The good news to come out of August 11, 2014, is that the Mets beat the Phillies, 5-3, producing all sorts of sunny sidebars in Philadelphia while doing so.
Universally beloved Jon Niese pitched seven strong; Buddy Carlyle bridged the eighth like Benjamin Franklin bridges the Delaware; Jeurys Familia, thanks to replay review, did not surrender a home run to Chase Utley; David Wright’s shoulder came to play and knocked in a run; Daniel Murphy doubled and singled to extend his league lead in hits to eight over postmodern sign man Hunter Pence; heartthrob Anthony Recker fluttered not only his eyelashes per usual but his bat for a change at a Justin De Fratus delivery and crushed it up toward the Chickie’s & Pete’s crab fries stand along Ashburn’s Alley; Juan Lagares fired a ball in from center and registered another assist at home as yet another third base coach revealed he doesn’t bother to scour the scouting reports; and in my favorite development of the game, Matt den Dekker and Wilmer Flores played key roles in the seventh-inning rally that ultimately carried the day.
Some afternoons will inflict growing pains on the fans of a team that is giving its unproven kids a chance to get proven. Other afternoons will provide growing pleasure. Monday was one of those afternoons.
True, Jacob deGrom is on the 15-day DL in deference to tendinitis in his right rotator cuff, but that sounds so much better than “shut down for the year” or “should be ready for Opening Day 2016,” which, let’s face it, is the medical report our well-honed paranoia has conditioned us to expect. I’m unhappy I don’t get my first in-person look at Jacob as scheduled Tuesday night at Citi Field, but Rafael Montero’s return looms as a pretty decent consolation prize.
Yet in terms of historical milestones that grab one’s attention, the best news to come out of August 11, 2014, is the wholly unnewsworthy development that there will be a game on August 12, 2014, no matter who starts it. Not every August 11 in Met years ending in “4” could be counted on to be succeeded so routinely.
We have reached the 20th anniversary of the baseball strike of 1994, an ugly affair that nobody wanted, yet everybody was complicit in causing and extending. Well, not everybody. Not the fans. The fans liked baseball going on as scheduled. But who listens to the fans?
When you read about the 1994 strike and the what-ifs that rose in its wake, certain names come up time and again. The Expos seemed a lock to win the National League East and were robust enough to go all the way. The Yankees led the American League East and appeared ready to revive their dynastic ways in advance of the arrival of their eventually sainted manager and RE2PECT-laden shortstop. Previously dormant fortunes rose as well in Cleveland, where there was a shiny new stadium; Houston, which was helmed by a fiery little skipper; and Cincinnati, where a 1986 Met hero was batting .326 and, as far as we know, leaving the Queen City’s kitty population alone
Meanwhile, back in Flushing…ah, who remembers what was going on in Flushing 20 years ago?
I do. Of course I do. The 1994 Mets were a revelation to me and to anybody attentive enough paying them mind. That they were forgotten by the time there were finally 1995 Mets reflects badly only on baseball for not solving its work stoppage ASAP and everybody else’s memory for not clearing out space on behalf of a team that brought respectability back to Shea Stadium.
By coincidence, the Mets played in Philadelphia on August 11, 1994, just as they did this August 11. The ballpark was the Vet, the innings totaled 15 and the box score seems as surreal now as the notion that the Mets wouldn’t be playing on August 12 or 13 or 14 did then.
Jason Jacome, the Jacob deGrom of his day (in terms of favorable early results and a prevailing impulse to pencil him into the rotation for the next ten years), started and, like Niese on Monday, gave the Mets seven solid innings. He wasn’t going to win, though, because he was matched frame for frame by Fernando Valenzuela of the Phillies.
Yes, Fernando Valenzuela pitched for the Phillies in 1994. You remember him as a Dodger. Nobody remembers him as a Phillie. Even I only vaguely recall that he was a division rival.
