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The Happiest Recap: 085-087

Welcome to The Happiest Recap, a solid gold slate of New York Mets games culled from every schedule the Mets have ever played en route to this, their fiftieth year in baseball. We’ve created a dream season that includes the “best” 85th game in any Mets season, the “best” 86th game in any Mets season, the “best” 87th game in any Mets season…and we keep going from there until we have a completed schedule worthy of Bob Murphy coming back with the Happy Recap after this word from our sponsor on the WFAN Mets Radio Network.

GAME 085: July 29, 1995 — METS 2 Pirates 1
(Mets All-Time Game 085 Record: 26-23; Mets 1995 Record: 33-52)

One assumes the overriding agenda for a baseball team in any given game is winning that game. Sometimes, however, there might be ancillary concerns on display…especially if the game in question takes place close to July 31.

That’s the trade deadline, and it means different things to different clubs. The clubs that are contending tend to be shoppers as prelude to becoming buyers. The clubs that are hopeless in the standings — including those from big-market New York — are hopeful of creating a seller’s market. The 1995 Mets were well out of contention and had something to sell; they hoped it was in good enough condition to bring a nice package in return.

One day after executing one such late-July trade, when Bobby Bonilla, finally having the kind of season for which the Mets were paying him handsomely, was shipped to Baltimore, their other valuable ware went into the Shea Stadium display case: Bret Saberhagen.

Whether it was injuries or a decline in skills (or both), Saberhagen never consistently lived up to whatever hype accompanied him to New York in 1992 upon his trade here from the Kansas City. There was one outstanding season, in 1994, when Sabes won 14 while walking only 13 before labor strife sent everybody home on August 11. There were several embarrassing incidents in 1993, most infamously when Bret filled a kids’ water rifle with bleach and mindlessly sprayed a cluster of beat writers at work in the Met clubhouse. But mostly there was disappointment. Saberhagen, along with Bonilla and Eddie Murray, was supposed to lead the Mets back to glory in the early ’90s.

There was no glory, and as 1995 rounded into its final two months, all that lingered from the 1992 overhaul was an expensive pitcher with whom the Mets preferred to part ways.

The last-place Mets decided to cut their losses and start over. The organization’s M.O. became apparent in June of 1995 when, after a wretched start to the strike-delayed season, the Mets called up 21-year-old lefty Bill Pulsipher to take the place of veteran Mike Birkbeck in their starting rotation. A month later, Dallas Green squeezed in another heralded rookie, 22-year-old righty Jason Isringhausen. With Izzy, Pulse, Bobby Jones (25) and Dave Mlicki (27) on board and Paul Wilson (22) not far off, Mets pitching was getting younger and less costly. By the middle of 1995, the Mets were looking at paying Saberhagen more than $6 million through 1996 on a contract extension he signed in Spring Training 1993. With no realistic hope of contending behind their nominal 31-year-old ace, they were looking to dump that commitment on a team that could make better use of his services.

Thus, when Bret Saberhagen took the mound on a Saturday afternoon in late July to face the Pirates, he wasn’t just pitching for the Mets and the 17,781 in attendance at Shea. He was pitching for the scouts.

Everybody who was watching Bret with a vested interested in his performance had to be pleased. Could Saberhagen — making his first start in two weeks since straining a muscle on his left side — help a contender? How could he not if he was going to pitch as he did here: eight innings, three hits, one walk, seven strikeouts and no runs. Bret Saberhagen was positively Royal in what loomed as his last start as a New York Met. He certainly gave the scouts something to salivate over. And when Brett Butler walked, Tim Bogar bunted him to second and Carl Everett’s ground ball to the left side found a hole in the bottom of the eighth, Saberhagen was in position to have a fine going-away present to pack with him, wherever he went. Everett’s RBI single off Jason Christiansen accounted for the first run of the game. Denny Neagle had pitched seven shutout innings himself, but now the Mets had a 1-0 lead, and all Green had to do was hand it for safe keeping to his closer and Sabes’s buddy, John Franco.

