deed and example. Keith came over in 1983 and the Mets were much better by 1984. That Met hump from 1998 — just missing the Wild Card in exasperating fashion — suddenly got a lot more scalable with Robin Ventura at third, batting fifth, raising all kinds of Mojo.
Robin was having a lousy postseason. He hit .214 against Arizona. His final average against Atlanta would be .120. And nobody remembers any of that.
At first, it was a grand slam home run, right out of the Robin Ventura playbook. Robin hit grand slams like some guys take toothpicks when leaving a diner. He hit one in each end of a doubleheader in May. While it was certainly triumphant and dramatic — how’s that for understatement? — it was, to a certain extent, what you’d expect out of Robin Ventura.
What it turned out to be was something nobody would have ever expected.
Ventura against McGlinchy. Ventura swings. It’s a long fly ball. At that point, the game is over. The ball has gone to deep right. It’s a sac fly if nothing else. From its trajectory, it can’t be anything worse for the Mets or better for the Braves. If it can be caught by Brian Jordan, there’s no way he can throw out Roger Cedeño unless Roger Cedeño is literally paralyzed.
Keeping an eye on the ball, it’s becoming rapidly clear that the ball will not be caught by Brian Jordan. It’s too deep. It’s not going to the wall. It’s going over it. It is indeed a Robin Ventura grand slam.
It is triumphant. It is dramatic. It is incredible, actually. It is instantly the most Amazin’ thing any Met has done since Mookie put the right English on that ball he hit to Buckner. We’ve gone from a 3-3 tie to a 7-3 win. We are very much alive.
We are so happy.
I know I am. Mrs. Prince and I have positioned ourselves in front of our TV, right in front of it, I mean — on the floor. As Robin’s fly ball climbs higher, I stand up and watch. And once it’s out and it’s a grand slam, I’m overcome. I jump up and down, but that’s not enough. I have to launch myself as Robin has launched his four-run homer. I must make like a missile and head straight for my wife. We are going to do what teammates have been doing for years. We are going to dogpile on the mound.
She doesn’t know this. She’s seen celebrations on the field, but she forgets details. What’s more, she’s not on the field. She’s on the living room carpet. Now we both are. I have jumped on top of her. I am screaming and hugging and screaming. Stephanie does not have the capacity to raise her voice in any discernible fashion. Once we rode a roller coaster. She let out a sound like a car alarm laughing nervously. That’s what I heard here.
Nobody was injured in the celebration of this grand slam, I’m relieved to report.
I’ve got nothing on Todd Pratt when it comes to forging togetherness with teammates. Tank, who was on first when Ventura swung, is delirious that the Mets have won this game. First, he does the right thing. He runs to second. That’s what you do on a hit. You run forward, you take your base. Cedeño ran home from third, certainly. Olerud arrived at third from second. Robin, natch, ran to first. Everybody tagged the next base.
But that’s all that’s going to get tagged. Pratt turns around from second and heads toward first. Robin is distressed and waves him off. You can’t run in the wrong direction! You have to keep running to third! You…
“They’re mobbing him before he can get to second base!” the ever thorough Gary Cohen reports.
You can’t stop a Tank in its tracks. The Mets, who had been doing the unbelievable for weeks, defied credulity yet again. They turned a home run into a single. Because Pratt jubilantly tackled Ventura — and every other Met followed — Robin technically didn’t hit a homer. He didn’t drive in four runs. He drove in one. It wasn’t a 7-3 final. It was 4-3. The Mets still won, just not by as much. The ball cleared the fence, but it was a single.
It was a grand slam single.
Only the Mets.
Next day at work all I wanted to talk about was the Mets. And all anybody wanted to talk to me about was the Mets. There was this one very flinty woman from Oregon. We had never had a conversation that rose above cordial and businesslike. Yet on the elevator on the way out that Monday night, she said, “That was some game yesterday. I’m not a baseball fan, but I couldn’t stop watching. Fifteen innings…that was incredible.”
Yes, I said. Yes, it was.
