Welcome to the final installment of 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 concludes here with the “best” 162nd game in any Mets season and the “best” 163rd game in any Mets season, thus completing a schedule worthy of Bob Murphy coming back with the Happy Recap after this word from our sponsor on the WFAN Mets Radio Network.
GAME 162: October 3, 1999 — METS 2 Pirates 1
(Mets All-Time Game 162 Record: 20-18-1; Mets 1999 Record: 96-66)
The Mets held their destiny in their own hands. What a frightening thought.
Less than 24 hours earlier, the Mets’ chances of attaining their first postseason berth in eleven years was, by necessity, a collaborative effort. They needed help — not the same kind their emotionally overwrought fans needed, but a more decisive kind. They needed one of the teams playing their rivals for the National League Wild Card to come up big on their behalf. They needed either the Milwaukee Brewers or the Los Angeles Dodgers to win a game. The Brewers were taking on the Cincinnati Reds; the Dodgers were going up against the Astros. When Saturday, October 2, began, both the Reds and Dodgers led the Mets by a single game. That gap had to be trimmed by half if the Mets’ Saturday night contest versus Pittsburgh was going to mean much of anything.
One of the two Mets’ new bunch of best friends in the whole world did them the solid of the century as 1999 neared its close. The 73-86 Brewers, a National League outfit all of two years, rose up and smote the 95-65 Reds on Saturday, 10-6, making it two consecutive times that Cincinnati stumbled versus non-contending Milwaukee. The Brewers put the Reds away with seven third-inning runs, as 23-year-old rookie Kyle Peterson chalked up his fourth major league win.
The cheering in New York could be heard all the way back to Wisconsin.
Peterson’s more than serviceable 6.2 innings of work — backed by two RBIs apiece from Marquis Grissom, Jeff Cirillo, Jeromy Burnitz and Ronnie Belliard — constituted the greatest gift Milwaukee presented New York since it began shipping Miller High Life east. Though Kyle Peterson’s name never, ever comes up in any retelling of New York Mets history, his Saturday afternoon win at County Stadium stands as the most important out-of-town bulletin ever to go up on the Shea Stadium scoreboard.
There it was that Saturday night, a crisp CIN 6 MIL 10 for 36,878 to see and savor. Peterson and the Brewers had pulled the Mets to within snatching distance of Cincinnati’s now half-game Wild Card lead. While any and all help would be appreciated Sunday, it was no longer required. If the Mets could, per serious-sounding sports jargon, take care of business, they could not be stopped in their quest to extend their season. Everything they and their followers dreamed of was now within their grasp.
Welcome to invasion of the Wild Card snatchers. As long as they did their part and didn’t play like zombies, the Mets were on their way to the playoffs.
Which was the frightening part, since they were on their way to the playoffs two weeks earlier and proceeded to blow it like crazy with a seven-game losing streak that made every Mets fan a fatalist. But they righted themselves just enough — two wins in their past three games — to benefit from the moment that Cincinnati suddenly decided to cease being Red hot. Cincy had forged a six-game winning streak more or less concurrent with the Mets’ losing ways. They were in first place in the N.L. Central a few nights earlier. Everything was going their way.
And then it started turning in the other direction. The Astros passed the Reds for first. Then the Reds fell twice to the Brewers as the Mets beat the Pirates once and prepared to play them again. The hottest team in baseball went cold.
It was time for the Mets to take an ice pick to them, via Pittsburgh.
On Saturday night the Second of October, the Mets unleashed a lethal weapon upon the Pirates. His name was Rick Reed, and he pitched only the game of his life. Against the team for whom he began his major league career eleven years earlier (and for the team he beat in his 1-0 besting of Bobby Ojeda on ABC’s Monday Night Baseball), Reed propelled the Mets while his teammates scuffled to figure out Francisco Cordova. Through six scoreless innings, Reeder allowed only two hits while striking out nine Bucs. Cordova wriggled out of a bases-loaded jam in the second and kept the Mets off the board until the bottom of the sixth.
Then the Mets caught up with the opposing pitcher and gave their own all the support he’d need. Aided by two Pirate errors, the Mets scored a pair of runs, the first on Robin Ventura’s 119th run batted in of the year. Ice cold for two weeks, Ventura was now steaming toward the finish line, having homered the night before in advance of winning the game on his eleventh-inning walkoff single. Only Mike Piazza had more RBIs in any one Met season now, and that was OK, ’cause that season was 1999, and the more records the Mets set, the better.
Up 2-0, Reed resumed picking apart the team that gave up on him at the end of Spring Training 1992. The Pirates weren’t the only ones. The Royals, the Rangers and Reds all had him and dropped him. He fell into Bobby Valentine’s lap at Norfolk in 1996 and Bobby brought him to New York in 1997, the first time Reed — by then 32 — had made a team’s Opening Day roster. Soon enough he made everybody look shortsighted for passing on him as he compiled a 13-9 record with a 2.89 ERA and fabulous control for the resurgent ’97 Mets. A year later, he was a National League All-Star. A year after that, at its critical end, the game of his life continued. Rick breezed through the tops of the seventh and eighth, nursing his 2-0 lead toward the finish line.
