Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Lost Classics: April 1, 1996

With Opening Day coming this Sunday evening, I thought it time to take another ride through the Annals of Mets History, to look at an Opening Day game from a time when optimism was abound for all Mets fans.

It is Opening Day, April 1, 1996. Following several years of non-competitiveness, the Mets are primed and ready to roll. The following season saw the arrival of a pair of pitchers who were going to set New York, and all of Baseball, on its ears.

Bill Pulsipher and Jason Isringhausen were the two stud pitchers who rocketed through the Mets minor league system, dominating hitters and creating excitement. A pair of charismatic personalities, they were expected to lead the Mets back to prominence. A third pitcher, Paul Wilson, was to join them. A phenom, Wilson had been selected #1 overall in the 1994 draft. These three pitchers were dubbed "Generation K."

These Mets are young, but spunky. In 1995, much of their high-priced talent would be dealt away, leaving a team of young, hungry, and emerging players such as Todd Hundley, Rico Brogna and Butch Huskey. They are also joined by a slick fielding Cuban defector named Rey Ordonez.

Led by manager Dallas Green, these Mets are expected to rise up against all odds and make a push for the team's first postseason berth since 1988.

But it will soon appear to be a mirage. Injuries and inconsistency will wipe out the seasons of many of these players. As Opening Day arrives, Pulsipher is already lost for an undetermined amount of time with what is called a "strained elbow." Little do we know. Green's demand for high pitch counts and loads of innings have already ruined Pulsipher's elbow, and cost him the 1996 season. He will then suffer from both physical and mental struggles that will prevent him from returning to the Majors until 1998. And he will never recapture the brilliance that made Mets fans so excited about him in '95. Isringhausen too will suffer. His 1996 season will be marked with pain and problems as well. He will miss most of the 1997 season with injuries, and all of 1998. Wilson will be the only one of these three to pitch out the entire season, but he too will fall victim to injuries, and will not return to the majors until 2000, after he is dealt to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

But this will all happen later. What we know on April 1st is that this new generation of Mets is set to ride on this day against the St. Louis Cardinals. It is a mucky, miserable afternoon, with temperatures falling into the 40s, and rain falling on and off throughout the day. It doesn't matter. We're here, and we came to see some baseball.

I am in attendance, having for the first, last, and only time, snuck into the stadium through an unguarded door, and, with some friends, are milling around the Field level. We end up in section 37, merely 5 rows behind the Mets dugout. Nobody has noticed us, and nobody cares. We're just some kids.

And I've got my camera with me, for this rare look through my eyes at this afternoon's ballgame. It's about noon when we're inside. We mill around for some time, watching batting practice and soaking in the atmosphere of Opening Day.

Here, past meets present. Ron Darling chats with John Franco outside the Mets bullpen.

Finally, the ceremonies begin. First, the Cardinals are announced. This is Tony LaRussa's first game as manager of the Cardinals, hired away from the Oakland A's during the offseason. For the Mets, it is an odd Opening Day lineup, looking back on it. But examine.

Dallas Green manages. Dallas has already unwittingly ruined Pulsipher's arm with his demand for loads of innings and high pitch counts from young arms. He will wreck more arms before he's done. He'll also basically sleep through most of this season, before being fired after a miserable 7-16 stretch in August, replaced by the man who will lead the Mets to prominence in the late 90s, Bobby Valentine.

Lance Johnson and Bernard Gilkey are new Mets for this season, and both will respond with career years. Rico Brogna was thought to be the linchpin of the team's offense following a brilliant 1995 season. The clutch hitting, slick fielding first baseman will miss most of the 1996 season to injury before being dealt in a bewildering deal to Philadelphia for two forgettable relievers. He will respond with consecutive 100-RBI seasons. Butch Huskey was anointed the Mets cleanup hitter following a Spring Training where he hit 8 HRs. He will struggle all season. Jeff Kent will quickly become the team whipping boy before being dealt in July in the now-infamous trade for Carlos Baerga. Todd Hundley was about to embark on a historic season, which I'll cover later. Jose Vizcaino failed to build on a successful season in 1995, and also left in the Baerga deal. Rey Ordonez would struggle to bat his weight, but he would show early on why his glove was so well hyped.

