1999 Project: July 10–Mets 9, Yankees 8

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

mattfranco.pngI’m going out of order with the 1999 Project for today because (a) I am woefully off pace, and (b) it’s my stupid project and I can do what I want.

Also, as today’s post at Faith and Fear in Flushing reminded me, today is the tenth anniversary of the infamous, glorious, monstrous and righteous Matt Franco Game. Greg Prince’s post consists of nothing more than a transcription of Gary Cohen’s call of the last play of the game, rendered in e.e. cummings-esque free verse form. Which is perfect, because this game was poetry.

If I told you that the Yankees hit six home runs off of Mets pitching, and that Mariano Rivera came in to close out the game, you’d assume the Yankees won. As Mets Walkoffs pointed out, when you hit six (or more) home runs in a game, you tend to win. In the last 50 years, teams that hit at least six homers are 214-15. Add in the threat of the Sandman, and that sounds like a Yankee victory to any sane person.

But this was not a sane game.

This was the middle contest of the Shea segment of the 1999 Subway Series. The Mets had been going well since taking the last game of the Bronx installment. They stood 12 games over .500 and a mere four games back of the mighty Braves. And in the series opener, they clubbed Roger Clemens for the second time that year, thanks to a three-run homer by Mike Piazza and eight great innings from Al Leiter.

Despite all of the good vibes and a stirring victory the night before, this game didn’t begin well for the Mets. After a one-out single by Bernie Williams in the top of the first, starter Rick Reed gave up a two-run homer to Paul O’Neill to put the Mets in an immediate hole. But Rickey Henderson led off with a single, stole second, and scored on a Piazza double to cut the deficit in half. Then, in the bottom of the second, Roger Cedeno walked, stole second and third, and scored on a Rey Ordonez sac fly to tie the game at 2.

In the bottom of the fourth, Benny Agbayani led off with a bad-hop single to third and scored all the way from first on a Robin Ventura double. After a sac bunt moved Ventura to third, Ordonez hit a fly ball to shallow right. Ventura–not a speedster by any measure–tried to tag up and score, and O’Neill’s throw beat him by a significant margin. But Jorge Posada didn’t block the plate, allowing Ventura to score and give the Mets a 4-2 lead.

The lead would not last long–none would in this game. After holding the Yankees off the board since the first, Reed gave up back to back homers to Ricky Ledee and Posada to start the fifth inning, tying the game. In the top of the sixth, Reed was replaced by Greg McMichael, who gave up a homer to the first batter he faced, O’Neill (his second of the day).

One out and two singles later, McMichael was lifted for Rigo Beltran, who struck out Chad Curtis and Posada to prevent further damage. But he was not as lucky in the top of the seventh, giving up a solo homer to Chuck Knoblauch. After a two-out double by O’Neill, Derek Jeter was intentionally walked, and Bobby Valentine called on Dennis Cook to get
the last out of the inning.

piazzahomer_071099.pngThe Yankees were up 6-4 in the bottom of the seventh, when Joe Torre lifted starter Andy Pettite for Ramiro Mendoza. With one out, Henderson check-swung at an offering that landed in no man’s land in right field, and the all-time steals leader hustled it into a double. After Edgardo Alfonzo flew out, John Olerud worked a walk. That brought Piazza to the plate with a chance to do some damage.

The catcher responded by absolutely destroying a pitch, sending it over the visiting bullpen, even over the tented picnic area beyond the bullpen. Piazza’s bomb traveled an estimated 482 feet (!). The ball left the park with such speed that Michael Kay, calling the game for Yankees radio, only had time to spit out “see ya!” (no “track, wall…” as is his usual wont). John Sterling called it “beyond belief”. But the home run was just as important as it was monstrous, because it put the Mets back on top, 7-6.

Of course, no lead was safe in this game. Cook walked Scott Brosius to start the eighth, then gave up a one-out two-run homer to Posada that put the Yanks back in the lead, 8-7. Cook and Turk Wendell (who relieved him) each walked a batter, but combined to prevent any further scoring in the inning.

