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” 88th game in any Mets season, the “best” 89th game in any Mets season, the “best” 90th 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.
And, if we may borrow another Murphism in light of the epic nature of the games in today’s spotlight…fasten your seatbelts.
GAME 088: July 10, 1999 — METS 9 Yankees 8
(Mets All-Time Game 088 Record: 23-26; Mets 1999 Record: 50-38)
When intensity is invoked as it pertains to the six annual Subway Series matchups, this is the game that is implied.
This is the gold standard of Interleague baseball.
This is the indisputable proof that there is a Mets-Yankees rivalry.
The argument that the teams play in different leagues and only six times head-to-head, therefore they aren’t really rivals, is rendered hollow when this game enters the conversation.
The reasonable notion that two series per year between the Mets and Yankees are at least one too many crumbles into absurdity when this game is added to the intracity equation. Watch this game and you’d be convinced the Mets and Yankees are wasting their time playing anybody else the other 156 dates of the year.
If you factor out games that have had a direct impact on potential pennant positioning, this game would almost certainly have to go down as the most thrilling win in the half-century existence of the New York Mets — and it may be precisely because the Subway Series has no head-to-head impact on the standings that it stands out as unrivaled when it comes blending emotion and entertainment. Strip away whether you’re gaining or losing ground in N.L. East or Wild Card race, then you have to judge a Mets game on its own isolated merits.
This one takes all the merit badges it can pin to its chest.
For indelible imagery.
For unrivaled ending.
OK, maybe not for pitching, but you can’t have everything.
The Subway Series was still young as this overcast Saturday afternoon at Shea Stadium approached. The Mets and Yankees had played all of ten games against each other. The Mets won the first of them, in 1997, and the most recent of them, the night before. Overall, the Mets trailed the all-time series 6-4. In public perception — as portrayed by the New York media, certainly — the Yankees presumably won all ten games to date. It was 1999, the year after the Yankee world championship of 1998, three years after the Yankee world championship of 1996. It was a time when the Yankees were presumed winners in any matchup until proven otherwise, especially against the Mets.
The Mets? What were the Mets? The literal answer would have been a very good team as of the morning of July 10, 1999. They were eleven games over .500, four games behind Atlanta for first place in their division and a hair behind the Houston Astros for the National League Wild Card. Since snapping out of their mysterious 0-8 rut in early June, they’d been on a roll, going 22-10, topping that roll with a most decorative toothpick, a 5-2 win on Friday night, Al Leiter and Mike Piazza sticking it to Roger Clemens. Throw in the Mets’ status as a perennial contender for three consecutive seasons and how they fortified their ranks heading into 1999 with the likes of Gold Glove third baseman Robin Ventura, speed merchant Roger Cedeño and living legend Rickey Henderson, and this was a solid, solid team.
That was the literal answer. The rhetorical answer — asked and answered by the papers, the radio and the TV — was less kind and didn’t get overly hung up on accuracy. What were the Mets in that context?
They weren’t the Yankees, so why bother?
The headlines were condescending (Times: “Yankees Show the Mets How to Win in New York”; Post: “Twenty-Five Reasons Why Yankees Own City”). The history was myopic (as if baseball had only been played in New York since 1996). The hype would get short-circuited, since after all, these were the Yankees, 24 championships stashed in a vault somewhere in Switzerland, a 25th assumed en route. They were playing who now? The Mets?
What were the Mets again?
That was the backdrop for this game. The Mets had won Friday night, but they’d won one in each of the previous three-game series only to drop the other two games every time, so it might have been assumed by those who didn’t spend a lot of time contemplating the depth and the texture of the home club that there wouldn’t be much suspense to figuring out who would win Saturday. But assumptions, like leads, wouldn’t be safe across this Shea afternoon.
Nor, would be the pitchers.
Start with Rick Reed, generally reliable righthander for the New York Mets. Three batters in, he gives up a two-run home run to Paul O’Neill.
Flip to Andy Pettitte, revered as one of the clutchest hurlers in either league. Four batters in, he’s allowed an RBI double to Piazza and the Mets are down 2-1.
Reed strikes out the side in the second, but Pettitte isn’t so careful. With one out, he walks Cedeño. This is where the speed merchant peddles his goods. Roger steals second. Roger steals third. Rey Ordoñez drives him home with a sacrifice fly. Now we’re tied at two.
Nobody scores in the third…the only inning of which that will be able to be said by day’s end.
Reeder enjoys another 1-2-3 in the top of the fourth, but the bottom of the fourth jump-starts the scoreboard again. Benny Agbayani beats out an infield hit. Ventura doubles him home to make it 3-2, Mets. Cedeño bunts Ventura to third and Ordoñez delivers another valuable fly ball. Robin runs home and it’s 4-2, Mets.
Then, trouble. Reed’s first batter in the top of the fifth is Ricky Ledee. He homers. Reed’s second batter in the top of the fifth is Jorge Posada. He homers. The Yankees have tied the Mets at four.
By the sixth, Reed is removed in favor of Greg McMichael. But McMichael does the Mets no favors. He gives up Paul O’Neill’s second homer of the game. The Yankees lead, 5-4. McMichael puts two more runners on and he’s removed in favor of Rigo Beltran. Rigo restores order, striking out Chad Curtis and Posada to extricate the Mets from the jam.
It’s still 5-4 when the seventh begins. Joe Torre has gotten six innings out of Andy Pettitte. They haven’t been great ones, but they were enough for a lead. He pinch-hits Jeff Manto and Beltran strikes him out. Rigo Beltran is emerging as Bobby Valentine’s secret weapon, it seems, but then he’s exposed. Chuck Knoblauch homers off him. It’s the fifth Yankee home run this Saturday and it puts the visitors ahead, 6-4. Beltran strikes out the next batter, Williams, but then gives up a double to O’Neill. After intentionally walking Derek Jeter, Rigo departs and Dennis Cook comes on to face Tino Martinez, who grounds to Edgardo Alfonzo for the third out of the inning.
