Click here for an intro/manifesto on The 1999 Project.
The Mets prepared to play the first playoff game at Shea in 11 years, and their first playoff game in the bright lights of prime time (after playing the first two games in the wee hours, New York time). For one night, the coverage switched over the NBC and the much more prestigious (and competent) play-by-play stylings of Bob Costas. Which reminds me: I wish the MLB Network (or somebody, anybody) would use Costas for play-by-play duties again. I’m not a huge fan of his in other contexts, but as a game caller, he’s one of the best, and there is a dearth of national baseball broadcasters who don’t totally blow these days.
On what should have been a joyous occasion for the team and its fans, the Mets were beset by dual obstacles: one an annoying distraction, the other a serious impediment to their playoff hopes.
The distraction came in the form of leaked material from an upcoming Sports Illustrated interview with Bobby Valentine, which included quotes from the manager taken during the Mets’ disastrous trip to Philadelphia in September. Which quotes were the most inflammatory? Take your pick.
Perhaps it was his description of his team: “You’re not dealing with real professionals in the clubhouse; you’re not dealing with real intelligent guys.” Or his dismissal of a players-only meeting held at Veterans Stadium that weekend: “There’s about five guys in there right now who basically are losers, who are seeing if they can recruit.” Or his dis of rival skippers: “A lot of managers fear that some day they’ll have to be on a panel with me and be exposed.” (He also said he feared the influence Bobby Bonilla had on the team, but that was hardly controversial. If anything, it was an opinion shared by everyone connected with the team not named Bobby Bonilla.)
Players’ reactions ranged from muted disappointment to dismissal to eye-rolling. One unnamed Met told the Daily News, “Guys care about what’s in here and doing what we have to do for ourselves. We don’t care about what the manager says.” Valentine’s pregame response: “If the shoe fits, wear it. If it doesn’t, don’t worry about it.”
No matter what any player said to the press, the whole sordid affair was far too reminiscent of the dysfunctional atmosphere that surrounded the club at the beginning of the season. Not to mention, they had one much bigger thing to worry about.
Back in April, the Mets’ home opener was soured by the absence of Mike Piazza, who was on the DL with a sprained knee. Their first home playoff game opened on a similar down note. Piazza took a shot to his left thumb in game 2, aggravating an injury he sustained on a foul tip from Ron Gant in a game against the Phillies in September. The catcher got x-rays, which showed no break, so he took a cortisone shot in the hopes of a speedy recovery.
Unfortunately, the cortisone shot resulted in a rare allergic reaction that caused his thumb to swell up even more, to the point where he couldn’t bend it at all. So three hours before game time, Piazza was a surprise scratch from the lineup. The good news, if there could be any when losing your most powerful offensive threat, was that the extra time off would help him rest the myriad of injuries sustained during a year behind the plate. His shoulders and knees were also in some serious pain. Before the thumb flared up, he said he planned to spend the day bathed in ice.
Piazza had been playing with a banged-up thumb for weeks, without complaint, because every game was so important for the Mets. And yet, because he rarely vocalized his aches and pains, and because of his mellow nature, many sportswriters found him inscrutable and not “leadership material”.
After he professed himself happy to escape Phoenix with a split of the first two games (an attitude evidently shared with many of his teammates), an incredulous Mark Kriegel wrote in the Daily News, “He grew up outside Philadelphia…[b]ut Piazza’s persona remains that of the laid-back Californian. Sometimes you wonder if he’d rather play drums than baseball.”
Now Piazza would not be playing baseball, as Kriegel suspected he preferred, and the Mets would have to find a way to win this game (and possibly more) without him. In a local pregame show for NBC-4, GM Steve Phillips told Len Berman he was “pretty confident” Piazza would play in game 4, but that was more a hope than a diagnosis. Valentine said Piazza could possibly pinch hit, though it would have to be an emergency situation. What would constitute an emergency?
“Orel [Hershiser] at the bat rack in the 14th inning,” he said.
With or without him, the Mets were not sitting pretty just because they were back at Shea. The Diamondbacks were no pushover on the road, compiling a 29-10 away record after the All Star break, the best in baseball.
If it was any consolation, backup catcher Todd Pratt had played well in Piazza’s absence earlier in the year, batting .319 and hit three homers while he was on the shelf in April. With lefty starter Omar Daal on the mound for Arizona, Benny Agbayani would bat cleanup in his place.
Diamondbacks manager refused to look past Pratt, even if everyone else did. Presciently, he said, “I have known Todd Pratt for a long time with the Red Sox [Pratt was in the Boston organization in late 80s/early 90s]. He has always been a guy that has been able to rise to the occasion. I am sure they would like to have Mike in there, but it doesn’t
preclude them from winning a game and from Todd Pratt having a big game for them.”
October 8, 1999: Mets 9, Diamondbacks 2
One Met who would be starting this game was Rick Reed, last seen giving the performance of his life against the Pirates. Despite those heroics, he still felt the sting of his ugly September in 1998, and an injury-riddled 1999. Although Reed also felt his injuries might be beneficial. “Spending those two times on the DL this year was the big blessing in disguise for me,” Reed told the Daily News. “I really don’t have a lot of innings under my belt. I feel strong and that helped me the last two times out. I’m stronger now. I can go deeper into games.”
