The Almost Official Site of Author Matthew Silverman


I’m happy to announce that we’ve been able to put all of last year’s “Best Days at Shea” into a more readable format and have made it simpler to find most other posts as well. In honor of that engineering feat by my cousin the webmaster Blair Rafuse, I’ve completed the Epilogue to “Best Days at Shea.” It’s a countdown that ended with the Dykstra Game in 1986, the best game I ever saw at the Big Shea, though some would probably argue with that. Still I needed some sort of ending, and I did go to the other two games in that NLCS. Blame the Marlins, Brewers, Cubs, or anyone you like for my disinterest in getting this done during the off season. But it’s here now. As the Bartles & Jaymes boys liked to say back in 1986, “Thanks for your support.” 

Top 10 Shea Moments

(For the last go round at Shea Stadium, I counted down my 10 favorite games at Shea that I have witnessed. I chronicle the greatest moments at Shea in both Meet the Mets 2008 and 100 Things Mets Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die, but though these games all have some historical significance in Mets history, this list is based on being there in the flesh. And what it felt like at Shea on that date.)

Epilogue

The Kid Comes Through

Smitty’s car pulled away and I suddenly realized that I had no way in. As someone who always lived in places where cars were the only way to get anywhere, I did not know what to do without one. My car was in Virginia and my keys were on the other side of a door, at the bottom of a large shellacked wooden key with special nails in it, courtesy of a rainy day from Camp Pelican’s arts and crafts room circa 1977, a time where I could never have imagined the Mets would be in the playoffs. Now they were and I had my own keys to hang on the bottom rung of the big wooden key. But now it was raining, a little after 1 a.m., and I was locked out.

Smitty and I had just watched the most depressing Mets postseason game I’d ever seen at Shea Stadium. Mike Scott utterly shut down the Mets, crushing the “go” out of the incessant “Let’s Go Mets Go” song blaring over the sound system every inning during Game 4, just 30 hours after the most exhilarating Mets postseason game I’d ever seen at Shea Stadium. Granted, these were the first two Mets postseason games I’d ever seen at Shea Stadium—in person, or otherwise—but my emotions had run the gamut way too quickly after such a long wait. Now I would have to wait outside in the bitter chill until someone inside woke up. Once they were asleep, my parents were not prone to waking from a pebble tossed up at a window (I tried) and our Siberian husky never barked. Joker only looked at me for a few minutes through the glass and then curled up to go back to sleep.

There was a covered porch that would keep me dry but not warm. I lay on the summer recliner vinyl seat now frosty cold, zipped up, pulled my hat down, and hunkered in to wait for the chilly dawn.

Sometime after 4 a.m. the rain let up and I decided to walk to IBM complex on Westchester Avenue and use the pay phone. A mile is a long way to walk at that time of night in a cell phone-free age. My mom picked up the phone—I think I muttered “I’m locked out” so as to lessen any parent panic of the nightmare 5 a.m. call—and she handed the phone to my dad. He dutifully drove down and picked me up. I crawled up to my room, finally. The dog silently curled next to my bed, visions of Mike Scott’s dancing split-finger chased me to sleep. Until a few hours later, when it was time to go back to Shea.

I brought my luggage with me for the Monday matinee—a Columbus Day special so as not to conflict with Monday Night Football (hey, we’re talking Bengals-Steelers—go Boomer!), though it was clear the whole time there would be no baseball game at Shea. We waited with the network anyway and when ABC officially switched back to its soap opera schedule, I had a big decision to make: skip another day’s classes—now cutting into the more-concentrated Tuesday-Thursday portion of the week—or watch the game on TV...and cutting class to do so. I made the only decision a responsible young Mets fan could make.

My dad was mildly surprised to see me in the house watching TV when he returned home from work, still looking a little tired from his 5 a.m. wakeup call and driving in and out of the city in an all-day rain. I explained to him my logic, promised great grades when it all came to pass, and told him he would definitely not see me sitting there when Tuesday night rolled around. I posed for the rest of the night with Faulkner’s Go Down Moses in my lap for Dr. Lape’s Southern Lit class, but with every Faulknerian flashback in the book, I had flashbacks of my own to seeing Mike Scott once more. Heavy with symbolism and no chance of escaping the Bear either in Faulkner’s Mississippi or Houston’s Astrodome.

The Mets had one chance to avoid their own downfall. They had to win Game 5 in Flushing and then have Bobby O. beat Bobby Knepper in Game 6. They could do it! Doc Gooden was on the hill—with an extra day’s rest!—against Nolan Ryan. Talk about an ex-Met now pitching for Houston that could give you nightmares.

For that day, though, it didn’t matter. When Duck’s dad picked us up to take us to the White Plains train station to go to Grand Central and then pick up the 7 Train to Shea, luggage in tow of course, he berated us the whole short drive from my house to the station as idiots damned by God or someone else and wasting everyone’s time going out to throw away another day in the rain waiting on a game that wouldn’t be played.

Duck and I did indeed feel like Goddamned idiots, though there were enough of our ilk aboard the same idiot’s express for me to have to sit on the floor with my bag because there was no seat on the 7. I somehow fell asleep in that position with my head on the suitcase when the sound of sloshing feet woke me. Duck looked down at me and said ominously, “We’re here.”

So was the rain, which pelted us down the stairs until we found cover again inside Shea. The tickets gotten by my dad—the Davey Johnson of patience in the year of our Lord 1986—included a Diamond Club pass. We met Singer there and had a long lunch and talked about what might be done with these tickets since we all were under the same constraints of needing to go back to school post haste. Duck and Singer were three hours away at Williams, but I needed LaGuardia’s help to get me to school in time for Southern Lit at 9:30 the next day. I’d be seeing Doc Lape not Doc Gooden. After some Diamond Club burgers and beers at the modestly crowded bar, I gathered my luggage and walked through the portal—the same one I’d walked through the day Tom Seaver came back and I witnessed something I thought I’d never see again. This time the seemingly lost idol was the sun. The tarp was coming off the field. Play friggin’ ball!

The Mets media guide says that afternoon’s crowd was 54,986. Chop 20,000 or so off that and you may be getting close. No knock on Mets fans, the weather—and the weatherman—gave little hint of any “window” that would let this game be played. Now it was actually a little warm as Gooden set down the ’stros in the first. Ryan was showing how it was supposed to be done, though. Eight of the first 12 hitters struck out and he retired everyone he faced. He had a 1-0 lead because Gooden—like a determined caboose on this day next to The Ryan Express—had coughed up a run in the top of the fifth. Gary Carter—when last seen had been collecting scuffed balls in the dugout and whining bitterly about Mike Scott’s cheating in Game 4—flied out to lead off the home fifth. The game was almost half over and the Mets hadn’t sniffed a baserunner. Imagine the irony if the guy the Mets had traded away when I was in first grade—and who’d thrown five no-hitters since then—tossed a perfect game against the Mets in a postseason game when I was a college upperclassman.

Up stepped Strawberry. Though never my favorite Met then or now, he had two great moments in this remarkable NLCS. The first had come three days earlier when with the Mets down three, he’d homered with on against the lefty Knepper. Now, with Ryan looking completely unhittable, Straw pulled a ball down the line. It landed just above the fence and just to the good side of the foul pole—I could almost hear Tim McCarver opining, a la Warner Wolf, to a disinterested Keith Jackson that it should be called a “fair pole.” Call it what you will, but in the moderately empty mezzanine we were calling it tied.

Gooden somehow only allowed the one run on Bill Doran force play…while it was no surprise that Straw’s homer was Ryan’s lone blemish. Ryan was removed for a pinch hitter in the 10th. With Gooden still on the mound, Astros manager Hal Lanier—who’d originally penciled in rookie Jim Deshaies to start this game—maybe thought the tiring Gooden would serve up a meatball. Terry Puhl, Astros nemesis of days gone by, singled and then stole second. After a walk to pesky Bill Doran, Billy Hatcher flied out to end the inning. The 1986 season was not Doc’s finest—certainly not when compared to utterly dominant ’85—nor did his ’86 postseason reach Docensian expectations when the World Series is factored in, but he was brilliant against the Astros. He allowed just two runs in 18 innings with a loss and a no-decision to show for it. Gooden danced through 10 innings, allowing runners in seven of those frames while permitting nine hits and two walks, but allowing only one run…and on a fielder’s choice at that.

The Mets bullpen won this series and Houston’s pen coughed it up. But we didn’t know it at the time. Loud mouth Charlie Kerfeld —a right-handed and more right-wing version of John Rocker—was superb in Ryan’s stead. He retired all six batters he faced in the 10th and 11th and got an extra inning to pitch because Jesse Orosco made quick work of the Astros and Kerfeld’s spot wasn’t scheduled to come up until the 13th. There’d be no 13th and it was all Big Mouth Charlie’s fault.

He got Len Dykstra to ground right to Glenn Davis at first to give him seven straight Mets retired and 14 in a row set down by Houston pitching. The infield hit by Backman that followed was just the third hit of the game for the Mets and the first since Keith Hernandez had singled in the seventh.

With Hernandez up in the 12th, Kerfeld tried to pick off Backman and threw it away. With Backman on second now, Lanier went with the logical choice and walked Hernandez to get to Carter. It was the third time they’d done it in the series. The first two times Carter had been retired. The third time would be the charm.

In Game 3, Kerfeld had fielded a Carter grounder behind his back and pointed at Kid before throwing him out. Carter, still angry about that incident, Scott’s scuffballs, and his 1-for-21 slump in the series, watched the first three pitches for balls—“please, please, please walk him and let Straw hit, please”—and then two straight strikes—“please don’t hit in a double play, please, please, please don’t hit into a double play.” He hit the payoff pitch up the middle again. This time it wound up in center field. Hatcher’s throw to the plate and he is…safe! Safe! SAFE!

Singer and I jumped up and down and the whole place felt like one big high-five and maybe a hug. There was still a lot of work to do. Southern Lit and Civil War for me—the school was, after all, in Virginia, suh—and Bob Knepper and the Astrodome for the Mets. I’d be out of class and waiting for them when Game 6 started, hoping against hope they could avoid a seventh game and Scott showdown. Maybe they’ll get a big lead and cruise in Game 6. I couldn’t think of a better way to clinch a pennant.

I beat the Mets to LaGuardia. A friend of Duck’s gave me a lift on that group’s drive back to Williamstown. I caught my flight with about 20 minutes to spare. (About the 10th inning I’d decided I was going to stay until the end no matter if I missed the last Piedmont Airlines flight of the day; I’d go through Baltimore, Richmond, Timbuktu…) I glimpsed Shea still twinkling out a window as I headed south. Craning my neck to see that big round ashtray perfectly situated in the window across the aisle. That’s how I’ll always remember Shea: Triumphant in the setting October sun, slipping out of sight, with my every hope and dream inside her, waiting for it to all come true.

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April 7, 2008

#10. April 5, 1983 Tom Seaver Returns

Tom Seaver was my hero. Even when I didn’t know anything about baseball and I realized that no, Dave Kingman was not going to hit a home run every time up, there was the genius of Seaver. At age 10, as a newbie Mets fan, I watched Seaver’s last great Mets season of 1975. I learned the game quickly while following his starts. I drew his picture and colored it in while the game blared on. I studied Seaver’s statistics and learned what they meant. He was on the cover of the Mets yearbook—still just a buck—with baseball representing his consecutive years of 200 strikeouts in the shape of a “seven.” The images inside the yearbook were strange: a rookie John Stearns and oft-injured veteran Bud Harrelson both sporting mustaches, Felix Millan without one, Jerry Koosman pitching in shades, and a full-color photo of new acquisition Joe Torre looking like he’d make a good manager some day…just not with the Mets.

By 1982 the Torre era at Shea was over, Kingman had been traded away and then sent for again, and all four players “acquired” in the infamous June 15, 1977 trade that changed my baseball childhood—Pat Zachry, Doug Flynn, Steve Henderson, and Dan Norman—had been dispatched from Shea. Zachry was the last to go, sent to Los Angeles in December 1982 for Jorge Orta, who would be traded to Toronto a few weeks later for pitcher Steve Senteney (there’s a reason you don’t remember that name). When announcing the trade of Zachry, GM Frank Cashen said the Mets wanted to “go with our young pitching in ’83 and in the future.” Meanwhile, Cashen had just traded for 38-year-old Tom Seaver.

There weren’t many Mets fans in 1982 who didn’t know Tom Seaver. That was mainly because the team had gained very few fans—and most of those had the Mets forced on them by parents as if baseball were caster oil—during Seaver’s nearly six years of exile. Meanwhile, the club had lost 407,530 fans—using the turnstile differential—between Seaver’s last great season in 1975 and 1982. Another Cincinnati acquiree, George Foster, along with reluctant new manager George Bamberger, had been part of a failed ’82 marketing scheme to transform the dreary Mets into something…well, interesting. They couldn’t, by George. But maybe George Thomas Seaver could; even if Seaver was old and the Mets still stunk. We were certainly accustomed to the stench coming from Flushing. At least now we had the man denied us since ’77.

I had never been to Opening Day. To be honest, I’d never given it much thought before, but from January 1983 on, I had my own scheme set on how to get into Shea for Opening Day. The problem was, April 5 was a Tuesday, a school day. It was the first day back after spring vacation. We had Monday off because it was the day after Easter. I perpetuated the idea in our house that we had Tuesday off, too. It made sense to busy parents. If I had truthfully explained the situation, I might get an official okay, but if I asked and was denied, there’d be no Seaver return at Shea for me. And just that fall I’d been denied a chance to go see the Who at Shea because of a…let’s just call it a parent–child misunderstanding. And since my dad had access to first row seats in the mezzanine, could I really take the chance of being denied? Hey, I was a senior in high school, I had registered for the Selective Service just in case we needed to muster up a civilian force of slackers, the drinking age had been moved from 18 to 19 just in time to affect my “social life,” and I had actually been accepted at more than one college, something that when the previous baseball season had ended, seemed as unlikely as the Mets getting back Tom Seaver. In short, these were topsy-turvy times. And this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance for a long-suffering fan. All that was left was to inform school, which wasn’t afraid to call up and inquire about unexcused absences.

I recalled an early episode of Rhoda where Valerie Harper called her boss in Minneapolis to tell him she was sick. Actually, she was in New York looking for a job. Rhoda/Valerie wrapped herself in a blanket and, I guess, let the phlegm build up in her throat before making the call. I set the same scene before calling the school office. “I’m really not feeling well (cough! cough!) and I can’t make it to school today.” There was a pause. “Okay. Hope you feel better.” Oh, I would.

My friends Lerno, Des, and Duck—all with their own excuses—piled into the Monte Carlo (it was the early ’80s) and headed to Shea for our first Opener. Only during Jacket Night in 1980 had I ever experienced traffic caused by a Mets game. From White Plains, we had driven many a time to Shea in just over 20 minutes. For those trips, only a peak at the sparsley scattered dots of people in the second and third decks from the Grand Central confirmed that yes, the game on the radio was indeed being played at Shea and not somewhere else. Despite the Opening Day hysteria, it would be like that again. (The Mets actually drew 210,262 fewer fans for finishing last with Seaver and Strawberry and Hernandez and Messy Jesse than they had while reaching the basement in less interesting fashion in ’82. Go figure.)

On Opening Day 1983, though, cars of every size were lined up on the ramp leading down to Shea. Lerno came up with a driving mantra that some still follow to this day, “When driving in New York, you either be a dick or get dicked.” We entered the stadium early, quaffed a forbidden beer at the Diamond Club, and casually headed toward our seats. I had walked through the portal many times before, but this time I felt a surge that I thought had been trademarked by weepy old Yankees or Brooklyn Dodgers fans when speaking about their first games as children. As several people in front of me clutched their tickets nervously and slowed everyone’s progress, the noise from outside reached in and pulled me toward it. I felt myself push forward, past the unsure, and moved quickly toward the bright 70-degree sunshine. I moved faster, like I was underwater and I must reach the surface to breathe. I got closer and closer to the light until the sun and the roar enveloped me. Not from people at Yankee Stadium or from some distant team on TV playing an October game. The noise was here. At Shea.

The team was on the field. And the fans were standing. But there was no pitcher. PA announcer Fran Franchetti simply said, “…and pitching, number 41…” I don’t know about the other 48,681 people there that day, but I felt chills and a tightness in my throat as Seaver walked in from the bullpen amid the din. I reached the seats, though I did not sit down. Neither did anyone else for five minutes. I recently saw a clip from the Kiner’s Korner from that day and Tom Seaver, the ultimate pro, said he had a hard time concentrating. He said he’d never experienced an ovation like that before. Then he started the game began by blowing away Pete Rose.

I was as in awe of the response as I was of the man. I number every Mets game I witnessed prior to that moment—even the couple of Seaver starts I saw before the ’77 trade—as having been from another lifetime. As if they were in black and white with occasional spots of color. Like the ’75 yearbook.

I have always felt bad that I lied to go to that game. But I have never felt bad that I was there. Seaver didn’t even get the win—Doug Sisk did!—and Opening Day right fielder Mike Howard drove in the first run in a 2–0 win in what turned out to be the last career at-bat. The Mets beat the eventual National League champs—and defending Cy Young winner Steve Carlton—but the rest of the season was sort of a dress rehearsal of a play that wasn’t yet ready for Broadway. Seaver went 9–14 despite a 3.55 ERA and was lost a second time to the club in a free-agent compensation snafu. (Seems that Cashen line about wanting to go with young pitching wasn’t something he used on Pat Zachry.) But as a Mets fan, it’s imperative that you learn to let unfathomable transactions go: Ryan, Seaver, Dykstra, Kazmir, Milledge. Because it just seems to happen a lot. Mets stripes are awarded for such feats of suffering.

Twenty-five years ago this week and I can still hear that roar. It was the perfect moment based on pure emotion and had nothing to do with what happened on the field. It was both reflective and anticipatory at the same time. It was the first sustained roar I ever heard at Shea Stadium and it is something I will be thinking of when I leave the place for the last time. Truthfully.

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May 5, 2008

#9. October 3, 2004 Les Morts

“…by this consideration of another’s danger I take mine own into contemplation…”

John Donne, For Whom the Bell Tolls, 1623

Baseball helps us mark the time when things are good and pass the time when things are not. This little universe is a constant of teams and cities and people dating back many years. When that order is upset, it is like seeing an old, trusted, and often busted neighbor lose his home of longstanding. A hole in memory.