Time to stretch. And, if you’re a Mets fan, time to wonder if the Mets can maybe make use of the home run ball.
In the bottom of the seventh, it is learned Brian McRae cannot; he grounds out against Ramiro Mendoza. Rickey Henderson, however, doubles, but Alfonzo lines to O’Neill in right for the second out. John Olerud walks (the fifth Met walk of a day when they’ll collect nine). That makes if first and second, two out, the Mets down by two.
The batter is Mike Piazza. The broadcasters are Bob Murphy and Gary Cohen.
MURPH: The two-one pitch…HIGH FLY ball hit deep to left field…way, way back, it’s going…yah, there it goes! Mike Piazza, a three-run homer!
COHEN: Oh my goodness!
MURPH: Where did that land?
COHEN: It hit the picnic tent, beyond the left field bullpen, about halfway up the picnic tent roof!
And the Met majority among the 53,792 in attendance were halfway to heaven. Piazza had done it. He had done it in the sixth the night before to Clemens and he just did it again to Mendoza here in the seventh. Two games against the Yankees, two three-run blasts.
Blasts: Not an expression, not hyperbole. They were launched, and Mets fans were riding Piazza’s lunar module an estimated 482 feet to utter nirvana as the Mets took a 7-6 lead. Nothing could possibly bring them down.
In the eighth, the Mets and their fans were brought down.
Cook was still pitching. He walked Scott Brosius, retired Curtis and then faced the other catcher in the game, Posada. Posada didn’t hit anything as high or far or as deep as Piazza had, but pedestrian home runs counted, too, and Posada had just hit one of those, his second of the game. The Yankees led the Mets, 8-7.
Heaven was over, and the Yankee minority, returned to their familiar state of ascension, was suddenly quite vocal in their approval of the turn of events.
Turk Wendell cleaned up after Cook and kept the score 8-7 heading to the bottom of the eighth. Mike Stanton replaced Mendoza and did the same. Pat Mahomes entered in the ninth, and the Mets’ long man pitched a scoreless inning despite Yankee runners reaching first and third.
Now, the bottom of the ninth.
Now, Mariano Rivera.
What are the Mets? What are their chances? What can they possibly do against the closer who is already, in his third season in the role, talked about as the best in the sport? What has been the point of this back-and-forth, heavy-artillery ping pong match if all it’s going to come down to is the wretchedly predictable? The Mets have faced Mariano Rivera on four previous occasions. Mariano Rivera notched a save in each of those meetings.
Is he perfect? Nobody’s perfect. Even Mariano Rivera isn’t perfect. He’s blown two saves in 1999. The first one was on April 25 against the Blue Jays. The Yankees won anyway. The second was just four days ago, in Detroit. The Yankees won anyway. They won 9-8. A real slugfest. This one was like that. It was 8-7. The Yankees had more slug through 8½ innings than the Mets. They were three outs away from having the entire fest.
Update: They were two outs away once McRae, batting in the nine-hole following a double-switch in the seventh, led off by grounding to Knoblauch at second and Knoblauch didn’t throw it wide of Martinez at first.
If Mariano Rivera was emerging as the best closer ever, it was appropriate that the Met lineup turned over and revealed the best leadoff hitter ever, Rickey Henderson. Henderson came to the Mets a 40-year-old and immediately proceeded to halve his age. It wasn’t so much that Rickey was ageless. It was more like Rickey didn’t bother with calendars. What he knew was baseball: what to do on the basepaths (he was the one credited for harnessing Cedeño’s speed and turning it into honest-to-god skill) and how to get on them. Rickey’s expertise had been on display all day long.
First inning: Henderson singles and scores.
Third inning: Henderson walks.
Fifth inning: Henderson singles.
Seventh inning: Henderson doubles and scores.
Ninth inning? Henderson walks.
Rickey Henderson is on base for the fifth time today. The base in this case is first.
But it’s about to be another one, as Alfonzo lifts a fly ball deep to center, toward the wall. Bernie Williams, who will be rewarded with the third Gold Glove of his career in 1999, is fooled by the height or the trajectory or the appearance of the sun or the presence of molecules in his midst, because Bernie Williams has no clue where Fonzie’s fly ball is going. Hence, it ticks off his Gold Glove for a double. Henderson, leaning on the side of caution, proceeds with something shy of abandon, and takes third.
The tying run is ninety feet from home plate. The winning run is ninety feet behind the tying run. And John Olerud, as trustworthy a hitter as Bobby Valentine could wish to have up in this spot, comes to the plate.
Yet Mariano Rivera grounds John Olerud to first. Caution prevents Henderson from breaking for home. There are two out. But Mike Piazza, he of extraordinarily recent three-run homer fame, is the batter.
Like hell he is. Of course Torre tells Rivera to walk Piazza. There’s an open base and Piazza’s theoretical run doesn’t matter a whit. What matters is the next batter is slated to be Melvin Mora.
Mora? The rookie? The kid…not really a kid — he’s 27 — the guy who’s batting .067 on the season? This is what the Mets are about to come down to? Mariano Rivera versus Melvin Mora, who came in for defense in right way back when Piazza had put the Mets up 7-6?
Like hell it will. Mora and his 15 major league at-bats are called back to the dugout and Matt Franco is sent to the plate. Matt Franco is the Mets’ best pinch-hitter, 10-for-36 thus far in 1999.
Mariano Rivera is the planet’s pre-eminent closer. The loading of the bases hasn’t changed that. Henderson may have walked. Alfonzo may have doubled. Piazza may have loomed. But look: the Yankees are still winning, and Mariano Rivera is still pitching.