Well, so much for that plan. Bret Saberhagen did not collect the 30th win of his four-year New York Met tenure because, as seemed to be the storyline of every ninth inning he pitched in the mid-1990s, John Franco made things interesting. He got two quick outs, but then Steve Pegues reached him for a single and Nelson Liriano tied the game on a double Butler didn’t play all that brilliantly. It was 1-1 heading to the bottom of the ninth.

Where had Bret Saberhagen and every Met starter seen this movie before?

Fortunately (save for Sabes’s won-lost record), there was a surprise ending in store. Pinch-hitter deluxe Chris Jones led off the bottom of the ninth and delivered a quick change in Met fortunes: a walkoff home run versus Pirate reliever Ross Powell and a most undeserved 2-1 win to John Franco’s account.

The important thing was the team victory, but no one could miss the trade-deadline subtext. Saberhagen afterwards didn’t come right out and say “I’m outta here,” but when asked about his status, he attempted to mix tact with truth, as evidenced in Howard Blatt’s reporting in the Daily News:

“They keep saying that we’re rebuilding and going with the youth movement, but it has been like this the last three years [...] I hope I’m here when this team is doing big things, but if it is four years down the road, I really doubt it.”

The Mets would be doing big things — playoff things — in four years, but Saberhagen was correct in assuming he’d not be a part of them. Two days after he went eight against the Pirates, he went to Colorado in exchange for spot-starter Juan Acevedo and minor league pitcher Arnold Gooch. Saberhagen was injected into the Rockies’ rotation as they made their surprise, offense-fueled run at a playoff spot in only their third year of existence. In true ace fashion, he started their final game of the season, the one they needed to win in order to claim the National League Wild Card. And they did win, 10-9 at Coors Field, despite Saberhagen being knocked out at 5,280 feet in the third inning.

Acevedo would become a bit contributor to the Mets’ resurgence in 1997 before being traded to St. Louis the following spring for Rigo Beltran. Gooch may have played the largest Met role of anybody involved in the Saberhagen trade. Though the kid never reached the majors, he was part of the three-cornered deal that brought the Mets Roger Cedeño and Armando Benitez in the 1998-99 offseason. Big things — playoff things — followed Gooch’s exit.

In the short-term, the 1995 Mets shed salary and got demonstrably younger in their starting pitching. In an almost symbolic passing of the torch, Isringhausen earned his first big league win the day after Saberhagen’s final Met start (with Franco pitching a much calmer ninth to wrap the 2-1 victory). Though Saberhagen wasn’t exactly over the hill — despite missing two full seasons due to injury, he pitched until 2001 — his old club was happy to give as many starts to the Generation K demographic as possible.

The Mets wouldn’t again trust — or at least pay — anybody over 30 to start a game for them until the final week of the 1996 season, just after Pete Harnisch celebrated his 30th birthday. It was all Pulsipher, Isringhausen, Jones, Mlicki, Wilson and their cohort. No wise old hands à la Don Cardwell or grizzled swingmen in the mold of Terry Leach needed apply for 218 consecutive starts. Even thirty years earlier, when Casey Stengel would delightedly chew your ear off about his Youth of America kiddie corps, there was always a Frank Lary or a Warren Spahn around to provide graybeard gravitas to any given spin of the rotation.

Only in 1995-96 was there a pervasive Logan’s Run feel to Met starting pitching. The results were mixed, to be kind, and they didn’t start to tip in the direction of clearly positive until thirtysomething guys like Rick Reed, in 1997, and Al Leiter, in 1998, lent the staff an air of experience.

There was a longer-term implication to the Saberhagen saga as well, one that stretched beyond whatever bounty Arnold Gooch brought the Mets, and one that informed off-field matters that began to gain traction long after everybody who played alongside Bret as a Met (except for Jason Isringhausen) had hung ’em up. It dates back to that contract extension Saberhagen signed on the eve of the godforsaken 1993 season. Part of Bret’s deal involved deferred payments…very deferred. They were scheduled to begin in 2004 and run through 2028 at $250,000 per annum. That obligation remained on the Mets’ books despite Saberhagen’s trade to the Rockies and his subsequent tenure with the Red Sox.