I still recall my awe and wonder when I first turned on WOR and realized the Mets were playing baseball in Canada. (Wow! This game is everywhere!) I still visualize our slow drive past Parc Jarry on a family trip to Montreal in April 1976 (retrosheet.org disabused me of my long-held belief that the Mets had been there and we hadn’t gone just because the temperature was 2 degrees…Celsius, of course). Or the pang of remorse when Rick Monday homered off Steve Rogers in the ninth to win the 1981 pennant for the Dodgers; it would be the last postseason game in Montreal. My pilgrimage to Stade Olympic in 1991 avec retractable roof, finally functioning some 15 years after I’d first seen it under construction (it wouldn’t last). The signed Expos ball my friend Duck got me after our Flushing Bay dip in ’93; the memorabilia dealer he got it from clearly couldn’t tell the difference between a Marlin and an Expo.

That begs the question: What is an Expo anyway? It is Canada’s 1967 version of the World’s Fair (unlike the unsanctioned Queens adaptation held two years earlier). Montreal was still so thrilled about the event that when the major leagues awarded them a team for the ’69 season, they went with the hot name…as a hockey team would stick with the hot goaltender in the playoffs. Like the World’s Fair, baseball in the hockey belt started out with a lot of hope and promise and ended up maligned and forgotten.

From the day the 1994 strike wiped away Montreal’s best record in the majors, baseball was on its way out in Quebec. There are many complex reasons why the game was doomed there, but Montreal baseball always seemed so different, so French…and it had been that way for me from the first time I saw bespectacled Tim Foli artfully turning a double play wearing that tri-colored chapeau at Parc Jarry.

I like the underdog. That’s probably why I’ve always remained so loyal to the Mets despite countless signs that I should cut and run. The Montreal Expos are the ultimate underdog franchise. Or, how do they say in English, were.

The Expos had been “dead club walking” since Bud Selig first uttered the words “contraction” in the wake of the 2001 postseason. Bud made it no secret that he wanted Minnesota and Montreal out of the baseball business in what would be the first elimination of franchises since 1899. Yet the Twins refused to die and it wouldn’t be good business to kill just one franchise. So MLB instituted Plan B to starve the club out of Montreal. A franchise swaperoo gave the Marlins to Jeffrey Loria, who’d fired the great Felipe Alou in Montreal and replaced him with buddy/stooge Jeff Torborg. John Henry landed the Red Sox after running the Huizengafied Marlins for three years and still saying it was “terrific.”

With MLB now running the Expos, parts started falling off the chassis completely. The ultimate indignity came when MLB let Vladimir Guerrero leave as a free agent in an undervalued market after the 2003 season. The Montreal farce continued for one more year. The team would not even receive a decent burial. Despite the sincere efforts of Omar Minaya, Frank Robinson, and many young players held captive by the system, the Expos died a slow death. Despite two winning seasons under horrible operating conditions, the Expos weren’t even permitted to open their final season in Montreal and instead began the “home” part of the schedule in San Juan on Easter weekend playing the Mets when there was sure to be no one at the games. When the Expos finally played in Montreal for the first time, it was April 23. They drew 30,000, or nearly as many people as had seen the Mets and Expos for three dates in San Juan.

But where are my manners? I’m neglecting the other miserable team in this story, our own Mets.

The charismatic Bobby Valentine had been replaced by the lifeless Art Howe after the Mets finished with 75 wins in 2002. That “unacceptable” win total would wind up being better than anything the Mets would see for until 2005. The overpaid Tom Glavine had taken over as ace. The farm system, stripped bare by Steve Phillips, started from scratch when Jim Duquette took over as GM during the bleak 2003 season. Duquette traded the dogs collected by Phillips for minor parts, and Duke played the good organizational guy and took the hit when Vlad the Met Killer went to California and when shortstop phenom Jose Reyes had to move to second base in order to show off Kaz Matsui, the new toy from Tokorozawa (home of the Seibu Lions).

The Mets showed surprising life the following spring, despite an outfield of Yankees castoffs Shane Spencer and Karim Garcia flanking superlative flycatcher Mike Cameron. Cliff Floyd and Jose Reyes were injured, the starters weren’t good, and Braden Looper was the closer, for corn sake. Yet the Mets were winning…at least as often as they were losing. They swept the first series played at Citizens Bank Ballpark at the end of May to stand at a surprising 26-26 and just 3 ½ games out of first. The division stayed mediocre for the next month. On July 4, the Mets completed a three-game sweep of the Yankees, an unimaginable feat a year after the Mets had lost six straight games to the Yankees. The Mets were now just two games out of first. There were signs that the farm system was about to bloom, Reyes’s legs would one day heal, and maybe the Mets weren’t light years away from the big time after all.

Fans get giddy. Fans want it now. But the people entrusted to run a major league team have to stay clear of these capricious whims. The only hope fans had in coming to Shea was the stockpiling of talent in the minors and the patience such faith requires. Now it seemed so close. They just had to keep doing the right thing a little longer. It was almost a blessing when the team went 8-13 as the trading deadline neared. The Mets were six games out in the division and seven out in the wild card, let other teams mortgage their future. We were smart, we’d have the last laugh. David Wright was already in New York and Scott Kazmir wasn’t far away now…

I was driving with the family in Maine, monitoring the come-and-go signal from The Sporting News radio affiliate as the days dwindled down in the trading deadline. I had heard through the crackling airwaves that the Mets had gotten Kris Benson—it seemed inevitable—from the Pirates for Ty Wiggington (despite some prospects thrown in the only other name that rings a bell came to the Mets in that deal: Jeff Keppinger). The car was stopped—mercifully—when the frightful news came over the radio: “And the Mets have traded Scott Kazmir to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays…for Victor Zambrano.”

It was as if Jim Duquette had pushed me out of the driver’s seat and rolled the car right off a cliff and into the frigid Atlantic. That would have made about as much sense as what he did in his cozy office; his minions applauding after trading away the greatest asset for a handful of Zambrano beans. Immediately after the deal, the Mets were swept in Atlanta, then swept Milwaukee with Zambrano getting the first of his 10 career victories as a Met, followed by a Cards sweep in St. Louis. Bob Murphy died in Florida during this schizophrenic road trip. It was one of the most depressing weeks in Mets history, and there are many to choose from.

After a brief period where they actually won a handful of series, the Mets went just 3-18 between August 22 and September 12, including a 1-10 homestand where even Art Howe could not even claim that his team “battled.”

I was at Shea the night it was leaked that Art Howe had been fired yet allowed to continue ruining, I mean running, the club. By then, even that bit of welcome news wasn’t going to cut it. Sitting in free yet lousy seats at Shea—a make good by the club after enduring a downpour in August—I watched what is probably the last complete-game shutout I will ever witness at Shea. That it was by Kris Benson made me livid. That Zambrano had already spent a month of his Mets tenure on the disabled list while Kazmir had been called to the majors by Tampa Bay and that night was beating the Red Sox at Fenway, made my blood boil and mouth run. I demanded Duquette’s head on top of Howe’s. And I’d been a big fan of Duke’s up until the fateful afternoon of July 30. My friend Paul pointed out the common belief that Duquette had only been acting under orders from the front office or Rick Peterson or Satan…. “It’s Duquette’s job to say, ‘I’m the GM and I cannot authorize that move. You’ll have to fire me before I will make that deal.’ If the Mets fired him, he’d have a job in a month for showing his integrity and intelligence.” They fired him anyway and, like Howe, kept him around.

The Wilpons brought in Omar Minaya off the sinking deck of the SS Expo. They’d wanted Omar to share GM duties with Duquette the previous winter and he’d turned down that offer. Now Omar would replace Duquette and be given full autonomy…and the company checkbook. This was the first bit of good news from the Mets since the sweep of the Yankees on Independence Day.

As was the case in the third game of many series during the Art Howe era, the Mets went into that first Sunday in October trying to avoid a sweep. They were swept 12 times in 2004, with half of those coming at Shea. Only the Expos, after paddling for three years in the open sea without any type of flotation device from MLB, could protect the Mets from the basement. If last rights for the Expos franchise couldn’t be given in Montreal—they drew 31,000 for the last game there—Shea was the most appropriate substitute. Surely, it must have been an error in the MLB scheduling software.

Shea had been where the Expos had been born on April 8, 1969. The first great season at Shea began with the ultimate indignity, losing 11-10 to an expansion team just when it seemed like the Mets would finally win on Opening Day. Now it would be perfect symmetry if the Expos could end with a win in the city that had just taken its general manager, in the home of MLB corporate, in a city where even on an NFL Sunday proper media coverage would be given the first franchise to move since the Nixon Administration.

I have never gone to Shea hoping another team would win. I can’t say I did that day either, but I wouldn’t have minded.

As it turned out, four current Mets played that day: two on each team. Ryan Church and Endy Chavez wore the Montreal logo for the last time in the heat of battle and neither had a hit. Jose Reyes finally played shortstop and looked like a free man who’d spent the season with his hamstrings tied to second base. He stole three bases, including third base while the pitcher still had the ball, sprawling into third base like Superman without so much as a throw. David Wright homered and knocked in three runs as I found myself in awe of him for the first time. Despite all this, the day belonged to a journeyman.

The shorthanded, shortsided Mets didn’t have enough catchers and Mike Piazza still manned first base. So Todd Zeile, who had wanted to catch one last time and had already done so during a doubleheader in Pittsburgh, caught the last game of the year. Did a great job working with Tom Glavine—one run in six innings in the season-ending game against a last-place team. Wow, way to be, Tom.

And in the sixth inning, with two men on, Zeile pulled one deep to left for a home run. Though it felt like Ted Williams was the only man to have done it before, 41 others had homered in their final at-bat in the majors.  While Mike Cubbage (1981), Chris Jelic (1990), and Chico Walker (1993) had previously achieved it as Mets—plus one-time manager Joe Frazier as an Oriole—most players aren’t aware when it’s their last at-bat. Zeile, who’d been on 11 clubs, including two stints as a Met, knew his time was up. The question was, did Art Howe know?

Lame Duck Art had made his peace with 44-year-old soft-tossing John Franco, whom he finally brought in after not using him for a month. Howe called on Franco with two down in the eighth to relieve Heath Bell (remember him?) and throw his last pitch as a Met. Church popped it up and Zeile, who’d begun his career as a highly-ranked receiver, squeezed one last pop wearing the equipment. But as the bottom of the eighth was about to commence, Zeile stood in the on-deck circle. What was Howe doing? Was he going to mess this up, too? A career-capping moment of relative statistical uniqueness blundered by Art Howe? Was there anything he couldn’t ruin?

Suddenly Zeile turned his back to the field and the fans responded with a warm ovation. A guy whose arrival as the replacement for beloved John Olerud had been cause for a dashboard punch in December 1999 now had me orchestrating his final stage exit. Scrappy Danny Garcia stepped out of the dugout and singled in what turned out to be his last at-bat in the majors. See, most people never know when it’s coming.

Garcia scored the last run ever against the Expos, crossing home plate on a single by Wilson Delgado in his final major league at bat. Francis Beltran, in his final outing in the majors, got the last out by an Expos hurler, retiring Craig Brazell on a groundout (Brazell would re-emerge for a handful of at-bats as a 2007 Royal). Joe Hieptas made his first and last appearance behind the plate in the majors (though he’s since been converted to pitcher in the minors, so ya never know). It all pointed to the ultimate snuffing: putting down a franchise.

RFK was being readied for baseball. Les Expos would go National—like the Winnipeg Jets moving to Phoenix—and the encyclopedia would read Montreal and Washington as a continuous franchise, but the remaining Shea crowd of 33,569 inched forward in their seats for an otherwise meaningless top of the ninth in an 8-1 game. Paul and I had moved down to the front row, complimentary Smallville T-shirts in hand, to see a baseball death up close.

Bartolome Fortunato, the throw-in in the Kazmir trade, readied for the end of the ‘spos. He resembled his partner in transaction crime, Victor Zambrano, being victimized by an error on a grounder by Einar Diaz and compounding it by walking Brendan Harris. Then he fanned Josh Labandeira, ending the 14 at-bat career of one of the few callups allowed Montreal by MLB, and forever relinquishing the name Labandeira to an average of .000. Maicer Itzuris followed with a strikeout. All that stood between the Expos and oblivion was a skinny outfielder who’d played 273 games the final two years of Montreal baseball: Endy Chavez. This was no Shea folk hero to be or even the National catastrophe who’d be traded to the Phillies seven games into his Washington experience. This was inevitability batting.

Like many great and ordinary moments in baseball history, there was a grounder to second (Keppinger), a throw to first (Brazell), and it was over. This public execution of a baseball team had little drama and only meant something to those who realized what they were witnessing. It just ended like any other one-sided game. If not for the proliferation of Expos regalia and more tri-colored hats than I’d seen on both trips to Montreal combined, you would’ve just thought it was a fourth-place team beating a fifth-place club. Maybe that’s all there was. But as someone who has printed out thousands of pages of gray matter, proofed and counted the lines for Total Baseball and The Baseball Encyclopedia, it had to mean something more. Surely.

No team had relocated in the 30 seasons I’d been following baseball. And now I could only hope I would live a long time and it would never happen again. Not to a rival they’d played—not counting the seven San Juan games—a total of 608 times (305 -303, Mets; now that’s an even rivalry). Montreal would become that story you’d tell younger fans about in the future. How you saw Andre Dawson in his Expos prime or Gary Carter before his knees were shot or Pedro pre-Red Sox, Dennis Martinez and his big chaw, British Columbia’s own Larry Walker; Woodie Fryman, Jose Morales, Rodney Scott; Delino DeShield, Bombo Rivera, Razor Shines; Bryn Smith, Archi Cianfrocco, Jerry White; Barry Foote, Steve Renko, Chris Nabholz; Ken Singleton, Tim Foli, Mike Jorgensen, all sent north for Le Grande Orange, Rusty Staub. The high-pitched PA announcer at Jarry Park shouting, “Pete Ma-ck-anin,” or that guy with the long plastic horn blowing it during an Expos game as if he were stranded in the Alps and calling for help. A smoked meat sandwich and a Molson from a vendor. But the Expos no longer lived in the now, they only lived in the books cluttering up my office. Their 5,702 games, 2,755 wins, 2,943 losses, and four ties all part of the record, nothing more. A grim reminder even as Paul and I played catch near the soon to be eliminated grassy knoll in the Shea parking lot, that our park would one day cease to exist. Our favorite players would join the paper lives of past greats in books, kept alive only by memory and Mets Classic on a network that was still just a plan on someone’s computer.

It was an up close reminder that all things do end. We know all about that in life, but in baseball, the constant game, the reminder was jarring. For those of us who mercifully missed the relocation of the Dodgers and Giants, this was a shot across the bow; a memo not to be so smug with anyone else’s memories. What if they were your Expos, your Warren Cromartie, your Stan Papi....Baseball giveth and baseball taketh away. Ash bat to ash bat, diamond dust to diamond dust. Game without end.

Teams relocate. Fans do not.

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May 20, 2008

Welcome Home, Mr. Piazza

#8. May 23, 1998: Mike Piazza Arrives at Shea

Almost exactly a decade after he debuted as a Met, Mike Piazza officially retired as a player. How he began his life as a Met is a day I will never forget. For a lot of different reasons.

Nineteen ninety eight had begun in a haze. My mother died at Christmas and my first child was born a little over a month later. If you asked me anything else that happened during the four-month span that bridged 1997 and 1998, old life and new, I could have easily and truthfully answered, “I don’t know.” Baseball, or maybe it was time, finally started to peel away the covering from interrupted sleep and troubled thoughts. Starting the baseball season with summer-like conditions helped the mind begin to work again. The 14-inning Opening Day win over the Phillies ran the gamut of emotions just as the temperature had gone from 87 to 57 over the course of the afternoon.

Despite that thrilling start, no one really seemed to care about the Mets. After a night game in which short-time Mets Rich Becker and Jim Tatum provided late-inning home runs to beat the Astros, Bob Murphy wrapped up the happy recap with a melancholy tone: “The game was exciting, but the crowd was small, just 12,772.” When Bob Murphy speaks like that, you almost feel ashamed. “But I was there last night, Bob,” I told the radio. A Wiz commercial was the only response.

The Mets continued to play well and draw almost no one. After sweeping a doubleheader from Cincinnati on May 19, Debbie and I went to the game the following night, a Wednesday—a rare night out for the new parents—and Shea had all the buzz of a movie theater playing Deep Impact. Honestly, the world wasn’t going to be hit by a comet—as reported by Tea Leoni to President Morgan Freeman with Leelee Sobieski thrown in to lure in the teens to see the world get drilled—but there were days when it felt like it might.

And all the while that we watched a loss to Harnisch the Red thanks to Hudek the Lousy in front of another 12,000 crowd that was barely half that size in actual body count, there was a comet indeed hurtling toward Shea.

As I read the well-documented, jaw-dropping account in Sports Illustrated of Mike Piazza’s departure from L.A. that previous week, Steve Phillips—yes, that Steve Phillips—was putting together what would be his signature deal and one of the franchise’s greatest trades (a book called Mets Essential  by some hack ranked it as second only to the Keith Hernandez heist of 1983).

The Friday afternoon of Memorial Day found me finishing work early so I could avoid the holiday weekend traffic for the Mets-Brewers game at Shea and hook up with some friends. I got a call on the work line at the home office in Connecticut that afternoon. There was no caller-ID—at least not on the expensive but useless office phones I’d been equipped with—and I could only hope it wasn’t someone thrusting a four-hour project on me while I had already checked out of the office mentally on a holiday weekend. This was not a call from clueless corporate HQ in Raleigh, it was Mike Gershman, a huge fan of the New York game and PR, calling from his home office in the next town.

“Did you hear,” he said excitedly. Mike often got excited, but this was a happy excited.

“Hear what?”

“The Mets got Piazza!”

I dropped the phone, forgetting he was my boss and dashed a few steps to turn on Debbie’s mid-1970s “hi fi” that acted as the office sound system. It was tuned to WFAN. I hustled back while Mike was still talking and I began soaking in the details. Mike Francessa, for all his lack of charm to Mets fans, had been pounding the drums all week on the radio for the Mets to get Piazza. Steve Phillips had originally said the Mets would wait for Todd Hundley to return from yet another extended stay on the DL. Nelson Doubleday, who often went months without being heard from publicly, had made it known that Stevie’s stance was B.S. No more Tim Spehr, Rick Wilkins, or even Alberto Castillo (the hero of the Opening Day marathon), and no more waiting for Hundley. The future was now. Actually tomorrow.