GAME SIX: NYM @ ATL, 10/19-20/99
In my favorite movie musical, 1776, Stephen Hopkins, cantankerous delegate from Rhode Island, positions himself near John Hancock as the members of the Continental Congress are called to sign the Declaration of Independence. Hancock tells Hopkins to take his seat. Hopkins refuses — he wants to see each man’s face as he certifies this new nation, the United States of America.
Tuesday prior to Game Six, I had a list of people in my head whose voices I had to hear. I wanted to talk to every one of them in the space between the Grand Slam Single and whatever the forthcoming evening held. In 1776, Ben Franklin warned that if we do not hang together, we shall most assuredly hang separately.
I wanted us to hang together.
In the course of Tuesday, some of these people I ran into. Some called me. Some I called. The last one on my list was Richie, my steadfast friend with whom I had shared the Matt Franco Game, the Melvin Mora Game and a moment before the Todd Pratt Game. Had to get him on the phone before first pitch. Left a message with one his daughters. He called me back during the pregame show. I didn’t exactly say I was calling out of a desire to hear the voices of the Mets fans who had grown important to me, but I didn’t have to.
We compared notes on Ventura and wondered whether Leiter could get it done on three days’ rest. It wasn’t a long conversation. Whatever happens, Richie said as he’d been saying for weeks, it’s been a great ride.
Yes, I agreed. A great ride.
I didn’t know what was going to happen in Game Six, but I also knew what I’d been experiencing since September 21 couldn’t go on forever. The Mets went down to Georgia almost exactly one month earlier trailing the Braves by a single game with twelve to play. Everything unraveled. Then everything was furiously stitched together. Then it all but came apart. Now, after Olerud beating Rocker and Ventura beating McGlinchy, it was all coming together again.
Could it hold? Could the Mets really do this? Could they go to Turner Field where they’d been almost completely unsuccessful in 1999 (and an overwhelming flop since they started playing meaningful games there in September 1997) and win one game? If they could win one, could they win a second? Was there enough left in them, even after an off day, to survive after 23 Mets played 15 innings Sunday?
I didn’t know what was going to happen. Deep down, though, I knew it couldn’t keep going.
On Fox at 8 o’clock, That ’70s Show, one of my favorite sitcoms of the late ’90s, was on. In “Laurie and The Professor,” Eric’s sister is revealed as getting more than tutoring from one of her instructors, wink, wink. It was a very funny episode.
What wasn’t amusing is why I was watching as it aired on October 19, 1999.
I flipped over from NBC because the Mets game was going down in flames and Al Leiter was getting lit up like those funny cigarettes they were always alluding to in Eric Forman’s basement. Nobody on That ’70s Show, however, was getting as high as Leiter’s ERA.
The Mets game had no laugh track.
Bottom of the first, no score.
He hits Gerald Williams.
He walks Bret Boone.
They both steal.
Piazza’s throw sails away from second.
They both move up an additional base; Williams scores, Boone on third.
Braves lead 1-0.
He hits Chipper Jones.
Brian Jordan singles home Boone, Chipper goes to second.
Braves lead 2-0.
Andruw Jones reaches on a fielder’s choice; each runner moves up a base.
Eddie Perez singles home Chipper and Jordan; Andruw moves to third.
Braves lead 4-0.
Leiter exits. Mahomes enters.
Brian Hunter flies to center, scoring Andruw.
Braves lead 5-0.
Walt Weiss grounds into a double play.
There was nothing else to nervously flip back and forth to. That ’99 Show was clearly having its season finale and I couldn’t avoid that it was little more than a remake of that ’88 debacle, the seventh game of the last National League Championship Series the Mets played and lost. That night we waited ’til the second inning to fall hopelessly behind, 6-0. It was over early and it stayed over.
I had no sense Game Six here in 1999 was any different whatsoever. We had fought so hard, through all those raindrops on Sunday and all those storm clouds in September, but all it got us was a five-run deficit with eight innings to go.
If the Mets were going to quit on me, I was going to quit on them — sort of.
“Let’s get some Chinese food.”