And it’s still there. The Mets are still paying Bret Saberhagen, who hasn’t pitched for them since 1995, or for anybody in a decade. They began paying him on a deferred basis seven years before they commenced compensating Bonilla — as arranged in an extrication of his second Met go-round in 1999 — with the first of 25 approximately $1.2-million annual payments in July 2011.

Bonilla’s deal has been much more notorious, probably because Bobby Bo’s stays as a Met were more contentious and the nut owed him is considerably larger than what’s coming Saberhagen’s way. What both deferrals have in common is the funds set aside for each of the dimmed Met stars were arranged through owner Fred Wilpon’s investments with the eventually discredited, Ponzi-scheming Bernard Madoff. Wilpon’s wide-ranging involvement with Madoff would, by ’11, force him to sell at least a portion of the team, perhaps the whole thing when all is said and done.

So it appears Bret Saberhagen didn’t really need a gun filled with bleach in order to clean up.

ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On July 17, 1986, the Mets pretended the All-Star break never happened, simply continuing to win as if they never shifted their season into park for three days. In the Astrodome, the same place where five Mets represented the best the National League had to offer two nights earlier, first-place New York pounded the Western Division’s second-place club, Houston, 13-2. To be fair, it was very close for quite a while this Thursday night, but the Mets’ late-inning lightning couldn’t be contained forever, not even under a dome. Nolan Ryan and Bobby Ojeda were dueling for six innings, with the Astros clinging to a 1-0 lead, when the Mets unleashed a furious two-out rally in the seventh. When the smoke cleared, Ryan was gone and the Mets were ahead, 7-1.

Nobody was happier with the momentum swing than Wally Backman, who experienced travel travails in his effort to return to the team from Oregon. Wally showed up perilously close to first pitch. “I missed all the card games,” Backman bemoaned in the winning clubhouse “I missed dominoes.” He also missed his manager’s wrath. “I told him if he didn’t get three hits, I was going to fine him,” Davey Johnson said. As it happened, Wally went 3-for-6 and drove in five runs, all in the final three innings, proving the 1986 Mets could now and then be delayed, but rarely if ever denied.

GAME 086: July 7, 2007 — Mets 5 ASTROS 3 (17)
(Mets All-Time Game 086 Record: 24-25; Mets 2007 Record: 48-38)

Over hill, over dale…not so much the dale, but the hill surely came into play like only it could this particular Saturday night at strivingly adorable Minute Maid Park.

Two teams were working late, well past regulation. The Mets and Astros were knotted at 3-3 after thirteen innings, though the end appeared on the horizon for the home team in the bottom of the fourteenth. Joe Smith, the Mets’ sixth pitcher of the night, got into immediate trouble when he plunked leadoff man Chris Burke. A sacrifice bunt and a slow grounder to short put Burke at third with two out. Mike Lamb worked out a walk on a 3-2 pitch, bringing up Luke Scott with two out.

And Luke Scott hit a home run in every park extant except, perhaps, for Yellowstone and this one, where deepest center sat 436 feet from home plate. But Scott didn’t need to hit one out. He just needed to hit one far enough so that it could not be caught. It appeared he succeeded in his mission, because Scott’s very long fly ball was hit to such deep center that it soared past flat land and headed for Tal’s Hill.

Tal’s Hill was, depending on how you judged these things, a nuance or a nuisance. It was intended as an homage to Crosley Field in Cincinnati, which would, on the surface, appear to have nothing to do with the Houston Astros, except longtime Astros executive Tal Smith began his baseball career with the Reds, and Astros owner Drayton McLane seemed to have a taste for the kitschy, quirky or, if you like, unique. Nobody else in the majors decided to stick a mountain — or even a molehill — within the field of play. Crosley’s 15-degree incline (known as its terrace) was an organic aspect of the Reds’ old stadium, owing to issues of elevation where the ballpark’s site was concerned. Tal’s Hill?

