Today is the fifteenth anniversary of perhaps the most iconic base hit in the history of the New York Mets. To commemorate the events of October 17, 1999, here is an excerpt from what I wrote  the month the Grand Slam Single turned ten.
Four o’clock start Sunday. Too much down time to consider my credo or mantra or whatever you want to call it. No team has ever come back to win a postseason series when trailing three games to none, but several teams have come back to win a postseason series when trailing three games to one. And that’s us now. I’d think in those terms that afternoon, but it was too long an afternoon to sit around thinking about it.
So I left the house. I needed a distraction from my diversion. I drove to Tower Records in Carle Place to search out a CD I didn’t particularly need, but it was something to do. Of course I’m wearing a Mets shirt. On the way from my car to the store, I pass a mother and two children, both boys, one in Yankee gear.
Do I stare straight ahead? Do I exchange the slightest gesture indicating that we’re both in the playoffs and we all might be in the same Series if things go right for both of us? Do I gird for the kind of incivility to which I’ve grown accustomed from their kind since 1996?
The older kid, not even 12:
Mets! Ha! HA HA! METS! HA!
The mother laughs along. The whole bunch of them are laughing. We’re in an LCS against the Braves. They’re in an LCS against the Red Sox. Yet my team is somehow laughable.
I grumble at them. They continue to cackle.
How do we keep throwing Yoshii against Hall of Famers? He went up against Randy Johnson and we survived. He went up against Maddux and it wasn’t helpful. Here we are again, Game Five, and it’s Masato and the Mad Dog.
Masato is winning early. The skies are gray, but John Olerud isn’t gloomy. He takes Maddux deep in the first inning, with Rickey Henderson on. Mets lead the Braves 2-0. Yoshii leads Maddux 2-0.
Yeah, that’ll last.
Fourth inning: A Boone double, a Larry double, a Jordan single. Now it’s 2-2. Maddux has evened the score with Yoshii.
Hope you like pitching, defense and runners left on base. That’s all we’re going to have for quite a while.
The day game became a night game. The gray skies opened up. Somebody sitting between home and one of the dugouts covered himself with a popcorn bucket. Was it really that hard to remember to bring an umbrella?
Bobby Valentine works day or night, rain or shine. Bobby Valentine came to Shea to manage on October 17, 1999. If the Mets were going to die, it wasn’t going to be because a single button went unpushed. The evening became a blur of smartly deployed relievers and well-preserved pinch-hitters. Dennis Cook may not have enjoyed serving as little more than a scarecrow (brought in to complete an intentional walk), but the mere sight of his left arm shooed Ryan Klesko right out of the game. Bobby burned a useful pitcher between Turk Wendell and Pat Mahomes, but what he was gonna save them for — winter?
The bullpen went Hershiser to Wendell to Cook to Mahomes to Franco to Benitez to Rogers from the fourth through the twelfth. Seven relievers surrendered nothing of substance. All the Mets hitters combined to score just as much. It was a Flushing standoff. Seven relievers became eight when Octavio Dotel succeeded Kenny Rogers after The Gambler’s two scoreless frames. The Braves got to Octavio in the top of the thirteenth, but not to Melvin Mora. The man who threw out a Diamondback from left the week before and a Brave from center two nights before cut down Keith Lockhart when he tried to score from first on a Chipper Jones double with two out. Melvin’s throw beat Lockhart by a significant margin. An attempt to bowl over the aching Piazza was to no avail. The baseball game continued knotted at two.
The Mets didn’t score in their half of the thirteenth. Mike was done after that (thanks Keith). Todd Pratt nursed Dotel through the top of the fourteenth. John Rocker, who continued to suck even while pitching a perfect thirteenth, got Ventura to start the bottom of the fourteenth. Having retired Fonzie, Oly, Piazza and Robin as if they weren’t the heart of the order, he was removed in favor of rookie Kevin McGlinchy. He wasn’t scary like Rocker but he was similarly effective, giving up nothing of consequence.