The Mets finally made it a breathable Saturday night when they added five more runs to their line in the bottom of the eighth. Reed drove in the first two, Piazza the last two, on his 40th homer, to up his franchise-best RBI to 124. Thoroughly bolstered, Reed pitched the ninth to its logical conclusion: a leadoff single to Adrian Brown for the third Pittsburgh hit of the night, a Brown-out double play grounder courtesy of Al Martin, and Abraham Nuñez looking at the twelfth strikeout of the night.
It was a 7-0 win for Reeder and a tie in the Wild Card standings for the Mets.
“It’s pretty cool, I guess,” the master of both the Pirates and understatement said before upping the assessment. “It’s awesome. This is a chance for us to make the playoffs. I know this organization has wanted it for how many years and I know there’s a lot of guys in here that are wanting it, and I’m one of them.”
“DREAM ON!” blared the front page of Sunday’s Daily News, but not in a smart-alecky fashion. The dream that the Mets could overcome their long odds and land somewhere besides home for winter was a dream that was still on, as the sub-head explained:
“METS WIN, CAN CLINCH PLAYOFFS IN FINAL GAME TODAY”
“Right now,” Rick confirmed, “we have to win one more game.”
Reed’s prognosis was a little more on-the-money than the News’s. Yes, the Mets could clinch a playoff spot in their 162nd game of the season, their finale against the Pirates, but the end result was available to them only if the Brewers continued to serve as their wingmen. Should Milwaukee finally ease up on Cincinnati, there could be no clinch — but as long as the Mets win, there’d be a tomorrow, a 163rd game to determine the Wild Card in a head-to-head matchup at Cinergy Field in Cincinnati.
But that was a world away in the Mets’ concerns going into Sunday. They had to win right here, right now. They had to beat Pittsburgh one more time. A loss would leave their fate to others. No, that wouldn’t do. Their hand was at last on the wheel of their own destiny. It hadn’t worked for them when they spiraled into their nearly lethal seven-game losing streak and it wasn’t any help a year earlier when a five-game losing streak left them on the sidelines as the Cubs and Giants engaged in one of those so-called play-in games. Yet it was, all things considered, still their best option.
Win today, and no matter what happens, there’s another game in their immediate future.
If Cincinnati wins and Houston loses…never mind all that. Just win today. Just win today.
The last time the Mets made good on a playoff opportunity, their road to a second world title in three years ended at the hot, hot hands of Orel Hershiser, the MVP of the 1988 National League Championship Series. The Dodger righty, who had come into that postseason riding a mind-boggling streak of 59 scoreless innings, earned his first chunk of postseason hardware by snuffing out the Mets in the seventh game of a series that was supposed to be in the New York bag but almost never felt not destined to go L.A.’s way. Hershiser hadn’t been overly suffocating in his Game One and Game Three starts (both pulled out by the Mets), but his twelfth-inning appearance in Game Four, flying out Kevin McReynolds with the bases loaded to nail down a 5-4 win was as strong a signal as Mike Scioscia’s tying home run off Doc Gooden three innings earlier that this thing was turning toward the Dodgers.
Come Game Seven, it was all Hershiser all the time: five hits, two walks and not a single Met run. With two outs in the ninth, and the Dodgers ahead by six, Howard Johnson stood bone-still on a three-two pitch to end the night, the postseason and the Mets’ final shot at a World Series for more than a decade. Beatific Orel Hershiser (who found a moment to drop to a knee and thank the Lord before embracing his catcher Scioscia) had his fifth strikeout and the enmity of every Mets fan. He was Mike Scott. He was Bruce Hurst. He was worse, actually. Unlike those guys, who merely threatened to derail the 1986 Mets, Hershiser had actually ushered the Mets from the Promised Land.
It’s hard to decide what a crestfallen Mets loyalist would have decided would have been more unbelievable on the dark night of October 12, 1988: That the Mets wouldn’t make the playoffs for at least another eleven years or when the moment came to push them toward that elusive goal, the starting pitcher for the Mets would be 41-year-old Orel Hershiser, no longer a Cy Young or MVP candidate, but a most grizzled veteran (the oldest hurler in the N.L. in 1999, by two years over teammate John Franco) who had figured out how to win 13 games despite an ERA well over four.
His opponent in this very different October was a pitcher at a very different stage of his career. Kris Benson was completing his rookie campaign three years after being drafted No. 1 in the nation by the perennially high-drafting Pirates. In that same first round of 1996, other teams selected from among the likes of Braden Looper, Billy Koch, Mark Kotsay, Jake Westbrook, Travis Lee, Eric Chavez and R.A. Dickey; the Mets picked 13th and selected slugging high school outfielder Rob Stratton. The Pirates considered Benson the most attractive of all.
This rookie righty wasn’t quite at the developmental level of Tom Seaver in 1967 or Dwight Gooden in 1984, but Benson was giving the Pirates that currency of late ’90s pitching: innings. He’d thrown almost 190 of them entering Sunday, second on the staff to ace Jason Schmidt. His won-lost record (11-14) wasn’t quite as good as Hershiser’s (13-12), but his ERA was several ticks better (4.22 versus 4.66) and, besides, Hershiser was pitching for a contender. The Pirates were still a high-drafting outfit heading toward 2000. Kris had less to work with — and he had a future. He wouldn’t be 25 until November. The young stud vs. old pro storyline was irresistible.
And for what it was worth, Benson and Hershiser had crossed paths once before, on July 27, also at Shea. It was the instantly infamous Mercury Mets game, the night the Mets turned the clock forward to (if sponsor Century 21 was to be believed), 2021. The Mets and Pirates both wore absurd uniforms, though the Mets’ all-in approach (rebranding their home planet; Photoshopping Rickey Henderson’s DiamondVision photo so he’d sport three eyes) is what won the Mets a judgmental round of derision from all concerned. The still-pious Hershiser was among those who didn’t care for the gimmick. He hoped “the Man upstairs” wouldn’t be too unhappy with the vaguely demonic symbol on his cap, and he didn’t seem to be kidding.
In the middle of all that Veeckian wreckage, Kris Benson outpitched Orel Hershiser, defeating the Mets of Mercury, 5-1. If he wasn’t otherworldly, Benson’s first complete game in the majors served notice, perhaps, that he was the kind of pitcher the Mets wouldn’t want to encounter with everything on the line.
Too bad. It was October 3, and if the earthbound Mets intended to break the surly bonds of the regular season, they’d have to beat Benson and/or his bullpen. If Hershiser could summon the ghosts of 1988, all the better.
As had been the case for the first two-thirds of the first two games of this series, starting pitching eclipsed just about all hitters. Hershiser, coming off a beatdown versus the Braves (he lasted only a third-of-an-inning), wasn’t touching off any scoreless steaks in the first, as the Pirates built a run on a walk, a bunt, a steal and a Kevin Young single. But he tamped down what was left of the Pirate attack for the next four innings. Whether Benson was baffling or the Mets were extremely tight, the Mets stayed behind 1-0 until the fourth. A Young error allowed John Olerud to reach second as a leadoff runner and Darryl Hamilton drove him in to knot the score at one.
Benson and Hershiser engaged in their battle for the ages, so to speak, until the sixth when a one-out Martin double compelled Valentine to remove Orel for Dennis Cook. Hershiser may not have quite rekindled his devilish magic from 1988, but two hits and two walks over 5⅓ innings was about as perfect as Mets fans could hope for from the oldest pitcher in the league. Cook and Pat Mahomes combined to extricate the Mets from any problems in the top of the sixth.
In the bottom of the inning, the Mets challenged Benson. Ventura and Hamilton singled, and Rey Ordoñez walked to load the bases with two out. The best pinch-hitter Valentine had was a Matt Franco, and there was no better juncture to use him, with the pitcher’s spot up next. Alas, there was no worse result than when Franco popped foul to third baseman Aramis Ramirez.
The top of the seventh belonged to the Mets’ fourth pitcher of the day, Turk Wendell, who set down the Pirates in order. Benson was still on in the seventh when Rickey Henderson led off as Rickey Henderson had been doing regularly since 1979: by getting on base. Rickey lined a single to right, but in a concession to his 40-year-old calves (one of which was cramping), he was pulled for rookie pinch-runner Melvin Mora. Mora, whose favorite player during his Venezuelan childhood was the mercurial Henderson, had nowhere to run, however, as Benson flied out Edgardo Alfonzo and Olerud before striking out Piazza with what became his 120th and final pitch of the day.
Kris Benson had outlasted Orel Hershiser, as 24-year-olds will do to 41-year-olds, but he only pitched him to a draw: each man allowed one run and each man was leaving his business to be finished by others. Wendell remained the Mets’ pitcher in the eighth and he stayed tough, retiring the Bucs in order again. Jason Christiansen replaced Benson, and it’s hard to say if the Mets noticed the difference. They made two quick outs, drew some hope from a Benny Agbayani pinch-walk but then watched Ordoñez ground to first to end the inning.
On to the ninth, with the Mets and Pirates still tied, 1-1. In Houston, the Astros were in the midst of clinching their division, thus altogether removing themselves from the National League Wild Card equation. In Milwaukee, nothing was doing in any sense of the word. Rain fell on County Stadium. On a less contentious final Sunday afternoon of the schedule, the Brewers and Reds would shake hands and get a leg up on their hunting and fishing. But the Brewers would have to wait around because the game was going to mean everything to the Reds, no matter what the Mets did.
What the Mets were doing in the interim was continuing to hold off the Pirates, though that, like the entirety of their 1999 season, insisted on getting interesting. Turk retired his seventh and eighth consecutive batters before succumbing to Young, who lined a single to left. Valentine opted for his hardest thrower, Armando Benitez. As Armando got used to the mound, Young stole second. The batter, Warren Morris, was intentionally walked to put two on with two out. With a shot at giving the Pirates a lead that might have devastated the Mets’ post-October 3 plans, Ramirez struck out on four pitches.
Gene Lamont brought in Greg Hansell to pitch. Bobby Valentine sent up a wishful thought to hit. His name was Bobby Bonilla, having, all things considered, one of the worst seasons any Met had ever had. The .161 batting average and the four months since his last home run was the least of it. Bonilla was a Grade-D distraction all year long, pouting, sulking, bickering and in no way contributing to a team that was tied in the ninth inning of the 162nd game of a season in which it was tied for a playoff spot. Had Bonilla produced just a little more positively, the Mets might already be in the playoffs. But Bonilla was a net negative in 1999.
Yet there he was, the Mets’ first hope of potentially their last inning. He was once a superstar, the biggest name in the free agent winter of 1991, when the Mets, desperate to make a splash, threw a ton of money at him and he declared how much he had always wanted to be a Met. That was a long time ago. Bonilla had since wound his way through Baltimore, Florida and Los Angeles. He was a Met again only because the current general manager wanted to get rid of one onerous contract (Mel Rojas’s), so he accepted a different one. Bonilla plainly wasn’t worth it.
Wasn’t it about time he was? That was the sense 50,111 at Shea maintained as they did a veritable restart on the hard drives of their memories. Clearing away everything they knew about Bobby Bonilla’s futile 1999, they stood as one and applauded their former two-time All-Star in the hopes that he could take one big swing and create a game-ending scene that would make Kirk Gibson scoff in disbelief. Bobby Bo had authored 277 home runs since 1986. How about one more right now?
It was a great idea, but no. Bobby let ’er rip, but all that occurred was a grounder to first for the first out of the ninth. Most of Shea applauded the effort. That Bonilla could elicit any semblance of good feeling was pretty unbelievable by itself.
Maybe those good vibes were the kickstart karma required to push the Mets toward life after 162 games. Next thing Shea saw, Mora, the pinch-runner who stayed in the game and shifted at Valentine’s will from left to right and back to left, singled to right for the fifth hit of his major league career. Alfonzo, the club pro, also singled to right, sending Mora scooting to third. Olerud, whom nobody called the silent assassin but they could have, had to be intentionally walked here. Even if it meant Mike Piazza and his club record 124 RBIs were up next.
Lamont did what he had to do. He had Hansell pass Olerud and he replaced Hansell with Brad Clontz, a Met for barely more than a minute in 1998, but nevertheless a former Met who looked at his ex-mates on the precipice of playoff ascension and “wanted to beat them bad”. Chances are most in the finger-crossing, rally-capping crowd had probably forgotten him if they were ever aware of him at all. But one person in blue and orange was plenty Clontz-conscious.
“I played with him,” Mora reflected upon noticing his Tide teammate from the season before was warming up, “and I knew he would throw the ball at the dirt. I was thinking wild pitch because I knew he wasn’t going to throw nothing around the plate to Piazza.”
Ladies and gentlemen, meet the prophet Melvin Mora. Oh, here he comes now, as described by Gary Cohen:
Well, the hope for the Pirates is they get Piazza to hit a ground ball at an infielder who would be able to turn a double play and get through the inning.
The infield will play halfway. The outfield will play only as deep as they can throw, a fly ball will win the game, with Mora standing at third base.
Alfonzo at second, Olerud at first.
Piazza stands in, oh-for-four on the afternoon.
Clontz is ready to go, pitching off the stretch. DEALS to Piazza. Low and outside, IT GETS AWAY! ONTO THE SCREEN!
MORA SCORES! THE METS WIN IT! THE METS WIN IT!
Mora is MOBBED by his teammates as he crosses home plate! Brad Clontz BOUNCED the first pitch up onto the SCREEN! Melvin Mora scores the winning RUN! The Mets win in game number one-hundred sixty-TWO, and the Mets will play again in Nineteen Ninety-NINE!
The Mets win it their final turn at bat, they win it two to one on a WILD PITCH by BRAD CLONTZ, and they’re going crazy here at Shea!
All the Mets out on the field, exchanging HIGH-FIVES and hugs. The Mets have played a hundred and sixty-two GAMES, they now lead the Wild Card by a half-a-game, waiting on CINCINNATI, scheduled to play in Milwaukee, waiting for the raindrops to cease, and it may be a long night before we know where the Mets are going, Bob, but now we know they’re goin’ somewhere.
Indeed, as Gary told Bob Murphy, the journey of the 1999 Mets was continuing. Once the rain stopped, the Reds would play. No matter what they did, so would the Mets — either against Cincinnati Monday to determine the identity of the National League Wild Card night or in Arizona Tuesday night to take on the N.L. West champion Diamondbacks in the first game of the National League Division Series.
“When I touched home plate,” Mora related, “I just thought, ‘We’re going to be flying somewhere, but we’re gonna fly.’”
