Wednesday, January 2, 2008

20 Days in October, Part IX

Part I - Premature Burial
Part II - Red Menace
Part III - Words & Pain
Part IV - That Particular Moment
Part V - Blood Feud
Part VI - Protest & Survive
Part VII - Just Like You Imagined
Part VIII - War of the Worlds


I am so proud to be a Met...You guys made me believe again. You made baseball fun for me. I will never, ever forget what this team did.

-Shawon Dunston

It had been 11 seasons since the Mets had sniffed meaningful October Baseball. The significance of what the Mets were able to accomplish over those 20 days in October of 1999 would shape the events of the 2000 season and beyond. Memories of any particular Mets Postseason run always has held special significance to fans. But it seemed to cut deeper in 1999. The Mets and Braves had never had a particularly fierce rivalry, especially since they had played for so many years in opposite divisions. And when the Braves were moved to the NL East with the Mets in 1994, the Braves were up, and the Mets were down. But this changed in 1998, when the Mets, needing one victory in Atlanta to perhaps extend their season, were swept away by the Braves.

Then came that 1999 season, when this rivalry would escalate into a full-scale Blood Feud, with ill feelings that continue to linger to the present day.

For me, stuck in Binghamton, it was more or less back to the grind of classes. I would gather with a few fellow Mets fans here and there to discuss what had happened, but I was basically left to deal with the ill feelings myself. I didn't watch the World Series, except for one particular game when my roommate, a Yankees fan, happened to have the game on. Secretly, I rooted for the Yankees. I couldn't stand to see Atlanta celebrate any further. I considered it somewhat of a moral victory when the Braves, clearly beaten down from their battle with the Mets, got their asses swept by the Yankees.

There would be moments where the anger would bubble up, brief bursts of snarling about Larry or Rocker or Andruw or Jordan or Atlanta, and even at times anything south of the Mason-Dixon line. But there wasn't much more to do than prepare for the 2000 season.

The same could have been said for the Mets. After the final game in Atlanta, much of the team went back to New York. Most of them requested videotapes of those final two games. Finally removed, they could take the time to look back at all they were able to accomplish.

Mike Piazza didn't make the trip.
Instead, Mike strode to a car rental counter, rented a Ford Escort and drove. Drove wherever, just so he could clear his head. "I threw my cell phone away and just drove," he said in an interview with New York Magazine, "I was burned out, and driving for me is very therapeutic. I was solo, man. Just drove through, ate at diners, truck stops. It was pretty neat."

Of course, there would be turnover for the Mets. Although they had preferred to re-sign him, John Olerud left the Mets to sign with the Seattle Mariners. Other players, such as Shawon Dunston, Masato Yoshii, Kenny Rogers and Orel Hershiser, were not re-signed either. Dunston would give way to Melvin Mora, and Outfield prospect Jay Payton. Todd Zeile was signed to replace Olerud at 1B. But there was still a hole in the starting rotation. Leiter and Reed would return, as would Bobby Jones, who had missed most of the '99 season with injuries.

On December 23rd, 1999, the Mets would make a major deal to bolster their rotation. Mike Hampton, who had won 22 games for the Astros in '99, would be dealt to the Mets along with Outfielder Derek Bell. The price would not be cheap for the Mets, as Roger Cedeno and Octavio Dotel were the main pieces heading to Houston, but the message was clear: The Mets were going all out for the 2000 season.

Then, there would be controversy.

Imagine having to take the 7 train to the ballpark, looking like you're riding through Beirut next to some kid with purple hair next to some queer with AIDS right next to some dude who just got out of jail for the fourth time right next to some 20-year old mom with four kids. It's depressing...The biggest thing I don't like about New York are the foreigners. I'm not a very big fan of foreigners. You can walk an entire block in Times Square and not hear anyone speaking English...How the hell did they get in this country?

I'm not a racist or prejudiced person, but certain people bother me.

-John Rocker

The article, written by Jeff Pearlman, appeared in the December 27, 1999 issue of Sports Illustrated. In the interview, Rocker also called Bobby Valentine "Unprofessional" and "A Clown."

The backlash would be swift and immediate. Rocker would publicly apologize for his comments, but the damage had already been done. A suspension would be handed down, and teammates, who previously thought Rocker simply a comic villain, would abandon him. When the Mets schedule for 2000 was released, everyone immediately looked to Thursday, June 29.

The first matchup between the Mets and Braves.

The return to Shea of John Rocker.

But there was other business to take care of first. The Mets began the 2000 season half a world away, in Japan, against the Cubs. The first games of the New Millennium be an historic matchup, the first time Major League games would be played outside of North America. The Mets and the Cubs would split their games, and then return home to commence their seasons. As expected, the Mets played well. In particular, it was Piazza and Alfonzo carrying the load offensively for the Mets, with Zeile and Agbayani chipping in. Al Leiter got off to a red hot start. Mike Hampton pitched well, if inconsistently. Derek Bell got off to a flying start before cooling in June. And Rookie Jay Payton earned the Center Field job after an injury to Darryl Hamilton, and came through with big hits and big plays in the Field.

On May 29th, in the bottom of the first inning of a game in Los Angeles, F.P. Santangelo was caught stealing. The throw by Mike Piazza was slightly wide of the base, and Rey Ordonez had to reach across the base to make the tag. The force of Santangelo's slide broke Ordonez's arm. He would be finished for the season, giving way to Melvin Mora.

On June 29th, the Braves and Rocker returned to Shea. The Braves held a 3 game lead over the Mets in the division, despite missing starter John Smoltz, who was lost for the season after being diagnosed with a torn ligament in his Right Elbow following the 1999 World Series. A contrite Rocker attempted to take the 7 train to Shea, but was dissuaded from doing so for fear for his safety. Over 700 police officers were stationed at Shea for the game. Alcohol sales were restricted. Armed snipers were posted on the roof of the Stadium. A videotaped apology from Rocker was shown before the game, although it could not be heard over the boos from the crowd. Rocker would enter the game in the 8th inning, dashing in as per usual, dodging all sorts of projectiles. He was clearly rattled by the situation. But behind in the count 3-1 to Robin Ventura, Ventura surprisingly swung through a high fastball. Rocker would rebound to strike him out, and retire Zeile and Payton behind him in a game the Braves would go on to win 6-4. Even after all this, the Mets still couldn't beat the damn Braves.

Then came Friday night, June 30th.

In the 8th inning, with the Braves already ahead 5-1, Brian Jordan blasted a 3-run HR off of Eric Cammack. He did his little sashay across Home Plate, pointed to the sold out Fireworks night crowd and danced off. The Braves were going to do it to us again.

Then, the Braves pitchers lost it.

Don Wengert managed to get 2 outs, although his outs were sandwiched by hits from Bell, Piazza, Zeile and Payton, which scored 2 runs to make the game 8-3. Wengert would be removed for Kerry Ligtenberg. Ligtenberg would walk Agbayani, Mark Johnson and Mora, forcing home two more runs to make the score 8-5. A now-disgusted Bobby Cox summoned Terry Mulholland from the bullpen to try to stop the bleeding. But Mulholland only made it worse. First, he walked Derek Bell, forcing home another run. Alfonzo followed with a hard single past Larry at 3rd, scoring two runs to tie the game.

Mike Piazza had come into the game having driven in a run in 12 straight games, in the midst of one of the hottest of hot streaks he had ever been on. What followed would become one of the signature moments of his Mets career.

-Gary Cohen

Rarely demonstrative, Piazza pumped his fist rounding first base, as the entire Mets team streamed out of the dugout to greet him. The Mets would win that game, and the next before falling in the series finale. But the Mets clearly showed the Braves that they would not be pushed around anymore.

Although he had been performing well at the plate, Melvin Mora's defense at Shortstop became a liability, and on July 28th, he was dealt to the Baltimore Orioles for established Shortstop Mike Bordick. Although Bordick hit a Home Run in his first Mets AB, he did little to distinguish himself with the team. Mora went on to become an All-Star with the Orioles. He returned to Shea on June 16, 2006, and his vengeful 2-run HR helped to beat the Mets 6-3.

On September 26th, the Atlanta Braves clinched the NL East with a 7-1 victory over the Mets at Shea Stadium.

On September 27th, the Mets clinched the Wildcard with a 6-2 victory over the Atlanta Braves at Shea Stadium. It would be the first time the Mets would be heading to the Postseason in back-to-back seasons, vindication once again for Valentine, and, most importantly, rest over the season's final few games.

It seemed a foregone conclusion that the Mets and Braves would meet once again in the NLCS.

Someone, apparently, forgot to tell that to the St. Louis Cardinals. After winning the first two games at home, the Cardinals walked into Atlanta on Saturday, October 7, and finished off a shocking sweep of the Braves with a 7-1 victory. In New York, the Mets were beginning the 3rd game of their NLDS with the San Francisco Giants just as the game in Atlanta was finishing up. When the final score was posted on the scoreboard at Shea Stadium, an eruption of cheers and mock tomahawk chops came up from the crowd. The Mets biggest nemesis was dead.

The Mets would go on to win the game 3-2 on Benny Agbayani's 13th inning Home Run.

The next day, October 8th, the Mets finished off the Giants when Bobby Jones, an afterthought, came through with a masterful 1-hit Shutout.

With the specter of playing the Braves for the pennant now gone, an energized Mets team stormed into St. Louis and simply overwhelmed the Cardinals over the first two games. Mike Piazza, having played in fewer games, and received more rest late in the season, anchored the offense. His double in the first inning of the first game on October 11 plated newfound sparkplug Timo Perez with the series' first run, and prompted Mets coach John Stearns to proclaim, "THE MONSTER IS OUT OF THE CAGE!!!"

On Monday, October 16th, behind a 3-hit shutout from Mike Hampton, the Mets clinched the National League Pennant, a 7-0 clubbing of the Cardinals, capping off an easy 5-game victory in the NLCS. They would go on to face the Yankees in the 2000 World Series. Rick Wilkins flew out to Timo Perez for the final out. Perez jumped in the air three times before making the catch, touching off a wild celebration at Shea, culminating with Piazza, Lenny Harris and John Franco leading the Mets team in a victory lap around the stadium. In the clubhouse, Valentine grasped the Warren Giles trophy and screamed to his players, "THIS ONE'S A BIG ONE FOR YOU GUYS, RIGHT HERE!"

In 2001, the Mets would begin their season in Atlanta. Robin Ventura would hit John Rocker's first pitch of the season for a 2-run Home Run in a game that the Mets would win 6-4 in 10 innings. The Mets would raise the NL Championship Banner one week later with the Braves in attendance at Shea.

On June 22, 2001, following a Brave victory over the Mets at Shea, John Rocker, struggling on the mound, was dealt to the Cleveland Indians. He would bounce around for several seasons before vanishing from the Major League landscape, despite continuing to incite ill feelings whenever he was heard from.

On September 21, 2001, the Mets and the Braves played the first major sporting event in New York City following the attacks of September 11, 2001. Both teams lined up on the infield during an emotional pregame ceremony, and shook hands with each other before the game. With the Braves leading 2-1 in the bottom of the 8th, Mike Piazza hit a long 2-run Home Run off of Steve Karsay, bouncing off the camera well in Center Field to give the Mets a 3-2 lead and victory.

The Mets had struggled throughout much of the 2001 season, but they had made a late, frenetic run at the Braves. But on September 23, 2001, Armando Benitez blew a 4-1 lead in a game the Braves would go on to win in 11 innings Brian Jordan hit a HR in the 9th, and another in the 11th. 6 days later, on September 29th, it was Jordan again, capping another Mets bullpen collapse with a Grand Slam off John Franco. The Braves would go on to another Division title. The Mets went home.

The Mets and Braves continued in opposite directions for several seasons, before 2006. That year, the Mets finally turned the tables, marching into Atlanta in late July and sweeping the Braves, led by Carlos Beltran. On September 18, 2006, the National League East Championship changed hands for the first time since the Braves had entered the division in 1994. The title went to the New York Mets.

By this time, the only players remaining on either team from that 1999 season were Andruw Jones, Brian Jordan, John Smoltz and, of course, Mr. Larry Wayne Jones. All were and continue to be booed with great fervor. Especially Larry.
The names and faces change. The memories of that time in History will live on forever.

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