Onto the fifteenth inning of October 17, 1999, the inning everybody remembers. Comparatively few remember the top of it, but it’s worth noting that it nearly killed the Mets’ season right then and there.
The Mets had had a postseason date with Walt Weiss, but they stood him up. That was in October 1988. Weiss was the pending American League Rookie of the Year on the powerhouse Oakland Athletics. He was their shortstop, playing alongside Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire and Rickey Henderson. The Suffern High School graduate was part of a team that was going to meet its literal match in the powerhouse New York Mets of 1988. It was going to be a clash of titans, the most hotly anticipated World Series of the 1980s. The only thing that could prevent the Mets and the A’s from meeting would be forgetfulness. Sure enough, the ’88 Mets forgot to win the National League Championship Series, letting it slip to the Dodgers instead. Walt Weiss’s first World Series, thus, would come against Los Angeles, not New York. Being there wouldn’t work out any better for the A’s than missing it had for the Mets.
Had Weiss held a grudge from 1988 to 1999 against the Mets for keeping family and friends from attending a convenient October affair? Was he still feeling a pinch from the airfare it must have cost to fly them out to the West Coast instead of telling them to drive down to Queens from Rockland? Was Walt Weiss planning on getting even one of these days with those inconsiderate Mets?
Or was he just incidentally screwing them by leading off the fifteenth by singling and then stealing second?
The Braves had left fifteen runners on base since the fourth. Had Mets relievers been any less successful, their season would have been over by now. The guy with the popcorn bucket on his head could have grabbed a towel or something. But nine pitchers conspired to keep him wet. It would be a shame for him to dry off now.
Keith Lockhart must have noticed the man and taken perverse pity. He lashed a two-out triple to center, scoring local boy Weiss and making it Braves 3 Mets 2. Dotel, an alternately brilliant and disastrous starter during the season, had proven the first Met reliever to crack. To his credit, he repaired his fissure, striking out Jordan after an intentional walk to Jones.
Nice recovery. And completely worthless if the bottom of the fifteenth didn’t hold something better in store.
Shawon Dunston, the centerfielder who had no prayer on Lockhart’s triple, had a couple of things in common with Walt Weiss. First, he was local. Shawon was from Brooklyn. Also, he was an old shortstop. Difference was Weiss was still a shortstop. Dunston had once gunned throws from the hole to first like nobody could. But that was a long time ago by 1999. Now he was mostly an outfielder when he played. Another thing he didn’t have in common with Walt Weiss was postseason experience. Walt Weiss was a rookie in 1988 and played on three World Series clubs his first three years, winning the one in the middle. Dunston came up to the Cubs in 1985 and had made only one playoff appearance, on the losing end of the ’89 NLCS.
It was ten years later. Dunston had been around, far from Brooklyn, far from his favorite childhood team, the Mets. He wasn’t particularly choked up when Steve Phillips acquired him from St. Louis in July. He liked St. Louis. He had just bought a house there. Every ballplayer likes St. Louis and every ballplayer who buys a house is soon traded. Or so it seems. Dunston found himself dabbling in more real estate than he wanted in the summer of ’99. Now, in the suddenly very late fall, he was trying to get something started at home.
The Mets made Walt Weiss wait eleven years and fourteen innings for a postseason moment near where he was from. Now Shawon Dunston would make everybody wait almost as long for same. He would not walk (he literally never did as a Met). He would not make out. He would just work Kevin McGlinchy until he could get the pitch he could convert into a single.
We could wait…
They don’t play doubleheaders in the postseason, but you couldn’t have told that from the talk entering the sixth game of the 1986 National League Championship Series. The Mets led the Astros three games to two, having won two dramatic games at Shea. They flew to Houston one win away from a pennant. Yet it was said the pressure was on the Mets. They lose Game Six, they lose Game Seven: it was a daily double. The Mets couldn’t win Game Seven because it would be started by the evil Mike Scott, he who scuffed baseballs and made them dip, dart and dance so Mets batters — not even 1986 Mets batters — could hope to touch them.
It doesn’t sound legal, but it was.
Scott’s warmup act, Bob Knepper, was exactly all the Astros needed. He shushed the Mets for eight excruciating innings, taking an early 3-0 lead and maintaining it clear to the top of the ninth. Knepper had been tough noogies on the Mets all year, long before Scott emerged as resourceful and suffocatingly effective. The Mets — even the 1986 Mets — had all kinds of problems against very good lefties.
To lead off the visitors’ ninth, Davey Johnson sent up Lenny Dykstra to pinch-hit for Rick Aguilera. It wasn’t a percentage move. It was a lefty versus a lefty. But it worked. Dykstra stroked one to center, over the head of Billy Hatcher. Lenny rolled into third with a leadoff triple. It was still 3-0 Houston and we were about to play eight more innings, but I knew…I mean I knew the Mets would never have to look at Mike Scott again in 1986. They were going to win this game.
Sometimes a leadoff hit tells you everything.
On the twelfth pitch of the first at-bat of the bottom of the fifteenth inning, Shawon Dunston matched Walt Weiss and singled. He became the tying run at first. It was the first time the entire game the Mets had needed one of those.
Three months before, I wasn’t nearly as confident about a Met victory. I wanted to be, because we were playing the Yankees. For a few minutes here and there that Saturday afternoon at Shea, I was supremely confident, never more so than when Mike Piazza just absolutely walloped the bejeesus out of a Ramiro Mendoza delivery, sending it far over the left field wall and on to the roof of the Picnic Area tent. That made the score Mets 7 Yankees 6 in the seventh, and I couldn’t resist.
“YEAH! THAT’S RIGHT! YEAH! YOU!”
I don’t know exactly what I was yelling or who specifically I was yelling it at, but I was telling off every obnoxious Yankees fan in my section of the upper Upper Deck. When one of them made eye contact, I only pumped up my volume.
“YEAH! I’M TALKING TO YOU! YEAH!”
And all I could think was oh no, what have I done? It wasn’t pissing off Yankees fans that worried me (it was quite cathartic, actually), it was pissing off the baseball gods. That wasn’t a walkoff home run. This was the seventh inning. There were two very long frames remaining and the Yankees had already hit five home runs. What were the chances they wouldn’t hit a sixth?
I didn’t have time to calculate the odds. With one on and one out in the top of the eighth, the other team’s catcher, Jorge Posada, hit his second home run of the day. Now it was the obnoxious Yankees fans (also known as the Yankees fans) who were braying, squawking, woofing, whatever animal noise they make. We were losing 8-7, and they still had Mariano Rivera waiting around.
They didn’t score any more in the eighth, but neither did we. Somehow, they were held at bay in the ninth, which was nice, but here came the bottom of the ninth and here came Rivera and the likelihood that this was going to be the worst day I’d ever experience inside Shea Stadium.
Brian McRae grounds out to start the inning. Big surprise. But then Rickey Henderson, on base four times already, walks. Fonzie, so often the man in ’99, hits a fly ball that those not in Row T of Section 36 are pretty sure will be caught by Gold Glove centerfielder Bernie Williams. Except that’s fool’s gold down there. We hear a roar and we see baserunners: Henderson’s on third, Alfonzo’s on second. Williams, it seems, couldn’t handle a fairly simple deep fly ball (my favorite WFAN call of the year: the Yankee fan that week who insisted Bernie was defenseless having to play such an unfamiliar outfield, what with its grass, warning track and fence).
Olerud was up next, and I assumed he’d win it the same way he won it against Curt Schilling seven weeks earlier at Shea. How odd that he didn’t. He grounded out. I was genuinely surprised. But then I was confident because Mike was up and…oh, right, they’ll walk him.
Bases loaded, two out, we’re down a run. Everybody is screaming. Everybody but some effete prig in Row S who’s quietly reading the Times. I’m yelling and disturbing him, apparently, because he turns around and gives me this “what’s wrong with you?” look that would be appropriate in a Christian Science reading room perhaps, but not here. I’m at an 8-7 Subway Series ballgame, you’re reading the Times and I’m crazy, mister? I divined he was there at the behest of his Yankee fan children.
Oh how I hate them.
Anyway, the bases are loaded and my confidence is brimming until I look at the scoreboard because in my hysteria I’ve actually forgotten. Benny Agbayani started in right and hit fifth, but Bobby took him out for defense once Mike hit the go-ahead homer. But now we’re behind and his replacement is Melvin Mora. This is not the awesome Melvin Mora of October. This is the .067-hitting Melvin Mora of July, going up against Mariano Fucking Rivera, who we already know is going to the Hall of Fame. We don’t know anything about Melvin Mora except that he makes this a very poor matchup and it’s going to suck so much leaving Section 36 among all these fucking Yankees fans who are just going to have their empty existences validated in a matter of moments.
That’s when Del DeMontreux announces batting for Melvin Mora, No. 15, Matt Franco.
Ohimigod! Bobby Valentine is an absolute freaking genius! How did we get to the bottom of the ninth of a game in which seventeen different Mets have participated and still have our best pinch-hitter available? How has Matt Franco not been used yet? What was Bobby saving him for?
For this, of course. For facing the best reliever on the planet. For a 1-2 count (ball one considered strike three in some cynical circles) at which point one of the great Rivera’s cutters is lined into right field, easily scoring Henderson and, by a hair or two on Paul O’Neill’s strong throw, plating Edgardo Alfonzo.
The signature contest of the 1999 season goes down as Mets 9 Yankees 8. Matt Franco is awesome. Bobby Valentine is no slouch himself. And all of us who deserve to feel wonderful are beyond happy.
Hey, whaddaya know? It’s the fifteenth inning of the literal do-or-die fifth game of the NLCS and look who Bobby Valentine has saved for just this moment: It’s Matt Franco, batting for Dotel.
Again, I’m surprised. I shouldn’t be, but I am.
Franco stepped in. Dunston took off. He stole second.
There. Just like that.
No Met baserunner had gotten as far as second since the sixth. Practically an entire regulation baseball game had passed since a Met was in scoring position. By my reckoning, however, Dunston was home. I got the same feeling from his leadoff single that I got from Dykstra’s leadoff triple thirteen years earlier. Now it was essentially a leadoff double and we had Matt Franco up. Bobby had saved him all these innings precisely because there had been no great reason to use him before. Don’t waste Matt if there’s no runner in scoring position. We finally have one.
Franco walked twenty times as a pinch-hitter in 1999. It was a record. He walks here. It’s not surprising, nor is it particularly bad news. Would have been neater had he driven in Dunston, but he took what McGlinchy gave him. Matt Franco was the master of taking.
Twenty-seven home runs. One-hundred eight runs batted in. A batting average of .304. And with two on and none out, he is asked to bunt.
So Edgardo Alfonzo bunts. He can do it all and do it well. Fonzie sacrifices himself for the greater good. As a result, Shawon Dunston is on third and Matt Franco is on second.
How I loved that man.
Bobby Cox attempts strategy. He orders Olerud walked. He sticks with McGlinchy, even though he can theoretically end this series if he can escape this inning unscathed. Cox used Smoltz to finish out Game Two even though Smoltz would be his Game Four starter. Kevin Millwood, the Game Two and potential Game Six starter, could have come in here. So could have Gl@v!ne, who pitched Friday night and wouldn’t see action again until Wednesday at the earliest, if at all. They weren’t relievers but they weren’t McGlinchy either. Pennant on the line, Kevin McGlinchy’s not necessarily your best option if you have others.
