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Greg Prince and Jason Fry
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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Mora in America: Melvinnium Approaches

Welcome to A Met for All Seasons, a series in which we consider a given Met who played in a given season and…well, we’ll see.

I am determined to take our best traditions into the future. But with all respect, we do not need to build a bridge to the past. We need to build a bridge to the future, and that is what I commit to you to do. So tonight let us resolve to build that bridge to the 21st century…
—President Bill Clinton, 1996

There was a time when the 20th century was the only one any of us knew, that the concept of the 21st loomed as too outrageous to realistically contemplate. Even as “the year 2000,” as we reflexively called it, beckoned just up the road, it still struck us collectively as unknowable. Perhaps to prepare us for the mysteries of Y2K and the impending millennium it would usher in, we were granted a transition tool known as the 1999 Mets. They were a team that stretched the bounds of reality late in the last century for as long as they could.

With 73 days to go in the 1900s, the Mets played a baseball game they have yet to equal for sheer insanity in the 2000s. It wasn’t over until there were 72 days to go in the 1900s, and it came directly on the heels of one at least as lunatic, which they played when there were 75 days to go.

Time was flying just as we were having the most fun of our pre-millennium lives. Also flying everywhere he needed to be was Melvin Mora, one of the ornaments of the inimitable 1999 stretch drive and playoff spurt. Mora was one of those players who made 1999 what it was, even if he didn’t arrive to stay until it neared its conclusion. But then he made it better. He made it his own.

The Mora era began in earnest in the bottom of the ninth inning of October 3, 1999, the Mets knotted with the Pirates, 1-1, in Game 162, the game the Mets needed to win to guarantee they’d have a Game 163 and a chance at the jewels that waited beyond. After two topsy-turvy weeks that topped off a topsy-turvy year (that hadn’t seen anything yet), the Mets and Reds were tied for the National League’s sole Wild Card. The Mets were well-equipped to grab it. It was the year of Piazza, the year of Ventura, the year of Alfonzo, the year of so many 1999 Mets.

But when it mattered most, it was the moment of Mora.

Melvin — we were instantly on a first-name basis — came up with one out, following Bobby Bonilla not coming through as a pinch-hitter, and lined a single to right field off Greg Hansell to imbue Shea Stadium with the fierce urgency of hope. So many stars twinkled in our sky in 1999, yet here was this distant light coming into focus to show us the way.

The autumnal festival of Mora had commenced. In what flickers through the frames of the mind’s screening room as quick succession, Edgardo Alfonzo singled; Mora flew to third; John Olerud was intentionally walked; Gene Lamont replaced Hansell with Brad Clontz; Clontz warmed up; Mike Piazza stepped up with the bases loaded; Clontz went into his delivery; Clontz’s delivery skittered past catcher Joe Oliver; and Melvin Mora

Well, Melvin Mora was now at the heart of the Melvin Mora Game. We’d call it that forever because, as Oliver chased the pitch that got away and Piazza stood appropriately dazed in a state of inoperativeness, Melvin — who spent two-thirds of the day on the bench, then worked the box score as PR-LF-RF-LF the rest of the way — dashed from third to home. There was no doubt he was going to cross it safely. The last few steps, almost for show, turned into a duckwalk. Quack, quack, quack; the secret word is “playoffs”.

A one-game playoff, anyway. At the end of Game 162, with Robin Ventura leading the charge of the hug brigade and the Mets beating the Pirates, 2-1, we celebrated as if we knew there’d be more playoffs. If it didn’t read as a foregone conclusion in the standings, you could guess confidently that we were going places.

Mora is partially obscured by a hugging Ventura, but after scoring the winning run of his namesake game, he’d never be obscure again.

First, to Cincinnati, to break the Wild Card tie. The Mets gave miracles a rest and opted for excellence. It was one of their underlying conditions in 1999. They didn’t win 96 games for nothin’. In fact, thanks mainly to Rickey Henderson leading off with a single, Edgardo Alfonzo following Rickey with a two-run homer, and Al Leiter giving up only two hits over nine innings, they won a 97th, 5-0, which punched their ticket to their next stop: the NLDS in Phoenix.