Who could eat? Who could hold down anything on a night like this? Yet as that 5-0 score remained intractable, I had a passing yen for Chinese. I would have let it go, but staying glued to the tube wasn’t helping matters, so what the hell? Stephanie agreed and I called the closest Chinese place I knew, Fu Yu Kitchen, and ordered up a storm. Basically everything I liked, including every starch I could think of. Lo mein and fried rice…and fried dumplings I needed like another Braves run. We never order fried dumplings. But this was the night our season was going into the deep fryer. Might as well jump on in after it.
I told Fu Yu I’d pick it up. I believing in picking up as opposed to delivery, so that’s not unusual. Rather strange that I’d choose the middle of a Met playoff game to break away from the action, but this action was eminently breakawayable. No problem, normally, as I could listen in the car for the short drive over. Except I planned to walk the few blocks. Well, I could bring the Walkman and stay tuned to every pitch.
No, I decided, I’m not going to do that either. I’m going to shut off the TV and not turn on a radio. Mind you, it could have been the most inconsequential of Mets games in the most inconsequential of Mets years — it could have been an exhibition game on tape delay — and I would never not watch or listen if the Mets were involved. But not now, not with the Mets still alive and fighting for a pennant. I opted to shed all contact with my team for however many minutes this pedestrian trek would take. I couldn’t figure out whether I was exercising some sort of strategy or genuinely fleeing them. Whatever it was, it would be silence where the Mets were concerned.
Just like their bats as they continued to trail 5-0.
I told Stephanie to hold on a moment. I’d be ready to go as soon as I got my jacket.
But not just any jacket.
For my eighteenth birthday, I was given, by my soon-to-be future brother-in-law (two months before he proposed to my sister), a satin Starter Mets jacket, blue with a big spongy orange NY and the blue, orange and white trim on the cuffs and collar (I never noticed the white on TV). It was the same one I’d begun to drool after in 1980 as I watched Joe Torre come to the mound or Neil Allen rise to get loose or Lee Mazzilli appear on Kiner’s Korner. These satin Starter jackets were pretty popular back then. Maybe not the Mets’ version, but that’s the only one I was interested in. I don’t remember mentioning it to Mark, but Mark was the king of what he liked to call “pandering” to others’ interests on their birthdays.
Consider me pandered.
I wore that jacket at every opportunity in the frigid winter of 1981. It was too cold to wear it alone, so I wore it under my parka and to all my classes. When I went to college, I wore that jacket whenever the temperature would dip enough in Tampa to make it feasible. One January morning I was in the airport there, in my jacket. The older woman working the newsstand cash register asked me if I was one of the players. The Mets trained in St. Petersburg. I swear I think she was serious.
The jacket accompanied me home from college. I wore it to the parade in 1986. Wise guy in the building where I was working that day asked me if I just ran out and bought it; how ignorant, I thought — they stopped making the NY this thick around 1984. I wore it back to Tampa for a wedding a couple of weeks later. Not at the wedding but when I got off the plane, even if it was too hot for that sort of thing. The groom picked me up and was happy to see it. Why shouldn’t you wear your Mets jacket? he asked. Your team just won. I was wearing that jacket the Friday night in May 1987 when I took Stephanie to her first Mets game. It was chilly. I offered it to her. She declined. I mentioned it in a letter to Chuck. Chuck made it the basis of his best man toast at our wedding.
The jacket had been everywhere with me as long as I could fit into it. Its last public appearance had been September 26, 1997, the final Friday night game of that year. It was already a tight squeeze. During that postseason, MLB introduced a new line of outerwear. Out were the cap logos on the left breast. The next style would be the team name across the chest. Time to move on, I said. In February ’98, at the Mets Clubhouse Shop on 47th and 5th, I bought the new one. It became my Mets jacket of record.
But not tonight. The real Mets jacket emerged from the closet and around my torso as best it could. It felt more like a vest now, but it was staying on and we went outside.
Definitely tight. And it fit perfectly.
We walk in the living room, turn on the television. It’s the top of the fifth with two out. The Mets are still trailing 5-0, but at least it’s not more. Bobby Bonilla is pinch-hitting for Pat Mahomes who shut down the Braves after wriggling free of Leiter’s mess. We have a runner on first, and Bonilla singles.
