The Mets were playing the Baltimore Orioles tonight in a most hotly contested Spring Training matchup. Usually, I skip these, but I was home, and making (and eating) dinner, and I flipped the game on, and stepping to the plate was Melvin Mora. I always have very fond memories of Melvin Mora, and his short stay with the Mets, where he proved to be a plucky and emerging talent. After bouncing around in the Minor Leagues for years, Mora finally made it to the Majors with the Mets in 1999. A 27 year old rookie who wasn't counted on to amount to anything.
Mora would appear in 66 games for the Mets that season, and accumulated only 31 at bats, posting an unspectacular .161 batting average.
But on October 3rd of that season, with the Mets needing a win in the final game of the regular season, it would be Mora, coming through with a clutch single in the bottom of the 9th, racing to 3rd on an ensuing single by Alfonzo and scoring the winning run on a Brad Clontz wild pitch, sending the Mets off to Cincinnati for the Wildcard Play-In game that they would eventually win to advance to the Playoffs.
And it would be in the playoffs that Mora would have his own personal coming out party. In Game 4 of the NLDS vs. Arizona, Mora gunned down a runner at home in the 8th inning, short-circuiting a D'Backs rally. Filling in for an injured Rickey Henderson in Game 2 of the NLCS in Atlanta, Mora would belt his first Major League HR off Kevin Millwood. More clutch hits and clutch defense in the classic Game 5, including a key defensive stop in right field on a Larry Jones 2B that turned into another out at home plate. And another 2 key hits late in the fateful 6th game, one driving in a run in the 8th, the second setting up a run in the 10th. He would finish the NLCS with 6 hits, a .429 average, and a place in the hearts of all Mets fans. All this would earn Mora a key role off the bench as the 2000 season began.
And provides the perfect lead-in for this Lost Classic from early that season.
There are often games early in seasons when you know that this season will be the year that's special. When you know that something is different about this team, setting it apart from previous years. Maybe it's a comeback victory. Maybe it's a great pitching performance. Or maybe it's something as simple as the atmosphere of the crowd in the stands that night.
April 20th, 2000 was one such night.
It was a cool Thursday evening in April. I was home on break from College, and I took the opportunity to go to what would be my first Mets game of the season. The Mets had started the season half a world away in Japan, and had returned to the states with a bit of jet lag. Merely 8-7 as the game began, nobody knew what the year would hold. But expectations are high following the showing of 1999, the key offseason acquisitions and whatnot.
We don't know that the Mets are already 3 wins into a 9 game win streak that will send them on their way to being one of the hottest teams in Baseball throughout the summer, on a ride that will sweep them all the way to their first World Series in 14 seasons.
All we know on this night is that the Mets and the Brewers are facing off in the finale of a 3 game series. The Mets, looking for the sweep, send Al Leiter to the mound, facing off against Steve Woodard. I am in attendance, having purchased my ticket from a group of gentleman, fresh from the office, who have an extra seat, a Mezzanine Box, section 10. A $30 ticket for $20. Not bad at all.
It would be a battle for Leiter from the outset. Leiter will start the game by allowing a leadoff double to Marquis Grissom, who will steal third before scoring on a Jeromy Burnitz sac fly. Leiter will also walk Mark Loretta and Charlie Hayes before getting out of the jam.
In the 3rd, Leiter will allow a 2 out double to Hayes. James Mouton will follow that by launching a Home Run into the bleachers in Left.
Leiter will also allow a Home Run to Hayes in the 5th inning. He departs after 6 innings, giving up 8 hits, 3 walks, and only 4 strikeouts. The Mets will be trailing, at the time, 4-1.
Woodard would keep the Mets almost completely in check early on. Through 6 innings, he's dangerously close to perfect. He's allowed only one hit. But it is a loud, long hit, off the bat of Mike Piazza. A long Home Run, well over the bleachers in left, soaring just below the DiamondVision screen.
But the Mets cannot muster anything else off of Woodard through the first 6 innings.
