Matthew Callan

Day by Day

2000: Day-by-Day

When I first began working on Yells For Ourselves years ago, I originally conceived of it as an ebook-type thing that would have lots of interactivity—including a day-by-day log of the 1999 & 2000 Mets regular seasons that a reader could refer to at any point in the text. That interactive version never came to pass, but I still went ahead wrote the content for that day-by-day chronicle. I present it here for curious obsessives such as myself.

To skip from month to month, click on the tabs at the bottom of your screen. To scrub through each month, click and drag on the timeline underneath the game recaps (or use your fingers if you’re reading on a phone or fancy-person tablet).

Day-by-day of the 1999 season available here.

April

  • Wednesday, March 29, 2000

    Chicago Cubs 5, New York Mets 3 at the Tokyo Dome

    The Mets begin their 2000 campaign as the home team for the first regular season game played outside North America. The event also marks the Met debut of Mike Hampton, who never looks comfortable on the Tokyo Dome mound and walks an astounding nine batters in just five innings of work. The lefty walks the first batter he faces and allows him to score on a Damon Buford single. The Mets tied the score on a Darryl Hamilton sac fly in the third, but Hampton turns in a messy top of the fifth that gives Chicago back the lead with a single and three consecutive walks. New York’s bullpen worsens the deficit, as Dennis Cook gives up a two-run homer and Rich Rodriguez cedes a solo shot. Mike Piazza provides some comfort with a crowd-pleasing 450-foot two-run bomb in the eighth, but the effort proves too little, too late.
  • Thursday, March 30, 2000

    New York Mets 5, Chicago Cubs 1 (11 innings) at the Tokyo Dome

    Playing as the visiting team in the Tokyo finale, the Mets scratch out a run against Cubs rookie Kyle Farnsworth in the top of the fifth on a pair of walks, a sac bunt, and a sac fly from Rickey Henderson. The Cubs tie things up in the bottom half thanks to a throwing error by Todd Zeile that eventually leads to an unearned run. That is the only mark Reed allows through eight innings, and the Mets bullpen is just as stingy through ten in the form of John Franco, Turk Wendell, and Dennis Cook. But the Mets can manage no more against Farnsworth and the Cubs’ relievers until the top of the eleventh, when a two-out rally starts with a Zeile single and a pair of walks to load the bases. Benny Agbayani then rockets a fastball to straightaway center for a grand slam. In the bottom half, Armando Benítez dispatches the Cubs in order on just seven pitches to assure victory.
  • Monday, April 3, 2000

    New York Mets 2, San Diego Padres 1 at Shea Stadium

    In their stateside home opener, the Mets watch Al Leiter throw eight fantastic innings, scattering five hits and striking out seven batters. The lone mark against him is a solo shot by Phil Nevin in the top of the second. His teammates struggle against Padre starter Sterling Hitchcock, failing to get a baserunner past first base in the first six innings., but break out—slightly—in the bottom of the seventh when Edgardo Alfonzo works a leadoff walk, moves to third on a Mike Piazza single, and scores on a sac fly from Todd Zeile. New Met Derek Bell breaks the tie with a home run in the bottom of the eighth, which causes an ecstatic Shea crowd to demand a curtain call. Armando Benítez tosses a perfect ninth for his first save of the year.
  • Wednesday, April 5, 2000

    San Diego Padres 4, New York Mets 0 at Shea Stadium

    Bobby J. Jones (the right-handed Jones) makes his first start in 11 months on a chilly evening at Shea Stadium, temperatures in the low-40s and the threat of flurries in the air all night. The reception he receives from the small crowd on hand is even colder. Jones cedes a walk, back-to-back doubles, and a single to plate three runs in the top of the second, while a trio of singles and a bases-loaded walk to Bret Boone in the third drives in another. He is yanked from the mound with boos raining down from the stands. The bullpen holds San Diego in check the rest of the way, but Met batters are baffled by Padres starter Woody Williams and a pair of relievers as they strand 11 runners, seven of them in scoring position.
  • Thursday, April 6, 2000

    San Diego Padres 8, New York Mets 5 at Shea Stadium

    In his Mets debut east of the Pacific, Mike Hampton looks no better than he did in his Tokyo outing as he allows four runs and fails to make it out of the sixth inning. The biggest blow against him is a triple from Ruben Rivera in the top of the third that chases home two runs, a ball that might have been caught if Derek Bell and Darryl Hamilton hadn’t nearly collided in right-center field. Hampton allows two more runs to score in the sixth, though both are unearned thanks to a rare error from Rey Ordoñez. It is an embarrassing game all around marked by offensive futility, as the Mets leave 10 men on base, and baserunning gaffes, like Rickey Henderson’s failure to run out a potential groundball double play in the bottom of the third that costs the Mets a baserunner. The bullpen doesn’t escape unscathed either, as Turk Wendell allows a double and triple back-to-back in the seventh (one run scoring on a Derek Bell throwing error) and John Franco gives up a solo shot to Ed Sprague in the eighth. New York bats are held in check by rookie starter Matt Clement, though single runs in the seventh and eighth, and a Todd Pratt three-run shot in the ninth, make the final score look more respectable than it really should.
  • Friday, April 7, 2000

    New York Mets 2, Los Angeles Dodgers 1 at Shea Stadium

    Suffering from a stiff neck he probably acquired during the Mets’ long trip home from Japan, Rick Reed applies heat packs to the injury and waits until the last minute to let the team know if he can make his start. Then he takes the mound and pitches nearly as well in his first North American start as he had in his Tokyo outing, retiring the first 11 batters he faces and 10 of the last 11. A Gary Sheffield solo shot in the top of the fourth is the extent of the damage against him. Dodger starter Darren Dreifort gives the Mets numerous opportunities to blow the game wide open by walking eight batters, but the home team fails to capitalize on most of them. They do, however, get all the runs they need in the bottom of the first on a Mike Piazza RBI double and a run-scoring groundout from Robin Ventura. When Reed issues a two-out walk in the top of the eighth, Armando Benítez is called on for a four-out save, which he converts with little trouble.
  • Saturday, April 8, 2000

    Los Angeles Dodgers 6, New York Mets 5 (10 innings) at Shea Stadium

    Making a spot start in the place of the ailing Al Leiter (who is dealing with a groin strain), longman Pat Mahomes fills in with 5 2/3 solid innings of one-run ball. His teammates inflict some damage on Dodger ace Kevin Brown with a Jay Payton solo shot in the bottom of the second and an Edgardo Alfonzo two-run blast in the third. Brown then does some damage to himself while breaking a pinkie on a bunt attempt, an injury that will knock him out of action for a few weeks. As Turk Wendell and Dennis Cook hold the Dodgers in check in the seventh and eighth, RBI hits from Melvin Mora and Rey Ordoñez in the bottom of the eighth seem to put the game out of reach. Mahomes watches the game on a clubhouse television, anticipating his first win as a starter in six years. With a non-save situation on his hands and Armando Benítez receiving a lot of work in the season’s opening week (including a four-out save the night before), Bobby Valentine hands the ninth inning to John Franco instead. Franco responds by allowing a leadoff solo shot to Eric Karros. He then issues a one-out walk and gives up a single to ex-Met Kevin Elster to bring the tying run to the plate. Franco manages to log the second out, but then gives up a game-tying three-run homer to Devon White, bringing a torrent of boos down on his head from an angry Shea crowd. When the game goes into extras, Valentine is forced to use Benítez anyway, and he gives up a 425-foot bomb to Karros in the top of the tenth that proves the margin of victory.
  • Monday, April 10, 2000

    Philadelphia Phillies 9, New York Mets 7 at Veterans Stadium

    In the opener of their first stateside roadtrip, the Met bats suddenly come alive in a four-run first inning that includes RBI doubles from Jon Nunnally, Mike Piazza, and Todd Zeile. But Bobby J. Jones gives back those runs and then some in a disastrous five-run second, with an error by Zeile on a sac bunt prolonging the mess. New York briefly retakes the lead in the top of the fifth on a two-run double by Edgardo Alfonzo and an RBI single by Piazza, but the Phillies storm right back with four in the bottom half against Jones and reliever Rich Rodriguez, the scoring capped by a two-run shot from Phils catcher Mike Lieberthal.
  • Wednesday, April 12, 2000

    Philadelphia Phillies 8, New York Mets 5 at Veterans Stadium

    Mike Hampton struggles through yet another brutal outing, allowing six runs in just three innings. He loads the bases on a single and a pair of walks in the bottom of the first, then watches Mike Lieberthal unload them with a three-run double. Three more runs score in the third, a Phils rally that includes a monstrous Scott Rolen home run (launched 437 feet) and an RBI double from opposing pitcher Robert Person, a former Mets farmhand who was once traded for John Olerud. Jay Payton crushes a titanic 441-foot blast against Person, but that is the extent of the damage the Mets inflict on him, while Philadelphia scores two more runs against Pat Mahomes and Rich Rodriguez. The Mets attempt a furious rally in the ninth by scoring three runs and even bring the go-ahead run to the plate in the person of Edgardo Alfonzo, but he lines out to right field to end the threat.
  • Thursday, April 13, 2000

    New York Mets 2, Philadelphia Phillies 1 at Veterans Stadium

    In the finale of an otherwise disastrous series in Philadelphia, Rick Reed turns in another stellar performance, tossing seven innings of one-run ball. Reed is also responsible for the lone run of support he receives when he hits an RBI sac fly against Phils lefty Randy Wolf in the top of the fourth. He holds the opposition scoreless until the bottom of the seventh, when Mike Lieberthal leads off the inning with a solo home run. The game remains tied until the top of the ninth, when Jay Payton reaches safely on a ball that caroms off the mound. After Mike Piazza belts a two-out double to left-center, Payton tears around the basepaths and barely beats a throw to the plate to score the go-ahead run. In the bottom half, Armando Benítez works around a leadoff walk and sac bunt by striking out the next two batters, allowing the Mets to escape Philadelphia with a win.
  • Friday, April 14, 2000

    New York Mets 8, Pittsburgh Pirates 5 (12 innings) at Three Rivers Stadium

    Al Leiter turns in another solid effort in the opener of a series in Pittsburgh, allowing just two runs (one earned) through the first six innings. With the score tied at 2, the Mets grab the lead with back-to-back homers from Mike Piazza and Robin Ventura in the top of the seventh. Leiter allows the Pirates to claw a bit closer by giving up a solo shot in the bottom of the eighth, but the Mets still hold a one-run leading going into the bottom of the ninth. Armando Benítez nearly preserves that lead by striking out the first two batters he faces, and even after he allows a two-out double to Jason Kendall, he backs Pat Meares into a two-strike count. But Meares belts a triple over Derek Bell’s head in right field to tie the game and send it into extras. The score remains tied until the top of the twelfth, when Ordoñez singles, Benny Agbayani doubles, and Melvin Mora bloops a hit just beyond the reach of the first baseman to score them both. Two outs later, Mike Piazza follows with a two-run blast that seems to put the game out of reach. Dennis Cook makes things a little too interesting in the bottom half by allowing a walk, a wild pitch, a single, and a double to plate a run, but he eventually records the final out to bring the game to a merciful conclusion. This marks the Mets’ first winning streak of any kind this season. The 20 hits they collect in the game is the most for the franchise since they hit 21 in a 17-1 bloodbath against the Astros on August 30, 1999. John Franco gets the W by working two scoreless innings, his first win in a string 112 appearances.
  • Saturday, April 15, 2000

    Pittsburgh Pirates 2, New York Mets 0 at Three Rivers Stadium

    Glendon Rusch pitches eight brilliant innings in the Mets’ second game in Pittsburgh, giving up just four hits. The only mistake he makes comes in the bottom of the seventh, when he leaves a fastball over the plate for Kevin Young to belt for a two-run homer. That is enough for the Pirates, however, as Pittsburgh starter Jimmy Anderson limits New York to five hits over his own eight innings of work. The game is all over in an astounding 1 hour, 57 minutes.
  • Sunday, April 16, 2000

    New York Mets 12, Pittsburgh Pirates 9 at Three Rivers Stadium

    A rash of injuries befall the Mets in the opening inning of their finale in Pittsburgh. Leadoff man Rickey Henderson is hit by a pitch and does not take the field in the bottom in the first. The Mets take an early lead on a three-run blast by Ventura in the top half, but two batters into his outing, Bobby J. Jones leaves the mound with a calf strain, an injury that will land him on the disabled list. The Pirates proceed to rally for four runs against longman Pat Mahomes, setting off a long and ugly slug fest. The Mets retake the lead on a two-run Jon Nunnally blast in the second and extend it on a Todd Zeile RBI in the top of the third before Pittsburgh goes back in front with three more runs in the bottom half. The Mets regain the lead with a trio of their own on run-scoring hits from Derek Bell, Edgardo Alfonzo, and Ventura in the fourth, then score two more in the sixth on a Jay Payton double and an RBI sac fly from Ventura. Pittsburgh throws a scare into the Mets with a pair of solo shots in the bottom half against Turk Wendell, but Ventura stretches their advantage yet again by hitting an RBI double in the eighth, giving him six RBIs on the day. The rest of the game is mercifully quiet, as Armando Benítez earns the save and the Mets earn their first series win of the season.
  • Tuesday, April 18, 2000

    New York Mets 10, Milwaukee Brewers 7 at Shea Stadium

    On a chilly evening in front of a sparse crowd at Shea, the Mets’ bats finally warm up in the opener of a lengthy homestand. New York’s ten-run outburst includes Robin Ventura’s 14th career grand slam, three doubles from Edgardo Alfonzo, and an excellent day at the plate for starting pitcher Mike Hampton, who collects two hits and two walks. More importantly, Hampton pitches 7 2/3 solid innings, retiring 17 of 19 batters at one point, en route to his first victory as a Met. Though he falters late and gives up three runs to Milwaukee in the eighth, and reliever Rich Rodriguez allows the visitors to crawl a little closer by giving up two more in the ninth, Armando Benítez shuts the door.
  • Wednesday, April 19, 2000

    New York Mets 3, Milwaukee Brewers 1 at Shea Stadium

    Rick Reed turns in yet another excellent performance, a start that proves even more impressive than his previous ones because he fights his way through pain to accomplish it. After taking a Marquis Grissom line drive off his glove hand, Reed waves off all help, making no concession to the injury apart from a vigorous wrapping of black athletic tape to keep down the swelling. He is in visible pain for the rest of the game, wincing when he fields comebackers and requiring assistance to put on his jacket in the chilly home dugout, and yet he throws seven innings of one-hit, one-run ball. The Mets scratch out their runs on a hit-and-run play in the first that leads to a Mike Piazza RBI groundout, plus a run-scoring single by Derek Bell and an Edgardo Alfonzo sac fly in the second. Though squabbling with the front office and struggling through a rough spring, Rickey Henderson jumpstarts the scoring in Hendersonian fashion by reaching base four times and scoring the first Mets run.
  • Thursday, April 20, 2000

    New York Mets 5, Milwaukee Brewers 4 (10 innings) at Shea Stadium

    Al Leiter struggles in the series finale against Milwaukee, allowing eight hits, including a pair of homers, in six innings of work. Leiter’s mind may be elsewhere, as he takes the mound knowing his wife would undergo induced labor the next day for the birth of their third child. The only run the home team scores in the first six innings comes via a titanic 438-foot solo shot by Mike Piazza that flies past the picnic area beyond the left field fence. Trailing 4-1 going into the bottom of the seventh, the Mets begin their comeback with a leadoff homer by Derek Bell and knot the score on a two-run Todd Zeile single. Zeile’s hit receives some assistance from Brewers right fielder Jeromy Burnitz, who fields the first baseman’s hit and tries to nail Robin Ventura at third base but throws the ball into the stands instead, thus allowing Ventura to score the tying run. Pat Mahomes, Dennis Cook, and Turk Wendell keep the score tied by combining for four innings of scoreless relief. With one out in the bottom of the tenth, Melvin Mora belts a 95 mph fastball from Curt Leskanic to straightaway center, banking it off Shea’s camera stanchion for a walkoff home run.
  • Saturday, April 22, 2000 (Game 1)

    New York Mets 8, Chicago Cubs 3 at Shea Stadium

    In the first half of a rain-necessitated doubleheader, the Mets’ offense starts out modestly, compiling an early 3-0 lead on two run-scoring groundouts and an RBI single from Matt Franco. The Cubs draw close in the top of the seventh with a pair of solo shots, but these are the only blows in an otherwise stellar outing by Glendon Rusch. The young lefty looks particularly impressive in the top of the fourth when, with a runner at third and one out, he strikes out two batters (one of whom is Sammy Sosa) to end the threat. New York salts the game with a five-run bottom of the eighth that begins with a Rey Ordoñez RBI single and includes two-run doubles from Benny Agbayani and Melvin Mora.
  • Saturday, April 22, 2000 (Game 2)

    New York Mets 7, Chicago Cubs 6 at Shea Stadium

    Thanks to Bobby J. Jones hitting the disabled list, veteran knuckleballer Dennis Springer gets a spot start in the nightcap of the doubleheader. Though Springer allows one run in the top of the fifth and a two-run double in the sixth, he is otherwise solid working in emergency duty. The Mets trail by a run in the bottom of the sixth when they execute their second five-run rally of the day, thanks to a Robin Ventura leadoff homer, a two-run Rey Ordoñez single, an RBI groundout, and a throwing error that plates another run. Chicago’s Henry Rodríguez singlehandedly tries to make things interesting with an RBI double in the top of the seventh and a two-run homer off of Armando Benítez in the ninth, but the Mets’ closer shuts the door nonetheless.
  • Sunday, April 23, 2000

    New York Mets 15, Chicago Cubs 8 at Shea Stadium

    Mike Hampton is not exactly overpowering in the finale against Chicago, allowing five runs (three earned), but his teammates more than make up for it with their biggest offensive outburst of the young season, a 15-run, 18-hit pummeling. It starts with back-to-back homers from Edgardo Alfonzo and Mike Piazza in the bottom of the first. The onslaught continues with a wild seven-run fourth inning that includes an RBI single from Hampton and some ineptitude on the part of the Cubs’ fielders. (The Mets’ tenth run scores when Chicago’s third baseman and shortstop collide while attempting to field a Robin Ventura pop-up.) A five spot in the fifth inning is icing on the cake. Derek Bell continues his hot hitting by going deep and driving in four runs. Chicago scores some garbage-time runs against Hampton and reliever Rich Rodriguez, but they prove of little consequence as the Mets complete their sweep of the Cubs.
  • Monday, April 24, 2000

    New York Mets 1, Los Angeles Dodgers 0 at Shea Stadium

    In a makeup of the finale of their series that was snowed out back on April 9, both the Mets and Dodgers struggle at the plate, stranding 13 men in scoring position through the first eight innings. New York puts men on base in nearly every inning against Dodger hurler Darren Dreifort but can’t convert any of them, and Los Angeles is just as ineffective against spot starter Pat Mahomes, who gets the nod while Rick Reed recovers from the bruised hand he suffered in his previous start. The game remains scoreless until the bottom of the ninth, when the Mets load the bases with no outs, the third runner reaching base when LA third baseman Adrian Beltre fields a ground but fails to touch the bag. The Mets are nearly turned aside when Rey Ordoñez hits into a force out at home and the next batter, Matt Franco, chops a ball right at reliever Terry Adams, the kind of hit that should result in an inning-ending double play. Instead, the ball bounces off the tip of Adams’s glove, allowing Jon Nunnally to trot home with the only run of the game.
  • Tuesday, April 25, 2000

    New York Mets 6, Cincinnati Reds 5 at Shea Stadium

    In the opener of a three-game set against the Reds, the Mets jump out to a 4-1 lead on an RBI double by Robin Ventura in the bottom of the second and a two-run homer by Edgardo Alfonzo and a Ventura solo shot in the third. Al Leiter falters in the top of the sixth, a frame that sees him hit a batter and cough up four runs, capped by a pinch hit two-run double by Mark Lewis. The Mets retake the lead in the bottom of the seventh on a leadoff home run from Derek Bell and a bases loaded walk by Jon Nunnally. In the ninth inning, Armando Benítez walks the leadoff batter, then strikes out the next two batters, thus setting up a confrontation with Ken Griffey, Jr. Booed all game by Mets fans for rejecting a trade to New York in the offseason, Griffey works a full count before watching Benitez pick off the outside corner for a satisfying called strike three.
  • Wednesday, April 26, 2000

    Cincinnati Reds 12, New York Mets 1 at Shea Stadium

    “It was one of those games that kind of started out on the wrong note, and then got worse,” says Bobby Valentine after this bloodletting. Starting in place of the still-injured Rick Reed, Dennis Springer allows a two-run homer to Dmitri Young in the opening frame and never recovers. If nothing else, Springer provides a modicum of relief to a taxed bullpen by pitching into the seventh inning, by which point the visitors lead by the decisive score of 7-0. Reliever Rich Rodriguez is likewise thrown to the wolves; asked to pitch the final three innings, he allows one inherited run to score and gives up four of his own. Thus ends the Mets' eight game winning streak.
  • Thursday, April 27, 2000

    Cincinnati Reds 2, New York Mets 1 (12 innings) at Shea Stadium

    In the last game of the Mets’ long homestand, Glendon Rusch and Red starter Steve Parris perform the baseball equivalent of trading fours. Rusch keeps Cincinnati quiet over 7 2/3 innings, the only mark against him a Ken Griffey Jr. solo shot, while Parris allows no more than a Robin Ventura longball in his own seven innings. The Mets give themselves a couple of chances to put the game away in the ninth inning and give all of them right back. A leadoff single by Todd Zeile is erased when pinch hitter Matt Franco bounces into a double play. (Bobby Valentine does not explain why he sent up Franco and not Mike Piazza, who sits out this afternoon tilt but is available to pinch hit.) They then load the bases on a double and a pair of walks but fail to score. The game staggers along until the top of the twelfth, when Armando Benítez lands himself in trouble by walking leadoff batter Sean Casey. After a sac bunt, Benítez issues an intentional walk to face Travis Dawkins, a rookie shortstop batting .125 at the moment. Dawkins defies the strategy by blooping a single into shallow left field that scores Casey from second. The Mets attempt a rally in the bottom of the inning by working two walks, but a pair of pop ups end their chances.
  • Friday, April 28, 2000

    Colorado Rockies 12, New York Mets 5 at Coors Field

    In the opener of a grueling 13-game cross-country road trip, Mike Hampton reverts to the ugly form that marked his first starts for the Mets, struggling with his control in a stadium that is deadly to pitchers who can’t find the plate. The decisive at bat comes in the bottom of the third, when Hampton battles Larry Walker for 11 tense pitches before the slugger lashes a two-run triple. Floodgates opened, the following four Rockies collect hits against Hampton. By the time the dust settles, Colorado scores six runs in the inning. Hampton is removed after five innings and seven runs on his ledger, at which point the home team abuses rookie reliever Eric Cammack for four more. To make matters worse, Mike Piazza injures his elbow and wrist in a play at the plate and is forced to leave the game.
  • Saturday, April 29, 2000

    New York Mets 13, Colorado Rockies 6 at Coors Field

    Mike Piazza sits out the second game in Colorado to nurse his injuries, but his teammates still explode for 13 runs and tie a franchise record for a nine-inning game by collecting 23 hits. (Despite the mile high air, none of these hits are home runs.) Most of the damage is inflicted on former Met Masato Yoshii, who is chased off the mound by a six-run explosion in the top of the fourth. Every member of the starting lineup collects at least two hits, save pitcher Rick Reed, who counts himself fortunate to escape with a decent-for-Coors Field line of six runs in seven innings.
  • Sunday, April 30, 2000

    New York Mets 14, Colorado Rockies 11 at Coors Field

    For the second game in a row, the Mets put together an impressive show of offense, rapping out 15 hits. Todd Zeile, Melvin Mora, Todd Pratt, and Edgardo Alfonzo each go deep in the effort, and Al Leiter gives up only three runs through the first seven innings. With a seemingly comfortable eight-run lead, Leiter takes the mound to start the eighth but begins to unravel when Rey Ordoñez starts the inning with an error (already the sixth of the year for the formerly unimpeachable shortstop). After a walk, Leiter gives up a two-run single and gives way to the bullpen. Turk Wendell proceeds to load the bases and Dennis Cook unloads them by giving up a grand slam to Tom Goodwin. To be safe, the Mets pull together three more runs in the top of the ninth, which prove crucial after Armando Benítez allows a two-run homer in the bottom half. Benítez records the final outs with little trouble, however, and the Mets escape with a win by the skin of their teeth.

May

  • Monday, May 1, 2000

    San Francisco Giants 10, New York Mets 3 at Pacific Bell Park

    Charter Generation K member Bill Pulsipher draws an emergency start (replacing the injured Bobby J. Jones) in the Mets’ first game at the brand new ballpark in San Francisco. His evening, and the Mets’, goes downhill quickly in a disastrous three-run bottom of the fourth that includes a hit batter and three walks, one of them issued to opposing pittcher Shawn Estes as he attempts to lay down a sacrifice bunt. The home team proceeds to abuse New York’s bullpen for six more runs, including the first ever home run belted into McCovey Cove. (Barry Bonds is the belter, Rich Rodriguez the beltee.) The lone highlight for the Mets is an amazing leaping catch by Jay Payton in the bottom of the third to rob a home run from Bill Mueller, for all the good it does the visitors.
  • Tuesday, May 2, 2000

    San Franciso Giants 7, New York Mets 1 at Pacific Bell Park

    Glendon Rusch had been enjoying a fine spring, coming into this game having given up all of five runs all year. He leaves it the prime culprit in an ugly six-run inning and another Met defeat. New York scores in the top of the first on a Robin Ventura double, but find themselves shaking their heads as the third baseman’s blast—which would have been a home run at Shea and many other parks—banks off the towering brick wall in right field. Rusch allows the Giants to break a 1-1 tie in the bottom of the fourth by giving up a double and two singles to start the inning, but things don’t really unravel until he hits J.T. Snow with a pitch. Bobby Valentine argues Snow made no effort to get out of the way of Rusch’s pitch, with no success. A Rich Aurilia RBI single plates another Giants run, and is followed immediately by grand slam by Bobby Estalella that puts the game out of reach for New York.
  • Wednesday, May 3, 2000

    San Francisco Giants 8, New York Mets 5 (11 innings) at Pacific Bell Park

    Three times in this game, the Mets hand Mike Hampton a lead, and each time he allows the Giants to tie the score, mostly due to the wildness that has plagued him all season. Jon Nunnally belts a leadoff home run in the top of the first, and Jeff Kent hits a RBI single in the bottom half. Derek Bell knocks in a run in the top of the third, and Hampton gives it right back in bottom half after issuing a leadoff walk to opposing pitcher Russ Ortiz. Todd Pratt collects an RBI double in the top of the fourth, and Hampton undoes his good deed with a three-run bottom of the sixth, a frame that includes four walks, two of them with the bases loaded. The Mets fight back to tie the game on a two-run triple by Melvin Mora in the top of the seventh, but are denied chances to score further. A pinch hit double from Mike Piazza (making his first appearance since a home plate collision in Colorado) goes to waste when Todd Zeile strikes out looking on a pitch that appears outside to the naked eye. Zeile is on the wrong side of a bad call once again in the top of the eleventh when he is forced out at second, even though the throw appears to pull shortstop Rich Aurilia off the bag. The Mets’ bullpen is stellar until the bottom of that inning, when Turk Wendell (in his second inning of work) starts the frame with a single and a walk. Jeff Kent follows with a long home run to left field that brings to an end another long, frustrating day in San Francisco.
  • Thursday, May 4, 2000

    San Francisco Giants 7, New York Mets 2 at Pacific Bell Park

    Called on to put a halt to the Mets’ losing streak, Rick Reed does an excellent job of it for seven innings, allowing just one run over that stretch. Thanks to a two-run Mike Piazza blast in the top of the seventh, New York takes a lead into the bottom of the eighth, but Reed opens the door for the home team with a walk and a single to open the inning. One out later, a pinch hit single by Felipe Crespo ties the game. Dennis Cook is called on to restore order, but after he is called for a balk, the lefty loses his cool and plunks a batter, which prompts a bloodless bench clearing. Cook is removed in favor of Armando Benítez, but the Mets’ closer throws the game away by allowing a three-run triple and a two-run homer, thus ensuring the Mets are swept right out of San Francisco. It marks the Giants’ first four-game sweep of the Mets since 1962.
  • Friday, May 5, 2000

    New York Mets 4, Florida Marlins 1 at Pro Player Stadium

    Most of the Mets are forced to take a brutal cross-country flight from San Francisco the night before their first game in Miami. Al Leiter is given the option to fly ahead of his teammates, however, and wisely chooses to do so. Well rested, he baffles his former team for seven innings while striking out nine in the series opener against the Marlins. The exhausted batters cobble together their runs on an Edgardo Alfonzo sac fly in the top of the first, a Rey Ordoñez double in the second, a Mike Piazza solo shot to lead off the fourth, and a bases loaded walk from a wild Marlins bullpen in the eighth. Leiter’s lone brush with trouble comes in the bottom sixth when a bunt single by Luis Castillo (the Mets dispute the safe call at first, to no avail) and two walks load the bases with one out. Leiter fans Mike Lowell and Derek Lee to escape danger, and the Marlins don’t threaten the rest of the way. Subbing for an overworked Armando Benítez, John Franco earns the save.
  • Saturday, May 6, 2000

    Florida Marlins 9, New York Mets 1 at Pro Player Stadium

    The Mets grab the first lead in this game when Derek Bell crushes a 455-foot homer in the top of the fourth. But a chance to score more in that inning dies on the vine when Robin Ventura and Edgardo Alfonzo combine for a strike-em-out-throw-em-out double play. Nothing else goes right for the visitors for the remainder of their time in Florida. Making his second start in place of the injured Bobby J. Jones, Bill Pulsipher keeps the Marlins at bay until the bottom of the fourth, when they torch him for six hits and five runs, a rally that includes a two-run double by opposing pitcher Alex Fernandez. Few of the hits are especially well struck (one single falls in when Edgardo Alfonzo fails to make an over-the-shoulder catch on a pop up), but it’s enough to end Pulsipher’s day. The game is put completely out of reach in the eighth when Armando Benítez argues his way onto the mound to get some work in. He proceeds to walk three batters and give up a grand slam to Preston Wilson.
  • Sunday, May 7, 2000

    Florida Marlins 3, New York Mets 0 at Pro Player Stadium

    Glendon Rusch pitches well in the series finale in Miami, holding the Marlins to one run over seven innings of work. However, as has often been the case in his starts this year, Rusch gets no support from his offense. He allows three consecutive singles to start the game and little else the rest of the way, but the one run produced by those singles is enough to beat him and the Mets. Their bats are rendered useless by Florida starter Ryan Dempster, who tosses a brilliant complete game one-hitter. The Marlins needlessly pad their lead with three consecutive doubles that produce two runs in the bottom of the eighth.
  • Tuesday, May 9, 2000

    New York Mets 2, Pittsburgh Pirates 0 at Three Rivers Stadium

    Mike Hampton tosses the first ace-like performance of his Mets career, pitching into the ninth inning, striking out eight batters, and—most remarkably, in light of his wildness to this point in the season—walking only one. He nearly goes the distance despite taking a grounder off his pitching wrist in the bottom of the fifth, a ball hit so hard it leaves stitch marks. Hampton has to be on top of his game, as Pirate hurler Kris Benson is almost as sharp over eight innings of work, holding the Mets to a pair of solo shots by Derek Bell and Edgardo Alfonzo. When Hampton begins to fade in the ninth inning, allowing a single and hit batsman to put the tying runs on base with one out, Armando Benítez is called on to shut the door. Benítez has made a few appearances of late and pitched terribly in them, but in this case he retires the next two Pirates to cap a much-needed win.
  • Wednesday, May 10, 2000

    Pittsburgh Pirates 13, New York Mets 9 at Three Rivers Stadium

    The Mets break an early 1-all tie with a five-run outburst in the top of the third that includes an Edgardo Alfonzo two RBI double, a two-run blast by Mike Piazza, and a Robin Ventura solo shot. That should have been enough for Rick Reed, the Mets’ most reliable starter so far this season, but Reed allows Pittsburgh to tie things up with single runs in the fourth and fifth innings and a three-run outburst in the sixth. New York retakes the lead on a Todd Zeile RBI double in the top of the seventh, but the bullpen implodes in the bottom half as Dennis Cook and Pat Mahomes allow five runs to cross the plate while failing to record a single out. The Pittsburgh rally is aided by Rickey Henderson, who pulls up short on a catchable hit and watches it bounce over his head for a two-run ground-rule double. John Franco allows two more runs in the eighth to remove any dreams of a comeback.
  • Thursday, May 11, 2000

    New York Mets 3, Pittsburgh Pirates 2 at Three Rivers Stadium

    So far, the Mets have won every game that Al Leiter has started in 2000, and that pattern continues in the conclusion of the Pittsburgh series (which also brings a brutal 13-game road trip to a merciful end). Though New York was shut out by rookie Pirates hurler Jimmy Anderson a few weeks ago, they score two quick runs against him in the first, thanks to an error by outfielder Brian Giles and a Todd Zeile RBI single. Zeile also belts a home run in the top of the fourth that proves the margin of victory. Leiter allows one run in the bottom of the second—a frame marked by a series of strange bloops and errant throws that, contrary to their recent luck, do not spiral out of control for the Mets—and a Dustin Hermansen solo shot in the fifth, but nothing else. Robin Ventura comes to his aid in the sixth when he fields a two-out bad hop grounder and, rather than risk an off-balance throw to first base, heaves the ball home and nails a runner at the plate instead to end the inning. It also constitutes the Pirates’ last threat, as Leiter goes the distance and keeps the home team at bay the rest of the way.
  • Friday, May 12, 2000

    Florida Marlins 6, New York Mets 4 at Shea Stadium

    Though they are finally back at Shea following a grueling 13-game road trip, the Mets look a lot like the team that struggled badly away from Queens in the opener of their homestand. Just like last week in Miami, Glendon Rusch is outpitched by Ryan Dempster. The Marlin pitcher even knocks in the first Florida run with an RBI double in the top of the second. Rusch is knocked out of the box by a top of the fourth in which he gives up a three-run homer to Preston Wilson and a solo shot to Derek Lee that put Florida on top, 6-0. The Mets finally do some damage to Dempster with a four-run bottom half that features a two-run homer by Mike Piazza and a Robin Ventura longball, but that is as close as they get. The biggest news of the game, however, is Rickey Henderson’s embarrassing “home run trot” on a ball that fails to clear the outfield fence, and his defiantly unapologetic stance afterwards, an insouciance that will earn him his release the following day.
  • Saturday, May 13, 2000

    Florida Marlins 7, New York Mets 6 at Shea Stadium

    The Mets take an early 3-0 lead on a Derek Bell homer and a pair of runs that score thanks to some ugly throwing errors by the Marlins. Spot starter Pat Mahomes holds the Marlins to a Kevin Millar two-run homer in the first five innings and, immediately after allowing that shot, helps his own cause with a two-out RBI double. After Mahomes allows the Marlins to tie the game at 4 in the top of the sixth, the Mets briefly retake the lead on a Todd Zeile solo shot to start the bottom half. But the decisive blow of the game comes in the top of the seventh, when Dennis Cook allows a back-breaking three-run homer to Preston Wilson. Edgardo Alfonzo knocks in a run in the bottom of the ninth and moves as far as second base, representing the tying run, but that is as close as the Mets come to a comeback.
  • Sunday, May 14, 2000

    New York Mets 5, Florida Marlins 1 at Shea Stadium

    Desperate for a win, the Mets entrust the ball to Mike Hampton, who turns in another brilliant performance that helps dull the sting of his ugly, early spring. It does not begin well, as the lefty allows singles to the first three batters he faces on a grand total of four pitches to load the bases, but he escapes that jam without allowing a run and is in command the rest of the way. For good measure, he kickstarts a five-run outburst in the bottom of the sixth by bunting for a single and scoring all the way from first on a Joe McEwing double. After the Mets load the bases on two walks and a single, Mike Piazza unloads them with a grand slam jack over the right field fence. Resting on this cushion, Hampton allows one run in the top of the eighth but nothing else, and walks no one in his complete game effort.
  • Tuesday, May 16, 2000

    Colorado Rockies 4, New York Mets 3 (11 innings) at Shea Stadium

    The Rockies are without slugger Todd Helton for this series, due to a hamstring he suffered in Montréal, but the Mets still drop the opener to a mediocre Colorado club. The home team falls behind early as Rick Reed allows an RBI double in the top of the second. After Robin Ventura ties the score on a solo shot, Reed allows the Rockies to go in front again when he throws a pickoff throw under Todd Zeile’s glove at first, a throwing error that eventually leads to two Colorado runs. The Mets rally to tie the score against old friend Masato Yoshii thanks to a Mike Piazza RBI groundout in the fourth and Todd Zeile homer to lead off the seventh. But the Mets neglect several opportunities to take the lead, sending the game into extras and setting up an unlikely hero. Bubba Carpenter, Rockie rookie at age 31, belts the second pitch he sees from Turk Wendell for a go-ahead homer in the top of the eleventh. The Mets get a double from Zeile in the bottom half but little else, going down in defeat to drop to an even 20-20 on the season.
  • Wednesday, May 17, 2000

    New York Mets 4, Colorado Rockies 2 at Shea Stadium

    Continuing the fantastic start to his season, Al Leiter tosses eight brilliant innings, limiting the Rockies to five hits. His lone spot of trouble comes in the top of the third, when a walk and two hits lead to two runs, but the Mets steal a run back in the bottom half on a Joe McEwing RBI single, then grab the lead thanks to a two-run Robin Ventura double in the fifth. A Derek Bell RBI single in the eighth pads their advantage, while John Franco earns the save in place of an overworked Armando Benítez.
  • Friday, May 19, 2000

    New York Mets 4, Arizona Diamondbacks 3 at Shea Stadium

    Rain washes out the series finale against the Colorado Rockies and forces Bobby J. Jones to make his first start off the disabled list against the Arizona Diamondbacks instead. Still rusty from his time on the shelf, Jones’s slow delivery to the plate results in astounding seven stolen bases by the opposition (with some assistance from errant throws by Mike Piazza). He also suffers the indignity of allowing a two-run single to opposing pitcher Todd Stottlemyre in the top of the second. After his teammates tie the score on RBIs from Mark Johnson and Rey Ordoñez in the bottom of the fourth, Jones immediately allows Arizona to scratch out another run in the top of the fifth. He caps the damage there, however, and shows command of all his pitches to keep the Mets in the game, while Piazza atones for his less-than-steller pickoff throws by bashing an opposite field two-run homer to give the Mets the lead in the bottom of the fifth. Piazza also flashes some leather at the plate in the seventh inning when he snares a bouncing cutoff throw in time to tag out speedster Tony Womack as he attempts to score. Turk Wendell and John Franco pitch scoreless innings, while Armando Benítez logs his 10th save of the season.
  • Saturday, May 20, 2000

    New York Mets 8, Arizona Diamondbacks 7 at Shea Stadium

    The second game against the Diamondbacks is preceded by a 3.5-hour rain delay, then proceeds to last far longer than it should. With Mike Hampton on the mound, the Mets build a hefty lead against the Arizona Diamondbacks. After scoring once in the third, the home team abuses D-Backs starter Omar Daal for five runs in the fourth inning, with the scoring starting on a two-run single by Hampton himself. The lefty allows no runs and just five hits over six innings, while an Edgardo Alfonzo two-run shot in the seventh gives the Mets a seemingly insurmountable 8-0 lead. There seems little cause for concern in the top of the eighth when Pat Mahomes allows a two-run homer, but things get dicey in the ninth as Rich Rodriguez and John Franco combine to give up five runs, four of them scoring with two outs on the board. When Franco gives up a two-run single that draws Arizona within a run, Bobby Valentine finally brings in Armando Benítez, who strikes out Erubiel Durazo to finally bring the game to an end.
  • Sunday, May 21, 2000

    New York Mets 7, Arizona Diamondbacks 6 at Shea Stadium

    In the first game of the 1999 division series, the Mets took fireballing southpaw Randy Johnson to woodshed. In this game, they do it again, but instead of Edgardo Alfonzo doing most of the damage, the offense stems from the astonishing source of Joe McEwing. Johnson is overpowering for stretches, fanning 13 Mets batters and 11 of 14 at one point, but the home team manages a few outbursts against him. Most of these rallies are ignited by the pint-sized part-timer, who gets to The Big Unit for a pair of doubles and a home run, as the Mets somehow hang five runs on Johnson’s ledger. Rick Reed is not on top of his game, as he allows five runs of his own to the Arizona offense over seven innings. After the Mets tie the game at 5 in the bottom of the seventh on a pair of solo shots by McEwing and Alfonzo, Dennis Cook allows the Diamondbacks to retake the lead on a homer off the bat of Steve Finley. The Mets knot the score again on a pinch hit longball by Robin Ventura (not in the starting lineup to rest a strained thigh muscle for the second day in a row) in the eighth, allowing McEwing to come through once more in the ninth. Super Joe leads off the frame by working a walk against Arizona’s submarining closer Byung-hyun Kim, then steals second, which allows him to score the winning run on a Derek Bell single, capping a Mets sweep.
  • Monday, May 22, 2000

    San Diego Padres 1, New York Mets 0 at Qualcomm Stadium In the first game of a zig-zagging nine-game road trip, Glendon Rusch tosses seven brilliant shutout innings against the Padres. Typical of his luck thus far this season, the lefty is matched and then some by San Diego rookie Matt Clement, who throws eight scoreless innings of his own. When John Franco enters the game in the bottom of the eighth, he allows a one-out single to Eric Owens, who then swipes second and comes around to score on a Ruben Rivera hit that sneaks through the infield, beating a throw to the plate from Joe McEwing by a hair. The Mets make a bid to even in the score in the ninth against closer Trevor Hoffman by leading off the inning with a pair of singles by Edgardo Alfonzo and Mike Piazza. After a sac bunt moves both runners into scoring position, Hoffman issues an intentional walk to Matt Franco (starting at first to give Todd Zeile a day off). Jay Payton strides to the plate needing only a long fly ball to tie the game, but he pops out feebly to second. Pinch hitter Mark Johnson (batting for Rey Ordoñez) flies out to end a frustrating shutout loss, already the third time this season the Mets have been blanked with Rusch on the mound.
  • Tuesday, May 23, 2000

    New York Mets 5, San Diego Padres 3 (10 innings) at Qualcomm Stadium

    The Mets grab an early lead on an Edgardo Alfonzo RBI single in the top of the first and back-to-back homers by Todd Zeile and Todd Pratt to start the third inning. However, they manage no more hits in regulation after the fourth inning, while the Padres draw even against Al Leiter with a pair of run-scoring doubles in the fourth and a game-tying solo shot by Tony Gwynn in the sixth. The game remains quiet from that point on until the top of the tenth inning, when pinch hitter Mark Johnson bloops a two-out single against Trevor Hoffman. With a man on base, Bobby Valentine turns to another pinch hitter: Mike Piazza, who’d spent most of this game on the bench for a scheduled day off. Piazza continues his traditional dominance of the Padres’ closer (5-for-12, 11 RBIs, 4 home runs against him) by hitting one of his trademark laserbeam shots into the right field seats for a two-run homer. In the bottom half, Armando Benítez allows a leadoff walk but nothing else to save a much-needed victory.
  • Wednesday, May 24, 2000

    San Diego Padres 5, New York Mets 4 at Qualcomm Stadium

    Bobby Jones turns in another mediocre outing, putting his team in a deep hole with a four-run second inning that includes home runs by Ryan Klesko and Bret Boone and an RBI double off the bat of Ruben Rivera. Jones sticks around for five full innings and does a commendable job of pitching himself out of his own jams, stranding runners in scoring position in the third, fourth, and fifth innings. Unfortunately, his teammates prove just as inefficient at maximizing their opportunities. A long hit by Robin Ventura in the fourth barely misses clearing the fence for a three-run homer and goes for a one-run double instead. The Mets load the bases with nobody out in the inning, but can score only one additional run. In the sixth, they load the bases again and once more score only one run, and that on a walk of pinch hitter Matt Franco. Edgardo Alfonzo hits a solo shot in the seventh to tie the game, but Boone unties it by hitting his own to start the bottom of the eighth against Pat Mahomes. Trevor Hoffman strikes out the side in the ninth to hang a loss on Mahomes’s ledger, his first in the majors since 1996.
  • Friday, May 26, 2000

    New York Mets 5, St. Louis Cardinals 2 at Busch Stadium

    In the opener of a three-game set in St. Louis, Mike Hampton tosses eight strong innings, allowing two runs on nine hits. The lefty shows grit by wriggling out of two bases-loaded jams, while he and his teammates scratch out a pair of runs against Pat Hentgen on a bases loaded walk in the first and a sac fly from Hampton himself in the fourth. The Cardinals draw even with an RBI groundout in the fourth and a titanic Jim Edmonds solo shot to start the fifth, and the score stays knotted until the top of the ninth, when a trio of two-out walks brings Robin Ventura to the plate. Owner of a lifetime .364 batting average with the bases juiced, Ventura singles to right field to knock in the go-ahead runs. In the bottom half, Armando Benítez shrugs off a one-out error by Todd Zeile that brings the tying run to the plate, fanning two batters to earn the save.
  • Saturday, May 27, 2000

    New York Mets 12, St. Louis Cardinals 8 at Busch Stadium

    The Mets tattoo Cardinals starter Andy Benes in the top of the first, scoring five times on an Edgardo Alfonzo double, a three-run homer by Mike Piazza, and a Todd Zeile solo shot. But Rick Reed, pitching through a strained oblique, loses his trademark control and hands three runs to St. Louis in the bottom half with his wildness. The Cards tie the game on a two-run blast by Ray Lankford in the third. Piazza goes deep again in the top of the fourth to temporarily give the Mets a lead, but the Cards storm back with two more runs in the bottom half and stretch their advantage with a Mark McGwire RBI single in the sixth. The visitors counter by loading the bases in the eighth on a pair of singles and an error, then unload them with a Todd Zeile grand slam. The Mets tack on two more runs for good measure in the ninth and hang on for an unsightly victory.
  • Sunday, May 28, 2000

    New York Mets 6, St, Louis Cardinals 2 at Busch Stadium

    The Mets make up for lending Glendon Rusch little run support in his previous starts by belting three home runs on his behalf in the St. Louis finale. Todd Zeile gets things started with a solo shot in the top of the second off of Darryl Kile, who has a history of acting as kryptonite against Mets hitters. After the Cardinals tie the score on an RBI sac fly in the bottom half, Rusch singles to start off the third (his first hit in the majors) and comes around to score on an Edgardo Alfonzo blast. The Mets extend their lead when Todd Pratt goes deep against Kile in the fourth. Rusch allows an RBI double to Fernando Viña in the fifth, but the visitors tack via a Joe McEwing RBI double in the sixth and run-scoring single by Jay Payton in the ninth. Rusch turns in seven fine innings, neutralizing the dangerous Mark McGwire by freezing him on a called strike three to skirt trouble in the fourth. John Franco and Armando Benitez close things out in the eighth and ninth, with the Mets closer requiring only five pitches to cap the sweep in St. Louis.
  • Monday, May 29, 2000

    Los Angeles Dodgers 4, New York Mets 1 at Dodger Stadium

    The Mets drop the opener of a three-game set in Los Angeles, as Al Leiter allows a crushing grand slam to Dodger slugger Shawn Green in the sixth, while his teammates do very little against opposing pitcher Chan Ho Park. But the biggest loss of the day comes on the infield, as Rey Ordoñez is lost to a broken forearm when he makes a swipe tag that connects with a base stealer’s batting helmet in the first inning. The injury will cost the shortstop the rest of the season. The fateful sixth inning is set up when Leiter allows a leadoff single. One sac bunt later, he hits F.P. Santangelo. His next pitch nails Mark Grudzielanek to load the bases, and Green clears them with shot over the wall in right-center. The Mets string together some hits in the top of the ninth, including a Joe McEwing RBI double, to bring the tying run to the plate, but the effort proves too little too late as Edgardo Alfonzo grounds out to end a damaging defeat.
  • Tuesday, May 30, 2000

    New York Mets 10, Los Angeles Dodgers 5 at Dodger Stadium

    Forced to improvise by the Rey Ordoñez injury, Bobby Valentine starts Kurt Abbott at shortstop and inserts Melvin Mora (freshly reinstated from the disabled list) in center field and the leadoff spot, while batting Derek Bell second. Mora pays immediate dividends by hitting a leadoff single, stealing second, and scoring on an Edgardo Alfonzo single. The Dodgers pull ahead with three runs in the third off of Bobby Jones, who puts up another disappointing performance, but the Mets retake the lead on RBI singles from Mike Piazza in the top of the fifth and Alfonzo in the top of the sixth. L.A.’s counterpunch comes in the bottom half when Jones, Dennis Cook, and Pat Mahomes conspire to give two runs back. The Dodgers maintain a slim one-run lead until the top of the ninth, when a single and a walk to start the frame set up a game-tying RBI single from Todd Zeile. The Mets retake the lead when Mora works a bases-loaded walk, and then salt the game when pinch hitter Todd Pratt blasts a grand slam. At four hours and nine minutes, it proves the longest nine-inning game in franchise history, and the team’s first win this season when trailing a game in the eighth inning.
  • Wednesday, May 31, 2000

    Los Angeles Dodgers 4, New York Mets 3 at Dodger Stadium

    The Mets jump out to an early lead when Edgardo Alfonzo belts a first-inning solo shot off of Dodger ace Kevin Brown, but the home team draws even when Chad Kreuter takes Mike Hampton deep. Los Angeles jumps ahead after Mark Grudzielanek doubles to start the fourth, then comes home when a Shawn Green grounder—which should have been an inning-ending double play—slips under Kurt Abbott’s glove. The sixth inning brings injuries to superstars on both sides that cast a pall over the rest of the game. In the top half, an Alfonzo liner ricochets off of Brown’s leg, and though he finishes the inning, he can go no further. In the bottom half, while the Dodgers are padding their lead on a Eric Karros RBI single, Mike Piazza is forced to exit the game after he is hit in the head with a Gary Sheffield backswing, a blow that results in a mild concussion and a bloody gash on his forehead. The Mets rebound to tie the game in the top of the eighth when Kurt Abbott belts a leadoff home run (his first RBI of the season) and Alfonzo clubs a two-out run-scoring double. Fonzie’s double misses clearing the wall by mere inches, the Mets come to rue the missed opportunity. In the bottom of the ninth Turk Wendell is victimized by a walkoff home run off the bat of Kevin Elster (erstwhile member of New York’s 1986 championship squad), bringing the Mets’ brutal ping-pong road trip to an ugly end.

June

  • Friday, June 2, 2000

    New York Mets 5, Tampa Bay Devil Rays 3 at Shea Stadium

    In the first game of a long-awaited homestand, Glendon Rusch turns in another solid performance on a damp night at Shea. The lefty’s flow is interrupted by an 82-minute rain delay in the third inning, however, and after a leadoff homer by Jay Payton in the bottom of the interrupted inning gives the Mets an early lead, Rusch allows a run-scoring single to Fred McGriff in the fourth to tie the game. Todd Pratt (filling in for Mike Piazza after his concussion in Los Angeles) belts a solo shot in the fifth to put the Mets back on top, Rusch allows the visitors to retake the lead in the top of the sixth on a two-run shot by McGriff, the veteran slugger’s 400th career home run. But the Mets storm back in the bottom half when Edgardo Alfonzo hits a one-out double, Robin Ventura walks, and Todd Zeile belts a three-run homer to left center. The Devil Rays mount a few threats in the following innings but cash in none of them as the Mets take the series opener.
  • Saturday, June 3, 2000

    New York Mets 1, Tampa Bay Devil Rays 0 at Shea Stadium

    Al Leiter recognizes early on in this game that he won’t be able to throw an effective slider, and so he relies on his curveball and changeup to power through the Devil Rays’ lineup. The result is 6 2/3 innings of scoreless ball in which he issues five walks and puts runners in scoring position in five different innings, but also fans eight batters and allows no runs. His teammates, meanwhile, are unable to do much against Tampa Bay starter Steve Trachsel but are given a gift in the bottom of the third. With Edgardo Alfonzo on second, Todd Zeile hits a high pop up down the left field line. The ball takes a strange trip midair, swayed by the swirling winds that prevail above Shea, and left fielder Greg Vaughn loses track of it. The ball scrapes the outfield wall and bounces on the warning track, allowing Alfonzo to score the only run of the game. After Leiter exits, Dennis Cook, John Franco, and Armando Benítez hold the Devil Rays off the board.
  • Sunday, June 4, 2000

    Tampa Bay Devil Rays 15, New York Mets 5 at Shea Stadium

    In a game so ugly the New York Times says it “may someday be viewed as the game that killed interleague play,” Bobby Jones puts up yet another miserable performance, allowing seven runs in five innings to the worst team in the league. It begins with three runs in the top of the second on consecutive homers given up to the bottom of the Tampa Bay order—including a dinger by opposing pitcher Estaban Yan, who takes Jones yard on the first pitch he ever sees at the major league level. The Mets briefly take the lead on a pair of two-run homers by Jay Payton in the second and Mike Piazza in the third, but the top of the sixth inning brings a slow-motion nightmare in which Jones and the New York infield gifts five runs to the visitors. The pitcher allows two singles and a pair of walks before exiting, while both Todd Zeile and Robin Ventura fail to begin double plays that might have stopped the bleeding. (Ventura’s misplay, a wild throw, is particularly strange as it comes after he is distracted by a shattered bat.) What little chance the Mets have for a comeback disappears in the top of the eighth when Rich Rodriguez hits two batters allows five more runs to score, capped by a three-run shot by Bubba Trammell. (A Kurt Abbott error at shortstop makes all runs but Trammell’s unearned.)
  • Monday, June 5, 2000

    Baltimore Orioles 4, New York Mets 2 at Shea Stadium

    For six innings on an unseasonably windy night at Shea, Mike Hampton stifles the Baltimore offense, limiting them to five hits and one run that scores on an Albert Belle RBI single in the top of the third. His teammates stake him to a lead on the strength of two run-scoring hits in the bottom of the second by Jason Tyner (first round draft pick making his major league debut) and Edgardo Alfonzo, a rally Hampton aids by singling and scoring on Alfonzo’s knock. But the Mets manage no more against Orioles hurler Mike Mussina, and Hampton’s night comes to an abrupt end in the seventh when Baltimore hangs three runs on his account. The first scores when slugger B.J. Surhoff blasts a pitch through the gusts and over the fence in left-center. The lefty then unravels as he allows a single to the following batter and, after a groundout, walks Rich Amaral on a close pitch. Unnerved by not getting the strike call (“Let’s just say they had 10 weapons tonight and used all of them,” the pitcher grumbles after the game ), Hampton gives up the go-ahead run on a single by Mike Bordick. He nearly escapes the inning and jamming the fearsome Belle on an inside pitch, but Belle lofts a single over Todd Zeile’s head to score another run. The Mets mount no comeback efforts as they go down in order in the seventh, eighth, and ninth.
  • Wednesday, June 7, 2000

    New York Mets 11, Baltimore Orioles 3 at Shea Stadium

    The Mets take an early lead on consecutive first inning solo shots by Edgardo Alfonzo and Mike Piazza, the catcher’s a parking lot blast that travels nearly 450 feet. Rick Reed, pitching for the first time in 11 days after an oblique strain, allows the Orioles to crawl out in front by giving up single runs in the second, fourth, and fifth innings; the fourth inning run scores after Jason Tyner drops a fly in left field, though the rookie redeems himself by nailing a runner at the plate shortly thereafter. Reed’s teammates respond with a wild bottom of the sixth that features two triples, two walks, two sac flies, and four runs crossing the plate. For good measure, the Mets pile on with five more runs in the seventh, knocking all of them in with two outs.
  • Thursday, June 8, 2000

    New York Mets 8, Baltimore Orioles 7 (10 innings) at Shea Stadium

    Thanks to a rainout necessitating a game on a scheduled offday, and a dearth of hotel rooms in the New York metro area, the Orioles were forced to fly home to Baltimore prior to this game before returning to Shea for the series finale. It’s the Mets who look tired for most of the game, however, as the home team falls behind early in front of a sparse crowd that fails to break five digits. For the first time this season, Glendon Rusch looks shaky as he stakes the visitors to a 4-0 lead after four innings. The Mets make their first comeback bid in the bottom of the fourth on a three-run blast by Todd Zeile, and after Rusch gives a pair of runs back to Baltimore in the top of the fifth, they rally for three more in the bottom of the sixth to tie the score. A Jay Payton solo shot gives the Mets a brief lead in the bottom of the eight, but John Franco loads the bases on a single and a pair of walks in the top of the ninth. Called on to relieve Franco, Armando Benítez can’t prevent the Orioles from tying the game on a sac fly, but allows no further damage. When the game goes to extras, the role of hero is played by the unlikely source of Kurt Abbott, light hitting shortstop who blasts a home run over the fence in right-center, handing the Mets a hard-fought walkoff win.
  • Friday, June 9, 2000

    New York Mets 12, New York Yankees 2 at Yankee Stadium

    The first game of the Subway Series in the Bronx features a familiar matchup—Al Leiter versus Roger Clemens—and a familiar result. The two aces faced off twice in 1999, and each time Leiter dominated the Yankees while The Rocket was chased from the mound by a back-breaking home run by Mike Piazza. This game follows an identical blueprint. Clemens’s trouble starts in the third when Jason Tyner pushes a bunt and beats it out to lead off the frame. Unnerved, Clemens walks a slumping Derek Bell, watches a passed ball move both runners up a base, and walks Edgardo Alfonzo to bring Piazza to the plate. The catcher wheels on Clemens’s first pitch and knocks it into the batter’s eye for a grand slam. Clemens proceeds to allow single runs in the fourth and fifth innings, and is finally chased off the mound by a two-run shot off the bat of Alfonzo that caps a three-run rally. Bell adds a three-run homer in the seventh to act as window dressing, while Leiter stifles the Yankees over seven innings in this blowout victory.
  • Saturday, June 10, 2000

    New York Yankees 13, New York Mets 5 at Yankee Stadium

    On a muggy afternoon in the Bronx, the Mets make a bid to take the first two Subway Series games by overcoming deficits against Andy Pettitte. After Bobby Jones allows a pair of run-scoring doubles in the bottom of the first, the Mets rebound to take a lead on a solo shot by Jay Payton in the second and a two-run blast by Robin Ventura in the third. When the Yankees tie the score on a long Paul O’Neill home run in the bottom of the third, the Mets go out on top again in the top of the fifth on RBI hits from Payton and Todd Zeile. But the Yankees catch a break in the same frame when Pettitte appears to make a balk move that should bring home a run from third, only to have the umps deem it legal. Given this reprieve, the rest of the game goes the home team’s way. In the bottom half, Jones begins to melt down, allowing a pair of two-out run-scoring hits to O’Neill and Bernie Williams to tie the game. Pat Mahomes enters the game in relief and gives up a monstrous three-run homer to Jorge Posada. Mahomes allows another home run to Derek Jeter in the sixth, while Dennis Cook cedes four more runs in a seventh inning to complete a blowout. A rainout the following evening cuts this leg of the Subway Series short, necessitating a two-stadium doubleheader in July.
  • Tuesday, June 13, 2000

    Chicago Cubs 4, New York Mets 3 at Wrigley Field

    In the first of a brief two-game trip to Chicago, the Mets overcome an early 1-0 deficit on an RBI sac fly from Jason Tyner in the top of the second and a two-run Robin Ventura double in the top of the fifth. Rick Reed can’t hold this advantage, however, as he allows the Cubs to rally for single runs in the fifth and seventh to tie the game. Chicago pulls ahead in the eighth with some assistance from interim shortstop Kurt Abbott. With runners on first and second and one out, Todd Zeile fields a grounder and fires it to Abbott at second for a force out. Abbott then attempts a relay back to first base to complete an inning-ending double play, but his throw is too wide for John Franco, covering the bag, to snare it. As the ball sails past the pitcher, a run scores that proves the margin of error in this game.
  • Wednesday, June 14, 2000

    New York Mets 10, Chicago Cubs 8 at Wrigley Field

    Mike Hampton is the scheduled starter for the last of the Mets’ two games in Chicago, but he only gets to throw one inning before rain delays the proceedings by almost two hours (after the first pitch was also delayed by rain for 35 minutes). The bullpens must duke it out for the majority of this contest—with another stoppage for rain thrown in before the fourth inning—and the results are not pretty. The Cubs mount three separate leads in the early going, but the Mets rebound to draw even each time. When Chicago scores in the bottom of the first, New York ties on a Robin Ventura solo shot in the top of the second. When the Cubs pull ahead on an Augie Ojeda homer in the bottom of the second, the advantage is erased by an RBI sac fly from Benny Agbayani in the top of the fourth. And when Glendon Rusch—pitching in relief due to a long wait between now and his next scheduled start—allows two runs in the bottom of the fourth, Mike Piazza saves the day with a two-run blast in the top of the fifth. The Mets go out in front in the sixth with a four-run outburst powered by four doubles against the Cubs’ shaky relief corps, then expand their lead when Agabayni goes deep to leadoff the top of the seventh. Things get dicey in the bottom half when the Cubs batter Turk Wendell and Dennis Cook for four runs of their own, but Agbayani gives them some breathing room with another homer in the top of the ninth, and the Mets hang on to take this ugly slugfest and earn a split in the Windy City.
  • Friday, June 16, 2000

    New York Mets 7, Milwaukee Brewers 1 at County Stadium

    Picking up where he left off in Chicago, unlikely leadoff man Benny Agbayani belts solo shot to start the Mets’ first game in Milwaukee, making him the first Met to hit a home run in three consecutive at bats since Gary Carter pulled off the feat in 1986. Agbayani knocks in two more runs with a single in the second inning, providing all the scoring necessary for Al Leiter, who throws eight brilliant innings while striking out seven batters and allowing just three hits. New York tacks on with a Melvin Mora RBI double in the third, a two-run homer from Mike Piazza in the sixth, and a run-scoring single from Robin Ventura in the eighth.
  • Saturday, June 17, 2000

    Milwaukee Brewers 3, New York Mets 2 at County Stadium

    Glendon Rusch puts up another respectable outing, allowing just three runs in 6 1/3 innings of work. But as has often been the case this season, the Mets fail to provide him adequate run support, stranding nine runners on the bases. The Mets take a 2-1 lead when Mike Piazza knocks in a run in the top of the fifth, but Rusch allows the Brewers to crawl ahead again by giving up a two-run single to Marquis Grissom in the bottom of the sixth. New York’s best chance to retake the lead comes in the top of the eighth, when Piazza and Ventura begin the inning with back-to-back singles. Fearing his team must take the lead now or face Milwaukee’s closer Bob Wickman in the ninth, Bobby Valentine makes the curious decision to pinch run for both men, removing his best hitters from the game. The gambit fails as Brewer reliever Curtis Leskanic retires the next three batters in order, with pinch hitter Matt Franco zipping a harsh lineout to second base to end the inning. As Valentine feared, Wickman retires the Mets in order in the ninth to conclude a frustrating defeat.
  • Sunday, June 18, 2000

    New York Mets 7, Milwaukee Brewers 3 at County Stadium

    With the Brewers set to move into brand new Miller Stadium in 2001, this marks the Mets’ final game at County Stadium. Rick Reed takes the mound for New York and allows three runs through seven innings of work, which on this day is good enough for his first win since April 29, a day that feels like several millennia ago to the self-deprecating right-hander. Milwaukee takes an early lead when Ronnie Belliard belts a leadoff homer off of Reed, but after a few quiet innings, the Mets retaliate by scoring five times in top of the fourth. This rally is capped by a three-run blast from the unlikely power source of Kurt Abbott, and is only made possible after equally unlikely speed demon Benny Agbayni beats a relay throw to first to prevent an inning-ending double play. The Mets pad their lead on an Edgardo Alfonzo sac fly in the seventh and a Robin Ventura solo shot in the eighth.
  • Tuesday, June 20, 2000

    Philadelphia Phillies 3, New York Mets 2 (10 innings) at Shea Stadium

    In the first game of a lengthy homestand, the Mets jump out to an early lead on a Mike Piazza two-run blast in the first. New York batters inflict no other damage against Phillie starter Paul Byrd or any of Philadelphia's relievers, but for most of the game these two runs appear sufficient to support Mike Hampton. Making his first start uninterrupted by rain in weeks, the lefty stifles the Phillies’ bats for six innings. In the top of the seventh, Philadelphia gets on the board with an RBI sac fly that cuts the Mets’ lead in half. Hampton shuts the door there and the Mets still appear to be primed to win this game when Armando Benítez comes on for the save in the top of the ninth, but the Met closer hangs a slider to rookie slugger Pat Burrell, who belts a game-tying homer. When the Mets fail to score in the bottom half, Benítez returns in the tenth and allows a leadoff double to Doug Glanville. After striking out the next two batters, he backs Mike Lieberthal into a two-strike count, but the Phillie catcher lines a single to center that scores the go-ahead run. The Mets go down in order in the bottom of the tenth to conclude a stinging defeat.
  • Wednesday, June 21, 2000

    Philadelphia Phillies 10, New York Mets 5 at Shea Stadium

    The Mets score three times against Phillie ace Curt Schilling on a 436-foot two-run homer by Mike Piazza in the first and an RBI groundout from Jason Tyner in the second. But Al Leiter has a rare bad outing, giving up three runs of his own in the third after a Robin Ventura throwing error prolongs the inning, then allows solo homers to Pat Burrell and Ron Gant in the sixth and seventh. The Mets attempt a comeback story in the bottom of the eighth, when Derek Bell and Edgardo Alfonzo single to start the inning, then Ventura atones for his earlier error by knocking both of them home to tie the game. But the game gets away from New York when John Franco enters in the top of the ninth, loads the bases, and issues a walk to force in the go-ahead run. Bobby Valentine had wanted to avoid using Armando Benítez in this game, as he threw 32 pitches the night before, but Franco’s ineffectiveness leaves him little choice. Benítez enters the game and promptly gives up a back-breaking grand slam to Burrell, putting a bow on another crushing defeat at the hands of the Phillies.
  • Thursday, June 22, 2000

    New York Mets 5, Philadelphia Phillies 4 at Shea Stadium

    Looking to salvage the finale of their series against Philadelphia, the Mets get off to a poor start when Glendon Rusch allows two runs in the first inning. The lefty settles in after that point, however, and his teammates rebound with the long ball. The Mets cut the lead in half with a Derek Bell solo shot in the first, draw even on another from Melvin Mora in the fifth, and pull ahead on a two-run blast by Jay Payton in the sixth. They scratch out another run on RBI single from Bell in the seventh, which proves crucial when the Phillies score a pair of runs off of Turk Wendell in the eighth. Though Wendell allows the tying run to reach second in the inning, he shuts the door there, while he and Dennis Cook provide some much needed rest to the back of the Mets’ bullpen by combining for a perfect ninth.
  • Friday, June 23, 2000

    New York Mets 12, Pittsburgh Pirates 2 at Shea Stadium

    Bobby Jones returns from a brief stay in the minors—where he’d been sent after his dreadful start at Yankee Stadium to work on his mechanics and general mental outlook—to make the start in the first of three games against the visiting Pittsburgh Pirates. He puts up a commendable performance, throwing eight innings of one-run ball while striking out eight batters. It helps that Jones has a large margin for error, as the Met hitters put the game away early with a nine-run bottom of the third, one run short of a franchise record for most runs scored in one inning. The rally starts with a three-run homer by Mike Piazza, includes a double by Melvin Mora that scores another three, and sees Derek Bell score twice. Benny Agbayani drives in two more runs in later innings to complete the rout.
  • Saturday, June 24, 2000

    New York Mets 10, Pittsburgh Pirates 8 at Shea Stadium

    Rick Reed has a rough day at the office, allowing hits to nine of the first 14 batters he faces, including two home runs. His day is done after three innings, with the home team down 4-1. Forced to play catch-up, the Mets mount their first comeback attempt with back-to-back RBI doubles by Derek Bell and Edgardo Alfonzo in the third. Pittsburgh widens its lead with two runs in the top of the fifth and, after Robin Ventura’s solo shot in the bottom of the sixth, expands the advantage to four runs by scoring twice more in the top of the seventh. But New York pushes back again, drawing within a run by scoring three times in the bottom of the inning. The Mets tie the score in the eighth on an Alfonzo double, then go ahead on a two-run knock from Todd Zeile. John Franco and Armando Benítez combine in the ninth to save the come-from-behind victory.
  • Sunday, June 25, 2000

    New York Mets 9, Pittsburgh Pirates 0

    Mike Hampton turns in his most dominating performance as a Met to date, allowing just five hits—only two of them past the second inning—in the course of a complete game shutout. His teammates scratch out a run against Pittsburgh ace Kris Benson in the second inning and two more in the sixth, then make the rest of the proceedings academic with a five-run outburst against Benson and the Pirates’ bullpen in the seventh. Melvin Mora caps the scoring with a solo shot in the eighth.
  • Monday, June 26, 2000

    New York Mets 10, Florida Marlins 5 at Shea Stadium

    The Mets power past the Marlins in the opener of a three-game set against Florida by blasting five home runs in a game for the first time in three years. Amazingly, all five are hit by the bottom of their order. Al Leiter is not his sharpest on this evening, as he allows three runs to a weak Marlins lineup, two on solo home runs, but his offense more than makes up for it. The Mets first get on the board with a Benny Agbayani two-run homer in the bottom of the third. After Robin Ventura breaks up a 3-all tie with an RBI groundout in the sixth, pinch hitter Mark Johnson (fresh up from the minors in place of Jason Tyner) belts a two-run blast to expand the Mets’ lead. The seventh inning sees New York salt this game with three more longballs from Jay Payton, Agbayani, and Melvin Mora.
  • Tuesday, June 27, 2000

    New York Mets 5, Florida Marlins 2 at Shea Stadium

    Glendon Rusch turns in yet another solid performance, throwing 7 2/3 innings while shutting down the Marlins for most of the game. He allows a single and a double to start the top of the fourth, and though Rusch allows both to score on sacrifice flies, that is the extent of the damage against him. In the bottom half, the Mets score four times against Florida starter Jesús Sánchez, then add an insurance run in the seventh on an Edgardo Alfonzo RBI single in the seventh. When Rusch allows two baserunners on an error and a single in the top of the eighth. Bobby Valentine calls on John Franco to shut the door, and though he loads the bases on a bad-luck “single” that hits the first base bag, Franco strikes out ex-Met farmhand Preston Wilson to escape danger. Armando Benítez earns the save with little trouble in the ninth.
  • Wednesday, June 28, 2000

    New York Mets 6, Florida Marlins 5 at Shea Stadium

    In the series finale against the Marlins, Bobby Valentine opts to rest many of his regulars—including Todd Zeile, Robin Ventura, and Edgardo Alfonzo—but the Mets still manage a come-from-behind win. Bobby Jones is not nearly as sharp in his second start back from the minors as he was in his first, as the Marlins touch him up for two home runs and four runs. Down 4-1 in the bottom of the sixth, the Mets mount a furious comeback, scoring five runs with two outs. The rally starts when Florida starter Brad Penny issues his third walk of the inning to force in a run. The first Florida reliever out of the gate issues his own bases-loaded walk to drive in another run, followed by a Mike Piazza grounder that Marlin shortstop Andy Fox can’t handle that brings in the tying run. Mark Johnson (subbing at first for Zeile) then unties the score with a two-run single. Dennis Cook allows Florida to crawl a little closer by giving up a run on two hits in the top of the seventh, but Pat Mahomes enters to shut the door. John Franco earns the save chance by virtue of Armando Benítez’s recent workload, and though he issues a single and a walk, he strands both runners to end the game and seal the sweep of the Marlins, the Mets’ seventh win in a row.
  • Thursday, June 29, 2000

    Atlanta Braves 6, New York Mets 4 at Shea Stadium

    The first meeting between Atlanta and New York in 2000 proceeds like most of their meetings in 1999—sloppy play on the Mets’ part and breaks that all go the way of the Braves. Atlanta draws first blood in the opening inning when a two-out hit by Andres Galarraga skips under Jay Payton’s glove for an RBI triple. They pile on with more two-out runs in the third, beginning with an Andruw Jones single that bounces off of Rick Reed’s left wrist. The pitcher tries to gut his way through the inning, but proceeds to give up another single to Chipper Jones and a three-run blast to Galarraga. Though the Mets catch one break when scheduled starter Greg Maddux misses the game due to illness, they do little against emergency starter John Burkett, and are also unable to take full advantage of a trio of Brave errors. They score two unearned runs against Burkett in the bottom of the third, but Robin Ventura strikes out to end the inning, extinguishing a chance to score more. Another error leads to another pair of runs in the sixth, but pinch hitter Lenny Harris lets the Braves off the hook by bouncing into a double play. John Rocker, public enemy number one for his offseason comments about New York City and the 7 train, enters the game to a chorus of boos but retires the Mets in order anyway. The home team goes quietly in the ninth to cap a frustrating but familiar defeat.
  • Friday, June 30, 2000

    New York Mets 11, Atlanta Braves 8 at Shea Stadium

    Mike Hampton pitches seven innings in this game but struggles mightily during them, as do most of his teammates. He walks in a run in the top of the first and allows two more to score on a Javy Lopez single. Atlanta tacks on a fifth run in the top of the seventh, while Kevin Millwood dominates Met hitters, allowing just a single run over seven innings. When a Brian Jordan three-run homer appears to salt the game for Atlanta in the top of the eighth, Bobby Cox asks the B-squad in his bullpen to protect a hefty lead, beginning with well traveled reliever Don Wengert. A fateful bottom of the eighth starts with a pair of singles sandwiched around a flyout. When Robin Ventura drives in a run with a groundout, it seems of little consequence. But then Todd Zeile knocks in another run with a single, and Jay Payton follows with a single of his own. Wishing to take no chances, Cox yanks Wenger and inserts Kerry Ligtenberg, Atlanta’s closer. But Ligtenberg can’t find the strike zone and issues three straight walks to force in two more runs. Cox removes Ligtenberg in favor of veteran Terry Mulholland, but he walks the first batter he faces to force in yet another run. Mulholland then backs Edgardo Alfonzo into a two-strike count, only to watch him sneak a single past third base to drive in two runs and improbably tie the game. With a sellout Shea crowd losing its mind, Mike Piazza gives them even more to scream about as he wheels on Mulholland’s next pitch and rockets it beyond the left field fence for three-run laser beam blast. The 10 runs scored in the inning match a franchise record, and ensure an insane, cathartic win for the Mets.