Then again, that is Matt Franco up there. It may not be a name that strikes fear into the heart of the pinstriped nearsighted, but he’s Valentine’s best option, and it’s pretty amazing that in a game that’s gone past three hours and forty-five minutes and that’s included 15 Yankees and 18 Mets, Bobby V has managed to preserve a nineteenth player…and exactly for the spot he’d want him up in, too.
Pretty good managing.
Franco swung at the first cut fastball Mariano Rivera threw him and fouled it to the backstop. Matt considered it “my pitch to hit” and was distressed he didn’t do anything with it.
Franco swung at the second cut fastball Mariano Rivera threw him and didn’t touch it. “I had a couple of good swings at the first two pitches,” Franco said. “I felt I was right on him.”
Franco took the third cut fastball Mariano Rivera threw him, just below his knees.
It was low, according to home plate umpire Jeff Kellogg.
It was not, barked Joe Torre.
It was life, knew Matt Franco, who acknowledged that his heart “skipped a beat” as he waited for Kellogg’s ruling.
“It was low,” Valentine confirmed. “It was low when Dennis Cook was pitching. It was low when Rick Reed was pitching.”
“I thought I had it,” Mariano Rivera countered. Well, of course. Yankees were used to having it all.
“It felt down,” Franco explained. What Franco felt was correct, per Kellogg. And, as a result, Franco was still up.
And a fourth cut fastball was coming.
COHEN: Now Rivera brings the hands together…runners take a lead at all three bases. One-two to Franco…LINE DRIVE base hit into right field! Henderson scores! Here comes Alfonzo…here comes O’Neill’s throw to the plate…Alfonzo slides…he’s safe, the Mets win it! THE METS WIN IT! MATT FRANCO WITH A LINE DRIVE SINGLE TO RIGHT AND HE’S BEING MOBBED BY HIS TEAMMATES! Matt Franco, a two-run single off Mariano Rivera in the bottom of the ninth inning, and the Mets win it, nine to eight!
Yes, the Mets win it, nine to eight.
Not just any 9-8 win…as if there is a vast enough subgenre of Mets’ 9-8 wins to shunt any of them off to the side as merely routine.
Not just any walkoff win in which the Mets were down to their last strike…though they were, weren’t they?
Not just any win against the team that was said to own its city and be exclusively capable of teaching its neighbors how to triumph…though it was the first one to clinch the Mets a given Subway Series.
Not just an unsurpassed ending, but a hellacious middle and uncommonly busy beginning…both of which were destined to get lost amid the fifth and final lead swap.
Not just momentum shifts and mood swings, but hot flashes, cold sweats and a veritable change of life undergone by thirty-some-odd-thousand Mets fans in-house and who knows how many millions more following along from afar.
Not just another nine innings of midseason baseball, that’s for sure. All of it jumbled together and coalesced into an extended outburst of pure, ecstatic joy on behalf of the home team, peppered by a hearty sprinkling of Sheadenfreude as regarded the overbearing visitors (and their twenty-some-odd-thousand acolytes) from one borough away.
There were Henderson and Alfonzo hosting a victory party at home plate, where the first guest was Ventura, the on-deck hitter who didn’t have to do a thing besides kvell when his services were no longer required.
There was McRae leading — and Ordoñez bolting from the dugout to join — a welcoming committee charged with letting Franco know he could sit anywhere he wanted once they all got back to the clubhouse.
There were the knots of orange- and blue-drenched souls in every section of Shea Stadium, likely accounting for no more than 65% of the tickets sold this day, yet now making 100% of the noise (save for a little instinctive whining among the begrudging 35% who weren’t terribly joyful, but hey, that’s life in the big two-team city).
And there would be, in a town where print still ruled your reading, paragraph upon paragraph in the Sunday papers commemorating what had just transpired on this Saturday in this park. Phrases flew off the pages the way balls flew out of Shea.
• “Put yesterday’s game in a time capsule as a tribute to baseball at its best…”
• “One of the most incredible games any of them will ever play…”
• “This game will be etched into the archives of this city’s baseball history with bold, brilliant strokes…”
• “If it’s overkill, that’s only because it’s now OK to die knowing we will never see a better game…”
• “Occasions don’t get any bigger in July…”
• “You have a living, breathing case to commit the next man who declares six duels between the Mets and Yankees as three too many…”
Who said all that? Everybody. And they were all as accurate as this game was phenomenal.
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On July 12, 2007, the Mets gave new meaning to getting off to a good start as their very first two hitters after the All-Star break each homered. Jose Reyes belted the third pitch he saw from Reds starter Bronson Arroyo out of Shea Stadium and, four pitches later, Ruben Gotay followed suit. Two batters, two homers, two runs. At that pace, the Mets would still be batting, but the homer parade ended there and the Reds eventually tied them. Fortunately for the Mets, Gotay would single home Lastings Milledge in the fifth to give the Mets a 3-2 edge that Orlando Hernandez and three relievers made hold up. The two homers right out of the gate was a Met first and demonstrated interesting timing for another reason. The club had dismissed hitting coach Rick Down over the break and had yet to name Howard Johnson as his replacement, thus nobody was officially tutoring Reyes or Gotay this Thursday night. As students, they proved pretty adept self-starters at independent study.
GAME 089: July 17, 1973 — Mets 8 BRAVES 7
(Mets All-Time Game 089 Record: 17-32; Mets 1973 Record: 39-50)
Yogi Berra doesn’t require any extra quoting, but here goes, nonetheless. When he was managing the Mets, Ken Boswell allegedly went to him for help in solving himself of a bad batting habit, namely that, “I keep swinging up at the ball.”
To which, Yogi replied, “Well, swing down.”
