Category Archives: 1999 Project

1999 Project: Post-Mortem

Thumbnail image for mora_cedeno_rocker.jpgWay back in September, a reader emailed me and asked if I could collect all of the 1999 Project posts (so far) into a handy doc for non-web reading. So I did it, and in doing so discovered all the words I’d typed so far added up to 142 single-spaced pages in Word. At the time, the Project had only covered the regular season. I’m sure the postseason games I’ve chronicled since then would add another 25 pages to the total, bare minimum.

For a moment, I had a crisis of conscience. I still can’t finish my latest novel, and I haven’t seriously tried to get anything of mine published in traditional media since my daughter was born. And yet, I’d written the equivalent of 300 book pages on the 1999 New York Mets, a project with seemingly no purpose but to feed my own unquenchable nostalgic jones.

Take a peek at the sports section of your local book store. You’ll find precious little ink devoted to non-championship teams The 1999 Mets didn’t even make it to the World Series. Why did I waste so much time detailing the every move of a team that was ultimately a failure?

I suppose that depends on your definition of failure. In the sense of Sports as Warfare, a zero-sum game where there can only be one victor, then yes, the 1999 Mets were a failure. But by that definition, every team but the Yankees was a failure in 1999. To me, the idea that anything less than a championship is a failure is a Yankee organization/fan attitude. Is that who we should emulate, really?

I prefer to think of sports as entertainment, and seasons as productions. Some are more successful than others. Some are unbridled triumphs and some are flawed but courageous. Some are depressing, some are disappointing, and some are unadulterated shit-shows. But you can still love films that are less than perfect. If your favorite movie didn’t win any Oscars, do you have to stop loving it because it “failed”?

Of course, the difference between a movie and a baseball season is you can watch a movie over and over. You can’t really do that with baseball, not even a little bit (especially since MLB does everything in its power to prevent fans from posting/sharing old game footage).

Not to mention the ESPN-ification of sports coverage, wherein any game/season/sport is reduced to a few highlight reel plays. That format suits basketball and football well, but every baseball season–every baseball game–is a marathon, not a sprint. Distilling it down into bite sized chunks, and declaring only one victor, does the game a disservice. Whenever I see a game that I watched covered in roughly 90 seconds on SportsCenter, I see nothing but the glaring omissions necessary for such a cheap format.

Many fanbases have teams that didn’t win it all but are still beloved. Case in point: The 1982 Milwaukee Brewers. If you’re a cheesehead baseball fan, this is your favorite team of all time. Harvey’s Wallbangers are celebrated constantly at Miller Park. The Brewers still regularly wear the ’82 style uniforms. A documentary about them runs in heavy rotation on MLB Network. They lost the World Series to the Cardinals that year, but that almost seems beside the point.

The 2000 Mets were more successful than the 1999 version, in the sense that they went one step farther by making it to the World Series. But the 2000 team lacked a certain something. They had some awesome games that year, particularly in the NLDS against the Giants. Unfortunately, the Mets saw some key players leave the team after 1999 for one reason or another, and almost uniformly replaced them with guys who had decidedly less bite (a totally ephemeral quality, I realize).

They lost John Olerud to free agency and replaced him with Todd Zeile, another in a long line of players the Mets acquired for the sole purpose of making him play out of position. They lost Rey Ordonez to injury and replaced him with Mike Bordick, trading away Melvin Mora in the process. In Mora’s absence, professional malcontent Derek Bell patrolled the outfield for most of the season. And they traded away Roger Cedeno and Octavio Dotel to get Mike Hampton, who pitched them to the World Series, then abandoned them in the offseason because Denver’s schools were so much better than New York’s. (On the plus side, the compensation pick the Mets got when he left was used to draft David Wright.)

There’s also the fact that the Mets (as an organization) don’t respect their own history at all. They have only four retired numbers, and only one of those represents a man who took the field for them (Tom Seaver’s 41). They have a moribund Hall of Fame that has inducted no new members since 2002. They built a new ballpark but forgot to include any mementos of triumphs past. I went to CitiField a lot last year, but I didn’t see a single mention of the magic of 1999, not even on the scoreboard between innings (they needed that precious time for the Cascarino’s Pizza Pass contest).