“Drayton said, ‘What can we do from the standpoint of the ballpark — the inside of the playing field — what can we do to make it unique?’” Smith recalled for The Biz of Baseball in 2005. Smith threw some ideas out and one that stuck was the hill, which became known internally as Tal’s. The name also stuck, as did the sense among center fielders that it was a disaster waiting to happen, though its namesake disagreed.

“It hasn’t really caused a problem,” Smith said in that same 2005 interview with Maury Brown. “I see more players trip over the pitcher’s mound than I do over the hill we have in center field.”

Still, the 30-degree, 90-foot-wide incline, home to an in-play flag pole, was a factor that could not be ignored. It certainly wasn’t by Astro outfielders, even those who were with the club for only a brief time. For example, Houston had a center fielder it picked up for its playoff push in 2004, and coach Jose Cruz gave him some valuable advice: “You have to change the way you run, because if you run like you run normally, you’re going to hit and fall down.”

The outfielder remembered that advice three years later when he came back to Houston as a visiting player. It served Carlos Beltran well, as the Met center fielder turned and raced after Scott’s ball as he approached Tal’s Hill. Per Cruz’s tutelage, Carlos sprinted full out, then adjusted his gait. He practically tapped on the brakes of the soles of his spikes while circling under the descending fly. Once he divined the lay of the land, he pulled in Scott’s would-be game-winning RBI with two hands, tumbling to Tal’s grass in the process. In football-loving Texas, Carlos Beltran could just as easily have been a wide receiver hauling in a Hail Mary pass from David Carr.

Except in this case, the design of the end zone forced him to run uphill and Beltran’s catch meant the Mets and Astros were going to a sixth overtime.

Beltran wasn’t a popular man in Houston. Never mind that he put the team on his back and nearly carried them to the World Series in 2004. What Astros fans remembered was he left for New York and free agent dollars. As a result, he was booed harshly at every turn on every Met trip in. In 2006, those who once applauded him cheered when he slammed into a fence making another catch and lay on the ground in pain. But there was no denying the spectacular nature of what Carlos Beltran had just done to the Astros in the fourteenth inning in 2007. It was “the greatest catch ever made on this field,” according to the Astros’ TV booth.

So the teams played on, clear into a seventeenth inning when, with Jose Reyes on second and Ruben Gotay on first, Beltran lined a single to right. Jose scored the run to put somebody ahead for the first time in extra innings, 4-3. Wright snuck a ball into left, sending Gotay home to make it 5-3. Another ex-Astro, Billy Wagner, who’d warmed up nine times in case the Mets took a lead (throwing a veritable complete game in the bullpen), came on in the bottom of the seventeenth for what the box score called the save.

Tal and his potentially hellish Hill know who really rescued the Mets from defeat that long night in Houston.

ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On July 14, 1985, the hottest team in baseball rode the hottest pitcher on the planet to a win that was almost secondary in its concerns given the specter that hung over said team. Dwight Gooden operated per usual on opposing batters as the Mets finished out their first-half schedule at the Astrodome, but they worried that a real doctor might have to spend a frightening amount of time working on Gary Carter, whose inflamed right knee — “it popped out of its socket,” said Davey Johnson — required rest and examination that Sunday night in Houston. Carter had left the previous evening’s 10-1 romp over the Astros, taking a bit of the shine off what had been the Mets’ 11th win in 12 games. As Kid sat out the first-half finale, the Mets had to see if they could survive any kind of absence from their rugged catcher and cleanup hitter.

They got by for a night with a little help from one of Carter’s caddies, Ronn Reynolds. The understudy played a featured role, singling to start the only Met rally of the night, one that gave Doc a 1-0 lead in the top of the eighth. This being the summer of 1985, that was all Dwight needed. Reynolds had the pleasure of being on the receiving end of 11 Gooden strikeouts as the Doctor made that one run hold up via a five-hit shutout victory over Bob Knepper, the Mets’ twelfth win in thirteen games. With the All-Star break imminent, the Mets not only completed their journey through Atlanta, Cincinnati and Houston at a scorching 10-1 pace (the franchise’s best ever to date), but they stayed hot on the heels of the first-place Cardinals, hovering just 2½ back.