July

  • Saturday, July 1, 2000

    New York Mets 9, Atlanta Braves 1 at Shea Stadium

    The day after a thrilling, come-from-behind victory against their most hated rivals, the Mets pull off another shocking win against Atlanta by jumping all over Greg Maddux (finally back on the mound after a brief illness knocked him out of the first two games of the series). The home team scratches out a run in the first when a wild pitch results in a runner scoring from third, then explode for a furious six-run rally in the second, with all runs scoring with two outs. First, Benny Agbayani belts a solo shot to left field. Then the next two batters reach base, followed by a Derek Bell double to score them both, and an Edgardo Alfonzo single to drive in another. The outburst is capped by a long two-run blast by Mike Piazza. Al Leiter stifles the Mets for seven innings, scattering six hits and striking out 12 Atlanta batters.
  • Sunday, July 2, 2000

    Atlanta Braves 10, New York Mets 2 at Shea Stadium

    In the series finale between the two NL East rivals, it's the Braves’ turn to cobble together a two-out rally. In the top of the second, Derek Bell makes a dive for a fly ball but fails to hold onto it as he hits the ground, resulting in a double. After a sac fly drives in the first run of the inning, Glendon Rusch gives up a flurry of run-scoring hits in succession, the killer a two-run single by the light hitting Quilvio Veras. Rusch also gives up a solo shot to Javy Lopez in the third, followed by single runs in the fifth and sixth that put the game out of reach for the Mets, though the Braves strike for three more runs in late inning garbage time. Per usual, the home team can do nothing against Tom Glavine, save for back-to-back solo shots by Mike Piazza and Robin Ventura in the bottom of the seventh. Piazza’s blast extends the catcher’s streak of consecutive games with an RBI to 15.
  • Monday, July 3, 2000

    Florida Marlins 2, New York Mets 0 at Pro Player Stadium

    In the first game of quick three-game road trip in Miami, the Mets get an excellent outing from Bobby Jones, who limits the Marlins to four hits over six innings. He looks particularly impressive escaping a first-and-third, no-out situation in the bottom of the fifth by striking out three batters in succession. Unfortunately, Florida’s Jesús Sánchez (a one-time Mets prospect who was part of the deal that brought Al Leiter to New York) also limits the opposition to four hits, and does so over eight frustrating innings. The visitors end the day an agonizing 0-for-11 with men in scoring position. Mike Piazza comes to bat with a runner at second base twice and fails to cash him in on both occasions, a futility that ends his consecutive games with an RBI streak at 15. The game remains scoreless until the bottom of the ninth, when Turk Wendell hangs a slider that Derek Lee deposits over the center field fence, scoring the only runs of the game.
  • Tuesday, July 4, 2000

    Florida Marlins 9, New York Mets at Pro Player Stadium

    Bobby M. Jones is recalled from the minors for this game to make his first start of the season, an assignment that puts him in line to pitch a showcase Sunday night matchup against the Yankees the following weekend. Unfortunately, nothing the southpaw Jones does in this game inspires much confidence he will be given that chance. After scratching out single runs in the first and second innings, Derek Bell belts a three-run homer in the top of the fourth to give the Mets a seemingly commanding 5-0 lead. But in the bottom half, Jones walks two batters before surrendering a long three-run blast to Alex Gonzalez (who came into the game batting a whopping .174). Things completely unravel for Jones in the sixth when a leadoff walk and a single are followed by a game-tying double from Mark Kotsay. After another hit, Jones is removed for Pat Mahomes, who watches helplessly as the Marlins steal another run when Melvin Mora double-clutches after fielding an error pickoff throw, thus allowing Kotsay to steal home. Mora allows the disastrous inning to continue by botching a grounder at shortstop, leading to three more runs. The Mets attempt a comeback with a two-run homer by Todd Zeile in the sixth and a solo shot by Edgardo Alfonzo to lead off the ninth. They even push the tying run to second with one out, but Marlin closer Antonio Alfonseca strikes out Pratt and (of course) Mora to end the game.
  • Wednesday, July 5, 2000

    New York Mets 11, Florida Marlins 2 at Pro Player Stadium

    Salvaging the finale in Florida, the Mets jump all over Marlin pitching. Derek Bell leads the way with three hits, including a game-salting three-run blast in the sixth, continuing his hot hitting of late (4 homer, .468 average in his last 14 games). Starting pitcher Mike Hampton matches him with three hits of his own while pitching six solid innings. He is removed at that point having only thrown 79 pitches, in deference to back stiffness and the possibility of starting an upcoming game against the Yankees on short rest. The offensive explosion is such that even little-used reliever Eric Cammack contributes a hit and an RBI.
  • Friday, July 7, 2000

    New York Yankees 2, New York Mets 1 at Shea Stadium

    In the opener of the Queens leg of the Subway Series, the largest Shea crowd in 28 years watches Orlando “El Duque” Hernández outduel Al Leiter. The Mets’ ace gives up two runs in the first inning on four straight singles, but clamps down on the opposition the rest of the way. Unfortunately for the Mets, Hernandez is both stingier and luckier, and the few chances the home team enjoys are either thwarted or blunted. In the second inning, Robin Ventura follows a one-out Todd Zeile double by smashing a ball down the third base line, only to watch it sail right into the glove of Scott Brosius. In the third inning, with a man on second and one out, Melvin Mora attempts to bunt his way on but runs right into his own batted ball for the second out, killing a potential rally. In the bottom of the fifth, El Duque seems to falter when he walks the first two batters he faces, then gives up a screaming line drive to Benny Agbayani. But the pitcher spears the ball before flipping it to second to complete an impressive double play. In the bottom of the eighth, with a man on third and one out, Derek Bell belts one to deep right field, a hit that looks to all the world like a game-tying two-run homer, until the wind holds it up for a mere sac fly. This scores the Mets’ only run of the game, as they are retired easily by Mariano Rivera in the ninth.
  • Saturday, July 8, 2000 (Game 1)

    New York Yankees 4, New York Mets 2 at Shea Stadium

    In the first game of an historic two-stadium doubleheader between the Yankees and Mets, Doc Gooden makes his first start at Shea Stadium since leaving the team after the 1994 season. Following an appreciative reception from Mets fans, Gooden turns in a just-good-enough performance, limiting his former team to two runs and six hits in a tidy five innings of work. Bobby Jones pitches well, though he is on the wrong side of some curious officiating in the first inning. Jay Payton appears to throwout leadoff batter Chuck Knoblauch as he attempts to stretch a single into a double, but the initial call is overturned when umpire Robb Cook says first baseman Todd Zeile interfered with the runner. The call only comes after Cook is screamed at by Yankees first base coach Lee Mazzilli, which ensures him being screamed at even further by a furious Bobby Valentine, who is ejected for his trouble. (The Mets play the game under protest.) Following the fracas, the Yankees score twice in the inning. The Mets tie the game on a Benny Agbayani RBI groundout in the second and run-scoring double by Derek Bell in the fifth, but the Yankees regain the lead in the top of the sixth when Tino Martinez drives a low, tailing Jones fastball for an opposite field solo shot. Martinez adds an insurance run in the eighth on an RBI single, while the Mets fail to move a baserunner past second after the fifth inning.
  • Saturday, July 8, 2000 (Game 2)

    New York Yankees 4, New York Mets 2 at Yankee Stadium

    In the Bronx half of the doubleheader, the Yankees prevail by the same score as the first. The events of the game are overshadowed by a scary incident in the second inning, when Roger Clemens nails Mike Piazza in the head with a 92 mph fastball. Piazza is forced to leave the game, sustaining a minor concussion that will keep him from playing in the impending All Star Game. The enraged Mets believe the beaning is retribution for Piazza’s gaudy numbers against The Rocket. They nearly exact revenge by besting Clemens with a furious two-out rally in the top of the fifth, culminating with a pair of RBI singles by Derek Bell and Edgardo Alfonzo. However, the Yankees storm right back with a four-run outburst in the bottom half, capped by a three-run blast by Chuck Knoblauch off of Glendon Rusch. Both Clemens and Rusch pitch through the eighth without further incident, while Mariano Rivera silences the Mets in the ninth to conclude a long, frustrating day of baseball.
  • Sunday, July 9, 2000

    New York Mets 2, New York Yankees 0 at Shea Stadium

    In the last game of this season’s Subway Series, and the last game before the All Star Break, Mike Hampton and Andy Pettitte face off, each pitching on short rest. Pettitte pitches better overall, but he also surrenders a solo shot to Todd Zeile to start the bottom of the fourth. The Mets get some insurance when Todd Pratt walks to start the seventh, moves to second on a Hampton sac bunt, hustles to third on a wild pitch by reliever Jeff Nelson, and scores on a sac fly. Hampton allows more baserunners than his Yankee counterpart, but takes advantage of pickoff moves and failed stolen base attempts to escape danger. He comes out to start the eighth inning, but a cramp that flares up during between innings warm-ups forces him from the mound and forces Armando Benítez to a two-inning save. Benítez allows baserunners in both innings but strands them all, ensuring the Mets a much needed win.
  • Thursday, July 13, 2000

    Boston Red Sox 4, New York Mets 3 at Fenway Park

    The Mets start the second half of their season with an 11-game roadtrip that commences with an interleague trip to Boston. In an attempt to show he is recovered from being hit in the head with 92 mph Roger Clemens fastball, Mike Piazza starts the game and catches all nine innings. He and the Mets are forced to battle against Pedro Martínez, in the midst of another brilliant season on the mound. Pedro fans 10 Mets batters, but somehow his magic does not work on rookie outfielder Jay Payton. In the top of the second, consecutive two-out doubles by Todd Zeile and Payton plate the first New York run. And after Bobby Jones surrenders a two-run homer in the bottom of the sixth, Payton ties the game at 2 with a solo shot over the Green Monster. In the eighth, a pair of two-out singles by Edgardo Alfonzo and Piazza combine with an error committed by ex-Met Carl Everett to give New York the lead. But in the ninth, all the luck goes against the Mets. First, a Melvin Mora error on a potential game-ending double play ball allows the winning run to reach base. Then, with two out, Armando Benítez believes he throws strike three to Brian Daubach but does not get the call. Given this reprieve, Daubach lines the next pitch down the right field line. Right fielder Derek Bell figures the ball will either bounce in to the stands or carom off the outfield wall right back to him. Instead, the ball hugs the wall, and by the time Bell recovers it, the tying and winning runs have scored, thus ending a frustrating near-miss for the Mets.
  • Friday, July 14, 2000

    New York Mets 6, Boston Red Sox 4 at Fenway Park

    The Mets’ second game in Boston is delayed by an hour, due to a power outage. Once there is light enough to see, Glendon Rusch pitches well in six innings of work, though he can’t solve the riddle of Troy O’Leary, who reaches him for two RBI singles. His teammates build a lead on the strength of a Mike Piazza solo shot and a two-run homer off the bat of yesterday’s goat, Melvin Mora. Things fall apart quickly, however, once Rusch gives way to Turk Wendell to start the seventh inning. After a walk and a sacrifice, Wendell is removed in favor of Dennis Cook, who the Red Sox are convinced is doctoring his balls. Boston designated hitter Brian Daubach asks Todd Pratt to take one of Cook’s pitches out of play so it can be checked, a command the catcher resents deeply. The batter and catcher get in each other’s face and the benches clear briefly. After all the perfunctory posturing is through, Daubach lashes a game-tying single. Following a walk, Cook plunks Carl Everett and earns himself an ejection. The lefty leaves the mound enraged and pointing toward the batter’s box, expressing his belief that Everett crowded the plate in the harshest of terms. The latest Mets reliever, Rich Rodriguez, then allows O’Leary’s third RBI hit of the day, a bloop single that puts Boston on top. The Mets appear ticketed for another infuriating loss until Red Sox manager Jimy Williams makes a curious pitching change. Even though his righty, Hipolito Pichardo, had set down eight batters in row, Williams turns to his closer, Derek Lowe, with two outs in the top of the eighth. Lowe proceeds to give up a single to Edgardo Alfonzo, followed by a towering Mike Piazza blast that bounces off a Coke bottle mounted above the Green Monster. A Melvin Mora RBI single in the top of the ninth pads the Mets’ lead, and though Armando Benítez allows a double and a walk in the bottom half, he hangs on to earn the save.
  • Saturday, July 15, 2000

    Boston Red Sox 6, New York Mets 4 at Fenway Park

    The finale of the Mets’ series in Boston becomes infamous around the league for a tantrum thrown by outfielder Carl Everett. Enraged by home plate umpire Ron Kulpa drawing a line in the first with his foot to indicate the batter’s box—a move he and his team credit to the Mets barking about him standing too close to the plate—Everett goes ballistic, bumping Kulpa and throwing his helmet in disgust. As for the game itself, the Mets take themselves to an early lead on a two-run first inning double by Todd Zeile. The Red Sox tie the score in the fifth, then march ahead on a three-run homer by Brian Daubach in the sixth and expand the lead with another run in the seventh. The Mets do some damage in the ninth, as Mike Piazza leads off the inning with a home run and Todd Pratt singles in another run. A Benny Agbayani single brings the winning run to the plate in the form of Melvin Mora, but closer Derek Lowe induces a comebacker to end the game.
  • Sunday, July 16, 2000

    Toronto Blue Jays 7, New York Mets 3 at SkyDome

    In the first of three games against the Blue Jays, Al Leiter and the Mets gripe about the inconsistent strike zone of rookie umpire Mike Fitcher. Leiter is particularly perturbed about a sequence in the bottom of the sixth. With the bases loaded, he throws a 2-1 pitch to Marty Cordova that he is sure is strike two. Fitcher calls it ball three instead. Rattled, Leiter hangs a slider that Cordova blasts into the visiting bullpen for his first career grand slam. Todd Zeile complains as well after he takes a called third strike with the bases loaded to end the top of the seventh, a pitch he sees as being inside. The Mets scratch out three runs against young Toronto hurler Roy Halladay but can't scratch any further, and can never get over their perception of unfair umpiring, as they drop the series opener.
  • Monday, July 17, 2000

    New York Mets 7, Toronto Blue Jays 5 (11 innings) at SkyDome

    Injuries to Robin Ventura and Edgardo Alfonzo force Bobby Valentine to field a b-squad lineup with Joe McEwing in left field and Lenny Harris at third and batting leadoff. Both players pay dividends as Harris belts a homer and scores two runs, and McEwing bangs a long two-run shot off the left field foul pole in the top of the second. The Mets are nearly undone by a middling performance from Rick Reed, fresh off the disabled list, who allows five runs over five innings, but the bullpen chips in with six innings of scoreless work. The offense slowly ties things up when Harris scores on a wild pitch in the fourth, McEwing contributes an RBI groundout in the fifth, and Derek Bell knots the score with a run-scoring single in the eighth. The score remains tied until the top of the eleventh, when Mike Piazza drives in a run on a bases-loaded groundout. A Todd Zeile RBI single expands their lead, and the Mets walk away with a much-needed win.
  • Tuesday, July 18, 2000

    New York Mets 11, Toronto Blue Jays 7 at SkyDome

    In the series finale in Toronto, the Mets and Blue Jays play HORSE in the early going. Lenny Harris leads off the game with a home run, but Bobby Jones allows an RBI double to Craig Grebeck in the bottom of the first. After Jones allows another RBI double to Shannon Stewart in the second, Edgardo Alfonzo ties things up with a run-scoring single in the top of the third. Tony Batista gives the Blue Jays the lead again in the bottom half with an RBI single, until Joe McEwing ties things up once more with a run-scoring groundout in the top of the fourth. Small ball goes by the wayside in the top of the fifth when the Mets open the frame with three consecutive walks, then Mike Piazza drives them all home with a mammoth 426-foot home run that strikes a clock above a restaurant beyond the left field fence. The ball appears to still be traveling upwards before it smashes into the wall. Though the Blue Jays club two more solo shots against Jones and make some hay against some of the bullpen’s least used relievers, the game is all Mets from this point. Edgardo Alfonzo and Harris each belt RBI doubles and Derek Bell adds a two-run homer to cap the scoring.
  • Wednesday, July 19, 2000

    New York Mets 5, Montréal Expos 3 at Olympic Stadium

    In the opener of a brief two-game set in Montréal, Expo starter Tony Armas Jr. is scratched due to a rotator cuff strain. The Expos ask several relievers to each pitch an inning or two, a la a spring training game, and the tactic nearly works, as Montréal’s bullpen limits the Mets to two runs over the first seven innings. Glendon Rusch allows two runs over six innings, but the Expos pull ahead in the seventh when Vladimir Guerrero doubles in a run. The inning would have proved worse for the Mets if not for Derek Bell gunning down another potential run at the plate. New York finally figures out the Montréal relief corps in the top of the eighth. After a pair of singles and a bunt to move the runners into scoring position, Joe McEwing knocks in both runners, with Benny Agbayani barely eluding the catcher’s tag to plate the go-ahead run. Bell singles in another run in the inning, and the Mets hold on to win.
  • Thursday, July 20, 2000

    Montréal Expos 4, New York Mets 1 at Olympic Stadium

    The Mets find themselves completely baffled by Dustin Hermanson, who limits them to seven mostly-harmless singles while nearly pitching a complete game. A potential big inning in the top of the second fizzles out when Jay Payton gets greedy on a Benny Agbayani RBI single and is nabbed in a rundown. Mike Hampton, who has not looked too sharp since pitching on short rest to close out the Subway Series, is defeated single-handedly by Expo catcher Chris Widger, who breaks a 1-1 tie in the bottom of the sixth with a solo shot and salts the game with a two-run double in the seventh. The Mets attempt a comeback by loading the bases with one out in the eighth, but Hermanson recovers to strike out Derek Bell and Mark Johnson. The reason benchwarmer Johnson finds himself in this situation is because Edgardo Alfonzo is forced to leave the game due to a hip flexor injury.
  • Friday, July 21, 2000

    Atlanta Braves 6, New York Mets 3 at Turner Field

    In the opener of the Mets’ first series in Atlanta since last year’s National League Championship Series, the team is forced to field a compromised lineup, due to Robin Ventura’s stint on the disabled list and Edgardo Alfonzo’s unavailability with a hip flexor issue. Al Leiter struggles early giving up a two-run single to Brian Jordan in the first, but the Mets look like they may recover with a wild three-run top of the third that chases starter Terry Mulholland. Once Mulholland is removed, however, the Mets’ bats are helpless against John Burkett and the rest of the Braves’ bullpen. In the bottom of the third, Atlanta retakes the lead when Lenny Harris (playing third in the absence of Ventura) heaves a bad throw home that causes Mike Piazza to be barreled over yet again and eventually leads to two runs scoring. The Braves tack on two more runs in the later innings and cruise to yet another victory over the Mets at Turner Field.
  • Saturday, July 22, 2000

    New York Mets 4, Atlanta Braves 0 at Turner Field

    Rick Reed outduels Greg Maddux, scattering four hits and holding the Braves hitless with runners in scoring position. Reed even contributes an RBI sac fly in the top of the fifth, as his teammates build a lead on a Jay Payton RBI single in the second inning and a Derek Bell homer in the sixth. An error by Chipper Jones allows another run to score in the ninth to pad their lead, and the Mets have themselves a rare win at Turner Field (just their second such win in their last 17 games in Atlanta).
  • Sunday, July 23, 2000

    Atlanta Braves 1, New York Mets 0 at Turner Field

    In the Turner Field finale, it’s the Mets’ turn to get shutout. Bobby Jones pitches well enough, but a Wally Joyner RBI double in the sixth scores all the runs the Braves will need. New York is utterly baffled by Andy Ashby, recently arrived in Atlanta from Philadelphia, as he limits the Mets to just four hits. The closest the Mets come to scoring is the fourth inning, when Jay Payton lashes a double to left field with a runner on first. Unfortunately, the ball caroms right into the glove of left fielder Bobby Bonilla, preventing the runner from scoring. Todd Zeile grounds into an inning-ending double play immediately thereafter. Payton reaches on an error and advances to second to start the ninth, but the next two batters record outs without so much as advancing Payton, then Benny Agbayani misses a game-tying double by a matter of feet before grounding out to end yet another frustrating afternoon in Atlanta.
  • Tuesday, July 25, 2000

    New York Mets 5, Montréal Expos 0 at Shea Stadium

    With the Mets finally back home after a grueling 11-game road trip, Glendon Rusch looks glad to be back in Queens as he limits the Expos to three hits over seven solid innings. He allows Montréal few chances, save a close call in the top of the fifth when he loads the bases on two walks and a bloop single to start the frame. A comebacker and a line-drive double play (the latter started by Melvin Mora, a rare moment of defensive wizardry following a month of struggles with the glove) end that threat with no runs scoring, and that is as close as the visitors come to scoring against him. His teammates lend him a hand on a pair of RBI singles from Mike Piazza, an RBI double from Melvin Mora, a run-scoring groundout by Lenny Harris, and a bases loaded walk.
  • Thursday, July 27, 2000 (Game 1)

    New York Mets 9, Montréal Expos 8 at Shea Stadium

    A rainout necessitates a doubleheader and also precipitates the call-up of Grant Roberts, the Mets’ most talented pitching prospect. Hopes that Roberts might inject the same life into the rotation that rookie Octavio Dotel did in 1999 die quickly. The freshman walks the first two batters he faces and allows three more hits to immediately put the Mets in a 4-0 hole. After Benny Agbayani knocks in a pair of runs with a double in the bottom of the first, Roberts continues to struggle, allowing three more runs in the second before exiting after only 1 1/3 innings of work. While Pat Mahomes contributes 4 2/3 vital innings of scoreless relief work, his teammates battle back to tie the game at 7 with two runs in the fourth, two more in the sixth, and another in the seventh. Agbayani is the star of the rally with another RBI double and two runs scored. Along the way, the Mets lose two players to injury: Derek Bell, when a ball cracks him in the chin while patrolling the outfield, and Melvin Mora, who takes a grounder off his right hand. The Expos crawl ahead with a run in the top of eighth, but the Mets come roaring back in the bottom half with a two-out rally that begins with a Joe McEwing double and a walk to Edgardo Alfonzo, back in action following his hip injury. Todd Zeile singles home the tying run and Matt Franco follows by singling home the go-ahead run. Armando Benítez earns the save, capping a wild first half of a doubleheader.
  • Thursday, July 27, 2000 (Game 2)

    New York Mets 4, Montréal Expos 3 at Shea Stadium

    After the bullpen shoulders a heavy load in the first half of the doubleheader, the Mets need a length outing from their starter. Mike Hampton obliges by going the distance. The early going is rough, as Hampton allows two runs in the top of the second following errors by Lenny Harris, filling in at third base, and Kurt Abbott, fresh off the disabled list and in at short for the injured Melvin Mora. (It’s an evening to forget for the makeshift Met defense, as Harris contributes two more errors before the game is over.) But the Mets bounce right back in the bottom of the second against the maligned former Yankee pitcher Hideki Irabu. After Todd Zeile and Benny Agbayani collect one-out singles, Jay Payton knocks them both home with a long double, then races home himself on a throwing error. Harris atones for some of his miscues with a solo shot in the bottom of the fifth. The Expos crawl a little closer when Hampton allows a home run in the top of the sixth, and things get a tad adventurous in the top of the ninth when he gives up two singles. With two outs and rain threatening to bring the game to a premature end, Hampton spears a sharp liner off the bat of Milton Bradley to record the final out and seal a Met sweep of Montréal.
  • Friday, July 28, 2000

    New York Mets 3, St. Louis Cardinals 2 at Shea Stadium

    Al Leiter tosses a brilliant game in the opener of a three-game set against the high-flying Cardinals, allowing just three hits and one run over seven innings while striking out eight batters. The Mets strike early against veteran hurler Pat Hentgen, scoring three times in the second inning, then hang on for dear life, even though at times they seem to be working against themselves. Leiter negotiates a one-out bases-loaded situation in the seventh—exacerbated by an error from Kurt Abbott—by striking out the next batter, then inducing a pop-up. John Franco lands the Mets in more trouble in the eighth by giving up a pair of singles, but Turk Wendell limits the damage by picking off baserunner Jim Edmonds with his patented fake-to-third-throw-to-first move. An error by Lenny Harris—his fourth in two days—allows a run to score, but Wendell stops the bleeding there. Armando Benítez earns another save as the Mets hang on to win.
  • Saturday, July 29, 2000

    New York Mets 4, St. Louis Cardinals 3 at Shea Stadium

    The day before this game, Steve Phillips pulls the trigger on a pair of deadline deals, acquiring reliever Rick White and bench bat Bubba Trammell from the Devil Rays and shortstop Mike Bordick from the Orioles (the latter at the expense of Melvin Mora). The newcomers chip in right away, none more so than Bordick, who belts a long home run off of Andy Benes on the first pitch he ever sees as a Met in the bottom of the third. A two-out RBI single from Mike Piazza in the same frame gives the Mets the lead, but this advantage is relinquished on a two-run shot by Jim Edmonds in the top of the fourth. The Cards threaten to blow the game open by loading the bases with one out in the sixth, but Robin Ventura—just reactivated from the disabled list—keeps the inning from devolving into disaster by making a leaping grab on line drive, turning a potential bases-clearing double into the second out. After starter Rick Reed escapes the inning with no more damage done, Piazza comes to bat in the bottom half and destroys a Benes pitch, sending it 455 feet and out of the stadium to tie the game. Nifty defense saves the Mets once more in the seventh when Jay Payton fires a throw home on one hop to nail pinch runner Rick Ankiel at the plate. In the bottom of the eighth, Bordick is in the middle of things again as he hits a one-out single that moves Robin Ventura to third base. Lenny Harris follows with an RBI single, and Armando Benítez’s 1-2-3 ninth ensures another Mets victory.
  • Sunday, July 30, 2000

    New York Mets 4, St. Louis Cardinals 2 at Shea Stadium

    On Old Timer’s Day at Shea, Bubba Trammell writes a storybook beginning to his Mets career by going deep in his first at bat with the team. In the bottom of the second, Trammell belts a three-run shot off of Cardinals starter Garrett Stephenson, prompting the crowd to serenade him with chants of “Bub-ba! Bub-ba!” This, combined with a solo shot by Benny Agbayani in the first, gives Bobby Jones all the runs he needs, as he cruises for most of the afternoon and goes the distance. Though not known for being a strikeout pitcher, Jones fans nine batters in the vaunted St. Louis lineup and nabs the fearsome Jim Edmonds three times. A brief outburst in the sixth gives the Cards a run on a groundout, and a two-out solo shot in the ninth by Ray Lankford brings them a bit closer, but Jones freezes Fernando Tatís on a painfully slow curveball to catch him looking, record the final out, and cap a satisfying sweep of St. Louis.
  • Monday, July 31, 2000

    Cincinnati Reds 6, New York Mets 0 at Shea Stadium

    The opener of a three-game set against the Cincinnati Reds unfolds on a misty and unseasonably cool evening. The Mets’ bats never warm up, as they are shutout by Scott Williamson, last season’s rookie of the year, for six innings and by the Cincinnati bullpen the rest of the way. Glendon Rusch turns in an uncharacteristically shaky outing, ceding three runs in the first inning, which places the Mets in a hole they never climb out of. Hard hit balls die in a stiff wind blowing in from left field, and the Mets accumulate precious few chances against Williamson; only two runners reach third base, and both are turned away.

August

  • Tuesday, August 1, 2000

    New York Mets 3, Cincinnati Reds 2 at Shea Stadium

    The Mets scratch out three runs against Steve Parris (the same pitcher they defeated in last year’s wild card play-in game) on a Robin Ventura RBI single in the first, a sac fly from Mike Hampton in the second, and a Mike Bordick run-scoring hit in the sixth. For most of the game, this appears to be enough for Hampton, who strikes out six and walks none in the first seven frames. But he finds trouble when he comes out to start the eighth inning, giving up an RBI double to Barry Larkin. Turk Wendell relieves him but allows Dante Bichette to triple in another run, putting the tying run on third with only one out. John Franco comes to the rescue by inducing a grounder to first from the following batter, one that does not allow Bichette to score. Franco walks Alex Ochoa to put the go-ahead run on base and watches Ochoa steal second, but the lefty recovers to strike out veteran catcher Benito Santiago looking to end the threat. Armando Benítez contributes a 1-2-3 ninth to technically earn the save, though after the game both Bobby Valentine and Franco himself attribute the “true” save to Franco.
  • Wednesday, August 2, 2000

    New York Mets 2, Cincinnati Reds 1 at Shea Stadium

    In the final game of this homestand—a day game after a night game, waged in brutally humid conditions—Bobby Valentine rests many regulars such as Edgardo Alfonzo and Mike Piazza. He decides to leave in Robin Ventura, despite the third baseman struggling with the bat all year and in particular since suffering the shoulder injury that led to a stint on the disabled list. Ventura rewards the chance by belting a two-run first inning shot over the right field fence, almost in the exact same spot as his famous Grand Slam Single. The shot ends a long home run drought for the third baseman and proves all the support necessary for Al Leiter, who fans eight Reds in seven innings of work. Cincinnati cobbles together a run against him on a pair of singles and a sac fly in the second, but that is as close as they get. After ceding a one-out single in the third, Leiter retires the last 14 batters he faces. John Franco, Turk Wendell, and Armando Benítez work the final two innings with little trouble. The victory over Cincinnati closes out a triumphant 8-1 homestand.
  • Friday, August 4, 2000

    New York Mets 6, Arizona Diamondbacks 1 at Bank One Ballpark

    The start of a seven-game road trip brings the Mets to Phoenix to face off against Randy Johnson. The previous two times the Mets have faced the Big Unit, they have handled him capably, a history of success that includes game 1 of last year’s division series. That trend continues in this game, as the Mets once again knock around one of the best pitchers in the game. In a repeat of their last meeting, Joe McEwing keys much of the damage against the giant lefty. McEwing puts the Mets on the board first with an RBI double in the second inning and drives in another run with a sac fly in the fourth. Johnson unravels in the frame, unleashing a walk and a wild pitch and is unable to work around a costly error by shortstop Tony Womack. By inning’s end, Johnson is gone and four runs have scored, which is more than enough for Rick Reed, who pitches into the eighth and limits the Diamondbacks to one run on six hits.
  • Saturday, August 5, 2000

    New York Mets 6, Arizona Diamondbacks 2 at Bank One Ballpark

    The Mets jump out to a quick lead on RBI singles from Edgardo Alfonzo and Mike Piazza in the first, expand their lead on more run-scoring hits from Derek Bell and Alfonzo in the fourth, and cap it with a two-run shot by Robin Ventura in the seventh. Much of this damage is done against Diamondback starter Geraldo Guzman, a pitcher who blew out his shoulder in 1990 and spent the following seven years as a carpenter in his native Dominican Republic before taking a second stab at making the big leagues. Bobby Jones contributes six strong innings, allowing just two runs to a high-powered Arizona offense, and Rick White pitches the final three innings for an old-school save. The big news of the day for the Mets is negative, however, as Mike Piazza injures a knee running out a grounder and is forced to leave the game.
  • Sunday, August 6, 2000

    Arizona Diamondbacks 9, New York Mets 5 at Bank One Ballpark

    Bobby Valentine compares the finale of the Mets’ series in Phoenix to “a long day in the dentist’s chair.” Glendon Rusch agrees, as he contributes his worst start as a Met, allowing five runs in just four innings of work. A two-run homer off the bat of Matt Williams breaks a 1-1 tie in the third inning, and Tony Womack pads Arizona's lead with a two-run single in the fourth. Pat Mahomes and Dennis Cook conspire to give up four more runs, all on longballs, that render the rest of the game academic. For most of the afternoon, the visitors are stifled by former Met Armando Reynoso, who has dominated the team since his stint in New York ended after the 1998 season. Mike Bordick belts a two-run homer of his own in the seventh, and the Mets string together four hits to drive in two runs in the ninth to make the contest momentarily interesting, but are ultimately turned away.
  • Monday, August 7, 2000

    New York Mets 6, Houston Astros 5 (11 innings) at Enron Field

    In the Mets’ first visit to Enron Field, Houston’s new stadium, Mike Hampton gets the start and struggles against his former team. The visitors build a 4-1 lead early on a Robin Ventura homer and two singles from Hampton himself that lead to three runs, but the lefty unravels on the mound in the fifth, giving up four runs in the inning, the last three on a bases-loaded double from light-hitting third baseman Chris Truby. Houston hangs on to a slim one-run lead until two outs in the ninth, when Derek Bell clubs a game-tying home run against Octavio Dotel, the man the Mets traded to acquire both Bell and Hampton from the Astros. After being victimized by a bad call in the top of the tenth (Todd Zeile appears to beat a tag at the plate but is called out anyway by rookie home plate umpire Hunter Wendelstedt), the Mets recover in the eleventh. Kurt Abbott—filling in at third base for Edgardo Alfonzo, who’s dealing with a groin strain—belts a home run to left field. Armando Benítez sets down the home team in the bottom half to seal a satisfying win.
  • Tuesday, August 8, 2000

    Houston Astros 9, New York Mets 3 at Enron Field

    With Edgardo Alfonzo and Mike Piazza sidelined by minor injuries, the Mets field a makeshift lineup that is not a match even for the struggling Astros. Al Leiter lets himself get unnerved by a bad call involving the first batter he faces—Todd Zeile makes the most of an offline throw and tags out runner Julio Lugo, but the first base umpire calls him safe anyway—and never recovers. Rattled, Leiter allows three runs in the first, digging a hole his teammates can’t climb out of. The lefty allows single runs in the second and fifth innings, while a disastrous three-run bottom of the sixth by Pat Mahomes and one more run against Rick White in the seventh dismiss any thoughts of a Mets comeback. Benny Agabayani accounts for the entire Mets offensive output with his sixth inning solo shot and a two-run single in the ninth. On the same play, the bear-sized White, who batted for himself and singled in the frame, is thrown out when unwisely trying to go first to third.
  • Wednesday, August 9, 2000

    New York Mets 12, Houston Astros 5 at Enron Field

    Rick Reed breaks a recent hot streak by allowing four runs to the Astros, but his teammates more than make up for it. With both Mike Piazza and Edgardo Alfonzo back in the lineup, the Mets pound Houston pitching early and often. Most of the damage is done against Jose Lima, the Houston starter they reach for seven runs in less than four innings. Mets batters hit three home runs, including a monster shot to straight-away center by Piazza, his 30th of the year, and another from pinch hitter Darryl Hamilton in his first at bat since early April. (A troublesome toe injury kept him on the shelf since then.)
  • Thursday, August 10, 2000

    New York Mets 10, Houston Astros 3 at Enron Field

    The Mets finish out their road trip with another pounding of Astros pitching, this time taking advantage of a young hurler making his major league debut. Mike Piazza is the star of this game, going 4-for-4 with 4 RBIs. The early proceedings are close, as the Mets scratch out runs in the first and third innings and watch Jeff Bagwell tie the score on solo shots each time. The Mets go ahead for good on a Piazza RBI single in the fifth, pad the lead the on a Jay Payton home run in the sixth, and then run wild with three runs in both the seventh and eighth innings. Bobby Jones contributes eight innings and, though he cedes 10 hits, allows only 2 runs. The Mets compile a 5-2 record on the roadtrip and crawl a little closer in the divisional race, now 2.5 games behind Atlanta in the National League East.
  • Friday, August 11, 2000

    New York Mets 4, San Francisco Giants 1 at Shea Stadium

    In the first of four games back home against the visiting Giants, Glendon Rusch is far from sharp, as he struggles to find the strike zone in five spotty innings. Walks and singles put San Francisco runners on base all evening, and yet Rusch is able to keep them from scoring, save for an Ellis Burks RBI hit in the top of the fifth. His counterpart, Mark Gardner, is far more sharp and efficient, but serves up a pitch that Mike Piazza sends over the left field bleachers in the fourth, a long two-run homer that inspires chants of “M-V-P! M-V-P!” Gardner cedes another two-run shot to Edgardo Alfonzo, and the bullpen in the persons of Rick White, John Franco, and Armando Benítez contribute four innings that are as stress-free as Rusch’s were difficult.
  • Saturday, August 12, 2000

    New York Mets 3, San Francisco Giants 2 at Shea Stadium

    A Mike Bordick solo shot in the bottom of the third gives the Mets a slim lead that the Giants immediately surmount in the top of the fourth, with some assistance from a mental error. Mike Hampton loads the bases with one out on a double, an error by Bordick, and a hit batter, then gives up a lazy fly ball to left field. Benny Agbayani catches the ball and, mistakenly believing he’s recorded the third out, hands it to a young fan in the nearby stands. By the time Agbayani realizes his error, both the tying and go-ahead runs have scored. For much of the game, it appears this error may prove the margin of error, as the Mets find themselves helpless against Giants starter Shawn Estes. New York works seven walks against Estes yet can’t convert any of them into runs, even when they log four of them in one inning. (A groundball double play helps Estes escape the bottom of the fifth unscathed.) But when Estes gives way to reliever Félix Rodríguez in the bottom of the seventh, the Mets are able to rally, with Todd Zeile smacking a two-run double that puts them ahead to stay. The bullpen holds the Giants at bay in the last two innings, rendering Agbayani’s blunder a pleasant memory.
  • Sunday, August 13, 2000

    New York Mets 2, San Francisco Giants 0 at Shea Stadium

    The third contest between the Mets and Giants unfolds as a tense pitcher’s duel, with Al Leiter and Liván Hernández (who the Mets beat soundly in all their meetings in 1999) matching zeroes. Leiter allows just two hits while striking out 12 batters through eight innings, while Hernández gives up only six hits through the first seven. But in the bottom of the eighth, Hernández cedes a leadoff walk to Edgardo Alfonzo, which leads to an RBI double by Robin Ventura. The Mets then pad their lead on a run-scoring single from Mike Bordick. John Franco earns the save with a scoreless ninth.
  • Monday, August 14, 2000

    San Francisco Giants 11, New York Mets 1 at Shea Stadium

    Looking to complete a four-game sweep on an unseasonably cool August evening, the Mets are rocked to sleep instead by Giant ace Russ Ortiz. New York has never beat Ortiz before and they don’t come close to besting him on this date, as he allows just one hit in seven innings of work. Rick Reed blanks the Giants through the first five frames, and for a while it seems as if another pitcher’s duel is in the offing. Then Reed begins the sixth by allowing consecutive singles and a hit batter. The floodgates open after a sac fly by J.T. Snow and an RBI single from Ellis Burks. Two more hits follow Burks’s, and before Reed can blink, five runs have scored. As bad as Reed’s sixth inning is, things go much worse for Dennis Cook in the seventh, as he permits the first six batters to reach base and allows six runs, two of them on a single by Ortiz. A Jay Payton solo shot in the eighth is the Mets’ second, and final, hit of the game.
  • Tuesday, August 15, 2000 (Game 1)

    New York Mets 7, Colorado Rockies 5 at Shea Stadium

    A rainout back in mid-May prompts this twinbill, with Pat Mahomes drawing the spot start in the opener. Mahomes struggles early, perhaps because he seems to be the last man to learn he was schedule to start this game; several players break the news to him in the clubhouse before Bobby Valentine does. With little time to mentally prepare himself, he cedes an RBI double to Todd Helton (flirting with a .400 batting average at the moment) in the second and two more runs in the fourth. The Mets waste several opportunities early against Colorado starter Pedro Astacio, including failing to score in the fourth despite loading the bases with no outs. Edgardo Alfonzo finally puts New York on the board with a two-run double in the fifth. Though a Mike Bordick error leads to another Colorado run in the top of the seventh, the Mets “rally” for four runs in the bottom half. Ironic quotes are needed because this outburst consists of two bases loaded walks, a wild pitch, and a run-scoring groundout. Another wild pitch in the eighth leads to one more New York run, and though the Rockies string together three hits and a run against Armando Benítez in the ninth, it is as close as the visitors get.
  • Tuesday, August 15, 2000 (Game 2)

    New York Mets 4, Colorado Rockies 3 at Shea Stadium

    In the nightcap, the Mets fall behind early on when Todd Helton collects an RBI double in the first inning, but starter Bobby Jones is solid for most of the game. His teammates give the Mets a lead on a Lenny Harris RBI single in the third, a sac fly in the fourth, and a Benny Agbayani run-scoring double in the sixth. The Rockies draw closer on a Helton solo shot in the sixth, then get some assistance from a pair of Todd Zeile errors that lead to another Colorado run. Zeile’s next at bat in the eighth is greeted with boos, but he redeems himself by zipping a home run just to the right of the left field foul pole for a go-ahead home run. Armando Benítez sets down the side in order to earn his second save of the day.
  • Wednesday, August 16, 2000

    Colorado Rockies 7, New York Mets 5 at Shea Stadium

    Glendon Rusch turns in another disappointing outing, pitching into the eighth inning but allowing six runs to the Rockies. The game is a low-scoring affair at first, with both Rusch and Colorado starter Brian Bohanon easily stifling batters. Then the Rockies bat around in the sixth and score three runs, all of them crossing the plate with two outs. Rusch leaves the game in the eighth after giving up a single and a double to the first two batters he faces, and reliever Rick White allows both runners and one of his own to score, the last coming home on a single by the pitcher Bohanon. Though the game appears to be out of reach, the Mets do their best to crawl back into things by scoring four runs in the bottom of the eighth on a Kurt Abbott solo shot, a two-run homer by Edgardo Alfonzo, and a Todd Zeile RBI double. The rally ends abruptly when Robin Ventura strikes out looking on a pitch that appears to be on the inside part of the plate (all night, Met batters gripe about home plate umpire Brian Runge’s strike zone, which they see as being selectively generous), and this is as close as they come to a comeback.
  • Thursday, August 17, 2000

    New York Mets 13, Colorado Rockies 2 at Shea Stadium

    Facing off against old friend Masato Yoshii, the Mets strike early, building a 5-0 lead after three innings. Mike Hampton leaves the game one batter into the top of the fourth, however, after aggravating an old high school football injury. Called into action much earlier than usual, Turk Wendell contributes four solid innings, allowing just one hit and two runs over that stretch. It helps that the Mets offense refuses to take its foot off the gas, striking for four more runs in the fifth, one in the sixth, and three in the seventh. The Mets cruise to victory to finish off a 6-2 homestand, while Hampton insists he will make his next scheduled start.
  • Friday, August 18, 2000

    New York Mets 5, Los Angeles Dodgers 3 at Dodger Stadium

    In the first game of the Mets’ last west coast trip of the year, they manage to build a 3-0 advantage against Dodger ace Kevin Brown. Two singles and an error by former Met Kevin Elster lead to the first run in the top of the second, while the next two are supplied by yet another huge home run off the bat of Mike Piazza in the third. Al Leiter protects this lead until the bottom of the sixth, when he cedes a leadoff homer to Gary Sheffield. This is followed by a single, a double, a run-scoring single by Adrian Beltré, and a game-tying RBI sac fly from another old friend, Todd Hundley. But the Mets strike back immediately in the top of the seventh when Joe McEwing hits a leadoff single, advances all the way to third on a botched pickoff throw, and scores on an Edgardo Alfonzo single. In the ninth, the Mets pad their lead when Alfonzo doubles and scores on a Piazza hit. Armando Benítez works around a walk to preserve the win.
  • Saturday, August 19, 2000

    Los Angeles Dodgers 4, New York Mets 1 at Dodger Stadium

    Two batters into the game, Derek Bell clubs a solo shot off of Dodger starter Chan Ho Park. That is all the Mets can muster against Park, however, as he goes the distance and allows just three more hits the rest of the way, all singles. Following the Bell homer, no Met reaches second base until two outs in the top of the ninth. Met batters later attribute his dominance to “pitching backwards,” starting counts with breaking pitches before using fastballs rather than vice versa. (That Park was also pitching on seven days’ rest, due to a recent bout with the flu, may have also helped.) The Dodgers take the lead in the bottom of the third when Gary Sheffield jumps on a hanging curve from Rick Reed and knocks it into the left field bleachers for a two-run homer. Two batters later, Eric Karros takes Reed deep as well. Sheffield adds icing to the cake with another homer in the eighth off of Pat Mahomes—his 40th of the year, which ties a Dodger single-season home run record held by Mike Piazza.
  • Sunday, August 20, 2000

    New York Mets 9, Los Angeles Dodgers 6 at Dodger Stadium

    The Mets build a 4-0 lead against Darren Dreifort—a pitcher who’d given them fits previously—on the strength of a two-run homer by Edgardo Alfonzo in the first and an RBI single and run-scoring error in the second. But Bobby Jones cedes a pair of home runs to Todd Hundley and an RBI double to Shawn Green that tie the score, followed by an Eric Karros run-scoring single in the fifth. The Mets rebound with back-to-back homers from Bubba Trammell and Lenny Harris to start the top of the sixth, only to watch the Dodgers tie the game again on another Shawn Green RBI hit in the bottom of the seventh. This back-and-forth affair swings the Mets’ way for good in the top of the eighth. The inning opens with a pair of singles to put runners on the corners. The next batter taps a ball back to reliever Terry Adams, and Mike Bordick—runner at third who broke for home on contact—appears to be a dead duck. Adams tosses the ball to third baseman Adrian Beltré, who then wings a throw over the catcher’s head. As the ball rolls to the backstop, two Mets runners scamper home. A third joins them when a Derek Bell ground skips through the legs of second baseman Mark Grudzielanek. The Dodgers have no counterpunch this time, as the Mets go on to take the series from LA.
  • Monday, August 21, 2000

    San Diego Padres 5, New York Mets 4 (10 innings) at Qualcomm Stadium

    Glendon Rusch struggles yet again in the series opener in San Diego, allowing four runs in the first three innings to an anemic Padres offense, though he gets some assistance from shaky Mets defense. (Lenny Harris, subbing at first base, botches a pickoff throw that leads to a run while Edgardo Alfonzo makes a late throw that leads to another.) Rusch's teammates can do nothing against Padre starter Woody Williams until the sixth inning, when a pair of singles set up a long three-run homer by Benny Agabayani. The Mets tie the score in the seventh when Mike Bordick reaches on an error, moves to third on a single by Harris, and barely beats a throw home on a chopper fielded by Williams. The Mets are turned aside in their attempts to take the lead in the top of the ninth, however, when Bell is called out for interfering with Padres catcher Wiki Gonzalez as he tries to cut down a stolen base attempt. Dennis Cook pitches the bottom half and escapes despite walking two batters, but he has no such luck in the tenth. The lefty issues two walks sandwiched around a single to load the bases with two outs, then walks pinch hitter (and ’86 Met) Dave Magadan to force in the winning run.
  • Tuesday, August 22, 2000

    San Diego Padres 16, New York Mets 1 at Qualcomm Stadium

    Drawing a spot start for the injured Mike Hampton, Pat Mahomes is even less prepared for this emergency outing than he was for his doubleheader start against the Rockies a week earlier. The offensively challenged Padres tattoo him for five runs each in the second inning and third innings. The disastrous second inning includes a bases-loaded walk of the opposing pitcher, followed immediately by a grand slam. In the third, he gives up two more longballs—each of them reaching the second deck of Qualcomm Stadium, a spot normally reserved for sluggers like Mark McGwire—and a pair of RBI doubles. Finding themselves on the wrong end of a blowout, the Mets give some rest to the their bullpen by inserting Derek Bell as a pitcher in the bottom of the eighth. Bell allows five runs of his own, though none of his pitches leave the yard, and one run is unearned due to a Todd Pratt error.
  • Wednesday, August 23, 2000

    New York Mets 4, San Diego Padres 1 at Qualcomm Stadium

    The overworked Mets bullpen is in need of a break, so Al Leiter obliges with eight innings of one-run ball, striking out 12 Padres and allowing just three hits. The one blemish on his record is a first inning homer allowed to Damian Jackson, but the Mets tie the score on an RBI single from Mike Bordick in the fourth. In the sixth, they score on a hit batter, an RBI groundout, and a run-scoring hit from Lenny Harris. This is more than enough support for Leiter, and Armando Benítez strikes out the side in order to salvage a victory in San Diego.
  • Friday, August 25, 2000

    New York Mets 13, Arizona Diamondbacks 3 at Shea Stadium

    In the opener of a six-game homestand, the Mets rough up Randy Johnson for the third time this season, and they save the worst pummeling for last. The floodgates begin to open in the bottom of the second with a Jay Payton RBI single and an error by the normally surehanded third baseman Matt Williams bobbles, which allows another run to score. After he permits another run in the inning, things get even worse for Johnson in the third when he fields a comebacker and, in an attempt to start a double play, whizzes a throw under the second baseman’s glove instead. Todd Zeile follows with a RBI single and Payton drives in two more runs with a double that sends The Big Unit to the showers. Rick Reed allows a three-run homer to Steve Finley in the sixth but turns in an otherwise fine performance, while his teammates batter the Arizona bullpen for seven additional runs. The game turns into a such a laugher that a flurry of late-inning double switches finds Robin Ventura manning first base.
  • Saturday, August 26, 2000

    Arizona Diamondbacks 5, New York Mets 1 (10 innings) at Shea Stadium

    The second game of the Arizona series features an unlikely pitcher’s duel as Bobby Jones and Brian Anderson (who the Mets faced off against in the clincher of last year’s division series) stubbornly refuse the opposition to score. Each pitcher allows baserunners aplenty but strands nearly all of them. The score stays knotted at 1 until the top of the tenth, when Rick White puts up his first troubling outing since his trade to the Mets. White allows consecutive one-out doubles by Jay Bell and Luis Gonzalez to give Arizona the lead, then proceeds to get smacked around to the tune of three more runs, putting the game out of reach.
  • Sunday, August 27, 2000

    New York Mets 2, Arizona Diamondbacks 1 at Shea Stadium

    After skipping one start due to a hairline fracture in his ribs, Mike Hampton returns to the mound and looks spectacular, allowing only 1 run and 3 hits in eight innings of work. The Mets enjoy a brief lead when Benny Agbayani begins the bottom of the fourth with a solo shot, but the Diamondbacks respond in the top of the fifth when ex-Met Kelly Stinnett works a leadoff walk and comes around to score on a Danny Bautista single just beyond the a leaping Edgardo Alfonzo. The Mets climb back on top in the seventh when Alfonzo and Mike Piazza each hit one-out singles. D-Backs pitcher Armando Reynoso tries to pick off Alfonzo at second but his throw to the base is late, despite his protests to the contrary. Rattled, Reynoso issues a walk to Robin Ventura to load the bases, which allows Todd Zeile to drive in the go-ahead run with a grounder to shortstop hit too slowly for a double play. Though things get a bit dicey in the ninth when a Jay Payton error puts the tying run on base, Armando Benítez hangs on to convert the save. The win gives the Mets a 5.5 game lead over Arizona in the National League wild card race.
  • Monday, August 28, 2000

    New York Mets 4, Houston Astros 2 at Shea Stadium

    Desperate for a solid start after a string of clunkers, Glendon Rusch contributes seven solid innings. He would have a clean sheet but for a pair of solo homers (old pal Roger Cedeño to lead off the game, Richard Hidalgo in the third). Houston third baseman Chris Truby leads off the fourth inning with a triple, but Rusch pins him there by striking out a pair and inducing a groundout, and the Astros barely make a peep for the rest of the game. The Mets recover quickly from Houston’s leadoff homer when Benny Agbayani and Derek Bell start the bottom of the first with singles, then Edgardo Alfonzo brings them all home with a three-run blast. A balk by Astro reliever José Cabrera gifts the Mets an insurance run in the bottom of the eighth. The victory gives the Mets a tie with the Atlanta Braves for first place in the National League East.
  • Tuesday, August 29, 2000

    Houston Astros 11, New York Mets 1 at Shea Stadium

    Al Leiter strains a glute during his pregame warmups, but attempts to gut his way through the outing with “smoke and mirrors.” It doesn’t work. Trouble starts in the top of the third when Leiter issues a one out walk, then sees a Julio Lugo line drive clank off of the glove of Lenny Harris (subbing for Robin Ventura at third) and go for a double. A Jeff Bagwell single then knocks in two runs, and Leiter melts down completely after Moisés Alou fouls off pitch after pitch in an epic at bat. Two more runs score in the inning, which convinces Leiter that smoke and mirrors are not needed this evening. Called on for long relief, Pat Mahomes contributes another ineffective turn on the mound by giving up five runs in three innings of spotty work. If that doesn’t put the game out of reach, the pitching of Wade Miller does, as he goes the distance and allows little to the Mets save a harmless Edgardo Alfonzo solo shot.
  • Wednesday, August 30, 2000

    New York Mets 1, Houston Astros 0 at Shea Stadium

    Rick Reed turns in another brilliant outing, flirting with a no-hitter before allowing a one-out single to Brett Spiers in the top of the fifth. He gives up just two more hits in seven innings, as the Astros look helpless against him over that stretch. Reed’s teammates do very little themselves against Houston starter Chris Holt over his own seven innings, but they do manage to scratch against him in the bottom of the first. Benny Agbayani works a leadoff walk, followed by a single from Edgardo Alfonzo. Though Mike Piazza grounds into a double play, Agbayani moves to third, thus allowing him to race home on a wild pitch. Holt is brilliant from this point forward, but the brief hiccup is enough to earn him an L. Turk Wendell and Armando Benítez set down the side in order in the eighth and ninth respectively, with the Met closer recording a trio of Ks to boot.

Sept/Oct

  • Friday, September 1, 2000

    St. Louis Cardinals 6, New York Mets 5 at Busch Stadium

    The Mets' first of three games in St. Louis is a seesaw affair that ultimately swings against them. All game, the Cardinals run wild on Mike Piazza; he first three batters who reach base attempt steals, and an Édgar Rentería swipe of second sets up a Mike Matheny RBI double in the bottom of the second. The Mets counter in the top of the third with singles by Darryl Hamilton and starter Bobby Jones (his first hit of the season), followed by a two-out grounder from Lenny Harris that he barely beats out at first, allowing Hamilton to score. The visitors go ahead on a Jay Payton two-run shot in the top of the fourth, but fall behind in the bottom of the fifth when Jones allows a run-scoring single to Fernando Viña and a no-doubt two-run homer to J.D. Drew. The Mets knot the score again when Robin Ventura leads off the top of the sixth with a solo shot, then retake the lead on an RBI single from Matt Franco, fresh up from a brief trip to the minors. The advantage evaporates when Dennis Cook allows a two-out run-scoring hit to Jim Edmonds that knots the score at 5. In the top of the ninth, Timo Pérez makes his major league debut as a pinch hitter and laces a two-out single, then promptly gets picked off of first, thus igniting and killing a potential rally. In the end, it is Edmonds who has the last word as he belts a home run off of Pat Mahomes in the bottom of the ninth to make the Cards walkoff winners.
  • Saturday, September 2, 2000

    St. Louis Cardinals 2, New York Mets 1 at Busch Stadium

    Game two in St. Louis brings a fierce pitchers' duel between Mike Hampton and Darryl Kile. The Mets have traditionally been baffled by Kile, and this day is no exception. Edgardo Alfonzo doubles to start the top of the fourth and Robin Ventura singles him in, but from that point forward Kile is brilliant, setting down the following 18 Mets in order. Mike Hampton is nearly as good, allowing no more than an RBI single to ex-Met Craig Paquette in the bottom of the sixth. But he clearly is tiring by the time the ninth inning rolls around, and after he allows a long, near-miss foul ball to leadoff batter J.D. Drew, he watches Drew reach him for a double. Once the runner is bunted to third, Bobby Valentine turns to Armando Benítez to bail out Hamptom. Benítez comes very close to doing so by striking out Ray Lankford for the second out, but then Fernando Viña slaps a single past a diving Robin Ventura, handing the Cardinals their second straight walkoff win. The loss sends the Mets back into second place, a half game behind Atlanta.
  • Sunday, September 3, 2000

    St. Louis Cardinals 4, New York Mets 3 (11 innings) at Busch Stadium

    The series finale in St. Louis plays out like the game before, with a tense pitchers' duel between Glendon Rusch and rookie sensation Rick Ankiel. The young Cardinal lefty is brilliant, allowing just two hits over seven innings. His lone spot of trouble comes in the top of the fifth, when he issues a two-out walk to Jay Payton and fails to pick the runner off before he can steal second, then watches him score on a Bubba Trammell bloop single. Though Trammell is thrown out trying to stretch his hit into a double, it appears that one run will be enough to support Rusch. The Met lefty scatters four harmless hits over his own seven innings of work, walking none and permitting no opposing batters to move past first base. But once Rusch leaves, Turk Wendell opens the bottom of the eighth with a walk and a single, and Dennis Cook follows by giving up a three-run homer to pinch hitter Placido Polanco. With the Mets down to their last out in the top of the ninth, Trammell comes through again with a game-tying two-run shot. However, this dramatic shot merely delays the pain. The Mets eschew a chance to retake the lead in the top of the tenth when Mike Piazza grounds into an inning-ending double play. In the bottom of the eleventh, Jim Edmonds plays hero once again by lashing a Rick White fastball into the bullpen beyond the right field fence. His second walkoff homer of the series seals a crushing sweep of New York.
  • Monday, September 4, 2000

    Cincinnati Reds 6, New York Mets 2 at Cinergy Field

    Timo Pérez shows an aptitude for the leadoff spot by belting two doubles while batting first in the lineup. Unfortunately, no one else on the Mets can do much against Cincinnati starter Elmer Dessens. In the bottom of the first, Al Leiter hangs a slider that Ken Griffey, Jr. sends over the left field fence for a two-run homer. Forced to battle from behind, the Mets press all game and never appear comfortable at the plate. Leiter later kicks himself for surrendering two-out RBIs in the third and sixth innings; the latter instance, which comes with the pitcher Dessens on deck, particularly irks him. The Mets cut the Reds’ lead in half with a Pérez sac fly in the fifth and a Mike Piazza solo shot in the top of the eighth, but two runs off of little-used reliever Rich Rodriguez in the bottom half salt the game for Cincinnati.
  • Tuesday, September 5, 2000

    New York Mets 3, Cincinnati Reds 2 (10 innings) at Cinergy Field

    Desperate for a win, the Mets scratch out a pair of runs on RBI singles from Benny Agabayani and Todd Zeile in the third and fourth innings, but manage little else against old friend Pete Harnisch. Rick Reed makes the two-run advantage stand for a while but allows an RBI single to Pokey Reese in the fifth that cuts the Mets’ lead in half. In the seventh, a leadoff single and sac bunt from Harnisch puts the tying run in scoring position, and reliever Rick White is unable to strand the runner, surrendering a two-out run scoring hit to Chris Stynes. The game remains knotted at 2 through regulation, although the Mets have a scare in the bottom of the ninth when Ken Griffey, Jr. comes within inches of belting a walkoff homer off of Turk Wendell, who tries to wave the ball foul from his perch on the mound. (“I dropped the Carlton Fisk on ‘em,” Turk says later.) It is not Junior who hits the heroic longball of the night, but Zeile, who belts a solo shot in the top of the tenth to give the Mets the lead. Armando Benítez sets down the side in order in the bottom half to seal a much needed Mets victory.
  • Wednesday, September 6, 2000

    Cincinnati Reds 11, New York Mets 8 at Cinergy Field

    The Mets’ six-game road trip ends with another contest that proves excruciating on all levels. It begins well for the visitors, as Matt Franco belts a three-run homer in the top of the first, but the Reds counter immediately with a two-run shot by Ken Griffey, Jr. The Mets get those runs back and then some in the second when Todd Pratt hits a solo shot and Lenny Harris contributes an RBI single, but the Reds respond again with an RBI double from Benito Santiago in the bottom of the second and a game-tying two-run homer from Sean Casey in the third. Bobby J. Jones (the righty) fails to record an out in that third inning and, following Casey’s longball, is replaced by his namesake, Bobby M. Jones (the lefty). The southpaw Jones contributes four scoreless innings while the Mets retake the lead in the top of the fourth, scoring twice thanks to some sloppy Cincinnati defense. When the Mets load the bases in the seventh on three walks yet score only one run in the frame, it seems mere window dressing. So too does their failure to bring home Harris after he hits a two-out triple in the top of the eighth. But once the lefty Jones departs, the Mets’ troubles begin anew. Turk Wendell gets assignment in the bottom of the eighth and surrenders a pair of one-out singles. When Bobby Valentine yanks Wendell in favor of John Franco, the lefty allows two RBI singles that shaves the Mets lead down to one slim run, then walks a man to load the bases. Valentine turns to Armando Benítez to shut the door, but the first pitch he throws is crushed by Santiago for a back-breaking grand slam. The Mets go quietly in the ninth to cap a brutal defeat.
  • Friday, September 8, 2000

    Philadelphia Phillies 2, New York Mets 0 at Shea Stadium

    The Mets collect eight hits against Phillies starter Bruce Chen, one of the players the Phillies acquired when they traded Andy Ashby to Atlanta. Unfortunately, all but one of these hits are singles, and very few come in succession. Mike Hampton is nothing short of brilliant for 7 2/3 innings, allowing just three hits over that stretch, but his excellent evening unravels when he attempts to finish the eighth inning. Hampton issues a walk to Doug Glanville, which brings Scott Rolen—one of the few offensive weapons in the anemic Phillies lineup—to the plate. Rolen works the count full before crushing a two-run homer. The Mets collect two walks and a single in the eighth and ninth innings yet convert none of them. At day’s end, New York leaves 11 men on base and collects yet another frustrating loss in September.
  • Saturday, September 9, 2000

    Philadelphia Phillies 6, New York Mets 3 at Shea Stadium

    Once again, the Met bats remain in hibernation at the worst possible time. The Phillies strike first when Doug Glanville singles to start the top of the sixth against Glendon Rusch, steals second, and scores on a Pat Burrell double. Edgardo Alfonzo helps the Mets counter in the bottom half with an RBI double of his own, but he also contributes to a total meltdown in the top of the seventh. Turk Wendell takes Rusch’s place in the frame and allows a single and double to the first two batters, the “double” a ball that bounces past Alfonzo’s glove, the kind of play the second baseman normally makes in his sleep. Wendell then allows a sac fly and an RBI single that put the Phillies on top. The Mets crawl a little closer in the bottom of the eighth thanks to a solo shot from Derek Bell, then go on to give the game away in the top of the ninth. When Pat Mahomes begins the inning with a leadoff double, Bobby Valentine brings in Armando Benítez, hoping his closer can keep the deficit close. Benítez proceeds to allow a walk and a three-run homer to Brian Hunter. A Benny Agbayani homer in the bottom half makes the score a little closer but offers no more encouragement to the Mets’ playoff hopes.
  • Sunday, September 10, 2000

    New York Mets 3, Philadelphia Phillies 0 at Shea Stadium

    The slumping Mets find little cures for their offensive woes in this game, scoring all their runs without benefit of a hit. The sum total of their scoring comes on an RBI groundout in the fourth, Benny Agabayani taking one for the team by getting hit by a pitch with the bases loaded in the sixth, and a sac fly in the seventh. It’s not much to work with, but Al Leiter makes these runs stand up by tossing a complete game shutout, allowing only five hits (all singles) while striking out nine batters.
  • Monday, September 11, 2000

    Milwaukee Brewers 8, New York Mets 2 at Shea Stadium

    The Mets are still looking to find any kind of rhythm in September, and they do not find it in the first game of three against Milwaukee at Shea. Rick Reed surrenders a leadoff homer in the top of the second, then watches Matt Franco tie the score on a solo shot of his own in the bottom half. Reed allows a Mark Loretta two-run double in the top of the third, but the Mets crawl closer on a Benny Agbayani homer in the bottom half. Their bats go into hibernation after Agbayani’s shot, however, as the Mets manage just five hits apart from their bases-empty homers, all of them singles. In keeping with their poor timing in the month of September, the offensive blackout occurs just as the Brewers begin to pad their lead. Reed allows two more runs in the sixth, while the bullpen gives up another pair in the seventh and one more in the eighth to put the game out of reach.
  • Tuesday, September 12, 2000

    New York Mets 10, Milwaukee Brewers 2 at Shea Stadium

    With the Mets once again in dire need of a win, Bobby Jones tosses eight innings of two-run ball. After allowing single runs in the first and third innings, Jones works efficiently the rest of the way. The pitcher also gets a rally started, after a fashion, with a sac bunt attempt in the bottom of the second. Brewers catcher Tyler Houston fields his bunt attempt but throws it away, allowing one runner to score. The next batter, Benny Agbayani, knocks in two more runs with a single. When Houston tries to nail Agbayani at second base, his second bad throw of the inning gifts Benny the fabled little league home run. With a big lead for the first time in many games, the Mets relax and proceed to pummel Milwaukee pitching to the tune of six more runs, a barrage that includes longballs from Agbayani and Edgardo Alfonzo.
  • Wednesday, September 13, 2000