“Mike, you still on?”

“Yes!”

“You wouldn’t still have those tickets I arranged for you for tomorrow, would you?”

You can’t have everything. He had plans for the Piazza debut and I was still quite content to be at Shea for what was now New Year’s Eve Eve. It was, after all, the first Mets-Brewers game at Shea. (The Brewers, who had been an American League team and played at Shea against the Yankees in the 1970s, suddenly transformed in an NL team because MLB let new guy Jerry Colangelo talk his Diamondbacks into the senior circuit. So Bud Selig’s Brewers made the first-ever move from AL to NL and suddenly started selling out games against the Cubs. Well, that worked out nicely, huh?)

The first Mets game against the Brewers at Shea was so significant it sold the usual 12,000 seats, but the number of walk-ups added about 10,000 to that total. Dennis Cook had one of the most remarkable two-thirds of an inning in Mets history. He allowed a hit and walk and then picked off both runners during Jeff Cirillo’s at-bat. Then he walked Cirillo and allowed another hit before he was finally taken out and replaced with…Tug McGraw?

In one of the great moments in Mets numbers history, Franco came in and the reliever, number 31 for lo these many years, had moved it on over to 45 as a tribute to both Piazza and McGraw. When he got the last out he slapped his glove on his leg just as Tug had done on the same earth in the days before the Brewers had even been to Shea as an AL team.

Our extended gang celebrated long into the morning and I stayed over at a friend’s house, as planned, and headed back home in the morning, newspapers in hand to read every word about the stunning deal. Our new family of three was going to spend the day together, also as planned, but what we originally had scheduled fell through. Mike called and said someone else’s plans had changed as well and he suddenly had three tickets available to the game. But we couldn’t go; not with a three-month old, I insisted on the phone. Deb chimed in behind me. “Why not?”

She was an awfully big baby and could sleep through anything and she’d just passed the 100-day mark on this planet (comet free for 65 million years—maybe longer). We were off to Shea and didn’t even need to hurry because of the four o’clock start.

There were 10,000 more than the night before, but this time the announced crowd (32,908) actually seemed too low a number. Everyone with extra tickets likewise quickly filled out their twosomes or foursomes or sixsomes. It was tough lugging the baby seat through the crowd on the way to Gate B, but once they opened the side gate for us and we were finally in, a young man handed me a piece of clothing. While on the escalator I unfolded this odd package and realized what it was. Kids Shorts. I’d stopped acknowledging the youth giveaways when I could no longer pass for same. Now here I was on the other side. It was almost like Julio from Easy Money whispering in my ear, “Can I call you Dad?”. I glared at someone who bumped the baby seat as I got off the escalator.

Mike Piazza’s day was far more hectic. He was whisked by escort from LaGuardia to Shea to meet his new teammates. The catcher and Al Leiter quickly devised a plan for a four-hit shutout. Piazza was cheered wildly as his name was announced in the starting lineup and the third spot on the scoreboard read “31 C.” People cheered when he came out to catch in the first inning, crouching down in the same spot where he would receive the loudest ovation this side of Tom Seaver when he got out of that crouch in a Mets uniform seven-plus seasons later. I bought a scorecard and for the first time in years scored a game without a professional reason to. Fans held up pizza boxes and a slew of homemade signs that read, “Piazza Delivery.” Even Karl Ehrhardt, the Sign Man, would have had trouble coming up with something tremendously clever on such a tight deadline. There was one memorable banner, though: “If you buy them…we will come.” Steve Phillips was taking notes, too.

Piazza grounded out his first time up as a Met shortly after Brian McRae had stolen second, which prevented him from debuting with a double play grounder. (something he would do 132 times, more often than any Met other than Ed Kranepool.) After being called out on strikes by Jeff Juden his second time up, he batted with two outs in the fifth, Matt Franco on first, and the Mets leading, 1-0. Piazza launched a drive to center that enabled the plodding Franco to score from first, with Piazza taking third on the throw. A generous official scorer might have awarded him that rare triple, but did it matter? No. Shea was on its feet and Piazza soaked it in at third base. That wasn’t just “thanks for knocking in the run, dude”; that was New York’s version of the St. Louis welcome. Only earned. More than a few yahoos would boo Piazza despite a spectacular summer, but when it came time to sign for the big money that fall, he remembered the ovations and figured the people who booed were just a few jerks who’d go away. The man seemed right about everything.

My daughter slept through it all. Debbie was thrilled with both Piazza’s and her little girl’s debut. Mike—an old Dodger fan from Flatbush—beamed. It was a perfect day.

Al Leiter finished the 3-0 shutout—of the now rare complete-game variety—and he allowed so few Brewers to reach base that no one tried to steal and point out the new catcher’s greatest shortcoming. It was a weird year. Todd Hundley played left field when he did come back and looked worse there than Piazza would at first base in the distant future. There was the home run race that saved baseball, though it later turned out these heroes actually stained the game. There was the bizarre booing at Shea and a race among the mediocre for the postseason. Cub Brant Brown dropped a flyball in Milwaukee that seemed to hand the wild card to the Mets and the Mets responded by not winning another game.

Yet while the Mets did not earn the right to be swept in the Division Series by a superior foe (that honor went to the Cubs), they did get Piazza at Shea through 2005. He was the face of the team in good times and bad. His last game at Shea was another stellar moment, but that was goodbye. Life has too many goodbyes. We’d say goodbye to Mike Gershman a year and a half after we welcomed the other Mike to Shea. I learned to try to focus on new starts. And say goodbye when it’s time.

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June 5, 2008

You Can’t Always Get What You Want

#8a. Losers Bracket

By the time I get all the way down to the end of the list of the best games I’ve seen at Shea, you’ll note that they are all wins. (Not giving away any state secrets.) While SNY shows only “Classics” that are victories, I’d like to pay tribute to what all of us have witnessed numerous—yea, even countless—times at Shea: The “L” word. (Hey, I’m not talking about that show on Showtime. Jeez.)

Like all Mets fans, I’ve seen the Mets lose many a game at Shea. Some just stick with you. The last five on this list are permanent stripes that no one can ever take away. Though I wish someone could.

There are actually 11 games on this list, meaning there’s a tie—that’s better than a loss, right? And while it would seem that all of these game should have come against the Yankees and Braves, each signature “L” actually is against a different team. The Mets like to spread the love.

10. September 21, 1975

Phillies 4, Mets 2

This is where it all started. My second Mets game and my first Mets loss. This one, though, is what I would call, with all due apologies to South Pacific Happy, happy, happy, happy, happy loss. My dad promised to take me to Fan Appreciation Day so I could get a cool bag that I would use to transport my fifth-grade gym clothes until disintegration occurred. My dad wound up having to go on a business trip, but he arranged for Charles Moses Walker, a surrogate grandfather, to take me to the last home game of the year against the Phillies. He’d never been to a game and I’d been to two (I’d witnessed a Mets win in August and Yankees Old-Timers Day at Shea). It rained all morning but stopped an hour before game time. We had a Pleasant Valley Sunday at sold-out Shea. I still smile thinking about it. Jon Matlack pitched well but got no support until Ron Hodges homered in the last inning for the second straight day. Only this time it simply avoided a shutout.

10. June 4, 2006

Giants 7, Mets 6

Like the above game, this was a Mets loss where we went home feeling all right. This time I took my family. We were on our way to get in line for the Mr. Met Dash when Lastings Milledge slapped hands with the fans after his game-tying homer. We didn’t see the dramatic clout or the rook’s first failure to know his place, but I could tell the ball was gone by the cursing usher whose day just got longer. After the Mets lost in 12 and the kids ran the bases on a delectably cool Sunday, we stopped at a park in Corona where everyone played softball on turf, picnics were the rule, the people spoke Spanish, and we communicated with smiles. Such a great day and the Mets still had the largest lead in baseball, yet all we heard on the radio on the way home was how “bush” the best prospect in the organization was. We put on some music.

9. June 11, 1981

Reds 5, Mets 2

Nothing good about this loss. Tom Seaver beat Pat Zachry—as if I needed a reminder about the worst trade in my Mets existence four long years after the fact—and this was the last game anyone in New York saw for two months. The first prolonged strike in sports history happened just at an age when I needed all the diversion I could handle, even if the Torre-ibble Mets were 17‑34. I got into so much trouble that summer despite being constantly grounded for numerous transgressions. Enough about my miserable teen angst, the Reds got screwed, too. They were a half-game behind L.A. when the walls came down. Then they finished behind the Astros in the B.S. “second half” standings. They saw as much postseason as the Mets did despite winning the most games in the league. Seaver was 7‑1 in each half and was jobbed of his fourth Cy Young by fading Fernandomania. When I left Shea the night of June 11, I could not imagine what Armageddon—or, to be less dramatic, summer without baseball—looked like. On the plus side, Retrosheet says Dave Kingman both homered and stole a base in the game!

8. September 23, 2001

Braves 5, Mets 4

We were all contemplating more important things just then. My drive to the game gave me my first view of the skyline laid bare. In this kind of world, an Armando Benitez meltdown just as the Mets were poised to sweep the first-place Braves shouldn’t matter. But two outs, one on, up by three in the ninth, and the Mets still lose in 11. John Smoltz threw three innings in relief and probably could’ve pitched through the night if not for the Brian Jordan vs. the Mets home run rule. I hit a deer on the way home. The car was OK, but my mind was not. I didn’t sleep a wink. 

7. October 2, 2005

Rockies 11, Mets 3

Let’s wash out the harmful thoughts with the most lopsided loss on the list. This is the game where the result mattered the least: Mike Piazza’s final day as a Met. I already wrote a couple thousand words on his first game in the uni; this sunny afternoon seven and a half seasons later provided closure. The cheers he got, wave after wave after wave, remain indescribable. When people wonder why any player would want to put up with the demands of New York, this is the reason. Yet even then there was still testimony about New York being a results town. Victor Zambrano was booed off the hill even though the Mets had won 11 of their previous 13 to finish over .500 for the first time since 2001. Yet the cheering was so draining that we left after Piazza was removed—Willie never gave a good reason why he didn’t let him bat one last time in the eighth—and we listened to the end in the parking lot. Lost in the Piazza moment: It was also the last Mets action for Danny Graves and Shingo Takatsu. Now there’s a cause for an ovation.

6. October 18, 1986

Red Sox 1, Mets 0

My first World Series game at Shea and second in person. I’d sat in the upper deck above first base with my dad for Game 4 of the 1978 World Series: aka “The Reggie Hip Check.” (We had a perfect view of what happened on that play; a drunk threatened to throw this NL-sympathizing, 13-year-old kid over the railing when my dad left for the bathroom. Stay classy, Bronxy.) Anyway, my first Mets World Series game was thrilling in the getting there: still feeling the effects of a pulsating NLCS, travelling from school in Virginia to Shea, going to the Series with a brother whose last Mets bandwagon ride was in 1969, and meeting my buddy Paul after his own odyssey from the South (a first-person guest tale in 100 Things Mets Fans Should Know…). The game itself, though, was the coldest I’ve ever experienced at Shea—and that takes a lot of poor weather into account. Tim Teufel, who played the first inning in short sleeves before switching to a turtleneck, made the error that allowed the only run to score. It would all become just preamble for the legend.

5. September 28, 2007

Marlins 7, Mets 4

Um, do I really have to go into the details about this game? Sure, it wasn’t the final, Glavine-detonated debacle, but at least you could walk into that game with a little hope. The stink of death wafting from Shea for this one could be smelled several counties away hours before gametime. I haven’t booed since I had a revelation while booing Brian McRae in 1998 (and really, wouldn’t you like to say the last Met you booed was B-Mac?), but I did shout myself hoarse as the ’07 Mets fell out of first for the first time in five months. Oliver Perez was as bad in this one as he was good in another game yet to come on this list. I temporarily lost my sanity during this Friday night from hell against Byung-Hyun Kim and the friggin’ Marlins. I was working on three books set to come out about what was now to be the greatest choke team of all time! Thanks to the resiliency of Mets fans—and Johnny Lerno, who drove me back to where I was staying after we were the last ones in the Marina Lot—we’ve all moved on to the next chapter.

4. September 23, 1998

Expos 3, Mets 0

See above. Your first experience with cataclysmic failure while hosting a fifth-place team is always the hardest. This inexplicable loss to Carl Pavano and last-place Montreal came just hours after Cubbie Brant Brown’s botched flyball in Milwaukee seemingly handed the Mets the wild card. When this one ended, there was no doubt we would not see Shea again until the next spring. The Braves made that official soon enough. Thanks to Jimmy Jim for the chauffer service on this one. You get the idea: excruciating Mets loss late in the year, look for me in the Marina. Late. Tanksfuraridehomedamnyoualltohell!

3. October 26, 2000

Yankees 4, Mets 2

Gil Hodges removed Jerry Koosman with two down in the ninth in Game 2 in 1969. Davey Johnson knew when it was time to bring in El Sid for Ron Darling in the deciding game in 1986. Bobby V. may be firmly lodged as number three among all-time Mets managers, but Valentine had no business leaving Al Leiter in Game 5 after 130 pitches. When Luis Sojo beats you, it’s pretty clear you have nothing left. All we asked for was a win at Shea and then let them tear out our hearts in the Bronx. Anything so we didn’t have to see it in the flesh, with all those pariah Yankees fans in every crevice of Shea. I have not been to a Mets‑Yankees game since that night. And for those of you wondering how this loss isn’t number one, consider that even defeat at the hands of the Yankees in the World Series is still better than not getting to the Fall Classic at all.

2. October 9, 1988

Dodgers 5, Mets 4

Game 4 of the 1988 NLCS was going to be a coronation. I even snuck in the flask that I’d gotten for being in my sister’s wedding a few months earlier. The game was speeding along with the Mets up by two, though it could’ve been more. Doc was firing away, but I wondered why Davey didn’t bring in southpaw Randy Myers with lefty-swinging Mike Scioscia up. I will always wonder why. I could take any “true Yankee” managing the Mets, but I don’t think I could hack Scioscia calling the shots in Flushing, despite his being one of the best managers in the game. Like my pal P. in the upper deck that night, the Mets tumbled off their high perch in extras. I did not bring a flask to the nooner game the next day against the Dodgers. The party was over.

1. October 19, 2006

Cardinals 3, Mets 1

It was extremely close trying to pick between the Scioscia and Molina games, but having lived through the Dodgers disaster 18 years earlier, Game 7 against the Cardinals pushes past it in the pain department. Especially after I saw how lousy Detroit was in that World Series (not that the ’88 A’s lived up to their press clippings). And at least the Dodgers had an otherworldly Orel Hershiser watching the back of that Punch-and-Judy bunch. The must-win game against St. Louis had…Jeff Suppan. The worst part was that after Endy’s catch—the greatest catch, bar none, that I’ve ever seen at Shea or any other place in the flesh—I actually believed the Mets would win. My Shea shield of titanium pessimism was down long enough for Jose Molina to pop one over the top. Shea was so silent after the called strike three to Carlos Beltran, I could hear the Cardinals shouting on the field. No other noise. And that may just be my final Shea October memory.

Hey, you knew going in that this entry wouldn’t have a happy ending. The beat will be up for number 7 later this month.

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June 30, 2008

Shea You: Getting Lonely, Getting Old

#7. October 4, 2006: You’re Out. And You’re Out!

An hour into the opening game of the first postseason series at Shea Stadium in six years, a boy about 10 stands near a sink in the crowded bathroom, his dad beaming and close by. The kid is talking to everyone in sight. “What about that double play by Lo Duca?” he shouts. “Have you ever seen a play like that?” It’s his first postseason game and he can’t wipe the smile off his face. You tell him to enjoy the feeling. That when you were his age it was 11 years until you saw your first postseason game. These moments are rare. You are a curmudgeon. This place makes them.

You leave the kid and his father but as you walk back into the masses, the place is alive in the early evening. People shout. Strangers high five like it’s 1999. The tumult and the shouting fill the place again. A little more than a David Wright smash away is the replacement for Shea, which has gone from state-of-the-art to seventh-oldest stadium in baseball by this, October 4, 2006. Shea is maligned from the know-it-alls who equate convenience with charm and quirky dimensions with functional history.

A few hours later, you will descend the ramp that filters everybody into the Long Island night. The posters of hugging Mets, slugging Mets, draw your eye with every shuffle of your feet. There have been a lot of wild times at this place, a lot of good and a lot of bad. Hundreds you’ve seen and thousands you haven’t. A few of them don’t even involve the Mets. But there are some you don’t want to forget when the wrecking ball turns the maligning of Shea into just memories. It’s not just your team’s home, it’s your home, too. Houses are sold, babies born, jobs come and go, and still you walk in and out of this giant slab of concrete. Maybe that’s why there’s 56,979 people are all trying to get out at the same time. As they make their slow, happy procession out of the 43-year-old venue, you think about how long it has been in coming to this day.

The last time you left the building after a postseason game you were alone on the ramp, moving quickly yet obliviously, wife in tow, unsure of what you might do next, hurrying into the Shea night. An eerie glow emitted from the stadium, but you could not look back. Like Sodom and Gomorrah. Looking back to see the stadium that the Yankees had now forever colonized into their Army of the Living Dead, along with San Diego Stadium, Dodger Stadium, Candlestick Park, Crosley Field, County Stadium, Ebbets Field, Sportsman’s Park, Wrigley Field, and where it all began, the Polo Grounds. All these great stadiums—well, maybe great doesn’t apply in every case—were forever hijacked by the Yankees as a celebration board. A place where their seed was spilled. If you’d owned the team, you’d have asked the bishop, a priest, those nuns who used to hang out at Shea, to convene a blessing on the field before the 2001 season could commence. Bobby Valentine surely could’ve gotten someone.

I was in the car for the whole perverse coronation in 2000. Numb. And far from comfortable. Only the radio tuned to WFAN and Bob Murphy could talk you through it. If Murph can endure this, so can you, so can anybody. You listen to Murph until he goes off the air. The office the next day is like death.