It didn’t really matter where the Mets’ next game was going to be. The important thing was that there were going to be next games. There hadn’t been since 1988. It would be too simplistic to say “no wonder — there hadn’t been Melvin Mora, either,” but, actually, yeah. One gets the feeling that Melvin Mora, had he been insightful enough to arrive in some other season, would have pushed the Mets an extra step. He would have kept Mike Scioscia in the park in 1988; would have neutralized the Bonilla & Bonds Bucs of 1990; would have convinced Vince Coleman to roll up his window in 1993; would have held together 1998 when it was falling apart.

But you can only ask Melvin Mora in retrospect to do what Melvin Mora actually did. The lithe Venezuelan product wasn’t born until 1972, didn’t sign a professional contract until 1991, and needed to play a little in Taipei in ’98 to draw attention to talents that went undetected during his looong tenure in Houston’s minor league system. The Mets noticed, signed him, invited him to Spring Training in ’99. He tore up the Grapefruit League. Howie Rose referred to him as the mayor of Port St. Lucie. It wasn’t enough to get him elected to the Opening Day roster. Melvin Mora didn’t appear in a major league game — for the Mets or anybody — until May 30, 1999.

Mora started that day. And on July 17. And July 25. Otherwise, he served as a spare part for an engine that was revving on most cylinders most of the time. Defensive replacement. Pinch-hitter. Pinch-runner. Then, after the trade deadline yielded Veteran Experience, back to Norfolk, see you in September. Which we did, mostly in late innings.

Mora’s magic at the end of games (one in particular) was the reason the Mets had somewhere to be in October for the first time in eleven years besides on their way home. Mora helped bring them to Phoenix to take on Randy Johnson and the fancy 100-win Diamondbacks. The Diamondbacks had more wins than the best Mets team of its generation, and nobody’d ever heard of them until a couple of years before. Then again, none of us had ever heard of Melvin Mora until the previous spring, so it was a fair fight.

Melvin’s first postseason appearance came in the sixth inning of Game One, a little earlier than usual, but this was the playoffs, and Bobby Valentine’s state bird was the double-switch. Masato Yoshii was coming out. Dennis Cook was coming in. “BUT,” as the announcer on the commercials would say, “THAT’S NOT ALL! YOU ALSO GET MELVIN MORA IN FOR SHAWON DUNSTON!” It was always Melvin Mora in for somebody, with somebody else going out so a reliever’s spot in the batting order would take its time coming around again. Melvin Mora was the perfect cog for Bobby V’s constantly cranking game-management mechanism.

In the ninth inning, the Big Unit was Buck Showalter’s irreplaceable cog. He’d thrown what amounted to two starts in the Diamondbacks’ first-ever postseason game. In the first one, the Mets nailed the perennial Cy Young winner good. Fonzie homered. Oly (a lefty!) homered. Even Rey Ordoñez bunted a run home. The imposing Johnson was apparently no bother to these Mets.

Then, in the fifth, Randy Johnson got back to being serious, and the Mets could no longer touch him. Around the same time, Yoshii remembered he was no match for Randy Johnson and, before Valentine could pull his double-switch, the game was tied at four, which is where it was in the ninth. Robin Ventura singled to lead off. Roger Cedeño bunted unsuccessfully. Ordoñez, practically having the offensive game of his life (1-for-3, plus that sacrifice), singled to left. Rey batted eighth. Pitchers usually bat ninth in the real league here, but because Bobby V played as many dimensions of chess as was necessary to outpoint his opponent, he had Melvin Mora up in this crucial spot in this crucial juncture of this crucial game.

Crucially, Melvin walked. Not only did it load the bases, it forced Showalter’s hand. Out went Johnson. In came Bobby Chouinard. Two batters later, Chouinard gave up a grand slam to Alfonzo to give the Mets an 8-4 lead that became an 8-4 win. Mora’s run made it 7-4. Mora’s walk off the Unit, just like Mora’s hit against Hansell, made all good things possible.

Melvin just kept it coming as the series proceeded. Valentine didn’t use him in the Game Two loss and didn’t need him to more than caddy in the Game Three win, but in Game Four at Shea, with the Mets poised to advance in a postseason for the first time since 1986, Melvin’s presence became crucial once more. In for defense in the eighth, the utilityman’s utility explained itself in a hurry. A 2-1 lead carefully nurtured by Leiter dissolved into a 3-2 deficit that resulted from Jay Bell’s two-run double off Armando Benitez (gosh, usually he’s so reliable). The game threatened to get away once Matt Williams singled and Bell steamed toward home, but the left fielder — Mora — fired in to Todd Pratt to nail Bell and keep the Mets down by only one run.