    New York Mets 4, Milwaukee Brewers 1 (10 innings) at Shea Stadium

    Mike Hampton tosses another brilliant outing, allowing just four hits and no earned runs in eight innings. But for most of this game, it looks like a costly error will lead to another damaging Met defeat. In the first inning, after Hampton issues a two-out walk, he induces an easy fly ball to right-center from Richie Sexson. Jay Payton and Lenny Harris—playing right field for the first time this season—get their signals crossed and watch the fly ball plop untouched between them. The error allows the runner to score all the way from first, and that lone run razzes the Mets all game, as they can do nothing against Milwaukee starter Jeff D’Amico. The home team comes within an inch of being shutout, but Payton atones for his part in the disastrous first inning by belting a leadoff double in the bottom of the ninth. Two outs later, Robin Ventura lashes a game-tying double. In the tenth, Jay Payton completes his redemption by lining a walkoff home run just over the left field fence.
  • Thursday, September 14, 2000

    New York Mets 10, Montréal Expos 4 at Olympic Stadium

    The Mets’ final road trip of the year begins with four games in Montréal and Glendon Rusch on the mound. Rusch struggles with his command from the beginning, as a leadoff walk in the bottom of the first leads to two Expo runs, and another leadoff walk in the fourth leads to one more. New York’s offense more than makes up for his struggles, however. Edgardo Alfonzo gets the scoring started with a first inning solo shot. Singles by Jay Payton and Mike Bordick allow Rusch himself to collect his first major league RBI in the second, and a bases loaded walk by Derek Bell drives in another run in the frame. The Mets score a pair of two-out runs in the third, then blow the game wide open in the seventh. With a runner on second and Mike Piazza coming to the plate, the Expos elect to walk the catcher and pitch to Robin Ventura—who has been ice cold at the plate for much of the season—instead. The third baseman makes Montréal pay by zipping a line drive three-run homer over the right field fence. Later in the inning, Payton caps the scoring with a two-run shot of his own, and the Mets achieve what has been difficult for them of late, a stress-free win.
  • Friday, September 15, 2000

    Montreal Expos 4, New York Mets 3 at Olympic Stadium

    In their second game in Montréal, the Mets are undone by Expo starter Javier Vázquez, both on the mound and at the plate. Two batters into the game, the Mets grab the lead on a Derek Bell RBI double, but the Expos draw even in the second when Al Leiter allows a run-scoring single to Vázquez. Though Montréal's hurler allows a solo shot to Mike Piazza in the fourth and a run-scoring single to Darryl Hamilton in the fifth, he limits the damage otherwise and twice eliminates Piazza in golden RBI opportunities, while Leiter is not nearly as fortunate. After getting the first two outs in the bottom of the sixth, he allows another single to Vázquez, a bouncer up the middle that travels too quickly on the Olympic Stadium carpet for Edgardo Alfonzo to snag. After Leiter allows an RBI double to Peter Bergeron, Bobby Valentine brings in Turk Wendell. The righty’s September struggles continue, as he allows a long two-run shot to the unlikely source of Orlando Cabrera. The shot by the light hitting shortstop gives the Expos the lead, and the Mets are never able to recover.
  • Saturday, September 16, 2000

    New York Mets 10, Montréal Expos 4 at Olympic Stadium

    At first, the Mets’ third game in Montréal appears to be a frustrating repeat of game two. Edgardo Alfonzo knocks in a run in the first inning but that lone run is all New York can score in the frame, despite loading the bases with no outs. But the Mets make up for it in the fourth inning by driving home six runs, all of them scoring with two outs. After a Montréal error leads to one Met run, Expo starter Dustin Hermanson melts down completely, giving up an RBI single to Darryl Hamilton, a grand slam to Alfonzo, and a solo shot to Robin Ventura. The Mets reach double digits with two more runs in the seventh, including a homer from Todd Zeile. Reed contributes six solid innings, striking out eight, walking none, and allowing just two runs despite skipping his usual between-starts bullpen session. (“I just wasn’t into it,” is the only reason he forwards.) Things get a bit chippy later, as Met reliever Rick White plunks Vladimir Guerrero in the ribs in the seventh, and Expo reliever Jeremy Powell throws behind pinch hitter Matt Franco in seeming retaliation. This was it for late drama, however, as the Mets cruised to victory.
  • Sunday, September 17, 2000

    Montreal Expos 5, New York Mets 0 at Olympic Stadium

    In their last game in Montréal, the Met bats go silent once more, kept quiet by starter Tony Armas, Jr. and the Expo bullpen. New York manages a mere three hits against Armas and only one against reliever Guillermo Mota, all of them singles. After Met pitchers had kept superstar Vladimir Guerrero quiet for the first three games of this series, the slugger erupts for a pair of homers against Bobby Jones. More disconcerting is a two-run shot clubbed by light-hitting shortstop Orlando Cabrera, though with the offense in a near-total blackout, Cabrera’s longball proves mere window dressing on another frustrating defeat in a month full of them.
  • Monday, September 18, 2000

    Atlanta Braves 6, New York Mets 3 at Turner Field

    For the second year in a row, the Mets enter a late September series in Atlanta within striking distance of the Braves in the National League East. For the second year in a row, they open that series with a frustrating, error-filled defeat. Mike Hampton takes the mound and is undone by multiple mistakes by himself and his defense. He and Mike Bordick conspire to allow the first Atlanta run to score in the bottom of the second—Bordick by failing to throw to third as Andres Galarraga crosses in front of him on a grounder to shortstop, Hampton by throwing away a Walt Weiss squeeze bunt that brings Galarraga home. Hampton then opens the third by allowing a walk and three consecutive singles to drive home two more runs. Another run scores in the fifth on a Galarraga double, while Pat Mahomes allows a solo shot to Brian Jordan in the seventh. Six runs appears more than enough for Greg Maddux, who scatters five harmless singles in seven innings of efficient work that extends his scoreless inning streak to 29 1/3. The Mets show some signs of life against the Atlanta bullpen in the eighth, when Derek Bell hits a one-out solo shot against Kerry Ligtenberg. After Edgardo Alfonzo walks and Mike Piazza doubles, Robin Ventura drives both of them home with a single against Mike Remlinger. A walk to Todd Zeile brings the tying run to the plate, but it also brings John Rocker to the mound. Though the mouthy southpaw has struggled all season, he does not do so against the Mets. He retires pinch hitter Bubba Trammell on a pop-up to end the threat in the eighth, then throws a scoreless ninth to cap another frustrating Mets defeat.
  • Tuesday, September 19, 2000

    Atlanta Braves 12, New York Mets 4 at Turner Field

    Making the biggest start of his Mets career, Glendon Rusch pitches poorly, to say the least. He starts the bottom of the second with three consecutive extra base hits, looking particularly perturbed after the third, a Reggie Sanders double that follows several close-but-no-cigar pitches deemed balls by the home plate umpire. Two runs score during this troika of hits and another comes home when opposing pitcher Andy Ashby smashes a ball off of Robin Ventura’s leg. Rusch completely implodes after this misfortune, firing off a wild pitch, issuing a walk, and allowing an RBI single to Chipper Jones. The lefty is yanked at this point, but reliever Pat Mahomes provides no relief, as he gives up a pair of walks and a single that drive home three more runs. Seven Braves cross the plate before all is said and done, putting this game well out of reach of the visitors. The remainder of the contest is played almost as an exhibition, as little-used relievers and September callups take the place of regulars on both sides.
  • Wednesday, September 20, 2000

    New York Mets 6, Atlanta Braves 3 at Turner Field

    With the Mets desperate for a win, Al Leiter contributes a solid performance, giving his team both quality and length in deference to a bullpen overworked by the bludgeoning of the previous night. A two-out RBI single from Benny Agbayani in the top of the fifth and two solo homers from Edgardo Alfonzo and Todd Zeile in the sixth stake Leiter to a 3-0 lead. The lefty is perfect through 5 1/3 innings, until Robin Ventura charges a slow grounder, only to watch it zip past him. The error allows Walt Weiss to reach base, then score when Rafael Furcal singles him home. Leiter proceeds to load the bases on a walk and an infield single, but wriggles off the hook by inducing a harmless pop-up from Brian Jordan. Leiter finds trouble again with two outs in the seventh, when a pair of walks, a passed ball, and a single set up an RBI hit from Weiss, shaving the Mets’ lead down to one run. Timo Pérez prevents further damage by fielding Weiss’s single and nailing baserunner Reggie Sanders as he gets hung up between second and third. After allowing one more single, Leiter gives way to fellow lefty John Franco, who escapes further damage by the skin of his teeth. A Mike Piazza homer and a Jay Payton RBI sacrifice fly in the top of the eighth expand the Mets’ lead by two runs, which comes in handy when Franco falters in the bottom half. After a leadoff homer by Chipper Jones, he allows a one-out single. Taking no chances, Bobby Valentine summons Armando Benítez, but the Met closer walks the first two batters he faces to load the bases. Benítez corrects himself with a pop fly and a grounder to end the inning, and after Todd Zeile collects an insurance run in the top of the ninth, he pitches a scoreless bottom half to secure a much needed win.
  • Thursday, September 21, 2000

    Philadelphia Phillies 6, New York Mets 5 at Veterans Stadium

    In the opener of a four-game series in Philadelphia, Rick Reed is less than sharp. After loading the bases and allowing a run in the second, Reed gives up solo shots to Bobby Abreu and Travis Lee in the third and fourth innings, respectively. The Mets grab a run back on a Jay Payton homer in the top of the fifth, but Reed hands two back to the Phils in a damaging bottom of the sixth. With one out and runners on the corners, Reed catches Tomás Pérez leaning off of first base but fires a wild pickoff throw that allows the runner at third to score. He follows this by giving up an RBI double that puts the Mets in a 5-1 hole, but his team begins to claw back in the top of the seventh, scoring twice on a bases loaded walk and a Mike Piazza RBI single. The comeback continues in the ninth when Todd Zeile bangs a home run off the left field foul pole, and Robin Ventura ties the game with a clutch two-out double. Unfortunately, Rick White begins the bottom of the ninth by giving up a single and double to bring the winning run 90 feet from home. With Scott Rolen due up next, the Mets walk the Phillies’ most dangerous hitter and pitch to Pat Burrell instead. They pay for it when the Phils' rookie hits a long “single” over the drawn-in infield to end the game.
  • Friday, September 22, 2000

    New York Mets 9, Philadelphia Phillies 6 at Veterans Stadium

    The Met offense breaks out by hanging seven runs on the ledger of Phillies starter Randy Wolf. The scoring starts early with an Edgardo Alfonzo RBI in the first, followed shortly by an error by left fielder (and budding Met Killer) Pat Burrell that allows another run to score. A Bubba Trammell single in the fourth plates the Mets’ third run. The Phils fight back with single runs in the first, fourth, and fifth against Bobby Jones to tie the score at 3, but the visitors do their best to blow the game wide open with a four-run top of the sixth that includes a Mike Piazza homer. Jones pitches through seven innings without further incident, but John Franco makes the proceedings far too interesting in the eighth by allowing a pair of homers to Scott Rolen and Burrell to bring the Phils back within a run. Dennis Cook restores order by securing the last two outs in the eighth, while Piazza gives the Mets breathing room in the top of the ninth with a laser beam two-run opposite field home run. Armando Benítez limits the drama with a 1-2-3 bottom of the ninth.
  • Saturday, September 23, 2000

    New York Mets 7, Philadelphia Phillies 3 at Veterans Stadium

    Mike Hampton pitches 6 2/3 solid innings, fanning nine Phillies. His teammates scratch out single runs in the first (Timo Pérez doubling and scoring on an error), third (Edgardo Alfonzo solo shot), and sixth (Mike Piazza RBI double) before blowing the game wide open in the top of the seventh. Piazza and Robin Ventura collect RBI singles, and the Mets add two more runs on an embarrassing pair of bases loaded wild pitches. After waiting out this carnage, Hampton allows two runs in the bottom of the seventh, but that is as close as the home team gets.
  • Sunday, September 24, 2000

    New York Mets 3, Philadelphia Phillies 2 at Veterans Stadium

    Glendon Rusch recovers nicely from his rough outing in Atlanta by working eight excellent innings, fanning seven Phillies and scattering five hits. The only run against him comes in the seventh, after Timo Pérez misjudges a Pat Burrell fly ball into a double, allowing the outfielder to eventually score on a groundout. Otherwise, the Phils barely scratch against Rusch, and his teammates provide just enough offense to support him. The first Met run scores when the Phillies' center fielder slips while running in on a fly ball, allowing the speedy Pérez to leg out an inside-the-park home run. The lead expands on a two-run opposite field shot by Todd Zeile in the fourth, and though the Mets do little else against Phillie starter Bruce Chen, this proves sufficient. Things get dicey in the ninth when Armando Benítez allows a leadoff single, a one-out walk, and a two-out bloop RBI hit to Kevin Jordan. This cuts the Mets’ lead to one slim run and, when a cutoff throw sails home, also puts both the tying and winning runs in scoring position. Benítez shakes it off by striking out Marlon Anderson to earn the save, end the game, and shake off the demons of Philadelphia 1999.
  • Tuesday, September 26, 2000

    Atlanta Braves 7, New York Mets 1 at Shea Stadium

    The Braves and Mets match up for a three-game set, with Atlanta on the verge of claiming the division yet again and the Mets close to clinching the wild card. Al Leiter and Braves starter John Burkett trade zeroes until the top of the fifth, when Reggie Sanders doubles and scores on a single by Burkett himself. Though Leiter escapes the inning with no further damage, the Burkett hit seems to unnerve him. He allows a leadoff homer to Chipper Jones to start the sixth, then loads the bases on a one-out double and a pair of walks. When Walt Weiss hits a chopper to third base, Robin Ventura attempts to barehand the ball and throw it home all in one motion, but flings the throw wide instead. Two runs score on the error, and Leiter leaves shortly thereafter, having placed his team in a 4-0 hole. Edgardo Alfonzo leads off the bottom of the sixth with a solo shot, but the Braves put the game out of reach by knocking around Rick White and Turk Wendell for three runs in the top of the seventh. For extra humiliation, when the Mets mount a ghost of a threat in the eighth with consecutive two-out singles against Kerry Ligtenberg, John Rocker runs in from the bullpen to retire Robin Ventura on a harmless fly ball. The home team manages a pair of hits against Rocker in the ninth but nothing else, as the Braves once again claim their divisional crown.
  • Wednesday, September 27, 2000

    New York Mets 6, Atlanta Braves 2 at Shea Stadium

    Rick Reed faces a Braves lineup that, despite clinching the night before, fields all regulars in its starting lineup. Rick Reed allows a solo shot to Andruw Jones in the opening frame but is otherwise brilliant, allowing just three more hits and no more runs the rest of the way. The Met bats are quiet until the fourth, when Todd Zeile works a bases-loaded walk against Kevin Millwood to tie the game. They pull ahead in the fifth on a Darryl Hamilton RBI single and a two-run homer from Edgardo Alfonzo, and single runs in the sixth (Jay Payton RBI single) and seventh (Robin Ventura RBI double) pad their advantage. Trying to nail down the playoff berth once and for all, Armando Benítez allows a leadoff homer to Andres Galarraga but also strikes out the side to end the game and clinch a place for the Mets in October.
  • Thursday, September 28, 2000

    New York Mets 8, Atlanta Braves 2 at Shea Stadium

    Greg Maddux enters this game with a lengthy scoreless streak under his belt—36 1/3 innings—a streak the Mets helped extend by doing absolutely nothing against him in his start in Atlanta last week. But in the final regular season matchup between these bitter rivals, the Mets end Maddux’s bid at history. Despite running out a lineup full of bench players and September callups, the Mets load the bases in the fourth inning with one out on a walk, single, and hit batter to bring Lenny Harris to the plate. Harris allowed the game’s first run to score in the top of the second when he committed an error, but he redeems himself by chopping a ball up the middle that no one can handle, driving in the Mets’ first run. Todd Pratt follows by sneaking a single between first and second to drive in two more. The Mets score once more on Maddux in the fifth when a Rafael Furcal error allows Timo Pérez to score, then touch up the Atlanta bullpen for two runs in sixth and seventh innings. This is more than enough for Bobby Jones, who allows just one earned run in eight innings of work.
  • Friday, September 29, 2000

    New York Mets 11, Montréal Expos 2 at Shea Stadium

    The Mets finish out the regular season with three games hosting the Montreal Expos. They erupt in the first inning of the opener, as the first five batters reach base and Jay Payton caps the scoring with a grand slam. Six runners race home in the inning, and four more follow in the second, this rally ending with a Robin Ventura two-run shot. Mike Hampton chips in five scoreless innings in a playoff tuneup start.
  • Saturday, September 30, 2000

    New York Mets 3, Montréal Expos 2 at Shea Stadium

    Making a bid to join the playoff rotation, Glendon Rusch pitches a solid five innings, giving up two runs. His teammates are stymied once again by Javier Vázquez, who limits the offense to a Matt Franco RBI single through the first seven innings. The home team finally gets to Vázquez in the bottom of the eighth when a walk, single, and sacrifice bunt put the tying and go-ahead runs in scoring position. Vázquez opts to walk Todd Pratt and face September callup Jorge Toca instead. The Expos pay for this decision when Toca (a Cuban defector who had previously faced Vázquez in international play) belts a bases-clearing double, a three-run outburst that proves the margin of error in the game.
  • Sunday, October 1, 2000

    New York Met 3, Montréal Expos 2 (13 innings) at Shea Stadium

    In the final game of the regular season, the Mets and Expos trade RBI singles in the second inning. The home team takes a lead on a run-scoring hit by Mike Bordick in the fourth and retains this advantage until the seventh, when Dennis Cook allows a game-tying solo shot to Fernando Seguignol. Once knotted, the score seems determined to stay tied. Twice in extras, the Expos load the bases with one out or fewer yet fail to drive a run in, while the Mets mount no threats at all until the bottom of the thirteenth. The inning opens with a walk of Benny Agbayani and Pat Mahomes (batting for himself, in anticipation of this game going on for a few more innings) hitting a single. The next batter, September callup Jorge Velandia, attempts to bunt both of them over, but when Expos infielder Geoff Blum throws away the ball trying to nail Agbayani at third. Benny races home with the winning run to give the Mets a walkoff victory, their 94th of the season.
Day by Day

1999: Day by Day

When I first began working on Yells For Ourselves years ago, I originally conceived of it as an ebook-type thing that would have lots of interactivity—including a day-by-day log of the 1999 & 2000 Mets regular seasons that a reader could refer to at any point in the text. That interactive version never came to pass, but I still went ahead wrote the content for that day-by-day chronicle. I present it here for curious obsessives such as myself.

To skip from month to month, click on the tabs at the bottom of your screen. To scrub through each month, click and drag on the timeline underneath the game recaps (or use your fingers if you’re reading on a phone or fancy-person tablet).

Day-by-day look at the 2000 season available here.

April

  • Monday, April 5, 1999

    Florida Marlins 6, New York Mets 2 at Pro Player Stadium

    The Mets’ season starts off on a sour note in Miami as all facets of their game misfire. The offense can do nothing against Florida starter Alex Fernandez, who hadn’t thrown a pitch in anger since October of 1997 while recovering from rotator cuff surgery. The Mets load the bases against Fernandez in the opening inning but fail to score, setting the theme for a frustrating day at the dish. By day’s end, Mets batters strand 14 runners and go 0 for 9 with men in scoring position. The bottom of the first sees Robin Ventura (making his Mets debut) play a grounder tentatively, turning it into an infield hit, then bobble a potential inning-ending double play ball. These miscues and a passed ball by Mike Piazza lead to three first inning runs, a deficit the hapless hitters never surmount. Even without his defense failing him, Al Leiter struggles all afternoon, throwing 124 pitches to struggle through five innings of five-run ball.
  • Tuesday, April 6, 1999

    New York Mets 12, Florida Marlins 3 at Pro Player Stadium

    Recovering quickly from their embarrassing opening day loss, the Mets pummel Marlins pitching all day, putting a hurt on starter Livan Hernandez and every pitcher who dares take his place. After failing in literally every plate appearance with runners in scoring position the day before, the Mets collect hits in seven of their first eight opportunities in game number two. Each member of the starting lineup contributes at least one hit save pitcher Rick Reed, but he atones by both throwing both six solid innings and adding an RBI sac fly for good measure. Mike Piazza belts his first longball of the year, a second-deck two-run shot that knocks Hernandez out of the game in the top of the fifth. Rickey Henderson, who’d looked awful during spring training, raises eyebrows in the top of the second inning when he doubles in two runners, steals third, and races home on an errant throw from catcher Jorge Fabregas, thus creating three runs all by himself.
  • Wednesday, April 7, 1999

    New York Mets 6, Florida Marlins 0 at Pro Player Stadium

    Rickey Henderson steals the show for the second game in a row, going 4 for 4 with two homers and two doubles, the most extra-base hits the future Hall of Famer has ever collected in one game. On the day, Henderson racks up 12 total bases, one short of the all-time Mets record shared by Darryl Strawberry, Claudell Washington, and Jim Hickman. Bobby Jones throws seven shutout innings in his first start of the season while Edgardo Alfonzo and Robin Ventura hit doubles of their own to continue hitting streaks that began on opening day.
  • Thursday, April 8, 1999

    Montréal Expos 5, New York Mets 1 at Olympic Stadium

    Orel Hershiser, a late acquisition for the Mets in spring training, looked sharp during limited Grapefruit League action when he pitched 12 scoreless innings for New York. He looks decidedly less so in the series opener in Montréal, allowing five runs to a weak Expos lineup in only four innings of work. His cause is not helped by costly errors from the unlikely sources of Robin Ventura and Rey Ordoñez, and from the more likely source of Bobby Bonilla. Hershiser also hurts himself on the basepaths in the top of the third; after he and Rickey Henderson walk to start the inning, Hershiser gets picked off during a botched bunt attempt by Edgardo Alfonzo. Immediately after Hershiser’s gaffe, Henderson is caught stealing second. Alfonzo homers following Henderson’s dismissal, a solo shot that would have been a three-run homer if not for the baserunning blunders. Amid rumors the team might be sold, a surprisingly strong crowd of almost 44,000 cheers Miguel Batista to 7 1/3 innings of one-run ball for Les Expos' home opener.
  • Friday, April 9, 1999

    New York Mets 10, Montréal Expos 3 at Olympic Stadium

    Mike Piazza delivers the keynote when he turns on a hanging slider from Expo starter Mike Thurman in the top of the first, crushing it for a titanic 442-foot three-run homer over a bank of television cameras in dead center. Robin Ventura delivers a solo shot shortly thereafter to plate all the runs the Mets will need. Masato Yoshii, who had wretched spring training, is good enough in his first start of the year. He allows a two-run homer to Michael Barrett and a solo shot to Vladimir Guerrero to cut the Mets’ lead to 4-3, but the Mets tack on three runs in the top of the fifth with a two-run Piazza double and an RBI groundout from Ventura. From there, the Mets cruise to the finish. Unfortunately, in the top of the seventh, Piazza is picked off of second base and injures his knee in the process, an ailiment that will soon land him on the DL.
  • Saturday, April 10, 1999

    New York Mets 4, Montréal Expos 3 (11 innings) at Olympic Stadium

    Al Leiter rebounds from his ugly opening day start to hurl seven strong innings, while his teammates overcome deficits of 2-0 and 3-2, tying the game in the eighth inning on an Edgardo Alfonzo RBI single. Armando Benítez keeps the Expos at bay with two scoreless innings and four strikeouts. The Mets grab the lead for the first time in the top of the eleventh inning when Matt Franco scores all the way from first on a single by Todd Pratt, filling in for the ailing Mike Piazza. John Franco caps things off with his first save of the year.
  • Sunday, April 11, 1999

    New York Mets 6, Montréal Expos 3 at Olympic Stadium

    Rick Reed allows two early runs to the Expos before settling into a groove, and even ties up the game at 2 with an RBI single in the top of the fourth. Unfortunately, he tears a calf muscle while running the basepaths, an injury that will send him to the disabled list. Queens native Allen Watson gets the call in long relief and allows the Expos to retake the lead when he fails to cover first base on a grounder, but otherwise holds down the fort long enough for his teammates to rally. A two-run single from Luis López in the top of the fifth gives the Mets a lead they won’t relinquish, while Watson is followed by scoreless relief work from Turk Wendell, Dennis Cook, Armando Benítez, and John Franco, who earns his 399th career save.
  • Monday, April 12, 1999

    New York Mets 8, Florida Marlins 1 at Shea Stadium

    In front of a lively crowd of 52,052, the Mets take their home opener in convincing fashion. For the second time in a week, their bats knock Liván Hernández out of the game with a big fifth inning. This time, the scoring is sparked by starting pitcher Bobby Jones, who breaks a 1-1 tie by belting a solo homer just over Shea’s left field fence. Robin Ventura busts the game open with a two-run double later in the inning, then flashes the leather with a pair of fine plays on bunt attempts by Marlin speedster Luis Castillo. With Mike Piazza on the disabled list, Bobby Bonilla hits cleanup and is roundly booed until three hits and an RBI turn the jeers into hearty cheers of “Bob-by! Bob-by!” Jones makes sure his longball stands up with seven dominating innings.
  • Wednesday, April 14, 1999

    New York Mets 4, Florida Marlins 1 at Shea Stadium

    In his first home start as a Met, Orel Hershiser takes advantage of the Marlins’ anxious young lineup, expending only 10 pitches to negotiate the first two innings. He exits the game in the sixth to an appreciative standing ovation from a small but forgiving Shea crowd braving the elements on a chilly night. His teammates build a lead on RBI doubles from Todd Pratt and Edgardo Alfonzo, a Robin Ventura homer, and a bases-loaded walk. John Franco records his 400th career save in style by striking out the side.
  • Thursday, April 15, 1999

    Florida Marlins 11, New York Mets 4 at Shea Stadium

    The Marlins series ends on a sour note as starter Masato Yoshii allows four runs in five innings, while the bullpen is torched for seven more in the persons of Josias Manzanillo and Rigo Beltrán. The fans who dared cheer Bobby Bonilla on opening day have already turned on him, exhaling loud boos when he fails to make a sliding catch in right field in the top of the seventh, an error that leads to one run and is immediately followed by a two-run homer off the bat of Bruce Aven. “That was a light day from what I’m usually used to,” Bonilla says.
  • Friday, April 16, 1999

    Montréal Expos 6, New York Mets 4 at Shea Stadium

    After a rain delay of an hour, Al Leiter is undone by a series of bad hops and bad breaks in top of the fourth inning. After Leiter allows a solo homer to Rondell White that stayed just on the wrong side of the left field foul pole and walks Vladimir Guerrero, a Michael Barrett “single” hugs the third base line as Robin Ventura stares at it, incredulous the ball refuses to roll foul. Montréal takes advantage of their good fortune with an RBI single from Chris Widger and a two-run triple from Wilton Guerrero, while Leiter’s teammates are stifled by Expo starter Dustin Hermanson. A two-run homer by Todd Pratt brings the Mets close in the bottom of the ninth, but Montréal’s closer Ugueth Urbina enters to game to strike out two batters and shut the door on any thoughts of a rally. Adding to the dour feeling of the evening, Rickey Henderson leaves the game after singling in a pinch-hit appearance, felled by a hamstring problem that’s plagued him since spring training.
  • Saturday, April 17, 1999

    New York Mets 3, Montréal Expos 2 at Shea Stadium

    Pitching on the 35th anniversary of the first game ever played at Shea Stadium, Bobby Jones throws seven strong innings to collect his third victory of the young season. Jones allows two runs in the top of the second but shuts down Montréal from there, while Matt Franco—drawing a rare start at third base—ties the game with a two-run double off of Expo starter Carl Pavano in the bottom of the third. The Mets play small ball to take the lead in the fifth when Roger Cedeño doubles, moves to third on a grounder, and scores on a Bobby Bonilla fielder’s choice. Hitless relief by Armando Benítez and John Franco makes the margin stand up. The win can’t fight off the injury bug, however, as centerfielder Brian McRae collides with Pavano in a play at first base and will miss a few days of action as a result.
  • Sunday, April 18, 1999

    Montréal Expos 4, New York Mets 2 at Shea Stadium

    Allen Watson, one-time star pitcher for Christ the King High School in Middle Village, gets the nod in the conclusion of the Mets’ first homestand, subbing for the injured Rick Reed. He proves efficient: his first pitch is turned into a single by Orlando Cabrera, his second is crushed for a 418-foot home run to dead center by José Vidro, and his eighth is clubbed by Rondell White for a solo shot. Watson settles in thereafter, throwing seven decent innings, but three runs form too large a deficit for the injury depleted Met lineup to overcome. Expo starter Javier Vázquez limits New York’s offensive output to two bases-empty homers by John Olerud.
  • Tuesday, April 20, 1999

    New York Mets 3, Cincinnati Reds 2 at Cinergy Field

    Orel Hershiser and Pete Harnisch lock up in a pitcher’s duel until Bobby Bonilla breaks a 1-1 tie with a solo homer in the top of the seventh. The Mets then expand their lead on a two-out Robin Ventura RBI single in the eighth. John Franco is asked to preserve the lead in the ninth and makes things difficult on himself by allowing back-to-back singles to Dmitri Young and Aaron Boone. After a sac bunt moves the two runners into scoring position, Pokey Reese laces a ball up the middle that could spell doom for the Mets, but Edgardo Alfonzo reaches the ball in time and keeps it on the infield, ensuring that the tying run stays on third. Franco induces more palpitations by walking the bases loaded, but manages to strike out Mike Cameron and induce a pop out from Barry Larkin to end the game. “I got away with one tonight,” the closer sighs after the game.
  • Wednesday, April 21, 1999

    Cincinnati Reds 7, New York Mets 4 at Cinergy Field

    The Mets jump out to a 4-0 lead on homers by Bobby Bonilla and Todd Pratt and an RBI groundout from Robin Ventura. Unfortunately, Masato Yoshii gives this advantage back and then some in the bottom of the fourth. Unnerved by a Greg Vaughn two-run shot, Yoshii walks the next three batters, opening the door for a brutal six-run inning. A potential Met rally in the top of the seventh dies on the vine when Roger Cedeño takes a called strike three, the pitch coming at a location Bobby Valentine is convinced his own pitcher didn’t get. “Where’s the pitch to Cedeño?'' Valentine gripes after the game. “Yoshii threw 15 pitches that good. I’ll guarantee you that.”
  • Thursday, April 22, 1999

    New York Mets 4, Cincinnati Reds 1 at Cinergy Field

    Pitching, in the words of Bobby Valentine, “like a man possessed,” Al Leiter earns his first win of the year by scattering five hits over 6 1/3 innings. He receives support in the form of RBIs from Robin Ventura and Bobby Bonilla, while Todd Pratt belts his second homer in as many games. The game also marks the first appearance of the full complement of the Mets’ projected opening day outfield, as Rickey Henderson comes off the disabled list to join Bonilla and Brian McRae (also recently healed from an injury). The reunion lasts all of one inning as Bonilla is forced to leave the game after top of the second, still ailing from a knee injury he suffered during spring training.
  • Friday, April 23, 1999

    New York Mets 6, Chicago Cubs 5 at Wrigley Field

    On a typical April afternoon at Wrigley Field—game time temperature a balmy 44 degrees, accompanied by wind gusts measuring 36 mph—the Mets steal a victory in a game where the wind, sun, and turf conspire to wreak havoc. The Cubs break a 1-1 tie in the sixth inning when Jermaine Allensworth (playing right field in place of the ailing Bobby Bonilla) loses a ball off the bat of Benito Santiago in the sun. Allensworth raises his glove defensively, but the ball misses his leather entirely and almost hits him in the jaw. The next inning, Allensworth slips while trying to field a Lance Johnson hit, resulting in a triple and a 5-2 Chicago lead. The Mets tie the game on a Robin Ventura RBI double and a two-run single from Todd Pratt in the eighth inning, neither of which need help from Mother Nature. In the top of the ninth, the Mets take the lead on a pinch hit sac fly from Rey Ordoñez. The shortstop also contributes in the bottom of the inning with a great play on a Manny Alexander grounder, turning the potential tying run into just another groundout.
  • Saturday, April 24, 1999

    Chicago Cubs 2, New York Mets 0 at Wrigley Field

    The Mets are shutout for the first time this season as the timely hitting of the first game in Chicago abandons them. The visitors place runners in scoring position in every inning but one yet fail to cash in any of them, stranding 12 runners by day’s end. Starter Allen Watson—considered a good hitter for a pitcher—leaves six ducks on the pond all by himself. He also exits the game after only 71 pitches due to back spasms. With two men on in the eighth, Rey Ordoñez has a chance to play hero again when his long fly ball is initially lost in the troublesome Chicago sun by Sammy Sosa. However, Slammin’ Sammy recovers his sight and eventually tracks the ball down for an out, ending the Mets’ final flirtation with a rally.
  • Sunday, April 25, 1999

    Chicago Cubs 8, New York Mets 4 at Wrigley Field

    Mike Piazza returns from the disabled list for the Chicago series finale, though that is the extent of the good news for the visitors. The Mets accumulate an early 3-0 lead on solo homers from Edgardo Alfonzo, Robin Ventura, and Rickey Henderson, but the game unravels for Orel Hershiser in the bottom of the fifth. First, a bloop single, a walk, and a bunt up the third base line by opposing pitcher Rodney Myers that stubbornly stays fair despite Ventura casting a powerful glare in its direction. Then, ex-Met Lance Johnson hits a ball that John Olerud attempts to backhand, only to see it roll under his glove and into the Cubs’ bullpen for a two-run double. Immediately after that, Mickey Morandini is hit by a pitch, or so he says. “It nicked my helmet,” he tells the press later, to a chorus of knowing winks. Replays show Hershiser’s pitch didn’t hit his helmet, or anything else, but Morandini’s thespian skills sell the act to the home plate umpire. Turk Wendell is called on to face Sammy Sosa with the bases loaded, and he promptly unloads them with a three-run double into the left field corner that puts the game out of reach for the Amazins.
  • Tuesday, April 27, 1999

    San Diego Padres 6, New York Mets 2 at Shea Stadium

    Masato Yoshii turns in yet another poor start, ceding four runs and five free passes in just 4 2/3 innings of work. He is doomed by a sloppy fifth inning in which he walks Tony Gwynn and Wally Joyner, loads the bases on a single by ex-Met Dave Magadan, and allows a long two-run double to backup catcher Greg Myers, giving the Padres a lead they will never relinquish. Yoshii is booed off the mound when removed in the fifth inning, but most of the postgame criticism is directed at Mike Piazza, who symbolizes the Mets’ recent offensive futility by stranding seven men on base all by himself.
  • Wednesday, April 28, 1999

    New York Mets 4, San Diego Padres 3 at Shea Stadium

    Al Leiter throws seven brilliant innings, while a John Olerud solo shot and Edgardo Alfonzo RBI double give the Mets a 2-1 lead they cling to as they head into the eighth inning. This is when Armando Benítez chooses a poor time to allow his first runs as a Met. After walking leadoff man Quilvio Veras, Benítez allows back-to-back run-scoring doubles to Tony Gwynn and Phil Nevin that hand the Padres a 3-2 lead. San Diego has not given up a lead they held after the eighth inning in almost three years (181 games’ worth), but all streaks must end some time. In the bottom of the ninth, John Olerud reaches base when Padre shortstop Damien Jackson misplays his grounder (ruled a hit, though Jackson’s backhand attempt to catch it is misguided at best). Mike Piazza takes advantage, turning on Trevor Hoffman’s first pitch, a fat, 86 mph fastball, and sending it over the right field fence for a walkoff home run, capping the most dramatic win of the Mets’ young season.
  • Thursday, April 29, 1999

    New York Mets 8, San Diego Padres 5 at Shea Stadium

    On a chilly, blustery afternoon, Bobby Jones struggles with his curveball and shows little of the form he’s displayed thus far this season. He is bailed out when his teammates rally from early deficits of 4-0 and 5-2, mostly by taking advantage of the wildness of the San Diego pitchers. Met batters collect nine walks on the day, and five of those free passes come around to score. An RBI bloop single from Rey Ordoñez and a Robin Ventura sacrifice fly give the Mets their first lead in the sixth, and they hold on the rest of the way. Dennis Cook contributes a scoreless inning and earns his fourth relief win of the season.
  • Friday, April 30, 1999

    New York Mets 7, San Francisco Giants 2 at Shea Stadium

    Giant starter Shawn Estes loses his cool when home plate umpire Bob Davidson—a notorious aficionado of phantom balk moves—calls a balk on the pitcher to bring Rickey Henderson home with the game’s first run in the bottom of the first. The pitcher exchanges words with Davidson and has to be restrained by his catcher, narrowly missing an ejection. Estes never recovers from the disruption, allowing an RBI double to Robin Ventura, a run-scoring groundout, and a wild pitch to plate another run. In stark contrast to his shaky first start in Queens, Allen Watson contributes five decent innings against one of his former teams while the bullpen holds down the fort thereafter.

May

  • Saturday, May 1, 1999

    New York Mets 9, San Francisco Giants 4 at Shea Stadium

    All afternoon, Orel Hershiser threatens to give the game away to the Giants, issuing four walks, firing a pickoff throw past John Olerud at first base, and loading the bases twice. But the Giants fail to take full advantage, collecting just one hit in 10 at bats with men in scoring position. Given this reprieve, Hershiser retires eight of the last nine batters he faces, and the New York bullpen once again shuts the door on any thoughts of a comeback. The big blow for the Mets comes on a seventh inning grand slam from Brian McRae.
  • Sunday, May 2, 1999

    New York Mets 2, San Francisco Giants 0 at Shea Stadium

    This game features an unlikely pitchers’ duel between Kirk Reuter, a back of the rotation starter for San Francisco, and Masato Yoshii, who has pitched terribly to this point in the season. Yoshii shockingly tosses six scoreless innings while Reuter throws a shocking seven of his own. The contest remains scoreless until two out in the bottom of the eighth. A pinch-hit Matt Franco single brings up Rickey Henderson, who hits a towering pop up on the infield. The ball is hit so high that Giant shortstop Ramon Martinez can’t keep track of it, and it glances off his glove while an alert Franco scores all the way from first. An RBI single from John Olerud puts the Mets up 2-0, a lead John Franco immediately places in jeopardy by loading the bases with one out in the top of the ninth. Franco recovers, however, inducing a groundball double play from Charlie Hayes to end the threat and conclude a three-game sweep of San Francisco.
  • Monday, May 3, 1999

    New York Mets 5, Houston Astros 3 at Shea Stadium

    In the opener of a three-game set against the Astros, Roger Cedeño subs for the ailing Rickey Henderson and turns in a Henderson-esque performance, swiping two bases, scoring two runs, and turning a single into a double when the Houston outfield is caught napping on his prodigious speed. The Mets strike for four runs in the first and never look back, while Rick Reed, fresh off the disabled list from the calf injury he suffered in Montréal during the first week of the season, tosses six solid innings. Reed finds himself unable to throw any of his pitches effectively except for his fastball yet still manages to keep the Astros off balance until a Richard Hidalgo two-run homer in the top of the sixth draws the visitors a bit too close. Turk Wendell contributes two key scoreless innings, while John Franco limits the drama by setting down the Astros in order for the save.
  • Tuesday, May 4, 1999

    Houston Astros 6, New York Mets 1 at Shea Stadium

    Al Leiter throws six excellent innings in this game. Unfortunately for the Mets, he continues to pitch after that. With the score tied at 1 in the top of the seventh, Leiter records two quick outs before facing the opposing pitcher, Mike Hampton, who hammers a 1-0 pitch over Brian McRae’s head in center field and legs out a triple. Flustered, Leiter then gives up an RBI double to Craig Biggio, followed immediately by a two-run homer from Derek Bell. And yet, the stubborn Leiter insists on finishing that inning and starting the next to his further detriment, allowing three straight hits to begin the top of the eighth before finally allowing himself to be lifted. Two of those runners eventually score, while Hampton and Houston reliever Scott Elarton hold the Mets at bay the rest of the way.
  • Wednesday, May 5, 1999

    Houston Astros 5, New York Mets 4 at Shea Stadium

    Bobby Jones does an admirable job of limiting the damage done by the Astros’ bats, and a Roger Cedeño RBI single gives the Mets a 4-3 lead in the bottom of the seventh. Fortunes reverse when Armando Benítez enters the game in the top of the eighth and walks the leadoff hitter, the thoroughly benign Chris Spiers, to bring up the decidedly more dangerous heart of the Houston lineup. It appears he may survive this error when he retires Craig Biggio and Derek Bell, but another Killer B—Jeff Bagwell—crushes a two-run homer into the visiting bullpen, giving the Astros a lead. The Mets threaten to tie things up on a two-out a walk and hit batter in the bottom of the eighth, but this uprising is suppressed as soon as Houston closer Billy Wagner is called on for a four-out save. Mets batters are completely overmatched as Wagner dismisses all four batters he faces via strikeout.
  • Friday, May 7, 1999

    Arizona Diamondbacks 14, New York Mets 7 at Bank One Ballpark

    Orel Hershiser turns in a miserable outing, putting the Mets in a 5-1 hole in the early going. Though the Mets mount a furious rally to take a 6-5 lead, Bobby Valentine makes the curious decision to allow Hershiser to bat for himself during that rally, a decision that proves costly. After returning to the mound, Hershiser loads the bases with one out, than unloads them by giving up a bases-clearing double to Travis Lee. He allows one additional run before the plug is pulled, and the bullpen is torched for five more after that to put the game completely out of reach.
  • Saturday, May 8, 1999

    New York Mets 4, Arizona Diamondbacks 2 at Bank One Ballpark

    The Mets ride a second strong outing in a row from Masato Yoshii (six scoreless innings, though his outing is cut short by a cracked fingernail) and homers from Matt Franco and John Olerud to carry a 4-0 lead into the ninth. Bobby Valentine opts to bring in John Franco, despite the lack of a save situation, as the lefty hasn’t pitched in five days and is in some need of work. Franco treats the inning like he treats most save situations, ceding a leadoff single to Tony Womack and a bomb of a home run to Jay Bell. Luis Gonzalez then singles, and after a fielder’s choice, a walk to Steve Finley puts the tying runs on base. Valentine finally concedes defeat and removes Franco in favor of Armando Benítez, who manages to get two loud fly ball outs that finally end the game, thus notching his first save as a Met.
  • Sunday, May 9, 1999

    Arizona Diamondbacks 11, New York Mets 6 at Bank One Ballpark

    Rick Reed attempts to set a record for negative efficiency, allowing eight runs while expending only 38 pitches in 1 1/3 innings of work. Late home runs by Mike Piazza and Mike Kinkade make the final score seem far more respectable than it should be, as Reed’s poor start denies the Mets any chance of reasserting themselves into the game.
  • Monday, May 10, 1999

    Colorado Rockies 10, New York Mets 3 at Coors Field

    Despite a brief snowstorm prior to first pitch and temperatures that stand at a balmy 44 degrees, the Mets’ first game in Denver starts on time, much to the visitors’ chagrin. Al Leiter scatters four runs over his first six innings, which passes for an excellent start at mile high altitudes. But as in his last start against the Astros, the southpaw remains in the game long enough to undo all his good work, serving up a three-run shot to rookie catcher Henry Blanco that seals the Mets’ fate. Mike Piazza, owner of a lifetime .449 batting average at Coors Field when play begins, can only muster one lone hit against the Rockies’ starter Pedro Astacio, a former battery mate from his Dodger days. Adding to the Mets’ woes, Astacio plunks Bobby Bonilla on the same left knee that’s bothered him since spring training. After the game, the hobbled outfielder is finally forced to hit the disabled list.
  • Tuesday, May 11, 1999

    Colorado Rockies 8, New York Mets 5 at Coors Field

    This game mar the first time in 100 years that two pitchers with identical first and last names face each other: Bobby J. Jones of the Mets vs. Bobby M. Jones of the Rockies. After the game, New York’s Bobby Jones admits of Coors Field, “I just don’t like pitching here.” This sentiment is abundantly clear to anyone who watches the game. Young Colorado slugger Todd Helton clubs two homers as the Rockies tattoo Jones for eight runs in less than six innings. His namesake limits the Mets to two runs over his own five innings of work. Met batters can do little else against Colorado’s bullpen, save for the first major league home run for Benny Agbayani, called up from triple-A in the wake of Bobby Bonilla’s trip to the disabled list.
  • Wednesday, May 12, 1999

    New York Mets 10, Colorado Rockies 5 at Coors Field

    With Orel Hershiser away from the team getting an eye exam—one that the veteran hopes will improve his focus on the strike zone—Bobby Valentine asks Rick Reed to pitch on only two days’ rest following his brief, terrible outing in Phoenix. This time, he squeaks through five innings while giving up four runs, a decent line considering the thin air and even thinner time off since his last start. Reed is bolstered by an offense that scores early and often, gifting him a 6-0 lead after two innings and a 10-1 lead after five. All the Mets’ big bats pile on, with multiple RBIs from Mike Piazza, John Olerud, Robin Ventura, and Edgardo Alfonzo, while Roger Cedeño contributes four hits and three runs. The Mets hold their collective breath when Reed is nailed in the posterior by a line drive off the bat of Angel Echevarria in the bottom of the fifth, but the pitcher remains in the game. He does not blame that blow for giving up a homer to Dante Bichette shortly thereafter, telling reporters, “My ass didn’t throw that pitch; my arm did.”
  • Friday, May 14, 1999

    New York Mets 7, Philadelphia Phillies 3 at Veterans Stadium

    With many Mets fans filling the seats at Veterans Stadium, the Mets get the series in Philadelphia off to a flying start by hanging four runs on the ledger of Phillie starter Chad Ogea in the first inning, all on homers. John Olerud starts it off with a two-run moonshot, one of the very few home runs to be hit into the dizzying upper deck of the Phillies’ ballpark. Following a walk to Mike Piazza, Robin Ventura hits a two-run homer of his own. Edgardo Alfonzo adds a homer in the third, while Masato Yoshii limits the damage to three harmless solo shots. Roger Cedeño, filling in for the injured Rickey Henderson, puts on a show on the basepaths by swiping four bases and scoring three times.
  • Saturday, May 15, 1999

    New York Mets 9, Philadelphia Phillies 7 at Veterans Stadium

    Al Leiter schedules his meltdown earlier than usual, as the Mets find themselves down 6-0 after three innings. New York finds an unexpected savior in Pat Mahomes, lefty reliever just called up from triple-A who’d spent all of the previous season toiling for Japan’s Orix Blue Wave. Mahomes contributes 2 2/3 scoreless innings and even laces a double in his first major league at bat. His valiant effort gives the Mets enough daylight to mount a comeback. They notch five runs in the fourth inning (four of them scoring with two outs), tie the game with a solo homer from Brian McRae in the fifth, and grab the lead on an RBI single from Edgardo Alfonzo in the sixth. An attempt to tack on dies when Mike Piazza lines into a rally-killing triple play, but with the bullpen continuing to hold the Phillies at bay, the Mets make their lead John Franco-proof with two runs in the top of the ninth.
  • Sunday, May 16, 1999

    Philadelphia Phillies 5, New York Mets 2 at Veterans Stadium

    Orel Hershiser missed his last start when he sought out a new contact lens prescription, hoping improved vision would lead to improved performances on the mound. The new lenses seem to do the trick at first as he limits the Phillies to one run through the first five innings. Unfortunately, the home team touches him up for four runs in the sixth and hold on to hand him a loss. To be fair to Hershiser (and his readjusted prescription), three of the sixth-inning runs are the direct result of a ball misjudged by Matt Franco. Called on to play left field for only the third time in his career, Franco misjudges a potential fly out by Rob Ducey, allowing two runs to cross the plate and another to come home when Ducey scores on a groundout.
  • Monday, May 17, 1999

    Milwaukee Brewers 7, New York Mets 6 at Shea Stadium

    Bobby Jones struggles yet again, allowing seven runs in 5 2/3 innings despite pitching with an extra day of rest. The Mets attempt to inject some life into their offense late by inserting Roger Cedeño as a pinch runner, and the speedy outfielder swipes three bags in the final two innings. A two-run double by John Olerud brings the Mets within a run in the bottom of the eighth, but closer Bob Wickman fans Robin Ventura with the tying run on second base. Wickman also strikes out Jermaine Allensworth in the bottom of the ninth with the tying run on third, the called third strike coming on a borderline pitch that sends Bobby Valentine into a postgame rant against the “inconsistent” strike zone of home plate umpire Bob Hohn.
  • Tuesday, May 18, 1999

    Milwaukee Brewers 4, New York Mets 2 at Shea Stadium

    Rick Reed tosses his best game of the year, and one of the best starting performances of any New York pitcher this season, by limiting the Brewers to one run over seven innings. The Mets carry a slim 2-1 lead on the strength of a Mike Piazza solo homer and a John Olerud RBI single, but Reed’s efforts are wasted in the blink of an eye in the top of the eighth. First, Dennis Cook allows a bunt single to Brian Banks and a single up the middle to former Met Jeromy Burnitz. Bobby Valentine turns to Armando Benítez to shut the door, and he nearly does so by striking out Jeff Cirillo and Dave Nelson on six pitches. But then he falls behind Marquis Grissom before giving up a crushing three-run homer, handing the Brewers a lead they do not relinquish.
  • Thursday, May 20, 1999 (Game 1)

    New York Mets 11, Milwaukee Brewers 10 at Shea Stadium

    In the first game of a brutal doubleheader, Al Leiter turns in yet another puzzling performance. Robin Ventura gives the Mets an early lead with a first inning grand slam, but Leiter coughs up three runs in the top of the third, then literally hands the Brewers the tying run when he throws away a bunt from Jim Abbott, the opposing pitcher. Abbott makes the exact same mistake in the bottom half, mishandling a bunt from Leiter that gives the Mets a brief 5-4 lead, but Leiter returns the gift, allowing a two-run double to erstwhile Met prospect Alex Ochoa in the top of the fifth. The Mets rebound and then some, taking an 11-6 lead on a pair of homers from Benny Agbayani and another one from Mike Piazza. But reliever Allen Watson allows a three-run homer of his own to Jeff Cirillo in the top of the eighth. Brought on for the save in the top of the ninth, John Franco churns stomachs by ceding a leadoff double to Marquis Grissom and walking Ochoa with one out to put the tying runs on base. After a flyout, Sean Berry hits a popup into shallow right-center that just eludes Edgardo Alfonzo’s glove. Grissom scores, and Ochoa could also cross the plate with a modicum of effort, but the runner loses a shoe on the basepaths Alfonzo’s throw home beats the runner to the plate by a sizeable margin, and the shoeless Ochoa walks right into Piazza’s awaiting mitt for the game’s final, awkward out.
  • Thursday, May 20, 1999 (Game 2)

    New York Mets 10, Milwaukee Brewers 1 at Shea Stadium

    In the nightcap of a doubleheader, the home team jumps all over Milwaukee starter Steve Woodard and the Brewers’ bullpen. The Mets are already ahead 5-0 in the bottom of the fourth when Robin Ventura belts his second bases-loaded roundtripper of the day, making him the first player in major league history to hit a grand slam in both halves of a doubleheader. Unlike the first game of the day, no Milwaukee counterpunch is forthcoming this time as Masato Yoshii turns in another fine outing, allowing just one run in seven innings.
  • Friday, May 21, 1999

    New York Mets 7, Philadelphia Phillies 5 at Shea Stadium

    John Olerud knocks in three runs, finishing a triple short of the cycle, and Mike Piazza belts a home run for the fourth straight game. Orel Hershiser turns in his best outing as a Met to date, pitching 6 2/3 innings and limiting the Phillies to two runs. Things get a bit dicey in the top of the eighth when Turk Wendell allows a three-run homer to the unusual power source of Ron Gant, then sees Bobby Abreu lace a triple to bring the tying run to the plate with nobody out. Armando Benítez enters to make his first appearance since giving up a game-changing homer to Marquis Grissom during the Milwaukee series and ends further trouble with two impressive strikeouts and a groundout, hitting 99 mph on the radar gun as he does so. John Franco contributes a sweat-free ninth inning for his 13th save.
  • Saturday, May 22, 1999

    Philadelphia Phillies 9, New York Mets 3 at Shea Stadium

    The New York offense is completely stymied by former Met reliever Paul Byrd for 7 2/3 innings. Mike Piazza is particularly befuddled, as Byrd retires him three times with runners in scoring position. Bobby Jones is knocked out of the game in the third inning and later admits to pitching through shoulder pain and “dead arm.” The damaging third inning also sees Benny Agbayani suffer a knee injury after running into a retaining wall. He is carted off the field and listed as day-to-day.
  • Sunday, May 23, 1999

    New York Mets 5, Philadelphia Phillies 4 at Shea Stadium

    After waiting out a two-hour rain delay, the Mets’ bats are dampened further by the Phillies' ace, Curt Schilling, who keeps the offense quiet with eight fantastic innings. Schilling carries a 4-0 lead into the bottom of the ninth with an eye toward finishing what he started. Technically, he does. Mike Piazza leads off the inning with a single, followed by a two-run homer from Robin Ventura. One out later, Matt Franco singles and Luis López is hit by a pitch. After Jermaine Allensworth singles home Franco, Roger Cedeño just beats out a relay throw to prevent a game-ending double play, then steals second, putting the winning run in scoring position. Schilling nearly strikes out Edgardo Alfonzo before hitting the batter on the arm to load the bases. The very next pitch Schilling throws is hit for a single by John Olerud. López scores and Cedeño beats a throw to the plate by a hair, giving the Mets a thrilling come-from-behind win against one of the best pitchers in the game.
  • Monday, May 24, 1999

    Pittsburgh Pirates 7, New York Mets 5 at Three Rivers Stadium

    Making his first major league start in 20 months, star-crossed righty Jason Isringhausen watches his first pitch belted for a double by Al Martin. Shortly thereafter, Jason Kendall reaches him for a three-run homer. Isringhausen also allows a solo shot to Warren Morris and leaves the game after five middling innings and five runs allowed. His teammates attempt a comeback and trim the Pirates’ lead to 5-4 on an RBI double from Brian McRae in the top of the eighth. In the bottom half, however, Turk Wendell gives up a two-run homer to Ed Sprague that puts the game out of reach.
  • Tuesday, May 25, 1999

    New York Mets 8, Pittsburgh Pirates 3 at Three Rivers Stadium

    Masato Yoshii allows a leadoff home run to Al Martin but little else over 6 2/3 innings. The Mets are quieted by rookie Pittsburgh starter Kris Benson until the fourth inning, when Mike Piazza clubs one of his pitches 443 feet into the third deck of Three Rivers Stadium. Unnerved, Benson allows a single to Robin Ventura, a walk to Edgardo Alfonzo, and long three-run homer to Brian McRae to give the Mets a lead they maintain the rest of the way.
  • Wednesday, May 26, 1999

    New York Mets 5, Pittsburgh Pirates 2 at Three Rivers Stadium

    Orel Hershiser keeps the Mets in the Pittsburgh finale with six solid innings, and also contributes an RBI double to his cause. Benny Agbayani starts the Mets’ scoring with a solo homer, already his fourth since being called up, while Robin Ventura snaps a 2-2 tie with an RBI double in the top of the sixth, and John Olerud expands the Mets’ lead with a two-run single in the ninth. John Franco earns the save, his 14th of the year.
  • Friday, May 28, 1999

    Arizona Diamondbacks 2, New York Mets 1 at Shea Stadium

    Rick Reed pitches well for seven innings, allowing just four hits. Unfortunately, one of those hits is a long fly ball off the bat of Andy Fox that Benny Agbayani misplays into a two-run triple that plates all the runs Arizona needs. Agbayani partially atones by blasting a solo homer in the seventh—his fifth longball in only 43 major league at bats—to cut the Diamondbacks’ lead in half. Agbayani is in the middle of things again in the bottom of the ninth, as the Mets attempt a comeback. With two on and one out, Benny hits a hard grounder to third that looks like it will result in a double play until second baseman Jay Bell fires a throw that sails past first base. The wild throw should allow Mike Piazza to score the tying run, except that the ball bounces off of a photographer’s box and right back to first baseman Travis Lee, forcing Piazza to retreat to third. After Matt Franco walks to load the bases, Luis López gets ahead in the count, 3-1. The next pitch comes in below the knees but is deemed a strike by the home plate umpire. López can’t recover from the call and watches another pitch for strike three, ending the threat and the game.
  • Saturday, May 29, 1999

    Arizona Diamondbacks 8, New York Mets 7 at Shea Stadium

    The Mets own a 3-2 lead in the fourth inning a when a Greg Colbrunn liner banks off of starting pitcher Allen Watson’s foot. Little else goes their way for the rest of the afternoon. A three-run rally against Pat Mahomes and Turk Wendell gives Arizona a 5-3 lead in the top of the fifth. The Mets tie things up on a two-run shot by John Olerud in the bottom half, but in the top of the sixth, reliever Rigo Beltrán allows a three-run shot to Jay Bell. A Benny Agbayani homer to lead off the sixth brings the Mets closer, as does a Rickey Henderson RBI double in the eighth. To protect their one-run lead in the bottom of the ninth against the heart of the order, Arizona calls on Byung-Hyun Kim, a 20-year-old rookie making his major league debut. Kim’s submarining delivery baffles the Mets’ best hitters, as Edgardo Alfonzo, John Olerud, and Mike Piazza are retired in order to end the game.
  • Sunday, May 30, 1999

    Arizona Diamondbacks 10, New York Mets 1 at Shea Stadium

    Masato Yoshii had been the Mets’ best starting pitcher in the weeks leading up to this game, but he is victimized by Arizona batters in this contest and is gone before the end of the third inning. Even Arizona fireballer Randy Johnson, a lifetime .114 hitter at the moment, reaches Yoshii for two singles. The Big Unit completely smothers Mets batters over eight innings while striking out 10, the only blemish on his record a harmless solo homer by Roger Cedeño, as Arizona completes an embarrassing sweep of the Mets.
  • Monday, May 31, 1999

    Cincinnati Reds 5, New York Mets 3 at Shea Stadium

    The Mets take an early 3-1 lead on a trio of solo homers (Edgardo Alfonzo in the first, Bobby Bonilla and Brian McRae back-to-back in the second) that hand an early exit to Cincinnati starter Brett Tomko. But the Reds’ bullpen holds Mets batters at bay for the rest of the game, allowing one walk and nothing else. Al Leiter, making his first start in seven days, fails to make the lead stand up, first allowing a game-tying two-run single to Sean Casey in the top of the third, then permitting a 442-foot bomb to Greg Vaughn in the fifth and another solo shot to Pokey Reese in the seventh.

June

  • Tuesday, June 1, 1999

    Cincinnati Reds 4, New York Mets 0 at Shea Stadium

    With Bobby Bonilla, Rickey Henderson, and Rey Ordoñez starting following recent injuries, this game marks the first time since mid-April that the Mets’ projected Opening Day lineup takes the field. It does the home team little good. Orel Hershiser struggles through five innings, allowing four runs and eight hits. This proves more than enough backup for Reds’ starter Pete Harnisch, who completely shuts down the Met offense for seven innings. The game is particularly ugly for Bonilla, who is treated rudely by the Shea Stadium crowd after he watches a pair of triples fly over his head in right field.
  • Wednesday, June 2, 1999

    Cincinnati Reds 8, New York Mets 7 at Shea Stadium

    Once again, the Mets play another back-and-forth affair that does not break their way. They score twice against Red starter Sean Avery in the bottom of the first, but Cincinnati immediately responds against Jason Isringhausen in the top of the second with a two-run triple from Mike Cameron and an Aaron Boone RBI single. The Mets tie the game on a Bobby Bonilla solo shot in the bottom of the fourth, only to fall behind again in the top of the sixth when Dennis Cook hits a batter with the bases loaded to force in a run. A two-run homer by Greg Vaughn in the top of the seventh extends the Reds’ lead to 6-3, but the Mets rally for four runs in bottom half with RBIs from Brian McRae, Matt Franco, and John Olerud. Tasked with holding a 7-6 lead, John Franco records the first two outs easily in the top of the ninth, only to walk to Vaughn and allow an infield single to Barry Larkin. The runners then execute a double steal to place the tying and go-ahead runs in scoring position. Franco nearly escapes this trap by backing the next batter, Mike Cameron, into an 0-2 count, bringing the Mets within one strike of a much needed victory. Then Cameron watches two pitches out of the zone before bouncing a single up the middle to drive in two runs and put the Reds back on top. Stunned, the Met bats go quietly in the bottom half for their sixth straight loss. The loss completes a miserable 0-6 homestand, marking the first time the Mets have been swept in consecutive three-game series at home since the historically hapless team of 1962.
  • Friday, June 4, 1999

    New York Yankees 4, New York Mets 3 at Yankee Stadium

    The first of six Subway Series tilts in 1999 features four lead changes, a charged atmosphere in the Yankee Stadium stands, and—typical for the National League club of late—a series of breaks that all fail to go the Mets’ way. The visitors from Queens draw first blood on a solo shot by Brian McRae off of David Cone in the top of the second. The Yankees respond in the bottom half when Jorge Posada hits his own bases-empty homer off of Rick Reed. The Mets retake the lead as Rickey Henderson manufactures a run by singling, stealing second, taking third when Posada’s attempt to throw him out sails into the outfield, and scoring on a sac fly. The Yanks jump out on top in the bottom of the fifth on a two-run bomb that Derek Jeter deposits into the home bullpen beyond the left field fence. Cone falters in the top of the sixth, walking Robin Ventura and giving up a single to McRae. Rey Ordoñez follows by poking a hit just over the outstretched of Tino Martinez at first. Ventura scores to tie the game, but the Mets are denied the go-ahead run because of a fan who leans over the railing and interferes with the ball as it rolls down the right field line. Thanks to the interference, Ordoñez is “awarded” a ground-rule double, which means McRae must stop at third. The Mets fail to score any more runs against Cone and reliever Jason Grimsley in the sixth, and the Yankees take full advantage of the reprieve, thanks to some surprisingly shoddy play from the Met infield. In the bottom of the seventh, Tony Tarasco hits a ball to the right side that Edgardo Alfonzo is in prime position to field. For some reason, John Olerud lunges for the ball, and as it bounces off the first baseman’s glove, Tarasco finds himself the recipient of an infield “hit.” The next batter, Scott Brosius, belts a hit off the left field fence that Henderson misplays, allowing Tarasco to score all the way from first. That run proves the margin of victory, as Mariano Rivera enters the game in the eighth to record a four-out save. Rivera encounters a slight scare in the top of the ninth when he hits Henderson with a pitch, then permits a long fly ball to right field off the bat of Alfonzo. But Fonzie’s fly, like everything else the Mets do in this game, falls short.
  • Saturday, June 5, 1999

    New York Yankees 6, New York Mets 3 at Yankee Stadium

    For the second game in a row, the Mets build an early lead against the defending world champs, only to squander it through a series of bizarre incidents. The Mets score twice in the top of the second on an RBI groundout by Brian McRae and a run-scoring single from Roger Cedeño, then once more in the third on a Bobby Bonilla sac fly. But even while leading, the Mets don’t appear to be in control of this game, as evidenced by a strange play in the second. During this frame, Rey Ordoñez hits a ball that looks ticketed for the outfield until Yankees pitcher Orlando Hernández spears it with his glove. The ball is hit so hard that it gets trapped in the webbing, so Hernández hurls the entire glove toward first base, where Tino Martinez catches it for the out. Masato Yoshii permits three runs in the bottom of the third, then two more in the fourth on a Tino Martinez leadoff homer and an RBI double by Scott Brosius. The Yanks extend their lead to three runs on a Chili Davis single in the bottom of the fifth. The closest the Mets come to a late-inning threat comes when Hernández allows the first two batters in the top of the seventh to reach base, but relievers Mike Stanton and Ramiro Mendoza strike out the next three batters with relative ease. From there, it’s all over but the shouting, as Mariano Rivera once again earns the save in the ninth. The Mets’ losing streak has now stretched to a disastrous eight in a row.
  • Sunday, June 6, 1999

    New York Mets 7, New York Yankees 2 at Yankee Stadium

    Mired in a horrendous eight-game losing streak that led to the firing of three coaches, the Mets find themselves tasked with attempting to end the slide against Roger Clemens, winner of an American League-record 20 consecutive decisions. The Rocket cruises through the first inning before allowing a double to Mike Piazza and a single to Robin Ventura to start the second. Then he issues a walk to the next batter, Brian McRae, as he stares long and hard at home plate umpire Joe Schulock when he fails to get a few close strike calls. Another ball call, issued on a 2-2 count to Bobby Bonilla, draws even harder glares from Clemens and inspires him to stalk around the mound, smirking to himself. Bonilla smokes his next pitch down the right field line for a two-run double. For the second time in the series, a fan leans over the railing and interferes with the hit, preventing three runs from scoring. This time, the Mets shrug off the bad luck when Benny Agbayani hits his own two-run double. Clemens escapes the inning without incurring further damage, but begins the top of the third by allowing a single to John Olerud and a titanic homer to straightaway center by Piazza. A few moments later, Agbayani adds his third RBI of the evening, and Clemens’s outing is finished. There is no counterpunch from the Yankees this time, as Al Leiter pitches his best and most important game of the year, allowing just one run and four harmless hits over seven innings of work.
  • Monday, June 7, 1999

    New York Mets 8, Toronto Blue Jays 2 at Shea Stadium

    Benny Agbayani is the offensive star in the opener of a three-game set against the Blue Jays, as he belts two homers while the Shea Stadium stands ring with cheers of “Ben-ny! Ben-ny!” Mike Piazza also goes deep, and the Mets score six runs and lash 11 hits total against rookie Toronto starter Roy Halladay. Orel Hershiser holds down the fort by limiting Toronto to two runs in his six innings of work.
  • Tuesday, June 8, 1999

    New York Mets 11, Toronto Blue Jays 3 at Shea Stadium

    When Jason Isringhausen takes the mound to start this game, he is still looking for his first major league win since September of 1997. That last victory came against the Toronto Blue Jays, when he was opposed by Pat Hentgen. In an odd bit symmetry, he faces the same team and the same opposing pitcher this evening, and the results are identical to those of two years ago. Isringhausen does his part by holding Toronto to two runs over 5 2/3 innings. Cognizant of Izzy’s injury history, Bobby Valentine removes the hurler once he's thrown exactly 100 pitches. The score is 4-1 in favor of the Mets when he exits the game, and though Dennis Cook gives him palpitations by allowing a two-run homer to the first batter he faces, the offense comes through to guarantee Isringhausen a win, plating three runs in the seventh inning and three more in the eighth. Edgardo Alfonzo hits a two-run shot, Roger Cedeño belts a three-run homer, and even Rey Ordoñez gets into the act with a career-high four hits.
  • Wednesday, June 9, 1999

    New York Mets 4, Toronto Blue Jays 3 (14 innings) at Shea Stadium

    This occasion marks David Wells’s first appearance in New York since being traded from the Yankees for Roger Clemens. Boomer smothers the Met bats for eight innings, while his teammates give him a 3-0 lead on solo shots from Darrin Fletcher and José Cruz and a Carlos Delgado RBI double. Wells attempts to go the distance, but the Mets defy him in the bottom of the ninth when Edgardo Alfonzo hits a one-out single, Mike Piazza lashes a two-out hit, and Robin Ventura drives in both. The Blue Jays turn to closer Billy Koch to record the final out, only to watch Brian McRae belt a game-tying double. From there, the game plods on into extra innings, with each team taking turns mounting and wasting scoring chances. Bobby Valentine argues a catcher’s interference call in the top of the twelfth inning and finds himself ejected. He later attempts to sneak back into the dugout wearing a transparently bad disguise, a prank that lands him a second ejection and will eventually lead to a suspension and fine from the league. The Mets earn themselves a walkoff win in the bottom of the fourteenth when Luis López and McRae open the inning with walks. One sac bunt later, Rey Ordoñez parachutes a single into no man’s land to score López, mercifully ending the game and completing a three-game sweep of Toronto.
  • Friday, June 11, 1999

    Boston Red Sox 3, New York Mets 2 (12 innings) at Shea Stadium

    In the opener of an interleague series hosting Boston, the Met batters find themselves helpless against opposing starter Brian Rose as he limits them to three harmless hits for seven innings. The Red Sox scratch out runs in the second and third against Masato Yoshii and hand a 2-0 lead to Tom Gordon in the ninth. Boston’s closer had only recently ended his record streak of 54 consecutive save opportunities converted, but he fails to begin a new streak at Shea as John Olerud leads off the ninth with a single and Mike Piazza follows with a 429-foot game-tying bomb into the left field bleachers. Unfortunately for the Mets, the heroics end there. Things unravel for the home team in the top of the twelfth inning when John Franco allows a one-out single to Damon Buford, who then steals second and advances to third after Piazza’s attempt to gun him down skips into the outfield. Buford is erased when he gets caught in a rundown on a José Offerman grounder, but the Mets take so long to tag out the lead runner that Offerman is able to race to second on the play. With first base open, Bobby Valentine could opt to walk righty batter John Valentin and ask the southpaw Franco to face lefty Brian Daubach instead, but the Met manger decides to bank on Franco’s traditional success against righties and the fact that Valentin is playing through a groin injury. This plan backfires, as Franco allows a run-scoring single. Valentin’s hit might have resulted in a play at the plate, but Benny Agbayani overruns the ball, adding another unsightly mark to an ugly, game-deciding inning. The Mets work two walks in their half of the twelfth but otherwise go quietly into the night.
  • Saturday, June 12, 1999

    New York Mets 4, Boston Red Sox 2 at Shea Stadium

    For his second start in a row, Al Leiter steps in to be the Mets’ stopper after an ugly loss, blanking Boston for six innings. Making his first start since sustaining a freak batting practice injury to his eye, Benny Agbayani initiates the Mets’ scoring by leading off the bottom of the third with a home run, his third in a week and ninth since his callup from triple-A. In the top of the seventh, Leiter allows a trio of two-out hits to plate two runs, but John Olerud expands the Mets’ advantage with a leadoff home run in the bottom of the eighth.
  • Sunday, June 13, 1999

