Monday, March 3, 2008

Lost Classics: August 18, 1998

It has been quite a bit of time since I've done a Lost Classic around here. In fact, I haven't done one since the end of last season. Granted, much of my Historical work went into the 20 Days in October series. But I'd been thinking about August, 1998, pretty much ever since Friday, when Greg over at Faith and Fear offered up his latest Flashback Friday, the second of back-to-back DHs with the St. Louis Cardinals, with Mark McGwire in the heat of the HR chase. That particular month, I was home following my first year of College, volunteering at a specialized school in the Bronx, and going to Mets games pretty much all the time. I made it to 28 games that particular Summer, 9 of them in August. The DH Greg wrote about was one of three the Mets played that week, thanks to a particularly rainy May that saw virtually an entire homestand washed out. Three Doubleheaders in one week. I was at all three.

I've always thought of the 1998 Mets as one of those teams that time seems to have forgotten. They are, much like the 2005 Mets, the prelude to a great era. The 1998 Mets seemed to play out the season in Jekyll and Hyde mode. Sometimes, they hit. Sometimes, they pitched. Rarely, though, could they do both well at the same time. But they hung around, and hung around, and took off once Piazza was brought in, and then, just when they seemed to be on the verge of wrapping up a Wildcard berth, the bottom fell out. But they played a lot of bizarre, interesting and fun games in the process, games which, I believe, we'll be taking some looks at during this season's slate of Lost Classics. Because, as a team that time forgot, they played a lot of great games that nobody really remembers.

These are two such games.

It's a sweltering August night in New York. I'm pretty much whiling away the rest of my summer before heading back to school. Why not go to another game? After all, the Mets and Rockies were rained out last night, the make up game from a rainout on May 1st, and so they're playing two tonight. The Mets currently stand at 66-55, a game behind the Chicago Cubs in the Wildcard race, a hopeless 14 1/2 games behind Atlanta in the NL East. The Rockies are nowhere.
It's a 5:10 pm curtain on this Tuesday night. I'm by myself on this evening, sitting in the Loge, Section 21, Row G, Seat 7. You could afford those seats back then, I wasn't traipsing around like Mr. Gotrocks. Al Leiter faced off against his future teammate, Pedro Astacio in Game 1. Leiter starts off strong, as he did most of the time in 1998. In the first, he's got two quick outs until Larry Walker lofts a fly ball to medium left field. No problem.

Oh, wait. Todd Hundley was in left. Hundley gets there, gets his glove on the ball and it pops right out. Walker scampers to 2nd. No harm, though, as Leiter promptly strikes out Dante Bichette.

On the other side, Pedro Astacio, every bit the workhorse, starts off by running deep counts all over the place. Tony Phillips singles up the middle on a 3-2 pitch. Astacio hits Alfonzo on 2-2. Olerud grounds into a fielders choice on 2-2. Next, it's Piazza, who flares a single in front of Bichette to score Phillips. 1-0, Mets. But the rally is stopped there, McRae flies out on the 6th pitch of his AB, Hundley strikes out on the 7th pitch.

Leiter settles into a nice rhythm, and the Rockies seem to have little answer. A walk in the 2nd, a harmless single in the 3rd. For the Mets, Alfonzo hits a HR just inside the foul pole in Left Field leading off the 3rd. After the Rockies load the bases against Leiter in the 4th, it's Hundley leading off and doing the same, hitting one of his classic Hundley HRs, a rising line drive that clears the fence and lands in the Mets bullpen. It's Hundley's second HR since returning from elbow surgery, but it will also be the last HR he'll hit at Shea while with the Mets. With Piazza aboard, Hundley will be unable to find himself in Left Field, and will be dealt following the season. Although he will have decent seasons, he won't ever come close to the numbers he had in 1996 or 1997. Steroid allegations will also follow him. But his HR gives the Mets a 3-0 lead, which seems to be in good hands with Leiter.

But in the 5th, the Rockies reach Leiter for a pair of runs. After Darryl Hamilton leads off the inning with a double and is sacrificed to 3rd by Neifi Perez, Larry Walker again goes the other way, this time hitting one over Hundley's head for another double, scoring Hamilton. One batter later, Vinny Castilla singles past Ordonez into left, scoring Walker to make the score 3-2.

