Some nice person to whom I had just been introduced in the Citi Field parking lot on Opening Day asked me, regarding the 81 games that were about to be played in the building adjacent to where we stood, “Do you have a plan?”
“Yes,” I said, matter of factly. “My plan is to go to as many games as I can.”
I’ve stuck to that plan for a long time, so why stop now? Starting with Saturday, September 9, 2006, and going through Thursday afternoon — including the one postseason encompassed by this time period — the Mets have played 515 home games. I’ve attended 218, or approximately 42.3% of them.
As many games as I can, whether I actually can or not. Prioritizing, y’know? There’s me and there’s the Mets. I prefer to not keep us apart for very long.
It wasn’t always something I could do. I’m sure in theory I would’ve gone to as many games as I could have in 1991, but I only went to two. I can’t say for sure there were 79 others I absolutely couldn’t have. Probably not; it just worked out that way. Two games that counted in one season (though there was also an exhibition game) tied my record for fewest games attended in one season as a reasonably full-fledged adult. The only other post-junior high year in which I made it to Shea no more than twice was 1988. I had tickets for a third game in ’88, but that was the weekend right after my mother was diagnosed with cancer, so I passed.
I was every bit the Mets fan in 1991 that you’ve come to know in 2013, but whether it was time or money or logistics or priorities or a paucity of decent game-going company, I just didn’t find myself at Shea very often. I was 28. Work was all-consuming and my wedding was imminent. I watched the Mets, I listened to the Mets, I ruminated over the Mets. I just wasn’t physically in the same space as the Mets that season. The sum total of my interaction with them, thus, was that I went to a loss in May and a win in June. The loss in May hasn’t come up in conversation at all in 22 years. The win in June?
Why, it bubbled up from the pages of my Log and the archives of my subconscious to the surface of topicality in a big way just this week.
On Wednesday night, Jordany Valdespin won the Mets a game with a grand slam. Before I was done jumping up and down in section 123 — certainly before Jordany’s smiling face met with a resounding shaving cream greeting from John Buck — it was announced that this was the first time the Mets had won a game in such a fashion since June 25, 1991, when Kevin McReynolds hit the grand slam to beat the Expos that night, 8-5
Hey, I said to Jason amid a flurry of high-fives, I was at that game!
That statement, coming from yours truly, wouldn’t carry quite as much punch (or pie) if Valdespin had done something equally wonderful that hadn’t been done since, say, 2008. I attended 44 games at Shea Stadium in its final season, so chances were I was going to witness more than half of all memorable events in Flushing five years ago. I then went to 36 in Citi Field’s inaugural campaign, never making fewer than 27 in a season since. I’ve already been to half of the dozen the Mets have put in the books in 2013.
It’s not a boast. It’s just what I do. It’s what I always wanted to do from the time I was old enough to know what the Mets were and that they played baseball somewhere. Across the years, Shea, then Citi, became accessible to me and I made a habit of accessing it all I can. But in 1991, I accessed it so rarely that if I was on hand for one Mets win that somebody was destined to bring up more than two decades later, of course I’d be bound to remember it instantly.
That is also what I do.
Why that night of all nights in 1991? I can recall no particular magic attached to Tuesday, June 25, as it approached. There wasn’t any great desire to see the Expos as opposed to any other opponent. There was a good pitching matchup, to be sure: Dwight Gooden versus Dennis Martinez. But I’m pretty sure that was a bonus.
What facilitated a game if not necessarily this game was what I now realize was an offhanded comment by someone I didn’t know all that well and would fairly soon not know at all. This was a guy who worked where I worked, but only briefly, just for a few months. He was more a baseball fan than a fan of any given team. Liked the Giants, now that I’m thinking about it, but not excessively. His memory for baseball specifics wasn’t particularly refined, either. One idle chat had him placing the You Gotta Believe pennant-winning Mets of 1973 in 1971.
Perhaps it was that kind of limited attention to detail that doomed his continued employment as a reporter on the magazine I helped edit. However it came to be, he was let go. Since we’d been friendly if not exactly buddies, I got in touch with him after it all went down to express my sympathy. However awkwardly that talk went, it ended on a fairly upbeat note. Knowing my overarching interest dovetailed in what he enjoyed casually, he told me, “I’d love to take in a game with you sometime.”
