For Mets fans, October 19 is a day of postseason heartbreak. This is the anniversary of two of the more crushing playoff losses in Mets history. Today, the T7L staff will relive those nights.
Next...October 19, 1999.
Every Mets fan needs to relive the 1999 season. For my money, it’s one of the best in this franchise’s history. It’s the story of a team that came so close to achieving immortality, but ultimately fell short. And on this date 18 years ago, that quest ended in quite possibly one of the best baseball games I have ever seen.
In 1999, the Mets had taken a step into prime time. They retained Mike Piazza in the offseason, then acquired Robin Ventura to play third base, shifting Edgardo Alfonzo to second. Incumbent shortstop Rey Ordonez and first baseman John Olerud helped form, “The Best Infield Ever,” and the Mets allowed the fewest unearned runs in a single season in Major League history. Rickey Henderson was the veteran mercenary here to try to tie it all together. And yes, this was also the year the Mets got into the Bobby Bonilla deferred money deal we hear about every summer.
But the summer of 1999 made it clear that the “Nice Little Team™” had morphed into a bonafide contender. By the time the chill had returned to the air, the Mets had amassed 96 wins through 162 games, but they needed one more -- a Wild Card tiebreaker with the Cincinnati Reds at Riverfront Stadium -- to get to the postseason. They got it behind Al Leiter’s two-hit shutout. And after they dispensed of Randy Johnson’s Arizona Diamondbacks, the Mets were set to square off against the 1990’s final boss in the National League: the Atlanta Braves.
You probably know how the Mets got to October 19, the evening of Game 6. John Olerud came through against John Rocker in Game 4, then Ventura slammed the best-struck single of all time to cap a rain-soaked, 15 inning Game 5. If the Mets could conquer their house of horrors, Turner Field, they would not only be the first team to force a Game 7 after trailing three-games-to-none, they could be the first club to ever storm back from that deficit and advance to the World Series.
But it didn’t start well. The Mets brought Leiter back on three days’ rest to oppose Kevin Millwood, which seemed like a great idea. Leiter had been a tough luck loser in Game 3, surrendering only as first inning, unearned run over seven frames. But Tom Glavine did his bend-but-don’t-break act before the Braves’ bullpen got the last six outs to send the Mets to a 1-0 loss and a 3-0 series hole.
In Game 6, however, Leiter was not up to the task. The Braves cashed in five runs to chase the Mets’ ace before he even got an out. The dream had seemingly died in the opening scene. The Mets had put up a good fight, but it was clear that Game 6 was as far as they’d ever get.
Or was it?
The night’s unsung hero was Pat Mahomes, who got the Mets out of the first, then twirled three more shutout innings. It allowed New York to chip away at the Braves’ lead. Fonzi opened the sixth with a double, then Olerud singled to put runners at the corners. Piazza’s sac fly got the Mets on the board, then Ventura’s double set up the late Darryl Hamilton’s two-run single. The Mets had pulled within two, and there was life in the Erni living room.
In ’99, I was 14-years-old, and this team was everything to me. It was my first real taste of a successful push to the playoffs, one year removed from a collapsing out of the three-team Wild Card race. But even more than that, it was a defining summer for me personally. It was my first with a girlfriend, grabbing ice cream in Smithtown and walking her to her door. It was hours inventing pool games with my best friend, who next week, I will become the godfather to his daughter.
Baseball is like that sometimes. The nature of the game lends itself perfectly as the backdrop for some of life’s most beautiful moments. I have so many vivid memories of that year. Listening to Bob Murphy on the radio poolside. Sitting in my girlfriend’s room on a perfect night, windows open, as Rick Reed tossed a complete game on the final Friday of the year. I was coming of age, and the Mets were growing with me. The moments felt seminal, even as I lived them.
The way this night was shaping up, though, was not the dream ending to my summer I had envisioned. The Mets couldn’t stand posterity. Turk Wendell relieved Mahomes, and in his second inning of work, gave up a two out, bases loaded single to Jose Hernandez. The Mets now trailed by four.
To live this season is to know that it probably wasn’t over, not even when things seemed their bleakest. Not even when the Braves turned to Game 4 starter (and future closer), John Smoltz, out of the bullpen for the seventh. Matt Franco greeted him with a double, and Henderson followed with one of his own. 7-4. Alfonzo’s fly out moved Rickey to third, and Olerud singled him home. 7-5. Here comes Piazza.
I’m not sure I can properly do this justice. To me, this is the biggest moment of Piazza’s career. The Mets had made him one of the highest paid players in baseball to be this guy on this stage. But by this point in the season, Piazza was so banged up. He was suffering from “gatekeeper’s thumb,” a condition that catchers get when they receive ball off their thumb too many times, and he had received as many cortisone shots as his body could medically take. He didn’t play in Games 3 or 4 of the Division Series against the D-Backs because of it, then had taken a big hit from Walt Weiss at a collision at the plate in Game 5 just 48 hours ago. He was just 3-for-22 in the NLCS he came up to face Smoltz, but for whatever reason, this at bat felt like it would be different.
“If he was ever going to go yard,” I remember my dad saying, “Now would be a good time.”
This was one of those home runs that you never forget. That’s not the romance of 18 years later. That’s your team’s best player coming up against one of the best pitchers in the game and basically going Roy Hobbs on his ass. The floor underneath my living room must have dipped from the jumping around the living room. Fourteen years later, I would buy that same house from my parents, and when we were ripping up the carpet to expose the hardwood underneath, I swear I checked to make sure I hadn’t done some damage because of this very home run.
The Mets took a lead on a Melvin Mora single in the eighth, but John Franco couldn’t hold it in the bottom half. And Todd Pratt’s sacrifice fly that put the Mets up in the top of the 10th was similarly undone by Armando Benitez. When Gerald Williams opened the bottom of the 11th with a double, the writing was on the wall. Bret Boone moved him over, and Bobby Valentine intentionally walked Chipper Jones and Brian Jordan to try to pull off one more magical escape. Kenny Rogers had other ideas.
In a way, it was the ultimate indignity to lose the game of a lifetime on a bases loaded walk. It didn’t feel right then, and it still doesn’t feel right now. I dragged myself to bed, emotionally drained, then stared a hole through the blackboards of my classes the next day. We know what would happen. The Braves wouldn’t win a single game in the World Series, which allowed the Yankees to coast to a third title in four years. And I think if you ask anyone on that Braves team why they came up short, they’d say it was because they had practically nothing left after going toe-to-toe with the Mets.
In the following months, Olerud would move on to Seattle, and the Mets would trade Roger Cedeno to bolster their rotation. Hamilton eventually gave way to Jay Payton, and the Mets would have just one more run in them with this core.
The summer of 1999 ended with a pitch high and away, and a little part of my childhood floated with it. The Mets had catapulted me into young adulthood with a lesson: the beauty is in the struggle, even when the result isn’t what you expected. Almost two decades later, all I can say to them is thank you. Thank you for all of it.