    New York Mets 5, Boston Red Sox 4 at Shea Stadium

    Knowing that both John Franco and Armando Benítez are unavailable, Orel Hershiser does his best to give the bullpen a rest. He limits the Red Sox to two runs over six innings, while his teammates jump out to a 5-2 lead on yet another home run from Benny Agbayani, a longball from Brian McRae, and RBI singles from Rickey Henderson and Edgardo Alfonzo. Hershiser attempts to pitch the seventh inning but gives up a walk and allows a single to start the frame. Dennis Cook allows both runners to score but limits the damage there, while B-squad reliever Greg McMichael contributes a scoreless eighth. Closer-for-a-day Turk Wendell does his best John Franco imitation in the top of the ninth by giving up a leadoff double to Nomar Garciaparra, but strands him on second to preserve the win.
  • Monday, June 14, 1999

    Cincinnati Reds 8, New York Mets 4 at Cinergy Field

    With his team having won six of their previous seven games, Bobby Valentine gives a day of rest to Mike Piazza and John Olerud and a start to the unhappy Bobby Bonilla. The compromised offense only manages one hit against Red starter Ron Villone, plating all three of their runs against him on a bases-loaded walk, a sac fly, and an RBI groundout. On the day, Met batters strand 10 runners on base. Jason Isringhausen allows three runs over his five innings, but things don’t truly unravel until the bullpen takes over in the sixth. After Greg McMichael walks two batters, Turk Wendell enters the game to face Aaron Boone and allows the light-hitting third baseman take him deep for a three-run homer that salts the game for Cincinnati.
  • Tuesday, June 15, 1999

    New York Mets 11, Cincinnati Reds 3 at Cinergy Field

    The Mets tie a franchise record by belting six home runs in a nine-inning game. Rickey Henderson gets things started with a leadoff shot, the 74th time he’s done so in his illustrious career. John Olerud and Mike Piazza also go deep in the first to generate a 4-0 lead before an out is recorded. This would prove to be more than enough scoring for New York, but Henderson adds another homer in the seventh, while Edgardo Alfonzo and Matt Franco go deep in the fifth and sixth, respectively. Rick Reed contributes eight innings of two-run ball, despite suffering from a kidney stone that is described in excruciating detail in the New York newspapers.
  • Wednesday, June 16, 1999

    New York Mets 5, Cincinnati Reds 2 at Cinergy Field

    With Bobby Valentine serving the first game of his two-game suspension for sneaking back into the dugout at Shea Stadium a week earlier, bench coach Bruce Benedict captains the Mets to an uneventful victory in the Cincinnati series finale. Masato Yoshii throws six innings of two-run ball while his teammates take advantage of the Cinergy Field Astroturf to smack six doubles. Mike Piazza goes 2 for 4 to extend his hitting streak to 19 games. John Franco pitches a perfect ninth inning for his 16th save of the year.
  • Thursday, June 17, 1999

    New York Mets 4, St. Louis Cardinals 3 at Busch Stadium

    In the Mets’ first game in St. Louis, Al Leiter turns in another great outing, fanning nine batters and allowing a single run over seven innings. After Armando Benítez dominates in the eighth, however, John Franco nearly allows a 4-1 lead to evaporate. The inning begins with Franco allowing a single to Joe McEwing and a double to Edgar Rentería. He then induces a comebacker from the dreaded Mark McGwire but inexplicably throws to third in an attempt to get the lead runner. McEwing beats the throw, and the next batter, Fernando Tatís, knocks in two runs, cutting the Mets’ lead to one. With the tying and winning runs on base, Dennis Cook relieves Franco and saves the day by retiring the next three batters in order. The win makes bench coach Bruce Benedict 2-0 for his short stint managing in Bobby Valentine’s absence.
  • Friday, June 18, 1999

    New York Mets 6, St. Louis Cardinals 2 at Busch Stadium

    With Bobby Valentine permitted back in the dugout, the Mets pull off another nailbiter. The Mets stake themselves to a 5-0 lead on the strength of an RBI double from Edgardo Alfonzo and run-scoring singles from Rickey Henderson and Rey Ordoñez. Orel Hershiser pitches five scoreless innings but is forced to leave with back spasms. Workhorse reliever Turk Wendell keeps the Cards off the board in the sixth and seventh innings but falters in the eighth, allowing a two-out, two-run homer to Thomas Howard. After Wendell allows a single to the following batter, Valentine turns to Armando Benítez, who issues a four-pitch walk. That brings up Mark McGwire in a potential game-tying situation for the second game in a row. Benítez and McGwire faced each other eight times when the pitcher played for Baltimore and the slugger toiled for Oakland, and each of those confrontations ended with either a walk or a strikeout. The former outcome looks more likely when Benítez’s first three pitches land outside the strike zone, but the Met righty recover to toss a pair of called strikes, then catches McGwire looking on a 96 mph fastball at the knees to end the inning. St. Louis manager Tony LaRussa, who barked at home plate umpire Greg Gibson over strike calls all night, believes the pitch was lower, runs out of the dugout to argue as much, and gets tossed from the game. Mike Piazza leads off the top of the ninth with a solo homer for some much needed insurance, extending his hitting streak to a career-high 21 games in the process. Wary of using Franco after the previous night’s near disaster, Valentine sticks with Benítez in the bottom half and is rewarded with a breeze of a save.
  • Saturday, June 19, 1999

    St. Louis Cardinals 7, New York Mets 6 at Busch Stadium

    After being stifled in the first two games of the series, Mark McGwire reaches Jason Isringhausen for a three-run homer in the first inning. Izzy departs after 2 2/3 innings with six runs on his ledger. Trailing 7-2 in the top of the fifth, the Mets crawl within striking distance against St. Louis starter Darren Oliver on a Mike Piazza two-run homer and a two-run single from Rickey Henderson. But with Henderson on first and Bobby Bonilla at third, the Cardinals get a break when reliever Manny Aybar pulls the rarely successful fake-to-third-throw-to-first move and actually catches Henderson leaning. As Henderson finds himself in a rundown, Bonilla breaks for the plate, and St. Louis second baseman Joe McEwing throws home. Though the throw beats Bonilla to the plate, the runner appears to slide under a tag from catcher Alberto Castillo. Home plate umpire Charlie Williams calls him out anyway. Williams makes no friends this evening; both benches grouse about his miniscule strike zone making unnecessary work for every pitcher who takes the mound. Oliver is particularly aggrieved, requiring 121 pitches to negotiate his way through a mere four innings. After their fifth inning scare, the Cardinals hold back New York the rest of the way. It proves to be the longest nine-inning game in Met history, requiring three hours and 56 minutes to complete.
  • Sunday, June 20, 1999

    New York Mets 9, St. Louis Cardinals 6 at Busch Stadium

    Rick Reed does not fare well in the St. Louis series finale, giving up two homers (including yet another Mark McGwire blast, his 21st of the year) and five runs. But his offense picks him up, paced by Rey Ordoñez, of all people. The lumber-allergic shortstop goes 3 for 4 and shows some hustle by scoring from second base on an infield single—twice. In the top of the third, Ordoñez watches Roger Cedeño ground out to first and notices, as he reaches third, that first baseman McGwire has his back to the plate and is paying him no mind. The shortstop breaks for the plate, and by the time McGwire realizes what’s transpiring behind him, there is no play to make. In the top of the sixth, Ordoñez hits a two-run single to knot the score at 6. Shortly thereafter, St. Louis reliever Rick Croushore runs to cover first on another Cedeño grounder in the hole, but the speedy outfielder beats him to the bag and the pitcher falls down in foul territory at the conclusion of the footrace. When Ordoñez notices Croushore is still in a sitting position in foul territory, he continues right on past third, dashing for home as soon as the pitcher’s attention is diverted. (Croushore later swears he heard an umpire call time.) In this odd fashion do the Mets take the lead, and proceed to hold onto it. In the middle of it all, Mike Piazza extends his hitting streak to 23 games, one shy of the team record set by Hubie Brooks in 1984.
  • Tuesday, June 22, 1999

    New York Mets 8, Florida Marlins 2 at Shea Stadium

    In the opener of a brief three-game homestand hosting the Marlins, Masato Yoshii pitches well, giving up just two runs in 6 1/3 innings. His teammates are baffled by the knuckleball of Florida starter Dennis Springer through the first six innings, save for a Robin Ventura solo home run, but break out against him and the Florida bullpen in the late going. Trailing 2-1 in the bottom of the seventh, the Mets tie the score when a Roger Cedeño hit skips past outfielder Preston Wilson, allowing Ventura to score all the way from first. RBI singles follow from Rey Ordoñez and Edgardo Alfonzo to give the Mets the lead, and they pile on with a four-run eighth inning. Even Armando Benítez gets into the act, capitalizing on a rare at bat with an RBI groundout to round out the victory.
  • Wednesday, June 23, 1999

    New York Mets 6, Florida Marlins 3 at Shea Stadium

    Al Leiter recovers from a rough, two-run first inning to throw seven strong frames and even contributes with his bat. His chopper up the middle in the bottom of the third allows the speedy Roger Cedeño to beat a throw to the plate and score the first Met run. Cedeño swipes two more bases in the game to bring his league-leading total up to 41. Edgardo Alfonzo homers in the fourth inning to tie the game at 2, then puts the Mets ahead to stay with an RBI single in the fifth. Unfortunately, Mike Piazza’s franchise-record hitting streak ends at 24 games when he fails to get a hit in four at bats while also suffering a mild concussion when he’s hit by a batter’s backswing while catching in the top of the seventh inning.
  • Thursday, June 24, 1999

    New York Mets 3, Florida Marlins 2 at Shea Stadium

    In the conclusion of their brief homestand, the Mets complete a sweep of the Marlins and defeat Liván Hernández for the third time in less than half a season. Orel Hershiser pitches six solid innings of one-run ball, but Hernández matches him, then helps his own cause by hitting a leadoff double in the top of the seventh and coming around to score on a sac fly. With the score knotted at 2 in the bottom of the eighth, John Olerud lines a one-out double into the left field corner. Robin Ventura follows with a bloop single beyond the first baseman’s reach that drives in pinch runner Luis López from second with the go-ahead run. John Franco retires the Marlins in order in the ninth for his 19th save.
  • Friday, June 25, 1999

    New York Mets 10, Atlanta Braves 2 at Turner Field

    Despite Mike Piazza sitting out while he deals with the aftereffects of a concussion, and despite a 45-minute delay due to faulty lighting at Turner Field, the Mets come out swinging against Braves starter Odalis Pérez. A Benny Agbayani solo homer gives New York its first run, followed by RBI singles from Todd Pratt, Roger Cedeño, and Rick Reed in the sixth. The Mets pile on in the late innings against Atlanta’s bullpen, scoring once in the seventh, twice in the eighth, and three times in the ninth. Reed pitches into the seventh inning and allows just one run in the rout, the Mets’ first victory at Turner Field in almost two years.
  • Saturday, June 26, 1999

    Atlanta Braves 7, New York Mets 2 at Turner Field

    Called on to make his major league debut at Turner Field, a visibly nervous Octavio Dotel puts the Mets in an immediate hole by allowing a first inning three-run homer to Ryan Klesko. Dotel fails to make it out of the fifth inning, giving up three more runs in that frame on a Chipper Jones two-run double and a sac fly from Brian Jordan. Atlanta ace Tom Glavine has struggled through a down year to this point in the season, but he still shuts down the Mets’ offense, allowing just one run over seven innings.
  • Sunday, June 27, 1999

    Atlanta Braves 1, New York Mets 0 at Turner Field

    Masato Yoshii pitches a great ballgame in the Atlanta series finale. Unfortunately for the Mets, Greg Maddux pitches even better, allowing a mere two hits over eight innings of classically efficient Maddux-esque work. The only run of the game scores in the bottom of the third when Yoshii gives up a single to Brave backstop Eddie Pérez, Maddux bunts him to second, and veteran shortstop Ozzie Guillén belts a double deep enough to drive in the slow-footed catcher. The Mets mount a threat in the ninth when Edgardo Alfonzo hits a one-out single against Atlanta closer John Rocker, but after pinch runner Melvin Mora moves to second on a groundout, Rocker dispatches Robin Ventura with a strikeout to end the game and the series.
  • Monday, June 28, 1999

    New York Mets 10, Florida Marlins 4 at Pro Player Stadium

    In the opener of a four-game set in Miami, Robin Ventura rebounds nicely from a rough series in Atlanta (where he struck out an astounding seven times in 12 at-bats) by hitting a pair of three-run homers, the first of which helps the Mets overcome an early 2-0 deficit and brings his RBI total on the season to a team-best 59. On a typically muggy Miami night, Al Leiter struggles through a 42-pitch, two-run third inning. During this slog, rookie Álex González fouls off five pitches before hitting a run-scoring single, which nearly sends the excitable Leiter off the deep end. The lefty leaps this hurdle, however, pitching through seven innings while giving up only three runs on the day.
  • Tuesday, June 29, 1999

    New York Mets 5, Florida Marlins 1 at Pro Player Stadium

    Orel Hershiser throws his best game thus far as a Met: 8 1/3 innings, five hits, and just one run. The old pro uses a mere 68 pitches to navigate the first seven innings and keeps the ball on the ground for most of the night, which leads to an astounding 11 assists for shortstop Rey Ordoñez (only three shy of the all-time single-game record). Hershiser leaves the mound to a standing ovation, a reaction he attributes to large numbers of “the 40-and-over crowd” in Florida. (“I saw a few canes out there.”) “Crowd” may be an exaggeration, as just a hair over 11,000 fans (the third smallest attendance in Florida’s brief history) pay to watch the contest.
  • Wednesday, June 30, 1999

    Florida Marlins 4, New York Mets 3 (10 innings) at Pro Player Stadium

    Rick Reed allows a two-run homer to Kevin Millar in the bottom of the second, but the Mets tie the score in the top of the sixth on a run-scoring groundout from Robin Ventura and an RBI single from Brian McRae. Millar puts the Marlins ahead again in the bottom of the sixth with an RBI single, only to see Edgardo Alfonzo tie the score once more with a run-scoring single of his own in the top of the seventh. The game proceeds into extras until Armando Benítez, in his second inning of work, allows a walkoff home run to Mark Kotsay in the bottom of the tenth. It is the first longball Benítez has allowed to anyone since May 18, and the first hit any Marlins batter has notched against him in 22 at bats.

July

  • Thursday, July 1, 1999

    New York Mets 12, Florida Marlins 8 at Pro Player Stadium

    Bobby Valentine chooses to rest many of his regulars on a drizzly Miami evening. (The fans decide to rest, too; the “crowd” that shows up supplants that of two nights previous as the third smallest gathering in Marlins’ history.) Despite the absence of big bats like Mike Piazza in the starting lineup and the lack of observers, the Met offense explodes. Six runs in the third inning—all scoring with two outs—chase Marlins starter Ryan Dempster from the game, and the Mets proceed to score a pair of runs each in the fourth, fifth, and sixth innings. However, Octavio Dotel lets nerves get the better of him in only his second major league start. Staked to an 8-0 lead, he cedes two runs to Florida in the bottom of the fourth, then allows three more in the fifth. There are numerous mitigating factors, such as the threat of rain that could rob him of his first big league victory, causing him to speed up his approach. It doesn’t help Dotel’s nerves when Florida reliever Brian Edmonson throws up and in to him, a pitch he later admits he never saw. Dotel is grazed in the back of his batting helmet and takes his base, but the brush with danger seems to unsettle him even more. He also does not react well to a lack of close strike calls in his favor, looking visibly perturbed on the mound and prompting a chastising visit from pitching coach Dave Wallace. Somehow, Dotel manages to work his way through five innings, qualifying him for the win.
  • Friday, July 2, 1999

    Atlanta Braves 16, New York Mets 0 at Shea Stadium

    In the first tilt of an important three-game series against Atlanta, Chipper Jones starts the scoring by hitting a two-run homer off of Masato Yoshii in the top of the first. From there, the Braves never take their foot off the gas. Yoshii goes on to allow eight runs in only three innings of work, and Atlanta is only halfway done at this point, scoring twice more in the fourth and once each in the fifth and sixth innings. To make matters worse for the Mets, John Franco—on the mound in the ninth merely to get some work in—strains a flexor tendon in his pitching hand and is forced to leave the game with an injury that will land him on the disabled list for the next two months. With his bench and bullpen spent, Bobby Valentine is forced to shuffle his defense and throw pinch hitter Matt Franco on the mound. The Mets’ other Franco allows a three-run homer to Gerald Williams before finally recording the last out of the inning. The drubbing sets the new ignominious mark of most lopsided shutout in Met history.
  • Saturday, July 3, 1999

    Atlanta Braves 3, New York Mets 0 at Shea Stadium

    Al Leiter does his best to keep the Braves at bay on a sweltering afternoon, but Brian Jordan drives in the first runs of the game with a two-run shot in the top of the fifth. Atlanta plates another run in the sixth, which proves more than enough for rookie starter Kevin Millwood, who stifles Met bats for eight innings. He starts the ninth in an attempt to go the distance, but issues a leadoff walk to Brian McRae, then gives way to John Rocker. The closer’s outing gets off to rough start when he unleashes a wild pitch and allows a single to Todd Pratt to put runners on the corners with nobody out. The Mets cannot capitalize, however, as Rocker induces two shallow fly outs from Edgardo Alfonzo and John Olerud, then strikes out Mike Piazza to end the game.
  • Sunday, July 4, 1999

    New York Mets 7, Atlanta Braves 6 at Shea Stadium

    On another steamy game at Shea, the Braves start off hot yet again, scoring twice against Orel Hershiser in the top of the first inning on back-to-back solo shots from Bret Boone and Chipper Jones. The Mets counter with three runs of their own in the bottom half on a two-run Mike Piazza single and an RBI groundout from Benny Agbayani. Edgardo Alfonzo tacks on with a run-scoring double in the second, but the Mets’ lead is short lived. In the top of the third, the Braves cross the plate four times on another Boone homer, an RBI sac fly from Ryan Klesko, and a two-run shot from Randall Simon. Atlanta starter John Smoltz keeps things quiet until the bottom of the seventh, when Rey Ordoñez singles and Brian McRae walks to start the inning. One out later, Alfonzo blasts a three-run shot to put the Mets back on top to stay. Armando Benítez earns his first save since becoming the “official” Mets closer, thanks to John Franco's injury, and does it in style by striking out Boone, Chipper, and Brian Jordan in order.
  • Monday, July 5, 1999

    New York Mets 2, Montréal Expos 1 at Shea Stadium

    In the midst of a brutal heat wave (thermometers reach 101 during the day), Rick Reed stifles Montréal as much as the mercury does, allowing one lone run on five hits through seven innings. His teammates are similarly suppressed by Expo starter Dustin Hermanson, who limits the Met bats to one unearned run over 6 2/3 innings. With offense at a premium, the margin of victory scores when the Mets plate a run on a bases-loaded double-play grounder in the bottom of the eighth. The home team gets some help from Montréal manager Felipe Alou, who makes the curious decision to not position his infield for a play at the plate. Armando Benítez retires the Expos with little trouble in the ninth, his second save in as many tries since taking over the closer’s role for the injured John Franco.
  • Tuesday, July 6, 1999

    New York Mets 10, Montréal Expos 0 at Shea Stadium

    In order to reshuffle the pitching rotation and give Masato Yoshii some extra rest while he deals with a sore quadricep, Bobby Valentine asks Orel Hershiser to pitch on only one day’s rest, something no Met starter has done since 1982. Despite another brutal night with temperatures just shy of 100 degrees at game time, the 40-year-old Hershiser cruises through five innings and limits the Expos to three hits. He contemplates going further, but it seems an unnecessary risk, as his teammates have already reached Montréal starter Carl Pavano for five runs by that point, thanks in large part to a two-run homer from Brian McRae and an RBI from Edgardo Alfonzo. Fonzie lodges another RBI in a three-run sixth inning, and the Mets log two additional runs in the eighth. In his first relief appearance, Jason Isringhausen earns a save the old fashioned way by pitching the last three innings.
  • Wednesday, July 7, 1999

    Montréal Expos 3, New York Mets 1 at Shea Stadium

    Octavio Dotel turns in his best start yet, limiting the Expos to one run and five hits over seven innings. His teammates are also held to one run over that span, however, and an errant throw in the top of the eighth by Luis López (manning third base after Robin Ventura is hit by a pitch in the foot) allows Montréal to take a lead. The Mets threaten by loading the bases with one out in the bottom of the eighth, but the Expos call on closer Ugueth Urbina to face Mike Piazza, and after he fans the catcher, the Mets draw no closer. López shoulders all the blame after the game, with the use of Rickey Henderson-esque grammar. “Blame it on me,” he says. “Everyone played their asses off. Dotel pitched great. This time, Luis López failed.”
  • Thursday, July 8, 1999

    Montréal Expos 4, New York Mets 3 at Shea Stadium

    Masato Yoshii settles in after allowing a run in the first inning, retiring 13 Expos in a row at one point. The Mets carry a 3-1 lead into the sixth inning, aided by a Mike Piazza blast, but Montréal draws closer with a solo shot from Vladimir Guerrero in the sixth, the kind of homer only Guerrero can blast, going deep on “an eye-high fastball” in the words of the Daily News. (“Hats off to him,” Yoshii shrugs.) The Expos tie things up on an Orlando Cabrera homer off of Turk Wendell in the seventh, then take the lead in the eighth when Wilton Guerrero (Vlad’s brother) hits a one-out triple against Dennis Cook, tags up to score on a sac fly, and does so easily thanks to a poor Brian McRae throw. This proves the margin of victory in a defeat that spells a disappointing split with Montréal.
  • Friday, July 9, 1999

    New York Mets 5, New York Yankees 2 at Shea Stadium

    The first meeting of the Mets and Yankees at Shea Stadium in 1999 features the same starting pitchers as the last Subway Series matchup in the Bronx: Roger Clemens vs. Al Leiter. The Mets draw first blood with a Rey Ordoñez RBI single in the bottom of the second. The Yanks tie things up in the top of the third with a hit-and-run play on a Chuck Knoblauch single that scores Chad Curtis from second. The Mets regain the lead in the bottom half when John Olerud hits a long solo shot off the scoreboard in right field. A Paul O’Neill RBI double ties the score at 2 in the top of the sixth, but the Mets catch a break when O’Neill is thrown out trying to steal third on a very close play. They then storm right back, beginning with a bloop single by Edgardo Alfonzo to start off the bottom of the sixth. A wary Clemens walks Olerud, setting the stage for Mike Piazza to play hero. The catcher gets ahead in the count, then whips a Clemens slider into the left field bleachers for a laserbeam three-run homer. Leiter cruises the rest of the way, and though Armando Benítez brings the tying run to the plate in the top of the ninth, he strikes out pinch hitter Chili Davis to cap a thrilling victory.
  • Saturday, July 10, 1999

    New York Mets 9, New York Yankees 8 at Shea Stadium

    Rick Reed faces off against Andy Pettitte in one of the craziest games ever played in the Subway Series, if not the history of Shea Stadium itself. The Yankees get off to a fast start when Paul O’Neill cracks a two-run homer in the top of the first. The Mets immediately cut the lead in half with a Mike Piazza RBI double in the bottom of the first, then tie the score on a Rey Ordoñez sac fly in the second. In the fourth, the Mets score twice on a Robin Ventura RBI double and another Ordoñez sac fly that allows Ventura to tag up and beat a throw to the plate by an eyelash, giving the Mets a 4-2 lead. Reed can’t hold onto the advantage, however, as he allows back-to-back homers to Ricky Ledée and Jorge Posada to start the top of the fourth. Greg McMichael takes Reed’s place in the sixth and immediately allows O’Neill’s second longball of the day, putting the Yankees back on top. True to their name, the Bronx Bombers extend their lead with a Chuck Knoblauch homer off of Rigo Beltrán in the top of the seventh. The Mets respond in the bottom half, with Rickey Henderson starting a rally by check-swinging a ball into right field and hustling the hit into a double. Like Roger Clemens the night before, Yankee reliever Ramiro Mendoza pitches carefully to John Olerud and walks him. Like Clemens, he pays for it when Piazza destroys one of his pitches, crushing it over the picnic area beyond the right field fence for a three-run bomb, giving the Mets a 7-6 lead. No lead is safe in this game, however, and Dennis Cook gives up a two-run shot to Posada in the top of the eighth that hands the Yanks an 8-7 advantage. Mariano Rivera takes the mound in the bottom of the ninth, looking for his third save against the Mets this year. He issues a one-out walk to Henderson, then sees Edgardo Alfonzo hit a long fly ball to center that Bernie Williams misjudges into a double, putting the tying and winning runs in scoring position. The next batter, Olerud, hits a hard grounder to first that prevents the runners from advancing. With first base open, the Yankees issue an intentional walk to the dangerous Piazza, leaving the Mets’ last chance in the hands of pinch hitter Matt Franco. After taking a very close 0-2 pitch that is judged a ball by the home plate umpire, Franco belts a single into right field. Henderson scores the tying run, Alfonzo races home just ahead of a throw from O’Neill to plate the winning run, and the Mets have themselves one of the most insane, improbable wins in franchise history.
  • Sunday, July 11, 1999

    New York Yankees 6, New York Mets 3 at Shea Stadium

    The Mets have hopes of recording the first sweep in Subway Series history, but are turned aside by the oft-maligned Japanese pitcher, Hideki Irabu. He labors through the first few innings and allows the Mets to mount a two-out rally in the bottom of the third, as an Edgardo Alfonzo single and John Olerud walk are followed by RBI hits from Mike Piazza and Robin Ventura that give the Mets a 2-0 lead. But Orel Hershiser mirrors Irabu’s struggles by allowing doubles to Tino Martinez and Scott Brosius to start the top of the fourth, then gives up a three-run homer to Ricky Ledée to put the Yankees on top. The Mets tie the score in the bottom half when Roger Cedeño singles, steals second, and scores on a Rey Ordoñez double. Hershiser then reaches on a sac bunt attempt, sending runners to the corners with no outs and putting the Mets in a great position to retake the lead. Irabu knuckles down from that point forward, however. Rickey Henderson works a full count but strikes out on a fastball that “tricked” him. Edgardo Alfonzo “just missed” on a pitch he lofts into right, too shallow for Ordoñez to tag up from third. Olerud sends a long fly to left that Ledée runs down with a one-handed catch to end the inning. Given a reprieve, the Yankees score three times in the top of the fifth on run-scoring hits from Scott Brosius and Chad Curtis, then hold on for the rest of the way. Mariano Rivera recovers from the previous day’s blown save to set down the Mets in order in the ninth, recording his 23rd save of the year and this third against the Mets this season.
  • Thursday, July 15, 1999

    New York Mets 8, Tampa Bay Devil Rays 7 (10 innings) at Tropicana Field

    In their first game after the All Star Break, the Mets rally against an early 3-0 deficit, thanks to a preponderance of walks and errors on Tampa Bay’s part and the quick wheels of Roger Cedeño, who belts a double and swipes two bags. Going into the bottom of the eighth, the Mets hold a healthy 7-3 lead, but for once the bullpen is not up to the task. Turk Wendell and Dennis Cook conspire to allow a run in the bottom of the eight, and in the ninth Armando Benítez struggles for the first time since taking over the closer’s role from the injured John Franco. He allows a two-out, two-run single to Fred McGriff and a bloop hit to Bubba Trammel that Cedeño loses in the lights and catwalks of domed Tropicana Field, which leads to the tying run crossing the plate. The visitors rebound in the tenth, as Benny Agbayani doubles and Cedeño singles to drive in the go-ahead run. Benítez pleads with Bobby Valentine for a chance to atone for his sins in the bottom half (begging him “Don’t take me out” as his teammates rally ). When the manager assents, Benítez rewards his faith by setting down the side in order on two K’s to preserve the win.
  • Friday, July 16, 1999

    New York Mets 9, Tampa Bay Devil Rays 7 at Tropicana Field

    Thanks to the designated hitter afforded by an American League ballpark, Bobby Valentine is able to bat Roger Cedeño ninth, and he once again wreaks havoc on the basepaths, swiping two bags and scoring two runs. Rickey Henderson makes sure he is not outshone by doing the young outfielder one better in both categories. (“I was his idol so I think he knows I can still do it,” Henderson says with typical Hendersonian flourish.) Despite the gazelle-like speed on the bases, however, this is less a graceful contest ballet than a slugfest. The Mets and Devil Rays trade longballs and leads until New York, for the second day in a row, accumulates a seemingly comfortable lead. It looks especially comfortable when Jason Isringhausen shuts down the Devil Rays in the seventh and eighth innings to preserve a four-run advantage, but the ninth begins roughly. Izzy cedes a leadoff double, then uncorks a wild pitch, followed by a walk to Wade Boggs, the fourth ball coming on another wild pitch that brings in a run. Following a strike out, Isringhausen allows a single to McGriff, and a passed ball causes another run to score. Having seen enough, Valentine brings in Dennis Cook to restore order, and the lefty strikes out John Flaherty to end a very ugly game.
  • Saturday, July 17, 1999

    Tampa Bay Devil Rays 3, New York Mets 2 at Tropicana Field

    On a Turn Back The Clock day, the Mets don 1969-style flannel uniforms while the Devil Rays wear the togs of the Tarpons, an erstwhile Reds affiliate from Tampa Bay. Orel Hershiser does not look comfortable in the old school duds to begin the game, walking three batters and allowing three runs in the first inning. (He doesn’t fault the uniforms, blaming Tropicana Field’s flat bullpen “mounds” instead.) He settles in after that, retiring 11 of 12 batters at one point, but Tampa Bay has already scored all the runs they need. His teammates do virtually nothing against Devil Ray starter Wilson Álvarez and squander the few opportunities they get, as when Benny Agbayani is picked off of second base in the top of the seventh to squash a potential rally. Norm Charlton strikes out Mike Piazza with two men on the in the eighth, and in the ninth Robin Ventura misses a game tying home run by a matter of feet. The near miss causes him to lock eyes with the Devil Rays’ closer, Roberto Hernández, a former teammate on the White Sox. The two of them share a wan laugh as the series ends.
  • Sunday, July 18, 1999

    New York Mets 8, Baltimore Orioles 6 at Oriole Park at Camden Yards

    In the opener of the Mets’ last interleague series of the season, Rickey Henderson puts on yet another show by hitting a leadoff home run, the 75th of his illustrious career, and scoring three runs. He also ignites a three-run rally in the fifth by beating out an infield hit before coming around to score on a Mike Piazza single. At day’s end, Henderson has 2,060 runs scored (two behind Willie Mays for fifth all time) and one RBI shy of 1,000. “So now I have a chance to get them both in one day tomorrow,” he notes. The Met offense piles on with three more runs in sixth. Masato Yoshii pitches well to that point in the game but falters in the bottom of the seventh, allowing four runs on a flurry of singles. Dennis Cook enters the game in the eighth and allows a solo homer to Jeff Conine that shaves the Mets’ lead down to two runs. Armando Benítez is called on to stop the bleeding in the bottom of the ninth, emerging from the bullpen to hearty boos from fans who remember his struggles in an Oriole uniform. He issues a leadoff walk but otherwise sets his former team down easily to preserve the victory. “Maybe they booed me because they don’t have me anymore,” Benítez surmises afterwards.
  • Monday, July 19, 1999

    New York Mets 4, Baltimore Orioles 1 at Oriole Park at Camden Yards

    Prior to the All Star Game, Octavio Dotel was given a temporary minor league assignment to prevent him from gathering too much dust over the break. Unfortunately, his schedule was thrown by inclement weather in Norfolk, and so he starts the Mets’ second game on only three days’ rest. He looks no worse for the wear, however, as he retires the first 10 Orioles who step up to the plate. On the evening, Dotel limits Baltimore to three hits over seven innings, the only run coming on a leadoff home run by Will Clark in the bottom of the fifth. Rickey Henderson leads the Met offense yet again as he singles and scores in the Mets’ two-run rally in the fourth inning. Solo homers from Edgardo Alfonzo and Robin Ventura add insurance runs that Dotel’s pitching renders unnecessary. Armando Benítez draws more boos when he emerges for the save, but it doesn’t prevent him from setting the Orioles down in order in the ninth.
  • Tuesday, July 20, 1999

    Baltimore Orioles 4, New York Mets 1 at Oriole Park at Camden Yards

    In the Baltimore farewell, Al Leiter has a surprisingly ineffective outing, failing to pitch six innings for the first time in two months. The lefty loads the bases in a rough first inning and plunks Will Clark with a pitch to force in the first Orioles run. The Mets tie the score on an Edgardo Alfonzo RBI single in the top of the third, but that is all the scoring they can manage against Baltimore’s starter, the large, hard-throwing Aruban righty Sidney Ponson, who scatters six hits and goes the distance for a complete game victory. The Orioles score three times in the fourth, the big blow an Albert Belle two-run shot. The Mets’ sole run on the day is scored by Rickey Henderson, a score that ties him for fifth on the all-time runs scored list with Willie Mays.
  • Wednesday, July 21, 1999

    New York Mets 7, Montréal Expos 3 at Olympic Stadium

    The Mets score early and often in the first game of a brief two-day set in Montréal, as Mike Piazza belts a two-run blast in the top of the first, followed immediately by a Robin Ventura solo shot. An Edgardo Alfonzo double in the seventh drives in Rickey Henderson and sends him past Willie Mays for fifth on the all-time runs scored list. Rick Reed allows 10 hits to the Expos but limits the scoring to three runs.
  • Thursday, July 22, 1999

    New York Mets 7, Montréal Expos 4 at Olympic Stadium

    The Mets’ eight-game road trip concludes with Orel Hershiser throwing seven innings of two-run ball, good enough for his 200th career win. Hershiser even contributes with his bat and his legs, hitting two singles and stealing third on the front end of a double steal in the top of the seventh. The Mets break the game open early, scoring six runs and hitting six doubles in the top of the second, one shy of the major league record for two-baggers hit in one inning. Jason Isringhausen and Dennis Cook throw an inning apiece to close out the victory. The team’s hot play has coincided with a rare losing streak by the Braves—five games, Atlanta’s longest slide in three seasons. And so the Mets will return to Queens just two games out of first place.
  • Friday, July 23, 1999

    New York Mets 5, Chicago Cubs 4 at Shea Stadium

    Prior to the Mets’ first home game after the All Star break, the home team honors Sammy Sosa with a pregame ceremony, a curious celebration to throw for a player who is not about to retire. Sosa celebrates by taking Masato Yoshii deep in the first inning with a long three-run homer. The Mets are trailing 4-1 in the bottom of the sixth when they rally for three runs, the big blow a two-run triple by Benny Agbayani. A Mike Piazza RBI single plates the go-ahead run in the bottom of the seventh, and the Mets hold on the rest of the way, with Armando Benítez pitching an impressive ninth inning for the save.
  • Saturday, July 24, 1999

    New York Mets 2, Chicago Cubs 1 at Shea Stadium

    Octavio Dotel pitches brilliantly for 7 1/3 innings, striking out nine batters, the only mark against him a solo shot from Sammy Sosa in the top of the third. The Mets respond with homers of their own from Edgardo Alfonzo and Robin Ventura in the fifth and sixth respectively, which prove the difference. Dotel looks as if he may falter in the eighth inning when he allows a leadoff double to Mickey Morandini, but he fans Sosa immediately thereafter. Dennis Cook and Armando Benítez shut the door on the Cubs the rest of the way.
  • Sunday, July 25, 1999

    New York Mets 5, Chicago Cubs 1 at Shea Stadium

    Al Leiter throws eight strong innings, limiting the Cubs to one run, while his teammates take advantage of sloppy defense and even sloppier pitching, scoring three times in the first inning thanks to an error and two bases loaded walks. Rickey Henderson collects two RBIs with a solo homer and a run-scoring single, giving him 1,001 for his career. With Leiter having thrown 129 pitches at the end of the eighth inning, Jason Isringhausen is asked to hold down the fort in the ninth. He allows a double but nothing else, completing New York’s sweep of Chicago.
  • Monday, July 26, 1999

    New York Mets 7, Pittsburgh Pirates 5 at Shea Stadium

    The Mets jump all over one of Pittsburgh’s young firethrowers, Francisco Córdova, hanging six runs on his ledger. A two-run Benny Agbayani double in the fourth inspires chants of BEN-NY! BEN-NY! from the Shea crowd. The team’s pitching does not keep pace with its offense, however. With the recent acquisition of Kenny Rogers, Rick Reed’s presence in the starting rotation is clearly in jeopardy, but he does not pitch like a man afraid of losing his job, ceding four runs in less than six innings to an offensively challenged Pirates lineup. Armando Benítez comes on for the save in the ninth and inexplicably issues four straight walks to a benign series of batters such as Dale Sveum, a veteran who spent most of 1998 as the Yankees’ bullpen catcher. Turk Wendell is forced to take up closing duties and records the last two outs to cap an otherwise unsightly win.
  • Tuesday, July 27, 1999

    Pittsburgh Pirates 5, New York Mets 1 at Shea Stadium

    On the evening of the infamous Turn Ahead the Clock Night, the “Mercury” Mets’ bats are silenced by rookie Kris Benson, as he goes the distance for a complete game victory. New York’s scoring is limited to a Robin Ventura solo homer in the seventh. Orel Hershiser allows only four hits in 6 1/3 innings, but two of those hits are long homers by Al Martin. Jason Isringhausen takes Hershiser’s spot in the top of the seventh and permits an inherited runner to score, while also ceding a solo homer to Brant Brown, more than enough offense for Pittsburgh with Benson on the mound.
  • Wednesday, July 28, 1999

    New York Mets 9, Pittsburgh Pirates 2 at Shea Stadium

    Newly acquired starter Kenny Rogers makes his Mets debut in the Pittsburgh series finale and limits the Pirates to one hit over the first six innings. Unfortunately, Rogers feels his balky hamstring tighten up at that point and is forced to leave the game, adding another question mark to an already questionable pitching staff. The Mets score two runs in the first on solo homers from Edgardo Alfonzo and Robin Ventura and nurse a 2-1 lead into the top of the eighth when Dennis Cook allows a game-tying pinch-hit homer from John Wehner, a man so sure he’d be out of baseball this summer he’d planned a family vacation to Aruba at the same time as the Pirates' series at Shea. Cook is bailed out in the bottom half when Pirate second baseman Warren Morris boots a potential double play grounder, then Benny Agbayani hits an RBI double to give the Mets back the lead. From there, the Pirates’ bullpen completely unravels. When the dust settles, the Mets score seven runs and a tight ballgame becomes a rout. The victory, combined with a Braves loss, pulls the Mets a half-game behind the Braves for first place in the National League East.
  • Friday, July 30, 1999

    New York Mets 10, Chicago Cubs 9 at Wrigley Field

    With Chicago in the midst of a punishing heat wave, Masato Yoshii takes the mound at Wrigley Field and turns in the shortest performance of his stateside career. He serves up a 465-foot bomb of a homer to Sammy Sosa in the first, then is knocked out of the game by a brutal second inning in which he allows six consecutive hits (including a single by opposing starter Steve Trachsel and back-to-back triples by Mickey Morandini and Sosa). Longman Pat Mahomes stops the bleeding by holding the Cubs to two hits and one run in 4 2/3 innings, giving the Mets the chance to come back. He also helps spark that comeback with an RBI double that sends Trachsel to the showers in the fourth. The Mets slowly chip away and take the lead with two-run rallies in the third, fourth, and fifth innings. A solo shot from José Hernández in the bottom of the fifth ties the score at 8, but Rickey Henderson responds with a homer of his own in the top of the sixth, and John Olerud hits another leading off the ninth to expand the Mets’ lead. Brought in for the save in the bottom of the ninth, Armando Benítez records two quick outs, only to give up a double to Morandini and an RBI single to Sosa, cutting the Mets’ lead to one run. After Mark Grace follows with a single that moves the tying run to third, pinch hitter Tyler Houston hits a shot off of Benítez’s right leg. At first, the pitcher is unable to locate the ball, but after a few helpful screams from Mike Piazza (who catches the entire game through the insane heat, though he does change his uniform three times), Benítez locates the ball at the foot of the mound and throws Houston out at first, just barely, to bring the game to a dramatic end. “I play goal now,” the closer quips. The hard-fought win, combined with another Atlanta loss, launches the Mets into unfamiliar territory: First place, at the latest point in a Mets season since 1990.
  • Saturday, July 31, 1999

    Chicago Cubs 17, New York Mets 10 at Wrigley Field

    The Cubs, who were shut down by Octavio Dotel at Shea a week ago, treat the rookie like a punching bag on their own turf. With Chicago temperatures still well over 100 degrees, Dotel is subjected to a seven-run first inning bloodbath, capped by a grand slam off the bat of veteran Gary Gaetti. Dotel cedes two more runs in the second on a Sammy Sosa homer and departs at the close of that inning. The Mets attempt another valiant comeback, almost singlehandedly engineered by Robin Ventura, who homers twice and drives in six runs all by himself. His second longball in the top of the fifth brings the Mets within a run, and a Rey Ordoñez RBI single in the same frame ties the game at 9. Unfortunately, the bullpen is not up to the task of suppressing the Cubs two days in a row, as Chicago roughs up Mets relievers for eight more runs. Jason Isringhausen suffers the worst of it, allowing five runs in three-plus innings of work in what will prove to be his last appearance in a Met uniform before a trade to Oakland. In the bottom of the eighth, as Dennis Cook gives up two more runs and the game gets completely out of hand, Bobby Valentine asks utility man Matt Franco to warm up in the bullpen to spare his pitchers’ arms any more abuse, but Cook secures the last out of the inning on his own, thus preventing another embarrassing trip to the mound for Mr. Franco. The Braves’ win against the Phillies drops the Mets back to a half-game back in the National League East standings.

August

  • Sunday, August 1, 1999

    New York Mets 5, Chicago Cubs 4 (13 innings) at Wrigley Field

    Al Leiter attempts to provide some relief to a battered bullpen by giving one of his best performances of the year, pitching seven innings and striking out 15 Cubs, the most Ks by a Mets starter since David Cone fanned 19 in the last game of the 1991 season. In the top of the sixth, a two-run double by John Olerud and an RBI single from Darryl Hamilton (acquired the day before in a trade with Colorado) combine to give the Mets a 3-2 lead, but Armando Benítez’s first pitch in the bottom of the ninth inning is clubbed for a game-tying homer by Henry Rodríguez. Thus begins another parade of relievers on another blazing hot Chicago afternoon. The Mets retake the lead in the top of the tenth when Rickey Henderson walks, steals second, advances to third on a throwing error, and scores on an Edgardo Alfonzo sac fly. But Benítez walks the first two batters he faces in the bottom half and is yanked in favor of ex-A’s closer Billy Taylor (snagged at the trade deadline from Oakland for Jason Isringhausen), who can only induce a groundout that moves the lead runners up a base. After an intentional walk to load the bases, Dennis Cook induces a grounder to first that has the potential to be a game-ending double play or a play at the plate. Instead, the ball clanks off of Olerud’s usually unimpeachable glove, allowing a run to score. The next batter hits into that elusive double play, and the game drags on into more extra innings. A few futile frames follow until Roger Cedeño leads off the top of the thirteenth with a double. After Todd Pratt and Rey Ordoñez fail to advance him, the Cubs elect to walk Benny Agbayani intentionally, figuring the Mets’ depleted bench and bullpen will force pitcher Pat Mahomes—who came on to pitch in the bottom of the twelfth and is the last line of defense for an exhausted bullpen—to bat for himself. Mahomes confounds the Cubs’ strategy by blooping a single into center field that barely eludes the glove of Chicago’s shortstop, bringing home Cedeño with the go-ahead run. Mahomes records the first two outs in the bottom of the thirteenth with little trouble before the Cubs try the Mets’ trick of allowing a relief pitcher, Scott Sanders, to bat for himself. (Also like the Mets, the Cubs are completely out of position players and have no other choice.) Sanders responds with a long double off the ivy in left field, igniting the Wrigley Field crowd and terrifying everyone on the field into thinking that this game may never end. The Mets try to appeal Sanders’ trot to second, saying he missed first base, but the umpires overrule them. Fortunately for New York, Mahomes recovers to strike out catcher Jeff Reed and bring the exhausting game (all four hours and 25 minutes of it), and series, to a conclusion with the Mets on top.
  • Monday, August 2, 1999

    New York Mets 7, Milwaukee Brewers 2 at County Stadium

    Relieved and relaxed after not being traded at the deadline as he feared, Rick Reed pitches seven innings and limits the Brewers to two runs. His opposition, Hideo Nomo, has pitched well for Milwaukee after being let go by the Mets and Cubs earlier this season, but whatever magic he found in Wisconsin eludes him on this occasion. Nomo allows six runs in five innings, ceding longballs to Robin Ventura, Darryl Hamilton, and Mike Piazza, who caught plenty of Nomo pitches as both a Met and a Dodger. With the Braves idle, the victory helps the Mets pull into a tie for first place. Rickey Henderson leaves the game with a hip flexor issue, but the newly acquired Shawon Dunston takes his place and knocks in a run in his first at bat as a Met.
  • Tuesday, August 3, 1999

    New York Mets 10, Milwaukee Brewers 3 at County Stadium

    Mike Piazza and Robin Ventura both homer for the second straight day, while Milwaukee hurler and former Generation K member Bill Pulsipher allows six runs in five innings before he is chased from the game. Two of those are unearned thanks to a terrible throw by Milwaukee catcher Brian Banks that turns a double steal into a pair of runs for the Mets. Shawon Dunston starts for the ailing Rickey Henderson and goes 3 for 4. Masato Yoshii, recently demoted to the due to the acquisition of Kenny Rogers, makes his relief debut in the ninth inning and requires only four pitches to retire the side. Meanwhile in Pittsburgh, the Pirates’ Kris Benson shuts down the Braves as easily as he did the Mercury Mets a week earlier. That means New York once again has sole possession of first place, a whole game in front of Atlanta.
  • Wednesday, August 4, 1999

    New York Mets 9, Milwaukee Brewers 5 at County Stadium

    Kenny Rogers makes his scheduled start in the final game, despite suffering from hamstring woes. He does not look all that sharp, allowing three homers to Brewers hitters after giving up a mere eight in his previous 125 innings pitched. But he also contributes an RBI single in the top of the second, his first regular season hit. (He did manage one in the 1996 World Series when the Yankees played in Atlanta, though he did little else right during that postseason.) The rest of the offense bails Rogers out by scoring seven runs in the first four innings. Robin Ventura homers for the third straight day, and Edgardo Alfonzo goes deep as well as the Mets hold on for a win that ensures they will head back to New York in first place.
  • Friday, August 6, 1999

    New York Mets 2, Los Angeles Dodgers 1 at Shea Stadium

    Octavio Dotel recovers from his rough outing in Chicago, pitching seven excellent innings and striking out 10 Dodgers. Playing his first game at Shea Stadium since his trade to Los Angeles, Todd Hundley receives a standing ovation from the New York crowd before going down on strikes three times, baffled by Dotel’s assortment of pitches despite the fact that he caught the rookie during a rehab stint at triple-A in 1998. “He kept climbing the ladder on me and I kept going with him like an idiot,” he says later. Dotel limits the Dodger damage to a lone run, which only scores in the top of the third after he cedes a two-out single to opposing pitcher Chan Ho Park, loads the bases on a walk and hit batter, and balks Park home. Roger Cedeño, who could never break into the starting lineup in four seasons with the Dodgers, exacts revenge in the bottom half of that inning by hitting a one-out single, stealing second and third base, and scoring on an Edgardo Alfonzo sac fly, barely beating a strong throw to the plate from Raúl Mondesí. The Mets take the lead on another sac fly in the bottom of the fourth, this one from Benny Agbayani, then hang on for dear life. The bullpen provides some agita, particularly when Armando Benítez allows a one-out single to Eric Karros and walks Hundley to put the go-ahead runs on base in the top of the ninth. The closer escapes danger by striking out Mondesí and Adrián Beltré to preserve the win.
  • Saturday, August 7, 1999

    Los Angeles Dodgers 7, New York Mets 6 at Shea Stadium

    The Mets take a 4-0 lead after two innings on RBI hits from Edgardo Alfonzo, Matt Franco, and Mike Piazza. The Dodgers score three of their own off of Al Leiter as he struggles his way through the fourth and fifth innings, but the lefty weathers the storm to pitch into the eighth, while the Mets receive a gift run on a wild pitch that brings Roger Cedeño scampering home in the bottom of the sixth. After Los Angeles pulls closer on a Paul Lo Duca solo shot in the top of the eighth, Leiter and Dennis Cook cap the scoring there, and the Mets still command a 5-4 lead going into the ninth inning. Armando Benítez threw 26 pitches the night before in preserving the Mets’ win, so Bobby Valentine decides to give him some rest and use Billy Taylor—who was acquired at the deadline for the express purpose of reducing Benítez’s workload—in his stead. Taylor falls behind the first batter he faces, Garry Sheffield, then throws a meatball right over the plate that the slugger clubs for a game-tying home run. One out later, Taylor walks Raúl Mondesí and allows him to steal second. After an intentional walk, Valentine removes Taylor for another deadline acquisition, southpaw Chuck McElroy, who gives up a two-run double to Craig Counsell, current owner of a .198 batting average. The Mets get a golden opportunity to tie the game in the bottom half, as Cedeño hits a leadoff single, steals second, moves to third when Alfonzo reaches on an error, and scores on a John Olerud hit. But with runners at the corners and nobody out, Mike Piazza grounds into a double play. Though Alfonzo could have darted home to score the winning run on that twin killing, he stays anchored to the bag. He remains there when the next batter, Agbayani, grounds out harmlessly to conclude a deflating defeat.
  • Sunday, August 8, 1999

    Los Angeles Dodgers 14, New York Mets 3 at Shea Stadium

    Rick Reed only throws 26 pitches before straining his middle finger, an injury that will send him to the disabled list. The Dodgers proceed to abuse every Mets pitcher who dares take his place on the mound. Called on for long relief, Masato Yoshii watches his first pitch sail 408 feet to straightaway center. The fearsome slugger who clubs this moonshot is Dan Dreifort, the opposing pitcher. Los Angeles scores five runs off of Yoshii, three off of Pat Mahomes, and two more off of Chuck McElroy. For the second time this season, Bobby Valentine is forced to use utility man Matt Franco as a reliever in the ninth inning to preserve what’s left of his relief corps. (McElroy takes Franco’s post in left field and manages a fine running catch at his new position.) Franco allows one hit, three walks and one run while striking out a batter, thus earning him the best line of any Mets pitcher on the day.
  • Monday, August 9, 1999

    Los Angeles Dodgers 9, New York Mets 2 at Shea Stadium

    In the Dodger series finale, LA’s ace Kevin Brown proves nearly unhittable, his formidable sinker inducing one harmless groundball after another. Brown cedes a mere pair of singles and one walk in seven innings, and only departs at that point due to a blister on his pitching hand. Orel Hershiser does not pitch to the same standard, to put it mildly, as four of the first five batters he faces reach base in a two-run first inning, causing boos to rain down from the fickle Shea crowd. The bullpen is tattooed for the second straight game, as Billy Taylor, Turk Wendell, and recent callup Dan Murray (making his first and last Mets appearance) combine to allow six runs.
  • Tuesday, August 10, 1999

    New York Mets 4, San Diego Padres 3 at Shea Stadium

    Tony Gwynn, who recently collected his 3000th career hit, draws a standing ovation from the Shea Stadium crowd. Kenny Rogers is treated more rudely, drawing a loud chorus of boos when he allows three runs in the top of the fourth to a weak Padres lineup, an onslaught that includes an RBI double by opposing pitcher Andy Ashby. Rogers redeems himself by hitting his way on in the fifth, running first to third when outfielder Reggie Sanders slips on the grass, and scoring on John Olerud’s game-tying two-run single. The Mets take the lead in the seventh when Rickey Henderson (who’d sat out all three of the losses to the Dodgers, nursing a sore hip flexor) singles and scores on John Olerud’s second RBI hit of the evening. Henderson’s acolyte, Roger Cedeño, swipes his 58th base of the year in the eighth inning, tying the club record for stolen bases in a season held by Mookie Wilson.
  • Wednesday, August 11, 1999

    New York Mets 12, San Diego Padres 5 at Shea Stadium

    After a rain delay of over an hour, Octavio Dotel struggles through a 40-pitch first inning, walking four batters and ceding two runs. He eventually allows five runs in less than five innings of work, but longman Pat Mahomes throws 2 1/3 scoreless innings in relief and also singles to begin a four-run rally against San Diego starter Sterling Hitchcock in the bottom of the fifth. Edgardo Alfonzo is the offensive star of the day, as he belts a two-run homer and drives in five runs on the evening. The Mets blow things open with a wild six-run seventh inning to turn a squeaker into a laugher.
  • Thursday, August 12, 1999

    New York Mets 9, San Diego Padres 3 at Shea Stadium

    The Mets score three runs each in the first and third innings to give Al Leiter a healthy 6-0 lead. Leiter does not appear willing to accept this gift, as he struggles with his command, walking four batters and giving up three runs in the top of the fifth, but the Mets plate another trio in the bottom half. Amazingly, all three are driven in by Leiter. Renowned as an infamously bad hitter, even by a pitcher’s standards, Leiter shocks everyone (including himself) by hitting a bases-loaded double against San Diego starter Woody Williams. After regifting himself a six-run advantage, Leiter pitches through the seventh inning with little further trouble to complete a sweep of San Diego. The win ensures the Mets will head out on a west coast trip with a share of first place in the National League East.
  • Friday, August 13, 1999

    San Francisco Giants 3, New York Mets 2 at 3Com Park

    Forced back into the rotation by Rick Reed’s finger injury, Masato Yoshii pitches well, but a costly error by Luis López (subbing at second base for Edgardo Alfonzo, who is back in Venezuela for a family funeral) and solo homers by Rich Aurilia and Marvin Benard doom the Mets’ hopes. New York batters do little against Russ Ortiz, a young lefty putting up ace-like numbers in 1999. Matt Franco and Rickey Henderson provide a brief glimmer of hope when they rap out two-out singles in the top of the ninth against San Francisco’s fearsome closer Robb Nen, but he induces a groundout from Benny Agbayani for the final out.
  • Saturday, August 14, 1999

    New York Mets 6, San Francisco Giants 1 at 3Com Park

    On a typically gusty afternoon at Candlestick, the crafty Orel Hershiser takes advantage of the cold and wind to transform his sinkerball into a breaking ball. Hershiser pitches six solid innings, the only mark against him an RBI single by opposing pitcher Kirk Reuter. The Mets put up a five-spot in the fourth inning, the biggest blow a two-run homer by Mike Piazza, who goes 3-for-5 on the day (and who is still booed lustily in San Francisco by Giants fans who remember his days in Dodger blue). Benny Agbayani also knocks in a pair, doing so in front of a crowd that includes many relatives who flew in from Hawaii to see him play in the bigs for the first time.
  • Sunday, August 15, 1999

    New York Mets 12, San Francisco Giants 5 at 3Com Park

    Kenny Rogers puts the Mets in an early 3-0 hole by giving up homers to Ramon Martinez and Barry Bonds, but his teammates bounce back with a five-run top of the fifth against old friend Liván Hernández, who came to San Francisco in a deadline deal with the Marlins, and who the Mets have already defeated four times this season. The five-run rally includes a Robin Ventura homer with the bases juiced, his thirteenth career grand slam and third of this season. The Mets continue to victimize the Giants’ staff for the rest of the game, while Rogers recovers from his early struggles to go the distance. His complete game is the first by a Mets pitcher in 139 contests stretching back to 1998.
  • Monday, August 16, 1999

    New York Mets 4, San Diego Padres 3 (10 innings) at Qualcomm Stadium

    Octavio Dotel no-hits the Padres for six innings and receives a 2-0 lead courtesy of solo homers from Rickey Henderson and Mike Piazza. Piazza’s shot, his fourth in as many games, travels 448 feet into the second deck of spacious Qualcomm Stadium. But after Dotel issues back-to-back walks to start the bottom of the seventh, Phil Nevin belts one of his offerings into the left field stands, taking the no-hitter and the lead along with it. Dotel finishes the inning, striking out two in the process (giving him a total of nine), but he immediately stalks off the mound and into the visiting dugout tunnel. Edgardo Alfonzo single-handedly bails out Dotel, first by singling and scoring the tying run in the top of the eighth. After Turk Wendell and Dennis Cook hold serve in the eighth and ninth innings, Fonzie hits a go-ahead home run in the top of the tenth. Armando Benítez earns the save in the bottom half while striking out two.
  • Tuesday, August 17, 1999

    San Diego Padres 3, New York Mets 2 at Qualcomm Stadium

    Al Leiter has an uncharacteristically wild outing, walking eight batters, including four straight to start the second inning and force in a run. The fourth walk is issued to Leiter’s old Toronto teammate Woody Williams, who also belts an RBI double off of the Met lefty, a small bit of revenge for the three-run double Leiter hit against Williams at Shea a week earlier. Williams pitches into the eighth inning and limits the Mets to four hits.
  • Wednesday, August 18, 1999

    New York Mets 9, San Diego Padres 1 at Qualcomm Stadium

    The Mets win the rubber game in San Diego with their second complete game in a week (after requiring 119 games of this season to notch their first), this one from the surprising source of Masato Yoshii. Gifted a 3-0 lead on a Robin Ventura homer in the first, Yoshii dominates the Padres for the bulk of the game, retiring 16 batters in a row at one point. Mike Piazza hits a solo shot to tie Ventura for the team lead in home runs (28) and drives in three runs in total. By taking two of three from the Padres, the Mets win their eighth consecutive road series.
  • Saturday, August 21, 1999

    New York Mets 7, St. Louis Cardinals 4 at Shea Stadium

    With a Friday night game rained out, the start of Mark McGwire’s only trip to Shea in 1999 has to wait until this Saturday matinee. Though Kenny Rogers wakes up with back spams, The Gambler bets he can pitch through the pain, but his wager puts the Mets behind immediately as he loads the bases in the top of the first and allows a two-run single to Fernando Tatís. The damage would be even worse, but for a stellar inning-ending double play turned by Rey Ordoñez and Edgardo Alfonzo that causes Cardinal manager Tony LaRussa to shake his head in disbelief. “Some players have more errors than their whole infield has,” he says. Rogers exits after three innings with his team trailing, but Pat Mahomes comes to the rescue once again with 3 1/3 scoreless, hitless frames. The Mets tie things up on a Shawon Dunston RBI groundout in the bottom of the third, take the lead on a Rickey Henderson run-scoring single in the sixth, and knock in two more in the seventh. Turk Wendell, who has inexplicably acted as kryptonite against McGwire throughout his career, notches a big strikeout of the slugger in the seventh and contributes a scoreless eighth to boot. Armando Benítez finishes things off with style by striking out the side in the ninth to put a bow on the Met win.
  • Sunday, August 22, 1999 (Game 1)

    New York Mets 8, St. Louis Cardinals 7 at Shea Stadium

    In the first game of a doubleheader prompted by Friday’s rainout, St. Louis lefty Darren Oliver stifles Met hitters for seven innings, allowing just one run over that stretch, while Mark McGwire abuses Met pitchers, belting two long homers. The first, served up by Octavio Dotel, is hit so high and so hard it takes out lightbulbs in the visiting team’s lineup display on Shea Stadium’s huge scoreboard. The home team fights back to tie the game with a five-run outburst in the eighth inning, four of those runs coming on a John Olerud grand slam. It looks like this dramatic comeback might go for nought when Armando Benítez allows St. Louis to regain the lead in the top of the ninth, but the Mets rebound with yet another rally in the bottom half. Cardinal reliever Ricky Bottalico issues one-out walks to Rey Ordoñez and pinch hitter Matt Franco, which enable Rickey Henderson to smash a game-tying double. Cardinal manager Tony LaRussa asks his infield to play in for the next batter, hoping for a play at the plate. Edgardo Alfonzo confounds the plan with a hard grounder that both the shortstop and third baseman dive for but neither catches. Franco trots home with the winning run to cap the come-from-behind victory.
  • Sunday, August 22, 1999 (Game 2)

    St. Louis Cardinals 7, New York Mets 5 at Shea Stadium

    In the nightcap of a rain-necessitated doubleheader, Garrett Stephenson limits the Mets to two runs over seven innings, while Orel Hershiser gives up three to the Cardinals over the same span. With Octavio Dotel having exited early in the first game of the double header, Bobby Valentine is all but forced to rest his more reliable bullpen arms. He pays for it when Billy Taylor and Chuck McElroy combine to allow four runs, the last three scoring on a bases-loaded line drive off the bat of Adam Kennedy that Matt Franco misjudges into a costly double. The home team attempts their second comeback of the afternoon in the bottom of the ninth, beginning when Benny Agbayani is hit by a pitch and comes around to score on a Rey Ordoñez single. After sitting out most of the second game, Mike Piazza contributes a pinch hit, two-out, two-run single (making this his tenth straight game with at least one RBI) that trims the Cardinals’ lead to two runs. Piazza’s blow brings Edgardo Alfonzo to the plate as the tying run, giving him a chance to play hero for the second time on the day, but he grounds out to end the ballgame.
  • Monday, August 23, 1999

    New York Mets 3, Houston Astros 2 at Shea Stadium

    Al Leiter caps the Astros’ offense at a pair of solo homers, though the second is a game-tying 400-foot bomb from ex-Met Carl Everett in the top of the seventh. Houston starter Scott Elarton allows his own homer to Edgardo Alfonzo in the first and an RBI sac fly to Roger Cedeño in the fourth, but otherwise keeps the Mets quiet for eight innings. However, Astros manager Larry Dierker is forced to pinch hit for Elarton in the top of the ninth in a vain attempt to push home the go-ahead run. His sub, Daryle Ward, singles against Turk Wendell, as does the following batter, Craig Biggio, but Armando Benítez enters the game to strike out the dangerous Jeff Bagwell and keep the score tied. In the bottom half, Darryl Hamilton hits a one out double and moves to third on a deep flyball off the bat of Cedeño. The Astros give Rey Ordoñez a free pass in order to force Bobby Valentine to bat for Benítez, who is due up next up. Valentine takes the bait and sends up Matt Franco, self-proclaimed goat of the second half of the Cardinals doubleheader on Sunday. Franco redeems himself with a parachute single down the left field line, just out of the reach of all three fielders who frantically run after it, earning the Mets a walkoff win.
  • Tuesday, August 24, 1999

    Houston Astros 5, New York Mets 1 (10 innings) at Shea Stadium

    Much as he had earlier this season against Greg Maddux, Masato Yoshii again finds himself on the unlikely end of a fierce pitcher’s duel when he faces off against Mike Hampton, Houston lefty in the midst of a Cy Young-caliber season. Yoshii gives up a monstrous home run to Carl Everett (459 feet off the scoreboard in right-center) to start the second inning, but is otherwise untouchable for 7 1/3 innings. It looks like that one run might be enough for the Astros as Hampton makes mincemeat of the Met lineup, setting down the first nine batters in order, inducing some timely double plays to erase the few baserunners he does allow, and even contributing a few hits to his own cause. Then, Mike Piazza leads off the seventh with his own moon shot (445 feet to the picnic area in left field) to tie the game at 1. Both bullpens hold down the fort until the top of the tenth, when Dennis Cook enters the game for the Mets. Though worked often this season, Cook has not made an appearance in eight days and he looks more than a bit rusty in this outing. He allows a leadoff bloop hit to Tony Eusebio that the batter legs out for a double. (“The bloops got even tonight,” Valentine notes after the game, referring to Franco’s game-winning hit the night before.) After Eusebio tags up and moves to third on an outfield fly, Cook intentionally walks Craig Biggio, hoping for a double play, but gives up a go-ahead RBI single to Ricky Gutierrez instead. The Astros cushion their lead when Jeff Bagwell blasts a three-run homer just over the leaping glove of Roger Cedeño in right field. The Mets go quietly in the bottom half to end a disappointing loss.
  • Wednesday, August 25, 1999

    New York Mets 4, Houston Astros 0 at Shea Stadium

    Kenny Rogers left his last start against the Cardinals with back spams and had sought out a chiropractor afterwards to deal with his injury. It thus comes as a shock when The Gambler pitches into the ninth inning of the Astros series finale and keeps Houston off the board the whole way. Rogers uses his sinker to great advantage, recording 18 of his 25 outs on the ground. Mets batters are similarly stifled by Houston starter Shane Reynolds until the bottom of the sixth, when Rickey Henderson singles, Mike Piazza doubles, and Robin Ventura drives them both in with a two-out hit. Shortly thereafter, Ventura shows some uncharacteristic speed by scoring from second on a Darryl Hamilton single, sliding just around the catcher’s tag for the third run of the inning and inspiring chants of “M-V-P! M-V-P!” from the Shea crowd. Rogers doesn’t quite make the finish line, but Dennis Cook recovers from his rough outing the night before to record the last two outs of the game.
  • Friday, August 27, 1999

    New York Mets 6, Arizona Diamondbacks 3 at Bank One Ballpark

    Octavio Dotel continues his on-again off-again pattern by following up a poor performance against the Cardinals with a dominating one against the Diamondbacks. The rookie stifles the potent Arizona lineup for eight innings, striking out six and allowing just one walk and one run. His teammates stake him to a 6-1 lead against starter Omar Daal, with three of those runs driven in by the surprising source of Rey Ordoñez. Arizona’s ace Randy Johnson, not prone to heaping praise on his colleagues (or to say much of anything at all if he can help it), admits he’s impressed by Dotel. “It was the first time I had seen him pitch,” Johnson tells reporters, “and from what I gathered from his performance, he has a bright future….It kept saying 93 [mph] on the scoreboard, but it looked a lot harder than that.” Dotel lobbies for the chance at a complete game, but with 110 pitches under his belt and many innings logged this season between the minors and the majors, Bobby Valentine thinks it wiser to preserve the rookie’s arm. Billy Taylor starts the bottom of the ninth by giving up consecutive singles to Jay Bell, Luis Gonzalez, and Matt Williams. The last hit drives in a run and puts runners at the corners with no outs. Reluctantly, Valentine is forced to yank Taylor and bring in Armando Benítez. The closer retires the next two batters and, following an RBI single from ex-Met Kelly Stinnett, induces a harmless popup to seal the win.
  • Saturday, August 28, 1999

    Arizona Diamondbacks 5, New York Mets 3 at Bank One Ballpark

    Orel Hershiser and Arizona’s starter, ex-Met Armando Reynoso, engage in a battle of baseball HORSE. Each time the latter gives the Mets a lead, the former allows the Diamondbacks to tie things up. A Roger Cedeño RBI single in the top of the fourth is countered by a Jay Bell RBI single in the bottom half. When Reynoso permits two runs to score in the top of the sixth on a Robin Ventura double and another Cedeño single, Hershiser and Dennis Cook mirror him by allowing run-scoring hits to Erubiel Durazo and Steve Finley. (Finley’s hit comes on what should have been a comebacker, but Cook finds himself distracted by the hitter’s broken bat helicoptering through the infield.) Arizona wins the battle of attrition with two outs in the seventh, when Cook allows a well-struck ball toward left field off the bat of Bell. Rickey Henderson makes a feint stab at the hit with his glove, only to watch the ball fly past him. Speedster Tony Womack scores all the way from first to give the Diamondbacks their first lead of the day, which they then pad with a solo homer by Matt Williams off of Pat Mahomes in the eighth. The Mets are retired in order in the ninth by Arizona’s new closer, Matt Mantei, a deadline acquisition from the payroll-hemorrhaging Marlins.
  • Sunday, August 29, 1999

    Arizona Diamondbacks 8, New York Mets 4 at Bank One Ballpark

    Al Leiter struggles through a difficult first inning, with his wildness and defensive miscues behind him leading to four runs. After walking the first two batters he faces and ceding an RBI double, Leiter allows a looping ball to left-center. Rickey Henderson and Darryl Hamilton each converge on the ball, nearly colliding before both back off. Neither fielder catches the ball, and two more runs score on the play. Leiter then contributes to the mess by throwing away a Gregg Colbrunn comebacker, allowing a runner to advance to third and later score on a sac fly. The Mets put together a three-run rally in the top of the second on RBI singles from Rey Ordoñez, Henderson, and Edgardo Alfonzo, while a Roger Cedeño hit plates another run in the third. But Luis Gonzalez reaches Leiter for an RBI double in the bottom of the second and a long solo shot in the seventh, while his teammates score twice more in the eighth against the ineffective duo of Chuck McElroy and Billy Taylor to put the game out of reach.
  • Monday, August 30, 1999

    New York Mets 17, Houston Astros 1 at the Astrodome

    Mets hitters abuse Houston pitchers early and often this night in Houston, but Edgardo Alfonzo hurts them worst of all. The second baseman goes 6 for 6 with three homers, five RBIs, and 16 total bases, shattering a club mark and falling only two short of the all-time record for total bases in a single game. Houston starter Shane Reynolds—a stingy control artist with an excellent strikeout-to-walk ratio and the second most K’s in the National League at the moment—is roasted for seven runs in just three innings of work, and the Mets continue to pile on from there. Roger Cedeño swipes his 59th base of the year, breaking the club mark set by Mookie Wilson. Masato Yoshii turns in another fine outing, pitching six strong innings while striking out eight. A day after resting his sore shoulder, Mike Piazza clubs a two-run homer to extend his history of hot hitting at the Astrodome (.421 lifetime batting average in the one-time Eighth Wonder of the World). Darryl Hamilton goes 4 for 5, and every starter save Yoshii collects at least one hit. Even as Bobby Valentine removes regulars from the lineup, Houston pitching continues to get pummeled. Shawon Dunston pinch hits in the top of the seventh and stays in to play centerfield, and still manages to get collect two hits and three RBIs.
  • Tuesday, August 31, 1999

    Houston Astros 6, New York Mets 2 at the Astrodome

    José Lima, colorful Houston starter enjoying surprisingly strong season, keeps the visitors off the board for seven innings. The Mets assist him by making some costly outs at third base. Particularly ugly is the indecision of Rickey Henderson in the top of the sixth, as he hesitates before trying to advance from second on a pitch bobbled by the catcher and is thrown out by a mile. The Mets finally reach Lima in the top of the eighth after Ken Caminiti commits a two-out error that permits Edgardo Alfonzo to reach safely, a miscue followed immediately by John Olerud launching the first pitch he sees for a game-tying homer. Bobby Valentine then turns to Turk Wendell, who he hasn’t used in six days in deference to his accumulated workload this season, to keep the game tied in the eighth. Wendell issues a one-out walk to Craig Biggio and gives up a booming double off of the out-of-town scoreboard in right field to Matt Mieske. Only a heads-up play of the carom by Roger Cedeño keeps a run from scoring, but the reprieve is temporary. Wendell walks Jeff Bagwell intentionally to set up a force at any base, but Caminiti atones for his costly error by blasting Wendell’s 1-1 pitch for an opposite field grand slam. Houston closer Billy Wagner sets the Mets down easily in the top of the ninth, handing them a deflating defeat. Meanwhile, a Brave win expands Atlanta’s lead in the National League East to 3.5 games.