In fact, the only hairy moment for the Brewers to this point in the game comes with the final out of the 6th inning. On a Rickey Henderson popup into shallow left, Shortstop Mark "Get Back" Loretta and the Left Fielder Mouton are both going for the ball. It appears to be Loretta's play easily, except that the ball is caught up in a breeze and being blown further back and to the left. Loretta and Mouton come together, and just as Loretta squeezes the ball, he is knocked flat by Mouton. Loretta will hold on, but he is on the ground for several minutes, and knocked from the game.
Pat Mahomes will take over for the Mets in the 7th. He will get out of a mild jam, just as 3 of the 4 gentlemen I'm sitting with decide that the game is hopeless, departing with the 7th inning stretch.
"Oh ye of little faith," the remaining gentleman will remark to me.
Derek Bell, who is in the midst of a red-hot April that will win him hordes of fans in Queens that will just as soon abandon him during his ice cold second half that will eventually see him gone from the club completely following an injury in the first game of the NLDS in San Francisco, will lead off the last of the 7th. And he will jump on Woodard's first pitch, a fat fastball, and slam it into the Brewers bullpen for a Home Run to make the score 4-2.
Edgardo Alfonzo, who is embarking on what will turn out to be his finest season in the Majors, one that will lead to his first and only All Star Game appearance and lead to his name being bandied about as the Best Player in New York, will follow Bell's HR with a sharp single to left. Woodard is losing it, quickly. Piazza will follow with a walk. Woodard is gone, very quickly, and replaced with Valerio de los Santos. de los Santos will get Ventura to ground into a fielder's choice, with Piazza erased at second. David Weathers will enter the game to pitch to Todd Zeile. And Zeile will respond by nailing a single to right to score Alfonzo. Ventura is motoring around second as Burnitz fields the ball and unleashes a throw to third. A good throw will get Ventura.
But Burnitz's throw is not good. In fact, Burnitz airmails the throw so badly that it ends up in the camera well behind third base. Ventura is awarded Home. The game is tied, very quickly, 4-4.
The other guys should have stuck around.
The score will remain the same through the 8th and 9th. Dennis Cook will strike out the side in the 9th, with a Burnitz walk and steal (!) sandwiched in between. Piazza will lead off the Mets half of the 9th with a single against Bob Wickman. Kurt Abbott will pinch run, advance to second on a Ventura groundout and steal third with one out. But Benny Agbayani strikes out and Rey Ordonez grounds out to end the Mets threat.
Turk Wendell will navigate the 10th inning for the Mets. It is Curt Leskanic pitching for Milwaukee in the last of the 10th. He will strike out Jon Nunnally to lead off, and that will bring up Melvin Mora, inserted into the game as part of a double-switch in the top of the 10th.
And Mora will unload on Leskanic's first pitch and blast it out. A long, majestic, Piazza-esque Home Run that bounces off of the camera stand beyond the center field fence. It is Mora's first Major League HR. Or, at least, his first in the regular season. He's mobbed by the team as he reaches Home, capping off a sharp, well-played comeback victory that will finish off a sweep of the Brewers and extend the Mets win streak to 4 games.
And, although much of the already small crowd of 17,002 had departed, walking down the ramps following the game, the chants of "MEL-VIN MO-RA! MEL-VIN MO-RA!" are deafening.
And you knew, leaving the stadium after this game, that this 2000 Mets team, this season, would be special, and one to be remembered. And we still remember them fondly.
Mora would eventually be pressed into the starting Shortstop role following the injury to Rey Ordonez. Although his offense is good, his fielding at SS is less than stellar. But still, we think, it's good enough to get by. But management feels differently, and Mora is dealt in July to Baltimore for Mike Bordick. Bordick will play poorly for the Mets, and return to the Orioles as a free agent following the season. Mora will be a spare part for most of 2 seasons for Baltimore, but in 2003 he will blossom into an All-Star and .300 hitter. One that Mets fans remember and would have loved to have back.
But, for one night, a hero to all Mets fans, in a game mostly forgotten among the other masterpieces of the 2000 season.