It’s just a pinch-hit, and the Mets don’t cash in, but it’s a glimmer. Anybody else, maybe not. But Bonilla? Whose last hit was September 21? Whose last hit before that was September 13? And whose last hit before that was June 23? Bobby Bonilla’s been saving it up for now?
This going out for Chinese was a damn fine idea.
Kevin Millwood sailed along through five innings. Not a big surprise. He was 18-7 in the regular season. I saw him toy with us at Shea in early July. I tried to get a taunt of MILLLL-HOOOOUUUUSE! going, but nobody, not one damn Mets fan, joined in. Sure, people, let’s just roll over and die for another stud Braves starter. Way to go.
Finally, though, the spell was breaking. After Turk retired the complacent Braves in order in the top of the sixth — no doubt they were mentally packing for the World Series — the heretofore impervious Kevin Millwood developed cracks. Fonzie led off the bottom of the sixth with a double. Olerud singled, moving Fonzie to third. Piazza lofted a fly to left, deep enough to bring home Edgardo. It’s 5-1. Robin comes up and doubles. Johnny O is too slow to go beyond third. But then Darryl Hamilton drives them both home with a single.
Mets pull to within 5-3. Exit Milhouse. Enter Mulholland. It looks promising as ancient Terry walks youthful Benny. Alas, Rey lines into a double play to Weiss ending the sixth right there.
But we’re in it. We’re in it! We’re only down two. It’s all about taking this one game and one run and out at a time now. We’re not trying to come back from three games to none. We’re not even trying to come back from three games to two. We just need to do one thing at a time right. We just scored three runs. We need to not give any back to the Braves.
And I need to call Fu Yu and go back there. They left out the lo mein.
This time I’m driving there and this time I’m listening intently to every pitch. I need Turk to keep being awesome. I don’t need the lo mein, but I paid for a big bag of Chinese food and I want what I paid for. I should have checked, I really should have. That’s why I believe in picking up as opposed to delivery. When I pick up, I can count the items and figure out if anything’s missing. But the bag was already bulging and I was a little distracted before by the game I walked away from.
As I park in front of Fu Yu, Turk hits Brian Jordan, perhaps intentionally, perhaps not. In June that would have been a great piece of rivalry theater. In October, with four innings remaining in the life of 1999, it’s a leadoff baserunner for the Braves. Still, I take glee that a Brave has been hit. I believe I wished his wrist (already hurting) broken, which violates a bushel of karmic commandments I was developing in my head. I would have to do penance.
I grab the lo mein (beef) with Fu Yu’s apologies and I’m back in the car in time to hear Wendell has loaded the bases with two outs. I’m running up the steps as Dennis Cook takes in place. And I see Jose Hernandez — a Met pox from his stint with the Cubs — single in Brian Hunter and Andruw Jones.
Braves 7 Mets 3. Fucking lo mein.
The hammer’s coming down. Bobby Cox didn’t go to a starter in relief when one might subdued the Mets for good Sunday, but he does now. John Smoltz, who closed out Game Two and threw seven strong in Game Four, is now here to end the Mets’ season. No more fooling around with McGlinchys and the like. This is John Smoltz, 1996 National League Cy Young Award winner, a veteran of every postseason since 1991. Smoltz had never appeared in relief before last Wednesday, but he excelled at it immediately: three up, three down. If he can give Cox two innings like that here and hand the ball to Rocker, we are so doomed.
But John Smoltz, who would miss all of 2000 for Tommy John surgery and then return as one of baseball’s best closers for several seasons thereafter, doesn’t have what it takes in his ad hoc role as setup man. For the first time in this series, the Mets pounce.
Matt Franco, hitting for Cook, doubles. Hard.
Rickey Henderson, in one snit or another since Bobby V started taking him out for defense against Arizona, doubles. Hard.
Braves 7 Mets 4.
Fonzie lifts a fly to right that sends Rickey to third.
Oly singles home Rickey.
Braves 7 Mets 5.