The Mets went quietly in their half of the eighth. Pat Mahomes pitched the top of the ninth, and escaped a two-out threat after Brosius walked, stole second, and went to third on a throwing error by Piazza. Curtis walked to put runners on the corners, but Posada was denied a bid for his third homer of the game, grounded out to end the inning.

That brought on the bottom of the ninth and Mariano Rivera, who had manhandled the Mets twice earlier in the year. He induced a groundout from Brian McRae to start the inning, but then walked Henderson, quite uncharacteristically.

That walk appeared to be harmless when Rivera induced a flyball to center from Edgardo Alfonzo. But Bernie Williams had trouble spotting the ball and never got a glove on it. It was scored a double, though it looked like a ball Williams could have and should have caught. Regardless of the scoring, it put Henderson at third and Alfonzo at second as the tying and winning runs.

Olerud was next, as clutch a hitter as the Mets ever had (if you believe in such things). All he needed to do was hit a fly ball deep enough to score Henderson from third. Considering the abilities of both the runner and the batter, that was not too much to ask. Unfortunately, the perpetually helmeted first baseman hit a sharp grounder right to Tino Martinez at first. Both runners had to hold, and Martinez stepped on the bag for the second out.

That brought up Piazza, but there was no way on earth the Yankees would pitch to him with first base open. The catcher was walked intentionally, and Melvin Mora (who’d come in for defense in the eighth) was scheduled to bat. Instead, Bobby Valentine opted to send up Matt Franco, a lefty batter and pinch hitter extraordinaire. The manager’s reasoning? Rivera threw cutters, the same kind Valentine served up in BP every day.

There is, however, a big difference between a BP cutter and one from Mariano Rivera, and before Franco could blink, a called strike and a swing and a miss put him in an 0-2 hole. The closer’s third pitch came in at the knees–too close to take, as announcers like to say–but home plate ump Jeff Kellogg called it a ball (which prompted some grousing from the Yankees’ dugout).

Given a stay of execution, Franco laced the next pitch into right field. Henderson scored easily, and Alfonzo followed right behind him. O’Neill fielded the ball and fired a bullet to home plate, but Fonzie just beat his throw to plate the winning run.

mattfranco_071099.pngThe Mets stormed from the dugout in insane jubilation. Fonzie leapt to his feet. Franco was mobbed at first base. Police mobilized on the field, afraid a worked-up crowd might tear Shea apart. The team had an improbable 9-8 victory and their first ever regular season series victory over the Yankees.

Almost as amazing? Derek Jeter–who always has and presumably always will kill the Mets–did not have a hit in this game.

This masterpiece, coming right after another stirring Mets victory on Friday night, resulted in what Dave Anderson of The New York Times called “The Greatest 24 Hours in Mets History”.

If it had been a World Series game, it would deserve to be put in a time capsule for as long the Yankees and the Mets play baseball. Or for as long as anybody plays baseball.

Even as a regular-season subway series game, it deserved to have had red, white and blue bunting on the box seat railings. Of the 11 games the Yankees and the Mets have played now over their three seasons of interleague confrontations, this was the best. By far. By any definition of what baseball is all about.

Ever since Fonzie touched home, I wished that there was some way I could enjoy this game again. A few years ago, I discovered that MLB.com sold radio calls from classic games. Some of their definitions of “classic” were dubious at best, and most of the games were available only on cassette (why not wax cylinder while you’re at it?). But I saw they had the Matt Franco Game, so I ordered it.

Imagine my horror when the package arrived and I discovered that the tapes contained the Yankees radio call of the game. Expecting Gary Cohen and Bob Murphy, I got Michael Kay and John Sterling. That’s like ordering filet mignon and getting Cheetos.

SNY has broadcast this game on Mets Classics a few times, and it’s as awesome as I remember. Except for one detail: it was a Fox game, so You Know Who called the game. When didn’t Joe Buck and Tim McCarver suck? I’m not sure, but they were already well into sucking when this game was broadcast.

I totally can’t ask for somebody to send me the WFAN radio call of this game without getting in trouble with MLBAM and their many-tenatcled lawyers. Certainly not in
exchange for cash. But if any lucky soul out there has it, email me and we’ll work something out. Nobody’s gotta know, just our little secret (that I’m writing about on my web site).