Those Phillies were one year removed from an improbable National League pennant, but those Phillies weren’t those Phillies anymore. Lenny Dykstra and his tobacco-stained ilk still roamed (and presumably spat upon) that grotesque green carpet, but the magic was gone. Those Phillies, at least on that last night of 1994 that wasn’t intended to be the last night of 1994, included its share of spare parts. 1986 Met nemesis Billy Hatcher was hanging on in right. Obscure backup catcher Todd Pratt was behind the plate. Toby Borland, who wouldn’t be Toby Borland for another three years, was shutting down the Mets in the 11th, 12th and 13th.
And those Mets? Those were the Mets of…be still my heart…Tim Bogar leading off and Kelly Stinnett in the two-hole and Jim Lindeman batting third, the spot where traditionally bats the best hitter on the team. There were better hitters on the 1994 Mets than journeyman Jim Lindeman, including goodwill ambassador Bobby Bonilla, affably amiable Jeff Kent and legitimate wunderkind Rico Brogna, who was acquired in March, called up in June and stinging the ball at a .351 clip. The whole lot of those Mets coalesced so effectively that not only were they pushing .500 in August, but they expunged most of the bad taste remaining from 1993, this franchise’s almost indisputable annus horribilis.
Were the Phillies just not hitting that Thursday night at Broad and Pattison or were the Mets just so tough that of course the game would wind into extras at 1-1? Jacome was followed to the mound by Roger Mason, Doug Linton and Eric Gunderson. I don’t know if any team has ever deployed three consecutive relievers whose last names ended in “on,” but all of them were on, throwing four shutout innings before giving way to Mauro “Goose” Gozzo.
I swear I’m not making that one up. We really had a pitcher named Mauro “Goose” Gozzo, and he was, in my considered 1994 opinion, not bad. The whole 1994 Met enterprise was not bad. If you think that’s damning with faint praise, you missed 1993 (and good for you if you did). The Mets had been a seventh-place, 59-103 wreck the year before. Now, win or lose on August 11, they were entrenched in third, ahead of the defending champ Phillies and just a tad short of breaking even. They weren’t anywhere near a Wild Card in this, the first year of three divisions, but they were, well, not bad.
It wasn’t 1969. It wasn’t 1984. It didn’t have to be. It was the best year the Mets were in the midst of since 1990, which spoke more to how dismal 1991, 1992 and 1993 had been, but relativity is everything when you’re not contending. These Mets of Brogna (before he’d be shipped off to bring us Toby Borland) and Kent (before it would be discovered that his talent if not his personality was practically Hall of Fame material) and Jacome (before he erased himself from the next decade’s rotation in the early going of 1995) and Jose Vizcaino steadily manning short and Bret Saberhagen almost never walking anybody…boy did I like rooting for them.
It was a little heartbreaking to listen on WFAN and hear Ricky Jordan single with the bases loaded and two out in the bottom of the fifteenth after Gozzo had held off the Phillies for 3⅔ innings. Goose took the 2-1 loss, 1987 Met refugee Tom Edens earned the win and the third-place Mets put 1994 in the truncated books at 55-58.
There’d be no game tomorrow nor any day before April 26, 1995. That was the real heartbreaker. Baseball was done. The Mets were done. You’ll hear disenfranchised Expos fans and overindulged Yankees fans complain the World Series was officially canceled on September 14, 1994, costing them a chance (in Montreal’s case, a last chance) at a championship. That, to tell you the truth, didn’t much matter to me. Once August was permanently disrupted, I wasn’t interested in rigging up October for the benefit of others. If I couldn’t have Rico Brogna taking me through 162, I didn’t need anybody else’s postseason to amuse me come autumn. I sated myself with Ken Burns, watched a lot more football than usual and got on with my life.
Nevertheless, it was a heartbreaker to have that Met season end 49 games prematurely. And it saddens me that the 1994 Mets, more than any of the franchise’s 53 editions to date, have been lost to collective memory, because I remember the part of the year that didn’t get wiped out as so uplifting (give or take one certifiable all-time downer). Those Mets not being terrible, no longer embarrassing themselves and sparking the slightest flicker of hope that would carry me through the miserably endless strike constituted a genuine heartwarmer.
You don’t forget that sort of thing, even if everybody else has.