Tuesday, February 11, 2014

30 Days In October?

A most interesting question was posed today by Greg over at Faith and Fear in Flushing, asking Mets fans which, of the seasons that resulted in Met Playoff appearances, would you choose to go back and have them win the World Series. The options, of course, 1973, 1988, 1999, 2000 and 2006, all of them beloved seasons in their own right, but of course a difficult question to answer.

My first thought upon reading Greg's post was to think 2006, of course, that was the most recent and a World Series Championship paints the Willie/Omar era Mets in a different light. Perhaps the subsequent years play out differently and instead of the Black Hole that eventually occurred, the Mets could have become a dynasty in their own right. 1988 was also an attractive choice. It could have profoundly affected 9-year old me as a Mets fan. The Mets loss in that year's NLCS in many ways ruined a once-happy childhood and led to years of Met-induced frustration and embarrassment, and Dodger-loathing that exists to the current day (at least by 2006, I already hated the Cardinals).

But in the end, I come back to 1999. I keep coming back to 1999.

It's no secret that the 1999 Mets are my favorite edition of the team. The 1999 Mets kept absorbing blows and indignities from external sources all season long, and yet every time managed to get up off the mat and fight back, resulting in a 173-game wild ride that provided endless heroics and memories that live on in team lore. That season, I attended 29 games in the regular season, plus one Postseason game that I rank as the single best Mets game I've ever attended. The season ended bitterly, but in a manner that left such an immense feeling of pride. I've lionized that team to the point where, several years ago, I attempted to recapture the emotions of that memorable October run in a 9-blog "Miniseries," that I titled "20 Days in October." But what if that run extended beyond October 20th? How would that have played out?

Here's what I think happened. You can read about the first 10 2/3 innings here.

Kenny Rogers attempts one more time to try to slip that slow curve past Andruw Jones. Jones swings at the 3-2 and cracks a line drive that appears destined for Center Field and a game-winning hit. But Rogers sticks his glove out and snatches the ball out of the air. With the runners taking off with the pitch, Rogers has ample time to throw to John Olerud at 1st and double off a sorely confused Brian Jordan.

Energized by yet another great escape, the Mets charge off the field and rally against Russ Springer in the top of the 12th Inning. Daryl Hamilton leads off with a single, his 4th hit of the game, and Benny Agbayani works his 3rd walk. Rey Ordonez, who'd been bedeviled by the sacrifice bunt throughout the series, finally lays one down to move the runners up and set the stage for Melvin Mora, the upstart who'd been stealing the show in this series in spite of only appearing in 66 games and 31 At Bats in the regular season, to continue his heroics by nailing a 2-run single that gives the Mets a 11-9 lead. In the bottom of the inning, Octavio Dotel relieves Rogers. He strikes out Greg Myers before allowing a 1-out single to Ryan Klesko. Ozzie Guillen, who tied the game off Benitez in the 10th, pops out to Olerud. The pitchers' spot follows for Atlanta, but Bobby Cox, who's already exhausted the entirety of his bench, is forced to counter with Greg Maddux (his only other options being his Game 7 starter Tom Glavine and Kevin McGlinchy, who lost Game 5 along with his manager's confidence). Maddux is able to get his bat on a couple of pitches from Dotel but ultimately can only ground into a Fielder's Choice to Ordonez, ending the game and giving the Mets a heartstopping 11-9 victory, knotting the series and setting up what looks to be a Game 7 for the ages.

