1999 Project: Games 54-56 (The End of the Beginning)

Click here for an intro/manifesto on The 1999 Project.

99subwayseries.jpgJune 4, 1999: Yankees 4, Mets 3

After a horrific homestand, the Mets couldn’t have been looking forward to the media hoopla of the Subway Series (although Mike Piazza told reporters he was excited about his first game at Yankee Stadium). The Yankees were, of course, at the pinnacle of their latest dynasty, the defending world champions, a team that seemed to do everything single thing right at just the right time. Whereas the Mets found themselves mired in a stretch where they could do nothing right, and all the breaks went against them.

And this would only be the first round. 1999 marked the first year of two separate series between the Mets and Yankees. The two teams played single three-game sets in the Bronx in 1997 and at Shea in 1998, with the Yankees taking two out of three each time.

The Mets started out well enough in game one. A solo homer by Brian McRae (who just found out he’d been placed on waivers earlier in the week) and a sac fly by Edgardo Alfonzo put them up 2-1 in the third inning. But a two-run homer by (of course) Derek Jeter put the Yanks up 3-2 in the fifth.

The Mets tied it up in the sixth on a two-out walk to Robin Ventura, a single by McRae, and a double by Rey Ordonez. They might have been able to take the lead on the double, were it not for a fan reaching over the right-field stands and interfering with Ordonez’s hit. That kept McRae anchored at third, and reliever Jason Grimsley made sure he stayed there by inducing a groundout from Rickey Henderson to end the inning.

Predictably, a single by Tony Tarasco and a double by Scott Brosius in the seventh gave the Yanks the lead yet again. After a two-out single by McRae in the top of the eighth, Joe Torre called on Mariano Rivera for a four-out save. That inspired Bobby Valentine to try some very Valentine-esque manuevering, first batting for Ordonez with Benny Agbayani, then replacing Agbayani with the lefty Matt Franco once Rivera was announced into the game.

But it was all for naught as Rivera got Franco to groundout, then worked around a hit batter in the ninth (Rickey Henderson, who took a scary shot off the wrist) to preserve the victory.

There was no questioning of Valentine’s moves this time, as there had been the year before during the infamous Mel Rojas debacle. But the skipper told reporters, “I’d have rather won the game and been second-guessed all over again.”

June 5, 1999: Yankees 6, Mets 3

The Mets took an early lead in game two of the Subway Series, scoring two runs in the second and one in the third off of Cuban exile/future Met Orlando Hernandez. But Masato Yoshii couldn’t hold the Yanks at bay. It took the Bombers only five batters to tie the game in the bottom of the third. They then took the lead on a solo homer by Tino Martinez in the
fourth, and never looked back.

The Mets threatened in the seventh, when a leadoff walk to Henderson and a single by Alfonzo put runners on the corners with nobody out. But Mike Stanton came on to strike out Jon Olerud, then Ramiro Mendoza came in to strike out Piazza and Bobby Bonilla. Mendoza stayed on to pitch a scoreless eighth, and seemingly as always, Rivera did the same in the ninth.

It was the Mets’ eighth loss in a row, putting them below .500 for the first time since Opening Day. And as is historically typical of the Mets’ front office, they managed to pour gasoline on a roaring fire.

Bobby Valentine had told the press more than once that he should be fired if the Mets didn’t make the playoffs in 1999. But rather than axe Valentine, GM Steve Phillips fired a warning shot across his bough. At a post-game meeting at Shea, Phillips dismissed pitching coach Bob Apodaca, hitting coach Tom Robson, and assistant pitching coach Randy Niemann.

Apodaca’s firing was particularly unsettling, as the former pitcher had been with the Mets organization since 1971. Phillips denied he was trying to undermine Valentine, but since all three canned coaches were close to the manager, his intent seemed obvious. Especially since he restocked each position with candidates of his choosing (Dave Wallace as pitching coach, Al Jackson as assistant pitching coach, and Mickey Brantley as hitting coach).

Apodaca was defiant following his dismissal: “Am I responsible for their lack of success? If they want somebody to to be responsible for it, I’ll be responsible. I’ll be responsible that [Al Leiter] hurt his knee. I’ll be responsible for Bobby [Jones] hurting his shoulder. I’ll be responsible for Rick Reed pulling his calf muscle.”

Valentine could scarcely believe the chain of events that led him to this point. The normally effusive manager could only mutter to Daily News writer Bill Madden, “It is what it is”.

June 6, 1999: Mets 7, Yankees 2

The Mets had lost eight games in a row and half its coaching staff to front office whim. The tension in the air was palpable before the Subway Series finale, made even more so by a bizarre pregame press conference in which Steve Phillips sat side by side with Bobby Valentine. Phillips defended the firing of the Valentine’s favorite coaches, while Valentine bit his knuckles in silent protest.

Amid this insane atmosphere, all the Mets had to do was beat Roger Clemens, who’d won an AL-record 20 games in a row stretching back to May of the previous season. So naturally, they torched him for seven runs in 2 2/3 innings, the worst outing of his brief Yankee career.

Clemens loaded the bases in the second inning on a double by Piazza, a single by Robin Ventura, and walk to McRae. Then Bonilla drove in two with a double, Benny Agbayani did the same with a single, and the Mets were up 4-0 before an out had been recorded.

99_piazza_clemens_1.pngThe Rocket managed to avoid further damage that inning, but got right back into trouble in the third. Following a single by Jon Olerud, Piazza crushed a two-run homer
to straight-away center. Shortly thereafter, Agbayani drove in another run and drove Clemens to the showers.

Almost as amazing as the Mets’ sudden offensive outburst was the pitching of Al Leiter. After being up and down all season (mostly down), Leiter turned in his best effort to date: seven innings and only four hits and one earned run. Ironically, his success came from using all of his pitches, particularly his changeup–something the recently-axed Apodaca had pleaded with Leiter to do.

Considering the turmoil surrounding the team, this wasn’t just Leiter’s best outing so far. It was possibly the most important pitching performance of the season. A post at Faith and Fear in Flushing captures the mood of the time:

At the time, the Mets were 27-28. By my calculations, they were on pace to  finish 27-135, after which they would reel off consecutive seasons of 0-162 unless somebody stopped them from competing, which would be the only way to stop them from losing.

I had no proof to the contrary, not on June 5, 1999.