Sept/Oct

  • Wednesday, September 1, 1999

    New York Mets 9, Houston Astros 5 at the Astrodome

    On the field, the Mets pick up where they left off in the series opener, touching up Houston pitching for 18 hits. Robin Ventura leads the way with four RBIs (bringing his total to a career-high 108) and a homer (his 200th career longball). Mike Piazza and John Olerud each hit two doubles, and Roger Cedeño tallies three hits and drives in two runs. Continuing his on-again off-again trend, Octavio Dotel pitches five so-so innings and leaves a bases loaded jam for Pat Mahomes to clean up in the sixth, but the longman allows just one inherited runner to score as he, Dennis Cook, and Armando Benítez combine to limit the Astros to one run the rest of the way.
  • Friday, September 3, 1999

    Colorado Rockies 5, New York Mets 2 (10 innings) at Shea Stadium

    In the wake of the Rey Ordoñez-Luis López dustup, the Met lineup finds itself unable to scrape together more than two runs against Colorado starter Jamey Wright. Orel Hershiser limits the Rockies to two runs over his own six innings, and Pat Mahomes, Dennis Cook, and Armando Benítez combine for three scoreless frames, but the game gets away from the bullpen in the tenth. Turk Wendell starts the trouble with a one-out walk of Todd Walker, followed by a single from Dante Bichette to put runners on the corners. With lefty slugger Vinny Castilla due up, Bobby Valentine calls on southpaw Chuck McElroy, against whom Castilla is 0-for-7 in his career. Despite this record, McElroy walks the slugger to bring up journeyman switch-hitter Jeff Barry, who made his first brief major league appearance with the Mets back in 1995 and has mostly languished in the minors ever since. Barry is supposedly better hitting right-handed than left, and he shows it by batting righty against McElroy and clubbing his first pitch for a booming drive beyond Roger Cedeño’s reach in right field. All three runners come around to score on the double. Valentine later scribbles the mild euphemism “darn” in his desk calendar to denote a loss that, combined with a Braves win, pushes the Mets 4.5 games out of first, their largest deficit since July. A Cincinnati loss maintains New York’s four-game lead in the wild card standings.
  • Saturday, September 4, 1999

    New York Mets 4, Colorado Rockies 2 at Shea Stadium

    Al Leiter guts out his performance in this game, as he allows 11 Colorado hits but only two runs, dancing out of danger when he needs to and staying on the mound into the ninth inning. The lefty is aided by his teammates’ bats as well as their defense, particularly on one play that proves equal parts hilarious and horrifying to watch. Opposing pitcher and ex-Met Brian Bohanon knocks a double off of Leiter to lead off the third, then gets ambitious after Kurt Abbott hits a two-out single to center. Bohanon—who, according to the Daily News, “weighs considerably more than the 240 pounds at which he is listed” —lumbers toward third on Abbott’s single, then around it, as Shawon Dunston fields the ball and fires it to the plate so hard he flops to the ground as he throws. Piazza catches the ball on one hop and blocks, steeling himself for a brutal collision with the bulky pitcher. Bohanon avoids this by running home standing, allowing himself to be tagged out without protest. The Mets trail 2-1 in the bottom of the fifth when Rickey Henderson works a one-out walk, allowing Edgardo Alfonzo to blast a two-run homer into the left field bleachers. Robin Ventura adds an insurance run on a solo shot in the eighth, his 30th of the year. Leiter attempts to go the distance but gets into some two-out trouble in the ninth and requires the services of Armando Benitez, who strikes out Terry Shumpert for the final out. A rare Brave loss pulls the Mets back to 3.5 games out of first place in the National League East.
  • Sunday, September 5, 1999

    New York Mets 6, Colorado Rockies 2 at Shea Stadium

    On a drizzly afternoon at Shea, the Mets score all their runs of the day—and all they will need—in a tidy six-run outburst. Amazingly, it comes against Darryl Kile, a pitcher who’s given the Mets fits his entire career; he no-hit them as an Astro back in 1993 and hasn’t lost a game in Queens since 1992. In the bottom of the fifth, Kile loads the bases on a single and two walks, then cedes RBI singles to Mike Piazza and Robin Ventura. That allows Darryl Hamilton to top things off nicely with a grand slam over the fence in right field. Masato Yoshii sees his 16 1/3 scoreless innings streak come to an end on a two-run homer by Vinny Castilla in the sixth, but otherwise turns in another valiant effort over seven innings. John Franco gets back into the action for the first time since July, taking the mound to a surprisingly appreciative reception, and turns in a decidedly Franco-esque scoreless eighth inning. He retires the first two batters, then gives up a walk and double before John Olerud snares a sizzling line drive off the bat of Henry Blanco to bail him out. A few moments after Hamilton’s grand slam touches down in the seats, the Shea out-of-town scoreboard flashes the welcome news that Arizona has scored three unearned runs in the ninth inning to beat Atlanta, a result that puts the Mets only 2.5 games out of first place. The Met win also allows them to maintain a four-game lead in the wild card race.
  • Monday, September 6, 1999

    New York Mets 3, San Francisco Giants 0 at Shea Stadium

    Kenny Rogers pitches his second complete game against San Francisco since becoming a Met, and the first complete game shutout by any Met since June of 1998. He works both sides of the plate deftly and completely baffles the Giants hitters, especially Barry Bonds, who goes down on strikes three times. Rogers’s counterpart, Liván Hernández, leaves the game with a rib injury after two scoreless innings, thus preventing him from being defeated by the Mets for a sixth time this season. Met hitters scratch out three runs against the Giants’ bullpen, which proves sufficient. The win helps New York keep pace with Atlanta, as they remain 2.5 games out of first place.
  • Tuesday, September 7, 1999

    San Francisco Giants 7, New York Mets 4 at Shea Stadium

    Making his first start after a lengthy, frustrating stint on the disabled list, Rick Reed says his arm and middle finger feel fine, though the results do not reflect it. He begins the top of the third by giving up a leadoff double to rookie pitcher Joe Nathan, then proceeds to load the bases and surrender a three-run double to Jeff Kent, and requires 44 pitches to negotiate his way through the inning. He departs after four frames with another middling performance on his ledger in a season full of them. Reed’s teammates rally with a Todd Pratt RBI double in the fifth and run-scoring hits by John Olerud, Darryl Hamilton, and Rey Ordoñez in the sixth to take a lead. The Met bullpen holds the fort until the top of the eighth, when Turk Wendell, John Franco, and a rare Ordoñez miscue conspire to give the lead back to San Francisco. Franco, Jeff Tam, and Chuck McElroy help the Giants pad that lead with two more runs in the ninth. The Mets use eight pitchers in total, a new franchise record for a nine-inning game, in a frustrating defeat that pushes them back to 3.5 behind the Braves in the National League East.
  • Wednesday, September 8, 1999

    New York Mets 7, San Francisco Giants 5 at Shea Stadium

    After a rough loss the night before, the Mets bounce back in the Giant series finale, and so does Octavio Dotel. Continuing his pattern, Dotel follows a middling outing with a fantastic one, limiting the Giants to four hits and one run over seven innings while striking out nine. The Mets score three runs in the third inning and four more in the sixth, a rally capped by a three-run opposite field bomb from Mike Piazza. That gifts Dotel a 7-1 lead. Mindful of the rookie’s workload, Bobby Valentine removes him after seven innings, much as he had done a few weeks earlier in Arizona. On that occasion, Dotel had to sweat out the rest of the game as the bullpen nearly gave it away, and much the same thing happens again. This time, the culprit is Pat Mahomes (“I guess it was my turn to have a bad day,” he says), as he starts off the eighth inning by giving up two walks, a single, and a run while retiring no one. Dennis Cook—who, like Turk Wendell, has performed miserably since being given extended, unwanted rest—surrenders a three-run homer to Ellis Burks, trimming the Mets’ lead to two runs. Armando Benítez gets the last out of the eighth, then allows a leadoff single to Bill Mueller in the top of the ninth to bring up the powerful meat of the Giants batting order. Benítez somehow induces a fly out from Barry Bonds, then fans Jeff Kent and J.T. Snow to preserve the victory, which keeps the Mets 3.5 games up on the Reds for the wild card and 3.5 games back of the Braves in the National League East.
  • Thursday, September 9, 1999

    New York Mets 3, Los Angeles Dodgers 1 at Dodger Stadium

    When the Mets make their only trip of the season to Chavez Ravine, they add insult to injury for their hapless hosts by using ex-Dodgers to inflict most of their damage. Orel Hershiser, hero of L.A.’s improbable 1988 championship, stifles his former team for eight innings, a solo shot by Gary Sheffield in the bottom of the first the only hit recorded against him. It looks as if Sheffield’s blast might stand up, as Dodger ace Kevin Brown keeps the Mets off the board with little trouble through the fifth inning, but in the top of the sixth, shortstop Mark Grudzielanek commits a head-scratchingly awful error, running right past an easily catchable John Olerud grounder. This sets the stage for another ex-Dodger, Mike Piazza, to blast a screamer into the left field stands that leaves the park in an instant. Sheffield makes a bid to tie the score in the seventh when he hits a ball to deep right field, but yet another former Dodger continues the pain as Roger Cedeño leaps to snag the ball just before it clears the fence. September callup Jay Payton contributes a pinch hit RBI single to pad the Mets’ lead in the top of the ninth, and Armando Benítez converts his 19th save, despite walking two batters. The victory helps the Mets gain a half-game on the idle Braves while maintaining a 3.5-game lead in the wild card standings.
  • Friday, September 10, 1999

    Los Angeles Dodgers 3, New York Mets 1 at Dodger Stadium

    Dodger starter Darren Dreifort nearly goes the distance and holds the meat of the Met batting order—Edgardo Alfonzo, Mike Piazza, John Olerud, and Robin Ventura—to 0-for-15 with just a single walk to their credit. Al Leiter pitches well for the Mets, with just a pair of RBI sac flies in six innings of work on his ledger. This is all L.A. needs, however, though the Dodgers scratch out an insurance run in the seventh when Billy Taylor takes the mound for yet another ineffective outing. Bobby Valentine chooses to praise Dreifort rather than damn his hitters after the game. “That guy has as good stuff as anyone, maybe the best in the league,” he says. “I don’t know what he does that gets him in trouble, but he sure doesn’t do it against us.” The loss, combined with a Cincinnati win, shaves the Mets’ wild card lead down to 2.5 games.
  • Saturday, September 11, 1999

    New York Mets 6, Los Angeles Dodgers 2 at Dodger Stadium

    On the same day that the local L.A. papers print spurious rumors the Dodgers attempted to reacquire Mike Piazza twice in the last year, the catcher exacts his revenge at the plate, where he goes 4 for 4 and belts his second homer of the series. That longball puts the Mets up 2-0, and though the Dodgers tie things up on a homer of their own by old pal Todd Hundley in the bottom of the fourth, Piazza’s leadoff single in the top of the sixth sparks a four-run rally. Masato Yoshii holds down the fort from there, pitching seven fine innings and continuing a streak of great starting outings that have all followed Bobby Valentine’s implementation of a much-mocked six-man rotation. The win helps the Mets gain a game in the National League East on the Braves, who lost this evening, and maintain a wild-card lead over with the Reds, who won. A sour note is sounded when Darryl Hamilton leaves the game after the first inning as a result of slamming his knee into the outfield wall.
  • Sunday, September 12, 1999

    New York Mets 10, Los Angeles Dodgers 3 at Dodger Stadium

    The Mets’ Los Angeles farewell proceeds normally before devolving into what the Times terms “a comic opera.” (“If only the Three Stooges had an opportunity to work with this material.”) The Mets jump out to a 2-0 lead on a first inning homer from Edgardo Alfonzo, giving him 25 homers and 100 RBIs on the season, and making this the first season in which the Mets have sported three triple-digit run producers at once (Mike Piazza and Robin Ventura being the other two). Kenny Rogers, dealing with what he terms a “hamstring twinge” sustained while shagging fly balls in pregame warm ups, allows the Dodgers to take a lead with two runs in the third and another in the fifth, with the opposing pitcher—rookie Eric Gagne, making his second major league start—in the middle of each rally. The Mets rebound with three runs in the sixth off of Gagne, the last two scoring on a Shawon Dunston double that chases Robin Ventura home and into an awkward, diving confrontation with Dodger catcher Paul Lo Duca. The Mets then break the game open with four more runs in the seventh, despite an embarrassing play where Edgardo Alfonzo and Roger Cedeño both find themselves on third base at the same time. The win, though far from pretty, is the Mets’ 88th of the year, equal to their total of the previous two seasons. Another Atlanta loss means they will begin their next series just two games out of first place.
  • Monday, September 13, 1999

    New York Mets 6, Colorado Rockies 5 at Coors Field

    Rick Reed allows a respectable-for-Coors-Field four runs in six innings in the series opener at Coors Field. The Mets take the lead in the top of the seventh inning on a two-run homer by Rickey Henderson, but watch the Rockies tie things up again in the bottom half when Pat Mahomes cedes a leadoff solo shot to Terry Shumpert. Todd Walker follows this with a double, prompting Bobby Valentine to turn to Turk Wendell for the first time since the righty injured his knuckle in frustration after a bad outing a week earlier. Wendell wriggles out of the jam to keep the score tied, impressing Valentine enough to let him bat for himself in the top of the eighth. (Wendell walks against Colorado reliever Jerry DiPoto and even runs the bases without benefit of a jacket in the chilly Denver climate.) Turk repays Valentine’s confidence by working a scoreless bottom half, striking out two. His teammates scratch out the go-ahead run in the top of the ninth when Mike Piazza scores on a wild pitch by Rockie reliever Dave Veres. On for the save in the bottom of the ninth, Armando Benítez gives up a leadoff single to Walker but induces a groundball double play from Dante Bichette and a flyout from Todd Helton to preserve the win. It marks the Mets’ 89th victory of the year, their highest win total since 1990. Even better, a 3-0 Padres win over the Braves places the Mets only one game out of first place.
  • Tuesday, September 14, 1999

    Colorado Rockies 7, New York Mets 2 at Coors Field

    Octavio Dotel sounds almost cocky before his first start at Coors Field, calling the stadium known for destroying pitchers “pretty” but “far from intimidating.” He refuses to believe the thin Denver air will have much effect on his pitching, but is punished for his hubris when the Rockies hang six runs on him in only three innings of work. He finds himself in trouble from the very start as he gives up a leadoff triple to Neifi Pérez and a two-run double to Dante Bichette shortly thereafter. The Rockies add a run in the bottom of the second, then homer Dotel out of the game in the bottom of the third when Vinnie Castilla clubs a 428-foot, two-run bomb to straight-away center, followed by a solo homer by Edgard Clemente (Hall of Famer Roberto’s nephew). Bobby Jones—fresh off the disabled list and making his first appearance since May—takes Dotel’s place, giving up one run in three innings of work in his first ever relief appearance. Colorado starter Jamey Wright stymies the Mets for the second time this season, limiting them to five hits and one run. The loss, combined with a Brave win, drop the Mets back to two games out of first place, but the Reds also lose, thus maintaining the Mets’ 2.5 game lead in the wild card race.
  • Wednesday, September 15, 1999

    New York Mets 10, Colorado Rockies 5 at Coors Field

    Orel Hershiser nearly xeroxes Rick Reed’s stats from the Colorado series opener, allowing four runs in six innings. With the thin atmosphere preventing the pitcher from throwing his sinker for strikes, he considers himself lucky to get away with this line. The last two runs against Hershiser score on a Larry Walker single up the middle in the bottom of the fourth, giving the Rockies a 4-3 lead. All is quiet for the Met offense until Robin Ventura leads off the top of the sixth with a double and moves to third on a sac bunt. Benny Agbayani then ends his long homerless streak by hitting a ball into the left field stands. In the bottom of the seventh, Rockie shortstop Kurt Abbott hits a double down the line that Valentine swears is foul, and he is not shy about sharing his opinion with third base umpire Tony Randazzo, one of MLB’s recent hires to replace the 22 umpires who’d handed in their resignations in a badly botched job action. (Viewing a replay later, Valentine admits “Tony made the right call.” ) Dennis Cook retires the next two batters, but permits Vinny Castilla to knock in Abbott with a game-tying RBI. The Mets regain the lead when Ventura leads off the top of the eighth with a walk, then ex-Rockie Darryl Hamilton hits a line drive to right that squirts under Larry Walker’s glove, scoring Ventura all the way from first. Hamilton legs out a triple and later scores on an Agbayani sac fly. The Mets pile on with three more runs in the ninth, a rally that begins when Colorado manager Jim Leyland makes the curious decision to walk John Olerud and face Mike Piazza, a lifetime .436 hitter at Coors Field, instead. Meanwhile in San Diego, Padre rookie Matt Clement shuts down the Braves, meaning the Mets will return to New York once again a mere game out of first place.
  • Friday, September 17, 1999

    Philadelphia Phillies 8, New York Mets 5 at Shea Stadium

    Despite entering this series on a miserable 11-game losing streak, the Phils touch up Al Leiter for three first-inning runs, tack on two more in the fourth, and cruise the rest of the way. Philly does some inadvertent damage to the Mets’ most dangerous weapon when Mike Piazza takes a blow off his throwing hand from a Ron Gant foul tip and is forced to leave the game. Todd Pratt takes his place and hits a two-run single in the ninth to make the contest look closer than it deserves. Rookie lefty Randy Wolf baffles the Mets, striking out 11 batters in six innings of work. “The Randy on the hill mowing down batters last night at Shea Stadium was named Wolf, not Johnson,” Frank Isola writes in the Daily News. “The Mets were never quite able to make that distinction.” Also among the wounded is Shawon Dunston, who makes a great diving catch in the fifth, but comes down hard and exits the game. Down in Atlanta, Chipper Jones hits a walkoff homer in the bottom of the tenth to give the Braves a win over the Expos and expand their lead in the National League East to two games. The Reds lose in Pittsburgh to stay three behind the Mets in the wild card race.
  • Saturday, September 18, 1999

    New York Mets 11, Philadelphia Phillies 1 at Shea Stadium

    Masato Yoshii throws seven great innings, prompting chants of “Yoshii! Yoshii!” from the Shea crowd. Mike Piazza is forced to the bench thanks to the injury sustained to his throwing hand in the previous game, but in his absence the bats lulled to sleep the night before wake up against opposing starter Mike Grace and the Phillies’ bullpen. The game even features Rey Ordoñez’s annual longball—a grand slam, no less. Darryl Hamilton hits a solo homer, scores three runs, and makes a great diving catch to keep the Phils off the board. In Atlanta, three Braves errors lead to four unearned runs for the Expos, making a hard luck loser out of Greg Maddux. Thus, the Mets find themselves once again within a game of first place. The Reds win to keep pace in the wild card hunt.
  • Sunday, September 19, 1999

    New York Mets 8, Philadelphia Phillies 6 at Shea Stadium

    The Mets stake themselves to a 4-0 lead in the third, thanks to a three-run homer by John Olerud (Edgardo Alfonzo touches home on Olerud’s homer to score his 117th run of the year, tying a club record set by Lance Johnson in 1996), followed immediately by a solo shot from Mike Piazza, back in action following his hand injury in the first game of this series. Kenny Rogers keeps the Phillies out of the hit column for the first four innings, but the wheels come off after he tweaks his troublesome hamstring in the fifth inning. He gives up a two-run homer to ex-Met Rico Brogna in that frame, follows it up with a bases-loaded walk to force in a run, and caps the inning by allowing a two-out single by Bobby Abreu that scores two more. Rogers gets the hook in favor of Octavio Dotel, temporarily demoted to the bullpen ahead of the upcoming series in Atlanta, who immediately balks to bring a runner home from third. Dotel recovers, hwoever, logging the final out of the inning and pitching a scoreless sixth. The Mets begin to claw back when Roger Cedeño leads off the bottom of fifth with an infield single, steals second, and scores on a one-out Olerud double. After a walk to Piazza, Robin Ventura hits his own infield single while Olerud scores the tying run all the way from second. Then, with two out, Benny Agbayani reaches on an error, which also allows Piazza to score the go-ahead run. Cedeño adds a solo home run in the sixth to pad the Mets’ lead, and the bullpen works around a few scares to maintain it. As for the Braves, despite missing slugger Brian Jordan (battling wrist injuries and rumored to be in danger of missing the postseason altogether), the Braves beat the Expos with little fuss. Thus, the Mets will begin their next series in Atlanta one game back in the National League East standings.
  • Tuesday, September 21, 1999

    Atlanta Braves 2, New York Mets 1 at Turner Field

    The Mets arrive in Atlanta one game out of first place and their sights set on dethroning the Braves, but their first game at Turner Field brings with it a harsh dose of reality. Rick Reed pitches spectacularly for seven innings, the only mark against him a solo homer by Chipper Jones in the bottom of the first, but his teammates can manage no more than an Edgardo Alfonzo RBI single in the top of the third against John Smoltz, who has retooled his delivery to throw sidearm since the Mets last faced him. A potential rally is snuffed in the top of the seventh when pinch hitter Bobby Bonilla belts a two-out double that might allow the speedy Roger Cedeño to score, if not for a fortuitous bounce of the ball into the waiting arms of right fielder Gerald Williams. Cedeño is forced to hold at third and is stranded there when Rickey Henderson strikes out to end the inning. With the score tied at 1 in the bottom of the eighth, Bobby Valentine calls on lefty Dennis Cook to face Chipper Jones, forcing him to bat from his historically weaker right side. Chipper defies his lifetime stats, as he has all season, by taking Cook deep. John Rocker strikes out Robin Ventura, Shawon Dunston, and Benny Agbayani in the top of the ninth on just 11 pitches to confirm this deflating defeat.
  • Wednesday, September 22, 1999

    Atlanta Braves 5, New York Braves 2 at Turner Field

    For the second night in a row, Chipper Jones gives the Braves an early lead with a first inning homer, this time a two-run shot. The Mets draw even when Mike Piazza hits his own two-run blast against Tom Glavine in the top of the fourth. Orel Hershiser settles in after a rough start, retiring 11 Atlanta batters in a row at one point, but falters in the bottom of the seventh and allows a Keith Lockhart RBI sac fly that puts the Braves back on top. When Piazza and Robin Ventura single to start the top of the eighth, it ends Glavine’s night and sets off a flurry of pinch hitters, pinch runners, and relief pitchers, with Bobby Valentine and Brave manager Bobby Cox trying to neutralize each move the other makes. The inning takes 40 minutes and 10 substitutions to complete and ends with the score remaining exactly the same at its conclusion. In the bottom half, Octavio Dotel appears in relief and walks the first two batters he faces. Both runners come around to score when John Franco allows a single to Brian Jordan, padding Atlanta’s lead further. Rickey Henderson manages a leadoff walk against John Rocker in the top of the ninth, but Atlanta’s closer otherwise dispatches the Mets easily in the ninth, getting Edgardo Alfonzo to ground out and Olerud to bounce into a game-ending double play, thus capping yet another disappointing Mets loss at Turner Field.
  • Thursday, September 23, 1999

    Atlanta Braves 6, New York Mets 3 at Turner Field

    After playing crisp (if losing) baseball in their first two games at Turner Field, the Mets stumble badly in the Atlanta finale, committing a ton of awful errors that speed their demise. They manage to score first in this game after Rickey Henderson hits a leadoff double against Greg Maddux and eventually scores on a John Olerud groundout in the top of the first. But in the bottom half, Al Leiter allows his own leadoff double to Gerald Williams, who moves to third on a sac bunt. Wary of pitching to Chipper Jones, Leiter walks him, only to see Andruw Jones knock in Williams with a single. In the top of the second, the Mets load the bases with no outs and score a run on a Rey Ordoñez single, but that lone run is all they can manage as Maddux wriggles off the hook with a strikeout, a force out at home, and a pop up. In the fifth, the Mets waste another opportunity when Henderson inexplicably tries to score from first on a double to left field that he mistakenly believed was bobbled. After Henderson is thrown out by a mile at home, the Mets throw themselves out of the game in the bottom half. It begins when Leiter fires a pickoff throw to first and catches Gerald Williams in a steal attempt, but John Olerud can’t get the ball out of his glove. The runner reaches second safely and moves to third on a bloop single by Bret Boone. Chipper steps up next, and the Mets choose to not walk him to load the bases. They pay for it when he crushes a three-run homer to right, his fourth longball against the Mets in three days. A visibly upset Leiter allows singles to the next two batters, and when Andruw Jones tries to tag up from second on a foul out behind first, Olerud fires a wild throw to third. With no one backing up the play, Jones trots home with the fourth run of the inning. The Mets get one run back in the top of the sixth on a Mike Piazza home run, only to give it back in the bottom of the seventh when Turk Wendell fields a comebacker and, hoping to start a double play at second, flings it into the outfield instead. A thoroughly unnecessary insurance run scores on the play. Though John Rocker issues two walks and a wild pitch in the top of the ninth, he still earns the save, completing an ugly sweep that obliterates any dreams of the Mets had winning the National League East.
  • Friday, September 24, 1999

    Philadelphia Phillies 3, New York Mets 2 at Veterans Stadium

    Hoping to salvage a few wins against a battered Phillies team, the Mets instead find themselves stymied by a crew of has-beens and never-wases. Phillie starter Joe Grahe is a veteran making his penultimate major league start, yet the Mets—despite collecting nine hits against him over eight innings—manage no more than two runs, scored on a Robin Ventura solo shot in the top of the second and a John Olerud RBI single in the fifth. Masato Yoshii pitches well enough to make this stand, allowing just four hits and one run over seven innings, but once he is removed from the game, trouble begins to brew. In the bottom of the eighth, the go-ahead run comes to the plate in the form of Bobby Abreu, the Phils’ young outfielder and one of the few offensive threats left in their decimated lineup. But rather than call on southpaw John Franco to face the lefty batter, Bobby Valentine instead brings in Armando Benítez with an eye toward a four-out save. Abreu works the count full before drilling a double to right to drive in the tying run. The next batter, Mike Lieberthal, smacks Benítez’s first pitch for a single, scoring Abreu. In the top of the ninth, the Mets are unable to do anything against reliever Scott Eldred, who has never saved a single game in his 10-year major league career. The loss, the Mets’ fourth in a row, places them five games out of first in the National League East and shrinks their lead in the wild card race to one lone game ahead of the Cincinnati Reds.
  • Saturday, September 25, 1999

    Philadelphia Phillies 4, New York Mets 2 at Veterans Stadium

    Kenny Rogers insists his troublesome hamstring is feeling just fine, but that’s little comfort to the Mets when his wild performance hands them an early deficit in this game. The lefty allows back-to-back solo shots to Mike Lieberthal and Rico Brogna to start the bottom of the second, then loses all control in the third. After Rogers issues four walks, two of them coming with the bases loaded, he is finally given the hook. The Met bullpen holds off the Phillies after this point, but the damage is already done, as New York’s bats are completely baffled by the anonymous arm of Robert Person. They show signs of life in the top of the eighth when John Olerud hits a two-run homer, followed by walks from Mike Piazza and Robin Ventura to put the tying runs on base with nobody out. This opportunity goes by the wayside when Darryl Hamilton bunts into a force out at third and Benny Agbayani lines into a double play. They mount no such threats in the ninth and go down in defeat for the fifth game in a row. The loss, combined with a Cincinnati win, means they are now tied with the Reds for the National League wild card slot.
  • Sunday, September 26, 1999

    Philadelphia Phillies 3, New York Mets 2 at Veterans Stadium

    Desperate to find any formula that works, Bobby Valentine shuffles his lineup, dropping the slumping Edgardo Alfonzo to sixth in the batting order and inserting Roger Cedeño in Alfonzo’s usual two-slot. The results are largely the same, as the Mets can do nothing against soft-tosser Paul Byrd. New York had roughed up Byrd in a game at Shea a week earlier, but on this afternoon they can only cobble together five hits off of the lefty in seven innings of work. Rick Reed pitches well enough over six innings, but a two-run homer by Rico Brogna in the bottom of the fourth and an RBI single by Doug Glanville in the fifth are enough to hang an L on his ledger. The Mets finally get to Byrd in the top of the seventh when Mike Piazza singles, Darryl Hamilton walks, and Rey Ordoñez drives them both in with a two-out double. A wild pitch moves Ordoñez 90 feet away from tying the game, but after pinch hitter Matt Franco walks, Rickey Henderson strikes out to end the threat. Other chances are eschewed in similar fashion. In the top of the eighth, Mike Piazza hits a two-out double, but Robin Ventura can’t cash him in. The ninth is even more excruciating, as reliever Wayne Gomes walks the bases loaded with one out, giving Henderson another chance to tie up the game. Instead, Henderson bounces into a double play, ending the game and drawing the curtain on an unsightly sweep at the hands of the lowly Phillies. The Mets’ sixth consecutive loss places them one game out of the National League wild card standings.
  • Tuesday, September 28, 1999

    Atlanta Braves 9, New York Mets 3 at Shea Stadium

    Orel Hershiser begins the game by hitting Gerald Williams with a pitch, and his evening continues downward from there. Bret Boone hits a lazy single to right field, Chipper Jones collects one of his own to score Williams, and Ryan Klesko pokes a hit between third and short to score Boone. When Hershiser finally records his first out, it’s a Brian Jordan sac fly that drives in another run. Two more singles load the bases and end Hershiser’s night. Octavio Dotel’s first pitch in relief is wild, scoring yet another run, while a Jordan homer to start the third inning puts the Braves up by five runs. The game is completely put out of reach when Pat Mahomes coughs up four runs in the top of the ninth, while the Mets’ beleaguered offense can manage no more than a trio of RBI groundouts against Tom Glavine and the Atlanta bullpen. The loss leaves them 1.5 games out of the wild card lead behind the Astros, who lose to Cincinnati the same night, relinquishing their own lead in the National League Central to the surging Reds.
  • Wednesday, September 29, 1999

    New York Mets 9, Atlanta Braves 2 at Shea Stadium

    The Mets score first in this contest when Edgardo Alfonzo reaches on an error in the bottom of the first and eventually scores on a single by Mike Piazza. Al Leiter does his best to make the slim 1-0 lead stand up, but trouble finds in the top of the third when Brian Jordan lines a single past Rey Ordoñez to drive in two runs. The Mets respond with a stunning rally against Greg Maddux in the bottom of the fourth, reaching him for eight consecutive hits, including an RBI single from Leiter, of all people, and a grand slam by John Olerud. Seven runs score in the frame, and Leiter ensures this effort is not made in vain by contributing seven strong innings, finally bringing an end to the Mets’ disastrous seven-game losing streak. A Red defeat at the hands of the Astros means the Mets remain 1.5 games out of the wild card standings.
  • Thursday, September 30, 1999

    Atlanta Braves 4, New York Mets 3 (11 innings) at Shea Stadium

    Masato Yoshii and Kevin Millwood battle to a stalemate for seven innings in the series finale. The Mets find themselves in a 2-0 hole thanks to an RBI single by Andruw Jones in the top of the fourth and a Gerald Williams solo homer in the fifth, but the home team strikes back with one run in the bottom of the fifth and ties the score on a Darryl Hamilton run-scoring single in the seventh. Atlanta retakes the lead in the top of the eighth on a Chipper Jones RBI single, but in the bottom half, Edgardo Alfonzo hits a two-out game-tying homer into the Braves’ bullpen that sends the Shea crowd into a frenzy. However, the dramatic longball only sets up a crushing disappointment in the top of the eleventh. Shawon Dunston misplays a Brian Jordan flyball into a leadoff triple in that frame, allowing Jordan to score on an Ozzie Guillén sac fly. The Mets go quietly in their half. With both the Astros and Reds idle, the Mets are now two full games out of the wild card spot with three games to play.
  • Friday, October 1, 1999

    New York Mets 3, Pittsburgh Pirates 2 (11 innings) at Shea Stadium

    With their backs to the wall, the Met offense continues to sputter, held in check by young Pirate hurler Jason Schmidt. They do reach Schmidt for a pair of solo shots—Robin Ventura in the fourth, Mike Piazza in the sixth—and for most of this game it appears this may be enough, as Kenny Rogers spins seven scoreless innings while striking out nine batters. He lands in trouble in the eighth, however, beginning with a walk of anemic pinch hitter John Wehner. One out later, a consecutive singles by Pat Meares and Aramis Ramirez score Wehner and cut the Mets’ lead in half. Turk Wendell enters and records a big strikeout of Kevin Young but also walks Chad Hermansen to load the bases and bring up lefty batter Warren Morris. The next arm out of the bullpen, John Franco, allows a painfully slow roller that Morris beats out while Meares scores the tying run. Franco then nearly walks the next batter, Adrian Young, before catching him looking on a questionable called third strike. Given this gift, the Mets relievers keep Pittsburgh in check until the eleventh, when their own batters finally break through. Pinch hitter Shawon Dunston collects a leadoff single and moves to second on a sac bunt. Edgardo Alfonzo is intentionally walked in the hope that John Olerud will bounce into a double play, but he hits a grounder to first that results in only one out as Dunston moves to third. Following another intentional walk issued to Piazza, Ventura dunks a single into shallow center, scoring Dunston and giving the Mets a walkoff victory. Meanwhile in Milwaukee, the Brewers execute their own walkoff win against the Reds, which means the Mets are back to within one game of the wild card lead.
  • Saturday, October 2, 1999

    New York Mets 7, Pittsburgh Pirates 0 at Shea Stadium

    By the time this game begins, the Mets already know that the Reds have lost to the Brewers again, which means a win will tie them with Cincinnati in the wild card standings. With that in mind, Rick Reed pitches the game of his life, a 12-strikeout three-hit complete game shutout. His outing is so dominant that only one out is recorded in the outfield, and that one a pop up in very shallow center. The Mets batters are far less successful for much of the game, finding themselves helpless against another young Pirate pitcher, Francisco Córdova. When they break through for two runs in the sixth, it is largely due to Pittsburgh blunders. A leadoff walk from John Olerud is followed by an error by rookie third baseman Aramis Ramirez, after which Robin Ventura doubles home Olerud for the game’s first run. Following an out and an intentional walk to load the bases, Piazza is able to score on an error by first baseman Adrian Brown. Those two runs prove to be enough for Reed, but just to be safe, he helps his own cause in the bottom of the eighth. Allowed to bat for himself, Reed slaps a single to left to drive in two runs. Reed eventually scores on an Olerud single, and Piazza ices the game with a two-run shot, his 40th of the season. The win assures that the Mets will play game 162 in control of their own fate.
  • Sunday, October 3, 1999

    New York Mets 2, Pittsburgh Pirates 1 at Shea Stadium

    Needing one more victory to assure they will play again in 1999, the Mets opt not to throw Al Leiter on short rest and send 40-year-old Orel Hershiser to the mound instead. The decision appears costly when Hershiser walks the leadoff batter, Al Martin, who eventually comes around to score on a two-out bloop single by Kevin Young. Though Hershiser keeps the Pirates in check through five, the Mets can do little against rookie pitcher Kris Benson, as they hit the ball hard all afternoon but continually hit it right into Pittsburgh gloves. It takes some unsightly Pirate defense to put the Mets on the board in the bottom of the fourth, when first baseman Young throws away a John Olerud grounder into the Met dugout, which eventually allows him to score on a two-out double. That is the extent of the damage the Mets can manage against Benson, however, as he stymies their every potential rally and limits them to just the one unearned run through seven innings. The Met bullpen keeps pace after taking over for Hershiser with one out in the top of the sixth, throwing scoreless ball through the ninth. In the bottom of that inning, a rally is started by Melvin Mora, a September callup who hits a one-out single, then advances to third when Edgardo Alfonzo singles. The Pirates choose to walk Olerud and face Piazza, hoping the catcher will bounce into a double play, and bring in sidearming reliever Brad Clontz to induce a grounder. Their plan is foiled when Clontz bounces his very first pitch in the screen. As it sails toward the backstop, Mora races home with the winning run, setting off a celebration at Shea. A Red victory later (much later, following an almost six hour rain delay in Milwaukee) sets up a play-in game in Cincinnati to determine who will capture the National League wild card.
  • Monday, October 4, 1999

    New York Mets 5, Cincinnati Reds 0 at Cinergy Field

    In this winner-take-all game for the National League wild card berth, a raucous sell-out crowd is on hand to scream the surprising Cincinnati Reds into the playoffs. The Mets silence them almost immediately when Rickey Henderson hits a leadoff single and Edgardo Alfonzo follows with a two-run shot to straightaway center to give the visitors an early lead. Al Leiter takes over from there. He issues a walk to the first man he faces, Pokey Reese, only to retire the next three in order, freezing feared slugger Greg Vaughn for the third out. A one-out single in the bottom of the second also proves harmless, and after a two-out walk in the bottom of the third, Leiter retires 13 Reds in a row while barely allowing a ball to leave the infield. His teammates tack on unnecessary insurance runs via a bases-loaded walk in the third, a Henderson solo shot in the fifth, and an RBI double by Alfonzo in the sixth. In the bottom of the ninth, Leiter looks like he may falter as he allows a leadoff double to Reese and a two-out walk of Vaughn to put two Reds on base for the first time all game. The next batter, Dmitri Young, hits a line drive up the middle that appears ticketed for the outfield, but the Mets’ ironclad infield comes through again, as Alfonzo spears it for the final out, giving the Mets a playoff berth after 11 years and two disastrous weeks in the wilderness.
1999

Chapter 3: The Pretender

Ejection

Bobby Valentine is about to write a paragraph in his obituary.

The date is June 9, 1999. Even by the standards set in the past two weeks, days of trial unprecedented in Met history, June 9 is packed with strife and intrigue. Valentine’s day at the office begins with an ugly confrontation with a reporter. A few days prior, during an interview on WFAN, the manager said Newsday reporter Marty Noble hadn’t spoken to him in over a year, thus calling his journalistic integrity in question in his oblique Valetinian way. Prior to the Mets’ final game hosting the Blue Jays, an unhappy Noble confronts the Met skipper before the collected press corps and proclaims that if indeed he hasn’t spoken to Valentine in over a year (a point he does not concede), it’s only because he doesn’t believe anything Valentine says. Valentine counters by calling Noble a “liar” for all to hear. A shouting match ensues. The two men are separated. Nothing is resolved.

The Mets have enjoyed few days without some kind of lineup issue lately, and this day is no exception. Benny Agbayani suffers a freak batting practice injury when a foul tip takes an unlucky hop into his right eye. The swollen-faced outfielder receives a CT scan and is listed as day-to-day. His injury means the Mets will play two men down, because the disgruntled Bobby Bonilla is also unavailable, for reasons no one will articulate. Reporters noticed Bonilla was not used in a pinch-hitting situation the night before and have begun to ask questions. Valentine knows more than he can say, and the strain of keeping silent is killing him. If you wish to torture Bobby Valentine, refuse to let him speak his mind.

“Yesterday, he was asked to pinch hit and he couldn’t,” Valentine says of Bonilla, then expands cryptically. “I was told today it was the same situation. I’m very confused.” I was told… A signal that he has received instructions from on high. Those who are on high refuse to reveal any more. General manager Steve Phillips has no comment. Bonilla, not inclined to make a reporter’s job easy even under the best of circumstances, tells the scribes he has nothing to say and makes good on his word.

Adding to the evening’s odd vibe is the presence of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, in town for a visit to the United Nations. Chávez throws out the ceremonial first pitch while draped in a billowy warmup jacket adorned with the colors of his nation’s flag. Beneath the jacket, he festoons himself in a full Met uniform—including pinstriped pants—and brings his own glove to the mound. In deference to this special guest, the Venezuelan national anthem is played prior to the start of the game, in addition to the standard “Star-Spangled Banner” and the “Oh Canada” necessitated by the visiting Toronto Blue Jays.

All this pregame finery conspires to push a scheduled 7:40 pm first pitch even later, in front of a sparse midweek crowd not entirely on the home team’s side. David Wells, the hard-living bear-sized lefty, takes the mound for Toronto to make his first start in New York since the Yankees shipped him north in the deal that netted them Roger Clemens. Wells brings many Yankees fans out to Shea, and they have no qualms about cheering for on of their team’s divisional rival at the expense of the Mets. Boomer’s return to the Big Apple coincides with his birthday, and a big post-game shindig awaits him at Veruka, a trendy Soho nightclub. The guest list includes a plethora of random celebrities like Penny Marshall, Lorne Michaels, and Ione Skye, among others. Club owner Noel Ashman patrols Shea’s Diamond Club throughout the game, checking in with his doorman via cell phone to decree who shall be permitted to enter and who shall be asked to wait.

Wells looks like a man ready to celebrate as he mows down the Met batting order with little effort through the first eight innings. When he strides to the mound in the bottom of the ninth inning, he holds a healthy 3-0 lead and has retired 18 of the last 19 batters he’s faced. A complete game is a seeming formality. Though Edgardo Alfonzo and Mike Piazza single in the inning, Wells logs two outs and corners Robin Ventura into a two-strike count. The third baseman fouls off a trio of tough pitches before bouncing a single up the middle. Both Alfonzo and Piazza score on the hit to shave the Blue Jays’ lead down to one slim run. The burly southpaw gives way to the Blue Jay closer and Long Island native Billy Koch, who allows a double down the left field line off the bat of Brian McRae. The tying run scores all the way from first. We have a whole new ballgame.

That brand new ballgame turns into a frustrating extra-inning slog. Each team takes turns teasing a lead, only to retreat each time. The stands thin out, leaving behind only the die-hardest of the die-hards and the constant roar of jets from LaGuardia. Beyond the right field fence, Shea’s looming scoreboard flashes periodic updates from game five of the NBA Eastern Conference finals, as the Knicks attempt to best their longtime rivals, the Indiana Pacers. The basketball game ends with New York victorious. The baseball game plods on with New York in limbo.

We lurch into the top of the twelfth inning. Toronto’s Shannon Stewart hits a one-out single against Pat Mahomes, the last man standing from the Met bullpen. Stewart soon takes off for second, believing he can take advantage of Mike Piazza’s questionable arm. Piazza fires a bullet to Edgardo Alfonzo at second. He appears to have thrown out the runner by a decent margin.

Home plate umpire Randy Marsh has a different opinion. He signals Piazza interfered with the batter, a ruling that awards Stewart second base and sends the batter to first base. Catcher’s interference is not a call one sees very often, particularly not in the top of the twelfth inning, and particularly not when the TV replay shows no clear evidence of the alleged offense.

Bobby Valentine storms out of the dugout and makes his displeasure known in no uncertain terms. Marsh does not appreciate the manager’s vocabulary and ejects him. The manager stalks off the field, drawing his exit out as long as possible for maximum umpire annoyance. The remaining crowd cheers his fire, but Valentine will have to watch the remainder of this game from the clubhouse. He will not be in the dugout to see Mahomes wriggle off the hook in this inning, nor will he be able to watch the Mets pull out a victory, and a series sweep, by means of a bloop RBI single from Rey Ordoñez in the bottom of the fourteenth. Or so it would seem.

Why Valentine does what he does after his ejection, no one can say. At first, Valentine will deny he did anything at all. On bad days, he will dismiss those who choose to obsess over it with withering sarcasm. On good days, he will cop to it with a twinkle in his eye. In the end, what Valentine does is so ridiculous that assigning reason to any of it is pointless. Much the same could be said of what he and the Mets did in the agonizing 11 days that precede this one.

The End of the Beginning

The sense of doom surrounding the 1999 Mets is so constant that few notice when the doom arrives on the evening of May 28. The Mets are trailing by one run in the bottom of the ninth to the visiting Diamondbacks when Benny Agbayani hits a hard grounder to Arizona’s Jay Bell. The second baseman slings the ball past first, a miscue that should allow the tying run to score from second, even when that run is represented by the slow-footed Mike Piazza. But instead of rolling into oblivion, the ball clanks off of the photographer’s box and right into the waiting glove of Arizona’s first baseman. Piazza, who’d taken a long turn around third, scrambles back to the bag. Moments later, the bases now loaded, pinch hitter Luis Lopez finds himself ahead in the count, 3-1. He looks at a pitch that sails across the plate, ankle-high. It should be ball four, which would force in the tying run. Home plate umpire Gary Darling judges it strike two. Incredulous and rattled, Lopez watches another pitch for strike three, ending the threat and the game. The Mets lose by the excruciating score of 2-1.

Thus begins a week of tough luck, near misses, and bad blood, a dark period when no calls or bounces go the Mets’ way. Game two against the Diamondbacks is a 3 hour 40 minute trial in which their bullpen is roughed up. The day before, Arizona manager Buck Showalter rankled the Mets by insisting reliever Turk Wendell change his glove because it used more than one color, a technically illegal fashion statement but one that rarely goes noticed, let alone punished. So when reliever Byung-hyung Kim enters this game in the bottom of the ninth, Bobby Valentine extracts retribution by asking the umps to check Kim’s leather as well. “A lot of guys thought Kim had an oversized glove,” Valentine says later, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “And I figured this crew had a thing on gloves. But they said it was one color, so it was okay.” Diamondbacks third baseman Matt Williams screams at Valentine to “go back to the dugout,” and later calls it “a high school move.” The gambit does not succeed in rattling the 20 year old who is making his major league debut. Kim’s submarine delivery—“Nintendo sliders” in his catcher’s description —baffles the heart of the Met order. The home team loses, again by one run.

Then, fearsome southpaw Randy Johnson carves up Met hitters in the series finale, pitching eight dominant innings while striking out 10. His counterpart, Masato Yoshii, watches his shuto get shuttled from one side of the park to the other as he cedes seven runs in less than three innings of work. Johnson, owner of a lifetime .114 batting average, raps two singles off of him. A sizeable crowd arrives at Shea for a Sunday matinee that also happens to be Beanie Baby Day, beanie babies being quite valuable giveaways in the year 1999, but few remain to see the conclusion of the 10-1 drubbing.

Three rough losses in a row are enough to prompt murmurings of mutiny. First, mercurial shortstop Rey Ordoñez reveals he is dealing with a knee ailment. He reveals this ailment to the press before letting his manager know about it. “Rey’s unavailable. He said he couldn’t pinch hit or anything,” the manager admits after the last game against Arizona, in a voice that sounds the way a roll of the eyes looks.

Then, an unnamed veteran complains to the Times about Bobby Valentine’s volatile lineup choices. “There are a lot of guys who are upset that there is no set lineup,” quoth The Mystery Man. “Look around at the other teams. They have the same lineup every day.”

Conspiracy theorists suppose the Mystery Man is either Rickey Henderson or Bobby Bonilla, both of whom have seen reduced playing time with the emergence of Benny Agbayani and Roger Cedeño. It could also be Brian McRae, another outfielder whose playing time has diminished thanks to Agbayani and Cedeño. On the record, McRae complains, “there ain’t no rhyme or reason to what goes on around here.” Rhyme aside, the reason for McRae’s limited action is his mediocre .255 batting average and mere 10 extra base hits to this point in the season.

No matter where the accusation originates from, it leaves Valentine baffled. Recently, he watched the Yankees start three different lineups three different games in a row and garner no complaints whatsoever. He proffers statistics to show that, despite anonymous grumbling about the lineup, the team is hitting well. When this does nothing to diminish the controversy, Valentine is forced to meet individually with all five of his outfielders. Roger Cedeño and Benny Agbayani receive the surprising news that they will see reduced playing time to soothe the higher-paid egos of the veterans. “The two young guys are, as they should be, a little confused,” Valentine reports to the press. Using spite instead of stats to fill out his lineup card, Valentine starts Rickey Henderson and Bobby Bonilla in the outfield for two games straight, with lethargic results.

When the Reds come to Queens on May 31 and take the opener of their three-game series, Bobby Valentine chooses to see the glass half full and declares Al Leiter—making his first start in seven days due to a persistent knee issue—was “four or five pitches away from a complete game shutout.” The four or five pitches Valentine refers to include a two-run homer by Pokey Reese and a 423-foot bomb off the bat of Greg Vaughn.

Leiter also feels he pitched better than his line would indicate, which comes as little surprise. His starts thus far have topped out at mediocre, but each time he has some convenient explanation as to why these performances weren’t as bad as they looked. His manager has parroted those excuses to the letter.

When Leiter struggled through five grueling innings in Miami on Opening Day, it was dismissed as a delayed reaction to being hit in the hip by a bat that flew out of Orel Hershiser’s hands during a spring training game. According to Leiter, his poor results that day were more bad luck than anything else, with the Marlins’ balls finding holes and clanking off of gloves. At the time Valentine averred, “If he could throw the ball that well all year long, I’ll be happy. He’s throwing great.”

Leiter sounded not the least bit worried when he lost to the Expos at Shea a week later. Again, it was all bad hops and the like that killed him, he said, not bad pitching. “I’d be a little more distraught and a little more concerned if I felt I had no clue,” Leiter insisted. “But my stuff is as good as it’s ever been in my career. I’m just not making that big pitch to get out of an inning. But I feel too good to get depressed about it yet.” He also implied weather had affected him worse than any other pitcher. So many of his starts had been delayed or threatened by precipitation that John Franco dubbed him The Rain Man.

Such excuses wouldn’t fly when Leiter insisted on remaining in a game against the Astros on May 4, even as it was clear he was flagging, hoping grit and elbow grease could will him to a win. He proceeded to cough up four runs and turn a tied game into a 6-1 loss. He then changed his self-defense strategy. “I’ve got to stop the negative thoughts,” he said after the game, as if bad vibes lost the game, not him. “I’ve got to stop listening to ‘What’s wrong with Al?’ There’s nothing wrong with Al….The difference between dominating and being mediocre, winning and losing. A handful of pitches out of 120 are creating that difference….I feel like I’m throwing the ball better than the results last night.”

When he squandered several leads in an unsightly start against the Brewers on May 20, he all but blamed the local media for his current state of mind. “I happen to find playing in New York with the team I rooted for exciting, good or bad,” Leiter said. “And right now, it’s not that great. I just have to filter a lot of the exterior distraction out.” Valentine simply offered, “I think he’s trying too hard.”

So when Al Leiter follows his loss to the Reds on May 30 with excuses like I felt good, just a few pitches that didn’t go my way… the press can mouth along with every word. Leiter’s hefty new contract crowns him as the Mets’ ace, but his performances have been anything but ace-like. Valentine’s excuses on Leiter’s behalf now have the uncomfortable air of enabling.

Rey Ordoñez returns for the second game against the Reds. His presence, combined with an outfield of Rickey Henderson, Bobby Bonilla, and Brian McRae, makes this the first time since early April that the injury-plagued Mets have their projected Opening Day lineup on the field at the same time. The glorious return of consistency is shut out 4-0 by Pete Harnisch, the ex-Met who once called up WFAN to tell the world that no one in the Shea clubhouse could stand playing for Bobby Valentine. Two balls hit into the right field corner go for triples when Bonilla proves unequal to the task of tracking them down. Chants of BOBBY SUCKS! resound throughout the stands, and are replaced by cheers when Roger Cedeño jogs out to take Bonilla’s place for defense in the ninth inning.

Why start the struggling, hated Bonilla at all? “We’re kind of into the set-lineup mode,” Valentine says through gritted teeth. “We’ll see how that works. I’ve been criticized a lot for changing my lineup lately.” Valentine’s sense of irony does nothing to cut the tension within the ranks. Mike Piazza confesses he is “trying to put the ball over the scoreboard” with every pitch. A players-only meeting is called after the game to try to clear the air, adding more voices to the rumblings that Valentine is losing the respect and attention of his charges.

In a back-and-forth series finale, the Mets rally for four runs in the bottom of the seventh and carry a 7-6 lead into the top of the ninth, putting them in line for a morale boosting come-from-behind victory, the kind this struggling team needs desperately. Two quick outs from John Franco bring the Mets to within inches of that victory. But Franco walks Greg Vaughn, and the crowd begins to stir. Then, Barry Larkin hits a ball near the shortstop hole, the kind of ball Robin Ventura normally puts in his pocket, if only Ventura wasn’t playing the line against the threat of a double. If Rey Ordoñez was playing shortstop, he might have been able to work his wizardry on this ball. But the shortstop position is being manned by backup Luis Lopez. All Lopez can do is smother the ball on the infield. The stirring gives way to groans. Vaughn and Larkin then execute a double steal. All the fans who stood in anticipation of the final out feel nervously for their seats.

Mets fans have seen this act before. They’ve seen it every year of this decade. It is the classic John Franco Cardiac Special the closer has served up at Shea since 1990. He has always been surrounded by an aura of difficulty, possessed of a preternatural inability to do anything the easy way. This year, he’s endured a few near misses but as yet has not blown any save opportunity. This only means his number is due to come up.

The Met closer comes within a hair’s breadth of escaping by backing Reds centerfielder Mike Cameron into an 0-2 hole, but Cameron rebounds to even the count, then slaps a single right up the middle. Franco spins around like a top, watching it skip into the outfield as Vaughn and Larkin score the tying and go-ahead runs behind his back. A fan at field level expresses his disgust by hurling a softball in Franco’s general direction. No one on the field notices, least of all Franco. The shellshocked Met batters go quietly in the bottom of the ninth. The home team falls yet again, 8-7.

Thus concludes a miserable 0-6 homestand, the first time the Mets have been swept in back-to-back three-game series at home since 1962. Those were the inaugural Mets of Marvelous Marv Throneberry and Choo-Choo Coleman, lovable losers, hilariously inept. No one is laughing now.

With the Mets’ season hanging in the balance, the pitchforks emerge from the mob, and most point their sharpened tines at Bobby Valentine. In the Times, Murray Chass tsks “The Mets once again have promised more than they can deliver. They have fooled their fans and themselves before, and here they have gone and done it again.” Chass is far from Valentine’s only nemesis in the press, but he may be his most relentless, and he ascribes the Mets’ slide to their manager because “Valentine has more people in baseball pulling against him than any other individual.” He rehashes memories of the dismal, overpaid wreckage of the Worst Team Money Could Buy, an overpaid train wreck that cost manager Jeff Torborg his job. “No one has suggested that a repeat of that act is being contemplated this season,” Chass cautions as he suggests just that, “but Bobby Valentine is in the classic dismissal position.”

What a team in the Mets’ position could use is a low-key series against a soft opponent, preferably some place far away from New York. What the Mets will get is the exact opposite: The Subway Series.

Next Stop: The Bronx

The ongoing disaster for the Mets is a godsend for the media. Anticipating bloodshed, reporters flock to the Subway Series in the Bronx, demanding 250 press passes for the three games at Yankee Stadium. And yet, despite the ill will between the two teams and the current misfortunes befalling the Mets, all members of the fourth estate echo the sentiments of Tim McCarver, longtime Met broadcaster who now calls games for the Yankees (canned by the team after the 1998 season, rumor has it, because he was too critical of Valentine). “It doesn’t get any better than this as far as regular season baseball,” McCarver swoons. “It titillates the whole city.” The Post calls the Subway Series “the best three days in New York sports.” This assertion is the lede to an article with a headline comparing the matchup to Armageddon.

Some of the players involved put up a front of good-natured bipartisanship by participating in a charity stickball game the day before the first battle of Armageddon, emceed by Met legend Keith Hernandez. Most feel less playful. During the first two years of Subway Series action, the Mets toed the narrative of how good these games were for the city, even proclaiming to be happy after losing two of three to the Yankees on each occasion because they put up a good fight. This year, high profile games coming at the nadir of their season make the Mets less gung-ho about the whole affair. Following his blown save against the Reds, John Franco is asked a few questions about the Subway Series. Each query receives a terse “I don’t care” in response. For the first time, the Mets make noise about the hardship of playing six games against the Yankees (a new wrinkle this year; the two teams only played one series against each other in 1997 and 1998), while their closest divisional rivals will play the Yankees a mere three times, if at all. “It’s not an equitable schedule,” Bobby Valentine grumbles.

For their part, the Yankees maintain their annoyance at the artificial hype surrounding the affair. Treating the games against the Mets as a mini-World Series holds no water for a team that believes baseball is played for the sole purpose of winning the real World Series. Lest anyone forget this, George Steinbrenner reminds everyone when expressing his disdain for the event. “It takes the focus away from where it belongs,” The Boss says, “and that’s on the pennant races.” To further demonstrate his disapproval, Steinbrenner will not attend any of the games, citing prior commitments, even though they will be played in the Bronx.

Under this directive, the Yankees do their best to pretend these games are no more special than any of the 159 others they must play to reach October. Paul O’Neill, veteran outfielder and the team’s cantankerous spiritual leader, speaks for the entire Yankee clubhouse when he contends the Subway Series “isn’t that big of a deal.” This was the same man who belted a dramatic home run at Shea in 1998, a moonshot that won a game and took reliever Mel Rojas’ career in Queens along with it (and caused many to wonder why on earth Bobby Valentine allowed the righty Rojas to face such a dangerous left-handed batter in the first place). The home run is indelibly printed in fans’ memories, recalled with fondness or anger depending on which team they favor. Because the homer was hit in a Subway Series game, however, O’Neill must downplay the memory as much as possible. So when a reporter recalls the shot he hit off of Rojas, O’Neill contends, “I remember a lot of other games more than that one. It didn’t mean that much. They didn’t lose by one game, did they?”

One reporter reminds O’Neill that yes, the Mets did in fact miss out on the playoffs by one game in 1998.

“Oh,” the outfielder mutters.

As an ex-Met, Yankee hurler David Cone is hounded more than most. Members of the press ask him the same tired questions about how the two teams compare, year after year. Fans treat him no better. The day before the first Subway Series game, while participating in a charity softball game run by comedian Billy Crystal, he is introduced to a blind teenager from the Bronx. As Cone shakes his hand, the young man reveals he is a Mets fan and predicts he will get roughed up in the opener. Piazza’s gonna hit a three-run homer, top of the first, he says. Normally quick with a comeback, a stunned Cone can’t get a word out.“I know after playing three games at Shea last year, our players were glad to see it was over,” Cone sighs. “There was intense scrutiny, high stress and high drama at a time of the season when you’re trying to play it day by day.”

Deep though it may run, Yankee players’ dislike of the Subway Series pales in comparison to that of their manager. “I hate it,” Joe Torre tells one reporter. “It’s a nightmare for us,” he groans to another. “The fans love it, the whole city is charged and that part is great, but the outcome of the game is torture. There’s so much made out of winning and losing. I’ve got to pick up my dry cleaning. Those are the guys that torture you.”

At the risk of upsetting his dry cleaner, Torre and the Yankees reluctantly welcome the Mets on the evening of June 4. As the media arrives in the Bronx, reports circulate that the Mets have placed both Bobby Bonilla and Brian McRae on waivers, with an eye toward dealing both of them. Early birds looking for juicy quotes from the visiting clubhouse find only Al Leiter, who clearly has no clue about possible roster moves, if his state of undress is any indication. When McRae and Bonilla do arrive, neither player claims awareness of their reportedly imminent departures. McRae has little to say on the matter, while Bonilla says a bit too much. “Ask me if I give a shit,” Bonilla roars to the scribes. “They can trade me to fuckin’ Alaska. They can do it quietly or they can tell me.” He also intimates he’d be happy to spend the rest of the season on his couch as long as he keeps getting paid. “They can send me home tomorrow if they like. It’s really up to them. I’ll watch the games on television. I might even buy a season ticket at Shea to kick a little money back to the club.” Steve Phillips declines comment, a non-denial the press interprets as evidence the team would have already dealt the two outfielders if they’d found any takers for either one. Words like confusion and wavering are sprinkled throughout the stories that follow.

If the waiver wire incident doesn’t exude a bumbling, luckless atmosphere, the game that follows it certainly does. Though the Mets rally to tie the score on a Rey Ordoñez hit in the top of the sixth, the shortstop’s knock should have given the Mets a lead, but for a fan who leans over one of Yankee Stadium’s low walls and interferes with the ball as it rolls down the first base line. Ordoñez is “awarded” a ground-rule double, meaning the runner who’d been at first is forced to halt at third. Given this reprieve, the Yankees’ bullpen prevents further damage. It is not quite Jeffrey Maier—the young fan who stuck his fielder’s mitt over an outfield fence during the 1996 playoffs, turning a potential fly ball out into a home run for the Yankees—but it has a similar effect.

“Who knows what would have happened had the Mets gotten both runs?” Bill Madden wonders in the Daily News. He comes to the conclusion, “They probably would have found some other way to lose the game.”

The way they find to lose in this case is via a rare infield miscue. With one out in the bottom of the seventh, a ground ball is hit between first and second. Though Edgardo Alfonzo is in a prime position to field it, John Olerud decides to leap for the ball. It glances off Olerud’s glove as he dives, allowing the runner to reach safely. Shortly thereafter, the same runner scores all the way from first when Rickey Henderson misplays a carom off the outfield wall. The Mets threaten for a moment in the ninth when Yankee closer Mariano Rivera hits a batter, then gives up a long fly ball to Edgardo Alfonzo. It has a hopeful arc, mere feet from being a game-tying double or a go-ahead homer. But the Mets lead the league in near misses these days. The ball settles into Paul O’Neill’s glove a few inches on the wrong side of the wall. The Mets lose again, 4-3. 

During the game, the Yankees are irked by the sight of Valentine examining a used baseball in the dugout, assuming he is looking for signs the ball is being doctored by the opposing pitcher. The manager denies the charge, but times are desperate enough to make him look for evidence of sabotage. The speed and suddenness of the Mets’ fall from grace suggests outside forces, conspiracies, unseen hands switching the signposts to make them toddle off in the wrong direction.

With all other tactics exhausted, Valentine opts for cockeyed optimism. “I can’t be any more proud of a team,” he says in the wake of yet another defeat. “It’s not like we’re digging our way out. We’re playing a good brand of baseball…. Other than a victory, there’s nothing negative I can say about my guys.”

It’s true enough that the Mets’ soul-crushing losing streak contains many close calls and very few blowouts. It is difficult to point to any one thing the Mets could have or should have done better over this stretch. And yet.

Other than victory… What a thing for a manager to say, and to say it at Yankee Stadium, where there is nothing other than victory. At this desperate juncture, Valentine’s words have a Panglossian ring. With so much talent on the team, and with the Mets falling short in so many games, it doesn’t take much deductive reasoning to surmise, as Murray Chass had days ago, that the manager is the real problem. Look at his managerial record: three games under .500 for his career and zero playoff appearances to show for it. Look at his way-too-public, way-too-personal clashes with players like Todd Hundley and Pete Harnisch. Look at his perpetual case of foot-in-mouth. Look at the brutal collapse at the end of the 1998 season. This man is supposed to lead the Mets to the promised land?

Comments about how “proud” Valentine is of his underachieving team point to greater deficiencies, say writers like William C. Rhoden of the Times:

Valentine spent a career trying to get past being “O.K.” as a player—he was never the same after he broke his leg—and as a manager.…What may define Valentine’s career is the end of last season, when the Mets, needing one victory to extend their season, lost all five games. Valentine could not find a way to win.…

When asked about Bonilla’s physical condition, Valentine said the outfielder was looking better, but added, “I’m just trying to determine if better is good enough.”

That is precisely what the Mets must eventually decide about Valentine.

Team co-owner Fred Wilpon attempts to deflect such speculation by declaring he has made his decision. “He’s the manager,” Wilpon says. The press corps’ incredulous follow up: You mean, for the whole year? “Yes. He’s under contract and he’s our guy.” Steve Phillips also swears Valentine is doing a “good job,” implying his job is safe.These contentions are duly recorded, for what they’re worth, at the same moment John Franco makes an appearance on WFAN that lends credence to the belief that Valentine has lost his clubhouse. Interviewed by the drive-time team of Mike and the Mad Dog, Franco confesses that his manager’s lineups leave his teammates “scratching their heads.” (This admission may help identify the Unnamed Veteran who complained to the press about lineup inconsistency a week earlier.) One of the hosts shares his belief that the Mets don’t give their all for Valentine. Rather than dismiss this theory, Franco coyly says, “You may have something there.”

A Met win might stem the calls for Bobby Valentine’s head, but even everything is conspiring against such an outcome right now, including the laws of physics. During the second inning of Subway Series game two, Rey Ordoñez hits a sharp grounder right back to Orlando Hernández, smacking the ball so hard it lodges between the fingers of the pitcher’s glove. Fearing he won’t have enough time to dislodge the ball or beat the runner to the bag, Hernández flings his whole glove toward first base overhand, at a distance of some 60 feet, where Tino Martinez catches it for the out. The crowd gasps before cheering, as if they had to confer with one another to make sure they truly witnessed this. Robin Ventura, stunned as anyone, moves to third on the out but is too flabbergasted to try and score while the ball is trapped in leather.

If ever the Baseball Gods sent a message This Is Not Your Day, surely this was it. At the moment the odd glove play happens, the Mets have the lead, but this serves as an omen that it shall not last. Masato Yoshii squanders this advantage and then some as the Mets fall yet again, 6-3. The Met losing streak, now up to eight games, has dropped the team a game below .500 and into third place in the National League East, behind the poorhouse Phillies.

One writer proclaims the Subway Series a snooze because the Mets are no match for the powerful Yankees. Rather than retire to his office following their eighth straight defeat, Bobby Valentine patrols the visiting clubhouse long after it is empty, when most of his players are on the team bus awaiting a trip back to Shea, as if he is looking for something that refuses to be found.

The only member of Met personnel exhibiting an emotion beyond shock is Steve Phillips. Before the game, Phillips is blindsided by published rumors he is about to fire pitching coach Bob Apodaca. Whispers of Apodaca’s tenuous grip on employment, which have been murmured all year while the Mets’ pitching sputtered, have gathered steam during the team’s losing streak. The only thing that saved the coach’s neck to this point was his close relationship with Bobby Valentine, but that connection holds a lot less power now than it once did. Phillips neither confirms nor denies such rumors while backpedaling from an implicit endorsement of Valentine he’d muttered the day before. Less than 24 hours ago, he’d insisted his manager was doing a “good job.” Now, when asked if Valentine’s status is as shaky as that of his pitching coach, Phillips says tersely, “draw your own conclusions.”Following the game, he is even more brusque, bristling at a reporter’s question before using it as an excuse to make an early exit from the Bronx.

Like everyone else connected with the Mets, Steve Phillips has weathered a rough week. On the morning before the first Subway Series game, he was called on to give a breakfast talk at Manhattan’s tony 21 Club on the subject of the outlook for baseball in the 21st century. He expected a softball Q&A session about his thoughts on expansion and divisional realignment. Instead, he was hit with a barrage of questions from attendees—largely Mets fans, by the sound of things—about the team’s miserable performance of late. Taken by surprise, he all but kowtowed to his inquisitors. “Our pitching, once fourth-best in the league, has really collapsed,” he admitted, “and our hitting, primarily our clutch hitting with runners in scoring position isn’t what it should be.”

The unspoken follow-up to such admissions is, If you can see the team is so lousy, why’d you put it together in the first place? An editorial in the Post proclaims that if Bobby Valentine is to blame for the Mets’ slide, then Phillips must be doubly to blame for assembling the roster that is sliding. If you want to fire the former for the Mets’ failings, the Post commands, you must also fire the latter.

Late in the evening after the Mets’ eighth consecutive loss, Phillips addresses the press via conference call to inform them he has dismissed half of the Met coaching staff. Bob Apodaca gets the axe as expected, along with hitting coach Tom Robson and assistant pitching and bullpen coach Randy Niemann. The dismissals of Robson and Niemann make little sense unless you know that, like Apodaca, both are close confidants of Bobby Valentine. The trio formed Valentine’s brain trust in the Met clubhouse. Now, all are gone.

The general manager insists he decided to fire all three coaches the previous Thursday and that the outcome of the Subway Series had no bearing on the move. He offers no explanation as to why a decision he’d made a few days ago was announced in the dead of night on a Saturday. “The new idea seems to be straight from the Book of Steinbrenner,” Joel Sherman writes in the Post. He means the old Steinbrenner of the 1980s, the one who spent tons of money on free agent busts and reacted to crises by issuing cruel, indiscriminate pink slips.

Valentine learns of the firings an hour before Phillips’s conference call. The manager makes counterarguments to save his coaches’ jobs, to no avail. He then exercises what little power he has left and spends the night at a hotel, staying off the grid and off the press’s radar as the controversy swells in the wee hours.

Phillips denies the firings are a backhanded attempt to force Valentine to resign. If they are, Valentine doesn’t bite. To a man, his dismissed coaches urge the manager to continue on. He vows to do so, in a stance could be interpreted as either stubbornness or insanity. Shovel in hand, Murray Chass pens a column entitled “To Valentine, It Seems, Loyalty Has Its Limits,” in which he calls the manager a coward for not falling on his sword. What kind of person would continue on like this, Chass argues, when his bosses are telegraphing that they want him gone? Other takes employ more diplomacy, but ask the same essential question.