So I guess I did this for the same reason that Greg Prince at Faith and Fear in Flushing often writes about the 1999 Mets: to keep that season from “disappearing down the memory hole”. As I wrote in my roundup of game 6 of the NLCS, even though the Braves won that game and were on their way to the World Series, the NBC cameras spent an incredibly long time lingering on the “losers”. Neither Bob Costas nor Joe Morgan would stop talking about them. Anyone who witnessed the 1999 Mets, at the time, recognized how special they were. I don’t want that to be forgotten.

For months, the Mets walked a tightrope between ecstasy and doom. Eventually, they fell, but they put on a hell of a show before they lost their balance. I don’t think I’ll ever see a better season, and if I do, it will have to be an even crazier combination of the monstrous and the sublime.

The 1999 Mets were a success. I feel sorry for anyone who’d think otherwise.

1999 Project: NLCS Game 6

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

99_nlcsgm5_ventura.pngVegas had the Mets at 5-1 odds to win games 6 and 7 in Atlanta. No other team who opened a playoff series with three straight losses had ever forced a seventh game. Only one other team that fell behind 0-3 had gotten as far as game 6 (ironically, it was the Braves, who lost the first three games of the 1998 NLCS, then won games 4 and 5).

Long odds, but not nearly as hopeless as things looked at the end of game 3, and playing from behind seemed to suit this team well. Fans sounded hopeful that they could actually pull off such a comeback, while noting it was not the Mets’ lot to make things easy on themselves. “[T]he Mets always give you ulcers, they never go about things the easy way,” said Mike Kramer of Brooklyn. “They don’t breeze through like the Yankees.”

By the day of game 6, the team from the Bronx had already dispatched of the Red Sox in a five-game ALCS. They eagerly awaited the winner of this series, and vice versa.

Ed Westfall, captain of the 1975 Islanders team that rallied from a 0-3 deficit to win a playoff series (one of only two pro sports teams who’d ever pulled off such a feat), threw in his own two cents. He praised Bobby Valentine for not cracking under pressure, and celebrated in his Long Island home when the Mets won game 5, despite recovering from bypass surgery. When he saw the team ecstatic over Robin Ventura’s grand slam single, he said, “I’ve seen that before. I’ve felt that before.”

The team definitely believed in itself. Bobby Valentine went so far as to say, “I think there’s good forces working on our behalf.” The Braves often referred to themselves as America’s team, but Orel Hershiser felt the country was rooting for the Mets. “I think America has a love affair with underdogs,” he said. “I’m an NFL fan and I root for the team that’s down at halftime. I think people in America want to see the Mets win because nobody’s ever come back from 3-0. They can even overcome disliking New York.”

“Just because no team has lost a 3-0 lead doesn’t mean a team can’t be beaten four in a row,” Marc Kriegel wrote in the Daily News. “That has been done. Despite Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz, the Braves dropped four straight to the Yankees in the ’96 Series. Maybe you forgot that. But you can bet the Braves did not.”

There were signs that the Braves had begun to feel some pressure. After game 5, Atlanta pondered what could have been. In game 4, they were four outs away from finishing the Mets, and were beaten by a double steal and a slow chopper. The next night, they were three outs away from a trip to World Series, and once again the Mets rallied to defeat them. More galling than a blown one-run lead in the fifteenth inning were the 19 men the Braves left on base. “It doesn’t matter unless you end up with a hit,” Greg Maddux sighed. “We’re not up there to get ‘Atta boys’ and ‘Way to gos'”

Back in Atlanta, game 6 starter Kevin Millwood fielded questions from reporters. One began by noting that the righty hadn’t lost a game since August, but he didn’t get a chance to finish the query. “Shh, don’t say it,” Millwood warned, half-jokingly.

Millwood did proclaim himself confident, however, because he had beaten the Mets in game 2 even though “I didn’t have my best stuff…They probably saw a lot of pitches last time they won’t see this time.”

Al Leiter would take the mound on three days’ rest for the first time since 1994 for “one more last start”, as the Daily News put it. He’d given nothing but stellar performances in must-win games for the Mets all year, and particularly in the last month, even if it didn’t always show up in the win column for himself or his team. He stopped a seven-game slide with a win over Atlanta at Shea in the last week of the regular season, threw a complete game shutout against the Reds in the play-in game, and pitched 7 2/3 great innings against the Diamondbacks in game 4 of the NLDS before Armando Benitez and Todd Pratt rendered his performance an afterthought.

He also gave up only one unearned run to the Braves in game 3 of the NLCS, and somehow wound up with a loss. But he’d pitched to a 1.47 ERA in his last four starts, and Bobby Valentine felt confident about turning to him because he’d only thrown 103 pitches in that game, a relatively low count for the lefty. Leiter hoped he could ride the near-death-experience vibe the rest of his team did. “Let’s face it, we’ve been playing like it’s been our last game for a while now,” he said. “Not that we thrive on it, but we are doing OK with it.”

If Leiter faltered, Rick Reed proclaimed himself available to pick up the slack. Despite pitching 7 innings in game 4, he’d only thrown 73 pitches in the effort. He also warmed up during the marathon game 5, and would have pitched the 16th inning if the score had remained tied. Reed said he’d take that warmup as his between-starts workout, and be ready in case the Mets needed help in game 6. Once again, it was all hands on deck.

99_nlcsgm6_piazzaint.pngThat included Mike Piazza, who would play game 6 despite suffering a lifetime of bangs and bruises in the past month. He still looked dazed and distant while fielding Craig Sager’s pregame questions. Even ignoring the mild concussion he suffered in game 3 (which most newspapers and broadcasters seemed to do), both of his arms and hands were beaten up, which had led to a pronounced lack of power in the series. “When I took the last swing on Rocker [in game 5], I felt a tingling in my fingers and a
real hot sensation in my forearm…” he told The New York Times. “The
bat feels a lot heavier than it did a month ago….My left arm — I’m
looking for a donor”

“If the Mets make the World Series,” Bob Costas opined, “Mike Piazza should get a ring and a Purple Heart.”

Two other Mets would also be back in action. Roger Cedeno returned to the outfield after missing most of game 5 with back spasms. Third base coach Cookie Rojas had served his five-game suspension for bumping an umpire in the last game of the NLDS and would once again work the lines.
Continue reading 1999 Project: NLCS Game 6

1999 Project: NLCS Game 5

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

Given a stay of execution, the Mets looked like they were back in midseason form. That included some needless clubhouse squabbling.

Rickey Henderson was upset when Bobby Valentine replaced him in the middle of game 4 for defense and waited until he took the field to do so. The manager apologized for waiting so long to remove him (if not for removing him in the first place) as he came back to the dugout, but Henderson brushed passed him, went straight to the clubhouse, and was not seen in the Mets locker room after the game.

In a postgame interview, Turk Wendell praised his teammates–23 of them, anyway. “This is a real team effort except for one guy who quit,” he said. When asked to clarify, he gestured toward Henderson’s empty locker. “Look around the room.”

99_nlcsgm5_wendell.pngBefore game 5, Rickey responded in typical Rickey fashion. “If he doesn’t respect me, then tough luck,” he said. “He should be happy he’s in this position. He wouldn’t be here if not for me.” Henderson also suggested that Turk could “kiss my black ass”.

Wendell tried to apologize to Henderson later, but Rickey refused to accept his apology. In one of those awesome “oops!” episodes of live TV, as Craig Sager related this saga, NBC cut to a shot of Wendell idling in the bullpen, just in time to catch him strenuously picking his nose.

The renewed turmoil also brought with it more anonymous grousing about Valentine. One unnamed “prominent Met” told Bill Madden of the Daily News, “It looks like he wants to get fired and go get a job in Japan.” Madden also reported that some players were upset about Valentine pinch hitting for Robin Ventura in game 3 against John Rocker, even though Ventura was 0 for 5 with five strikeouts against him. It was perceived as a slight against the third baseman, who’d been playing through serious knee pain for quite some time.

Valentine could try to soothe some bruised egos and hurt feelings once the piddling matter of another elimination game was resolved. If the manager had any ideas about sitting Henderson–either for insubordination or ineffectiveness (he had only one hit so far in the series)–he scrapped them when Roger Cedeno could not start due to back spasms (he later said it felt like he had “a knife in my back”, a feeling Valentine could certainly relate to). Bob Costas guessed Cedeno suffered the injury after twisting to catch a hard hit ball by Ozzie Guillen in the top of the ninth of game 4. Either that, or jumping into Mora’s arms after they scored the tying and go-ahead runs.

For Atlanta, John Rocker did not look worse for wear after his blown save the night before. He celebrated his 25th birthday by continuing to spar verbally with Mets fans, calling them “subhuman” and “the worst fans in baseball”. He also shagged flies in the outfield and pretended to throw them to awaiting fans in the left field stands.

Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone was given the unenviable task of keeping Rocker out of trouble, shadowing the closer during pregame warmups. “Is this part of coaching or what?” he grumbled.
Continue reading 1999 Project: NLCS Game 5

1999 Project: A Grand Slam Single Interlude

I really hoped to have my post about the epic game 5 of the 1999 NLCS ready for today’s 10th anniversary. But a game as ridiculous (and long) as that one deserves more attention than I could provide in the meager time allotted to me this week. I also felt it deserved better than being posted on a Saturday, when most folks are not internetting.

But I could not let this date pass without making mention of one of the greatest games ever played. So please enjoy this pic of Robin Ventura, trotting through the raindrops as his ball sailed into the bullpen and sent the Mets back to Atlanta. Looking at it, I can almost hear Gary Cohen give his famous radio call.

grandslamsingle.jpg

1999 Project: NLCS Game 4

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

99_nlcsgm4_sweep.pngNBC’s pregame intro praised the “talent and professionalism” of the Braves, and supposed a trip to the World Series would help them rightfully claim the mantle of Team of the Decade. The Mets were only mentioned to note they would likely be “swept away” (as symbolized by this graphic), which is understandable, since they’d barely made a peep during the first three games of the series. Their formerly unimpeachable gloves had failed them. Their big hitters had come up small. Their pitching had been good, holding the Braves to nine runs in the first three games, but Atlanta’s had been better, with a staff ERA of 2.45.

Before the game, as the teams took batting practice, someone asked John Rocker if he could imagine changing his mind about Mets fans. “The only thing I’m changing is my clothes after I get champagne all over them tonight,” he responded.

It looked like the most exciting Mets-related news of the day would come from the Queens DA office, which announced it had arrested an Elmhurst man for attempting to use eBay to sell playoff tickets “at prices exceeding the face value of $50.” Back in 1999, using the internet to charge exorbitant prices for tickets was still called scalping, though nowadays it’s called StubHub.

“Twelve days ago, the Mets played the Cincinnati Reds in a game that they had to win or their season was going come to an end,” Gary Cohen said in his pregame remarks, “and now…they’re faced with the same proposition against the Atlanta Braves here tonight.”

If you wondered why few people gave the Mets a shot to extend the series (other than the way they’d played so far), the answer was John Smoltz. The previous Braves starters at least offered a glimmer of hope, insofar as they either had checkered playoff histories (Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine) or a lack of postseason experience (Kevin Millwood). Smoltz had neither. What he did have: 12 playoff wins, the most of any other pitcher at the time, and a 6-2 record in the LCS.

He also had a new delivery. To relieve shoulder pain, he’d switched to a three-quarters motion. He was almost like a completely different pitcher, and just as good as the old Smoltz. Prior to the switch, the Mets touched him up for seven runs in a game at Shea in July. But after Smoltz’s adjustments, they could only scratch out one run off of him in a late September game in Atlanta (the one in which Chipper Jones singlehandedly beat them with two solo homers).

If the Mets wanted any hope it all, they could look to the calendar. Thirty years ago, on the same date, the Mets beat the Orioles 5-3 in game 5 of the World Series to complete a miraculous season and capture their first championship. For a more tangible sign, they could look to the man on the mound, Rick Reed.

After a disappointing season, Reed turned in some impressive starts down the stretch, including a 12-strikeout, complete game shutout against the Pirates, at a time when one more loss meant the end of the Mets’ season. “He is back to the Rick Reed of 1997 and 1998,” Cohen said in his pregame remarks, “able to throw his fastball anywhere he wants and get his curveball over.” He was also the rare Mets pitcher who had some success against Atlanta (though he knocked on wood when reminded of this fact by a Daily News reporter).

Bobby Cox, of all people, seemed to think his team’s success was more good fortune than anything else. “We’ve won a lot of games against the Mets this year,” he said. “But most of the games could have gone either way…I think we’ve maybe outlucked them in a lot of areas.”

Game 4 marked the first time in the series the Mets would not be outlucked, or outsmarted.
Continue reading 1999 Project: NLCS Game 4

1999 Project: NLCS Game 3

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

The Braves appeared pretty loose as they came to Shea for game 3. During a workout the day before the game, Ryan Klesko ran out of the dugout wearing John Rocker’s jersey. “I told him I’d go out there for him to see how it was,” Klesko said. “I’m actually protecting our save guy. We’ve got a couple of first basemen.”

Rocker refused to address questions from the press about his well-documented slagging of Mets fans, but when asked what he would do if called upon to save a game in enemy territory, he responded, “It will be the same situation it was last time when I got booed and then I struck out the side on 14 pitches.”