The Mets’ fate remained in their own hands. What an exhilarating thought.
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On October 5, 1986, there was numerical beauty in everything the Mets touched. They defeated the Pirates, 9-0, at Shea to complete the regular season at 108-54: two wins for every loss, so much neater than, say, 107-55. The Mets had already surpassed the franchise record for most victories in one year when they beat the Bucs, 3-1, in Pittsburgh on September 26 to move their mark to 101-53. With 1969’s standard of 100-62 relegated to second place, everything else prior to the playoffs was gravy.
But what gravy. The Mets surged toward their NLCS date with Houston in 1986 style by winning their final five, nine of their last ten and 15 of 19 overall, dating back to September 16 in St. Louis, when they clinched a tie for the foregone conclusion that the next night became their third division title.
Not only was 108-54 imposing (no National League team had won as many since the 1975 Reds; no National League team had won more since the 1909 Pirates), but the 9-0 score by which they achieved their 108th triumph was appropriate. 9-0 is the score by which a forfeit is declared, and the entire senior circuit seemed to give up as soon as the Mets appeared in the other dugout 108 times in 1986. There was also a tinge of satisfaction that it was the Pirates going down to defeat versus the Mets for the 17th time in 18 games in ’86. The Pirates were a lousy team, going 64-98, but their similar cellar-dwelling in 1985 (57-104) hadn’t stopped them from beating the Mets eight of eighteen and putting a major crimp in that year’s Flushing postseason plans.
Not a problem in 1986, a year unlike any other for the Mets. First-year Pirate skipper Jim Leyland was actually mindful that the Mets were due at the Astrodome three days hence and removed his starter, Hipolito Peña, in the second inning because he didn’t like how high and tight the late-season callup was coming in on Mets batters. His last pitch hit Keith Hernandez in the back. Nudged to recall his sportsmanlike pitching change a quarter-century later by the Times’s George Vecsey, Leyland reasoned, “Shoot, they were going to Houston. I didn’t want to see them get hurt.”
The Mets didn’t go out of their way to run up the score on the poor Pirates, it’s just what they did in 1986. More numerical beauty could be found in how the Mets put up their nine runs: A three-run homer from Gary Carter in the first, a two-run homer from Ray Knight in the fourth, a grand slam off the mighty bat of Darryl Strawberry in the fifth. Straw’s slam shoved his RBI total over 90 for the year, while Carter’s blast tied him with Rusty Staub for most runs batted in by any Met, 105, in one season.
The pitching also seemed to follow a script. Ron Darling went five to qualify for one of the season’s easiest victories (his 15th) and Sid Fernandez worked the final four to tune up for the playoffs. In doing so, he earned his first (and only) major league save. With his final pitch, to Pirate third baseman Bobby Bonilla, Sid added one more exclamation point: his 200th strikeout, tying Dwight Gooden for the staff lead. And if Sid should be needed in relief in the upcoming postseason, the experience would come in handy.
The home crowd — which had pushed paid attendance for the year to a New York City record 2,767,601 — was overjoyed to finalize an immortal regular season at 108-54, even if its attention was focused on what awaited in Texas. A chant of “We want Houston!” went up around Shea, mirroring the Mets’ feelings exactly. But before they took off in search of the eight wins they’d need to make 1986 as indelible as it possibly could be, they stood in their dugout, watched a highlight montage on DiamondVision (set to Willie Nelson’s recording of “Wind Benath My Wings”) and tossed their caps to the nearby fans. Then blue and orange balloons were released over Queens, hinting at just how high the Mets were planning on soaring before their 1986 was over.
GAME 163: October 4, 1999 — Mets 5 REDS 0
(Mets All-Time Game 163 Record: 2-3; Mets 1999 Record: 97-66)
Cincinnati on a Monday night. No town ever looked so good to the New York Mets.
The Mets knew they were destined to play more baseball after Melvin Mora came duckwalking across home plate on Brad Clontz’s bases-loaded, ninth-inning wild pitch on Sunday. The 2-1 victory against Pittsburgh guaranteed them the National League Wild Card if the Reds lost in rainy Milwaukee or a one-game, regular-season playoff — also referred to as a “play-in” — if the Reds won.
Well, the Reds won. Their Sunday afternoon game became a Sunday night game in deference to the Wisconsin weather and the urgency of the outcome. Though attendance was listed as 55,992, based on tickets sold for what was supposed to be County Stadium’s final baseball game (a fatal construction accident at the adjacent Miller Park site in July extended the old ballpark’s tenure into 2000), the five-hour, forty-seven minute rain delay ensured this one would be played in front of friends and family…and then only really close friends and immediate family. Nevertheless, the ghostly gathering saw National League Player of the Month Greg Vaughn pop his 45th homer of the season and Pete Harnisch, a Met from 1995 to 1997 (and one of several veterans who had clashed with Bobby Valentine), pitch Cincinnati to a 7-1 win, raising their record to 96-66, same as the Mets.