Pratt’s name will be attached to this game after he homers in the tenth, but who knows if there’s a tenth without Mora in the top of the eighth? Not only does Melvin imbue the concept of “defensive replacement” with game-changing impact, but we saw in the bottom of the eighth that moving fielders around doesn’t come without risk. Tony Womack had started at short for Arizona. Showalter shifted him to right and, two batters in to his new station, Womack muffs a fly ball that sets up the tying run.

Too bad for Buck that he didn’t have Melvin. Much better for us that we did.

In the NLCS that Mora and Pratt (among others) facilitated, Melvin’s defense, particularly his arm, was on full display. In Game Three, Melvin throws out Bret Boone at the plate from center in the first. In Game Five, Melvin throws out Keith Lockhart at the plate from right in the thirteenth. The Braves were given extra innings to scout Mora’s skills — he’d been playing the whole day and changed positions twice — but they chose to attempt to run on him, anyway.

By the thirteenth inning of Game Five — the Grand Slam Single Game, as it’s known for eternity — Melvin Mora has played 41 innings of postseason baseball and has recorded an assist from each outfield position. Plus he’s hit the first home run of his major league career in NLCS Game Two. Oh, and in Game Four, with the Mets as backed against the wall as can be imagined (though the imagination would be given a strenuous workout in the games ahead), he walks in his first plate appearance, in the eighth inning, concentrating on getting on base while Cedeño is busy stealing second base. Then, as the trail runner, he engineers a double-steal with Roger, placing them on second and third for Olerud. Then he scores the winning run on Olerud’s single, something he was situated to do because of that double-steal.

In Game Six, the third must-win contest the Mets have contested in a 72-hour span, word is getting around on New York’s erstwhile secret weapon. When Mora comes up in the top of the eighth as a pinch-hitter for Orel Hershiser, score tied at seven, Benny Agbayani on second, Bob Costas and Joe Morgan spotlight over NBC the “27-year-old rookie” most nobody had heard of when October began.

Melvin “has a chance to be a star,” according to Costas. “At least the Mets think so. He’s shown his stuff down the stretch and in the playoffs.”

“He’s going to be a valuable asset to the Mets in the next few years,” affirms Morgan, who lists the “lot of little things to help you win” that Mora does, which he ticks off as “plays good defense”; “has a good arm”; and “swings the bat pretty well.” Those little things sound mighty big. Mora is mighty big in the scope of this game, as he’s been in so many games since he got on base versus the Pirates a little over two weeks before. He singles to center and brings home Agbayani.

“Melvin Mora, who only a few years ago was playing in the Chinese professional league in Taiwan,” Costas marvels, “gives the Mets the lead in Game Six.”

How good was this guy? Darn good.

Yes, indeed, the rookie who “does not have any fear,” according to Morgan, has put the Mets up, 8-7, in a game that seven innings earlier they trailed, 5-0. It’s been crazy, it’s been a team effort, and now it’s Mora more than anybody else levitating the Mets until they can outlast the enemy Braves. Hold onto this lead, go to Game Seven. Win Game Seven (like they’d lose it after getting there), go to the World Series. Go to the World Series, and the world will know the legend of Melvin Mora as it continues to unfold before its eyes.

Except Bobby Valentine doesn’t move Mora to the mound, which is a mistake in retrospect, because Mora, who’s played three infield and three outfield positions in 1999, can do it all, and Franco, Mr. 400+ saves, gives up the tying run. The game will go to the tenth, Mora will come up, having stayed in as the right fielder, and again, Mora does it all, or at least all he can do. Agbayani is on second again. Mora singles again. Benny goes to third before scoring on Pratt’s fly to Andruw Jones, of all people. The Mets are ahead, 9-8, in the tenth inning of the sixth game of the National League Championship Series, an NLCS whose first three games they lost, and an NLCS from which they’ve courted elimination so steadily that you’d think somebody would have put a ring on it.

But Melvin Mora keeps the Mets and their chances going together.

MORGAN: “How good is this guy?”
COSTAS: “Darn good.”

