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A Little Bit of Hamilton in My Life

It was the “Mambo No. 5 [1]” game. That’s one of the two ways I differentiate it from all the other games I’ve attended. In the seventh-inning stretch, they played “Mambo No. 5,” the very contemporary and very kitschy song Lou Bega was making famous late in the summer of 1999. I don’t know why they went with Bega that Sunday afternoon at Shea. Maybe the other Lou — Monte — needed a blow. It was a day game after a night game. If a little rest was good enough for Mike Piazza [2], it was good enough for “Lazy Mary”.

This was the only time I remember “Mambo No. 5” following “Take Me Out To The Ball Game”. It is a very silly song, but I liked hearing it that day. The mischievous bravado, the extensive roll call of Bega’s romantic interests and the bouncy trumpet break in particular fit the prevailing Zeitgeist between the top and bottom of the seventh. The Mets, winners of 15 of their previous 23, were ahead of the Rockies, 6-2; if they held on, and if the Diamondbacks could come back on the Braves (which they would), we’d pull to within 2½ of the Eastern Division lead. The mood in the park was truly festive. A party atmosphere had pervaded Shea since the bottom of the fifth.

That was when the party started. That was when the other way that differentiates the game of September 5, 1999, came to the fore. That was when Darryl Hamilton [3] made an enormous difference in the fate of the 1999 Mets.

That wasn’t the only time, mind you. Darryl had come over in one of the flurry of deadline deals Steve Phillips pulled off. Hamilton was the new part-time center fielder, arriving from Colorado — coincidentally the opposition on September 5 — in exchange for Brian McRae [4]. There were others in the deal, but it was basically McRae, a lingering disappointment, for Hamilton, a veteran brought in to shore up a squishy position. Hamilton, a lefty, shared center with another newly minted Met, righthanded-hitting Shawon Dunston [5]. The platoon took. From the moment they became Mets to the end of the regular season, Hamilton batted .339, while Dunston hit .344.

Yet it was during the fifth inning on September 5 when Hamilton inscribed his signature on the 1999 season. The bases were loaded, the Mets were up, 2-0, and he swung at a one-oh pitch from Darryl Kile [6]. It left the ballpark. The Mets’ lead increased to 6-0 on Darryl Hamilton’s grand slam.

Just as there was never a party like a Shea Stadium party, there is no home run like a grand slam home run. Darryl Hamilton was why “Mambo No. 5” could play over the PA two innings later and it could feel so apropos. With a little bit of Hamilton in our lives, we were winning by a comfortable margin. Masato Yoshii [7] returned to the mound in the sixth and gave back two of the runs when he surrendered a homer to Vinny Castilla [8], but otherwise, the Met edge was safe. Hamilton provided four runs and the Mets won by four.

It was just one win in a season when the Mets got through 162 games with 96 wins. Except without Darryl’s slam, maybe the Mets lose on September 5. Maybe it’s a 2-2 game when Lou Bega takes center stage in the middle of the seventh. Maybe the Rockies find a third run in extra innings and the Mets don’t score again and, as a result, on October 3 the Mets have 95 wins. That would have been a very damaging development in retrospect, because the Mets needed every last one of their 96 victories to ultimately tie the Reds for the Wild Card. With 96, they got to a 163rd game. With a win in that 163rd game, they got to the postseason. From there, we had ten more October games in which magic would be manufactured and memories would be made — memories that warm our hearts to this very day and will no doubt continue to for as long as we take baseball to our hearts.

It was six weeks from Hamilton’s grand slam home run to Robin Ventura [9]’s grand slam single. Theoretically we’d have gotten to the latter without the former, but somehow I doubt it.

When we ask ourselves during less rewarding spans why we remain fans, we know it’s because of years like 1999 and stretch drives to which every Met contributed, whether they were a part of our team while it was coming together or showed up just in time to give it that extra nudge to get it over the top. It’s quite conceivable that without Darryl Hamilton, the phrase “1999 Mets” doesn’t mean what it does to us today.

It’s just as conceivable that without Darryl Hamilton, the title “2000 National League Champions” belongs elsewhere. Instead, because of the instant Hamilton came off the bench; delivered a two-out, tenth-inning double off Felix Rodriguez [10] in San Francisco; and scored on Jay Payton [11]’s succeeding single, the pennant eventually became ours. This was Game Two of the NLDS. The Mets had lost Game One. Armando Benitez [12] gave up a gut-punch three-run shot to J.T. Snow [13] in the bottom of the ninth, one that allowed the Giants to tie the second game at four. The momentum had shifted. The Mets couldn’t afford to go home down oh-two in a best-of-five series.

Though we can’t deal definitively in what-ifs, we do know what did definitively happen. Hamilton doubled, scored and put the Mets ahead. The Mets won that game. They won the next two. They won that series and the series thereafter and they ended a 14-year World Series drought. That was the last time the Mets got that far in any year.

We indulge the cliché that it takes 25 men, usually more, to win anything meaningful in this game. One of those men, two years running, was Darryl Hamilton. He was a part of two of the most wonderful teams this franchise ever produced. In years when everything had to go right for them to go as far as they did, Darryl made the kinds of differences you can put your finger on…the kinds of differences you know by heart.

Today, we learned Darryl Hamilton, 50, was killed by his girlfriend in a murder-suicide in Texas, leaving behind a baby boy barely over a year old. It is horrible news [14] from a human standpoint. It would be no matter who we were talking about. It turns out we’re talking about a ballplayer whose name stays with us, whose image we can call up instantly, whose accomplishments in the uniform of the team we call ours meant something special to us.

Nobody who knew Darryl Hamilton personally from his playing days or his more recent broadcasting career is recalling him with anything but heartbroken affection. He was, by all accounts, a good man. He is, in our recollections, a vital Met who helped make us feel like winners. It’s hardly the most important thing by which to measure a life, but when you know of somebody primarily because of what he did as a baseball player, I don’t think it’s a bad thing to recall.