Up steps Mike Piazza. And he hits Smoltz about as Hard as I’ve ever seen any batter whack any pitcher. He goes to the opposite field, but he could have gone to the opposite planet. This thing had sizzle. Sizzle, and enough height for it to matter. It was a no-doubt two-run homer.
Mets 7 Braves 7.
Mets 7 Braves 7.
Mets 7 Braves 7.
I can’t say it enough. The Mets had tied the Braves. The Braves had led 5-0 in the first. They led 7-3 about five minutes ago. And now all our pent-up offense was exploding. For Bobby Cox, John Smoltz, leaving in favor of Mike Remlinger was not the right call. To Mike Piazza, who hadn’t hit anything like he hit that pitch in this entire postseason, John Smoltz was the disease — and Mike, à la Sylvester Stallone in Cobra, was the cure.
Stallone: I don’t deal with psychos. I put ‘em away.
Piazza: Same thing, ‘cept substitute starters masquerading as relievers.
The disease was wiped out. The lead was wiped out. The score was even. The Mets were no longer hopelessly behind. They were at jump street. This was that whole new ballgame you’re always hearing about. Also, I decided as I comprehended just how new it was, the greatest ballgame I’d ever experienced.
And it was only the seventh inning.
Mets 7 Braves 7.
Even though the Mets’ next pitcher was our executioner from eleven years earlier, all thoughts of 1988 had been banished. As Orel Hershiser commenced to relieve Dennis Cook, I was certain this wasn’t anything like anything the Mets had ever been involved in This was something else. It wasn’t taking place at Turner Field. It was playing out on a whole other plane. This game had grown ethereal. It was the seventh, but it felt much later. It felt later than it did Sunday night in the fifteenth. It felt later than it did in Houston in 1986 when the Mets and Astros went to the sixteenth. It felt later than all those “one strike away” moments that culminated in Buckner. I’d been watching baseball since 1969, a pretty unprecedented year in its own right, and I had never felt anything like I was feeling right then and there as Hershiser faced Boone to start the bottom of the seventh.
To paraphrase Jackson Browne, Game Six of the 1999 National League Championship Series had danced right out onto the edge of time.
There it would stay until it was resolved.
“People don’t realize how good Chipper Jones really is,” I told Stephanie. “He gets a lot of flak, but he’s a great player. A great hitter. And Cox is a helluva manager. There’s a reason the Braves are here every year.”
This was my new tack. Sit/stand/pace, but whatever I do, praise the Braves to the heavens with a straight face. Let the baseball gods know I know how lucky we are to have arrived on this plane. Take none of this for granted. Respect the opposition. Don’t get them angry.
Beat them…with extreme decorum.
Chipper buys it. Same as Boone before him, same as Jordan after him. Moral Orel sets them down in order.
Top of the eighth. Benny singles to right. I remain humble. Rey finally puts down a sacrifice bunt. Benny to second. I thank whatever lucky stars are allowing this to happen. Melvin, as if sent by the heavens, hits for Hershiser and lines one into center. Benny, no sprinter, is sent home. I’m in total fear of Andruw Jones’ award-winning arm, but there’s no play. Agbayani scores unaccosted.
Mets 8 Braves 7.
Remlinger escapes further trouble. We require six outs to force a seventh game. It’s up to John Franco to secure the first three.
And he fails.
The first lead the Mets have had all night and Franco doesn’t hold it. He gets one out but then gives up a single to the irritatingly unstoppable Eddie Perez, who’s only playing because Javy Lopez (no picnic either) is injured. Cox, the most outstanding leader of men since John McGraw, inserts old Otis Nixon to run. Nixon is a crook; he steals second and takes third on another spectacular Piazza throw to center. Brian Hunter singles him in.
All too quickly, Mets 8 Braves 8. Or Braves 8 Mets 8. I can’t tell anymore.
Top of the ninth. John Rocker. Three up, three down.
Bottom of the ninth. Armando Benitez. Two up, two down. That marvelous Chipper chap walks and steals second. But Brian Jordan strikes out.