99_nlcsgm3_cop.jpgRocker’s presence required some extra security; NBC reported 500 additional NYPD officers were on hand to keep the peace. In a pregame interview with Jim Gray, Rocker lamented the the necessity of such protection: “When you come here and this is the only place it happens…they’re throwing batteries at you, throwing change at you, really trying to inflict bodily harm, that kind of stuff just doesn’t need to go on….I just don’t think it’s right, and I think somebody needs to speak out and voice an opinion, that we really don’t appreciate hearing those kind of things and being fearful of our safety at a simple baseball game.”

I don’t think any player should be physically threatened, not even John Rocker, but it was a disingenuous stance to take. He’d thrown verbal jabs at New York fans for weeks, done everything but twirl his mustache and cackle maniacally while tying Mr. Met to a railroad track, and then had the chrome-plated balls to whine about fans behaving rudely toward him. Unless you believe he was too stupid to recognize the hypocrisy of his “who, me?” act, which was certainly a possibility.

Regardless, he certainly relished the villain role, tipping his cap sarcastically as he was introduced during the pregame ceremonies. Gray reported that Rocker professed respect for the Mets as a team, but made clear “his disgust and disdain is purely for the fans here at Shea.” To his credit, Bobby Cox (suddenly very pro-New York) was not pleased with Rocker’s antics. “If I could apologize to their fans, I would,” he told the Daily News. “I’m not supporting that behavior, no.”

As for the other heel in the Mets-Braves wrestling match, Chipper Jones had said virtually nothing since the series began (nor had he done much of anything on the field, amazingly). But the fans were not about to let him forget about his “Yankee gear” comment, and they had a new weapon at their disposal.

After the Mets won the division series against Arizona, Orel Hershiser was interviewed Ed Coleman for Mets Extra. He revealed a tantalizing bit of previously obscure information: Chipper hated to be called “Larry”, his given name. Mike Piazza had taken to greeting him “Hello, Larry,” every time he came to the plate, because “I refuse to call a grown man ‘Chipper’.” Coleman suggested Mets fans keep that in mind once Larry returned to Shea. They would obey this directive with gusto.

As for the techniques of the home team itself, the Mets insisted they’d become used to playing with their backs against the wall (not that they gave themselves much choice). “The last bit of the season will help us because we went through a tough stretch and we were able to turn it around,” John Olerud said. “We know we can persevere even when things don’t look good.”

Bobby Valentine had not acquitted himself well in the series so far. “It’s as if [Cox] has been playing chess, and Valentine has been playing checkers,” Bob Costas remarked. But before game 3, the Mets manager returned to a familiar theme, one he’d preached all season: You can’t lose ’em all.

I think things eventually even out. Balls that hit the foul pole miss the foul pole. Against the Diamondbacks we had the bases loaded and hit it over the fence and it turned. We haven’t had that turn in this series yet. It’s not like there’s a defeatist attitude and we’re up against an immovable object. We’ve been pushing a long time and it’s moving slowly. When it starts moving, then sometimes it’s an unstoppable motion.

Things would get better for the Mets. But they’d get worse first.
Continue reading 1999 Project: NLCS Game 3

1999 Project: NLCS Game 2

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

October 13, 1999: Braves 4, Mets 3

If game 1 was doomed by miscues on the field, then the outcome of game 2 was sealed by mistakes in the dugout. Bobby Valentine made decisions (and one glaring lack of decision) that cost the game for the Mets. And when he didn’t err, he was simply outsmarted by Bobby Cox.

Game 2 had a 4 pm start, to accommodate the first game of the ALCS (which, hard as it is to believe now, would also be the first ever playoff meeting between the Red Sox and Yankees). It was another dreary, cloudy day, as if to mirror the Mets’ mood and chances. Rain hit Atlanta for much of the day, but cleared up sufficiently to allow the game to start in time. The Mets would have been happier if it hadn’t.

99_nlcsgm2_millwood.jpgThe starter for Atlanta: Kevin Millwood, their best and most consistent starter in 1999. Millwood posted a record of 18-7, 205 strikeouts, a 2.87 ERA, and an opposing batting average of .202, best in the majors. In his last 10 regular season starts, Millwood went 6-0 with an ERA of 1.29. He engaged Masato Yoshii in a pitchers’ duel in the last regular season game between the Mets and the Braves, a loss that nearly doomed their season.