Much has happened in that time. Bobby V., who seemed like he could take the most talentless Mets team and mold it into a contender, had a bad year and lost out when Fred Wilpon backed the wrong man. Everyone associated with the Mets lost out as it went from Valentine to Howe to Randolph. Anything was better than Art Howe. You always had to have faith that things would work out, but you weren’t wrong about Howe. No one was wrong about him. Only the owner.

Again the team was broken down and built back up. Free agents arrived in new tax brackets and toting new slogans. David Wright and Jose Reyes came into their own. Pedro truly lit up Shea when he wasn’t in the doctor’s office. Trades brought Carlos Delgado and Paul Lo Duca from Florida, you questioned it then and you’d question it later, but 2006 belonged to these two. Billy Wagner came to sew up what had been too, too many ugly ninth innings. You winced at the Duaner Sanchez for Jae Seo deal and also at Xavier Nady for Mike Cameron, and winced again at the Nady for Roberto Hernandez deal after Sanchez’s taxi accident, scoffing at the washed-up Oliver Perez tossed in by Pittsburgh. All proof that your place is in the stands. He gets Shawn Green’s contract for nothing and Guillermo Mota for less than nothing. Omar Minaya knows his stuff. His trades are all one-way deals, you just never know which way they’ll end up going. Though when he dumps the annoying Bensons for young John Maine and inconsistent Jorge Julio and later foists Julio on the Diamondbacks for Orlando Hernandez, it doesn’t take a genius to see which way those deals are heading. In Omar we trust.

You watch on television during the thrilling extra-inning wins, you watch as Wright’s brilliantly-turned double play buries the Phillies for good. In June. In June! You hold your breath at every infrequent two-game losing streak, but there is nothing to fear. Even a three-game sweep to Nady’s Pirates works out because you have tickets for that Monday night game. At Shea.

You meet people from your former job from hell at Shea. An extra person buys a ticket at the game and you do the old stub switcheroo and the only empty field level seat is right next to you and the fifth man sits right down. Jose Valentin, off the scrap heap, looking like he should’ve been cut in April, homers twice. Steve Trachsel, the only straggler from the Bobby V. regime, wins the clincher. You leave the stadium moments before Lo Duca and Wright come out and spray down the fans. It’s all right, you say. It’s a long drive home and you’ll be back for Game 1 of the Division Series.

You’ve been busy in the days leading up to the game, writing versions of Mets past for a past-deadline book. You hear something about El Duque, but you don’t know the extent until you’re in the car, cooler full, hours before the friendly 4 p.m. start to the Division Series. Maine will now start the opener against the Dodgers. Good thing you brought beer.

If they can just get through these two games in New York, maybe split in L.A., and then you’ll have Game 5 and the full bullpen ready to go at Shea. This place can’t be the same burial grounds for overreaching dreams as 2000. It just can’t.

But it’s a beautiful fall day. Paul’s waiting for you in the Marina Lot. Boother’s calling in. Duck’s on his way from the city. You’ve all seen enough games at Shea to know the fates are fickle and uncertain by the Bay. And Maine shows promise. Throws a lot of pitches, but he has hard stuff. And balls.

Earlier in the day you’ve signed a contract for Mets by the Numbers and you take to the stadium early and make your way down the first row at Shea to take photos. Some will actually make it into the book a year into the future. But it’s just fun now seeing the bunting. The sun hits the tri-color sashes and suddenly you feel like it must’ve for that first Championship Series in 1969. The players work out on the field. Line up for the introductions. The stadium fills. You’ve underestimated the crowd. Not the size, but the intensity. Because it’s a late day start, you know there’ll be a lot of kids. Good for them. Every postseason game should start at four o’clock—EASTERN TIME—if you’re not home in time, listen on the radio, follow on the computer, whatever, but let the kids see the game. They’ll be watching long after you’re dead. You hope. Then you pray that won’t be for a long time. Then you look at the bunting some more.

The roar during the introductions is unbelievable. So what if El Duque’s out? Pedro’s in a sling? Duaner is done? We’ve got playoff baseball. People in wigs. Faces painted. Overpriced beers at the ready. Bathroom lines cuing up. The entire place is standing for Maine’s first pitch. And his first strike. And his first two-strike count. You’d think people had been waiting six years or something.

Maine gets the Dodgers out in order in the first and the place is roaring like a DC-10 is passing overhead. The Mets put a couple on in the first but can’t score off Derek Lowe. The Mets take the field for what seems like an innocuous second inning. You don’t know that this will be the most memorable second inning you’ll ever see. Certainly the most memorable in which just a single run crosses the plate.

Maine is not as sharp in inning two and it shows when Jeff Kent and J.D. Drew single. The crowd is shifting in its seats. This is what we all feared on our way to the park. Russ Martin, the latest in a line of homegrown Dodgers catchers with superior hitting prowess, laces a drive to the wall in right. Shawn Green takes it on a hop, gets it to Valentin, who fires to Lo Duca at the plate. That much you can see. Except the crowd immediately stands when the ball is hit and you’re ducking your head around shapes and glimpsing the echoing green. You listen for the reaction and you spy a runner getting tagged out at home. It’s always exciting when a runner is gunned out at the plate. The stadium shakes and you say, “Well, they only got the one run.” But you quickly survey the bases—one runner, not two—and the outs on the scoreboard. The board reads “two” under “outs.” A tape delayed secondary cheer, that you are indeed leading among the blocked and the oblivious, ripples through the stadium even as Maine prepares to pitch to ex-Met Marlon Anderson. While still basking in this once-in-a-generation play, Marlon doubles in Martin. Maine walks Wilson Betemit—you heard that when this Glenallen Hill-looking dude gets into one he can launch it a long way—and then up comes Lowe. Maine whiffs Lowe to get through an inning where the pitcher was the only batter he actually retires. The 1‑0 deficit feels like a 10‑0 lead.

The Mets will go ahead on Carlos Delgado’s four-hit postseason debut (that guy is so clutch!) and they’ll maneuver through Willie Randolph’s many pitching changes (his daily handling of the pen is, in a word, deft) and they’ll even survive rocky outings from Guillermo Mota and Billy Wagner (those guys are always reliable). Though you can’t see into the future, it is fate that the Mets will win this game. No Mets team could turn in a defensive gem like that one in the second inning and lose the game. Never happen. At least not this year. You can see that, can’t you?

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July 16, 2008

Swing and a Long Drive

#6. July 1, 2000: Fireworks!

In 2000 it got harder to go to a Mets game. For the general populace? No. Attendance increased for the sixth straight year, notching 2.8 million for the first time since 1989. The Mets were a joy to see, winning 55 times at Shea, as many as the ’86 team and just one win off the club record set in ’88. They’d even win a pennant there in 2000, the third time the place saw it live and the first where the field lived to tell the tale. All was right at Shea that year. But like getting used to Todd Zeile replacing John Olerud, the way we got to the same place would be different.

I’d taken a promotion and moved the family from one hour east of Shea to two hours north. I quickly got used to many things being different in my new home and liked the change a lot, but the drive to the ballgame was—and remains—the toughest adjustment. There is no feasible mass transit option, though it’s been tried a couple of times. So it’s a four-hour roundtrip drive. Or watch it on TV. Missing homestand after homestand was not something I was comfortable with. I’d been to two dozen games in person in 1999, experiencing the most exciting season of Northeast baseball viewing of my life. (I’d spent large chunks of ’86 and ’88 in both Colorado and Virginia, though I’d caught a fair bit of the agony and the ecstasy of those two Octobers.) The ’99 season had more drama than I think I could personally handle, and when we hit the new millennium—or didn’t hit it—I couldn’t just stop going to ballgames. With my new home, young family, and increased responsibilities, I could have cashed out, gone to one or two games a year, and started finding other interests like most real adults. Or at least content myself with watching every game on TV.

By the start of April 2000, I’d already woken up at dawn twice to see the Mets play in Japan. I’d taken the day off to go the opener on this soil and seen Baggy Pants Bell ring in with a key home run. I’d left work early on the season’s first Friday to see the Mets beat the Dodgers and receive a Gil Hodges pin. Those were the only games they won on that homestand—both by 2‑1 scores—and to get an idea of how nice the weather was, the last game of that homestand was snowed out.

I was back at Shea when the Mets won their ninth straight game on April 29. That was Ken Griffey’s first game at Shea as a Red after he’d poopooed the Mets’ overtures for a trade. It was also Frequency  night—that somewhat bizarre Hollywood tribute to the Miracle Mets and ham radio—and the Mets wore 1969 replica wool uniforms with that special yellow-ish hue that polyester just doesn’t have. Robin Ventura tore his pants sliding into third base. Guess they don’t make them like they used to. The pants, that is. If the Mets had had Ventura and his Mojo Risin’ in 1969—two years before Jim Morrision’s lyrics hit the airwaves, mind you, but join hands with me over the ham radio and feel it now—the Mets wouldn’t have traded either Nolan Ryan or Amos Otis. Now that’s worth digging out the old equipment and trying to channel Jesus and Jerry Lee Lewis. Or at least two actors and an overreaching script. But hey, how many movies do the Mets get a co-starring role in?

Arriving back from Frequency night with some guys from work to the office at 1 A.M., I then drove another 45 minutes north to the place where I was staying until the new house was ready. Long night even after a win. Then the Mets went 5‑12 and our parent company got severely splattered by the “tech bubble” bursting, making for a turbulent May. I kept my job in a company restructuring. I paid close attention to the Mets to take my mind off the fear that I’d just moved in order to be canned. Like the ballclub cliché, I took it one day at a time.

The Mets kept things interesting. Even when they lost, it was still almost the most thrilling finish I could ever expect to see. In the ninth inning against the Marlins on May 13, pitcher Mike Hampton, serving as a pinch hitter after Bobby V. ran through his bench, whacked a ball two feet wide of the foul pole with the tying run on base in a one-run game in the ninth. He struck out and the Mets lost, and by the time I reached the car I heard that Ricky Henderson, who’d incensed everyone by going into a home run trot on what turned out to be a single the previous night, had been released.

I turned a work event in the city into a night at Shea. I thought I had a long ride home? I found out that because of a makeup of a rainout the previous night, the Orioles actually travelled all the way to Baltimore to spend the night and came back the next night. They must’ve been exhausted because they lost the makeup game on a home run by Kurt Abbott. 

I rode down with Jed to meet DBird and see the Mets beat the Marlins to go 12 games over .500 and pull within two games of the Braves. I missed the John Rocker hoopla, but I was resting up for the journey the next night. The biggest test yet. Fireworks Night.

I’d gone to Fireworks Night many times and had rarely seen a good game. The Grucci Bros. Fireworks? Always top notch, but as I drove down for the first leg of the trip, the most exciting on-field Fireworks moment I could think of had occurred the previous year when Matt Franco had become the second Mets position player to pitch in a game. Rick Reed had also played outfield that final inning in a 16‑0 dusting by these very same Braves. Traffic for that game had been horrific and we got there more than an hour after the game had started. We somehow got the car onto a patch of grass only a few hundred yards from the stadium. That spot had probably been vacated by someone who couldn’t handle sitting through a 10‑0 game in the fourth, forget what the Grucci’s might be providing later in the way of pyrotechnics. 

In 2000, I decided to forego the parking problems and add two extra legs onto the journey. Jimmy Jim and I would meet near where I would stay that night in Stamford, we’d take the train to Grand Central, and then the 7 to Shea. It worked ideally—if not slowly—yet we still found ourselves on the wrong end of a blowout. We arrived inside the stadium in time to hear a collective groan of a packed house as Piazza’s error allowed the third of three runs to cross the plate on a single. What else was new? The Mets had lost 19 of their last 25 to Atlanta, including an NLCS defeat so excruciating it might have been taken as a small measure of retribution for Sherman’s March. The South was rising again at Shea.

Somehow Hampton went seven innings while trailing 5‑0. The Mets finally scored in the bottom of the inning, but Eric Cammack came in quasi-mopup role and got lit up. Jim suggested that we go. The Promise of Grucci allowed me to seem morally superior as I made a raspberry-like noise. I would not be appeased.

In the meantime, Johnny Ho, who’d driven from his office in Stamford, had finally found a spot to park somewhere beyond the World’s Fair. About the time Cammack was getting pummeled—after last call, mind you—he showed us what he carried in his cargo shorts. Two pint bottles of Jack Daniels. I ran up to report this to an usher, but finding none—it was after all, a nontipping opportunity—I bought several Coca Colas instead. The mixture of black cola and brown liquor landed in my souvenir cup and hence into my mouth. And seeing that John had to drive us home, I did better than my fair share with this not so dark liquid. In fact, the fireworks started going off early.

We three former roommates, now each married and finding ourselves at these sort of events with great inFrequency—feel the ham radio: “Do you read me, Donn Clendenon?”—and we weren’t paying a lick of attention when Don Wengert took the ball to start the bottom of the eighth. We talked right through Derek Bell’s hit, and didn’t even glance up at Fonzie’s flyout. Though it was entertaining to see Piazza get credit for an infield hit and take second when Rafael Furcal made a lousy throw. “Hotshot rookie, my ass!” Oh, yes, we were very much part of the rabble.

Ventura’s groundout scored Bell to make it 8‑2 with two outs. The stories kept coming.

“Remember when we…” Todd Zeile singled in Piazza. 8‑3.

“And then she said…” Jay Payton singled. Kerry Ligtenberg replaced Wengert, providing time to have another little sippee and a li’l bit more talky.

“And every party, you’d hide beers behind every condiment in the fridge…” Benny Agbayani walked.

“You’d stash a full cooler in the back yard…” Pinch hitter Mark Johnson walked. Zeile scored.

“The band wouldn’t play its first set until like one o’clock…” Melvin Mora walked. Payton scored. Joe McEwing came in to run for Johnson.

“The tying runs are on base.” Ligtenberg, whose name in German translated on this night to “Dousing a campfire with kerosene,” was replaced not by John Rocker but by Terry Mulholland, a starting pitcher who’d thrown 8 1/3 innings in a win two days earlier. Perhaps it was his throw day. As in throwing bundles of dry sticks into the pyre.

“Ring my Bell! Ring my goddamn Bell!” Bell walks. 8‑6. The high fives, half-hearted before, are now in earnest. One of us gets a slap in the face by accident. We can’t even tell which one of us got it.

“Yeah, Fonzie! Fonzieeeeeeee!” Alfonzo singles to left. The game is tied. The voice is cracked now. Cracked but good. Who cares?

Bobby Cox, as if in a trance or slurping from the same cup that’s made my lips moist and my throat raw, leaves Mulholland out there.

“Come on, come…yeah!!!!!!!!” Laser. Mike Piazza. Gone in a split second down the line in left. 10-run inning.

There are hugs, high fives up and down the aisle to everyone and their Aunt Bessy. And the best part of all, it is Fireworks Night. Any other game there would have been 15,000 people tops who would’ve stayed. Now it’s like one giant blanket on the lawn with even the boozy Total Baseball guy barely caring about the official scorer’s decision to award Armando Benitez a win he’d probably trade for a save; thus denying Cammack what would have been the only win of his brief major league career.

Of the handful of the 52,831 who blew off the fireworks to miss the traffic in an 8‑1 game, I can tell them that last hour on the road is the hardest. Me? I got a ride and a bed and had too much too dream last night. A Real Mets of Genius comeback. For Mr. Leaving a Great Game to Beat the Traffic Guy, even if you got home in time to watch it, everybody knows fireworks just aren’t the same on TV. This you had to drink in. Mr. Leaving a Great Game Early to Beat the Traffic Guy. Mike Piazza: Flushing, New York.

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July 25, 2008

The 24 Hours at Flushing

or

Two, Two, Two Games in One

#5. October 7-8, 2000: Benny and Bobby

Even in its 45th season and near the end, Shea Stadium still teaches, it instructs. Just when you’re all set to be disappointed, you may yet have an unforgettable evening. Or afternoon. Or both.

After losing the first game of the 2000 Division Series, the Mets blew a lead in Game 2, but Jay Payton singled in Daryl Hamilton to pull the Mets out of the San Francisco fire and give the team what would be its only win at Pac Bell Park in the stadium’s first three seasons of operation. We had to wait until early Friday evening to find out what time Saturday’s game at Shea would be (three networks carrying the postseason and not one can make a decision!) But at four o’clock we were in orange seats at Shea, the Division Series even at a game apiece. A motley game-ready crew was there that included my wife, Greg Spira, and DBird, who just happened to be in town that weekend on business. Duck, who owned the damned seats, was sitting in the upper deck and let me have this afternoon. It had been 17 seasons since we’d first attended a game together. The Seaver return game. And whenever we found ourselves at Shea, we realized that for those few fleeting hours at least, we really hadn’t changed much at all. The Mets had, though, and for that we were extremely grateful.

These Mets were in the unprecedented position of being in the postseason for the second year in a row. A feat not even worth mentioning for some franchises, but with the Mets, nothing was or ever should be taken for granted. Success is always in short supply and you never know if more will arrive. That’s why its sweetness must be savored. People who are given sundaes every day of the week get sick of them and forget how good they taste. I hope these people’s teeth rot.

Game 3 of the Division Series seemed to grow bleaker as the faint sunlight gave way to night. The Mets were down, 2-0, in the sixth inning with their most reliable pitcher Rick Reed allowing RBI-hits to the likes of Bobby Estalella and Marvin Benard (BALCO anyone?). Unlike the two flashy lefties at the top of the Mets’ rotation, Reed was a workingman’s ace. His years of struggle made him never take a day in the game for granted. Today wasn’t his day. Russ Ortiz was sailing along until he foolishly walked Mike Bordick to start the sixth. Then Hamilton came through with the Mets’ first hit of the game and his second big hit of the series. Timo Perez, who some would come to later loathe for his fatal baserunning hesitation. He’d cracked the starting lineup following one of the greatest-timed injuries in Mets history: Derek Bell’s leg injury in Game 1 at Pac Bell. Timo singled in Bordick and it was 2-1. The Giants then failed to turn a double play on a grounder hit by Edgardo Alfonzo, but Robin Ventura acquiesced.

It was getting white knuckle time in the eighth as the Mets still trailed by a run. Somehow, the Giants again let Bordick get on base without doing anything. Ex-Met schlub turned reliable setup guy Doug Henry hit Bordick with a pitch to start the inning. Bordick was then forced out by Lenny Harris. The pinch-hitting barrel o’ fun stole second with two outs. Up came Alfonzo.

Fonzie was born under the radar. If he were a Hall of Famer, someone still would have spelled his name “Alfonso” on the plaque. With John Olerud and then Mike Piazza batting behind him, pitchers wanted to get him out rather than face the better-known names. This was a mistake. Rob Nen and Dusty Baker made the mistake again. With first base open, Fonzie laced a double. It was tied.

It was cold, too. The wind howled in from left in and seemed to build a wall in left field. An impenetrable, invisible wall that knocked down every ball that approached it as the teams stumbled through the ninth, 10th, and 11th. Things looked promising in the 12th when the Mets got a two-out hit from Fonzie. Up came Joe McEwing, by now playing third base (Ventura was at first, Kurt Abbott at shortstop, and Todd Pratt was catcher). He got his first and only postseason hit—he would only get one more October at-bat despite appearing in 10 more games for Bobby Valentine—but Fonzie overran second base and was tagged out. Inning over. I slammed my hat on the ever-present railing in front of me and the Gil Hodges pin went flying off dangerously in the direction of a little girl, who probably should have been in bed. As a few people turned to look at me, I apologized. Ashamed and frustrated, I abruptly left. I couldn’t go home. I went up. Up, up, up. Running upward on the ramp. Ever higher. Like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Excelsior”. Past people smoking by the railings, by people exiting an epic after sticking around for the first five hours, and I ran, I ran like Forrest Gump until I stopped at the place I needed to be. Midway up in left field. Upper deck. Up where I should be. With Duck and Jimmy Jim. Just in time to see Rick White navigate the seventh shutout inning from the Mets bullpen.

The wind was whipping in the upper tank in the home 13th. And as Ventura grounded out against Aaron Fultz, I told my brethren. “No one is ever going to hit a ball out in this wind.” And I started thinking about how Glendon Rusch was the last pitcher available. And the pitcher’s spot was due up in two batters. And would Bobby V. use a pinch hitter? Though he didn’t have a bat left, except for Mike Hampton, who may have to come in to pitch if this game goes on forever. And if the pitcher’s spot didn’t come up in the 13th, would White come out for a third inning of relief? And suddenly the strategy was all out the window into a full-force gale. Our perch a hundred feet or two above the fence afforded a perfect view of the ball that defied the wind, that cut right through it, and ended the 5-hour, 22-minute game just like that.

Benny Agbayani, 0 for 5 and looking dubious in that five-hole when suddenly…Bam! Duck and Jim and I rejoiced on high. And suddenly the smile slid off my face. My wife was four tiers below in an emptying stadium. We’d been here for more than six hours. And I had the car keys.

Again I ran, only this time down, down, down. I was about as popular in our little group as Aaron Fultz was in San Francisco’s locker room right about that moment. But I’ll let you in on a little secret: I didn’t care. This was a Mets playoff game. The last one I’d been to had gone 15 innings before it ended on a ball that cleared the fence in adverse weather conditions. And unlike that game, where the Mets had to travel to try to pull off a miraculous series win. The Mets could wrap this up tomorrow.

Part 2: The Next Day

Bobby Jones had been very good when the Mets were not. Consistent and not flashy in any way. Kind of like Fonzie, only from the mound. Despite these lengthy last two Shea postseason games, I’d actually been to one game at Shea once that had gone than the either. Jones, a rookie, pitching for the bastard sons of ’93, threw the first 10 scoreless innings of a 17-inning marathon played three days after the Mets had already achieved their 103rd and final loss. (The Mets used only four pitchers that night. Imagine!) Jeff Kent had finally won that game with a double. On October 8, 2000, a Kent double would be all that stood between Bobby Jones and immortality.

Robin Ventura homered with a man on the first and it was clear from early on that that might be enough. Jones set the Giants down in the first four innings without so much as a whimper…or a baserunner. Up stepped Kent to start the fifth. A postseason game at Shea brings out the most superstitious and most oft-heartbroken denizens this side of Fred Wilpon’s Brooklyn Bridge. No one was making eye contact, but no one was thinking about anything else. Granted, it had only been four innings, but this was the playoffs. Wouldn’t that be like the Mets to never have a no-hitter during the season, but have one in the postseason. Would that even count in the MLB record books?

Of course, none of these superstitious people in blue and orange, who were afraid to breathe the wrong way at times like these, dared even think such thoughts, much less articulate them. We contented ourselves in cheering every pitch and every time Agbayani ran out to take his position. Then Kent started the fifth by crushing one. Just foul! While we were still holding our collective breath, Kent hit one down the line and fair. Forget the no-hitter, you selfish moron, can they hold the lead? Do you really want to go back to Pac Bell for a deciding game after what happened to Armando Benitez in Game 2 (if you don’t know, don’t ask) 

After Kent took third on a long fly by Ellis Burks, J.T. Snow walked. Rich Aurilia flied to left, but not deep enough to score Kent. The Mets walked Doug Mirabelli to face the pitcher’s spot. Mark Gardner, who’d pitched pretty well himself, came up amid open mouths throughout Shea Stadium. Those mouths were open and roaring moments later when Gardner’s popup was caught by Fonzie. Those three men stranded were the only runners San Francisco had all game. Then Fonzie doubled in two runners in the bottom of the inning to knock out Gardner. Dusty Baker, Manager of the Year and Super Genius, who operated in the best pitcher’s park in the game and had the best player, seemed to have his jock on when he went out to take out Mark Gardner, but I could’ve sworn Bobby Valentine had managed it right off him. Again.

Jones, who’d gone to the minor leagues earlier in the year to straighten himself out, straightened out the Giants but good with a one-hit shutout. In roughly half the time it took to complete the previous night’s game, the Mets had knocked out 100-win San Francisco. Winning that first round leaves one with a sense of still not having captured something tangible. No Russ Hodges bellowing over and over: “The Mets win the right to go to the Championship Series! The Mets win the right to go to the Championship Series! The Mets win the right to go to the Championship Series! And they’re going crazy, they’re going crazy, ah-yeh!”

What was left of my voice beamed out to a St. Louis radio station that night, for a previously arranged hour-long midnight interview on a sports talk show to promote Baseball: The Biographical Encyclopedia. Between Rajah Hornsby and Spoke Speaker stories, the show’s host and I spent a lot of time talking about how our scruffy little teams had pulled off upsets. (The Cardinals had swept the unbeatable Braves.) No matter that the Mets and Cards would be playing each other in a few days. We were in that rare glow between one postseason series and the next when all there is is triumph and possibility. And your mind still won’t believe what your eyes have seen. You do not know how this month will end. And right now you’d kill anybody who tried to spoil it by telling you.

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August 7, 2008

Wish You Were Here

#5a. What’d I Miss?

If you’ve been following along with this countdown—and if you have, God bless you—you will eventually realize that there’s a few landmark Mets games seemingly missing. Since this is from a live, first-person perspective, there’ll be a few games missing from the ultimate list the Mets have been promoting on the team web site. (To vote—and you best do so by August 15—click here. To find out how badly the pooch has been compromised by that list, read Faith and Fear in Flushing’s breakdown of what went missing on the ballot when the paid chroniclers of Mets history tried to get cute. And after reading Greg’s piece that came out after I finished my original list, I’m adding the Matt Franco game as a bonus at #10.)

The list is liberally mixed with my rankings from 100 Things Mets Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die and Meet the Mets and whatever else moved me at the time of this writing. I’ve done everything possible to be on hand for the biggest moments at Shea Stadium in my Mets lifetime, including going to every postseason game at Shea since 1986 except for two nights: The two that happen to be on the list below. Let’s go…

10. The Matt Franco Game - July 10, 1999

Before I’d been scarred for life by the “real” Subway Series and could actually take some joy in going to these Yankees games in Queens in person, I saw both the Friday and Sunday games in this series from the stands. The Saturday Game of the Week was a back-and-forth thriller with Piazza hitting a ball that still might be rolling off a tent somewhere. Ninth inning, two outs, down by a run off—everyone genuflect—“The Great Mariano,” Matt Franco singled to right. Here comes the tying run! Here comes the winning run!! The Mets 9 and the Yankees 8. My one-year-old daughter jumped up and down in my arms in the living room. Thanks to that other Matt and thanks to Greg at FAFIF for making me realize what I was missing…again.

10. Ten in a Row - April 22, 1970

A game that’s somewhat forgotten, except in the record books. Tom Seaver’s fanning of the last 10 Padres on a midweek afternoon game in 1970 the major league record and his 19 K’s still stand as the club record (tied by David Cone 21 years later). It was probably the best performance by Seaver as a Met except for this one…

9. The Imperfect Game - July 9, 1969

This game is about more than just a near perfect game. That part has grown in stature as the decades have piled on and the Mets have still not had a no-hitter, but that Seaver’s dominance came against the Cubs at a time when Chicago seemed like your runaway winner in the NL East makes the game yet more significant. Jimmy Qualls, not even a regular, singled to left to break it up with one out in the ninth, but few things went right after that in Chicago as the Mets would overcome a 10-game deficit.

8. The Black Cat - September 9, 1969

Is this game better than the almost perfect game? No. But it gets a slight edge due to timing and that when it was over—and Tom Seaver had beaten Fergie Jenkins—the Mets were just a half-game out of first place with less than three weeks remaining in the season. Say you got to this game in the first inning with your kid, sat down in your $3.50 box seat, sipped your 55-cent beer, wrote down the lineups in your 25-cent scorecard, and then your five-year-old interrupted you with, “Dad, how come there’s a cat on the field?” If you believe in jinxes or no—and it’s pretty clear the Cubs got to be believers—the cat wandering in front of Ron Santo in the on-deck circle and then hissing at Leo Durocher before disappearing was surely a sign beyond any feral cat colony. That and the waving of the handkerchiefs while singing, “Goodbye Leo.” Miraculous, indeed.

7. The Ball on the Wall - September 20, 1973

Flash forward four years and this time it’s the Pirates showing wear as the Mets make their move. By now the NL East is such a middling mess that the Mets have risen from last place in a matter of weeks to be 1 ½ behind the Bucs. The fourth game in a weird five-game home-and-away series belonged to the Bucs until Duffy Dyer doubled in Ken Boswell with two outs in the ninth. The Pirates seemed to have the game won in the top of the 13th when Dave Augustine’s drive to left hit the top of the wall and caromed directly to Cleon Jones. Wayne Garrett’s relay throw bounced into Ron Hodges’s mitt and into Mets lore. Richie Zisk was out at the plate and Hodges singled in the winning run in the bottom of the inning and the Mets somehow wound up in the World Series.

6. Standing Up - September 21, 2001

As you are probably aware, this was the first game in New York after the attacks in September 2001. It’s really hard to quantify where this should go on a list such as this, but it was important enough where it would have merited inclusion even if Mike Piazza hadn’t hit that dramatic home run. I needed to be with my wife for an event that was really important to her that night. I’ll always wish I’d been at Shea, but if there’s something that still remains with me from that horrible time, it is that family comes first.

5. Agee for the Ages - October 14, 1969

All three games at Shea from the 1969 World Series in the top five? As the A-1 commercial claims, “Yeah, it’s that important.” In the first-ever World Series game at Shea, Tommie Agee homers to lead off against Jim Palmer. Gary Gentry pitches in and out of trouble with loads of help from two spectacular catches by Agee in center. Nolan Ryan, making his only career World Series appearance, is on the hill when Agee makes his second snag in the seventh inning sprawling on the warning track in right center to rob Paul Blair.

4. It’s All in the Wrist - October 15, 1969

You might say Ron Swoboda’s catch the next day might have been even better than either of Agee’s. It came at a more crucial time with runners on the corners, ninth inning, and a 1-0 game. And while Agee was a Gold Glove outfielder, Swoboda’s fielding was—like his nickname—a tad “Rocky.” Swoboda robbed Brooks Robinson with a backhanded dive on what would have otherwise given Baltimore the lead. The sacrifice fly turned into Baltimore’s only run off Tom Seaver, who went 10 innings. J.C. Martin, on a bunt, was hit on the wrist with the throw on what probably should have been ruled an out for running out of the baseline.

3. “It Gets by Buckner” - October 25, 1986

“Wait! How is this number three? It was number one in 100 Things Mets Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die. What are you doing?” This is the touchstone moment of the franchise for Mets fans who came of age beyond 1970. But if I could pick one moment, it would be to be on hand for the winning of a World Series. I stayed up way past my bed time to see Carlton Fisk’s home run in Game 6 in 1975 and as wondrous as that game was, the Red Sox still lost the Series to the Reds the next day. What would the Buckner moment have meant if the Mets had lost Game 7? Baseball is full of surprises; this game is proof that—like Yogi said in ’73—“it ain’t over til it’s over.”

2. The Smudge That Changed the World - October 16, 1969

Personally, it was a harder call between the clincher in 1969 and 1986. In ’69 you had the Mets falling behind, 3-0, and then in the sixth the Dave McNally pitch glancing off the foot of Cleon Jones and Gil Hodges quietly emerging with the ball with polish on it. Donn Clendenon followed with a home run. Al Weis, who had absolutely no power, clocked a home run to tie it in the seventh. Ron Swoboda knocked in the go-ahead run in the eighth. And Jerry Koosman made it stand up with Cleon taking a knee. I have seen it so many times it almost seems like a Hollywood script—and it was actually part of the plot in the film Frequency—and I can only imagine how it felt. I know what it was like when the Mets won in 1986.

1. “The Dream Has Come True” - October 27, 1986

Like in 1969, the Mets again trailed 3-0 in the sixth with Keith Hernandez playing the role of Clendenon and getting the Mets back in the game off a tough left-hander. Gary Carter tied it and Ray Knight later gave the Mets the lead. Jesse Orosoco bailed the Mets out of a jam in the eighth and then even singled in a run in the bottom of the inning on the old “butcher boy” play. But what we will all remember of Shea—or at least I will never forget—is the lefthander striking out Marty Barrett to win the world championship. A lefty—as I’d imagined through countless mirror mimics as a kid while losses by Torre’s Mess blared on behind me—had finally done it. That Orosoco had come in a trade for Kooz, and the reaction that those two lefties had after the last out, was beyond my imagination. And the way that moment made me feel was beyond any script. Anticlimactic? My ass! We’ve been waiting 22 years for another taste.

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August 25, 2008

Thank You Very Much

#4. October 3, 1999: My Kingdom for a Tie

As a Mets fan, it’s hard to say anything could be worse than September 2007, but once upon a time, the Mets came within a weekend of the longest-running nightmare in franchise history.  

The 1998 team dissolved into nothingness the last week of the season. The last Tuesday of the year saw the Mets leading the wild card by a game over the Cubs with five to play. They were 3 ½ games ahead of the Giants, whose late-season winning streak couldn’t make up for a lackluster season. But it could. The Giants won six in a row and even dropping two in a row in Denver didn’t wind up hurting them. Likewise, Brant Brown’s dropping of a fly ball in the bottom of the ninth in Milwaukee allowed the Brewers to beat the Cubs, but it didn’t stop Chicago from securing a tie for the wild card. The Mets, who needed one win in their last five to force a playoff—two wins would’ve clinched it—didn’t win again. Two excruciating losses to the Expos followed by three straight to the division champion Braves, who had nothing to play for, ended the Mets season. Not with a bang, but a whimper.

So…here comes 1999. And the Mets are a better team. A deeper team. This speedy kid named Cedeno. This grand slam machine called Ventura. Bullets firing from the belt of Benitez. “The Best Infield Ever?”!!!! And here comes mid-September and there it goes…all your hopes and dreams. Again. One day you’re playing for first place in Atlanta with 12 games to play and before you know it you’ve completed an 0-6 roadtrip with a sweep at the hands of a horrid Phillies team. Then there’s a loss at Shea against these very same Braves to make it seven straight (I’m there), an actual win against Greg Maddux to stop the streak, and a crushing extra-inning loss to the Bravos that transforms Shea into one giant crying towel (there for that, too).

I was done. I had nothing left to give. Being superstitious back then I did not even watch the Friday night game against the Pirates, figuring I’d seen all of the last nine games and had experienced one win. It had to be me. Clearly. The Mets won the Friday night game, beating Pittsburgh. At this point, that really didn’t make much difference, the important thing was what was happening in Milwaukee. And just about the time the winning run scored in the 11th at Shea, Ronnie Belliard actually helped out the Mets by singling in the deciding run in the 10th against the Reds. Cincinnati—having a fantastic year under Jack McKeon—handled the pressure of being in front about as well as the Mets had.

The Astros were in the mix, too, but really, they were more a diversion than anything else. Houston had the NL Central just about wrapped up, but if the Astros spit the bit—and they had lost Friday night to L.A.—the Reds could tie them for the division crown. And if the Mets, Reds, and Astros were in a three-way tie, the Reds and Astros would play for the NL Central crown and the Mets would take the wild card. Not really a fair situation for the Central clubs, but going face-to-face with two straight Septembers blown to hell, I didn’t give a crap about fair.

I watched the updates from Milwaukee while shucking a dozen or two Maryland crabs for a small gathering we were having that night. (Obviously a dinner party scheduled in advance, and we were stuck with far more crabs—at $3 per, who could argue?—than we could handle from an obsequious Baltimore crab house.) The Reds were beaten again by the Brew Crew while I was elbow deep in Old Bay seasoning. Suddenly, the season had completely changed. Again.

Duck had tickets for that night’s game and it was his call if we should go. He demurred at about 6:15 p.m., saying he did not want to tempt the baseball gods. We were all going Sunday, no matter what. My wife never found out that I was a word away from walking out the front door and driving off to Shea minutes before my friends were scheduled to arrive for dinner. We pounded crabs in my kitchen and the Mets pounded the Pirates at Shea. Rick Reed went the distance—and got a key hit—as the Bucs showed a little fight but eventually faded. I was glad I’d saved it for Sunday while assuring I would not spend the rest of October sleeping on the couch.

I awoke early to a warm, sunny day. I put on shorts, a Mets hat, and an old-time Brewers jersey. We were all Brewers today. I even forgave them their ridiculous switch of leagues of a year earlier. The series with the Reds at County Stadium was probably the most meaningful games the Brew Crew had played this late in a season since Stormin’ Gorman was in his prime.

Brant Brown was last year and damn Kevin Brown now. I cursed the Dodgers ace for refusing to pitch that day’s potentially crucial game against the Astros—but I thanked his manager, the one and only Davey Johnson, for asking. The Astros clinched the division by knocking out Robinson Checo in the last start of his brief career. The man getting his 22nd win of the year—and final victory as an Astro—one Michael William Hampton.