Mora doesn’t pitch the bottom of the tenth, which dawns after midnight. Benitez does and gives up the tying run. Mora doesn’t bat in the top of the eleventh. It’s not his turn and the Mets don’t score. Mora doesn’t pitch the bottom of the eleventh, either. Kenny Rogers does. He’s not darn good. The Mets and the 1999 season break up. Their dissolution was as inevitable as their romance was beautiful.

But this, ostensibly, isn’t about 1999. It’s about 2000. That other wildly successful Mets year. The one that felt different. The one that was different. The one that had Melvin Mora at its beginning rather than its end.

***
The good news is there was going to be 2000. We’d get through the 20th century and cross the bridge into the next one. The computers and lights would stay on, and life would resume pretty much as it functioned in 1999. Parochially speaking, this meant we could look forward to Melvin Mora on the New York Mets. True, the element of surprise wouldn’t burst from every swing he took or every throw he gunned, but we had him. World, you’ve been warned.

Melvin makes the team out of Spring Training. Melvin goes to Japan as a bona fide component of the defending Wild Card champs/NLDS winners (the banner has never been succinct). Melvin is on base when Benny Agbayani slams grand to win the Tokyo finale in the eleventh inning, an early-morning outcome that feels like something the 1999 Mets would have concocted.

Except it’s not 1999 anymore, which by default is the bad news. Where’s John Olerud? Where’s Orel Hershiser? What are Derek Bell and Todd Zeile doing here — and in Japan? If Jerry Seinfeld had awakened pre-dawn to watch the Mets and Cubs (he was in the stands at Turner Field for Game Six, so maybe he was at the Tokyo Dome, too), he might very well have asked, “Who are these people?”

These people were the 2000 Mets. They’re not exactly the 1999 Mets, but they’re plenty good. What they lack in that certain something, they make up for with comparable competitive capabilities, which isn’t nearly as romantic as that certain something. No, it never is 1999 again, but the millennium odometer had made that explicitly clear.

Melvin Mora is still pretty much Melvin Mora, which is a very 1999 sign for 2000. On April 20 at Shea, in the tenth (the bottom of an inning when he’s been double-switched into the game), Mora steps up and homers off Curtis Leskanic to give the Mets a 5-4 win over Milwaukee. It’s his first major league home run, not counting the one he launched off Kevin Millwood in the playoffs…though why wouldn’t you count a home run you hit in the playoffs?

The Mets’ sights were aimed directly at a return to the playoffs from the moment they took flight for Tokyo. It wasn’t going to be easy. In the Bobby Valentine era, no matter how much talent the players provided the manager, and no matter how much wizardry the manager provided the players, it never was. They wouldn’t have been the Mets of just before and just after the millennial divide had it been. Their road got bumpy as hell in Los Angeles on May 29 when Ordoñez, who bold-typed the “Best” in “The Best Infield Ever?” (and definitively deleted its question mark), went out for the year with a broken forearm. Even Rey-Rey, who introduced himself to MLB by throwing out a runner at home from his knees, needed a forearm to play short. Ordoñez’s defense was irreplaceable. His offense, however, was always ripe for an upgrade.

Enter Melvin Mora, fresh from a brief DL assignment himself, as the starting shortstop of the 2000 Mets. His status as a supersub had followed him into the new century, but the Mets now had Super Joe McEwing to fill that role (with at least as much as versatility, if not as much flair), along with Kurt Abbott, who had played the position in previous seasons (and whose continued presence in 2000 was yet another reminder that 1999 was a once-in-a-lifetime year). Melvin had hit another home run since beating the Brewers, which gave him two on the season, or two more than Rey-O had produced. Melvin’s postseason defense had drawn rave reviews from the outfield, but he was billed as a shortstop when he came to St. Lucie prominence two Marches before. It would be a tradeoff, but the Mets didn’t have much of a choice

Sadly, they didn’t have much of a shortstop in Melvin Mora. It was jarring to watch him not pick up ground balls after four-plus seasons of Rey Ordoñez erecting and patrolling a veritable force field between second and third. Rey played 154 games at shortstop in 1999 and made four errors. Melvin Mora made seven errors in a 26-game span that covered late June to late July of 2000. Ordoñez was a high bar. Even Ordoñez wasn’t clearing it before his injury (six errors in 44 games), but between Mora in for Ordoñez and Zeile in for Olerud, nobody was asking any longer whether this was The Best Infield Ever.