The Reds salvaged their season same as the Mets. They would meet in the seventh specially arranged tiebreaker in National League history, the third in the divisional era and the second in two years to determine the N.L. Wild Card. The 1998 play-in game was one the Mets had dearly wanted a piece of, but their five-game losing streak shut them out and, if so inclined, they had to sit home and watch Steve Trachsel lead the Cubs past the Giants to grab the last remaining playoff spot in Game 163 — the same playoff spot for which the Mets led the pack after 157 games and sat in a three-way tie for after 160 games.
It was a brutal collapse in 1998, which is why the facsimile thereof in 1999 — the seven consecutive losses to the Braves and Phillies with less than two weeks to go — haunted Mets fans so. Their team had come surprisingly close to the Wild Card in 1997, finishing four games behind the one-year wonder Marlins. Enhanced with Mike Piazza in May of ’98, they seemed to have a clear shot at going further, but it boomeranged on them late. In 1999, the Mets were as close to being a powerhouse as any team not named the Braves or the Yankees, particularly once an earlier losing streak (eight in a row in late May and early June) was overcome.
The Mets played 65-30 ball in the heart of the season. They seemed perfectly capable of overtaking Atlanta in September, what with their airtight defensive infield — hailed on the cover of Sports Illustrated as potentially the best ever; their three hundred-RBI men (Piazza, Robin Ventura and Edgardo Alfonzo); their generally reliable and uncommonly deep bullpen; their pair of base-stealing specialists (franchise record-setter Roger Cedeño swiped 66, the old master Rickey Henderson pilfered 37) and a intangible sense, per the refrain of the Doors classic “L.A. Woman” that became their rallying cry, that their Mojo was Risin’.
Then it fell flat. The Braves buried their divisional aspirations and the Reds rolled past them. But on the final weekend, the tables turned, resulting in the current tie. It was thrilling to any Met partisan that they had gotten this far, but after the heartfelt postgame love-in at Shea that followed Mora’s scamper home, when the cheers and the hugs and the music played cathartically on, the fans and players alike arrived at a singular conclusion: the Mets hadn’t actually won anything yet.
“It felt a little weird,” admitted Al Leiter.
Leiter would be the one charged with making the Mets’ next celebration immediate and a little more traditional. He was Valentine’s starting pitcher for the only non-incidental Game 163 the Mets had ever been asked to play. It was framed as both a clinching game and an elimination game. Leiter would figure to have the biggest say among all Mets as to which one it would go into the books as.
But he’d have help, starting with the leadoff batter to end all leadoff batter discussions. Rickey Henderson had long ago established himself as the best the game had ever seen. At age 40, he was still leading — leading Mets regulars in batting average, leading Cedeño to become a better base stealer, now leading off the one-game playoff with a tone-setting single versus Cincy starter Steve Parris. In a matter of moments, he’d lead Alfonzo around the bases as Fonzie quieted 54,621 Red heads by belting his 27th home run of the season. The Mets struck first and held a 2-0 lead.
Leiter took the ball and ran with it like nobody had at Cincinnati’s stadium since Ickey Woods was in his shuffling glory. Pokey Reese led off with a walk but stayed glued to first as Al got Barry Larkin and Sean Casey on flies and Vaughn looking at a three-two pitch for the third out. Jeffrey Hammonds reached Leiter for a one-out single in the second, but Eddie Taubensee and Aaron Boone stranded him. In the top of the third, a two-out walk to Alfonzo and a double from John Olerud moved Jack McKeon to intentionally walk Piazza. The Reds’ skipper lifted Parris in favor of Denny Neagle, but Neagle did him no favors when he walked Ventura, giving the third baseman his 120th RBI of the season and Leiter a 3-0 lead with which to work.
Al was functioning on all cylinders: one walk but no hits in the home third, a perfect fourth. He sat down, and Henderson, who remained reserved on Sunday, since to his mind all the win over the Pirates guaranteed the Mets was a chance, momentarily replaced Leiter at center stage of the Mets’ crusade. Rickey made the most of his team’s chances by leading off and belting his twelfth homer of the year, the team’s 181st (only the 1987 squad had slugged more).
“This is my time of year,” Henderson declared. “This is Rickey time. And with Henderson Daylight Time in full effect, the Mets were up by four, as Leiter remained in his groove, retiring the Reds in order in the fifth.
One more Mets run was on tap, Alfonzo doubling home Rey Ordoñez from second in the sixth for his 108th run batted in. It was now 5-0. By the end of seven, it was still 5-0, with Leiter having set down 13 consecutive batters. That string was interrupted by a Taubensee walk, but Boone grounded into a double play directly thereafter. When pinch-hitter Mark Lewis grounded to Ordoñez for the final out of the eighth, Al Leiter, self-proclaimed lifelong Mets fan from Toms River, New Jersey, was pitching a one-hitter and had his team three outs from the postseason.