Bobby Valentine has none anymore, not where the bullpen is concerned. He is warming up his last two pitchers: Rick Reed and Al Leiter. They’re both starters. One went in the last game. One is going in the next game if such a thing exists. As if to emphasize the point, he replaces leadfooted Franco at second with normally speedy Cedeño. Roger’s been sitting with a bad back. It’s all Mets on deck now. He’s the last position player Valentine has. His last two pitchers are throwing.
Leave no Met behind.
McGlinchy stays in to face Pratt, who came in for Piazza when Mike could go on no further. There was a time when that would have seemed risky, but that was before Todd Pratt made himself a Met legend by ending the NLDS with a home run  eight days ago. It was also before the fifteenth inning and its prevailing anything-goes ethic. If Bobby could have snuck a Mets uniform onto the popcorn bucket guy, he might have sent him up to hit.
And I would have had all the confidence in the world in him.
When Mookie Wilson dodged an inside pitch from Bob Stanley in Game Six in the 1986 World Series, millions of Mets fans exhaled. We couldn’t lose in the tenth inning as it appeared we would. Kevin Mitchell raced home and made it Mets 5 Red Sox 5. That was the burden lifted right there. We’d keep playing, at least a little longer. We were no longer down to our last out, our last strike.
It’s one of those facts that’s known but not widely acknowledged because of what happened next. What is remembered much better is how the Mets won Game Six. Of course it’s worth remembering, what with the ground ball trickling and the first baseman not fielding it and Ray Knight racing home and pandemonium overtaking Shea. But it was tied. All hope was not lost before the ball went through Bill Buckner’s legs.
Tying a game is important. What Todd Pratt did, drawing a walk, was important. By accepting ball four from Kevin McGlinchy, he ensured that the Mets season was not over in the fifteenth inning. We had inched back from the brink.
It’s one of those facts that’s known but not widely acknowledged because of what happened next.
Dean Palmer had a fine 1999 with the Detroit Tigers. Maybe he would have had a fine 1999 with the New York Mets. In the offseason between ’98 and ’99, there was a local baseball columnist — Tom Keegan in the Post — who insisted in that way tabloid columnists have of hammering points into submission that Palmer was exactly the free agent third baseman the Mets needed to get over the hump. Look at those numbers: 34 homers and 119 ribbies for Kansas City. Think of how perfectly that righthanded power would fit behind Mike Piazza. The Mets must get Dean Palmer!
The Mets had another idea, another free agent third baseman. Third base wasn’t actually a problem for them. Alfonzo did a more than representative job there for two seasons. It was second that was a mess. Carlos Baerga was nothing close to what he had been in Cleveland. He’d be gone after ’98. Fonzie was versatile. What the Mets decided to do was tap that versatility and shift him to second. It would make third base a hole again, however. That was an old Met story.
The new Met solution? Not Dean Palmer of the Royals, but Robin Ventura of the White Sox. His power numbers were lesser, but he was a lefty (allowing Bobby Valentine to mix up his batting order to confound opposing managers: Fonzie the righty preceding Oly the lefty, who was ahead of righty Mike who would then be followed by lefthanded Ventura). And he was a Gold Glove third baseman. The Mets had never had one of those. Fonzie deserved one in ’97, but Robin Ventura was supposed to be state-of-the-art.
I say “supposed to be,” because who the hell knew what went on in the American League? I didn’t. I knew Ventura was a hot prospect once, fought with Nolan Ryan once and was presumably a good hitter, though everybody in the American League had eye-popping stats. It didn’t seem like a bad idea bringing in Robin Ventura.
I had no conception, however, what a great idea it was.
Steve Phillips, reasonably maligned general manager of those Mets, made one indisputably awesome move as team architect when he signed Ventura. He transformed the infield, transformed the batting order and transformed the clubhouse with one stroke. Robin was everywhere in 1999. He was out front as no Met had been since Keith Hernandez. Not the same type of personality from what we could tell but he seemed to fit the mold of guy who came in and led the team by deed and example. Keith came over in 1983 and the Mets were much better by 1984. That Met hump from 1998 — just missing the Wild Card in exasperating fashion — suddenly got a lot more scalable with Robin Ventura at third, batting fifth, raising all kinds of Mojo.
