1999 Project: Atlanta, Round 4

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

chipper2.jpgOn Monday, the Mets got a much needed off day and some more bad news. The surging Reds won yet again, which put them 1.5 games ahead of the Mets in the wild card lead. It also tied Cincinnati with idle Houston for the lead in the NL Central, thus throwing another wrinkle into the Mets’ playoff hopes.

The Mets now had not one, but two rivals for the wild card, which created a myriad of ways they could make the playoffs–or miss them entirely. No one needed to be reminded of the three-way wild card race of 1998 (a race that wouldn’t have happened if the Mets had managed to win two games down the stretch).

To begin their last homestand of the year, the Mets welcomed the same Braves team that had demolished them in Atlanta a week before. But it was also a Braves team that had already clinched the NL East (thanks to their sweep of Montreal while the Mets were being swept in Philly). The Mets could always hope the Braves’ sense of urgency had waned. Then again, they’d be throwing Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, and Kevin Millwood, pitchers the Mets had scored a grand total of seven runs against all season.

Bobby Valentine hoped the off day would rejuvenate his team. “When I’m on the slopes, I say that fatigue makes cowards of all of us,” Valentine told The New York Times. “That’s what mental fatigue is. You can’t concentrate enough because you’re physically tired.”

Another manager agreed. Valentine spent his off-day shooting an airline commercial with Joe Torre at Newark Airport. In between takes, Torre cautioned Bobby V, noting that “My cancer was stress-related.”

September 28, 1999: Braves 9, Mets 3

The big question before this series was, How do you solve a problem like Chipper? Valentine got a lot of heat for pitching to Chipper Jones in big spots, rather than walking him. Many writers advocated brushing back the future MVP. Turk Wendell agreed, with a caveat. “I think we need to make good pitches and move his feet,” he said, “but I’m not going to tell you how I’m going to pitch to him because I don’t want him to read it. I feel that way about anybody.”

As it turned out, in game one there was no need for such tactics, because the Mets were never in it. Even having Keith Hernandez throw out the first pitch could not enliven the team, and they dropped their seventh game in a row.

Three pitches into the game, Orel Hershiser plunked Gerald Williams. It was all downhill from there. Bret Boone hit a single. Chipper Jones hit a single to score Williams. Ryan Klesko hit a single to score Boone. When Hershiser finally got an out, it was a sac fly by Brian Jordan to score Chipper. Then Greg Myers singled to load the bases.

None of these singles were especially hard hit, but none of them found gloves, either. After Myers’ hit, Hershiser was replaced by Octavio Dotel (making this Hershiser’s shortest career outing ever), and he fired a wild pitch that scored another run. Dotel secured the last two outs, but the damage was long since done.

In the bottom of the first, the Mets mounted a threat of sorts when Rickey Henderson reached on an error and Shawon Dunston beat out a bunt single to start the inning. But Tom Glavine rallied, and two strikeouts and flyout later, the Mets were retired. They would manage three runs off of Glavine and the Atlanta bullpen, but the game was all but over the minute Hershiser took the mound.

The only other sign of life came from reliever Dennis Cook, who got into a screaming match with home plate umpire Alfonzo Marquez in the eighth inning. Cook later said he thought Glavine was getting calls on the outside corner that Mets hitters weren’t. But his outburst seemed less about Marquez and more about his team’s horrendous slide. In the course of his tirade, Cook bumped Marquez, earning him an immediate ejection and eventually a one-game suspension.

The confrontation pumped up the Shea crowd, but it didn’t pump up the Mets. No player could recall anything remotely like this in their entire careers. They hadn’t won a single game since announcing playoff ticket sales, as if the baseball gods were punishing them for their hubris.

Though the Braves had nothing to play for, they professed to be fired up by the Mets’ unattributed accusations that Chipper had been stealing signs in Atlanta. “Believe me, they threw some charcoal bricks on the fire when they started mentioning Chipper’s cheating,” admitted Brian Jordan.