Oh, and he’d just pitched a complete game one-hitter against the Astros in the NLDS, the first since Bob Gibson in 1967.

In other words, things wouldn’t get easier for the Mets any time soon. Edgardo Alfonzo continued his hot hitting with a one-out single in the top of the first, but Millwood dispatched of John Olerud and Mike Piazza with two fly balls to center.
Continue reading 1999 Project: NLCS Game 2

1999 Project: NLCS Game 1

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

Thumbnail image for johnrocker.jpgThe Mets had almost three days off in between game 4 of the NLDS and the start of the championship series in Atlanta. But they began their assault on the Braves almost as soon as Todd Pratt’s home run cleared the center field fence at Shea. Their barrage was of the verbal variety. No Met was shy about expressing their opinion of the division champs.

It was a cavalier attitude, to say the least, considering Atlanta had their way with the Mets at every turn during the regular season. Perhaps their reversal of fortune since the last time they faced Chipper Jones and company caused them to believe they were bulletproof. Perhaps, whipped into a frenzy by a New York press corps with dreams of a Subway Series, they were already looking past the Braves. Whatever the reason, the word hubris had disappeared from their vocabulary.

“I thought I had heard that [the Braves] were shocked and surprised that we weren’t in,” Al Leiter said after the Mets’ series-clinching game 4 victory. “They must be really shocked and surprised now.”

“I think it’ll be even more special once we beat the Braves,” Turk Wendell said. “Just because of everything we’ve gone through this year and last year.” Regarding Chipper’s comments, “All I have to say is he stuck his foot in his mouth. He’s going to have to deal with it every game. He’s going to have to deal with the fans.”

“One thing that we’ve got to remember is the fact that they are supposed to beat us,” Darryl Hamilton said. “And they [the Braves] said that. The last time we played Atlanta they were talking about the ghost [the Mets], playing the Yankees. And all the Mets fans should go get their Yankees stuff.”

Not surprisingly, the most inflammatory words came from Bobby Valentine. He’d already landed in hot water for admitting he voted for Bobby Cox for manager of the year “because he had to manage this year.” (Valentine insisted there was a “really” in the statement that his interviewer missed.)

Now he told The New York Times, “We were supposed to be dead, right? Our fans were supposed to change gear. They’re supposed to be watching football.” Regarding Chipper Jones’ infamous ‘Yankee gear’ comment, “It was a premature statement and an incorrect statement. I think he was very confident he wouldn’t have to deal with the fans again this year. Guess what, he’s going to have to deal with them again this year.” And regarding the Braves’ opinion of the Mets:

We have great respect for them. I think we still have to earn our respect. They’ve shown us very little. There’s been a lot of comments. If the comments and actions they’ve made over the years were in New York, as a New York team, they’d be well-known and documented. A lot has slipped by….I don’t want to get into specifics. We know it and those who have been watching know it. We’ll just go on to earn our respect.

For the most part, the Braves kept quiet, said all the right things, and declined to talk any smack about the Mets. Even John Rocker had compliments for them, backhanded though they were: “I’m really shocked to see how they had to squeak into the playoffs with a one-game playoff. I thought they would beat us out for the division, just looking on paper, at talent, theirs versus ours.”

Perhaps because the head-to-head record spoke for itself (“We’re not at this level for nothing,” Brian Jordan said). Perhaps because they’d been to the playoffs so many times, they found it hard to get excited about the whole affair, even against a supposed hated rival. Perhaps because the press in Atlanta was more provincial and supportive, as opposed to the headline-hungry scribes of New York’s back pages. Or perhaps because the Braves successfully avoided the media altogether; according to the NBC announcing crew, Chipper Jones refused all interview requests in the days prior to game 1.

Regardless of the reason, the Braves refused to be drawn into a war of words. Bobby Cox went so far as to profess ignorance of the Mets’ comments. In a pregame interview with sideline reporter Jim Gray, when asked about his opponents’ comments, Cox said, “I haven’t read any of it, Jim, to be honest.”

Incredulously, Gray pressed him, “But certainly you’ve heard it?”

“Not much of it,” Cox said, with a straight face. He sounded much more excited about a quail hunting trip he’d go on with Ted Turner, contingent on the Braves reaching the World Series.

On the other side, Valentine looked distracted and distant when interviewed by Craig Sager. He didn’t exactly back off his comments, but he didn’t exactly deny them either. He didn’t exactly say much of anything, mouthing the usual “we gotta play hard” platitudes, as if he had a gun to his back and a directive to not say anything remotely interesting, lest he tempt the Baseball Fates even further.