Game 7, on a Wednesday night, pits Rick Reed on 3 days' rest for the Mets against Tom Glavine. The Braves fans, who haven't exactly made their presence felt throughout this series, are barely audible as the game begins. Multitudes of Mets fans have made the journey south and the "Let's Go Mets!" chants have begun to drown out the tomahawk chop. Having finally broken their Atlanta hex and one win away from accomplishing what's being widely discussed as the Greatest Comeback in Baseball History, the Mets storm Glavine early. Edgardo Alfonzo hits a solo Home Run with 1 out in the 1st, and John Olerud follows with one of his own. Reed, who pitched so well through 7 innings in Game 4, is masterful against a Braves team that's completely shell-shocked. The Mets extend their lead in the 5th, as the Mets load the bases against a tiring Glavine, then see them cleared when Robin Ventura hits a 2-run Double, Benny Agbayani follows with an RBI Sac Fly and Melvin Mora knocks an RBI single, extending the Met lead to 6-0. There's some tension in the late innings, though. Reed gives up a 2-run Home Run to Chipper Jones, who'd been mostly silent in this series, in the 7th, and is pulled for the Dennis Cook-Turk Wendell-John Franco combo. In the top of the 8th, John Rocker enters the game and petulantly throws at Ventura, who laughs as he trots to first and then laughs some more when Agbayani belts the next pitch into the seats in Left. Bobby Cox immediately removes Rocker, who's booed off the mound by both Mets and Braves fans who have grown tired of his act, and in the dugout, he's shunned by his teammates and eventually slinks off into the clubhouse. In the end, it's Franco on the mound in the 9th who gets Brian Jordan to fly out to Mora, closing out an 8-2 Mets victory. They've accomplished what many thought was impossible and rallied back from a 3-0 deficit, winning the last two games in Atlanta to move on to the World Series. The scene in the locker room is bedlam. Bobby Valentine proclaims this "The Greatest moment of my career," and "All year long I told you about the character these guys have, and they've proved it every step of the way." Series MVP John Olerud, in his normal taciturn fashion says, "It's great." Turk Wendell takes a shot at Chipper Jones, saying "Maybe the Yankees will send him a cap!"

The scene in New York is electric as the City gears up for the first Subway Series since 1956. Though the Yankees are slight favorites, and well-rested, the Mets Mojo is virtually unstoppable. In the opener at Shea on Saturday night, October 23rd, Masato Yoshii is brilliant over 6 innings. Edgardo Alfonzo hits a 4th inning Home Run off Orlando Hernandez and the Mets cruise to a 4-1 victory. It's El Duque's first ever postseason loss. Armando Benitez allows 2 men on in the 9th inning, but strikes out Paul O'Neill on a high fastball to close things out. Al Leiter, who was hit hard on short rest in Game 6 in Atlanta, comes back on full rest in Game 2 and continues on his hot streak, pitching shutout ball into the late innings. David Cone is sharp, too, and the game is scoreless going into the last of the 7th. The Mets are finally able to break through when Joe Girardi throws a Rey Ordonez sacrifice bunt attempt into Center Field. Melvin Mora hits for Leiter and does what it seems he's been doing all Postseason: get hits with men on base. His 2-run single breaks the ice. A solo Home Run by Derek Jeter off Wendell in the 8th is all the Yankees can muster and the Mets win 2-1 as the series moves to the Bronx with the Mets leading 2-0.

And just as quickly, the series is tied. Andy Pettitte shuts out the Mets on 5 hits in Game 3. Rick Reed only allows 3 runs in 7 innings but takes the hard-luck loss. The Yankees batter Rogers in Game 4. Mike Piazza, who continues to battle despite nursing several injuries, hits a Home Run off Roger Clemens for his first hit of the series, perhaps a sign that he's starting to come out of his slump, but it's not enough as the Yankees win 7-2. Game 5 is a tense battle. Yoshii and Hernandez match up again and pitch well, but the Yankees grab a 3-2 lead in the 8th inning off of Dennis Cook. Things seem grim for the Mets, they're primed to drop their 3rd straight game in the Bronx as The Great Rivera takes the mound to close things out in the 9th. Edgardo Alfonzo works a 1-out walk, but Olerud is jammed by a cutter and his slow roller to Tino Martinez is the second out. This brings up Piazza, who earlier in the game just barely got under a pitch from El Duque, flying out to the warning track in Right. Fans of both teams are on their feet, too tense to sit down. Piazza waves at a cutter and watches a couple more, leaving the count at 1-2. We all know what pitch is coming. Rivera deals and Piazza takes a mighty hack. This time he connects, a towering blast headed straight down the Left Field line towards the corner. Piazza grimaces and tries to use a little Carlton Fisk-esque body english to nudge that ball fair, and he's successful in doing so, as the ball lands in the Upper Deck for a 2-run Home Run that amazingly gives the Mets the lead. Stunned, the Yankees go down meekly in the 9th.

Shea Stadium is a madhouse on Saturday night, October 30th, as the Mets, behind Al Leiter, close out the Yankees, who come out in a stupor, not having recovered from the shock of Piazza's blast. Robin Ventura hits a pair of Home Runs off Cone and John Olerud adds another, while Alfonzo knocks out 4 hits as the Mets roll to an 8-0 victory, winning the final game of the 20th Century and bringing home their 3rd World Series Championship. Afterward, Bobby Valentine proclaims the 1999 Mets "The Greatest Mets team ever assembled." Reserve Outfielder Shawon Dunston, tears streaming down his cheeks, gives his now-legendary "I am so proud to be a Met" speech. The quote is posted above the doors to the Mets Hall of Fame and Museum at Citi Field. Piazza, who played the entire month on fumes, is jubilant, saying "This is why I stayed here! Winning a World Series outdistances anything I've ever accomplished in my career."

