Coming this Sunday night: The favorite football team of many (if not all) Mets fans, playing for the championship of its sport.
Coming NO Sunday night in 2012, as far as we know right now: The favorite baseball team of all Mets fans, playing for anything…not even to get us closer to 2013.
ESPN released its preliminary Sunday Night Baseball schedule a couple of weeks ago, and the Mets were conspicuous — to Mets fans, anyway — by their absence: ten dates, no Mets. Mind you, the Mets could still easily pop onto the slate since there are still fifteen Sunday nights unaccounted for by The Worldwide Leader and the Mets were, at last check, one of thirty MLB teams. Anybody who’s held a ticket for 1:10 PM and magically discovered the first pitch would be fired seven hours later knows how that works.
Until then, however, the Mets are officially an afterthought where Major League Baseball’s theoretical premier showcase is concerned. The Phillies are assured a spotlight game. The Braves are listed for a Sunday night, too. So are the Nationals. The Marlins aren’t, but the debut of Not Joe Robbie Stadium will serve as ESPN’s Opening Night presentation on Wednesday, April 4. Everybody in the N.L. East looms as a national cablecast big deal…everybody but us.
Except for what that implies about prospective competitiveness, I don’t sense a lot of mourning in Metsopotamia.
The natural rhythms of baseball fandom make the sport less of a fit for prime time programming than football. The Super Bowl used to kick off on Sunday afternoon (the first eleven of them), but it’s not at all odd that after the first XI, it started coming on after six. It’s football. It’s spectacle. It doesn’t even have to be championship football. Monday Night Football was once upon a time a sensation. It’s still an institution. Sunday Night Football is a huge ratings hit week in and week out. Put a pigskin under the lights and it shines brighter.
Stick a horsehide under the lights, however, and we tend to whimper. The World Series hasn’t been an all-matinee affair since 1970 — further back than the last daytime Super Bowl in 1977 — and yet a critical mass of traditionalists still yearn longingly every October for the way it used to be, as if that was the way it was always going to be. In the regular season, five or six days of the week we put up with night baseball, but the spirit of the “nineteenth-century pastoral game” (as George Carlin winked at it) seems to demand at least one contest a week be played in the glow of the sun. I suppose if you live away from New York and you don’t partake of the packages that provide every game any time on any device, the Mets on Sunday Night Baseball is a boon, meaning the lack of it is kind of a blow to your access. For those of us with easier access to SNY and ’FAN, we can watch the Mets when they’re “supposed” to be on any given Sunday and cope with the scoreboard consequences by sunset.
Win or lose on a Sunday afternoon, Sunday night is cleared away. You can watch two other teams whose results don’t matter to you, secure in going to bed without a final. Or you can put baseball aside for The Simpsons or AMC or, if you’re really crazy, no TV at all. Your Sunday night rhythms wouldn’t necessarily notice. It’s different when the Mets are playing. When the Mets are playing, you have a whole other set of rhythms let alone priorities.
In case you’re wondering, the Mets playing on Sunday night at the behest of ESPN hasn’t impeded their periodic winning ways since the series known as Sunday Night Baseball was inaugurated in 1990. Nor has it gotten in the way of their periodic losing ways. According to proprietary Faith and Fear in Flushing research (consisting of multiple trips to Baseball-Reference and Retrosheet, helped along by Google News Archive, a stack of Mets pocket schedules and an uncommonly sticky memory), the Mets have played on ESPN’s SNB 69 times, losing 34 and winning 35. That’s been good for a .493 winning percentage, pretty much in step with the Mets’ overall .497 mark from the past 22 seasons.
It only seems like the Mets lose to Tyler Clippard every time they play in that time slot on that channel. In reality, though the inconvenience factor can be irritating and doing without GKR is unquestionably akin to sensory deprivation, the Mets acquit themselves no worse in veritable Games of the Week than they do the rest of the week.
Is that why ESPN reserved them a spot every year since 1990? Was it because the Mets had that certain something that made them a coast-to-coast coaxial attraction? Was it because the Mets are from the largest of markets and had just spent a half-dozen years finishing first or second when Sunday night became a baseball night? Or was it because Sunday Night Baseball’s mandate, when it first started, was to do one game from every ballpark every season?
The last part was definitely true. Otherwise, the chances seem remote that (with an assist from that spring’s season-delaying lockout) the first-ever Sunday Night Baseball would have emanated from that baseball hotbed known as Olympic Stadium in Montreal. The Big O hosted the Expos and the Mets on Easter Sunday night in 1990. The Mets did not rise to the occasion, losing 3-1 before 10,187 French Canadian souls.
But when Sunday Night Baseball made its Shea debut on July 29, 1990 — the Mets’ first scheduled Sunday night home game since historically dreaded Game Four of the 1988 NLCS (Scioscia) — the home team was ready for its closeup. Mackey Sasser blasted a grand slam off Jose DeLeon, Doc Gooden threw seven shutout innings and the Mets clipped the Redbirds’ wings, 6-0. With the Mets in first place and attendance still reported by gate as opposed to tickets sold, we know nearly 42,000 looked past the nontraditional starting time to enjoy the result. Three weeks later, on August 19, Doc would notch another W, but this one wasn’t nearly as easy. Gooden had the Giants down, 10-2, at Candlestick in the sixth. An Ernest Riles grand slam halved the margin and the bullpen — rotation demotee Bobby Ojeda, Alejandro Peña and future Mets Hall of Famer John Franco — barely hung on as the Mets escaped with a 10-9 win.
Even as the Mets began to slip in real life after 1990, they were still reasonably hot stuff on Sunday Night Baseball, appearing three times apiece in 1991 and 1992 and splitting the sextet. One of the Mets’ few spectacular triumphs of the era occurred on Sunday night, August 30, 1992, when Bobby Bonilla — in probably his finest hour on the active payroll — ripped the first pitch he saw from Rob Dibble with two out in the ninth for a two-out, three-run homer that served to snatch a 4-3 win from the jaws of 3-1 defeat. The kicker was the Mets and Reds were wearing 1962 throwback uniforms and Dibble, as frustrated as Bonilla was elated, tore his old-timey Reds vest to the ground, never to retrieve it.
But when the Mets lost on Sunday night in this period, it was not pretty. Two of their three setbacks came at Wrigley Field, where Sunday Night Baseball doubled down against nature by not just skipping afternoon baseball but doing in the one place night games were still novelties. The first of those losses, on August 11, 1991, proved particularly furshlugginer (to use the technical term). The Mets and Cubs dragged each other deep into the night, not ending their mutual defiling of the Friendly Confines until George Bell’s sent Pete Schourek’s second pitch of the fourteenth inning over the ivy for a 3-2 gutkick. It was the third consecutive loss of a road trip that would plummet to 0-10 before the Mets were allowed to go home and lose an eleventh straight.
On September 13, 1992, the Mets made another Sunday Night Baseball appearance in Montreal, their third in three years. This one was the worst of them. Oh, it looked good for a while, with Dick Schofield engineering a double play so sparkling it was nominated for an ESPY the first year they had ESPYs. But the slick fielding as well as the 5-2 lead Gooden carried through seven became forgotten when the Expos trimmed the Mets’ lead to 5-4 in the eighth and erased that temporary disadvantage with Larry Walker’s three-run walkoff blast off ad hoc closer Anthony Young.
And as miserable as that plot twist was, it would become a footnote to the real legacy of that Sunday night in Quebec: the postgame snit rookie Jeff Kent fashioned when the Mets’ vets hid his street clothes in favor of a pimp suit. Even as 7-5 losers long banished from contention, the Mets somehow still found time to haze — and even that they couldn’t do seamlessly in 1992.
Or as Jeff Torborg reportedly fumed, “Give the kid his fuckin’ clothes back.”
Despite the franchise’s downward trajectory, ESPN believed in the Mets’ drawing power enough to pencil them in three times in 1993. The Mets went 0-3, which figured since the Mets spiritually went 0-162 that year (59-103 in actuality).
The Mets gave viewers a good show on June 20 at Three Rivers Stadium when Bret Saberhagen stifled the post-Bonds Bucs, 2-1, through eight innings. Ah, but the ninth: a couple of base hits; future Mets Hall of Famer John Franco replaces Sabes; a bunt; an intentional walk; an unintentional bases-loaded walk to tie it; and another single to lose it, 3-2. With the loss, the Mets fell 27½ back with 95 to play.
The Mets — and the then-ubiquitous Gooden — played above their heads on July 11 at Shea as they battled the Dodgers to a 1-1 tie for seven innings. Alas, the game turned on L.A. rookie Pedro Martinez’s 2⅓ sharp innings of relief and Eric Davis’s eighth-inning homer off Doc. The Mets lost 2-1. They’d make it a Turkey-for-’93 on September 19 when what must have looked to programming executives like a fabulous matchup months earlier — the two-time N.L. West champion Braves hosting the conceivably dangerous N.L. East Mets — went completely awry. Atlanta thumped New York, 11-2. T#m Gl@v!ne was touched for nine hits in six innings, yet the Mets couldn’t plate more than two runs off him…and none off Bobby Cox’s bullpen.
ESPN’s Mets fever broke in 1994. The network scheduled them the mandatory once and maybe counted itself lucky that the game — against the similarly downtrodden Cubs at Shea on August 21 — was never played. A strike wiped it and everything else out for the season. Nevertheless, the Mets were on tap to be the first team anybody saw bat when 1995 opened…but that came with an asterisk that was just dying to be denoted.
On April 2, 1995, ESPN was preparing to look at us live from Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami with 50 fill-ins wearing Mets and Marlins uniforms. MLB, with the sole exception of the Orioles, was thumbing its nose at its striking players (and its fans), preparing to start the year with replacement players. And they got real close to playing games that counted until the owners agreed to abide by Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s injunction against replacement games. The 1995 Mets — the real ones — would have to settle for opening their season late on a Wednesday afternoon as the first visitors to Coors Field a few weeks later (a crushing defeat televised by ESPN) and two Sunday Night losses of no historical note.
When the Mets dropped a 2-1 decision at Shea to Cincinnati on June 23, 1996, their second loss in two SNB appearances that year, Sunday Night Baseball was feeling less like a treat and more like torture. Dating back to Jeff Kent’s tantrum (though to be fair, rookie hazing is moronic), the Mets had lost seven in a row in the spotlight and had two appearances paved over by labor pains. Between the rutted track record and their six consecutive losing seasons, you wouldn’t think ESPN would exactly be seeking the Mets out come 1997. Yet Shea was chosen as site for what passed as a special occasion: the first Sunday Night Baseball matchup between Interleague opponents.
It was a rematch of the 1986 World Series, the Red Sox visiting the resurgent Mets. The last time the Red Sox alighted on a Sunday night in Queens, Boston rode high, taking Game Two of the ’86 Fall Classic, 9-3, blistering an unsteady Dwight Gooden in the process. Eleven years later, on June 15, 1997 — Dave Mlicki’s Eve, if you will — the Red Sox earned small revenge for 1986, taking that initial Interleague series two games to one on the strength of a Sunday night 10-1 rout.
Surely the only Met who could have been remotely satisfied with the forced festivities was Kevin Morgan, a seven-year minor leaguer who was called up to fill in amid myriad infield injuries. Morgan pinch-hit in the seventh, popped out, stayed in to play third…and ended his big league career the very same night. But don’t cry for this Moonlight Graham Met. Kevin Morgan has worked in the Met front office in various capacities since 1998.
Sunday Night deliverance wasn’t far off for the 1997 Mets, either. They snapped their eight-game losing streak in what would someday seem a most unlikely venue, but as of July 13, 1997, it was just another ballpark.
In their inaugural series at brand new Turner Field in Atlanta, the Mets fell behind, 6-0, in the first when the Braves jumped on the recently stellar Bobby Jones (he struck out Ken Griffey and Mark McGwire back-to-back in the All-Star Game five days earlier). Jones dug the Mets a hole, but Butch Huskey dug them right out of it with a two-run homer in the second and a three-run dinger in the fourth, both off Brave starter Denny Neagle. Bobby Valentine left Jones in to fend for himself after his horrific first and the manager’s confidence was rewarded with six shutout innings that left the Mets tied, 6-6. In the tenth, Alex Ochoa put the Mets up, 7-6, by homering off Mike Bielecki. That became the final score and the Mets’ Sunday Night slumpbuster. Better yet, the Mets took their first series at the Ted, three games to one. (Gosh, what a friendly place!)
In 1998, ESPN went to the Mets-Red Sox well again, broadcasting another tepid Boston win (5-0, on June 7 at Fenway Park) before availing itself of a new toy that would redefine the Mets’ Sunday Night Baseball presence forever more.
Here came the Subway Series. It and the Mets’ topsy-turvy Sunday Night history from 1998 forward will be FAFIFed in Part II.