It was obvious to even the most casual observer that, despite having won the divsion, the Braves still relished beating the Mets. Gene Michael, scouting Atlanta for the Yankees, noted, “This is as good a series as any to watch the Braves, even though they’ve already clinched. They hate the Mets.”

Mathematically, the Mets live. But after the first inning at Shea Stadium they would be better off dead. Anyone with the slightest touch of compassion could see that.

So wrote Murray Chass in The New York Times, and it was hard to argue otherwise. Elsewhere in the same paper, George Vecsey blamed the safety net of the wild card for lulling the Mets into a false sense of security, causing them to resemble “sleepwalkers on their way toward an open window.” In the Daily News, Mike Lupica defended Bobby Valentine and laid the blame squarely on the players.

People scream about [Valentine] these days. They should scream about the middle of his batting order. Starting with his catcher, his first baseman, his third baseman. If they hit, nobody is saying a word about the manager.

One tiny bit of good news: The Mets didn’t lose any more ground in the wild card race; only the names changed. They remained 1.5 games out of the wild card lead, but they now trailed the Astros, after the Reds defeated them 4-1 and moved a game ahead of Houston in the NL Central. Ironically, Cincinnati won behind the arm of Pete Harnisch, who the Mets traded away in 1997 shortly after he yelled obscenities at Valentine in a hotel lobby, then bad-mouthed the manager on the airwaves of WFAN.

September 29, 1999: Mets 9, Braves 2

Before the game, James McCahan, a Mets fan from Brooklyn, got Bobby Valentine’s attention during batting practice and gave him a large white envelope (this type of gesture probably sounded far less ominous pre-9/11). The envelope contained a scoresheet of every game the Mets had played all year. McCahan told Valentine to “show the guys these scoresheets so they’ll know how good they’ve been all year.” (Other fans must have felt the same way; they greeted the Mets with a standing ovation as they took the field, even though their play in the last seven games didn’t exactly warrant such a reception.)

Valentine did as he was told. He’d tried everything else against Greg Maddux, with no results. His players opted for different tactics. Rey Ordonez blew cigar smoke around the Mets’ bat rack in a pseudo-Santeria ritual. Darryl Hamilton had seen a fortune teller earlier in the day, who predicted everything would turn out just fine for the Mets. Hearing of Hamilton’s trip, John Franco insisted, “the hex has been lifted”, and also predicted wearing the Mets’ traditional pinstripes would bring them luck. Why? “Because something has to bring us luck.”

With such irrefutable logic on their side, the game began well for the Mets. In the bottom of the first, Edgardo Alfonzo reached on a one-out error by shortstop Jose Hernandez, stole second, moved to third on a John Olerud groundout, and scored on a Mike Piazza single. One unearned run wasn’t much of a rally, but against Maddux the Mets would certainly take it.

They had a lead, but it wouldn’t last long. After getting two quick groundouts in the top of the third, Al Leiter walked Williams, gave up a single to Boone, and walked Chipper to load the bases. Jordan followed with a two-run single, and once again it looked like the Braves would prevail, especially when the Mets went down quietly in their half of the third (save for Piazza reaching on an error).

To Leiter, this losing streak felt eerily similar to the eight-game slide in June that led to several coaches being fired. Back then, he stopped the skid with eight great innings against the Yankees. He was called on to do the same as October loomed. Just as he did against the Yankees, Leiter had allowed only two runs to the Braves, but the way the Mets were hitting, that might be two runs too many. Even a one-run deficit felt like a yawning chasm.

Then, in the fourth, the Mets’ bats suddenly woke up, as if they’d been quiet for the last week in order to save up for this moment.

Hamilton singled to lead off the inning. Then Roger Cedeno singled. Then Ordonez singled. The bases were loaded, but they were loaded for Leiter, a notoriously bad hitter even for a pitcher. Before stepping to the plate, he suggested to Valentine that he strike out on purpose, rather than risk hitting into a rally-killing double play. The manager disagreed and told him to swing away.