Robin was having a lousy postseason. He hit .214 against Arizona. His final average against Atlanta would be .120. And nobody remembers any of that.
At first, it was a grand slam home run, right out of the Robin Ventura playbook. Robin hit grand slams like some guys take toothpicks when leaving a diner. He hit one in each end of a doubleheader in May. While it was certainly triumphant and dramatic — how’s that for understatement? — it was, to a certain extent, what you’d expect out of Robin Ventura.
What it turned out to be was something nobody would have ever expected.
Ventura against McGlinchy. Ventura swings. It’s a long fly ball. At that point, the game is over. The ball has gone to deep right. It’s a sac fly if nothing else. From its trajectory, it can’t be anything worse for the Mets or better for the Braves. If it can be caught by Brian Jordan, there’s no way he can throw out Roger Cedeño unless Roger Cedeño is literally paralyzed.
Keeping an eye on the ball, it’s becoming rapidly clear that the ball will not be caught by Brian Jordan. It’s too deep. It’s not going to the wall. It’s going over it. It is indeed a Robin Ventura grand slam.
It is triumphant. It is dramatic. It is incredible, actually. It is instantly the most Amazin’ thing any Met has done since Mookie put the right English on that ball he hit to Buckner. We’ve gone from a 3-3 tie to a 7-3 win. We are very much alive.
We are so happy.
I know I am. Mrs. Prince and I have positioned ourselves in front of our TV, right in front of it, I mean — on the floor. As Robin’s fly ball climbs higher, I stand up and watch. And once it’s out and it’s a grand slam, I’m overcome. I jump up and down, but that’s not enough. I have to launch myself as Robin has launched his four-run homer. I must make like a missile and head straight for my wife. We are going to do what teammates have been doing for years. We are going to dogpile on the mound.
She doesn’t know this. She’s seen celebrations on the field, but she forgets details. What’s more, she’s not on the field. She’s on the living room carpet. Now we both are. I have jumped on top of her. I am screaming and hugging and screaming. Stephanie does not have the capacity to raise her voice in any discernible fashion. Once we rode a roller coaster. She let out a sound like a car alarm laughing nervously. That’s what I heard here.
Nobody was injured in the celebration of this grand slam, I’m relieved to report.
I’ve got nothing on Todd Pratt when it comes to forging togetherness with teammates. Tank, who was on first when Ventura swung, is delirious that the Mets have won this game. First, he does the right thing. He runs to second. That’s what you do on a hit. You run forward, you take your base. Cedeño ran home from third, certainly. Olerud arrived at third from second. Robin, natch, ran to first. Everybody tagged the next base.
But that’s all that’s going to get tagged. Pratt turns around from second and heads toward first. Robin is distressed and waves him off. You can’t run in the wrong direction! You have to keep running to third! You…
“They’re mobbing him before he can get to second base!” the ever thorough Gary Cohen reports.
You can’t stop a Tank in its tracks. The Mets, who had been doing the unbelievable for weeks, defied credulity yet again. They turned a home run into a single. Because Pratt jubilantly tackled Ventura — and every other Met followed — Robin technically didn’t hit a homer. He didn’t drive in four runs. He drove in one. It wasn’t a 7-3 final. It was 4-3. The Mets still won, just not by as much. The ball cleared the fence, but it was a single.
It was a grand slam single.
Only the Mets.
Next day at work all I wanted to talk about was the Mets. And all anybody wanted to talk to me about was the Mets. There was this one very flinty woman from Oregon. We had never had a conversation that rose above cordial and businesslike. Yet on the elevator on the way out that Monday night, she said, “That was some game yesterday. I’m not a baseball fan, but I couldn’t stop watching. Fifteen innings…that was incredible.”
Yes, I said. Yes, it was.