1999 Project: Atlanta, Round 3

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

As I wrote on this site recently, I’ve tried to be objective when compiling the 1999 Project. I wanted it to be a celebration of that Mets team and not a means for me to air grievances or give vent to my prejudices (except for my feeling that Steve Phillips should be waterboarded, which I’ve made zero attempt to disguise). But when it comes to the Braves, that is impossible for me. So I’ll just throw this out there and not try and pretend otherwise: I hate them.

chipper2.jpgI hate the Braves. I truly hate them. They might be the only thing I truly, genuinely hate. Like a lot of people, I use the word ‘hate’ way too often–particularly on this site–when what I really mean is that I dislike something/someone a lot. Hate is a strong word, and an ugly word. I would go so far as to say I don’t actually hate anyone or anything. Except for the Braves. God, I hate them.

It bubbles up every time I see them, even though these are not the Braves of ten years ago. The only remaining strands to connect that team with the team of 2009 are Chipper Jones and Bobby Cox. They even have one player I kind of like, Brian McCann (there’s something endearing about a slugging catcher forced to wear glasses).

But I went to the last Mets/Braves game of the year this week, and there were a few Atlanta fans in attendance at CitiField. Seeing that ‘A’ hat, hearing them cheer for Chipper Jones, watching them do their idiotic/unoriginal/racist Tomahawk Chop, I felt boiling up within me all this anger and resentment and…hate. Just pure, undiluted hate.

I don’t hate any other team. There’s a few individual players I dislike on the Phillies, but I don’t hate the team (even if its fanbase makes me want to hate them). I have no respect for the Marlins (either as a team or an organization), but I don’t hate them. I’d prefer to not hear about the MAJESTY and TRADITION of the Yankees all the time (which is impossible if you live in New York, or watch ESPN), but I don’t hate them–even if, like Philly, their fanbase contains a large number of eminently hateable people. I have negative feelings toward some other teams for various stupid reasons, but I don’t hate them.

Only the Braves stir up this feeling within me. Only when I see Braves players high-fiving each other in the dugout do I think to myself, Jesus, I wanna slap every one of their faces.

This feeling is so deeply ingrained within me that I can’t remember ever not feeling this way. It wasn’t until I embarked on this project, and examined the documentary evidence available to me, that I realized the Mets and Braves weren’t always mortal enemies.

For most of the 1999 season, even as the two teams juggled between first and second place, there was no rivalry speak of. The Mets complimented the Braves on their success. The Braves admitted the Mets were a team to be reckoned with. Mets fans wanted to beat the Braves because it meant the team could win the NL East. They didn’t want to literally beat the Braves with blunt instruments.

Before the season was out, this would change. And it began with this series in Atlanta.

September 21, 1999: Braves 2, Mets 1

The Mets announced they would sell tickets for the division series beginning September 25, both at Shea and over the phone (no online ticket sales just yet). Tickets would be priced between $30 and $40, although their true value would depend on the small matter of actually making the postseason. A fully confident 7 train conductor took to making this announcement over the weekend series against the Phillies: “Willets Point/Shea Stadium, the home of the 1999 World Series.”

Most of the Mets players said the right things about respecting the Braves and their accomplishments. John Franco said it was the most important series in Atlanta since 1990 (his first year with the Mets), when a four-game sweep by the Braves did serious damage to New York’s playoff hopes. Bobby Valentine would only concede, “Right now this is the first of the last 12 games we’re playing this season.”

Rick Reed started game one in Atlanta, eager to redeem himself from the failures of the year before and a disappointing, injury plagued season. In 1998, Reed started the opener against the Braves in the Mets’ last series of the year, and took the collar in a 6-5 loss. On the plus side, he was the winning pitcher earlier in the year when the Mets cruised to a 10-2 victory.

99_chipper_reed.pngReed looked equal to the task most of the game, scattering six hits and striking out six Braves. His only mistake came in the first, when he served up a 1-0 fastball that Chipper Jones belted for a home run, giving Atlanta the early lead. But Reed shook it off, and the Braves would not threaten against him again in his six innings of work.

His counterpart, John Smoltz, would have been difficult to beat in normal circumstances, but seemed even more so this evening. To alleviate elbow pain, Smoltz had changed his delivery, and now threw with a 3/4-type motion rather than overhand. This Smoltz was not the same Smoltz they’d seen before. The Mets scratched out three singles against him in the third to tie the game at one, but they could do little else.

The Mets had a slight chance in the seventh when, with Roger Cedeno on first, Smoltz gave up a two-out pinch-hit double to Bobby Bonilla. The speedy Cedeno might have scored, were it not for an excellent relay throw from Gerald Williams that stalled him at third. Rickey Henderson followed with an inning-ending strikeout.