Not quite up there with other Yogi gems, but if we can craft a Yogi-ism from that exchange (and the man does claim, “I never said most of the things I said”), it might be that you have to stop doing what’s not working if you want to stop doing what’s not working. That perfectly sound Berra logic was put into play this Tuesday night in Atlanta when the most important element of the Met bullpen was offering his team virtually no relief.
Tug McGraw was a National League All-Star in 1972, when giving relievers such honors was a relative rarity. American League manager Earl Weaver thumbed his nose at bullpens everywhere by taking nine pitchers — all starters — while his counterpart, Danny Murtaugh, made McGraw one of his staff’s two lefties (Steve Carlton, in the midst of his 27-10 season for the 59-win Phillies, was the other).
“Earl certainly doesn’t recognize us,” McGraw lamented.
Tug turned out to be the winning pitcher in the ’72 All-Star Game at Atlanta Stadium, throwing the ninth and tenth and keeping the score tied at four until Joe Morgan singled in Nate Colbert with the winning run. His several years as one of baseball’s best relievers should have been evidence enough that McGraw belonged, but the Mets’ fireman didn’t necessarily feel completely at ease.
“I started getting nervous when they introduced Mays and Aaron before the game,” Tug admitted. “That got to me and I realized where I was. Later, I caught myself being extremely nervous and told myself the only reason I should be nervous is if I’m scared and I’m not scared. So I took myself on a confidence trip.”
He had no problem making that sort of psychic sojourn in 1972. His confidence was born of his success: Tug posted his second consecutive ERA of 1.70 and his 27 saves were second-most in the N.L., behind fellow All-Star Clay Carroll of Cincinnati. Confidence trip…smooth sailing…whatever you wanted to call it, Yogi knew if he called on Tug in the late innings, he’d probably have no regrets when the game was over.
Fast-forward a year, and the only trip Tug was on when the Mets came to Atlanta was a bad one. McGraw was in the midst of “my famous slump of 1973”. As he recalled it in his book, Screwball, it was no fun whatsoever:
“I couldn’t figure out what had happened to me. I couldn’t even say to myself, forget about it, you’re human. Tug, you’re human. I wanted to figure it out, hassle it out. But I was so wild that they weren’t even trying to hit my pitches. So I wanted to know what the hell had happened: why?”
Tug couldn’t answer it. Yogi couldn’t answer it. Nobody could answer it. All anybody could divine was Tug’s bottom line by mid-July. He was 0-4, he had blown seven saves (while recording only eleven) and his ERA was just a smidge below six. He was having an awful season and, not surprisingly, so were the Mets. They were in last place, twelve under .500 and eleven games out of first. It was a year straight out of the early portion of Tug’s Met career, except prior to 1969, there were no expectations for him or them. These 1973 Mets were supposed to be contenders. They appeared to be dead.
“I didn’t have any feel for the baseball at all. I didn’t have any idea how to throw the baseball. It was as though I’d never played before in my entire life. I just felt like dropping to my knees and saying: Shit, I don’t know what to do. Don’t know what to do. Cannot hack it anymore.”
So for a night, Berra decided McGraw didn’t have to, not as a reliever, at any rate. After being skipped in a Monday night 8-6 loss when the Mets clearly needed relief help, Tug showed up at Atlanta Stadium on Tuesday to discover a baseball sitting in a shoe in his locker. It was the manager’s way of telling Tug he was going to be that night’s starter.
It wasn’t unprecedented in McGraw’s career. He made 25 starts from 1965-67 and four more in early 1969 before Gil Hodges decided Tug would better serve the team (and his career) as the lefty complement to Ron Taylor in the Mets’ bullpen. Except for a token start in the second game of a doubleheader late in 1971, Tug transformed exclusively into a reliever for the next four years, making 229 of his 230 appearances out of the ’pen. There was no reason to think he’d ever return to the Mets’ rotation. But nothing was working for Tug and little was working for the Mets, so, in essence, why not start him?
Tug was surprised by this assignment, but tried to play it cool, even kidding Yogi that he’d been on a bender the night before. Whether Berra got the joke or not, he had a message for McGraw: “You’re starting tonight and you better do a good job.”
There had been no bender, but there wasn’t much clarity. Tug did not take comfort in taking the mound in the bottom of the first. “But then,” he wrote, “I gave myself the old pep talk: Got to fight your way out of it. Can’t feel any different just because you’re starting the game instead of finishing it. Get hold of yourself, beginning right now.”
The uplifting conclusion to the story would be that McGraw fought the good fight, figured out what he was doing wrong and pitched the game of his life that night. But baseball is no fairy-tale world. What really happened was Ralph Garr hit his first pitch over the center field fence. Yet Tug did take some solace in falling behind 1-0. “At least it can’t get any worse,” he decided, opting to view his start as “an experiment: one pitch, one run. Maybe I can get the next guy out.”
He did. Marty Perez flied to John Milner at first for the first out. McGraw escaped the inning without further damage. But it wasn’t really happening for him out there on the Atlanta mound, at least not as discerned from the scoreboard. A wild pitch scored Paul Casanova in the second; Dusty Baker and Davey Johnson drove in runs in the third; and with the Braves ahead 4-1 in the sixth, Tug gave up a two-run homer to Perez and a solo shot to Henry Aaron, the 698th of Hammerin’ Hank’s career.
Most of America was zeroing in on Aaron’s chase of Babe Ruth’s lifetime home run mark that summer, and Tug’s gopher had allowed 39-year-old Bad Henry to move within sixteen long balls of the Bambino. To Aaron, the important thing was he put his team up, 7-1: “I felt like when I hit it, it was just another run, like icing on the cake.”