He was not the dominating presence seen on the mound against Pittsburgh, but Reed kept the Diamondbacks in check early on. The first three innings passed with little incident for him, while his offense gathered up a few runs. In the bottom of the second, cleanup-batter-for-a-night Agbayani hit a lead-off single and moved to second on a walk to Robin Ventura. He crossed over to third on a double play that looked like a rally killer. But Pratt turned an 0-2 count into a walk, and Rey Ordonez went the other way on a curveball, poking it between first and second for a single to plate the first Mets run.
In the bottom of the third, the Mets pulled together another modest, error-aided rally. Edgardo Alfonzo drove a one-out double into left field, then scored on a John Olerud single. Agbayani singled just past a diving Williams to move him to third, and Ventura followed with what could have been a double play grounder to first. But after getting the force out at second, shortstop Andy Fox heaved a throw back to first that sailed high and wound up in the photo box. Ventura had to hit the deck to keep from colliding with Daal as he covered first, and the pitcher came down hard on him (Ventura was slightly shaken up, but stayed in the game). Olerud trotted home, and the Mets were up, 3-0.
Given a lead, Reed began to falter a bit. (He later admitted to still being dead tired from the Mets’ travails and cross-country travels.) In the fourth, he gave up a one-out single to Matt Williams and a walk to Erubiel Durazo, but induced two groundouts to end the threat.
The Mets bypassed a scoring opportunity in the bottom half. With one out, Ordonez hit a slow chopper that Daal tried to field, but he accidentally shoveled it into foul ground, allowing Rey to reach on the error. After a sac bunt by Reed, Rickey Henderson beat out an infield single when Fox couldn’t get the ball out of his glove, then Alfonzo walked to load the bases. But Olerud struck out on three pitches, flailing at a slider in the dirt for strike three, to leave three men on.
The goof looked even more costly in the top of the fifth, when Kelly Stinnett led off with a double (thanks to a Shawon Dunston misplay in center field), and pinch hitter Turner Ward (batting for Daal) smacked a Reed offering into the Mets bullpen for a two-run homer. Fox pumped his fists as soon as he dropped the bat, knowing it was gone, and the Shea crowd quieted. Despite the benefit the longball provided his team, Daal was shown sulking on the bench and slamming his glove around the dugout, angry at being removed so early in the game.
Reed rebounded to retire the next three batters easily and work a quiet top of the sixth. And after going down in order in the fifth, the Mets took advantage of some wildness and shaky fielding in the sixth. Pratt led off with a walk against reliever Darren Holmes, moved up on a sac bunt from Ordonez, and was joined on basepaths by pinch hitter Bonilla, who also walked. Henderson followed with a parachute single to right that fell in front of Womack, who tried to pick the ball up on a hop but bobbled it into foul territory. Pratt scored, and both Bonilla and Henderson moved into scoring position on Womack’s error.
Buck Showalter walked Alfonzo intentionally, then took out Holmes in favor of well-traveled lefty Dan Plesac to face Olerud. The first baseman responded with a single just to Bell’s left at second. Bonilla scored easily, and Henderson beat a weak throw from Womack to score the second run. Roger Cedeno (who replaced Agbayani in the fifth) lined a single into left center to score Alfonzo and send Olerud to third. After stealing second without a throw, Cedeno and Olerud came around to score when Darryl Hamilton laced a first-pitch two-out single into center.
When the dust settled, the Mets had scored six runs and led 9-2. They would not threaten again, but they would not need to. Turk Wendell worked around a leadoff walk to pitch a scoreless seventh inning. John Franco allowed a one-out single in the eighth, but erased it on a double play. And to provide some odd symmetry to the Mets’ first season back in the playoffs, the game was closed out by Orel Hershiser, the man who doomed their World Series hopes during their last postseason appearance.
When Hershiser fanned Stinnett for the last out, the Mets were one victory away from advancing to the league championship series. With the Yankees rolling through the playoffs, fans–and even some Mets old timers–had premature visions of a Subway Series.
But first, they had to complete this series, and it would be best if they could win game 4 to preclude a return trip to Arizona. Because game 5 would be started by Randy Johnson (Despite having his back to the wall, Showalter had already announced he would not use Johnson on short rest in game 4). Even if they handled him well in game 1, they’d rather not take their chances trying to do the same a second time around.
As for Pratt and Agbayani, they acquitted themselves well in Piazza’s absence. Agayani had two singles and scored a run, while Pratt had two walks that led to rallies. They were subtle contributions, but he’d have an impact on game 4 that would be impossible to miss.
Elsewhere in the playoffs, the Astros lost a heartbreaker to the Braves in game 3 of their series. With the score tied at 3 in the bottom of the tenth, Houston loaded the bases with no outs, and somehow did not score (thanks largely to an amazing play by Walt Weis). In the top of the twelfth, Brian Jordan laced a two-run double to put Atlanta on top, 5-3, and they held on to win and go ahead in the series, two games to one. Just like the Mets, the Braves now had a chance to earn a trip to the league championship series with one more victory.