Turk Wendell pitched a scoreless seventh and got the first out of the eighth, but with Chipper Jones up next, Bobby Valentine turned to Dennis Cook. Wendell had given up four hits in nine at-bats to Jones, and the lefty Cook would force Jones to bat from his (slightly) weaker right side.

The gambit failed. Cook threw a 1-1 cutter that unfortunately cut right over the plate. Jones hit it through the wind into the left field bleachers for his second homer of the game, giving the Braves a 2-1 lead and further padding his MVP credentials.

That set things up nicely for Atlanta’s closer, John Rocker, who struck out the side–Robin Ventura looking, pinch hitter Shawon Dunston swinging, and Benny Agbayani looking–to preserve the win, thus pushing New York two games back in the NL East.

September 22, 1999: Braves 5, Mets 2

Orel Hershiser took the ball in game two. In his last start against the Braves, he was touched up for six runs and was knocked out in the third inning, though the Mets would rally for a come-from-behind victory. 1999 was an up-and-down season for the veteran–mostly up since he’d last faced Atlanta. “I think I was in the midst of a transition and they caught me in the middle of it,” he explained.

In the first inning, he looked like a pitcher still in transition when he gave up a one-out double to Bret Boone, followed immediately by a two-run homer by Chipper Jones. But Hershiser settled in after that, retiring 11 Braves in a row at one point and keeping them off the board for the next five innings.

His counterpart, Tom Glavine, had struggled all year, but seemed his old self any time he faced the Mets. He kept New York quiet until the top of the fourth, when John Olerud hit a leadoff single and Mike Piazza clubbed a two-run homer to tie the game. But like Hershiser, the lefty kept the damage to a minimum, allowing no more runs through the seventh inning.

In the bottom of the seventh, Hershiser began to falter, giving up one-out singles to Andruw Jones and Eddie Perez, then an RBI sac fly to pinch hitter Keith Lockhart, putting the Braves back in front, 3-2. Despite a walk to Glavine, the scoring stopped there.

In the top of the eighth, Glavine looked like he was tiring, too, allowing singles to Piazza and Ventura to start the inning. Thus was set in motion an insane chain of events–made even crazier due to the net results (or lack thereof).

Bobby Cox pulled Glavine for reliever Mike Remlinger. Bobby Valentine pinch hit for Agbayani with Melvin Mora, who laid down a sac bunt to move both runners into scoring position. Shawon Dunston was announced as a pinch hitter for Darryl Hamilton, which prompted Cox to bring Russ Springer to the mound. Valentine countered by swapping Matt Franco for Dunston before he got a chance to step to the plate. Springer threw two balls to Franco, then opted for an intentional walk to load the bases. (To continue the musical chairs atmosphere, Valentine pinch ran for Franco with Jay Payton.) Bonilla stepped in to pinch hit for Rey Ordonez. Cox responded by bringing in Terry Mulholland, despite Bonilla’s history of success against him, and despite the fact that this was the exact matchup Valentine had hoped to create.

“I came into the series thinking if I could get Bobby Bonilla against Mulholland, I’d be happy,” Valentine said later. ”He’s killed the guy his entire career. Sometimes it doesn’t work when when you plan it, and sometimes it works when you don’t.”

For his part, Cox admitted he knew of Bonilla’s numbers against Mulholland but “also knew Bonilla was rusty. He hasn’t played all year and I definitely didn’t want him hitting lefthanded. Ah, what the hell? It’s all hunches. Sometimes they work and other times you look stupid.”

In this case, Cox was not the one who wound up looking stupid. Bonilla swung at a 1-2 Mulholland curve to strike out. (“I shouldn’t think before [a] series,” Valentine lamented after the game. “That’s the one I’ll kick myself in the butt for.”) Todd Pratt, pinch hitting for Hershiser, grounded out to end the inning.

Between Cox and Valentine, there were ten substitutions and 40 minutes of managerial chess games, and all it did was keep the score exactly where it was. The Mets would not threaten again.

The Braves seized the momentum in the bottom half, thanks to some wildness from Octavio Dotel. Recently moved to the bullpen, the rookie appeared just as nervous at Turner Field as he had in his first big league start, walking Boone and Chipper to lead off the inning. Valentine yanked him for John Franco, who gave up a sac bunt to Brian Hunter and a two-run single to Brian Jordan to put the game out of reach.

Rocker pitched the ninth and was unhittable yet again. Henderson managed a walk, but after an Edgardo Alfonzo groundout erased him, Olerud hit into a double play to end the game.

The Mets were now three games back, but Hershiser refused to sound an alarm. “There are no must-wins for us,” he said, with Yoda-esque calm and logic. ”There is only win the game that will mathematically put us in or lose the one that will eliminate us.”