As for McGraw, you might say he was wearing a hit-eating grin. Yes, he’d given up the three homers, the seven runs, had hit Darrell Evans and unleashed that wild pitch — and yes, he had his team in a six-run hole — but Tug could feel himself hacking it again: “I was just beginning to relax. I thought what the hell, I’ll just have a ball tonight, whatever they do.” Despite the ugly pitching line, he judged himself having had “a fair night” and left after six.
That appeared to be that for Tug, enjoying a small, intangible private victory amid yet another dispiriting Met defeat in a season crammed with them.
Except for this: John Strohmayer pitched a perfect seventh for the Mets; Buzz Capra pitched a perfect eighth for the Mets; and the Mets offense still had to bat in the top of the ninth.
Braves manager Eddie Mathews didn’t see trouble ahead. He pulled Aaron and his 698 home runs (25 of them hit in ’73) from left field and sent Carl Morton out to bid for a complete game. Wayne Garrett singled to lead off the ninth, but ex-Brave Felix Millan lined out. Rusty Staub homered, but that only made it 7-3. Morton stayed in the game to face Cleon Jones, who singled. He stayed in to face Milner. Milner homered.
The Mets trailed 7-5.
Mathews had seen enough of Morton and brought in Adrian Devine, who got Ron Hodges to ground to Johnson at second. Two out, nobody on…the Braves appeared to be in Devine shape.
But Don Hahn singled to keep the game going. Pinch-hitter Ed Kranepool walked, and was pinch-run for by Teddy Martinez. Jim Beauchamp was Berra’s next pinch-hitter and he singled. Hahn raced home, Martinez went to third. Now the Mets were down 7-6, with runners at the corners. They had batted around and knocked out Devine. Matthews chose Tom House to pitch.
And Yogi Berra chose Willie Mays to hit for Garrett.
Unlike his longtime superstar contemporary Aaron, Mays was no longer producing like his young self. Willie was 42 and batting .214 as a part-timer. It was clear Aaron had outlasted him. But two other things were just as clear as Mays stepped in to take on House:
1. Willie Mays was batting, while Hank Aaron was out of the game.
2. Willie Mays was batting.
That’s an aspect of a baseball game that can never be underestimated, as Tom House discovered. Mays worked House for a 3-2 count, which meant the Mets’ runners were in motion when Willie swung and lined a single into deep right field. Martinez scored easily to tie the game at seven. Beauchamp, nobody’s idea of pinch-runner, had a more difficult challenge as he took off from first.
“It was lucky it was a 3-2 count on Willie,” Jim said, “because I got a big jump. Halfway between third and the plate, I ran out of gas.” It wasn’t a fortuitous moment for an energy crisis, but Beauchamp had a little more in the tank than he suspected. Garr’s throw from right was high and Jim slid in safely with the Mets’ seventh run of the ninth inning. In the final game in which Willie Mays and Hank Aaron both appeared, the Mets went ahead, 8-7.
This would have been an ideal time to bring in an accomplished closer like Tug McGraw, but McGraw was obviously not available. So Berra went with his third reliever of the night, rookie Harry Parker. Due up first was Evans, and Parker struck him out. Due up next should have been Aaron, except Mathews’s routine substitution in the top of the ninth meant Harry would face not Henry, but Sonny Jackson. Sonny struck out. Finally, Baker fouled to Milner and Parker joined Strohmayer and Capra in having pitched perfect innings, ensuring the Mets’ 8-7 win.
Blowing a six-run lead in the ninth couldn’t have gone over well in the Braves’ clubhouse, where the volatile Mathews was known to “hurl a tray of Church’s Chicken” at the wall, according to Tom Stanton, author of Hank Aaron and the Home Run That Changed America. Aaron himself, however, was more philosophical than furious.
“That’s baseball for you,” he said.
McGraw, meanwhile, was in the midst of a much happier scene, one in which the poultry was treated much better. “The clubhouse man,” he wrote in Screwball, “had fried chicken on the table in the locker room and we gobbled up all the beer he had, too, and went out and had a big time. We felt we had to do something crazy to get back into contention, and that night we did.”
Contention was still a ways away, actually. The Mets were still in last place and McGraw’s ERA was up to 6.17. But Tug was thinking positively — believing, if you will — and now there was a positive result to get his and his team’s confidence trip going again.
“We got seven runs in the ninth and won it, 8 to 7,” Tug wrote. “Amazing Mets, my ass.”
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On July 20, 1975, the Mets learned how handy it was to have a genuine slugger on their side, particularly when your customarily reliable pitching fails you. The team that came at opponents more than half the time with Tom Seaver, Jon Matlack and Jerry Koosman was trying to get by on odd fifth days with rookie Randy Tate. Tate was no Seaver, no Matlack, no Koosman…he wasn’t even Randy Tate this particular Sunday at Shea as the Houston Astros whacked him around pretty good, chasing him and then Ken Sanders with a five-run fifth to build a 7-1 lead.
To the rescue rode Dave Kingman, who maybe didn’t make much contact — striking out 68 times in 70 games played — or court many friends — “Hey, who gave me an error?” he was reported to bellow after the game, instantly fingering shortstop Jack Heidemann for a third-inning throw Sky King couldn’t handle at first base — but nobody questioned what he could do if he got hold of a pitch. And that he did in the bottom of the fifth, launching a three-run homer to pull the Mets to within 7-4. Three batters later, Heidemann compensated for his non-error by tripling in two runs on a ball to center that Cesar Cedeño lost in the sun. It cut the Astro lead to 7-6. Unfortunately for the Mets, Hank Webb, another of the non-Big Three starters, came on in relief and gave the Astros back a pair of runs to make it 9-6, Houston.