Many Mets fans agree with Valentine. The 1999 team lives forever in the hearts of Mets fans. Players like Turk Wendell and Dennis Cook are treated like folk heroes and Wendell continues to serve as a club ambassador. Melvin Mora goes on to take over as the starting Shortstop after Rey Ordonez's injury in 2000 and ultimately ends up Wally Pipp-ing him. The keystone combination of Mora and Edgardo Alfonzo becomes one of the league's best DP combos. Bobby Valentine is forever remembered as a master motivator who got the most out of his entire roster. Mike Piazza gets elected to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot in 2013, and the Mets retire his number 31 in celebration. The ceremony concludes with Piazza throwing out the game's first pitch to 1999's World Series MVP Edgardo Alfonzo, then announcing that the Mets will retire Fonzie's number 13 the following season as part of the celebration of the '99 Miracle Mets' 15th Anniversary. And in the Winter of 2007, I write a 14-part epic masterpiece detailing the '99 Mets magnificent October journey, "30 Days In October."

Sound good? I like it too.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Into The Flood Again

Watching the Seattle Seahawks win Super Bowl XLVIII on Sunday night was about as fun for me as watching the Phillies win the World Series in 2008.

This game made me angry. But the more I thought about it, I wasn't angry that the Seahawks, who knocked the 49ers out of the Playoffs two weeks prior, won the game. I was angry at the Denver Broncos, who put forth one of the more pathetic efforts I've ever seen in a Championship game. The Seahawks earned every bit of their resounding 43-8 victory, which was a team effort from the top down. They were the better team on the field and the results showed. I can't take that away from them, much as it pains me to do so.

The problem with the game was that the Seahawks came out and played the game like they were playing in the Super Bowl. The Broncos seemed to move around like they were playing a Week 2 matchup against the Gnats or some similarly terrible team. The Broncos looked comically disjointed, while the Seahawks defense just completely overwhelmed them. The first snap of the game went over Peyton Manning's head and ended up a Safety for the Seahawks, and the Broncos never recovered.

Scant consolation that it was, I had to think that the 49ers probably helped the Seahawks win the game as resoundingly as they did. The Broncos kind of waltzed through their AFC Championship game with the Patriots without ever really being seriously challenged. The NFC Championship game was an all-out war, a life-and-death battle that seemed Operatic in execution, with ebbs and flows in momentum, tragic injuries and a down-to-the-wire finish that I still haven't gotten over (to wit: when asked by a friend if I had plans for the game, I said I hadn't, primarily because I just had no juice left to get excited for the game. I'd burned myself out on the 49ers playoff run). It's not farfetched to think that the pace and intensity of the 49ers game elevated Seattle's play to a level that the Broncos were completely unequipped to match. Richard Sherman, in a rare display of credit to the 49ers, indicated as much on Sunday, saying that the "NFC Championship was the real Super Bowl."

Lost in the hoopla of the Super Bowl itself, and the Sherman hijinx (and Colin Kaepernick's rebuttal) is the fact that the 49ers went into an impossible place to win in Seattle and were one play away from coming away with a win. But they didn't make that play, and instead the Seahawks went on to the Super Bowl and did what the 49ers couldn't do last year: Win it. Richard Sherman said "the 49ers were the second-best team in the NFL," which is hard to argue with, but that's not going to make anybody on the 49ers or anyone who roots for the 49ers feel any better.

This rivalry is only going to get more intense going forward, and certainly Sherman and Kaepernick have become pretty outspoken about it. Certainly, Kaepernick showed a good deal of leadership and moxie by not taking things lying down, but now he's got to go out and back it up. He's got to be the one to kick the door down if the 49ers are going to break through in Seattle. Beating the 49ers in the NFC Championship and then going on to win the Super Bowl gives the Seahawks a serious leg up in this budding rivalry. The 49ers have been on the doorstep 3 years in a row but haven't broken through yet. Though crowned heads roll, I'm certain that neither of these teams are going away and their two matchups will be the most highly-anticipated games of the season. But the difference now is that the Seahawks are going to be coming in as defending Super Bowl Champions, while the 49ers are just a really good team that can't finish the deal. Don't think the 49ers won't be reminding themselves of this at every turn.