The rest of a Runaway mob. OF Kevin Roberson, Pulsipher, P Pete Harnisch, P Robert Person (whose most significant contribution to the Mets will come a year later when he is dealt to Toronto for John Olerud), P John Franco, Paul Wilson, P Blas Minor, P Doug Henry...

...Wilson, Minor, Henry, P Dave Mlicki, P Juan Acevedo, P Paul Byrd, Isringhausen and P Jerry DiPoto. The fabled Rocky Point Marching Band is in the background.

All these names bring back many memories. Most of them not so good.

But here we go! It's Bobby Jones on the mound for the Mets, back when he was the only Bobby Jones on the team. Fresno earned his Opening Day start mainly by being the senior member of the starting rotation. Jones was never spectacular, but he always did enough to keep his team in the game every time out. A former phenom, Jones was often maligned for what was a decidedly unsexy repertoire of pitches, and numbers that were never quite eye popping. But he would plug away for several seasons, leading all Mets pitchers in victories for the 1990s, and he would cap his Mets career by tossing one of the most unlikely masterpieces of all time when he one-hit the Giants in the 2000 NLDS.

On this Opening Day, Jones will not pitch well at all. By the time he departs after 3 and 2/3 miserable innings, the Mets will not only be dazed, but on the wrong end of a 6-0 score. But Jones will start off strong in the first. He's opposed by Andy Benes for the Cardinals, who also starts solidly. But Jones will run into trouble in the top of the 2nd. He walks Ron Gant to lead off the inning. Gary Gaetti follows by singling up the middle, moving Gant to third. John Mabry will follow with a long sacrifice fly to center, scoring Gant.

In the third, it's Willie McGee and his hideous face poking a single to center. Royce Clayton, who is unceremoniously unseating Ozzie Smith at SS for the Cards, follows by lining a long double to center, scoring McGee. But Clayton will be thrown out trying for third on a great relay throw from Ordonez. More disaster averted.

But Jones will fall apart in the 4th. With 1 out, Mabry will launch a long HR to right-center. Pat Borders (still remembered as the 1992 World Series MVP with the Toronto Blue Jays) and Luis Alicea will follow with consecutive singles. Andy Benes will bunt the runners over. And then it is McGee, still hideous, who launches a long fly ball out to right that drifts, and drifts, and drifts, and Huskey is lumbering back, and back, and back . . . and his big ass is climbing up the wall . . . but he can't get it. A 3-run HR. Jones is done. Cards lead 6-0.

By this point, the 42,060 in attendance are fed up. Not only is it raining, and cold, and windy, but the Mets are getting their asses kicked. Most of the crowd heads for the exits. We stay. We believe.

And, for this day, we are slowly but surely rewarded. It begins in the last of the 4th.

It is Rico Brogna leading off with a single to left, inside-outing a tough pitch from Benes. Huskey and Kent will make outs. Todd Hundley bats.

In 1995, Todd Hundley began to emerge as a serious offensive threat. His skills as a catcher were already top notch. But he was always getting hurt. He was on his way to a standout season in 1995 before a wrist injury suffered in a home plate collision sapped his power. Still, many astute fans noticed that over the 1994 and 1995 seasons, he had hit 31 HRs and drove in 93 runs in what amounted to about a season's worth of plate appearances. We know that if he can stay healthy, he could be as good an all-around player as another catcher, who at this point played on the opposite coast, who we will come to know quite well a little over two seasons later.

And Hundley, on this day, will respond by ripping his first HR of the season, a long shot into the Mets bullpen.

Little do we know just how good Hundley will be. He will begin ripping HRs at a frenetic pace, shattering the Mets club record, and, by seasons end, he will break Roy Campanella's single-season HR record by a catcher with 41 HRs. A record that will later be broken, but a number that still stands, tied for first as the highest HR total in Mets History.

