Wednesday, November 7, 2007

20 Days in October

Most of the important things in the world have been accomplished by people who have kept on trying when there seemed to be no hope at all.

-Dale Carnegie

The 1999 New York Mets were a team built to bring the Mets out of what had become a decade-long slump. The team that had come close to making the postseason in 1998, before a horrendous final week collapse had been made over. Free Agents Robin Ventura and Rickey Henderson were brought in to bolster the offense. Trades were made, procuring Roger Cedeno, Armando Benitez and Bobby Bonilla. Mike Piazza was re-signed to a long term contract. And although the team got off to an uneven start, they played on as if they were determined to bring the Mets back to respectability, and into the playoffs. Ventura responded with a career year at the plate. Edgardo Alfonzo emerged as an All-Star player with an uncanny knack for coming through in the clutch. Piazza was Piazza. Cedeno set a team record for Stolen Bases. The starting pitchers were solid, if unspectacular, led by Al Leiter, Rick Reed, Orel Hershiser and Masato Yoshii. The bullpen sparkled. Turk Wendell and Dennis Cook set things up for John Franco, and following a midseason injury to Franco, Armando Benitez, the flamethrower, who went through the season mostly unhittable. The defense was impeccable, setting records and making the spectacular seem routine. Alfonzo, Ventura, Rey Ordonez and John Olerud appeared on a SI Cover, headlined as "The Best Infield Ever," and they just might have been.

It was a talented team, and a team of great heart and spirit. On May 23rd, they erased a 4-run 9th inning deficit against the Philadelphia Phillies. June 9th, a 3-run comeback against Toronto. July 11th, the famous see-saw battle against the Yankees, won by Matt Franco. August 22nd, a comeback from a 6-1 deficit, highlighted by an Olerud Grand Slam. Wins piled up and coming into the home stretch, the Mets were primed to walk away with the Wildcard, and potentially even catch the Braves for the lead in the NL East.

And just as quickly, it all seemed to fall apart.

On Monday, September 20th, the Mets entered Atlanta for a 3-game series with the Braves, with a record of 92-58, one game behind the Braves.

Three losses later, the Mets departed Atlanta 92-61, 4 games behind the Braves.

Three more losses in Philadelphia, and not only were the Mets now buried in the East, they had fallen behind the Reds in the race for the Wildcard.

Returning home, the Mets still couldn't solve the Braves. Another meltdown on Tuesday, September 28th clinched the East for Atlanta. But Al Leiter and John Olerud were able to stop the bleeding and end the losing streak. Leiter's strong outing and Olerud's grand slam off of Greg Maddux were enough to will the Mets to a 9-2 victory, keeping them a game and a half behind the Reds and Astros for the Wildcard. But a most frustrating, 11-inning, 4-3 defeat in the series finale seemed to be the final nail in another Mets collapse. Adding insult to injury were the jeers from the Atlanta locker room following the series finale.

"Now, all the Mets fans can go home and put their Yankees' stuff on. You know they're all going to convert. It's amazing how fast you hear Yankee talk around the dugout, yet, they're wearing Mets stuff.

-Larry Jones

"It's not really the Mets I hate, the majority of the guys are good guys and they're a good team, and I'm a little bit confused as to how they're struggling so bad to make the playoffs," Rocker said. "It's the fans that I think are absolutely ridiculous. They just don't know when to shut up. I've asked a lot of people all week, 'How many times you got to beat a team before the fans finally shut up?' And I still don't know. We beat them nine out of 12 times and they're still talking trash."

-John Rocker

As far as the Braves were concerned, the Mets were dead and buried.

Tucked away in Binghamton, I felt inclined to believe the same. I'd seen it all before. I was there through the entirety of the 1990s, one year more forgettable than the next. But things changed when Bobby Valentine took over near the end of the 1996 season. The years that followed were different. The Mets were alive again. And I was there to see it 29 times over the long, hot Summer of 1999. But this year was supposed to be the year they took that next step, and as the calendar turned from September to October, it appeared that that step was not going to be taken. Forget it.

Little did we know that the turn of the calendar brought about a change in the Mets fortunes. What seemed impossible became reality, and the ride that the Mets would embark on over the following 20 days would leave an indelible mark on the franchise and its fans, restoring pride to the organization and setting them up for a run that would lionize the 1999 Mets as one of the best in team history.

Friday, October 1
"Forget it."

These are my thoughts as far as the Mets are concerned. I want nothing to do with it. It's easy to avoid these things when you're off at College, 200 miles away from Shea in upstate New York. But 2 games out of the Wildcard with 3 to play is pretty much impossible. The Mets need to sweep the Pirates, sure. But the Reds or the Astros have to lose, too. 2 of 3 at least. And with the Astros at home against LA, and Cincinnati playing awful Milwaukee, try to figure out the odds.