September 23, 1999: Braves 6, Mets 3

Today the Mets played the kind of mistake-laden, mindless baseball they had avoided since they began to turn their season around in June.

So wrote Judy Battista in The New York Times, in an article appropriate titled, “Like Dust, the Mets Are Swept Aside”. In the first two games of the series, the Mets had (mostly) played well, just not as well as the Braves. In the finale, they made Atlanta’s job easier by beating themselves. Their last game at Turner Field brought to mind the underachieving Mets of the beginning of the year–and the hapless team that was swept in Atlanta to end the previous season.

The game started out reasonably well. Rickey Henderson hit a leadoff double off of Greg Maddux, moved to third on an Alfonzo flyout, and scored on an Olerud groundout. Such station-to-station scoring would have to do as far as rallies went for the Mets at Turner Field.

The Braves responded with a leadoff double from Gerald Williams in the bottom of the first off of Al Leiter. Williams moved to third on a sac bunt, bringing up Chipper Jones. Considering the damage Chipper had already done, Valentine walked him intentionally to face Andruw Jones instead. But Andruw answered with an RBI single, tying the game at 1. Jordan followed with a single to load the bases, but Leiter induced a groundball double play from Hunter to end the inning.

The Mets threatened again in the second, when Ventura singled, Hamilton reached on an error, and Cedeno beat out a bunt to load the bases. Ordonez followed with an RBI single to put the Mets up, 2-1. But even with the bases still loaded and nobody out, they could do more damage against Maddux. Leiter struck out, Henderson hit a grounder that forced Hamilton out at home, and Alfonzo popped out to retire the side.

Leiter pitched scoreless ball in the second, third, and fourth, thanks in part to Piazza throwing out two would-be base stealers. Then, in the fifth inning, the Mets unraveled on both offense and defense.

In the top of the fifth, Henderson worked a one-out walk. Alfonzo followed with a double, and Henderson, in the Times‘ description, “mov[ed] toward third base as leisurely as a Sunday jogger in Central Park”. Out of nowhere, Henderson got the notion to score and ran home, only to be tagged out by a healthy margin. (After the game, catcher Eddie Perez admitted he almost dropped relay throw from first, since he wasn’t anticipating a play at the plate.)

Henderson later said he thought the ball was bobbled in the outfield, and never saw third base coach Cookie Rojas emphatically giving him the ‘hold’ sign. Regardless of the reason, another golden opportunity to score was bypassed. And the temporary bout of Stupid that attacked Henderson infected the Mets for the rest of the game, particularly on defense. (Henderson was replaced by Agbayani when the Mets took the field–a balky hamstring was the stated reason.)

In the bottom of the fifth, Williams hit a one-out single, then attempted a steal of second. Leiter anticipated this and threw to first, but Olerud couldn’t get the ball out of his glove. Williams reached second safely, then moved to third on a Bret Boone bloop single.

That brought up Chipper Jones, with nowhere to put him this time. Wary of loading the bases on a walk, Leiter tried to work inside to Chipper, hoping for a strikeout or a weak grounder. But Chipper being Chipper, he was able to turn on a low cutter that caught too much of the plate and send it over the center field wall for a three-run homer.

The mistakes didn’t end there. Unnerved by Chipper’s bomb, Leiter gave up back-to-back singles to Andruw Jones and Jordan. Hunter popped out in foul territory behind first, and Andruw tried to tag up and move to third. A risky move, even with a lead, but Olerud fired a throw that whizzed past Ventura. Still, it might not have been damaging if anyone had backed up third base. But no Met had, so Jones was able to trot home with the fourth run of the inning.

Piazza led off the sixth with a home run to cut into the Braves lead, but the Mets gave that run back in the seventh with more head-scratchingly bad play. Wendell, in relief of Leiter, gave up a double to Boone to lead off the inning. With first base open, he intentionally walked Chipper. Andruw followed with a fly ball to the outfield that allowed Boone to tag up and move to third. Wendell then induced a comebacker from Jordan. He tried to throw to second to start an inning-ending double play, but missed his mark. The ball skipped into the outfield, Boone came home, and the Braves’ lead was back to three runs.

Rocker shut down the Mets in the ninth for the third straight night. An ugly game–and an ugly series–had come to an end.

The Mets had gone 21 series without being swept, but they picked the wrong time and the wrong place to end that streak. Not only were they now four games out of first, but they were only two games up in the wild card standings ahead of the surging Reds. Looking forward to their next series, against the Phillies, Bill Madden of the Daily News wrote:

What was it W.C. Field had inscribed on his tombstone? All things considered, the Mets would rather be in Philadelphia today.

As they say, be careful what you wish for.