Sunday, July 20, 2008

Lost Classics: May 13, 1997

This was the winner of the Choose the Lost Classic for 1997 poll.

The 1997 Mets had no idea what they were about to embark on.

A mostly unheralded bunch of players, led by one breakaway star, one established star and one emerging star in Todd Hundley, John Olerud and Edgardo Alfonzo, the Mets weren't expected to raise much of a peep in the NL East in 1997. There were too many holes, too little pitching, not enough depth. Through the first month of the season, that seemed to hold to form as the Mets went 12-14 for April.

But that seemed to turn in May. After a sluggish start, the Mets went on a road trip to Colorado, Houston and St. Louis, and returned home with 5 wins in 7 games, including a sweep of the Cardinals, to bring them back home at 19-18, still in 4th place, and still 7 games out of first place, but over .500 was an accomplishment for Bobby Valentine, in his first full season managing the Mets, and his team that wasn't expected to compete.

The Mets returned home for a quick, two-game series against the Houston Astros, beginning on a Tuesday night, May 13th. The Astros, themselves barely a .500 team at 20-18, held a slim half-game lead for first place in the NL Central. But they had stars. They had the Killer B's, Craig Biggio, Derek Bell and Jeff Bagwell. They had vicious starting pitchers like Shane Reynolds and this evening's starter, Mike Hampton. Surely, the Mets would come back to earth.

At the time, I was in my last month of High School, pretty much playing out the string before getting ready for College in the Fall. I had met up with a friend after school and we headed out to the game. Back in these days, tickets were pretty easy to come by, particularly if you ran into the right guy outside the stadium. Back then, scalpers were prevalent, although since the Mets weren't much of a draw—and tonight's game would only draw 13,997—good seats could be had rather cheaply. Through this method, two seats in Field Box 228G were procured for barely face value. Once inside, the stadium being rather empty, and none of the ushers paying much mind to a couple of High School kids minding their own business, we were "upgraded" to seats much closer to the field, about 10 rows back of 3rd base. It's rare that I'm this close to the action. It's even more rare nowadays, when seats like these command a premium.

Though the stadium was, for the most part, pretty empty, there was one thing that caught our eyes. There were two banners, rather conspicuously posted, on the Loge level, right next to each foul pole, draping in fair territory. Whomever had brought them obviously had brought two and hung them both.

"NOW IT BEGINS!" the signs read.

I wondered what it meant. My friend wondered what it meant. No matter, I suppose. We're here and we're ready for the game, a 7:40 start time, Armando Reynoso against Mike Hampton.

The early innings are more or less a blur. Derek Bell singles to left with 1 out in the 1st, but Jeff Bagwell follows that up by hitting a hard smash that appears headed right at my head. It zooms over me, well foul. Two pitches later, Bagwell hits a similar shot, but this one is right at Edgardo Alfonzo at 3rd. Fonzie spins and throws to Carlos Baerga at 2nd, and Baerga throws to Olerud at first for a nice 5-4-3 DP.

In the bottom of the 1st, Carl Everett leads off by smoking a ball just fair, inside the 3rd base line for a leadoff double. He moves to 3rd on Alfonzo's groundout. Olerud, the newcomer, follows. Known for his sweet swing and placid demeanor, Olerud was acquired from Toronto in the offseason for, almost quite literally, a bag of balls. OK, fine. It was a Person. Nonetheless, Olerud was, perhaps, one of the largest reasons for the Mets resurgence in '97. Olerud came over and hit and hit some more, and played solid defense, and pretty much endeared himself to everybody. At the time, he was hitting over .350, having rediscovered the contact stroke that he had been idiotically weaned off of in Toronto. Here, Olerud chops the ball to first. Bagwell appears primed to field the ball, but he bobbles it. Olerud is safe and Everett scores the game's first run.

Bernard Gilkey follows. After his standout 1996 season, Gilkey earned a hefty contract and immediately fell flat, his average tumbling into the mid .100s, and his power disappearing. Here, he does no better, slapping into an easy 6-4-3DP to end the Mets threat.

The Astros get their leadoff man, Luis Gonzalez, on in the 2nd, but a pair of nifty picks, first by Alfonzo, then by Olerud, keep runners from advancing past first base. Brad Ausmus singles, but Bill Spiers grounds out and the inning is over.

The score remains 1-0 Mets until the 3rd, when Armando Reynoso comes to the plate. Reynoso, more or less a journeyman, had pitched tolerably well for the Mets, and also had a reputation as a halfway decent hitter. His batting stance would not indicate as much. He looks like a pitcher at the plate, with his hands held far out in front of him, and his knees and torso bent in such a way that his ass is left hanging far behind him, as if he's inviting the pitcher to just throw the ball at it. But Hampton does not throw at Reynoso, he throws to Reynoso, and Reynoso puts an ugly looking swing on the ball and the next thing we know, the ball is sailing deep to right center and over the wall, directly in front of the scoreboard to the left of the 371 mark. Holy Crap! Reynoso goes deep! It's actually Reynoso's 3rd career HR, but that doesn't make it any less of a surprise.