I really didn't watch much of the game. I saw the first inning or two. The stadium was pretty much empty, and with good reason. Who wanted to be around for the final failure by this team that had once again let us down and was facing an entire decade without even a sniff of postseason baseball? Kenny Rogers and Jason Schmidt square off. Robin Ventura homers in the 4th, and Piazza in the 6th, and it's 2-0 Mets. Ventura and Piazza. They've done it all year long, haven't they? But what does it mean? Especially after Rogers, Wendell and Franco blow the 2-run lead in the 8th. But for an Adrian Brown strikeout by Franco, the game remains tied, headed further on into the night.

Pat Mahomes comes on for the 10th, and gets in and out of a jam. The Mets go quietly in their half against Scott Sauerbeck. But the Mets mount a threat in the last of the 11th. Shawon Dunston, a midseason acquisition, comes through with a key leadoff single. He's sacrificed to second by rookie, Melvin Mora, in the game merely as a defensive replacement. Alfonzo is walked intentionally. Olerud works the count before grounding out to first, moving the runners up and virtually assuring another intentional pass to Piazza. And it's down to Ventura. And Ventura, as he has done all season, comes through when it's needed most, nailing a single to center, scoring Dunston for a 3-2 victory, and as he leaps into Piazza's arms between first and second, Gary Cohen exults on WFAN, "The Mets will live for another day!"

And then, the help arrives. Reds rookie closer Scott Williamson blows a lead in Milwaukee, and the Brewers rally for a 4-3 victory. The Astros lose too, 5-1 to the Dodgers. The Mets have done their part. I come home after a night out and check the scores. I'm dumbfounded. Meaningful baseball still lives at Shea.

Final Score
Mets - 3

Pirates - 2

(11 Innings)

Saturday, October 2
Today, the help has already arrived by the time the game has begun. Reds starter Juan Guzman is torched in Milwaukee. 2 RBIs from Jeff Cirillo, Jeromy Burnitz and Ronnie Belliard pace the Brewers to a 10-6 victory. A Mets victory and the fate of the Wildcard is once again in the Mets hands. This in mind as the Mets, behind Rick Reed, take the field at 7:10. Tonight, I watch. I have to. The signs at Shea say "THANK YOU BREWERS!"

And it is an intense game right from the outset. It's clear that Reed is on top of his game. Although Reed was never one to blow you away, he was damn near unhittable when he had his best stuff. 2 hits over 6 innings is all he's allowed. But he's been matched by Francisco Cordova.

Until the 6th.

That's when Robin takes over once again.

Following a walk to Olerud, Piazza reaches on an error by Aramis Ramirez. Ventura whacks one into the right field corner, scoring Olerud for the game's first run. A second run scores when Ordonez lines out to Kevin Young at first, but his throw to double Piazza off 3rd is wide, and Piazza scores the second run.

Reed is flawless through the 7th and 8th. And in the last of the 8th, the Mets put the game away, capped off by a majestic Piazza HR, his 40th. 7-0 Mets. Reed finishes off his masterpiece by striking out Abraham Nunez for his career-high 12th K, and he pumps his fist. After falling into the abyss, somehow the Mets are back.

Late that night, a roommate and I have a long discussion, debating whether or not to drive down to Shea for Sunday's game. Tickets are being gobbled up with a quickness. Around 2AM, we decide: If there are tickets, we go. If not, we stay.

It's sold out.

Final Score
Mets - 7

Pirates - 0

Sunday, October 3
(Editor's note: Much of the detail of this game has already been brought up here. I had planned this specific piece to coincide with a playoff run. That, obviously, did not happen, and in a moment of panic, I used this game as a Lost Classic. But we all know what happened anyway.)

Consider Hershiser the unsung hero on this particular afternoon. It's his 5.1 solid innings that keep the Mets in the game until they won it on Clontz's wild pitch. In fact, he's just one of several that emerge this afternoon. Mahomes got out of a jam in the 6th. Benitez did so in the 9th. Melvin Mora picked up a huge hit leading off the 9th, and Alfonzo's subsequent single was just as clutch.

Most of all, it was redemption for Bobby Valentine, who was maligned and vilified by most of the New York Media as the team collapsed over the previous week. And yet, his best call of the day came long after the game had ended. As the Mets waited out the torrential rains that delayed the Reds-Brewers game well into the night, Valentine decided: Rather than wait to see who wins, just fly to Cincinnati now. Get that good night's sleep. If the Reds win, we'll be there, and we'll be ready. If not, we fly to Arizona.

The Reds finally began their game at 10pm in the East, following a rain delay of 5 hours and 47 minutes. With their 7-1 victory, Bobby's call proved to be the right one.

It wouldn't be the last good call he'd make in 1999.

Final Score
Mets - 2

Pirates - 1

To Be Continued...
Part II - Red Menace!

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