Lifelong Mets fans all over the Metropolitan Area braced for what seemed almost impossible a little more than 72 hours earlier, when the Mets were two out with three to play. They played their three, they won their three and they earned this game, their fourth. By winning it — by not blowing it — the lingering bitterness from 1998 would be washed away. The decade of the ’90s, most of it mired in sub-mediocrity, post-Buddy Harrelson, pre-Bobby V, would be validated as worthwhile. Connecticut native Valentine, who had never been to the playoffs in ten seasons as a player or in any of the eight years he managed the Texas Rangers, would finally set foot inside the business end of October (forty-eight years and one day after his future father-in-law, Ralph Branca, legendarily stepped out of it).
John Franco, who used to clip coupons from the side of Dairylea milk cartons in Bensonhurst so he could sit in the upper deck at Shea, would be a postseason participant for the first time in a major league career that wound back to 1984. Another Brooklynite who grew up rooting for the Mets, Shawon Dunston, was traded to the team in July and not only saw this game as punching his first playoff ticket since 1989, but looked at the lefty Leiter in Game 163 and had one overarching thought he was willing to express aloud later: “Jerry Koosman! Jerry Koosman! Jerry Koosman!” Like Kooz in the ’73 NLCS, Al was a super southpaw dominating the Reds when it mattered most.
This stuff stayed with you if you were a Mets fan. Of course everything stayed with you if you were a Mets fan. Too often what stuck most was the disappointment: stacks of it. But when you got something good in your sights…something as good as you had in your selective rearview mirror…it was eyes on the prize all the way. That’s why the next three outs mattered so Amazin’ly much.
That’s why yet one more Metophile born in Brooklyn, in the first Met calendar year of 1962 (a few months before Dunston first saw light in the same borough in 1963), would eventually devote an entire chapter to the 1999 stretch drive in a memoir that tracked the highs and lows of a life spent intertwined with the baseball team he loved for better or worse. It was that fan/author’s favorite Met span ever, the climax to his favorite Met season ever, and he’d seen ’em all since 1969.
“After two oxygen-deprived weeks and six anxiety-riddled months,” he wrote, “the Mets were finally, finally, finally going to do what they didn’t do the year before, what they didn’t do for a decade before that.
“They were going to make the playoffs.”
Al Leiter threw 110 pitches through eight innings. He hadn’t pitched a complete game all year. But this one was his to take to the 27th out unless there was severe trouble. He hit a bit of bump to start the ninth, as Reese tagged him for a leadoff double. Pokey took third on Larkin’s groundout to short. Casey then struck out. With one out to go, Leiter walked Vaughn. That brought up Dmitri Young, one way or another Al’s last batter. He got ahead of Young with strike one and then threw his 135th pitch of the night.
Enter, as he had been doing since 1962, Bob Murphy:
“Here’s the pitch…swung, lined hard, CAUGHT! The game is over! The Mets win it! They’re on their way to Arizona! A wicked line drive hit by Dmitri Young, caught by Edgardo Alfonzo, the game is over, the Mets have won the Wild Card in the National League.”
No Mets team ever needed a longer schedule to qualify for at least one more set of baseball games. Nobody nailed down their preliminary destiny earlier than the 1986 Mets, who clinched their postseason spot in Game 145. The 1973 Mets had taken the longest before now, having clinched their NLCS berth in Game 161. The 1999 Mets unintentionally outstretched them all. This bunch required an addendum, a 163rd game. But when they got it, they knew what to do with it.
They were going to make the playoffs. And they did make the playoffs.
Not a Mets fan alive, then or now, wouldn’t wait one extra game to be able to say that.
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On September 30, 1979, the New York Mets beat the St. Louis Cardinals, 4-2, at Busch Stadium, ending their otherwise desultory last-place season with six consecutive wins, which allowed them to avoid the ignominy associated with losing 100 games. Their final record was 63-99, their worst in a dozen seasons.
Besides completing their third straight year in sixth place, two other lasts were embedded in Roy Lee Jackson’s first major league win (which was ensured when Elliott Maddox drove home Alex Treviño in the top of the ninth and Jeff Reardon recorded his second major league save). In the top of the seventh, Joe Torre removed starter John Pacella and pinch-hit for him with Ed Kranepool. Kranepool doubled off Bob Forsch to lead off the inning and then left for a pinch-runner, Gil Flores. Kranepool’s departure marked the final appearance in a playing career that began on September 22, 1962. Ed had been a part of every Mets team in its 18-year existence. Thirty-two years after that final swing, Kranepool remains the franchise leader in games played (1,853), plate appearances (5,997), at-bats (5,436) and hits (1,418 — 118 more than runner-up Jose Reyes through 2011). The double was Kranepool’s 90th pinch-hit, reflecting his late-career specialty. He stands 13 ahead of Rusty Staub for all-time Met leadership in that category.