The Mets did an excellent job of portraying themselves as the cocky upstarts, and the Braves played their role as the seasoned professionals. New York as Tanner Boyle, telling Atlanta where they could stick all their division trophies.

The Braves seemed less concerned by the Mets (at least outwardly) and more concerned with the label of Team of the Decade. Or rather, the question of whether or not they deserved such a label. They’d won the division title and gone to the league championship series every year since 1991. Despite all that success, they’d won only one World Series, causing some to consider them really, good and not great. “It’s easy to win when you’re not supposed to,” said John Smoltz in response (it is?). “It’s harder to keep doing it. Nobody can take anything away from us…Who cares if we’re the team of the decade or not? They’re going to forget these 10 years some day. All we care about is that we’ve got a chance to win again.”

In his pregame remarks on NBC, Joe Morgan surmised the Mets’ thoughts thusly: “I think the Mets know they have a good enough ball club to beat the Braves. They just have to play good fundamental baseball and not make mistakes.” He also said it was “important for the Mets to go after Chipper Jones right away”.

I present such obvious statements because, on paper, the former was much more doable than the latter. Chipper hit .400 against the Mets in 1999, with 7 home runs and 16 RBIs, so going after him was easier said than done. Mistakes should have been simple to avoid for a team with an historically low rate of committing errors.

But the opposite would turn out to be true. For the most part, Mets pitchers would limit Chippers’ ability to do damage throughout the series. It was errors, miscues, and all manner of mistakes that would undo them, particularly in the first three games.
Continue reading 1999 Project: NLCS Game 1

1999 Project: A First-hand Account of Pratt-tober

In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m a tad obsessed with the 1999 Mets. But I also have to admit, I didn’t not get to see them in person many times. Not more than twice, and I my usually steeltrap brain can’t recall any specific details from my trips to Shea that year. Shameful to admit, but true.

I also didn’t get to go to any playoff games–those I surely would have remembered. As I’ve explained before, it didn’t even occur to me at the time that I would be allowed to go to a playoff game. As if it was some sweet nectar reserved for only the very privileged.

But this week I received a communique from a friend who attended game 4 of the NLDS. I’m posting it here, complete and unedited, because not only is it a great first-hand account of the majesty and insanity of that game, but it also captures exactly why that team means so much to me. This comes from TheWhiteBoomBoom, longtime friend and frequent commenter in these parts. (He asked to be identified as “longtime friend and former lover,” but I said no. Ooops…)

Reading the last week or two of the 1999 Project has been awesome, mostly because I’ve found myself being totally thrilled by each win (or devastated by the loses), despite knowing exactly how the whole thing plays out.  I’m pretty sure I was going through the exact same thing at home, listening/watching the games, or more likely, catching the recaps on the news, since at the time I worked a job that usually got me home at about 11 pm.

Those last few weeks were a little overshadowed for me, though, as on September 27th of that year, my father passed away.  My father took me to my first baseball game when I was an infant, and even tried to catch a bare handed foul ball with me in his other arm (he didn’t go dashing or leaning over a railing for it or anything…he wasn’t THAT irresponsible.)  Some of my earliest memories were of he and I, sitting in our driveway during the summer, listening to the Pirates play on a little transistor radio. I remember when he explained to me what “the 3-2 pitch” actually meant.

My friends, who had converted me to being a Mets fan in the summer of 1998, called me when those playoffs started and said that they got tickets to game four of the NLDS and they wanted me to come.  My job paid me by the hour, and since I had just taken a week off to be with my family for the services, I was pretty broke.  They said not to worry, they would take care of it.  It was one of the best gifts anyone had given me.

The game was insane.  Our group were all lifelong Mets fans, who had waited in the big crazy line to get those tickets.  None of those corporate gifts for us.

The youngest of our group spent the entire game sitting, his hands folded in front of his mouth, staring at the field like he was trying to explode someone’s head like in Scanners.  The only time he did anything was a short burst of clapping when the Mets got a hit or a strikeout.  I could tell he wouldn’t feel relieved until the last out of the ninth.

Which means Alan probably got an ulcer before his 20th birthday, because OF COURSE the game went into extra innings.  It felt like the last 3 weeks had nothing but extra innings.