Duck and I had gone to many Closing Day games as some sort of ritual, but the season ender rarely meant anything beyond the esoteric, except for the ’98 Shea closer against Carl Pavano and the Expos, which had only meant heartbreak. The day was warm and the park was filled. The Mets had been well short of sellouts the first two games against Pittsburgh, but this afternoon the place was packed with 50,111; Young Tom joining us to fill out the total nicely. The crowd was loud from the first pitch. And then the Pirates scored a few minutes later.

Kevin Young, the only bat remaining in a depleted Pittsburgh lineup and in the final day of what would be his last good year, somehow got a pitch to hit with two outs and a base open. Orel Hershiser, who’d started the last postseason the Mets had won in ’88, now pitched a must-win game for the good guys. And he allowed only one other hit while lasting into the sixth. Rookie Kris Benson, on the other hand, was a month away from marrying the Frankenbabe of baseball wives and figured he had nothing to lose. He allowed two hits in the first, but then retired the next eight. In the fourth, the Kevin Young career crumble began.

He botched a ball hit by John Olerud for a two-base error. With a base open and two down, up stepped deadline pickup Darryl Hamilton (not to be confused with the deadbeat pickup of Billy Taylor that cost both Jason Isringhausen and Greg McMichael). Benson worked him away and Hamilton lined one down the line in left that landed inside the line. Olerud loped home and we were ecstatic. That was the only run Benson gave up in seven innings that day. We licked our chops to see the Buccos bullpen that had helped win the first two games, but we still needed to sweat through the innings by the Mets bullpen. Believe it or not, that part was smooth sailing.

Pat Mahomes, the third pitcher of the sixth inning, got through the one troublesome moment after the first. “The Perfect One” preserved his 8-0 record, the 1-1 tie, and also continued early decline of Kevin Young’s career by fanning him to end the inning. Turk Wendell then pitched into the ninth until the very same Kevin Young showed one last blip of life by singling and stealing second. Armando Benitez—you heard the name right—fanned a young Aramis Ramirez in a tight spot to get us to the bottom of the ninth still tied.

Fans tried to cheer when Bobby Bonilla batted for Shane Halter, which was a perfect decision since Halter’s brief seven-game Mets career ended at that moment without him ever batting. Needless to say, Bonilla was retired—not for good, mind you, but for the day. Then up stepped Melvin Mora.

Mora had been on the team since May, but had played sporadically, never batting more than three times in any game. He was one of those Bobby V. finds that Valentine liked to polish up and display on occasions where little was expected. Mora had entered the game as a pinch runner for the all-time stolen base leader, Rickey Henderson, and stayed in the outfield. With an extended bench of callups and the benefit of last licks, Bobby V. just had to find a way to win this one. Of course when you manage a team where “you’re not dealing with real intelligent guys for the most part”, you never know what you’ll get. And Mora brought a .133 batting average to the plate against Greg Hansell, who like Mr. Checo down in Houston, would never pitch again in the majors. He’d never get another out, either.

Mora hit a sharp single to right and the crowd roared. Edgardo Alfonzo—was there a crucial rally that October that he wasn’t in the middle of?—also singled to right and Mora dashed to third. Hansell and the Pirates didn’t mess with Johnny O. and passed him intentionally to set up a force at any base. And whereas the first three players mentioned in the batting order at this point in the most important Mets game in a dozen seasons were counted on to come through, the best hitter on the team—and perchance in club history—came up to the plate with fans begging one thing silently, or in my case aloud: “Please don’t hit a ground ball, please don’t hit a ground ball…”

I loved Mike Piazza. We all loved Mike Piazza. But Mikey P. was running on fumes. He was your National League MVP—or at least mine—when September started. Catching each of the past 12 crucial games, his average had dropped from a once lofty .323 to .305, and Chipper Jones had locked up the award during the pummeling of the Mets. While Piazza had home runs the past two nights against Pittsburgh, he’d had just four other hits in the past week and led the NL in double plays bounced into. Brad Clontz, a sidewinder with groundouts a specialty, came in to try to do more of the same. The astute observer—or one looking at Retrosheet closely a decade later—would note however, the Piazza hadn’t bounced into a twin killing in almost a month. And he didn’t do it here, either. Never had a chance.

The pitch was nowhere near the plate, it bounced early, it veered wildly, and catcher Joe Oliver never made a move to retrieve the ball once it started on its inevitable path toward the neighborhood of the most famous Shea Stadium wild pitch had gone. Despite 1,700 words to the contrary, I cannot think of a word to accurately describe what I felt as Mora touched home. Joy? Redemption? Relief? Yes. And a few other things to boot. Everyone jumped and hugged. At worst, there’d be another game on Monday. And after waiting out nearly six hours through the rain in Milwaukee, the Reds finally won and there would be a game number 163.

It was the Mets’ turn. Our turn. My turn. As we exited the stadium, a friendly hand slapped a baton-sized bat in my hand courtesy of Charles Schwab that read, “Mets: Fan Appreciation Day 1999.” Thanks, buddy. Thanks, Brewers. Thanks, Pirates. And most of all, thank you Cincinnati. Thank you very much.

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September 8, 2008

It’s Outta Here!

#3. October 9, 1999 Catcher of the Day

I was never so nervous in all my Met-fearing life. On that day, October 4, 1999, the Mets were preparing to play the first one-game playoff in club history. There’d only been nine ever held in major league history (we’re team vs. team tiebreakers, not the individual games back when the NL held extra series to settle such disputes). The Mets had gone from the first Steve Phillips coach-firing tizzy in June to controlling the wild card in September to letting it tumble out of our hands as the October page came up on the calendar. Then, just when it seemed all was lost and everyone had to go home crushed, Melvin Mora, that skinny kid from the neighborhood, climbed into the sewer, got the ball back, and stomped on the manhole cover.

October 4, approximately 3 p.m., work stopped. I had tons to do but it was useless. I couldn’t concentrate on anything. I turned on “Mike and the Mad Dog” (you may need a refresher on this ancient form of sports talk entertainment) and did busy work until game time. And yet somehow I still missed Edgardo Alfonzo’s home run in the first inning. That was all right. I was just happy to know there was a “2” hanging on the scoreboard in Cincinnati. Each time the Mets tacked on a run from there—what a concept!—I let out a sigh while my stomach tensed up knowing how bad it would feel if they blew this now. Al Leiter entered the ninth with a one-hitter. He gave up a hit, and a walk, and then a line drive out of the picture. That’ll put the tying run on deck, and they’ll have to yank Leiter and…no, Fonzie caught it. It’s over. It’s over! Playoffs. Postseason. Division Series. Whatever the hell you want to call it, there it is.

There was a 5-ounce bottle of champagne in the fridge someone had brought as a gift a year or two earlier and on the bookshelf was another straggler gift, a little egg with confetti in it. I drank one and cracked the other over my head when Duck called one minute after it was over. I didn’t really expect anything more out of 1999 than this little buzz and little mess.

The Diamondbacks were a second-year team, but they were also a 100-win club. They had Randy Johnson. Jay Bell and Matt Williams were having unbelievable years with Luis Gonzalez batting between them and tormenting pitchers. They had traded a future bad penny for Matt Mantei as closer. And they had home field advantage. But this was the playoffs. After a dozen seasons without. You had to be in it to win it.

I didn’t even care that the Division Series opener started at 11 p.m. I was giddy when the Mets hung in there and Fonzie slammed one in the ninth to break a tie. The next night’s 11 p.m. start? That was cruel. Exhaustion had set in. When the Mets fell behind by multiple runs in the seventh inning and with the clock nearing 2 a.m. during a stressful week, I actually fell asleep during a Mets playoff game for the only time in my life. I should only be so sleepy again in this lifetime.

Game 3 was the first postseason game at Shea since a bizarro Columbus Day afternoon in 1988 that was as somber as a memorial service. This one began with a solemn tone as well. Mike Piazza’s injured hand would keep him out for at least the two NLDS games at Shea. Todd Pratt, who hadn’t started or had a hit in 19 days and whose last home run had come on April 22, would be behind the plate. But the catcher was only needed to frame pitches that homeplate umpire Rick Rieker invariably called balls. You know he was squeezing the pitchers when Rick Reed, who could throw strikes from second base using a volleyball, walked three guys. It didn’t hurt Reeder like it did Omar Daal. Mets 9, Diamondbacks 2.

Saturday morning, October 9, 1999, a week after only the faintest hope of making the postseason, the Mets were now a game away from winning the Division Series. And if it was going to happen they’d better do it today, because if the Mets didn’t win, they’d have to turn around and fly to Phoenix for a deciding Sunday game against Randy Johnson.

Game 4 had Al Leiter. The same guy who’d gone .500 during the year before pitching the best non no-hitter of his life in his previous start in Cincinnati. He looked even better on a gorgeous afternoon at Shea. Leiter did not allow a hit into the fifth inning and had a 1-0 lead on Fonzie’s home run. Greg Colbrunn ended several Mets-centric fantasies with one swing. His homer broke up Al’s bid and forged a tie.

The Mets retook the lead when Benny Agbayani doubled in Ricky Henderson in the sixth. Leiter set down the D-backs in order in the seventh—and this was with Roger Cedeno inserted into the game for defense! Just six outs left. Then five. Then four! Then a two-out walk. Then a single. Then Bob Apodaca walking out with arm extended. Then Leiter was gone.

In trundled Armando Benitez. To cheers. Sure, he’d blown six saves—the worst of his career to that point and a number he wouldn’t surpass until his laughable “All-Star” half-season out the door as a Met in 2003—but he was so much better than John Franco in ’99. Starting in April, when fans got a load of the heat he threw in the eighth inning and compared it with the junk that closer Franco bounced in front of the plate in the ninth, the WFAN airwaves crackled with people calling for a flip flop of reliever roles. Franco maintained the closer job until he injured his ring finger in the final inning of Fireworks Night with the Mets down, 13-0. He was relieved by Matt Franco—the first Mets nonpitcher to ever pitch at Shea. (With Roger Cedeno stationed behind him at second base and Rick Reed in right field, the right-handed throwing Franco promptly allowed a three–run homer.) Matt Franco pitched in another blowout a few weeks after his pitching debut. John Franco didn’t appear again until September. By then he’d indeed been flip flopped with Benitez.

That warm October afternoon, Benitez and all his heat came in to face Jay Bell, the bespectacled former Bucco turned sudden sluggo in the desert. Bell promptly doubled in both runs. Benitez walked Luis Gonzalez intentionally and then faced Williams. Base hit. Before we could get out more than one expletive, Melvin Mora, newly stationed in left field took the ball on a hop and gunned it to Pratt, who tagged out Bell. The Mets were down, but at least the inning was over. And you just knew that closing out big games would never again be simple.

Duck, Jim, and Paul tried to get our pessimistic thoughts together between innings. I stared down blankly below my seat and saw a cup with liquid in it that I’d forgotten about in the all the excitement. I offered to pass the cup around for those devastated and thirsty in our group. Arizona reliever Gregg Olson walked Alfonzo. Greg Swindell entered and the cup was passed once more, only now it had become a chalice. “The cup, the cup,” was uttered as it made its next round while we waited for John Olerud, the high priest of Mets clutchness. His arrival at Shea in 1997—along with Bobby V’s first full season and the installation of Reed in the rotation—had signaled a change in fortunes at Shea. Maybe the Cup—one walk and it had already moved to a capital letter—could help coerce some kind of Shea magic. Or maybe not.

A high fly to right wouldn’t cut it. Tony Womack, career second baseman turned shortstop turned right fielder after Arizona took the lead, settled under it and…dropped the ball. He dropped the ball! Olerud took second and Fonzie went to third. Nobody out.

Now here came the Mets’ defensive replacement, Roger Cedeno. Batting right-handed, he smacked it out to center field, Alfonzo tagged, and it was tied. We passed around The Cup once more (now the The was even capitalized). The magic wasn’t back, though. New pitcher Matt Mantei fielded a Pratt grounder and caught Olerud off third without a throw. Pratt’s bat was almost as worthless as Ordonez’s, which he used to whiff to end the inning. But it was tied. It was tied.

Benitez retired the Diamondbacks in the ninth. Mantei got through trouble in the home ninth. Franco came in to pitch—John, not Matt—and looked like a closer, retiring once-and-future Mets Kelly Stinnett and Lenny Harris. Stinnett was the starting catcher, but Harris had actually entered the game in a double switch in the eighth. The same inning that Arizona manager Buck Showalter had moved his shortstop to right field, and watched him drop a pop fly, Showalter then removed four-time Gold Glove third baseman and MVP candidate Matt Williams, who had 142 RBIs during the year, in place of stone hands Lenny Harris in a must-win postseason game. It wasn’t the first or last-time some stylized dugout genius made one recall the immortal words of manager Monty Burns: It’s what smart managers do to win ballgames.”

As Franco retired Womack, the guy whose out-of-position flub had kept us all overtime to begin with, I was in the bathroom, knowing that it would be packed when the inning ended. I don’t usually detail what happens in a Shea men’s room—actually that’s not accurate. October 4, 2006: You’re Out. And You’re Out!—but anyway, I found myself alone in there during the 10th inning. Except for some tall guy in a Mets hat. Tim Robbins. The actor. I knew he was a big Mets/Rangers fan and he’d obviously avoided enough crowds to know this was was a time when one could find the bathroom unoccupied (if Tony Womack goes deep, it’s still better to be trying to unsuccessfully coax paper towels out of a dispenser). I’ve seen stars in repose on rare occasions and normally I’m pretty good at giving them a nod or something subtle that says, “Hey, I’m in the know. Your secret’s safe with me.” This time, for some reason, I actually felt moved to speak. And not about the great game we were both witnessing. It went like this: “You know that thing you do? It’s good.”

Tim Robbins nodded, smiled, and moved away from me like I was those unkind jailbirds welcoming him to the big house in The Shawshank Redemption. But there’d be redemption. For everyone who stayed and got their business taken care of.

Robin Ventura seemed like the last best hope of getting something started before the 11th inning, but Mantei got him easily. The came Pratt. Ordonez on deck. Rey-Rey actually had four hits in the series; Pratt was 0 for 7 with two walks as Piazza’s replacement. I was already thinking about the 11th inning. Would Franco come out to pitch again if his spot didn’t come up in the order. Or would it be Wendell. Or would…

(I know that just about every person out there knows what happened, but let me tell it already.)

“Wow, he got that one all right. Steve Finley’ll get it. Hey, that thing’s carrying. Crap, Finley’s got it.” Then Finley looked in his glove and put his hands on his hips incredulously as all of Shea waited. Everything burst at once. It shook. It rocked. It quaked. I’m sure if Tim Robbins was sitting near me, we might have even had a man hug. Or maybe a nod. I stood on my seat with everyone else and watched Pratt round the bases, greeted by a mass of everloving Mets at home. All in white. No names, just numbers. Forever clustered around home plate, as iconic in my mind as the painting of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Tarnished Retrospective Alert

This picture was skewed a bit when on December 13, 2007, Todd Pratt’s name appeared in the Mitchell Report. His grand moment, my #3 out of 300-plus times I’ve been to Shea, became a little tarnished. Was he taking something that may have given him a little boost to get the ball over the fence? Is that how he went from pizza delivery guy to hero for the ages at Shea? Tank was one of those guys you rooted for, whom you knew would be a coach or manager someday. But something from that October afternoon in 1999 was lost when the Mitchell Report came out. It’ll disappear from people’s memory one day, just as announcers rarely bring it up now after the passage of a few months. I guess we have to let it go, and wait to see how all this plays out in the course of history. The game is about history. Even tainted bits of it.

But it’s still there. To me and to every Mets fan, that was a moment of sheer joy. It was getting that “A” on your report card you never ever expected, that pretty girl coming over to talk to you, that promotion you didn’t see coming. Maybe you later got a B-minus in the same subject, or the girl turned out to be a bitch, or the promotion brought little money and more hassle, but it happened to you. Take it and move on.

I watched that moment again today on a borrowed DVD of Shea Goodbye—popular name--to see the moment once more to describe it properly. That is still a spine-tingling moment and is presented beautifully in that wonderful DVD. (I’ll be getting one of those for myself.) To the filmmaker and all those people who put that DVD together, and yes to Tank Pratt himself, I have one thing—the last thing--to say on the matter: “You know that thing you do? It’s good.”

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September 12, 2008

Stay

#3a. Three Reasons Never to Leave Shea Early

Greg Prince wondered aloud during the second hard-hitting New York-Washington contest with a score that added up to 23  in a week, “When did Shea Stadium turn into Dodger Stadium and everyone started leaving in the seventh inning?” Good question. There’ll be no soap boxing here. (Well, not that much, at least.) I’m sure everyone has his or her responsibilities that must be attended to. By all means, leave early if you must. But, as the title here says, here are my three reasons why you should find a way to take that later train or edge out of the lot a few minutes later. You paid for the whole game, Shea’s time is growing incredibly short, and you’ll never know what you might walk out with if you don’t see it through to the end.

April 8, 1978: Mets vs. Expos

I’ve yet to write about the 1978 Mets in this space for one simple reason: They sucked. All my junior high “friends” who constantly bragged about their team’s spanking-new world championship bought with their nouveau riche Steinbrennerian wad let me know that. I had a comeback.

“The Mets have Ken Henderson and Tom Grieve, both of whom once hit 20 home runs in a single season. You know Butch Metzger and Pat Zachry, co-Rookies of the Year in the superior NL just two years ago? Oh, they’re both Mets now. And Willie Montanez, best hot dog in the National League? Won’t be long until a candy bar hops his way and it’ll taste better than the Reggie Bar, though that things is packed full of peanuts and I admit it is tastier than the other ‘slugger’ bars: Oh Henry! and Baby Ruth.”

That last bit about the chocolate was about as truthful as I was willing to get as April 1978 dawned.

The Mets won the opener on a Friday afternoon behind Jerry Koosman, whose 20-win season in ’76 had been followed by 20 losses in the mother of all godawful Mets seasons. Saturday dawned clear and bitterly cold. My dad had promised to take me to game two of 1978. We picked up my friend, Danny, along the way so he could freeze to death, too. The second day of the season always draws fewer spectators than Opening Day, though when the season begins with attendance of 11,736, opening day should be downgraded to lowercase letters. So there were 7,259 for the second game—thank heaven for a Saturday afternoon game in April—and a classic pitching matchup of Rudy May vs. Nino Espinosa. The aforementioned Butch Metzger relieved and proceeded to get shelled in his Mets debut. He would be sold to Philadelphia as a July 4 gift that would never be opened inside a major league stadium.