The stage is set for a cringe-inducing press conference prior to the Subway Series finale on June 6. Steve Phillips does most of the talking, defending his actions in clipped, measured phrases, expressing remorse that, sigh, it has come to this. Bobby Valentine sits at his side and says very little, looking like a hyperactive child forced to squirm through Sunday mass, his eyes darting in every direction. He bites his knuckles throughout the grotesque charade, as if afraid his mouth might betray him if it isn’t filled with something. Valentine’s presence is meant to add credence to the charade that everyone in the Met organization is now on the same page, a lie insulting the intelligence of everyone on hand to hear it.

When asked if he’s “lost” the team, Valentine responds, “None of my power is gone. I still have total control over things I’ve always had control over.” To Lisa Olson of the Daily News, Valentine’s words ring with echoes of Al Haig, the bygone politico who screeched “I’m in charge here!” in the wake of an attempt on President Reagan’s life, thus proving he was in charge of nothing.

I still have total control over things I’ve always had control over. A curious response, almost a zen koan in its profound meaninglessness. What exactly does Valentine have control over? The answer is: words. He’s always been able to command words, for as much as they’re worth. So he forms them into a cudgel and wields them on himself.

The Mets have played 55 games to this point in the season. “If we’re dealing with 55 games that just cost a few guys their jobs, I can’t see lasting much past that,” he says. “That’s fine with me.” He then expresses an amount of optimism that borders on the delusional, given how his team has played lately. “Within the next 55 to 75 games we’ll be in touch with the leaders of our division,” he contends. He even insists the Mets have the talent and ability to win 40 of the next 55 games they play—and if they don’t, he deserves to be fired.

There are a few outlets that interpret this gambit as a sign of mad genius. Sporting News calls Valentine’s self-imposed deadline “an act of Machiavellian genius” that “set the agenda before G.M. Steve Phillips or other forces in the Met front office could open a smaller window and throw Valentine out of it.” Locally, however, the manager’s words are reported with little comment. Forty out of fifty-five…they might as well print the ranting of a street corner madman. The Post compares Valentine’s prediction to putting a gun to his own head and asking the front office to pull the trigger.

As close spectators to the unraveling, the Yankees have the worst possible reaction: pity. Most of their players choose to say little on the subject, but those who do contribute remarks that border on the condescending, as when David Cone surmises, “I know the players are probably embarrassed over there.”

The Mets desperately need to salvage a victory in the Subway Series finale, if they to leave the Bronx with a shred of dignity left, but they will have to do so against Roger Clemens, winner of 20 decisions in a row, an American League record. The Rocket hasn’t been perfect this season, but the potent Yankee offense has bailed him out more than once, proving it is often better to be lucky than good. The Mets will counter with Al Leiter, who has been neither lucky nor good so far in 1999.

This confluence of events seems laboratory engineered to end the Mets’ season before the All Star Break, which makes what happens during the game even more remarkable. Mike Piazza doubles to lead off the top of the second, Robin Ventura follows with a single, and Brian McRae walks to load the bases. The free pass to McRae includes a few close calls Clemens does not get, prompting the pitcher to dart a few deadly stares back at the umpire. He then gets ahead of the hapless Bobby Bonilla 0-2, only to allow the count to go full, the third ball coming on another close pitch. Clemens stalks around the mound, smirking in disbelief. Bonilla lines the next pitch fair down the right field line, fair by inches, for a two-run double. Benny Agbayani drives in another two with a single. All of this happens before an out is recorded in the inning, against a pitcher who hasn’t lost in almost a year.

Clemens sets the next three batters down without further incident, but in the third, he gives up a homer to Piazza, a monster shot that lands in a narrow corner of the Yankees’ bullpen beyond the left-center field fence. Moments later, Agbayani notches another RBI, and that is the end of the line for Clemens, who exits with one of the ugliest lines of his illustrious career: 2 2/3 innings, eight hits, seven runs, all earned.

As amazing as this epidemic of clutch hitting is, Leiter’s performance is even more stunning. The Mets’ reputed ace finally pitches like one, allowing only one run on four hits in seven innings of work. It is exactly the kind of performance the Mets need, the kind of performance a number one starter is supposed to deliver. With no need to excuse another mediocre outing, Leiter quips, “I’m so relieved just so I don’t have to answer your questions of why I’m so shitty.”

The Mets follow the 7-2 win over the Yankees by taking the first two games of a series against Toronto at Shea. In the opener, they torch rookie Blue Jay pitcher Roy Halladay for six runs and cruise to victory. The next night, the Met bats explode again, a barrage that gives star-crossed Jason Isringhausen his first major league win in almost two years. “I get teased that every time I go out there, there’s a black cloud over the stadium,” a weary Isringhausen tells reporters after the game. “At times, if I didn’t have bad luck, I wouldn’t have any luck at all.”It is a sentiment every Met now understands. Adding to Isringhausen’s anxiety is the fact that ailing starter Bobby Jones is rehabbing in the minors. Jones’s return could push Izzy into the bullpen or back down to the farm, but Bobby Valentine refuses to discuss the matter after the game. “Why try to figure out what’s going to happen in three weeks when we don’t know the next five days?” he snaps to reporters.

Speculating about the future holds no interest to a man who’s been told over and over again that he is living on borrowed time. A decisive victory against Roger Clemens and a three-game winning streak are not sufficient to end the Bobby Valentine Death Watch. Newspapers run opinion pieces with titles like “Mets, Own Up to the Inevitable,” urging the team to cut its losses and ditch Valentine for the good of everyone involved. Valentine’s survival depends on him delivering on his 55-game guarantee, or at least returning the Mets to something close to normalcy. But as Jack Curry points out in the New York Times, “Exactly what is normal for the Mets is still uncertain.”

Lurking

Moments after Valentine is given his early exit on the evening of June 9, the FOX Sports cameras spy a lurker in the Met dugout. In the strictest sense, this man is not in the dugout. The culprit will be careful to make this distinction later, in part to forestall a suspension and fine, in part to insist he did not violate the letter of the law. He stands on the top step connecting the dugout to the clubhouse tunnel. On his head, a black baseball cap. Not a Mets hat, but one with an indecipherable logo. No one knows what it says. No one will ever know, for no closeup or freeze frame provides a definitive answer. He wears a Met t-shirt, and a cheap looking one at that, the bootleg kind that enterprising vendors sell in the parking lot to free-spending tailgaters. His eyes are obscured by a large pair of aviator sunglasses, resembling those sported in the police sketch of the Unabomber. Below his nose, a laughably fake mustache painted on with the eye-black outfielders use to ward off the glare of the midday sun. It is the kind of “disguise” a person would wear not to go unnoticed, but to stand out.

The lurker’s arms are folded. He rocks side to side, performing such a strenuous job of trying to not be seen that no one can fail to miss him. The players on the bench pay him no mind, but their ignorance of this character is contrived. They are doing everything in their power to not look at him, which only serves to draw more attention his way. The mystery man in the ridiculous get-up remains silent. He need say nothing, for his appearance says everything. Isn’t this is supposed to be fun? he says without speaking a word. Isn’t this supposed to be a game?

For those watching live, he seems to hover there forever. But only a few moments pass before he is gone.

1999

Chapter 2: Si No Gana, Empata

Money Well Spent

You will never see this again. These words were whispered at each twist and turn of the 1998 baseball season: the Yankees’ historic dominance, the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home run derby, a National League Wild Card race that went down to the season’s final day and beyond. These are tough acts to follow. The 1999 season attempts a more contrived road to history on April 4 with an opening day matchup between the Padres and Rockies in Monterrey, Mexico. Though San Diego plays as the home team, Colorado third baseman and Oaxaca native Vinny Castilla wins the heart of the locals by going 4-for-5. A Monterrey newspaper compares him to an NBA legend with its headline “JORDAN MEXICANO.”

The Mets will not begin the season quite so far from home. They will, however, start with seven road games against the Marlins and Expos, two teams whose modest records in 1998 belied their ability to play like All Stars whenever they faced the Mets. Last season, New York racked up a winning record against the Marlins by the slimmest of margins (7–5), even though Florida scraped together a pathetic 49 wins against all other contenders. Without a whisper left of the 1997 championship roster, the Marlins project to be no better this year, and are thus seen as an ideal tune-up opponent for the Mets to face in the season opener on April 5.

Befitting a still-young franchise, pregame ceremonies at the facility the Marlins share with the NFL’s Miami Dolphins—once called Joe Robbie Stadium, now known as Pro Player Stadium—borrows heavily from other teams’ legacies. Former Met Gary Carter and team co-owner Nelson Doubleday are on hand for the festivities, as are baseball luminaries Whitey Ford and Earl Weaver. For reasons known only to the hosts, the first pitch is thrown out by Cardinals legend Stan Musial. When Al Leiter exits the bullpen to make his first appearance in Miami since winning the World Series there in 1997, the home team shows its appreciation by playing “Born to Run” for the huge Springsteen fan, as the crowd gives him an impressive ovation. There are far fewer people on hand to see Leiter pitch on this occasion than at his last outing in Miami, as the Marlins have covered huge swaths of unsellable upper deck seating with tarp. For their own Opening Day starter, the home team chooses Alex Fernandez, a pitcher who hasn’t climbed a major league mound in over 18 months while recovering from rotator cuff surgery.

Though conditions are set up to hand the visitors a tidy victory, the Mets manage to fail in every imaginable way and drop a frustrating, error-filled slog. New York hitters strand 14 men while batting 0 for 9 with runners in scoring position. Robin Ventura does not play up to his Gold Glove reputation, as his sloppy play in the field giftwraps three first inning runs for the Marlins. Supposed ace Al Leiter allows five runs in five grueling innings and expends a whopping 124 pitches to make it that far. The Mets lose by the score of 6-2.

Those who care for perspective can look to the Opening Day results of other conspicuous offseason spenders and see the results have been mixed at best. Baltimore barely edges out lowly Tampa Bay, powered by their pricey new big bat, Albert Belle. Kevin Brown struggles in his Dodgers debut (five runs in five innings and change), but Los Angeles sneaks past Arizona regardless. The Diamondbacks are given a passable start from their prize offseason signing, Randy Johnson. The Angels sneak past the Indians but lose their big free agent signing, slugger Mo Vaughn, to an ankle sprain. Placed within this Opening Day context, the Mets’ stumbles are par for the course.

However, no one in the New York press is in the mood to apply such perspective. In the eyes of the media, the deadly losing streak that closed out 1998 has not yet been broken. One badly played game is sufficient cause to point out the Mets’ precarious grip on relevance, and how small their window is to accomplish anything. It is also sufficient for their general manager to fire a warning flare in the Times:

Unlike the Marlins, the Mets are built to win now. Their starting lineup averages 31 years of age, their starting rotation 34; their closer is 38. Phillips had talked before the game about his only expectation being that his players perform to their average capabilities.

If that happens, the general manager was asked, is this a playoff team? “It should be,” Phillips said, well aware that the Mets have not qualified for the post-season since 1988. “It better be.”

With this rebuke in mind, the Mets rebound to take the next two games against the Marlins in convincing fashion. The victories come courtesy of the ageless bat and legs of Rickey Henderson, who first unnerves opposing pitchers on the basepaths, causing several errant pickoff throws, in a 12-3 drubbing, then belts two homers and two doubles to power a 6-0 victory. “I’d probably be the king of stealing runs and creating runs if they kept those stats,” he says later, employing his trademark immodesty. “Making them throw the ball away, I’d probably be the king of that, too.” Henderson struggled during spring training, causing some to whisper he may have finally reached the end of the line. The opening series against the Marlins proves this is not the case, to the amazement of everyone but Henderson. “Any time the bell rings, we’re ready to play,” he says. “It rang. I heard it solid.” He can’t remember having so many extra base hits in one game, but also admits, “I can’t remember half the things I do in this game.”

For the reporters who were so quick to doubt the team after a deflating Opening Day, Steve Phillips quips “We’re pretty good in must-win games,” and suggests the headline “Money Well Spent.”

From Miami, the Mets travel to Montréal for four games. The Expos finished a dismal 65–97 in 1998, yet won 8 of their 12 matchups against the Mets and handed them their first two losses in the disastrous five-game slide that closed out the season. Montréal’s record against New York marks the only success the team has enjoyed in recent years. In the post-strike years, as collusion gave way to extravagant spending, the Expos could no longer afford its brightest stars. Moisés Alou, Pedro Martínez, John Wetteland, and Larry Walker were all either lost to free agency or shipped away in money-saving trades. Each summer’s trade deadline brings another loss of an impact player whose price tag has grown to rich for their blood. Sick of losing games and marquee names, fans stay away in droves. Attendance at debt-ridden, claustrophobic Olympic Stadium ranks among the lowest in the majors year after year.

When the Mets arrive for Montréal’s home opener on April 8, rumors swirl that the team will be relocated, and that this may well be their last season north of the border. The Washington, D.C. area and Charlotte, North Carolina are the most often named destinations. In the face of such doomsaying, Expos fans make an impressive show of support. Almost 44,000 paying customers show up for the first game against the Mets. An attendance announcement during the eighth inning inspires the biggest cheers of the day. Amid this surprisingly raucous atmosphere, the Expos take advantage of a laboring Orel Hershiser, hanging five runs on him in four innings while also picking him off at second base to squash a potential rally. Les Expos go on to win, 5-1.

As attendance dips to more typical levels for the remainder of the series (around 12,000 for each contest), the Mets take the next three games from the home team, though each win is tempered with a sliver of bad news. In the second game, Mike Piazza knocks in five runs but also injures his knee during a pickoff play at second base, forcing him to leave the game. He flies back to New York for an MRI while the team holds its collective breath. Team execs fall over themselves to dismiss rumors that the injury will require season-ending surgery, even before they have any idea how badly Piazza’s knee is hurt. By the time the Mets complete a come-from-behind win in game three (the winning run knocked in by Piazza’s backup, Todd Pratt), the verdict is in: mild sprains to Piazza’s MCL and PCL. It means a trip to the disabled list that will put him out of action for the Met home opener, an outcome the team will welcome in place of the doomsday scenario of a year without Piazza.

With the Met lineup already depleted, the team’s pitching takes a hit in the series finale when Rick Reed suffers his own injury on the basepaths. While trying to leg out a double, he feels a violent pain in his heel and crumples to the infield in a heap. At first he fears he’s suffered a sprained Achilles’ tendon, a return of an injury he thought he’d recovered from during spring training. “It popped,” Reed says ominously. An MRI reveals a torn calf muscle, landing him on the disabled list and putting another strain on an already strained starting rotation.

Steve Phillips dispatches scouts to the four winds to hunt down reinforcements. Met officials are spotted in Seattle and Oakland, eyeing some of the same pitchers they flirted with from afar in the winter. Despite the injury to Reed, the Mets win their last game in Montreal to finish their first road trip at 5-2. The record looks good on paper, where injuries and crushing pressure are not registered.

Renovations

Shea Stadium has had some work done since the Mets last played in Queens. Bobby Valentine pronounces himself anxious to get back to Flushing and inspect the clubhouse renovations the team performed in the offseason to the tune of $250,000. When he visits the ballpark upon his return from Montréal, he is stunned to find an enormous desk in his revamped office, leaving little room for visitors. Considering Steve Phillips’ propensity to drop by after games to discuss strategy, Valentine doesn’t consider this aesthetic choice a drawback. As for external improvements, a maintenance tunnel behind home plate has been covered over to accommodate 221 new high-priced seats. Tickets in this area, dubbed the Metropolitan Club, cost a whopping $35. New permanent box seats have been placed next to each dugout and a set of bleachers installed beyond the left field fence. These new revenue streams are intended to offset the cost of the Mets’ offseason spending in general and Piazza’s seven-year deal in particular. The infield, long a source of grumbling among those forced to play on it, has also received a facelift.

Most fans arriving for Opening Day in Flushing will never see the inside of the Met clubhouse or walk across the infield, nor will they ever come within 50 feet of seats behind home plate. But those satisfied with sitting in the nosebleed sections discover the cost of the cheapest upper deck tickets is now $9, up from $7 in 1998. They will also find the cost of a souvenir program increased to $4, a price that no longer includes a complimentary golf-style pencil with which to score the game. Fans outraged by this infuriating bit of miserliness on Opening Day place outraged calls to WFAN, where the radio hosts mine Average Joe frustration for precious broadcast hours. In the face of fan indignation, Met officials aver that scoring pencils are still available at stadium information windows. No one is aware of this, however, because that information is not disseminated to the Opening Day crowd of over 50,000 in any meaningful way. The team’s pencil policy will be quietly reversed later in the home stand.

It’s difficult to imagine another fanbase revolting over a lack of complimentary scoring pencils, but to Mets fans this is taken as another indignity heaped on them by the team they love. They already pay out the nose for other concessions at Shea, where a beer averages $5.50 and a regular hot dog runs you $3.75, prices ranking among the tops in the majors. A day at Yankee Stadium will cost you even more, but Yankee Stadium is The House That Ruth Built, host to the winners of two of the last three World Series. Mets fans must enjoy their pricey beers and hot dogs while sitting in a ballpark that, for all of its “improvements,” remains a relic from the multi-sport stadium era of the 1960s, and which has not hosted a playoff game in 11 years.

Griping in the stands aside, the home opener on April 12 goes swimmingly between the lines. Blue skies prevail. Renowned concert violinist and ardent Mets fan Itzhak Perlman plays the national anthem. Tom Seaver tosses out the first pitch to Mike Piazza, who receives it ably despite his balky knee. Mayor Giuliani attends and even dares to exchange his “lucky” Yankee jacket for some Met gear, though Steve Phillips notes of Hizzoner, “He looked like he was in pain.” Starter Bobby Jones holds the Marlins to one run and four hits in seven strong innings and even hits a home run in the fifth. Robin Ventura, whose two RBIs go unnoticed as a result, says, “It’s the first time I’ve been shown up by a pitcher.” Even prodigal son Bobby Bonilla, still hitting below .100 at the start of play, collects three hits and an RBI in the Mets’ easy 8-1 victory.

The win is literally dampened when a sewer pump fails in the Mets’ shower room, filling the newly renovated clubhouse with a lake of foul-smelling water. Bobby Valentine runs into the clubhouse mid-game to fortify himself with a cup of coffee, only to find his new office flooded and his boxes of prized baseball memorabilia ruined. At the game’s conclusion, the victorious home team is forced to relocate to the former Jets’ dressing room. This facility is a remnant from Shea’s years hosting the NFL, one that hasn’t been used in 15 years and thus lacks running water. “It’s kind of like Little League,” Bonilla jokes. “You play the game and shower at home.”

Scribes can’t resist the temptation to compare the Mets’ home opener to the Yankees’. The first game in the Bronx began with welcoming back Yogi Berra, soliciting prayers for Joe Torre as he battled cancer, and, of course, hoisting another championship flag. Contrasting this with the scene of the Mets “sent fleeing from their clubhouse,” Harvey Araton of the Times notes “The Yankees played under an appropriately somber sky, in a persistent, divine rain.” The Mets can ruin a sunny home opener by forcing their players to wade through raw sewage at its conclusion. The Yankees can play under gray clouds and precipitation and still have the scene described as divine.

Battling

In the Mets’ second home game of the season, Orel Hershiser, Turk Wendell, and Armando Benítez victimize an overanxious young Marlins lineup and hand a 4-1 lead to John Franco in the ninth. This gives the longtime closer his first shot at his 400th career save. It proves an atypical Franco appearance for its utter lack of drama. The lefty strikes out the side to pass a milestone reached by only one other closer in baseball history. The all-time mark for saves was set by well-traveled fireman Lee Smith, who collected 478. Franco dares proclaim that mark “reachable.” Such hubris ignores the fact that he’ll turn 39 years old in September, and that fans are already agitating for Benítez and his electrifying fastball to assume the closer’s role. After the game, a joyous Franco distributes glasses of Dom Perignon in plastic flutes to his teammates, along with the promise, “This is the first of many celebrations, boys.”

Franco arrived in New York via a trade with the Cincinnati Reds prior to the 1990 season. He blew three key saves that September and pitched to a 5.91 ERA as the Mets stumbled and finished in second place behind the Pirates. The man he was traded for, fellow southpaw Randy Myers, became one component of the infamous Nasty Boys bullpen that powered the Reds to a stunning World Series title that very season, then went on to pitch in the postseason for Baltimore and San Diego. Franco has never made a playoff appearance, because the Mets have failed to reach October since he arrived.

John Franco has climbed the mound for the Mets for the entirety of the 1990s. His contract ensures, health willing, he will climb the mound for them into the next millennium. When he first donned orange and blue, those colors were worn by Darryl Strawberry, Doc Gooden, and Howard Johnson. All of those men are long gone. Many others have arrived and left since then. Only Franco has had to watch it all. He has endured the Mets of the Worst Team Money Can Buy, struggled through the bleach-and-fireworks days, bore witness to the debacle of Generation K, and contributed to the dreadful slide of 1998.

Throughout the decade, Franco has racked up saves but infuriated fans with his tendency to flirt with disaster. “I have a weird hate-love relationship with the fans,” he tells Sports Illustrated. (Note the order of the emotions.) While he agrees with the general fan sentiment that “when you stink you should get booed,” he adds, “there were a few nights when I thought I would need a ride home with the National Guard.”

John Franco and the fans understand one another too well to get along. Like many Brooklynites of a certain age, he paints his youth in Bensonhurst as some intersection between the Dead End Kids and The Honeymooners. He speaks of the toil of his father, a sanitation worker who literally worked himself to death to provide for his family, passing away of a heart attack at the wheel of a dump truck. He remembers the circuitous trips he took from the neighborhood to Shea Stadium along with friends named Bucktooth and Lumpy, exchanging coupons from Borden’s milk cartons for upper deck tickets. He worshipped Tug McGraw, another left-handed fireman with a penchant for making his save opportunities a little too interesting, who coined the Met rallying cry Ya gotta believe.

Franco could never bear to stray too far from the city. His years in Cincinnati are now a mere blip between college ball at St. John’s in Flushing and his return to the boroughs. Most ballplayers in New York relocate to New Jersey or Connecticut when they ink That Big Contract. When Franco got some pocket change, he traveled no farther than most other former Brooklynites who made good, hopping over the Verrazano Bridge to Staten Island.

Franco hails from a world familiar to many Mets fans of his generation, raised in a housing project, sustained by the city’s municipal safety net that employed sanitation workers, cops, firemen, court officers, inspectors, and the thousands of clerks to keep track of them all. A city job promised no prosperity but guaranteed you wouldn’t starve. For those who watched fathers and grandfathers work break-breaking hours for pennies, not starving was good enough.

This grasping for stability earned city workers the lion’s share of the blame when New York nearly tumbled into financial ruin in the 1970s, the presumed greed of public unions pointed to as the reason behind the city’s near bankruptcy, and the reason why it should be left to rot. The city workers weathered it all, barely, and endured the horrors of the 1980s too, though again by the slightest of margins. Franco echoes their feelings when he proclaims, “New York is the greatest city in the country, in the world.” Many of them arrived at this conviction despite not seeing much of the world, or America, or the horizon beyond a 10-block radius of their own stoops.

When Franco speaks of this world now, he can sound like a man out of time. While he was pitching to more boos than cheers in the 1990s, his home borough was transformed by an influx of brownstoning homesteaders, bohemian types, and, amazingly, the uber-rich who discovered you could see Manhattan’s skyline a lot better when you didn’t live in Manhattan. Now, you can invoke the newest, well-heeled city dwellers by saying no more than Brooklyn, a place name that no longer stands for guys whose dads drove dump trucks, or who grew up in public housing, or who had friends named Lumpy.

Two weeks after earning his 400th career save, John Franco receives an honorary key to the city from the mayor in a ceremony at City Hall. In feting Franco, Rudy Giuliani declares, “The more pressure there is, the better he pitches.” The closer looks uncomfortable at this utterance, knowing it’s one with which few Mets fans would concur. The mayor follows by saying “He has never given Mets fans a dull moment,” a remark that relaxes Franco with its closer relationship to the truth.

The ceremony is packed with members of the press who have very little interest in the pitcher. They are here to grill the mayor on his latest controversy, in a year packed with them. Like the mayor’s favorite team, 1999 has not begun well for Rudy Giuliani. Most believe he is reaping what he sowed during years of making enemies out of friends and shutting out the media.

In February, four members of the NYPD’s Street Crime Unit mistook a Guinean immigrant named Amadou Diallo for a suspected serial rapist, pursued him into in his Bronx apartment building, and shot him in a stairwell 41 times. The public was horrified at the sheer number of shots expended to kill Diallo, and by the fact that the victim was both unarmed and running away from officers when he was shot.

Giuliani had always defended the NYPD without question, dismissing any error its members might commit with the fact that officers risked their lives daily to keep the city safe. He stressed that the police had made the entire city safer, nowhere more than in inner-city neighborhoods. Accusations of racism and unfairness sounded to him like the whines of ungrateful children. When a reporter asked him to respond to charges that he neglected New York’s minority communities, he countered, “They are alive, how about we start with that? You can’t help people more directly than to save lives.”

Those same communities saw things differently. To them, the goal of decreasing crime was the mayor’s justification for constant harassment at the hands of officers, who patrolled their neighborhoods less as a police force and more like an occupying force. To them, the Amadou Diallo shooting was so far beyond the pale that it warranted some sort of sympathetic response from their mayor. Instead, Giuliani tossed gasoline on the fire by making a speech in which he insisted the NYPD had “a right to demand more respect from the citizens of the city.” Protests raged throughout the city for months. Giuliani’s approval ratings, which had been trending downward ever since his reelection in 1997, fell off a cliff. Serious calls for his impeachment began to bubble up in city council. Years spent alienating allies in politics and the press resulted in few friends rushing to his defense.

It will take something quite incendiary to knock the Diallo news from the front pages. Giuliani finds it when, a few days prior to the John Franco ceremony, he proclaims the city’s school system “should be blown up.” The remarks are born of frustration over his inability to wrangle control of that system from the Board of Education, a futility that has enraged him throughout his years in office. His administration has managed to consolidate police forces, remake the welfare system in his image, and extract unheard of concessions from municipal unions, and yet the Board of Ed still eludes his grasp.

The latest speed bump is schools chancellor Rudy Crew’s stonewalling on the issue of vouchers for low-income families to attend private schools. Crew had been a vital ally during Giuliani’s reelection bid in 1997, allowing the mayor to use schools as campaign stops while shutting out similar requests from his Democratic challenger. But Giuliani demands unwavering loyalty, and now that the chancellor and the mayor disagree on a small point of policy, he insists Crew must be destroyed. Hence, the explosive rhetoric.

The record shows Giuliani has threatened to metaphorically “blow up” the school system for years, using those exact words in speeches even before he became mayor. This time, he uses these words less than a week after the school shooting horror in Columbine, Colorado. Two teenagers had murdered 13 people at their high school and would have killed even more, had the explosives they planted around the campus worked as planned. At this moment, placing the words school and blow up too close to each other feels uncomfortable at best, horrifying at worst.

John Franco’s big day at City Hall takes a back seat to a flurry of questions over the mayor’s poorly timed turn of phrase. Rudy Giuliani refuses to apologize and insists his rhetoric merely reflects his unrelenting focus on school reform. After six years of covering him, reporters find this ceaseless combativeness tiresome, if not baffling. The city has never been in better shape, it seems. The Dow has blasted past 10,000 for the first time and will leave that mark in the dust when it passes 11,000 less than week from now. The terrifying homicide totals of yesterday are gone. Real estate prices are skyrocketing in all five boroughs. And rather than celebrate these developments, Giuliani wastes his time picking fights as if the city were still a warzone. Former mayor Ed Koch—like Rudy Crew, an erstwhile Giuliani supporter—confesses he doesn’t care much for the schools chancellor himself, yet even he can only shake his head. “It’s like his goal in life is to spear people, destroy them, go for the jugular,” Koch says.

To which Giuliani might respond, Yes, exactly. The press sees transformed New York as one quirky Friends episode after another. Giuliani still sees it as the endless loop of Taxi Driver it once was, the state it could easily devolve back into if he lets up for one moment. Broken windows says attack the small crimes with the same strength as the big crimes because there is no such thing as a small crime. Mercy signals weakness. That’s why he fights the schools chancellor, squeegee men, and violent criminals with equal fervor. That’s why even before he’d ever heard of broken windows, he subjected insider traders to the same perp walks as mobsters. (Despite the soaring Dow Jones, Wall Street still hates him for it.) His favorite attack to launch against anyone who opposes or even questions him is to say they are being political. His aims are above mere politics, closer to a crusade. Everyone who opposes him an infidel.

Like John Franco, Giuliani spent much of his childhood in Brooklyn, raised with his generation’s almost religious belief in the city’s greatness. The price of greatness was the unending pressure to stay great. Surrender an inch and watch the other guy take a mile. That belief is perhaps why a kid who grew up in the shadow of Ebbets Field, at a time when greats like Duke Snider and Jackie Robinson patrolled that field, would nonetheless become the loudest and proudest Yankee fan of them all.

The Shortstop

The series against the Marlins at Shea concludes with an embarrassing, error-filled loss and is followed by yet another series against Montréal. The Mets drop two of three to the Expos, appearing more eager to conclude the games than win them. After facing the Marlins and Expos 13 times to open the regular season—following a spring training that required 12 games against these teams—the Mets are desperate for a change of scenery. “I think they were sick of seeing us and we were sick of seeing them,” Valentine concedes.

The Mets’ first look at the rest of the league begins on April 20 with three-game sets in Cincinnati and Chicago. The Reds play in one of the maligned multipurpose concrete bowls that dominated baseball’s landscape in the pre-Camden Yards years, though they have given one concession to modernity by selling naming rights to the place. Once called Riverfront Stadium (even though its enclosure prevented the crowd from seeing the nearby Ohio River, or any other feature of nature), it is now dubbed Cinergy Field. New York wins two of three in the Queen City as Al Leiter earns his first win of the year and Bobby Valentine has his first major run-in with the umps, complaining about a stingy strike zone he sees as stacked against Masato Yoshii in the Mets’ sole loss. The final game in Cincinnati marks the first time the Mets’ projected opening day outfield plays together, as Rickey Henderson, Brian McRae, and Bobby Bonilla have all missed some time in the season’s early weeks to nurse bangs and bruises. The reunion lasts all of one inning, as Bonilla is taken out of the game after driving in the Mets’ first run, ailing with the knee injury that has plagued him since spring training.

From Cincinnati, it’s on to Chicago to play the Cubs, the team that weathered the hoopla of the Sammy Sosa Traveling Home Run Roadshow and tied the Giants for the National League wild card spot in 1998. This season looks less promising, as the Cubs will trot out a lineup that’s a little too long in the tooth (biggest offseason acquisition: veteran catcher Benito Santiago), while its best hope for the future, young ace Kerry Wood, will miss the season with a torn elbow ligament.

The series in Chicago proves rocky for the Mets, in every sense of the word. It begins inauspiciously with a rough ride out of Cincinnati that Valentine calls “The Knuckleball Express,” as the Mets’ plane dives and dodges through brutal turbulence. Conditions barely improve once they touch the ground. Game time temperature for the series opener on April 23 stands at 44 degrees, with 36 mph winds swirling around Wrigley Field. Robin Ventura, who played on the South Side for nine years, calls such weather “mild” for a Chicago April while Brian McRae, a former Cub, considers this “a nice day” compared to some he’s experienced. Few others share these opinions, least of all Cub starter Steve Trachsel, who has the cap blown right off his head in the second inning. Ditto Jermaine Allensworth, starting in right field in the place of the injured Bobby Bonilla, who loses one run-scoring hit in the sun and slips in the outfield mud while trying to field another.

Despite Mother Nature’s best efforts, the Mets rally to overcome a deficit, take the lead in the top of the ninth on a pinch hit sac fly from Rey Ordoñez, and prevail, 6-5. The shortstop’s mild heroics come after sitting out the two previous games. His first day on the bench arose from his paltry .172 batting average. His second day on the bench was prompted by the temper tantrum he threw after the first benching.

In his career, Rey Ordoñez’s inability to hit with any consistency is matched only by his infuriating lack of maturity. He goes out of his way to annoy teammates, sneaking up on them to make buzzing sounds right next to their ears and mugging neabry while they are being grilled by reporters. His taunts directed at younger players often go far beyond the realm of good-natured ribbing. Luis Lopez, a benchwarmer who plays shortstop on Ordoñez’s rare off days, has complained about such taunting, to no good affect. His immaturity is reflected in his discipline at the plate, or lack thereof. In 1998, he worked a grand total of 23 walks in 548 plate appearances, a shocking lack of patience for a major league hitter.

Ordoñez almost compensates for all of these considerable drawbacks with his wizardry in the field. He opened eyes in his major league debut on Opening Day of 1996, when he scampered to the left field line to field a relay from the outfield, then fired a perfect throw from his knees to nail a runner at the plate. Since then, he has established himself as the best defensive shortstop in the game, a dynamic fielder who can make difficult plays look easy and execute them with the grace of a ballet dancer.

Decades ago, any team would have been thrilled with a Rey Ordoñez at shortstop, long considered a position where fielding ability trumped all. Then along came Cal Ripken and Robin Yount, shortstops who won MVP awards more with their offense than their defense. The 1990s brought a flurry of bat-first shortstops such as Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra, and Alex Rodriguez. In 1997, Ordoñez was featured in a photo shoot for Sports Illustrated along with this new breed of shortstop, the players stripped shirtless as if the point of the feature was to humiliate him and him alone. The other shortstops had weight room physiques that made Ordoñez look like the proverbial 90 Pound Weakling in comparison.

Being overshadowed was a familiar feeling for Ordoñez. As a player for the Havana Industriales, a top Cuban squad, he found it difficult to break into the starting lineup because his team already employed the man considered his nation’s best shortstop. A slot on the national team offered Ordoñez an opportunity to prove himself, but he took it as a chance to defect instead. In 1993, he snuck away while the national team was preparing for an exhibition in Buffalo, New York. Soon after, he signed with the Met organization, becoming only the second Cuban baseball player since Fidel Castro came to power to defect and attempt a career in the American major leagues. Compatriots of his soon followed, however, and most of them garnered much greater acclaim, such as Orlando and Liván Hernández, who each became superstars by winning World Series rings with the Yankees and Marlins, respectively. Ordoñez remained a mere slick-fielding shortstop, as anachronistic as the Eisenhower-era Fords on the streets of Havana that he left behind.

Many Cuban defectors send money and other aid back to their impoverished homeland. Orlando Hernández even managed the Herculean feat of bringing his wife and children stateside, with some help from New York archbishop John Cardinal O’Connor. Rey Ordoñez has sent no such help, according to relatives polled by a New York Times reporter who made a trip to Havana to ask them, not even to the wife and six-year-old son he left behind. The Times captures the scene of his son, Reynaldo, showing off a brand new fielder’s mitt he believes was sent to him by the major leaguer himself. In truth, it was a gift from family in Miami who hoped the ruse would make the boy feel better about growing up without his father. “He has never taken any interest at all in the boy,” Reynaldo’s mother said. When planning his defection, Ordoñez had made vague promises to send for his wife and child. Once in the states, he remarried instead.

That Times story is set to hit the newsstands in a few days after Ordoñez’s game-winning plate appearance in Chicago. He is surely aware of this; if so, it would explain why he reacts to being benched with such childish fervor. The shortstop, like many players before him, complains that Bobby Valentine is exiling him from the rest of the team, isolating him because he has hit a rough patch. “He’s the boss. He’s the one who gives the orders. I’m the only one he does it to. Maybe it’s because I don’t talk to him or say hi.” He sounds almost hopeless when discussing his relationship with the manager. Si no gana, empata, he says of Valentine: If he doesn’t win, he ties. “You can’t beat him.”

Valentine responds, “I like when guys are upset about not playing—in a very professional manner.”

All the Must Win Games

Ordoñez’s pinch hit heroics are the zenith of the Mets’ trip to the Windy City, as they drop the last two games of their set at Wrigley Field. Mike Piazza returns from his knee injury for the series finale but brings no luck with him, and the team escapes the Midwest with a disappointing .500 record against teams not from Florida or Montréal. After a brief detour to play an exhibition against the triple-A Norfolk Tides, the Mets return to Shea for a nine-game home stand. The first opponents to arrive are the reigning National League champions, the San Diego Padres, sacrificial lambs for the Yankees in last year’s World Series.

Little more than the name remains from the team that won the National League pennant in 1998. The Padres lost ace Kevin Brown, Gold Glove centerfielder Steve Finley, and slugger Ken Caminiti to free agency, then traded away their most powerful bat, Greg Vaughn. The dismantling began in earnest after their loss in the World Series, but not before San Diego voters approved a new downtown stadium ballot initiative, which received a huge boost in the polls from the team’s playoff push. Taxpayers now feel they were sold a bill of goods, that the Padres’ surprising competitiveness last season was but one piece of a developer’s long con. Sports Illustrated goes so far as to dub San Diego “Marlins West” in their season preview.

In other words, they should be another soft opponent for New York, which a pathetic performance against San Diego all the more galling. When the Mets drop the series opener on April 27 to the downsized Padres, some fans choose to vent their ire on Mike Piazza, who strands seven runners on base all by himself. In the minds of the press, Piazza’s momentary failures bring to mind the struggles he experienced when he first arrived in New York last year and the charges of “bad leadership” that chased him out of Los Angeles. The local sports radio airwaves chime in as well, reasoning the Mets’ poor play since Piazza returned from the disabled list—all two games of it—has to be more than a coincidence. Almost a year into his tenure in New York and he still has too much of that California Cool to suit the taste of Gotham. Can’t he look like he cares more? “It would be a nice addition to the 30 homers and 100 runs batted in that Piazza is bound to compile this season if he also tossed in a couple of dozen smiles and waves to the mezzanine section,” Jack Curry writes, capturing talk radio rage in Times timbre. Upon the conclusion of his awful night at the dish, Piazza finds a bouquet of yellow roses waiting for him in the locker room, sent from an unnamed admirer. “She sent them before the game,” he notes. “I don’t know if she would have after the game.”

The Mets look poised to rebound the next night, thanks to seven innings of one-run ball from Al Leiter. With a slim 2-1 lead heading into the top of the eighth inning, the call to the bullpen goes to Armando Benítez, who proceeds to walk the leadoff man before ceding back-to-back doubles, transforming the 2-1 lead into a 3-2 deficit, the first hiccup in what has otherwise been a stellar start to Benítez’s career in Queens. Once again, the Mets have left a small army of men on base—12 in all, after they eschew more scoring opportunities in the bottom of the eighth. There is little reason to think they will fare any better in the ninth, because San Diego owns a historic steak of 181 straight games in which they have not relinquished a lead after the eighth inning. This is due in large part to Trevor Hoffman, possessor of a wicked changeup and one of the best closers in the game. Hoffman saved 53 games for the National League champs in 1998 and is so sure of his abilities he’s spent much of this season confronting baseball writers who dared leave him off their Cy Young Award ballots.

On this night, however, Hoffman retires no one. Leading off the bottom of the ninth, John Olerud reaches on an infield single aided by a shortstop’s bobble. In the clubhouse, Al Leiter watches the game on TV with fellow starters Rick Reed and Orel Hershiser, both of whom want to return to the dugout once Olerud reaches base. Leiter, superstitious in the manner ballplayers have been ever since there have been ballplayers, forbids them from moving, lest they disrupt the flow of good luck. This is a good spot, the lefty insists.

Up steps Mike Piazza, who has gone 1-for-13 at the plate since returning from the disabled list and stranded 10 men all by himself in the first two games against San Diego. Hoffman makes the grave mistake of offering him a high, outside fastball clocking in at 86 mph, the kind of pitch Piazza has made a career of rocketing to the opposite field stands. This is exactly what he does, depositing Hoffman’s offering into the Met bullpen for a two-run game-winning homer. His teammates flood the field, anxious to mob him once he touches home. One day, joyous pogoing at home plate will accompany every walk off win by champs and cellar dwellers alike, but it is not a common sight in April of 1999. The ending of the Padres’ streak, and the presumed ending of the abuse Piazza was subjected to by the press and his own fans, deserves such a celebration.

After the Mets win the last game against San Diego, the press instructs them that the next team arriving at Shea, the San Francisco Giants, will prove their first real test of the season. Though the season is young, the Giants are their first opponent with expectations of contending this year. San Francisco is a chic pick to make the playoffs, with a lineup powered by Barry Bonds and former Met Jeff Kent. “It’s never too early to beat one of the teams that will be a rival for that extra post-season slot,” counsels Murray Chass in the New York Times. As if Mets need reminding it’s never too early for to be pressured about anything.

While his charges battle their counterparts from the Bay Area, Bobby Valentine will have to battle the opposing manager, Dusty Baker. At the moment, Baker owns a reputation quite different from Valentine’s. While the Mets collapsed and missed the postseason altogether at the close of the 1998 season, the Giants surged to win four of their last five and tie the Cubs for the wild card berth. They lost a one-game playoff at Wrigley Field, but in rallying to get that far, the Giants displayed grit and determination. The Mets, in losing their last five games of the season, displayed the exact opposite.

The New York papers fill with glowing profiles of Dusty Baker, who has transferred the hard-nosed personality he exuded as a player into the clubhouse. Baker is well liked by all his players, the papers tell us, in stark contrast to the man in the Met dugout. His admirers believe Baker possesses a gut-level managing acumen that Valentine, for all of his technical knowledge of the game, does not. Mike Piazza calls Baker a “players’ manager,” while an unnamed assistant general manager for the Diamondbacks sings his praises to The New York Times, proclaiming that Baker can motivate his players to overachieve. “Similar comments are not heard about Bobby Valentine,” the Times notes tartly, while also insisting the Mets must put up a good fight against San Francisco this weekend “for their confidence at least.”

As the series unfolds beginning on April 30, the Mets don’t put up a good fight so much as take advantage when the Giants put up a poor one. San Francisco starter Shawn Estes, a promising but wild young lefty, loses his cool when called for a balk by Bob Davidson, an umpire known to see balks where no one else does. Estes has to be restrained by his catcher and does not regain his composure when returns to the mound, allowing more damaging hits and uncorking a wild pitch to plate four runs before the dust settles. The Mets accept the meltdown and go on to win by a healthy margin. The next day, San Francisco launches one threat after another to break the game open against an erratic Orel Hershiser (who sums his performance with a succinct, “It stunk”) but never lands the knockout punch, thus allowing the Mets to rally for a victory.

The series finale brings an unlikely pitchers’ duel between Giants hurler Kirk Reuter and Masato Yoshii. Yoshii has pitched miserably to this point in the season and was booed off the mound in his last start after giving up four runs to an anemic Padres lineup in less than five innings of work. After that outing, Bobby Valentine insisted Yoshii’s rotation spot wasn’t in jeopardy. When this was interpreted as less a vote of confidence than a concession to the dearth of alternatives, Valentine bent over backwards to protect his pitcher’s ego. He claimed Yoshii’s struggles were all his fault, not the pitchers. At his urging, Yoshii had moved toward the first base side of the rubber, an adjustment he now realized robbed the hurler’s trademark shuto (a reverse slider, more or less) of its effectiveness. Valentine was so impressed by his own discovery he demanded that the Mets’ press corps watch video evidence of his find, replaying tape of Yoshii over and over as if it were the Zapruder Film while bemused reporters feigned interest.

Valentine’s discovery proves less laughable when Yoshii turns in six scoreless innings in the last game against the Giants. There is still no score when Rickey Henderson strides to the plate with two outs and pinch hitter Matt Franco on first in the bottom of the eighth. Henderson, who’d drawn the crowd’s ire by hitting into two double plays and manning the outfield with his usual indifferent approach to fielding, receives more boos when he hits a towering pop up between shortstop and center field. The Giants play their home games at windy Candlestick Park, a place where pitchers have been blown off the mound mid-windup by angry gusts, and yet they are unprepared for the conditions that act upon Henderson’s fly ball. Shortstop Ramon Martinez can’t quite track the ball and makes a desperate lunge to snare it at the last moment, but the ball clanks off the heel of his glove. Matt Franco, a Shea Stadium veteran, is quite aware that a ball hit above the uppermost rim of Shea Stadium often comes down in a different spot than where it left. This is why Franco never stops running, a hustle that allows him to score all the way from first. In the ninth, John Franco gives a typically heart-stopping John Franco performance, loading the bases before inducing a game-ending double play.

If the Giants were a test, the Mets aced it with an impressive sweep. The press responds by insisting their next series, three games hosting the Houston Astros, is the real test. Houston—winners of 102 games in 1998, their lineup powered by the bats of Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, and Moisés Alou—have a number of unresolved issues with the Mets from last season. In late September, New York took three out of four games in a dramatic series at the Astrodome that helped them keep pace with the Cubs in the wild card hunt. Houston won its only game of the series when Astro outfielder Derek Bell launched a walk off homer in the bottom of the twelfth and admired his shot a bit too long, mouthing “oh my god!” for good measure. This was par for the course with Bell, a known showboat whose histrionics are more playful than antagonistic. Nonetheless, baseball’s unwritten rules demanded Bell receive a retaliatory plunking by the Mets the next day. The same unwritten rules dictated the Astros issue a retaliatory plunking for the retaliatory plunking, and so on back and forth for the remainder of the series. The bad blood carried over into their spring training meetings this season, the threat of retribution hanging in the air whenever the two teams crossed paths.

When the Astros travel to Flushing for the first time in 1999, Met reliever Turk Wendell insists all is well between them. But ask Houston’s star second baseman Craig Biggio (who is something of a local, being a New Jersey native and Seton Hall alum), and you will hear a different take: “I don’t want to comment on it….There’s been some stuff that’s happened here. Baseball usually takes care of itself.”

As Biggio predicts, the baseball does take care of itself, mostly in favor of the visitors. The Mets take the first game behind Rick Reed, fresh off the disabled list, only to drop the final two. The last loss is especially galling, as Armando Benítez allows a long go-ahead homer to Jeff Bagwell that proves the difference in a 5-4 loss. The Mets’ latest stay at Shea should have been a successful one, and on paper it was, but the sting of the final game appends it with an ugly coda. For the Mets in 1999, it is not merely how many games they win, but when and in what fashion, a sliding scale set by the men paid to judge them.

Career Opportunities

The deflating end to the Houston series carries over into the Mets’ next road trip, a disastrous swing out west that begins with a stop in Phoenix. Determined to shake off expansion team growing pains in record time, the Arizona Diamondbacks engaged in an offseason spending spree that left New York’s in the dust. The acquisition of superstars like Randy Johnson, Todd Stottlemyre, and Steve Finley transformed the team from awkward freshman into a contender in record time. When the Mets arrive at Bank One Ballpark on May 5, the Diamondbacks stand one game over .500 and are poised to take off in a big way. Arizona’s ascent to the stratosphere commences by launching off of the Mets, as the home team deals them two defeats in this three-game series, both by blowout margins.

The beleaguered Met pitching staff is abused even further at their next stop in the frigid atmosphere of Denver, where game time temperatures hover in the mid 40s each night and one game is nearly delayed by a snowstorm. The mile-high elevation of Coors Field boosts offense to such a ludicrous extent that the bar for acceptable pitching performances within its confines is set quite low, but the visiting hurlers find a way to crawl under that bar as they are pounded in the first two games. When the Rockies torch Bobby Jones for eight runs on May 11, it continues an ignoble streak of three straight games in which a Mets starter allows the most runs of his career. Following Jones’s ugly outing, Met starters have accumulated an 11-14 record and an ERA of 5.30.

Starting pitching was envisioned as one of the team’s weakest links, but this stat line proves more ghastly than anyone’s worst nightmares. Pitching coach Bob Apodaca all but throws up his hands when he compares this dreadful stretch to “a contagious disease that no one can be immune to,” as if he believes the only cure is for each pitcher to pass the bug to the next so the staff can build up resistance. In the colorful words of the Daily News, the Mets’ pitching staff “continued to possess the hue and smell of sewer water.” The smell only abates on May 12 when Rick Reed, fresh off a bloodletting in Phoenix, pitches on two days’ rest in place Orel Hershiser and allows a mere five runs at Coors Field, practically a no-hitter by that facility’s handicapped standards, and by the low standards set by Met pitchers of late. New York outslugs Colorado, 10-5, then scurries out of town, tail between legs.

Though his starting rotation is in sorry shape, Bobby Valentine wishes that was his only worry. While Met pitchers serve up gopher balls, the Met outfield crumbles bit by elderly bit. Rickey Henderson’s health has been an off-and-on proposition all year, with the veteran often removed late in game for pinch runners and defensive replacements in deference to a troublesome hamstring. During the series against the Giants at Shea, Henderson suffers a nasty fall, dealing him a knee injury that lands him on the disabled list. This turn of events all but forces the manager to start a barely mobile Bobby Bonilla in the outfield during the Arizona series, and he watches helplessly as catchable fly balls zip right over Bonilla’s head. At Coors Field, Rockies pitcher Pedro Astacio hits Bonilla in the same left knee that’s ailed him since spring training. The outfielder makes a few menacing steps toward the mound before thinking better of it and taking his base. Bonilla soon joins Henderson on the disabled list, resulting in a dire need for reinforcements.

This prompts the callup of Benny Agbayani, a desperate measure borne of desperate times. The native Hawaiian has languished in the Met system for years and drawn little attention to himself, held in such little regard by his own organization that he wasn’t invited to major league camp during spring training. He is already 27 years old, an age at which an outfielder who can’t earn a spring training invite might want to consider pursuing another line of work. His only saving grace is the fact that Bobby Valentine, a former manager at Norfolk, remembers him fondly.

At first sight, Agbayani’s most glaring shortcoming is his weekend softballer’s physique. Once circumstance forces Agbayani into the everyday lineup, however, he makes the opposing pitchers look like the beer leaguers. He belts his first major league home run during the series in Denver, then crushes 10 more before the All Star Break in only 96 at bats, a Ruthian pace.

Benny Agbayani isn’t the only one who takes advantage of sudden job openings in the Met outfield. Acquired in the three-way deal that netted Armando Benítez, Roger Cedeño appeared only rarely in the season’s initial weeks, until Rickey Henderson’s injury makes left field a permanent question mark. Cedeño first raises eyebrows with a Henderson-like performance against the Astros on May 3, stealing two bases, scoring two runs, and turning a single into a double against a Houston outfield unprepared for his speed. But his true breakout performance comes when the Mets slink out of Denver and touch down in Philadelphia. During the first game at Veterans Stadium on May 14, Cedeño victimizes the Phillies with four stolen bases, scoring three times.

He is well suited for the task of replacing Rickey Henderson because he spent his youth idolizing the all-time steals leader. Growing up in Venezuela, Cedeño did not have many opportunities to watch American baseball, but always made sure to catch as many games featuring Henderson as he could. “He was the Man in so many ways,” Cedeño gushes to Sports Illustrated. “When I was younger, I told my brother, ‘I want to be just like Rickey Henderson.’ Here we are—in the same place.” For a lineup packed with slow-footed plodders, Cedeño proves a godsend. “He should go every time he gets on,” Bobby Valentine says, advice Cedeño takes to heart. “Roger is in a groove. I don’t think they can throw him out on a pitchout.”

Valentine is grateful for the unexpected dividends of Benny Agbayani and Roger Cedeño, talking up their abilities at every chance he gets. This enthusiasm prompts regular queries from the beat reporters about who will receive the bulk of playing time once Rickey Henderson and Bobby Bonilla return. The two outspoken veterans are unlikely to accept part-time roles quietly. Will youth be served or will Henderson and Bonilla’s experience—and hefty contracts—dictate the starting lineups? Every time Agbayani or Cedeño power the Mets to victory, one of the first postgame questions the manager must field is, who will play when the veterans return. Valentine deflects these queries as premature, on one occasion snapping back at a reporter, “Don’t ruin a good day with a silly question.”

Finish What You Start

Questions, silly and otherwise, continue to nag the Mets. First, they drop the final contest in Philadelphia, thanks to a costly error by Matt Franco (pressed into service as a leftfielder, when his more natural position is pinch hitter). Then, they return to Shea Stadium and drop the first two of a four-game set against the lowly Milwaukee Brewers, both in gut-punch fashion. The series opener against Milwaukee on May 17 brings a 7-6 loss in which Bobby Jones turns in another poor outing despite receiving an extra day of rest. Repeating a gripe he has sounded often over the years when his pitchers struggle, Bobby Valentine eschews criticism of his starter and focuses instead on an inconsistent strike zone, grumbling that Milwaukee pitchers benefitted from wide strike calls that were not afforded to Jones. The manager seethes well into the night over a called third strike that ends the game with the tying run on third, a pitch most observers would call questionable, but a call that would have proved unnecessary had Jones pitched better, or had Met batters executed more effectively earlier in the game.

Valentine receives more fodder for complaint in the second game after Brewer manager Phil Garner demands the umpires examine Rick Reed’s glove, suspecting the pitcher might be doctoring the ball. Though they find nothing, Reed fumes over the accusation in self-deprecating fashion. “If the guy thinks I’m cheating,” Reed growls, “he’s getting the wrong stats because I had a seven-and-a-fucking-half ERA coming in. If he wants to come out early tomorrow, I’ll teach him how to throw it.” Valentine believes Garner’s true intent is to rankle his pitcher, pointing to Brewer hitters stepping out of the batter’s box for extended periods as further evidence for his conspiracy theory. Garner denies the charges; “I don’t play those games,” he sniffs, unleashing the unspoken accusation that Valentine does.

The frustrations bubble over in the bottom of the eighth when Valentine argues a Met baserunner was interfered with during a rundown play. When the umpires refuse to discuss the play among themselves, Valentine asks to play the game under protest. The umps refuse this request as well, so the manager goes ballistic and earns an ejection. “I’d love to have even the people that say I’m an idiot say where I’m wrong on this one,” Valentine challenges his public, with an angry point at MLB’s official rule book on his desk, a tome he has vigorously thumbed through within the last few minutes to jog his memory. As for the game itself, an excellent outing by Reed is wasted when Armando Benítez allows a three-run homer to Marquis Grissom in the top of the eighth, leading to the Mets’ ninth loss in their last 13 games.

A rainout necessitates a doubleheader on May 20, which also enables Robin Ventura to achieve a curious baseball milestone by becoming the first player in history to hit one grand slam in each half of a twin bill. Apart from this historic anomaly, however, the proceedings are not pretty to watch. In the first contest, Al Leiter struggles with his control and exits after five innings with six runs to his discredit. The Mets slug their way back, thanks in large part to Benny Agbayani, who clubs two home runs, drives in four runs, and elevates his batting average to .519 since his callup in Colorado. Ventura’s first slam of the day, and the rest of the Mets’ potent offense, victimizes Milwaukee pitchers to the tune of 11 runs. The bullpen does its best to hand the Brewers a comeback, however, and a ninth-inning Brewers rally only falls short when the man representing the tying run loses a shoe on the basepaths and is thrown out at the plate for the final out of the game, a suitable end to an unsightly win for the home team. The nightcap features another offensive outburst from the Mets with no counterpunch from Milwaukee as Masato Yoshii limits them to one run over seven innings. Ventura’s second grand slam of the day in the bottom of the fourth makes the rest of the game a mere formality, and the Mets sail to victory.

The offense stays hot for a moment when the Phillies come to town for a three-game weekend set, as the Mets hit early and often to take the series opener, only to be stifled in a blow out loss the following afternoon. The series finale on May 24 is preceded by a two-hour rain delay, but Met management is terrified to cancel the game outright with close to 35,000 tickets sold for a Sunday afternoon giveaway (kids’ jersey day). The two teams wait out the raindrops, but the Met bats stay in hibernation long afterward, stymied by the wizardry of pitcher Curt Schilling.

The Phillies’ ace pitches like a man on a mission, a reflection of the battle he’s been waging against his own front office. Philadelphia’s CEO Dave Montgomery spent the offseason slashing team payroll down to $26 million, among the lowest in the majors. With no money to spend, general manager Ed Wade made shrewd trades for players like Bobby Abreu and Doug Glanville, low-cost moves that have elevated the Phillies a mere game behind the Mets in the standings before this Sunday matinee. Philadelphia Daily News columnist Bill Conlin has taken to calling them “the best little poorhouse in baseball.” Despite this early success, Wade is rumored to be shopping the team’s biggest stars—namely, Schilling and third baseman Scott Rolen—while their stock remains high. Amid such rumors and belt-tightening, the team still had the nerve to hike ticket prices by an average of 21 percent for the 1999 season, resulting in many no-shows at charmless Veterans Stadium. Prior to the Mets’ recent visit to Philadelphia, the marketing department took the stunning move of openly inviting New York fans to come to Philadelphia and fill its many empty seats.

Like many Phillies fans, Schilling wants to see his team spend more money to compete. In 1997, he had signed a modest contract extension rather than seek bigger bucks in free agency. This was a display of loyalty fans forever sought from players but rarely saw in action. Schilling had hoped this loyalty would be rewarded by Phillies’ ownership purchasing some backup with all the money they weren’t spending to keep him. But in the two years since Schilling left a ton of money on the table, the Phillies had not spent a dime more than they had to, and it was clear that the team would continue this trend as long as they possibly could. This season, a fed up Schilling had become increasingly vocal with his gripes. Right before the Phillies arrived in Queens, he told an interviewer unequivocally that if Philadelphia wasn’t willing to spend the money necessary to compete, he’d prefer to play for a team that was. Ed Wade isn’t pleased about the restrictions placed on him by penny-pinching ownership, but he’s even less pleased that Schilling has taken the conflict public. “Every fifth day, Curt has the opportunity to go out and be a horse on the mound,” he tells reporters. “Unfortunately, on the other four days, he tends to say things which are detrimental to the club.”

The New York Times is much less critical of Schilling. Murray Chass fetes him in a glowing profile published the day of his start at Shea. The profile mentions the technophile’s method of preparation for each start, consulting his laptop for notes on opposing batters that he has meticulously kept for eight seasons. But Chass is far more impressed by Schilling’s old school stamina and stubbornness:

Whether he is fairly paid or underpaid, Curt Schilling earns his money. No, he more than earns it. He works overtime, both on days when he is supposed to work and on days when he is supposed to be off. In an era of pitch counts and pitcher pampering, Schilling is the square peg in the round hole. He just doesn’t fit.

The dean of the Phillies’ attractive young team, Schilling is the reincarnation of Robin Roberts, the team’s pitching star of the first half of the 1950s, a player who more often than not finished what he started.

On this occasion, Schilling does indeed finish what he started, though not in the manner he would have liked.

Schilling has a reasonable 107 pitches under his belt and a healthy 4-0 lead to his credit as the bottom of the ninth inning begins, his eyes on yet another complete game victory. When he allows a leadoff single to Mike Piazza, it is only the fifth Met hit all day. Robin Ventura will later say Schilling had lost nothing on his fastball by this point, but this doesn’t prevent Ventura from clubbing a two-run homer to cut the Phillies’ lead in half. Here is a warning flare that Schilling is tiring, yet no one stirs in Philadelphia’s bullpen. The team’s closer is not available today, and even if he was, manager Terry Francona has no intention of removing his ace. “Regardless of who was available, that was his game,” Francona says later.

One out later, a pair of singles sandwiched around a hit batsman shaves the Phillies’ lead down to one slim run. Still, Schilling remains on the mound. It looks as if he might escape danger when Roger Cedeño hits a ball right back to the pitcher. Schilling tosses to second for a force out, but the speedy Cedeño beats the relay to first to prevent a game-ending double play. Cedeño then swipes second to put the winning run in scoring position. The Phillies oblige him by not offering a throw to halt his progress.

Schilling attacks the next hitter, Edgardo Alfonzo, pitching him hard and inside and backing him into a 1-2 count. But he pitches too aggressively inside with a ball that grazes Fonzie on the forearm, loading the bases. It is the second hit batter of the inning by a pitcher who hadn’t hit any in his previous 81 innings.

“That’s the game,” Schilling concedes afterward.

Momentum has swung so far in the Mets’ favor by this point that what follows is a mere formality. John Olerud lines Schilling’s first offering into shallow left field for a single. The tying run scampers home and Cedeño follows right behind, beating a throw to the plate by a hair. A sure 4-0 loss has turned into a 5-4 win, a stunning five-run ninth inning rally executed against one of the best pitchers in the game.

“We sit around for an hour and some people started saying: ‘Should we even play this game? We should issue an executive edict and miss Schilling, and maybe he’ll be in the American League the next time we meet them’,” a stunned Bobby Valentine says after the game. “There was a lot of that going around. And if we didn’t win that game, there would have been a lot of second guessing.”

The Mets are permitted to revel in the joy of their comeback win for a few moments before the cruel light of reality intrudes. Bobby Jones was the team’s most reliable starting pitcher at first, but for weeks each start he’s made has been worse than the last. The reason for this is starting to become clear. After his atrocious outing at Coors Field, Jones reveals he’s been pitching through elbow pain for some time. Bobby Valentine finds an extra day of rest for Jones prior to his next start against the Phillies, but he still is forced to leave that game early due to discomfort. This time, it is his pitching shoulder that bothers him, accompanied by the affliction of an ill-timed “dead-arm” period. Jones is placed on the disabled list and informed he can’t even throw a baseball for eight days, a proscription that does not inspire thoughts of a speedy recovery.

Shortly after the bad news about Jones drops, Bobby Valentine discloses that Al Leiter will have his next start pushed back a day to accommodate a sore left bicep, an injury that may have resulted from overcompensating for a left knee strain he suffered during spring training. The lefty has insisted he feels fine after each of his starts this season, chalking up his indifferent performances to bad weather or poor field conditions or early season rust. Injury is one of the few excuses Leiter has yet to offer himself.

This quick succession of blows to the Met starting rotation adds up to a disaster. It is fitting that the team will now turn to Jason Isringhausen, a man well acquainted with disasters. All the members of Generation K have seen their careers stall in one way or another, but Isringhausen remains the most star-crossed of them all. Izzy missed all of 1998 recovering from elbow surgery and has made only 33 major league appearances since a promising rookie campaign in 1995. When not on the shelf due to pitching-related woes, he’s been felled by bad decisions—like punching a dugout garbage can, an act of frustration that led to a broken wrist—and almost Biblical bad luck, as exemplified by the case of tuberculosis he acquired while toiling in the minors. Isringhausen failed to make the team out of spring training this season, and while he has put up decent stats with the triple-A Norfolk Tides so far, his tortured history gave the front office pause at the idea of calling him up. Now, a perfect storm of calamity forces his recall to the big leagues to start the opener of a brief three-game road trip to Pittsburgh on May 24.

Isringhausen’s first major league pitch in 20 months is knocked for a double, followed shortly thereafter by a three-run homer. He recovers from this shaky start and pitches six innings while striking out seven, but also allows another home run and five runs overall, creating a deficit his teammates can’t surmount. Cognizant of Isringhausen’s struggles to stay on the field, Bobby Valentine softens his assessment by proclaiming the pitcher made only two mistakes during his outing, “and both ended up in the seats,” while pitching coach Bob Apodaca compares Isringhausen’s velocity to Curt Schilling’s.

Even this muted encouragement is darkened when Isringhausen experiences elbow pain during his next throwing session, casting the date of his next start in doubt. When the team returns to New York, a doctor reassures him the discomfort stems from nothing more serious than torn scar tissue, but the scare gives him an unpleasant reminder of his tenuous grip on health—as if he needed one.

The Mets win the last two games in Pittsburgh, but all the talk around the team continues to center around the mounting injuries in its MASH unit of a starting rotation. Valentine announces that Al Leiter’s next start will be pushed back not just one day, but two, in deference to a strained knee that refuses to heal. Down on the farm, one of the Mets’ top prospects, Jae Wong Seo, will undergo Tommy John surgery and miss the next year of action. This whittles the number of possible pitching reinforcements from the minors down to one. Octavio Dotel, the Mets’ sole minor league starter of any note who remains healthy, strikes out 17 batters and comes within an out of throwing a no hitter in his most recent start for Norfolk. The front office remains reluctant to rush Dotel to the majors, however, as Steve Phillips’s approach to roster construction prefers grizzled veterans over the promise of youth. He would rather exhaust all other possibilities than rely on an untested rookie like Dotel to see the Mets through a summer-long pennant chase. Soon he may have no choice.

And then there are personnel issues of a different kind. These, to the surprise of no one, stem from Bobby Bonilla. When the season began, Bonilla’s efforts to rehabilitate his image appeared genuine, as he deflected skepticism about his abilities and intentions with self-deprecating humor. The outfielder endures boos during the Mets’ first home stand when he misplays one ball after another, including an especially ugly game against the Expos when four straight hits elude him, each of which could have been snagged by a less stationary outfielder. Bonilla laughs off the boos by insisting, “That was a light day from what I’m usually used to.” His manager does his best to shield Bonilla from the slights, first with a few lessons in acoustics. “When someone is doing the booo thing with their mouth,” Bobby Valentine counsels, “it’s a whole lot louder than 10 people clapping.” When Bonilla receives a rare start during the Mets’ series against the Astros and is again booed—in each of his at bats, no less—Valentine suggests, “Maybe they’re saying Bobby Bo and it sounds like boo.”

Sonic reinterpretation doesn’t track with fans or the press, so Valentine switches to denial. To all observers watching the game Bonilla starts in Arizona, he once again allows several catchable hits to sail right over his head. Observer Valentine chooses to dispute the catchability of those balls. “Maybe you’re seeing something I’m not,” the skipper insists. “What balls could he have gotten to?”

Then Bonilla heads on the disabled list, and the whispering begins. Bonilla’s trip to the DL, though preceded by a knee injury, is widely interpreted as a painless means for the Mets to bench him and his anemic bat. The front office denies these charges, but they don’t appear to be too anxious for Bonilla to return, either. By the time the Mets conclude their series in Pittsburgh, Bonilla is eligible to be reactivated, but the front office says it would prefer give him a few rehab starts in the minors first. Rather than endure the discomfort and humiliation of minor league travel, Bonilla believes the Mets should fly minor league pitchers to New York to face him. The Mets accommodated Mike Piazza in this fashion when the catcher was recovering from his own knee injury, and Bonilla believes he deserves equitable treatment.

This revelation leads to a published report of a “rift” between Piazza and Bonilla. The outfielder reacts poorly to this accusation, blowing up at reporters before threatening the silent treatment. “Every time I try to be nice to you guys,” he growls. “Now, I’m just going to play ball. I’m not going to even talk about it anymore.” In a media counterattack, unnamed friends of Bonilla vent their suspicions the Mets are shopping the ailing outfielder. Team officials deny they seek to trade Bonilla away, an unnecessary denial considering that his hefty contract and many issues have rendered him all but untradeable.

One thing is clear: The New Bonilla is gone. In his place, an unwelcome return of the I’ll show you the Bronx Bonilla of the Mets’ ugliest days. To many in the media, Bonilla’s mere presence on the roster prevents the Mets from scrubbing away the stain of the early 1990s. Wallace Matthews of the Post—one of New York sports media’s most ardent scolds—compares the team from Queens unfavorably to the Yankees thusly: “The fact that Bonilla is still a check-cashing member of the New York Mets is all you need to know about the class gap between this town’s two ballclubs.”

May Or May Not

As the end of May nears, the 1999 season has proven more eventful than anyone dared dream. Offensively, the year has gotten so such a roaring start it makes the fireworks of 1998 look like deadball era stuff. Not only are home runs flying out of the ballpark, but even more runners are on base when they do. On April 23, Fernando Tatis of the Cardinals does Robin Ventura one better and hits two grand slams in the same inning, both off the same pitcher, luckless Dodger hurler Chan Ho Park. So many grand slams have been hit in the majors thus far that, at the current rate, the league will more than double the total hit in 1998. If this run-scoring pace is maintained for the rest of the season, it would lead to the highest tally in the majors since 1930. The Indians seem determined to break the league’s historic offensive records all by themselves, as a Cleveland wrecking crew headed by Jim Thome and Manny Ramírez is on pace to score 1,149 runs, which would shatter the high water mark of 1,067 set by the 1931 Yankees.

All the long balls do wonders for attendance and ratings. They do far less for the pitchers, and for teams that rely on pitching. The offensive explosion, combined with a directive from the commissioner’s office for umpires to redefine the strike zone, has saddled Atlanta’s formerly unimpeachable starting pitchers with a collective ERA a full run higher than they logged in 1998. If the mighty pitching staff of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz is not immune to the pain, then no one is. Most hurlers simply shrug their shoulders and take their lumps. Others find their own means of leveling the playing field, like Brian Moehler of the Tigers, who’s caught doctoring the ball with sandpaper during a game against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays on May 1. Moehler is ejected and receives a 10-game suspension.

Some fans are less concerned with the inequity between offense and pitching then they are with the growing gap between baseball’s haves and have-nots. When the Yankees visit Kansas City for a series beginning on April 30, some 2,500 fans make their own statement by staging a walkout, leaving behind fake dollar bills and signs proclaiming SMALL MARKETS ARE DYING. Those who remain turn their backs to the plate whenever the visitors are at bat and display signs with unambiguous pronouncements such as THANK YOU STEINBRENNER FOR RUINING BASEBALL. Most fans of small market teams show their displeasure via the old fashioned method of not showing up at all. In small-market Montréal, once the glow of opening day fades, the Expos paid attendance dips to an average of 9,000 per game.