Drama? Nah. Leiter gives up a short single to Todd Helton before retiring Mike Lansing for the 3rd out. In the bottom of the 5th, Alfonzo walks with one out, and Olerud follows by putting one of his sweet swings on an Astacio curve and pops it deep and out, just in front of the scoreboard. Piazza follows with a strikeout. He's booed, as was sickeningly common throughout this period of time. But those boos go away quickly when Brian McRae, who mysteriously managed to hit 21 HRs and drive in 80 runs in 1998, sends a screamer down the left field line, banging off the retired numbers for the 19th of those 21 HRs, and extending the Mets lead to 6-2.

NOW, with the game in Leiter's hands, the lead is pretty much safe. Leiter gives up a pair of singles in the 7th and another in the 8th before departing after 8 innings and 132 pitches, giving up 10 hits and 2 runs, with 5 strikeouts, good enough to earn his 12th win of the year. The Mets don't mount much in the way of any more rallies, although in the 7th, with Alfonzo on 3rd, Piazza grounds into a fielder's choice, and Fonzie is tagged out. And again, Piazza gets booed by many of the cretins who somehow thought this proper behavior. Turk Wendell comes into the game for the Mets in the 9th, slams the rosin bag down and slams the door on the Rockies, striking out Vinny Castilla for the final out. 4 HRs for the Mets and a tidy 6-2 victory to start off this Doubleheader, in a prompt 2:36.

With about 45 minutes or so to kill in between games, I walk around a little bit. It was rare that I would really get to walk around and explore Shea, except during rain delays, or moments like this. I call a friend, who says I should pick up tickets for the doubleheaders coming up against St. Louis. I walk down to the hidden ticket booth on the Field Level near Gate C and buy tickets to both the Thursday and Friday night doubleheaders. Baseball Summer is in full swing. I walk back to the Loge, look at a souvenir stand, get a Hot Dog and I'm back in my seat, ready for Game 2. Of course, I only managed to kill about 20 minutes or so, so I've still got a little sitting around to do.

Finally, Game 2 gets underway at 8:31 pm, 44 minutes following the 7:47pm conclusion of the first game. It was typical, I had observed, for teams to throw out completely different lineups in doubleheaders, and usually one of them would be loaded with the dregs of the team. This game would be no different. Although the starters would be passable, with Bobby Jones for the Mets, and another future Met, John Thomson starting for the Rockies, the lineups were littered with names like Curtis Goodwin and Jeff Reed for Colorado, and Lenny Harris and Jorge Fabregas for the Mets.

By the start of Game 2, Shea was about as full as it was going to get on this night, with only 21,611 in attendance. The stadium was mostly empty at the outset, as most twi-night DHs are. It would fill by the latter stages of Game 1, and would again empty out as Game 2 progressed. The game started off quietly, as both Jones and Thomson eased through the first. But the Rockies would string together a few hits to start off the 2nd; Todd Helton would single to left for the 3rd consecutive hit, scoring Bichette with the first Colorado run. Following a walk to Mike Lansing to load the bases, Jones would strike out Jeff Reed before allowing a sacrifice fly to Hundley in Left by John Thomson. The collective gasp as Hundley settled under the ball could be heard throughout the stadium.

Meanwhile, Thomson neatly tied the Mets up in knots. Thomson was, I felt, a good pitcher trapped in pitching hell in Colorado. His numbers were never good, but I felt he had talent. When the Mets dealt for Thomson in 2002, I was thrilled. But Thomson proved himself mostly untalented at any altitude, and he was gone following that season, never amounting to much in Atlanta or Texas either, before fading into obscurity. But tonight, all the Mets can get off him are singles. Olerud in the first. Fabregas in the 2nd. Harris in the 3rd. Finally, in the 4th, Carlos Baerga inside-outed a ball down the line in left for a double. Fabregas followed with a weak single to left, moving Baerga to 3rd, where he would score on an Ordonez groundout. But that was pretty much it for the Mets in the 4th. Nothing in the 5th. The Rockies would extend their lead to 3-1 in the 6th, on a Walker walk, a Bichette single, and a a ringing 2B by Helton past Hundley in left to score Walker.