How close are we? It's New York's then-#1 fan, Mayor Giuliani, departing in the middle innings. We know now where his true colors are. "Friggin' Giuliani!"

On the other side, the Mets bullpen has taken over. A unit that will be frightful over the course of the season, they are rock solid on this afternoon. Blas Minor will hold the Cardinals in the 4th and 5th. Jerry DiPoto holds the line in the 6th and 7th.

In the 6th, the Mets will chip away some more. Bernard Gilkey, in his Mets debut, is playing the team that traded him away. Gilkey will play all season with a chip on his shoulder, posting one of the best offensive seasons in Mets history. He will hit at a .317 clip, with 30 HRs. His 117 RBIs set a club record, and his 44 doubles still stand as the club mark. But, following this season, Gilkey will vanish completely, into obscurity. He will never come close to matching these numbers again.But on this day, he will aid the Mets, hitting a HR into the Loge section, down the line in left field. He pumps his fist as he crosses the plate. What was a 6-0 lead is now 6-3, and maybe one more rally can put the Mets back in this one.

But there will be one pivotal play in this game that will swing the momentum fully in the Mets favor. And it will come on the defensive side. In the top of the 7th, the Cardinals will threaten. With 2 outs, Royce Clayton will reach on a scratch single, a slow roller up the third base line that dies before anyone can pick it up to throw him out. Ray Lankford follows by ripping a line drive down the left field line. Clayton crosses to third, and picks up speed as he rounds the base and heads for home. Gilkey in left has trouble picking it up, and his throw to Ordonez is low, and off to the side. No chance to get Clayton.

But wait.

Ordonez will show us just why his defense is so highly praised. In one motion, Ordonez will drop to his knees, slide to his right to field Gilkey's throw, rear back and fire a bullet home to Hundley...Just in time to nail Clayton! From his knees! Clayton is dumbfounded at the plate. Ordonez gets a standing ovation as he runs off the field.

And this play will prove to spur on the Mets in the bottom of the 7th.

With one out, Jose Vizcaino will start the rally by singling to center off of new Cardinals P Rick Honeycutt. Ordonez follows by singling sharply to right, just under the glove of a diving Mabry. Another standing O for Ordonez. It's his first major league hit. Honeycutt is replaced by Cory Bailey. But the Mets continue. Chris Jones, who made his claim to fame with the Mets as a key pinch hitter, will follow with a clean single up the middle, scoring Vizcaino.

Ordonez crosses to third. Bailey is replaced (think LaRussa was overmanaging?) by another ragtag lefty, Tony Fossas. Fossas will fare no better. Lance Johnson will check his swing, and produce a weak grounder to third. But Gaetti was playing back. By time he charges and fields, he's too late to throw out anyone. Mets are flying around the bases. Ordonez scores, and it's 6-5. And Gilkey will follow with another hit, a looping single to right, to score Jones with the tying run, and moving Johnson to third. And the crowd, quiet most of the day, is now screaming. Rico Brogna bats, and everyone's up. And Brogna will deliver a sacrifice fly to right, just deep enough to score Johnson. But just to make sure, Gilkey will purposely tag up and get into a rundown. He's tagged out, but the Mets have come all the way back. After being hopelessly behind, they now lead 7-6.

It's Doug Henry on for the 8th, walking Gant to lead off, but getting the next three batters. The Mets will also go down quietly in the 8th. John Franco enters for the 9th.
It's still Franco's heyday. Sure, the agita was always there, but not today. He gets the Cards 1-2-3, the final out coming on a great play on a short hop by Ordonez. Mets Win! Mets Win!

The team is ecstatic. The fans are beside themselves. 162-0! is the cry.

The scoreboard tells the story.

But the euphoria of this Opening Day will be short lived. The season will quickly become a washout, indistinguishable from the several seasons before that. It will begin with the next day's news that Pulsipher is lost for the season, and spiral downhill from there. It will not be until the following season, with a mostly new-look team, that the Mets will begin to emerge from a half-decade's slumber and return to respectability.

It is a far cry from the Mets team we are looking at as we approach Sunday night's season opener.

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