The other last to come out of this Sunday in St. Louis was the end of the Payson era in Mets baseball. Mrs. Joan Whitney Payson was majority owner of the New York Mets from the time the National League awarded the expansion franchise to New York on October 17, 1960, until her death fifteen years later. Under her guidance, the Mets grew into a phenomenal attraction immediately as well as a two-time pennant-winner and 1969 World Champions. Mrs. Payson, an upbeat and popular figure during the club’s rise to prominence, was in poor health in her final years at the helm, and control of the team following her passing on October 4, 1975, fell first to chairman of the board M. Donald Grant and then, once Grant was ousted to overwhelming public acclamation, Mrs. Payson’s daughter, Lorinda de Roulet. In 1979, after her father, Charles Shipman Payson, indicated (without explicitly claiming) a desire to sell the franchise and not devote any of the family’s resources to it in the short-term, de Roulet, along with her daughters Bebe and Whitney, ran the ballclub on a shoestring.
The results were disastrous on and off the field. Whatever their intentions, the de Roulets were overmatched. The team ownership gene clearly skipped at least two generations from Mrs. Payson. With the Mets playing dismal baseball year after year — rotting from within by the mid-’70s and tumbling hopelessly downhill once Grant’s ill-tempered feud with Tom Seaver spurred the superstar’s trade to Cincinnati — the market spoke. The Mets, the darlings of New York at the outset of the decade, drew a bare 788,905 to Shea Stadium in 1979. The season is remembered by diehards as a total embarrassment, symbolized most pungently by the introduction of Mettle the Mule, the de Roulets’ idea of an adorable mascot, if no one else’s.
“The mule was housed in a stall beneath the stands behind home plate,” Jack Lang recalled in The New York Mets: Twenty-Five Years of Baseball Magic. “The groundskeepers, who had their quarters nearby, complained of the stench. Before every home game, Bebe de Roulet propped herself in a little sulky behind the mule and took a fast trip around the Shea Stadium warning track. She thought it was cute. What other people thought and said is better left unwritten.”
Come January 1980, the only family that had ever owned the Mets sold the team to a group fronted by Doubleday & Co. publishing heir Nelson Doubleday (a descendant of Abner Doubleday, credited in oft-repeated myth with inventing baseball) and New York real estate operator Fred Wilpon. Their mission was to prop back up to its feet a franchise that had lost 293 games since 1979, 1,908,574 paying customers since 1970 and just about all of the credibility it had built up when Mrs. Payson was alive and well.
The de Roulets, like Mettle, were gone from the Shea scene, but suffice it to say the bunch of them together left quite a mess behind
A FEW WORDS ON GAME 164 AND TIES
The Mets have played one Game 164 in their history. They lost it, 3-1, to the Phillies in 13 innings in the nightcap of a season-ending doubleheader at Shea Stadium on Sunday, October 3, 1965. The twinbill was necessitated by the season’s second tie game, which occurred the night before. Rob Gardner had gone 15 innings for the Mets, as did Philadelphia starter Chris Short, who struck out eighteen batters. Neither pitcher allowed a run. Nor did the Met and Phillie bullpens. After 18 innings, a Saturday night curfew was invoked and the 0-0 game — which was also the second half of a doubleheader — was declared a tie.
The Mets have played eight official games to a tie: one apiece in 1962, 1964, 1968 and 1979 (a game against the Pirates called on account of extreme Shea fog in the bottom of the eleventh with the score tied at three; Dave Parker lost sight of a Joel Youngblood fly ball that fell in for a triple, precipitating the umpires’ decision), two in 1965 and one in both the first and second seasons of 1981. In all those cases, the games aren’t reflected in the team’s won-lost standings, but the players’ individual statistics, such as Gardner’s 15 shutout innings, counted. Because they did, rookie Rob’s ERA dropped from 6.92 to 3.21.
The 1964, 1965, 1968 and 1979 tie games were all made up at some point in the course of those seasons, explaining the existence of four of the five Game 163s the Mets have played — the other was the Mets-Reds tiebreaker of 1999 — as well as their sole Game 164.
The lateness in the season, the lack of any more scheduled games between the participants and the irrelevance (to put it mildly) of any potential outcome to the pennant race rendered the Mets-Colt .45s 7-7 eight-inning tie at Houston’s Colt Stadium on September 9, 1962, unmade up. The same set of factors applied to the Mets-Cubs 2-2 nine-inning Shea tie of October 1, 1981, not being replayed from the start. A 2-2 nine-inning tie on April 22, 1981, between the Mets and Pirates at Three Rivers Stadium, essentially fell victim to that summer’s players strike, as all action from that year’s “first season” was considered a closed matter once play resumed in August’s one-time-only “second season”.
A 2007 rule change mandated tie games suspended for weather or some extraordinary circumstance after five innings be picked up from the point where play stopped the next time the two teams meet. Only if no scheduled meetings remain between the two tied teams and only if a playoff spot is in question would a tie be declared and the game made up from scratch. With this regulatory revision in effect — instituted under the auspices of then MLB Rules Committee chairman Sandy Alderson — and curfews a relic of the past, the chances of the Mets being involved in another official tie seem remote…and the chance of there being another Game 163 (let alone Game 164) that isn’t a “play-in” affair appear even slimmer.
Thanks to FAFIF reader Larry Arnold for providing broadcast video from the game of October 5, 1986.