Meanwhile, flanking Montanez in the lineup were dual Hendersons: Steve and Ken. They and the rest of the Mets lineup hit like they couldn’t wait to sit back down with a hot-water bottle on this 35-degree day. “Genius Joe” Torre—my personal nickname for the crafty second-year manager—pulled Hendu (that’s Steve not Ken, for those keeping score, like I was that day with numb, white hands). Torre brought in debuting reliever Mardie Cornejo in a double-switch, providing us with our first Bruce Boisclair sighting of the young season.

It all seemed so pointless. When Ellis Valentine—the burly Expo, not the future gun-shy Met—ripped a foul ball that nearly killed a man a few sections from us down the right-field line, my dad asserted that for everyone’s safety we needed to go. Who could argue? I was freezing, too. The remains of my soda had formed a solid hunk of black ice at my feet. And a 5-2 Mets deficit was generally good for an “L” with little fuss.

We were in Danny’s driveway dropping him off when Lee Mazzilli—occasional slugger and heartthrob for a franchise devoid of both—homered to make it a one-run game in the eighth. As we made our way home, heat blasting in the Impala, Cornejo retired old pals Del Unser and Wayne Garrett is succession, and, after a single, fanned Rudy May, though that meant the ex-Yank southpaw was obviously coming out the final inning.

May walked Boisclair leading off the ninth. Lenny Randle—the lone bright spot of ’77, his “star” level would be usurped by Montanez—laid down a sacrifice as the last batter May faced. Ex-Expo Tim Foli flied out against reliever Stan Bahnsen. I heard this last at-bat on the car radio as we finally arrived home. I bolted through the garage, dashed past my mother, hastily clicked on the black-and-white set, and switched it to Channel 9. There was faint, cold chant of “Eddie, Eddie” as Ed Kranepool stepped in to bat for Cornejo. I cannot recreate the broadcaster’s call. I can’t even tell you if it was Bob Murphy or Lindsey Nelson that I heard—Ralph Kiner was probably on the Kiner’s Korner set deciding between Chris Speier (four hits), Dave Cash (two RBIs), or Rudy May as guests on the show. The Expos would have to wait for another day.

I can still see that ball jump off Kranepool’s bat, climbing quickly through the black-and-white sky as the camera shifts to the wide shot. Ellie Valentine drifting back a few steps, pausing, and then running in out of the cold for the day. That ball landed in the bullpen. If a football team had gone 2-0 it wouldn’t have been a bigger deal in my world. My mother ran in, wondering if the commotion was some major news breaking on the TV. Unable to share my joy, she was still happy I could get this little victory. And it was little. The Mets would win four times during their first turn through the rotation, but by the time the season ended—with the Yankees involved in the most hotly-contested race since the Giants and Dodgers in ’51—the Mets’ quaint little start would be all that kept them from 100 losses.

One look from me that afternoon sentenced my dad—a baseball enthusiast by paternal obligation only—to five years hard labor, innings one through nine, to be served at Shea Stadium. No chance for parole. When I learned to drive, his Mets sentence ended—at least the hard labor part—fines were still paid to Shea Stadium. When we went one night to see the new, fun, gutsy Mets in 1984, his last time at Shea, the team played like it was ’78 all over again. With no Steady Eddie to bail them out this time.

June 24, 1990: Mets vs. Phillies

I had no one to blame but myself. Let me start by stating, for the record, that at this point I lived in rural Massachusetts and came down for Mets games once, maybe twice a month. As anyone who’s been in Massachusetts with New York license plates knows, it is against the law there to be nice to anyone from the Empire State. Of course, I’m kidding, people there are nice…they just never let you forget you’re from New York. And four years removed from the 1986 Series, being a Mets fan was in many ways worse than being a Yankees fan. Yes, it was a different world. I was there to work—as a reporter—and had lots of idle time on my hands when away from the office or the big scoop. Weekend visits to New York were opportunities to cram in as much fun as possible.

So when tickets fell into my hands for both the final round of the Buick Classic Golf Tournament and the Mets-Phillies game on the last Sunday in June, I saw no reason I couldn’t do both. We got a little later start on Sunday than I would have wanted, but we did manage to actually catch some of the golf tournament before heading to Shea. And living in western Mass with $9 per round golf, and with my social prospects being what they were, I would actually start playing golf in the next year, discovering new ways to fritter away time in a place without cable…or the Mets.

We left the golf tournament and headed to Shea a little before noon. There were 40,000 more people than for the aforementioned day in 1978. It was warm. And sunny. So those Amoco sunglasses we received upon entry came in quite handy. There was no way tell how the golf tournament was going, but it was easy to see how the ballgame was going: Badly.

Bobby Ojeda didn’t have it and the Phillies stymied the Mets every time they got close to tying it. The Mets left two men on in the fifth, sixth, and seventh without scoring. When the Mets went down sheepishly in the eighth—the power trio of Keith Miller, Tom O’Malley, and Orlando Mercado doing little to brighten anyone’s outlook—I concurred with the growing sentiment that we leave to return to the golf tournament in Westchester. We weren’t alone. Traffic was snarled getting out of the parking lot and we were not moving at all as Bob Murphy described the happenings in the ninth.

Howard Johnson and Dave Magadan singled, bringing in old pal Roger McDowell for Philadelphia. Phillies manager Nick Leyva showed confidence by double-switching McDowell into the game with a two-run lead in the ninth. The maneuver wouldn’t be necessary.

Gregg Jefferies singled in a run. Strawberry flied out. McReynolds walked to load the bases. Mark Carreon, held in reserve for such a pinch-hitting opportunity by shrewd new manager Bud Harrelson, whiffed for the second out. That brought up another right-handed batter and one of the few surviving heroes of ’86: Tim Teufel. I don’t know what the hit looked like, all I could see was the mass of blue Fords, white Subarus, maroon Pontiacs, green Datsuns, and every color and car ever produced seeming to stretch out in front of us as far as the eye could see on the Grand Central Parkway.

P., who knew well a tape I had of old-time baseball calls, took turns with me doing Red Barber’s famous call: “Here comes the tying run, here comes the winning run.” To make our sin worse, we switched over to CBS radio for updates on the Buick Classic.

The Sunday summer traffic snaked on. Kegman fell asleep in the back. Eventually, there was a break in the traffic and we approached the tournament entrance, only to be confronted by masses of cars leaving that event. Parking wasn’t hard to find and we got to the 18th hole just in time to see Hale Irwin’s winning putt. I mean someone’s butt. Because that’s all we got close enough to see. We stationed ourselves next to a door as Hale Irwin, who’d also won the previous week’s U.S. Open, walked right by us. “Way to finish today, Hale.” No reaction. Nothing. Half-an-hour later, cocktail in hand, I had another audience, this time fewer people around. I said something equally clever, calling him Mr. Irwin this time. Again, the golfing champ confused me with a statue. Or maybe he just thought I was a schmuck. Because I was. I should have still been stuck in the traffic near Shea, bubbling about the best win I’d witnessed in years. All I had was a pair of sunglasses and two ticket stubs, signifying nothing.

June 15, 2008 Mets vs. Rangers

Ironically, the one guy in our group who saw the end of what became known among my friends as both the “Teufel Game” and “Sunglasses Day” (he planned much better and waited around for a concert the night of the game we missed), was in the house for the third and final selection on this list.

We had a drive of more than two hours that day to get to Shea on Father’s Day, gabbing the whole way, listening to music, and completely unaware of just how many games the Mets had in store. I didn’t know that the previous night’s rainout had been turned into a single-admission doubleheader—or that Trot Nixon was now a Met, for no particular reason—until the game was about to start. I was overjoyed at the symmetry of not only being at what would surely be the last “real” doubleheader at Shea, but that this twinbill would be on Father’s Day, exactly 44 years after Jim Bunning had thrown his perfect game in the opener of a holiday double dip.

Things were far from perfect. My friend left in the middle of the seventh to start a multi-connection train back home because I wouldn’t leave to drive him for a family obligation. My family was away for the weekend, so there was no reason for me to leave the stadium. And I had those already recounted two missed golden games in my past to keep me rooted in Flushing. I stayed. He’s my best friend and I had time to think about things as I sat there by myself, but as Forrest Gump said, “That’s all I have to say about that.”

After the Mets rallied and ultimately failed to take advantage of the ragged Rangers in the first game, I moved over behind the Mets dugout among the dwindling crowd. Of all the trumped-up attendance figures in 2008, the 55,438 for that day is the most laughable. In what turned out to be the final home game of the Willie Randolph Era, his decision to send up Robinson Cancel to bat for Pedro led to roars of protest from the modest crowd (though a gigantic throng by 1978 standards). Willie’s choice turned to genius when Cancel got his first hit of the millennium, a 57-hopper up the middle akin to Luis Sojo’s heart-rending bouncer in the 2000 World Series (played a year after Cancel’s last hit).

Sitting by myself, keeping score for the first time in ages, I moved to the top row in the lower field boxes, first-base side. With no one to talk to, I was thinking one thing. Foul ball. I didn’t think it would happen. Not after all this time at Shea without one, but my cause was inadvertently aided by one drunken sot, who stood up in the row I was in and made a gesture at the world’s most sensitive usher. He came over like a bad umpire and started jawing with the fellow, leading to the greatest mass of orange-clad brutes since Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.

I couldn’t see the game with all this standing around going on, so I moved over several empty rows. And after 300-plus games, with the sting of balls clanging off shoulders and hands, bad bounces, and lousy luck, I caught a break. Eighth inning, two outs, two on, Doug Mathis on the mound for Texas, David Wright up. Line drive foul, headed up the stairs 20 feet above me, and just as the ball was getting ready to hop into someone’s lap, it caromed off the railing and headed sideways, down a row, toward the precipice and the runway below, ball moving fast, a meaty hand emerging from the walkway, I reach out, my right hand whacks the seat, and I look up at the face that goes with the hand. He’s cursing. Because I got it. There it is. In my hand. Finally.

Cow-Bell Man is the first to greet me with a high five. I sit back down amid more people displeased that it was me, not them, with the ball. There are no kids around to make one—not this one, I’ve got kids at home and long carried a photo in my wallet should such a moment ever come up—feel some obligation to hand them the ball and prevent them from waiting 33 years for a ball. Even intrepid reporter Kevin Burkhardt, bravely walking down toward the field anticipating a Mets save and post-game interview after one of the worst weeks for the statistic in club history, admits he’s never caught one.

(This is where I’m to be congratulated. Not for catching the ball—that was kind of lucky—but for holding out for three months before writing down this tale.)

I did not take the ball out of my pocket until I was near my car after a perfect ninth inning and a split of the twinbill. The ball has the Shea Stadium final year logo on it, along with a slight smudge where it hit my new favorite railing in Shea Stadium. Glad I stayed. You should, too.

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September 19, 2008  

Moon for the Misbegotten

#2. October 17, 1999: The Grand-Slam Single

The so-called Mets-Braves rivalry (c. 1997-2002) was a one-way event. Just when they Mets were about to make a move to the penthouse, the Braves strutted by and flipped them a coin and told them to follow, like a bellboy waiting in the lobby. He thinks he’s something special, but he’s always put in his place by one look from the big shot.

“Bellboy!

I’ve got to get runnin’ now.

Bellboy!

Keep my lip buttoned down.

Bellboy!

Turn the bloody baggage out!

Bellboy!

Always running at someone’s bleedin’ heel,

You know how I feel,

Always running at someone’s heel.”

But in 1999, no matter how often the Braves put the Mets in their place (9 of 12 times, if you’re scoring), the Mets still somehow snagged the extra postseason spot and beat Arizona in the Division Series while the Braves knocked off the Astros and shuttered the Astrodome. Now the bellboy and tycoon were in the elevator together en route to the top floor.

And I had tickets for all games at Shea. Then why was it so hard to concentrate?

The 1999 Mets-Braves NLCS disturbingly morphed from the most important thing in my life to a distracting interruption. I was standing in the new Total Sports HQ in Kingston, New York, when a list of sweeping changes was announced for our company. I was suddenly an associate publisher, a position that had been discussed but I thought was far down the road. Now I was in the road.

I lived 100 miles south of Kingston and had been dragging my feet in the transfer from home office to our publishing HQ (the parent corporate office was located in North Carolina). I continued coming up to Kingston two days a week: coming up in the morning, staying overnight at the sumptuous Kingston Holiday Inn, and then driving home the next day after work. The rest of the time I worked from an office in my home in Connecticut, a state where I’d lived for several years, gone to high school, and where I met and married my wife—a Nutmeg native herself (as was my daughter). We weren’t really anxious to move, but when someone offers you a big boost in pay to create sports books, you know it’s something you probably won’t get asked twice. From the moment the room was informed of my promotion—at the same moment I realized it was happening—that Nutmeg life was over. I needed to move up there and fast and come into the office every day. I had a place to spend the next six months that was 45 minutes north of Kingston, where I could sleep and commute from; then I’d come to Connecticut on weekends and see the wife and baby and dog. We’d do all the rigmarole involved in moving and getting a new place, but we’d do that in the spring, after my massive project was done.

My boss, John Thorn, came to me and we talked about the my new benefits and responsibilities. Applying captain’s bars to my trembling shoulders. To me it was like a battlefield commission. Ready or not, it was my duty to take the next objective. And that objective was sitting through a long meeting and say that, yes, Baseball: The Biographical Encyclopedia would meet all its dates and the 1,300-page book would be in stores a few weeks before Father’s Day. I was also introduced to publishing contracts and a few other large undertakings. Two hours later, I struggled out into the sunlight. Oh, and the Mets were down to the Braves by a game and a run. And in came John Rocker.

Yes, this was fatheaded Johnny Rocker’s series in the sun. Where his left arm actually moved as fast as his mouth in denigrating all thing diverse and/or New York. This was Game 2. Eighth inning. Before he’d insulted every fan of decency or the Mets. And the tying run was at second. Johnny Olerud up. Johnny Olerud down. He walked Mike Piazza, putting the go-ahead run on base for Robin Ventura. Robin Ventura! Mr. Mojo Risin’ (sing it loud and proud), who’d taught us about staying cool in the midst of a red-hot and then Reds-not-so-hot Wild Card chase, who’d driven in 120 runs, more than any Met in history—except for the guy they walked to get to him—and whose presence gave the Mets a power trio (and with Alfonzo, the runner on second, it was a quartet). He’d show this Rocker a thing or two. He went down on strikes, too.

Then Bobby Cox was crazy enough to take Rocker out…and bring in John Smoltz. Game over. Mets down two. I had another 90 minutes in the car to think about all the changes in my life away from the Mets.

“OK, here’s what I’m going to do when I get home…” I won’t bore you with the details—because there were 2,000 of them (the number of player bios in the book)—and it was the type of deal where something you thought would take five minutes turned into five hours. I did not emerge from my office—other than to sleep fitfully—until Friday afternoon, when it was time to go to Game 3. I battled traffic with Smitty and Jimmy Jim and got inside Shea in time to see the Braves scratch a chintz run in the first inning without even getting a hit as the Mets made two errors. Tom Glavine made it stand up and John Rocker rubbed their face in it. Al Leiter pitched great and Armando Benitez retired all five he faced. You’d want this game back 1,000 times in a few days. Or just a couple of those outs Benitez or even Leiter made look so easy.

Three games to none. It was over. But we still went to the Shea funeral on Saturday night with my wife. We were sedate. My thoughts drifting to all that I had to do on Sunday and should I really go to that Jets-Colts game at 4 p.m. Game 4 of the NLCS was just close enough where you knew the Braves would figure out a way to steal it. A 1-0 Mets lead just wasn’t like a Glavine lead of the same score—though I’d still take Rick Reed in a big game any day of the year over the Bastard of Billerica—and that foreboding came to pass when Atlanta hit back-to-back homers off Reeder in the eighth.

Smoltz—starting this time—allowed a single to Roger Cedeno to open the bottom of the inning, but Rey Ordonez popped up a bunt. They brought in Mike Remlinger to face Matt Franco, who was pulled for Benny Agbayani. As action resumed, I stepped into action. Cupping my hands to my mouth, I yelled as loudly as I could—shocking Duck’s mom a little—“Steal! Steal!!” The guy had broken Mookie’s club steals record. He was a good player in ’99. And he did steal. Agbayani also struck out at the same time, but the tying run was in scoring position. Melvin Mora walked and Remlinger walked off. In came Rocker to face Johnny O. Again.

I didn’t yell anything at them, but Cedeno and Mora took off. They were now both in scoring position with Olerud up. This time he hit one through the middle. Ozzie Guillen, not yet a loud-mouthed manager but an aging shortstop, couldn’t knock it down. Both runs scored. It’s moments like that, a decade after he so sadly left, that make me proud to say the only Mets T-shirt I possess with a number on it is No. 5 with Olerud on the back. If the Mets could’ve had Moises Alou in his prime to go with Fonzie, Olie, Mike, and Robin, Atlanta would have been torched. But I digress. Actually this whole thing is a digression to this point. What about the frigging Grand-Slam Single?

Patience, Grasshopper. The Grand-Slam Single is an eternal Mets mystery whose power can only be revealed through a series of phrases. In headlines. From newspapers. That never existed. But are like those in the days when papers had many editions. With an extra now and then when there was something big happening. Here are the many editions of Sunday, October 17, 1999, from the retrospective Shea Stadium Gazette.

AM Edition

Forget Football; Mets All the Way

And I did forget about the Jets game. I wound up walking into Shea with that Jets ticket in my pocket. The Colts weren’t a draw back in ’99—regardless of second-year Peyton Manning. The previous year, when the Colts wound up 3-13 in Peyton’s rookie season, I picked up a discarded Jets-Colts ticket off the asphalt while waiting in line to enter the Meadowlands and auctioned it to all comers starting at $5. $4. $3. $2. And finally $1. When I went through the turnstiles, I released the ticket to the wind (that’s not littering; that’s karma). The Colts would start an 11-game winning streak that Sunday in ’99, propelling them to a 13-3 season, and the Manning boy to stardom. La di da.

“Damn the Cholesterol, Full Speed Ahead” Edition

Fried Chicken, Lerno Picked Up

Young Tom showed up at my house and pried me out of my office. The babysitter was already there so I could dither on my computer about the career benefits of Frenchy Bordagaray. We took my car. A brilliant choice if for no other reason that there was—under a bunch of stuff in the back seat—a dry sweatshirt. You never know what you’ll need after a Mets game. We stopped and picked up Lerno, who’d gotten back a few hours earlier from a concert the previous night in a state that did not neighbor his. Really, though, what we wanted was some food and he lived near one of Stamford’s top restaurants: Pudgies. We got the large bucket. Good decision on the size.

“Oh Yeah, the Game” edition

Johnny O. You Kid!

The man crush on Johnny Olerud grows and grows. He socked a home run off Evil Maddux. Worthy of its own edition because it would be more than five hours until the Mets scored again.

“Insult the Famous Met” Edition

Duck Angers Mex; No Rain in Forecast

Duck, who had gone to function in Florida between the end of Game 3 and the early innings of Game 5, had landed at LaGuardia at game time and cabbed it to Shea. The rain commenced falling and among Duck’s possessions lugged into Shea, a hat was not among them. So he improvised with a cardboard Shea tray as protective headgear. (Good move not using the Pudgies chicken bucket. Besides, we’d eat the bones and skin like a rugby team stranded in the Andes.) Two well-known New York sports figures used our row to make a getaway from the inclement weather. One was John McEnroe, and the other Keith Hernandez. As they passed us, drawing adoring stares on either side of us, only Duck managed to say something that got anyone’s attention. “Hey Keith, going out for a cigarette?” Duck, voted “Most Obnoxious” in our high school yearbook—a distinction that could have covered the whole New England Region, caught the 11-time Gold Glover like a perfectly-executed butcher boy play. Keith stopped, turned, looked Duck in the eye, and told him crossly: “I haven’t had a cigarette in eight years!” And Mex and Mac were gone. The game continued.

“Bobby V. Outsmarts Bobby Cox” Edition

Dennis Cook Used; No Fatalities, Strikes

In a moment more stunning than when Bobby Valentine put on the fake mustache and glasses and sat in the dugout following an ejection, the Mets manager outsmarted Bobby Cox. Bobby V. knew/knows his stuff, but there still wasn’t much you could slip by Bobby Cox. Here’s how it went. Watch carefully. Turk Wendell replaced Orel Hershiser, who was miraculous in avoiding runs in a 3.1-inning outing that was the longest by any of the nine pitchers used (including starter Masato Yoshii). Wendell struck out Chipper Jones—no easy feat—but he fell behind on Brian Jordan as pinch runner Otis Nixon stole second. Bobby V. removed Wendell and brought in Cook, who couldn’t have gotten an out in a Wiffle ball game despite a 0.00 NLCS ERA. The Mets then threw the last two balls to Jordan intentionally, setting up a force with Ryan Klesko up. Except we all knew that Klesko couldn’t hit lefties and Bobby Cox wouldn’t let him. So Brian Hunter came up to bat and Cook had to pitch to him because the rules state that a pitcher who enters the game must pitch to one batter. But he did throw the intentional walk (though it was charged to Wendell). So Cook left the game having not thrown a single pitch near the plate on purpose (I could have done that, y’know). “Perfect” Pat Mahomes (8-0 on the year) entered and walked Hunter to fill the bases, but Andruw Jones flied out. The chess match in the seventh cost each manager four players. And players would be hard to come by.

Extra Extra: “Eureka Moment for Narrator” Edition

It’s Not About You; It’s About Us

It was the Dennis Cook move that flicked the switch. Through this chess match, my mind still worked over work. How I had to be in Kingston the next morning, of the meeting I wasn’t prepared for, of the contracts I’d never worked on before, of all the…yes, of all the lame-o things that I’d ever done, this had to be up there. I’d waited a dozen seasons to see another postseason at Shea. Had been to two dozen games in ’99 and spent two of the best weekends of my Shea-going life there since October had begun, and I’d sat through four of the last five excruciating home games in ’98 (the Mets lost all but one that I was at, though they did win the day I went to Jersey instead for the Jets-Colts game where I couldn’t give away the ticket). Yet here I was standing in the rain thinking about the office.

This must be the way Yankees fans think (a lot of them at least). “Yes, yes, we’ll win, but I’m concerned about the traffic.” Or like the 49ers fan who sat next to DBird at Candlestick and said to his girlfriend as the Niners started an improbable comeback against Peyton’s Colts the previous fall: “I don’t have time for a close game; I’ve got to be in Marin for dinner at six.” I’d gotten a promotion and some extra responsibility? Deal with it. Others have achieved far more and forgotten about everything else while at the game. THAT’S WHY YOU GO, DUMBASS! There’s plenty of time to think about and deal with that other crap. The season’s hanging by a thread. You’re a Mets fan. Act like one!

My interior monologue switched to baseball the adventure, not the job. The monologue became: I’ll be damned if I’ll watch the Braves cavort on my field, Rocker making more faces at the fans and slurping champagne.

No more work tonight. No dinner in Marin. “Lerno, are one of those last-call beers for me? We may be here for a while.” And I settled in to watch the best extra-inning game I’ve ever attended.

“He’s Out at the Plate” Edition

Mora the Same: Melvin the Immortal

Rookie Octavio Dotel entered the game and got the first two outs before yielding a single by Keith Lockhart. Chipper Jones, batting in a stadium where he felt comfortable enough—despite the constant “Larry” chants—to name his son after, laced a double to right and…it’s the 13th inning, of course, they’re sending Lockhart…and Mora threw a seed to Mike Piazza for the out. The game had officially entered legendary status. Now all they had to do was win.

“The Fretful 15th” Edition

It’s Always the Braves; Am I Right?

The Braves took the lead when Lockhart continued to try to be the hero with a triple to bring in Walt Weiss. Dotel walked Chipper Jones intentionally (good move!) and then struck out secondary Mets killer Brian Jordan. Kevin McGlinchy, a rookie, took the mound to close it out. The Braves could have used Smoltz—as they had in Game 2—only this time to close out the series. But Cox stayed with the rook. That’s something he might have had seconds thoughts about later.

“The Dunston and Pratt” Edition

One Swings, One Watches; What a Crazy Pair

Shawon Dunston, a man chosen instead of Dwight Gooden with the first overall pick in the 1982 draft, a Mets fan growing up, now out of Cubbies pinstripes, was at Shea for the at-bat of his career. The most amazing thing about the at-bat for swing-happy Shawon was that there were four consecutive pitches he didn’t swing at. Here’s the pitch sequence from Baseball-Reference.com:

1. Foul

2. Ball

3. Called Strike

4. Ball

5. Ball

6. Foul

7. Foul

8. Foul

9. Foul

10. Foul

11. Foul

12. Ball in Play

That ball in play was a rocket single up the middle. Then up stepped Matt Franco, the team’s best pinch hitter, who Bobby V. had somehow saved until the 15th. The glass was broken on the emergency case. Valentine barked at both Leiter and Reed to get loose in the bullpen in case the game never ended.

Franco walked. Alfonzo bunted them over. Olerud was walked to set up a force play. Up stepped Todd Pratt, who came in to catch after the collision between Piazza and Lockhart. He’d had a famous walk-off moment. Now he had a famous walk.

1. Ball

2. Ball

3. Ball

4. Called Strike

5. Ball

Imagine a team walking in a run in a crucial extra-inning situation in extra innings. Kenny Rogers, who’d thrown two innings in this game and managed to not do this, might have been taking notes.

“The Grand Slam” Edition

The Mets Win; Score to Come

The moment Ventura’s bat hit ball, the place erupted. It was obvious the game was over. The rain was thick enough and the first raised high enough around me where I couldn’t tell if it cleared the fence. Then they started mobbing Ventura between first and second as Pratt turned to hug instead of jog (thank goodness there’d been no one on base when he’d hit that homer against Arizona). The umpires quickly made it known that this game was over. And if you look very carefully in the celebration photo and Duck and me, you’ll see the 7-3 score on the board.

Final “What Do You Know, It’s a Single”

Official Scorers Rejoice; Mets Fans Happy, Too

When we got to the car in the Marina Lot, it had been downgraded to a one-run win. Back-to-back one-run wins against the Braves? You’ll never turn that down. I took off my sopping jacket and shirt—it had actually been warm when the game started—and put on the dry sweatshirt. (Like the Olerud shirt, it rarely gets worn, but I’m not tossing it out, either.) I was so exhausted, I couldn’t sleep worth a darn. I drove to Kingston the next morning and snuck in a little late. Anne immediately started talking to me about the game. After a moment, she looked at me and with others huddling around, many of whom weren’t generally sports fans, she asked, “Were you there?” They got a shorter version, but when I see Robin Ventura or the Mets playing in the rain, I can’t help but think of that day.

The series ended badly, but the book came out, we moved that spring, and the bursting of the tech bubble started a chain of events that two years later would end the company I loved and worried so much about. But I’m still glad I’m here. And I’m forever glad I was there when the bellboy stuck it to the tycoon that one time.

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September 28, 2008

’86ing Houston

#1. October 11, 1986: Nailed

It was a hasty and far-reaching decision in 1986 that resulted in me attending only two regular-season games in the most dominant season in Mets history. The games were on successive days during Labor Day weekend. They beat the Dodgers on Saturday for their 87th win—with August on the calendar—a total they had not reached in my first nine Septembers (or Octobers) as a fan. That number had, however, been reached each year since 1984. And even the most superstitious Mets fan could tell you that with a 20-game lead at the end of August, this thing was over. It was.

I left almost three hours early for the 25-mile trip to Shea to see the Dodgers series, and I still sat in the clog of the Mets, U.S. Open, and holiday beach traffic. I spent less time driving down to Virginia that Tuesday than I did spending the weekend on the Hutch, Whitestone, and Grand Central. I hadn’t been back to school since February, calling time on my rickety course load there and spending most of that spring and summer in Colorado. I took a course at the university in Boulder, and decided what to do next. I lived in a pseudo city in a weird time zone, read a lot, drank a lot, wrote a little, and played Wiffle ball on Folsom Field while the Colorado football team, about to emerge from the laughingstock bin of the Big Eight, practiced on the other end of the field. I’d go back to Colorado a couple of years later and work as a security guard while trying to find a newspaper job in Anywhere, U.S.A. That was after CU wouldn’t touch me as a transfer, and after I’d graduated from the school where I’d dug a huge hole for myself. There were a lot of holes to dig out of in ’86.

The Roanoke Times & World News had a single paragraph about the Mets clinching the NL East. On the Nightly News, I caught a glimpse of Shea as a sea of celebration. How I wished I could be there. I had never seen a postseason game at Shea—on TV or in person—because they hadn’t played one in the 11 years I’d been following the team. I put together all I had and made plans with friends at northern schools to meet at Shea for the NLCS. I wound up with tickets to all three games, plus a flight back after Game 5. That way—I assured my dad each night—I would only miss one day of school. But the Mets were so good, it would be over in four. Right?

Of the 34 games at Shea I’ve written about in this list (way to pad a Top 10, huh?), Game 3 in ’86 was the fastest. Perhaps not in terms of length, but in my mind it lasted all of three minutes. It must’ve been years of anticipation that led up to it. Like all the times I walked away sad because I wasn’t tall enough to ride Playland’s Dragon Coaster (erected 1929). One summer I exceeded the little cutout with a hand showing the minimum height. I got on line, felt the bar come over my lap, watched as we clanged to the top of it, peered onto Long Island Sound, plunged down at high speed, just missed the dragon’s tooth, then over another hill pitching forward, until we suddenly came back to where we started, and I stumbled off. It’s over? Yes. What did you think?

We were nervous that this 1-1 best-of-seven series (just two years before it had still been best of five) might not be as easy as everyone assured us. People like to do that with Mets fans. They tell them, “Oh, don’t worry, you’ve got this game, series, season, division, wild card, pennant, World Series, decade all wrapped up. What are you so anxious about?” But they can say that because they are not Mets fans. We are a separate species. No, not the Red Sox or Cubs fan of the 1980s, who, though doleful that somehow they’d mess up at the worst possible moment, they at least had the devotion of the general populace for several states around them. The Mets are the children of a Giant-Dodger divorce, stepbrother to the likes of the White Sox, Angels, and A’s—only with a little more charisma—always having to prove themselves in their own market, as well as in the baseball populace as a whole. The players might have thought they owned New York—and they did—but deep inside every Mets fan should be the Latin proverb that George Patton (or George C. Scott as the general) interpreted simply as “all glory is fleeting.”

The state troopers weren’t taking anyone’s crap. They were on motorcycles, blocking intersections, glaring hard, and handing out tickets to anyone whose vehicle did not fall immediately into line. We parked on the outer edges of the Marina, I think, but it was like a fog. This packed stadium, people streaming in on a chilly Saturday afternoon…football weather at Shea. Didn’t the Jets move out a few years back? What’s everyone doing here? We all knew, but there was a crackle of anticipation and nervousness in the air. No Dr. K Korner nor St. Louis showdown had prepared the heart for this.

Because the Astrodome had to host a Bears-Oilers football game, Houston got the four NLCS games (* if necessary) during the week and Shea—as a dual-sport facility now in its single-sport prime—received the weekend games instead. People in New York could growl that the NFL had stolen a home game from the Mets this series—and because home-field advantage was based on a rotating system, the Mets would essentially lose another NLCS home game two years later because of this change—but in ‘86 I was thankful because I wouldn’t have been able to go during the week. I was lucky to be going now. Damned lucky.

For the best game I’ve ever seen at Shea Stadium, I had probably as bad a seat as I’ve ever had: last row of mezzanine almost even with left fielder. Hey, there are lots of bad seats at Shea. Some would argue that the top reaches of the upper deck are worse than the last row of the mezzanine because they are that much more removed from the field, but you can see the sky, a majority of the outfielders (usually), and track balls hit to the field you are not sitting in. In the back of mezzanine for a big game, you only see people standing up in front of you, your back against the wire cage, unable to see anything that isn’t a grounder or line drive at an infielder. But why quibble? For the first postseason game at Shea since Game 5 of the 1973 World Series—which had been won by Jerry Koosman, recently retired, who threw out the first ball against the Astros—all 55,052 of us were happy just to be there.

Until the game started. Ron Darling got rocked and it was 4-0 after two innings. Bob Knepper kept setting down the Mets and their righty lineup, keeping Dykstra and Backman on the bench. Knepper wouldn’t be so lucky in the sixth. Kevin Mitchell and Keith Hernandez singled, and Craig Reynolds let Gary Carter’s grounder get through him for a run-scoring error. Strawberry was up. He took a good cut. The crowd’s timbre rose several level in a split second and my eyes tried to confirm what my ears were telling me. They couldn’t. The upper deck overhang blocked my view, but I thought I saw a white dot land somewhere. No matter. I listened. The noise told me everything I needed to know. I watched Darryl touch all the bases. The game was tied and Shea was shaking. Six innings into my first postseason game and my voice was completely gone.

Houston came right back and scored when Ray Knight flubbed a sacrifice bunt as Bill Doran, who’d already hit a home run in the game, went to third on the play. He came home on a groundout and the Astros set the Mets down the next two innings. When Wally Backman led off the ninth with a drag bunt single against Dave Smith, even from arguably the worst seats in the house, we could see that he was out of the baseline. The Astros, with presumably a much better view, argued about it as well. I imagined how pissed the Astros must have been to have the leadoff man on in the ninth when he had no business being there. Maybe Koosman might have thought for a second about J.C. Martin’s out-of-the-baseline body (bent at the wrist) deflecting a throw that won Game 4 of the 1969 World Series. But I wasn’t thinking about that right then and Kooz probably wasn’t either. Although he was always thinking about something and from his spot he had a good view. I’m hoping he stayed because no one associated with the Mets would want to miss the next five minutes.

Houston catcher Alan Ashby missed a pitch and it rolled to the backstop. That worked as well as a bunt, which was something we didn’t expect from the Earl-Weaver-Wait-for-the-Home-Run School of Baseball Law that Davey Johnson adhered to. It was a good school.

After Heep lined out, Lenny Dykstra stepped in. An old school guy, the type they called a gamer, and other trite expressions that were nonetheless true (before circumstantial evidence changed that word to “juicer” at the end of the 1980s). You knew, sipping from the blue Harry M. Stevens cup as he stepped in, that Nails was the kind of guy you wanted at the plate. Duck, Pepe, and Mike Kaplan of Wayne, N.J. (email me if you ever come across this, Mike, wherever you may be), mumbled to ourselves, because we wouldn’t dare jinx him or state the obvious: “Just a little bloop, a little gork, an error, anything; just tie this game.”

Dykstra swung and the noise level surged. Having done this all day, I knew not try to find the ball. I looked at Kevin Bass in right field. He went back to the wall, moved his gloved hand upward…and then his head went down. This guy who was smaller than me had done it. The postseason comes to Shea and we are it!

We banged on the wire fence, high fived, jumped up and down, and did what it is you’re supposed to do in moments like this. We didn’t have that kind of training. We had crowded nights in summer, Curtain Calls, and the Wave, but not Saturday afternoons in October, when baseball is on every New Yorker’s mind. We were out of the box here. We were out of our minds here. The Harry M. Stevens cup spilled all over my program. That was OK, too.

After the game, it was time to savor it. We went to the Sports Page, once an ice cream/hot dog place our family went to every Saturday as kids (Dad’s excellent idea of fixing lunch!), but now as I had grown older it had become a bar/restaurant. I didn’t go there much, but it was two or three miles from my house. The people there didn’t even ask where we’d been. These strangers saw us enter and came over and slapped our backs like we’d just crossed home plate. Even now, boarded up, weeds growing out of the pavement, and given up for dead, it is still a personal testament to that day. As if I could use bolt cutters to crack open the lock and walk in and someone would hand me a beer and shake my hand. My throat burning, unable to speak, and not wanting it any other way.

That is what it’s all about. That first taste. I did not know what October really meant until that afternoon. I’d watched every World Series and playoff series—we didn’t have to use the term postseason then because there wasn’t any Division Series, otherwise we would have felt this in ’84 and ’85—but seeing other teams do it didn’t count at all. It wasn’t in the same ballpark.

That beer tasted so good over my hoarse, caked throat. I drank a lot of beer that year, but I don’t think anything ever quite tasted like that one. Like I’d earned it.

I had.

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