Saturday, October 6, 2012

50 Years in Cards: 2002

Part 41 of our 50-year Mojo...
What is it: 2002 Topps #65, Robin Ventura

What makes it interesting: Yeesh. In an era where Topps got kind of inconsistent with their designs, the 2002s are a complete clusterfuck. The gold borders are back, and there's these garish banners and swooshes...Yuck.

One of the best Free Agent signees in Mets History, Robin Ventura arrived on the Mets in 1999 and immediately made his presence felt. Arriving after 10 very solid seasons with the Chicago White Sox, Ventura had a reputation as a clutch hitter and an outstanding fielder, boasting 5 Gold Gloves at 3rd Base. For the Mets in 1999, he showed both of those qualities in spades. Few Free Agents had ever come to the Mets and had as good and impactful a season as Ventura did in 1999. He first made headlines on May 20th, when he hit Grand Slams in both games of a Doubleheader against the Milwaukee Brewers (oddly, Ventura had also hit 2 Grand Slams in one game in 1995). A few days later, Ventura's 9th inning Home Run off Curt Schilling kicked off a 5-run rally. On June 9th, with the Mets down 3-0 against David Wells in the 9th inning, Ventura came up with 2 men on base and proceeded to work Wells for an 8-pitch at bat before nailing a key 2-run single in another game the Mets would eventually win. Later on in the season, Ventura hit another Grand Slam off Livan Hernandez in San Francisco aiding the Mets to  a 12-5 win. His defense was better than advertised. As the unofficial ringleader of The Best Infield Ever, Ventura played in 160 games and committed 9 errors at 1st Base, numbers good enough to net him his 6th career Gold Glove. But perhaps his biggest impact came off the field, where his generally offbeat, easygoing attitude seemed to keep everyone around him loose. This, combined with his veteran wisdom helped to make him a leader within the team. One day, his offhanded comment about the team "having a good mojo working" led to the "Mr. Mojo Rising" refrain of The Doors "L.A. Woman" becoming the Mets unofficial official song for that season. The Mets were winning games, "L.A. Woman" was blaring throughout Shea Stadium. Ventura was on such a great run that he began to garner "MVP" chants from the crowd. It was a good Summer all around. But Ventura injured his knee in August. He slumped in September, as did the Mets. But just when hope appeared to be dead, Ventura came up with another pair of clutch hits in the final weekend of the season, one to win a game against the Pirates in the 11th inning, and the next night drove home the first run in the 6th inning of a scoreless game as the Mets drew even in the Wildcard Race. Ventura's efforts helped the Mets force and eventually win a Wildcard Play-in Game, and the Mets were in the playoffs for the first time in 11 seasons. For the year, Ventura had an outstanding season, setting career highs with a .301 batting average and 120 RBI, and also added 32 Home Runs, 38 Doubles and scored 88 Runs.

In the playoffs, unfortunately, Ventura, whose knee by this time had worsened to torn cartilage, slumped badly. He hit only .214 with 3 hits against Arizona in the NLDS, and in the NLCS against Atlanta, spent the majority of the series being foiled by John Rocker. Going into the 5th game of that series, Ventura had gone 0-for the Series. He finally lofted a single in the 11th inning of that game for his first hit, but come the 15th inning of that game, it was Ventura who would provide one of the most enduring images in Mets History. Down 3-2, the Mets rallied to tie the game on a Todd Pratt walk. Ventura followed with the bases loaded and 1 out against Braves Rookie Kevin McGlinchy. Ventura rocketed a 2-1 fastball over the 371 sign in right center field for an apparent game-winning Grand Slam. Ventura saw the ball go over the fence, but it's quite possible he was the only Met who did. After rounding first base, despite Ventura waving for him to round the bases, Todd Pratt tackled Ventura in the middle of the field, and he was subsequently swarmed by his celebrating teammates. Unable to finish his trip around the bases (when asked, he told NBC's Craig Sager, "No thanks, I've had enough."), Ventura would be credited with a Grand Slam Single, an unforgettable finish to a 5 hour, 46 minute marathon of a game.

In 2000, Ventura's numbers slacked off a bit, mostly due to a shoulder injury that limited him to 141 games. But, as usual, he made his hits count. He hit another Grand Slam in April against Milwaukee, and on May 21st, he pinch-hit a Home Run in the 8th inning of a game against Arizona to tie the score in a game the Mets would ultimately win. His defense was sterling as usual. He also chipped in with his usual comic relief, providing some levity in a rain delay by putting on a Mike Piazza jersey and fake moustache, and then running on the field and diving around the wet tarp. Though his batting average fell off to .232, he still hit 24 Home Runs and drove in 84 runs as the Mets went back to the postseason. Ventura's postseason in 2000 was mostly similar to his postseason in 1999, minus the Grand Slam Single. He didn't hit for much of an average, but just about every time he did get a hit, it was important. Against the Giants, Ventura hit a 2-run Home Run off Mark Gardner in the 1st inning of game 4, giving the Mets, and Bobby Jones an early lead, allowed Jones to settle in and wipe out the Giants with a 1-hit Shutout. Against the Cardinals in the NLCS, Ventura rang the Mets 4th consecutive Double in the 1st inning of Game 4, driving home 2 runs and giving the Mets a 3-2 lead. He would add another RBI later on in a 10-6 Mets victory. One night later, Ventura scored from 1st Base on a Todd Zeile 3-run Double and jubilantly jumped around and pumped his fists all the way back to the dugout as the Mets coasted to the World Series. Ventura played a key role in the Mets lone victory in the World Series, hitting a 2nd inning Home Run off Orlando Hernandez.

The Mets hoped for a rebound season from Ventura in 2001, and on Opening Day in Atlanta, he hit 2 2-run Home Runs, including one off his old nemesis John Rocker. Unfortunately, that would be one of the high points of his season. Ventura, much like the Mets, never really got going that season. Although he did have his moments, including his 15th career Grand Slam against the Astros, and a Walkoff Home Run against the Phillies in July, Ventura hit .237, with only 21 Home Runs and 61 RBI as the Mets fell short of the Postseason.

Following the season, believing that Ventura's most productive days were behind him, the Mets dealt Ventura to the Yankees. In his 3 seasons with the Mets, Ventura hit .260 with 77 Home Runs, 260 RBI and left behind countless great memories, and in general, a favorable response from Mets fans. Ventura would go on to have an All Star season for the Yankees in 2002, but after that found his skills diminsh, mostly due to the lingering effects of a terrible ankle injury he suffered while with the White Sox in 1997. Ventura would ultimately be forced to retire after the 2004 season due to this, but a 2005 operation corrected his arthritic condition. Ventura would be on hand for the closing ceremony at Shea Stadium in 2008, receiving a warm welcome back from the Mets fans, who will always remember him for the impact he had in 1999. and the positive mojo he helped to create.

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