Carter would sit out the All-Star Game to which he was elected starting catcher, but he experienced his own victory when it was determined the pain he’d been feeling in his right knee was attributable to “residual torn cartilage” from a previous injury. Gary would go about the second half of 1985 getting his the knee wrapped like a mummy before games, but he’d persevere without surgery to start behind the plate in, at one point, 63 of 74 games after the break. All of them, like his presence on the Mets, were deemed crucial.

GAME 087: July 13, 1978 — Mets 4 REDS 2
(Mets All-Time Game 087 Record: 24-25; Mets 1978 Record: 37-50)

Two pitchers, two stalwarts. But then one was gone, sent away in a fit of fiscal insanity (or just the plain kind). However it happened, the Mets found themselves 13 months removed from the Tom Seaver trade and having to face their former ace and eternal Franchise in his new Ohio home. With more than a year to get used to the sight of Seaver in Cincinnati Red, he still looked undeniably out of uniform.

Good thing the Mets still had Jerry Koosman in their ranks. Good ol’ Kooz was now the dean of the Mets’ staff, one of two remaining 1969 champs (Ed Kranepool was the other) around to remind Mets fans of better times. As impossible as it was to imagine Seaver pitching against the Mets, it somehow cushioned the blow to know he’d share the mound with Koosman for a second consecutive year. It was Tom vs. Jerry at Shea on Seaver’s return the previous August. That one — like the four-for-one trade that made the matchup necessary — went Cincinnati’s way, 5-1.

This one, the first game after the All-Star break, was a different story…and eventually something of a poignant story. But at its heart, it was just another game in the view of the starting pitcher for the visitors. “Beating Tom Seaver was the last thing on my mind,” Jerry Koosman insisted, yet beating Tom Seaver’s team was in sight early, once the Mets put two runs on the Riverfront Stadium scoreboard in the top of the second. They were both unearned runs, thanks to errors committed by Seaver’s celebrated Cincinnati teammates Johnny Bench and Davey Concepcion.

Funny, Seaver was supposed to be leaving that kind of slipshod play behind when he departed the last-place Mets in June 1977. But the Red Machine, circa 1978, was a little wobblier than its reputation would have indicated On the other hand, it could still perform pretty Big when it had to, as evidenced by Joe Morgan’s run-scoring single off Koosman in the third that cut the Mets’ lead to 2-1.

Doug Flynn, ex-Red, welcomed himself back to town by leading off the fifth with a double versus the man for whom he was traded. Koosman bunted him to third, and Lenny Randle drove him home with a fly to left. Koosman and the Mets led Seaver and the Reds, 3-1. The two former rotationmates then buckled down into a duel for several innings thereafter, one not interrupted until all-time Met villain Pete Rose doubled home Dan Driessen in the bottom of the seventh, extending Charlie Hustle’s hitting streak to 26 games and making the score, 3-2.

Rose was batting with two out directly after ex-Met Ken Henderson pinch-hit for Seaver, so that ended Tom Terrific’s night. And when Joe Torre pulled Koosman after Rose’s double, that ended the game within the game, as the old friends made their way to their respective showers. But because Jerry’s successor, Skip Lockwood, flied Ken Griffey to center to quell the Red menace, Koosman was in the clubhouse on the winning side and Seaver stood as the pitcher of record on the losing side.

Another former Red, Joel Youngblood, reached reliever Manny Sarmiento for a homer to provide the Mets another two-run cushion. Lockwood took it from there, pitching a scoreless eighth and ninth, making it a 4-2 final in favor of the Mets.

Winning Pitcher: Jerry Koosman.
Losing Pitcher: Tom Seaver.

Imagine that.

“Joe Torre felt this might bring out the best in me,” Kooz allowed afterwards. “I’ve been struggling during the first half of the season, and Joe thought the challenge might do me some good. I wouldn’t want to pitch every day against Seaver, but I relish the thought of a match.”

The defeat lowered Seaver’s record to an unusually pedestrian 9-8, though by season’s end he’d win 16 games have an ERA in its customary space below 3.00. Koosman, however, really needed a win. Getting this one hiked his mark to 3-9. As Seaver could attest, pitching for offense-challenged Mets clubs didn’t help any Met starter’s won-lost ledger. Kooz rediscovered that fact of life as the second half of 1978 wore on. Eight of his next thirteen starts would see Jerry pitch into the eighth inning or deeper; once he went ten, another time he went eleven. What he never went was into the winner’s circle as a Met again. He ended what became his final Met season on a six-game losing streak.

Thus, the final victory of Jerry Koosman’s Met career was accomplished by defeating Tom Seaver.

It happened, but it’s still hard to imagine.

When he was traded to Minnesota for two minor league pitchers named Greg Field and Jesse Orosco that December — ostensibly so he could finish out his baseball days close to home — Koosman had won 140 games in blue and orange, best of any Met lefty, second only to Seaver overall among Mets at that point. As it turned out, Koosman had another 82 wins remaining in his left arm, earned not just for the Twins but for the White Sox and Phillies, too. A Seaver-Koosman reunion seemed at hand in Spring Training 1984 when Tom landed (through extraordinarily questionable decisionmaking) with Chicago, but the Sox shipped Jerry to Philadelphia to complete an earlier deal for Ron Reed. The two pitching stalwarts hadn’t competed in the same league since 1978 and now they never would again.

That meant the last time Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman crossed paths during a baseball season was when Jerry Koosman won and Tom Seaver lost on an occasion that demanded only one could pitch as a Met.

ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On July 14, 1979, a Mets team that seemed incapable of inspiration played some inspiring ball. Though glued to the basement of the National League East, the Mets made like the first-place team they had been a decade earlier, beating the Giants at Shea, 3-2, on a Tom Hausman complete game six-hitter for their fifth consecutive win. “We’re on our way back,” Joe Torre declared. Also on their way back that Saturday — arriving, actually, before the game — were sixteen members of the ’79 club’s infinitely more successful predecessors, the 1969 World Champion New York Mets. Their presence for Old Timers Day (along with a concomitant spotlight on Met coach and new Hall of Famer Willie Mays) drew the second-best crowd of the year to Big Shea.

“They looked remarkably young,” the Times’s Joe Durso wrote of the recent retirees, chalking up their relative callowness to their having been “just past childhood in 1969.” Indeed, most of those who constituted the Miracle Mets were in their early and mid-twenties when they shocked the baseball world. That team’s elder statesman, third baseman Ed Charles, understood ten years after what their championship still meant. “Some guys may try to be cool about it,” the now 46-year-old Glider told George Vecsey in Inside Sports magazine,  “but I’m not kidding myself. It was beautiful.”

Among those who couldn’t attend the festivities were seven still-active 1979 ballplayers: Tom Seaver of the Reds, Nolan Ryan of the Angels, Jerry Koosman of the Twins, Duffy Dyer of the Expos, Wayne Garrett of the Chunichi Dragons in the Japan Central League and two Phillies, Bud Harrelson and Tug McGraw, though those fellas helicoptered up to Queens once their game at the Vet was over. One active 1969 Met, however, could make the scene: 1979 pinch-hitter and fill-in first baseman Ed Kranepool, still a Met after all those years. Krane, 34, was introduced alongside such miracle workers as Donn Clendenon, Gary Gentry and J.C. Martin, to say nothing of faux 1969 Met Chico Escuela (portrayed this Saturday afternoon live by Garrett Morris). Kranepool frolicked with his old teammates in the pre-game ceremonies but wasn’t called on by Torre to help his current teammates. Eddie did, however, pinch-hit the night before in the Mets’ fourth consecutive win.

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