Swing he did, flicking a Maddux offering into shallow center field. The ball was hit in no-man’s-land, out of the reach of even Andruw Jones, who dove for the ball to no avail. Hamilton trotted home with the tying run. The Mets had run into some luck, and amazingly, it was not bad.

Of course, Maddux was the kind of pitcher who could pitch himself out of such jams. Last week in Atlanta, they’d let him off the hook in a similar situation and paid for it dearly. This time, they wouldn’t.

Henderson followed Leiter, and he mashed a ball that bounced off of first baseman Brian Hunter’s glove. Both Cedeno and Ordonez scored to put the Mets on top, 4-2. Alfonzo followed with another single to reload the bases and bring up Olerud.

Like everyone else in the middle of the lineup, Olerud hadn’t been hitting lately, batting just . 241 during the Mets’ losing streak. He’d also had no success against Maddux in his career (though few hitters had), batting a paltry .125 against him. But Olerud figured he’d get a fastball to hit in such a situation. He did, and he deposited it into the Mets’ bullpen for a grand slam.

As Shea erupted, Piazza hit his own single, and Maddux was finally put out of his misery. (He later said, curiously, “To be honest, I think I pitched better against them tonight than I did five days ago.”) Leiter would not allow another run and pitch seven solid innings, the Mets tacked on another run for good measure, and the seven-game losing streak finally came to a close.

“We have at least a week’s worth of good things coming,” Valentine predicted.

In Houston, the Astros got eight strong innings from Mike Hampton and defeated the Reds, 4-1. That tied the two teams for first place in the NL Central, but it didn’t help the Mets at all. They remained 1.5 behind both of them in the wild card race.

September 30, 1999: Braves 4, Mets 3 (11)

The series finale featured a pitcher’s duel between Kevin Millwood and Masato Yoshii. The Mets’ starter allowed just four hits, but also allowed two runs (an RBI single by Andruw Jones in the fourth and a Williams solo homer in the fifth). The Mets responded with one run in the fifth, when Ventura scored on a groundout double play, and tied the game at 2 in the bottom of the seventh on an RBI single from Hamilton.

No sooner had the Mets knotted the score than the Braves stormed right back. In the top of the eighth, Turk Wendell gave up a leadoff single to Keith Lockhart. That brought up who else but Chipper Jones. The week before, Valentine opted to bring in a lefty to force Jones to bat righty, and paid for it with a game-winning homer. Valentine tried a similar strategy this time, bringing in the lefty Franco to face him, with similar results. Otis Nixon (pinch running for Lockhart) stole second, and Jones drove him home with a single to put the Braves up, 3-2.

Franco then loaded the bases on a single and a walk, and gave way to Pat Mahomes, serenaded to the dugout by boos. As he had done so many times already, Mahomes bailed out the Mets, inducing an odd groundball double play from Andruw Jones; Ventura fielded Jones’ grounder, stepped on third for a force out, then caught Chipper in a rundown. Ozzie Guillen followed with a flyout to end the inning.

Just like Mahomes, Alfonzo had brought the Mets back from the brink countless times, and he’d do so again. In the bottom of the eighth, with two out, nobody on base, and the Mets’ hopes all but extinguished, he smacked a Mike Remlinger offering into the visiting bullpen to tie the game at 3.

Then, the Mets and Braves traded zeroes. Armando Benitez set down Atlanta in order in the ninth and tenth innings, striking out three. John Rocker struck out the side in the ninth, and Russ Springer and Terry Mulholland combined for a scoreless tenth, while also causing Valentine to waste his best pinch hitter. Matt Franco was announced, but the manager swapped him for Jay Payton once Mulholland came into the game; Payton grounded out to end the inning. Another game of musical batters had not gone Valentine’s way.