John Rocker was not yet the most hated man in New York, but even if he had never given an interview to Sports Illustrated regarding mass transit and ethnicity, he would have been well on his way. Rocker invited Mets fans to despise him partly by sneering, but mostly by pitching. His arm was more frightening than Andruw’s. Olerud’s Saturday success notwithstanding, Rocker was generally death on lefties, certainly on our lefties. Before the name John Rocker came to stand for other things, it stood for some very effective relief pitching.
Which I was quick to remind the baseball gods I was properly aware of.
But this Benny Agbayani wasn’t bad either. There was nothing about him that suggested he should have been playing in a game like this with everything on the line. He had been up in the middle of ’98 for a cup of coffee. Not Benny Bean coffee, which Agbayani’s popularity would yield before his Shea days were over — just a quick gulp of big league exposure as he wore off-the-rack No. 39, and then it was back to a Norfolk Tides uniform. Nobody was publicly clamoring for Benny Agbayani to return to the Mets in 1999 when he reappeared on the roster in May. But now we couldn’t imagine our lives without him.
Benny came up and electrified Shea as few other rookies had. It wasn’t just a matter of quick production (though ten homers in his first 73 at-bats surely helped). He was a throwback in a way, a cause. He was an unformed Ron Swoboda for the almost-millennium; a Kevin Mitchell with less versatility but every bit as rootable. You just wanted to root your heart out for the unsung Islander who wore No. 50, came to bat to “Bennie And The Jets” and rounded the bases to the theme from Hawaii Five-O. We’d had Sid Fernandez in the ’80s, but he was sullen. Benny was happy to be here. We couldn’t get enough of this kid.
Now, it appeared, Benny couldn’t get enough of playoff pressure. He got on in the eighth and scored the Mets’ first go-ahead run. Leading off the tenth, Benny walks. Ordoñez, dizzy from successfully sacrificing Agbayani in the tenth, reverts to futility and pops out. Screw it, Benny says, and steals second (he was picked off first, actually, but a bad throw got him the bag). Melvin Mora, swiftly transcending cult hero status, singles. Benny takes third. And Todd Pratt, who replaced the battered Piazza in a double-switch, hit a fly to Andruw Jones. It didn’t look that deep to me, but Benny raced home.
Agbayani…Mora…Pratt. This is who gets it done for us in the tenth inning of sudden death.
Mets 9 Braves 8.
For what it’s worth, it was the same score by which the Mets beat the Yankees in July.
“Ohmigod!” I exclaim to Stephanie. “They sent him and he scored! I can’t believe it! Andruw Jones has a fantastic arm and I’m not blowing smoke!”
The Mets take the lead. But I’ve blown my karmic cover.
Well, it’s all out on the table now. The Mets are ahead 9-8 and I don’t care who knows it. No need to be cute about it anymore.
Let’s Go Mets!
Rocker escapes further trouble. We require three outs to force a seventh game. It’s up to Armando Benitez to secure them.
And he fails.
A single to Andruw. A flyout by Greg Myers, but then a walk to Klesko. Ozzie Guillen — did you ever notice how many veterans you never think of as Braves always seemed to be dotting the Atlanta roster? — hits for Weiss, and that Cox sucker turns out to have made the right call. He singles to right, scoring Jones. It’s tied again, 9-9.
John Olerud would lead off the eleventh. Shawon Dunston loomed as the pinch-hitter for Benitez. Robin Ventura would be up after him. You have the two guys who drove in the winning runs in the last two games bracketing the guy who got the impossible rally started Sunday night. Plus, Rocker was gone and the journeyman Russ Springer was in there. Springer was a righty. Olerud and Ventura were lefties. It represented an excellent chance for the Mets to take back the lead.
But it went by without a murmur. Oly, Shawon, Robin…nothing.
“That was the last time Titanic ever saw daylight.”
That’s what old Rose said in recalling the escapades of young Rose and her lover Jack in Titanic in the moments before the iceberg entered the picture.
The only Mets Bobby Valentine hadn’t used in fifteen innings of Game Five were Al Leiter and Rick Reed. The only Mets Bobby Valentine hadn’t used through 10½ innings in Game Six were Reed — the prospective Game Seven starter; Yoshii — the Game Five starter who flamed out in the fourth; Dotel — who pitched the final three innings of Game Five, surrendering the short-lived Brave go-ahead run; and Rogers, who preceded Dotel with two shutout innings.
