1999 Project: Games 98-103 (AKA At Home They Feel Like Tourists)

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

99_kenny_rogers.pngJust as the Mets returned to Shea, the front office made its long-rumored deal for a starter, sending two minor leaguers to Oakland in exchange for Kenny Rogers. “The Gambler” was a more-than-capable lefty, but he’d already done an unsuccessful tour of duty with the Yankees that convinced many he was not New York Material. He also had made few friends in the Bay Area, punching a teammate in the face over a card-game-related dispute and destroying a bunch of bullpen phones at Candlestick Park (or 3Com Park, as it was called in its last year of hosting baseball). The A’s were not shy about telling the world he would not be missed.

Regardless, in Oakland Rogers regained the ace-like form he lost in the Bronx. He thrived in Texas when Bobby Valentine was the skipper there. The Mets hadn’t given up much to obtain him (of the two minor leaguers dealt to the A’s, only Terence Long would have a serviceable career). And former teammate/fellow Texan Andy Pettite vouched for him.

It wasn’t as if the Mets had many other options. Dream deals for true aces like Curt Schilling and David Wells proved prohibitively expensive and unlikely, given the dearth of talent in their farm system. Internally, they closed one road when they converted Jason Isringhausen into a reliever. And as good as Octavio Dotel had been, they were clearly reluctant to rely on a rookie in the midst of a heated pennant race.

Plus, Bobby Jones looked unlikely to return any time soon. On the shelf since May 23 with a shoulder injury, he threw an unsuccessful bullpen session that proved he was not ready for a rehab assignment.

So The Gambler found himself in the Mets’ rotation, which meant a possible trip to the bullpen for Orel Hershiser or Rick Reed. The Mets began a homestand that would end well in the win column (5-1) but be overshadowed by an opposing player’s reception, and a promotion so stupid it would have made Bill Veeck blanch.

July 23, 1999: Mets 5, Cubs 4

The Mets rebounded from early deficits of 3-0 and 4-1 to tie the game in the sixth on a Benny Agbayani triple and go ahead for good in the seventh on an RBI single from Mike Piazza. The win shaved the Braves’ lead in the NL East to 1.5 games. But afterward, Valentine fumed that he felt like a sideshow on his home turf.

It’s a damn shame this team never gets any appreciation, even in our own ballpark. We were honoring a visiting player and Orel [Hershiser] just won 200 games and nothing’s on the scoreboard all night. And Rickey [Henderson] just set a record, he comes up to pinch hit and they’re playing the merengue. Maybe we’ll get it right one of these days. I think this team should be appreciated a little better than that.

sosa.jpgThe “visiting player” was Sammy Sosa, the guest of honor in a pregame ceremony on Merengue Night. The Cubs slugger–who’d battled Mark McGwire the year before in a memorable/retroactively suspicious home run race–was a hero to the Dominican community.

Merengue Night, and the pregame ceremony, brought a sellout crowd, but it hardly gave the Mets home field advantage. Valentine bristled that, though the Mets had Dominican stars of their own (such as Armando Benitez), none were asked to take part in the festivities. When Sosa clubbed a three-run homer in the first inning, the Shea stands shook with the flags of his native land. The fact that he played for the opposing team seemed irrelevant to a good portion of the attendees.

“[T]he hosts did everything but throw rose petals at Sosa to open the series,” wrote Lisa Olsen in the Daily News, “while ignoring its own players.”

Starter Masato Yoshii said, “I felt like I was playing at an opposing stadium.” Still, Yoshii was able to settle in after his rough start, allowing his offense a chance to touch up ex-Met farmhand Kevin Tapani (traded in the deal that brought Frank Viola to Queens in 1989 and brought a championship to the Twins in 1991).

GM Steve Phillips admitted the front office “probably encouraged” such an atmosphere, and reluctantly promised the accomplishments of Hershiser and Henderson would be acknowledged “soon”.