I remember when the final score of the Braves game showed on the scoreboard, and the fans started a chant saying, “We want the Braves!”  Dom turned to me and said, “Umm, no we don’t.”

Anyway, up comes Todd Pratt.  And man, he nails that ball absolutely dead center.  The whole place stands up and waits, because while it seemed to have shot off his bat, Steve Finley had been an animal in center that whole series.  Maybe it’s time clouding my memory, but I remember him stealing several hits, not to mention a few leaps up the wall that turned should-have-been home runs into depressing outs.

And there he was again, jumping against that wall, about to steal the game winning home run in the 11th inning, in what had been an exhausting few weeks for Mets fans.  The whole stadium is on it’s feet, waiting, staring, dead silent, for what feels like an eternity while Finley lands, to find out if he did his magic again.  He lands, we’re all holding our breath, and he turns to the infield, and just shakes his head no.

I have never seen such an eruption of unadulterated joy by so many people due to one man’s failure in my life.  My friends and I literally jumped on each other, over our seats, bruises be damned.

My friends dropped me off somewhere in Williamsburg, and I all told them that I couldn’t thank them enough, and that they would never realize how much it meant to me that they took me to that game.  I know I got a little misty eyed in the back of the car, but I was able to keep it in check in front of my friends.  I won’t be so schmaltzy to say that it was my dad that kept that ball out of Finley’s glove that afternoon.  I couldn’t help but think, however, of those times he spent with me teaching me about baseball, and that I was so glad he had given me that gift, because I was now able to enjoy a few moments of absolute joy, in the face of that crushing pain.

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1999 Project: NLDS Game 4

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

99_nldsgm4_bobbyv.pngBefore, during, and after game 3, everyone connected with the Mets held out hope that Mike Piazza’s thumb would miraculously heal somehow and allow him to return in game 4. That proved to be a pipe dream, and for the second straight game, Todd Pratt would catch in his place. During his pregame remarks, Gary Cohen said Bobby Valentine told him “Mike might, might be able to pinch hit, but it seems unlikely we will see him again in this series”.

Piazza said later the team told him to rest up, and get ready for the NLCS (not that they had much choice, since he couldnt bend his thumb). They needed one more win to get there, of course, and the man charged with getting them there was Al Leiter. Despite having a so-so season, the lefty had won some of the season’s most important games. He ended an eight-game losing streak with eight great innings at Yankee Stadium, he ended a seven-game slide at the end of September by beating the Braves, and he went the distance in game 163 to launch the Mets into the playoffs.

Leiter pronounced himself ready for another challenge. The Jersey native, who grew up a Mets fan, relished the thought of finishing up this series in front of the home town crowd. He also had no issue throwing to Pratt instead of Piazza. His best start of the season–with 15 Ks against the Cubs–came with Pratt behind the plate.

He even threw some backhanded compliments to the backup backstop. “This is not a knock,” he told the Daily News, “but obviously [Pratt] doesn’t have the same career numbers as Mike, so he really takes that much more pride in catching a good ballgame. He really wants to catch a good game, and if Todd ends up getting some knocks, great.”

For his part, Pratt didn’t need to be told he wasn’t in Piazza’s offensive league. Like many backup catchers, his career had been one of ups and downs–mostly downs. After bouncing around several organizations, he wound up on the Phillies, and even made it on the postseason roster for the 1993 team that went to the World Series, though he would only get one at-bat in the playoffs.

After being released by the Mariners in 1996, he worked at Bucky Dent’s Baseball Academy for a while, then managed a Domino’s franchise . “If I had to go back to it, I could,” he told reporters who asked him about it. “There’s nothing wrong with managing a pizza parlor.”

The Mets rescued him from such a fate, and sent him to the minors. He hit his way out of triple-A Norfolk in 1997, though found himself back in the minors in 1998 when the Mets acquired catcher Jorge Fabregas. But Pratt was back in the bigs before the season was out, and spent all of 1999 as Piazza’s backup, a position akin to that of the Maytag repairman.

He knew his role and had no complaints about it. How could he? He was just grateful to be along for the ride. “I’m not Mike,” Pratt said after game 3, in case anyone was confused. “Nobody is in that league. He generates a lot of power and intimidation in the middle of the order.”

But for one at-bat on October 9, 1999, being Todd Pratt was more than enough. Much like the lyrics of the David Bowie song that played in ESPN’s division series bumpers (well, a very bad cover of a Bowie song, anyway): he’d be a hero, just for one day.
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