But come the eighth, still facing starter Dave Roberts, the Mets obliterated the Astro advantage on an RBI double by Felix Millan, a run-scoring single from Joe Torre and, finally, a two-run homer off the bat of David Arthur Kingman. Added to an RBI groundout from the first inning, that gave Dave six runs batted in to go with his two home runs on the day. Most importantly, the Mets had a 10-9 lead after being down 7-1. Harry Parker relieved Tom Hall (2.2 IP, 0 R, 1 H, 1 BB, 5 SO) and shut down the Astros for his second save of the season.
“This was one of those days when everything went right,” Kingman said of his performance, and nobody could question his assessment of that, either. It was the first time Dave hit two home runs in one game as a Met, giving him 18 on the year in the Mets’ 89th game of the season. It may not have concerned him as much as being charged with that error he thought should have been Heidemann’s, but Kingman was now six games ahead of Frank Thomas’s pace for most home runs by a Met in a single season. Thomas, who mashed 34 in 1962, didn’t hit his 18th until the club’s 95th game that inaugural campaign — and Thomas was a regular, whereas Kingman, given his propensity for striking out and his lack of what you might call defensive prowess, had played in fewer than four of every five games to date in 1975.
With days like this one too good to ignore, Dave Kingman was about to become a full-time starter. “My mistake in San Francisco,” the ex-Giant reflected, “was that I listened to too many people rather than rely on my own instincts. It takes a long time to learn that some days will be bad and some good, and that each day is new.” If Kingman was going to be playing every day the rest of the way, chances were the Met home run record was going to be new, too.
GAME 090: July 22, 1986 — Mets 6 REDS 3 (14)
(Mets All-Time Game 090 Record: 19-30; Mets 1986 Record: 62-28)
Howard Johnson blasted a three-run homer in the top of the fourteenth inning that proved to be the difference in the Mets’ eventual 6-3 win this Tuesday night in Cincinnati, but y’know what? It was maybe the fifth-most noteworthy aspect of what was probably — and this is saying a ton — the most bizarre game the New York Mets have ever played.
We have to say “probably,” because it was only 382 days since the other most bizarre game the New York Mets have ever played, the one that had started 383 days before and required a night and a third of a morning to complete. That was the 19-inning rain-soaked Fourth & Fifth of July marathon in Atlanta the Mets won 16-13 after Rick Camp tied it in the eighteenth with…well, you know. Yeah, that might have been more bizarre than this one, but this one did a fantastic job of compressing its weirdness.
For the first eight innings, this game’s only really strange quality was that the first-place Mets were losing, 3-1. Bobby Ojeda scored the Mets’ only run in the fifth, and Darryl Strawberry was ejected for arguing a called strike three in the sixth, but otherwise, it was just another tepid Tuesday.
Then the ninth and a different kind of Fireworks Night erupted.
Reds player-manager Pete Rose had the right pitcher in the game to end things routinely. Ron Robinson was 7-0 on the season and began the inning as a perfect pitcher might, by striking out Johnson, who was pinch-hitting. But his catcher, Bo Diaz, dropped the ball and HoJo kicked it away, ran inside the baseline and was hit by Diaz’s throw. He was ruled safe anyway. It might have been just the spark the Mets needed, except Robinson grounded Mookie Wilson into a 4-3 double play, leaving him with just one out to attain.
Robinson, however, walked Dykstra and gave up a double to Tim Teufel to put runners at second and third and compel Rose to make a pitching change. He called on his tough lefty closer, John Franco. Franco had been pitching quite effectively of late. Back in his hometown of New York just two weeks earlier, he garnered a save and a win at Shea against the team he rooted on from the upper deck when he managed to clip enough milk-carton coupons. Franco threw two-and-a-third and two innings in those respective outings. Here his task figured to be briefer, if challenging: get Keith Hernandez to make the final out of the game.
Franco did his part. Got a simple fly ball out of Hernandez. Couldn’t have been any simpler. It was lofted to right field, almost directly to the sure hands of Dave Parker, three times the winner of a Gold Glove award. All Cobra, as he was known, had to do was snare the kind of ball he no doubt hauled in with ease thousands of times in his life. If you were the impatient type, it was a real Warner Wolf “you could have turned your sets off right there” kind of moment.
But if you’re the kind to stick with a ballgame all the way through, then stay tuned.
Parker — whose two-run homer off Ojeda in the third gave the Reds a lead they hadn’t surrendered clear to the moment Hernandez swung — dropped the ball. Or, technically, he didn’t catch it. It glanced off his glove. He didn’t use two hands. He said he was concerned about having a play on Teufel if it came to that and stumbled a bit in his approach. Whatever. The ball was not caught. Dykstra scored. Teufel scored. Hernandez was on second on an E-9.
The right fielder’s error pulled open the curtain on a whole new ballgame, one so determined to leap off the charts in its bizarreness that Parker’s misplay would have to rank as maybe the fourth-most noteworthy aspect of the night.
Because, really, the Mets and Reds were just getting rolling.
Gary Carter left Hernandez on second to end the visitors’ ninth. Doug Sisk, Davey Johnson’s fourth pitcher of the game, was entrusted with getting the Mets to extras. Two Reds reached, but Sisk escaped the bottom of the ninth. After one out in the top of the tenth, Sisk was due to bat. Davey looked down his bench and saw little from which to choose. The circumstances of the first nine innings had strained the resources of his 24-man roster. He had used three pinch-hitters, made one double-switch and was forced to replace Strawberry upon his ejection. So for the fourth time in 1986, Davey called on Rick Aguilera (the previous night’s starter and winner) to pinch-hit. And for the first time in 1986 in that role, Aggie reached base when Franco walked him.
The Mets were in good shape that was getting better. Ray Knight singled Aguilera to second, and Franco wild-pitched both of them up a base. HoJo, however struck out. Rose ordered Mookie intentionally walked and, with the bases loaded, Franco struck out the side when he fanned Lenny Dykstra.