If it’s any consolation to these fans, many teams who spent big in the offseason have little to show for it. Baltimore has been sapped with so many injuries they are almost out of contention already. The Dodgers, another checkbook champ during the winter, aren’t far behind the Orioles in the categories of underperforming and hours lost to the disabled list. The Angels have struggled as well, as their biggest offseason acquisition, Mo Vaughn, has been injured most of the year. This rash of bad luck for big spenders has had no effect on the most havingest of haves, however, as the Yankees are right where they should be, neck and neck in the American League East with the surprising Red Sox.

As for the Mets, despite a torrent of injuries and the grousing of Bobby Bonilla, they have plenty of reasons to accentuate the positive. Benny Agbayani and Roger Cedeño have picked up the slack in a hobbled outfield. The infield has remained healthy while transforming many a potential hit into an out, and nearly every member of that infield is hitting the cover off the ball (Rey Ordoñez the lone exception). His knee injury and the occasional slump aside, Mike Piazza has been Mike Piazza. Masato Yoshii has rebounded from the awful start to his season to become the team’s best starter. The starting rotation’s deficiencies have been made up for, and then some, by a lights-out bullpen. Apart from a few hiccups, Armando Benítez has been lights out as the eighth inning man. Benítez, Dennis Cook, and Turk Wendell have formed an impregnable bridge to John Franco, who, amazingly, has converted all of his save chances so far.

As the Mets return from Pittsburgh and May slips into June, the team, its fans, and even the media can dare to feel good about the team. Within a week, no one will.

1999

Chapter 1: Some Assembly Required

To Have and Have Not

Steve Phillips has many mouths to feed. Most years, when the baseball season ends, New York’s back pages turn their attention to basketball, the city’s other great sports love. In 1998, the NBA has been locked out since July, with owners and players feuding over proposed salary cap changes. Football comes but once a week and even a strong season from the Jets can fill only so many columns. Hockey has its ardent fans but fails to capture the city’s attention unless a team is pulling off some sort of miracle, and miracles do not appear on the horizon for any of the NHL locals. Thus it falls to Steve Phillips to provide for the sports scribes, who pounce on every scrap of Mets news that emerges in the cold months and gnaw it down to the marrow.

By all rights the Yankees should dominate offseason sports talk, having executed a season for the ages: 125 wins between the regular season and the playoffs, on their way to capturing a second World Series title in three years. The only thing the Yankees can’t do is leave any question marks. A few of the Yankees’ best players are set to become free agents, but the impending negotiations are expected to end with all of them remaining in pinstripes. George Steinbrenner makes some waves by attempting to broker a sale of the Yankees to Cablevision, the pay TV giant that also owns the NBA’s Knicks, the NHL’s Rangers, and Madison Square Garden. Such a sale would send shockwaves through the sports business landscape, but boardroom chess doesn’t make for sexy sports page copy. Writers can’t even pen schoolyard what-if’s pondering how the Yanks can improve in 1999. What could mark an improvement on 125 wins?

Thus, the back pages lean heavily on the Mets all winter long. When news of Met moves is scarce, the papers resort to rumors, gentle suggestions, and shouts to the heavens as to what the team must do, adopting the mantle of fan advocate. In every aggrieved syllable the scribes spill in the offseason, they express the belief that the newspapers are but vessels through which the passions of their readers flow. They believe this because those same readers have few other means of making their voices heard. With the internet in its relative infancy, the dailies have little competition as self-appointed Voice Of The Fans. (Their closest rival is sports talk radio, influential in its own right but more limited in impact due to the ephemeral nature of the medium.)

Scan the back pages in the offseason and hear each newspaper play the same tune in different keys: the Times’s Ivy League affectations, the Daily News’s Joe Lunchpail plainspeak, the Post’s Neanderthal populism, and Long Island’s Newsday landing in the limited space allowed by the rest. On the subject of the Mets, the song goes like this: The collapse of 1998 calls for swift and drastic countermeasures. The fans demand it, the papers say.

The first item on Steve Phillips’s agenda is to resign Al Leiter and Mike Piazza. “Losing either of them would serve as an enormous public relations blow at a time when the club can ill-afford negative publicity,” the Daily News warns. The excitable Leiter, as incapable of adopting a poker face off the mound as he is on it, is seen as the easier sell. Piazza is much harder to read. Reports say he is open to returning, provided the Mets can demonstrate a willingness to do what it takes to win. (Translation: Spend the dough to resign Leiter and then we’ll talk.) But the signals he gave off during his first year in New York were mixed at best.

When the catcher struggled in his first month as a Met, he drew impatient boos from fans who smelled another overpriced star incapable of coping on New York’s big stage. The pop psychologists in the press surmised Piazza was too much of a “California guy,” too laid back to play in a city that demanded he take the sport seriously. (The “California guy” label was pinned on him due to his days with the Los Angeles Dodgers, ignoring a youth spent in the suburbs of Philadelphia.) His slump was chalked up to a preoccupation with visions of how much money he would receive as a free agent. The Mets themselves implied they were in no hurry to ink Piazza to a long-term deal when Steve Phillips insisted the team had “other options” behind the plate—Todd Hundley, namely, who was desperate to abandon his failed experiments in the outfield.

The war of words came to a head in August after a report “circulated widely on the internet” (a novel concept in 1998) said Piazza had already decided he would not resign with the Mets. Hoping to nip all such rumors in the bud, Piazza called a press conference at which he told the collected sports press he hadn’t made up his mind yet but would not negotiate a new contract during the season, and would not answer any questions about a new contract during the season, either.

Freed from the burden of constant contract questions, Piazza proceeded to tear the cover off the ball for the rest of the season. His torrid streak stopped the fans from booing, but his refusal to speak on the subject of his free agency added fuel to the theory that New York, with its relentless media coverage, was not the place for him.

The catcher himself isn’t sure where he wants to be until season’s end when he returns to his home in California and finds it missing…something. It is that unnamable thing about New York, that energy that drives some mad and drives other to greatness. Mike Piazza now counts himself in the latter category, a development that shocks everyone, Piazza included.

On October 25, 1998, Piazza inks a seven-year, $91 million deal, making him the richest Met ever and the highest paid player in the game. Some point out the inconvenient fact that Piazza will be 37 when the contract runs out, an unhappy age for most catchers. The team is resigned to crossing that bridge once they reach it. The length of the contract is a mere trifle if it means retaining the best hitter the Mets have ever had. Nelson Doubleday, breaking his usual silence, goes so far as to refer to the deal as “a bargain.” Soon after Piazza’s deal is announced, the second domino falls when Al Leiter resigns with the Mets on a four-year, $32 million contract.

The Piazza pact produces a ripple effect throughout the game, raising the market price of all free agents, much to the dismay of George Steinbrenner. “I think that all of baseball has been a bit shocked,” Steinbrenner tells reporters upon hearing the news of Piazza’s record contract. “I hear that others are quite upset.” It is a classic slice of Steinbrennerian transference, proclaiming his own displeasure as something being expressed by the game in general. In his own mind, George Steinbrenner is baseball.

The Boss is miffed because the Piazza deal complicates his own efforts to retain centerfielder Bernie Williams, one of his best hitters. Williams’s agent, Scott Boras, makes it known that anyone wishing to sign his client will have to approach, if not surpass, Piazza’s numbers. “We now know what a premium player is worth when negotiating with one team,” Boras says, licking his chops. “As to what a premium player is worth when negotiating with multiple teams, that has yet to be determined.” Though Williams flirts with a few suitors, including (gulp) the Red Sox, he decides to return to the Yankees, inking a seven-year, $87.5 million contract.

George Steinbrenner’s worries about the rising cost of doing business might hold water if expressed by anyone other than George Steinbrenner, longtime lavisher of free agent contracts and architect of the cash-grabbing Adidas deal. A month after the Piazza deal, when Steinbrenner is negotiating a potential sale of a stake in the Yankees to Cablevision, one of his underlings even says The Boss is “looking for Piazza money.” The Steinbrenner-Cablevision deal will fall through, in large part because the owner insists not only on maintaining control of the Yankees, but receiving ample compensation for his labor as well.

Of all people, Steinbrenner should know that the Mets are assembling their team in the accepted manner circa 1999. He pioneered checkbook construction at the dawn of free agency and has employed it ever since. The Mets are doing no less than their competition. If anything, they’re late to the game. The Marlins transformed from a struggling young franchise into a World Series champion in 1997 thanks to a spending spree that bought them the likes of Kevin Brown, Gary Sheffield, and Al Leiter. The Orioles returned to the playoffs in the mid 1990s by importing the bats of Roberto Alomar, Rafael Palmeiro, and B.J. Surhoff. The Red Sox couldn’t develop their own ace, so they traded for Pedro Martínez from the cash-strapped Expos and signed him to a costly extension. Even the Braves, who tend to produce more viable players from their farm system than most teams, added Greg Maddux to their rotation in 1993, and have periodically beefed up their lineups with sluggers such as Fred McGriff and Andrés Galarraga.

The bright prospects for free agents are a far cry from the late 1980s, when every owner not named George Steinbrenner illegally colluded to suppress player salaries. Many superstars of that era found their services unwanted, as team executives viewed each new free agent as an opportunity to put the hired help back in their place. The most egregious example was Andre Dawson, all-world outfielder for the Expos, who became a free agent after the 1986 season. When he made it known he wished to play in a stadium without artificial turf, since the carpet in Montréal had been murder on his knees, the league punished him for his insolence. Throughout the winter, Dawson discovered that, despite impressive career numbers, his services were not wanted by any major league team. One of the best players in the game was forced to crawl to the Cubs during spring training, offering them a blank contract if they would employ him. Dawson went on to capture the MVP Award in his first season in Chicago, while the players’ union, galled by the blatant game-fixing that Dawson’s struggles exposed, went on to sue the league for collusion. The players won their day in court, but the victory was shortlived, as the owners soon proposed a salary cap to enforce lower paydays in a more legal manner. The ensuing bad blood led to the devastating 1994 strike that forced the first cancellation of the World Series in 90 years. Fans saved most of their rage for the assumed greed of the players, but the players’ hardline stance was inspired by the owners’ salary conspiracy of the previous decade.

By the winter of 1998, this unpleasantness already has the feel of ancient history. Collusion is dead and buries, killed by rampant inflation. Each winter, the latest crop of free agents drives salaries to heights never seen before, only to be surpassed by the next offseason market. Mike Piazza’s contract reigns as the richest in baseball for a few glorious weeks before pitcher Kevin Brown signs with the Dodgers to the tune of seven years and $105 million. When the checkbooks are put back in their holsters, MLB commits a grand total of $481.5 million to six lucky players this offseason—Piazza, Brown, Williams, sluggers Mo Vaughn (Angels) and Albert Belle (Orioles), and fearsome southpaw Randy Johnson (Diamondbacks).

The franchises with money to burn are from large media markets, their willingness to spend spurred by the boatloads of cash generated by regional sports networks and brand new stadiums. When the Baltimore Orioles opened Camden Yards in 1992, its retro-quirks and smaller seating capacity made it a cash cow for the team, which used the stadium-generated revenue to join in on the free agent feeding frenzies. The success of Camden Yards set off a game of Keeping Up With the Joneses, as teams scrambled to petition their cities for brand new stadiums, fearing they might be left out in baseball’s latest arms race.

Teams from smaller media markets don’t command the broadcast or advertising revenue that larger market teams do, and tend to be in a far worse position to petition cash-strapped cities to foot the bill for new facilities. Without cable and new stadium cash to sustain them, these teams have little chance of landing the big names that become available in the offseason. This sets in motion a vicious cycle: Failing to sign pricey stars leads to fielding a bad starting nine, which leads to poor attendance and bad ratings, which pushes down revenues even more, which makes their respective cities even less likely to pony up the dough for new stadiums.

Witness the Montréal Expos, whose desire to replace the charmless and crumbling Olympic Stadium continues to go unconsummated. With no new arena and no regional sports network to pay big bucks for their broadcast rights, the Expos must scrape by with league-low revenues of $35 million. This translates to a payroll of $8.3 million, which wouldn’t buy them a full season of Mike Piazza. (An unfavorable exchange rate against the American dollar, which has prevailed throughout the 1990s, doesn’t do the Expos any favors either.) Their countrymen, the Toronto Blue Jays, began the decade by opening the sport’s first retractable roof stadium and winning consecutive championships. They end it with their payroll flexibility held hostage by the lease on that stadium, which became outmoded once the league was gripped by Camden-Mania. The Minnesota Twins, another team that started the decade as winners but have fallen on hard times, throw in the towel before the 1999 season has even started by declaring payroll will be slashed to somewhere in the $10–15 million range. The Kansas City Royals do much the same thing by cutting an already modest payroll of $32 million in half. The Seattle Mariners declare they will make good faith efforts to sign extensions with their two biggest stars, Ken Griffey, Jr. and Alex Rodriguez, but everyone knows this is more face-saving measure than a reflection of reality. Both players are sure to test a free agent market that grows more lucrative with each passing year.

In the eyes of the have-nots, the landscape of baseball at the end of the twentieth century has little room for teams who don’t play in huge media markets. Reacting to the record-setting Kevin Brown contract, Larry Lucchino—president of Brown’s now-former team, the San Diego Padres—moans, “The apocalypse is upon us.” Lucchino’s extreme choice of words are caused, in part, by the frustration of seeing Brown sign with his much richer neighbors to the north, and the impossibility of competing with the deep pockets of the Dodgers and their new owners, the juggernaut FOX corporation. The Dodgers’ payroll in 1999 may run $20 million more than the Padres will earn in revenue during the entire season.

Jim Bowden, general manager of the Cincinnati Reds, suggests realigning the divisions by economics rather than geography, an arrangement that would give automatic playoff slots to a few of the poorer teams. It’s a radical proposal to be sure, almost socialist in its redistribution of postseason wealth, but many teams feel radical change is required in order to affect any change in the game’s competitive imbalance. Those so inclined also believe such change will need to happen soon. MLB’s labor agreement is set to expire after the 2001 season, at which point efforts to alleviate the conundrum of poorer teams may cause another tooth-and-nail fight over salaries. Players’ union head Donald Fehr has declared a salary cap is a non-starter in future negotiations. The game’s recent offensive explosion, with homers flying out of ballparks at unprecedented rates, brought back fans who swore they’d never watch baseball again after the strike of 1994. It culminated with a race between the Cardinals’ Mark McGwire and the Cubs’ Sammy Sosa throughout the summer of 1998, to see which slugger would break the single-season home run record, while the entire nation looked on in childlike wonder. Fans had, it seemed, forgiven and forgotten all hard feelings from the last strike. If another strike happened, would fans be so quick to forgive again?

Half of MLB is swimming in vats of cash like Scrooge McDuck. The other half declares The end is nigh. Commissioner Bud Selig, a former owner of a small-market team, should recognize this as a serious issue that could destroy the game’s hard-won labor peace, but his response to it is tepid is at best. He does little more than announce the formation of “The Blue Ribbon Task Force on Baseball Economics” to study the problem and make recommendations. Asked to commit to a date for those recommendations to be submitted, he declines.

Accused and Resigned

The Mets, who do not play in Montréal or Minnesota, pay the doomsaying little mind. Steve Phillips has telegraphed to the world that resigning Al Leiter and Mike Piazza is just the beginning of his offseason plan. The media has likewise telegraphed that these contracts had better be just the beginning. In their view, the returns of Leiter and Piazza simply restore the roster that turfed out to finish 1998. The Sporting News notes tartly:

At first glance and not through a pair of $123 million, rose-colored glasses, the Mets are the same team that lost the final five games of an unfulfilled season. A closer look suggests they are something less….[T]he Mets are only marginally closer to status quo than they are to the Braves. And that’s not close.

At the exact moment the front office needs to get down to brass tacks, Steve Phillips finds himself in the news for all the wrong reasons as he is implicated in a sexual harassment suit filed by an employee of the Mets’ spring training facility in Port St. Lucie, Florida. This would be big news at any time, but the topic of sexual harassment is particularly huge in 1998, as the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal has dominated national headlines for months. The charges should be disturbing to a team for which an awful lot of sexual misconduct—namely, the rape accusations and David Cone’s tabloid-filling lewdness of 1993—remains quite visible in the rearview mirror.

Phillips confesses to having an extramarital affair with the anonymous employee, and unnamed others to boot, but denies harassing anyone. The Mets suspend him “indefinitely,” then undermine that punishment by their choice of interim general manager. Frank Cashen, consulting for the Mets in semi-retirement, is called on as caretaker in Phillips’s absence. Some had hoped assistant general manager Omar Minaya, a close lieutenant of Phillips’s, would get the call, but that would have signaled a prolonged vacation. Installing Cashen, the GM emeritus, signals that Phillips’s hiatus will be brief.

If the Mets don’t treat the sexual harassment charges with the seriousness they warrant, neither does the sports press. Most local coverage concentrates on how Steve Phillips’s suspension will affect the Mets’ offseason plans, as it coincides with the yearly winter general managers’ meetings, the time when many blockbuster deals germinate. With very few exceptions (Bob Raissman of the Daily News, for one), no writer raises the question of whether someone accused of sexual harassment should be allowed to keep his job. The Mets judge Phillips sufficiently reformed and allow him to return to his post after eight days of “extensive personal counseling.” The threatened lawsuit is dropped soon thereafter following an undisclosed settlement. When the media launches criticism relating to the incident, they aim it not at Phillips for embarrassing his team, but at the Mets for forcing their general manager to confess and apologize at a press conference. A lengthy, sympathetic profile of Phillips in the Times compares the event to a public flogging. In the coming years, the charges are hardly mentioned again, even at the team’s most embattled moments. An unspoken agreement says that to do so would be in bad taste. On those rare occasions when the subject of the lawsuit is raised, emphasis will be placed on how much pain the incident caused Phillips. That someone else might have been victimized by his actions—say, the woman he allegedly harassed—goes unconsidered.

With Phillips temporarily on the shelf, Bobby Valentine attends the winter meetings in Nashville in the GM’s stead. A rival exec, someone who Phillips trusts implicitly, takes time out from the wheeling and dealing to drop a dime on the manager. Bobby’s badmouthing you left and right down here, the spy informs Phillips. An official from another team, no matter how trusted, might have a vested interest in sowing dissent within a rival team’s ranks, but anyone with an inkling of Bobby Valentine’s history has no problem believing he’d trash-talk his own front office when he believes he can get away with it, or that he’d resist kicking a man when he’s down. What Valentine reportedly said is never disclosed, and Phillips never confronts Valentine about the alleged “badmouthing.” Their lukewarm relationship grows cold, however, and will remain so forever after.

Back up north, Frank Cashen’s only move during his brief time back in the captain’s chair is to complete a deal set in motion by Phillips before his departure, one that ships off maligned relief pitcher Mel Rojas to the Dodgers. Rojas’s high salary ($4.5 million) and ineffectiveness on the mound made him a frequent target of fans. His pariah status was cemented during the 1998 season when he gave up a titanic go-ahead home run to Paul O’Neill in the first Subway Series game ever played at Shea Stadium.

Few Mets fans are sad to see Rojas go on November 11, but many are distressed to see who returns in the deal: Bobby Bonilla. The best that could be said of Bonilla’s first tenure with the Mets is that, unlike some of his teammates, he hadn’t thrown a firecracker or sprayed bleach at anyone. Since leaving the Mets mid-year in 1995, he’d bounced between the Orioles, Marlins, and Dodgers, putting up decent numbers and earning a World Series ring with Florida in 1997. It is believed Bonilla’s bat can bolster an outfield that struggled to produce the previous season. The dire state of the Met outfield is demonstrated amply by the fact that Todd Hundley was ever contemplated as a viable option in left.

Upon completing the deal with Los Angeles, Frank Cashen concedes Bonilla’s rocky past in New York but insists, “He’s matured since then.” Bonilla goes out of his way to prove Cashen wrong by uttering derogatory comments about Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda on his way out of Los Angeles. Called on to explain his remarks, Bonilla simultaneously apologizes to Lasorda and contends he was misquoted.

Fireballing

Once back in the driver’s seat, Phillips makes a move to shore up the outfield further while also strengthening the bullpen via a three-way deal with the Dodgers and Orioles. On December 1, the unhappy Todd Hundley goes to Los Angeles in exchange for outfielder Roger Cedeño. Once the jewel of the Dodger farm system, Cedeño fell out of favor with the team when his strikeouts ballooned at the major league level. The 24-year-old Venezuelan has tons of speed and raw ability, but the Dodgers’ haste to contend superseded Cedeño’s need for on-the-job training. The Mets are in Win Now mode as much as the Dodgers are, but they also have a desperate need for a fourth outfielder. They are taking a gamble that Cedeño might fill that void. If he proves better than a backup, all the better.

Catcher Charles Johnson, who comes to the Mets in the Cedeño deal, is then flipped to Baltimore for fireballing closer Armando Benítez. The righty’s blazing fastball and astronomic strikeout rates (87 K’s in only 68 ⅓ innings pitched in 1998) are assets any team would want for its relief corps. But such talent is available for a reason. Benítez has issues, immaturity chief among them. Off the field, he struggles with the same feelings of alienation and homesickness common among baseball players who hail from outside the States and must adjust to life in America and life in the big leagues all at once. His minor league pitching coach recalls having to talk the young man down from the ledge after each rough outing, begging him not to run back home to the Dominican Republic after every little struggle.

On the field, he triangulates between chest-thumping bravado, blackest despair, and unchecked anger, scarcely resting between any of these stops. His temper flares often, most infamously in a game at Yankee Stadium on May 19 of the previous season when he responded to the humiliation of giving up a homerun by drilling the following batter, Tino Martinez, in the back. Yankee broadcaster Jim Kaat, normally cool and bipartisan in the booth, seethed and called it “a real cheap shot.” Eager to pick a fight, Benítez stalked after Martinez as he took his base, then dropped his glove, ready to rumble. The pitcher got what he asked for when the entire Yankees bench and bullpen emptied, each player out for blood. Benítez was particularly roughed up by reliever Graeme Lloyd and slugger-in-winter Darryl Strawberry, each of whom landed several punches before the reliever somehow escaped with his life. He received little backup from his teammates, whose efforts to protect him were perfunctory at best. Once the punches started to fly, the Orioles jogged after the melee more as spectators than participants. Even as the brawl tumbled into their own dugout, Baltimore players did almost nothing to protect their closer.

Teammates were no more eager to defend Benítez after the fracas than they were during it. Baltimore manager Ray Miller went so far as to apologize to the Yankees, saying his closer “totally misrepresents the Baltimore Orioles’ tradition of good play and sportsmanship.” The Yankee Stadium debacle was the ugliest incident of his career, but it was far from his first on-field meltdown. He’d also allowed more than one crushing homer in the postseason that helped to kill the Orioles’ World Series dreams. Charles Johnson has some value as a glove-first catcher, but the Orioles are willing to accept any price if it means shipping Benítez far away from Baltimore.

Those who remember Armando Benítez’s one-man rumble in the Bronx view the acquisition with skepticism, but his new employers spin the pitcher’s pugnacious nature as a sign of “fire” and “fight.” Regarding the Yankee Stadium incident, Bobby Valentine reports, “Cal Ripken thought it was the most manly thing he’s ever seen a guy do.” When reporters perform their due diligence and inform Valentine that Cal Ripken denies ever saying such a thing, the manager utters a tight-lipped “no comment,” perhaps for the first time ever.

Though Benítez brings his issues to the Mets, he also brings a blazing fastball that makes their bullpen the one of the best in the majors. Phillips ensures it stays that way by getting two potential free agents to resign with the Mets: well-traveled southpaw Dennis Cook, who baffled hitters during the Marlins’ postseason run in 1997, and the eccentric righty Turk Wendell. In the grand tradition of quirky firemen, Wendell favors a shark-tooth necklace, slams a rosin bag to the ground before throwing his first pitch, and has a preoccupation with the number nine. Before inking his new contract, Turk makes sure all dollar amounts—base salary, incentives, bonuses—contain as many nines as possible.

The Hot Corner

Steve Phillips next turns his attentions to the lineup, which is a bit thin beyond the bats of Mike Piazza and John Olerud. Free agent sluggers Brian Jordan and B.J. Surhoff are the names linked to the Mets most often in offseason rumors, but when Jordan signs with the Braves, the team heads in an unexpected direction. The same day Armando Benítez and Roger Cedeño arrive in Queens, the Mets finalize a four-year deal with free agent third baseman Robin Ventura.

Ventura’s biggest claim to fame is ownership of the longest hitting streak in NCAA history, which he compiled for Oklahoma State. He manned the hot corner for the Chicago White Sox for nine seasons, collecting five Gold Gloves over that span. He is renowned as an RBI man and has showed an uncanny knack for hitting grand slams, belting nine during his years on the South Side. A gruesome ankle injury ruined his 1997 season, and though his stats the following year were respectable (21 homers and 91 RBIs), the White Sox feared the slight dip in production presaged an imminent decline. The Blue Jays thought the same thing of John Olerud before he came to New York, and it led to the most lopsided trade of Steve Phillips’ career. Perhaps lightning will strike twice.

As was the case with John Olerud, New York is not an obvious fit for Robin Ventura. During his years in Chicago, the Yankees and Mets were both reportedly on his no-trade list. Much like Olerud, Ventura is a quiet man who eschews the spotlight. He possesses a penchant for self-deprecating humor, an unusual trait for an athlete and a red flag to those who attempt to suss out which players are suited for Gotham and which players will be crushed under its weight. The California native hoped free agency would bring him to sunny San Diego, but the Padres are shedding payroll with brutal efficiency at the moment. The Dodgers and Angels are both spending like mad, but neither of them show any interest in the third baseman. The Orioles make an earnest play for Ventura’s services but want him to play first base instead of third until some indeterminate time in the future when Cal Ripken deigns to retire. Ventura declines this thankless task.

Faced with these non-options, Ventura chooses the Mets, though he needs some coaxing to warm to the idea of playing in New York even after signing. Good-will calls from Al Leiter and Dennis Cook, and a call Ventura places to Mike Piazza, ease his landing. Ventura even gets help from a non-Met, Padre legend Tony Gwynn, who compiles video of fearsome National League pitchers such as Curt Schilling and Kerry Wood that he will have to face for the first time this season. (Gwynn is a neighborly soul, but it also helps that he and Ventura share an agent.)

Ventura will play third base for the Mets, but his arrival will push someone else out of position. After a few seasons of shuffling between second and third in deference to more established players, Edgardo Alfonzo broke into the every day lineup as a third baseman in 1997. He and John Olerud gave the team stellar defense at the corners, and the stability had allowed his bat to come alive as well. Now, the Mets have acquired an All Star at his position. At first, the Ventura signing is assumed to be a prelude to trading Alfonzo in a deal for pitching, including a few whispers he will be the cornerstone of a package for Roger Clemens, who the cash-poor Blue Jays will be all but forced to deal this offseason. The Mets nip these rumors in the bud by announcing their intention to hold on to Alfonzo and move him back to second base.

Alfonzo agrees to switch positions without a word of protest, declaring he’s looking forward to being double play partners with shortstop Rey Ordoñez again, as he had been in the minor leagues and at times in the bigs. The Mets had banked on such a response. Steve Phillips later admits Alfonzo’s feeling on the positional move “wouldn’t have changed our mind one way or the other. We knew he’d play where we needed him to play.” He is the consummate team player, at times to his own detriment. During Venezuelan winter league action, when Alfonso should be logging time at what he calls his “new old position,” he remains at third base because his team has already penciled in a hotshot prospect from the Astros’ organization to play second. Far too polite to pull rank, Alfonzo takes workouts at second before and after games instead. If nothing else, these games will steel him for the Shea Stadium crowds that await in the regular season. The angry fervor of a New York fan is nothing compared to his compatriots in the Venezuelan stands. “Everything they have in their hand, they throw to you when you do something bad,” he reports.

Two weeks after Ventura hops on board, Phillips signs free agent outfielder and future Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson, the greatest base stealer and leadoff hitter of all time. Should anyone forget or dispute these contentions, Henderson is only too happy to remind you. In an age when offense is predicated on home runs and little else, Henderson remains a throwback to the speed-and-discipline days of the 1980s. In his third tour with the A’s in 1998, he led the American League in walks and stolen bases at the ripe old age of 39. His legs, bat, and mouth show no signs of slowing down. Right after his deal with the Mets becomes official, he declares, “I would say the Mets are going to be the best team in New York right now. The Yankees have been carrying the crown for a long time. It’s about time for the Mets to take over.” Henderson’s boast about his new team may be sincere, or it may just be a way to needle George Steinbrenner, with whom he’d clashed during his tumultuous years as a Yankee, back in the bad old days in the Bronx.

No good little team this. Steve Phillips has constructed a formidable squad, and an expensive one, that should compete in the National League. But the same was said of the rosters assembled prior to the gruesome 1992 and 1993 seasons, the ones that sped the team’s fall from grace. Fred Wilpon declares himself “completely confident” 1999 will not be a repeat of those disastrous years, though he won’t elaborate as to why he feels so sure of himself this time around. When asked of his expectations of the team, Wilpon says, “I think it’d be very disappointing if this team weren’t in the playoffs this year.”

Like everything Met ownership will say to the press this year, Wilpon’s declaration of expectations for the team is interpreted as a warning to Bobby Valentine. But the manager himself remains deaf to such alarms and pronounces himself as pleased as Wilpon about the moves Steve Phillips made in the offseason. “The rule in my career has been the wintertime has been a very frustrating time for me,” he tells reporters in December. “But this time, much has been done for our team.”

The window for this team to prove itself will be small, despite long-term deals for Al Leiter, Mike Piazza, and Robin Ventura—or rather, because of them. This Met roster is long in the tooth, and the flurry of free agent signings have cost them draft picks, slicing an already thin farm system even thinner. In the Times, Buster Olney (once on the Mets’ beat, now covering the Yankees) sees the Mets not as a team on the cusp of big things, but as a squad that stands an injury or two away from another high-priced disappointment. He notes the inconvenient fact that their planned starting outfield of Bobby Bonilla, Rickey Henderson, and Brian McRae “share 107 years of life experience and could be the worst defensive unit in the majors.” Comparing them unfavorably to the team he now covers, a team that spent its winter “adjusting a couple of lights on the Rockefeller Center tree…[t]he Mets are treading in place, their direction undefined once more, while the Yankees continue to churn in circles around them.”

Olney’s colleague at the Times, Harvey Araton, looks at the Mets and sees much the same thing. “In the ideal season, the Mets believe themselves capable of mounting a challenge to the Braves. In the more realistic setting, they are carrying the playoffs-now burden with a pitching staff that contains no dominant starters, questionable depth in the back end of the rotation and an aging, vulnerable closer. They could easily find themselves in another wild-card race, under more extreme pressure this time to win it.”

Araton points out the inconvenient fact that, for all the moves Phillips has made, only the Al Leiter deal addresses the Mets’ starting pitching. Heading into 1999, the Met rotation behind their ace lefty consists of soft-tossing righty Bobby Jones, control artist Rick Reed, the erratic Masato Yoshii, and Hideo Nomo, whose once baffling delivery grows more solvable with each pitch. Other possibilities include the oft-injured Jason Isringhausen, his equally bruised Generation K mate Paul Wilson, and another winter pickup, Allen Watson, a former high school phenom from the Mets’ home borough. Beyond these men are a series of question marks stretching off into the horizon.

The Mets are mentioned whenever a starter is said to be available via trade. Toronto’s Roger Clemens, Oakland’s Kenny Rogers, and Philadelphia’s Curt Schilling are deemed the biggest prizes and the most likely to be traded, pitchers with large contracts with struggling teams that are desperate to cut salary. To the New York press, it doesn’t matter that any hope of getting such a pitcher rests on top-level minor league talent the Mets don’t have. The media believes the Mets have spent too much money and piled up too many expectations already to go into the season with a rotation of Al Leiter And Friends.

The Rocket's Red Glare

One possibility, however slim it might have been for the Mets, is taken off the table as teams are reporting to spring training. On February 18, after a long winter of wild speculation and clock watching, the Blue Jays trade Roger Clemens. Steve Phillips made a few stabs over the winter to acquire The Rocket, but the Mets’ lack of viable prospects and his unwillingness to part with Edgardo Alfonzo prevented talks from progressing beyond the what if… stage.

Throughout the winter, smart money had Clemens returning to his home state of Texas, but both the Astros and Rangers are loath to trade away the top prospects Toronto coveted. While the Lone Star teams hems and haws, the Yankees swoop in and offer a package headed by lefty pitcher David Wells.

This move is seen by some as a salvo by the Yankees not only in the direction of their American League competition, but toward the Mets as well. The eyes of the New York sports world had been trained on the Mets all winter and would have remained so until opening day. Now, they will switch their focus to the sight of one of the best pitchers in the history of the game donning pinstripes. Sensing the implied dig, Nelson Doubleday tries to throw some cold water on the news. “I think you’ll have to look and see how Mr. Clemens passed his physical,” Doubleday tells reporters as he visits Port St. Lucie. “I think you’ll have to look and see how Mr. Clemens’s arm and shoulder are. That man has thrown a lot of pitches.” But Doubleday’s bitter diagnosis does not pan out. Clemens passes his physical, and the deal becomes official.

The Yankees didn’t trade for Roger Clemens for the sole purpose of poking a thumb in the Mets’ eye, since no team would need petty excuses to acquire a pitcher of his pedigree. The trade has this effect nonetheless. It blunts the buzz around the Mets’ own offseason acquisitions and settles newspaper accounts of the teams’ respective spring trainings into their familiar ruts: The Yankees in Tampa, solid professionals, preparing for title defense in quiet, dignified fashion. Brief cut to the Mets in Port St. Lucie, yapping puppy nipping at their heels.

“I’m just glad the Mets aren’t in the AL East,” says Al Leiter upon hearing of the trade. When asked why the Yankees had dealt for one of the best pitchers in baseball, despite winning 125 games the year before, the former Yankee responds, “I think it’s just because George can.”

Beyond the Yankees and their fans, few are thrilled with the move. (That includes David Wells, who worshipped at the altar of Babe Ruth and wept upon learning he would no longer wear pinstripes.) There is something unseemly about the wealthy Yankees taking Clemens from the cash-strapped Blue Jays. They’d outbid teams for tons of players in recent years, but making this trade, after they’d enjoyed one of the most dominant seasons in baseball history, stirs up a strain of populist anger throughout the game. The Clemens trade underscores the feeling among baseball’s poorer teams that they are suffered to exist solely because the players they develop can someday feed the rich.

Sports Illustrated, in a piece that mildly criticizes the deal, points out the Twins have parted ways with their shortstop, Pat Meares, because they cannot afford to pay him $3.4 million, the same amount the Yankees spend on their backup catcher. Houston’s general manager Gerry Hunsicker grumbles, “That’s the most important message here: Regardless of who the Yankees want, they are in a position to outbid virtually any other franchise in the game.” Hunsicker may be angry at the Yankees for snatching up Clemens while he dithered, or angry with himself for an ill-timed outburst at baseball’s winter meetings, during which he accused Clemens of trying to “squeeze the last nickel out of the industry.” He may also be annoyed because at the same time he found out he lost the Clemens sweepstakes, he also lost one of the Astros’ best hitters, Moisés Alou, to a freak treadmill accident.

If there is any possible way for the Yankees to improve on their 1998 season, Clemens might provide it. There is, however, one piece of The Rocket’s résumé that remains lacking. Writers are quick to point out that, for all of Clemens’ dominance on the mound in the regular season, it has yet to translate to postseason success. He’d appeared in the playoffs with the Red Sox in four separate seasons and his results were checkered at best: nine starts and one lonely win to show for it. As Clemens leaves for New York, Toronto pitching coach Dave Stewart—a former hurler who won championships with the A’s and Blue Jays, and whose Oakland team twice eliminated Clemens’s Boston squad in the playoffs—has harsh words for him. “In my opinion, Roger hasn’t proved anything yet in a postseason. He hasn’t been in the postseason in a while and when he was, his teams weren’t that successful. Fact is fact.” Comparing his approach in the playoffs to Clemens’s, he says, “Maybe I was just egotistical, but I always felt that I could be and was the difference. Roger wanted to go someplace and be part of something already set.”

If you buy into Stewart’s take, then perhaps the Mets are better off without Clemens. Or perhaps this is all sour grapes, which would be inappropriate for spring training, the time of year when all teams should accentuate the positive. Resenting the Yankees becomes a less tenable stance once the news breaks that manager Joe Torre is suffering from prostate cancer and will take leave of the team to seek treatment. The team, and the game, suffer another loss when the legendary Joe DiMaggio passes away on March 8. The Clemens trade aside, the spring of 1999 proves a brutal one for the Yankees organization.

Spring Cleaning

And so, the Mets get down to the usual springtime business of adopting a sunny attitude and exuding optimism for the upcoming season. Even Bobby Bonilla makes an effort to repair the bridges he’d burned with the press in the early 1990s. When asked how he will fare in the outfield now that age has reduced his speed, Bonilla quips, “There’s a good chance that if I’m under it, I’ll catch it.” When asked about what went wrong in his first stint with the Mets, he responds, “Which year?”

There are stories of Rickey Henderson working on his swing with Bonilla and vice versa. Of Edgardo Alfonzo relearning the double play rhythm he’d established with shortstop Rey Ordoñez in the minors. Of prospects like Jason Tyner, Mike Kinkade, and Juan LeBron and their hopes of going north with the big league club. Of Paul Wilson attempting to break into the rotation after several injury-wracked seasons. Of how Armando Benítez has no designs on the John Franco’s job as closer. Of how Franco feels no pressure from the young upstart. Of Turk Wendell’s long-suffering parents, who put up with the reliever’s wild youth. Of a brief team trip to play exhibition games in the Dominican Republic and the heroic reception accorded to several native sons on the Met roster. Of Rick Reed’s tearful reunion, during that trip, with a boy he’d once tried to adopt during his winter ball days. (The reunion is almost thwarted in slapstick fashion as Reed heads out to the boy’s hometown in the countryside at the same time as the boy, now grown up, races in the opposite direction to the Dominican capital.) Of the legendary hurler Sandy Koufax showing up in camp to give a few pointers to fellow lefty Al Leiter. Of another legend, Tom Seaver, throwing batting practice to wide-eyed Mets farmhands.

Clouds don’t emerge until March 19, when Bobby Bonilla is diagnosed with a partial ligament tear in his right knee, knocking him out of action for seven to ten days and endangering his status for opening day. It is not shocking news, considering Bonilla made three trips to the disabled list in 1998, but disappointing nonetheless for a player who wants to start his second trip with the Mets on the right foot. The injury is sustained during a spring training game after he collides with Montréal’s Dustin Hermanson as the Expo pitcher covers first base. The ailment will nag him well into the regular season, and as Bonilla struggles to recover, he vows “the next time, the pitcher’s going down….I’d rather knock him on his ass than go through what I’m going through now.”

Then, Paul Wilson, who had an outside shot at the fifth slot in the Met starting rotation before being sent to minor league camp (a move he says “ambushed” him with its suddenness), suffers a “significant and partial tear” of a ligament in his pitching elbow. Tommy John surgery will knock him out of action for all of 1999. Wilson’s fellow Generation K victim, Jason Isringhausen, tries out state-of-the-art digital technology that can superimpose other pitchers’ windups onto images of him, hoping this will allow him to identify his mechanical issues. Whatever help this may provide, it’s not enough to prevent Izzy from starting the year at triple-A.

The Mets are faced with a dearth of options to fill the back end of their rotation. Hideo Nomo struggles with his command and velocity all spring before earning his release on March 26, at which point an old nemesis is hired to take his place. At age 40, Orel Hershiser is not the dominating pitcher who terrorized the Mets in the 1988 playoffs. However, he can still grit his way through a game with guile and a sinker ball that results in a high number of grounders when working at its best. This could be a useful attribute when employed in front of an infield of the Mets’ caliber. So when Hershiser is released by the Indians at the tail end of spring training, the pitching-starved Mets scoop him up. Dispelling the fears of those who remember his role in derailing the Met dynasty of the 1980s, he professes to like New York, and even refers to “the ambiance of Shea Stadium” in a positive manner.

The Mets won’t expect Hershiser to be much this season beyond a warm body on the mound every five games, but they have higher expectation of the men who will precede him, expectations that are not bolstered much by their performances in Grapefruit League action. The team’s top three starters—Al Leiter, Rick Reed, and Bobby Jones—top out at mediocre in their spring starts. After them, the performances are even worse. Ostensible number four starter Masato Yoshii pitches to an ERA close to 10, but he will remain in the rotation because no other pitcher in camp performs well enough to take his place. That an aging former star like Hershiser is considered a viable solution suggests a serious problem, and once again rumors bubble up that the Mets will soon deal for a top-line starter. Kenny Rogers emerges as a trade possibility yet again, as do Jamie Moyer and Jeff Fassero of Seattle and Brad Radke of Minnesota. But it’s clear that such rumors are little more than wishful thinking. Such a trade would cost the Mets Edgardo Alfonzo and either Jason Isringhausen or Octavio Dotel, the team’s top pitching prospect who is deemed not yet ready for prime time. “I’m not all that hopeful for a trade before the end of spring training,” Phillips admits with less than a week until opening day, and his doubts prove true. No trades are made. The Mets will go to war with the pitchers they have and hope the addition of Robin Ventura and the shift of Alfonzo to second base will provide enough defense to compensate for the rotation’s deficiencies.

There’s little left for the Mets to do at this point but round out their 25-man roster. Youngsters and long shots slough off the list, headed for the minors and the sunset. With the aging legs of Rickey Henderson and Bobby Bonilla in mind, most of the bench spots go to outfielders like Jermaine Allensworth and Roger Cedeño. The versatile Mike Kinkade earns the last roster spot because he played every non-pitching position except center field during the spring, and Bobby Valentine is impressed with his ability to be a third-string catcher.

Young outfielder Melvin Mora turned heads by hitting .421 during Grapefruit League action, but he will start the year in triple-A. With so many expectations going into the season, the Mets don’t want to take chances with unknown commodities. Kinkade has two major league at bats, while Mora has none. Of such slim margins are these decisions made.

Tough choices are a manager’s lot this time of year, but Valentine compounds the difficulty by committing the same sin Joe Torre once committed against him: he fails to tell Mora of his fate until the last possible moment. In light of his spring training stats, Mora assumes he’ll make the trip north. His bags are on the truck bound for Shea Stadium, along with the other major leaguers’ gear, when Valentine breaks the bad news.

“I know you want to punch me,” Valentine tells him. The news hits Mora so hard he contemplates jumping off a bridge. His only recourse is that of any other jilted big league hopeful: Wait for the crush of disappointment to fade into a dull throb, then vow to make his name known before the year is out.

1999

Prologue Part 5

The First Fall

In their last two home games of the year, the Mets faced the Montréal Expos, who gave their hosts fits all season. The Expos would lose 95 games in 1998, yet would win eight of 12 games against the Mets, and none were more damaging than this last pair. Though Met starter Armando Reynoso had won of seven of his previous eight decisions, on the evening of September 22 he was perturbed by unseasonably cool temperatures that “seemed to signal the onset of autumn,” in the ominous words of the Daily News. He allowed a lead to evaporate and the bullpen that relieved him permitted inherited runners to score, the fatal margin in a 5-3 loss. The next night, the Mets’ bats fell silent against rookie pitcher Carl Pavano, who compounded the damage by hitting an RBI double. Met batters failed to capitalize on several chances to claw their way back into the game and went on to lose, 3-0.

To finish out the year, the Mets traveled to Atlanta to play three games against the Braves. There was no rivalry between the two teams just yet, unless a fly can be said to have a rivalry with a bug zapper. While Atlanta rattled off one division title after another throughout the 1990s, New York obliged by offering no threat to their dominance whatsoever. When the Mets arrived at Turner Field on September 25, the Braves had already won 103 games and long since clinched the National League East. The visiting team had everything to play for, while the home nine had no concerns other than getting their house in order for the upcoming playoffs.

Unfortunately, the Braves were the ones who played like a team on a mission. In game one, the Mets loaded the bases twice against freshman starter Bruce Chen but could only score two runs for their trouble. When Atlanta turned to its bullpen, the visitors found themselves stymied by another rookie, Odalis Pérez, and, on the opposite end of the spectrum, 43-year-old Dennis “El Presidente” Martínez, ace of the 1980s Expos enjoying his last hurrah. Trailing by two runs with two outs in the top of the eighth inning, the Mets put the tying runs on base and had an excellent chance to do some damage, with their biggest bats due up. Bobby Valentine sent in September call-up Jay Payton as a pinch runner, hoping the speedy young outfielder could score from first on an extra-base hit and knot the score. The move backfired when John Olerud hit a two-out single, inspiring Payton to take third on the hit, challenging the powerful arm of center fielder Andruw Jones. It was an unwise challenge, to put it mildly. The rookie was gunned down by a good five feet, killing the rally. Payton had committed two cardinal baseball sins: making the last out of the inning at third, and doing so while Mike Piazza stood on deck.

The Mets made some more noise in the ninth but were turned aside by another rookie, hard-throwing lefty John Rocker. The end result was a 6-5 heartbreaker. The decision went to Dennis Martínez, the last victory of his major league career. The Mets would come no closer to winning for the rest of the season.

In game two, New York was shut out and limited to three hits by one of the Braves’ trio of aces, Tom Glavine, with assistance from another motley crew of relief pitchers both young and old. Al Leiter held off the Braves for five innings but faltered in the sixth, ceding three runs, which on this day was more than enough to ensure defeat. The loss put the Mets one game of the wild card lead behind both the Chicago Cubs and the surging San Francisco Giants.

Valentine wanted to send Hideo Nomo to the hill for the last game of the year. Nomo came to the Mets as a midseason acquisition from the Dodgers and owned a lifetime ERA of 2.13 against Atlanta, but this was not the same Nomo of a few short seasons ago. Batters had caught up to Nomo’s tricks, and he had not pitched well since his trade to New York. Nomo begged off the assignment as a matter of pride, insisting other pitchers deserved the chance more than he. Valentine had little choice but to go with Armando Reynoso, who was shelled for five runs before getting yanked in the second inning. Reynoso’s early exit forced Nomo into the game anyway for his first ever relief appearance, and he proceeded to throw four shutout innings. Too little, too late. The Mets lost, 7-2. Atlanta manager Bobby Cox compared beating Valentine to defeating Casey Stengel and John McGraw. As was often the case when words of praise were expressed by Valentine’s opponents, the intended tone of Cox’s words—sarcastic or sincere—was unclear. Valentine chose to take it as a compliment.

To pour extra salt on the Mets’ wounds, both Chicago and San Francisco were trailing in their respective games as the team boarded a plane back to New York. “They’re both going to lose, aren’t they?” Steve Phillips sighed to reporters before he left Turner Field. By the time his plane landed, they had. The Cubs and Giants finished in a tie for the wild card, necessitating a one-game playoff. If the Mets had won a single game of the five they dropped to close out the season, they would have found themselves part of an unprecedented three-way tie. If they’d won two games, the Mets would have captured the wild card outright. Instead, they won a premature trip to the golf course. When they returned to the Shea clubhouse to clean out their lockers, they found a pile of fan-made t-shirts with the hopeful legend 1998 WILD CARD NEW YORK METS printed in orange and blue.

No Met could explain it. “I guess we just ran out of gas,” said Lenny Harris, the Mets’ go-to pinch hitter. “And there were no gas stations open. They all closed down as soon as we got to Atlanta.” Outfielder Brian McRae had a more rational, if depressing, theory. “To win as many close games as we won meant we were close to losing them, too,” he opined. “We finished right where we should have finished. Because when you play 162 games, you don’t fool anyone.”

The entire organization took the loss hard, but no one took it harder than Bobby Valentine. Normally impossible to shut up, the manager was at a loss for words. “I don’t know what happened,” Valentine told reporters after the Mets’ last defeat. “If I knew, I would have done something about it. That’s my frustration about it. Everything I tried didn’t work.”

“There should have been something. There should have been something,” Valentine repeated, more to himself than anyone else.

Valentine had never been to the playoffs in his entire baseball life. Not as a player, coach, or manager. Not in the majors or minors. Not in America or Japan. This was the closest he’d ever come to the finish line, only to trip and fall flat on his face. The flameout validated the worst of what his detractors thought of him. He’d topped out at second place in Texas. He finished second in Japan. Now, Mr. Baseball was second best again. Notice a pattern?, critics asked. A better manager would have been able to motivate his team to win one lousy game, wouldn’t he? Now, two of the players who brought him so close to the postseason—Al Leiter and Mike Piazza—were set to become free agents. If the Mets couldn’t re-sign both players, or even one of them, there was no reason to think that Valentine would get another shot at the playoffs in 1999.

If Steve Phillips felt the same devastation, he did a better job of hiding it. “My hopes were grander than just getting to the playoffs,” he admitted after the Mets’ final, brutal game of 1998. “But I’m also excited about putting a team together for 1999. And that’s what’s getting me through today.”

Steve Phillips was never a man for the long view. As he set about the business of assembling the next iteration of the Mets, it is unlikely he gave much thought to one minute beyond 1999. His intent notwithstanding, Phillips would soon pull together one of the most memorable and beloved teams in franchise history.

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1999

Prologue Part 4

Skill Sets

Early in his Met managerial tenure, Bobby Valentine established a reputation of getting the most out of his younger players, particularly ones he’d already tutored at triple-A Norfolk. Edgardo Alfonzo, an infielder who blossomed under Valentine’s stewardship, was a prime example. Much as he had in Texas, however, he clashed with the team’s established players, and often walked the extra mile to do so.

Catcher Todd Hundley battled injuries and the burden of high expectations in the Mets’ miserable early 1990s. Pitchers raved about his skills behind the plate, but his hitting was another story. He was clearly a strong switch hitter, but struggled to maintain any sort of consistency with his hitting. Then Hundley came out of nowhere to belt 41 homers in 1996, setting a new high watermark for the franchise and shattering the single season home run record for catchers set by Roy Campanella. Sniffing their first home-grown slugger since Darryl Strawberry, the grateful Met front office gifted Hundley a four-year, $28 million contract in the ensuing offseason.

The Mets’ new manager should have been grateful to have such a weapon in his arsenal, but Bobby Valentine waged a proxy war with his catcher in the press instead. Hundley’s once-lauded catching skills deteriorated after he became a slugging superstar, an observation Mr. Baseball was happy to make to any member of the media who might have missed it. When Hundley suffered a dreadful slump toward the end of the 1997 season, Valentine dropped cryptic hints about the source of his struggles to the press. “I think he doesn’t sleep enough,” the manager said. “He’s a nocturnal person. He needs to get more rest. He has a real tough time getting to sleep after games. He needs to change his ways.”

For the few folks unable to read between these wide lines, the papers spelled out Valentine’s hint: The catcher partied too much. Hundley was forced to publicly account for his extracurricular activities and swear he liked the nightlife no more or less than any other young player.

Regardless of what Hundley did in his postgame life, the man had enough on his mind to induce a late season slide. As Valentine was lobbing his accusations, Hundley’s mother was battling cancer, while his wife was dealing with complications from her third pregnancy. Apart from these real-life issues, he was also experiencing severe elbow pain, but chose to play through it because the Mets remained surprise contenders deep into the 1997 season. For all the aches and Valentine-generated controversy, Hundley racked up 30 homers and 86 RBIs until a game against the Phillies on September 9, when his arm locked up during a follow-through swing. Torn ligaments forced Tommy John surgery, which would knock him out of action until halfway through 1998. Hundley had endured intense personal and physical trauma through gritted teeth to gut his through as much of the season as he could, and would never forgive Bobby Valentine for calling him out in public.

The Met skipper also made an enemy out of Pete Harnisch, a pitcher who missed a good portion of the 1997 season while seeking treatment for clinical depression. When Harnisch proved ineffective upon his return, Valentine insinuated it was because he was “afraid” to pitch. The skipper later insisted he was unaware of his condition, an excuse Harnisch considered neither plausible nor sufficient. After he was designated for assignment during an August road trip, Harnisch lashed out at Valentine in an obscenity-filled tirade shouted for all to hear in the lounge of a hotel where the Mets had been staying. The pitcher then sought out a larger audience by calling up WFAN, New York’s sports talk radio station. Live on the airwaves, Harnisch told listeners, among other choice tidbits, “There’s not really a guy on this team that respects Bobby Valentine.” Some teammates contradicted this assertion. Others retreated to the No Comment Zone. Within hours of airing his grievances, Harnisch was traded to Milwaukee.

While Valentine created enemies in his own clubhouse, the front office promoted the man who would prove to be his biggest internal nemesis. In July of 1997, Joe McIlvaine was demoted from the general manager position in deference to wunderkind Steve Phillips. The move made Phillips, age 34, the game’s second youngest GM. (Detroit’s Randy Smith edged him out by a month.) The Mets grabbed Phillips out of high school with their fifth pick in the 1981 draft, but his game never progressed beyond the double-A level. Phillips spent his initial post-baseball years earning a degree in psychology from the University of Michigan and delivering motivational speeches to corporations, work he found unfulfilling in the extreme. McIlvaine, who was the Met scouting director when the team drafted Phillips, rescued Phillips from this drudgery by offering him his first executive job in January of 1990.

The Met organization did everything in its power to groom Phillips as its executive of the future. In his first few years on the job, quotes from Phillips could be found throughout the city’s back pages with a frequency more befitting a high-level executive, not someone who held the obscure (if important) position of director of minor league operations. After the 1995 season, Phillips was elevated to assistant general manager. His name was soon being whispered as the imminent replacement for McIlvaine, whose relationship with team ownership had deteriorated beyond repair.

Joe McIlvaine attempted to rebuild the Mets on the Frank Cashen model of scouting and development. This slow and unglamorous process had already produced one major flameout in Generation K. Then, another debacle sealed McIlvaine’s fate. Ryan Jaroncyk, the team’s first round draft pick in 1995, was considered a can’t-miss prospect. The young shortstop found a way to miss anyway, quitting the game early in the 1997 season. Jaroncyk realized he never really liked baseball, and had come to this revelation several years too late to do the Mets much good. “I always thought it was boring,” he confessed upon retiring from the game at age 20.

Those who craved a change from McIlvaine’s course could not have devised a worse disaster. No one in the Met front office had bothered to find out if their hotshot prospect, the supposed future of their lineup and infield, even liked baseball. The ensuing blowback doomed McIlvaine’s prospects-first approach to team building, and McIlvaine’s job. Upon introducing his new general manager to the press, Fred Wilpon—in a line destined to be repeated back at him for years to come—insisted Phillips possessed executive “skills sets” that McIlvaine lacked.

In the late 1990s, there was an expectation that a general manager job never ended, that a GM would be always on the clock and always under the microscope. Phillips embraced this view fully. He could remember a time early in his executive career when he witnessed Frank Cashen and Al Harazin sitting in their Shea Stadium suite and reading, discussing not trades and free agents and the farm system but the world. Phillips recalled this scene as if it were a quaint relic of a bygone era. Imagine, he would recount with a shake of his head, a general manager who had time in his daily schedule to contemplate a world outside of baseball.

Bobby Valentine caused one of his periodic stirs in the press by discussing the front office move with reporters before any official announcement had been made. This was interpreted as a means to hasten Joe McIlvaine’s exit, and led to speculation that the old general manager was removed at Valentine’s request. These speculators had short memories, forgetting that McIlvaine was the man who welcomed Valentine back to the Mets after both his firing in Texas and his exile in Japan, who believed Valentine could manage at the big league level again when few others did. Those who forgot these facts would soon have reason enough to dismiss rumors that Valentine wanted Phillips to ascend to the throne. Before long, the idea of Valentine doing anything to benefit Phillips would be laughable.

Valentine and Phillips were like two notes a semitone apart, too close to ever form pleasant harmony. Like Valentine, Phillips relished the spotlight. Like Valentine, Phillips had a high opinion of his own baseball knowledge. He insisted on visiting his manager’s office before and after almost every game to discuss strategy and roster moves. Like Valentine, Phillips possessed a myriad of foibles that tended to get himself in trouble, though they were of a different stripe than Valentine’s.

As for their differences, Phillips had the advantage of possessing a more selective filter between his brain and mouth and was much more guarded with his public statements. (“Sometimes I wish I had the ‘no comment’ in me,” Valentine confessed in grudging admiration of his boss.) Whereas Valentine’s relationship with reporters was strained at best, Phillips played New York’s sports press corps like a fiddle, always willing to provide them with quotes, access, background, and availability. Phillips had spent most of his adult life working in baseball, either as a minor league player or a major league executive, yet his sartorial sense and articulation allowed him to adopt the part of the Young Go-Getter. Always dressed impeccably, always with a perfectly coiffed head of sandy hair, savvy enough to affect wire-rim glasses when he wished to adopt a serious look. He had the air of the spokesman an embattled corporation would send before the cameras to assure the public that their product was safe no matter what the folks at 60 Minutes said. Phillips’s image stood in such stark contrast to that of his predecessor. Joe McIlvaine’s oversized spectacles and overeager, pained smiles labeled him a nerd when the term was still the most damning of slurs in the sports world. It was as Phillips made an extra effort to be polished out of sheer cruelty to the man he replaced.

Joe McIlvaine had brought Bobby Valentine back into the Met organization for the ability he’d shown at triple-A to teach the game to young players. He considered Valentine “one of the best teachers of baseball there is” and had hired him to utilize those skills in molding a team full of raw talent. Such skills were not treasured by a front office headed by Steve Phillips, who wanted to remake the Mets into something more befitting his ambitions. He referred to the Mets he inherited as “a good little team with good little players,” with all the condescension those words implied. Taking the hint, McIlvaine moved on to the Minnesota Twins, a small-market team whose only hope at competing was to develop a good little team with good little players. McIlvaine’s handpicked manager was left behind to wonder how he fit into the Mets’ new equation.

Phillips began his first offseason by taking advantage of the Marlins, as did nearly every other team that winter. Florida loaded up on high-priced superstars in 1997 to fuel a stunning World Series victory, then dismantled itself before the victory parade confetti had even settled. Prior to spring training in 1998, Phillips shipped three minor leaguers to the Marlins in exchange for left-handed pitcher Al Leiter.

A New Jersey native, Leiter enjoyed some up-and-down years with the Yankees and Blue Jays before finding his form with Florida. He pitched to a 2.93 ERA with 200 strikeouts in 1996 and played a key role in the Marlins’ championship the following year by starting game seven of the World Series. Florida manager Jim Leyland chose Leiter to pitch the deciding game not because he had any real confidence in him, but as he told reporters, “Who the hell else am I going to start?” Leiter went on to limit a powerful Indians lineup featuring Manny Ramírez, Jim Thome, David Justice, and Roberto Alomar to two runs, enabling his teammates to rebound from an early deficit and win the game in extra innings. Leiter described the attitude he acquired from Leyland’s tough love thusly: “It was basically, ‘Fuck everybody.’”

Leiter possessed enough service time to be considered a veteran, yet rarely conducted himself as someone who had attained the wisdom or calm that comes with age. He more resembled a little league dad who took the game a bit too seriously, when he didn’t resemble that dad’s sugar-addled kid. He was prone to both losing his focus and criticizing himself to worrisome extremes. The former led to high walk totals, while the latter led to worn out paths in front of the mound as he paced and berated himself for his failures. He had idiosyncratic on-field habits that were baffling, if not ill-advised, such as his method clearing mud from his cleats during rainy games. Whereas most pitchers used a wire brush or a spiked pad to remove obstructions from their spikes, Leiter preferred to jump in the air and click his heels, à la Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, to clear out the muck. More troubling was Leiter’s tendency to argue with his managers to remain on the mound far beyond the point most pitchers would, which marked him either as a gritty gamer when it saved a call to the bullpen or a stubborn jock when his tired arm blew a lead.

These shortcomings could be tolerated because Leiter was a lefthanded starter, and a very good one who could often fight his way to being great. When he joined the Met starting rotation, he became its best member by a wide margin. He was thrilled to join the team he grew up rooting for as a kid from Toms River, even if he would have to play for a manager who once tried to psych him out from the opposing dugout by screaming, “You’ll never make it out of the fourth inning!”

As big as the Leiter trade was, Steve Phillips’s hugest deal was yet to come. Todd Hundley’s Tommy John surgery forced him to miss the first half of the 1998 season, robbing the Mets of their catcher, their primary source of power, and their biggest star. When he did return, there was no telling how much motivation he’d have to play well under Bobby Valentine’s yoke. Meanwhile, across the country, another star catcher was feeling mistreated by his own team and was looking for an escape plan. These factors conspired to produce a trade scenario too juicy for Phillips to pass up.

Out in Los Angeles, free agency loomed for Mike Piazza, who had already established himself as one of the best hitting catchers in baseball history. Before the 1997 season began, Piazza and his agent proposed a six-year, $60 million contract to the Dodgers’ front office. The Dodgers rejected Piazza’s offer and extended arbitration instead. At this point, the catcher’s feelings about staying in Los Angeles began to sour.

Those feelings curdled even more the following spring after Los Angeles Times writer Bill Plaschke conducted an interview with ex-Dodger Brett Butler, who painted the catcher as “a moody, self-centered ‘90s player” and insisted “you can’t build around Piazza because he’s not a leader.” Though the Dodgers made the playoffs in 1995 and 1996, they were swept in the division series both times. Piazza batted .250 in his postseason appearances, with only three RBIs and one lone home run. The Dodgers also suffered a September swoon in 1997, allowing the National League West title to slip from their hands in the season’s final weeks. Through Brett Butler, the Dodgers publicly declared their belief that Piazza—one the most potent offensive forces in franchise history—was more responsible for the team’s failures than its successes.

Early in the 1998 season, the Dodgers’ brain trust offered Piazza an $84 million extension. Piazza rejected it, still stinging from the Butler interview. Relations between the catcher and the team degenerated quickly, and a trade was executed on May 14 that shipped Piazza off to the Marlins for a large package of players, the most notable being mercurial slugger Gary Sheffield. Everyone knew Florida was a mere layover for the catcher. A team that had unloaded so many superstars had neither the ability nor the inclination to keep Piazza. The only question was where he would fly to next. On the back pages and sports talk radio airwaves in New York, the chatter screamed for him to land with the Mets. Mike Francesa, one half of WFAN’s drive-time duo Mike and the Mad Dog, was one of the loudest voices insisting that the Mets had to get Piazza, Hundley be damned.

Eight days after Piazza left L.A., Steve Phillips pulled the trigger. He acquired the catcher while giving up even less than he had for Leiter. (The most prominent player in the deal was minor leaguer Preston Wilson, stepson of former Mets outfielder and then-first base coach Mookie Wilson.) For a franchise whose brief periods of success relied on strong pitching, Piazza became the best hitter to ever put on a Mets uniform.

The trade simultaneously made the Mets a force to be reckoned with and increased tension in the clubhouse. Todd Hundley had been the team’s biggest star, but six months on the disabled list turned him into a forgotten man. As the “get Piazza!” chants grew louder and louder, Hundley was told point-blank by Met ownership that they had no interest in acquiring a new catcher. One day after Hundley received this assurance, the Piazza deal was made. With a sense of timing the Dodgers would have appreciated, rumors that Hundley had drinking problem bubbled anew within days of the trade. Unable to find a teammate who’d own up to spreading such gossip, Hundley naturally blamed Bobby Valentine.

Hopes that conditions would improve once Hundley returned to action after the All Star Break were short lived. Valentine had one spot for two home run-hitting catchers and was forced to be creative to squeeze both of them in the lineup. Piazza would catch, and Hundley—who’d logged all of two games at any position other than catcher in his professional career—would try his hand at left field. The gambit was destined to fail, but the inevitability of this failure didn’t make the results any easier to watch. Hundley was not made for an outfield position, to put it kindly, and his hitting suffered in the bargain. In 53 games, Hundley batted a miserable .161 while belting only 3 home runs.

Mike Piazza started slowly in New York before stepping on the gas, hitting .351 in the second half of the season and .378 in September. As soon as he took off, so did the rest of the Mets. John Olerud flirted with a batting title, hit 22 home runs, and drove in 98 runs to lead the team. In his second season as a full-time starter. Edgardo Alfonzo complemented his slick fielding at third base with production at the plate, collecting 17 homers and 78 RBIs of his own. Alfonzo and Rey Ordoñez, a human vacuum at shortstop, both robbed countless hits and together made up one of the best defensive left sides of the infield in the majors. Al Leiter was as good as advertised, winning 17 games and pitching to an ERA of 2.47. The Mets not only began winning again, but did so in ways reminiscent of the brash Mets teams of the 1980s, overcoming deficits and prevailing in their last at-bats. A torrid month of August—20 wins in total—launched them into playoff contention, and the winning continued as fall loomed. On September 20, they defeated the Marlins 5-0 behind eight shutout innings from Leiter and timely hitting from Olerud. At 88-69, they held a half-game lead in the wild card standings over the Chicago Cubs with five games left to play.

And then, as if someone flipped a switch, everything stopped working all at once.

Part 5: The First Fall

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1999

Prologue Part 3

Great for the City

After Bobby Valentine’s brief sojourn to the Far East in 1995, a small miracle was required for him to return to the major leagues. That miracle occurred when another manager was somehow judged less controversial than him.

Dallas Green’s tough-nosed approach was deemed a crucial element in cleaning out the Mets’ clubhouse of its complacent malcontents and borderline psychopaths. He was able to wring enough production out of Bobby Bonilla and Bret Saberhagen to convert them into trade bait, and was praised for making the most out of what he had on his rosters, which was not much. In his first two years at the helm, the Mets’ fortunes improved, albeit at a snail’s place.

Then the team took yet another misstep. Starved for attention, the Mets promoted a trio of hard-throwing pitchers from their farm system in 1995. Young hurlers Jason Isringhausen, Bill Pulsipher, and Paul Wilson were dubbed Generation K by the team’s marketing wizards, a play on the Generation X label that was already several years out of style by that point. The moniker begged to be mocked, as if the pitchers would speed to the mound on skateboards while dressed in flannel shirts.

The belly laughs induced by the phrase “Generation K” notwithstanding, it was easy to see why the Mets expected big things from the trio. All three pitchers were ranked among the best prospects in baseball, promising a bright future for a franchise that traditionally built itself around pitching. But the Mets failed to recognize one crucial flaw in this plan. These young hurlers had shouldered considerable workloads in the minors, and neither Isringhausen nor Pulsipher were babied in any way when promoted to the big leagues in the middle of the 1995 season.

Generation K’s workload gave the Mets no cause for alarm because it wouldn’t have alarmed any front office of this era. The belief that innings limits might help prolong a young pitcher’s career was not yet accepted gospel in Major League Baseball. In the mid-1990s, pitch counts were not tallied like the ticks of a time bomb. The Mets were far from the only team of the time that worked its pitching prospects harder than they should have, and they were far from the only team who would watch promising young arms lost to the surgeon’s knife. The Mets were, however, the only team proclaiming to possess the future of pitching and daring to call them (snicker) Generation K.

Bill Pulsipher’s 1995 season ended three weeks prematurely when he began feeling some ominous elbow pain. He continued to feel it in spring training the following year and submitted himself to an MRI that revealed torn elbow ligaments. Tommy John surgery knocked him out for all of the following season. Jason Isringhausen and Paul Wilson both made it through 1996 somehow, though each of them struggled in a way typical of young pitchers facing major league batters for the first time. Fans and the media had not been promised rookies with potential working through growing pains. They had been promised the building blocks of another dynasty. Generation K’s failure to be phenoms right out of the gate proved a PR disaster.

By the end of August, the Mets were lodged well under .500 yet again. Dallas Green was already on the hot seat when he publicly criticized the team’s premature promotion of Generation K. “These guys don’t really belong in the big leagues,” he insisted. “It’s that simple. It sounds very harsh and very negative. But what have they done to get here?”

It was hard to argue otherwise. Pulsipher’s injury and a combined 9-22 record for Isringhausen and Wilson proved Green’s case. But it was one thing for the press to laugh at the Generation K storyline. It was another thing entirely for the manager to do so.

Green was dismissed with 31 games left in the 1996 season and Bobby Valentine was called up from his post managing the triple-A Norfolk Tides to take his place. Upon receiving the news, Valentine sprinted out of the stadium in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, where the Tides were in the middle of the game, and rented a car to make the long drive down to his new home in Queens. Once he got within range of New York’s sports talk radio station, WFAN, Valentine tuned in to see if word of his hiring had leaked out yet.

It had. As Valentine drove toward Shea Stadium he heard an endless string of callers moaning about the new Mets manager. Valentine’s an idiot. How can the Mets do this? Bad decision… He subjected himself to two hours of this masochism before shutting the radio off.

Fans weren’t the only ones skeptical of the choice. Many in the press credited Dallas Green with expunging the Met clubhouse of the stink of 1993 and lamented the loss of the straight shooter. Though both men were baseball lifers, Green was seen as the tobacco juice-spattered old school skipper while Valentine came off as his spiritual opposite: worldly, sophistic, cerebral. His stint with the Rangers was considered undistinguished at best, while his time with the Chiba Lotte Marines was deemed a demerit by writers who viewed Nomo-mania and the influx of Japanese players that followed with xenophobic suspicion, the kind that resurfaces whenever America’s pastime receives an injection of enthusiasm from a new corner of the world.

Amid this tense atmosphere, Bobby Valentine dared confess he’d gained a different perspective on how to play the game during his short time in the NPB, which was the last thing his critics wanted to hear. Valentine’s reliance on technology played as equally foreign to traditional sportswriters, who couldn’t understand why he asked his pitchers to watch video of opposing hitters during batting practice rather than shag flies. When Valentine admitted he learned Japanese using a computer program and developed a liking for the internet because of it, the scribes didn’t bother to contain their laughter. In the mid-1990s, the emerging online world was the exclusive province of nerds, not to be taken seriously by anyone connected with sports. What kind of manager would think he could learn anything about baseball from the internet?

In the Times, Harvey Araton captured the prevailing perception of the new Mets manager thusly:

With his neatly combed salt-and-pepper hair, his trim physique and his engaging smile, Valentine will come across better to Sound Bite America. He will reach out to those tarnished young pitchers, regale them with stories of the Japanese leagues, instruct them what to watch out for at the sushi bar.