In the bottom of the 6th, the Mets would again start to rally against Thomson. With 2 outs, Fabregas would single cleanly to center for his 3rd hit of the game, which was amazing to me, because Fabregas was, in my opinion, barely passable as a Major Leaguer, a 3rd catcher at best. But here he was, starting in this game and going 3-for-3. Go figure. Some cretins are mumbling that he should be playing instead of Piazza. Ordonez dunks a double just fair down the right field line, and now the Mets have 2nd and 3rd, and Matt Franco is up to hit for Jones. On 2-2, Franco hits the ball hard, but right into the glove of Castilla for the 3rd out. Dammit.

Mel Rojas, or as I liked to call him, Smell Blowjas came into the game in the 7th, and I figured that was probably my cue to leave. Rojas did a good job in 1998, if you can consider routinely blowing leads and incinerating games a good thing. Somehow, Rojas set down the Rockies 1-2-3 in the 7th, setting the stage for the Mets in the bottom half of the inning.

Thomson continued to chug right along, getting Harris to fly out to center, and Alfonzo to pop out to short. But Olerud followed with a sharp single to right, which is something he'd done all season. With Hundley following, Don Baylor took his cue to pull Thomson after 118 pitches, and brought in lefty Chuck McElroy, moving Hundley around to the right side of the plate. But this strategy backfired when McElroy couldn't throw a strike, walking Hundley on 4 pitches. With Hundley, the tying run, now on base, he was run for by speedy Jermaine Allensworth, another one of the mysterious players who somehow surfaced on the 1998 Mets. Brian McRae then followed by chopping one off the plate. The ball bounced high into the air and landed between Lansing and Perez on the infield, but far too late for a play on anyone. Finally, what remained of the crowd was making some noise. Baerga was called back, and Mike Piazza strode to the plate.

Mike Piazza, to this point, the hired gun brought in, who had to this point failed to earn the respect of many of his hometown fans, who was booed loudly during the first game, and who was greeted here with a few groans from the fans around me.

But on the 1-2 pitch, Piazza turned everyone on his side. In typical Piazza fashion, he took an inside pitch, flipped his wrists and unleashed a screaming line drive that damn near went through the fence out in deep right center. It bounced off the wall onto the track, as Olerud, Allensworth and McRae all scored to give the Mets their first lead of the game. And those same fans who booed and groaned were now chanting Mike's name as he stood on 2nd base with a pinch-hit 3-run double.

Luis Lopez hit for Fabregas and struck out to end the inning. In the 8th, Rojas walked Walker with one out, and was removed for Turk Wendell, who did as he did in Game 1, came in, slammed the rosin bag down, and slammed the door on Bichette. Dennis Cook would come in to face Helton after a Castilla single, and Helton rolled weakly to Olerud.

In the last of the 8th, the Mets put the game away. With 1 out, Phillips hit for Cook and hit an infield single between Castilla and Perez against former Met gas can Jerry DiPoto. Lenny Harris followed by drilling a 1-2 pitch deep into the Mets bullpen. Harris raised his fist as he rounded first, and I did the same. Once again, the Mets had come back, and apppeared poised to sweep this doubleheader. John Franco came on in the 9th, and closed the game out with strikeouts of Mike Lansing and Derrick White, capping off the Mets 6-3 victory, giving them a Doubleheader sweep from the Rockies. I pump my fist again as White swings through the last pitch, at 11:54 pm on this Hot Tuesday night that will be a Hot Wednesday morning before I'm even on the 7 train on my way home. It doesn't matter how they do it, or who gets the hit, I'll take the victory any way it comes, especially when the Mets are right in the thick of a pennant race for the first time in forever. The train back is mirthful and merry, full of the spirited few who stuck it out for 6 hours and 43 minutes of Baseball, ready to come back for two more nights of doubleheaders later in the week.

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