Jesse Orosco replaced Sisk on the mound and struck out Parker to start the bottom of the tenth. Pete Rose called on his favorite pinch-hitter in the entire world, Pete Rose, and Rose came through for himself, singling to center for the 4,247th hit of his 24-year career, setting the all-time major league record for hits for the 56th time. Rose thought less of his baserunning skills at the age of 45 than he did his hitting, so he removed himself and inserted Eric Davis to pinch-run for him.
Rose made a good bet betting against himself. While Eddie Milner batted, Davis stole second without incident. He then took off for third.
Where there would be incident.
Davis was running for Rose but might have been channeling his manager circa 1973 when he slid hard into Ray Knight just as Rose took aim at Buddy Harrelson thirteen years earlier, precipitating a legendary NLCS melee at Shea. Now, Harrelson was the Mets’ third base coach and had a ringside seat for arguably the fiercest regular-season donnybrook in which the Mets had ever engaged.
Not that fights were new to the 1986 Mets. They’d been in three of them already. It seemed to come with the first-place territory or perhaps the methods by which the Mets laid claim to the top of the heap that season. The Mets gave more than lip service to taking no prisoners as they pillaged their merry way through the National League. Tom Niedenfuer of the Dodgers, Rick Rhoden of the Pirates and David Palmer of the Braves had all incurred the Mets’ wrath in the preceding two months. The Mets offered each of those opponents fist service. They had developed a reputation.
And they had no compunction about living up to it.
Davis’s hard slide struck third baseman (and former Golden Gloves boxer) Knight as unnecessarily hard. The players pushed each other and said a few things. The last thing Ray said was, in essence, “POW,” via a right hook to Davis’s pretty — and pretty enraged — face.
“He said, ‘You pushed me,’” Knight recounted. “I said, ‘I didn’t push you on purpose.’ He said, ‘Don’t push me again, you so-and-so.’”
This round of he said/he said could only say so much. “He came at me,” Knight continued. “His eyes looked like he was mad. He was moving toward me, so I popped him. It was just reaction.”
The Mets didn’t need much provocation to react when pushed, and every one of Knight’s teammates poured on the field to defend Ray’s honor — everybody but apparent pacifist George Foster. All the Reds came rumbling in, too, and the main event was on. It was like one of those cartoons in which Popeye and Bluto went at it, except there were approximately two-dozen Popeyes and two-dozen Blutos taking swings and nobody needed any spinach.
It was a fight for the ages, though probably, at best, the third-most noteworthy aspect of the game. Its real significance came into focus just after everybody stopped punching everybody else. For when the infield-cutout dust settled, the Riverfront Stadium turf was deprived of the company of four ejectees: Knight and Davis, quite obviously, along with Reds pitcher Mario Soto and Mets right fielder Kevin Mitchell.
Which was a problem, because Mitchell, unlike Soto, was playing in the game at the time, and he was playing because Strawberry had been thumbed four innings earlier. Remember, Davey Johnson was so hard-pressed for reserves in the top of the tenth that he had to use a pitcher to pinch-hit. Now, with Mitchell (who would take on Popeye, Bluto and Olive Oyl at the drop of a hat) ejected, Johnson had a problem.
Wally Backman had started at second, but Teufel pinch-hit for him in the seventh. Danny Heep had started in left, but Wilson replaced him in a double-switch in the eighth when Sisk took over the pitching from Randy Myers. Foster had earlier pinch-ht for Ojeda. Rafael Santana was the starting shortstop, but that’s who HoJo was pinch-hitting for in the ninth. Straw, as mentioned, got himself thrown out by Gerry Davis; Mitch drew the same punishment when he attempted revenge on Eric Davis.
That left Davey with the following players in the game: Carter behind the plate, Hernandez at first, Teufel at second, HoJo at short, Wilson in left and Dykstra in center. He just lost his third baseman and right fielder to crimes of passion, and he had but one position player on his bench, backup catcher Ed Hearn. Johnson hated to not have a catcher in reserve because if your last catcher goes down, then what? Even in the 19-inning game in Atlanta, Davey managed to hold out Ronn Reynolds altogether. But he had no choice here. Hearn would have to come in.
Which was fine, but that gave Johnson seven position players and he needed to fill eight positions…and not to be picky about it, but he has two catchers yet only three infielders at this point. And still no third outfielder.
Let’s see, then…Hearn was a rookie catcher, so he was told to go catch. Carter, a veteran catcher, once played one inning of third base for the Expos eleven years before, when he was a rookie. So he became the Mets’ 80th third baseman right then and there. It may not have been ideal, but it literally covered the Mets’ bases.
But still no third outfielder. How to compensate for that shortfall?
By inventing one, of course.
Davey Johnson made like Dr. Frankenstein and created a right fielder comprised of the most useful parts his two relief aces. While lefty Orosco was finally allowed to continue his figurative battle with Eddie Milner, righty Roger McDowell was directed to right field. McDowell was a pitcher, but even a team that holds a double-digit lead in its division encounters desperate times across the vast expanse of a 162-game season. This was one of them, and Johnson responded to it with a plainly desperate measure.
Two of them, actually, because once Orosco struck out Milner (with pitcher Tom Browning on third, running for Davis), Davey made a defensive change unprecedented in the quarter-century history of the New York Mets. He sent Orosco to right and brought in McDowell to pitch. It was desperation born of lefty-right discomfort, for sure — not of concern for lefty-righty pitching matchups but for whether lefty or righty Reds were likely to hit a ball to a pitcher playing right instead of left.