Instead, they asked if there was something more the Mets could do about shortstop. Mora was contributing offensively as an everyday player, adding four homers to his ledger and coolly and calmly accepting ball four on a three-two count to build the legendary ten-run rally of the eighth inning of June 30. It’s most famous for Mike Piazza’s three-run laser of a homer. Usually unnoted is that it was Mora who scored the run to tie things up at eight. Melvin hadn’t lost his knack for making the Braves sweat late in games that were cluttered with runs.

What Melvin would lose before July was over was his role as starting shortstop for the New York Mets. His parking space, too. He was traded to the Orioles on July 28 for Mike Bordick, one of those guys talked up as a “surehanded” or “two-out” shortstop. Hit a grounder to Bordick with two outs, he was sure to pick it up and throw it cleanly to first. Mora did so much well, yet he didn’t necessarily inspire that kind of confidence at that precise position, and a sense of security is what the Mets craved at this stage of 2000.

“Melvin Mora has a chance to be a star,” Bob Costas had said, but it was no longer the Mets who thought so.

***
Did this trade have to be made? Did any trade have to be made? The Mets were determined to make one. They thought they had one done for Barry Larkin, but veteran Larkin had the right to decline to leave the Reds, and he exercised his veto. Mora wasn’t rumored to be a part of that swap. Had Barry embraced New York, Melvin could have returned to his supersub ways, perhaps been available in October when Bell went down with an injury in right, and given the Mets the same spark they benefited from in 1999. Instead, they turned to Timo Perez as their emergency right fielder. Perez was all spark until his flame burned out on a trip from first to not quite home in the World Series. It’s impossible to imagine Melvin Mora not running hard on a fly ball.

Did the Mets need surehanded shortstop Bordick to reach October again? It couldn’t have been known on July 28, but after the Mets took leadership of the Wild Card standings on July 27 — Mora’s last day as a Met — they’d never let it go. They’d have their September hiccups (they always did), but they were never headed on their path to the playoffs despite their disturbing habit of losing too many games with not too many weeks to go. The 2000 Mets were particularly sizzling in August, and Bordick was a part of that. He might have been part of a World Series win had he not gotten hit in the hand by a pitch during the NLCS. As it was, Bordick ached and by Game Five, Abbott was the Mets’ starting shortstop with everything on the line and, well, you know.

Do trades have to take place? Philosophically, the exchange of human beings strikes a sour note. Purely from a baseball perspective, there is something that seems a little untoward about trades. Why not stick with who you have? Why not depend on your Mets to get better together? It, like the 1999 Mets, is a romantic notion. The 1999 Mets wouldn’t have been the 1999 Mets without a trade for Piazza. Or Leiter. Or several other beloved members. So maybe let’s not question trades too deeply.

Melvin Mora was a beloved 1999 Met, despite rattling around the All Other section of the roster for 161 games. The last dozen, though — the Melvin Mora Game; the One-Game Playoff; the NLDS which we won in four; the NLCS which we gave all of ourselves for for six — he was a star attraction. We couldn’t take our eyes off him. We didn’t want to.

In 2000, we moved on without him. That’ll happen in baseball. The Mora-less Mets went to the World Series. It proved risky business. They could’ve used a guy like Melvin. Same for the rest of the first decade of the 21st century, a time when Melvin Mora cashed in on the opportunity to become a star. It was as an Oriole, not as a Met. It was as a third baseman, not as a shortstop. He won a Silver Slugger in Baltimore and made two All-Star teams. True, the Mets were promoting David Wright in the first half of the first decade of the 2000s, but they probably could have found something for Melvin Mora to do at another position. Or gotten more for Mora than two-and-a-half months of Mike Bordick.

Then again, Bordick did help the Mets win a Wild Card and two postseason series. It’s easy to slag trades that don’t work in the long-term, but in the short-term, the Mets made the World Series with Mike Bordick. It’s a reality the Mets chose to pursue.

The fantasy that they’d hung onto Melvin Mora and that Melvin Mora would have kept doing Melvin Mora things — 1999 things — remains tantalizing in hindsight. In hindsight, Melvin Mora makes a wonderful Met in any century.

PREVIOUS METS FOR ALL SEASONS
1969: Donn Clendenon
1972: Gary Gentry
1973: Willie Mays
1982: Rusty Staub
1991: Rich Sauveur
1992: Todd Hundley
1994: Rico Brogna
2002: Al Leiter

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