He probably meant that in the way other people mean it when they say they hope it’s not going to rain on the way home, but I filed the remark away as if it was a commitment that demanded fulfilling. When the next baseball season rolled around, I called him up and reminded him, hey, if you’re still up for that ballgame… I guess he was, because we picked June 25, chose a meeting place and rendezvoused at Shea Stadium.
At first, it was a great game. How could it not be? The Mets jumped out to an immediate 4-0 lead off Martinez. Dave Magadan homered, which he generally seemed to do in front of me (Mags hit seven homers at Shea during a three-year span when I attended a mere ten games there, yet I was a witness to three of them…and the other two were walkoff jobs). A Gregg Jefferies single and steal, two walks and two more singles — from Hubie Brooks and Mackey Sasser — ensued. Hubie would be out at home on a Garry Templeton bouncer snared by Martinez, and Doc would ground out to end the inning, but we’d batted around. The Mets led by four runs. What a great night I picked!
And it was all pleasing small talk and big lead for the next several innings. Sure, El Presidente settled down, but what did it matter? The Doctor was operating. Montreal did nothing against Gooden and continued to trail, 4-0, through four.
Then came the fifth. The Expos woke up or the Doctor’s beeper sounded or something went wrong. The visitors put together four singles and two doubles. Marquis Grissom stole a base and scored on a wild pitch. Dennis Martinez batted. Dave Martinez batted. Everybody but Teddy Martinez batted. Montreal sent nine men to the plate and produced five runs. Gooden, so impregnable for four innings, was now down, 5-4.
Here’s something that would never happen today: Gooden stayed in. As did Martinez. These were aces being allowed to deal. And deal they did, even if — according to contemporary accounts that I’ve either forgotten or denied — “we” booed Gooden when he came to bat in the sixth. “We” the crowd did, but not me. I wouldn’t have booed Doc. I wouldn’t have booed Dwight. I wouldn’t have even booed the porous infield defense of Magadan, Jefferies, Templeton and HoJo, a unit Joe Sexton in the Times described as “suspect,” in light of how various Expos were “dinking” and “roping” hits past and over them.
Yet Gooden stayed in through eight, perhaps a reflection of manager Buddy Harrelson’s undying confidence in him, perhaps an indication that his bullpen was just as suspect as his infield. Martinez gave Tom Runnells seven innings. The whole thing went to the bottom of the ninth at 5-4, the potential Montreal save in the hands of future Met relief washout Barry Jones.
The Mets, stymied since the first, went to work in their 1991 fashion. Templeton, spending his final months as a major leaguer in a Met uniform, lined a ball that Expo third baseman Tim Wallach couldn’t convert into an out. It went for a single. Keith Miller ran for Templeton and got himself picked off first by Jones but escaped embarrassment when Barry couldn’t close the deal. An error on the pitcher placed Miller on second. Tommy Herr struck out, but Daryl Boston walked. With two on and one out, Runnells replaced Jones with lefty Scott Ruskin. What I assume was a botched hit-and-run became a successful double steal. Magadan, as was his wont, walked to load the bases. Jefferies, however, popped up.
Two out, McReynolds up. A deep drive to left-center. If Grissom caught up to it (and it seemed to remain in flight long enough to circle LaGuardia), then the bases were loaded to no avail. But if it kept going…just a little more…just a little more…
GONE! Kevin McReynolds won the Mets a game I never thought they should have been trailing, 8-5. There was happiness if not bedlam. Bedlam was Jordany on Wednesday night. McReynolds was (and probably still is) the anti-Valdespin in terms of temperament. Whereas JV1 is the most electric icon the Mets have had since the Keyspan sign at Shea, Big Mac would routinely lock his pulse away with his wristwatch and car keys during ballgames. Nonetheless, nobody not affiliated with Les Expos wasn’t satisfied with the grand exit Kevin had arranged. That included me; my generic fan friend; and however many of the other nearly 29,000 who showed up and stayed to the end. I remarked that it seemed like a middling crowd for such an outsized pitching matchup, but my former colleague, still looking for steady work, thought maybe the economy had something to do with the attendance.