Yet it was audacious, too. It seemed of a 1986 piece with the slamming down of bats and the charging of mounds and the inevitable curtain calls that made the Mets appear “arrogant” to the rest of the outclassed league. Let other teams running short on arms and legs struggle with their personnel depletions. The Mets would bask in theirs and turn them into opportunities. Seriously, the only thing that would have made Johnson moving his nine pieces around more perfect would have been Roger and Jesse high-fiving as they literally passed in the night.
Oh, and McDowell struck out Wade Rowdon to end the tenth inning.
Would you believe that the Jesse-Roger tango, repeated several times (and eventually incorporating Mookie, who gamely shuttled between left and right when Davey tried extra hard to hide a hurler), was probably only the second-most noteworthy aspect of this game?
Maybe nothing beat it for peculiarity — a sense enhanced when Rose flipped through a rule book in the Reds’ dugout in an effort to protest Orosco being allowed to throw warmup tosses when he and McDowell switched in the midst of the eleventh inning — but the presence of a pitcher in the outfield didn’t truly define the classic this game was about to become.
That defining moment arrived in the bottom of the twelfth. It was still 3-3, the two-headed pitching outfielder experiment proceeding apace when Orosco allowed a leadoff single to Buddy Bell. As McDowell scurried from right to left and Wilson glided from left to right, lefthanded slugger Parker singled up the middle. The Reds now had first and second with nobody out. Carl Willis, the Cincinnati relief pitcher, was up in a clear bunting situation. It was Willis’s first plate appearance of 1986.
But it wasn’t Keith Hernandez’s first rodeo at first base. The best defensive first baseman anybody had ever seen was not shy about playing close in on bunts. He was, as the cliché went, close enough to the lefty-batting Willis to shake hands…or, more accurately, pick his pocket.
Willis got down his bunt. Hernandez pounced and fired to the third baseman, who, let us not forget, was a catcher. In the bottom of the twelfth of a game that was all but over in the top of the ninth, though, Gary Carter wasn’t interested in labels. He had already proven himself a quick study by handling two balls cleanly in the eleventh, so he was a third baseman now. And third baseman Gary Carter took Hernandez’s lightning-fast throw for the force on Bell and then zipped a throw of his own across the diamond to Teufel, who was covering first on the bunt play. The throw nabbed Willis.
The Reds went from two on and nobody out to one on and two out on the 3-5-4 double play of a lifetime. Its brilliance and beauty, engineered by two of the top players of the decade, have to make it the most noteworthy aspect of a game where the notes piled up almost as high as the worthiness. Though you could take the Orosco-McDowell business if you like. Orosco kept pitching, flying Milner to center to end the twelfth after that sparkling DP, and later returned to fielding, catching Tony Perez’s liner to right to help McDowell record a 1-2-3 thirteenth.
It was more than Dave Parker had done for John Franco when Franco could have used a little help.
Hearn, who had come in only because Davey had to break the glass on the EMERGENCY case in which he preferred to leave his last catcher, doubled off Willis to start the fourteenth. After Orosco walked for the sixth time in his seven major league seasons, Rose took out Willis and brought in the intimidatingly named Ted Power, who fanned McDowell for the first out of the inning. Howard Johnson, however, wasn’t intimidated at all. The 1986 Mets never were.
“We’re probably the cockiest team in the league,” HoJo said after speaking power to Power in the form of a resounding three-run homer to give the Mets a 6-3 lead. “You can’t push us around.”
Nor could you beat them, even if you held a two-run lead with two outs in the ninth; even if you attempted to shove their players from the game; even as you forced them to resort to their wits in a pinch. These Mets had those in spades and were no more hesitant to use them than they were their fists. They had Orosco and McDowell pitching a combined five innings in non-consecutive fashion. They had Carter, a man who crouched for a living, standing tall at a corner so hot four guys had just been thrown out from it. They had Hernandez, a deceptively selfless soul who wouldn’t allow an opponent to even think about sacrificing.
Geez, they even had two pitchers, Aguilera and Orosco, drawing walks in extra innings.
Most of all, they had a 6-3 win in fourteen innings in one of their, let’s say, two most bizarre games ever. It was either this one or the 16-13 spectacle from the year before. That one had twenty more runs, five more innings, went several hours later and you can’t forget about Rick Camp and the 4:00 AM fireworks. This one had…well, let’s ask the manager who won both of them.
“This is the strangest game I’ve been involved in,” Davey Johnson declared in picking the set-to in Cincy over the jaw-dropper in Georgia. “Even stranger than Atlanta. I’m out of pitchers, and I’m out of extra players.”
Yet never out of whatever it took to win. For the 1986 Mets, there was nothing strange about that.
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On July 13, 1997, the Mets completed their first series at Turner Field and came away thinking it wasn’t such a bad place. And why would they view “the Ted” as anything but friendly territory considering the way they finished up their mostly happy weekend there? After taking two of three from the first-place Braves, they fell behind 6-0 in the bottom of the first when their All-Star pitcher, Bobby Jones, showed himself to be decidedly less than stellar. Yet somehow Bobby Valentine didn’t view Jones as a lost cause and left him in there to battle Atlanta. He wound up giving his manager six more innings and the Braves no more runs.
In the meantime, the Mets’ offense didn’t give up. Most determined to keep the Mets in the fight was right fielder Butch Huskey, who reached Denny Neagle for a two-run homer in the second and a three-run bomb in the fourth. A Manny Alexander double, followed by a Mark Lemke error in the fifth made it, suddenly and shockingly, a 6-6 game. It stayed that way into the tenth when pinch-hitter Alex Ochoa homered off Mike Bielecki to give the Mets a 7-6 lead, one John Franco protected for the New York win. The Mets left Turner Field with a lifetime record of 3-1 in the former Centennial Olympic Stadium…though maybe they should have been suspicious when the locals seemingly hospitably urged them to come back down anytime, y’all.