July 24, 1999: Mets 2, Cubs 1

Octavio Dotel turned in another great start, going 7 1/3 innings, striking out nine, and giving up only one earned run. That lone run came from a 406-foot bomb hit by Sosa in the top of the third, but he rebounded to fan Sosa swinging in the sixth and eighth innings (the second K coming with the tying run on second and nobody out).

The Mets got both of their runs on solo homers by Edgardo Alfonzo and Robin Ventura off of future Met/human rain delay Steve Trachsel, who was the tough luck loser in this game. Dennis Cook relieved Dotel in the top of the eighth and stranded the tying run at second, then Benitez worked around a leadoff single by pinch hitter Manny Alexander to preserve the win for Dotel.

Dotel’s performance made it less likely that he would be the odd man out in the rotation. More importantly, the victory, combined with a 4-3 Braves loss in Philadelphia, pulled the Mets to a mere half game out of first place.

July 25, 1999: Mets 5, Cubs 1

Energized by a Bruce Springsteen concert at the Meadowlands the night before, Al Leiter (who always took the mound to the strains of “Rosalita”) went eight strong innings, his longest outing of the year. His teammates scored three runs in the bottom of the first without benefit of a hit, thanks to a shoddy Chicago defense and wildness from Cubs starter Dan Serafini. Jason Isringhausen pitched the ninth in a non-save situation and retired Chicago with little incident. The game also saw a relief appearance from ’86 Met Rick Aguilera (another chip in the Viola trade), who pitched a scoreless inning out of the Cubs’ bullpen.

Before the game, the Mets held a ceremony to honor the recent accomplishments of Hershiser and Henderson, thus addressing the “slight” that so rankled Valentine. Sosa had been cheered loudly throughout the series, but the Mets fared better by the only measure that mattered.

July 26, 1999: Mets 7, Pirates 5

Rick Reed was thoroughly mediocre in his latest bid to keep his rotation spot, giving up four runs to the struggling Pirates in 5 2/3 innings. But the Mets scored early and often, plating three runs in the first inning for the second straight game. They chased Pittsburgh starter Francisco Cordova in the fourth with another three-run inning, all runs scoring with two out. The last two runs scored on an Agbayani double, prompting raucous chants of “Benny! Benny!”

The Mets took a seemingly safe 7-4 lead into the ninth inning and handed the ball to Benitez. Doing his best John Franco impression, Benitez struck out the first batter he faced, then walked four straight batters (including such fearsome hitters as Dale Sveum and Al Martin) to force in a run and leave the bases loaded with one out. That forced Valentine to yank Benitez in favor of Turk Wendell, who induced a pop up and ground out to end the threat and the game.

Though the Braves won, thus preventing the Mets from moving into first place, they got some good news from Atlanta: catcher Javy Lopez was put on the disabled list, and pitcher Odalis Perez would have season-ending shoulder surgery

July 27, 1999: Pirates 5, Mets 1

Maybe it was just Kris Benson. After a rocky start to his year–inlcuding a game in Pittsburgh where the Mets roughed him up–the former first-round draft pick was rounding into form; he’d finish the season with a respectable 11 wins for a sub-.500 team, and almost 200 innings under his belt. The Mets could do little against him this day, mustering only six hits and one run in his complete game victory.

mercury mets.JPGOr maybe the Mets’ anemic bats had something to do with an idiotic promotion called Turn Ahead the Clock Night, one of the stupidest gate attraction ideas this side of Disco Demolition Night.

Bad idea though it was, amazingly it didn’t originate with the Mets. In 1998, the Mariners hosted a Turn Ahead the Clock Night, complete with futuristic uniforms and PA announcements. Paul Lukas wrote a lengthy retrospective here to mark the event’s 10th anniversary. All in all, it sounds like it was kind of fun.

MLB, not wanting to miss a chance for a dumb, ugly, overblown cross-promotion, coopted the idea for the 1999 season and tried to make it a league-wide event. With the sponsorship of Century 21 behind them, MLB prevailed on teams to take part in this ‘event’ and wear futuristic uniforms. Many teams (like the Pirates) flat out refused. Others participated but simply updated their uniforms to look vaguely futuristic.

