It was a win, which made it much better than a loss, but for a Mets fan, it was mostly uneasy. The Mets were making their second Sunday Night Baseball appearance of 1998 on ESPN, their twentieth overall. The previous nineteen — beginning with the very first SNB telecast in 1990 and running through early June of ’98 — were ballgames, except they took place on a night when the Mets didn’t usually play, on a channel where you didn’t usually think to look for them.
The twentieth game was something else. It was life and death, to put it mildly. And it was there for every baseball fan seeking baseball to see. It was the Mets and Yankees completing the first Shea Stadium Subway Series. It felt bizarre that it was in the broadcast hands of total strangers.
The Mets had lost to the Yankees Friday night. They lost again on Saturday afternoon. The 1998 Mets were a good but flawed team. The 1998 Yankees were overwhelming. It was not a favorable confluence of circumstances. Now ask announcers who were not necessarily attuned to the nuances of those Mets, let alone to the sensitivities of Mets fans, to call the game.
The Mets won, 2-1. They escaped a sweep and retained their dignity. It took an unnecessarily strange sacrifice fly to nail it down, so strange — Brian McRae appeared to get caught off first while Carlos Baerga was scoring — that it briefly flummoxed the likes of Jon Miller and Joe Morgan. The truck wasn’t too clear on the action, either, because for an instant, ESPN’s graphic that had changed the score from NYY 1 NYM 1 to NYY 1 NYM 2 changed back to NYY 1 NYM 1.
Suddenly SportsCenter came on the air without getting NYY 1 NYM 2 in order. The Mets did win, didn’t they?
Yes, they did. But this game, from June 28, 1998, represents the turning point for the narrative where the Mets and Sunday Night Baseball are concerned. Over the subsequent dozen seasons, 1999 through 2011, the Mets would appear forty times. Almost 40% of those occasions were given over to the Subway Series. ESPN loved the Yankees-Mets storyline.
They never seemed too keen on Mets-Yankees, however. The Mets have won eight of eighteen Sunday Night showdowns versus their neighbors. Those are the endings, which can’t be dictated in advance. It’s the story the broadcast tells over and over as prelude to the endings, about the mighty pinstripers and their attendant drama, that irks blue and orange ears. The Yankee theme rarely accounts for only half the story during those games. It usually obfuscates whatever the Mets have going on. Granted, some years the Mets don’t have a lot going on, but the Sunday Night Baseball epoch covers two highly competitive Met eras when we were justifiably proud to share our team with the nation…no matter how it inconvenienced us.
Yet we were regularly relegated to something less than a co-starring role in these New York-New York productions. That treatment, at least as much as the flexible scheduling that came to be in the 2000s (wherein 1:10 starts floated clear past 8 o’clock until the ticket-printers wised up and went with “TBD” on potential flex dates), is probably why so few Metsopotamians mourn the Mets absence from 2012’s initial Sunday Night Baseball schedule. Miller and Morgan gave way to a much more enjoyable booth in 2011 — Dan Shulman, Orel Hershiser and future Red Sox skipper Bobby Valentine — but the perception is stubborn that They’re All Against Us. Particularly when we play the Yankees.
Fortunately, there have been some delightful endings for the scrapbook, starting with the Baerga dash home in 1998 and extending through seven other classics of the genre.
• June 6, 1999: The Mets break the eight-game losing streak that cost three coaches their posts. They also break long personal winning and on-base streaks belonging to Roger Clemens and Derek Jeter, respectively. It’s their first Yankee Stadium win since Dave Mlicki broke the seal on the Subway Series, June 16, 1997 — a Monday night game aired nationally on FX and locally on the Mets’ and Yankees’ respective outlets. The first Subway Series was the only one that occurred “during the week,” when neither Fox nor ESPN was involved. (The 7-2 win also augured well for the Mets’ overall Sunday Night Baseball record in 1999, a crisp 4-0.)
• July 9, 2000: Another episode of face-saving as the Mets lightly avenge the day-night debacle from 24 hours earlier. Mike Hampton and Armando Benitez strike out eleven Yankees in a 2-0 shutout (and Steve Philips orders a couple of Yankee players the hell out of the Shea weight room). Only so much face was saved that Sunday given Saturday’s criminal beaning of Mike Piazza by Clemens in a makeup game at Yankee Stadium whose existence was attributable to a Sunday Night rainout in June. If the Mets and Yankees had played a day game on June 11, 2000, the Saturday night disgrace of July 8 never happens because Clemens never gets the DH-protected opportunity to “avenge” Piazza’s grand slam of June 9. Though if there’s no rain delay at Yankee Stadium on June 11, the world never witnesses Robin Ventura’s time-killing rendition of Mike Piazza rounding the tarp-covered bases.
• June 17, 2001: The Mets again avert a weekend sweep, this time with a six-run eighth to bring them back from 7-2 to 8-7 at Shea Stadium. The crowning blow was delivered by Mike Piazza with a deep home run crushed off Carlos Almanzar while Joe Torre rested Mariano Rivera and hid Roger Clemens.
• June 16, 2002: The Mets take one of these series for a change when Mo Vaughn’s massive three-run, eighth-inning homer off David Wells make the Mets 3-2 winners at Shea. Mo didn’t often resemble the American League MVP he had once been, but show him Wells and he would make like Cher and turn back time. Vaughn versus Wells lifetime: 9 homers, 18 RBIs and a .455 average in 66 at-bats.