An uninspiring 12-19 finish to the 1996 season caused no one to change their opinion of Valentine just yet. But in 1997, he captained the Mets to their first winning record in seven years, as the team flirted with a wild card berth as late as September, and was rewarded with a three-year contract for his efforts. Valentine was given credit for piloting the Mets to respectability despite having few stars on his roster. His starting rotation was a virtually anonymous bunch, and much the same could be said for his lineup. The two exceptions were switch-hitting slugger Todd Hundley, who broke the single-season home run record for catchers that season, and John Olerud, a surprise offseason pickup who would anchor the Met infield and lineup for three seasons.

Olerud was acquired from the Blue Jays the previous offseason for almost nothing, making it one of the rare times during this period when the Mets benefited from another team’s salary dump. The first baseman won two World Series rings with Toronto and was a high-average hitter who once flirted with batting .400, but after a few seasons of less impressive numbers at the plate, the Blue Jays feared he’d already reached the downside of his career. He was a quiet man, given the ironic nickname Gabby because he rarely spoke at all. In short, he exhibited all the signs of being type of athlete New York chews up and spits out. The fact he wore a batting helmet in the field—a precaution he adopted after an aneurysm nearly killed him as a 21-year-old minor leaguer—struck some as a sign of deeper fragility. Cito Gaston, his manager in Toronto, couldn’t see Olerud cottoning to Gotham, and vice versa. “He’s never had people yell bad things at him,” Gaston said after hearing of Olerud’s trade to the Mets. “And they’ll yell at him in Shea Stadium. I wouldn’t be surprised if he walks away from baseball at the end of the season.”

Olerud responded to Gaston’s challenge on all levels. New York, it turned out, fit him like a glove. More intellectually inclined than the average ballplayer, he took advantage of all the culture New York had to offer. Unlike many other well-paid players, he eschewed the suburbs of Long Island or Connecticut for an apartment in Manhattan. He even took the 7 train to the ballpark for many home games and professed to prefer the subway over the hassle of driving in city traffic. Toward the end of Olerud’s first season in New York, WNBC News captured his daily commute, riding the old Redbird-style trains from Grand Central, along with a slew of straphangers who paid him no mind.

Olerud’s cultural yearnings and proletarian transportation choices would have meant little if he hadn’t performed, but on the field he had a comeback campaign in 1997 as he knocked in 102 runs, belted 22 homers, and logged an on-base percentage of .400. And as surprising as his resurgence at the plate was, his performance on the infield was even more shocking. In Toronto, Olerud was considered a defensive liability. He was not fleet of foot, and his lack of speed made it difficult for him to hande the balls that zipped across the SkyDome’s artificial turf. But on the natural surface of Shea Stadium, Olerud changed his game and became a wizard with the glove. He was a weapon at first now, charging in on bunts, cutting down lead runners with the strong arm he’d never been able to show off on the carpet of Toronto. The Mets hadn’t wielded such an offensive defender at first base since Keith Hernandez. Met third baseman Edgardo Alfonzo followed this model and began to play his position with similar aggressiveness, showing off his own strong arm and inviting comparisons to Gold Glovers like Matt Williams and Ken Caminiti. The Mets’ infield defense, once porous, became a decided strength. The team’s pitching staff was full of soft-tossing control artists who logged far more grounders than strikeouts. Fielders like Olerud and Alfonzo made sure those grounders were converted into outs.

When a ball did manage to sneak past the infield, Olerud made the batter’s time on the basepaths uncomfortable. Rather than play on the bag or behind the runner, Olerud stood in front of him, screening him from the action. If a runner made any move back toward the first base bag or in the direction of second, Olerud would move right along with him. Bobby Valentine became fond of this pesky positioning while managing Texas. The idea was suggested to him by one of his coaches, Tim Foli, an ex-Met shortstop nicknamed Crazy Horse for his pugnacious reputation.

Opposing teams assumed Valentine asked John Olerud to play first base this way for the same reason they assumed he did everything else—to be a jerk. When pressed, Valentine played dumb. He was simply letting Olerud be himself, he said. New York, and Bobby Valentine, had finally let Gabby speak loudly, in his own way.

Subway Stops

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September 12, 1985 was a glorious day when all of New York was baseball mad. Both the Mets and Yankees were playing at home, an unusual coincidence made more so by the fact that both teams were contending for the postseason. Shea and Yankee Stadiums were each packed to the rafters, with the Mets hosting an afternoon game and the Yanks taking the nightcap. Fans young and old with bipartisan spirits played hooky and attended both games. This was a civic event not to be missed for the mere distraction of work or school. In the afternoon, the Mets beat the Cardinals on a walk off RBI single from Keith Hernandez to take sole possession of first place in the National League East. In the evening, the Yankees rode a six-run rally to a victory over Toronto, pulling them within 1.5 games of the first place Blue Jays. It was the latest in the season both teams had been in the playoff hunt since the Mets came into existence. The occasion was deemed so rare that the Times compared it to an astrological phenomenon on the order of Halley’s Comet.

This once-in-a-generation rarity did not prevent a New York brand of hubris and entitlement to wash over the city in record time. Fans of both teams wore t-shirts proclaiming NEW YORK SUBWAY SERIES 1985. One fan called for President Reagan to demand the Cardinals and Blue Jays step aside so that the World Series could once again be played within the confines of the five boroughs, “its rightful place.” A beleaguered clerk in the Macy’s electronics department grew tired of shooing away loitering “customers” who gathered around the display televisions every time a game was on. “They crowd in here and scream and yell like they were in their living rooms,” the weary clerk reported.

Then, as quickly as the city’s baseball fever had surged, it broke. The Yankees followed their thrilling win over Toronto with an eight-game losing streak that all but killed their playoff chances. The Mets hung on longer but finished short of St. Louis in the end. Over the next decade, as the trajectories of the two teams spun in opposite directions, that September day in 1985 remained the closest New York had come to hosting its first Subway Series since 1956.

And then came June 16, 1997, the evening when the advent of interleague play brought with it the first regular season Subway Series game. In front of a sellout Yankee Stadium crowd, the Mets shocked the defending world champions with a 6-0 victory. Starting pitcher Dave Mlicki—owner of a lifetime record of 17-21, a man even most Mets fans couldn’t pick out of a lineup—went the distance, scattering nine hits and striking out eight Yankees, six of them looking, including Derek Jeter to end the game.

By the end of the game, with most Yankees fans having long since left, the House That Ruth Built rang with foreign chants of “Let’s go Mets!” This did not go unnoticed by the press, or George Steinbrenner, who was infuriated by the insult. Stung by this humiliation, the Yankees rebounded to win the last two games of the series. The final contest was particularly contentious, as the Mets rallied late from a 2-0 deficit and scored the tying run when David Cone (now a Yankee) balked home a runner in the top of the eighth. Joe Torre later complained “Bobby tried to plant the seed early,” claiming that the Met manager had pointed out an odd hitch in Cone’s delivery to home plate umpire John Shulock, thus laying the groundwork for the balk call. Valentine contended his observation had no effect on the call. Mr. Baseball believed he was doing a favor for the less perceptive by pointing out a balk move when he saw one. Valentine’s eagle eye merely prolonged the game for the Mets, however, as the Yankees earned the last laugh on a walk off RBI single in the bottom of the tenth from Tino Martinez.

Prior to 1997, the relationship between the Mets and Yankees, and their respective fans, tended to be one of cool indifference. The question of which team was best was restricted to the hypothetical realm of barroom arguments. In the early decades of their coexistence, the Mets and Yankees contended in an annual exhibition for charity called the Mayor’s Trophy Game. This contest was approached in the same manner as a spring training game, with both teams’ best players appearing for a few short innings if they appeared at all. When the 1978 edition threatened to drag on into extra innings on a chilly April night in the Bronx, Yankees third baseman Graig Nettles threw a groundball into the seats in the hopes he could gift the Mets the winning run and “get the hell out of there.” For two years in the early 1980s, rather than stage a game no one wanted to play and few wanted to watch, the Mets and Yankees donated money to the Mayor’s Trophy charity instead and called it a day.

When both teams flirted with the playoffs in 1985, the event was such a novelty that it unfolded as a civic celebration. Fans of one team could be coolly generous to the other squad, even root for their crosstown rivals after a fashion, as they entertained pie-in-the-sky dreams of a Subway Series. The Mets’ and Yankees’ mutual failure to reach the postseason prevented anyone from discovering if those kumbaya feelings could extend deep into October.

A regular season game, a game that counted in the standings for both teams, was a different story. Three Subway Series games were enough to transform the Met-Yankee rivalry from cold war to open hostility. In the years to follow, every interaction between the two camps would be fraught with a tension that began with the fans and traveled all the way up to the players themselves.

The first Subway Series established the pattern that would continue for Met-Yankee summit meetings in the following years. The Mets would say they were keyed up and thrilled to be involved. They would receive kudos for giving the defending world champs a good fight if they lost, while reserving the right to treat each victory like a mini-World Series if they won. “It was a great three days, wasn’t it?” said Edgardo Alfonzo at the conclusion of the inaugural series. His team had lost two of three games in the Bronx, yet he could proclaim the series great with no fear of drawing criticism. The impact of winning the very first Subway Series game was so immense, it almost accounted for more than one win (even if the standings disagreed).

The Yankees, expected to win the real World Series no matter what year it was, treated the affair with a mixture of contempt and dread. Playing the Mets in contrived circumstances lay a few steps beneath their dignity. These games offered the Yankees little to win and everything to lose. David Cone told reporters that dropping two of three to the Mets would have sent him scrambling for a cyanide tablet. Derek Jeter said such an outcome would have forced him to move to New Jersey. (He would go on to repeat this “threat” often in future Subway Series, apparently believing there were no Yankees or Mets fans to hassle him in the Garden State.) After Tino Martinez hit his RBI single to ice the win in the series finale, the first baseman said he felt a ton of bricks lift from his back.

Former Mets like Cone and Doc Gooden chafed at questions about the differences between the teams. Now Yankees, they preferred to adopt the traditional stance of the Bronx Bombers: Refusing to acknowledge the existence of the Other Team In Town whenever possible. The Subway Series robbed them of that option. One reporter noted that upon being called up to the Yankees on the eve of the first Subway Series, Wally Whitehurst (another ex-Met) asked his old teammate Gooden when they were getting some pizza delivered to the clubhouse. The question was asked in jest, but Doc answered it with deathly seriousness. “We don’t do that stuff here, Wally,” he warned, looking over his shoulder to make sure no team officials had heard the impudent request. “This ain’t the Mets.”

There was no better demonstration of how much had changed between the two teams than the scene at Shea Stadium on April 15, 1998. Two days earlier, a 500-pound support beam collapsed at Yankee Stadium. Apart from adding ammunition to George Steinbrenner’s claims that he deserved a new stadium, the accident shut down the old one until city inspectors could ensure the facility was safe. The Mets were scheduled to play a night game but invited the Yankees to use Shea Stadium for the afternoon to complete their series against the Angels.

This was a neighborly gesture that made no one happy. Met players fretted that welcoming the Yankees into their stadium would have the same effect as inviting vampires into one’s home. Yankee players called the temporary relocation a “distraction,” worrying it would disturb their recent hot streak. They chose to dress up in the Yankee Stadium clubhouse before hopping a bus to Queens rather than dare use the facilities at Shea. Yankees fans who descended on Flushing that afternoon displayed naked loathing for their gracious hosts, comparing the temporary digs unfavorably to the self-proclaimed Cathedral of Baseball while displaying signs bearing insults like NOT BAD FOR A MINOR LEAGUE PARK. Mets fans who arrived that evening for their team’s regularly scheduled game said the place would need fumigation after being invaded by those fans. They bristled over Mets ownership being so accommodating to the team that was now their most hated rival. Surely George Steinbrenner would never be so welcoming if the tables were turned, they said.

And those were the remarks deemed fit for print and airwaves. When rumors bubbled that emergency repairs would force the Yankees to play their next series at Shea, Mets fans accused their team of playing doormat, while the Yankees worried over what playing at a minor league ballpark would do for their prospects. The issue was skirted when the Yankees’ next opponent, the Detroit Tigers, agreed to swap home series.

A spirit of citizenship that allowed the two teams to share a facility in the 1970s, and to cheer for each other in the mid-1980s. That spirit was now dead and buried. In its place was a harsh partisanship that brooked no compromise. The first Subway Series had been marked by full-blown fistfights in the Yankee Stadium stands. Players contemplated popping cyanide tablets if they lost. One fanbase compared the arrival of the other fanbase in their team’s stadium to an infestation of pests. A local sports radio personality dismissed the idea that New Yorkers could root for both teams by proclaiming, with the fervor of a Baptist preacher, “You can’t be for God and the Devil!” The host was a Yankees fan and made it quite clear which team stood for each part of this duality in his eyes.

The media made note of all this animosity, but only to dismiss it. They had already determined the Subway Series was a unifying civic event that enlivened and uplifted the entire city. Everyone said so, from the mayor on down. “It’s wonderful for the city,” Rudy Giuliani said right before the Mets and Yankees faced each other for the first time. Every outlet of officialdom adopted this line as their own, ignoring Giuliani’s own recollection of the days of his youth when fans of the Dodgers and Giants couldn’t be in the same room together without fighting. Brawls in the stands were labeled “skirmishes.” Hate-filled volleys from one team’s fans toward another’s were placed under the umbrella of playful exuberance. The belief that this antipathy could be ignored or dismissed ran deep and long. When interleague play was in its third season, at a point when Mets and Yankees had been crammed next to each other for 12 hate-filled contests, one writer dared suggest that the two teams—each of whom hungered for new facilities—could share one new stadium and thus save a great deal of taxpayer money, as if the support beam incident and all the ugliness it engendered (They’ll hafta fumigate the place…) never happened.

The press ran with the mayor’s contention and took it one step further. Now that New York had returned to its former glory, the only thing it was missing was a real Subway Series. If games between the Mets and Yankees in June were great for the city, then a World Series showdown would be even greater. Each subsequent matchup would bring such daydreaming from the scribes. Wouldn’t that be great for the city?, they cooed, blind to all the evidence they gathered that said otherwise.

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1999

Prologue Part 2

Bleach Guns and Broken Windows

When Valentine returned to the Met organization in 1996, the franchise was in the midst of one its periodic ruts while the Yankees were on the rise. At first glance, this was unremarkable. History showed the teams tended to travel in indirectly proportional waves, one ascending and the other plummeting before each reversed course. Whichever team happened to be on top was said to own the city, while the other would have to wait for fortune to shine on them.

New York’s affection for baseball is boundless, but its allegiances are capricious. While the Mets and Yankees each have their hardcore partisans, there exist between them a softer middle ready to jump on the flashiest bandwagon in town. In another city such fair-weather fans might be dismissed. In New York, the media capital of the country, they are prized commodities. So when one team owns the city, what it truly owns is a slippery but valuable asset that translates into big bucks in box office, TV ratings, and jersey sales. It is also an asset whose fickle attentions threaten to drift elsewhere at the first sign of trouble.

For the first three decades of the teams’ coexistence, they passed this baton back and forth with clockwork regularity. When the Mets debuted in 1962, the Yankees were riding high on the mighty bats of Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, the lingering afterglow of their dynasty in the 1950s, and the dearth of competition occasioned by the Dodgers’ and Giants’ flight westward. By the mid-1960s, however, the glory days of the M&M Boys had passed, leaving a void begging to be filled. Even as the Mets continued to lose, they were more fun, more now, more in touch with the dynamic go-go New Frontier feeling of the era than the Yankees, who remained stuck in the gray Eisenhower years.

And then, to the amazement of everyone, the Mets stopped losing. First, they shocked the world by winning the World Series in 1969. Then, in 1973, they executed one of the most dramatic comebacks in baseball history, scrambling from last to first place in the season’s last month, besting the Big Red Machine in the National League playoffs before falling to the powerful Oakland A’s in the seventh game of the World Series. The Mets remained the darlings of the city through the first half of the 1970s. Over the same period, the Yankees scuffled through a series of listless seasons and never approached the drama staged by the Mets. The team’s corporate owner, CBS, was indifferent at best to the idea of fielding a competitive ballclub and made personnel decisions that alienated fans, such as the inexplicable firing of iconic broadcaster Mel Allen. Both the Mets and Yankees possessed fanbases that fled to the suburbs in droves in the 1960s and 1970s, but the Mets played in a ballpark with ample parking and easy highway access convenient to the expanding developments of Long Island. The Yankees played in the South Bronx, ground zero for white flight. Beginning in 1964, the year Shea Stadium opened, the Mets outdrew the Yankees for 11 straight seasons. The tallies were seldom close.

If the Yankees had any remaining illusions about their place in the New York sports landscape at this time, these were shattered in 1974, the year that renovations at The House That Ruth Built forced them to play home games at Shea for two full seasons. A day before their “home opener” in 1974, the Yankees betrayed their discomfort over being forced to play in Queens by warming up on a chilly infield while wearing road grays instead of their usual pinstripes. The opening day starter for the Yankees, Mel Stottlemyre, told the TV crews on hand that he felt like he’d been traded.

Then, the Mets lost their way. In 1975, the reserve clause—which had bound players to their teams in perpetuity since the earliest days of the major leagues—was struck down. The imminent arrival of free agency would render the Mets’ best players very expensive, a possibility that struck fear into the hearts of management. The Mets had once been owned by Joan Payson, an eccentric socialite who adored her team and spent lavishly on them. When she died the same year as the reserve clause did, the Mets fell into the hands of the de Roulet family, who were so parsimonious they once considered collecting foul balls and scrubbing them up for reuse, and so tone deaf to fan mood they thought parading a mule named Met-Al around Shea’s warning track would please the crowd.

On June 15, 1977, team president M. Donald Grant shipped the team’s two brightest stars, ace Tom Seaver and slugger Dave Kingman, out of Queens in a shortsighted effort to keep down payroll. Per Watergate-era nomenclature, these moves became known as the Midnight Massacre. It would doom the team to irrelevance for years to come.

Meanwhile, the Yankees took up residence in their renovated stadium and began to win like the Yanks of old. Their new owner, George Steinbrenner, embraced free agency as much as his crosstown counterparts ran from it. The Bronx Zoo Yankees captured headlines with soap opera storylines and two consecutive championships in 1977 and 1978. The teams switched places in the city’s affections almost overnight, with the Yankees drawing crowds that abandoned the hopeless Mets. Once-packed Shea Stadium turned into a ghost town. Embittered Mets fans dubbed the ballpark Grant’s Tomb.

Ill-suited for the new Big Money landscape of baseball, the de Roulets sold the Mets to a group headed by publishing heir Nelson Doubleday Jr. in 1980. One of the new owners’ first orders of business was to hire Frank Cashen as their general manager. The Baltimore native favored bow ties and spoke with a languid Chesapeake drawl, his persona more genteel Southern law professor than baseball executive. The image belied the fact that, as an executive in the Orioles’ front office, he helped construct the great Baltimore teams of the 1960s and 1970s. He pledged to bring such glory to the Mets, and within five years of the ownership change, Cashen’s build-up of a decimated farm system and savvy trades brought the Mets back to the top. They were not simply a good team but a gritty one that possessed the swagger and dirty uniforms that made sportswriters drool. After attendance barely broke 700,000 in 1981—a pitiful tally even when compensating for the players’ strike that occurred mid-summer that year—3,055,455 fans showed up at Shea in 1988, the highest gate total of any New York team ever to that point.

While the Mets swaggered their way to the top, their counterparts in the Bronx practiced subtraction by addition. Having found success in the late 1970s via big free agent signings like Reggie Jackson and Catfish Hunter, George Steinbrenner continued to press for big-ticket players each season, even as each subsequent shopping spree brought back a lower return on investment than the last. When the signings made at his behest turned out to be busts, Steinbrenner’s voice would the be first and loudest one denouncing these players as unworthy of wearing pinstripes. But rather than take any blame for any of these missteps, his energies would soon be focused on acquiring yet another pricey veteran.

The Yankees rarely had losing records in the 1980s and they had no shortage of stars, including Dave Winfield, Don Mattingly, and Rickey Henderson. But after losing the 1981 World Series to the Dodgers, they failed to make the playoffs for the remainder of the decade and could find little traction with a sports press fixated on the more exciting and successful Mets. The headlines the Yankees did garner during this time were negative and Steinbrenner-centric. His love-hate relationship with Billy Martin devolved from tragedy into farce. His revolving door manager policy was another sad joke, when it didn’t turn vicious and cruel. Yogi Berra, one of the most beloved figures ever to play the game, was unceremoniously dismissed from his managerial post a mere 16 games into the 1985 season despite repeated public assurances he’d get a fair chance to turn the team around. Wounded by the betrayal, Berra refused to return to Yankee Stadium for 14 years.

Steinbrenner griped to the press about Yankee Stadium “falling apart,” complained about the “dangerous” neighborhood in which it was located, and threatened to relocate to New Jersey, or Tampa, or whichever municipality would take him. Players chafed under The Boss’s yoke and tired of him calling them out in the press over the smallest offenses. Steinbrenner was fond of reminding the press that his team won more games than any other team had in the 1980s, a boast that most reporters denounced as little more than a participation trophy. When the Mets captured a World Series title in 1986, Steinbrenner’s howling in the wind became even easier to ignore.

That 1986 championship was assumed to be a mere precursor to a Met dynasty. After barely missing out on the playoffs in 1987, the Mets recaptured the National League East division crown in 1988 and cruised into the playoffs to face a Dodger team they’d beaten 10 out of 11 times in the regular season. Few gave Los Angeles a ghost of a chance. In a year-end special produced by WOR-9, an assemblage of Met beat writers looked past the Dodgers to a World Series matchup against the powerful Oakland A’s of Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire. Some believed the National League Championship Series might go as many as six games. None considered the possibility the Mets might lose it. The scene also included New York Post beat writer Joel Sherman saying he couldn’t wait to watch Canseco play in person because “I’m convinced he’s on steroids.” The remark was lobbed not as a dire accusation but as a joke, and his fellow scribes responded with laughter in kind.

No one in New York was laughing when Los Angeles, powered by the bat of Kirk Gibson and the arm of Orel Hershiser, defeated the Mets in seven games. The Dodgers went on to continue their Cinderella story by stunning the A’s in five games in the World Series. The Mets went on to implode.

The decline proceeded slowly at first, one small slip at a time. Staff ace Doc Gooden, once the most exciting players in the game, struggled with substance abuse and drew multiple suspensions for violating the league’s drug policy. Star slugger Darryl Strawberry feuded with management and left for Los Angeles. Frank Cashen’s magic touch eluded him as he traded away players like Kevin Mitchell, Lenny Dykstra, and Randy Myers and watched them all become superstars elsewhere. Manager Davey Johnson clashed with the front office over these unwise trades and other meddling from suits until he was canned in 1990, despite having never won fewer than 87 games in his seasons at the helm. Johnson’s replacement, Buddy Harrelson, was a beloved former Met from the team’s glory days on 1969, but he made it clear he was not made of managerial timber when he withered under criticism and literally hid from the press. Before long, Harrelson was gone as well.

Then it was the front office’s turn to implode. Assistant General Manager Joe McIlvaine had been all but promised he’d succeed Frank Cashen upon the general manager’s retirement. But as the 1980s turned to the 1990s with Cashen still at the reins, McIlvaine tired of waiting and took the GM post in San Diego after the 1990 season. The move blindsided the team and left Cashen with only one lieutenant, Al Harazin. Prior to McIlvaine’s departure, Harazin had dealt strictly with the business side of operations. He looked the part of the money man, his sensible eyeglasses and conservative suit giving off the humorless cast of a hedge fund manager. Met co-owner Fred Wilpon characterized Harazin’s depth of baseball knowledge as “dangerously shallow.” He nonetheless became Cashen’s successor by default.

What Harazin lacked in baseball acumen he hoped to make up for with spending power. In 1991, Harazin successfully lobbied Cashen to sign Vince Coleman, an All Star outfielder who’d tortured the Mets as a base-stealing machine for the Cardinals, to a four-year, $11.95 million contract. The following year, Harazin ascended to the general manager’s post and made a flurry of expensive deals, inking future Hall of Famer Eddie Murray and slugger Bobby Bonilla and trading for the hefty contract of former Cy Young Award winner Bret Saberhagen. These acquisitions made the Mets a chic pick to return to their former glory, but the 1992 season was doomed by injuries. Saberhagen was limited to 15 starts. Closer John Franco struggled all year before he was shut down at the end of August. Coleman missed more than half the season with injuries, but the Mets came to wish he’d missed even more time. When not on the disabled list, Coleman instigated a shoving match with his manager to earn himself a two-game suspension and blamed his precipitous drop in base stealing numbers on the sorry state of the Shea Stadium infield.

Bobby Bonilla stayed healthier than most but became emblematic of the problem with these new Mets. His antagonistic relationship with the media began with his first press conference upon signing with the team. Anticipating a rude welcome before he’d even donned a Met uniform, he promised the writers, “You guys won’t be able to knock the smile off my face.” He proceeded to give them every reason to try. In his first year in Flushing the outfielder batted a modest .249 with 19 home runs, far below the standard he set as a perennial All Star in his days with the Pittsburgh Pirates, and did not react well to his treatment at the hands of the local boo birds. Bonilla took to wearing earplugs on the field so he wouldn’t hear the taunts and inspired more jeers when he lobbied Shea’s official scorer to take away errors from his record. Fans expected Bonilla, who grew up in the Bronx, to be better prepared for the rigors of playing in the city. Editorial cartoonists depicted him wearing diapers.

Off the field, 1992 was tarnished by a series of sordid accusations against some of the Mets’ biggest stars. First, Coleman, Doc Gooden, and outfielder Daryl Boston were accused of raping a woman at the Mets’ spring training facilities the previous year. (Charges were dropped against all three players before Grapefruit League action ended.) Then, the tabloids had a field day with bizarre rumors that pitcher David Cone had lured women into the Shea Stadium bullpen with promises of autographed baseballs in order to masturbate in front of them. In an unrelated incident, Cone was also accused of making death threats against a group of women at Shea.

Ugly as these accusations were, the team’s reaction to them was even uglier. The Mets could have done some soul searching about their selection of personnel or attempted to discipline players for such behavior. The team instead decided the real villains were the media.

An air of paranoia began to pervade the Met clubhouse. The team believed that every person who entered with a mic in his or her hand was out to get them. In the face of such a “threat,” players and management alike decided the best defense was a good offense and attacked the press at every opportunity. Some blamed this shift in outlook on Eddie Murray, who brought a virulent hatred of the press with him from his years in Baltimore. Others thought the Mets smarted from the memory of the well-liked Buddy Harrelson being hounded out of his managerial job by a critical press that painted him as ill-suited for the pressures of the position. Still others thought the leering David Cone headlines poisoned the Mets’ feeling toward the scribes who covered them. It may have been poisoned long before by the media circuses that sprung up around Doc Gooden’s fall from grace and Darryl Strawberry’s front office feuds.

Whatever the seed, it was watered by Harrelson’s replacement, Jeff Torborg. The Mets’ new manager obsessed over how his team was perceived in the papers, to the point of calling constant team meetings on the subject, warning his players to pay the writers no mind. One player responded, “If we’re not supposed to be worried about the media, why are we having all these meetings about the media?” Torborg’s nigh-daily briefings on the press hindered everyday team operations to the point that Cone dubbed him Oliver North.

Torborg also miscalculated when he attempted to impose clean living on his players. His immediate managerial predecessors had “boys will be boys” attitudes when it came to postgame jockish misbehavior, and Davey Johnson was especially permissive of his players’ hard partying ways. Thus it came as a shock to the team when one of Torborg’s first orders of business was to ban beer drinking during team flights. It was an article of faith to these players that their 1980s glory days were powered by the carte blanche they had to engage in booze-and-coke-fueled mayhem. In retrospect, it’s obvious that the Mets’ bacchanalian ways did more to kill a dynasty than create one, but players did not see it this way at the time. Torborg’s teetotal edicts were interpreted as a conspiracy to rob them of their manly devil-may-care essence. When traded away to Toronto in 1992, David Cone sighed, “The day of the arrogant Mets is over.” As evidence, he pointed to Torborg’s goody-two-shoes beer ban, cringing at the sight of grown men sneaking sips of Budweiser on a team flight while the skipper had his back turned.

Despite the ugliness of 1992, many observers were willing to give the Mets a mulligan due to the spate of injuries they suffered that year. Surely a team with a healthy Bonilla, Saberhagen, Coleman, and Murray would compete. Pirates manager Jim Leyland picked them to win the National League East. Others weren’t so sure. Sparky Anderson of the Tigers snorted, “The Mets are a myth.”

Before too long, the Mets would wish they were a myth, but their monstrosity was all too real.

The 1993 Mets won their first two games at home against the Colorado Rockies, a freshly minted expansion team. They again won two consecutive games against the Rockies one week later, then beat the Reds in back-to-back games on April 16 and 17. They would not put together another winning streak of any kind again until the end of June. Over this stretch, they did not so much play baseball as execute daily nine-man reenactments of Faces of Death with bats and gloves. And as gruesome as what the Mets did on the field in 1993 was, it paled in comparison to what they did off of it.

A mere four games into the season, Bobby Bonilla executed his first meltdown by confronting New York Daily News beat writer Bob Klapisch, who had co-authored a book about the mess of 1992 with the provocative title The Worst Team Money Could Buy. Excerpts had appeared in the Daily News and Bonilla was not pleased with his portrayal therein. After calling Klapisch a homophobic slur, Bonilla promised the writer, “I’ll show you the Bronx,” then smacked away a microphone belonging to a camera crew capturing the whole thing on tape.

In his own defense, Bonilla later attempted to distinguish between attacking one member of the media and attacking the media at large, which only served to underscore the team’s contemptuous view of the fourth estate. “This team as a whole, we feel [Klapisch] abused his privilege, period, and that’s all we have to say,” Bonilla grumbled, quickly adding, “We’re not taking this out on everyone else in the media.” The press-phobia was displayed again on April 26 when Doc Gooden was scratched from a scheduled start. The Mets claimed the move came after the pitcher was “bumped” while in the clubhouse. This story collapsed when it was revealed the bump was caused by Vince Coleman, who was practicing his golf swing in the locker room and hit Gooden in the shoulder blade with a 9 iron. Rather than apologize for the clumsy cover-up, Al Harazin harrumphed his only mistake was “not doing a better job of keeping it out of the papers.” When reporters tried to grill Coleman in the clubhouse the next day, they were bum-rushed toward the exit by a crew of bouncers comprised of Bonilla, Eddie Murray, and John Franco.

With the season barely a month old, Sports Illustrated referred to the Mets as “battle-weary” and characterized a four-game series against the expansion Florida Marlins in the middle of May as having “the urgency of a pennant race.” The Mets proceeded to split the series and embarrass themselves in many other ways. In the second Florida game, a 4-2 loss, Coleman misplayed an easy fly ball and booted a grounder. In the same contest, Bobby Bonilla admired what he thought was a game-tying homer and jogged leisurely around the bases, only to see the ball caught at the warning track. When reprimanded by third base coach Mike Cubbage, Bonilla growled, “Don’t show me up on the field.” Bonilla carried the argument into the dugout, hurling obscenities at Cubbage the whole time. Fed-up fans took to booing Bonilla not after every strikeout, but after every swing and a miss. Some put paper bags over their heads when he strode to the plate. Others jeered a credit card commercial featuring Jeff Torborg when the team dared play it on Shea’s giant Diamond Vision video board.

By May 19, the Mets were 13-25, only one game better than the pace of the dreadful 1962 team. The big difference between the two was that the 1962 Mets were a lovable group of incompetents while the 1993 squad was a loathsome pack of overpaid malcontents. Torborg received his walking papers and was replaced by Dallas Green, whose previous managerial work with the Phillies and Yankees labeled him as a drill sergeant type who could whip the Mets back into shape. A few weeks after Torborg’s dismissal, Al Harazin was gone as well. Joe McIlvaine, who’d resigned his own post in San Diego after clashing with Padre ownership, returned to take the job that should have been his in the first place. It was already far too late for Green’s tough love to have any effect in the dugout, or for McIlvaine’s front office skills to cure a poisoned clubhouse. The moves were little more than deck chair rearrangement on the Titanic.

The Mets’ lone sliver of sympathy in 1993 was earned by Anthony Young, a star-crossed pitcher who experienced a Biblical plague of bad luck on his way to shattering the major league record for consecutive losses—27 in a row, a streak that extended back to the previous season, before a rare Met walk-off win at the end of July ended his misfortune. Young’s ignominious accomplishment brought more reporters into the clubhouse, however, the last thing his teammates wanted. On July 7, as the press huddled around the pitcher’s locker, one of Young’s teammates tossed a lit firecracker behind them. No one was hurt, but the outburst scared the hell out of the writers, who had every reason to believe this team harbored desires to harm them.

The offending pyromaniac kept his identity hidden for three weeks until Bret Saberhagen defiantly confessed to the act. “It was a practical joke,” he sneered with dismissiveness. “I wanted to get people’s attention. There are always tons of reporters here when something bad is happening. I don’t like a lot of them.” When asked if he’d been disciplined by the team, Saberhagen all but laughed in his questioner’s face. “What are they going to do, fine me?” It was as if the Mets were an unruly class that delighted in torturing a series of overmatched substitute teachers.

A few weeks later, Saberhagen executed an encore by spraying reporters with bleach from a squirt gun. This time, the pitcher’s confession was apologetic and accommodating, as he told the press he’d doused them with bleach “accidentally” and swore he had no intention of hurting anyone. The shift in tone was due to another horrible incident that had happened in the interim, one that turned the Mets’ season from an ugly farce to a detestable one.

On July 24, after a game at Dodger Stadium, Vince Coleman rebuffed a crowd of autograph seekers, and joined Los Angles outfielder Eric Davis in the slugger’s Jeep Cherokee. The two of them planned to attend a barbecue at the Dodger’s house later that evening. While sitting in the Jeep, Coleman tossed some kind of explosive in the general direction of a group of fans standing nearby. This was no mere Saberhagen firecracker. The Los Angeles District Attorney’s office later compared it to “a quarter-stick of dynamite.” The ensuing explosion injured three people, including a two-year-old girl who suffered corneal lacerations.

Despite the fact that Coleman had maimed a toddler, no one but the victims and the LAPD took the attack seriously at first—least of all Coleman, who shooed reporters away from his locker the next day with a profanity-filled rant. The Mets waited 72 hours before issuing an official response in which they labeled Coleman’s acts as “regrettable and reprehensible” but also made sure to classify them, with an implied shrug of the shoulders, as “off-field activities.” An untested Bud Selig—still early enough in his tenure as baseball’s commissioner that he was labeled “de facto commissioner” by Sports Illustrated—waited five days before issuing a tepid statement about “reported incidents involving New York Mets players.”

Not even Dallas Green, reputed bad cop, brought the hammer down on his outfielder until he had no choice. The manager inserted Coleman into his lineup for three straight games following the incident at Chavez Ravine before public outcry forced a benching. Even then, Green painted Coleman as the true victim and blamed the press for blowing the whole affair out of proportion. “I made the decision based on your activities,” he said, wagging his finger at reporters. “It’s difficult for any athlete to go through something like this and perform up to his capabilities.” A more rational mind might have conceded it was even more difficult for a two-year-old girl to suffer corneal lacerations, but Green had acquired the Mets’ hatred of the media by osmosis.

Coleman himself conveyed no remorse until faced with felony charges carrying a prison sentence of up to three years. He then called a press conference to beg forgiveness, his wife and kids in tow for maximum effect. He volunteered to clean up after recent fires in Malibu as a show of community service and made sure to be photographed barbecuing for local firemen. His eventual punishment would be a one-year suspended sentence plus a civil suit settled for an undisclosed amount.

These baby steps toward good citizenship were insufficient for one half of ownership. New York real estate mogul Fred Wilpon had been a tiny portion of the partnership that purchased the Mets from the de Roulet family in 1980. Over the following decade, Wilpon angled his way into 50/50 control of the team with Nelson Doubleday, but for most of that time he maintained a low public profile. Compared to his counterpart in the Bronx, he was almost invisible. The Coleman incident changed all that. On August 24, Fred Wilpon called his first ever team meeting and chewed out his employees, saying they had embarrassed the Mets and their city. “You should feel privileged to be able to play baseball in New York,” he told them. “If you don’t feel that way and you want out, let us know. We’ll get you the hell out of here.”

Wilpon then scheduled a press conference to inform the gathered media that the pyromaniac outfielder would never play for the Mets again. It didn’t matter Coleman was owed $3 million the next year. It also didn’t matter Wilpon neglected to discuss this with anyone in his front office beforehand. “I reached a point where I had to say enough is enough,” Wilpon said.

The 1993 season would prove a watershed moment for New York baseball. It marked the moment when the Mets transformed from a gritty, gutsy group of scrappers into one of the most unlikable teams in any sport. They quite literally became a punch line, invoked by hack comedians in the same breath as Amy Fisher or Pee-Wee Herman. Comparing them to another walking embarrassment of the era, Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated declared the Mets “baseball’s Buttafuoco’s.” David Letterman, who’d recently switched over to CBS to pit his New York-based Late Show against NBC’s The Tonight Show, was particularly fond of raking the Mets across the coals in his nightly monologues. Once beloved by their own fans and reviled by others, the Mets had become a joke to everyone.

The Mets had picked a terrible time to be terrible. While they were stumbling, the Yankees began their slow climb back to the top, thanks in large part to the most humiliating Steinbrenner blowup of all. In the late 1980s, The Boss suspected a charity led by star slugger Dave Winfield was a scam and resented the clauses in Winfield’s that obligated Steinbrenner to contribute to it. Another executive with similar suspicions might have tipped off the IRS, or hired a private detective to do some snooping. Steinbrenner paid $40,000 to man named Howie Spira who claimed he worked for Winfield and could dig up some dirt on the player’s charity and the man himself.

Unfortunately for Steinbrenner, he had thrown in his lot with a man who was not only up to his neck with gambling debts, but also a one-time FBI informant. Spira aggressively shopped his story of doing freelance detective work for Steinbrenner to the feds, all while recording all of his phone calls with the Yankee owner for self protection. The last straw came when Spira called up The Boss and demanded an additional $110,000 to prevent his tapes from finding their way to the newspapers. Steinbrenner went to the police to complain of the extortion. In the process, the public soon learned that Steinbrenner had employed a man who owed tons of money to professional thumb-breakers, just to unearth damaging information about Dave Winfield. Even in the sordid annals of Steinbrennerian history, this stood out as a low point.

Once the commissioner’s office completed its investigation, Steinbrenner received a “lifetime ban” from the game in 1990. His meddling had become so reviled that when news of his ban was broadcast over the Yankee Stadium PA system during a game, the fans in attendance responded with a standing ovation.

To all the world, this looked like the Yankees’ darkest hour. In truth, it turned out to be the seed of a new dynasty. Steinbrenner’s enforced absence allowed the Yankee front office one brief, blessed respite in which to operate unhindered. General Manager Gene Michael was able to retain talent in the team’s farm system rather than trading it away for overpriced veterans, and to supplement emerging prospects with judicious free agent signings—two things The Boss’s incessant interference never allowed. Homegrown stars like Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, and Andy Pettitte blossomed alongside the imported bats of Paul O’Neill, Tino Martinez, and Wade Boggs.

The Yankees began to win again. In 1993, they passed the Mets in attendance for the first time in over a decade. They would not relinquish that crown for the rest of the 1990s. In 1990, a New York Times/WCBS-TV poll showed that almost three times as many New Yorkers professed to be Mets fans than those who said they rooted for the Yankees. Most respondents named George Steinbrenner as their primary reason for this preference. “I always enjoyed the Yankees, but George turned me off,” said one, who saw the Mets as “a quieter, more classy team.” Three years later, the Mets were no longer quiet nor classy, and another New York Times/CBS poll showed the Yankees held the edge, claiming 6 percent more fans among respondents than the Mets.

The gap between the number of professed fans for each time only widened in the years that followed as the Yankees dominated the baseball world. They showed pluck by battling back in the 1996 World Series, capturing the title after being down two games to none against the powerful pitching staff of the Atlanta Braves. Then they loaded up on even more free agents, created a super-team, and decimated all competition in a season for the ages in 1998. By this point, there was no question which was the top team in town. The only debate concerned how far the Yankees towered above the competition, or if the other team in town offered them any competition at all.

The New Sheriff

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One team was up and the other was down. This was far from a new phenomenon, historically speaking, and yet, the reversal of fortunes that began in the early 1990s was different. It wasn’t the mere fact that the Yankees were winning and the Mets weren’t. It wasn’t the mere fact that the Yankees had marquee players and the Mets did not. What was truly different this time around was the city itself. New York had gone through such a radical transformation that it threatened to make the fluid relationship between the two teams settle into a bitter permanence.

In 1993, the same year the Mets were throwing explosives and the Yankees were initiating their return to respectability, Rudolph Giuliani was elected mayor. The Flatbush native was once as liberal as any child of the 1960s; as a young assistant district attorney, his first big case involved throwing the book at crooked cops. Then federal appointments during the Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan administrations, coupled with New York’s ugly descent into rampant crime and near bankruptcy, sped his transition from bleeding-heart lefty into law-and-order conservative. As a federal prosecutor during New York’s terrible 1980s, he rose to fame by battling mobsters and Wall Street’s inside traders with the same level of pit bull tenacity. His most notable innovation as United States attorney for Manhattan was his pointed use of the “perp walk”—the attention-grabbing act of marching a suspect into custody in front of a tipped-off press corps, which simultaneously humiliated the alleged evildoer and gave the prosecutor an air of machismo. The perp walk had been employed against Mafiosi for years. Giuliani’s innovation was to use it as a measure of populist revenge against the miscreants of Wall Street, shaming inside traders like Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky.

When Rudy Giuliani first campaigned for the mayorship in 1989, he rested his hopes on a platform to restore “quality of life.” Though the city was in rough shape at that moment, voters were not quite ready for Giuliani’s message. The political novice lost a hotly contested mayoral race against David Dinkins, an African-American Democrat who hoped to be a balm for simmering racial tensions in the outer boroughs. Four years under Dinkins brought little relief to crime and even more racial unrest, however. When the incumbent mayor and the prosecutor locked horns again in 1993, Giuliani squeaked out a narrow victory.

Rudy Giuliani embraced the “broken windows” theory of policing, which posited that allowing a few broken windows to go unrepaired encouraged worse lawbreaking. “Broken windows” urged an aggressive pursuit of small violations in order to create an environment in which committing any crime would be more difficult. It emphasized a shift away from crime fighting—catching criminals who’d already broken the law—to the old fashioned idea of ensuring laws weren’t broken in the first place.

The broken windows approach cleared the streets of the inconveniences New Yorkers had come to accept as part of life in a city gone to seed. Gone were the squeegee men who hassled drivers trapped in traffic, the open-air drug markets and homeless encampments in public parks, the subway cars covered from wheel to roof in indecipherable graffiti. Rather than issue tickets to cars whose owners refused to move them for street cleaning, Giuliani spearheaded the ultra-punitive measure of papering their windows with unremovable stickers plastered with the accusation THIS VEHICLE VIOLATES NYC PARKING REGULATIONS. Rather than tolerate noisy dance clubs whose patrons spilled into the street, Giuliani charged the police to enforce ancient cabaret laws, hounding the parties out of business. He dismantled the city’s vast social safety net, which he saw as a bloated fountain of fraud, and replaced it with a system that required fingerprinting, background checks, and “workfare” for benefit recipients to earn their keep (mirroring similar initiatives being enacted on the federal level by the new presidential administration of Bill Clinton). Picking up where he left off as a federal prosecutor, Giuliani flushed the mob out of the Fulton Fish Market and private sanitation. That the laws being broken in these instances were minor in the grand scheme of things was exactly the point. Let no one think they can get away with anything in this town anymore was Giuliani’s unspoken edict.

The amount of credit one gave Giuliani for improving New York City’s fortunes tended to correlate to whether one had voted for him or not. If you hadn’t, you might have insisted that the city’s increased safety coincided with a nationwide drop in crime, and that serious crime had already begun to decline measurably in the latter years of the Dinkins administration. (Both contentions were statistically provable, though in New York’s most troubled neighborhoods conditions had ebbed only from utter horror to mere nightmare). Many of Giuliani’s critics declared the methods employed by the NYPD to clear the streets of squeegee men and small-time drug dealers—stop-and-frisk, ticketing, instructions to move along under threat of arrest—were also used to harass minorities for the “crime” of walking city streets. The city’s black community in particular viewed his accomplishments skeptically, feeling that strong-arm police tactics were employed harshest of all in their neighborhoods, that his slashing of the city’s welfare system was aimed squarely at them, that he considered their existence in New York to be a criminal act.

If you had voted for the mayor, however, you saw a city that was safer and cleaner than it had been in decades. You told yourself that the ends were more than justified by the means, that the suppression of certain civil liberties was a small price to pay to walk the streets at night safely. Under Giuliani’s watch, the city’s crime rate dropped precipitously, year after year. The numbers of serious crimes—especially murder—fell off a cliff. Giuliani had done exactly what he promised he would, improve the city’s quality of life, and he had done it with an efficiency that was stunning to behold. In short, Rudy Giuliani’s way worked. Quibbles with the harshness of some of his methods could seem pointless, if not dangerous.

For the first time in decades, New York was deemed safe. Tourists returned in droves. Developers gobbled up newly valuable real estate, nowhere more dramatically than Times Square, a once seedy outpost of peep shows and porno theaters reborn as a family-friendly center for tourist attractions and corporate headquarters. Tenement-jammed enclaves like the Lower East Side, the East Village, and Hell’s Kitchen sprouted glittering high-rises and became high-rent districts almost overnight.

The transformations did not stop at the bridges and tunnels. For the first time ever, outer borough living became fashionable. In the 1980s, the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn had been wracked by the same crime and race riots that plagued the rest of the borough. Two years into the Giuliani administration, the Times could tout the same neighborhood as “a new Bohemia” where all the great artists’ lofts had already been snatched up and a two-family home cost the princely sum of $175,000.

To the world beyond New York, Rudy Giuliani was seen as the man who brought America’s largest city back from its darkest hours. He became an ambassador for New York, a living symbol of its rebirth. And when America saw Giuliani outside of City Hall, the place they most often saw him was Yankee Stadium, watching his beloved Bronx Bombers lay waste to yet another inferior opponent. When the victorious Yankees hoisted World Series trophies over their heads, Rudy was right beside them in the champagne-soaked clubhouse, wearing his lucky team jacket, celebrating as if he too were a member of the team that won it all.

These Yankees bore no resemblance to the Bronx Zoo clubs of the 1970s, who won despite the oil-and-water mix of strong personalities like Reggie Jackson and Billy Martin. These Yankees were a well-oiled machine that brooked no deviation from the championship plan. These Yankees did nothing but win, decisively and methodically. When they won it all at season’s end, they paused for only one brief moment to pop bubbly before resuming preparations to win again the next year. Even George Steinbrenner reined in his worst impulses and operated more like a button-down CEO than a tyrannical dictator. Spooked by his ban from the game, The Boss kept his public blowups and ambush firings to a bare minimum after he was reinstated by Major League Baseball in 1993. Now when Steinbrenner mouthed off to the press, it was understood the old man was only blowing off steam. Reporters expected him to mouth off once in a while, and even to make a few rash personnel moves. They did not expect him to cause the chaos he once did, because no one, not even George Steinbrenner, could be allowed to derail the Yankees of the 1990s. The stakes were too high, the money involved too astronomical.

The Yankees had been a business-first operation going back to the days when Colonel Jacob Ruppert first made them a powerhouse by snatching Babe Ruth from the Boston Red Sox. But there was something very New-York-in-the-1990s about how they operated in the last decade of the 20th century. New York’s recovery was powered, in part, by its ability to promote itself as a destination, as a brand, to be featured as the backdrop of hit shows like Seinfeld and Friends, to push its tough but grinning mayor on any talk show that would have him. Most baseball teams did not yet think of themselves in terms of branding, but the Yankees did. They beat the rest of the league in understanding free agency and they beat the rest of the league at this game, too. The Yankees no longer aimed to win between the lines alone. They sought to best the competition in ways never thought of before, to win “games” other teams didn’t even know were being played.

When it came to this new means of “winning,” there was no better example than the merchandising deal the Yankees inked in 1997. The resolution of the players’ strike of 1994 brought with it a properties agreement, under which any revenues garnered from the sale of team merchandise would be shared equally among the teams. For small market franchises that could never hope to earn huge sums of money from merchandise sales, this new revenue stream held out a small sliver of hope they might be able to compete against the big boys. This hope was contingent on those big boys allowing the agreement to go forward, however, and the biggest boy of all wasn’t about to let that happen.

In November of 1996, MLB rejected a joint merchandising deal with Nike and Reebok that would have netted each club between $50,000 and $100,000. Steinbrenner pushed aggressively for rejection, as he complained the amount was far too low. Four months later The Boss shocked baseball by brokering his own exclusive ten-year merchandising pact with Adidas for close to $100 million. This ensured the Yankees would net more from the sale of team gear alone than most other teams garnered from their broadcast rights, and they wouldn’t have to share one red cent with their fellow franchises.

Through carefully executed legal jujitsu, the Yankees argued the Adidas deal didn’t violate the strict letter of the properties agreement. Commissioner Bud Selig, himself a former owner, had championed Steinbrenner’s reinstatement to the game. The Yankees’ marketing deal left Selig feeling betrayed. But when he demanded the Yankees cancel their pact with Adidas, Steinbrenner responded by suing his fellow owners. In the political parlance of the day, he accused them of being “welfare queens” who refused to pull themselves up from their bootstraps, parasites who leeched off of his success rather than put in a hard day’s work. In his view, if the Yankees sold boatloads more jerseys and caps than everyone else, that was not an accident of geography or a reflection of a power imbalance, but a sign of his own stellar business acumen. Therefore, he and his team deserved to reap those rewards accordingly. The Yankees spent a lot of money to market themselves and he’d be damned if he’d see the value of his investment depressed by less industrious teams in Montréal and Kansas City. For good measure, Steinbrenner pointed to the Brewers—the team Bud Selig once owned—as one of the league’s more pronounced failures. The Brewers had logged only two lousy postseason appearances since Selig moved the franchise to Milwaukee in 1970. Selig therefore could not possibly comprehend the price of greatness as much as Steinbrenner did.

The commissioner fumed in private and lobbed a few symbolic sanctions at the Yankees and their owner. Then he negotiated a settlement that gave Steinbrenner exactly what he wanted. Thus was a small measure to level the playing field between the game’s haves and have-nots rendered toothless.

Incidents like these allowed The Boss to believe it wasn’t the Yankees’ overwhelming financial resources that led to the team’s success, but his toughness and brainpower. Members of the New York press varied in their level of criticism of Steinbrenner. Some gave The Boss credit when the Yankees began to win again, while others would never forgive him for being the myopic meddler who brought the team to its knees in the 1980s. When it came to the issue of whether Steinbrenner had the right to make the Adidas deal, however, nearly all the local scribes agreed that he did. The idea that money alone could lead the Yankees to conquering baseball and the city was too gauche for them to entertain. They preferred to believe grit and smarts held the day.

When a pair of Yankee coaches were interviewed for a managerial vacancy at another squad (Selig’s Brewers, of all teams), Kevin Kernan of the Post expressed a tenet held by all his fellow New York scribes when he asserted any team would be nuts to not hire these men. Why? Yankee pedigree put these coaches a step above the competition because the Yankees would never hire anyone but the best and the brightest. “A lot has been made of the big market-small market infrastructure of baseball,” Kernan wrote, “but the reality of the situation is that it is big brains vs. small brains that separates the winners from losers.” This was a debatable thesis, but no one in New York’s sports press dared debate it.

Likewise, the city’s “comeback” was also subject to debate, though few were willing to do so. The new New York was great if you were a tourist or a developer or had money to burn on a luxury apartment. It could feel less great if you’d remained in the city through the bad years, either due to regional chauvinism or a dearth of other options, only to face skyrocketing rents and a police force that seemed more determined to occupy your neighborhood than protect it. While the city’s minority communities felt they were targeted by the aggressive policing, Mayor Giuliani defended the NYPD’s actions unequivocally and showed little empathy for those who might serve as collateral damage in their quest to clean up the city. His personal dictionary defined freedom as “the willingness of every single human being to cede to lawful authority a great deal of discretion about what you do and how you do it.”

New York and its Yankees had risen from the ashes. To question how either had done so was to question excellence itself. It implied you believed things were better the way they used to be, that you might even want to return to those awful days. To root for the Mets now carried a similar implication that you might pine for the stabby coke-dusted New York that tolerated drug abuse and sexual assault and firecrackers and bleach squirtings because it dared not dream things could be any better.

The Future in Queens

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For much of the 1990s, the Mets seemed to have no entryway into this new world. The man who thought otherwise, who believed a path could be found and that he could chart it, was Fred Wilpon. The press conference during which Wilpon “fired” Vince Coleman was more than a wake-up call to his players. It was a wake-up call to himself and to the world. It was the first public sign he would run the Mets’ show from this point forward.

Both Fred Wilpon and his co-owner Nelson Doubleday were dedicated National League baseball fans devastated by the Giants’ and Dodgers’ move west in 1958, but the two men had little else in common. Doubleday was born into wealth and inherited a fortune from his family’s namesake publishing house. He was the great-grandnephew of Abner Doubleday, the Civil War hero who was dubbed the inventor of baseball by later mythmakers. His approach to team ownership fit his background: Assemble a solid portfolio and let your assets do the work. Frank Cashen assembled a championship team with almost no interference from Doubleday, who had almost no interest in the dirty business of that assembling. He bore a vague resemblance former New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, with his distinguished silver hair and his respectable yachtsman’s tan betraying his background as a well-off man of leisure.

Fred Wilpon came from a very different world. He grew up as the son of a funeral director in Bensonhurst and mined his own fortune in the cutthroat world of real estate. Wilpon played baseball at Lafayette High School alongside a lanky lefty named Sandy Koufax and fancied himself an authority on the game. He was known to smile on occasion but favored grimaces instead, his face always betraying the striver’s fear of being outhustled.

When Wilpon bought into the Mets in 1980, he owned a mere five percent of the team. He had his eyes on much more, however, and quickly found the means to get it. In 1986, Nelson Doubleday sold the publishing house that bore his name to the German conglomerate Bertelsmann. The publishing house technically owned the Mets but Doubleday intended to retain ownership of the team and saw no barriers to doing so until he was alerted to a contractual technicality: Wilpon possessed first right of refusal in any sale of the team. This revelation left Doubleday gobsmacked, since he had no knowledge of when or how Wilpon had obtained such a right. With this legal ammunition in his arsenal, Wilpon could make the resale process difficult and protracted for all parties involved. Outsmarted, Doubleday was forced to come to a settlement whereby he and Wilpon would purchase the Mets from Bertelsmann for $81 million. They would be equal partners, and barely on speaking terms, from that day forward.

Doubleday’s position was further weakened after he picked the wrong side in MLB’s power struggle. Commissioner Fay Vincent rubbed many owners the wrong way with his intervention during a players’ lockout in 1990, his suspension of Steinbrenner, and his public accusations that the game’s owners were colluding to artificially suppress salaries (accusations that would later prove true). Fred Wilpon backed the scheme to oust Vincent with a vote of no confidence, a coup led by fellow owner Bud Selig. Nelson Doubleday threw his lot in with Vincent’s lost cause. Once Selig rose to power, Doubleday was pushed even further to the margins.

Around the same as the infamous shape-up-or-ship-out presser, Wilpon felt confident enough to reveal his grand vision for the Mets to Sports Illustrated. He wanted of subjecting Shea Stadium’s employees to the same rigorous hospitality training as Disney World employees, the gold standard of customer service. He dreamed of replacing Shea with a state of the art facility and had commissioned a model of a sprawling entertainment complex with a gleaming retractable dome stadium, surrounded by pavilions housing a permanent world’s fair.

Wilpon held onto an article of faith that he shared with his team’s fans: The Yankees had not taken the city for good. The new facility plans were an expression of that faith, spelling out his own vision for a new New York. It harkened back to the long gone days of 1964, when the world came to Flushing, when Queens was a place where you could dream of the future, when Shea was a crown jewel, when the Mets were kings.

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1999

Prologue Part 1

The Rise and Rise of Mr. Baseball

I just ended Mr. Baseball’s career.

The boy was roughhousing with his friends, as boys do, and it was all fun and games until he landed a shot to his friend’s eye. The boy’s heart sank because his friend wasn’t just any teenager. His friend was Bobby Valentine. In Stamford, Connecticut, Bobby Valentine was everything.

In the 1960s, Stamford was beginning its transition from a working class burg of factories and docks into a gentrified bedroom community of glittering corporate outposts. The industrial waterfront would soon be replaced by a series of glass towers, each new one a carbon copy of the last. Those who remembered Stamford’s lunchpail past could feel there was no room for them in this new version of their hometown. They didn’t have much to hold onto except for Bobby Valentine, world-class competitor.

Valentine’s skill as a running back garnered comparisons to O.J. Simpson from the man who’d coached Simpson at USC. He was so good at basketball that for years after he’d left, local coaches could chide a showboating youngster by yelling, Who do you think you are, Bobby Valentine? He excelled at more esoteric endeavors too, winning pancake eating contests and ballroom dancing competitions with equal gusto. (One day, the men paid to cover his teams would have a field day with these little biographic details.) If an event ended with crowning a winner, Bobby Valentine would find some way to be that winner.

While Valentine loved to win at anything, baseball was his one true love. The lights outside his house were covered in baseball-shaped globes, lovingly painted by a carpenter father who shared Stamford’s belief that Bobby Valentine could do no wrong. He was son to them all, a local treasure to be cherished and protected. That’s why, when a boy landed an accidental elbow to Bobby Valentine’s eye, his first fear was not that his friend would hit him back, but that he’d destroyed the hope of an entire city.

Of course, Bobby Valentine shrugged off this blow. Nothing could stop Bobby Valentine. If your entire hometown called you Mr. Baseball before you could vote or buy a beer or join the army, you would believe you were bulletproof, too. The problems would only come when you left that town and entered a world that didn’t see you glowing with the same angelic light. That world might never make any sense to you at all. You might never make any sense to that world.

Hitting A Wall

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Bobby Valentine became the Los Angeles Dodgers’ first-round draft choice in 1968. His athletic range was matched only by his relentless enthusiasm and his inability to dial down a high-octane personality. His rookie league manager, a baseball lifer named Tommy Lasorda who would become a mentor and tireless defender of his former charge, described him as “insufferable, but in a good way.” The young man had the talent and character to be a team captain one day, said Al Campanis, the Dodgers general manager who had discovered Sandy Koufax. Valentine hit his way through the Dodger organization with breakneck speed, the only speed he knew, inspiring the big league club to call him up during the 1969 season.

Then Valentine was forced to slow down for the first time in his life by Walter Alston, human speed bump. Alston had managed the Dodgers since they called Flatbush home and had no patience for the impatient likes of Bobby Valentine. Each year, Alston was offered a one-year contract by the Dodgers’ parsimonious owner, Walter O’Malley. Each year, Alston accepted the contract with Spartan stoicism. If the manager could be made to wait in this humiliating manner, so could a brash youngster. Alston used Valentine all over the field, treating him more as a utility player than a budding star. A wiser person might have shown deference to the old man. Mr. Baseball openly lobbied for Tommy Lasorda to take Alston’s place.

A wiser person also wouldn’t have risked his career by dabbling in intramural football in the offseason. Valentine did, and the knee injury he sustained while engaged in this risky hobby following the 1971 season limited his range at shortstop the subsequent year. He spent some time in the outfield in 1972 and batted a respectable .274 in 112 games, but the Dodgers had not chosen him as their first-round pick hoping for mere respectability. Continued clashes with Alston all but forced the Dodgers to trade him to the Angels at year’s end.

On May 17, 1973, while patrolling center field at Anaheim Stadium, Valentine pursued a long fly—at full speed, naturally. As the ball sailed over the fence, he crashed into it and caught his spikes in a chain link fence. The speed of the pursuit, combined with the unfortunate placement of his cleats, snapped his right leg in two places. He looked up after his crash to see bone poking through the skin.

This compound fracture would have been a brutal injury from which to recover even if correctly treated, and his was not. Valentine’s break was set improperly, causing his right leg to heal slightly shorter than the left, the source of chronic back pain forever after. His legs had once powered him to break state rushing records. Now they were unsure of themselves. He rushed to work his way back to the field but those ungainly legs betrayed him. A gear was missing in this new body of his. He would hit what should have been a sure single and get thrown out after he tripped on his way to first base.

Valentine’s days as an everyday major league player were over, though he scraped by for another six seasons as a utility man through sheer guile. He came to New York midsummer of 1977, part of the package that sent slugger Dave Kingman from Gotham to San Diego at the trade deadline. By this point, Valentine’s stock had dropped so much that his appearance on the Met roster drew little notice. It didn’t help that his arrival coincided with the soul-crushing trade of Tom Seaver to Cincinnati.

For a season and a half in New York, Valentine performed ably enough and was assured by his manager during spring training of 1979 that he would make the opening day roster. Then, with a week left in Florida, the team released him. The same manager who’d assured him a roster spot now said the Mets couldn’t keep him on the team at the expense of younger players with more potential. He also told him that the Mets—the go-nowhere Mets of 1979, who would be all but mathematically eliminated the moment they took the field in April—couldn’t take a chance on his inferior defense at second base. He’d heard none of these discouraging words before.

Incensed, Valentine called a press conference to protest such unfair treatment. Being released so close to the end of the spring training meant it would be almost impossible to catch on with any other team. No professional courtesy, Valentine wailed. The man who delivered the bad news did his best to be civil, but the truth was the truth. The skipper had to make some tough decisions that spring, such as cutting Met-in-perpetuity Ed Kranepool. It wasn’t personal, the skipper insisted, a fact that was of little comfort to Valentine. Once assured a roster spot and steady paycheck, all Valentine had left was a shrug of the shoulders and best wishes from his now-former manager, Joe Torre.

Valentine muddled through 62 more games with the Seattle Mariners before hanging up his spikes at the ripe old age of 29. Then he returned to Stamford to open a sports bar that bore his name. He would have been wise to situate his watering hole north of the noisy, smog-choked corridor of I-95, close to the pied à terres for the Wall Street crowd. Instead, Valentine opened his bar south of the interstate, where the town remained a little grungy and his name could bring in crowds for weekday lunches and weekend games. On that side of town, crowds would greet him as Mr. Baseball, forever and ever.

On the walls of his bar Valentine hung his prized collection of baseball memorabilia. Pictures of Willie, Mickey, and the Duke, autographed game-worn jerseys, bats in glass sarcophagi. Alongside them he hung pictures of the horror of that night in Anaheim strobed one frame at a time. You see him approaching the wall, getting closer with each blink. You can tell he won’t be able to stop himself. His momentum is too great. A terrible finish is in store. And then you see it. You see Mr. Baseball sprawled out on the turf in agony, his leg shattered, his old life already over.

Interpretations

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A year as a saloon keeper was enough to convince Bobby Valentine he was not done with baseball. Desperate for any path back into the sport, he accepted a minor league instructional assignment with the Mets in 1981 and once again worked his way to the major leagues with brutal efficiency. Valentine was added to the big league club’s coaching staff for the 1983 season, alongside players he’d worked with down on the farm who were beginning to resurrect the Mets from the status of perennial punching bag.

In 1985, Tom Grieve, the Texas Rangers’ general manager and a former teammate, tapped Valentine to be his team’s new skipper. Under Valentine’s stewardship the moribund franchise experienced a rare brush with contention, finishing second in the American League West in 1986, the team’s best showing ever. But no matter where the Rangers were in the standings in any given season, the spotlight would always focus on Valentine. Exactly how Valentine wanted it, said his detractors, a vocal and growing group.

Valentine refused to keep still in the dugout, shifting from one bad leg to the other, pacing, shaking his head, throwing up his hands. He even bit his nails with theatrical flourish. He would often position himself on the dugout railing and stay there for innings on end to berate opponents and umpires, thus earning himself the unflattering nickname Top Step. He once screamed at Royals pitcher Joe Beckwith so mercilessly that the unnerved righty lobbed several wild pitches. Beckwith’s skipper, Dick Howser, was a patient soul who once weathered an entire season as Yankee manager under withering public criticism from George Steinbrenner without ever uttering a peep in protest, but Valentine’s antics tested even his resolve. The man who’d shown the forbearance of Job in the Bronx gave his pitchers leave to throw at Valentine’s head.

Bobby Valentine was more popular with his own team, but not by much. The Rangers’ ace Kevin Brown grumbled that when Valentine’s players went through slumps the manager shut them out, fearing their woeful performances could infect others. He could have benefited from some friends in the press but showed zero ability to cultivate such alliances and even less interest. Simple queries from the beat writers provoked answers that ranged from dismissive to combative, delivered in a voice that came from the back of the throat, guttural, mocking.

Such sins could have been excused if Valentine’s teams succeeded on the field, but the Rangers’ runner-up finish in 1986 proved his high watermark in Texas. These Rangers had no shortage of talent with players such as Brown, slugger Juan Gonzalez, catcher Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez, and the ageless Nolan Ryan. That such pieces failed to gel into a winning combination was deemed the manager’s fault, and he’d accrued precious few allies who would argue otherwise on his behalf. Valentine got the axe in July 1992 with the bad news delivered at a dour press conference led by Rangers team president George W. Bush.

Valentine returned to the Met organization to manage their triple-A affiliate before he received an offer befitting his restless spirit and boundless ego: Become the first manager recruited directly from America to lead a team in the Japanese major leagues (Nippon Professional Baseball, or NPB). NPB had employed a handful of American-born managers in its history but most of these had transitioned from playing in the league. None had lasted long in their posts. The offer came from the Chiba Lotte Marines, a down-on-its-luck franchise willing to try anything to win or at least gain some attention. Compared to its American counterpart, NPB had very strict notions when it came to training and decorum, areas not thought to be Valentine’s strong suits. The cultural differences and the Marines’ lowly status would have dissuaded most other men. Valentine jumped at the challenge, signing up as the Marines’ manager for the 1995 season.

That challenge came at an unhappy time for Japan. In 1995 the nation was sucker punched by a devastating earthquake in Kobe and deadly sarin attacks in the Tokyo subway system, all while the economy remained in the doldrums that had prevailed since the beginning of the decade. Looking for any ray of sunshine, Japan fixated on Hideo Nomo and his historic stateside “rookie” campaign. After chafing under NPB’s restrictive contracts and rigorous training demands, the star pitcher for the Kinetsu Buffaloes “retired” from the league so he could sign with the Dodgers, making him the first Japanese-born to play in the American major leagues in almost 30 years. Compared to most major league pitchers, Nomo’s delivery to the plate was slow and halting, as he pivoted until his back was to the batter before completing his windup. This pitching style was fairly common in Japan, but American hitters had rarely seen the likes of it before. Nomo’s delivery baffled hitters and made him an immediate sensation on both sides of the Pacific. His American success became a source of great pride to a baseball-obsessed nation starved for any bit of good news, his every start documented religiously by the Japanese media.

As exciting as all this was to the average Japanese citizen, this turn of events terrified the Japanese baseball establishment. Nomo had figured out a way to beat the system and somehow became an even bigger star in his native land by doing so. Even worse, Nomo-Mania inspired more than a few MLB teams to ship scouts overseas in hopes of finding the next Japanese superstar. Though Valentine was new to Japanese baseball himself, he became the go-to quote for American reporters and scouts hoping to make sense of it all. “The top 20 pitchers here are all major league standard or above,” Valentine told the New York Times. While he cautioned Japanese hitters would need some time to acquire the power expected from the typical MLB player, he also believed a young outfielder named Ichiro Suzuki might be able to make the leap to America. He made these bold pronouncements when he had been on the job all of three months.

This assumption of expertise by the newcomer grated on his new bosses. The team officials who’d sought out Valentine developed a case of buyer’s remorse and set about undermining their new manager at every turn. During spring training Valentine relied on his interpreter and head coach to tutor him on NPB’s players and the league’s folkways. Both men were dismissed by management three games into the regular season with little explanation. Marines General Manager Tatsuro Hirooka ordered Valentine to read up on “the book” of NPB players and their stats. Said book was only available in Japanese, a language Valentine could not yet speak or read fluently. Hirooka told his manager to study harder. Valentine was promised the autonomy to both make roster moves and fire coaches but soon found he lacked any such power. He was given a verbal contract for three years, then handed a paper contract for two.

Valentine being Valentine, he saw this treatment not as a reason to show more deference but to exercise more defiance. Tradition in Japanese baseball subjects its players to arduous practice schedules, but Valentine challenged these ideas by cutting down on rigorous individual drills, emphasizing team fielding and batting practice instead. Lack of discipline was blamed when the Marines struggled well into the season, but once the team began to win, fans became energized for the first time in ages. Valentine piloted the Marines to a second-place finish and their best record in 11 years. In the process, he transformed himself from an outsider into a fan favorite.

And yet, rumors of Valentine’s imminent dismissal swirled as soon as the season ended. The official line from the Marines’ front office pointed to irreconcilable differences on the subject of training. Hirooka contended the Marines finished second despite Valentine, not because of him, while an assistant general manager said Valentine “was judged deficient in baseball ability.” Grateful for what Valentine had done for the team, fans gathered 24,000 signatures for a petition demanding his return. He was fired anyway.

Valentine returned to the Mets’ minor league system for a third time, convinced this was a temporary setback. As far as he could see, he was still Mr. Baseball. It was only a matter of time before the Mets would see it that way too.

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