Dotel started the fateful eleventh. The first batter he faced, Jordan, hit a long fly out to deep right field, manned by Dunston since the ninth inning. Dunston had played right field only 15 times that year–none at Shea, and none since joining the Mets. He was not an experienced or gifted outfielder by any means, and he looked it, getting twisted and turned around as Jordan’s hit fell over his head, then playing the bounce awkwardly. By the time Dunston recovered, Jordan stood on third with a triple.

Guillen followed with a fly ball to center. Hamilton caught it and fired a great throw to Piazza, but all it did was make the play closer than it should have been. Jordan scored, and the Braves were up, 4-3.

In the bottom of the eleventh, the closest the Mets would get was a two-out walk to Piazza. Valentine had been ejected for arguing with home plate umpire Phil Cuzzi (he later said he was angry rookie ump Cuzzi refused to ask for help on check swing calls, a stance GM Steve Phillips agreed with). So he was spared the pain of watching Ventura fly out to left, thus ending the game, the series, and seemingly any shot the Mets had of going to the playoffs.

Or rather, Valentine should have missed this, but apparently wandered back into the dugout after getting tossed. The league said they would investigate, but appeared in no hurry to do so, as they’d been when Valentine snuck back onto the bench in disguise in June. Perhaps they thought his team’s impending doom was punishment enough.

The loss dropped them two games back in the wild card race behind the idle Astros and Reds, with three games left to play. Neither Houston nor Cincinnati had difficult opponents standing in their way for the final weekend of the season. The Astros would play the long-since-eliminated Dodgers at home, while the Reds would travel to Milwaukee to play the lackluster Brewers. It now looked like one of them would earn the NL Central crown and the other the wild card berth, while the Mets would earn a premature trip to the golf course.

Then again, the Mets also had seemingly feeble opposition visiting them: the Pittsburgh Pirates. But the Phillies were, on paper, even worse than the Pirates, and the Phillies just swept them. And regardless of what they did to the Pirates, the Mets’ fate was no longer in their own hands.

The Mets were reduced to hoping that the Dodgers’ ace Kevin Brown would win his decision on Friday for win number 19. Because if he did, it meant he would probably start on three-days’ rest on the last day of the season against Houston to try and get his 20th win, giving them a glimmer of hope. Alas, Brown did not win. Ex-teammates of Brown’s, Piazza and Leiter, said they would lobby him to pitch on Sunday against the Astros, but in all likelihood he would not be doing the Mets any favors

Only one team had ever recovered from such a deficit with so few games left: the 1962 Giants, who rallied in the final days of the season to finish in a tie for first with the Dodgers. But that team had Juan Marichal, Willie Mays, and Willie McCovey. This team had…what did it have, exactly?

Not much, it seemed, except 93 ultimately meaningless wins and the undying hatred of the Braves. Rocker insisted he didn’t hate the Mets, but couldn’t stand their fans. “They just don’t know when to shut up,” he said, confining his contempt to just Mets fans, as yet staying silent on his opinion of vast portions of the human race. “I’ve asked a lot of people all week, ‘How many times you got to beat a team before the fans finally shut up?’ And I still don’t know. We beat them nine out of 12 times and they’re still talking trash.”

At the same time Rocker made his thoughts known, Chipper Jones also badmouthed Mets fans, and uttered the words that transformed him from regular villain into cartoonish super villain:

Now, all the Mets fans can go home and put their Yankees’ stuff on. You know they’re all going to convert. It’s amazing how fast you hear Yankee talk around the dugout, yet, they’re wearing Mets stuff.

It was either a stunning ignorance of the folkways of New York fans (as Greg of Faith and Fear in Flushing noted, “Mets fans own no Yankee stuff, save for the stray voodoo doll”) or a deliberate attempt to play the wrestling-style heel. Or some combination thereof, though I doubt Chipper was smart enough to truly recognize the impact of his words.

Such heresy would earn him Bronx cheers and one-gun salutes at Shea/CitiField for the rest of his career. At the time, it looked like the fans he hated so much would have to wait until 2000 to boo him again.