Every game is being managed as if it’s the last game ever. It’s the last game of the season if it’s not managed correctly. What is the correct choice for Bobby V here?
Reed? Reed should have started this game, but you have to have somebody for Wednesday night if there is a Wednesday night. You have to trust somebody else to keep you alive for a few more innings before you go to your last best option, which would have been Reed.
Yoshii? You know, I never heard him mentioned as a possibility. He hadn’t been overwhelming in any of his postseason starts, but he had been solid in the last couple of months of the season. Wasn’t a serious option, apparently.
Dotel? Hopes were very high for Octavio when he came up as a starter. Half the time he was brilliant. In seven starts (six of them Met wins), he went at least seven innings, never giving up more than three earned runs or five base hits. He struck out nine or more four separate times. Yet the other half of the time, he was dreadful, explaining why in fourteen starts, he compiled an ERA of 5.38. Dotel wasn’t starting here, but he was going to have to go as long as he possibly could. The cliché applied to Dotel and to the Mets: there was no margin for error. One run and that was it.
Rogers? He was Bobby Valentine’s choice. He was mine, too.
“He walked him,” Bob Murphy told us, referring to Kenny Rogers issuing unintentional ball four to Andruw Jones with the bases loaded in the bottom of the eleventh. “The season is over for the New York Mets.” Gerald Williams had doubled, was sacrificed to third and then Bobby told Kenny to walk the next two guys. The Mets were falling off the edge of time.
Braves 10 Mets 9.
“What a horrible loss for the New York Mets.”
Regrets? I’ve had a few. Misgivings galore as well. What-ifs up the yin-yang. But no anger from Game Six of the 1999 National League Championship Series. None. The Mets were Lynyrd Skynyrd that last night in Dixie. They all did what they could do.
Kenny Rogers doesn’t bother me. Does an eleven-inning 10-9 loss bother you?
Dotel instead of Rogers? With hindsight, sure. Reed on two days’ rest instead of Leiter on three? Absolutely, and I said it back then. Reeder was far more capable of giving the Mets quality innings after his efficient work the preceding Saturday than Leiter would be having thrown many more pitches that Friday. Al would throw pitches Tuesday, but zero innings. Do I wish the two closers who, between them, saved 436 regular-season games as Mets, could have figured out a way to have saved the biggest one they ever didn’t in October? Yes, I do wish that. I also wish Turk Wendell hadn’t lost his cool and hit Brian Jordan in the sixth because it set up two extra runs we didn’t need to give back. But I liked that Turk hit Jordan because Jordan overdid a slide on Piazza later that same inning (proving, ultimately, that he deserved to be brushed back). And I liked Turk.
I liked Armando and Johnny, the two closers who couldn’t seal shut a jar of mayonnaise that night. I liked Al despite his Arpielle mini-excavator impression in the first, digging that five-run hole with precision and velocity. Shoot, I liked Kenny Rogers as much as one could.
I liked them all. I liked every 1999 Met by the time it was over. No, I loved every 1999 Met (well, maybe not Bonilla) by the time it was over. They were infallible in my eyes, even having lost. Maybe especially because they lost, but lost in the most winning fashion imaginable, by never, ever giving up. By not going gently into that Turner Field night. By even getting to Game Six, let alone Game Five, Game Four and everything they got to, clear back to when they made the Pittsburgh series count.
I loved ‘em. I loved what they accomplished and what they almost accomplished. Baby, I loved their way.
They’re Teflon. No other Mets team that didn’t go home with a flag-spiked trophy is so coated. I get angry at the 2006 Mets once a night during the postseason. I get angry at the 2000 Mets for lacking in the World Series everything they seemed to have in the playoffs preceding them. I get angry at the 1988 Mets for the same reasons everybody else does. Though I repressed it for more than three decades, I at last discovered ire for the unlikely 1973 National League Champion Mets for not capturing a world championship that was within their grasp. Of course I get mad at the 2007 and 2008 Mets on an hourly basis.