Either way, those who came got a good result, and just in time. My companion said he wasn’t going to stay for extras. I don’t know if I would’ve been polite and left with him, or steadfast and endured, as I almost certainly would today. I didn’t go to enough games in those days to have a fixed template for such situations. Glad I didn’t make like McReynolds and attempt to beat the traffic. It had been five years since the last time a Met ended a game on a grand slam. It would be 22 more before it would happen again (give or take a Grand Slam Single). This 1991 grand slam was, of course, a dramatic as hell resolution, but it didn’t seem all that over the top as it unfolded, not like it did Wednesday night via Valdespin, and not just because Jordany’s such a lightning rod. The Mets of 1991 were routinely contending for a division title, just as they’d been doing year in and year out since 1984. They were supposed to beat the Montreal Expos. Kevin McReynolds was supposed to crush the Scott Ruskins of the National League East. A grand slam was simply a slightly more novel method of taking care of business.
Soon enough, we wouldn’t take the Mets winning more than they lost for granted. While Dennis Martinez had cemented a piece of baseball immorality for himself by throwing a perfect game at Dodger Stadium in late July, Dwight Gooden was on his way to ending his season early. He’d go out for the year in late August with an aching right shoulder. His record, which stayed 7-5 on June 25 once McReynolds took him off the hook, wound up 13-7. He’d never compile another annual mark above .500 as a New York Met. His club would find itself in a similar predicament. The third-place Mets, who raised their record to 36-32, 4½ behind the Pirates, on the strength of K-Mac’s grand slam, would collapse altogether in the season’s final laps and not truly rise again for another six years. McReynolds, Jefferies and Miller would be packaged for Bret Saberhagen and Bill Pecota (New York was going to love him) in December. The great Metropolitan transformation of the 1990s was on and it wasn’t going to be pretty.
Between the night of my only win of 1991 and the night the trade with Kansas City was consummated, I would see the guy with whom I took in that ballgame one more time. I invited him to my wedding. He came, he drank, he enjoyed himself. He gave Stephanie and me a nice card. Unfortunately, I seemed to have lost whatever he included with the card. In a bit of a panic, I called him to let him know that I was really sorry, I must have misplaced his gift and I didn’t want this to be a problem, so if he wanted to cancel the check, which I could have sworn I had seen…
“Uh, Greg,” he told me sheepishly, “there wasn’t anything in the card. I’m going to have to get the gift to you a little later.”
Well, I felt like a jerk. I wasn’t calling to shake him down. I really thought a check fell out of the card and disappeared. Three months later, a lovely vase arrived at our home. I sent him a thank you note and I think that was it for us. No more Mets games. No more phone calls. Just nothing more for us to talk about, I guess. Out of curiosity, in the wake of the Valdespin grand slam, I did a search of his name Thursday morning. He’s up to something that has nothing to do with writing (or baseball) and seems to be doing well. I’m very glad.
I’m also glad to have been at the last two games the Mets won on walkoff grand slams. Ask me in 22 years about the Jordany game and I’m confident I’ll remember quite a bit about it. After all, I more or less remember the McReynolds game. I remember that we won both quite theatrically. On the other hand, I don’t remember anything about what happened in the game that came after June 25, 1991. I didn’t attend that one. I didn’t attend Thursday’s matinee loss to the Dodgers, either. I know we lost. I know I wasn’t happy that we did.
So I decided to just think about the wins for now.
You’ll think about a whole lot of Amazin’ Mets wins when you read The Happiest Recap: First Base, the first installment of an unprecedented, unparalleled exploration of the first half-century of New York Mets baseball. This volume covers the wonder years of 1962 to 1973, including a pair of games from 1963 won on what we now refer to as walkoff grand slams. The thoroughly Met-minded blog Studious Metsimus is anything but bearish on the series, praising The Happiest Recap for “paint[ing] a colorful picture” of Mets history, filled with “unabashed love and…passionate words” for the team around which so many of us have come to plan our lives.
First Base is available in print or for Kindle from Amazon. Personally inscribed copies are available from the Team Recap store. I really hope you’ll choose to read it and touch all the bases that follow.