The Mets continue their rally later on, when, following Everett's groundout, Alfonzo hits a smash up the middle. Biggio ranges far to his right and dives, and manages to get his glove on the ball, but he has no chance to get Alfonzo. This proves key when Olerud drives the ball deep to right and over Thomas Howard's head, off the wall. Alfonzo comes all the way around to score, and Olerud is on 2nd. And the Mets have come out, undaunted, and attacked Hampton for 3 runs.

Now it begins, indeed.

In the 4th, however, the Astros begin a comeback. Bagwell and Gonzalez lead off with consecutive doubles, Gonzalez's a deep drive that Everett can't catch up with, to make the score 3-1. At this point, it begins to rain. First, it's a drizzle. But as Reynoso works his way out of the jam, retiring Sean Berry on a popup, then Howard and Ausmus on grounders to Ordonez, the rain begins to pick up in intensity. The Mets go quietly in the 4th. By the middle of the 5th inning, it's raining pretty hard. I've got an umbrella out. My friend tells me I'm an idiot. At least I'm a dry idiot. It's pouring, and I'm wondering why they don't stop the game. In the 5th, Ordonez singles and is picked off before Reynoso can attempt to bunt him over. So we root for another HR. Predictably, Reynoso grounds out.

As the 5th comes to an end, so does the rain. And it's almost as if it just suddenly stopped. It goes from pouring to totally dry in a matter of minutes. Reynoso begins the 6th by getting Bell and Bagwell to ground out to Alfonzo. He then works a full count to Gonzalez before walking him. Sean Berry follows, but no worry. Berry is hitting .185 at this point in the season, with no power. This, I think, as Berry swings and the ball sails into the Astros bullpen for a tying 2-run HR.

"JESUS, HE'S A .185 HITTER!" I yell. I was big on the obvious in my younger days.

In the Mets half of the 6th, Alfonzo reaches on an error by Biggio, but Olerud follows by grounding into a 1-6-3 DP, the 3rd double play the Mets have hit into in this game. Hampton is finished after 6 innings, 6 hits and 3 runs (2 earned) with no walks over his 87 pitches. Reynoso, however, is not done as the 7th begins, and Brad Ausmus, himself a pretty weak hitter, smokes the ball deep and high and well over Everett's head, off the center field fence. Ausmus, a catcher, chugs around the bases, all the way to 3rd. Jesus. First, a HR to a .185 hitter, and then a triple to the catcher? What's next, Armando?

Well, I'll tell you.

After striking out Spiers and getting the pinch hitter Bobby Abreu (yes, he did play for the Astros once upon a time) to pop out, Reynoso then proceeds to hit Craig Biggio. Biggio is on his way to becoming the Majors all time leader in getting hit by a pitch, so that's no great shakes. But Reynoso follows that up by hitting Derek Bell as well! Now, we're apoplectic. After doing his best to get out of his own jam, Reynoso just manages to make it worse, and he's done. Valentine removes him from the game after 6.2 innings, 6 hits and 3 runs over his 107 pitches. Greg McMichael enters from the bullpen to pitch to Jeff Bagwell, always a welcome sight. And Bagwell drills the second pitch like a shot to center. But Everett, playing deep, charges in, dives, makes the catch and rolls over. He holds the ball, the inning is over. "THANK GOD!" I yell as I look to the skies.

Russ Springer is in the game for the Astros in the last of the 7th. Todd Hundley leads off by grounding to short. Butch Huskey follows. Huskey began the season as a man with great potential that never quite showed it. Given opportunities to start at 3rd base and Right Field, Huskey couldn't quite hold the job. Pressed into duty as the cleanup hitter in 1996, Huskey struggled to bat his weight. Still, with his potential, he deserved a shot. And when injuries finally made him the starting right fielder, Huskey responded with a standout year in 1997, a year that tantalized us with the promise and power he displayed.

It was such power that he would display at this particular moment, when he took a 1-1 pitch from Springer and cracked it deep and high to left. I don't know if it was the heavy, humid air, or the silence in the ballpark, but that crack of the bat echoed throughout the stadium, and as I looked up, there was the ball, sailing over the bleachers, over the Astros Bullpen and out of sight, deep into the night, to give the Mets a 4-3 lead. The Mets shouldn't have had a 4-3 lead in this game! There was no way! But somehow, they had the lead. It was one of the longest, loudest and most gratifying Home Runs I had ever witnessed. If, after all this, they still lead the game, there's no way they can lose now.

And they don't. McMichael retires the Astros in order in the 8th. John Franco comes in in the 9th and allows a 1 out single to Ricky Gutierrez, but promptly picks him off first. James Mouton follows by watching strike 3, and the Mets win a stirring 4-3 ballgame. "I LOVE THIS GAME!" I yell skyward as the Mets charge out of the dugout.

Now it begins, indeed.

Now it begins held true for the Mets all season long, as if it were a silent rallying cry that nobody ever really knew about. The Mets would win games like this all season long, and although they seemed overmatched, or outmanned, or out of the game, they never gave up. The 88 wins they produced under Bobby Valentine brought hope. The first winning season they'd had in 6 years. A resurgence in Queens, for a team that had been buried in a Bronx Tsunami. The character and resiliency that they began to build this season would carry them to their accomplishments in this year, and beyond, all the way to the NLCS in 1999 and the World Series in 2000. Perhaps it's overly dramatic to think so, but I think of those teams and I think back to this night, and I think about Now It Begins.

Maybe this is where it began.

No comments: