Click here for an intro/manifesto on The 1999 Project.
Orel Hershiser killed the Mets in the 1988 NLCS, shutting them down in three games and closing out the Dodger victory in the series-turning Game Four on 0 days’ rest. (Mike Scioscia and Kirk Gibson contributed to the slaughter.) The Mets, clearly a forgiving franchise, acquired Hershiser prior to the 1999 season. He wasn’t the record-breaking Bulldog of old, but still a eater of quality innings, the kind that any contender needs at the back end of its rotation.
This appeared to be a wise decision when Hershiser showed flashes of his old form in spring training, giving up no runs in 12 innings of work. It looked less so during his Mets debut in Montreal, when he gave up five runs and was gone after four innings. Gold Glovers Robin Ventura and Rey Ordonez both committed crucial errors, as did reacquired outfielder/professional clubhouse cancer Bobby Bonilla.
Hershisher didn’t help his own cause by getting picked off of second in the top of the third, effectively squashing a Mets rally. The sole NY offense came from a solo homer by Edgardo Alfonzo, his first of the year.
Hershiser would do some yeomanlike work for the Mets in 1999 (including three innings of vital relief work in The Grand Slam Single Game). But it’s probably games like this that Steve Phillips thinks of when he busts Hershiser’s chops during ESPN telecasts. Never mind the fact that Phillips was the GM who brought him to the team (it’s not like he was foisted on the Mets by a previous regime). And the fact that Hershiser did more in baseball than Steve Phillips could ever do in three lifetimes.
Amid rumors that the Expos might be sold and moved to the US, the Opening Day Montreal crowd was unusually large and vocal. Expos fans cheered a solid start by pitcher Miguel Batista, and the robust attendance announcement of 43,918.
Mike Piazza clubbed a 442-foot three-run homer in the top of the first, Ventura followed with a solo shot of his own, and the Mets never looked back en route to a 10-3 victory. Piazza drove in five runs, but was also picked off of second in the top of the seventh, spraining his knee in the process, and sent back to NY after the game for tests.
The Mets weren’t sure what they would get out of starter Masato Yoshii after an up-and-down 1998 and a dreadful spring ERA of 8.87. But a decent performance in his first game of the season cooled off the Mets’ seemingly desperate desire to trade for the A’s Kenny Rogers (at least for the moment).
Meanwhile, Expos manager Felipe Alou dismissed Brian McRae’s theory that the Expos really wanted to beat the Mets because they hated Bobby Valentine. (Montreal won 8 out of 12 meetings with NY in 1998, including two of the Infamous Five Slide that knocked the Mets out of the playoffs at the end of the season.) Alou insisted, “It happens that Bobby and I are closer than any other managers.”
Al Leiter bounced back from his ugly Opening Day outing in Miami, pitching seven solid innings. The Mets overcame early deficits of 2-0 and 3-2, tying the game in the top of the eighth on an Alfonzo RBI single. Armando Benitez pitched two scoreless innings that included four strikeouts. The Mets went ahead in the top of the eleventh on a Todd Pratt single that scored Matt Franco all the way from first, and John Franco closed out the game
in the bottom half of the frame.
The big news of the day, however, came from back in New York, where Mike Piazza underwent an MRI on his right knee. It revealed mild sprains in his MCL and PCL, which landed him on the 15-day DL. This put a damper on the team’s spirits in general, and the impending home opener in particular. But the news was much better than suspected;
whispers had it that Piazza’s injury might require surgery, which would have meant months of rehab and possible doom for the Mets’ playoff hopes.
The Mets rallied to take the last game of the series, but got more bad injury news when starter Rick Reed had to leave the game after running the bases. He would later be diagnosed with a strained achilles tendon. Reed, a strike replacement player in 1995, overcame that stigma to become a mainstay in the Mets rotation for several seasons, and its most consistent member in the pre-Leiter years.
On the positive side, John Franco locked down his 399th career save. Backup shortstop Luis Lopez, starting for the lumber-allergic Ordonez, had two RBIs, including the go-ahead run in the fifth inning.
Back in New York, the Mets were set to debut a new-look Shea Stadium: seats behind home plate (built in part to finance Mike Piazza’s gigundo contract) and bleacher seats in left field. According to The Daily News, 50,000 tickets had been sold as of Sunday.
That begs the question: How was it not sold out? In my mind, home opener equals sold out. I guess there were still a lot of fans who weren’t yet sold on the Mets after so many years in the wilderness. Or perhaps more than a few who were still bugged by the collapse of the previous season.