[I actually own a few of these efforts, although I only recently figured this out. I used to work for a company that produced programs for many MLB teams. I had to move my desk several times, and each time I did, I would inherit a bunch of dumb promotional crap the desk’s previous occupant left behind. Once, this included weird looking Giants and Brewers jerseys. The Giants jersey had their SF logo in large letters, tilted at a 45 degree angle; the Brewers had a huge drawing of the original, old-timey version of Bernie Brewer. I thought they were some failed team gear, but I’ve recently determined that the unis were worn as part of this grotesque event. I am sure they are worth absolutely nothing.]

Of course, the Mets couldn’t go either of these very simple routes. They had to do things the hard way. Or, rather, the head-scratchingly stupid way.

In one of those quirky promotions that has Major League Baseball looking more and more like the NBA, it was Turn Ahead the Clock Night at Shea, meaning that wasn’t New York attempting to overtake Atlanta, but some team from Mercury.

That’s right. Baseball wanted us to imagine we were watching a game in the year 2021, and so it outfitted the players in short-sleeved gray-and-black uniforms made of 100% polyester, just in case a cure for sweat still hasn’t been discovered in the new millennium. On the front of the jersey was the chemical symbol for mercury, or maybe it meant that the Artist Formerly Known As Prince was the team’s new owner….

But at least this embarassment extended only to the uniforms, right? Oh, if only.

A voice boomed over the loudspeakers, sounding like what we presume was supposed to be a little green Martian. “Greetings, earthlings. Welcome to Shea Station 4C. Blastoff time is 7:40.” It also encouraged earthlings to visit the “replenishing depots,” which in another lifetime were called concession stands. Over in the opposite dugout, Gene Lamont rolled his eyes. Maybe he was miffed that the Mets were the only team from another planet; his Pirates were still from Pittsburgh, not Pluto, and their uniforms weren’t nearly as Star Wars cool.

MercuryHowie.jpgIn the New York Timesestimation, “The silver-and-black shirts, which resembled an Oakland Raiders tear-away jersey that had been torn away, were really a tribute to Mercury, the Roman god of merchandise and merchants.” Although the unis were auctioned off for charity after the game, so at least their hideousness resulted in some good.

They were no good luck charm to the Mets; their loss, and an Atlanta win, dropped them back down to 1.5 games out of first.

And if anyone has footage of this game in any form–DVD, VHS, kinescope–you don’t wanna know how much I’d pay to see it, and hear Howie Rose attempt to wrest some vestige of dignity from the proceedings.

July 28, 1999: Mets 9, Pirates 2

Kenny Rogers pitched six one-hit innings against the Pirates in his Mets debut, and immediately put himself into the team’s long list of question marks. He had a “slightly pulled” hamstring (in his words) and deemed his next scheduled start “questionable”.

The Mets took an early 2-0 lead on solo homers by Alfonzo and Ventura in the first, but Pittsburgh starter Todd Ritchie held them in check for the next six innings. Rogers allowed an unearned run in the sixth, although that run scored as a result of an errant pickoff move by Rogers himself (I’ve always felt that if a run scores as a result of a pitcher’s error, that run should be considered earned).

After a scoreless seventh inning from Wendell, Cook came on in the eighth. He got two quick outs, but allowed a game-tying pinch-hit homer to John Wehner–a guy so confident he wouldn’t be in the bigs that year, he’d planned a family vacation to Aruba.

Cook’s teammates bailed him with a big bottom half. Alfonzo led off the inning with a single, then Olerud hit a grounder that might have been a double play, but just eluded the second baseman. After a pop-out from Ventura, Agbayani hit an RBI double to put the Mets back in front. Then the Pirates bullpen completely unraveled. Todd Pratt was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded, and a slew of run-scoring singles and walks ensued. By the time the dust settled, seven runs had crossed the plate.

Thanks to another Atlanta loss, a strange homestand came to an end with the Mets a mere half-game out of first yet again.