Not 1999. They pulled up short of what could have been their destiny. They didn’t even get a seventh game. They used it all up in the sixth and the fifth and the fourth. They went 2-1 when they needed to be 4-for-4. They weren’t perfect when perfection was demanded. They did not become the first team to be down three games to none in a postseason series and force let alone win a seventh game.
But they made me believe they would. That was worth something.
I never believed in a Mets team the way I believed in the 1999 Mets. I believed in them for weeks, albeit right after not believing they had a chance in hell. That’s all right, though. Baseball is not burdened by a clock. There’s always time to collect your beliefs and align them correctly. I found my belief during the Pirates series and held it tight in the one-game playoff at Cincinnati and throughout the NLDS versus Arizona. I did what I could with it through two bland losses at the Ted, which rhymed with dead, which is what I assumed we’d be after losing Game Three. I lunged at Game Four just asking they not be swept. When they weren’t, the belief light went back on.
I thought we could win that series after John Olerud bounced the proverbial 38-hopper past John Rocker and between Ozzie Guillen and Bret Boone in Game Four. There went that ball and here came Roger Cedeño and Melvin Mora, crossing the plate and leaping like Milli Vanilli. Except they, like our chances, were authentic.
After Game Five, which the Mets won on a single to right, I listened to WFAN so I could indirectly share the joy with other Mets fans. Instead Yankees fans called in to berate Mets fans for not curbing their enthusiasm. Up to that moment, it felt like it would be a wonderful thing if we could keep winning. From then on, I became determined that we must win. I wanted to shred Atlanta and move on to the World Series. I wanted to beat the American League champion very badly suddenly. The A.L. champion had not yet been declared, but it was just a matter of time. Bring ’em on, I thought for the first time in my life. I had wanted no part of the Yankees in a potential World Series because that would entail rooting for them to beat Boston. At last, a loophole: leave them for us to finish off. Let us shut up every fucking member of the Fun Police who dare tell us how we should react in the hours after Robin Ventura ends a fifteen-inning struggle for survival.
Bring. ’Em. On.
Never got there. Never got by Atlanta. By the time the Yankees were brought on, a year later, it wasn’t the same. There was no Olerud. There was no Mora. There was no Cedeño. Kenny Rogers and all, I thought we could have won a 1999 Subway Series, I really did (and do). We had a great lineup that year. We had a great bench. Assuming Al Leiter got his rest and Bobby Valentine stopped using Rogers away from Shea (all his troubles were on the road), we had a big-time big game pitcher to lead the way. We had Reed and Yoshii and Hershiser, all of whom I trusted. We had the kid Dotel. We had that bullpen that had cracked some but had yet to crumble. We could’ve won the ’99 World Series. We could’ve won the ’99 NLCS. We just didn’t start realizing that soon enough.
If I could tell the 1999 Mets anything ten years later, it would be to rev up sooner. Don’t wait for 0-3 to get serious. It was great for melodrama, but, ultimately, it wasn’t terribly effective.
Game Six was as heartbreaking a loss as a Mets fan could imagine. But ohmigod, it was a great game. I have to say it was the greatest baseball game I ever saw, even if the Mets lost it.
How did the Mets lose that game? Silly question. They fell behind by a lot early. And they played it in a place where they almost never won. They went down to a team that always found a way to confound them.
But how did they lose that game? They came from behind — twice. They took a lead — twice. They had just won two improbable games against a team that was ripe to be taken once more, and once after that.
Such complex circumstances. Such an intricately woven contest. It showed no sign of ending. Its running time of eleven innings, four hours and twenty-five minutes (starting on the 19th, ending on the 20th) doesn’t begin to do its perpetual nature justice. It existed on the edge of time — a baseball apocalypse unfolding before our disbelieving eyes and ears. Yet at any moment, it was going to be over. It had to be. Something like this couldn’t go on forever.
Yet how could it end? How could it just come to a halt? How could everything that led up to Game Six lead up to anything less than Rapture? Or Game Seven, Reed vs. Gl@v!ne?