Friday, November 28, 2008

Lost Classics: May 5, 2004

This was part of a 3-way tie for the winner of the Choose the Lost Classic for 2004 poll (Remember that? Took me long enough to get to it!).

At the beginning of the 2004 season, the New York Mets consisted of Mike Piazza, Tom Glavine and a bunch of other guys who wouldn't amount to much. Jose Reyes, the franchise future, was battling hamstring issues. The pitching staff was full of scrubs and retreads. In short, the franchise was headed nowhere fast.

Which is, more than likely, why I didn't attend my first game of the season until May 5th.

On May 5th, the Mets stood at a mediocre 11-15, in 4th place, 4 games behind whoever. It was just another one of those nondescript weekday night games I was so fond of attending. El Guapo was with me. It was a first of sorts for him. Having just moved to New York during the Winter, this was the first time he'd been to a Regular Season Mets game. His first trip to Shea, 4 years prior, produced a particularly memorable result. I reminded him, as we rode out to Shea, that not all games would turn out like that. In fact, this game would be similar in opponent only, as the Mets would take on the San Francisco Giants.

But, as it turned out, I would be wrong. This night would produce a particularly memorable result.

It was a damp Wednesday night, with a sparse crowd of 19,974 in attendance. At least that was the paid crowd. There may not have been that many people. Jae Seo, fresh off a passably marginal 2003 season, took the mound for the Mets, opposed by Jerome Williams for the Giants. Seo allowed a leadoff single to Brian Dallimore, then picked him off, before retiring J.T. Snow and Marquis Grissom to set the Giants down.

In the bottom of the first, Kaz Matsui and Todd Zeile both flied out. Mike Piazza followed.

Mike Piazza, now one of only four players remaining from the glory days of 1999 and 2000 (Joe McEwing, Al Leiter and John Franco the others; Todd Zeile was there, but he had shuffled between a few teams between then and now) was no longer the feared slugger he once was. That much was evdent. The years of Catching had begun to take their toll on Mike, and the talk was prevalent that he should move to First Base to try to prolong his career. Mike would have none of that. There was a record he was chasing. It was Carlton Fisk's record for HRs by a Catcher, 351. It would be Mike's destiny to make that record his own. His Hall of Fame ballot was certainly assured, however this record would surely make it unanimous. And he strode to the plate on this evening tied with Carlton Fisk at 351.

"Watch him break it here," I said to El Guapo.

Piazza had a habit of, more often than not, hitting a HR in my first game of the season. He'd done so in 1999, 2000 and 2001.
Mike worked the count to 3-1 against Williams, then swung and belted a long, high drive out towards the scoreboard in Right Center. Fittingly, the Piazza Zone. I could tell it off the bat, and I threw my arms up and laughed. There, finally, was the record. The icing on the cake of a brilliant career. Mike kept his date with destiny and got a long, loud standing ovation. Well deserved, and well-earned.

"Mazel Tov. Now, grab that First Baseman's mitt, Mike." I said.

The major plotline of the night now put to bed, we sat back for the rest of the game. And things would get a little wet, and a little hairy before things finally settled themselves.

The Giants tied the game in the top of the 2nd. Jeffrey Hammonds drilled a double over Mike Cameron's head in Center and Edgardo Alfonzo, who got a standing ovation of his own...however only from El Guapo and Myself, followed with a sharp single back up the middle to score Hammonds.

The Mets, however, would strike right back, with Mike Cameron drawing a walk, Danny Garcia getting hit by a pitch, and Jae Seo dropping down a brilliant bunt, directly down the 3rd base line. Jerome Williams ran over to pick it up, spun and threw to first, and threw it away. Cameron scampered home on the error to give the Mets the lead.

It was already raining in the top of the 5th, and raining pretty good when Neifi Perez led off with a double, was sacrifieced to 3rd by Williams. Ricky Bottalico took over for Seo and promptly allowed a Sacrifice Fly to Dallimore. All of a sudden, now, the game was tied 2-2, with the weather deteriorating. After the Mets went down 1-2-3 in the last of the 5th, the grounds crew was summoned and the tarp was pulled on the field. Great. Rain Delay. And this was back when an official game that was tied and called was erased. What a burn. El Guapo and I stood in the ramps discussing this. We could only imagine what was going on in the mind of Fran Healy, he who loved to repeat things over and over again in his horrible warbling voice.

"He had to break the record...TWICE!" El Guapo yelled, doing his best Fran impression. We figured he would probably say this about 20 times. "He broke the record...TWICE!"

The Rain Delay continued on for an hour and 19 minutes, and about 134 repetitions of the phrase "He had to break the record...TWICE!" before things resumed. And with the top of the 6th underway and Bottalico taking the mound, I turned to El Guapo and said, "So I guess this means that Fran will say, 'He didn't have to break the record...TWICE!'"

No, he wouldn't. But the Mets still had to win the game. And as the bullpens took over, the game rapidly moved into the later innings. Bottalico got through the 6th in order. Tyler Walker retired the Mets in the bottom half. John Franco came in in the 7th and had a typical John Franco inning, replete with a walk, a full count and a strikeout, but no runs. Felix Rodriguez got the Mets in order in the bottom half. David Weathers took over in the 8th and got the Giants without any trouble. Now, things were getting a little restless. After the Rain Delay, it was beginning to get a little late, approaching 11pm. Rodriguez started the 8th by getting Matsui to strike out. Zeile singled, but Piazza's long drive to center died at the Warning Track. Felipe Alou came out and decided he would get cute, removing Rodriguez in favor of lefty Scott Eyre, as Karim Garcia came to the plate. This was the state of the 2004 Mets: Batting Cleanup, Karim Garcia, replete with "Low Rider" as his At-Bat music. The sign of a real winner, and a winning team. But Garcia persevered, punching a single to left-center to prolong the inning. Matt Herges was summoned to get the next batter, Shane Spencer. Herges, the Giants closer, was also supposed to shore up the pitching staff of El Guapo's Fantasy Team. He instead did a fabulous job of handing the game to the Mets. First, Spencer smashed a long drive to deep left-center, banging off the front of the bleachers and bouncing back onto the field. Grissom picked up the ball and fired it back in, but it was over the fence, a 3-run HR to give the Mets a 5-2 lead. Herges then walked Jason Phillips, then gave up another HR, this one a no-doubt bomb to Mike Cameron. That was it for Herges, as an indignant Alou removed him from the game, in favor of David Aardsma. Aardsma didn't fare so well either, hitting Garcia and then giving up hits to Eric Valent and Kaz Matsui, plating another run. All of a sudden, this squeaker had turned decidedly in the Mets favor, and when Orber Moreno came in and set the Giants down quietly, the Mets had an 8-2 victory, their 3rd win in a row, and Piazza officially had his HR Record.
The Mets would go on to win the following night on an 11th inning Walk-Off HR by Piazza, a much more dramatic blast than his record breaker turned out to be. But the record is the record. And he didn't have to break it twice, and he wasn't even getting a divorce. His record of 396 HRs as a Catcher stands to remain for quite some time.

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