• May 21, 2006: This Shea rubber game bounced the Mets’ way when Carlos Delgado (with two on) and David Wright pounded Aaron Small with back-to-back homers in the fourth inning en route to a 4-3 victory. Billy Wagner slithered out of a ninth-inning jam for the save one night after blowing a 4-0 lead. The euphoria was so thick that Omar Minaya assured the closer after the game, “Congratulations. You just won us the pennant.”
• May 18, 2008: A lovely 11-2 blowout was obscured by two events not detectable in the box score. Off the field there was reeling manager Willie Randolph telling one of his newspaper buddies before the game — when there was more time to talk than there would have been for an afternoon start — that he thought the heat on him for the Mets’ poor start (and lousy finish the year before) had a racial component to it. Soon enough, because of the black-and-white standings that dictated his fate, Randolph would be replaced by Jerry Manuel. Manuel had his moment in the Sunday Night spotlight when the bench coach sprang from his seat to argue a dubious “foul” call with home plate umpire Bob Davidson. Davidson robbed Carlos Delgado of a fourth-inning home run, the cameras would show. Jerry got ejected from the game but had his profile raised to heroic proportions, appearing far more animated in defense of Delgado’s swing than the laconic Randolph. Davidson later admitted he blew the call, which helped spur the movement to add home run replay to the rules, a court of appeal from which the Mets would benefit several times in 2009.
• May 23, 2010: A solid home team, it’s no surprise the 2010 Mets beat the Yankees on Sunday Night Baseball, 6-4. It’s also no surprise the Mets win a Subway Series at Citi Field despite being swept out of one in ugly fashion a year earlier. Nor is it surprising how effective Johan Santana was in outpitching CC Sabathia. But Jason Bay hitting two home runs at Citi Field before anybody made any adjustments to the outfield fences? As Billy Wagner might have said, shocker!
From 1998 through 2003 (including the 2000 Ventura-as-Piazza rainout), the Worldwide Leader availed itself of every opportunity but one to show a Mets-Yankees (or Yankees-Mets) game. They became more selective starting in 2004, perhaps in deference to the Mets’ horrendous 0-6 Subway Series mark in 2003 and bleak prospects overall. ESPN skipped the Shea showdowns in ’04 and ’05, leaving the Mets to host Sunday afternoon intracity games. The final Subway Series game at Shea in 2008 was also left for daytime. In 2011, neither Sunday NY-NY game made it into prime time. ESPN was likely saving its Yankee slots for games late in the season (while Fox suddenly decided Saturday night would be a splendid time period for these contests).
The Mets have proven they don’t need to stay local to play to a national Sunday night audience. ESPN pitted them against their rivals the Braves four times from 1999 to 2003 (2-2) and the Phillies seven times between 2006 and 2011 (3-4). The Mets’ near-championship aura from 2006 helped earn their 2007 season-opener against the Cardinals Sunday Night spotlight status as literally the only game on the schedule to get that year going (on an upbeat 6-1 note). And despite coming off a miserable 2009 (when they went 70-92 overall and 0-4 on Sunday Nights), ESPN rolled the Mets out for three consecutive weeks in April and May of 2010, once each versus the three aforementioned teams (resulting in two losses sandwiching one rain-shortened win).
And then there are the Cubs, the Mets’ long-ago rivals. They’ve made for a fascinating foil in this particular time slot in this particular century. The Mets set their record for most runs in an inning (11) on Sunday night, July 16, 2006, at Wrigley Field in a 13-7 win. They provided the opposition for the 300th win for some lefthanded pitcher or another on Sunday night, August 5, 2007, also at Wrigley Field. Of less historical consequence but trivially swell, Victor Zambrano defeated Carlos Zambrano, 6-1, at Shea Stadium, Sunday night, August 7, 2005.
The toughest Sunday night loss to swallow, perhaps, came against the Cubs on September 11, 2011, at Citi Field. The date pretty much says it all. The stirring tenth-anniversary ceremonies of 9/11/11 were overshadowed by the cap debacle that saw the Mets’ heads get slapped by the likes of Joe Torre acting as front hack for MLB. But the pregame tribute to the fallen couldn’t have been more moving and almost made the 10-6 loss in eleven innings an afterthought. Besides, if you seek to read symbolism into your baseball games, you couldn’t do any better than the Mets prevailing, 2-1, in fourteen innings at Citizens Bank Park on May 1, 2011, the night Bin Laden was at last vanquished in Pakistan.
The Mets preceded Billy Joel’s The Last Play At Shea concerts of July 16 and 18, 2008, by playing the last game before Shea’s last All-Star break against the Rockies on Sunday night, July 13, 2008 (a satisfying 7-0 shutout powered by Carloses Delgado and Beltran). If that was a “last,” what about the next? The next Sunday Night Baseball for the Mets, whether at Citi Field or on the road, remains a mystery. It could come on one of those dates To Be Determined in 2012 or it could wait until whichever season the Mets strike the powers that be as more of a surefire television attraction.
Selfishly, we’re fine with Sunday afternoons, particularly if kids and kid-themed promotions are involved (the most recent Helmet Day was moved to Sunday night, June 5, 2011; Johan Santana Bobblehead Day was shifted to Sunday night, September 7, 2008). But Mets fans are too generous to not want to share the Mets with all of America now and then.
Y’know what? Making the playoffs would take care of that instinct without disturbing our natural Sunday afternoon rhythms…which were explored in Part I of this two-part FAFIF series.
Banner news regarding Sunday afternoon, May 27, here!